Category Archives: Politics

The Hashist

One of the most curious things about the boyishly telegenic and viscerally ambitious Toru Hashimoto (pictured left), mayor of Japan’s second city, Osaka, is his name. Not how it sounds—Hashimoto is a common enough surname and Toru a familiar enough given name—but how it is written. Here it is in Japanese order, two-character surname first:

橋下徹

The problematic character is the middle one. Hashimoto is almost always rendered as 橋本 (usually) or 橋元 (more rarely), but to write it 橋下 makes me (and I suspect the average Japanese person) want to read it as “Hashishita” rather than “Hashimoto”. And thereby hangs a tale.

Although seen from Tokyo as the personification of Osaka boosterism, Hashimoto was actually born and brought up, until his fifth year of elementary school, a few stops out of Shinjuku station in the heart of Tokyo, which is why a Japanese acquaintance described his ability to speak persuasively in the Osakan dialect as “bimyo”, ambiguous.

His father’s roots, however, are in the Kansai region of western Japan where Osaka lies, specifically in an impoverished mountain-flank hamlet of some 60 dwellings whose name the media are collectively too terrified to reveal, because this is no humdrum hamlet but what is known in euphemism-drenched contemporary parlance as an “area subject to discrimination” (被差別地域), which, decoded, means a home to Japan’s once mightily despised and now largely ignored undercaste of tanners, gravediggers, and butchers, among other occupations deemed tainted, who down the centuries have gone by a myriad of names, among them eta (穢多, “mass of filth”, a word now so intensely incendiary that my PC PC simply refuses to summon it up), shin heimin (新平民, “new citizens”), burakumin (部落民, “village people”), and dowa (同和, “same as the Japanese”), the currently acceptable term.

When all citizens were required to take surnames sometime after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, it appears that all the residents of the unnamable hamlet into which Hashimoto’s father was born chose, or were assigned, Hashishita (橋下) and that was the reading by which his father was known when, sometime after World War II, he left the hamlet for the city of Yao in Osaka Prefecture, where he took up residence in a dowa district (同和地区) and fell into yakuza circles, ending up as one of the three main movers and shakers (三羽烏) in a gangster gang. The father married outside of the dowa community and Hashimoto’s parents moved to Tokyo in the late 1960s, where Toru was born in 1969. In the early 1970s, the father grew estranged from his new family and drifted back to Osaka alone, where he gassed himself to death over debts incurred to other gangsters when young Toru was in the second year of elementary school. Soon after, Hashimoto’s mother changed the reading of her surname to Hashimoto from Hashishita, seemingly in part to sever ties with the rest of the Hashishitas but also because of the negative connotations of the name, for Hashishita (“under the bridge”) carries implications of vagrancy and homelessness whereas Hashimoto (“foot of the bridge”) does not.

Three years after Hashimoto’s father killed himself, Toru, now in the fifth grade of elementary school, and his mother moved to Osaka, where they ended up—coincidentally or not, it is hard to be sure—in a dowa district of Osaka City. His mother, although apparently eligible, refused the rent reduction the city offers to dowa (同和減免措置) and Toru, although his junior high school offered a special education program for dowa (同和教育), was adamantly opposed and took the regular classes. While it is clear that Toru was aware of his dowa heritage from an early age—his father is buried in a cemetery reserved for dowa in Yao—it seems that he only learned of his father’s gangster background from the media after he rose to fame. In public, at least before the investigative journalists from the weeklies broke the story of his father’s background, Hashimoto would deny his dowa roots, saying, “Although we lived in a dowa neighborhood, we weren’t dowa ourselves, so we couldn’t get subsidies, which really hacked me off. I don’t do the dowa problem”.

Although by his own admission not particularly academic, Hashimoto made it into Tokyo’s prestigious Waseda University at the second attempt and, after passing the bar exams, registered as a lawyer with the Osaka Bar Association in 1997 at the relatively young age of 28, striking out on his own the following year as a specialist in corporate compliance and M&A, among other fields. He subsequently gained notoriety on Kansai-area talk shows as a celebrity lawyer for the extreme forthrightness with which he expressed his opinions, of which he has many, and was catapulted to his first taste of political power on a nebulous platform of change (slogan: “an Osaka where children laugh”) in the January 2008 Osaka gubernatorial election, backed by the Liberal Democratic Party, in which he won an absolute majority of the votes cast. He resigned as governor before the end of his first term and in November last year succeeded in both winning the Osaka City mayoral election and maneuvering an ally, Ichiro Matsui, into the governorship.

So who is Toru Hashimoto, what does he believe in, and what does he want? There’s something of the shtark, the spiv, the shyster about him—you feel that he’s always about to peel back the jacket of his suit to reveal row after row of Rolex knock-offs on silken racks in the lining. He was cautioned for stealing a bicycle in junior high and, while still a university student, could be found running a tidy little wholesale sideline in leather jackets until someone ripped him off. As a lawyer, he acted as an advisor between 1999 and 2004 for a small-business loan firm (less politely, a usurer) called Cities, regarded by lawyers for the heavily indebted as one of the most intransigent and recalcitrant of any company of its type—and that is saying something. In July 2010, when the brouhaha about the possible extinction of the consumer finance (read: loanshark) industry because of new regulations was at its zenith, he proposed a special-zone concept for the money-lending industry (貸金業特区構想) that would relax the incoming restrictions on the maximum that can legally be borrowed and restore the pre-reform maximum interest rate of 29.2% on loans of less than Y200,000 (just over $2,500) with durations of a year or less. As a friend who is intimately familiar with the underbelly of Japanese loansharking world—and who shares with many Tokyoites a certain metropolitan disdain for Osaka and all its works—said with deep glee, “It is just such an Osaka-rashii idea, just so typically Osaka!”

