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UPDATE 1: The phrase “regime change” has certain connotations for English speakers, linked as it now is with rationales given by Western leaders (particularly President Bush and then-Prime Mininster Tony Blair) for invading Iraq back in 2003. As used with reference to Hatoyama and the DPJ election campaign, it is a translation of the Japanese “seiken kotai” 政権交代 .  My understanding (from asking a sample of 10 middle-aged, middle-class Japanese) is that the Japanese phrase does not have the same connotations at all. If I’m wrong, please correct me in the comments.

UPDATE 2: As I commented on Observing Japan, it is almost impossible to really understand what is happening, or more importantly, to form a sensible judgement,  in the world of politics simply by reading newspapers and news blogs (i.e. information sources that describe the surface details of events – who went were, did what, said what, etc),  however well informed and informative and objective they may be. You simply cannot see the wood for the trees. Only an accurate historical “map” can give you the necessary perspective to understand what is going on. Reading van Wolferen’s essay helped provide me with this necessary perspective, and saved me a lot of time. In the same way, it’s very hard, next to impossible, to understand what is going on in the economy just from reading the news, or watching talk shows on the economy on television. Some predict inflation, some predict deflation, some say the recession is over, some are more cautious, etc. So, should you buy stocks? Should you buy gold? In order to act, you need to know more than just what is going on right now, what is the price of gold right now; you need to know more than simply which pundits think will be the price of gold tomorrow.  You need to know some economics, and you learn that by reading economics books, not by reading newspapers (even articles written by Paul Krugman).

Reading high-quality material can save a great deal of time and effort, because it teaches you the underlying principles beneath or behind current events. Although these events are happening “before our very eyes” and this gives us the impression that we must “know” them because we are living through them, this is not necessarily true.

I live and work in Japan, but am not a citizen, so I observed last Sunday’s election and its aftermath from the sidelines, with interest but a certain amount of detachment.

I recently subscribed to the blog Observing Japan, and found blogger Tobias Harris’ observations informative and helpful, although fairly technical and assuming of quite a bit of prior knowledge of Japanese politics.

In a recent post, The DPJ begins work on regime change, Harris wrote about the beginning signs of the coming battle between the newly elected party and the existing ministries and their  bureaucrats, in particular about the budget.

Tango Yasutake, the finance ministry’s administrative vice minister, stressed the ministry’s desire to complete the budget within the calendar year, as is customary. The reason for Tango’s emphasizing the ministry’s desire is of course because the DPJ, still a few weeks from taking power, wants to halt the process immediately due to its desire to rearrange the budget completely, for the sake of introducing political leadership into the budgeting process and ensuring that programs from the DPJ’s manifesto are included in a DPJ government’s first budget as per the timeline included in the manifesto.

DPJ leader Hatoyama Yukio has stressed that the DPJ wants to change the budget completely, as the budget does not reflect its desires whatsoever.

I couldn’t understand, until now, why Tobias Harris banged on about the importance of the budget, it’s centrality to the “regime change”. Now I understand a little better.

In that blog entry, Harris refers to a blog post by Karel van Wolferen, a Dutch journalist who is perhaps best known for his1990 book The Enigma of Japanese Power: People and Politics in a Stateless Nation (in Japanese 日本 権力構造の謎)

For more on the possibilities of genuine administrative reform, I recommend this essay by Karel van Wolferen, who is aware of the obstacles facing the DPJ without dismissing the possibility that the DPJ will succeed. I particularly like this sentence: “But my impression is that the individuals of the inner core of the party are deadly serious about what must be done to turn their country into what one of them, the most senior and most experienced Ozawa Ichiro, has in his writing called a ‘normal country’.”  Exactly so. The DPJ means what it said during the campaign, and is taking the first steps towards a new system of governance.

Wikipedia says about The Enigma of Japanese Power (in part):

Japanese power is described as being held by a loose group of unaccountable elites who operate behind the scenes. Due to the fact that this power is loosely held, those who wield it escape responsibility for the consequences when things go wrong as there is no one who can be held accountable.

Van Wolferen’s essay explains why the DPJ made administrative reform their top priority and why it’s such a big deal:

with few exceptions the elected officials – politicians in Japan’s parliament, in the Prime Minister’s office, and ostensibly as heads of government agencies – besides reassuring their own citizens and the outside world that Japan is a democracy, have played a mostly marginal role, as powerbrokers at best. We can actually single out an architect who set it up this way just before the turn of the century before last: Yamagata Aritomo. Rather than here telling the story of this remarkable man, who created Japan’s modern bureaucracy along with its early 20th-century military establishment, I will copy an essay about him that I wrote in 2001 in a sub-jotting hereunder. What Japan’s new government will be up against is essentially what he wrought and, in a modified way, has endured for over a century… To say that the task that Hatoyama Yukio and his fellow leaders of the Minshuto have set themselves is daunting would be putting it very, very mildly. One must be wary of using the label ‘revolutionary’, but if they succeed this would be appropriate in the context of Japan’s controlling political institutions. Considering their manifesto there can hardly be any doubt that correcting the severe imbalance in the relationship between Japan’s elected politicians and career bureaucrats is their priority. What they want is nothing out of the ordinary for most other countries… my impression is that the individuals of the inner core of the party are deadly serious about what must be done to turn their country into what one of them, the most senior and most experienced Ozawa Ichiro, has in his writing called a ‘normal country’…

This will be the first time that Japan will be governed by a party also representing the urban middle class; all earlier attempts to create sarariiman parties have failed. After an LDP that catered mostly to the special interests needs of farmers, business, and small shopkeepers, this meets much neglected needs created by the relative economic uncertainty of the past couple of decades. Politically aware Japanese, especially in the cities, have long known that something is fundamentally wrong with the manner in which their country is governed.      Until 1993 this was regretted but believed to be inevitable, as if it were a fact of nature. Shikataganai – it cannot be helped – seemed to be the most important term in Japan’s political vocabulary.

