Wednesday, May 23, 2018

On the puzzles of human nature

A reflection on a year of reflections and questions, moral and legal

My father died a year ago today, 23 May 2017, aged 78. He died in a nursing home in regional Victoria, away from his more familiar environs of Manly in New South Wales, sufficiently out of the way for most members of the family to visit. That was the action taken by my youngest brother and his wife, without reasonable consultation.

He returned to Sydney in 2014 from an almost permanent residency in Los Angeles. He had and we had anticipated a new phase of his life, back in Sydney, back visiting him. He was subsequently diagnosed with Lewy Bodies dementia and as other members of the family sought to make arrangements to accommodate this new phase, the youngest brother and his wife (with assistance from an acquaintance, a long term employee of my father) took him to Victoria. They neglected to inform us of his new residence, my eldest brother had to seek out the address of the home for himself.

On his death, I wrote a tribute to be uploaded to the website of the funeral home, as is now the done thing. My youngest brother and his wife deemed it inappropriate and deleted it. This was among tributes that joked about guns to the head and crooked cops in the 'whatever it takes' 1970s Manly, Sydney. My father was a car dealer on Sydney's northern beaches and later invested in real estate. I thought there were other aspects of his life that ought to be known too.

There remains much to be told in this story. That will be for another day.

I have sat on this for a year now. I post it here, for myself, and as a reminder that while I might be an international relations academic interested in questions the politics of human nature, sometimes the difficult questions are always much closer to home.

The tribute is reprinted here, without changes, as reflected at the time, one year ago.

I returned to Australia in August 2017 where I understood we were, as a family, to gather to scatter my father's ashes over his preferred spot in Sydney, as he had requested. Instead, the youngest brother took it upon himself to defy those wishes and inter his ashes in a suburban crematorium in Sydney.


Reflecting on the tributes here, it is clear that America, especially Los Angeles, was where Ted lived his life as he wished. His first trip there in the early 1970s cemented his fascination with the country and on his return he did his best to convert us, whether through Stars and Stripes t-shirts and cowboy boots, the American flag on the bar wall and JFK (yes, JFK) quotes throughout the house. 

After our parents separated in 1973, the next few years were spent travelling to Sydney in school holidays spending time washing cars on the car yard, travelling across town to do a deal, being taken to Luna Park by friends or left at our Nan's house.

The legacy we leave when we die is what those of us left have to consider. More than the material possessions or accumulated wealth, sometimes that legacy will be lessons in how to be or how not to be. Clearly, for my father's friends in the US, that is one of how to be. As the first-born, however, there is another facet of the man who said that it was my fault, being born, that messed his life up so much. That after years of telling me my education was pointless and right on the point of starting a career in public service and teaching.

It is one thing to sense that level of rejection in your teens, quite another to be confronted by it in your twenties.

It remained the touchstone for over two decades. Later during work trips to the US, I took the difficult step to make contact, to see Ted in his ‘home’ environment. We started working on that distance.

Ted’s return to Manly, the beachside he enjoyed, the pigeons on Corso, the ferries at the wharf, made it easier to begin the journey over. Occasional meetings and phone calls helped to counter a long-held grievance.

The talk was mostly of politics, our almost entirely diametrically opposed views on everyone and everything in US and Australian politics; our views of the world so opposite. Ted never could or would understand why I ‘wasn’t interested in making a buck’ but I think we were on the verge on reconciling that too.

It is a shame that just as Ted was settling again in Manly and re-establishing himself, he was taken to country Victoria to see out his days. Perhaps because he was settling, some saw it in their interests to take him away. It made walking that last distance much harder.

In our last phone conversation, mostly about politics again, I explained I had achieved a coveted position in Tokyo. I explained it to him in terms of his best ever car deal. Ted seemed to finally get it.

As per his request, he discouraged me from returning to Australia for his funeral. He said he didn’t want any fuss. I thus farewell him in respecting his wishes in our last conversation.

This is the tribute that was deleted by the same brother who evicted his own daughter from a long-term property owned by my father, to expedite sale; he later also evicted his own brother from a property gifted to that brother by our father some years ago. 

Some days, there's is seemingly no accounting for the motivations of the avarice of certain individuals.

The puzzles of human nature continue to puzzle.  

