Sunday, December 07, 2014

To Boldly Go . . .

Following the epic voyage of the first Hayabusa space probe to the asteroid Itokawa (named after Japan’s first Nobel Laureate in science) – and back, Japan last week launched a new and improved version. It’s mission? Nothing less than uncovering the mystery of life.

The space probe Hayabusa-2 set off Dec. 3 from the Tanegashima Space Center for a round-trip voyage that will last about six years, returning to earth with precious samples of “asteroid rocks” in 2020.
It is due to arrive at the “near earth object” 1999JU3 ( the Japanese are seeking permission to name the asteroid) in about the summer of 2018 then spend about a year surveying the surface of the solar object before returning to earth.

Probably because it does not take pictures and beam them back to earth like the European Space Agency’s recent Rosetta probe to a distant comet, the Hayabusa missions have never garnered much global interest outside the world of scientists and space enthusiasts.
However, the Japanese space vehicle does one thing that the Rosetta probe and other probes to Mars and the moon don’t do. It lands and then returns to Earth. Indeed, the Hayabusa-1 mission was the first round-trip space mission since the Apollo moon landings of the 1970s. It was also the deepest.

In a sense, both the Hayabusa-2 and the Rosetta probes are seeking the answers from two different planetary bodies to the same questions: what was the origin of the solar system and what was the origin of life. The holy grail of both mission would be to discover amino acids.
Many scientists believe that life-giving acids may have traveled to Earth by “hitching rides” on asteroids or comets. The asteroid 1999JU3 is also believed to be about 6 million years old, which places it at the beginning of the solar system and might provide answers to its origin.

Hayabusa-1 failed in its main mission, when the instrument that was to stir up dust collect it and bring it home malfunctioned (although the scientists did try to analyze some of the few particles that did make it back to Japan.)
This time the plan is have Hayabusa-2 drop a “bomb” on the asteroid, “hide” behind the far side of the asteroid until it explodes and then land the probe in the crater. The mission also hopes in that way to recover rocks from beneath the surface that would not be altered by cosmic rays or other phenomenon.

Unlike China, which is clearly aiming to put a Chinese man on the Moon, Japan has essentially carved out a special niche in space exploration, eschewing manned flights in favor of deep-space probes. Not all have been successful Japan too has had its share of misadventures.
In 2009 Japan launched Akatsuki on a voyage to Venus specifically to study its turbulent climate to understand global warming better, but it failed to enter the plants orbit. The first Hayabusa mission too almost failed to return.

Technicians at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) had to overcome numerous set-backs during the long voyage of the first Hayabusa. Three of the four ion thrusters stopped working during the trip, a fuel leak rendered the chemical engine inoperable two of the three attitude control antennas broke down and communication was lost for 50 days after the landing.
Despite these trials and nail-biting moments, the first Hayabusa did return and landed safely in the far reaches of the Western Australia following a 600 million km round trip.

The second Hayabusa space craft features a host of technologies that were not aboard the original space craft but were developed to answer many of the problems the original probe experienced. They include an improved antenna and communications system, a redesigned ion engine and more backup equipment.



Friday, November 14, 2014

Side-lining Captain Fanell

American naval officers who publically raise concerns about China’s military capabilities and intentions can find themselves sidelined, their careers stunted. Such is the case of Capt. James Fanell, formerly the chief of naval intelligence for the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

Fanell was recently reassigned from his sensitive intelligence post. His remarks at several forums that China is preparing for war with Japan were embarrassing to the navy’s leadership, which is focused on building ties with a newly assertive China’s military.

In a controversial address to the West 2014 Naval Institute Symposium in San Diego in early 2014, Capt. Fanell said, “we have witnessed a massive and amphibious military enterprise and concluded that the People’s Liberation Army has been given a new task, to conduct a short, sharp war to destroy Japanese forces in the East China Sea, following with what can only be expected a seizure of the Senkaku, or even an island in the southern Ryukyu.”
The captain addressed his concerns mainly to specialized publications such as the Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute, but they were picked up by major civilian outlets such as The New York Times and the Stars and Stripes newspapers, embarrassing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who was making an official visit to China at the time.

