Saturday, May 6, 2023

What will happen to Article 9?

Observations at this year's Constitutional Day demonstration.

I've been attending these gatherings (other than the Covid years) since I returned to Japan in 2016. Indeed, I could say, one of the reasons I returned to spend an extended time in Japan this time was to observe what was happening politically and socially as the debate over Article 9 of the Constitution grew more intense during the Abe years.

Fortunately, I was able to post a commentary on the Lowy Institute's Interpreter (here) and I thought I would add a few additional photos from the day.

Sunday, July 31, 2022

'In the Shadow of Abe'

 The death of former Prime Minster Abe, while on the hustings for the Upper House elections, on a street corner in Nara, came as a shock to many, for many reasons. The second-last day of the campaign, I was considering a trip to Omiya to see him later that day, Friday evening, on the way home. Although this post comes in the middle of posts I have drafted on this election prior to the shooting, as pics from the hustings over on the other blog, I put here for the record, a piece I wrote within a few days, for the Lowy Institute Interpreter column. 

On the opening day of the campaign, at Tachikawa Station, western Tokyo, 22 June 2022

Monday, June 6, 2022

There is another election...

 ...this will keep me busy over the next few weeks

The Upper House election Japan is due in early July and parties and candidates are starting to make their moves, although the official campaigning period doesn't start for another couple of weeks. I'll be here to do some regular updates (no-one is expecting a change in government, or even much of a change in the composition of seats) as I attend the various rallies that are held around town (and perhaps beyond Tokyo if the opportunity arises...).

Last week, long-term lower house rep who lost her seat in Osaka last year, Tsukimoto Kiyomi, turned up at a local town hall meeting here in my local area. I have been following Tsujimoto for several years, as one of the women in my research on women in politics here in Japan so I was keen to catch up with her. Unlike previous years where she has campaigned in her home town mostly, this time she is challenging for a national seat so is in the process of traveling all over. It is a tough call to be elected but, given her profile and record, she is someone I would like to see back in parliament.  

The rest of the morning was a bit of a report on local politics, interesting to sit in and listen. (Not something a lot of people would be thrilled about I know...)

On Saturday (4 June '22) it was off to Ikebukuro Station where the leader of the small (but popular among students) party, Reiwa Shinsengumi was set to introduce the party's candidates for the summer election. The leader, Yamamoto Taro is a somewhat charismatic younger generation politician who in a previous life was a popular actor. I first encountered his political ambitions at this same station back in 2013, when he was running as an independent candidate for the Upper House. His only prop then was an upturned milk crate, because, he said, 'it is important be here on the ground, on the same level as the voters'. He has come a long with all the trimmings included a live band as a warm-up feature today.

As the election campaigning progresses, I'll discuss the various party platforms, the key candidates and what we might expect come election day.*

More to come, as they say...

*This might turn out to be my last Japanese election too. More to come as they...oops, I see I've already said that.

Sunday, May 29, 2022

A comment on the Quad

 Another grouping for the region

This week which saw the election of a new government in Australia, was also the stage for several major diplomatic plays in the region. 

US President Biden visited South Korea before landing in Tokyo for a key bilateral dialogues with PM Kishida on Monday. By Tuesday the two were joined by Indian PM Modi and new Australian PM Albanese. 

I was able to submit a commentary piece to the Interpreter via the Lowy Institute.


I'm posting the link here, for the record. 

Albanese steps cautiously through the Quad wrangle, 27 May 2022

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Feeling disenfranchised...

...  like our vote means less than an Olympian's medal

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to students, at the beginning of the new academic year, about how exciting it will be that we have two elections to observe as we study politics here in Japan and at home in Australia. We can follow the different aspects of campaigning, media coverage, candidates and their promises as it unfolds in real time while we study our textbooks. 

Japan's Upper House election will be in summer (here), due in July, while Australia's election campaign is in full swing, with election day on 21 May. Voting is a point of interest for my seminar students--we debate the pros and cons of compulsory voting in Australia and the fact that Japanese electors, even registered ones, are not so compelled. We compare the voter turnout figures--90ish percent in Australia compared with 53-55ish percent for Japan. And then conversation turns to 'the democracy sausage', the rather unassuming sausage with onions and sauce on a slice of bread which has in the last decade or so taken on a meaning likely unintended by the first local school P&C that came up with the idea. 

Indeed, I introduce the concept of the democracy sausage to students as a way to get conversation going, showing them a photo of my Tokyo democracy sausage from 2019, outside the Embassy after I had cast my vote in person. The democracy sausage has received coverage here in the media via NHK the national broadcaster (in Japanese here) and on popular news programs. 'I'll be off to do it again on 21 May' I said to them in that first week of classes, not for one minute imagining this democratic function we have taken for granted for years here in Tokyo was about to taken away from us...

