Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Rain on Abe's Parade

Korean-Americans are mobilizing to scuttle Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s proposed address to a joint session of Congress during his visit to the United States later this spring. It would be a signal honor for the leader of one of America’s strongest allies, if it came off.

Abe would be the first Japanese leader to speak to the 535 Senators and Congressmen gathered in the chamber of the House of Representatives. Three early post-war premiers, including Abe’s grandfather Nobosuke Kishi, spoke to the House but not to the two chambers assembled.

Not the least is the sheer symbolic value of a Japanese prime minister speaking from the podium, from the very spot, where President Franklin D Roosevelt had asked Congress to declare war in his famous “Day of Infamy” speech more than 70 years ago.

By way of contrast, every South Korean president going back to Kim Young-sam has addressed a joint session of congress, most recently the incumbent president, Park Guen-hye in May, 2013. The privilege has been extended to three former Prime Ministers of India too but never to a Japanese.

The Korean-American Civic Empowerment organization has been gathering petition signatures opposing the idea of Abe’s address to Congress unless he promises never again to visit the Yasukuni shrine, which enshrines the spirits of, among many others, 14 former leaders convicted of war crimes.

Concurrently, the Washington Coalition for Comfort Women also announced it was beginning a nationwide petition drive to oppose the projected speech. “Abe denies the war crimes that Japan committed and continues to pay respects at the Yasukuni shrine . . . it [the speech] would be an insult to the comfort women who suffered during the war.”

“Comfort women” is the common term to denote Asia women conscripted to serve in Japanese army brothels during World War II.

The situation is beginning to look like an embarrassing reprise of the visit of former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2006, when opposition in Congress scuttled a proposed speech. The premier was fobbed off with a visit to Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley.

The official position was that no invitation to address Congress was extended and none was requested by the Japanese government. But in reality, Tokyo was worried that the dispute over Koizumi’s visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which had brought Japan’s relations with her neighbors to new lows, might blot what they hoped would be the out-going premier’s “victory lap”.

Former Congressman Henry Hyde of Illinois wrote then House Speaker Dennis Hastert a letter asking that Koizumi reassure Congress that he would not pay another visit to the Yasukuni Shrine anytime soon after his speech.

In his letter Hyde said he welcomed Koizumi speaking to Congress in principle, but added that making the speech and then visiting the Yasukuni shrine so soon thereafter would be “an affront to the generation that remembers Pearl Harbor and dishonor the place where president Roosevelt made his ‘Day of Infamy’ speech.”

Koizumi visited the shrine every year during his five-year tenure. Abe has visited the shrine just once but has send cabinet ministers or offerings on other occasions.

This time other members of congress are likely to weigh in. Rep. Diane DeGette (D-Colorado) has stated that “it is really important that Japan is not seen as back tracking on the comfort women and other issues.”  Obstruction might also come from Rep. Ed Royce, (R-California) chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Relations, whose district has numerous Korean-American constituents.

In recent years the Korean-American community has run rings around the Japanese on such emotive issues as comfort women and using Korea’s preferred name for the Sea of Japan. Since World War II, the number of Korean immigrants has far-outpaced Japanese, and they tend to concentrate in larger homogeneous communities, where they have political influence.

Of course, Abe has not yet been formally invited to address Congress, although both the U.S. State Department and the Japanese government are working behind the scenes to effect such a speech.

The decision rests with Speaker John Boehner, who seems receptive to the idea in principle but may not want to entertain another potentially controversial joint speech coming so soon after the huge brouhaha over the recent address by Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Shinzo Abe sees himself – and Japan – as major players on the world stage and would undoubtedly want to bolster his credentials as an international statesman with an address to Congress. He has already made several important international speeches including one to the Guild Hall in London and a speech to a joint session of Australia’s federal parliament.

A speech before congress would be a golden opportunity for Abe to present a frank and realistic vision of how he sees Japan’s role in an evolving Asia at a critical time when Tokyo is re-revaluating that role and while seeking to revive the Japanese economy through policies dubbed “abenomics”.

Japan and the US are also revising their guidelines for joint military actions in view of Tokyo’s changing defense posture; there is also the Trans-Pacific Partner ship trade agreement to talk about. Abe might want also to explain what he means by his vague catch phrase “pro-active pacifism.”

