February 6, 2009; Volume 05, Number 05

of the

Japan Considered Podcast

[Listen to the audio file by clicking here]

Clink Links Below for Today's Topics

International Events: Border Dispute With Russia
North Korea Waves its Long-Range Missiles Again
Japan’s Domestic Political Situation
Concluding Comments

Good Morning! From beautiful Spring Valley. In the Midlands of South Carolina. Today is Friday, February 6th, 2009. And you are listening to Volume 05, Number 05, of the Japan Considered Podcast.


Yes, back home again in the regular studio. With no excuse for poor sound quality. Well. Even this isn’t a broadcast-level set-up. By any means. But it sure is easier to work with than a headset and laptop computer!

Back home for a few days, with no Mobile Studio travel planned until around the middle of the month. Thanks to all of you who’ve written in about one or more of the interviews we’ve began the year with. What a response! There’s just no way I’ll be able to respond to each note. But I do read them all. Agree or disagree. It doesn’t matter.

Speaking of agree or disagree, a number of listeners have written in to say they’re surprised that guests often express opinions quite different from my own when they come on the program. Some even chiding me for “letting them get away with saying …” this or that, without effective rebuttal.

Well, it’s just not that sort of program. In every case, the guest knows full well that we disagree. In some cases, I’ve even encouraged guests beforehand to express such opinions more explicitly. I think this mode of operation offers a better signal-to-noise ratio. Allowing all of us to learn more per unit of time invested. None of that silly bickering we see so much of on television pseudo-news programs. And find on many internet newsgroups. I hope so, anyway.

This week, we’ll return to Japan’s domestic politics. With a look at regional alternatives to the slapstick situation we see in Tokyo. I’ve watched the fascinating goings-on in Tokyo for over four decades now. But can’t recall a more confusing time. Or, rather, a time more difficult to make sense of.

International Events: Border Dispute With Russia

First, though, a brief look at an interesting international development. One that hasn’t received much attention beyond some reporting in Japan’s political media. That is, an on-going border flap with Russia. Puzzling in a number of ways. Especially given the timing.

On Tuesday, January 27th, a ship carrying humanitarian aid supplies left Nemuro, Hokkaido, headed for Kunashiri. One of the “Northern Territories” islands now occupied by Russia. But it turned back without landing its cargo. A decision, Japanese government officials said, was made after Russian immigration officials insisted that the ship’s party submit disembarkation cards before allowing it to land.

They refused to fill out the forms because that might be interpreted as Japanese recognition of Russia’s right to occupy the islands! So, on Thursday, the 31st, the ship, its 13-million-yen cargo of humanitarian aid, and the accompanying group of Foreign Ministry officials and island former residents, steamed back to Nemuro, Hokkaido. And Japan announced cancellation of the humanitarian aid program.

Kunashiri’s sovereignty, you’ll recall, has been disputed by Russia and Japan since the end of World War Two. Resolution of this sovereignty dispute has been a key sticking point in concluding a Japan-Russia peace treaty. Russian Federation troops have continued to occupy the islands of the Northern Territories since the USSR’s invasion just after Japan’s surrender at the end of WWII.

Japanese government spokesmen the same day told the media what happened. Characterizing the Russian demand for disembarkation cards as unreasonable. An obvious effort to assert Russian sovereignty over the islands. When such visits for humanitarian purposes had been agreed upon since 1998. And, had been conducted in the past without incident. With only Foreign Ministry-issued identification documents required. Why the sudden change?

Especially given the timing! Preparations have been under way for some months now for a visit to Japan by Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin. Japan’s press has carried speculation about all that might be accomplished during the visit. Including, possibly even, settlement of the long-vexing Northern Territories issue. Russia also recently invited Prime Minister Aso later this month to Sakhalin to celebrate the beginning of LNG exports from there to Japan. Further, given the delicate state of the 6-Party talks on North Korea, it seems as though both Japan and Russia have an interest in maintaining friendly bilateral relations. All considered, couldn’t this problem have been “handled” somehow?

Sooo, Japan lodged a formal protest with the Russian government. Noting the 1992 agreement on visa-free visits, and the 1998 agreement on required documentation. For its part, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesmen have denied responsibility for the incident. Noting that Russian legislation passed in 2006 tightened Russia’s border regulations. Arguing that such procedures are necessary to keep track of just who’s coming and going. And that it’s the same all over Russia!

