What Happened to Japan’s Influenza Season?

Being in Japan right now and seeing the crisis footing of many countries around the world can feel a bit surreal. How can it be that Japan has the number of cases it does, the population density it does, and the government has not until now felt the need to declare a state of emergency or completely shut down its borders? This is especially true if you live in the Kantō area,* where even a reduction of 20 to 30 percent of people on the street or passengers in trains can still seem…crowded.

Of course, (most) members of the public have engaged in ‘behavioural modifications’ and the government has pursued ‘non-pharmaceutical interventions’ (NPIs) such as requesting school closures and the cancellation of big, crowded events. It is easy to wonder, nevertheless, whether self-restraint in terms of going out (ie. the ubiquitous calls for jishuku), physical distancing, avoiding closed, poorly ventilated spaces, engaging in proper ‘cough etiquette’, or other hygeinic measures to avoid contacting or transmitting SARS-CoV-2, are actually having any effect? The recent dramatic uptick in COVID-19 cases in Tokyo would seem to suggest that discipline and vigilance dropped mid-March, and more drastic measures will be needed to avoid overwhelming medical facilities.

Pertinent to this issue of overburdening medical facilities—and possibly a direct outcome of aforementioned ‘behaviour modification’ and NPIs—is the fate of Japan’s influenza season. To look at this, we can use Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW) regular in-season influenza tracking reports. Using 5000 fixed ‘sentinel’ medical institutions to track weekly reported cases of influenza, and 500 fixed in-patient core medical facilities to track hospitalizations, the Japanese government can get a good sense of whether the influenza season is tracking better or worse than previous seasons without having to do a comprehensive, nation-wide survey.

And, at the beginning of 2020, it looked like the 2019-2020 influenza season was going to be brutal. It started earlier than usual in September, with 7 times the number of hospitalizations at the core medical facilities than previous two seasons for that month. Hospitalization cases in December were still 3-4 times higher than the previous two seasons. This is something, because influenza-induced deaths have been rapidly trending upwards since 2010 according to MHLW annual statistics. The previous two seasons each resulted in national totals of 3308 deaths (2017-2018) and 3,267 deaths (2018-2019 season) from influenza directly or influenza-induced pneumonia. The 2018 calendar year was the deadliest year since 1970 for influenza fatalities. This year was on track to be even worse.

Then, suddenly, it was not to be.

Weekly observations at the 5000 fixed sentinels never reached the heights of previous seasons. The comparatively very bad December ended up being the peak of this year’s influenza season based on sentinel reports. The figure below taken from MHLW regular influenza reports tracks the peaks and troughs of the respective 2017/18, 2018/19 and 2019/20 influenza seasons. The y-axis is the number of reported cases per sentinel per week, while the x-axis is the week of the year. 

Observations Influenza

A very similar trend can be seen when I collated the monthly totals for hospitalizations at core medical institutions, an arguably more concrete measure of influenza impact.

Japan Influenza Hospitalisations by Month (MHLW Weekly Reports)

Like sentinel observations, influenza hospitalizations dramatically dropped after December. While December’s hospitalizations were four times up on the previous season, January had only just over 1/3rd the hospitalizations of the previous January. In February 2020, hospitalizations were 31 percent of the 2018/2019 season, and 19 percent of the 2017/2018 season. March was even kinder, registering 20 percent and 10 percent of hospitalizations, respectively, for influenza compared to previous years. Despite the earlier start to the season, 2019/20 hospitalizations for influenza at the 500 core institutions will register only 2/3rds of the previous two seasons.

To be sure, by the start of 2020 there was already significant concern about how deadly this influenza season was going to be. The MHLW had raised its alert level. Many classes and class years in Japanese schools were being closed to contain influenza. Students were told to dispense with any gaman (perseverance) and to stay home even if they had the slightest influenza symptoms. Then Japan got its first COVID-19 case in mid-January.

Perhaps, I wondered, hospitalizations were driven down by the moderately influenza-afflicted avoiding hospitals or being told to avoid hospitals given the risks of contracting the novel coronavirus? However, when one looks at the ‘serious’ hospitalizations from influenza requiring special care—admission to the ICU, the use of artificial respirators, or the conduct of a CT scan, MRI or EEG—a similar pattern emerges.

ICU Influenza Admissions
Artificial Respirator Use Necessary
CT, MRI, EEG Scans

For each of these categories, the December numbers were at least three times higher than those for the 2017/2018 and 2018/2019 seasons. Then, in the new year, the numbers dropped off rapidly. This does not suggest any kind of rationing in favour of serious cases versus moderate cases. From this data, it seems Japan as a whole had one of the lightest influenza seasons for many years with total hospitalizations in the 2019/2020 season coming to 66 percent of the previous season’s total, and hospitalizations requiring special attention coming to approximately 78 percent of the previous season (despite the very high early numbers).

Another Japanese rapid notification system using indicative measures is administered by the National Institute of Infectious Diseases. It uses notifications from 21 major Japanese urban jurisdictions of deaths from influenza and pneumonia. Rather than simply reporting raw numbers, the collated reports are measured against an expected mortality rate baseline modeled on factors including the presence of underlying diseases and the aging of the population.  ‘Excess mortality’ from influenza and/or pneumonia takes place when actual deaths exceeds a threshold—defined as the upper limit of the 95% confidence interval for the baseline. The figure below shows that in December 2019, actual influenza-related and pneumonia deaths (blue line) were at the excess mortality threshold (pink). However, by the end of January we start to see a consistent downward trend towards the baseline (green line), and then a big plunge around the start of March as many jurisdictions did not report any deaths.

influenza pneumonia deaths

Regrettably, as can be seen below, Tokyo is letting the team down (again), with reports of excess mortality at the end of the year, and the end of February.


Like the MHLW weekly influenza reports, this data is more indicative rather than complete, and the MHLW statistics yearbook will have the final word on influenza and pneumonia deaths nationwide. From what I can tell, even the 2019 data will not be published until the middle of this year.