Fanell spoke in unusually blunt and even colorful language, making it more likely that the remarks would be picked up in the civilian media. In particular was his use of the term “short, sharp war” to describe the coming conflict. In referring to China, Washington brass usually speak in bromides.
Last week it was reported in the Navy Times that Fanell had been reassigned from his post as chief of naval intelligence and reportedly is to serve as an aide to a rear admiral. It is unusual to assign to full captain to serve as an aide to a relatively low-ranking flag-officer, suggesting that the brass doesn’t want him to be making any more lectures.

“If you talk about [the subject] openly, you can cross a line and unnecessarily antagonize,” said Admiral Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations. It is the official view that The United States welcomes China’s rise.
Fanell also had harsh words to describe actions of China’s Coast Guard, which he calls a “fulltime maritime harassment service” specifically designed to advance China’s strategic interests in the East and South China Seas.

The Coast Guard services of both countries are the front-line troops in the festering and dangerous dispute with Tokyo over ownership of the Senkaku Islands (also known to the Chinese as the Daioyu) as well as contested islets and atolls in the South China Sea.
The Japanese Coast Guard regularly patrols waters around the Senkaku, while the Chinese Coast Guard frequently intrudes in Japan’s claimed territorial waters. The Japanese ships warn them with loudspeakers to leave the waters, while the foreign ministry lodges a protest which Beijing ignores

China is building large patrol cutters at an “astonishing rate,” the captain said. Since year 2000 thirteen new vessels have joined the maritime service, and more are in China’s next five-year plan. China used to convert aging destroyers for the service but recently has begun to acquire purpose-built ships. Indeed, in early 2014, Beijing proudly announced it was building the world’s largest coast guard cutter, a 10,000 ton vessel, as yet unnamed.

“Unlike the U.S. Coast Guard, the cutters of the [Chinese Coast Guard] have no other mission but to harass other nations into submitting to China’s extravagant claims,” says Fanell. “Mundane maritime governance tasks such as search and rescue, regulating fisheries, law enforcement or ice-breaking, are handled by other agencies.”
The U.S. Navy brass itself is eager to cultivate relations with counterparts in China’s armed forces through joint exercises and frequent military exchanges, believing this is the best way to maintain peace and avoid situations that might get out of hand leading to conflict. Clearly Captain Fanell’s type of plain talk is not welcome.

This year the U.S. Navy strongly urged that Beijing to send warships to participate in the annual RIMPAC fleet exercise off of Hawaii, the largest such exercise in the pacific. China did dispatch a warship for the exercise, but also an intelligence gathering ship, creating the unusual position of a nation spying on an exercise in which it was a participant
The Fanell incident is reminiscent of the civil servants in the British government, who supplied the intelligence on the progress of Germany’s rearmament program to Winston Churchill, when he was out of power in the 1930s, except that there is no similar figure in the U.S. to be their champion.

Moreover, it doesn’t take secret whistle-blowers to inform the world that China has been engaged in a kind of crash re-armament program for at least the last decade. Only last week it unveiled its newest stealth fighter, the J-31, at the Shenzhen Air Show
It is perhaps ironic that while Fanell was speaking in San Diego, while  just a few miles to the north, Japanese Ground Self Defense Force troops were storming the beaches of the U.S. Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton. They were part of a newly constituted force of soldiers trained in amphibious landing techniques to potentially recapture Japanese islands seized by the Chinese, presumably in a “short, sharp war.”

Todd Crowell is the author of the forthcoming The Coming War Between China and Japan.



Friday, November 07, 2014

Abe's Women Troubles

No, not that kind of trouble.

In an effort to burnish his avowed policy of empowering women, sometimes known as “womenomics”, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appointed five women to the cabinet in the September 3 re-shuffle.
It is not the most women in a Japanese cabinet – former premier Junichiro Koizumi also had five women in one of his cabinets, but it is unusual for Japan, which also lags most every democracy in the world for female MPs.

The well-intentioned move has turned into a major embarrassment for Abe. Japan has never seen the spectacle of two cabinet members, both of them women, resign their posts in one day.
Yoko Obuchi,  and Midori Matsushima both resigned their cabinet posts last Monday (Oct. 20) to take responsibility for public fund accounting mistakes made by their staff and  support groups that some say verge on buying votes.