Hashimoto is also an ardent supporter of the legalization of casinos and, even more controversially, wants to restore some of Osaka’s red-light districts that were cleaned up ahead of The International Garden and Greenery Exposition in 1990. He is on record as an admirer of cockroaches, as they flee quickly and have an acute sense of danger, and had some eyebrow-raising things to say on the subject of rules in general in his 2006 book, Mattou Shoubu:

Unless we build a Japan in which people who sneak through the cracks in the rules are applauded, this country will not survive in the international society of the future.
「ルールの隙を突いた者が賞賛されるような日本にならないと、これからの国際社会は乗り切れない。」
Wringing out ideas that get around the rules, isn’t that what’s most needed in today’s Japan?!?
「ルールをかいくぐるアイディアを絞り出すことこそ、いまの日本にとって一番必要なんじゃないか!」
It’s only clear rules that are the basis of actions, and where there are no regulations defined by clear rules, then I don’t care what anyone does.
「明確なルールのみが行動の基準であって、明確なルールによる規制がない限りは何をやっても構わない。」

Hashimoto’s political and social philosophy, such as it is, strikes me as being grounded in the Victorian self-help mentality of a Samuel Smiles. Like many a successful man of humble origins, he simply cannot fathom why everyone should not be able to prosper, as he has, by dint of industry and application. In a prefectural assembly debate in 2008 he defended the cuts his administration was making in support for poor students attending private high schools: “In today’s world, the first and foremost principle is self-responsibility. No one is going to save you.” (今の世の中は、自己責任がまず原則ですよ。誰も救ってくれない。) This is tempered, to be fair, with a belief that those unable to clamber into the sumo ring of competition, such as the disabled, should be offered all due assistance. Though partly of dowa stock himself, he won support from the (very) far right in the Osaka gubernatorial election for his pledge to cut the dowa measures budget to zero and in another 2008 prefectural assembly debate, had the following to say on the dowa:

I was brought up in a so-called dowa district. The dowa problem hasn’t been solved at all. But just because there’s still prejudice, the question of whether they should be given special preferential treatment—well, that’s a different matter.
「私はいわゆる同和地区で育ったが、同和問題は全く解決されていない。ただ、差別意識があるからといって、特別な優遇措置を与えていいのかは別問題。」

Despite having been bullied himself at school because of his inarticulacy in the Osaka dialect when he arrived from Tokyo, Hashimoto has no shred of sympathy for the victims of bullying:

There’s bullying wherever you go. If you can’t get over something like that, what are you going to do in the rest of your life?
「いじめなんてどこの世界にもある。それ位乗り越えられなくてどうするのか。」

In some ways, Hashimoto reminds me of nothing so much as a crusty old hang ’em and flog ’em Tory from the shires, a breed now nearly vanished from the shores of Britain. Although in an interview he has claimed his sole memory of his father was of having had the living daylights thrashed out of him, aged three, by the old man for throwing chopsticks across the dinner table, he has boasted elsewhere, immune to the layers of irony, that he beat one of his own kids for 50 minutes straight for having been caught bullying—beaten for bullying, I should add, not for having been caught. He called for the swift hanging of the perpetrator of an indiscriminate knife attack in 2001 at an Osaka elementary school that left 8 students dead—and was duly rewarded. Of the near gang-rape of a fourth year elementary-school girl (who was thus about 10 years old) in the Kansai city of Amagasaki in 2006, Hashimoto hinted that she might have been asking for it, although how a prepubescent girl asks for something about which she knows nothing beggars my feeble imagination:

It all hinges on whether they took off the girl’s clothes, or whether she took them off herself.
「女の子が服を脱がされたのか、自分から脱いだのかによって話が変わってくる。」

Hashimoto has a rusty axe to grind about education, about which his beliefs are a perplexing brew of the sensibly iconoclastic—he is a vociferous critic of Japan’s cram-and-rote-learning system and a supporter of a more diverse entry system for state high schools, with non-academic criteria such as sporting ability to be taken into account—the mainstream global right—classes streamed by academic ability and school vouchers—and the dismal pedagogy of the Gradgrind: he wants useful education, whatever that might be, not education imposed from above, and believes the core curriculum should be stripped down to reading and writing, the abacus, and the inculcation of respect for one’s superiors. He is a remorseless foe of Nikkyoso, the Japan Teachers Union, which although a shadow of its onetime self I think Karel van Wolferen was right all those years ago in identifying in The Enigma of Japanese Power as the only liberal-leftist opposition to the paternalist monolith, and a backer of former Transport Minister Nariaki Nakayama (now, aged 68, settling comfortably in to that political retirement home for old fogeys, The Sunset Party of Japan), who, possessed by a form of hysteria, once dubbed Nikkyoso “the cancer of Japan”.

