Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Year 2008 in Asia

The biggest story in Asia in 2008 was the biggest story in the world, namely the global economic collapse. The accumulating evidence was too voluminous to summarize in a paragraph. One snap shot of an economy in distress: Toyota announced its first operating loss in 70 years, showing that the crisis in the world automotive industry was not confined to America’s Big Three. Declining sales at home and abroad (overall Japanese exports were down 27 per cent in November over the previous year) and a surging yen contributed to the red ink. Both Japan and China announced major economic stimulus packages to try to revive the economy in the coming year. Other note worthy events in Asia in 2008 included:

2. Disasters in China and Myanmar

3 The war on Mumbai

4. Political upheaval in Thailand

5. Tibet, torches and the Olympics

6. Opposition’s big gain in Malaysia

7. China and Taiwan cozy up

8. South Korea’s big beef over US beef.

9. Communists take power in Nepal

10. Slasher attacks in Japan

May was the cruelest month. On May 2, Cyclone Nargis hit the populous Irrawaddy Delta in the worst natural disaster in Myanmar’s recorded history. The cyclone and flooding killed approximately 77,000 and left 56,000 missing. Ten days later on May 12 a 7.9-scale earthquake hit central Sichuan province in China, killing an estimated 69,000 people, making it the 19th deadliest quake in recorded history. The Chinese central government drew plaudits initially for its rapid response (in contrast to the military junta’s dithering in Myanmar), and later earmarked some $150 billion in reconstruction aid. Some of the bloom went off as some 7,000 inadequately constructed schools collapsed during the tremors, killing untold students.

India has had deadlier terror attacks, but the random brutality of the assault on Mumbai, India’s financial center and largest city, seemed to take things to a horrifying new level. The assault lasted four days from Nov. 26 - 29 when the last members of the assault team was killed or captured at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, the premier establishment in Mumbai. The assailants, armed with automatic rifles and grenades, attacked ten locations, including a popular restaurant and the Narimen House, a Jewish outreach center. Final casualties totaled 173 killed and 308 wounded. The one terrorist who was captured said his comrads were linked to the Lashka-e-Toiba group in Pakistan a well-known terrorist organization focused primarily on Kashmir.

Thailand’s body politic was practically cut to pieces by a near-death struggle between factions loyal to ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the anti-Thaksin forces led by the vastly misnamed People’s Alliance for Democracy. In August the PAD occupied government house forcing the prime minister to work out of the VIP lounge at the old Don Muang Airport. Then the demonstrators stunned the world by occupying and closing down Bangkok’s main airport, stranding 350,000 tourists and businessmen. The Constitutional Court finally outlawed the governing party and stripped enough of its MPs of civil rights to allow the opposition to form a shaky government. At year’s end it was pondering how to repair an economy badly damaged by wounds inflicted and self-inflicted.

Protests in Tibet broke out on March 10 on the anniversary of the failed 1959 uprising, and within a few days it turned into a spasm of rioting and looting. The unrest coincided with the lighting of the Olympic torch on March 24 in Greece. Many people took out their anger over Tibet on the torch bearers as they made their way through Europe with a particular ugly incident in Paris. World leaders threatened to boycott the opening ceremonies In turn these events spawned a patriotic backlash by Chinese people on the Internet and at later torch relays. Eventually, the protests petered out, as attention turned to the Sichuan quake, boycotts failed to materialize and Beijing went on to host a spectacular opening ceremony and two weeks of games held in some of the Chinese capital’s landmark new sports facilities.

The Barisan Nasional coalition that governs Malaysia had not lost an election since independence in 1957. In the 2008 general election, it held on to a majority, but voters severely punished the government by giving the combined opposition parties 82 seats in the 222-seat lower house.. The opposition also captured power in five states that held concurrent elections. The Justice Party of former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim went from holding 1 to 31 seats. In April Anwar reclaimed his civil rights and later entered parliament in a by-election. He immediately assaulted the government headed by Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, claiming that enough government MPs were ready to join him in toppling the government. Abdullah, however, managed to stave off a no confidence vote.