Sunday, May 13, 2018

On a public holiday to commemorate the 1947 Constitution estimated 60,002 people turned up

This week's peace rally was the third Constitution Day rally I had attended since returning to Japan in 2016. It is held near the Ariake campus of the university, in a large open area which mostly poses as a park but is also a designated emergency evacuation area in the event of an earthquake or similar. (Probably not a tsunami, it is a bit low-lying for that.)
Front page of the Tokyo Shimbun on 4 May, showing the 60,000 crowd

I attend because part of my research concerns public engagement in political issues, seeking out reasons for apathy and disinterest in politics; and also for that part of my work that revolves around examining security in the East Asian region, particularly in response to interpretations of Article 9 of Japan's 1947 Peace Consitition, the so-called peace clause. 

This year, a reported 60,000 turned up, an increase in the last two years. Article 9 is at the forefront of debate at present in Japan. It is the ambition of the current Prime Minister Abe Shinzo to amend the Constitution to 'better reflect' the role of Japan's Self-Defence Force, the jieitai, in being able to undertake overseas missions. As it is being presented to the general public, most consider to it be a 'legitimising' of the Force's overseas roles, largely in peace-keeping related missions. 

Placards for peace

For those closer to the frontline of peace movement, there are greater fears that Japanese forces will be sent to wars overseas, mostly in the service of an American alliance, something only too well known to Australians. 

I added the 2 above in the subheading to acknowledge two of my students who attended their first such rally. One of my seminars this semester is focussing on citizens movements and political engagement. I invited the students along to observe and record their impressions. The two who attended were, at first, taken aback by the size of the crowd. It was a privilege to watch them taking in their first such event. I look forward to their reflections. 

On the stage, speaker after speaker--authors, politicians, academics, journalists, social group leaders--all spoke and put their take on the importance of Article 9 in maintaining peace. One of the more interesting arguments I heard put forward raised a challenge to the status quo.Back in the 1990s, a politician had his book translated into English. In it he argues for Japan to be an ordinary country (futsu nokuni), it was translated as 'normal power' and those who want to strengthen Japan's military, argue that 'normal countries' have a military, and so should Japan. (This wasn't actually the main point of Ozawa's argument, the author of the 1990s book, but that is for another time.) One speaker said that 'it is argued that we need to amend Article 9 for Japan to become a 'normal country'...well, perhaps we don't want to be 'ordinary' but should remain extraordinary by being a country that doesn't have a military force. The point earned accolades from the crowd. It was an interesting take on a popular argument. 

The peace rallies today were held in 250 cities and towns across Japan. While no estimate is available at present for the total attendance, that's a lot of people and towns expressing their interest and concern about the Constitution, its proposed amendment, and peace. 

Abe may not get the easy ride to constitutional amendment he seeks. 

Off on the march

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

A note on the Korean Peninsula

A note of caution, but optimism

It would be hard to pass up a comment on events on the Korean Peninsula this week. There was an array of emotions watching North Korea's Kim and South Korea's Moon hold hands and jump that slab of concrete which has demarcated both countries now for decades. 

Saturday morning's papers

The Korean Peninsula has been a key part of my work over the last 15 years or so as I've worked on ways to secure peace in the Northeast Asian region. My primary focus has been through the idea of a security community, a community where countries share the notion that there can be dependable expectations of peaceful change. In particular I've been building on the work of Adler and Barnett (1998) which also includes shared identities values and meanings. Critics argue therefore North Korea couldn't possibly be included, indeed, the nation-states of the Northeast Asian region could not possibly ever share identities, values and meanings. 

I have long-argued that the nation-states of East Asia have as much or as little in common as the states that make up the EU, if you want to see that way. For much of my work, I have been arguing for an inclusive approach to North Korea, much in the way Burma/Myanmar was ultimately engaged in ASEAN. It is not a short-term approach, it will take time. 

All this to say that watching the two leaders on television unleashed an array of emotions as they shook hands, talked, appeared to laugh. There is much to be written on this chapter and detente is a long way off. 

But in International Relations, sometimes you have to withstand the criticisms, and take the optimistic path and hope that things will work for the better. So often the easier, belligerent path is argued, supported and perpetuated. 

Kant's Perpetual Peace is something still to aim for. 