In her case, the staff handed out free tickets to a famous singer’s concert. Matsushima’s mistake, apparently was handing out handheld fans with her profile on printed on them.
Known as uchiwa in Japanese, they are the kind of thing that stores hand out for free to advertise their wares. Since the resignation story broke, hand fans with Matsushima’s profile on them have been selling for $100 or more on eBay.

The ink was hardly dry on Obuchi’s resignation letter than her replacement was in trouble. Yoichi Miyazawa, had to admit that some of his staff took supporters to a Hiroshima S&M bar and listed the $170 expense as “political entertainment”.
The new and possibly soon to be ex- minister told reporters, “It is true that such expenses were made, but I did not go there at all.” He said that sadomasochism “is not my hobby.”
Abe also appointed Yoko Kamikawa to replace Matsushima as Minister of Justice, so the number of women in the cabinet is just minus one.

Japan’s campaign financial reporting laws are complex, and to outsiders often seem picayune, and they trip-up many a politician. Hardly any government gets by without at least one minister resigning over a gaffe or financing scandal. It’s practically an occupational hazard.
It was considered remarkable that the Abe government managed 20 months in office without a single resignation. This was in stark contrast to his first term in office (2006-2007) in which three ministers resigned and one committed suicide in one year.

Such scandals, however do not necessarily ruin careers. Obuchi, for instance, remains and MP and being only 40 almost certainly will return to office after a couple years on the back-benches. Before this latest incident, she was on track to becoming Japan’s first female prime minister.

The opposition in parliament, mostly moribund for Abe’s first 20 months in office, has suddenly come alive, sensing blood in the water and gleefully demanding further investigations and even criminal charges.  Abe’s swift action in accepting the two resignation may have neutralized the political fallout – provided no new scandals emerge.

But it is not just the two short-time ministers among the five that are causing Abe occasional heart-burn. Obuchi was a kind of mainstream politician but the other three come from the far-right wing of the Liberal Democratic Party.
Led by Internal Affairs Minister Sanae Taikaichi, a vocal advocate for making regular visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, three lady ministers visited the shrine during the recent autumn festival. Abe did not join them but sent an offering as prime minister.

The Japanese leader is angling for a summit meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of November’s meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, and thus does not want to irritate Beijing any more than necessary at this particular time.
The Chinese government strenuously objects to Yasukuni visits by the prime minister or any members of his cabinet, contending that the shrine glorifies Japan’s invasions of China. Seoul also complains that the visits sanctify Japan’s colonization of their country in the first half of the 20th century.

Besides making a formal protest, Beijing dispatched several coast guard vessels into Japanese-controlled waters around the Senkaku/Daioyu islands, the disputed uninhabited rocks in the East China Sea.
Eriko Yamatani, chairman of the national public safety committee, that is the police, and minister in charge of Japanese abducted by North Korea embarrassed herself being photographed standing next to members of the Zaitokukai, an anti-Korean group that routinely hurls invectives at Koreans living in Japan.

Expecting to answer questions on the abduction issue during a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, she ran into a buzz saw of angry questions asking her to explain her possible association with hate groups. She maintained that she didn’t know the people were with the Zaitokugai.
Abe handed the portfolio of female empowerment to an anti-feminist, Haroku Arimura, whose view are well in in line with cultural conservatives in the U.S. She opposes women keeping their maiden name after marriage, a major issue with Japanese feminists, or allowing a woman to succeed to the Imperial throne.

Takaichi subscribes to most of the right-wing tropes on Japan’s past history: namely that the “comfort women” issue was a Korean libel; that the Nanjing massacre never happened or was grossly exaggerated; that Japan fought purely defensive war in China.
Most of her and the other minister’s conservative views would not truly upset Abe, as he holds many of the same views himself. It is just that as prime minister he has to be more circumspect in voicing them.





Friday, October 03, 2014

One Leader, Two Masters

People in Hong Kong knew in their gut that this day would come, the day when there would be an inevitable showdown with China over the former British colony’s autonomy and desire for full democracy in all its governing institutions.

The many young people and students that have formed the core of this protest have no memories of Hong Kong before the handover to China in 1997 nor the wrenching suppression of the protests that occupied Tiananmen Square for more than a month in 1989.

But they are not too young to have heard the stories and absorbed the barely suppressed anxieties of their fathers, who in turn, many of them, heard the stories of their fathers who had fled China for the safety of Hong Kong after the communists came to power during the Chinese civil war.