But many of the members may be fixated on historical issues. If it becomes a condition never, ever to visit the Yasukuni shrine again, that might become a deal-breaker. As for other issues, Tokyo is preparing to make a much anticipated statement on its role in World War II to be issued on the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender this August.

Indeed, a fifteen-member committee is currently toiling away on what Abe should say in the name of the government and nation, and Abe may be reluctant step on his August statement by devoting too much time to history. On the other hand, if he does not plan to say something, he may not get a chance to speak at all.




Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Happy Ever After

Two Tokyo wards are considering a plan to issue same-sex “partnership certificates”, putting the spotlight on the status of same-sex marriage in Japan.

Trendy Shibuya Ward got the ball rolling in early February by announcing that it would declare same-sex unions to be the “equivalent of marriage.” Setagaya, Tokyo’s most populous ward (borough) quickly followed suit with its own ground-breaking move gay marriage look like a groundswell.

Technically, same-sex marriages are not legal in Japan, and the actions of the two wards don’t change that. Holders of these certificates will not be legally married, but Setagaya Mayor Nobuto Hosaka explained that the documents would still be useful for helping couples rent places to live or permitting hospital visitations.

The action still requires formal approval from the ward assemblies, which will probably take place in early March. Support for the Setagaya ordinance is being led by Assemblywoman Aya Kamikura, one of the few openly gay or trans-gender elected officials in Japan.

Shibuya’s action is seen here as a significant step toward enhancing gay and lesbian rights in Japan.
A poll by the Asahi Shimbun found 52 percent approved of Shibuya’s plan to issue certificates to gay couple and 27 per cent opposed. The approval rate falls to 41 for legalizing same-sex marriages.

There seems to be very little outright opposition to the actions of the two wards, and possibly that of other wards or cities in Japan. Sexually-oriented issues do not rile politics in Japan as they do in other countries, such as the United States.
Conservatives in Japan can be expected to defend traditional norms, but they have other fish to fry, such as defending Japan against the accusations by Korea and other Asian countries that it shanghaied women into prostitution during World War II.

In the wake of the ward actions, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was asked his opinion on same-sex marriage during a budget meeting of parliament, possibly the first time that any Japanese prime minister has ever been asked to state his opinion on the subject.

“The Japanese constitution does not envisage marriage between people of the same sex,” Abe replied, adding that the country “should be extremely cautious” about making any changes to the document. Some critics remarked that this caution was a little rich considering he is eager to amend the constitution in myriad other ways.
Article 24 of the Constitution states that “marriage shall be based on the mutual consent of both sexes and it shall be maintained through mutual cooperation with the equal rights of husband and wife as a basis.” The article is a liberal icon written by Americans in 1946 mostly to ensure equality of women in marriage not with gay rights in mind.

Some would argue that a government which certainly stretched the meaning of the pacifist Article 9 in order to participate joint military operations with other allies, an action known as “collective Defense” could similarly “reinterpretation” if it wanted to.

Article 14 could easily be the basis for a reinterpretation as it reads, “all people are equal under the law and there can be no discrimination because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin.” Similar language has been used to legalize same-sex unions in the US.
Coincidentally, the Supreme Court recently agreed to delve into marriage issues. Same-sex unions are not on the court’s agenda, but it has agreed to adjudicate whether the current requirement forcing married couples to choose a single surname, an issue close to the hearts of Japanese feminists, is constitutional.

So it would appear that “change is afoot,” says Mari Miura, professor of gender and politics at Tokyo’s Sophia University.
The social background in Japan is not necessarily hostile to same-sex marriage. Homosexuality has been legal since 1880. Since 2009 it has been legal for persons of the same sex to marry in jurisdictions where such marriages are legal and then to return to Japan.

A prominent example is the US Consul-General in Osaka, Patrick Linehan, who married his husband in Canada several years ago. Disneyland Tokyo allows people to take their vows at the Cinderella’s Castle hotel, although, of course, they are only symbolic and not legal marriages.
As a whole, Japanese culture, though conservative, and the country’s major religions are not particularly homophobic, and while there are few laws on the books to protect LGBT people from discrimination, there appears to be relatively little discrimination to begin with. Gays are even accepted into the Self-Defense Forces.

