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Japan’s LGBT Tipping Point

Yesterday, Tokyo hosted the Rainbow Pride Parade – the city’s annual celebration of LGBT people and sexual minorities in Japan, now in its fifth year. The parade is the culmination of a week of Pride-related events, political, social and artistic, and is accompanied by a two-day festival at Yoyogi Park.

The speed with which Rainbow Pride has grown in the past five years is astonishing, and it continues to accelerate. When I first attended four years ago, Pride was a huddle of small booths that barely occupied half of the Yoyogi event space; now, it’s bursting at the seams, with more and more major companies, foreign embassies and retailers vying for space and attention. The parade itself is emblematic of the change; a few years ago, it was a small affair very heavily dominated by foreign faces, and many of the Japanese participants wore sunglasses and face masks to avoid being recognised or pictured. Yesterday, five thousand people marched through Shibuya and Harajuku – the vast majority of them Japanese. Five thousand appears to have been a limit set by some agreement with the authorities, because the numbers could easily have been higher; on Sunday morning, people were being turned away from signing up to march, as the parade was full.

It took almost two hours, standing in the hot sunshine, to see the whole parade pass by on its way back into Yoyogi Park – the marchers being applauded and high-fived by the spectators lining the path as they returned. There were no masks and sunglasses. There were foreigners, of course, but hugely outnumbered by local participants. There were families with children. Large groups of staff from major companies, including family brands like Johnson & Johnson, big banks and financial firms, and tech companies like Google and Netflix, all marched wearing company T-shirts and banners proclaiming the companies’ support for Pride.

None of this would be remarkable in many cities around the world, of course, and Tokyo Rainbow Pride is still a minor affair compared to Asia’s largest Pride event, in Taipei, let alone the huge Pride events in US and European cities. What is truly remarkable, though, is the speed of the growth and the rapid, yet almost unnoticed, change from a culture of anonymity and reluctant activism to genuine, open, “pride”.

In this, Rainbow Pride is merely a useful barometer of deeper, more important changes that are occurring within the fabric of Japanese society itself. More and more universities now have thriving LGBT circles – incidentally, my own university, Waseda, has what I believe is Japan’s oldest student LGBT society, GLOW – and several of them were represented at the Pride Festival, including one from the country’s most prestigious school, Tokyo University. There has been a slow but steady stream of Japanese companies stepping forward to say that they will offer the same benefits to LGBT staff and customers that they do to straight people. Several Japanese political parties now include references to LGBT rights in their manifestoes; the ruling LDP is not among them, but the party’s policy chief, Inada Tomomi, made an official visit to Rainbow Pride on Saturday, becoming the most senior Japanese politician to do so. (While Pride is a fun party, it’s also a serious political event; the address after the end of the parade yesterday was given by US ambassador Caroline Kennedy, who was joined on stage by the British and Irish ambassadors.)

Inada’s public support for Pride is a really interesting thing to think about in the context of the future of LGBT rights in Japan. That’s partially because Inada remains a rising star in the LDP, and many consider her to be a future Prime Minister – a role for which current Prime Minister Abe Shinzo appears to be grooming her. More notable, though, is that Inada is, in general, an ultra-conservative figure. She is a hardline historical revisionist who disputes the accepted history regarding the Rape of Nanjing and WW2 comfort women; she approves of the remilitarisation of Japan, makes regular official visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine and is, like many of her senior LDP peers, a member of the hard-right Nippon Kaigi organisation. You would fully expect someone with this background to be deeply conservative on the issue of LGBT rights; the experience of Western countries has been that conservative nationalists are generally extremely anti-LGBT in their stances. Yet Inada was right there at Rainbow Pride, and directly stated her support for human rights and diversity.

This highlights the key difference between Japan and western countries on the issue of LGBT rights; Japan is not, and has never been, a Christian country. It has no religious problem with homosexuality, though it has imported some negative attitudes from the west – prior to the Meiji Restoration in the late 1800s, at least among the upper classes, homosexuality was seen as an indulgent vice, at worst; even The Tale of Genji, written over a thousand years ago, reveals the eponymous prince’s bisexuality in an entirely matter-of-fact way. Human Rights Watch noted last week that homophobic bullying is a problem in schools, and that many teachers are ignorant of, or actively contributing to, the problem; but by and large, LGBT rights is not a hill that Japanese conservatives are willing to die on. Honestly, most of them don’t really care about it, or know very little about it; unlike conservatives in Western countries, those in Japan are, for the most part, generally disinterested in this whole field, and certainly not prepared to expend significant time or energy in fighting against change or progress.

That’s important, because Japan is at a tipping point for LGBT people. Five thousand smiling, waving people, their faces uncovered, marching through Shibuya’s scramble crossing and down a packed Omotesando on a Sunday afternoon is just the tip of the iceberg. There is a line in Japan’s demographic chart; above it, most LGBT people are in the closet, living double lives and keeping their sexuality, for all intents and purposes, invisible. Below the line, you have LGBT young people who, increasingly commonly, come out to their family, their friends, their classmates and even, sometimes, their employers. Hard data on this is impossible to source, but anecdotally, the proportion of LGBT people in their 20s who live openly is an order of magnitude higher than for those in their 40s. Each year, that demographic line rises up the chart, and more and more young people choose to come out.

That tipping point will be familiar to anyone who knows the history of LGBT rights in the west. It’s the point where coming out of the closet becomes the rule rather than the exception; where coming out becomes a rite of passage for young LGBT people, rather than a rare and often forced event some of them have to endure. It’s the point where society has to confront and seriously think about its attitudes to LGBT people and their needs, because they’re no longer an abstract – strange people who do peculiar things and dress oddly and sometimes make funny jokes on TV – but a concrete living reality; your son or daughter, your brother or sister, your cousin, your best friend, your neighbour, your colleague. The single most powerful weapon in the fight for LGBT rights is actually opening ordinary people’s eyes to the LGBT people around them, among their friends and loved ones. Reaching that point is slow, but once it’s reached, change happens very quickly; “gradually, then suddenly”, as Hemingway would have it.

In the West, that sudden burst of change was opposed bitterly by entrenched conservatives; in Japan, though, there’s no interest or appetite for that fight from the conservative camp. There are plenty of old men in political positions who are utterly ignorant of LGBT issues and say stupid, bigoted things – the world won’t run out of those any time soon – but the prospects for any organised conservative resistance to progress on LGBT rights, once that progress becomes a populist position, are very slim. Once Japan advances beyond the tipping point, change will happen very quickly indeed, and with minimal friction.

Viewed in this light, even the high instance of homophobic bullying in schools can be seen as growing pains; homophobia in schools has risen precisely because it is increasingly common for LGBT students to be open about their identities. This is enormously brave, and it’s heart-rending to hear of them being bullied or taunted for it; but they are of a generation who can’t imagine hiding their sexuality, who would prefer to be bullied than to lie to the world about themselves, and as a result they’re a generation that is going to change Japan profoundly.

Opposition Coordination is no Silver Bullet

Japan held two by-elections yesterday – one in Hokkaido 5th District, which has been without an MP since the death of veteran LDP lawmaker Machimura Nobutaka last summer, and one in Kyoto 3rd District, whose scandal-hit LDP MP Miyazaki Kensuke resigned in February. The LDP held the Hokkaido seat and lost the Kyoto seat – a net gain for the opposition, but not one from which the nascent Democratic Party can take much comfort, because the nature of the results raises tough questions about the much-vaunted “opposition coordination” approach.

First, let’s look at the seat the Democratic Party won – Kyoto 3. The DP candidate, Izumi Kenta, won with over 65% of the vote, gaining over 10,000 votes compared to his performance in the 2014 election. Turnout, however, was the lowest ever in the post-war era, at around 30%, not least because the LDP didn’t actually contest the seat. Miyazaki Kensuke’s scandal (he was caught in an adulterous affair only days after making a big deal of taking paternity leave to support his wife following the birth of his first child) was headline news for days and provoked a huge backlash; the LDP wrote off the seat and chose not to run a candidate. Second place in the race, then, went to the newly minted Initiatives From Osaka, whose candidate managed less than a third of the votes of the DP candidate. Incidentally, Izumi is already a member of the House of Representatives – he lost Kyoto 3 in the last general election but was elected on the DPJ’s proportional list for the Kinki region. The new DP lawmaker joining the house, then, will be Kitagami Keiro, who takes over Izumi’s proportional list seat.

Kyoto 3 doesn’t really tell us much useful about the shape of Japanese electoral politics, then. “DP candidates win seats which the LDP has pulled out of after hugely embarrassing scandals” isn’t headline news, and the low turnout makes it impossible to measure any possible influence which the tentative detente between the DP and the Japan Communist Party has had; the JCP didn’t run a candidate in the race, but whether that contributed to Izumi’s vote total and in what degree is impossible to calculate.

Hokkaido 5, then. Turnout here was a lot healthier than in Kyoto, at 57.6% (down less than a single percentage point from the 2014 general election), and the election presented a perfect laboratory for checking on the potential of opposition coordination to tackle narrow LDP leads. In 2014, the LDP candidate faced off against a DPJ candidate and a JCP candidate, winning 50.9% of the vote to the 49% won by the opposition parties (36.8% for the DPJ, 12.2% for the JCP). In this by-election, the DP and the JCP backed a single candidate (along with the People’s Life Party, the Greens and the Social Democratic Party), going up against a non-incumbent LDP candidate (with the backing, of course, of the LDP’s coalition partners Komeito, along with a couple of fringe conservative groups).

