February 22, 2008; Volume 04, Number 06

of the

Japan Considered Podcast

[Listen to the audio file by clicking here]

Clink Links Below for Today's Topics

The Bilateral Investigation of the Tainted Gyoza Continues
Collision of an MSDF Destroyer and a Pleasure Fishing Boat
Another Suspected Rape Incident in Okinawa Involving U.S. Military Personnel
Concluding Comments

Good Morning from Beautiful Spring Valley. In the Midlands of South Carolina. Today is Friday, February 22, 2008. And you are listening to Volume 04, Number 06, of the Japan Considered Podcast.


Thanks for dropping by today. Sorry to have missed you last week. Last Friday’s program got washed out by continuing day job obligations and the opportunity to visit my dad in North Carolina. But we’re here today, enjoying this cool, rainy weather in South Carolina’s Midlands. Well, really, it’s pretty darn cold. Given the rain. Still, though, better than most of the rest of the country, according to the Weather Channel.

The gloomy weather outside provides the ideal backdrop for today’s program. We have to consider several topics that will bring us no joy or optimism. Either the specific events under consideration. Or the response of the Fukuda Cabinet. Pretty gloomy stuff. On a more encouraging note, there’s additional evidence, though, that movement toward reorganization of Japan’s political party system continues. Talk of genuine Popularists growing more and more frustrated with their parties’ leadership. Mostly, still rumor, and shadows on the wall of the cave. But perhaps more on that next week.

We’ll begin today with the Government’s response to the collision of a Maritime Self Defense Forces destroyer with a fishing boat. Then the tragedy of another suspected rape incident in Okinawa involving a member of the U.S. military. All pretty dismal material. So, those of you prone to depression, be forewarned!

The Bilateral Investigation of the Tainted Gyoza Continues

First, though, one significant exception to this gloomy recitation. That is continuation of the bilateral investigation of tainted gyoza imported from China that we considered on the last program. The investigation continues. And the good news continues to be that neither government has surrendered to the temptation to use this issue to promote public ill-feeling against the other country. Neither Tokyo nor Beijing. And, given the sensitivity of the issue, it would be an easy thing for either government to do.

Soon after our last program, Japan’s National Police Agency began to play a more central role in the effort. Taking charge of investigations. Examining contaminated gyoza in their more sophisticated central labs. Indicating suspicion of criminal intent rather than more benign accidental contamination during preparation. Members of China’s Public Security Ministry have been involved in the investigation on the Chinese side from the beginning. On Wednesday, police investigators from China visited Japan and joined their Japanese police counterparts in two days of meetings. Arranged to facilitate the investigation, and avoid unnecessary finger-pointing. Those meetings ended today on quite a positive note.

No conclusion as to cause, to be sure. But the very fact such a bilateral meeting of police agency representatives could be held at all seems to me a positive development in the bilateral relationship. Japan’s police officials will reciprocate with a visit to China next week. Japan’s wire services today reported that the Chinese side declined to accept Japan’s contention that the contamination had to have taken place in China. But such a position by China’s police representatives is quite understandable at this point in the investigation.

In addition to effective cooperation at the police level, Japan’s press reported today that the contaminated gyoza incident became a topic of discussion at the political level. Including conversations between State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan and Prime Minister Fukuda today. Tang, a former Chinese foreign minister, is visiting Japan to prepare for President Hu Jintao’s visit to Japan later in the year. Fukuda and Tang agreed that Japan and China should hold regular bilateral meetings on food safety issues.

Sooo, nothing yet has been settled, or determined. But the situation easily could be much worse. With emotional public mutual accusations. Cancellations of planned visits. Waving of bloody shirts. And son on. But, none of that. So far. Both Tokyo and Beijing hope to see President Hu Jintao make a successful visit to Japan. Beijing is especially concerned about the effect of the gyoza contamination issue on the Olympic Games they are scheduled to host later in the year. And, is it possible – this is pure speculation, now – that careful handling of the contaminated gyoza issue may help China and Japan reach at least a partial agreement on the East China Sea gas exploration issue. An even more difficult problem for the diplomatic representatives of both countries. Let’s hope. I’ll try to keep you posted.