Nevertheless, there is good reason to believe that Japan as a whole avoided a high death rate from influenza as the COVID-19 crisis continues to unfold.**

Perhaps the most striking result, however, came from when I broke down the number of hospitalizations into age groups. Unlike COVID-19, influenza and influenza-induced pneumonia are equal opportunity menaces in that both the elderly as well as infants and younger children are likely to be particularly susceptible. Interestingly, if we look at the statistics for hospitalizations, under 60 age cohorts were hospitalized in similar numbers to the previous two years, but hospitalizations of those over 60 were down considerably.

Japan Influenza Serious Hospitalisations by Age Group

Furthermore, influenza hospitalizations requiring greater attention and care (ICU admission, use of artificial respirators, and the need for various scans) revealed similar year-to-year patterns.

Influenza ICU Admissions by Age Group
Artificial Respirator Use Necessary by Age Group
CT, MRI, EEG Scans by Age Group

In fact, this year’s influenza looks like the reverse image of COVID-19 in terms of the group it most afflicts. Why is this? I am not really sure, although the answer could be as simple as people being more careful around older people and giving them greater leeway in public (what I’d like to believe), although it is more likely that over 60s were the most ardent practitioners of self-restraint and seldom left home out of fear of COVID-19.

I collated these statistics mainly for my own interest as a proxy indicator of whether behavioural modification was actually taking place in the Kantō region of Japan. Deciding which non-pharmaceutical intervention was the most effective at mercifully cutting short the influenza season is better left to the experts; but whatever it was, given the possibility of much stricter limitations under a state of emergency declaration for the Kantō region, we can take some comfort from the thought that the two months of on-and-off jishuku and other behavioural modifications was not for naught. It is likely many lives have been spared from both COVID-19 and influenza.

*The Kantō region is the Tokyo Metropolitan Government plus the surrounding prefectures. Population of around 40 million people.

**There was also no major increase in the units of influenza vaccines procured in advance for the 2019/2020 season (see this MHLW document, p.3). Since the early part of the season was particularly bad, and younger age groups suffered as much as usual, enhanced vaccine effectiveness for this year is unlikely to be an explanation.

***For those interested, early season reports found Influenza-B to be most common at 59%, the ‘new influenza’ from the 2009 season (AH1pdm09) registered 39%、and Influenza-A (subtype H3N2) was 2%.

How different are the newly enfranchised Japanese voters?

According (jp) to two concurrently implemented Yomiuri Shimbun surveys, not significantly different. But there are a few ‘highlights.’
Yomiuri May 2016
Comment: 60 percent of 18-19 year old respondents could not bring themselves to select a party they have a favourable opinion of, even when pushed to consider them in comparison!  (NB: SDP and other parties at 0 or 1%). In most questions in this survey, the newly enfranchised seem about as optimistic and as pessimist (read: pessimistic) as the general population on the state of Japan’s politics.
Nuclear Energy
Comment: While clearly public opinion overall still works against the current government’s nuclear energy policy, I do think it is interesting that just over 30% of 18-19 year old respondents wouldn’t mind a return to pre-disaster levels of nuclear energy or higher. Perhaps climate change concerns outweigh nuclear risk for some?
Constitution Amendment
Comment: It seems that the reduction of voting age that some constitutional revisionists hoped would facilitate constitutional change may well backfire. In this survey, 18-19 year old respondents were also less approving of last year’s ‘collective self-defense’ security legislation (63% vs 57% for the over 20 sample).
Favourability towards constitutional revision ‘in general’ is normally well over 50 percent, often in the 60 percent range. The only time this has not been the case since the 1990s has been…when Abe has been in power (both times). Favourability towards Article 9 revision specifically has dropped (jp) from the high 30s/low 40s to the 20 percentage point range! (in some (jp) cases).
This might also be to do with Abe’s incumbency, but I suspect also that with the passage of the security legislation many moderates may not see a strong argument for going further. After all, Abe got (a sort of ) collective self-defense, and nobody strongly believes (jp) that the SDF is unconstitutional anyway.
International Dispute Engagement
Comment: This poll question is interesting because of the wording regarding Japan concerning itself with ‘resolving international disputes’, which echoes the wording of a certain Article 9. Usually these questions are worded in terms of diplomatic engagement or ‘international contribution’ rather than ‘international dispute resolution’ and get a more favourable response. That said, there is not a strong desire for increased isolationism.
Kind of Country
Comment: The Japanese public loves welfare and peace. Taken together, these poll questions would suggest some public caution of the ‘proactive contribution to peace’ narrative in terms of the nation security and values promotion aspects emphasized by the current government.
Comment: I have been paying attention to polls on attitudes to immigration in Japan for some time, and it always strikes me how responses to immigration questions can vary considerably (more than others) depending on wording and choices given. Certainly there is a hardcore faction that is virulently against an immigration policy no matter what, but from time to time there are polls that suggest there might not be quite the antipathy to certain types of immigration emphasized in the media narrative on Japan. In this case, 68% of 18-19 year old respondents, and 51% for the rest of the sample, either decisively or cautiously agree with accepting ‘committed’ foreigners. The number of foreign residents has been steadily increasing anyway, and ‘we’ haven’t wrecked the place yet.
Comment: Japanese are clearly not ‘neo-liberals.’
Both surveys used a stratified two-stage random sampling method, were administered by post at the end of March, and targeted sample sizes of 2000 potential voters. The 18 and 19 year old survey attained a response rate of 55%, while the over 20 survey attained a response rate of 65% by the May 6 cut-off date. 

Collective Self-Defense and Japan: Readings and Analysis

The big change to Japan’s post-war constitutional fabric announced on July 1 has unsurprisingly brought all sorts of analysts out of the woodwork determined to have their say.

For example, there is myself.

At the risk of deprecating others by putting them in the same category as myself, here are some other notable contributions:

Jeremy Yellen from Harvard

Adam Liff from Princeton-Harvard

Tobias Harris, formerly of MIT, now with Teneo Intelligence (paywalled)

Shelia Smith from CFR

James Schoff, former DoD official and now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

If there is a common theme between these articles it would be that there is still a lot of political water to go under the bridge before anything like the anticipated gains relating to deterrence can be realized, if that is your concern. It would also be remiss of me to not mention that the process undertaken to rework the government’s interpretation of the constitution was less than popular, and of questionable political legitimacy. Bryce Wakefield and Craig Martin provide the most forceful articulations of such a view.