In the years just before the handover many of the fathers had taken the precaution of acquiring citizenship in other countries such as Canada and the United States, often leaving families behind for several years in order to gain the “insurance” of a foreign passport should they have to flee again.

In the years that immediately followed the handover many of these fears subsided. Those who had acquired foreign passports quietly put them away. The units of the People’s Liberation Army that rolled into Hong Kong on the day after the handover, disappeared into their barracks and were not seen again.

In retrospect, those early days were perhaps the golden post-handover years. The mechanics of “one-country, two systems” seemed to be working fine. On July 1, 2003, a half a million turned out in one massive protest against proposed laws perceived to violate liberties without the police having to resort to tear gas.

In a sense, Hong Kong people may have been lulled by the success of that protest demonstration and others after the government quietly withdrew the proposed laws. Beijing could decide it was a local screw up and quietly acquiesce to the protest demands without losing face. That’s not the case in the current troubles.

The current demonstrations take aim at a decision that Beijing made through the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress to allow a city-wide, popular vote for the Chief Executive, but only those candidates vetted by a select committee beholden to China.

The protestors are rightly upset about this action, yet a city-wide election held under those terms need not be meaningless as some suggest. Not all “pro-Beijing” figures come from the same cookie mold.

Even before the current troubles, Hong Kong people particularly disdained the current incumbent Leung Cheung-ying. If he had had to run against another candidate, even a “pro-Beijing” candidate, in a city-wide election, he might easily have lost.

Indeed, something very similar to a two person race happened in the last election in 2012 when two candidates contested the small-circle election. One was Leung and the other was Henry Tang, then the financial secretary. Tang had to drop out following revelations that he used public money to enhance his residence and Leung won by default.

Many of the protestors and others in the pro-democracy camp, yearn to elect as chief executive a kind of Chinese version of the last British governor, Chris Patten, something that Beijing simply would not countenance.

In fact, there is such a person in Anson Chan, whose term as chief secretary (ie head of the civil service) straddled the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China. Beijing despises Chan, not just because she was appointed by Patten (whom the Chinese also despised) but because of her frequent jabs at Beijing’s leadership.

If Hong Kongers were free to nominate whomever they chose, they would undoubtedly pick Chan as one of the candidates, and she would almost certainly win in an open election. I’ve long suspected that Beijing would delay any free vote until she had passed from the scene.

But at age 74, she seems as vigorous and feisty as ever. She had thrown herself into the current dispute through such actions as her recent speech to the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Hong Kong and op-ed piece in Time.

“I think people have demonstrated that we want the whole loaf, not half a loaf. And we certainly do not want a loaf that is rotten through and through” was among her choicer quotes during her recent speech at the Hong Kong FCC.

Before the handover many people assumed that the chief executive (replacing the British colonial governor) must come from the business community, somebody highly in tune with the business life blood of Hong Kong.

That has proven to be a bad assumption. Hong Kong has had two chiefs from the tycoon class, and they were and are both failures. Through the Asian Financial Crisis and other economic trials, Hong Kong showed that the economy could pretty much run itself.

What it lacks are political leaders.

Rather than the one-country, two systems construct, a better term for the current political crisis might be “one leader, two masters”. Any Hong Kong chief must somehow please or appease two “masters”, Beijing and the Hong Kong people.

It is a task that requires the extraordinary dexterity and political skill that none of the three post-handover chiefs has ever come close to displaying. Maybe it is beyond any body’s abilities.






Monday, September 29, 2014

Under Siege

Every day scores of right-wing activists gather outside the editorial offices of the Asahi Shimbun, to denounce one of Japan’s two leading national newspapers. Conservatives have long objected to the newspaper’s liberal bent, but it was only recently has the paper’s editors gave them a cudgel to beat on them for being too “pro-Chinese” and “pro-Korean”.
The newspaper is going through a rough patch as it has had to make three embarrassing apologies in as many months, as it backtracks on controversial stories, one of which dates back 20 years but has serious international implications for its relations with Korea and other Asian nations even today. The paper’s retractions concerned two of the country’s most sensitive issues, nuclear power and past militarism.

In August the newspaper retracted a story published in the early 1980s recounting the questionable testimony of one Japanese man who claimed to have coerced upwards to 200 Korean women living on the offshore island of Jeju into becoming prostitutes for the Imperial Army during World War II.

