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.







Friday, May 30, 2014

A Coup with a Difference

I actually got the news in a telephone call from Japan, which is two hours ahead of Thailand. “There’s been a coup!” my wife exclaimed after answering the phone. “Where”? I asked stupidly. “Here in Thailand.” We turned on the television to get more news, but every channel was just showing file footage of the King.
That is how I came to learn of the coup d’etat in 2006 that toppled the regime of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Eight years later the Royal Army has seized power again, for the umpteenth time since the country ended the absolute monarchy in 1932. That begs a question: how does this one differ from the 2006 coup?

The 2006 coup might be described as a “soft” coup. Only about half a dozen close aides to the deposed Thaksin were detained (Thaksin himself was outside of the country addressing the UN General Assembly and has remained in exile). The current coup seems to be much “harder.’ As of this writing some 250 people, including the former premier Yingluck Shinawatra have been detained.
This time the military government of Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha has spread its net far wider, not just detaining members of the cabinet and the Thaksin family, but retired generals thought to be sympathetic to the government and, more ominously, opinion leaders like academics and some journalists who have written in support of democracy in Thailand.

The coup leaders also detained some prominent “yellow shirt” opponents of the government, including its main protest leader, Suthep Thaungsuban but later released them. The generals have darkly warned that more detentions are possible if there is continuing resistance to the new junta.
The current coup seems to have been planned more carefully than the earlier one. It came in stages, with the army first declaring martial law and then two days later seizing the reins of the government. Certain specified broadcasters were shut down during the short martial law under orders which were later extended to most of the independent stations.

In 2006 the “red shirt” movement did not exist. There had been large-scale anti-Thaksin demonstrations in Bangkok by Thaksin opponents who would later be called the yellow shirts. At the time though, there was no need for a pro-Thaksin movement as he was in charge of the government.
Since then the red shirt movement has expanded enormously, made up predominantly of the underclass of Thais from the country’s north and northeast who benefitted from Thaksin’s populist policies. They put thousands of supporters on the streets and occupied central Bangkok in 2010 in an unrest that resulted in 90 protestors being killed mostly at the hands of the army.

Thailand’s is a conscript army, and many of the soldiers come from the parts of the country and social strata that have proved to be the Thaksin-red shirt base. It is not improbable that Gen. Prayuth felt obliged to act the way out of concern over the possibility of mutiny in the army if soldiers were ordered to fire on protestors and the ultimately, civil war.
Another difference is that after the 2006 coup, the army operated behind a civilian front, talked a lot about reforming the constitution and held out the prospect of a return to democracy. Prayuth has, for the moment, named himself as prime minister, and he has said the junta will remain in power “indefinitely.”  He seems more interested in some kind of long-term reconciliation than restoring democracy any time soon.

This may be inevitable considering Thailand’s difficult recent history with elections. Thailand doesn’t need to restore democracy per se; it needs to develop a civil society in which elections count, and where the results are accepted by the country, both by the winners and losers. That hasn’t been the case in Thailand for a long time.
Increasingly, the new Thai military junta is looking more and more like the one that ruled Myanmar for years. Its official title – the National Council for Peace and Order - even seems to echo the name the Burmese generals picked for themselves in 1988: State Law and Order Restoration council (SLORC).

The royal succession is eight years closer than it was in 2006, and Thailand is eight years closer to a new crisis on top of a crisis. In that earlier coup the leader of the coup was photographed prostrating himself before the monarch. So far, Gen, Prayuth has not been seen with the King, although he claims that the coup has the King’s support.
In 2006 the King was still relatively healthy. Now 86, it has been many years since he was well enough to assert any influence. The likely successor, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, is not popular; his sister Crown Princess Maha is popular, but may find it difficult to win army support for a queen-regnant. Thailand hasn’t had a female ruler from the current Chakri dynasty line that stretches back more than 200 years.

The economy weaker it was in 2006. Many in the business community welcomed the coup as providing needed stability. But eight years of yellow-shirt versus red shirt strife have taken their toll. Many Japanese businessmen for example, remember being left stranded in Thailand in 2008 when the yellow shirts stormed and shut down the two main airports in Bangkok.