I will also have an article up on East Asia Forum soon (up now here) which will work through the implications of the ‘legalization‘ of Japan’s unique version of collective self-defense assuming that the Abe administration achieves their stated objectives to the fullest extent.



What Will Noda Be Up to in Moscow?

I’ve been having minor disagreements with MTC of late (by clogging up his comments section) regarding the coherence of the Noda administration’s approach to the current political situation and what they hope to get out of it. Long story short – MTC sees Noda as still having a few cards to play, while I am more inclined to agree with LDP Secretary-General Ishiba Shigeru (日) that whatever game he is playing, it is futile and will probably lead the DPJ to even worse results than it currently faces. Minister of Education Tanaka Makiko’s somewhat abrupt, misdirected crusade against ‘poor quality universities’ by picking on three due for accreditation next year, will likely consolidate Noda’s fate unless Ms Tanaka has become less stubborn since her last stint as a minister and retracts her comments, preferably by yesterday. (See Jun Okumura here for reflections with which I concur). It certainly will give LDP leader Abe Shinzo a lot of timely ammunition (日) given that he himself would have seen Tanaka’s “interesting” behaviour up close while he was Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary during the first Koizumi cabinet.

I have however held in the back of my mind one potential exception that could actually genuinely help Noda raise his image – that exception being a “December surprise” in regards to Noda’s visit to Russia. In the middle of this year’s APEC meeting near Vladivostok, against the backdrop of Russia’s pronouncement that it wanted to conduct a pivot of its own to the Asia-Pacific, President Putin invited Noda to visit again later in the year suggesting something ‘substantial’ could be discussed. Over the last few months there has also been more diplomatic activity than normal around Russo-Japanese relations, and I have noticed a little more interest in Russia among Japanese observers of Japan’s foreign policy.  Japan reacted with atypical calm to Russia sending a warship to the Kuriles during the height of tensions with China over the Senkakus in 2012, especially given former PM Kan’s 2010 outburst regarding Medvedev’s visit to the Kuriles (to be sure likely an overcorrection given the 2010 Senkaku dispute had taken place not long beforehand exposing Kan’s lack of foreign policy nouse, and for that matter, interest). Now that Putin is safely entrenched for another 8 years now would indeed be a good time to start to work on a long-term foreign policy agenda. Assuming a degree of Japanese diplomatic flexibility that, without China’s recent indiscretions, would probably normally not be forthcoming, it would seem the stage is being set for an interesting December meeting.

Is this what Noda could be holding out for? Is this why (or one of the reasons) the LDP is so urgent to have an election this year (or have Noda commit to one before he gets on a plane to Russia)? Will there be significant announcements regarding political commitments to resolve the Kurile Islands dispute and strategic alignment on energy policy?

So I have wondered anyhow.

This comprehensive piece by a former Indian diplomat to the Soviet Union would suggest there might be something to this line of thought.

Ultimately, Japan may be of great assistance for Russia’s desire to soft balance against China and its influence in the Far East by inserting itself into Asia. Japan certainly has assisted India’s being drawn into the East Asian diplomatic fold over the last 5 to 10 years after its “Look East” policy started to take effect. Like for India, access to Japanese finance and technology could also help drive a degree of economic upscaling and development.

Whether any big announcement, if it comes to fruition, will really have any impact on Noda’s fortunes is unclear. As it is, foreign policy usually has only a fleeting command over any public’s imagination and mostly it is something that only subtracts from popularity, not enhances it, as Hatoyama and Kan have already learned. To be sure a big announcement may well have had an impact earlier in Noda’s tenure. However it would seem with Noda now having dipped to 17 percent support, after having already risen and fallen a few times, the public will be indifferent to anything but the most startling positive developments.

I don’t believe the Russians are going to be quite that accommodating.

Update: Former PM Mori is preparing to go to Moscow.

Hashimoto Digging Himself into a Hole with Japan’s Conservatives?

While the recent Chinese protests against Japan did very little for China’s image as a country ruled and inhabited by rational and well-informed people, in terms of the public relations war over the Senkaku territorial dispute itself, and regarding drawing attention to China and Taiwan’s dangerous attempts to undermine Japanese effective administrative control, Japan has been faring badly.

The main problems have been the combination of Japan’s unwillingness to admit that there is a territorial dispute, combined with simplistic understandings of the historical context of Japan’s acquisition(by both sides of the argument, actually), which has made it look less than reasonable, especially as critics have pointed to Japan’s WWII-related territorial disputes with other nations. The recent prominence of hardline conservative voices regarding the Senkaku Islands dispute has also raised suspicions elsewhere. While Japan has proposed taking the ROK to the ICJ over Dokdo, has emphasized the “rule of (international) law” in the UN, and has criticized the ROK for not recognizing the dispute, it has been too timid to also adhere to the same exact logic regarding the Senkaku Islands, which drastically undermines its credibility.

At the same time the Japanese government has also been unable to articulate to the international community that any Chinese attempt to undermine effective control, is, irrespective of historical and legal dimensions of the dispute itself, invalid and dangerous. Essentially there is a difference between being pigheaded and committing violence against the international order. The principle of respecting effective control must be adhered to, especially given the serious limitations of international law regarding dealing with historical territorial claims. However, if Japan admitted that there was a territorial dispute, was open to taking it to the ICJ, perhaps in exchange for China recognizing Japan’s administrative control and not challenging it, then perhaps China’s actions would be regarded as every bit as provocative as the Japanese believe they should be. This is the jist of former ambassador and head of the MOFA Treaties Bureau Kazuhiko Togo‘s argument to deal with the situation, anyhow. There is certainly something to it.

It is of great interest in this context of territorial and international law disputes, security tensions, and “hardliner” Abe Shinzo’s ascendance to the LDP throne, that Osaka mayor Hashimoto Toru has chosen this time to pick a Twitter fight with conservatives over territorial and history issues. I have reproduced selected elements of the discussion below with commentary. While there is a lot to deconstruct and challenge regarding his own view of history and past and current conflicts, the below conversation shows why it is too soon to lump him in with populist “nationalists” like Ishihara Shintaro, or for that matter, conservative “nationalists” like Abe Shinzo and Koizumi Junichiro (as people who walked out of even a reasonably mild Diet resolution on Japan’s war responsibility and defunded the secular alternative to the Yasukuni Shrine).