As any ill thought through and hastily articulated political worldview is bound to be, Hashimoto-ism is a bundle of contradictions: he wants to arm Japan with nuclear weapons and bring back conscription, yet—at least since the Fukushima disaster—has come out against nuclear power. While in favor of Japan’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, he hopes the gods forefend that foreigners, no matter how many generations their families might have been in the country, be allowed to vote in even local elections. Hokkaido University professor Jiro Yamaguchi coined the brutal portmanteau “Hashism” to condemn our Hash’s authoritarian tendencies, amply documented in a comment made in June last year:

In Japanese politics these days, the most important thing is dictatorship. Having so much power you’re called a dictator.
「今の日本の政治で一番重要なのは独裁。独裁と言われるぐらいの力だ。」

and in a 2009 slanging e-mail match with his own staff:

You’re frighteningly unconcerned that the prefecture has lost Y38bn [about $500mn] by failing to forecast water demand. No one seems worried. If this was a private-sector company, the whole lot of you would be quivering in shock! … Organizations in which people’s pay is guaranteed no matter what happens are terrifying.
(抜粋)「水需要予測の失敗によって380億円の損失が生まれたことに関しても、恐ろしいくらい、(職員の)皆さんは冷静です。何とも感じていないような。民間の会社なら、組織あげて真っ青ですよ!!(略)何があっても給料が保障される組織は恐ろしいです……」

A female prefectural bureaucrat had the temerity to send him a rebuke, to which he responded:

First, don’t give your boss any sass. I’m your boss. I’m the head of this organization. Time to acquire some common sense. As the head, I’m giving you a serious warning. If you’ve got a bone to pick, come to my office and I’ll hear you out. 
「まず、上司に対する物言いを考えること。私は、あなたの上司です。組織のトップです。その非常識さを改めること。これはトップとして厳重に注意します。あなたの言い分があるのであれば、知事室に来るように。聞きましょう。」

Ultimately, the poor woman was given a—probably career-destroying—official reprimand. Around here, we’ve come to call this kind of toy-throwing tantrum “pawa hara”, power harassment.

But like many a politician on the make, what Hashimoto believes in most ardently is himself. Unlike the others, though, he’s not in the least ashamed to admit it:

What’s wrong with a lust for power and glory as a motivation for becoming a politician? Why do politicians blather on about serving the people, serving the country—such bullshit! (Literally, “it makes my arsehole itch”.) Setting one’s sights on being a politician, that’s the pinnacle of a lust for power, a lust for glory. After that comes doing it for the people, doing it for the country. Us politicians have to grudgingly serve the people so as to satisfy our lust for power, our lust for glory. 
「別に政治家を志す動機付けが、権力欲や名誉う欲でもいいじゃないか」「なんで『国民のために、お国のために』なんてケツの穴が痒くなるようなことばかりいうんだ?政治家を志すっちゅうのは、権力欲、名誉欲の最高峰だよ。その後に、国民のため、お国のためがついてくる。自分の権力欲、名誉欲を達成する手段として、嫌々国民のために奉仕しなければいけないわけよ。」

As a shoot-from-the-hip, take-no-prisoners politician possessed of many an unsound view, Hashimoto has amassed down the years a glorious rogues’ gallery of gaffes that deserve to be framed and exhibited, as Doonesbury does with the wisdom and wit of a Bush or a Gingrich. Here’s a random assortment:

People who like [the traditional performing arts of] noh and kyogen are weirdoes!
「能や狂言が好きな人は変質者。」

Unsurprisingly, this didn’t go down too well with the practitioners of noh and kyogen and their trade associations.

Whoring by the Japanese in China is a kind of ODA.
「日本人による買春は中国へのODAみたいなもの。」

Astonishing how much offensive condescension can be packed into so few words. This talk-show spasm did at least provoke an impromptu and tear-stained on-air apology the following week.

Shitty boards of education
(クソ教育委員会)

This was said in reference to municipal boards of education that refuse to disclose percentages of correct answers scored in scholastic tests at the local authority level. In a language almost bereft of swear words and yet with vast scrolls of verboten taboo-to-broadcast expressions, this is more shocking than it might seem to outsiders. Hashimoto was rapped over the knuckles by his own mother for this; he apologized but did not withdraw the comment.

On a Fuji TV program in 2006, Hashimoto infringed one of the many taboos by using the banned word “cripple” (びっこ引いている), which elicited an immediate apology from both him and the compere, Sawako Agawa, to whom he said on-air a couple of months later, “If it was up to me, I’d knock you up straight away” (いまの僕なら阿川さんを即妊娠させられますよ), which earned him a complaint from the Osaka Bar Association that he had brought the dignity of the profession into doubt.

In 2008, Hashimoto had a contretemps with the ever-so-slightly left-of-center Asahi Shimbun, which had published an editorial critical of his posturing:

The world would be better off if the Asahi disappeared. It’s a totally foolish institution. I hope it goes out of business soon. The paper seems to think it’s fine to badmouth the powers that be.
「朝日新聞がなくなった方が世のためになる。全く愚かな言論機関。すぐさま廃業した方がいい。権力の悪口を言っていればいいと思っているのではないか。」

If the number of adults that just badmouth people like the Asahi does increases, then this country’s done for!
「人の悪口ばっかり言っているような朝日新聞のような大人が増えると日本はダメになります。」

Hashimoto is by no means a fan of NEETs, young people not in education, employment, or training, an acronym that originated in the UK and spread swiftly to the Far East:

Lock them up and set them to forced labor!
「拘留の上、労役を課す。」
Folk who don’t pay taxes aren’t entitled to live. 
「税金を払わない奴は生きる資格がない。」

With NEETs not having anyone in particular to stand up for them, these comments went uncensured.