Only one political party officially endorsed same-sex marriage in its election manifesto for the 2012 general election, although the Social Democratic Party has only four seats in parliament. It fielded the first openly gay candidate for parliament; he lost. The communists endorse civil unions, and there are believed to be quiet supporters in the larger parties.
In December Taiwan became the first country in East Asia to actually debate the question of same-sex marriage at the parliamentary level. Part of the debate included amending the Civil Code to change gender specific terms like husband and wife to the more neutral “parties” or “spouses.”

As in other countries, young people in Japan seem to be well ahead of older members. The youthful Goshi Hosono, 42 the runner up in last month’s selection for the leadership of the main opposition Democratic party of Japan has said he supports equal rights for sexual minorities though he stops short of endorsing marriage.

The cause has another unusual champion. The prime minister’s often outspoken wife Akie Abe took part in the 2014 Tokyo LGBT pride festival last April. Her husband spent the day visiting the victims of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.






Thursday, January 29, 2015

An Excuse to Rearm?

 While leaders around the globe strongly condemned the beheading of the Japanese hostage Haruna Yukawa and the threat to do the same to a second Japanese hostage, China’s reaction to the whole crisis was extraordinarily grudging.
While offering pro-forma condolences for the dead hostage, the official press quickly used the crisis as an excuse to pummel their favorite target, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as a war monger.

“The killing is the price that Japan has paid for its support of Washington [war on terror]”, said the China Daily, the official organ of the Chinese Communist Party. It went on to speculate that Abe will eventually use the crisis as an excuse to repeal the country’s pacifistic constitution
The Global Times, a newspaper published by the communist party but aimed at international readers, predicted that the crisis would be a new excuse for Japan to relax the restrictions now imposed on its armed forces. “Abe is more concerned about promoting rightest policies than rescuing hostages.”

Of course, it is hardly news that relations between China and Japan are in the pits these days, or that Beijing holds a special animas for Japan’s prime minister or that everything Tokyo does these days is automatically seen as a march toward “remilitarization.”
Tokyo supports the international coalition against the Islamic State, organized by Washington. It’s most concrete contribution, is a $200 million package of nonmilitary aid for coping with refugees that Abe announced in Cairo during a trip to the Middle East.

The Islamic State promptly latched on to that figure and turned it into a ransom demand that they soon dropped after killing Yukawa and substituted new demands for releasing a convicted terror bomber now in Jordanian custody.
Abe has talked a lot about wanting to raise Japan’ profile in international affairs, yet it would be misleading to say that this effort raised Japan’s profile to a higher level. After all, Tokyo contributed billions of dollars to the coalition formed in 1991 to retake Kuwait and was shocked at how little thanks it got.

So when the second Iraq War came around in 2003, Tokyo was determined to send at least some “boots on the ground” in the form of a construction battalion that operated under severe restrictions to conform with the constitution. Japanese navy oilers also refueled coalition ships supporting the war in Afghanistan.
The latter two actions required special legislation. The Abe government is currently considering a series of new amendments to the Self Defense Forces Act to enable even closer military cooperation between Japan and the United States and possibly other “allies.”

So it is not wrong to speculate on how the hostage crisis, once it is resolved, will impact Japan’s future defense posture. There have, after all,  been plenty of signs that Abe’s government wants to enhance the country’s military, such as has increasing defense spending in a modest way since taking power two years ago.
In July the cabinet issued a statement “re-interpreting” the constitution to allow for “collective defense”, which mainly means working in concert with it main ally, the United States, and potentially other countries with which it has a close relationship.

Even as the hostage crisis unfolded. Japan’s defense minister Gen Nakatani and foreign minister Fumio Kishida were in London discussing closer cooperation on jointly developing new armaments. Tokyo last year relaxed its traditional ban on weapons’ exports.
Before collective defense can go into effect, however, the Japanese parliament has to pass a bunch of new laws and amendments to the Self-Defense Act. This was to have been accomplished in the last session, but the Abe administration pulled the bills rather than have this divisive issue become part of the snap election last month.