On December 15, a jetliner took off from Shanghai with 150 passengers and flew directly to Taipei, ending a ban on direct traffic that dated back to the Kuomintang defeat in 1949. the softening relations between Taiwan and the mainland that were a direct result of the March presidential election, when the voters of Taiwan turned against the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, which had governed Taiwan for eight years, and returned the Kuomintang under new president Ma Ying-jeou. It was the second peaceful transfer or power in Taiwan’s history. But that was not the end of the story when in December the out-going president Chen Shui-bian was indicted on corruption charges, making him the first former president to face criminal prosecution.

Seoul was convulsed in April by enormous anti-U.S. beef demonstrations and riots that paralyzed the South Korean capital for days. The troubles began after President Lee Myung-bak, during his first visit to the U.S., agreed to lift the ban on imported beef that was imposed in 2003 after a case of mad cow disease was confirmed. The decision exploded into a formidable grassroots movement, led by middle-class Koreans and left-wingers eager to embarrass the conservative who had won last December’s presidential election. Lee had to beg forgiveness. By year’s end, however, inexpensive U.S. beef was appearing in the supermarkets, snapped up by consumers who must have wondered what all the fuss was about.

While the world’s attention was turned to the Olympic Games in Beijing, Nepal went communist. There was nothing stealthy about it. After a twelve-year insurgency that killed an estimated 13,000, the Maoists turned to the voting booth and used it to help boost Prachanda (the “Fierce One”), head of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), to become prime minister on August 15. He becomes the first premier of what is now officially the Federal People’s Republic of Nepal (the monarchy having been abolished). Prachanda pledged to respect multi-party democracy, but said that his government’s goal remains bringing socialism and communism to Nepal.

Japan is not usually considered a violent country, but the Japanese public was treated to a number of bizarre, meaningless but brutal random murders during the year. In June a deranged young man pulled a knife and started stabbing people at a busy downtown intersection in Tokyo, killing seven. Later in the year came the puzzling knife murder of a former senior health ministry civil servant and his wife as they answered the door at their home in the Tokyo suburbs. The murder was initially thought to be politically motivated terrorism, as lost pensions records has been a major issue. But the man who turned himself in and claimed to be the assailant said he killed in some kind of revenge for death of a pet dog 35 years previously.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Importance of Tazawa

Right-handed pitcher Junichi Tazawa last week signed a $3 million deal to join the Red Sox baseball team. Nothing particularly remarkable about that. The Boston team already boasts two Japanese superstars on its pitching staff, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima.

The difference is that the two Japanese pitchers moved to the United States after playing for many years in the Japanese professional leagues. Tazawa, 22, is the first important Japanese player to jump directly to the Major Leagues without even getting a draft notice from a Japanese team.

“It means that the gap between Japan and America [in baseball] just got narrower,” said Robert Whiting, a longtime observer of Japanese baseball and author of You Gotta Have Wa and The Meaning of Ichiro. “As another barrier falls, the number of new players from Japan to the U.S. will increase,” he said.

The Japanese baseball authorities were both embarrassed and sorely angered by Tazawa’s move. They were embarrassed because nobody in Japan had sensed Tazawa’s talent or tried to draft him on their teams. It was left to foreigners to recognize his abilities.

They were angered because they felt that they had a “gentleman’s agreement” with the Major Leagues for them not to poach amateur baseball talent. In retaliation, the Nippon Professional Baseball Association adopted a new rule that states that any player who passes up the Japanese draft and goes on to play in the U.S, will not be allowed to play for three years when he returns to Japan.

Tazawa better not get homesick.

In response, Red Sox manager Theo Epstein said he could produce a list of 50 Japanese amateur baseball players who have been signed by the Major Leagues. “This is far from unprecedented,” Epstein said. That may be true, but most of them had passed under the radar, toiling in obscurity in the minor leagues and, anyway, were not coveted by the Japanese professional leagues.

