Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Testing the Waters

The increasingly dangerous situation in the South China Sea has become even riskier as the United States considers the possibility of initiating systematic naval and air patrols, possibly including Japanese warships and aircraft.

The recent week-long voyage of the USS Fort Worth through the region of the South China Sea known as the Spratlys can be seen as literally testing the waters. The provocative voyage comes at a time when the security architecture of East Asia is changing almost by the day.
Even while the Fort Worth was at sea, the Japanese cabinet sent two bills to the parliament that will considerably loosen the constitutional restraints on the use of Japan’s armed forces, allowing for closer cooperation with allies and close associates.

The proposed new laws, which seem certain to pass given Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s commanding majority in both houses of parliament, put into effect the cabinet’s decision last year to “re-interpret” the country’s pacifistic constitution to allow for collective self-defense.
At the same time, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (navy) has conducted joint exercises with the Philippine Navy, and Manila announced that the US Navy would have access to eight bases in the Philippines, including a new one on Palawan that is close to the Spratlys.

Washington has been increasingly concerned about how to respond do Beijing’s frantic efforts to turn tiny atolls and reefs and other land features that barely stick up above the water at low tide into artificial islands through land reclamation.
The reclamation work that is taking place on half a dozen reefs in the Spratlys is essentially turning some of them into potential mini-aircraft carriers with runways long enough at 3,000 meters to handle high performance jet aircraft.

Japan might be obliged to send its own patrols in the South Seas. Earlier this year Vice Admiral Robert Thomas, Commander of the US Seventh Fleet, proposed such joint patrols. Tokyo demurred but the new laws would make such missions possible as they remove geographical constraints on Japanese military operations.
The USS Forth Worth is a Littoral Combat Ship specifically designed to operate close to shore and in shallow waters, such as those around the disputed Spratlys. It is permanently based in Singapore, which will ultimately be home to four such ships. They are a key element in President Barack Obama’s “Pivot” to Asia.

Beijing is well aware of these ships and their mission. It anticipated the Fort Worth’s patrol and clearly didn’t like it. A Chinese navy frigate shadowed the American warship throughout its cruise through the Spratly islands, and the American ship “encountered multiple [Chinese] navy vessels” during its patrol, according to the official Navy website.
China’s foreign ministry has already voiced “serious concern” over the cruise. “Freedom of navigation does not mean that the military or aircraft of a foreign country can willfully enter the territorial waters or the air space of another country,” said a foreign ministry spokesman about the cruise,

Freedom of navigation through the South China Sea is the overriding concern of both the US and Japan. The latter obtains 80 percent of its vital petroleum supplies from the Middle East in tankers that pass through the South Sea waters.
Neither country takes a stand on who owns what in that ocean. The various atolls and reefs are claimed in whole or part by at least six countries: China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Adding to the uncertainty is the so called “Nine-Dash Line” on official Chinese maps that make it appear that China is claiming some 90 percent of the entire South China Sea its own sovereign territory. Beijing has never clarified exactly what that map really means.
The Pentagon is undoubtedly carefully analyzing the results of the Fort Worth’s cruise and pondering the next step. One option, of course, would be to continue with the solitary patrols, avoiding close contact with any of the disputed islands, but Washington could take things to a higher level.

One option would be to send a warship into the twelve-mile territorial zone of one or more of the Chinese claimed reefs. Washington does not recognize the legitimacy of the territorial zones in the Spratlys because, under international law, an artificial island cannot be considered sovereign territory.

The US Navy routinely makes “Freedom of Navigation Operations” around the world to assert freedom of navigation against countries that it believes are not following international maritime law. An example is the Gulf of Sidra in the Mediterranean Sea, which Libya at one time claimed as sovereign territory.
Judging by the reaction of Beijing, any violation of the territorial waters it claims in the South China Sea would almost certainly provoke a response.

