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Of Babies and Politics

Did you happen to watch the news this past week? If so, you are probably overwhelmed with the minute by minute, wall-to-wall coverage of the birth of the latest heir to the British throne. Was there any angle of that event that was not examined in minute detail by the media? Even taking into consideration that newsrooms in the summer are usually thinned out by the number of staff members on vacation, the paucity of any real news was dismaying.

Especially since this past Sunday an important election was held in Japan. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) achieved a massive victory in the upper house of the legislature, the House of Councilors. There were 121 seats up for grabs of the 242 total. Half of the seats are contested every six years. The LDP won enough to give it control with a majority of 135 (together with its coalition partner, the New Kōmeitō Party) compared to the 107 seats that are now held by all of the other parties combined, including the Japanese Communist Party.

The Japanese Democratic Party (JDP) in particular had a bad showing. For a party that was launched just a few years ago with great fanfare, it was a tremendous defeat. The LDP had been disgraced by years of failed policies and corruption, and the JDP appeared as a reforming force that would rectify a political system that was unresponsive to the needs of the Japanese public. There was great hope for the charismatic leaders of the JDP who swept into power promising all sorts of changes.

Then reality set in. Budgetary restraints forced the JDP to renege on many of its campaign promises. Political financing scandals drove some of those charismatic leaders out of office. And finally, inept handling of emergencies, especially the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, caused the Japanese electorate to lose faith in the JDP. The debacle on Sunday was just the last nail in its political coffin.

But the West has little interest in any of this it seems. Why bother about Japanese politics when there is a baby to command the attention of the masses?

However, news of the election made the front page of newspapers in China and Korea. It was big news there. Why? Because Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō has now been given a political mandate to change the Japanese constitution in the way that he has agitated for since he first came to power as the leader of the LDP six months ago. The Chinese and Koreans fear that the pacifist provisions of the constitution will be overturned and the country will adopt a more militant posture vis-à-vis its Asian neighbors. The Japanese armed services are already the fifth largest in the world despite their designation as “self-defense forces.” The fear is that if Japan further arms itself there could be dangerous confrontations in the region.

How does the Japanese electorate feel about this? The public just wants to get the economy back on track. And yet in that sense Abe’s record has not been good. Between January and June of this year Japan recorded a trade deficit of $48.7 billion, the highest in its history. In June the deficit was $1.8 billion. Imports are up 9.2% compared to 2012. This is mainly due to oil and liquefied natural gas that have been brought in to supply power lost when nuclear plants were shut down in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. Abe’s monetary policies have devalued the yen, making those purchases more costly for the country. Ironically, increased imports from China, especially cell phones, have also caused the imbalance in trade.

Still there is a feeling that Abe inherited a bad situation and Japanese citizens are willing to be patient as he tries to turn things around. Although economic growth is anemic, exports are still up from last year, if only by 4.2%.

On that trading front, there is another development along similar lines. This week the Japanese took part in the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations for the first time. The Abe Administration sent a team of fifty representatives to the talks that were conducted in Malaysia. These are delicate discussions. If the Japanese want to play a significant role in the TPP, something that would be beneficial to everyone concerned, they will be required to fundamentally alter the nature of their mercantilist economy. Abe would like to exempt things like rice from the TPP requirements of the elimination of protective tariffs because farmers in Japan make up a powerful political force. However, the Japanese are facing savvy negotiators on the other side in the TPP talks who will make tough demands of their own. It will be interesting to watch how this plays out.

But who cares about these trivial matters? It has just been announced that the newborn English baby will be christened George Alexander Louis. Now that’s news!

Those who wish to comment on the opinions expressed here may send their thoughts to info@GoWizardry.com. The most interesting responses will be addressed in future postings.

Robert J. Terry

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