The new parliament, elected late last year, went into session this past week, will be called on to pass those laws. Opinion polls have shown the public about equally divided on the issue. There has been no new polling on this issue since the hostage crisis broke out.
The hostage crisis cuts two ways. In one sense it raises long-standing fears among the Japanese public that their country will be dragged into Middle East conflicts as part of American-led coalitions. In that respect, many fear any weakening of the constitution’s prohibition on using force to resolve international disagreements.

The call for collective defense is primarily motivated by perceived growing threats from China and North Korea. China and Japan are involved in a heated dispute over ownership of several islands in the East China Sea, known as the Senkaku in Japan and Daioyu in China.
But some of the proposed amendments could impact the Middle East, such as provisions allowing the Japanese navy to sweep mines in the Persian Gulf, for example. Japan is entirely dependent on the region for petroleum imports.

On the other hand, the crisis adds to Japan’s current sense of impotence and helplessness to defend its citizens in danger. It is deeply humiliating to Japan’s leaders that they have essentially had to out-source the handling of the hostage crisis to Jordan.
The same sense of impotence was felt in an earlier hostage crisis that took place in Algeria just one month after Abe took office in December, 2012. Militants took over an oil refinery in a remote part of Algeria. Ten Japanese hostages died when the Algerian Army stormed the site.

The Japanese killed in that incident were not adventurers like Yukata, drawn to danger, but ordinary engineers working on an international infrastructure project in a presumably safe country like thousands of other soldiers for Japan Inc.
The incident shattered the illusion that Japan was largely immune to international terrorism from radical Muslims. Having to depend on the special forces of another country was especially galling. There were no Japanese forces trained in these kinds of operations and no legal grounds for Tokyo to use them even if they existed.

Todd Crowell is the author of The Coming War between China and Japan






Monday, January 26, 2015

Poignant Memories

One Monday morning in 1995 Kazumashita Takahashi , an assistant station master on the Chiyodu Subway line in central Tokyo, was on duty when the 8:10 train pulled in. Many of the passengers were civil servants, whose offices were in the nearby Kasumigaseki government district next to the Imperial palace.
Before the doors slammed shut Takahashi noticed some liquid spilled on the train floor. He mopped it up and waved the train on. Shortly after he collapsed on the platform and died. Within minutes commuters were staggering out of the subway exits gasping for breath, coughing, rubbing their eyes and foaming at the mouth.

Urban terrorists had planted sarin nerve gas at five widely scattered locations along three downtown subway lines in what must have surly been the world’s first use of a weapon of mass destruction delivered in a waste basket.
This year Japan will be commemorating and contemplating meanings about several poignant anniversaries. In addition to the 20th anniversary on March 20 for the sarin nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway system, there is the 20th anniversary, just past, on the Kobe earthquake.

Looking further beyond is the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II. Even though the date, August 15, is months away, much speculation is building in Japan as to what the conservative prime minister, Shinzo Abe will say on that occasion.
The earthquake that struck Kobe early on the morning of January 17 was the most severe quake to hit Japan between the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. Some 6,434 people died in the Kobe quake.

The magnitude 7.3 quake shattered the safety myth of urban life in modern-day Japan. The collapse of elevated expressways, which became the iconic symbol of the disaster, and fires that burned down whole neighborhoods underscored the vulnerability of the country to natural disasters.
The more recent March 11, 2011, Great East Japan quake was even bigger and deadlier, but most of the victims drowned to the tsunami that followed the quake, where as most of the victims of the Kobe quake were crushed in collapsing houses and buildings.

Kobe did not regain its pre-quake population until 2004, and today about 44 percent of the population now has no first-hand experience with the event, underscoring the need to keep knowledge and memories of the disaster alive.
It is hard to forget the nerve gas attack in Tokyo, when, 20 year after the event, there are still accountings to be settled. The trial opened January 16 for one of the alleged members of the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult that perpetrated the terror attack.

Katsuya Takahashi, now 56, went on trial for murder and several other crimes relating to the cult’s nefarious activities. A fugitive for 17 years after the attack, Takahashi was finally apprehended in June 2012. His trial is expected to last for four months with a verdict announced in April. He has pleaded not guilty.
If the trial progresses along this timetable, it will seems like the speed of light compared with the trial of the cult’s mysterious leader Shoko Asahara. He was convicted and sentenced to death after a trial that lasted nine years.