Wow. The real explanation, tho, comes in the essay that van Wolferen wrote in 2001 about Yamagata Aritomo. You need to read the whole thing to understand its importance and value. It really explains a lot: the last 100 years in Japanese politics, approx.

I’m going to change direction here somewhat, and  discuss the expression “shikataganai”, which van Wolferen refers to above (I’ll return to the DPJ in a minute). The expression “shikataganai” which Wolferen refers to was mentioned in a recent “cross-cultural communication” article by Katie Elwood in the Daily Yomiuri (it appeared in a July issue, 2009, but no longer appears on the Daily Yomiuri website): CULTURAL CONUNDRUMS / Figuring out what can’t be helped After giving examples how the expression “shikataganai” (it can’t be helped) is used in Japanese, Elwood concludes,

Shikata ga nai tends to be thought of as a gloomy expression, used when trapped in a wretched situation. Yet it is also used to emphasize positive emotions, as in the phrases tanoshikute shikata ga nai ([It is] so much fun”) or suki de shikata ga nai (I love it/him/her so much”). The kind of enthusiasm and passion embodied in these phrases is one of the things I love about Japan, keeping me here all these years and hopefully many more to come. Shikata ga nai ne.

The expression has often struck me as being a device used to avoid the possibility of actually doing something to effect change. Although Elwood admits

Many cultural observers have asserted that Japan is quick on the draw when it comes to acquiescence in the status quo

the tone of her article is conciliatory and sympathetic. And yet, does it really advance our knowledge and understanding of human nature?

Based on extensive interviews with 52 Japanese people of a range of ages, occupations, and lifestyles, anthropologist Gordon Mathews has proposed a three-tiered model to examine “the Japanese self.” The first tier is everything that is taken for granted and unquestioned and unnoticed. Mathews calls the next tier the shikata ga nai tier. People are aware of constraints, and may not be happy about them, but feel they have little choice other than to accept such restrictions. The final tier is the “cultural supermarket” in which individuals select from a wide variety of values and notions in making sense of their identity and existence.

But there is another way to slice the cake. Mathews’ way of slicing may accurately reflect Japanese psychology, but it fails to distinguish between natural givens and man-made phenomena. In her article, Elwood quotes the architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

Frank Lloyd Wright, the architect of the former Imperial Hotel, which was completed in 1923, suggests in his autobiography that a shikata ga nai attitude was a normal response to life with earthquakes: “The dead not swallowed up, are buried, and once more Shikata-ga-nai (it cannot be helped) goes patiently on as before. Naturally, the earth-waves seem fate and unconquerable. A force useless to combat in strength alone, for it is mightier than any force at man’s command. Shikata-ga-nai! This stoicism I have seen and lived with four years or more…”

Surely a mentality that cannot distinguish between natural and man-made phenomena (or has been trained to be unable to do so) is more likely to be fatalistic and resigned. And who benefits when a majority of the population has such an attitude?

UPDATE: I just read A Note on Mathematical Economics by Murray Rothbard. In it, he points to a distinction between motivated and unmotivated, which I think is similar to the distinction I drew between “natural givens” and the man-made (a distinction I learned from Ayn Rand, a writer Rothbard knew personally and admired as a writer).

As Professor Mises has pointed out, there is a crucial distinction between the natural world studied by physics and the world of human action.

In physics, the facts of nature are given to us. They may be broken down into their simple elements in the laboratory and their movements observed. On the other hand, we do not know the laws explaining the movements of physical particles; they are unmotivated….

In economics, however, the conditions are almost reversed. Here we know the cause, for human action, unlike the movement of stones, is motivated. Therefore, we may build economics on the basis of axioms — such as the existence of human action and the logical implications of action — which are originally known as true.

To return to van Wolferen, if he’s right, it seems that the present set of politicians have shown what Mathews calls “ikigai resistance to shikata ga nai”.

Whether they will succeed or not, only time will tell, although those who have watched the hilarious and insightful BBC comedy series Yes Minister and/or Yes, Prime Minister will have many reasons to be sceptical. (I see YouTube has removed all the episodes that someone had painstakingly uploaded.  I wouldn’t mind so much, if only the BBC made these available in a DVD format that I can play in my machines, i.e. Region 2. I would willingly buy them, but I only discovered these gems thanks to seeing them on YouTube. I think that’s a good argument for leaving free stuff around, an argument frequently made by contributors to the Mises Institute website, a bastion of free-market economics. I may go into the topic in future, but for now, for those who are interested, I’ll just point you to this entry by Jeffrey Tucker lauding the intelligent decision by the British comedy troupe from the 1970s, Monty Python,  to put tons of their stuff on YouTube for free viewing. (Tucker has written lots on Mises.org this year on the subject of copyright, and works hard to put as much economics text online in a free PDF format as he possibly can, believing that making stuff available for free can only help, not hinder, book sales.

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