Collision of an MSDF Destroyer and a Pleasure Fishing Boat

Now, let’s turn to consideration of the government’s response to an unfortunate maritime accident on Tuesday, the 19th.

First, though, a caveat. I have no experience or expertise when it comes to boats. Large or small. Military or civilian. Beyond being temporarily accommodated in years past from time to time. So, I’m in no position to evaluate what actually happened. However, on this program our purpose is to better understand Japan’s domestic political processes. So, our emphasis today will be on how the Fukuda Cabinet, and the rest of the government, responded to the event. And to subsequent media coverage of the event. Rather than on the specifics of the event itself.

According to Japanese press reports, early Tuesday morning, the 19th, a Maritime Self Defense Force destroyer, the Atago, struck a small fishing boat. Splitting it in two. The occupants of the fishing boat, a father and son, were searched for immediately. But not found. The accident occurred just after 4:00 a.m. Off the coast of Chiba Prefecture in the Pacific Ocean. It was dark at 4:00 a.m. But conditions in the area of the accident were reported to be relatively normal. With a 25-knot wind and visibility of around 2 kilometers, or so.

I read initial reports of the accident early Tuesday morning. And didn’t think much about it. Beyond the tragedy it represented for the family of the missing fishing boat crew. And the thought it was odd that an MSDF vessel equipped with sophisticated Aegis radar would be involved in such a problem. Given maritime traffic, civilian and military, around Japan’s coastline it’s a mystery to me why there aren’t more accidents of this sort. Yet this was the first collision reported between a Japanese military vessel and a civilian craft in nearly twenty years. So I had no idea early Tuesday morning, U.S. time, that we would be considering this incident on the program today.

However, by Wednesday, day before yesterday, the Fukuda Cabinet found itself with yet another political crisis on its hands. Japan’s print and electronic media were full of front-page reports of the incident. Providing specific, though often conflicting, details of what had happened. And why.

Those early press reports focused on the news that Prime Minister Fukuda had not been informed of the incident until around 6:00 a.m. Two hours after it happened. And that Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba didn’t learn of the accident until 5:30 a.m. Or 90 minutes after it happened. Hmmm.

By Wednesday morning, nearly all of Japan’s print and electronic communications media were opining that this delayed notification of the Prime Minister and Minister of Defense represented a failure of Japan’s national crisis management system! Indeed, Prime Minister Fukuda himself, during a Tuesday meeting with the press, complained about the length of time it took for him to learn of the incident. And expressed irritation at not being awakened.

This puzzled me. Certainly the loss of two lives was a great tragedy. A tragedy compounded by the involvement of a Japanese military vessel. But I found it hard to imagine the prime minister, or even the minister of defense being awakened at 4:30 a.m., or at 5:00 a.m., to be informed that such an accident had happened. A human tragedy? Undoubtedly. But a failure of the national crisis management system? That seemed to me to be quite a stretch. And still does.

So, why all of this media attention to this aspect of the issue? Was it the work of the usual suspects in Japan’s communications media world? The LDP-allergic left-leaning contingent? Well, they certainly proved willing to play up the message. But, so did all of the other print and electronic media. Even those normally less blatantly hostile to the incumbent government. So I began to search my recent files of Japan media stories for explanations. And finally found one.

Found it in a Japanese news wire story filed Tuesday evening, February 19th. The very day of the incident. This article reported details of a Tuesday morning meeting of the LDP’s General Council. Or Soumukai. Held just hours after the Atago incident.

According to the wire report, some of the senior participants in the meeting openly criticized the Fukuda Cabinet’s handling of the issue. Predicting that their response to the problem would further weaken public approval of the Fukuda Cabinet. Others urged Defense Minister Ishiba to resign his post. To take responsibility for the accident, and/or for the failure of the national crisis management system. LDP secretary general, Bunmei Ibuki, was even quoted by name in the article as critical of Fukuda’s leadership abilities.