One of the most contentious left-right tug-of-war freedom-of-conscience issues is that of forcing teachers to stand, face the Rising Sun, and sing Kimigayo at school ceremonies. Here’s what the Hash thinks:

Civil servants who repudiate the flag and the national anthem should quit. Antics that make light of their unsackability are absolutely intolerable.
「国旗国歌を否定するなら公務員を辞めればいい。身分保障に甘えるなんてふざけたことは絶対許さない。」

And finally, a dig at the sleepy Sea of Japan backwater (he’s got me at it now) of Tottori, a long put-upon butt of jokes:

Tottori’s got about 600,000 people, but 40-odd members of the prefectural assembly. Six would be enough!
「鳥取県は60万人くらいの人口で、議員が40数人いるんですかね。鳥取県議なんて6人でいいんですよ。」

Osaka has 109 prefectural assembly members for 8.9mn people, one for every 80,000 citizens, while Tottori has 35 for 585,000 people, one for every 17,000 citizens, so Hashimoto might be said to have a point, but this is not the sort of comment with which a politician can get off scot-free, and Hashimoto, having trampled on delicate provincial sensibilities, was forced to murmur an apology.

Although not gaffes, two quotations about his children—he now has seven—reveal him to be a stay-away, hands-off dad of orthodox ilk, as uninterested in their welfare as his father was in his:

I’ve got seven kids but I haven’t had anything to do with their upbringing, so the wife asks me how I can spout off about childrearing.
「私も、子どもは7人いますが、全く子育てをしなかったので、妻から『子育てについて何を語るのですか。』と言われました。」

I’ve got six kids but if the wife wasn’t around, spending 30 minutes with them would be about my limit.
「僕は子供が6人いるけど、妻がいなければ子供と一緒にいるのは30分が限界かな。」

At least some of these gaffes would in the West be darts toxic enough to stun the advance of even the most bull elephant of politicos but here, while we assiduously sort them into categories—was it a “slip of the tongue” (失言), a “problematic utterance” (問題になった発言), or the amorphous catch-all, “words or deeds that became a talking point” (話題になった言動)— the culprits soldier on. After all, Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, a wholly unreconstructed racist and misogynist whose gaffistry makes Hashimoto look like a rank wet-behind-the-ears amateur, is on his fourth successive term, and nothing, but nothing, he says, even his declaration that the Great East Japan Earthquake last year was divine punishment (天罰) for the greed of modern Japan, can stop him in his tracks. Why this occurs, I can only speculate: that these populist demagogues are in many cases channeling the opinions, sometimes repressed by decorum, of an on-balance archly conservative electorate more than willing to indulge the odd gadfly here, the grumpy maverick there, if only for entertainment value, as long as they do not get too close to the levers of power. 

But there are always specifics at play, too, and the popularity of Hashimoto in his Osaka bastion can be explained by his eagerness to shake a devolutionary fist at Tokyo, the center of power in a highly centralized state, and the woes of Osaka itself, expressed as well as anywhere on the website of his new party, Osaka Ishin no Kai (大阪維新の会), glossed variously as One Osaka and the Osaka Restoration Party.   

Per capita prefectural income in Osaka Prefecture fell to Y3.08mn (c$39,000 but around $31,000 at PPP, very roughly the same level as Spain or South Korea) in 2006 from Y3.57mn in 1996, down by close to Y500,000 (14%) over the decade. In Osaka City, the decline was even more dramatic: the city’s per capita income was Y4.12mn in 1996, close to Tokyo’s Y4.27mn, but while Tokyo’s rose to Y4.82mn in 2006, Osaka City’s fell to Y3.44mn (down 16.5% on the decade), creating a gap of around Y1.4mn. The prefecture has the highest welfare rates in the country and unemployment blackspots as bad as anywhere, and with many of its leading corporate lights such as Sharp and Panasonic now adrift in seven seas of misery, the troubled present augurs more pain to come.

On arrival as governor in February 2008, Hashimoto inherited a monstrous prefectural debt of around Y6trn (approximately $10,000 a head), the legacy of a decade of fiscal mismanagement and deficits, and his first act was to declare a financial crisis and vow to cut the budget by Y100bn (about $1.3bn) a year. He managed to prune Y244bn over three years in what I’ll concede was a gutsy performance that started with his own salary, which he slashed by 30%, and that naturally earned him a host of enemies. As Osaka mayor, he will doubtless be anxious to take the same scalpel to the bloated municipal body, and in a city where the average bus driver earns somewhere between Y7.5mn ($95,000) and Y9mn ($115,000) a year, depending on which source you consult, and a third of sewage maintenance workers reputedly were until recently pulling down more than Y10mn ($130,000) annually, few could dispute that there is flab for the trimming.

As governor, Hashimoto can also be credited—to a degree—with cleaning up crime: Osaka has long been notorious as the crime capital of the country (these things are of course relative—Osaka is no Detroit). Some pragmatic initiatives—thousands of CCTVs and bright LED streetlights, ring-fencing the police budget from the worst of the cuts—helped reduce the number of reported crimes by 24% from 2007 to 2010, ahead of the 17% reduction recorded nationwide. Finally, after 35 inglorious years, Osaka ceded the title of national pick-pocketing champion to Tokyo in 2010. And for such an avowed autocrat, Hashimoto governed with a surprisingly liberal streak in some respects, pushing Osaka up the national information disclosure rankings, as compiled by the National Ombudsman Conference, from 28th out of 47 in 2007 to first in 2010.

