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25 Nov

This week has had an interesting news cycle. From the recent nuclear announcement with Iran, Obama’s affordable care act issues, the long delayed attempt to remove 1500 radioactive rods from the Fukuhshima plant to the Chinese proclamation about air rights over the disputed Senkaku/Daiyou islands.

What I find most interesting about international events is how low the barrier to entry is when it comes to having an opinion about what is going on around the world. Anyone with a pulse make sweeping generalized statements while having little direct knowledge about the region in question. For the record I am not saying I am the expert but what many posit as fact should be more accurately defined as opinion. I would further hazard to say that many of these opinions are not only flawed but dangerously broken.

My father often told me to question another persons information source. Not in an aggressive manner but rather to determine where the so called facts were coming from. Once you get a grasp on someone’s knowledge base you can better interpret their conclusions. James Rickards is clearly a brilliant writer with extensive knowledge of gold and finances but his position towards the middle east is cloudy at best. Its not a snap decision on my part just simply connecting the dots from watching and reading what he says. So if he talks about finance or gold I am all ears, but when he discusses regional politics in the middle east especially Israel I choose to ignore much of what he says.

This goes to the heart of what I wanted to discuss. If you need an accountant or lawyer or even a doctor, you seek someone who is competent to take care of your needs. They provide a service and we hopefully benefit from their experience. Yet politics has no such barrier to entry. Everyone has an opinion about politics based on facts that are flawed in the best of times. Yet governmental policy is such a vitriolic issue that it often causes bitter feelings between the participants. Pointing out weak points seems to exacerbate the issue rather than clarify it. This is because people are wed to their beliefs and it often has little to do with the overriding mutually agreed upon facts of common ground.

Its a sad state of affairs.

So rather than try to poke holes in other people’s beliefs perhaps its best to ask questions about why they have come to those conclusions. In this way we can better understand each other.

Lets start with Iran shall we ?

So firstly we should agree that US foreign policy when it comes to Iran is sordid at best. The US government supported a counter-revolution and installed the Shah who had a pro US position. It was an extension of Kennan’s containment policy and in hindsight was quite effective in limiting soviet influence in the region. If someone doesn’t know these facts than their opinion on Iran has no value because they don’t understand the situation. Now that we agree that Iran is of vital interest to the US and that US foreign policy is geared towards keeping Iran within US influence it was only a question of time before events moved them towards detente.

You may not like this or support its undertaking but it has very little to do with the facts of the situation. The region is now in flux, but it has always been this way and it will continue to remain in this condition going forward. It is not a political zero sum game. The choice is NOT one of Israel or Iran, nor is it Saudi Arabia or Iran. It can be both. Yet many are making statements as if both is not a viable alternative. This is pure folly and is foolish to do so unless you conclude that the solution to the situation is to attack Iran because there is no other choice.

Since I don’t believe that anything positive can come about from attacking Iran the alternative which include negotiations are preferable. Maybe history will prove me wrong but if I have to choose between an Israeli airstrike or detente I choose the later. Finally since Israel has not signed the non proliferation treaty they are not in a position to dictate to anyone about the details of the treaty. Perhaps they should re-evaluate their position and sign the treaty ?

Healthcare is either a right or a privilege. How you answer that question will quite likely determine ones position on the issue. What I find amusing is the argument that somehow people of limited means shouldn’t have healthcare. Either you have it or you don’t. Its something everyone wants as well. The young and healthy perhaps don’t want it but they certainly need it if and when someone happens to them.

Currently the US system is broken. Americans pay more than other countries for health yet don’t have coverage for everyone. We can choose either to fix it or not.

Where was the outrage about healthcare from the right before Obama tried to pass the Affordable care act ? Where was the debate from the Tea Party when Bush passed the Medicare expansion program ? These are not fixing the problem they are only treating the symptoms. Why do liberals accept a less than adequate system of coverage ?

It certainly is a vexing issue, yet those who want the ACA to fail or want to go back to the good old days simply do not understand the problem. Follow the logic; Poor and working class people get sick, they don’t have healthcare so they delay seeing a doctor, eventually the problem gets worse so they go to the emergency room to get treatment, the bill is either picked up by the state or taxpayers anyway or is eaten by the hospital which in turn increases costs. You and I are paying for it anyway. Got it ?