Tazawa may have followed that lowly path. He was passed over in the annual high school draft. But somehow he matured during his four years playing for Nippon Oil of the Industrial League, He won 13 games with an earned-run average of 0.80 while pitching four shutout games last season. Suddenly, the professional leagues took notice, but by then it was too late.

The Tazawa acquisition has thrown Japanese baseball authorities into a tizzy. Will Major League baseball scouts be descending on Japan, brandishing lucrative contracts and siphoning away all of the best available talent?

All eyes are on Yuki Saito, now playing as an undergraduate at Waseda University and a star in the annual Japanese high school summer baseball tournament. (High school baseball is to Japan what high school football is to Texas, an overriding obsession.) He has two years to graduate. Will he follow the trail blazed by Tazawa?

Although Tazawa is often described as an “amateur”, it might be more accurate to call his team semi-professional. The difference is that Tazawa drew his salary directly from Nippon Oil, Japan’s largest refinery, and not from the team itself, unlike players in the Central and Pacific professional leagues.

Compared with the Major Leagues, Japan has only a rudimentary “farm” system of lower-ranked teams where young talent can be signed and then given some seasoning before being called up to play in the majors. The Industrial League team that Tazawa labored for is not part of the professional circuit.

That means there are comparatively few openings on the professional rosters. The total roster for any professional team in Japan might consist of roughly 70 players. By contract, an American team may sign 150 to 200 players parceling them out among the big league team and five or six farm teams.

Whiting points out that there are roughly 4,000 high schools in Japan. Assuming that each school produces one player with professional potential, that is a pool of 4,000 players for perhaps a dozen slots. “If Japan had a multi-tiered system, they might get a shot. Their only alternative is to play in the industrial league,” he said. Or, move to the U.S.

Hideo Nomo blazed a trail for Japanese players to America in 1995, when he joined the L.A. Dodgers as a pitcher, becoming, among other things the first Japanese to play in the All-Star Game. He has since been followed by a host of Japanese superstars, such as Ichiro with the Seattle Mariners and Hideki Matsui, star slugger for the New York Yankees.

The trend is accelerating as the latest Japanese phenom, Kosuke Fukodome, helped power the Chicago Cubs into contention last season, only to have their pennant dreams crushed with the help of L.A. Dodger pitcher Hiroki Kuroda.

All of these players, however, had already played in Japan’s professional leagues – Matsui for the Yomiuri Giants in Tokyo, Ichiro for the Orix Blue Wave based in Kobe. They came to the U.S. only after playing for nine years for their teams after which they were permitted to become free-agents and negotiate with teams outside Japan.

In comparison to these players who were established stars, Tazawa is something of an unknown quantity. Though he showed promise as an amateur, he has never tested his skills against top flight professionals. Some baseball writers say his fast ball is too slow for big league batters.
They note his relative small stature, being under six feet weighing about 170 pounds

Although he insisted for signing that he be part of the 40-man Red Sox roster, the team plans to send him to one of their AA farm teams for some seasoning. If he shows his stuff next season, he may be called up to fill his spot on the roster. Or, he may toil in obscurity and simply fade out of the game with his slot given to somebody else.

So far, the migration of Japanese baseball stars to the U.S. has raised Japanese interest in the sport at a time when other imported games, such as soccer, were competing for attention. The popularity of American baseball, beamed into Japan by satellite, has exploded.

Meanwhile, the Japanese have discovered lucrative new sponsorship possibilities. The Yomiuri Group pays a million dollars for the billboard is has erected in left field, just behind Matsui, so that it is visible when the cameras are on the player – which is often. They are even “virtual” bill boards that appear magically on the screen behind Ichiro, whenever he comes to bat.

The Tazawa affair is just the latest example of baseball’s exploding international reach. While some Major League managers are reluctant to irritate relations with Japan by poaching their best young talent, there are plenty others, like Theo Epstein, who are eager to snag the next potential Ichiro.