The policy for which Hashimoto is now best known, however, is an arcane one: he wants to make Osaka Prefecture the administrative mirror-image of Tokyo. As he perceives it, the problem is that, although the population of Osaka is similar to that of a New York or London, administratively it is a patchwork quilt of 43 separate local authorities—33 cities, 22 of them with more than 100,000 people, nine towns, and a solitary village—which breeds overlapping provision of services and general inefficiency. The plan is to merge Osaka City with 10 of its surrounding cities, turn them into 20 wards, aping the 23 wards of Tokyo, and then turn Osaka Prefecture into a city. Without delving deeply into the minutiae of the pros and cons of the plan, its single biggest drawback, to this observer leastways, is that it rests on a specious piece of a priori reasoning: that to make Osaka look, administratively, like Tokyo will make it behave, economically, like Tokyo. It won’t, because the causes of the gaps that have opened up over the last dozen or so years between the capital and the second city—globalization, technological advance and commoditization, and the steady whittling away of the industrial base, to name but three interlocking phenomena—are not going to be ameliorated, let alone sent into reverse, by a dose of administrative tinkering.

No matter: Hashimoto is a—very resolute—man with a plan. To push it through, though, he will need not only the unwavering commitment of the wavering people of Osaka and the unqualified support of the heads of all affected municipalities, which has not been uniformly forthcoming, but also approval of revisions to the relevant laws by both houses of the Diet, which will require cross-party consensus, all of which will be a very tall order indeed. My suspicion, though, is that he is using the plan as a means to an end, that end being to orchestrate a revolt of the regions and vault himself onto the national political stage as a Napoleonic colossus astride the horse of a new, third-party force. He wouldn’t be the first dowa boy made good in national politics by any means—former minister for post-earthquake reconstruction Ryu Matsumoto, whose career imploded so spectacularly and entertainingly in a blizzard of boorishness one Sunday last summer, is the grandson of the founder of the Buraku Liberation League—but he would be the first with a gaze fixed so snake-like on the ultimate political prize, the keys to the Kantei. It was, I believe, former PM Taro Aso—no friend to the dowa—who said that it would be impossible for someone of dowa lineage to become prime minister. In Hashimoto, we might just see that assertion put to the test.  

Whoever said that Japanese politics was dull?

 [An apology, a justification, and a recommendation: This post relies on intelligence gleaned from a handful of websites, a couple of articles from the business weeklies, and a smattering of general knowledge. Amazing what you can unearth through just a little fossicking in the leaf-litter, though. The original Japanese quotations I inserted as something is always lost in translation: to take one tiny example, “zettai yurusanai”, rendered here as “absolutely intolerable”, loses the insistent aggression of the double-t plosive in “zettai”. Finally, for those seriously interested in the ins-and-outs of politics, Japanese style, I can do no better than recommend Michael Cucek’s splendid blog, Shisaku. How he stays so immaculately well informed is a constant wonder and mystery.]

Season’s greetings

Well, the carol muzak fills the air of the arcades and promenades (with a muzakal rendition of O Tannenbaum, better known to these Brit ears as The Red Flag—“The people’s flag is deepest red / It shrouded oft our martyr’d dead”–on heavy rotation), the rightist soundtrucks blare out martial songs in the background as I write this as they rehearse for the Emperor’s birthday on December 23, and snatches of the fourth movement (“Alle Menschen werden Brüder”) of Beethoven’s Ninth, a hardy perennial Yuletide favorite in Japan, emanate from television and radio.

All of this can only mean one thing: it’s time to inaugurate a new tradition, at grave risk of coming across somewhere between an Oscar acceptance speech and a sherried-up great-aunt’s photocopied Christmas circular, and send out season’s greetings to all. Writing in the contemporary world is, for me at least, a daunting affair—with 100,000 books published annually in the US, another 100,000 published in the UK, some 200 million and mounting blogs in the blogosphere, and half of all US teens describing themselves as “content creators”, why would anyone waste their precious time on my witterings, I often wonder to myself, so I’m simply and straightforwardly grateful to everyone who stops by, in particular to Spike’s 300-odd e-mail subscribers, who hail from places as diverse as Hanoi and Prague (with a big shout-out to the sizeable Alberta/British Columbia contingent), its 100-odd Twitter followers, and especially to everyone who takes the trouble to leave a comment.

Us bloggers are narcissistic, solipsistic, frequently deluded folk, filled with self-doubt—in short, we’re human—so we care deeply about our stats—our clicks, our hits, our comment counts—and at the business end of a fine WordPress blog, at least, we can obsess unhealthily over them in quite some detail. It was with a rush of delight, for instance, that I discovered last month that Spike had notched up its quarter millionth hit. Not much compared to the Benjy the skateboarding dog video at YouTube, I bemoaned to a friend, who caustically and rightly replied that Benjy brings far more joy to the world than I do.

Spike began the year with the quotation “By God,” says he, “I think the Devil shits Dutchmen” and ended with the phrase “harsher winds blowing in the heartland”. In between, I somehow managed to scrawl out 24 posts—another novella length’s worth of ramblings—about everything under the Japanese sun from alienation to orb-weaver spiders. As Spike, my alter-ego, the year brought one particular personal highlight, at a farewell party—no shortage of them this year, as foreigners fled—at the rooftop poolside of the swanky Tokyo American Club, where the host introduced me as “Spike Japan” to coos of recognition and approval, as well as friendly admonitions not to slacken the pace and disappoint my “fans”. So once again, thank you all—I simply wouldn’t have kept on writing without you.

