Sunday, November 23, 2008

Guilt beneath the Quilt

Throughout much of the year South Koreans have been entertained by a juicy scandal involving the prominent actress Ok So-ri and her estranged husband, the television personality Park Chul. He accused his wife of having affairs with an Italian chef and with another singer.

Ok admitted to one of the affairs but claimed their ten-year marriage was unhappy and her husband inadequate. In 2005 a former beauty queen and minor celebrity named Kim Ye-boon became an even bigger celebrity when her husband accused her of having an affair. He later withdrew the accusation.

Anywhere else in the world and these accusations would have been simple tabloid fodder, but in South Korea adultery is against the law, and Chul had charged his wife with a crime that, in theory, could have put her behind bars for up to two years.

In this instance Ok appealed to South Korea’s Constitutional Court, asking that it overturn the 55-year-old law. In late October the court, for the fourth time in the past dozen years, ruled that the law should stand. “Society’s legal perception that adultery is damaging to the social order continues to be effective,” the court stated.

The latest celebrity flap put the spotlight on the fact that South Korea is one of the few countries left in non-Muslim Asia, indeed in much of the developed world, that still makes adultery is a crime. Many South Koreans are happy about that and argue that it is a necessary bulwark against a Western culture of sexual permissiveness.

Beneath the veneer of modernity, the country is still strongly influenced by deeply imbedded Confucian precepts on the role of women and concern for maintaining a proper social order. However, these traditional values are coming increasingly into conflict with newer currents of individuality, gender equality and concerns for privacy, even in South Korea.

The irony is that when the law was originally adopted in 1953, it was considered a break with tradition and was opposed by conservatives. After all, it was not so long ago that it was common for wealthy men have concubines and “second” wives. The law initially was originally defended as a means of discouraging polygamy.

(The Japanese had a similar law before World War II, - applicable in Japan’s colonies of Korea and Taiwan, but it was limited to the misdeeds of wives. Women could not sue their husbands for adultery. During the Occupation the Americans sought to make it applicable to both sexes, but Japan decided simply to drop it.)

Until very recently, the anti-adultery law was strongly supported by women groups who believed that the ability to accuse their adulterous husbands of a crime gave them some leverage in divorce suits that might otherwise leave them destitute. In recent years, however, women’s support networks are beginning to question their support.

For one thing, as the celebrity cases mentioned above indicate, more and more men are bringing suits. Some 40 per cent of the charges now are levied against wives. So it is thought that women suffer most from the law, both in court and in the court of public opinion when, as with Ok So-ri, the case breaks into the public

And women in South Koreas as elsewhere in Asia are gradually gaining independence and are less dependent on such coercive laws in divorce suits. Cases continue to be filed - some 1,200 indictments were handed down in 2007 alone, but fewer and fewer are actually going to trial.

It seems only a matter of time before the law is overturned or repealed. It wasn’t until 1989 that the first constitutional challenge was made, some 30-odd years after its passage. But since that time three more challenges have been made. In its 2001 ruling the Constitutional Court suggested that the lawmakers decriminalize adultery.

In the latest ruling the nine-member court split 5-4 in favor of overturning the adultery law, which if it had happened before the U.S. Supreme Court, would have meant the law was deemed unconstitutional. However, in South Korea six judges must concur before a decision on a law’s constitutionality can be affected. So for now at least adultery remains a crime in South Korea.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The New President and Asia

Asia, the world’s most populous and dynamic region, where U.S. President-elect Barack Obama spent part of his youth, did not loom large in the 2008 presidential campaign. With the possible exception of North Korea in the early years of the George W. Bush administration, relations with the major nations of East Asia have proceeded along an established, bipartisan pathway, and that is not likely to change.

Security The new president will face two important security issues soon after taking office. The most immediate, of course, is the deteriorating situation on the Korean Peninsula, where North Korea recently closed its border with South Korea and has told inspectors at the Yongbyon nuclear center that they cannot take samples out of the country.