To my mind, there are three types of seats which opposition coordination can target. The first are “marginal seats” – places where the DPJ was within a few percentage points of the LDP in 2014, and where the support of just a small fraction of JCP supporters would swing the election. There are nine of these seats, and honestly, the DP should be aiming to win them in the next election without help from other parties – if it can’t reverse a few percentage points in marginal seats when competing against a government whose core policies are all disliked by voters, then the whole purpose of its existence as a party is in question. The second type of seat is “opposition majority seats” – places where a simple mathematical combination of votes for DP and JCP candidates in 2014 would have yielded a majority. There are 70 of those seats (67 in which the DP candidate could have won with JCP support, and 3 where the JCP candidate could have won with DP support) – enough to deliver a powerful blow to the LDP’s majority and probably end Shinzo Abe’s premiership, but not enough to reverse the LDP’s lower house majority.

The third type of seat is the “combined opposition marginal” – a seat where a combination of opposition votes in 2014 would have put them within a couple of percentage points of victory over the LDP (or Komeito) candidate. Hokkaido 5 is a perfect example of this kind of seat, requiring not just good coordination between opposition parties but also a few percentage points of support swing (or a boost in turn-out, breaking strongly for the opposition candidate) to shift control of the seat. If the DP (and other opposition parties) can start to make breakthroughs in this kind of seat in the next election, it blows Japan’s political landscape wide open for the first time in many years – perhaps not giving the DP another shot at government, but at least forcing the LDP to work with other parties to pass key legislation, and putting Abe’s more ambitious goals, like constitutional amendments, out of commission entirely.

Getting there, though, is going to be an uphill struggle. In Hokkaido 5 yesterday, the LDP won by over 12,000 votes. The combined DP and JCP candidate didn’t make up the gap between opposition and LDP at all; in fact, her vote total of 123,517 was around 3000 votes short of the combined vote totals of the two parties in 2014. The LDP’s Wada Yoshiaki, meanwhile, picked up 4,500 more votes than his veteran predecessor had commanded, despite the lower turnout.

What can we conclude from this? Well, the opposition coordination idea works, in nuts and bolts terms; with the DP and JCP supporting the same candidate, that candidate was able to pick up almost all of the votes that had previously gone to the two parties separately. This undermines the narrative from the DP’s centre-right figures, who claim that working with the JCP will cost the party scores of votes from centre-right voters; a claim which has always seemed dubious to me, since I’m not sure the DP really has many centre-right voters to begin with. It also assuages concerns that JCP voters, having stuck with the party through thick and (mostly) thin, would balk at casting a vote for a DP-backed candidate. Most voters dutifully turned out to cast for the coordinated candidate, which bodes well for the 60 to 70 seats that could be turned to the opposition simply by effective coordination strategies.

That’s the positive. The negative is that if the opposition can’t win Hokkaido 5, it’s dubious whether any of the “combined opposition marginals” are within its grasp at the moment. Essentially, the opposition has not increased its popularity since 2014; if anything, it may have slid backwards. In order for the opposition to win power, or even to seriously threaten the LDP’s majority, it needs to boost turnout, convincing disaffected voters to go to the polls and vote – many of them for the first time since 2009. Hokkaido 5’s result suggests that the DP is even further from that outcome today than it was two years ago.

There are of course local factors in play, and it’s unwise to project the political fortunes of a nation from a single by-election in a peripheral constituency; but this was the first real-world test of opposition coordination, and its results suggest a low ceiling on what the DP and its allies can achieve through this strategy alone. On a good day, opposition coordination might cost the LDP enough seats to put Abe’s future in doubt; but even on a very good day indeed for the opposition, it would take far more than coordination between parties to kick the LDP out of power. For that, the opposition needs to offer what it has failed to offer since 2012; an attractive, clear, direct and credible alternative to the LDP’s policy platform.


On a related note – if coordination within Japan’s political opposition interests you, I did an interview with Michael Penn of the Shingetsu News Agency a couple of weeks ago on this topic – I’ve embedded the video from their YouTube channel below.

 

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The Irrelevance of the DPJ – JIP Merger

The biggest political news in Japan this week – apart, it seems, from a comment from Prime Minister Abe to the effect that he’d like a humanoid robot to replace him in Diet questioning sessions – is the merger of the main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (民主党), with another opposition group, the Japan Innovation Party (維新の党). The merger will add 21 seats to the DPJ in the House of Representatives, bringing their total to 80, along with five in the House of Councillors, bringing them to 76 seats. It comes as part of an attempt by Japan’s opposition parties to align themselves into some kind of united force against the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (自民党) ahead of elections later this year.

News of the merger hasn’t exactly set Japan’s electorate abuzz. Newspaper opinion polls suggest that a majority of voters don’t have high expectations of the merged party (which will change its name, logo and campaigning slogans in the coming week), by a factor of around two to one, and the announcement of this supposedly major new opposition force has done little to erode support for the Abe cabinet (despite polls consistently showing a lack of faith in the administration’s headline policies).

The lack of voter interest is unsurprising; Japanese voters are understandably fatigued by the endless game of musical chairs which Japan’s opposition has been playing since the DPJ was booted from power in late 2012. In the short few years since Abe took power, the opposition has fragmented and coalesced on multiple occasions. Centrist economic liberals Your Party fell apart, reappeared as the Unity Party and promptly merged into the populist right-wing Restoration Party movement, which emerged from regional politics in Osaka, became a national movement, then returned to Osaka regional politics – leaving a rump, the Japan Innovation Party, which is what is now merging with the DPJ. On the fringes, former political “big beasts” like Ozawa Ichiro and Ishihara Shintaro (now supposedly retired for good) have formed, dissolved and re-formed small political movements, all clearly calculated as potential merger vehicles that might give them access to the corridors of power at a major party once more. The DPJ itself, meanwhile, has spent far more time discussing its own future and failing to conceal signs of damaging internal strife than it has spent challenging the LDP’s policy platform.

Every developed nation, it seems, is presently harbouring a strong degree of resentment at the perceived disconnect between their political classes and the lived realities of the people they govern; look at the degree to which London’s “Westminister Bubble” or the concept of Washington’s “Beltway” have become epithets in the UK and USA respectively. Japanese voters, equally, dismiss the maneouvering, backstabbing and self-serving jockeying for power of their opposition parties as being something like a “Kasumigaseki Bubble”. Opposition mergers and rebrands may be of all-consuming interest to the political chattering classes who huddle around the moat of Tokyo’s Imperial Palace, but the individual impact of such events on the electorate is minimal, while the impact of such a drawn-out series of events is merely to create an overriding sense of disorganisation and disarray that drives even Abe’s most stern critics to despair that his administration is the only real choice on offer.

Looking at the detail of the DPJ-JIP merger, supposedly the most important opposition realignment since 2012, it’s hard to argue with that position. What is the DPJ actually merging with? As mentioned above, the JIP is a rump party left over from the Osaka Ishin movement’s return to regional politics and identity. The Japan Restoration Party (日本維新の会), from which the JIP was birthed, was a pretty firmly right-wing, revisionist movement – the Abe administration flirted with the idea of working with them to propose amendments to the pacifist constitution – which is in itself enough to raise eyebrows; isn’t the DPJ supposedly a more centre-left, progressive crowd than the LDP? What are they doing merging with a party whose politics have often been to the right of the LDP?

While that’s a legitimate concern, and one that speaks to the barrenness of the idological landscape in Japanese politics (where political beliefs and ideology seem always to come a distant second to career ambition), it actually gives the JIP a little too much credit. The JIP is not a consistent, coherent party of the right; it is an ill-fitting band of political misfits, some of whom are experienced or worthy of respect in their own rights, but who as a group look little like a real political party.

The JIP contingent that will be absorbed by the DPJ in the coming weeks consists of 21 members of the House of Representatives and five members of the House of Councillors. Between them, they count membership of almost every minor political party of the past ten years or so, from the left-wing environmentalism of the Green Wind party (みどりの風) to the hard-line neoconservatism of the New Frontier Party (新進党) and the historical revisionism of the Japan Restoration Party. Quite a few (seven Representatives, and all five Councillors) are former members of the neo-liberal Your Party who left along with Eda Kenji to form the more “soft neo-liberal” Unity Party in 2013. Five are former members of the Liberal Democratic Party. By far the largest group, though, is those who will feel rather at home in the DPJ; of the 21 Representatives in the current JIP line-up, 15 are former DPJ members. Several of them departed the DPJ with its aforementioned “big beast”, Ozawa Ichiro, who has left a trail of shattered parties behind him throughout his political careeer; their colleagues in the party may be rather concerned to see Ozawa loyalists returning to the fold.