Ah, I almost forgot—the photos. They’re fresh off the roll, taken yesterday on a wild-goose, needle-in-a-haystack mission to the summer resort of Karuizawa in Nagano Prefecture with my old friend Dr. W—, associate professor of Japanese history at W— University. The mission was to find this mountain lodge, in amongst fifteen hundred others like it, in a half-shambolic, half-spruce besso holiday home resort called Lake New Town, where entry by outsiders is an act of trespass and the now icy roads make driving treacherous.

No one wants this lodge to be found—no signs guide the way, no memorial plinth stands nearby, no “X” marks the spot. This is no ordinary lodge though, but the Asama Sanso, where on February 19, 1972, nigh on forty years ago, five members of the United Red Army forced their way in, took the caretaker’s wife hostage, and held off the police in a bloody siege that lasted ten days and left two cops and a bystander dead. The United Red Army had started the winter of 1971/2 a platoon 29 strong, but at its Haruna Base, just over the prefectural border in Gunma, had succumbed to an orgy of internecine strife and lynch-mob justice that left 12 of its acolytes dead through starvation, exposure, and asphyxiation for imaginary thought-crimes that span the gamut from “defeatism”, the offence of the first to die, Michio Ozaki (22), to “bureaucratism” and “theoreticism”, the offences of the last, Takashi Yamada (27). As the dragnet closed in, the ringleaders and other members were nabbed; five escaped on foot across the border to Nagano, and so began the siege of the Asama Sanso.  

It was a strange stand-off: the besieged paid no heed to the police and made no demands of their own. The lodge was stocked with provisions aplenty, and once the only entrance, on the top floor, had been barricaded, it was turned into a nigh on impregnable fortress. Nothing on the police side worked, not even the 150 tonnes of water rained down, the 1,500 rounds of tear gas fired, the all-night barrages of noise, and the megaphoned pleas of anguished relatives. The siege was marked by moments of macabre comedy: the besiegers’ bento meals froze in the frigid cold before they could be doled out and the police were forced to rely on then just-invented Cup Noodles for sustenance. A scheme to destroy the top floor with a wrecking ball had to be aborted after the operator of the improvised armored crane kicked the battery terminal from its moorings in the cramped cabin.

On the 10th day, the police stormed the lodge; it took over eight hours to find and subdue the five fugitives. If the incident spelt the end of ultra-radical left as a force with which to be reckoned , it marked the dawn of the age of live outside broadcasts and saturation coverage of breaking news—the peak audience rating of 90% on the last day of the seige has never been matched before or since in Japanese television history.  

At the time of the siege the lodge belonged to a maker of musical instruments. Astonishingly, it was not demolished but renovated and extended, passing through several owners before ending up a few years back in the possession of a motorcycle design firm, which goes some of the way to explaining the sign in peeling green and fractured French by the front door: “C’est l’espace pour les menbres et amis de moto”. In February this year, it was bought by a Japan-registered company with a Chinese name and probable Hong Kong connections, to predictable howls of outrage from the right, enraged that the Maoist-tinged United Red Army should have the last—for now—laugh as ownership passes into the hands of the sons and daughters of Mao. What the Chinese plan to with it is anyone’s guess—it’s hard to imagine anyone who knows their history spending a restful night in a place so abustle with ghosts.

Of the five fugitives, one, Kunio Bando, was released in 1975 after the Japanese Red Army stormed the US and Swedish embassies in Kuala Lumpur and took 52 hostages; he remains at large. One, Motohisa Kato, was just 16 years old at the time of the incident, and went largely scot-free. His older brother, Michinori, was sentenced to 13 years; he is now a farmer and active in the Wild Bird Society of Japan. Masakuni Yoshino was sentenced to life for the murder of 17 people and remains behind bars. Hiroshi Sakaguchi, “number three” in the United Red Army, was sentenced to hang and remains on death row, four decades on—a cruel and unusual punishment if ever there was one.

Well, you wouldn’t have wanted a beaming Santa and his grinning little elvish helpers on a Christmas card from me now, would you? All the best for the year ahead, thanks again, and please drop by, if you have the time to spare, in 2012.

On the longevity of loaches

Just a week ago, the loach—or to do these unsung fish scientific justice, the hundred or so members of the Cobitidae family of true loaches—were scavenging in benthic obscurity, as they have for eons. Now the loach has been catapulted to fame, if a transient one, thanks to an August 27 election day speech by incoming Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, a speech in which he revealed hitherto unsuspected powers of oratory and which may have played some part in his victory. After warming the audience-electorate up with tales of how he learned the art of politics from his beloved historical novels, he cited a verse by calligrapher-poet Mitsuo Aida (1924-1991) that goes like this:

どじょうがさ 金魚のまねすることねんだよなあ

but more importantly looks like this (poem on the left, Aida’s exposition of it on the right):

and could be treacherously translated thus:

Loaches, eh? They don’t imitate goldfish, do they?

Noda continued on the loach theme:

どじょうには、どじょうの持ち味があります。金魚のまねをしてもできません。赤いべべを着た金魚になれません。どじょうですが、泥臭く、国民のために汗をかいて働いて、政治を前進させる。

Loaches have their own attractions. Even if they try and become goldfish, they can’t. They can’t become goldfish all dolled up in red bibs. I may be a loach, but I’ll work up a sweat for the people in my homespun way and push politics forward.