Then in September it had to retract a story it published in May based on leaked testimony from the plant manager at the time of the nuclear disaster, Masao Yoshida, claiming that workers at the site had abandoned the plant site and fled contrary to Yoshida’s orders to stand fast.

If that weren’t enough, the paper also admitted that it had falsified an interview with the President of Nintendo. Half dozen editors and senior editors at the newspaper have been fired; the conservative press is piling on; and some question whether the paper, with its estimated 8 million readers, can ever regain its credibility.
Potentially the gravest mistake was in trusting one Seiji Yoshida’s (no relation to the nuclear plant manager) story outlined in his book My War Crimes. Although other papers picked up the story, the Asahi chose to really run with it, publishing more than a dozen articles on the subject beginning in the early 1980s until the 1990s when unbiased historians began to cast doubts on its credibility.

If nothing else it was a cautionary tale for newspapers about the dangers of building stories on a single source, although the newspaper claimed that it sent reporters to Jeju island in order to confirm or deny Yoshida’s allegations without success.
The Asahi’s conservative rival, the Yomiuri Shimbun gleefully reported every twist and turn of the Asahi’s tribulations. Said the Yomiuri, “the report added fuel to the anti-Japan sentiment in South Korea and forms the basis of a misperception of Japan that is spreading around the world.” It also criticized the paper’s handling of the nuclear power transcripts.

Though the issues stemming from World War II happened more than 70 years ago and to an outsider have long been settled, in Japan it often seems as if they happened only yesterday. Hardly a day passes without the newspapers of all stripes publishing articles about the “comfort women” issue, using the euphemism for Asian women conscripted into army brothels by the imperial army during World War II.
The revival of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party under its right-leaning prime minister Shinzo Abe, has accelerated these controversial history issues. Last year the government toyed with the idea of renouncing the so-called “Kono Statement” of 1993, issued by the former Chief Cabinet Secretary in which Japan formally acknowledged its responsibility for recruiting comfort women.

The Yoshida misstep certainly added fuel to those in the country who want to have the government renounce the Kono statement (not to mention other apologies that Tokyo has made over the years). Conservatives consider the comfort women issue an undeserved libel on its soldiers.
Given his strong conservative bent, the prime minister would probably be happy to do that if it were up to him entirely, but as a responsible national leader he has to consider the impact with neighbors, especially South Korea. It is not too far-fetched to believe that renouncing the Kono Statement could lead Seoul to break diplomatic relations and be a huge headache for American diplomacy in East Asia.

In May the Asahi ran a story it must have thought was a global scoop, that at the height of the nuclear disaster some 90 percent of the work force fled the site, ignoring or willfully disobeying the plant chief. The story went global with The New York Times picking it up under the headline: “Panicked Workers Fled Fukushima Plant in 2011 Despite Orders.”
The story was based on a leaked partial version of Yoshida’s hours of testimony before a parliamentary commission investigating the accident, which the government had agreed to keep confidential at Yoshida’s request. In September, it reversed itself and released the full transcript saying that Yoshida’s fear that his actions would be misinterpreted were warranted by the leak.

Once the full text was made public, it became quickly apparent that the incident was less dramatic and more complicated that the Asahi story had indicated. Yoshida said that he feared an explosion in one unit might endanger the work force and advised non-essential people to move to less threatened parts of the plant site.

Many interpreted this to mean moving to the undamaged Fukushima Daini nuclear plant site only about 10 km (six miles) away. Yoshida said on reflection he thought they did the right thing. As the threat to Unit 2 receded, most of the workers who moved to the other plant returned, augmented by workers from other plant sites and Tokyo firemen.
After sticking to its story for months, the Asahi on Sept. 15 retracted the story, issued an apology and sacked its executive editor. The paper is now setting up an outside panel to impartially examine what went wrong on the comfort women issue and others.




Thursday, June 26, 2014

A Debate over Self Defense

 Japan is currently embroiled in a huge domestic argument over whether it can legally act as a fully-fledged alliance partner with the United States or any other country in which it has a close relationship and common security concerns.
It is an only-in-Japan kind of debate since Japan is the only important country in the world that has as part of its constitution a clause (the famous Article 9) which quite frankly prohibits the country from having any army, navy or air force or exercising force in any international dispute.