Hashimoto had earlier suggested that Japan propose dual administration of Dokdo, or the area around it, which is arguably a more moderate proposal than the current government line and certainly more so than calls to “punish” the ROK with sanctions or whatsoever. He had already had media criticism. The storm that this touched off led Hashimoto to confront his interlocutors regarding what they perceived to be “weak-kneed” diplomacy regarding South Korea (on his part and of the current Noda government).

He pointed out the most important point – that South Korea has clear and effective administrative control over the islands. He accused past administrations going way back of having done nothing about the ROK’s acquisition of the islands, but he suggested that this was ultimately Japan’s own “fault” and that they had to accept the cruel facts of life – Korea is not going to give up Dokdo, and like Japan with the Senkakus, it has administrative control. While Hashimoto’s own plan of dual administration will be considered for all of a single second in Korea, Hashimoto felt the need to ask his assailants what they would otherwise do to rectify the situation.

Were they actually saying that they wanted “to use force against Korea to take back the islands?” “No” they said – of course not. “But that is basically what you are arguing for” Hashimoto replies. “What about economic sanctions?” some suggest. “Go back and do so more study! How is that going to work?” Hashimoto accurately notes.

Indeed. Hashimoto seems to at least understand that you can’t take one stance on one territorial issue and then self-indulgently take another stance on another conflict.

This morning Hashimoto is at it again, but this time with the Senkakus. What is that retro-conservative saying now?

Japan should admit that there is a territorial dispute and should be willing to go to the ICJ!

Hmmm…that isn’t going to sit well.


Between sovereign states, claims should be settled by reference to principles of law and justice. The rule of law should be respected. While continuing to adhere to such a stance, it is also a reality that a certain degree of one’s own force needs to be maintained. We must face reality while also adhering to the rule of law.

Thus, in regards to the Senkakus, we should stop with this kind of bureaucratic “there is not territorial dispute” stance. If we are so confident in our convictions we should say to China that we are willing to go to the ICJ. This is our chance – actually China is not too keen to go to the ICJ. International society is neutral in regards to disputes. Even the US does not recognize Japan’s sovereignty and is keeping neutral. If we are willing to resolve through the ICJ, we will get considerable support from international society. Even if Korea and China are reluctant, they will have to explain to the international community their position. Likewise with Russia. We should however also increase our national strength. In regards to defense spending, we should not limit it to 1 percent. We should acquire the level of defense strength that we need. As a maritime nation, including the JCG strength, this is a particularly important topic. We need to embrace collective self defense. And strengthen the US alliance. While leading on the promotion of the rule of international law through the ICJ, we should also strengthen ourselves (militarily).

Regarding Japan’s past war deeds, we should recognize our wrongness [literally “that wrong things are wrong”]. However, in regards to the (unchangeable) circumstances of that era, we should also at the same time[as recognizing the bad things] identify the constructive aspects [likely referring to Taiwan and Korea’s economic growth, or Southeast Asian independence?] and correct global perceptions. All of the thinking (statements) about this period is foggy. This fogginess is the main cause of problems. We cannot just say that everything we did was justified or that we are simply being masochistic [by not recognizing positive aspects]. If we admit to the bad things [atrocities] more specifically then we can also talk about the circumstances of the time [perhaps the reasons for the war] and also our contributions. We can push back against mistaken perceptions. This should be made more clear in our government statements on these issues [the bad things should be detailed more as well as “good” things ie the current vagueness is preventing the recognition of either].

We should admit the wrong things, have sympathy for others, and continue to be cautious [about war?]. But, we should push back against unreasonable criticism. Being able to be proud of what we did is directly connected to our recognizing the injustices.

Hashimoto’s point regarding China and Japan having a “chance” shows a good understanding of the situation. China would certainly hesitate to take the Senkaku Islands dispute to the international court, having built it up into a big deal and emphasizing the “unmistakeable” justice of the Chinese claim. In reality, the historical evidence and justifications are foggy at best, and Japan’s continuous administration and lack of Chinese protest before the 1970s could be fatal for China’s case in a court of international law. Certainly ignoring such a risk would be unwise.

Any Japanese administration that lost the Senkakus would be finished to be sure – but what is a Japanese Prime Minister and a new party in government worth these days anyway? The consequences for the Chinese Communist Party would be much more severe. They may ignore the ruling and take on the nose the possibly irreparable harm done to China’s international reputation – significant all the more because they would have agreed to abide by the ruling by going to court. The other issue is that if Japan received a ruling in its favour then it would almost certainly strengthen further its administrative control over the islands and would feel good about doing so. Would China continue to contest this control? Would it launch a military strike?

Conventional logic would suggest no, given the economic, military and diplomatic losses it would incur. But, the CCP’s legitimacy, especially now that the economy is faltering and social instability is rising, is increasingly based on a perception of it being a hardheaded and effective manager of international relations and of China’s rise, and in particular one that would ensure that the historical traumas inflicted by the West and Japan are not repeated. If the CCP just meekly accepted the ruling, the chance of popular anger rising could well lead to the party’s downfall, or certainly end quite a few political lives. Either it would be accused of having been too soft regarding Japan and/or the international community, or it would be accused by others of deceit and manipulation surrounding the Senkaku Islands.The CCP has recently effectively dealt itself “all in” on this dispute.

So Hashimoto probably calculates that Japan being open to taking the dispute to the ICJ is a low-risk, high-return proposition.

In any respect, Hashimoto was not finished there on Twitter and took a few responses. A few other tidbits that won’t endear him to either the left or the right in Japan:

Interlocutor 1:  If we adhered to the 1 percent cap on military spending then Japan would still be 3rd the highest military spender in the world, and that there is still waste in defense spending – 1 percent should be enough.

[Japan is no where near 1 percent right now FWIW]

Hashimoto: I am not necessarily advocating for going beyond 1 percent…just simply that we should start from the point of view of what we need, and we can take the conversation regarding money from there.

Interlocutor 2: The US and Europe never bother to apologize for their colonialism… and there is no way that they could compensate for hundreds of years of colonialism

Hashimoto: There is no need for us to imitate Europe and America’s bad points. We should recognize the violations and we should also note clearly the constructive actions.

