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The vacancy at the BOJ and the merits of emptiness

by Noriko Hama

Nature abhors a vacuum. So said Aristotle. Human beings also abhor a vacuum. Especially when they are LDP politicians in search of a new governor for the Bank of Japan.

Their frenzied search for someone and anyone to fill the gap has provided fascinating media entertainment over these past few weeks. The opposition parties are much decried for their unwillingness to compromise on a suitable candidate.

It is certainly true that emptiness makes people uncomfortable. We walk in perpetual terror of the gaps in conversations. Everybody says the first thing that comes to their minds in desperation to fill the void. Empty seats are the ultimate fear of anyone who has anything to do with the theater business.

Yet an empty chair can actually be quite a useful thing if you know how to use it. This was amply illustrated by the empty chair strategy of that father of all political intrigues, Charles de Gaulle.

In the 1960s, de Gaulle went to battle with the other members of what was then the European Economic Community over the two issues of unanimity in European decision-making and the Common Agricultural Policy.

Keeping unanimity intact and securing community funding for agriculture were de Gaulle’s twin goals. He got pretty much what he wanted by withdrawing his ministers from all community decision-making meetings. Left with rooms full of empty chairs, community business ground to a halt. The rest of the EEC members were forced to compromise. So did de Gaulle to a certain extent, but the empty chair had served its purpose eminently well.

Thus if your ego swells to de Gaulle-like proportions, even vacuums become something to be utilized rather than abhorred.

But De Gaulle apart, speed is not everything when it comes to filling a central banker’s chair. Especially at a time like this, when some really courageous and creative thinking is required to overcome the turmoil that continues to beleaguer the global financial market.

What’s more, the opposition is entirely justified in objecting to candidates who have links to the Finance Ministry. It is cynical of the LDP to say that it is the man, and not his antecedents, which should decide the suitability of people for the top job in central banking.

This is of course true in principle, and it would be a reasonable enough argument had Japan not had a history of the Finance Ministry generally breathing down the BOJ’s neck and forcing it on occasion to mop up bonds that it had issued for purposes of war and quick-fix inflationary policies. Given the record, anybody who is serious about BOJ independence should want to keep the Finance Ministry’s links well away from the central bank for the foreseeable future.

If in doubt of the merits of emptiness, one should turn to “rakugo,” the classical art of Japanese one-man comedy, told by a comedian seated on a cushion.

One popular rakugo story concerns a senior citizen who is visited nightly by weird and wonderful impish creatures. One night it is a giant. On the next comes a little one-eyed boy. On the third night comes a young woman with no face.

Looking into that vacuum, the fearless old man remarks that the emptiness serves the lady fine.

“After all,” says he, “there are plenty of women in the world who have a hard time just because they happen to have faces with eyes and noses attached. Nobody can complain about an empty face.”

Very politically incorrect of course, but one has to admit that there is wisdom in the observation. Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. Especially when there is nothing there.

Noriko Hama is an economist and a professor at Doshisha University Graduate School of Business.