The point is that there’s really nothing to suggest that this group of 25 men and one woman (which will do little for the DPJ’s diversity targets) is going to bring fresh ideas to the DPJ’s successor. More than half of them have been in the DPJ before, and almost all of them have been political nomads throughout their careers; aside from the small group of Eda Kenji’s loyalists, they have veered wildly around the political spectrum, suggesting opportunism rather than consistency or integrity. Their addition to the DPJ’s roster just makes it even more confusing and difficult to gather what, exactly, the party is supposed to stand for, or who is supposed to vote for them. If you were a DPJ voter with centre-left, progressive preferences, which seems a not unreasonable profile of a typical DPJ voter, the absorption of right-wing hardliners and neo-liberals should be deeply concerning.

To make matters worse, it’s really not clear what this group is meant to bring the DPJ in terms of electoral benefit. Only four of its members are representatives for Single-Member Districts (that is to say, they won their districts outright and should have a reasonable chance of doing so again regardless of which party they stand for) – Eda Kenji in Kanagawa 8th District, Kakizawa Mito in Tokyo 15th District, Ide Yosei in Nagano 3rd District and Isaka Nobuhiko in Hyogo 1st District, all of whom are former Your Party / Unity Party members. The remaining 17 Representatives and 5 Councillors are all elected proportionally through the party list system, and thus do not bring a safe district seat with them. One could argue that removing the JIP from the proportional ballot and presumably taking some of its voters will favour the DPJ through reduced opposition competition; but much of the JIP’s electoral strength was derived from its leadership in the form of cantankerous former Tokyo governor Ishihara Shintaro and outspoken Osaka mayor Hashimoto Toru. Voters fond of Ishihara seem unlikely to break for the DPJ in an election; Hashimoto’s support, concentrated around the Kansai region (especially in Osaka itself), will transfer to its new regional party, the Osaka Restoration Party.

It’s hard to see the DPJ-JIP merger as being much more than yet another round of musical chairs; just another of the seemingly endless pauses in the music that have seen the opposition politicians scrambling for seats since the 2012 election. While the opportunity to rebrand the DPJ is welcome in some regards (any party that reaches the point of printing posters telling voters that it’s okay to hate them, but you should vote for them anyway to protect the consititution, is a party that desperately needs a rebrand), but the JIP merger suggests a deepening crisis in the DPJ’s identity, policy platform and ideological position, not light at the end of the tunnel.

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Takaichi Waves a Dagger in the Media’s Face

The tension between Japan’s ruling LDP and the country’s broadcasters and media has taken a lurch into the public eye, with widespread reporting of comments in the Diet’s Lower House Budget Committee by Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Takaichi Sanae to the effect that broadcasting companies which fail to demonstrate impartiality could be taken off the air by the government. The notion of “impartiality” in this context is something of a dog-whistle; it’s the concept commonly used by right-wing conservatives to criticise TV anchors and journalists they percieve as being left-wing or insufficiently nationalist, a context of which Minister Takaichi, no stranger to the right wing of politics, will be keenly aware.

Takaichi’s statement is the first time that a government minister has spelled out in public what the LDP’s ultimate sanction against broadcasters which attract their ire might be, and it has attracted plenty of condemnation, including calls for restraint from within the ruling coalition itself. It’s true though that on the face of it, Takaichi is only stating the facts with regard to Japan’s law – Article 4 of the Broadcast Law demands that broadcasts be “politically fair”, “not distort the facts” and (even more vaguely) “not harm public safety or good morals”, and Article 76 of the Radio Act allows a Minister to temporarily shut down, restrict the broadcast hours or entirely revoke the license of a broadcaster who violates a provision of the Broadcast Law. These aren’t new laws, either; both bills date back to 1950, and while they have been amended more recently, the clauses Takaichi refers to have been in place for almost 66 years.

What’s the problem, then, with a minister simply reminding broadcasters of the powers that technically rest with her office? It’s not like the LDP has just pushed through legislation to restrict or censor broadcasting and is waving that around like a big stick; it’s just pointing out the existence of powers that have been available to every government in the post-war era. Minister Takaichi was even nice enough to say that she didn’t think she’d ever shut down a broadcaster personally, though of course she couldn’t say what any of her successors might do, and that she was simply helping to uphold the rule of law by restating the content of the law. Where’s the issue?

The problem, really, is that Japanese law is often – for quite deliberate and cynical reasons – a tremendous mess. Article 4 of the Broadcast Law is a legal disaster, binding the country’s entire broadcast media to rules that are so vague and ill-defined as to border on being infantile. What is the definition of “public safety”, which broadcasts may not harm? How about “good morals”; what’s the legal definition of a “good moral”? Who decides what’s “politically fair”? In contested situations, who gets to decide that is a “fact”, and what is a “distortion”? These terms, which the legislation makes no further effort to define or explain, are utterly vague and subjective – as is, I would argue, entirely inevitable for any rules designed to chase the daft pipe-dream of “objectivity” in news broadcasting.

It’s unsurprising then that Takaichi’s explanation of the rules in the Diet was equally vague and open to interpretation. The example she gave was a case where, “on a political topic where public opinion is divided, [a broadcaster] ignores one political opinion and deliberately adopts only the other political opinion, broadcasting programming which repeatedly exceeds proportional time for content supporting that view.” Just like the law itself, vast tracts of Takaichi’s explanation are open to interpretation. How much public opinion must support a point of view before it is “entitled” to broadcast time? How is proportionality decided? Should all points of view receive the same coverage – risking, to paraphrase Irish comedian Dara O’Briain, the situation where a broadcast reporting a successful satellite launch must give equal time to a prominent JAXA scientist who worked on the launch, and some bloke called Taro who claims the satellite launch must be a hoax because the sky is a carpet painted by God; how many Twitter followers must Taro have before he’s entitled to his three minutes on NHK’s evening news? Should coverage be divided up proportionally to public opinion polls – in which case, the LDP should brace for some pretty harsh coverage of its core policies, most of which are disliked by a plurality of the Japanese public? What, in fact, has public opinion – which is not mentioned anywhere in the Broadcast Law – got to do with this at all, and why should any broadcaster be forced to spend time serenely nodding along with views he or she firmly believes to be utterly wrong just because an opinion poll said some people agree with it?

Here’s the crux; the Japanese Broadcast Law, just like a large number of other Japanese laws, is quite deliberately vague and open to interpretation, because that’s just how the extremely powerful Japanese political bureaucracy and the LDP itself like it. Because the law is vague, the decision of how to implement it (and even whether to implement it at all) essentially lies at the discretion of ministry bureaucrats. Broad, sweeping concepts like “good morals” or “politically fair” give ministries enormous leeway in deciding what’s acceptable and what’s not at any given point in time. The LDP doesn’t need to pass harsh new legislation giving itself new powers to clamp down on the media, because Japanese legislation is designed to be so vague that ministries (whose bureaucrats drafted the laws in the first place) can, at some point down the line, exert quite extraordinary powers by edict, rather than having to go through the legislative process again.

This isn’t unique to the Broadcast Law. One of the (many) things that initially shocked me while conducting research into Japan’s capital punishment system a few years ago was that between the late 1950s and the 1990s, an open, transparent and humane (in as much as a capital punishment system ever can be) system had been transformed into an extraordinarily brutal, secretive and abusive system – entirely as a result of edicts from Ministry of Justice bureaucrats. Sweeping changes such as pushing all condemned inmates into perpetual solitary confinement, restricting visitor access to prisoners and not informing prisoners of their pending execution until literally minutes before it is carried out (or informing their families and legal representatives until after the execution) were implemented without so much as a single trip to the Diet floor for new legislation to authorise the changes. On a similar if slightly different note, consider the much-publicised crackdown on dancing after midnight, which saw police (especially in Osaka, but also in Tokyo and elsewhere) arresting staff and shutting down venues for the heinous crime of shuffling their feet after Cinderella’s carriage had turned back into a pumpkin; again, this sudden crackdown did not rely on any draconian new legislation, but on the dusting off and sudden implementation of excessively broad rules that had been lying around on the statutes since the late 1940s.

(Nor, it should be stated, is this particular wheeze of sneaky legislators unique to Japan; many governments around the world, including the UK and US governments, have attempted to pass legislation which included deliberately vague sections that could be reinterpreted to grant sweeping powers, only to fall back on pearl-clutching and wailing of “how could you accuse us of such underhanded intentions, we would never use these powers in such a manner” when astute legal scholars or journalists have drawn attention to their attempts to mount a legislative Chekov’s Gun on the mantelpiece of the state. Fast forward a few years and you end up with grotesque absurdities like UK local governments using counter-terrorism legislation to snoop on people and ensure compliance with rubbish collection rules. It is an important but sadly often disregarded fundamental rule of democracy that the people should never, ever grant broad powers to their government on the basis of a solemn but entirely non-binding promise that those powers will not be used, or will not be used outside a specific context; the mission always, always creeps.)