Obama publicly supported the recent Bush initiative to remove North Korea from the State Department’s list of terrorist states. The quid pro quo, a formal verification agreement, may be signed before Obama takes office in January putting that headache behind him. But in any case he will have to pick up from where the Bush administration left off.

The concern in Seoul is that a President Obama is more likely to accelerate normalization with Pyongyang, in part because he does not have to contend with opposition from the more conservative elements of his party. He may have a two-track program of normalization and disarmament. The Director of American Affairs at the North Korean Foreign Ministry, Li Gun, is in New York and says, “We’re ready to deal”.

One of the intriguing questions is whether Obama will meet with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il. During the long primary and general election campaign Obama promised to meet personally with even leaders of rogue nations without preconditions. South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak has said he would not oppose a Kim-Obama summit meeting.

It is unclear, however, if Kim will be in any position to meet with Obama or anyone else. Much speculation surrounds the state his health and rumors that he has suffered a stroke. That brings the potential for another flash point during an Obama administration: how to deal with a collapsing, post-Kim North Korea.

Sometime during 2009 President Obama may become the first American president to have to deal with a Japanese government headed by a political party other than the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has governed Japan as a consistent partner with the U.S. almost without interruption for more than 60 years. That could have consequences for security relations and Japan’s commitments on the War on Terror.

Prime Minister Taro Aso must call for a general election sometime during 2009, and it is far from certain he can win it, despite the LDP’s current overwhelming majority in parliament. The LDP, stretching Japan’s pacifistic constitution to the limit, has sent air force units to Iraq and a naval oiler to the Indian Ocean (whose mission was extended a year this month) to replenish Coalition warships.

As Obama has said he wants more focus put on Afghanistan, Japan may come under pressure to ante up more support exactly at a time when the government passes into the hands of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which opposes the refueling mission and other military assistance not specifically authorized by the U.N.

On Taiwan Obama has endorsed the most recent sale of armaments to Taiwan. The $6.5 billion package announced in early October includes 30 Apache attack helicopters, 330 advanced patriot missiles and other armaments. A Democratic Party delegation is expected to visit Taipei later this month to attend a “seminar”.

Alliance Maintenance The Japanese worry incessantly that Washington will “tilt” toward China under a Democratic administration. One of the easiest things Obama can do to reassure them of an even-handed policy is to appoint a prominent American as ambassador. Japanese are used to being flattered by the appointment of prominent politicians to Tokyo. In recent years the embassy has been headed by a former vice president, a former speaker of the House of Representatives and two ex-majority leaders from the Senate.

A good move would be to name former Sen. Tom Daschle or New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (assuming the latter doesn’t become Secretary of State) to Tokyo, or, even better if he can be persuaded, former vice president Al Gore. The latter would be hugely welcomed in Tokyo because of his commitment to fighting global warming. Japan takes global warming very seriously and is proud that it hosted the Kyoto protocols.

The U.S. alliance with South Korea has been strained by the fact the two country’s politics are out of sync. During most of the Bush administration Blue House was occupied by left-of-center president, while the U.S. presidency was held by a conservative. Now that the U.S. has elevated a left-of-center president, South Korean has turned conservative with the election last December of Lee.

Nonetheless, there has been progress in enhancing the alliance by removing large American military bases out of heavily populated areas around Seoul. By contrast, efforts to lower the military “foot print” on Okinawa are stalled. The number of American troops stationed in South Korea is now down to 28,500 and may be reduced further under Obama.

Trade Policy All eyes in Asia will be focused on Obama’s emerging trade policy amidst concern over his commitment to free trade and the Democratic Party’s propensity to embrace protectionism. This is standard for any incoming Democratic administration.

A key early indication of the new administration’s trade policy toward Asia will be its position on possibly renegotiating the Free Trade Agreement with South Korea (barring the unlikely event that the agreement is ratified by a lame-duck Congress.) In the campaign Obama criticized past FTA agreements, and may strike a tougher position in future negotiations over environmental, labor, intellectual property concerns and greater access to American products.