Asahara is still alive and awaiting execution, which in Japan, are never announced in advance. He will know he has met his date with the hang man only the morning when it actually happens. During his lengthy trial, Asahara never spoke out or offered any kind of excuse or reason for his cult’s bizarre attacks.
Of course, the most eagerly anticipated anniversary of 2015 will be the 70th year following Japan’s surrender in August, 15, 1945. This would be a pregnant date under any circumstances, but it is all the more interesting in that all will be curious to see how Abe handles the event and what he says in the inevitable anniversary declaration.

Abe is known to question the veracity many of the war crimes that Japan has been accused of fomenting during its invasion of China. Indeed, he has even questioned whether “aggression” is the correct term to describe Japan’s actions.
However, he is also the leader of Japan and responsible for Tokyo’s diplomacy abroad, so he will have to suppress many of these private convictions in order not to stir more trouble with nearby neighbors, China and South Korea. Properly phrased it might even help to alleviate some of these tensions.

Naturally, his government, including Abe himself has been eager to put a positive spin on the event, saying he hoped that any statement would be foreword  looking as well as expressing remorse for Japan’s actions in World War II.
“I would like to write Japan’s remorse on the war, its post-war history as a pacifist nation and how [Japan] will contribute to the Asia Pacific region and the world,” Abe said in his first press conference of the new year. “We hope Japan can match its words with actions, honestly facing up to its history.” countered a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman.

Abe’s statement will be even more closely scrutinized than the one issued by former prime minister Tomiichi Murayama in 1995 to mark the 50th anniversary of the close of the war. The premier admitted in that statement that Japan bore responsibility for wartime atrocities and for it colonization of Korea. It has been viewed ever since as an unambiguous, formal apology.
However many on the far right in Japan believe that Murayama’s statement went too far. That it was issued by the only socialist prime minister Japan has had since the days right after the war, adds to their contempt for the statement and their probably unrealistic hope that Abe might actually retract part of it.

That is certainly not in the cards as coming from a premier who, though personally something of a historical revisionist, is also keen on restoring Japan’s relationships with its near Asian neighbors.




Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Year 2014 in Asia

Who would have believed that a middle-sized national air carrier for a middle-sized Asian country could have been involved in two deadly air crashes under mysterious circumstances that at year’s end still were not fully explained? Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 with 239 people on board disappeared in March on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. No one claimed responsibility for the disappearance, and at year’s end it remained one of the greatest mysteries in aviation history. In July another Malaysian Airlines flight was shot down over Ukraine while flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur with loss of 298 passengers. In this case the cause was fairly certain but not the perpetrator. Suspicion fell heavily on Russian separatists using a sophisticated Russian surface-to-air missile; Moscow blamed the Ukraine. Other notable stories during 2014 include:

The Umbrella Revolt: For 79 days the most serious anti-government protests on Chinese territory since the Tiananmen affair in 1989 paralyzed much of central Hong Kong. The immediate cause of the protest movement, dubbed the Umbrella Revolt by the press, was a decision by the National People’s Congress keep control of nominations for Chief Executive firmly in friendly, pro-Beijing hands. An underlying cause may well have been growing inequality in the territory and frustrations over sometimes boorish behavior of mainland visitors. It was called the “umbrella revolt” as protestors used umbrellas to ward off pepper spray from the police (and also to stay dry.)

South Korean Ferry Sinking:  All of South Korea mourned the sinking of the ferry Sewol on April 16 with the loss of 304 people, most of them secondary school students on an outing. The accident was the cause for much hand-wringing, soul-searching and not a little scape-goating in Korea, especially over the government’s supposed tardy response caused so many deaths. Many heads rolled in the aftermath, including that of the prime minister, the captain and three other officers were convicted of murder and given lengthy prison terms. The line’s owner Yoo Byong-eun was found dead of an apparent suicide. A vice principal at the high school also committed suicide.