It’s in this context that we must consider the statements of Minister Takaichi – who probably has something of a personal axe to grind with the broadcasters her ministry regulates, given that they greeted her appointment to Abe’s cabinet by dredging up her enthusiastic endorsement of a book praising Adolf Hitler’s electoral politics, along with pictures of her posing alongside the Holocaust-denying head of Japan’s neo-Nazi party. The law she is citing is an old one; the interpretation she is citing, and the threat implicit, is a new one. The Broadcast Law itself is deliberately vague to the point of meaningless in order to permit this kind of interpretation and reinterpretation to suit the whims of the administration; the whim of this administration, as expressed in Takaichi’s statement, clearly leans towards control of, and heavy pressure upon, the nation’s media. Her statement is not a mere point of law – it is a threat, and the age of the law upon which that rests is inconsequential. Just because a dagger has been sitting harmlessly on the shelf for years doesn’t make it any less threatening when it’s picked up and waved in your face.

 

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In Reality, All News is “Editorialised”

I turned off the news last night. This isn’t entirely uncommon; news programmes in Japan often devote an interminable amount of time to something terribly dull, so I switch off, but last night I turned off the news because my partner and I looked at each other and agreed that this just wasn’t something we wanted to watch any more.

Here’s why. The trial began yesterday of an 18 year old (now 19) and two 17 year old accomplices who, almost exactly a year ago, murdered a 13 year old boy by stabbing him and throwing him naked into a freezing river in Kawasaki. It’s a horrific and disturbing case, and while there are key details that most audiences probably want to know (what the context to the killing was, what kind of previous contact the victim had with his killers, and so on), the sentence I just wrote is probably all you need or want to know about the physical details of the actual killing.

If you watched the news last night, you got so much more. Using a 3D recreation of the courtroom, 3D models of the various parties to the trial and voice actors dubbing the recorded statements of the accused, the news chose to repeat pretty much the entire cross-examination of the accused killers regarding how, exactly, they carried out the murder. In a segment which probably lasted around ten minutes (and felt far longer, though we switched off before the end), we got multiple accounts of precisely how the attackers beat and cut their victim – how many stab wounds, in what parts of his body, and which parts they cut first; how they held the knife as they slashed his throat; how parts of the box-cutter they were using broke off in his body; how they decided to throw him in the river when they were done; all played out over shots of the desolate riverbank where the killing took place, pictures of an artist’s rendering of the murder weapon (complete with blood and gore, in case your imagination was failing you) and, in case you hadn’t been punched hard enough in the gut by all this, pictures of the 13-year-old victim smiling in the sunshine. I’ve got a strong stomach for this kind of thing – I’m fascinated by true crime stories, unfazed by horror movies, and spent the best part of two years conducting research into Japan’s death penalty system and its death row inmates – but I turned off the TV midway, because the extent to which this mid-evening news show was wallowing in detail little short of pornographic of the savage brutalising of a child was genuinely, deeply upsetting.

This was “just the facts”. Everything the TV news chose to show was “fact”; the statements of the accused are facts, what they did to the boy is a fact, what the murder weapon looks like is a fact, what the victim looked like when he was happily smiling for the camera the previous summer is a fact. Yet how those facts are presented – the choice of whether to present them, in what order, with what emphasis – is intrinsically a subjective, editorial decision. Contrast the way in which this case is presented with, for example, the reporting of teenagers stabbed in knife crimes in London; “a 13 year old was stabbed to death by a gang of older youths and his body thrown into a river” – absolutely horrific, but shorn of the lingering, stomach-churning descriptions of where he was stabbed, and how they held the knife, and what it looked like when they cut him, and so much other detail that’s purely “fact”, but that makes a huge, powerful impact on how you perceive and think about the case.

Allow me to put this in a little context. In the past few months, Japan has seen a spate of high-profile news broadcasters being removed or shuffled away from their positions. Two of the mainstays of evening news broadcasting, TV Asahi’s Hodo Station and TBS’ News 23, are losing their well-known hosts (Ichiro Furutachi and Shigetada Kishii, respectively), while NHK’s current affairs show Close-Up Gendai has declined to renew the contract of long-standing anchorwoman Hiroko Kuniya. The circumstances and factors contributing to each change differ, but it’s hard to ignore the common thread between them; each of these presenters has been critical of the Abe administration’s policies, especially around the deeply controversial Security Bill which passed late last year. There are other factors in play as well, of course – Kuniya, for example, is almost certainly as much a victim of Japanese TV’s discomfort with allowing older women to front shows, especially shows seen as being aimed at a male audience – but for three such high-profile and long-standing broadcasters, all critical of the Abe administration, to be removed in such a short space of time is quite obviously no coincidence.

To be clear, the removal of these broadcasters is extremely unlikely to have been demanded or ordered by the government. Rather, it is largely a consequence of a chilling effect on press freedom that has come about due to a perception (accurate or not) of the Abe administration being more willing to take reprisals upon its critics – a sense that broadcasters are expected to “play ball” with the administration to a greater extent than before, enforced not by overt censorious action but by expressions of displeasure, criticism and – rather often – by sudden attacks from right-wingers not associated with the government, but willing to make life hell for its media critics. The environment this creates is not quite the authoritarian one Abe’s critics in the foreign press and elsewhere would claim, but neither is it an ideal one for press freedom – it bears a strong similarity to the media environment in countries like the United Kingdom at the moment, for example.

One common defence of this effective narrowing of the media’s broadcasting remit from supporters of the Abe administration is to refer back to Japan’s Broadcast Law, which includes a demand that news broadcasts should be “politically impartial”. Anchors like Furutachi and Kishii, in expressing dislike of the Security Bill or other government policies, are argued to have violated this law by “editorialising” the news they were presenting.

This concept of “editorialising” is profoundly ignorant of how news and current affairs broadcasting actually works, for a number of reasons. Firstly, shows like News 23 and Hodo Station make a distinction between the segments in which they present the news, and the segments in which they comment upon it; if the Broadcast Law is to be interpreted as strictly as conservatives would like, it would appear to be illegal for anyone to ever present an opinion regarding current affairs on Japanese television. “Yes,” say the conservatives, “news and current affairs should be just about facts!” – which is the second reason for this being nonsense, because “facts” themselves are, by their very nature, subject to editorialisation. “Today, the Yen fell against the Dollar” is a fact, of course; but the decision of whether to broadcast that fact, how much prominence to give it and what imagery to accompany it with is intrinsically a subjective, editorial decision, and Japanese TV news, in presenting the “facts”, makes extremely powerful editorial statements without having to directly state any view. That’s exactly what happened with the Kawasaki murder case on last night’s TV; the choice of which facts to present, the level of detail in which to present them and their contextualisation with background images and video added up to a strong editorial approach with a very different impact from, say, the standard reporting of a teenage stabbing in London.

Why report on the Kawasaki case in such grotesque detail? I’d argue that it’s an editorial decision, conscious or otherwise, designed to support the status quo. Japan has an extremely low crime rate but retains a high level of support for the death penalty (one of the only developed countries to do so), a high degree of trust for its justice system despite multiple revelations of abuse and corruption, and an extremely high tolerance of aggressive, authoritarian tactics from its police force. This status quo makes perfect sense if you recognise the essential disconnection between “actual crime” and “fear of crime”; Japanese people are vanishingly unlikely to be the victim of a violent crime, yet their fear of violent crime is, in study after study, higher than the fear of people living in other, far more violent, nations. How do you maintain that? You linger almost lovingly on the gruesome, shocking details of what crime you actually have; you focus on every murder so intently that when people think about crime, it’s not the everyday safety of Japanese life that comes to mind, it’s the one-in-ten-million psychopaths whose crimes are etched onto the nation’s collective imagination.

Japan’s not the only place that happens, of course – and I’m not arguing for a second that this is some grand conspiracy to keep the population in fear, as there’s really no conspiracy needed; gruesome dramatisation of tragic crimes sells newspapers and boosts TV ratings, and supporting the status quo for the authorities is just a side benefit. What I am arguing is that “just the facts” is not a solution to the supposed problem of “editorialising”; it’s merely moving the editorial decisions to a different, more subtle and arguably more insidious level. A news anchor saying “I don’t like this legislation” is a statement you can challenge or disagree with; a news show presenting “just the facts” in a way designed to nudge your thinking in a clear direction is a much tougher thing for most viewers to challenge or even perceive. Next time someone complains about news being “editorialised”, ask them what they really mean by that; because in reality, there’s no such thing as “just the facts”, and the demands of conservatives that news broadcasters stop “editorialising” the news are actually just demands for a different kind of editorialisation – one that supports the conservative status quo.

 

 

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Splitting Iowa – Clinton, Sanders and the New Left

To state the obvious up front, Hillary Clinton is going to win the Democratic nomination. There is almost no permutation of the various demographic, political and procedural factors in the upcoming caucuses that permits any other outcome; barring radical shifts in the political landscape or the breaking of huge, unexpected scandals, there’s no way you can run through the maths and arrive at delegate totals for the Democratic National Convention in late July that hand the party’s candidacy to anyone other than Clinton. Anyone predicting or even simply hoping for a different outcome is, of necessity, predicating their hopes upon a black swan – an entirely unpredicted shift in support or the breaking of an as-yet-unknown scandal – and while such things can and do occur, especially in the unpredictable mire of the systematic weirdness of the US’ primary system, they’re not a wise thing to base your predictions upon. So, to hedge slightly; absent something utterly crazy happening, Hillary Clinton is going to win the Democratic nomination.