The loach reference was widely reported in the Japanese media, in tones of some incredulity, and swiftly picked up by the foreign press, resulting in some hilarious commentary as ichthyologically ignorant hacks struggled to explain to their supposedly equally ignorant readers just what a loach might be, with “bottom-feeding”, “mud-loving”, “humble”, and “homely” being the favored epithets of the hour. The perceived need for explanation came as a surprise to me, as loaches, true and their close relatives, the suckers and the sucking loaches (I’m not making this up) are widely distributed over the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere. A special dunce’s prize goes to the ever-hapless Lalaland Times, a newspaper in terrible trouble, which editorialized about the speech above thus:

In his acceptance speech after (sic) being elected head of the Democratic Party of Japan, he compared himself to a mud-dwelling fish, saying his looks wouldn’t win his party any votes but promising to work hard anyway. “Sweating ineptly, but with all my strength and all my heart, I will advance this country forward,” he said.

I look forward to an exhibition of inept sweating by our new Prime Minister.

Seemingly the loach allusions were a coded message from Noda to party elder and fan of Aida’s oeuvre Azuma Koshi’ishi (75) that he would be given a position of influence under a Noda administration; if Noda is a loach then Koshi’ishi resembles nothing so much as a walking cadaver. That the loach, who is as hawkish as they come on a host of issues and would make a fine LDP politician, and the cadaver, who hails from what was once a hothouse of radicalism, the Japan Teachers’ Union, and was first elected on Japan Socialist Party ticket, can coexist in the same party is, put generously, testament to the broadness of the church that is the DPJ. That they both apparently profess a fondness for the works of Mitsuo Aida is testament to his status as a post-war people’s poet.

My initial reaction to the loach, I confess, was derision and scorn. Writing midweek to a friend, I ranted:

Wikipedia informs us that among the cypriniformes, “The superfamily Cobitioidea contains hillstream loaches (Balitoridae), suckers (Catostomidae), true loaches (Cobitidae), and sucking loaches (Gyrinocheilidae) in the traditional system.” Wonder to which faction Mr Noda regards himself as belonging? Not being much of an ichthyologist, I guess he thinks he’s a dojo, the Oriental Weather Loach, Misgurnus anguillicaudatus (“not a gurnard with a tail like an eel”), a true loach. The Wikipage, which was evidently written by a fishkeeper buff rather than an expert, comments that, “Solitary weather loaches tend to spend much of their time hiding.” Confidence inspiring. It’s not a subject I’d given much attention to before, but I guess the loach is admired in Japan for its resilience and hardiness. Or something… I predict a fleeting loach cuisine boom, with the curious flocking to the shitamachi old-town loacheries. Better get the loach jokes in quick, though, because Mr Noda has been trying fervently to massage down expectations even before taking office, and those lowered expectations are almost sure to be met.

Later, though, I grew grateful to Noda for reminding me of my own teenage loach-loving days, when I kept a handful of a species whose name I can no longer identify with confidence, even with the aid of loaches.com, but which is fusiform (loosely the shape of an aerofoil) rather than the vermiform, worm-like shape of the dojo, and which were, in their drab mottled brown plumage, even duller than the generally silver and strikingly patterned dojo, which is something of a peacock among loaches. My loaches spent much of their time hidden in the aquarium’s nooks and crannies, as loaches are wont to do, but were assiduous harvesters of algae, docile to the point of complete passivity, and I grew fond of them, although not too fond, as they upped and died with distressingly regularity.

I was grateful to Noda for something else, too: renewing my acquaintance with Mitsuo Aida. So it was that I found myself one typhoon-tossed day aboard a half-deserted train that had journeyed in from the dormitory suburb of Kawagoe, much like Noda’s hometown of Funabashi a loach of a place, where once, in the dawn of the Internet, I lived, and whence I solicited—with some success—gentlemen callers with a tripod-taken self-portrait in which I stood to the right of a wall-mounted scroll-calendar bearing a poem by Mitsuo Aida,

which might be rendered, “the bitter and the sweet / all stem from human encounters / have good encounters”, a train bound for Yurakucho in central Tokyo, where the Mitsuo Aida museum is housed in the cavernous steel-and-glass cages of the Tokyo International Forum, a train that passes through the political nerve-center of Nagatacho, a district whose name, like Washington and Whitehall, serves as a metonym for the world of politics and where, I had learned the day before, the scandalous gossip on the street was that Noda would try and ram through a hike in the consumption tax before the end of next year.

My loach-boom prophesy has proven correct, albeit with an unexpected twist: The Wall Street Journal’s Japan Real Time blog, which has a delightful dog’s nose for the odd but illuminating angle, reports that business has not boomed in the capital’s few remaining loach restaurants but that the Mitsuo Aida Museum has seen a 40% rise in visitor numbers in the last week. The museum, a joyous symphony of ochres and umbers and assorted earthtones, which generously has English plaques for many of the exhibits, was indeed packed, and it was easy enough to tell from whispered loach exchanges among the reverent visitors that many had been lured by the loach eruption.