As for the Japanese players, there is now a greater opportunities to play professionally– for a full career if they wish - for big money contracts on biggest baseball stage in the world. Little wonder that Japan’s baseball authorities are sorry they let Tazawa go.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Tamogami speaks

The Asahi Shimbun last week, apparently under the impression that it had uncovered a terrific scoop, reported that the essay contest won by the cashiered former commander of the Japanese air force, Gen. Toshio Tamogami, was fixed.

The newspaper apparently had interviewed a number of judges in the contest sponsored by the APA Group, a construction and real estate firm, of “abnormalities” and complained of undue influence by APA Group chairman Toshio Motoya, well-known in right wing circles.
To this one can only say, I’m, shocked, shocked that gambling is going on!

Of course the contest was fixed. If you were Motoyo, who would you rather see win the prize, some unknown university student or anonymous researcher in modern history, or the heroic ex-general about to become the public face of right-wing nationalism in Japan?

Tamogami continues to speak out at various forums. His address to the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan last week was not only packed with members but drew a huge contingent of Japanese journalists, an indication that he continues to be a newsmaker for his revisionist views on Japan’s participation in world War II.

Tamogami did not say anything really new at the club, and I must say that the questioning from my colleagues from the Western press was pretty flabby. Nobody questioned him about the 94-odd other air force officers who reportedly entered the same contest, presumably with the same general ideas.

As a self-professed student of history, Tamogami might have reflected that cabals of ideologically driven young officers had caused considerable turmoil in Japan in the years immediately leading to the the war, including the bloody, unsuccessful attempted coup d’etat in 1936.

Still it was interesting to see and hear the general in the flesh. He came across as a somewhat stiff but utterly sincere, if possibly a little naïve officer. He opened with a few fairly flat jokes about his appearance then went on to defend his essay and view that Japan was not the aggressor in the war.

One actually has some sympathy with the uniformed officers of the Self Defense Forces and what they sometimes have to put up with. When they go of meetings with counterparts in the Chinese armed forces, they sometimes have to endure harangues over history that unfolded long before they were born.

When Japanese troops are sent abroad, as they have been to Iraq, they endure niggling public debates over whether they can carry a weapon or only a side arm. If, while stationed abroad, they cannot come to the aid of friendly forces because of the constitutional restriction on “collective defense”.

It goes without saying that Tamogami favors revision of Article 9, the war-renouncing clause in Japan’s American-written constitution, in order to make Japan a more “normal” ie war-making nation.

“I came to understand that this situation relates to how we view our history,” the general said. “”When I tried to stress that Japan is a good country, I got fired.” He claimed his views are widely shared among officers. “Superficially, they don’t support me, but actually they do.”

As I said, I think the general is a little naïve in his historical research. He dwelt for a while on his proposition that U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt tricked Japan into attacking Pearl Harbor in order to get in the war, citing several obscure sources.

Perhaps he doesn’t realize that this has been, or used to be closer to the events, a common trope among extreme conservatives and Roosevelt-haters in the U.S.. Under their theory he placed the battleships at Pearl as bait while cunningly making sure that the more valuable aircraft carriers were at sea when the Japanese attacked.

The rest of what he has to say in his articles and speeches is fairly standard right-wing boilerplate. It is the same view of history that is promoted by the war museum attached to the Yasukuni Shrine in downtown Tokyo. But it is dressed up and presented in a new and more sympathetic package.

One of the Italian journalists noted that an Italian general with apparently pronounced fascist views, whose name I couldn’t quite catch, had entered politics by forming his own right-wing party and winning a seat in parliament. Is that on the horizon for Tamogami?

He sidestepped the question, saying that “for the time being” he had no intention of entering politics. In the month since he retired from the air force, he has been too busy juggling speaking engagements and writing requests. “I’ve no time to think about it.” Presumably he’ll find the time in the near future.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Bangkok, 1936

Am I the only one who thinks that Thailand circa 2008 is beginning to look like Spain circa 1936? That was the year that the bloody Spanish Civil War began, which lasted until 1939 and killed hundreds of thousands. Could such a bloody event engulf the Land of Smiles?