Further, it turns out the Russian government had notified Tokyo the previous Friday that disembarkation cards would be required of the ship’s crew when they landed. Even though that requirement had been waived in 2007 and 2008 after passage of the new law. Yet Japan sent the ship anyway. It seems likely the Japanese Foreign Ministry officials accompanying the shipload of humanitarian aid would have known about Russia’s warning. But decided to go ahead and see what would happen. So, the whole thing isn’t entirely one-sided, by any means.

All we can do is hope the point’s been made – by whichever side is trying to make the point. And that this incident won’t stand in the way of progress in the Japan-Russia relationship during the next month or so. I’ll try to keep you posted.

North Korea Waves its Long-Range Missiles Again

One more international issue requires mention here before we turn to domestic politics. That is recent articles in the Japanese, South Korean, European, and Russian press reporting suspicions that North Korea is preparing for another missile launch. Long-time listeners will recall that we went through a similar exercise in 2006. I’ll put a link in the program transcript to that program. And a couple of times during the 1990s before Japan Considered was on the air. This current round of North Korean missile-waving appears to have both similarities and differences. So, we’ll take a brief look.

Papers in South Korea have been reporting since at least mid-January of this year on North Korea’s long-range missile development. Together with Pyongyang’s new round of threats against South Korea. And against its new, more conservative, less concession-minded, Lee presidential administration. The January reports focused on North Korean plans to launch its own satellite. A project that would explain the more sophisticated rocket launch facilities now under construction on North Korea’s west coast. And, presumably, more sophisticated multi-stage missiles as well. Obviously, those upgraded launch facilities and more sophisticated missiles could also be used to launch long-range weapons as well. Maybe even nuclear or chemical weapons!

Those reports from Seoul resonated loudly in Tokyo. Japan has vivid memories of the 1998 flight of Pyongyang’s Taepodong-1 missiles over Japanese territory. A sobering experience, to be sure. But one that, on some level, just had to please those in Japan calling for stronger, more independent, military defense capabilities. Previous North Korean missile “tests” hadn’t really amounted to much. Beyond stimulating Japan’s development of indigenous military capabilities. But would the improvements recently reported make Japan even more vulnerable to North Korean missile blackmail?

It’s always hard to make sense of such matters when relying exclusively on communications media reports. Or even on off-the-record comments made by folks who are in a position to know more about just what’s going on. We’ve talked about this problem many times before on this program. How release of information to the communications media is an important – essential – element of diplomatic negotiations today. But, as a long-time friend with decades of media experience once advised, “you’ve got to go with what you’ve got!” Sooo, we will. Recognizing the problems inherent in the process.

This Monday, the 2nd, South Korea’s media began reporting that North Korea was preparing to test-launch a two-stage missile able to carry a nuclear payload. One that might even reach the United States! Described as a Taepodong-2. That report was picked up in Japan by Sankei Shimbun the following day, Tuesday. Both Yonhap and Sankei said they received their information from “military sources in both South Korea and the United States.” Anonymously, of course. And that same day, Russia’s Tass news service, reporting from Tokyo, began carrying detailed information about the suspicious train and its implications. By late Tuesday, more of Japan’s media outlets had picked up the story. With their reports differing only in the background material their editors chose to provide.

According to these reports, the conclusion that North Korea was about to test-fire their souped-up version of the Taepodong-2 missile was based on highly classified satellite images. Images of a train that recently steamed out of a known munitions factory near Pyongyang. The thing that caught the spy satellite’s eye, so to speak, was its suspicious, long tube-looking cargo. Speculation was that this suspicious tubular cargo was an upgraded two-stage missile. And that the train was headed either to the improved launch site on the west coast, or maybe to another launch site.

Now, I’m the rankest of amateurs on satellites, missiles, and other such matters. But it seems highly unlikely to me that any self-respecting journalist – Korean, Japanese, or Russian – would accept the notion that North Korea was transporting a two-stage ICBM to its launch site based only on a satellite picture of a train carrying a long, tube-like, suspicious-looking package. They had to given more information than that when they were briefed by their anonymous information sources. It would be nice to know just what that information was….

When asked to comment on the reports, official spokesmen from Japan’s Foreign and Defense Ministries refused to elaborate. But they made no effort to deny the reports either. By Wednesday, the 4th, though, government spokesmen in Japan, South Korea, and even the United States, were publicly warning Pyongyang that any test-launch of a two-stage ICBM capable of carrying nuclear or chemical payloads would be considered a “provocative” act. I’m not sure what the phrase “provocative act” means these days in diplomatic parlance. But it used to mean an act that would justify retaliation of some kind. Hmmm.