Tokyo, 2019

The sausage was a new addition to the Embassy polling booth in 2019, after a few of us had jokingly said in 2016 that 'gee, it would be nice to have a sausage sizzle to complete the atmosphere'...the Greens volunteers were handing out watermelon in 2016 which was nice but...have you really voted if you haven't been able to buy your democracy sausage (and the now vegan, vegetarian and halal options). My students like the idea and a couple of years ago they proposed a similar 'festival' atmosphere at the polling booth with yakitori and grilled squid might encourage participation. 

Sadly, last week, I had to tell the students I wouldn't be going after all. Last weekend we learned that in-person voting in Tokyo wouldn't be happening but we could register for a postal vote (what the decisionmakers failed to realise was that the 'postal service' between Japan and Australia in a time of Covid has been pretty dodgy, to say the least). What started off as a couple of tweets of surprise by a few of us, has turned into quite the twitterstorm with the AEC getting involved as well, basically to tell us that postal votes are available just not in person and stop being so negative about it all. OK AEC, I'm sorry, but there is a lot more at stake here really. As we held our line, we learnt that several overseas posts will be open to in-person voting. Covid, we were told. But wait, we said, Tokyo continues to have rather strict Covid protocols, we wear masks, we sanitise our hands at every point...what is with the Covid excuse then? 

What is a psephologist to do then but to dig a little deeper into the figures. And so I have. And my conclusions? Well, let's have a look. 

Turns out, 'due to Covid restrictions', just 19 posts will have in-person voting. These include Brunei, Cambodia, China (two places), Cook Islands, France, Germany, Ghana, Indonesia, Nauru, New Zealand, PNG, Philippines, Taiwan, UK, US (two places), Vanuatu and Vietnam. Postal voting is also available at these places. 

Now a Tokyo resident, say, an Australian with a psephological bent, might look at those places and wonder about the 'Covid' reasoning. Is it Covid? Is it just that the AEC and DFAT (the Embassy) have decided that the numbers don't warrant the bother. This was the city that hosted the Olympics remember? Thousands of people--athletes, team officials, media--came into the city, in a peak Covid time, (I know, I saw a lot of them in and around my work precinct) it was all managed over a few weeks but our Embassy, in Minato-ku, can't handle a few hundred citizens expecting to exercise our voting right on the day? 

There are a couple of issues here. One is that 'long-term' residents lose their right to vote after five years. Now this seems a little arbitrary, especially in this era of globalization. And these are not residents who surrender their Australian citizenship either, but they lose the right to vote nonetheless. Australians living in Japan number around 10,000. Tourism numbers (visas) were estimated at around 500,000 in 2018. Now perhaps an in-person poll at the Embassy might be set up with the number of tourists in mind, rather than the fraction of the 10,000 residents who qualify under there five year rule. And of course, in 2019, tourists and visitors were still here in great numbers, pre-Covid. At the 2022 election, there will be no tourists or visitors because the Japanese government is still not issuing visas. That leaves the residents, some of whom were due to go home but fall into that group that have been 'locked out' of Australia while it closed down for Covid. 

(Disclosure: I fall into this latter group, due to return home in March 2021, I had to arrange to extend work, accommodation and renew my visa given the uncertainty about when I might return. March 2021 was also the end of my five-year period of voting rights under normal circumstances. I remain affronted by the idea, like a lot of friends and colleagues here that five years is the limit.)

A recently acquired T-shirt, made by a Japanese artist, who cares about voting

But back to the post, and the voting at overseas posts...let's have a look at the figures from the AEC website...

Total of overseas votes by division

There were approximately 61,000 postal (85) and Pre-poll votes (60710) recorded at overseas posts. There is a breakdown of the number of votes by electorate and it demonstrates, that while some numbers are low, nearly all electorates attracted overseas voters. These are votes that should be counted wherever they are lodged. For those candidates in seats with a small margin, I'm sure they would want to see 'every vote count'. 

There were 13 divisions where over 1000 votes were cast, the greatest number, 2226 in Sydney. Among the divisions however, are a couple of seats with strong Independent challenges and seats where the number of overseas voters represented the difference between a win and a loss (Wentworth, for example, 1552 o/s votes in 2019, lost by Independent Dr Phelps and won 'back' by the Liberal Party, on a difference apparently of around 1200 votes.) Interesting to note that Kooyong, longtime Liberal Party 'heritage' seat, seat of PMs and PMs in waiting, a strong Independent campaign and in 2019, 1194 o/s pre-polls. 