Notwithstanding the charter, Japan has over the years, developed a formidable armed force, known euphemistically as the “Self-Defense Forces”, but their operations are still constrained by a legal framework that imposes some of the tightest restrictions on the military of any other country.
Since 1991, for example, Japan has participated in various peacekeeping missions abroad, starting with Cambodia. It also takes part in anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia.  However, if a neighboring peacekeeping force from another nation, say Norway, came under attack from terrorists, Japan would be legally constrained from coming to their rescue.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to change this. For one thing in comports with his own personal desire to make Japan a “normal nation”, one that exert force like any other nation. But it also comes from heightened sense of danger from North Korea’s nuclear ambitions to China’s territorial claims.
Underscoring the concern was a recent incident in which China scrambled two advanced fighter jets to fly within 50 meters of two unarmed Japanese patrol air craft that were monitoring a joint China-Russia fleet exercise in the East China Sea near the disputed Senkaku/Daioyu islands. Beijing brushed off protests from Tokyo.

Abe wants his cabinet to declare by the end of the current session of parliament in late June that so-called “collective self-defense” (that is aiding an ally) conforms with the constitution. He wants this done soon so it can form part of the negotiations with the U.S. in developing a new understanding of their respective roles in the defense of Japan, the first time these guidelines have been revised in 20 years.
In his keynote speech at the Shangri-la Dialoge on security matter last weekend in Singapore, Abe said “it was incumbent on us in Japan to reconstruct the legal basis pertinent to the right of collective self-defense.” US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel publically backed Abe. “We support Japan’s new effort,” he said.

Most of the American security establishment supports collective defense by Japan and is not overly concerned about what obstacles Abe has navigate to get there. President Barack Obama himself issued a statement during his April visit to Japan supporting Abe’s proposed changes.
But Abe may have trouble getting his way. Public opinion polls show a public evenly split on the overall issue with a still strong pacifistic element in the electorate that worries that any change will send Japan down a slippery slope towards the militarized Japanese state of the 1930-40s.

On the other hand, the same polls show broader support when asked about specific contingencies, such as whether a Japanese warship can legally come to the aid of an American ship in danger by an attack of North Korean patrol boats, for example.
Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has a commanding majority in parliament as a result of the party’s smashing victory in the 2012 general election, but it is a curious position where the “loyal opposition” is coming not from the opposition parties themselves but from within the governing coalition itself.

The LDP is allied with New Komeito, the political arm of a Japanese Buddhist sect that has strong pacifistic tendencies. Abe’s whole political efforts for the present are directed at trying to overcome the Komeito party’s scruples over collective self-defense, which the party leaders mainly oppose.

If he pushes ahead without making major concessions to Komeito’s concerns, it is possible that the Buddhist party might leave the coalition. Abe is loath to let that happen. It is partly for purely practical terms, as the Komeito alliance helps the LDP win elections, but also fear that it might imperil its other initiatives to strengthen the economy, known as “Abenomics”
The premier knows from his previous short stint in office (2006-2007) that he can be politically punished if he is perceived as being more interested in promoting his own pet security ideas than he is in fixing the economy and other issues that the public thinks more directly impacts their livelihoods.

So for now, the prime minister has had to modify his goals and has adopted a strategy of listing specific examples calling for use of collective self-defense, such as intercepting a North Korean ballistic missile aimed at American assets or territory, that the Komeito may find acceptable.
Some opposition also comes from those, including some in Abe’s own party, who believe that any such significant change to the constitution should be made by amendment, not by the unilateral decision of a the cabinet that may be in office for only a few years.

Japans’ constitution, written by American occupiers in 1946, has never been amended because no party has ever had the necessary two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament to refer an amendment to a national referendum.  Despite Abe’s commanding majority (even without Komeito) in the lower house, it doesn’t have the votes in the upper chamber.




Friday, June 06, 2014

Godzilla at 60

Looking hardly a day over 60 million, Godzilla turned 60 this year, brought back to life as Hollywood resuscitated the slumbering giant monster and turned what had been and is a Japanese icon into an American  smash hit of global proportions.
The new Godzilla is a reboot of the franchise which set a record of earning $196 million in its first weekend when it opened in May, putting it on track to becoming one of the highest grossing movies of the summer if not all time.