[Fun fact just to stir the pot with my American readers: Until 2009 in the US there was no official apology for black slavery or for the treatment of Native Americans/First Peoples – and the resolutions of 2009 explicitly identified that there would be no compensation]

Interlocutor 3: Maybe you want to abandon the [1965] Japan-Korea Treaty on Basic Relations? [Which resolved the legal issue (for the ROK at least) regarding compensation].

Interlocutor 4: Many [Japanese war criminals] were executed, money was paid, and a treaty was agreed to, don’t you think this has been resolved? Are you saying even though reconciliation money was paid and documents exchanged then this is insufficient?

Hashimoto: Yes, legally speaking. But problems of the spirit [lit. heart] are different from legal issues.

An additional comment to No.4: “Could you say the same thing [directly] to the bereaved families of those caught up in “gratuitous” internal incidents?

My take on the LDP presidential election

Whoever wins the LDP presidential election is odds on to be the Japanese prime minister after Noda Yoshihiko. When Noda steps down is of course a different issue. If he is able to manage the rest of the crisis with China well, and puts into place a policy platform for the next 9 months that his party can get behind, then he may be able to make it all the way to next year, or even a double HOR-HOC election. Noda has indeed already signalled that he reserves the right (日) to make the decision for himself whether an election will be held “sometime soon,” given the incoherent “betrayal” of the three-party agreement when the LDP censured itself for passing the consumption tax.

Nevertheless, who wins the LDP election may also have a significant impact on what happens next, in terms of when an election is called, and what will happen in that election.

If Abe Shinzo wins then he will likely pursue a hard line against the DPJ and attempt to pressure them into an earlier election focusing on a perceived and imagined “weakness” in regards to dealing with China on the part of the Noda administration. Furthermore, Abe’s election could have an impact on both the LDP’s electoral fortunes (likely to be worse) and also the workability of an LDP-DPJ-Komeito grand coalition in the long to medium term. While there are many in the DPJ who are hawkish on foreign policy, most of these people, like Edano, Maehara, and Hosono (potential Noda replacements) dislike Abe’s social conservatism and lack of interest in administrative, economic and social issues.

Abe’s preferred post-election partner will be Hashimoto’s JRP rather than the DPJ and he will lose no sleep over not being able to work with the DPJ. (He is also unlikely to lose any sleep over the issue of Japan’s electoral constitutionality, not exactly being a big fan of the current Japanese constitution in the first place.) Of course, as soon as Abe realizes the entrenched interests he will have to stand up to to assist the implementation of the JRA’s agenda, then he may have to quickly become interested in issues other than China-baiting and constitutional revision/reinterpretation.

If Ishihara Nobuteru wins, he is likely to continue a hardish line against the DPJ, but will be mindful that he is the owner of the legacy of the “three-party accord” which might compel him to moderate his tone, especially in consideration of a post-election deal with the DPJ and so forth. He is flaky however, so no one can really be sure, however.

If Ishiba Shigeru wins then he will be the most likely to work with the DPJ in terms of passing the government bond bills to fund the budget, as well as any other legislation that they may see fit, including constitutional electoral adjustments. Interested in policy issues, Ishiba may even consider legislation that would take the wind out of the sails of the Japan Restoration Party before an election. Ishiba has the best links to the DPJ and it is not out of the question that Ishiba and Maehara (as the policy chairman, and as a possible successor to Noda) in particular may cooperate more faithfully both before and after the election on a variety of issues. The DPJ can live longer in a coalition with an Ishiba-led LDP and cabinet.

So what is the most likely outcome? (Yes, I am ignoring two candidates.)

The election works as such:

We have 199 votes for the MPs, one point each.

The 47 regional chapters together have 300 votes.

Each chapter was apportioned at least 3 votes, and the rest decided by internal party factors that I am not privy to, but in any respect it is not a strictly proportional distribution based either on population or paid up party membership numbers. Tokyo gets 16 votes, while even chapters with a few thousand members get at least 4.

Each chapter’s votes are allocated on the basis of the D’hondt method.

Before the “election season,” Ishihara Nobuteru was seen to be the favourite. He had pseudo-incumbency as the 2IC to Tanigaki’s deal with the Komeito and the DPJ over the consumption tax. He had support within the party’s MP groups, and enough popular recognition to ensure that he would contend for the “popular” chapter votes, or at least have more popularity than Abe.

Ishihara however may struggle to make it to the run-off that will almost certainly take place. His performance has been uninspiring and a number of his statements are hard to decipher or bordering on reckless. He has a past history of making quite astonishing gaffes. He has also not distinguished himself in any way or form from the other party contestants. It appears he is not well liked outside the main metropolitan areas even among the LDP and it is by no means guaranteed that he will beat out Abe in the “popular vote,” especially because the 300 votes are apportioned in a way that gives votes in the rural areas more impact. He also has lost support within the Diet members’ group and is trailing Abe in this respect. If Machimura bows out, then there is a possibility that Ishihara may still make it to the second round if the retiring party elder Mori directs his people to go with Ishihara, as has been suggested he might. The effect on the popular vote will be minimal perhaps of Machimura bowing out, as he is only likely to do well in Hokkaido, and may pick up a few votes only in the other regions.

Abe has the advantage of support of a few factions within the LDP’s Diet members’ group. His support among the rank and file is a little better than I would have thought (perhaps owing to the exodus of moderates from the LDP after 2009) but still not stellar. With the way the chapter votes are proportioned then he might still beat out Ishihara in that vote however, as areas outside cities carry more weight.

Ishiba has the advantage in the rank and file vote, but has only a weak support base among the factions as the “anti-faction” candidate.

Based on the information available about where the local chapters are trending, home field advantage, and who has the support of what faction, here is a prediction. Have a large bag of salt handy.

Ishiba will take about 130 votes in rank and file voting, Abe 82, Ishihara 77, Machimura 8, Hayashi 3.

Abe has 50 LDP Diet members lined up, Ishihara 40, Ishiba and Machimura 30, and Hayashi 20.

I am going to give the remaining 29 Diet members to Ishiba just because they may be sitting on the fence to see what the rank and file in the chapters want.

Ishiba will get 189, Abe 132, Ishihara 117, Machimura 38, Hayashi 23.