28 April 2018; more to come. 

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Australia Day #changethedate

A view *for* Japan

One week on from the public holiday for Australia Day on 26 January, one of Japan's leading newspapers, the Asahi Shimbun, featured a rather comprehensive article on the debate surrounding the day, invasion or celebration, mourning or commemoration.

Australia doesn't get a lot of coverage in Japanese media but to their credit, from time to time, Asahi does give space to major issues (one on the Manus Island asylum seekers comes to mind).

Australia Day: Settlement or Invasion?

This post aims to give an overview of the contents of the article. I was going to write a post anyway, as a way to convey my own thoughts on the day and as a response to how the day played out on twitter, as viewed from Tokyo. In the end, the timeliness of this article in the Asahi and my work in observing how Japan and Australia understand each other, outweigh my personal views, for a post here at least.

For the record, however, if I had been in Brisbane on the day, I would have been participating in the march across town. I was born in Sydney, sixth-generation Australian descended from English settlers via Portsmouth, on both sides. At school in Sydney, we learnt Cook discovered Australia (in 1770, I even have a vague recollection of the bicentenary in 1970) and 26 January 1788 marked the arrival of the First Fleet in Sydney Cove by Arthur Phillip. We even had school excursions to the 'birthplace' of Australia, the Rocks area and Mrs Macquarie's chair, Hyde Park and Victoria Barracks, just so we understood 'history'. As a Sydney-sider, it only ever represented to me just that, something for Sydney to reflect on. I never really did get why the rest of the country would want to celebrate that, particularly after we moved to Queensland.

The bicentenary in 1988 seemed to shift the local to the national. The re-enactment of the First Fleet arriving in Sydney Harbour seemed to trigger a nascent jingoism which has continued to grow, cause disrespect, anger and a contrived patriotism which mimics the very worst aspects of what overt nationalism can be.

Our politics is broken, of that there is no doubt. As a political scientist, that is a great disappointment, on my bad days, a sense of failure. What Australia Days in recent times have underscored is anger, hatred. As a nation we need healing and reconciliation. Our First Nation people are resilient and have much to teach us about land, environment, knowledges that can heal society.  The Uluru Statement is but one example. We need to support the Statement, we need to convince politicians who lack the courage and foresight to embrace this advance. We need to heal and go forward together, rebuilding our society, fairly, justly and equally.

But back to the article. Relations between Australia and Japan date from the mid-19th century. An adventurous acrobatic troupe was followed by indentured labourers who mainly inhabited Nothern Australia, namely Thursday Island and North Queensland, as pearl fishers, as farm labourers; they also went to Broome in WA. World War Two and postwar trade get much of the attention. But over the years I have been observing both countries, they also share a willingness to look to each others social structures. I recall an extended article in the 1980s on the merits of copying Australia's electoral system; there has long been interest in Australia's approach to multiculturalism, immigration and citizenship. A newly published book by Shiobara Yoshikazu is but the most recent in this extensive genre.

So what to make of the article in the Asahi? As the present Japanese government under Abe Shinzo continues its radical crafting of a rightwing conservatism similar to other western democracies, the Asahi has brought a critical eye to Australia's asylum seeker policies and now the settler vs invasion debate as Australia constructs a jingoistic patriotism. It is a much needed critical eye. Where once Japan looked to Australia to learn, it is almost like the Asahi is tempering that view with a wary eye.

The article reported at length on the demonstrations in each city, pictures that flowed through my twitter feed on the day were reprinted and described in detail. It mentions the changes Triple J made to its Hottest 100. Significantly too, the coverage includes use of the word 'Aborigine' vs Aboriginal people and Indigenous people. Asahi notes that it will in future stop using the word Aborigine and instead use the words Aboriginal People (先住民 senjumin) or Australian Aboriginal People in order to acknowledge First Nations People preferences.

I appreciate the Asahi's endeavours in tackling some of the major political issues in Australia, rather than just the odd koala or kangaroo story. It is a further important development in the relationship.

We can #changethedate and we can make a difference.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Mr Turnbull comes to Tokyo...