Thai Premier Ousted in Coup: The Thai army seized power in Bangkok on May 22 for the umpteenth time, ending a six-month political crisis and mounting pressure for Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to resign and replace Thailand’s elected parliament with an unelected council.  Yingluck is the sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, who himself was ousted in a coup in 2006 and has lived in exile ever sense. She was appointed premier after her Pheu Thai Party won a majority in 201l. She attempted to fend off critics with a general election in February, but it was declared void by the constitutional court. The coup leader, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, was later appointed prime minister. He shows no sign of wanting to restore democracy, which always seems to return the Shinawatras and their allies to power.

Jokowi Elected Indonesian President: Indonesia held its third democratic presidential election in July elevating Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo, commonly known as Jokowi,  to the presidency. It was also the first peaceful transfer of power in Indonesia’s young democratic era. Widodo ran on a populist platform and was opposed by former army general Prabowo Subianto who called for stability. Despite Widodo’s clear majority (53 per sent versus 47 per cent), Prabowo appeared intent on challenging the results as fraudulent, but he withdrew his complaint shortly after the constitutional court upheld the election results allowing Widodo to take office in August.

Taipei Turns Back on China: Taiwan’s ruling Kuomintang Party suffered an historic defeat in local election held in November. Where it had previously held 14 of 22 municipalities, it ended the election with only 6. In all, the opposition, led by the Progressive Democratic Party won nearly a million votes more than the KMT. Significantly, an independent, Ko Wen-je was elected mayor of Taipei, which is often a stepping stone to the presidency and was held by a KMT for the past 16 years. The vote reflected an on-going tension in Taiwan between those seeking greater economic integration with the huge China market next door and those fearing it might lead to a loss of autonomy.

Oil Rig Showdown off Vietnam: Beijing’s decision in May to move a large oil drilling rig into waters off the coast of Vietnam led to a two-month confrontation on the sea and serious anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam before the rig was moved to another less sensitive location two months later. The oil rig Haiyang Shiyou 981was located outside Vietnamese territorial waters but inside its 200 nautical mile Economic Exclusion Zone. It led to daily sea clashes between Vietnamese fishing boats and Chinese and Vietnamese Coast Guard vessels. It also led to three days of riots in Vietnam and several Chinese (or at least foreign owned – the rioters were not too discriminate) factories were burned to the ground.

China’s Anti-Corruption Drive: Every year it seems some very senior Chinese official succumbs to China’s latest anti-corruption drive. This year’s big fish, Zhou Yongkang, was head of the police and a former member of the politburo standing committee of the communist party. This year’s anti-corruption drive, launched by President Xi Jinping, is said to be unprecedented in targeting errant party, military officials and heads of state-owned enterprises. The net is wide spread even capturing a deputy chief of the Beijing zoo accused of earning millions of yuan through “part-time work” like driving a taxi.

Japanese Win Nobel Prize: Three Japanese-born scientists won the Nobel Prize for physics for their work in helping to develop energy efficient white LEDs, which are replacing incandescent bulbs in lamps around the world. It was a source of encouragement in Japan, where the news had focused on a scandal concerning stem-cell research after the prestigious international science journal Nature retracted two research papers prepared by the Riken Institute in Kobe about a purportedly new and simple way to generate stem cells. Efforts to replicate the research failed, and the young female lead author, Haruko Obokata, resigned from the institute, amidst some grumbling that she was singled out because she was a young, attractive woman.

Hacking Attack on Sony: Although more of a Hollywood story, the hacking of the Sony Pictures and Entertainment’s computers had Asian reverberations. This villain in this story was North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un, who took umbrage at his portrayal in Sony Pictures’ comedy of a CIA assassination plot against him and took out his revenge on Sony in a particularly effective way.  Sony executives in Tokyo had tried to tone down the gruesome climax. For a while, Sony Pictures withdrew the movie, but later relented and allowed its showing in theaters across the U.S., but not in Asia.

Non-Story of the Year: probably the biggest ho-hum story of 2014 was Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s curious decision to call for a general election in mid-December two years before he had to. The results could be summed up in one headline – Abe Wins Big. Nothing Changes. The voter turnout for this non-issue election, at roughly 52 percent, was the lowest since the end of the war.