Ishiba will be some way short of the 250 needed for a decisive first round victory. The only chance for Ishiba to take this out in the first round is if Machimura drops out and Ishihara is identified by both the rank and file and Ishihara’s Diet supporters as a lost cause and switch to Ishiba at the last minute.  On the other hand, the Machimura illness may advantage Ishihara, and allow him to sneak into second place – I can see this going both ways. I will wait until Machimura’s situation is confirmed and there is some word with how this will affect the LDP Diet votes before assuming anything. I still predict Abe and Ishiba will face off in the run-off with Diet members only.

After this, I have no idea where to start in a prediction, other than they will be neck and neck at the start. Negotiating for positions and prizes, like the old-school LDP, is certainly possible.

That said, it’s still hard for me to see Abe winning here. Not only would this mean going against the preferences of the rank and file members of the LDP chapters, but I think it is clear for all that the electoral prospects, and for the management of a grand coalition with the DPJ, improves greatly under Ishiba. He is not discernibly less hawkish than Abe, thus not “weak-kneed,” and is more flexible and “realist” than conservative – possibly less publicly tainted by an explicit sense of being “Anti-Chinese” like Abe is. And while he is no liberal, Ishiba is more pragmatic on economic, social and administrative issues. He is unlikely to support to the hilt the reinvigoration of the “construction state” policy that that the LDP’s factions have identified as part of their next election platform. Of course, the LDP is not known as either principled or rational so there is no certainty that such common sense will prevail in the intra-party bargaining.

Abe’s election through LDP backroom politics could however be a god-send for the DPJ and/or the JRP. The Japanese public is disinterested in Abe’s social conservatism even if they are currently partial to a stronger foreign policy stance. It will be easy for the DPJ to shape the narrative around Abe as someone who lost a nation-wide democratic election (2007 HoC election, and quite badly), gave up the PM’s role in the meekest of ways after a disorganized and inattentive year in office, and even then was only the second most popular candidate from his party this time around. The narrative could be something along the lines of “We have learned a lot from our troubled three years in government – the LDP has learned nothing while in opposition” which could give the DPJ a boost in urban areas outside of the Kansai region. They will still lose their majority in the House of Representatives, but it could prevent an outright thrashing if they campaigned skillfully and drew up a coherent party platform.

Senkaku-Shoto 2012: Round 2

6 Chinese government patrol vessels entered and withdrew from Japanese territory around the Senkaku Islands on Friday, with the Ministry of Agriculture’s Fisheries Agency ‘threatening’ to send two more perhaps on Sunday. The English-language reporting on this is framing the Chinese action as being a reaction to Japan’s recent “nationalization” of the Senkaku Islands. While rhetorically this is the case, only two weeks ago this action was seemingly considered acceptable to the Chinese – the main thing they wanted to avoid was Ishihara Shintaro acquiring the islands and building a wildlife sanctuary or some other such facilities. There were signals from the Chinese side that there was a desire to return to the pre-2010 status quo. Something has changed, and it is hard to believe that this is not strongly related to the disappearance of Xi Jinping (for health reasons or otherwise), division at the top of the CCP over the political transition, the economy and potential financial instability, and all of the political intrigues associated with these factors.

However it is also hard to believe that this is merely a distraction, or a sign of rogue agencies and internal dissent. The Chinese government has not only sent a record high number of official government vessels on incursions into the waters around the Senkakus, but has also submitted to the UN the coordinates and the baseline for its claim, something they have hesitated to do before hand. As one government official said:

The baselines of the Diaoyu Islands are delimited in accordance with the 17 base points of China’s territorial sea selected from them, Deng [Zhonghua, head of the Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs with the Foreign Ministry] said, adding that China’s territorial sea is the extension of 12 nautical miles from these baselines toward the ocean.

Deng suggested that, after the delimiting of these baselines, the Chinese government will promote the administration of the Diaoyu Islands steadily according to the actual situation.

China has accumulated rich experience on the administration of the territorial sea and the contiguous zone in the past several decades and formulated a mechanism, he said.

In the next stage, China will administrate the Diaoyu Islands according to Chinese and international law, such as by providing weather forecasting and maritime environment forecasting for the islands and their surrounding waters, which has been done since Tuesday; depicting a detailed chart of the Diaoyu Islands and their adjacent waters so as to facilitate vessels passing by the area, said the director-general.

It is hard this time around to imagine that the Japanese will not respond by strengthening administration over the Senkakus, or will even want to take a concilliatory approach. Noda will be feeling somewhat deceived by the Chinese government, and a weak response would be fatal for his administration, which was looking to recover some (limited) support. Furthermore, it seems that we are on the precipice of the Chinese government going beyond the contestation of territorial sovereignty to the contestation of effective control, a considerably more provocative act from the point of view of international norms. This should concern the Japanese.

To be sure, the Japanese Coast Guard has noted that the use of force is out of the question (日) at this point. The UNCLOS specifies that force cannot be used against official state vessels merely for entering into territorial waters if they are not conducting activities “prejudicial to the peace.” This is why the Chinese approach of using non-military maritime agencies has been so difficult to manage – the only choice the Japanese Coast Guard currently has is to sail side by side and continuously ask the vessels to the leave.

However, the question will then be what will Noda do after the current round of incursions is over? Also, will he be merely able to deport activists from Hong Kong (日) back instead of actually prosecuting them for landing on the Senkakus if they set sail again later this year? He will be in a difficult spot. The political timing could also not be worse from his point of view – this will give considerable coverage to the LDP presidential election where the five candidates will surely try to out do each other in terms of who is going to be “toughest” on China, likely bringing in to the equation all sorts of issues irrelevant to the resolution of territorial issues(Yasukuni etc).

This raises a broader question. First of all, are the US and China having a competition to see how many Japanese PMs they can unseat through the creation of international issues? China may go 2-1 up. Secondly and related, this shows how Japan’s political system and the ease of turnover of PMs is increasingly becoming a threat to the rational exercise of Japan’s foreign policy. If every time there is a difficult foreign policy issue to be resolved (and most of them are) the PM has to step down, or, fearing this eventuality, doubles down on a policy preference they would otherwise want to avoid, it will be harder for foreign policy to be consistent over time.