One option considered likely by many observers, would be for Beijing to declare an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the Spratlys. Such zones require that aircraft flying through the zone file a flight plan with China. It could enforce the ADIZ with fighters based on one of the new air strips that China is building on some of the reefs and atolls.
Beijing surprised the world in November, 2013, when it announced a new ADIZ over much of the East China Sea, including the disputed Senkaku/Daioyu islands. But it did not extend along the entire Chinese coast line. Beijing left open the possibilities of announcing more ADIZs.

Countries with ADIZs usually extend them along their entire coastline. The fact that Beijing has made no new announcements in the past year and a half strongly suggests that they are not really there for defense purposes. Rather they are counters in the on-going geopolitical contest over who owns the seas.
If Beijing were to declare and ADIZ in the deep South China Sea, hundreds of miles  from any mainland based  aircraft, suggests that they see this move as a means of annexing a chunk of the South China Sea without really annexing it.

Todd Crowell is the author of the Coming War between China and Japan published as an Amazon Single.







Monday, May 04, 2015

Wear and Tear

Fans of the Texas Ranger were downcast after learning that their ace Japanese pitcher, Yu Darvish, will remain on the disabled list and not play a game during the entire 2015 season because an elbow injury required surgery.
As baseball writers on both sides of the Pacific were struggling to absorb this unpleasant development, they suddenly realized that their hero’s trials were not an isolated incident.

Of the seven Japanese pitchers now playing in the Major Leagues, four will have had elbow surgery known as “Tommy John”. Two others, Yankee star Masahiro Tanaka and Koji Uehara of the Boston Red Sox have not had the surgery yet but have been troubled by painful elbows.

Tommy John is a surgical procedure in which another part of the body is grafted onto the elbow to replace the damaged ligament. It usually takes about a year to fully recover, which is why Darvish is out of play this. Most return to the same level of play.
Tanaka, the Yankee’s prized acquisition, missed half of his rookie season due to a torn ligament which as yet does not require surgery. Tanaka has made a good come back this year so far striking out eight batters over seven innings against Tampa Bay.

Another sad story is Daisuke Matsuzaka, known as “Dice-K” who played for six seasons with the Boston Red Sox but had Tommy John surgery in his fifth year. Last year he was sent to the minors, playing half a season for the Columbus Clippers, a Cleveland Indian farm team. He returned to Japan this year and plays for the Softbank Hawks of the Japanese pro league.
The growing concern over elbow injuries to pitcher is not limited to the Japanese players. For many years the Major League averaged about a dozen or more Tommy John surgeries a year, but they spiked to 36 in 2013, sparking concerns about a Tommy John “epidemic”.

These players represent tremendous investments for their home teams. The Texas Ranger shelled out about $100 million for Darvish, half of it as a posting fee to compensate the Nippon Ham Fighters for the loss of his services, the other half for Darvish himself.
Much debate in sports writer circles concerns the causes for this “epidemic” especially among the Japanese players. Many point to the wear and tear the pitchers received very young while playing in high school at a young age.

High school baseball is to Japan what high school football is to Texas, an obsession. For two weeks in the spring and later in the summer, Japanese turn their attention away from professional baseball, and a lot of other things, to watch the high school championships.
4,000 schools are winnowed down to 49 that face each other in Koshien Statium, the grand cathedral of Japanese baseball located near Osaka and normally the home field for the pro team Hanshin Tigers. The final games are televised nationally, and draw some 800,000 fans to the various venues, a kind of attention that surpasses anything the pros do.

Several big time players, such as Darvish, made their name in the Koshien. Players pinch some of the holy dirt of the infield to keep as a lifetime memento.
Marathon pitching performances are common at the high school level in Japan. Dice-K as a high school player threw 250 pitches over 17 innings in 1988 right on the heels of 148 pitches the previous days as an 18-year old pitching for his high school, Tanaka pitched in 180 innings, considerably more than the average 18-year-old in the average pitcher on American college teams of in the minor leagues.

