Shisaku is a homophone meaning essay, a meditation upon a subject, a policy or measures a government takes. A fitting title for analyst Michael Cucek’s blog which provides insight and opinion on Japanese politics, with a distinct hint of satire. In the eight years he’s been writing the blog, Shisaku has become a go-to English-language resource for anyone who follows or is curious about the political culture in Japan. Topics focus on current events but often segue into commentaries on overarching political issues. Cucek has a degree in East Asian Studies from Stanford University and did graduate work at UC Santa Barbara and Columbia University. He now lives in Tokyo where he writes and does private consulting, with an emphasis on Japanese politics. He is also a research associate at the MIT Center for International Studies.
How did you begin blogging and what inspired you to launch Shisaku?
I began blogging after I got complaints from my friends who were receiving emails from me about my ideas on what was going on in Japanese politics. One of them said, “Michael, go get a blog,” and that’s when I started. The inspiration was my feeling that the quality of information available on Japan was relatively poor. After the 1990s, and the collapse of the bubble, reporting on Japan became thinner, more rote and less interesting. In fact, quite boring. I felt that there was a lot of humor, a lot of backstory, that no one was covering. The level of understanding was diminishing. It reached its nadir during the late 1990s. I and others felt that there was an opening for commentary.
What were the milestones in the evolution of your blog?
The chief milestone was the discovery of both the real and virtual world of blogging done by Okumura Jun of Global Talk 21, and by Tobias Harris, who had the most important blog of the time, Observing Japan. Meeting those people on the virtual level and then in real life gave me a sense that I could do a better job than I was doing. I was not the only one with a profound sense of disquiet about the low level of analysis and reporting available. Meeting those two individuals, and having to keep up with them, made me realize that this was something worth pursuing.
How do you usually gather information for your posts? Where do you start?
Just like everybody else does: I get it off the Web, or off the television screen. In some cases I get emails from individuals who have different perspectives. I get it from other blogs done by politicians themselves, and very rarely Japanese writers on politics. The hard work, the mental manual labor, is determining what is true, what is likely to be not true, where are the biases, and how to get around that.
An example of that is [DPJ kingpin Ichiro] Ozawa himself. For 30 years now he has been portrayed as an evil genius who is corrupt, who is ugly. Where does that come from? It comes from the media telling us he is corrupt. Well, how do they get their information? What is the basis? When Ozawa’s personal secretary was arrested for supposedly knowing that he was receiving illegal campaign contributions, the police seized all the records of Ozawa’s fund-raising organization, and all the personal records of Ozawa. They went through it with a fine-toothed comb. They had all the physical evidence they could possibly have. What they found was the misrecording of a personal loan that Ozawa had extended to his own political organization, so that they could borrow money from a bank. Three years later the organization paid him back in full. No interest, no bribery. That is what teams of hundreds of investigators going through thousands of documents found. The only crime was an accounting crime of not recording it properly. If that’s all they could get with all this investigative power, the guy is clean! We have been brainwashed to the point to when even when the facts have definitively proven Ozawa is clean, we don’t believe it.
Can you describe the post-WWII Japanese system of government and its potential flaws or advantages?
For a country on its way up, Japan’s system worked very well. It’s not that there’s not enough democracy, it’s that there is way too much. For a country on the way up, that’s really necessary, otherwise the powerful will accrue a great power to themselves and the weak will be left behind. The Japanese system therefore prevented the rise of severe inequalities and disparities in society. In a country that has reached a plateau, or has stumbled, it becomes very difficult to move forward on any issue. It becomes very cautious. Everybody’s needs have to be considered, and some things don’t ever get decided.
The consumption tax debate is the clearest case of where the system has gone haywire. The LDP back in the 1980s knew, looking at the projections of income, that taxes would have to be raised in order for everything to be paid for. They just couldn’t get it going, and every time they made an adjustment upward, they would get punished at the polls. Now we have the breakup of the DPJ over the consumption tax. The Japanese system has this tendency of frittering away opportunities or splitting on issues that you can’t simply walk away from.