Now, what does all of this amount to? Much depends on North Korea’s intentions. What are they trying to accomplish with their train and its dubious cargo? The most popular media speculation is that Pyongyang is trying to “send a message” to the newly-arrived Obama Administration. If so, what sort of a message are they trying to send? That they are dangerous? That they are unpredictable? That they don’t like being pushed around? Hmmm. That’s all pretty old news.

During an earlier North Korean missile launching go-around there was informed speculation that Pyongyang’s motives were more commercial. That their intended audience was potential customers for North Korean weapons. That hasn’t been mentioned this time. At least, not that I’ve seen. One possibility that has been mentioned is disagreement among the civilian and military sectors of North Korea’s central government. With the military contingent pursuing a tougher line, without the civilian sector’s approval. Maybe so. But again, to what end?

Of course, all of this could simply be a smoke-and-mirrors operation. Perpetrated by the North Koreans. Or, by the North Koreans’ opponents. The suspicious-looking object seen by the satellites might be just a hoax. Cardboard and tarps arranged to look to a satellite like a two-stage missile. Or, North Korea’s adversaries might have exaggerated the product of their satellite observations. Provided international news outlets with dramatic briefings intended to produce just the sort of reporting that resulted. To give Pyongyang something else to worry about. We’ll probably never know for sure.

But, so what? As we often ask here. What are the likely consequences of what we actually know. That is, the articles that have appeared in the communications media? And the official responses they’ve elicited.

Well, it’s certain to heighten Japan’s sense of military insecurity. Making defense alliance relationships, and enhanced self-defense efforts, all the more attractive. As happened in 1998. Just as Japan is debating the final size of its Ministry of Defense budget for the next fiscal year! It’s also likely to deepen suspicions in Washington about Pyongyang’s reliability as a negotiating partner. And at a very delicate time. With a new cast of characters managing U.S. international relations. Mostly new, anyway. Some of whom might well have proven more sympathetic to North Korea. This certainly won’t help.

How about the effect on the Six-Party Talks on North Korea’s denuclearization we’ve discussed so often on this program? A constant source of pressure and concern for Pyongyang. To date, isolating Japan diplomatically, and weakening the United States-Japan relationship overall, has been an important North Korean objective in those Six-Party Talks. This latest two-stage missile test speculation won’t help that. Indeed, it’s likely to have the opposite effect.

And, finally, what about the effect on the United Nations? Under its recently elected South Korean secretary general, Ban Ki-Moon? The United Nations is on record opposing such North Korean missile tests. Indeed, two 2006 Resolutions-worth of opposition! Such blatant disregard for United Nations’ positions can only weaken Pyongyang’s position with that organization.

So, it’s a puzzle. Perhaps Pyongyang knows what it’s doing. And years later we’ll look back and evaluate this as a brilliant diplomatic move. If, indeed, all of this has been Pyongyang’s doing! Or, perhaps it all will be explained as yet another desperate act by a desperate regime trying its best to cling to power in its increasingly hostile domestic and international environments. I’ll try to keep you posted.

Japan’s Domestic Political Situation

It’s been a while since we’ve considered national-level domestic politics in Japan. But, truth be told, you really haven’t missed much. Well, that’s not quite true. In fact, during the past few months, the Aso Administration has provided us with one fascinating scene after another. At least fascinating to those of us who’ve spent our lives studying Japan’s domestic politics. Lots going on. Lots of movement. A surprising amount of interesting news media material coming out weekly, as well. If not daily. We’re sure learning more about the strengths – and weaknesses – of Japan’s traditional political system at the national level.

But does it all really matter? An old friend recently compared current Japanese national politics with the goings-on in their Edo capital of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Toward the end. During the late Bakumatsu period. He may well have a point! As we all know, in the early 1860s we’d have had to travel to Japan’s provinces to discover what really mattered. The farther from Edo the better! And, of course, to Kyoto, then the emperor’s capital.

In Edo, Shogunate leaders were bustling around, struggling – unsuccessfully – to maintain the status quo. A strategy that had served them remarkably well. For the past 250 years or so. But dramatic changes in Japan’s mid-19th century domestic and international environments rendered those efforts ineffective. Ill-advised. Even disastrous! Those who recognized the environmental changes, and correctly interpreted their significance, carried the day. And nearly all of those observant folks in the Bakumatsu period were to be found outside of Edo, the Tokugawa capital. That, of course, is the site of present-day Tokyo. Hmmm.