The new movie was produced by Legendary Pictures in partnership with Warner Brothers and on license from Toho Productions, the Japanese studio that invented Godzilla in 1954 and produced another 27 movies featuring the stomping giant until retiring from active production in 2004.
Toho’s 50-year production history makes Godzilla the longest running franchise in film history, and, given the success of the American sequel in rejuvenating a tired brand, it may be on track for another 50-year run.

Yet it is not the first American version. Tri-Star State Pictures produced its own Godzilla in 1998, but it failed to catch on. This older version was so poorly received that it may have damaged the brand, as no other follow up was attempted until this year’s version, 16 years later.
While the 2014 version has a storyline of its own, it is faithful to many of the familiar Godzilla tropes. It (Godzilla is neither male or female) is born out of and sustained by nuclear radiation, in this case a Japanese nuclear power plant; it stomps through cities smashing buildings right and left (Las Vegas) and culminates in a battle with another monster, Muto (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism).

When Toho Productions released its first Godzilla in 1954 (the name is an English version of the Japanese Gojira linking the words for gorilla and whale), it did not know that it would be producing one of the most instantly and universally recognized icons of Japanese culture. Nor did they know that they would be making a long-standing series.
“We had no plans for a sequel in 1954,”recalled the late Ishiro Honda, Godzilla’s initial director in an interview before he died. Indeed, the monster is killed off in the first movie. (never an obstacle to reviving the him in subsequent productions).The Toho Productions soon changed its mind, and the second film, Godzilla the Fire Monster was made and released the next year.

Initial reviews of Godzilla were cool. Some dismissed it is “junk.” Yet, the original has now come to be ranked as one of the best 20 Japanese movies of all time, up there with Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, which, coincidentally, was released the same year. In 2004 Godzilla achieved the ultimate accolade when his name was placed on a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.
The plot of the original Godzilla was inspired by a headline event in the spring of 1954. A Japanese fisherman whose boat, the Lucky Dragon-5, was hit by radioactive fallout from an American H-bomb test over the Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific, died of Leukemia. By autumn Gojira was trading on the audiences’ twin fears of prehistoric carnivores and modern nuclear arms, it being only nine years removed from the Hiroshima bombings.

Ever since, nuclear radiation has played some role in subsequent movies. Indeed, it was one condition of Toho’s granting a license that it somehow involve nuclear radiation, which is why the revived Godzilla is born in a Japanese nuclear power plant in the new version.
Though never a “message” movie per se, the Godzilla series have been attuned to the current pulse of Japanese. In Godzilla versus King Ghidora (1991) the rampaging reptile turned his attention to ostentatious displays of wealth in the Bubble Economy era by obliterating the new 60-story Tokyo city hall, usually accompanied by cheers from the audience,

The monster has actually grown in height as Tokyo’s skyline has risen. In the first movie, he was about 50 meters tall. That was roughly the height of the highest Ginza building at the time of the film was made. He has gradually grown to nearly 100 meters in height as more high rise buildings dotted Tokyo’s skyline, and the new American version makes him, a little over 100 meters, the tallest version in the series.
Although many people assume that Godzilla, the name and figure, are in the public domain, the fact is that Toho is just as aggressive in defending its copyright and trademarks as Disney is in protecting Mickey Mouse. Anyone thinking to add the suffix “zilla” to a product name can expect to receive a cease and desist letter from Toho’s Los Angeles-based law firm, Greenberg Gluskar,

Just this week a New Orleans brewery agreed to change the name of one of its new beers from Mechahopzilla by the end of the year after it was sued by these same attorneys acting for Toho. The studio had sued New Orleans-based Lager & Ale Brewing Company claiming the name and logo were copycats of Godzilla’s monster opponent of that name. Mechahopzilla figures in some Godzilla movies.
The litigation has kept Godzilla’s brand thriving and has helped to pave the way for extremely lucrative commercial and merchandising tie-ins that will accompany the monster’s return to the big screen. Japan itself is dotted with numerous Godzilla -themed products from jigsaw puzzles to T-shirts. Godzilla’s image is for sale, but you have to pay for it.

Godzilla has, of course, already been released in the US, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. But curiously, Japanese will have to wait more than a month to see their favorite monster back in the theater, as it isn’t scheduled to hit the big screens in Japan until July 25.