Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Jump Start

The new Japanese government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is less than two months old, but it has already spawned two new buzzwords: “Abenomics” for his new economic policy, and the “Abe Doctrine” for his foreign policy approach to Asia.
Of the two, “Abenomics” is, for now, much more popular. It is seen everywhere on television broadcasts, and on the front pages of Japanese-language newspapers. It is shorthand for two main initiatives that the new government immediately undertook to jump start the languishing economy.

They encompass much more  public spending on infrastructure projects combined with a monetary side that involves encouraging pumping more  money in  the economy through massive quantitative easing leading to an inflation target of about 2 percent. The latter is meant to defeat deflation which is seen as a drag on the economy.
The second buzzword the “Abe Doctrine” was to have been the theme of a major address by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Jakarta, Indonesia, lat month but the speech was cancelled as Abe returned to Tokyo because of the Algerian crisis.

Undoubtedly, another venue will be chosen to highlight the policy doctrine which resurrects an older, vague idea of a loose alliance of like-minded democratic and market-oriented economies in an “arc” sweeping around Asia from India through Southeast Asia and Japan.

Indeed, the new government had scarcely taken office in late December before it launched an unprecedented diplomatic blitz in Asia. Senior leaders, including the PM himself, fanned out to visit half a dozen Asian countries plus Australia.
Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, himself a former premier, visited Myanmar, which is seen by many Japanese businessmen as the new Eldorado, because of its remarkable transformation over the past year. For himself Abe visited Vietnam, Thailand, and briefly Indonesia,

He is planning to go to Washington to confer with President Barack Obama later this month. In the offing is a possible visit to Moscow thereafter. If the latter visit brings forth solid progress on the Southern Kurils territorial dispute, it will be just another feather in the new premier’s hat,
The new government weathered its first crisis over the Islamic terrorist attack at the Amenis Natural Gas Project in the Algerian Sahara. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Sugu diverted a senior foreign service officer already on the way to a European posting to the plant site, who arrived at Amenis before the representatives of any of the other countries with hostages. It won wide approval, even though ten Japanese were killed in the standoff.

Not surprisingly, Abe has become the first prime minister in more than a decade to see his public approval rating actually climbing, rather than starting their inevitable decline into the low double digits leading to resignation. A huge majority says it has hopes that Abenomics will promote growth.
But there is another Abe buzz word that one doesn’t hear much about at present. That is “Beautiful Nation” or “Beautiful Japan”.  Abe rolled out this phrase in his first policy speech in 2006, during his previous term as prime minister.

This term is a kind of code word for a catchall of conservative hobby-horses ,such inserting more patriotism into the school curriculums, downplaying or denying some of the more unsavory aspects of Japan’s conduct during World War II and rewriting the constitution eliminate the war-renouncing Article 9.

It shows the difficulty of applying contemporary American ideas of what is “conservative” and what is “liberal” to Japanese politics and policies. After all, the conservative Abe administration has gone whole hog for Keynesian pump priming which would be anathema to American conservatives, and is in fact out of fashion nearly every other country in the world.
The Liberal Democratic Party which Abe leads, even provided the votes to put over the doubling the national sales tax last year (although they were happy enough to let former premier Yoshihiko Noda and his Democratic party take all the credit.) In fact, the premier and most of his supporters are deeply conservative, just conservative in a very Japanese way.

Abe has two sides to his political persona. One side is the foreign policy realist. He does not rattle sabers, and he seems intent on smoothing relations with China that have been severely damaged since the Senkaku/Daioyu island issue caught fire last year. In his first term he actually improved relations with China that had fallen into sharply, by former PM Junichiro Koizumi’s official visits to the Yasukuni Shrine.
The other side to Abe is the romantic, “Beautiful Nation” side that makes him want to rewrite Japanese history to put its actions during World /War II into a more favorable light and to drastically revise the American-written constitution to dilute some of its protections for individuals in favor of nurturing a greater since of a “We Japanese” collective spirit.