...a look at the media response

What the papers said today, 19 January 2018

Just 18 hours, a quick trip, a contrast with visits in the past which might have spread out over two days, cabinet minister to cabinet minister. In the 1970s, Japan and Australia instituted regular ministerial meetings which included key Cabinet ministers on both sides and held mostly annually until their ultimate demise in the late 1980s (maybe there was on last breath in the early 1990s). One of the last, the 1989 meeting, took a theme of a 'constructive partnership' and it was about this time we began to see Australian governments begin to 'encourage' Japan to strengthen its defence capabilities. In the context of Japan's comprehensive security approach at the time, so much more might have become of this gentle encouragement. Instead, almost thirty years later, Japan and Australia are on the verge of signing a Visiting Forces Agreement, VFA (訪問部隊地位協定)and security is now less comprehensive and concern more heightened. (And it alarms me I've been doing this for thirty years...)

PM Abe arrived back in Tokyo on 17 January from a six-country trip to the Baltic states and eastern Europe to walk into a meeting with Australian PM Turnbull on 18 January. This visit included a trip by helicopter to Narashino in Chiba, to a self-defence force training facility, not quite a review of the troops but Turnbull was able to see first-hand how Australian-built Bushmasters were being used by Japanese personnel. After a business lunch with Australian and Japanese business leaders, the Australian prime minister was back to meetings with PM Abe including sitting in on the Japanese National Security Council (NSC) before a joint media conference at 7.33pm and then a state dinner until 9.17pm. The detail comes from the 'Prime Minister's Day' published in most major papers, daily. 

A snapshot of PM Abe's day as reported by the Asahi Shimbun

 Mr Turnbull, known for using public transport in Australia, was also captured by the media catching the Marunouchi Subway Line for a couple of stops, vision of which remained up on Asahi Digital for much of the day today (19 January).

In the era of social and digital media, reporting of the prime minister's visit was happening pretty much in real time during the day, but I'm a bit old-fashioned and in my PhD days, with my academic training wheels on, one of my research tasks included trawling through the newspapers for all and any story that mentioned Japan and Australia...that's what we do. Or did. I imagine the young ones today get to do it all via search engines.

But, there's nothing like surprising the staff at the station kiosk on days like today, buying up five newspapers, along with my usual coffee and snack pack. (I also do this on the days on and around election days...they are getting used to my eccentricities.) Measured in column inches, airwaves and increasingly these days social media likes and comments, the day in Tokyo didn't go unnoticed (although students in my seminar class this morning, when asked, weren't aware of the visit).

To begin with, first thing this morning on my regular radio program, PM Turnbull's visit was the first issue of Morimoto Takero's 'Standby' program, on TBS radio from 6.30am. The defence cooperation was mentioned in the context of how North Korea might respond but perhaps the most telling comment was to remind listeners 'Mr Turnbull of course had *that* conversation with President Trump'...indeed, it was food for the commentariat many days after it was reported last year. Mostly astonishment that a president would speak to another leader like that (that, and Trump's notorious handshake with Abe around the same time).

To the newspapers then:

Asahi Shimbun on page four, covered the visit in three articles:
日豪、防衛協力を深化、北朝鮮に圧力強化 ( a deepening of defence cooperation, applying pressure to North Korea)
日米印豪が協議 インド太平洋の安保, US, Japan, India and Australia in consultations on Indo-Pacific security (referring to the conference simultaneously held in Dehli)
豪首相は電車がお好き? Does the Australian PM like trains? with a pic of Turnbull riding the subway

Asahi is considered centre-left in the mediascape, less syncophantic when it comes to PM Abe's constitutional and military agenda. The paper reports that Australia and Japan were seeking strengthening and deepening defence relations in the wake of North Korea's nuclear (and) missile developments. This cooperation includes increased joint military exercises with Japanese and Australian troops. It also mentioned PM Turnbull sitting in on the NSC, taking the 'special strategic partnership' to the next level.

The end of the article also noted Mr Turnbull's visit to the Narashino (Chiba) training facility, by helicopter, where Mr Turnbull reiterated 'this region's two main security fears,* terrorism and North Korea. Australia and Japan and US close cooperation is extremely important'. (*News to those of us resident here but I digress.)


Tokyo Shimbun's summary of growing defence cooperation

Tokyo Shimbun on page two 'confirms a strengthening of security' 日豪 安保強化を確認、米以外との連携進む (advancing cooperation with countries other than the US [Australia, South Korea, India and the UK]
Tokyo Shimbun, notably most critical of the Abe Government's security agenda, reported that the two PMs discussed North Korea's missile development, China's maritime activities, and increasing security and defence cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region. Both leaders agreed on signing a new agreement that would enable joint miltary exercises.