You and I cannot escape from paying for other peoples care. Its really as simple as that. If you prefer a system where you don’t pay for other people I suggest you spend some time in urban India where poverty is so pervasive that people die on the streets because that is what we are going to get in the US with a no government coverage policy. Its the same flawed subjective thinking that concludes that all government is bad, yet we enjoy police, fire, road, passport and a variety of social services courtesy of our collective tax dollars.

Can government be smaller ? You bet it can, but lets cut fat not bone or muscle.

Its a broken system. There are no good old days, and hampering people’s access to healthcare makes the problem more expensive. MORE expensive not less. Yet we hear very little about solutions from either side. A pathetic situation self inflicted situation with both parties to blame which is bound to get worse.

Fukushima is a situation I have written about before that I prefer to not cover right now but there are problems with the cleanup that I will address at another time.

Last but certainly not least is the East China Sea. Warning this is more of a rant but clearly the current structure is not capable of handling the demands being put upon it. Chinese, Korean and Japanese politicians are addressing their collective domestic audiences without much regard to the region nor the consequences from conducting poor policies.

Some would suggest that this issue is about energy, yet if it were really about energy why aren’t the Japanese or any other power trying to tap into the area ? Perhaps there isn’t as much “energy” as is being claimed because if there were it would be tapped and flowing into the market by now. If it is Japanese as Mr Abe claims then go ahead and unilaterally begin mining it. Yet I see no action or discussion about doing so.

In my opinion the issue is not about energy it is about influence in the region. Energy is a strawman that everyone buys into because it appears to explain the problem. This is coming from someone who has been closely watching the region situation for a decade. You may disagree with my position but how much time have you spent on studying it and what is your information source. Pulling it out of your butt is not a viable argument either.

China has taken the next step in the escalation of words by proclaiming that the air space above the disputed area are now subject to Beijing’s rules. They have imposed a domestically legal aircraft registration system that will classify all aircraft as either legitimate or “registered” or illegal or “not registered”. The Japanese have objected yet they already have such a system in existence and use it to label Chinese entry as incursions.

Which side is right ? I can’ t say but looking at the region I would conclude that Japan might be better served by trying to work with the Chinese rather than against them on this issue. Its the same broken zero sum game mindset that belongs to a forgotten age or flawed mindset that views uninhabited islands as owned by far of regional powers. Where is the harm is collectively developing the area, registering both air recognition systems and working towards common goals ?

Its absent, but if I were going to put chips on the table I would most likely go with China. They are a rising power, soon to be the biggest market in the world and it would suit Japan’s future generations to seek common ground with such an empire rather than to squabble over crumbs. Yes that’s right, I just qualified the islands as crumbs. Compared to the domestic auto industry in China the energy from the area is a relatively small market. Yet the Japanese opt out of being a major part of that market by adhering to a broken foreign policy that gains very little at the expense of longer term benefits.

Sending in marines or threatening to do so does not improve the situation it simple pushes both sides towards escalation. If that is the goal then both parties are doing a fabulous job of it.

Under control

21 Sep

“Let me assure you that the situation (in Fukushima) is under control”. These were the words spoken by the Japanese prime minister as part of his Olympic presentation.

Let me ask you a question my dear reader, do you think Mr Abe knows if the plant is under control ? What are his qualifications for such a statement ? If your answer is yes he knows about nuclear power plant safety then perhaps you can explain to me how he understands this because the evidence is quite to the contrary.

In fact within days of Mr Abe’s Olympic speech word from a Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) spokesman was that the plant was indeed NOT under control. Don’t believe me look it up for yourself. There was of course a retraction later in the news cycle but the truth was out for all to hear. The Prime Minister of Japan is a liar.

For those who have read this somewhat irregular blog you already know how much value I put in TEPCO official statements due to the fact that they have been lying since day 1 of the ongoing catastrophe. However when someone admits on the record to the situation not being under control I tend to give it more moral weight since as far as I know the tragic comedy of errors going on in Fukushima is currently running out of control.