For the time being, he has suppressed the Beautiful Nation side as he concentrates on economic revival. Abe has evidently learned and absorbed the lessons of his first administration (2006-2007), when he seemed to as putting the “Beautiful Nation” before ordinary bread and butter concerns.  So he will play it safe, at least until the elections to the House of Councillors, the upper house of Japan’s bicameral parliament are concluded in July.
Abe is very keen on winning this election for his party and winning control of this important institution, even though he will likely not be able to attain a two-thirds majority necessary if he wants to amend the constitution. . After all, he presided over a serious defeat in the 2007 upper house election that led to his resignation. Undoubtedly a big win this time around would be very sweet.




Is Sumo a Real Sport?

Aside from vistas of Mount Fuji, cherry blossoms and sushi nothing says Japan as much as sumo. Yet this quintessential Japanese sport, often called the national pastime, hasn’t had a home-grown champion in seven years.

This year looks to be no different, as the Mongolian-born Harumafui captured the Emperors’s Cup at the traditional New Year tournament that kicks off the sumo year. He won the trophy by defeating yet another Mongolian champion, not to mention some Bulgarians and Estonians.
Paradoxically, sumo is an international sport that steadfastly refuses to go international. It is international in that many foreigners participate in Japan. Of the approximately 700 professional wrestlers, about 50 are foreign-born, mostly from Mongolia but also from Eastern Europe and even the United States.

Aside from a few demonstration games, usually connected with some “Japan Week” promotion, however,  the sport is not usually played outside Japan, not even in Mongolia. Sumo isn’t even in the Asian Games, which otherwise include such obscure Asian sports as Sepak Takraw, Kaddabi and Wushu.

It seems that sumo is one of those sports – or “sports” – that are as much expressions of cultural identity as they are serious athletic contests. Sumo is actually closer in spirit to rodeo in America or bull-fighting in Spain, neither of which, with possible exception of bull fighting, have made much of an impact outside their home countries.
As a spectator sport, sumo and rodeo leave something to be desired. In sumo two behemoths stare at each other, leap forward and grapple until one steps outside the ring. It lasts about ten seconds and then is repeated. Similarly in rodeo, you see one cowboy rope a calf, you have kind of seen them all.

This isn’t to say that there are not aficionados of both sports, people who can appreciate fine skill in calf roping, the toreador’s cape work, or finer points that come front watching two giants grappling in the sumo ring.
But I would say that most spectators of rodeo are drawn to it for the feeling of Americaness, or at least Westerness, that the sport imparts. Rodeo tournaments are more than just sporting events, at least in smaller towns; they are community cultural events, a time to put on your cowboy hats and boots and maybe join in a parade or a square dance.

Japanese feel much the same way about sumo. Everything about the sport is traditional, from the elaborate costume of the gyoji, or chief referee, that dates back to the Ashikaga Period (1336-1573). Pictures of sumo wrestlers on 19th century woodblock prints look no different from the wrestlers of today. Sitting in his box, eating a bento lunch sumo fan basks in a comfortable feeling of Japanness.
Some fans worry that the influx of foreign wrestlers is subtly changing the game in ways they don’t like. This isn’t so much an expression of nativism, as it is the fact that many of the foreign wrestlers get their start in other forms of wrestling and are bringing to the sport new kinds of grips and turns. Japanese seem to leave the tricky moves to the judo hall.

Not that nativism doesn’t play a part in modern sumo. That was true when the first foreigners began to enter the ring twenty years ago. It seems rather quaint that one of the pioneers, a Hawaiian who goes by the name Konishiki, was denied grand champion status because he lacked the requisite hinkaku, or athletic dignity.
That has gone by the board as the last 70 or so grand champions have been foreign born without anyone questioning their “dignity”. In recent years the sport has had its share of “bad boy” champions such as grand master Asashoryu not to mention doping scales (not steroids, just plain old marijuana).

So, Japanese fans wait patiently for the Great Hope that will return the championships to their native sons, without, much expectation that this year will be different from the previous seven years and that the Mongolians will continue to dominate. That doesn’t seem to have dampened interest as this year’s basho was sold out.
It would appear that for a long time sumo will remain a “sport”, tradition-bound and insular. And that is probably the way that most Japanese like it.