There are some eerie parallels. In 1931 the Spaniards adopted a new liberal constitution and enshrined strict separation of the monarchy and government. Similarly, Thailand adopted a liberal constitution in 1997 (since abrogated by the 2006 coup) with numerous checks and balances.

The Spanish crisis was preceded by several elections which, though considered fair, failed to satisfy one side or the other. Thailand has held two recent elections, one in 2006 that was annulled by the courts, and another election last December that was won by the current government party headed by Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat.

In the months leading up to the civil war the conservatives (which in the case of Thailand could mean the Peoples’ Alliance for Democracy or PAD) turned increasingly to vigilantism. So too has the PAD with its to the illegal seizure of the capital’s two main airport..

Thailand is dividing on several lines, between the “yellow shirts” worn by the anti-government protestors, and the “red shirts” worn by the supporters of the present government. There are geographical divisions as well, between the people of the Thai heartland around Bangkok and the south and those living in the north and northeast.

Just as Spain was fractured, and still is to an extent, by distinct regions such as the Basque region and Catalonia, so too Thailand is not the fully united country that many outsider think it is. The northern Kingdom of Lanna, with its capital at Chiang Mai, was not incorporated into the Siamese state until fewer than 100 years ago.

The government has some attributes of the Republican or Loyalist side of the Spanish Civil War. They claim the mantle of legitimacy, endorsed by the most recent election and elections before that. Meanwhile, it is common now, for Westerners anyway, to describe with some justification the PAD protestors as “fascists.”

Yellow shirts and red shirts, fascists and democrats, monarchists and anti-monarchists, class against class – it all seems to retro, like an old movie from the 20th-century. The scourge of the 21st century is supposed to be Islamic anomie, turned to terrorism as demonstrated by the senseless attack on Mumbai, not class warfare.

It strikes me as ominous that the prime minister has moved his government to the northern city of Chiang Mai. Ostensibly, his hand was forced since the PAD protestors closed the capital’s two international airports while he was out of the country attending a summit in Peru.

Chiang Mai provides the government with a pretty secure capital in the heart of its most loyal political base from which to rally support if need be. Keeping the government in Bangkok, where the PAD has occupied Government House since August, was tantamount to having the capital in enemy territory.

The next few days will be critical. Will the fired-up red shirts peacefully accept the verdict of the Constitutional court disbanding the governing party, or will they see it as the action of just one more tool of the Bangkok establishment?

The other major factor will be what King Bhumibol has to say at the end of the week.. Until now the King has said nothing, done nothing that anyone knows about to defuse the crisis as he has intervened in crises past to restore a balance of power and maintain the peace.

The King’s birthday is Friday (Dec. 5), and it is customary for him to address his people on the eve of his birthday. What will he say? Will he say anything? It is feared that the 81 year-old King may be too feeble to intervene once again. The world will find out if his speech is read his son and presumed heir Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn.

One long-time resident of Thailand recently told me “I never thought I’d see the day when the [Royal] Family lost its popularity and prestige, but it is seen as siding with the yellow shirts against the red shirts, who don’t hold up his portrait.”

And it may be that the forces that are tearing the country apart are not any longer amenable to the King personal kind of palliative. Perhaps in the past he gained his reputation for even-handedness by adjudicating disputes only among the Thai elite. This may be one crisis the Thai people have to settle for themselves

One major difference between Thailand 2008 and Spain 1936 is the supreme lack of interest by anyone outside of Thailand. The Spanish Civil War was a landmark event in 20th century history because it became a kind of proxy war between democracy and the rising forces of communism in the Soviet Union and fascism in Germany and Italy.

Nobody outside of Thailand has a dog in this fight. Even has the country unravels, he world’s attention turns overwhelmingly on the terrorist attack in India. Maybe only those of us who have lived or visited there can feel the horror as the events unfold.

Perhaps I am an alarmist. Maybe the two sides will back away from the ultimate clash. It is said that the PAD is losing support because of its recent antics. Maybe the King will, for the last time in his long reign, spread his special balm. Maybe the red shirts will accept the verdict of the courts. But I wouldn’t count on it.