That’s not to detract from the scale of Bernie Sanders’ success in Iowa. As I type, Sanders is 0.2% behind Clinton in the caucuses, 49.8% to 49.6%, with only a handful of counties still to report. It’s a rounding error; as close to 50:50 as you’re likely to get in the peculiar and inaccurate delegate system used in Iowa’s Democratic Party caucuses. Though even such a tiny margin will allow the Clinton camp to declare a victory, Clinton and Sanders will split the state’s 42 delegates half and half.

Why, then, call this a success for Sanders? Because six months ago, the polls (I’m using FiveThirtyEight’s excellent aggregated polls) gave him around 22% of the vote in Iowa, to Clinton’s 54%. Three months ago, it was 32% to Sanders, 54% to Clinton. A month ago, on January 1st, it was 36% to Sanders, 52% to Clinton. Sanders topped 40% for the first time three weeks ago. Today, in the actual caucuses, he’s on 49.6%. In the past six months, Clinton has dropped 6% in Iowa, and Sanders has surged 29% – suggesting that undecided voters are breaking strongly for the Sanders camp, and a small number of Clinton supporters are changing sides.

It’s not enough to win the nomination. David Wasserman at The Cook Political Report rightly observes that in order to actually win in July, Sanders needed to do much, much better in Iowa, a state whose demographics are much more favourable to him than many of the upcoming states. Sanders resonates with white liberals, while Clinton enjoys a strong base of support among ethnic minorities; it’s easy to forget that the Democratic Party isn’t just the party of white liberals, but also the party of many ethnic minorities who do not share the same degree or form of liberalism as white Democrats. This isn’t to say that those support bases might not move around – Sanders’ momentum could yet give him a boost within groups that have thus far stayed strongly loyal to Clinton – but based on track records thus far, most upcoming races (with the exception of the New Hampshire primary next week) ought to be far easier victories for the Clinton camp.

Nonetheless, Bernie Sanders has accomplished something hardly anyone expected him to; he has turned the Democratic primary into a contest rather than a coronation. Only a few months ago, there was a strong movement to try to “draft” outgoing Vice President Joe Biden into the nomination race, largely because Democrats feared that turning the whole thing into a state-by-state victory lap for Clinton would look extremely bad; voters, the conventional wisdom goes, want to see candidates fight for the nomination, and hate the sense of being handed a candidate anointed by the “party elites”. At that point, Sanders was a rank outsider; a self-declared “socialist”, the reasoning went, could never present more than a distraction, acting as a magnet for a minority of malcontents and fringe voters rather than a genuine contender.

Well, Sanders just came neck-and-neck with Clinton in Iowa, and short of an act of god, he’s going to win New Hampshire next week. The Clinton camp won’t be panicking – she’s still got this in the bag – but the Democrats have a race on their hands, even if it’s a much more politically interesting and ideologically divided race than the somewhat tame pot-shots between a handful of centre-left candidates that the party establishment might have wanted.

Two things are important for the Sanders campaign from here on out. The first is to avoid isolating Sanders too far from the mainstream of the Democrats, for the simple reason that his ability to influence American politics rests not on winning the nomination (which he almost certainly won’t) but on pulling the Democratic Party’s discourse to the left by energising and revealing the breadth of support for more left-wing policies than were previously considered palatable to the party base and, more broadly, to the American electorate. Sanders doesn’t have to win for his policies to win; if his success and momentum proves major support for policies like free college education, those policies can be integrated into the Democratic Party’s mainstream agenda, assuming that Sanders’ campaign hasn’t isolated itself too far from the party mainstream. Thus far, Sanders’ civil and gracious campaign has done a good job of this; assuming things don’t turn very negative in future, there’s a reasonable chance that Sanders’ most popular policies (and perhaps even Sanders himself) could be a part of a future Clinton administration.

The second thing the Sanders campaign needs to do is to keep up its momentum and energy, not because it’s going to win off the back of those things, but because it needs to be in position to catch the ball if – if – Clinton drops it. A huge scandal (something we don’t know about – email improriety and conspiracy theories about Benghazi don’t count, as any negativity resulting from them is a) largely confined to Republican voters anyway, and b) already baked into Clinton’s polling numbers by now) could upset the apple cart; the Sanders campaign needs to be firing on all cylinders for a couple more months, just in case. It’s not wise to base your political predictions on black swans; it’s equally unwise to leave yourself in a position in which you’re unable to capitalise upon a black swan if one should hove into view.

While the American commentariat is losing bowel control in shock at a socialist – a socialist! – being even an outside contender in a high-profile primary race, Sanders is arguably most interesting when you consider him in a global context. In the context of other developed nations, the emergence of a more radically left-wing candidate with strong support, especially from young voters, isn’t shocking; it’s perfectly in keeping with the patter of the past five years. Across Europe, the New Left has surged, starting in countries most traumatised by the financial crash of 2008 but growing in strength in nations simply suffering from the widespread malaise of the world’s developed economies – where decades of neoliberal policies have almost completely decoupled GDP growth from income or quality of life improvements for most of the population, and especially for younger people who face a markedly more insecure and uncertain future than their parents’ generation did. The success of Bernie Sanders in the US is, in this context, a mirror for the success of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK or even the recent resurgence of Kazuo Shii’s Communist Party in Japan; signs, perhaps, of the Millenial generation (born in the 80s and 90s) rejecting the neoliberal consensus of their immediate predecessors (Gen X, those born in the 60s and 70s) and turning to “outsider” figures, rejected by Gen X and the Boomer generation, as an immediate alternative. It’s notable that Sanders, Corbyn and the Japan Communist Party are all rather venerable; their messages aren’t new, they’ve simply finally found a generation with whom they resonate.

There are, however, essential differences between Sanders and his overseas counterparts in the New Left – not least that American politics is a rather different environment. Most notably, the New Left in most countries has had an untapped well of young people engaging with politics for the first time to draw upon; in many countries, voting turnout among under-35s (the Millenials) has been tiny, and energising this group to turn up and vote that has produced such remarkable results as Jeremy Corbyn’s election as UK Labour Leader. In America, though, this well has already been tapped, to some degree; Democrats already had a “Corbyn moment”, way back in 2008 with Barack Obama. A significant cohort of Millenials boosted Obama in 2008; some of those may wish Obama had been more radical, and side with Sanders, but the reality is that Obama’s approval rating among Democrats is pretty great, and the natural flow for Obama supporters who approve of his record is to back Clinton, the key member of his administration, not Sanders, the radical outsider. Sanders still does very well among the young, but they’re not the untapped wellspring of radical support that they have transpired to be in the UK and across Europe.

One final thought. Older voters may roll their eyes at the radicalism of the Millenials, but I think a great many older voters genuinely fail to comprehend the economic mess that faces the Millenial generation, who are bearing the brunt of some disastrous and short-sighted policy-making dating back as far as the 1980s. No post-war generation in the developed world has ever been expected to pay so much for education, or been greeted with more uncertain employment prospects after graduation; no post-war generation has faced so many formerly “middle class” occupations being reduced to low-paid, short-term, unstable work; no post-war generation has faced such a dizzying ratio of housing costs to average wages, or such a grim ossification of social mobility. The Millenial generation is, for the most part, saddled with huge debts and told to repay them with earnings from the least worker-friendly labour market in post-war history. That they would turn to alternative politics for solutions is entirely unsurprising and reasonable; it’s the notion that the existing neo-liberal business-as-usual consensus can continue under these circumstances that is ridiculous.

Given that, the eye-rolling should perhaps be replaced by sighs of relief, because populations under severe economic pressure do not necessarily flirt with the radical left; there is a far uglier alternative on the radical right. In the 1930s, economic catastrophe for ordinary people drove them towards radical-left and radical-right solutions; the radical-right won the day in many countries, and, well, the 1940s happened. Today’s radical-left solutions, shorn of the dead-end revolutionary ideology that made the far-left just as unpalatable as its far-right counterpart in the 1930s, are a much more appealing thing for the set-upon Millenials to flirt with than the far-right alternatives – which, based on the rhetoric of the Right across Europe and the USA, have evolved far less in the past 80 years and represent a far greater threat to democracy, stability and security.

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Don’t look to Japan’s Supreme Court for Social Change

Japan’s Supreme Court today announced a pair of decisions that are attracting significant media and public attention. The one dominating most of the headlines, it seems, is the ruling that a law forbidding married couples from keeping their original names (rather than one party changing their name) is perfectly constitutional, a decision which is already attracting a degree of scorn from commentators. The other, arguably much more interesting from a political and legal standpoint, is a ruling that a law demanding that divorced women wait six months before remarrying is unconstitutional.