Earlier this year Seoul was engulfed with major anti-government demonstrators protesting sections of the agreement opening the South Korean market to American beef. Meanwhile, many in Congress are dissatisfied with provisions for sales of America-made automobiles. These and other trade disputes could sour relations between Seoul and Washington under Obama early on.

During the campaign Obama criticized China for manipulating its currency to encourage exports and for its rising trade imbalance. But these concerns are expected to be vastly overshadowed by the realization that a stable and vital Chinese economy is essential if the world is to pull out of an impending economic recession.

Like others in Asia, Japanese worry about Obama’s trade policy, but the number of actual disputes between the two countries has diminished considerably now that Japan accounts for only about 10 percent of America’s overall trade deficit. Tokyo will resist pressure to lift restrictions on beef imports, especially amidst the steady media drumbeat of food scandals, mostly Chinese-made.

Japan’s automobile industry is wondering what an Obama administration would do to prop up teetering American car makers and how it will impact competition. Toshiba, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and other nuclear equipment suppliers are concerned that the construction of new nuclear plants they are counting on building in the U.S. may languish under Obama.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Tha Tamogami Affair

Japan’s ultra-rightists have a new hero/martyr in Toshio Tamogami, who, until October 31, was chief of staff of the Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF), as the Japanese call their air force. He was abruptly relieved of his position and reduced to Lieutenant General after an essay he wrote defending Japan’s motives and actions in World War II appeared on a public website.

Hauled before a committee of the opposition-controlled House of Councilors, the upper house of Japan’s bicameral parliament, Tuesday Gen. Tamogami remained defiant. “I do not think there was anything wrong with what I wrote.” He went on call for revision of Japan’s pacifistic constitution, and argued that members of the military should be free to express their opinions in public.

His demotion automatically put him below the mandatory retirement age of 60 for air force officers, and Tamogami left the service two days after his sacking. Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada had suggested that he voluntarily forfeit his retirement package worth about 60 million yen ($600,000). In a polite Japanese way, the general said “fact chance”. He also pockets the 3 million yen ($30,000) prize he won from the essay contest.

Tamogami entered and won an essay contest sponsored by the APA Group, a real estate concern. The contestants were to write on the seemingly innocuous topic: The True Outlook for Modern and Contemporary History.” The word “true” is understood to be a code for a revisionist/nationalist interpretation of history.

The general argued in his essay that Japan was never an “aggressor nation” because Japanese troops were stationed in China and Korea in accordance with treaties and agreements. Japanese troops were drawn deeper into China because of terrorist acts and provocations by Nationalist Gen. Chiang Kai-shek.

The Nationalists in China were, in turn manipulated by the Comintern, an international communist organization led by the former Soviet Union. The communists wanted the Chinese and Japanese to fight each other in order to give Mao Zedong control of China, he argued.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was the result of a devious trap laid for them by U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, with a Soviet spy in the Treasury Department working to provoke war with Japan. For good measure he argued that Koreans and Taiwanese were grateful, or should be grateful, for infrastructure that Japan put in place during the colonial occupation.

None of what Tamogami wrote was particularly original – or accurate as plenty of historians and other have stepped forward to testify. It is standard ultra-right wing boilerplate, disseminated by conservative propagandists and even the museum which is attached to the Yasukuni Shrine in downtown Tokyo, which memorializes Japanese killed in foreign wars.

What was surprising was the fact that dozens of other air force officers apparently entered the contest, presumably with similar arguments. A Ministry of Defense investigation revealed that of the 235 essay entries, some 94 were submitted by air force officers, suggesting to some the existence of a radical cabal in the air force.