The critical tourist industry has had to operate against the backdrop of violence, often in the center of in the capital that is home to many expats. Numerous travel advisories issued by various foreign governments have discouraged tourism. In this instance some countries have gone beyond merely advising caution and unnecessary trips to Thailand to flatly advising their citizens to stay away.
One other difference. The 2006 coup was seen by everyone to be a major failure, not so much in terms of individual oppression, but in simple mal-administration of the government. Everyone on all sides was happy to see it go. It remains to be seen whether this new crew will be any better. People are hoping so but not counting on it.








Sunday, May 25, 2014

Close Encounters

Imagine this scenario: China decides to erect another offshore oil digging rig this time on waters in the South China Sea claimed by the Philippines. It surrounds the rig with numerous coast guard and “fishing” vessels. Manila calls for help from its good, long-time alliance partner the United States. But it also appeals for help to another “close ally” - Japan.
Already embroiled in an increasingly dangerous standoff with China over a bunch of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, could Japan be dragged into the South China Sea cauldron too? It is by no means far-fetched to speculate on this possibility depending on how Tokyo ultimately defines the nation’s right to “collective self-defense.”

Collective self-defense is a military term created by Japanese legal scholars several decades ago, relating to policies that basically prohibit Japanese armed forces from firing on any foreign armed forces save for one that might be directly invading the home islands of Japan itself. It served Japan well during the Cold War era, but the prohibition is weakening due to the increasingly changing nearby security situation.

This month a fourteen-member government panel appointed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe released its much anticipated report, calling on Japan to significantly modify its definition of self-defense under its pacifistic constitution to permit Japanese armed forces, if necessary, to fight alongside its formal ally or any country with which has a “close relationship” .
The term seems to be deliberately ambiguous, as it could be argued that Tokyo maintains a “close relationship” with many countries. For example, Tokyo and Canberra have recently signed a defense logistics agreement for the “close cooperation between the [Japan] Self-Defense Forces and Australian Defense Forces.”

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott was invited to be the first foreign leader to attend a meeting of Japan’s new National Security Council during a recent visit to Tokyo. India and Japan touted their close relationship during Abe’s state visit last January, punctuated by the sale of Japanese-made amphibious patrol aircraft to India. Japan is also planning to sell 10 vessels to augment the Philippine Coast Guard.
The Philippine ambassador to Japan, Manuel Lopez, seemed to be anticipating some kind of future alliance with Japan when he told Kyodo news service this week that his country should bolster maritime cooperation with Japan as well as the US to deter China’s growing assertiveness at sea. Being essentially defenseless, the Philippines needs the help of countries such as the U.S. and Japan. “[Japan’s] experience in maritime matters will certainly be a great help to us,” Lopez said.

The bubbling tensions in the South China Sea, where China and Vietnam are involved in a dangerous standoff over an oil rig that  Hanoi claims is in its 200-mile economic exclusion zone (EEZ) serves as a backdrop to Japan’s decisions on legalizing what it considers its UN-chartered right to help defend allies under an armed attack.
In its report, the Advisory Panel on the Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security stated that one of the scenarios for collective self-defense would be “when a foreign country that is in a close relationship with Japan comes under and armed attack and if such a situation has the potential to significantly affect the security of Japan.”

It could be argued that almost any such situation in the South China Sea would impact Japan’s security. The energy-scarce country is even more dependent on free-passage of tankers and other ships through the South China Sea than the US. “We cannot be indifferent to the situation in the South China Sea,” said the panel’s deputy chairman Shinichi Kitaoka as quoted in the Stars and Stripes.
The right to collective self-defense is very close to Abe’s heart. He actually formed the panel during his first term of office (2006-2007). It languished under the Democratic Party of Japan government, but was revived with a vengeance when the premier’s party won a landslide general election victory near the end of 2012.

It is by no means certain that the final decisions on this issue will take into account all of the panel’s recommendations. Abe is a practical politician, and his priorities are not as expansive as those on the panel. His main purpose is to create a legal climate that allows the self-defense forces to cooperate with other forces,” says Sheila Smith of the US Council on Foreign Relations.
He will also examine needed new legislation and identify specific situations where the right of collective self-defense might be permissible if an armed attack is made on another country that significantly affects the security of Japan, she says.