The ruling on “waiting periods” for divorced women is a blindingly obvious piece of law – Article 14 of the Constitution guarantees “no discrimination in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin”, and the six-month rule applied only to women. The law pre-dated the 1947 Constitution – it was introduced in the late 1800s as an attempt to ensure clear parentage for children born after a divorce, and aside from being discriminatory, is clearly outdated in the modern era of DNA testing (edit: I should note that the court hasn’t demanded that the law be entirely removed, only that it be dropped to a 100-day period, but this is because that’s what the plaintiff in the case asked for, and to the best of my knowledge the Court isn’t empowered to demand that the Government go beyond that in its legal revision. There’s still no waiting period for men who wish to remarry, so the law remains unequal. Hat tip to @anjin_miura on Twitter for pointing this out.). Despite being the sort of ruling on constitutional law that a reasonably bright five year old could manage given sufficient candy incentives, this is still a landmark ruling for the simple reason that it’s incredibly, vanishingly rare for Japan’s Supreme Court to declare a law unconstitutional. Since it was first convened in 1947, the Court has only struck down laws on ten occasions. By comparison, the US Supreme Court (which is, in theory, the model for Japan’s Supreme Court) has struck down over 165 Acts of Congress and almost 1000 state laws on the basis of unconstitutionality in its 226-year history, with the vast majority of those occurring in the 20th century. This underlines the importance of any occasion on which the Japanese Supreme Court actually chooses to rule against a law – no matter how past its sell-by date the law may be.

It also explains, in broad, contextual terms, why the challenge against demanding the adoption of a partner’s surname failed. Even the non-Americans among us are very used to seeing extensive reporting of the US Supreme Court, which regularly turns the tiller of American society with sweeping rulings on social issues, from civil rights to equal marriage. There’s an expectation, perhaps, that the Japanese Supreme Court should be willing and empowered to do the same thing, and a degree of disappointment and even disbelief when they turn out to be far more tame and conservative than their US counterparts.

There are, however, solid legal and political reasons why the Japanese Supreme Court is how it is – and they’re mostly grounded in the 1946 Constitution itself, a document which is revered by Japanese liberals for its pacifist stance but which, in many regards, was flawed from the outset and is now really starting to show its age. The 1946 Constitution established both the Diet and the Supreme Court, and unwittingly created an ill-defined relationship between them, in which the powers and responsibilities of each body are problematically vague. Article 41, establishing the Diet, states that “the Diet shall be the highest organ of state power, and shall be the sole law-making organ of the State”; Article 81, establishing the Supreme Court, says that it “is the court of last resort with power to determine the constitutionality of any law, order, regulation or official act”. So which of them, then, is the highest organ of state power? Does the Supreme Court have the power to command the Diet? Does the Diet have the capacity to disagree with Supreme Court rulings and plough ahead regardless? The language of the Constitution leaves that frustratingly vague, and in a forehead-slap inducing Catch-22, the only bodies with the power to interpret the Constitution’s meaning in this regard are the very bodies whose roles are uncertain in this instance.

The compromise that’s been in effect since 1947 is very straightforward and typically Japanese; the Supreme Court doesn’t rock the boat. When a law is utterly, blatantly in violation of the Constitution, it strikes it down (these are often laws predating the constitution’s promulgation). When a law is in a gray area, in which clauses of the constitution seem to conflict with one another or where there’s a simple lack of clarity, the Supremes shrug their berobed shoulders and toss it back to the Diet, bowing to parliament’s role as the “highest organ of state power” and requesting that they draft legislation to clear things up one way or another. This compromise is made altogether easier by a peculiarity of the Japanese legal system by which it’s impossible to simply request a judicial review of the constitutionality of a law; individuals wishing to challenge a law have to prove that they have standing (i.e. demonstrate that they have suffered damages due to the unconstitutional legislation they’re challenging) in order for their case to be heard. As a consequence, some attempts to challenge laws in the Japanese courts fail not because the law is found to be constitutional, but because nobody can prove to the court’s satisfaction that they’ve personally suffered damages on account of the law; the arguments over constitutionality aren’t even broached before the case is thrown out.

What’s happened in the case of the surnames issue, then, is that the Court has decided that the Constitution doesn’t have anything direct or blunt enough to say on the matter, and thrown it back to the Diet for a legislative solution. Could the court have ruled otherwise? Sure; the plaintiffs argued under Article 13 of the Constitution (“All of the people shall be respected as individuals. Their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness shall, to the extent that it does not interfere with the public welfare, be the supreme consideration in legislation and in other governmental affairs.”) that demanding that one partner give up their family name was an undue interference in people’s lives, and a more activist-minded court could absolutely have agreed with that position. It would, however, have risked a run-in with the government, which takes a conservative stance on family issues, and that would have sailed the ship of state far too close to the awkward questions over the roles of Diet and Supreme Court that nobody wants to ask or answer. The safe ruling, which is on rock-solid legal ground, is to say that the Constitution doesn’t really say anything one way or the other on this issue, giving the Diet free rein to implement whatever legislative solution it likes (in this instance, most likely a continuation of the status quo).

Incidentally, this is a somewhat gloomy preview of what’s going to happen if and when legal challenges on equal marriage work their way through Japan’s courts. Article 14, as cited above, does not offer protection from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and Article 24 defines marriage as being “based only on the mutual consent of both sexes… maintained through mutual cooperation with equal rights of husband and wife as a basis.” An activist or progressive court could happily rule that Article 14’s list of protections is non-exhaustive and that its protection from discrimination on the grounds of gender directly implies protection for sexual minorities, which takes legal precedence over Article 24’s mention of both sexes since equal marriage would extend, rather than curtailing, the protections Article 24 is designed to provide. Japan’s Supreme Court is not an activist or progressive court; it will rule that the present marriage rules are constitutional, and throw the whole issue back to the Diet (where the Abe Cabinet, deeply socially conservative, will bat them it of the field).

There’s no point being angry or disappointed in the Supreme Court over these rulings; it is what it is. The Court is operating from a far weaker and less well-defined position than its US counterpart, its capacity to carry out judicial review is hobbled by legal restrictions, and the Constitution on which it must base its rulings is riddled with contradictions and anachronisms. The Court’s long-standing habit of passing responsibility for decision-making on most issues back to the Diet is pretty much the only option open to it – and simply means that, for those who decry slow progress on social change in Japan, the buck stops with the democratically elected government, not with the Supreme Court or, for the most part, the Constitution. It also, incidentally, means that for significant progress to be made on an issue like equal marriage, a constitutional amendment would be required – meaning that perhaps some liberals could find common ground with conservatives who are determined to change the (extremely high) bar for constitutional amendment.

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Syria: A Triumph of Action over Intelligence

Insanity, we are so often told, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Quotes to that effect are regularly attributed to both Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin, though there’s no evidence that either man ever said it. Even shorn of the weight of authority that comes from being uttered by men of genius, the concept sticks with you because it makes obvious, intuitive sense. You don’t stick your hand into the fire a second time to see if it burns again; “once bitten, twice shy” is a powerful instinctive behaviour for good reason.

The comparisons between Tony Blair committing the UK to war in Iraq in 2003 and David Cameron committing the country to bombing Syria, as passed by Parliament yesterday, have often referenced this convenient definition of insanity. Blair’s misadventure in Iraq, its horrific consequences and the calculatedly dishonest “intelligence” which supported it remain a millstone around the neck of the Labour party. The strides the country made under Blair’s premiership are forgotten under the weight of opprobrium heaped upon his arrogance and egotism over the war and his stubborn refusal to acknowledge, even now, the awful mistake it represented. Twelve years later, Cameron’s insistence that Britain must join in raining bombs on Syria certainly feels like deja vu, and has left many wondering out loud if another Prime Minister will find himself so despised over another committment to another hopeless war.

There are key differences, of course. Cameron has not committed troops to Syria, as Blair did to Iraq; there will be no British soldiers returning in coffins on carrier planes, at least not yet. Cameron has also, bluntly, made little or no effort to make or manufacture a case for war. Blair and his spin doctors burned the midnight oil to create a compelling, if almost entirely dishonest, case for the invasion of Iraq; Cameron, perhaps recognising that the lies supporting the Iraq War were the very petard upon which Blair was hoist, has instead chosen to justify the bombing of Syria in only the most broad, rhetorical strokes. It’s a cynical masterstroke; opponents of the war find themselves grasping at thin air, because there’s no case for war to rebut, no intelligence to question. The logic is as ephemeral as mist; ISIS may back attacks in the UK, as they did in France (though the extent to which ISIS in Syria actually aided or participated in the organisation of the Paris attacks, as opposed to merely lending their name to an attack from domestic extremists, is entirely unclear), so Syria must be bombed, not because bombing will reduce the risk of terrorism – the government isn’t getting pinned down into claiming that, oh no sir – but because something must be done, and suddenly we’re off into the realms of pure rhetoric, where anyone daring to question whether dropping more high explosives on a volatile region that’s already essentially hosting a proxy war between NATO and Russia might be a bad idea is a “terrorist sympathiser”.

You can’t argue with that; you can say it’s mad, or offensive, or grotesquely stupid, but you can’t argue with it because it isn’t a coherent argument in itself. In the absence of a case for war, counter-arguments are like tilting at windmills; Cameron has won the debate by refusing to participate in it, instead sitting back and letting the British media work itself into a froth over the internal politics of the opposition, leaving the position of the government nigh-on unquestioned. What few facts have been permitted to enter the debate are so nebulous as to be almost laughable; 70,000 moderate rebels are ready to liberate the ISIS positions Britain will weaken with bombing, apparently, but who those rebels might be, where they’ve been up until now, and why British bombs are going to accomplish what could not be accomplished already by American bombs, Jordanian bombs, Canadian bombs, Australian bombs, French bombs, by a veritable fusion cuisine nightmare of international high explosive flavours; these things could not be explained, to the exasperation of even many in Cameron’s own party.