The newest phenom, Tomohiro Anruku, threw 772 pitches in the final playoffs of the 2014 Koshien season. He is also capable of throwing 90 mph-plus fastballs even though he is only 16.
“Pitching limits should be introduced as soon as possible” says Masuni Kuwata a former star pitcher for the Yomiuri Giants. However, the whole idea of pitching limits at the high school or even the professional level remains controversial.

American managers tend to pull their starting pitchers when they get near the 100-pitch mark, even if pitching well. But it is not a requirement. It is a requirement in the World Baseball Classic, although that may come more from managers not wanting over stress valuable players in what many still consider a side show than any concern over injuries.
Japanese high school baseball training sessions are notoriously harsh, a harshness which often extend well into the professional leagues. Many coaches of the high school teams believe the pitch count issue is a myth and that with proper throwing technique pitchers can avoid elbow injuries.

Add to that the pervading feeling that for the young samurais punishing pitch counts, not to mention extreme training exercises, build character. Also few of the high school players will go on to lengthy careers in the major leagues, so coaches are not too concerned with the long-term impact of so many pitches.
The Japanese profession leagues have had some success in keeping elbow injuries down by maintaining a six-man pitching rotation, instead of five that is more common in American teams. The extra day of rest between pitching assignments apparently helps considerably.

American managers however, have resisted going to the six man rotation, because the addition of even one more pitcher to their 25-man teams can mess up the roster. Japanese managers can bring in auxiliary pitchers that are not on the roster, strictly speaking.
Editor's note: Despite a good start for the Yankees, Tanaka was back on the disabled list with a sore shoulder.





'History is Harsh'

(Abe did , in fact get his invitation to address Congress)

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe capped an eight-day state visit to the United States in late April with an historic speech to a joint session of Congress.
It was historic in that the prime minister was the first Japanese to speak to the combined houses of the US Congress – standing in the very spot where President Franklin Roosevelt stood and asked Congress to declare war on Japan in 1941.

Ostensibly aimed at an American audience, his words were watched closely and parsed tightly in Japan and the rest of Asia.
“History is harsh,” Abe said in probably the most memorable phrase in the speech. “What is done cannot be undone. I offer eternal condolences to the souls of all American people that were lost during World War II.”

Much of the region was eager to learn what the prime minister had to say on the touchy topic of Japan’s role in that war, as Abe is known to hold revisionist views on the war.
This was underscored by his high profile visit in late 2013 to the Yasukuni Shrine, where the souls of Japanese leaders convicted of waging aggressive war are enshrined. He has refrained from repeating the visit, although several cabinet members did only days before the trip.

Abe’s speech seemed to be carefully calibrated for his American audience, who are not overly demanding of apologies in the same way that China and South Korea are. One such was the “comfort woman” issue of forced prostitution.

The issue drew a couple hundred Korean-American protestors outside of the capital but no untoward outbursts in the chamber, where Abe received several standing ovations. He acknowledged only that war is hard on women.
He moved quickly to other themes of more direct bearing on the current US-Japan relationship. He urged the Congress to give its support to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade zone of 12 Asia-Pacific nation.

It was a timely subject considering that the Congress is currently debating giving President Barack Obama “fast-track” authority to complete the negotiations and then forward it to Congress which can either approve or defeat the deal in a vote without amendments.

Abe noted that how as a young member of parliament, he was a staunch defender of agricultural protection. Now he says that Japanese farmers, now averaging 66 in age, must learn to adapt to the new times.

He flattered the American lawmakers by noting how many former Congressional heavyweights, such as former Speaker Tom Foley and Vice President Walter Mondale, had served as US ambassadors to Japan (Ambassador Caroline Kennedy is not a former member, but nevertheless is a political celebrity).

He welcomed the new mutual defense guidelines that were finalized and announced during his trip. Carefully synchronized with new laws governing the self-defense forces that will be submitted to Japan’s parliament this month, they turn a quasi-alliance into a real one.

“The time has come for the US-Japan alliance to face-up to and jointly tackle those [security] challenges that are new,” the prime minister said.

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.