It’s hard to overstate the place of Mitsuo Aida in the collective consciousness: he was, and remains after life, a people’s bard, a poet of the masses. These are expressions that usually have intellectuals sharpening their most venomous quills, ready to pounce on every schmaltzy sentimentality. Andy Joyce of the WSJ, who to his credit is the only reporter as far as I know to have pursed the story, writes of Aida:

Celebrated for his ability to draw deep truths from the minutiae of everyday life, his reflections are the kind of warm, insightful writing that would probably appear framed on bathroom walls in the US.

Certainly what are perhaps Aida’s two most widely appreciated pieces could be construed as saccharine sweet and suitable for the smallest room. This one’s titled “Your own flower”:

名もない草も実をつける いのちいっぱいに花を咲かせて

Even the nameless grasses bear seed / Make your own flower bloom full of life

This one goes without a title:

しあわせはいつも じぶんのこころがきめる

Happiness is always / Decided by your own heart

Aida’s also billed by the publisher of his own works, according to the dust jacket of one of two books of his I picked up in the museum shop, as “someone who will gently heal your heart”. But Aida is a far more complex figure than these two pieces taken in isolation would suggest. He was steeped in a particularly rigorous form of Zen from an early age and it shows. Here are a couple of many of his works that might discombobulate the constipated or the incontinent in the lavatory:

Covetous, lustful, hungry for honor / Humans, eh? / Just a lump of desire / The human I am

This one bears the innocuous title of “Homeowner”:

“That kinda guy / Be better if he were dead” / The demon in my heart cries / “Hey, when you hate / The one you really hurt / Is you” / The Buddha behind the demon whispers / Demon-heart / Buddha-heart / Dwell together in our house / The homeowner is you

Aida makes formidable play with an array of conventions in the Japanese language that are often beyond the scope of treasonous translation—“tradurre e tradire”, as the Italian saying has it. Both of the above poems build to a climax at the point of selfhood—a first person pronoun (there are many in Japanese) in the first, the eelishly slippery jibun, which can according to context mean “I” or “you” or “everyone”, in the second. Let’s return to the loach poem and see what else it might reveal.

First, note the calligraphy itself—it’s intentionally childish and easy to read, ugly in places even. Aida was an accomplished calligrapher but chose not to be for most of his life, as part of his philosophy of suteru, the discarding of the unnecessary. He is a deft exploiter of the tension between cursive hiragana script and denser, angular kanji characters: here, “loach” could (just about) be written 泥鰌 (though few could read it) and “imitate” could be written 真似—but they’re not, which leaves only “goldfish” (金魚) privileged with kanji, befitting its  exalted, unreachable station within the poem. The fourth line (reading from right to left) ends with a manly “dayonaa” auxiliary question tag, meaning (here) “do they?” and what works well here (and in the many other places Aida employs it) is the gaping mouth-void infinity of the final “a” syllable (あ).

Oriental weather loaches are reputed to live up to a decade in captivity. No one of sound mind would expect our new Prime Minister to last that long. If Noda is a loach, then he has surrounded himself with a cabinet of minnows, as the DPJ, on its third prime minister in two years, has run out of talent. Already, the gaffes have started, with the defense minister cheerily confessing that he knows nothing of his brief. Already, the scandals are swirling, with tales that Noda received donations from a Korean resident, which would be illegal. The most loach-like of the post-Bubble incumbents of the prime ministerial chair, Keizo Obuchi and Yasuo Fukuda, lasted 615 and 364 days, respectively, which does not augur well for a a loach’s long reign in a world full of sharks.

A friend crunched the numbers on the general longevity of Japanese prime ministers and animatedly reported the following:

Still, I don’t think we should be too harsh on [departing prime minister] Kan… After all his 451 days is only 25% below the average span since 1885 of 611 days.

The average since WWII (Higashikuni) is 730 days, but if you exclude outliers (i.e., long-standers over 1,000 days) like Yoshida, Kishi, Ikeda, Sato, Nakasone and Koizumi, the average is only 461, almost bang in line with Mr K!

Similarly since the Bubble (Kaifu) the average is 576, but exclude Koizumi and the average is 468!  Has anything really changed?  A bit like the summers of your childhood always being warm and sunny perhaps? 

I guess the really shocking part is that even during the 1955-2009 LDP period the average was only 799 days, without the government even losing an election!

This analysis, I think, reveals an important point: that however much the revolving-door premiership may irk foreign dignitaries (former Brazilian president Lula quipped that in Japan, you say good morning to one prime minister and good afternoon to another), the lifespans of the highest elected servants in the land are of mayfly brevity and are unlikely to be lengthened anytime soon. It also ever-so-seditiously hints at something the leader-writers would rather not hear: that in a pen-pusher nation running on autopilot it may not matter very much who is prime minister and how long they last.

So how long might Noda have? The first electoral obstacle he faces will come in less than 400 days, as the absurd party rules of the DPJ dictate there must be another leadership election by the end of September 2012. If he remains popular (unlikely), he will probably be returned uncontested. If he is in the doghouse (likely), he will almost certainly lose. In the 400 days between now and then, almost anything could cause him to trip and fall. But that’s okay, as Aida, a poet who is all about tripping and falling, would no doubt have counseled. One of his longer and to me most magnificent poems, which is of all things about judo—and Noda is a black belt in judo—begins like this:

柔道の基本は受身
受身とは投げ飛ばされる練習
人の前で叩きつけられる練習
人の前でころぶ練習
人の前で負ける練習です。

The essence of judo is the defensive stance
The defensive stance is about being thrown down
About being flung down in front of people
About falling in front of people
About losing in front of people

[With many thanks to A.P. for the number-cruching.]