Do David Cameron or his closest advisors honestly believe that British bombs falling on Raqqa are going to make the slightest positive difference to the situation in Syria, or to the security situation in the UK and around Europe? I wouldn’t dare to judge – I’d note that for all his dishonesty, one thing that’s clear about Blair’s intervention in Iraq is that he genuinely, truly believed that it was the right thing to do, his failure not being hypocrisy but rather an egotistical belief that the facts should adapt themselves to his gut feelings. Perhaps Cameron, too, is possessed of a genuine and fervent belief that bombing Syria is the correct course of action; but if so, what a terrible indictment of Britain that a man who graduated from its finest university and now resides in 10 Downing Street is unable to articulate or explain his belief to the people he is meant to represent and lead.

It’s hard to escape the notion that what Cameron is actually bowing to here is the powerful one-two punch of the domestic urge to Be Seen To Do Something, and the international need to Be Involved. The former urge is found in every political system; no matter how intelligent or advisable the “do nothing” course of action may be, conventional wisdom and opinion polls alike prefer politicians to be people of action – even if the action is awful. I compare and contrast the UK with Japan a lot in my research work, and here I’d note that in Japan, Prime Minister Abe’s policies are disliked by the majority of Japanese voters – but the same voters seem to like the fact that he’s doing something, even if they don’t like the actual thing he’s doing. Inaction earns you no brownie points, and no votes, it seems.

As to the international need to Be Involved, this is also a strong drive in some countries, but Britain suffers from it particularly; it seems intolerable to some parts of the British public, and to a much larger swathe of its political classes, for the likes of France and Australia to participate in a military operation alongside the United States while Britain abstains. Is this a legacy of empire? A deep-seated desire to confirm and reconfirm the “specialness” of the US-UK “special relationship”? It’s impossible to say for certain; perhaps a little from Column A, a little from Column B, but the effects are easy to see. Britain, which since bailing out its financial sector has been aggressively tightening the belts of all the children, disabled people, low-paid nursing staff and single mothers who caused the global financial meltdown with their wanton investments in high-risk financial instruments, is never short a few billion quid to throw at putting Union Jacks alongside the Stars and Stripes while the bombs rain down.

Britain is committed now; the first strikes on Syrian targets begin today, though one wonders how many of them will turn back, as bombing flights from some other nations have, upon finding that there isn’t anything but rubble and civilian homes left at their target coordinates to drop ordinance upon. The origins of ISIS are complex and varied – I don’t buy the simplistic account of their creation being a direct consequence of the invasion of Iraq, though that was clearly a major contributing factor. A catastrophic drought in Syria; the malign influence of Saudi Arabian wahabbism; the machinations of embattled Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who nurtured the rise of ISIS as a “common enemy” in hope of restoring Western support for his rule; the violent melting pot of the Syrian conflict itself, in which a rapid evolution towards more and more extreme, aggressive tactics occurred as more moderate leaders were killed off; all of these things have fuelled ISIS’ rise. If you want to go right back to basics, the very borders of the Middle Eastern states, drawn for the convenience of the departing Imperial powers and the puppet governments they left behind, and entirely ignoring religious and ethnic divides across the region, arguably made for a volatile group of states effectively ungovernable by anything but strongmen. The bottom line; it’s complicated, and I struggle to think of an instance in history when a complex Gordian knot of politics, economics, religion, identity and history has ever been cleanly cut by bombing it from the sky.

What, then, should Britain do? This question is the trump card of the pro-bombing argument, one that plays directly into the Be Seen To Do Something urge of the political system. If not bombing, then what? If not attacking the vicious, medieval state that is ISIS, then what would you do about them? (And it’s about here that anyone saying “maybe we shouldn’t be doing anything at all” gets called a terrorist sympathiser.)

Well, maybe Britain shouldn’t be doing anything at all. Maybe, bluntly, it’s not Britain’s place to do anything at all; maybe the share of the responsibility for the godawful mess in Syria which is borne by the UK (for some of it most certainly is) is not best assuaged with high explosives, or bullets, or terrifying close encounters with Russian jets in foreign skies. Maybe what Britain should be doing instead is helping those who need help – providing support to refugees in the region, and finding the moral courage and backbone to assist those who have come to Europe fleeing the very Islamist terror it claims to be so committed to defying. Maybe, instead of sending British bombs plummetting after the American ones already raining on Syria, Britain could do far, far more to secure itself and help the Middle East by bringing its diplomatic and economic strengths to bear – by putting actual pressure on Saudi Arabia to pick a damned side and pull its weight against ISIS; helping the embattled Kurds could be accomplished by convincing the UK’s supposed NATO ally, Turkey, to stop attacking them.

Doing these things would require a long overdue reconsideration of Britain’s role in the world, and its relationships with some deeply unsavoury countries (particularly Saudi Arabia) with which it’s altogether too cosy. Far easier, then, to Be Seen To Do Something; to be the Prime Minister who set his jaw, Took The Tough Decisions and decided to drop bombs on some people in Syria. After all, any grumbling in the media will be easily eclipsed by their ongoing hounding of Jeremy Corbyn, whose role in the vote on bombing has been discussed in far more depth than Cameron’s own. There will be a legion of armchair war experts to mumble adages about eggs and omelettes in the event of any unfortunate images of dead civilians being circulated. Finally, should this all go terribly wrong, as Iraq did, and merely spread further extremism across the region and put more lives in the UK and Europe at risk, the proponents of war can always suck at their teeth, shake their heads and wonder out loud why some Muslims are so violent. The utility calculation is a no-brainer. Cameron has Done Something, and for now, at least, he’ll be rewarded for that – even if there’s no sense or reason to what’s actually been done.

Shanghai_by_night

Control, Freedom and the End of China’s Boom

Yesterday’s New York Times featured a well-written and quite balanced article looking back over eight years of a China-based correspondant’s experience of the country – “Notes on the China I’m Leaving Behind” (hat tip to Peng Jingchao for the link). Ignoring the uncomfortably convenient anecdote in the last paragraph, the author’s description of the evolution of Chinese society in the 21st century is one that strikes a lot of interesting notes.

I work with two fantastic researchers who are investigating the Chinese media and the systems through which control is exerted over media narratives at a state and regional level in the country. In essence, they are trying to lay bare the cogwheels and levers that the New York Times piece hints at – the mechanisms that allow the shaping of narratives and belief systems, even while encouraging the outward appearance of more freedom, more marketisation and more democracy. It’s tricky research; most of these systems are not formal or legislative, but conducted through mutual understandings, through winks and nods and carefully coded speech, and can only be uncovered by looking at the fine detail of the outcome in the form of actual reporting of events across the country’s various media outlets.

What I’ve gleaned from watching their work progress, and from talking to other researchers who engage with Chinese social media and the control of information on China’s separate, mirror-world version of the Internet, is a sense of just what an extraordinary and darkly impressive enterprise the Chinese government is presently engaged with. It is committed to market capitalism, to economic growth (at almost any cost) and to the advancement of living standards and growth of the middle class; it is also committed to keeping the Chinese Communist Party firmly in control of the nation, and as such, its objective is to decouple democracy from capitalism, severing economic freedom from political freedom. In a philosophical sense, what China is doing right now is an utter repudiation of the beliefs that underpinned the West during the Cold War; by advancing capitalism without democracy, markets without freedom, China would prove that these things were never inextricably linked, that one can happily thrive without the other.

That’s not exactly news, of course. Countries like Singapore – which, I suspect, China’s leaders have viewed as a hugely instructive model – have effectively managed to combine fantastic economic growth and high standards of living with deeply undemocratic regimes for many years. They provide just enough of the trappings of democracy to keep international relationships nice and smooth (democratic countries often make uncomfortable noises when dealing with undemocratic states) and to allow their comfortable middle classes, enjoying the benefits of economic growth, to dismiss the complaints or unrest of less-advantaged groups as mere “troublemaking”. China is this socio-political experiment writ large upon the canvas of the world’s largest state; an attempt to generalise the model successfully implemented by the ruling elites of Singapore and elsewhere upon a population of well over a billion people. Its tools in this enterprise range from the blunt force of arrested and imprisoned activists to altogether more subtle and powerful techniques of information control – through education, through media and, increasingly, through the very Internet tools that activists so often lionise as harbingers of democracy.

Buried in the New York Times article is, I think, the most important truth about this whole process – that the Chinese authorities are afraid, primarily, of one thing, namely the Chinese people. In discourses about China, at least those taking place outside China (and especially here in Japan, a country which by and large doesn’t know quite what to think of the huge, vastly important neighbour with whom it shares such a complex and contested history), there’s a tendency to emphasise China’s external relationships. A great deal of focus is placed upon territorial disputes with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, on the curious and difficult relationship with Taiwan and on the complex, inter-dependent and occasionally belligerent jostling for power with its fellow superpower, the USA. When people talk about internal relationships in China, they talk of Tibet or the Uighur people, about the contested status of Hong Kong, or about the treatment of prominent activists like Ai Weiwei. I’m not a China specialist by trade (though as mentioned, I work with several), but I can’t help but feel that these foci miss the point; they’re chosen through the lens of what people outside China care about, and miss the reality of what people within the country, and people within the government and the CCP, care about.