Could it be that Japan once again will be re-directed by new political leaders who emerge from the hinterlands? Individuals whose personal political survival doesn’t depend on maintaining the traditional status-quo? A status quo that’s served Japan so well for most of the post-World War Two era. Maybe so. Stranger things have happened.

Ah, one skeptical auditor of this slap-dash historical analogy recently commented. “But today, there are no ‘Kurofune’ in Tokyo Bay!” “Kurofune,” of course, referring to the menacing “black” war ships of foreign powers demanding that Japan end its isolation from the Western world. Or face the consequences.

Quite true. However! Japan’s central government now faces changes in its international environment that may be just as pressing. Adaptation to the end of the Cold War, for example. And, coupled with that, changes in Japan’s relationship with the United States. For that matter, changes in Japan’s relationships with Mainland China and other close East Asian neighbors. I could go on and on here. But the key point, I believe, is that more effective national leadership is required to cope successfully with all of these international environmental changes. A more effective central political executive that is, given Japan’s current constitutional government. Adherence to the status quo simply won’t answer any longer! No matter the effect change will have on the fortunes of incumbent politicians!

I’ve been making this argument for some time on this program. Even before the program began, in fact. But is there any evidence to support it? Well, maybe! It’s even more difficult to keep track of prefectural and local politics in Japan from afar than it is central politics in Tokyo. Yet to the extent possible, I’ve watched politics outside Tokyo for evidence of the emergence of just such potential leaders. And the organizations essential in this democratic age to support them. There are a few candidates. And we probably should keep at least one eye on them in the months to come. Others are bound to emerge.

We considered one such organization early last year. “Sentaku.” I’ll put links in the transcript file to transcripts of those previous mentions.

Click here for the January 18, 2008 comments

Click here for the January 25, 2008 comments

Click here for the April 18, 2008 comments

No time now to provide background on “Sentaku.” Those of you interested can refer to the past program transcript links. Masayasu Kitagawa has been the driving force behind this regionally-based organization. He now teaches at Waseda’s Okuma School of Public Management. I’ll put a link to his personal website in the transcript. But although he’s operating out of Waseda University, Kitagawa’s no Ivory Tower political “wannabe.” He was elected to the Mie Prefectural Assembly at the end of 1972, where he served 3 terms. Then to the Lower House in Tokyo in 1983. For four terms. In 1995 he left the Diet to become governor of Mie Prefecture. Serving there for two very successful terms.

Then, in a most unusual career move for a politician, Kitagawa declined the opportunity to return to the Lower House at the end of his second term as governor. And joined Waseda’s faculty in 2003. From that perch he’s promoted “political reform” projects, such as “Sentaku.” Sentaku’s parent organization, the National Congress on 21st Century Japan. And an institute that promotes political party “manifestos” in Japan. He’s also a frequent guest on Japan’s political TV programs these days.

Kitagawa, I think, is worth watching. He’s serious about political reform. He understands electoral politics. He understands how to promote political ideas within Japan’s new domestic political environment. And he’s tough as nails.

In addition to Masayasu Kitagawa, a few of Japan’s governors have received an unusual amount of attention in Japan’s national media lately. Especially interesting in that group are Hideo Higashikokubaru of Miyazaki, and Toru Hashimoto of Osaka. Both of these governors have well-deserved reputations as zealous “reformers.” Both are tireless self-promoters. Who understand how to use the media, especially television, to communicate with the general public. I’ve recently spent some time comparing video tapes of Prime Minister Aso before the Diet Budget Committee with tapes of Higashikokubaru and Hashimoto. Night and day! Both Higashikokubaru and Hashimoto before becoming governor had considerable TV media experience. The former as a noted comedian, and the latter as a popular television lawyer. And it shows. We’re bound to hear more about these two in the months to come.

Concluding Comments

Well, we’re out of time again. Lots more to say about the importance of political goings-on outside of Tokyo. Or, outside the Diet. But it will have to wait. Next week I hope to focus on the problems facing the LDP and the “Trials of Taro.” In the meantime, please continue to send your comments and suggestions for the program to me directly at RobertCAngel@gmail.com. I read them all and take each one into consideration while preparing future programs. So,

Goodbye all. Until next time.