The division in which I'm registered, held by a sitting Labor MP, won on Green preferences in 2019, is similarly in a race where every vote will matter. In 2019, 754 pre-poll votes were included for that seat. Lilley, also in Queensland, which has a 0.6 (1229 votes) margin, had 365 votes from overseas. 

We will come back to these figures after the election, especially the 'close' ones.

Now perhaps in the scheme of things, 61,000 or so o/s votes, setting up booths, having staff on hand etc, might be all too 'mendokusai' as we say here, not really worth the bother. 

Votes at overseas posts

Recall that 19 posts have been selected for in-person voting. 

in 2019, London 'dispatched' (*term used by the AEC) the highest number of votes to Australia, 13,428 votes. Accra (Ghana), dispatched 64. Paris dispatched 1176. Nauru dispatched 137. One could spend a lot of time looking at and comparing the numbers of the 85 or so posts from the last election. Tokyo, our point of contention, dispatched 1078 votes, neither London large, nor Nauru small, but 1000 or so voters who no doubt appreciated the opportunity to do so, and had assumed this to be part of the mission of the Australian Mission in Tokyo, as it were. As a student here in the 1980s, going to the Embassy to vote was a huge thing, a wonderful sense of 'still counting for something' despite the distance (in a pre-internet world, Australia was a long long way away). I remember the 1988 referendum where, as a member of the Society for Australian Students in Japan, preparing material for many of us here who wanted to know the details (in a pre-internet world where getting information was not a couple of mouse clicks away).

As I write I have applied for a postal vote as advised. But we have just had a week of public holidays and no mail deliveries (Golden Week) and we are getting inside the last two weeks and still no sign of the package. How much easier it would have been knowing my date on 21 May was at the Embassy gate...

Many of the concerns raised by friends and colleagues currently overseas were, as it turns out, raised in an Inquiry held by the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs back in 2005 (yes, that rolls of the tongue easily, you are visiting the blog of a psephologist after all...😊), They Still Call Australia Home : inquiry into Australian expatriates (8 March 2005) 

Chapter five, in particular, addresses the concerns around voting overseas. Statistically, numbers haven't moved a lot. In the 2001 election for example, 63,036 sets of ballot papers were issued. Some of the submissions cited 'the disenfranchised status of those removed from the Australian electoral role is felt acutely, especially by the politically active and informed'; 'I am well informed on Australian politics, I have enormous interest in, pride in and love for the country of my birth, and I just want to vote'... and similar comments, recorded in 2005, echoed in 2022. The report makes for interesting reading almost twenty years later. 

Reading the report reminded me of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters which will no doubt convene for a report on the conduct of the 2022 election...tomodachi, we need to get writing, make submissions. 

Another small point not to be overlooked too is the levels of 'soft diplomacy' carried out by Australians in Japan on a daily basis. We are not Ambassadors, we are not First Secretaries, but we are here doing our jobs, daily, living our lives, daily, on the ground here and there. I know in my circles that how where and when we vote actually inspires Japanese people to think about their own voting circumstances (ok, I might be talking about a niche audience, but I'm just one person doing my job.πŸ˜„) We kind of expect a little more from the Embassy in return.

Australian citizens overseas for these last two years have felt they have been abandoned or discounted by the government. The Covid lockout and now this relegation to postal status for our vote...this very important election for so many people, has left us feeling, shall we say, disappointed. On the numbers, the Covid reasoning doesn't stack up and the costs will be beyond financial. Come on Australia, be better. There has been no comment (at this point) from the Embassy in Minato-ku.

More to they say.

Sunday, April 10, 2022

The first of two elections...

 Another Sunday in April, part 2

This time last week, I was planning to write a little about being a Chair of a Department in a Japanese university...but the election was finally called in Australia today and so that has taken up some of my time. The election will be held on 21 May. That's six weeks of 'official' campaigning, and quite a long time to wait and see what happens. 

The Japanese Upper House election will be held sometime during summer, likely July. As someone whose day job is lecturing about politics, especially elections, it is a very newsworthy time and plenty of material to work with, digest and present to the students. 

In recent years, as I have observed contemporary politics, I note I have changed my 'public voice' in the case of the Australian situation in particular. In line with my role as academic, I have been invited by the media to offer comments on various aspects of the campaigns. Obviously, my own voting intentions are personal and I don't reveal them, the so-called 'neutral observer' status. I do think that is important. But it has also tended towards a non-critical or both sides approach, by many of us in commentary positions, that has partly led to our current political malaise. I think of the Trump years, or aspects of the Abe years, and of course, the situation in Australia where it appears the system is falling apart, rorted beyond repair. I say this about the current Government, not because it is a Liberal (National Coalition) government as such, but the abuses of the system are on a scale I have not seen previously. I would be critical if the Labor Party were doing these things as well. I have tweeted along the way that as undergraduate students when we studied governments in various Asian countries, they were held up as examples of cronyism and levels of corruption 'that we would never see in Australia, but...', indeed, but we have. That is my concern. We, the academic and media commentators, really do need to bring a greater nuance to our critique. 