I’d contend that the most important relationship within China, the one that really matters, is none of those listed above – it’s the relationship between the Chinese Communist Party and the huge, burgeoning Chinese middle class. These are the people who have benefitted from China’s economic growth, who enjoy a quality of life undreamed of by their parents or grandparents and who are deeply proud of China’s rise in the world (but who also still tend to see China as being bullied, disrespected or put down by powerful rivals like the USA and Japan). They are also a generation far more educated than their parents’ generation, far more exposed to global influences – and thus far less likely to accept the “elites know best”, top-down rule of the CCP. If the CCP ever loses power, it will not be because of Tibetans, Uighurs, human rights activists or interventions from its neighbours; it be because the Chinese middle class demands democracy en masse, either violently or otherwise.

Right now, that isn’t happening. The majority of the China experts I speak to see no deep wellspring of democratic sentiment, no silent majority wishing for democratic freedom. They see a middle class that’s far more interested in its freedom to consume than in its freedom to vote; a population lifted in the space of a single generation from rural poverty to urban comfort. They have flat-screen TVs, smartphones, cars; they take holidays abroad, eat well, often consuming exotic food their parents would never have tasted, buy consumer goods and electronics, and each year sees an incremental increase in quality of living which, in almost any country you care to mention, easily quenches any thirst for democratic freedom. When life is so materially better today than it was ten years ago, why risk it all by speaking out for something so abstract, so removed from your own daily existence, as democracy?

Why, then, are China’s elites afraid? Because sustaining power through economic growth can’t be done indefinitely. Economies slow down or go into recession, and the meteoric growth of a country transitioning from a rural, agricultural economy to an urban, high-tech economy is largely an exercise in picking low-hanging fruit. Giving apartments, cars and TVs to a billion people who didn’t have them before is pretty heady stuff, economically, but as the rest of the developed world has been discovering for the past decade or more, eking out growth becomes a hell of a lot harder once all that low-hanging fruit is picked. China, too, is slowing down; it has announced much lower growth numbers over the past year than in previous years, and many good economists even question those numbers, suspecting that the figures are being artifically inflated to keep things looking good. If growth stalls or, worse, starts to go backwards, it will create two major sources of unrest within China – firstly, those still in poverty who have been anticipating that economic growth will reach them eventually, but now fear that they have ended up on the wrong side of a permanent socio-economic cleavage within the country; and secondly, the new middle classes, who have become accustomed to rapid improvements in their quality of living and now find this movement stalled. Oddly, history shows that it could be the second group who are most dangerous to China’s authorities; a concept called “revolution of rising expectations” emerged in the 1950s (though Alexis de Tocqueville had explored similar ideas as far back as the mid-1800s) which showed empirically that it’s not the impoverished and hopeless who rebel against governments, it’s the segments of society that have seen rising standards of living and abruptly find their raised expectations unfulfilled.

It is inevitable that this will happen in China – which is why the authorities are so determined to explore every other avenue of control available to them, before the economic honeymoon period comes to an end. This is the most powerful and important motivator of the behaviour of the Chinese state right now, and I don’t think it’s extreme to say that almost every single action taken by the Chinese state can be read and understood in the context of this desire to control its own middle class. Its international disputes – over mere rocks and reefs in the South and East China Seas – are often explored in economic or military terms, but are arguably far more important in internal propaganda terms, by setting up minor conflicts with Japan, America and their allies which can be easily exploited for nationalist propaganda purposes. The suppression of activists and the international condemnation it attracts is played as the cultural imperialism of the West directed against China and its system of values. Trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership are presented (not entirely unfairly) as evidence of China’s rivals trying to contain its economic growth; and of course, historic disputes with Japan, over everything from Nanjing to Yasukuni and back again, are used to stoke nationalist sentiments and give the Chinese people a sense of facing a common enemy (a strategy which Japan’s own hapless nationalists fall over themselves to enable, over and over again, like particularly unintelligent dogs in a Pavlovian experiment).

Not everything that the Chinese authorities are doing to secure their position in the post-boom years is bad, of course. The country’s economic growth has vastly improved the standards of living of hundreds of millions of people. The nation’s lack of democracy shouldn’t disguise its extraordinary achievements; the sheer number of people who have jumped in single generation from village peasant lives barely changed since medieval times to being urban, college-educated professionals is staggering and hugely impressive. Nothing has moved the needle on the world’s problems with poverty in the past decade as much as China’s advancement. Under Xi Jinping, the country has also started to tackle the political corruption that was endemic at local levels, an effort largely designed to stamp out a likely source of future unrest in the Chinese people.

It’s anyone’s guess whether any of this – the information control, the stoking of nationalist fires, the careful shrouding of the harsh machinery of totalitarianism in the soft language of democracy and freedom, or even the laudable crackdown on corruption – will count for anything when China’s economic growth finally stalls badly enough for its middle classes to feel the pinch. But this is the context in which we need to read what’s happening in China today. The authorities know that the stability and security of their position has enjoyed a blessed existence under the protection of the country’s economic growth, but they see the end of that protection in sight. Extending economic growth is a priority, of course, but building the structures that will protect their position in a post-growth world is the motivation that drives China’s authorities today – and this is the only analytical lens that makes sense of the country’s actions towards its neighbours, its trading partners and its own people.

Praying for Paris; Fearing for the Future

Waking up to the horrific news coming out of Paris – as yet formless and confused – and watching it coalesce and take dreadful shape over the course of the day has been a grim and unsettling experience. There is a horrible deja vu; the gunfire, the police on the streets. Paris, cradle of civilisation, of culture, of democracy, under attack from forces of barbarism and darkness who strike not so much at the people of the city (though this they also do, lethally and tragically) as at its soul – at its cosmopolitanism, its liberalism, its decency and its tolerance. 

All of those things are going to be sorely tested in the weeks and months to come. Overclouding the gut-wrenching sense of empathy for those murdered and their families, and for a city stricken (a feeling I recall well from the London bombings a little over 10 years ago) is a hollow sense of fear for what this means. For what’s going to happen next. 

I don’t know who perpetrated the Paris attacks. Nor do you, no matter how strongly held your beliefs may be. We’ll probably find out in due course how this atrocity was inspired, planned and executed, but our shared ignorance hasn’t stopped plenty of people from taking to social media (or worse, TV and newspapers) to deliver the stirring verdict that best fits their favoured prejudices and world views. The briefest flick through social media today is tremendously depressing; outnumbering the messages of sadness and condolence, it seems, are those blaming either ISIS, Refugees, Muslims, or all three of the above – and demanding awful revenge against their chosen targets. 

Maybe ISIS was involved – I don’t know, and not do you, but it’s worth noting that despite media-induced fear, ISIS has never before shown any inclination to engage in international terrorism, being content to confine its special brand of hellish evil to its own “state” in the shellshocked remains of Iraq and Syria. Perhaps some terrorists smuggled themselves in among refugees; I don’t know and nor do you, but every shred of evidence for this popular xenophobic meme thus far has been proven to be a laughable hoax, and the refugees themselves are risking everything to flee Islamist violence, not to incite it. As to “Muslims” being to blame; sure, maybe that’s so, but only if you’ll also accept that “Catholics” were responsible for all IRA bombings, that “Christians” bear the burden of all Klu Klux Klan murders and that “Buddhists” need to shoulder the blame for the indiscriminate slaughter of the Rohingya people. Hell, let’s pin Stalin’s purges and the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields on “Atheists” while we’re at it?

One thing I do know about these attacks is that they shared a common objective with every terrorist attack; to provoke, to outrage and to drive a wedge between sectors of a society. Assuming this is an Islamist attack – home-grown or international – it is inspired by a belief that Muslims cannot and must not live within the rules of a secular society, and a willingness to attack that society and destroy its harmony in order to make that awful belief into a reality. 

The fear hollowing out my heart today is that it’s going to work; we will give these evil bastards everything they want, because their attacks will push us where we are weakest. European Muslims, many of them resident for generations, will be attacked and further marginalised (turning the more volatile among them towards the arms of jihadis, just as incidents like Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland sent countless new recruits to the IRA; but hey, who needs real, sustainable security when you can have misdirected revenge and self-righteousness instead?). Refugees fleeing Islamist violence – whose plight we should understand better than ever today – will see doors slammed even more firmly in their faces. Cosmopolitanism, the greatest threat to fundamentalism and violent ideology ever devised, will see a sunset as voices entreating for engagement, for compassion and for the upholding of European values in the face of evil are held in contempt as “soft”, as “appeasers”, as “friends of the terrorists”. It happens already – a standard part of the US political narrative, a common line of attack on the UK’s left wing – it will happen even more often in the weeks to come. 

These battles will have to be fought; evil has struck once again at Europe’s soul, and we must now contend with those who would respond by ripping out that soul entirely and replacing it with a heart of tin. But not today. Please, not today. Save your blame for when we know who to blame; save your hate for tomorrow, and express instead your love and sorrow to the people of Paris today. I’m very afraid of what happens next; but I know that what needs to happen now is love, support and space for grief.