Tokyo Shimbun ran a most detailed report on the content of the joint media conference given by the prime minsters after their meeting. It also mentioned the TPP.


Mainichi Shimbun featured an article on page two, confirmation of Indo-Pacific cooperation, (「インド太平洋」連携、日豪首脳会談で確認) 
This was the focus of this article, along with the TPP, excluding the US. It reported on the proposed joint military exercises, China's maritime incursions and assisting with building SE Asian maritime security (警備). Abe referred to Australia as a ‘special strategic partner’, while Turnbull reiterated the concerns about North Korea.

A second article on page five used the language 'an unusually warm reception' 豪首相を異例の厚遇、陸自視察やNSC出席, citing the tour of the SDF facility and sitting in on the NSC meeting as examples. The Mainichi also used the expression quasi-ally (準同盟国) suggesting Abe noted this as something to aim for in deepening the security relationship. Mainichi noted that Turnbull was the third PM after former PM Abbott and UK PM May, to be invited to the NSC. There was also a small exchange about the draw for the Rugby World Cup, coming up in 2019. 

The Nihon Keizai Shimbun, the leading economic daily (think Australian Financial Review in Australia) and most popularly read on my subway line each morning, crowded or not (but I digress), offered a front page story and a page four follow-up. The Nikkei (as it is also known) has been the key journal of record of the development of the Australia-Japan relationship since the 1960s, especially the economic relationship. (For my sins, in my early days as a PhD student, I trawled through thirty years worth of Nikkei articles on microfiche--yes, that era--to seek out articles on Australia and Japan; that's what we do in order to get to this point in an academic life.)

The front page focus was 'pressure on North Korea' (日豪「北朝鮮に圧力」、安倍首相
「状況は悪化」 as Abe describes a 'worsening of the situation'. Similarly, Nikkei reported the growing defence cooperation between the two countries and not to be lulled by the dialogue between North and South Korea over the Winter Olympics.

The page four article elaborated on the joint media conference as noted above. Indo-Pacific cooperation featured as well as Turnbull's attendance at the NSC. Nikkei also reported the use of the term 'quasi-ally'.
Yomiuri's page 4 graphic illustrating China concerns
The Yomiuri Shimbun, the most pro-government of all media examined here, carried articles on page one and page four. Page one highlighted 'defence cooperation' and the TPP (日豪、防衛協力を強化、TPP 早期発効連携). The Yomiuri foreshadowed this visit back on Christmas Day, using the term 'quasi-ally' back then. The article on page four looked at the developments in security in more detail while also recognising the potential issues with China as Japan, the US and Australia increase defence cooperation.  

Both Prime Ministers put their instagram accounts to good use as well, PM Abe a relative newcomer to the platform having opened an account just before Christmas. On twitter, PM Turnbull's selfie with PM Abe and Mr Abe's pic with Mr Turnbull on the way to the training facility garnered likes, RTs and plenty of comments, interestingly, from Japanese followers lots of commentary on the smiles...

In summary then, media coverage was quite substantial for a one-day visit. Not the blanket coverage garnered by the American president but there was a distinct 'securitization' (to use a buzzword) of the relationship, with photo ops with men in khakis, helicopters, Bushmasters and, significantly, coining of the term 'quasi-ally' (準同盟国). It fits Abe's agenda and, likely, for now, Australian governments as well. PM Abe faces his party later this year, seeking an extension to his term as leader (both of the party and the government) not quite the fait accompli many expect it to be. There is movement in the LDP underbelly, with members seeking to put their case for a turn at the Prime Ministership. The contenders, if successful, are likely to tone down Abe's military ambition. Can the momentum be contained? I remain hopeful (I have to, otherwise I wouldn't get out of bed), that we will survive this phase and move into an era where genuine peace can be realised by leaders with true courage, ambition and imagination.
The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs recorded the visit here. (A note is made of Mr Turnbull's question about whaling...)

The Prime Minister's Office of Australia recorded the joint media conference here, the visit to the SDF training facility here, and the luncheon address here.