From failing seals to a lack of pressure gauges, leaking radioactive water, rusting bolts to approximately 1300 used fuel rods currently sitting on the 3rd floor of reactor building number 4 the entire story is one of epic black swan failure.
Wait it gets better. Tokyo Governor Inose who prior to the Olympic bid was criticizing the media for alarmist reporting on the situation in Northern Japan has now done an about face. He publicly contradicted Shinzo Abe on Fuji TV saying the situation was “not necessarily under control”.

So much for taboo you are asking right ?

Yet the story gets more interesting. Mr Abe after making his pledge to the IOC dutifully went to visit the stricken plant in an effort to get things under control. He received a special suit for his tour complete with a name plate personalized by TEPCO. Yet the Kanji characters used to write his name were misspelled. This isn’t a foreign language we are talking about but the acting Prime Minister of Japan’s name being spelled incorrectly. A spokesman apologized for the gaffe but this just indicates the level of competence we are dealing with around these parts.

I would prefer to say it is yet another confirming indicator that something is fishy.
I want to point out something that may have been overlooked by many who are paying attention to the terrible situation here in Japan. Despite everyone’s best efforts, and some lies and some obfuscations the situation is most certainly not under control. So what would cause Mr Abe to make such a statement ? Is he that desperate to make his mark that he was ready to stand up in front of the world and lie for history books ?

Further along that line of thought why would the IOC believe such a statement. Are they capable of assessing such a promise and if not why didn’t they seek out information on their own instead of simply acting on good faith ? Certainly they deserve perhaps more criticism than the unfortunate Shinzo Abe who is simply trying his best in a tight spot. After all the IOC has to answer to the international community don’t they ?

Finally I want to state my objection to the fact that Mr Abe can stand in front of an international audience and make promises about things beyond his control and yet cannot make that promise to HIS OWN PEOPLE. Not to me, the international community living in Japan, or those overseas peoples with an interest in what is happening at the plant, but to his own constituents. Doesn’t he have a responsibility to the children of Japan ? To those who voted him into office ? To everyone affected by the events of the horrific earthquake and tsunami ? Where was his promise to them ? Why wait to make a statement about the plant at all ?

Clearly the prime minister is doing what he feels he must do, and perhaps the national thrill at winning the Olympic bid did cause hope and dreams to return to the Japanese people. But at what cost ? The record is not a good one so far and I remain unconvinced that anything involving the Daichi plant is anything remotely close to being controlled. It looks like TEPCO and Mr Inose agree with me.

Amateur Hour at TEPCO

2 Sep

Amateur Hour at TEPCO

Well here we are 2 years and 6 months later. The government as well as parts of TEPCO management have changed but the excuses haven’t. Their press conferences are frighteningly puerile with the media hardly reporting on it at all. There is a reason why the Fukushima problem is not being reported to a large degree in the domestic market but it does not change the facts of the ongoing situation here in Japan.

I am not surprised, are you ?

It has been widely reported on the net and from foreign news sources that TEPCO built almost 1,000 tanks to store tons of contaminated water. Yet they did not test the valves or sealant in the tanks. Further these same tanks do not have water pressure gauges either. Then for an added bonus the company said that a total of two workers are responsible for checking the tanks. Huh ?

I have a question.

Is TEPCO serious ? They must be joking right ?

The plan was to build tanks, fill them with radioactive water without testing the sealant, not to install pressure gauges, then to reduce monitoring to a minimum ? Sounds like a winning plan to me.

Who is asking about these issues in the press ? Wait don’t answer that because I am sure the excuses will be worse than the “plan” TEPCO instituted. I get that nobody wants the job; its dirty, its dangerous, its unpopular and perhaps most compellingly its taboo.

Yup thats right folks. Talking about Fukushima is taboo.

If you think about this cultural safety valve it does help put many of the other issues into better focus. War crimes ? Taboo. Historical trouble in the region and the causes of them ? Taboo too. It really does bring up an image of an ostrich with its head in the sand. Problem ? What problem ? I don’t know about any problems.
I recently tried to discuss this issue with a long time expat friend of mine that I have known for over 10 years. He seemed incapable of understanding my point that how others perceive Japan is just as important as what Japan does going forward. It became so frustrating that I gave up trying to make the point. Perhaps I shouldn’t have but if one factors in the taboo, it makes perfect sense.

