Thursday, June 26, 2014

A Debate over Self Defense

 Japan is currently embroiled in a huge domestic argument over whether it can legally act as a fully-fledged alliance partner with the United States or any other country in which it has a close relationship and common security concerns.
It is an only-in-Japan kind of debate since Japan is the only important country in the world that has as part of its constitution a clause (the famous Article 9) which quite frankly prohibits the country from having any army, navy or air force or exercising force in any international dispute.

Notwithstanding the charter, Japan has over the years, developed a formidable armed force, known euphemistically as the “Self-Defense Forces”, but their operations are still constrained by a legal framework that imposes some of the tightest restrictions on the military of any other country.
Since 1991, for example, Japan has participated in various peacekeeping missions abroad, starting with Cambodia. It also takes part in anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia.  However, if a neighboring peacekeeping force from another nation, say Norway, came under attack from terrorists, Japan would be legally constrained from coming to their rescue.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to change this. For one thing in comports with his own personal desire to make Japan a “normal nation”, one that exert force like any other nation. But it also comes from heightened sense of danger from North Korea’s nuclear ambitions to China’s territorial claims.
Underscoring the concern was a recent incident in which China scrambled two advanced fighter jets to fly within 50 meters of two unarmed Japanese patrol air craft that were monitoring a joint China-Russia fleet exercise in the East China Sea near the disputed Senkaku/Daioyu islands. Beijing brushed off protests from Tokyo.

Abe wants his cabinet to declare by the end of the current session of parliament in late June that so-called “collective self-defense” (that is aiding an ally) conforms with the constitution. He wants this done soon so it can form part of the negotiations with the U.S. in developing a new understanding of their respective roles in the defense of Japan, the first time these guidelines have been revised in 20 years.
In his keynote speech at the Shangri-la Dialoge on security matter last weekend in Singapore, Abe said “it was incumbent on us in Japan to reconstruct the legal basis pertinent to the right of collective self-defense.” US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel publically backed Abe. “We support Japan’s new effort,” he said.

Most of the American security establishment supports collective defense by Japan and is not overly concerned about what obstacles Abe has navigate to get there. President Barack Obama himself issued a statement during his April visit to Japan supporting Abe’s proposed changes.
But Abe may have trouble getting his way. Public opinion polls show a public evenly split on the overall issue with a still strong pacifistic element in the electorate that worries that any change will send Japan down a slippery slope towards the militarized Japanese state of the 1930-40s.

On the other hand, the same polls show broader support when asked about specific contingencies, such as whether a Japanese warship can legally come to the aid of an American ship in danger by an attack of North Korean patrol boats, for example.
Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has a commanding majority in parliament as a result of the party’s smashing victory in the 2012 general election, but it is a curious position where the “loyal opposition” is coming not from the opposition parties themselves but from within the governing coalition itself.

The LDP is allied with New Komeito, the political arm of a Japanese Buddhist sect that has strong pacifistic tendencies. Abe’s whole political efforts for the present are directed at trying to overcome the Komeito party’s scruples over collective self-defense, which the party leaders mainly oppose.

If he pushes ahead without making major concessions to Komeito’s concerns, it is possible that the Buddhist party might leave the coalition. Abe is loath to let that happen. It is partly for purely practical terms, as the Komeito alliance helps the LDP win elections, but also fear that it might imperil its other initiatives to strengthen the economy, known as “Abenomics”
The premier knows from his previous short stint in office (2006-2007) that he can be politically punished if he is perceived as being more interested in promoting his own pet security ideas than he is in fixing the economy and other issues that the public thinks more directly impacts their livelihoods.

So for now, the prime minister has had to modify his goals and has adopted a strategy of listing specific examples calling for use of collective self-defense, such as intercepting a North Korean ballistic missile aimed at American assets or territory, that the Komeito may find acceptable.
Some opposition also comes from those, including some in Abe’s own party, who believe that any such significant change to the constitution should be made by amendment, not by the unilateral decision of a the cabinet that may be in office for only a few years.

Japans’ constitution, written by American occupiers in 1946, has never been amended because no party has ever had the necessary two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament to refer an amendment to a national referendum.  Despite Abe’s commanding majority (even without Komeito) in the lower house, it doesn’t have the votes in the upper chamber.




Friday, June 06, 2014

Godzilla at 60

Looking hardly a day over 60 million, Godzilla turned 60 this year, brought back to life as Hollywood resuscitated the slumbering giant monster and turned what had been and is a Japanese icon into an American  smash hit of global proportions.
The new Godzilla is a reboot of the franchise which set a record of earning $196 million in its first weekend when it opened in May, putting it on track to becoming one of the highest grossing movies of the summer if not all time.