Monday, December 22, 2014

A Clash of Values

From the point of view of Asia, the Sony affair can easily be read as a clash of values, an inherent Asian respect for leaders against the Western value of unrestrained artistic license.

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un and his regime are widely and thoroughly reviled throughout Asia as in the rest of the world, yet there is also a widespread sense of unease about depicting a named living figure by name in such a gruesome way.
Sony’s chief executive Kazuo Hirai’s head metaphorically exploded when he learned about such scenes in the Sony produced movie, The Interview, about the assassination of Kim Jong-un, showing Kim’s hair on fire and chucks of his skull flying in all directions.

He intervened unsuccessfully to have the scene toned down, and also pulled the movie from Asian distribution, save for those bastions of Western values, Australia and New Zealand, well before the film was withdrawn globally following threats of violence at theaters where The Interview would be shown.
“A film depicting the killing of a living leader for the shock value of it is simply too rude and crude for Japan,” wrote Philip Cunningham, a writer and film critic. “Despite the predictable petulant cries of ‘caving in’, Sony Japan finally found the gumption to say no to its decadent and derelict Hollywood division.”

Very likely Hirai came under considerable behind the scenes pressure from the Japanese government, worried that the movie’s depiction of Kim might endanger some of its initiatives with the North, such as returning some of its citizens kidnapped in the 1970s and 80s.
North Korea might as well be on the planet Zog for all Hollywood moguls know or care, a strange place with a strange leader good for a few chuckles. But for Japan it is a close and dangerous neighbor.

The Interview was produced by Sony Pictures and Entertainment, which is technically a subdivision of Sony but historically has acted as virtually an independent player. Hirai’s attempted intervention was said to be almost unprecedented, and no doubt reflected growing worry in the Tokyo head office.
The movie division may well be practically independent, but it still has the name Sony in its title. Sony, one of the most widely recognized brands, is a word that is virtually synonymous with Japan.

“It was a stupid idea to have the movie made in the first place,” says Andrei Lankov, a Russian-born expert on North Korea based at Kookmin University in Seoul. “I don’t think they would have made about the assassination of the Chinese president or Iranian Ayatollah, especially using their real names”
A Confucian respect for the dignity of leaders, is engrained in the Asian character, regardless of whether they publically espouse fealty to “Asian Values” or not.

Draw a moustache on a poster showing the face of the King of Thailand can get you a fifteen-year prison term in Thailand. A British writer spent a couple weeks in jail after publishing a book that was deemed to injure the “dignity and integrity” of the judiciary.
Japan has a generally freewheeling press, but much of that freewheeling stops short of delving too deeply into the subject of the Japanese Imperial Family, who are never subjected to the indignities that the British royal family has often had to endure from the tabloid press.

This is not to say that Asians are always right. The draconian lese majeste laws in Thailand have been roundly and deservedly criticized by both outsiders and many Thais themselves. Foreign journalists have long had to chafe against strict rules of Singaporean authorities eager to preserve their leader’s dignity.

Nothing about this excuses the apparent retaliation by the North Koreans by hacking and exposing in a kind of Wikileaks fashion Sony Picture’s dirty laundry in public, although it is worth pausing to consider the implications of this unprecedented cyber attack.
It is not so much the technical aspects of the attack; the Northerners have previously attacked cyber targets in South Korea and possibly elsewhere. It may also have gotten help and technical advice from China’s extensive cyber warfare units. It has shown that Pyongyang can fight back effectively.

No, the most interesting aspect is cultural. Somehow the North Koreans knew exactly what to target to cause Sony Pictures the most grief and expense. Certainly, Pyongyang had a better sense of Hollywood culture than Hollywood has of theirs. Is there a Hollywood agent who has gone missing?
Pyongyang has a history of kidnaping people, especially Japanese, to teach their secret agents not just the language but important aspects of foreign cultures. For that matter, in 1978 South Korean film director Shin Song-ok was kidnapped from Hong Kong on orders from Kim Jong-il to help make movies.

He made several movies for Kim Jong-il before he escaped at a film festival in Austria. If nothing else, the Sony affair shows how much that the North Koreans understood and respected the power of cinema long before they understood the power of the internet.


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.