When I taught Australian politics at uni in Australia, I used to tell the students that no matter how much you might despise the person in the office, we need to respect the office of Prime Minister, quite separate things in some ways. But I have rescinded this advice for the present. The incumbent has diminished the Office considerably, but hopefully not beyond repair. There are very few people on the current government benches who demonstrate the ideal of 'parliamentarian', as one who works for the betterment of all in society. It is ugly and partisan at present. Some say people will do 'whatever it takes' in politics; our politics is now well beyond that. It is dangerous. Others say that politics is a rough game, dirty business, but no, it doesn't have to be like this. 

One of the books I have in mind to write will reflect at length on these problems in our politics. I will watch with interest the progress of the several independents, the 'teal' independents running in this election, appealing to a better state. The votes they can garner, and perhaps even some seats, will give us some indication of how the electorate views our politics. 

These are the things I can think about now I am no longer Chair of a Department. 

More to come.

Sunday, April 3, 2022

More occasional musings

A Sunday in April 2022, part 1

Now that the other blog is underway, having almost reached 100 posts in almost 100 days, I think I am ready to return to regular posting here, ideally weekly, perhaps more often as political events dictate, perhaps less as weekend work demands. On the latter, however, there should be less of that now that I am no longer burdened with the 'Chair of Department' role. That finished formally on 31 March although there will be a few minor things to mop up over the next few weeks.

If the purpose of restarting the #project365 blog over the way was to get myself back into writing habits, this blog will have a more specific purpose of honing my writing for all the writing I have in mind when I finally get home. That will be a combination of 'academic' writing, some commentary and maybe trying my hand at writing up life as an academic in Japan for a general audience. 

So the topics will be broad, the style varied as I try to strike a comfortable 'voice' but hopefully a bit interesting. Some have suggested a podcast of sorts, and although I wouldn't rule that our just yet, I'm not sure. I've tried listening to podcasts, some very good ones, but I just can't get into the habit myself. I like to listen live where possible, and somehow, as a radio person, I think I have a 'fear of missing out' on live radio if I'm listening to a podcast. As I said, that may change as life takes its course, so for now, it is writing for me.

I think I will also being using this space to review books as I read them, books in Japanese that I buy for research and recreation purposes, just for the record. Some parts might end up in lit reviews in articles and books. 

Overall, I think it is just time to start recording much more. 

This month, 1 April, the new academic and financial year begins in Japan. All the students who graduated last month took their first steps in their companies and new places of employment (often with rather formalised, organised pomp and ceremony). 

For me, tomorrow, the new first year students are welcomed to the university, with all the promise and excitement that brings them. Within a couple of weeks I'll be back in the classroom, something I expected would end in February 2021 until Covid put a stop to that. One day, there will be a post about the sense of being prevented to return to your own country...that was quite something. 

This year, there will be two elections, one in Australia and one here in Japan due around July. One of the key works I plan to publish in the next year will be some ongoing observations of the political cultures of both countries, a comparison of sorts and perhaps with more in common than people might think. The political is of course my main interest and is what much of my life has revolved around for the last few decades. There will be a few notes made about those events.

In the next few weeks, I suppose I would like to record a bit about holding the position of Chair in a Japanese university, but I guess too, I have to be 'thoughtful' shall we say, about what I might write, what I could write, what I should write... I still have some time to go here. Suffice to say, it has given me some interesting insights into the inner workings of a department that I didn't anticipate when I first arrived for the new academic year in 2016. I still hold a senior exec position at the University, so I have to consider that as well. What I can say, is that the positions couldn't be more contrasting. ...

I will probably be making further reflections on Japan-Australia relations--things I proposed in my PhD dissertation almost 20 years ago--seem to becoming all the rage in current is a kind of 'told you so' moment after being essentially ignored for much of those twenty years. Anyway, that's the way to goes sometimes. 

There will be a few random pics too along the way, ones that have stayed with me over the week, or month. This post's pics from a walk I did around the neighbourhood last week...places you find the seasonal sakura blossoming where you least expect them. I like to think there is a bit of a metaphor in there somewhere, that hopefully I can tease out over the next few years of writing, and thinking. 

That you for following along this far. I will be back, soon.