Tuesday, October 20, 2009


by Philip J Cunningham

Is Japan changing for real? To get a better sense of how Japan is and isn't changing with the urbane Yukio Hatoyama at the helm, in the wake of the Democratic Party of Japan’s stunning electoral victory over the entrenched Liberal Democratic, consider these news stories from around the Japanese archipelago.

First, zoom in on the half-unfinished Yamba Dam in rural Gunma, to see how a multi-billion dollar boondoggle can be stopped dead in its tracks. The LDP, incumbents of a half-century standing, have made an art of pouring money, largely in the form of cement, to rural constituencies scattered around the archipelago, rewarding electoral loyalty while denuding and desecrating the environment with dams, bridges and highways to nowhere.

Hatoyama, in power for little more than a week, suspended the dam project. If there is truly change in the air, it is in the realm of cutbacks on pork-barrel spending. The controversial supplementary budget, a last-dash effort inked by the LDP as it was sinking into obscurity, has been scrapped and the overall budget has been massively trimmed.

Now pull back from the rice fields and hills of Gunma and zoom in on the shimmering Tokyo megalopolis, the largest concentration of human beings on earth, with some 40 million people clustered within a 40 kilometer radius. Not too much green here, but not too many roads to nowhere either; instead a vast, vibrant, complex inter-connected living, breathing super-organism with an arterial system of asphalt and iron; electricity and light, a steady flow of trains and automobiles, but what, no international airport?

Only far-away Narita.

The LDP during the height of its power operated much as an authoritarian communist party might have done in the same era. A swath of isolated rice farms in Chiba was decreed to be the new Tokyo International Airport, even though the project was bitterly opposed by Narita locals from the start, and has been inconveniencing travelers ever since. Situated an incomprehensible 60 kilometers outside of city center, it's an airport only big-time investors in infrastructure and social engineers hoping to discourage the hoi polloi from traveling, could love. in effect banishing the gateway of Tokyo to Chiba.

It was the sort of inconvenience to which one could only sigh "shoganai" as it could not be helped, at least not while the LDP remained in power. Long after violent clashes ceased, Narita remained an armed, barb-wired camp, subjecting visitors to intimidating, but largely theatrical, Star War trooper controls.

Then the LDP loses power and within weeks the DPJ’s Land and Transport Minister, Seiji Maehara, makes a bold proposal, suggesting that homely Haneda Airport, located on Tokyo Bay, snugly close to downtown, be the new hub. What? Move the gateway of Tokyo to Tokyo itself? What an idea! And why not?

Narita, like its patron party the LDP, has too long enjoyed a monopoly at the expense of others. But it has been failing on its own terms as well; it's inconvenience has not discouraged Japan's stoic traveling set from spending yen overseas, but it has stemmed the inflow of tourists and their cash. Foreigners, especially those in need of connecting flights, or on urgent business, bridle at the thought of over-nighting in Narita or detouring through the rice paddies of Chiba on bus and on over-priced trains.

One only need to consider the new airports in Inchon, Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong to see how Japan isolates itself, with Narita looking more and more a relic of the 1970's sorry domestic politics.

Maehara's bold bid did not go unopposed, however, and he back-tracked the next day after Chiba governor Kensaku Morita (a former actor, he goes by his stage name) made veiled threats during a sputtering televised performance full of innuendo, suggesting the old guard won't give up without a fight.

Zoom away from the troubled waters of Tokyo Bay and zoom in on distant Okinawa, which bears the brunt of the US military footprint in Japan, not just because it is an excellent staging ground for Pacific Ocean policing, but because the better-connected politicians of Japan proper never really took to the sight of uniformed gaijin walking the streets of their prefectures. The result? Outlying Okinawa long ago got stuck with rather more than its share of US bases, partly a legacy of LDP politicking.

The DPJ owes it to the under-represented voices of dissent in Okinawa to re-examine decades of back-room deals, but here, again, Hatoyama, soon to meet Obama, must tread gingerly, lest the game of base allocation become a bitter contest of musical chairs with the US military.

A quick leap the length of Japan up to its northernmost extremity followed by a zoom in on some windswept islets suggests that the new government, like the LDP, is haunted by the past, despite its intelligent core leadership and early moves to improve relations with China and Korea.

Land and Transport Minister Maehara, still reeling from the backlash from his Haneda air hub comments, escaped the heat by flying north to the chilly Southern Kuriles, where he staged a nationalistic photo op courtesy of the brashly patriotic Coast Guard, publicly pining for the return of the Russian-held islands. Gazing at the hazy outline of the distant isles, Maehara, born in 1962, said he was "nostalgic" for the old days before the Kuriles were "illegally occupied" by Russia.

Nostalgic for what? The 1940's? The good old days when these desolate, rocky isles were used to stage a brilliant sneak attack on Pearl Harbor? If a bunch of rocks can evoke such passion, imagine the bouts of nostalgia a Japanese nationalist might experience at the sight of former territories such as Korea and Taiwan?

Yet another indication that the sweeping change of power in Japan has failed to sweep away all the cobwebs of the political realm comes from the Wakayama coastal town of Taiji, famous for its unnecessary and unnecessarily brutal whaling and dolphin kills.

No less a luminary than the new foreign minister Okada has unwisely chosen to defend Taiji's defenseless slaughter of marine mammals by using the "culture" argument, which is to say, anything Japanese do that the international community disapproves of is okay, if it can be trumped up as a facet of Japanese culture.

This evokes the ghosts of the LDP past and hints of a Thermidor to come. "Culture" has been used by old school politicians to defend everything from keeping out Thai rice to refusing Russians entry to public baths, from creating structural impediments to foreign products and services, to refusing the full palette of human rights to Japanese of Chinese and Korean descent and resident foreigners.

Hiding behind the culture curtain is a willful act of obfuscation. It is a slippery slope of an argument, popular with tyrants and Taliban alike, and not a promising start for the leading diplomat of the new, reform-minded ruling party.