(And good work on both sides getting the record up in record time, on behalf of researchers and bloggers everywhere.)
Any queries or comments, please contact me via twitter @psephy


What is ahead for PM Abe in 2018

Mr Abe has a lot to contemplate

Just as PM Turnbull was in town to meet with his Japanese counterpart yesterday, I completed a piece for the Lowy Institute Interpreter. The final version is here.

This is the original version, mainly for my records, but you're welcome to read it too. I recalled a post I wrote back in June 2014 on the then 2+2 ministerial meeting. You'll find that here. The more things change...etc.


A dogged year ahead (a nod to 2018 being the year of the Dog)

As news outlets summed up the year that was and the year ahead, the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s most widely-read newspaper (and notably pro-government) featured its top 10 stories for 2017, domestic and international, according to its readers. Internationally, Trump was the story. Domestically, it was a 14 year old shogi (Japanese chess) master-in-the-making and his run of 29 straight victories. In a year where there was a snap election, political scandals, formalisation of the Emperor’s abdication (for the first time in centuries), and growing concerns about the Korean Peninsula, it was Sota Fujii, who captured most readers’ imaginations. Perhaps it was a sign that the nation, exhausted by the politics of the year, sought refuge in the competitive instincts of a junior high school chess master in the making.

 As in shogi, so too the demands of politics, domestic and international, will require masterful strategic analysis and plays, especially as 2018 unfolds for Prime Minister Abe. 

He began the year with a six-nation trip to Europe, taking in three Baltic States, as well as Bulgaria, Serbia and Romania. Talks were expected to centre on international issues such as North Korea as well as regional economic potential. The visit was a first for a Japanese prime minister and for PM Abe, it was also an opportunity for some diplomatic content for his newly-acquired Instagram account.

 The backdrop to 2018 here in Japan is the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration, recognised as the time when a ‘closed’ Japan was opened to the West. As with most narratives of nation-forging identities, the Meiji Restoration has its supporters and its detractors. The debate will continue through the year. PM Abe increasingly sees himself as a latter-day Meiji figure, ready to restore Japan to its former greatness, with just sufficient ambiguity as to just what that means for the nation and for regional relations.

In the broad brush of Meiji commemorations, perhaps PM Abe seeks to avert his gaze from the pressing domestic issues placed before him, like shogi pieces he will need to account for them though rather than sweep the board. Carrying over from 2017, the ongoing tensions with the people of Okinawa, host of key American bases, and increasingly, site of accidents and ‘mishaps’ that the locals continue to resist. In the year that Abe seeks to amend the constitution, we will be compelled to engage with the very real concerns of Okinawans who confront the reality of a ‘reconstituted’ military daily. Australian proponents of greater security cooperation would do well to familiarise themselves with the circumstances that draw the people of this prefecture to an ongoing resistance of Tokyo’s dictates.

 Abe’s strategizing on several fronts leads to his party, the Liberal Democratic Party holding its conference later in the year, whereupon Abe anticipates a further extension of his already-extended term as party president. At times, this seems like a fait accompli and at other times, increasing factional machinations point to a testing road to the presidential post. In recent LDP history, extensions to its admittedly self-imposed two two-term limits on the post (as party president one is automatically prime minister as long as the LDP is in government) have been ceded but only where no immediate challengers were apparent and a level of charisma carried the incumbent over the line. This is not the case for PM Abe and his ambivalent relationship with the public does concern some members of the party, both hawks and doves, who are reluctant to wait much longer to take their turn at leading the party.

 Meanwhile, although the opposition parties are continuing to shake out the 2017 shakedown of break-ups and alliances, it is clear that a more concerted opposition to constitutional reform will coalesce and at the same time, opposition parties are also declaring their intent to pursue ongoing political scandals with Moritomo and Kake educational organisations. These scandals over money and favours for friends, cost Abe greatly in opinion polling, even more so than constitutional reform, which is played out at a much more abstract level for many people.

Abe returns to Tokyo then to walk almost straight into a meeting with Australian Prime Minister Turnbull, while not quite the first strategic move on the chess board for 2018, both prime ministers share a potentially tumultuous year ahead will perhaps seek a moment to confide in each other’s respective domestic domains as well as reaffirm strengthening, if not predictable, security cooperation. The meeting was foreshadowed on Christmas Day 2017, on the front page of the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun, something of a surprise for keen observers of the bilateral relationship. The Yomiuri, as a strong backer of Abe’s constitutional reforms, not surprisingly reported the forthcoming meeting as a strategic necessity, even citing the talks as signalling a ‘strengthening of a relationship with a partner considered a quasi-ally’. No doubt, both prime ministers will nod in furious agreement but it is not exactly the sort of thing that is going to spark the hearts and minds of a populace prepared to back the outlier story in a year of notable events. For that to happen, Japan and Australia will need to go beyond the military-security pretext and reinvigorate a once robust and multi-dimensional relationship.


Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Signs of December

Wrapping up an interesting year

I'm not quite wrapping up the year on a personal note. Rather, we have reached that time of the year where various media outlets offer their summaries, their 'one word' that sums up the year in politics and society.  In Japan, there are two in particular that are anticipated: the kanji (Japanese/Chinese character) of the year, and the word of the year. I will also add, this year, an award-winning photograph of the year, 'The Okinawa Gaze' (沖縄の視線).

Each of these awards speak to the sense of unease and uncertainty surrounding Prime Minister Abe and his government.

Source: Kyoto Shimbun, 12 December 2017
Today's announcement of Kanji of the year appeared, initially, a little bland, kita or north, but those who have been watching will be aware of its significance. North Korea. Abe's main vehicle for pressing constitutional revision, and more recently justifying an increase in the defence budget, has been the 'threat' from North Korea's missile program. The judges also noted some 'coincidental' 'north' references: the floods in the northern part of Kyushu, the potato drought in the northernmost island Hokkaido, and a couple of baseball references involving the northernmost team, but the message was pretty clear. North Korea is on the minds of most people who participated in the voting process (other candidates for 2017 included 政 for politics, 不 a prefix indicating un~, or disagreement as in 不支持 'lack of support', where numbers for Abe have been quite high in opinion polls; 核 for nuclear and 新 for new).

The kanji is drawn live on TV and written by revered calligrapher Mori Seihan, Chief Buddhist priest at Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto. The character remains on display for a few weeks.

The word of the year award, announced a couple of weeks ago was the word sontaku (忖度). It is a word that tends to defy simple definition but it is one of those words that 'when it happens, you know it' as Japanese people seem to translate it. It suggests a request (kind of inferred, but stronger) will be met, without the request (or demand) being formally made (or spoken). It gained popularity during the year in light of a couple of scandals which continue to linger, and which continue to stalk Prime Minister Abe. Both involve educational institutions which have received favourable and extraordinary treatment from the government, implicating in particular Prime Minister Abe and his wife, Akie. The new opposition parties have vowed to continue to seek accountability on these deals in the new year, when parliament returns.

Taken on 23 June 2017, Sawada Masato
Source: Tokyo Shimbun, online, 25 November 2017
The third award I will highlight here is the Tokyo photojournalists association award for 'Okinawa Gaze' 沖縄の視線 a photo taken by Tokyo Shimbun cameraman Sawada Masato ( 沢田将人). As someone with an interest in photography, it is a compelling picture and sums up much of the animosity held by people for PM Abe's constitutional push, nowhere more so that the people of Okinawa. The Okinawa story is one which deserves its own blog post (soon) but the island chain, a prefecture of Japan at the southern end of the archipelago, is where Japanese domestic politics, the US Forces bases and Japanese security all intersect and overlap. The people of Okinawa, led by the prefectural governor Onaga Takeshi, mostly resist the construction of new bases but even more so, resent the way in which the Government in Tokyo appears to overrule their wishes in the name of 'national security'. For many in this particular picture, the sight of PM Abe laying a wreath at a ceremony commemorating world war two at the same time as advocating a stronger military, was too great a hypocrisy. The photo captures the anger.  Governor Onaga is immediately behind Abe, his gaze unmistakeable.

The puzzles for the new year 2018, for observers such as me, focus on PM Abe, his ambitions and the contradictions inherent in a country that wants to remain at peace, fears the missile threat, doesn't want US bases in Okinawa, but can't be without them either...these awards, this year in particular, struck me as indicative of the mix of belief and ambivalence in Japan this year. I look forward to teasing out the strands next year.


At the kind invitation of the editor Daniel Flitton, I will be writing a few articles for the Interpreter, part of the Lowy Institute stable of foreign policy and security commentary from an Australian perspective. A recent piece on PM Abe is here.