“The impression conveyed is that these ASDF officers are heirs to the ‘young officers’ of an earlier era who exploited ideas of a ‘Showa Restoration’ in an effort to accelerate Japanese rearmament and expansion in the 1930s,” said Herbert Blix, biographer of the Emperor Hirohito. “The difference is that the uniformed officers of today are supposed to be under civilian control not in spiritual effort against the nation’s peace constitution,” he said.

It was disconcerting to see these essays coming from the air force. During World War II, the most radical elements in the military were in the army. The navy was far more moderate. An independent air force did not exist until the self-defense forces were created after the war. Yet none of the essay contestants was from the army or navy.

Of the uniformed essayists, 63 were said to have been stationed with Tamogami when he commanded the 6th Air Wing at Komatsu air force base in Ishikawa prefecture on the Sea of Japan, suggesting that they fell under Tamogami’s influence. The general has denied he ordered any airman to enter the contest. As none of the uniformed essayists won any subsidiary prize and was not published, there appears no further punishment for the airmen.

The president of the APA Group, Toshio Motoya, is a well-connected, successful construction and real estate mogul with pronounced right-wing views and undoubtedly a part of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s construction company support nexus. He has written several nationalist tracts under the pen name of Seiji Fuji, which he promotes on his company newsletter and website.

Last April he held a launch party for his latest tract: “Modern History the Media Doesn’t Report On”, where Gen. Tamogami appeared in uniform as a guest speaker. Also attending were two former LDP prime ministers, Shinzo Abe and Yoshi Mori plus some major Taiwan independence advocates such as former diplomat Koh Se-kai and, curiously enough, the speaker of the Philippine House of Representatives Jose de Venecia.

The APA Group has many projects in the prefectures near the Komatsu base, and Motoya seems to have taken Tamogami under his wing, sensing that he was willing to speak out on controversial matters. Earlier this year the general denounced a decision by the Nagoya High Court that concluded that the air force mission in Kuwait was unconstitutional. The government chose to overlook this statement.

Prime Minister Taro Aso won plaudits by its quick action in dismissing Tamogami. The action was especially welcomed by China and South Korea, which have looked on Aso with considerable suspicion, suspecting that he probably shares some of these right-wing views.

Indeed, many senior LDP leaders privately, and not so privately, agree with much of what Tamogami says. Former premier Shinzo Abe made no secret that he considered the Tokyo War Tribunal a sham and as premier he advocated revision of Article 9, the war-renouncing provision of Japan’s American-written constitution.

Whatever, his personal views, however, Aso seems to have learned from the pasting that the LDP got in the upper house election in 2007 (and may soon get in any general election) that the Japanese public is not so committed to constitutional revision and other conservative obsessions. In his short tenure he had done nothing advance any of these causes.

The issue would seem tailor-made for the opposition, except that they are compromised by association with the APA Group. A photo taken at one of Motoya’s launch parties shows the smiling face of Yukio Hatoyama, the third-ranking member of the DJP. Keiichiro Asao, a DJP member of the upper house and a shadow defense minister (!) has also attended one of Motoya’s functions.

Both parties were conscious that the Diet hearing would provide a platform for the general and his views. They agreed to ask NHK not to broadcast the hearing. It was covered only by the print media. Tamogomi has the potential to become Japan’s version of Oliver North, a highly decorated, straight-talking and patriotic air force officer victimized by politicians.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Aso Postpones the Inevitable

Well, would you call for a general election in the middle of a “once-in-a-century credit tsunami”, to quote former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, if you had a choice? Wouldn’t you want to postpone the punishment if your internal polling showed you teetering on the brink of an historic defeat?

Unlike the hapless John McCain in the U.S. this week, Japan’s Prime Minister Taro Aso does have some flexibility in setting an election date. And so it was hardly surprising when last week he quashed speculation that he would call for an election late this month.

His decision came only days after the Tokyo Stock Exchange opened with the lowest index level since before the collapse of the 1980s Bubble Economy, or when the yen reached a 15-year high of 93 to the dollar. Both have moderated somewhat, but the economic outlook remains dire.