Also, if every time there is an issue in Chinese domestic politics the Japanese government has to adapt its foreign policy outlook – well one can imagine the government’s and the public’s patience will wear thin. It is perhaps a reflection of how much domestic politics matter in China, and how self-involved the Chinese political establishment is, that they are unaware of this issue. Or is there no intention to have stable relations in the first place?

Maehara goes to Washington

If PM Noda’s negligence in turning up to September’s APEC without omiyage of Japan’s TPP commitment wasn’t enough to convince the US that Japan does not see the TPP as its economic salvation, then perhaps Maehara Seiji’s Washington comments may do. In a meeting with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, Maehara communicated (日) that Japan would not consider the US request for prior concessions before joining negotiations, saying that negotiations would be conducted, well, after negotiations had started. So nothing will happen on the TPP front until 2013 when we know who is in the White House.

Of course, the Asahi interprets this as the pro-American, pro-TPP Maehara communicating intra-party hesistancy about joining the TPP. If it was simply this, I believe he may have chosen different words. An alternative explanation could be that Maehara can see like anyone else that the idea of one-sided prior concessions is fundamentally unfair and asinine. Especially when the requested concessions themselves are fundamentally unfair and asinine.

What about future prospects for the TPP? The TPP’s main supporter is now Hashimoto Toru, who places the TPP, perhaps quixotically, at the centre of his policy drive for opening Japan up to international competition. His strategy is that Japan should pursue a more vigorous free trade agenda at the same time as reforming, perhaps through some tough choices, the agricultural and other uncompetitive sectors in Japan. This seems reasonable, although I think he perhaps is unaware of the geopolitical factors behind Japan’s FTA/EPA policy. Essentially anyone who signs on to cooperation with Hashimoto’s JRA will have to embrace Hashimoto’s TPP policy. The seven established Diet members who switched to Hashimoto’s party have done this, although one of them had to allegedly bite his tongue, which may be a sign of things to come.

The interesting question becomes one of electoral math. If Japan is to join the TPP, then what combination of parties could make this happen? The LDP is likely to become more anti-TPP as it takes back a lot of the rural seats it lost in the 2009 House of Representatives election. This is what happened in the 2010 House of Councillors election, where the LDP didn’t do particular well in the cities but came storming back outside of them. I suspect this might happen again. So an LDP-Komeito-JRA collaboration is probably not going to bring Japan into the TPP, nor would an LDP-DPJ grand coalition. Ironically enough, the DPJ may be more inclined after the election as it will probably be “unburdened” of its rural-orientated members. A DPJ-JRA collaboration may be the best bet for the TPP, if the numbers are there. That said, the longer Japan is left out/stays out, the harder it will be to justify entering at a later stage, given it will have little influence over how the deal is to be shaped. While Obama could ignore the autoindustry after reelection to a second term, it is the Senate that is going to be the hardsell for Japan joining, irrespective of what happens in the US House of Representatives. Another issue is that as the President’s “fast track” negotiating authority (or Trade Promotion Authority) expired in 2007 and the TPP, unlike KORUS, will require renewal of this authority before it can be considered (or else the Senate could theoretically filibuster or even make amendments to the multiple-nation negotiated pact). This article from February suggests that even in 2002 the process for negotiating the renewal of fast track authority took 18 months, and it has already been rejected by the Senate once under Obama’s watch. If Japan is still being considered as a TPP partner to negotiations such legislation may take even longer to pass when Obama pushes for it again in 2013. Even if it is quickly done, the Senate will likely demand that it is given authority over admitting new partners to the TPP negotiating process, which would probably mean Japan will not be included as voting against Japan joining woud not jeopardize the whole agreement. The administration could wait until later to give Japan time to commit before pushing forward on the fast track authority. However the administration will not want to wait too long. As the TPP negotiations get closer to its conclusion (if that is, the direction it is going – we wouldn’t know), the more current participants will want assurance that the painstakingly negotiated agreement is not going to be torn to pieces with all sorts of amendments on the Senate and HoR floor. Tricky.

Maehara’s statement to Senator Baucus today may well be where things end with the TPP and Japan for some time.

Maehara has also failed to bring the omiyage of public understanding regarding the MV-22 Osprey deployment. In fact Maehara requested (日) that conditions be attached to the deployment to Okinawa which would prevent the Osprey from transitioning from vertical takeoff and landing mode (VTOL) and short takeoff and landing mode (STOL) unless it was out to sea or within the cofines of the base. Maehara has, to the surprise of some, being quite outspoken on the Osprey deployment and safety issue over the last few months, perhaps hurting his stock in Washington. That said, I have it on good authority that Maehara was not however universally liked by the DC security establishment.

In any respect, this might be the solution. I have never understood why “pilot error” in previous MV-22 crash incidents, as opposed to the identification of a technical design fault, was supposed to assuage the Japanese people of their concerns – if the difficulty is in the transition as some have argued, then is this not a design fault? Certainly not a technicality given that humans will also be flying the Osprey over Okinawa. Nevertheless, this solution, while making the Osprey marginally more costly to operate, could be argued to be equivalent in safety terms to operating the helicopters the US already uses out of its Japanese bases. That is the logical implication in any respect.

Which Party Will Sit Out 2013?

It is generally accepted that we are moving closer to an election, but that is all we know. In fact, we may not even know that. Noda has been at his evasive best saying one thing (yes, yes, election soon), but intimating another – at the recent APEC he said to Putin that he was keen to visit to discuss issues of “historic” importance. My rational side says nothing much will come of it, but sounds like as good a reason as any to put off an election. Who knows – maybe Noda has a “Nixon goes to China” card up his sleeve.

Nevertheless the punditry has begun, mainly because we now know that Hashimoto Toru’s party (Japan Restoration Association (Party) or JRA) will be competing in the next lower house election, and has secured seven current MPs, thereby allowing the JRA to run candidates in the regional PR blocks as well as the Single Member Districts. We also have a fair idea of what his policies will be (another post).

So it is about time I put in my almost certainly overvalued two cents.