The other issue is the idea that we’ve met the enemy and it is ourselves. The idea of citizens taking responsibility for their own wants is not something you’ll ever see in the Japanese media. It is politicized, saying this party wants it and this party doesn’t want it. The real question is, if the people want it, they’ve got to figure out how they’re going to pay for it. Or if they don’t want to pay for it, then they have to figure out how to do without it.
You had a strong reaction to the Kurokawa Report. Do you think the confusing nature of the website and the differences between the English and Japanese versions were intentional? What interest would the government have in blaming the culture, but only allowing this caveat to those who were outsiders?
The commission’s failure to secure sufficient server capacity, and its reliance on cool-looking but clunky and counter-productive backup formats cannot be attributed to an intent to undermine the public’s ability to access the information inside the report. What they do illustrate — with delicious irony — are failures of the imagination or the will to consult expert outside opinion: the same faults the report found riddling Tepco and NISA.
As for the blast against Japanese culture in the English-language precis of the actual report, it arises out of a clumsy attempt to make a shaded reference in the original comprehensible to the outside world. In the Japanese original, Kurokawa suggests that the socio-psychological roots of the institutional and individual failures outlined in the Commission’s report are the same as those Asakawa Kan’ichi identified in his 1909 work “Kaki no Nihon.”
As no more than a handful of Japanese history specialists would have a clue as to what Kurokawa was hinting at to his countrymen, Kurokawa seems to have taken it upon himself to provide a simplified list of what he thought was wrong with his fellow citizens.
Your June 5th post about the death penalty in Japan and humanization of the Aum Shinrikyo fugitives provided a unique angle on the issue. What do you think is the future of the death penalty, and the fate of those people?
The death penalty is deeply ingrained. I was being very hopeful in my blog post. Support for the death penalty is almost universal. It is above 80 percent in favor. There is a sense that some crimes and criminals you just can’t have around. The imposition of the death penalty has been more careful than it has been in the past, which has increased its acceptability. It had decreased because of the possibility that some innocent individuals had been executed. Nowadays, when they hang you, you’re guilty. And it has to be murder. There is no other crime that is punished by death.
What happens with the fugitives will really be up to the media, whether they continue forward with the process of humanization of this trio who evaded the law for so long, and who had integrated themselves into society. The future of the death penalty very much depends on these individuals. Currently 9 percent of the persons on death row are Aum Shinrikyo, so they make up a big chunk.
One issue that Japanese jurisprudence has not ever dealt with is the concept of redemption. That someone can change him or herself and be normal. What the last two Aum fugitives did was reintegrate themselves into society. This concept of people being able to reintegrate, and to be innocuous again, is not something the Japanese system of law has really reconsidered. The process is seen as thorough, and the crimes are almost without question, heinous. You don’t get executed for a crime of passion, for example.
Is there someone who stands out as a very fascinating figure in Japanese politics?
My entire blog would be dead without colorful and interesting and fascinating people. The personage of Oshima Tadamori, the vice president of the LDP … I’d really like to meet and know him, because he has not been able to seize control in the party where he is the most clear-thinking and clear-seeing person. He’s always in the leadership group, but never the prime minister candidate. He’s never secretary-general, but he’s always way up in the party hierarchy, no matter who is in charge. He is the only one who can talk in paragraphs. Some of them can talk in complete sentences, but he seems to be able to organize his thoughts. How he really views the world would be something that I’d love to learn. And I think he’d tell you anything, whereas Noda has an interest in keeping completely silent.
What would you say is the most memorable political event since you’ve been here in Japan?
Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo making it his personal responsibility to tell his government that it shall no longer fight the claims of many thousands of victims of Hepatitis C infection. The government, because it had been the promoter of the vaccination programs, where the sharing of needles lead to the spreading, would not say it wasn’t their responsibility. When he brought the representatives of the victims, this quartet of women, into the kantei (the prime minister’s office), he stood, bowing deeply to them on the other side in deep remorse and deep regret for not only their personal suffering but for the suffering that the government had put them through. That scene of the prime minister abnegating himself before the victims, that was the most dramatic moment. The youngest victim is now a member of the DPJ and was elected to the Diet in 2009. Her becoming a member of Parliament is the capstone of that moment.