That seems to have put paid to the once-bruited scenario whereby the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) brings in a new leader, uses the resulting “bounce” in party popularity to call a snap general election, limiting inevitable losses and returning to power with at least a governing majority.

Aso himself had encouraged this speculation soon after he succeeded former prime minister Yasuo Fukuda last September in comments and in writings for a political journal. “I think my first mission is to seek he people’s verdict as a springboard to rebuild strong politics,” he said.

He struck a fighting pose at the beginning of the current special session of the Diet (parliament) by peppering his rival Ichiro Ozawa, leader of the Democratic Party of Japan (DJP), with policy questions. But the plan quickly faded when it became apparent that Aso’s selection was not providing the bounce the leadership had anticipated. He came into office with one of the lowest initial approval ratings of any freshman premier.

So his new mantra is “policies come before politics.” No election will be called this year. Aso might even string things out until next autumn, when he must call an election because the terms of the Diet members come to an end. He is banking on the economic climate may be more favorable to the incumbent party next year.

The main medicine that he hopes to alleviate a sickening economy is a second stimulus package. The first one was aimed at alleviating the impact of surging crude oil prices, a surge that has receded only to be replaced by the world side credit crisis. A second and much larger package is on the table, which would, among other things had out $600 cash rebates to every Japanese household.

But by delaying the vote, Aso puts himself in the same position as his predecessor, trying to govern Japan with a Diet divided between the government and the opposition. Whether he navigates these obstacles and waters any better than Fukuda managed to do remains to be seen.

When a general election, the holy grail for the opposition DJP, seemed imminent, the opposition party was inclined to be more cooperative. The two sides had even had worked out a deal for a quick reauthorization of the anti-terrorism law that permits Japanese naval vessels to resupply coalition war ships in the Indian Ocean.

Now consideration of the reauthorization bill has been delayed and has become wrapped up with a new scandal involving the chief of the Japanese air force, Gen. Toshio Tamogami, who was dismissed after he won an essay contest where he defended Japanese aggression in World War II. The opposition may haul him before the upper house for questioning.

But the opposition must walk a fine line over the stimulus package, since outright opposition to a measure deeded necessary to prevent Japan from falling into a deeper recession would obviously be unpopular. But it has made clear it has its own ideas on how the final legislation will be shaped.

Asked what the LDP would consider a “victory” when the general election is finally held, LDP Secretary General Hiroyuki Hosoda told foreign journalists that his goal is holding losses to roughly 60 seats. That would leave the LDP with a bare majority of four or five seats in the 480-seat House of Representatives.

(Currently, the LDP-Komeito coalition holds about 70 percent of the lower house seats – 304 for the LDP; 31 for Komeito; with 113 for the DJP and 31 for minor parties and independents.)
An internal poll by the LDP that was leaked to the Nikkei Shimbun newspaper suggested the LDP was headed for a real bloodbath, with the LDP-Komeito bloc losing as many as 130 seats if an election were held now. That would hand an absolute majority to the opposition for the first time in history.

Wild electoral swings like this were virtually unheard of in Japan’s politics. Such a defeat would be akin to the British Conservative Party’s debacle in 1997, except that the British public is used to changes in government between parties. For Japanese electing the DJP would be a leap in the dark.

It used to be that Japanese voters “punished” the LDP in elections with minuscule losses of ten or a dozen seats. Occasionally, the LDP strength even fell below a majority requiring it to find a coalition partner. But aside from a few months in the early 1990s, the LDP has never been out of power.

But Japanese politics are becoming much more volatile, a reflection of electoral reforms of the early 1990s and declining of party identification and loyalty especially among urban voters. In 2005 former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi called a snap election and led his party to a gain of more than 80 seats.

Two years later, the opposition party returned the favor picking up dozens of seats to gain effective control over the House of Councilors, the upper house of Japan’s bicameral parliament. With the prospect of defeat staring them in the face, little wonder that the LDP leadership wants to put off the inevitable as long as possible.