It also coincides with the on-going the official review of the US-Japan security guidelines which advise the two government how their militaries operate under the security agreement, including emphasis on new contingencies such as the Senkaku/Daioyu dispute, and the increasing number of situations, usually connected with UN peacekeeping, where the use of force by Japan may be necessary.
Abe hopes to get the cabinet to sign off on collective self-defense by the end of June, but a foreign ministry official stressed that there is no timeline. To affect the changes, about a dozen laws will have to be passed or amended that will extend the debate well into the fall if not next spring, sources say.

Most public opinion polls in Japan show considerable skepticism if not downright opposition to the changes. However, the main opposition in parliament to the policy changes is coming not from the official opposition but from New Komeito, which is actually a part of the government.
Komeito is significantly more pacifistic than Abe’s party, but is not expected that it will leave the coalition over this issue. But it is likely that the government might have to water down some of the provisions to gain the party’s acquiescence. 





Friday, May 09, 2014

At the Yasukuni Shrine

Unless you had read or heard about the controversies swirling around the Yasukuni Shrine, as a casual visitor you would be hard- pressed to understand what all of the fuss is about. It looks like a large but fairly conventional Shinto shrine, sort of like the Meiji Shrine in another part of Tokyo. Except that the Meiji Shrine honors one kami or spirit – the late emperor Meiji, the Yasukuni honors 2,466,532.
Located on about 25 acres on the north side of the Imperial Palace grounds, the long entry pathway up Kudan Hill is demarked by three large concrete torri gates leading to the main temple, with its heavy black tiled eaves and a striking white curtain with the 16-petal chrysanthemum imperial seals on it.

The main temple is in two parts, an inner and outer sanctuary. Visitors approach the outer shrine, clap their hand,s bow their heads and drop coins into the large wooden collection box and then leave. Behind the temple in the recesses of the inner sanctum, is where the kami is said to reside, in this case not one but the spirits of all the fallen soldiers and sailors in Japan’s wars.
The purpose of the Yasukuni is, of course, to honor the memories of these fallen soldiers and sailors, stretching back to the Boshin War fought between soldiers loyal to the Meiji emperor and those of the Tokugawa shogunate and other civil wars that marked the revolution known as the Meiji Restoration. It is this that draws the presence of such high-ranking public officials as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Although it has a well-deserved reputation as a citadel of conservative revisionism, there are no outward signs of ultra-nationalism - no right-wing groups blaring slogans from their sound trucks disturb the tranquility of the setting. There are no banners and few flags are flown. Perhaps the only evidence is a statue of Masajiro Omura, a now obscure Meiji reformer known as the “father” of the modern Japanese Army.
For a more chauvinistic take on Japan’s near history, one repairs to the Yushukan War Museum, discretely located off to the north side and housed in a large concrete modern building. I must admit that the museum was far larger and more sophisticated than I had imagined. I had a mental picture of perhaps a couple rooms with some military equipment and propaganda slogans.

The first thing one encounters on entering the museum is a hulking black steel locomotive. Which was the first to steam through the dense jungle of the Thai-Burma Railway. It is an immediate turnoff, I would surmise, for any British or Australian visitors, as thousands of their compatriots, not to mention other Asians, died in the making of the railroad ( a fact not mentioned at the Yushukan).

Pushing on, however, one navigates a maze of exhibition rooms, about a dozen in all I’d say, filled with soldiers’ paraphernalia and personal mementos as well as panels describing the Japan’s conflicts stretching back to the first Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 up through the Great East Asia War (World War II, to the rest of us).
The panels do have English translations of the text, but the day I visited, I must confess, I had too little time, and too little stamina, to read all of them and determine for myself whether there are as tendentious in their portrayal of the war as popularly imagined.

I have vague impressions of references to “Western demands,” and “unequal treaties”. One panel has a long time-line stretching down one wall and explaining how that wily Roosevelt deliberately gulled the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor. That is a common conservative trope among many right-wing nationalists, including the cashiered former air force general, Toshio Tomagawa, whose DVD is on sale in the gift shop.
I was impressed that the museum had a description of the Nomonhan Incident, an obscure but historically significant battle on the Mongolian border with the Soviet Union in 1939. It was a humiliating defeat for Japanese arms that most Japanese would prefer to forget about it, indeed they have probably forgotten about it.

In general the museum struck me as being similar to the Imperial War Museum I visited once in London, and probably similar institutions around the world that represent their national causes as honorable and those who fought in them as being sacrificial heroes.