The new movie was produced by Legendary Pictures in partnership with Warner Brothers and on license from Toho Productions, the Japanese studio that invented Godzilla in 1954 and produced another 27 movies featuring the stomping giant until retiring from active production in 2004.
Toho’s 50-year production history makes Godzilla the longest running franchise in film history, and, given the success of the American sequel in rejuvenating a tired brand, it may be on track for another 50-year run.

Yet it is not the first American version. Tri-Star State Pictures produced its own Godzilla in 1998, but it failed to catch on. This older version was so poorly received that it may have damaged the brand, as no other follow up was attempted until this year’s version, 16 years later.
While the 2014 version has a storyline of its own, it is faithful to many of the familiar Godzilla tropes. It (Godzilla is neither male or female) is born out of and sustained by nuclear radiation, in this case a Japanese nuclear power plant; it stomps through cities smashing buildings right and left (Las Vegas) and culminates in a battle with another monster, Muto (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism).

When Toho Productions released its first Godzilla in 1954 (the name is an English version of the Japanese Gojira linking the words for gorilla and whale), it did not know that it would be producing one of the most instantly and universally recognized icons of Japanese culture. Nor did they know that they would be making a long-standing series.
“We had no plans for a sequel in 1954,”recalled the late Ishiro Honda, Godzilla’s initial director in an interview before he died. Indeed, the monster is killed off in the first movie. (never an obstacle to reviving the him in subsequent productions).The Toho Productions soon changed its mind, and the second film, Godzilla the Fire Monster was made and released the next year.

Initial reviews of Godzilla were cool. Some dismissed it is “junk.” Yet, the original has now come to be ranked as one of the best 20 Japanese movies of all time, up there with Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, which, coincidentally, was released the same year. In 2004 Godzilla achieved the ultimate accolade when his name was placed on a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.
The plot of the original Godzilla was inspired by a headline event in the spring of 1954. A Japanese fisherman whose boat, the Lucky Dragon-5, was hit by radioactive fallout from an American H-bomb test over the Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific, died of Leukemia. By autumn Gojira was trading on the audiences’ twin fears of prehistoric carnivores and modern nuclear arms, it being only nine years removed from the Hiroshima bombings.

Ever since, nuclear radiation has played some role in subsequent movies. Indeed, it was one condition of Toho’s granting a license that it somehow involve nuclear radiation, which is why the revived Godzilla is born in a Japanese nuclear power plant in the new version.
Though never a “message” movie per se, the Godzilla series have been attuned to the current pulse of Japanese. In Godzilla versus King Ghidora (1991) the rampaging reptile turned his attention to ostentatious displays of wealth in the Bubble Economy era by obliterating the new 60-story Tokyo city hall, usually accompanied by cheers from the audience,

The monster has actually grown in height as Tokyo’s skyline has risen. In the first movie, he was about 50 meters tall. That was roughly the height of the highest Ginza building at the time of the film was made. He has gradually grown to nearly 100 meters in height as more high rise buildings dotted Tokyo’s skyline, and the new American version makes him, a little over 100 meters, the tallest version in the series.
Although many people assume that Godzilla, the name and figure, are in the public domain, the fact is that Toho is just as aggressive in defending its copyright and trademarks as Disney is in protecting Mickey Mouse. Anyone thinking to add the suffix “zilla” to a product name can expect to receive a cease and desist letter from Toho’s Los Angeles-based law firm, Greenberg Gluskar,

Just this week a New Orleans brewery agreed to change the name of one of its new beers from Mechahopzilla by the end of the year after it was sued by these same attorneys acting for Toho. The studio had sued New Orleans-based Lager & Ale Brewing Company claiming the name and logo were copycats of Godzilla’s monster opponent of that name. Mechahopzilla figures in some Godzilla movies.
The litigation has kept Godzilla’s brand thriving and has helped to pave the way for extremely lucrative commercial and merchandising tie-ins that will accompany the monster’s return to the big screen. Japan itself is dotted with numerous Godzilla -themed products from jigsaw puzzles to T-shirts. Godzilla’s image is for sale, but you have to pay for it.

Godzilla has, of course, already been released in the US, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. But curiously, Japanese will have to wait more than a month to see their favorite monster back in the theater, as it isn’t scheduled to hit the big screens in Japan until July 25.