So, it appears likely that anti-Fukuda elements within the LDP itself encouraged Japan’s communications media to pounce upon this question of proper management of the problem. Of the timing of the notification of the prime minister and defense minister. And the conclusion that it represented a flaw in the Kantei’s national crisis management system. Not that most of the press needed much encouragement! And, of course, before long, DPJ members added their voices to the critical chorus. With dark threats of an Upper House censure resolution against Defense Minister Ishiba if he didn’t resign.

Politics! Pure and simple. What we deal with on this program! So, I began to watch this event more closely on Wednesday. Wondering how the Fukuda Cabinet would respond. Expecting them to put the specifics of the unfortunate event into perspective. Expressing sincere sympathy for the families of the lost fishermen. While correcting the notion that the event represented a threat to Japan that might reasonably be described as a national security crisis. Gently chiding those responsible for “playing politics” with such a traumatic issue. And so on. At the same time, offering a clear, reasonable, explanation of exactly what went wrong, and why. And what was to be done to avoid future occurrences.

Well, they didn’t! Instead they remained in response – or defensive – mode throughout the day. Indeed, they still appear to be in defensive mode! Providing careful, bureaucratically vetted, explanations of events, and a minimum of supporting evidence. Resulting, of course, in continuation of media attacks on the Cabinet, the Ministry of Defense, and on Prime Minister Fukuda and Defense Minister Ishiba personally. Guaranteeing the story will stay above the fold on the front page for days to come.

To be fair, especially given recent events, such as the Moriya corruption scandal, and the long-standing reservoir of anti-military sentiment in much of Japan’s communications media, any issue related to the Ministry of Defense would be hard to handle. But it wouldn’t hurt, at least to try!

By Thursday, yesterday, Japanese media criticism of the government’s handling of the Atago collision incident had shifted significantly. Emphasis was no longer on failure to awaken Prime Minister Fukuda at 4:00 a.m.  And how that represented a threat to national security. It shifted instead to more reasonable criticism of the government’s willingness to provide the media with reliable information about the incident itself. With the obvious implication that the government – specifically the Cabinet and Ministry of Defense – was trying to protect the crew members of the Atago from blame for the collision. That they had something to hide, in other words. Though Japan’s MSDF is widely recognized as one of the world’s most professional naval services.

However, that criticism of the government’s attitude makes more sense. And, will be more difficult for the government’s communications specialists to handle. Given the sensitivity of the issue. And, as of today, Friday, that’s where we stand. Minister Ishiba has removed the Maritime Self Defense Force chief of staff, Eiji Yoshikawa. But the reason given was failure to awaken him immediately when the incident was first reported! And Ishiba’s declined to resign himself. Investigative commissions have been appointed with instructions to “get to the bottom” of the issue. While print and electronic journalists scramble to persuade anyone with direct knowledge of the incident to tell them what actually happened. Prime Minister Fukuda has expressed support for Ishiba. Or said, at least, that he has no intention of asking for his resignation.

So, for me at least, this whole Atago collision incident further illustrates the degree to which the current Fukuda Cabinet relies upon the government bureaucracy, rather than on their own political skills, when faced with challenge. But it certainly does nothing to inspire confidence in the political abilities of the incumbent cabinet. And they are, after all, political people! I’ll keep an eye on this, and report back next week.

Another Suspected Rape Incident in Okinawa Involving U.S. Military Personnel

Finally today, one more gloomy topic. Another suspected rape incident on Okinawa involving a U.S. serviceman.

This issue, I believe, has significance for both foci of this program. Both for Japan’s domestic politics, and for Japan’s conduct of international relations. It’s been front-page news in Japan, now, since the middle of the month. And it shows no sign of disappearing soon. So, let’s have a brief look. First at what happened. At least, as much as we know with any confidence. And then at the political response in Japan.

First, the events. Early Monday morning, February 11th, police arrested a U.S. staff sergeant in Okinawa on suspicion of raping a 14-year-old girl the previous evening, at around 10:30 p.m. Japan’s print and electronic media provided detailed coverage of the arrest, beginning on the 11th. Coverage that has continued until today. And is likely to continue for some time yet.