After realizing this point and spending the mental downtime to better understand it I think I can better appreciate the Japanese. They want to do well, and they try their best to do things right and if they get it wrong nobody talks about it. Its a very effective method for moving forward.

Sadly by brushing everything sordid, distasteful or dirty under the carpet there are bound to be bugs and disturbances that come about as a result. So remember that round these parts its best not to talk about past mistakes.

Is that how you live your life ? Wow talk about ghosts in the closet !

As a teacher I sometimes tell students that the best way to learn is to make mistakes, yet many diligent students here do not want to take the risk of making a mistake. The system here teaches that by venturing no answer or opinion and waiting, the teacher or senior will eventually provide the answers.

I don’t think the Western methodologies of peer based guessing are any better, just different. If I had to explain it I would use the coin analogy. Both sides are effective and one does not serve a more important function than another. I suppose I should post something about teaching on the blog but the political and environmental situation just get stuck in my craw and I want to purge the gestalt.

Meanwhile Shinzo Abe left on a nuclear technology export road show to the Middle east and Africa this week visiting Bahrain, Dijbouti, Kuwait and Qatar. Japan has already signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with UAE.

Business as usual I suppose. That other stuff belongs under the carpet.

Yen weakens

12 May

For anyone that was paying attention they could clearly see where the Abe government was headed with their new and improved fiscal policy. Then yen has now moved to about 100 to the dollar and will perhaps further weaken. My hunch is that we can easily a 106-108 range by this summer thus further boosting the bottom line.

Business sites across Japan are announcing the return to profit for many of Japans larger corporations. Boosted by the weakened yen, Japan’s value added exports are seeing a nice bump. Will it have any staying power is the question. With elections approaching we will see how well the LDP can continue to grease the wheels of the voters. I have already discussed the antiquated parliamentary district issue as being a key point in how the LDP returned to power. I fully expect this round to be a full menu of “more of the same” with Mr Abe heading into the summer/fall season with higher export numbers boosting his support.

Perhaps the Japanese government will then turn its attention to its rather pathetic attempts of foreign policy. This could become a comedy of errors as pro Japanese officials continue to comment on regional issues without regard to how their comments will be interpreted by their neighbors. There seems to be a never ending parade of stupid comments sent around the world by those who speak about Japan’s strengths in terms of the other party’s weakness. For example, Tokyo’s governor Inose was critical of Istanbul’s bid for the Olympics in an interview with the NY Times and later had to issue a formal apology. This is typical of the foreign policy playbook here.

Its rather interesting because in day to day interactions between the Japanese people the words, manners and tone between them are very carefully chosen. In fact they often bend over backwards to be polite, yet when it comes to handling important international affairs the shoe somehow seems to find its way into the mouth of some well meaning politician. Hope remains but to the experienced its simply a question of time before another comment creates another fiasco.

So we head into the summer of 2013 with elections on the horizon, the nukes due to be turned back on, then yen continuing to weaken and the island controversy still brewing. It is going to get more interesting round here.

The nukes are coming back online

19 Apr

Its only a question of time now.

A petition to close down Japan’s last 2 operating nuclear reactors was denied by a court in Tokyo this week. I believe this creates a path towards reopening the closed nuke plants once they have been determined to be “safe”. As to how the government is measuring “safeness” is anyone’s guess.

This author is highly skeptical of an energy cabinet and their declarations of safety when prior to the Tsunami the same agency proclaimed the Fukushima plant as safe. Clearly not safe. Yet energy costs are increasingly taking a bigger bite out of the trade balance which may force Abe’s hand sometime this summer when peak demand comes online.

Prior to the Great Earthquake Japan was creating about 30% of its available electric power from nuclear plants. It has also been reported that new sources of uranium have been purchased from the French by the Japanese. Why else would they be buying more fuel ?

It doesn’t take much to connect the dots in this story.