Jun Okumura says that incentive is for Hashimoto’s JRA to stay out of any post-election coalition – to let the DPJ-LDP-Komeito marriage of ill-repute come together with extremely low expectations, and to fail to even meet those. All the while the JRA will be ready to pounce,  having acquired for itself some basic party funding, in the 2013 House of Councillors election and the likely snap election that would probably take place soon after. A recent Asahi Shimbun poll (日) supports such a view – even before discussions about a grand coalition 43% are against the idea of three-way cooperation versus 38% for a grand coalition. Such numbers will only drop once “deals” are done and the sausage factory is opened to the public. The same poll also asked people who were well disposed to the JRA having influence after the election which party the JRA should cooperate with after this election. 54% of those people said there was no necessity for the JRA to collaborate with any of the existing parties, corroborating Okumura’s view.

Michael Cucek suggests on the other hand that the incentive is actually for the DPJ to stay out of any post-election coalition, utilizing an ‘excuse’ of having essentially “lost” the faith of the people, to take advantage of a likely LDP-Komeito-JRA train wreck. If there is a formal or semi-formal arrangement – perhaps the LDP-Komeito forming a minority government, with the JRA providing confidence – Cucek predicts that such an arrangement falls apart due to countless skeletons coming out of the JRA amateurs’ (in the non-critical sense of the word) closets and various other iniquities and incompetencies. Even if the arrangement is very loose, it is hard to see collaboration surviving beyond the first budget – the LDP has promised to essentially bring back the “construction state” while the JRA’s continued existence will depend on it not being seen to support such an outcome. The DPJ will, with new leadership and after a period of reflection, be able to make up some ground in the snap election that would come from this,  and will ultimately be in a better position to finally implement, along with the JRA, some of the administrative reforms it originally wanted to.

Where do I stand on this?

I say it depends on how who is left standing in the DPJ after the next election. My issue with Cucek’s scenario is a simple one – I can see his logic, but is the collective leadership of the DPJ that smart…or more so, that brave?

Cucek is correct when he states that Ozawa, and the DPJ in general, had brought in good talent to man, and importantly, woman its middle and junior ranks. The greatest tragedy would be that such talents would go to waste while the ancien regime of the Cold War left and the now compromised senior leadership squeak on by. The party has over time brought in many centrists with real world experience outside of politics, and with a genuine interest in policy. If these talents are wiped out completely then the DPJ will have nothing to rehabilitate and may as well join in on the grand coalition. If the party can affect true “generational change,” perhaps under a humble but young leader like Hosono (who tactically and symbolically did the right thing by not running for the DPJ leadership), then Cucek’s strategy may be plausible. So can a decent size rump of the “next generation” survive 2012?

Depending on who the LDP selects as its leader, the DPJ will probably as the polls show finish second or third in the PR – they will be lucky to get much more than 20%. This will likely rehabilitate the current leadership through PR lists but not much more. So it will come down to   the 300 (or 295) SMDs whether the DPJ can find any salvation. The DPJ “kanban” is certainly not of any help. However much of Ozawa’s recruited talent have been squirreling away and paying attention to their constituencies and their stakeholders over the last 3 years. Those in urban areas should do better than the DPJ’s PR vote. It is likely Rengo, as well as some of the other stakeholder organizations that crossed over to the DPJ in 2009, will still get out significant votes for the DPJ. At least, the LDP has not really given them any reason to go rushing back. Should the JRA eat into the swing against the DPJ, thus depriving the LDP of the former DPJ votes they would have been expecting, then it is possible that the DPJ might do ok in some urban SMDs in a three or four way race. Nevertheless, you would expect some tactical deals to be struck between the JRA, Komeito, the LDP in particular. Already the JRA and Komeito have struck a deal in the Kansai region to lend each other support, but what deals are going to be struck in the rest of the country? Can the DPJ get in on any of these deals?

In terms of the calculus, Hashimoto is losing a little of his shine. Recent opinion polls have asked the question of whether people would want to see Hashimoto having influence in the next government. Previously the numbers had been closer to 2 to 1. Now they are evening up – I recall one recent poll having it at 50% in favour of post-election Hashimoto influence vs 43 % against . A recent NHK poll (日) has 54% as having expectations for Hashimoto’s party, while 42% not having these expectations. In the aforementioned Asahi poll, with the more exact question of “would you like to see Hashimoto’s party take enough seats in the election to have influence,” the number is 50% for the proposition versus 36% against, meaning that the JRA’s ability to take out a large number of SMDs on its own may be compromised if these numbers head further south. Indeed if the above Asahi poll is anything to go by, where only 5 percent said at this point they would vote for the “Osaka Ishin no Kai” then it seems the public’s support of the Hashimoto zeitgeist is not automatic – they may like many of his policies but that is not going to automatically translate into votes. I am not sure I buy the 5% as being representative, but nevertheless the party will still have some work to do and who it puts out as candidates, and what they say will be important. Perhaps Noda’s desire, having now lured Hashimoto to reveal his strategy, is to lengthen the time until the election precisely to allow for as much time for mistakes and disclosures, as Cucek has predicted, to take place.

In any respect the DPJ, if it is concerned with its own long-term survival, should be doubling their efforts to put a wedge between the LDP and Komeito on any issue possible, particularly electoral reform. The DPJ will still likely lose big, and even some notable party names may be knocked off, but if the party is smart or lucky then in the urban centers a number of the younger, centrist Diet members can survive the next election.

However I have my doubts if the senior leadership of the DPJ is that focused, or that considerate of those that they are leading. We can see this is in party elder Sengoku Yoshito’s recent statement that the DPJ would likely, if it had to, settle for the simplest solution to the unconstitutionality of the vote disparity in the House of Representatives of only reducing the number of SMDs by five seats. The rank and file of the DPJ should be under no illusions – if Sengoku represents the party leadership’s feelings, then Sengoku essentially wants to hasten the transition to the grand coalition as soon as possible, but on the most favourable terms for traditional LDP interests, something unforgivable from both an emotional partisan and a rational actor’s point of view.

Meanwhile, a little to the South of Dokdo…

We may get to find out how committed to its new “don’t rock the boat” approach to the Senkaku Islands issue the CCP is – the Hong Kong activists who set out to land on the Senkaku Islands were, somehow, successful and 5 of them have now been taken into custody by the JCG and are being transferred to Naha. Noda has indicated that they will be dealt with resolutely, likely to be prosecuted under Japan’s immigration laws. This is the first successful landing in 8 years.

How will the PRC react to this seeming Japanese exercise of sovereign administration over the islands?