The early reports on Monday included specific details of the charge, the name of the arrested serviceman, and his denial of the specifics of the crime. Nearly all early media reports I saw included comparisons to the 1995 case in which three American servicemen were charged with raping a 12-year-old Okinawan child. And an incident last year in which an American sailor was sentenced by a Japanese court to life in prison for murdering an Okinawan woman.

Okinawan prefectural and local elected officials, including Governor Hirokazu Nakaima, immediately expressed indignation and outrage upon being informed of the incident. As did Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura, and other senior national government officials in Tokyo. Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs contacted the U.S. embassy with statements of protest. Demanding once again that U.S. military forces stationed in Japan tighten discipline and prevent such incidents.

The Fukuda Cabinet was briefed on the incident at a meeting on Tuesday morning, the 12th. Following the meeting, Foreign Minister Komura expressed concern and regret to the press. And predicted the incident may affect delicate on-going negotiations over realignment of U.S. military forces in Japan. Realignment intended to alleviate some of the resentment felt by the people of Okinawa who alone host over 70 percent of U.S. military personnel assigned to Japan.

Komura then was asked if the Cabinet was considering revision of the Status of Forces Agreement. This agreement, in part, determines the handling of U.S. personnel suspected of committing crimes in Japan. Komura replied that revision now is not being considered. Since nothing in the current Agreement has impeded investigation of the suspected crime. Prime Minister Fukuda later in the day faced questioning about the incident in the Diet. Where he reiterated the government’s position that the incident was deplorable, and that everything possible would be done to prevent future occurrences.

Media coverage of the incident continued throughout the week. With few new details beyond those already known. Groups and individuals in Okinawa, and throughout Japan, that long have opposed Japan’s military alliance with the United States played a prominent role in the Okinawan reaction. They predictably described the incident as additional evidence U.S. military forces should be removed from Okinawa and the rest of Japan. Less radical organizations and individuals demanded more effective discipline on the part of U.S. military personnel. And, in many cases, revisions of the Status of Forces Agreement. Revisions that would provide Japanese police and prosecutors with more effective control of such situations.

In the midst of all this, on Monday, the 18th, Japan’s press reported the arrest of two more American servicemen. One on Sunday, charged with drunk driving. And another early Monday morning. Charged with trespass. When found passed out on a sofa in the living room of a private home.

These incidents both were considerably less serious than the rape charge that ignited the current wave of concern. But they occurred in the very midst of the earlier investigation. Just as Japanese authorities were demanding more effective discipline among U.S. military personnel. And U.S. authorities were assuring their Japanese counterparts that everything possible was being done to improve discipline. So they added credibility to the claims of Japan’s anti-military protestors that the current situation was dangerous, and required fundamental change.

In light of these developments, on Tuesday, the 19th, U.S. Forces Japan announced imposition of a comprehensive curfew. This time, a 24-hour curfew. With all personnel and dependents prohibited from leaving their military installations. And personnel living off-base restricted to quarters. This until further notice. In addition, today, the 22nd, has been designated by U.S. Forces Japan as “a day of reflection.”

And that’s where things now stand. This issue puts Japan’s central political leaders in an acute bind. They fully recognize public resentment generated by gross misbehavior on the part of foreign military personnel stationed in their country. And expectations of the attentive public that they will somehow respond.

Yet they also recognize how interests long opposed to Japan’s military alliance with the United States have exploited the situation to press their own political objectives. Tokyo’s challenge is to cope with the situation while avoiding damage to the delicate balance required to maintain the U.S. alliance. Still an essential element of Japan’s national defense.

Japan today is in no position to end that alliance. And to expand Japan’s own military forces adequately to compensate for the loss termination of the alliance would require. Quite a challenge. Especially for a Cabinet that has had difficulty coping with much less difficult problems in the recent past. We’ll have to keep an eye on developments in Okinawa as well. I’ll try to keep you posted.

Concluding Comments

Much more to be said on all of these issues. But we’re rapidly approaching our time limit. These and more will just have to wait until next week. In the meantime, here’s a short clip of bluegrass to tide you over. Given all of this gloom, let’s hear a clip from the incomparable Tony Rice’s “Sweet Sunny South.” That should help.

[bluegrass clip]

Goodbye all. Until next week.