Archive | November 2014

The Long Arm of the Law – How a paper fan can get you fired

Click for article in Tokyo Weekender

You are a minister on the campaign trail trying to manufacture popularity for an upcoming election. You and your election team decide to take to the streets to distribute some promotional freebies. You print your name, face, a heartfelt slogan and a snapshot of your local policy platform onto a cheap sheet of round paper or cardboard. So far so good. Then, you notice it is 30 degrees celsius outside, so you attach a handle onto the leaflet, make it into a fan, and hand them out to sweaty constituents at a summer festival. Ok, now you have gone too far. You are fired.

Midori Matsushima, now former Justice Minister, did exactly this with her leaflet (pictured left) and was later forced to resign this month amid accusations of vote-buying. According to opposition DPJ lawmaker, Renho Murata, because Matsushima’s leaflet came with a handle and a fan-like frame, it was technically an ‘uchiwa’ (a paper fan). According to Renho, this qualifies as a ‘donation’ of ‘an item of monetary value,’ which is a violation of Article 139 of the Public Office Election Law (Japanese link). The Electoral Commission agreed with Renho.

Cue a flurry of fan-related political assaults across the parliamentary floor in both directions. Renho Murata, having led the attack against Matsushima, then faced questions herself regarding her own round paper leaflet (pictured right), which she had distributed while campaigning for election to the House of Councillors in 2010. In response, she maintained that without a handle or frame, her leaflet does not fit the traditional definition of an ‘uchiwa’ and is therefore perfectly legitimate. The Electoral Commission agreed with her, again, and her non-uchiwa leaflet got the green light.

So, what are we to make of all this triviality? For one, pushing legal loopholes is a very dangerous game. The prohibition against ‘donations’ or distributing ‘items of monetary value’ is a minefield of legal ambiguity that is as easy to get entangled in as it is to exploit. Take, for example, Article 139’s ban on serving any food or drink during an election campaign, ‘except tea and some sweets that are served only ordinarily.’ This means in theory that serving an extra cookie with a mildly expensive brand of tea could make the difference between lawful hospitality and an illicit indulgence of corrupt intent.

Indeed, if one were to take a fastidious interpretation of a clause as vague as a prohibition on ‘items of monetary value,’ then one could reasonably outlaw Renho’s leaflet too, for while it might not much resemble an effective ‘uchiwa’, it could certainly resemble a coaster/ place mat, or mouse-pad, or dartboard, or makeshift poopascoopa, or wobbly table stabiliser, or a myriad of other items.

But did she design the leaflet with such intent? Well, here marks the outer layer of the law – an area of almost unintelligible legal ambiguity (termed ‘zaruhou’ in Japanese). It is the frontier, the penumbra, the gray area of regulatory loopholes where the letter of the law ends and the drama of interpretation begins. Here is the quarrelsome task of determining when an act of self-defence becomes murder; when a genuine campaign contribution becomes a bribe; when harmless hospitality becomes self-serving indulgence – or, if you are in Japan, when a leaflet becomes a fan.

Just days after Matshushima’s disgraced ‘uchiwa’ was brandished in parliament, another fan-like leaflet came under investigation, this one belonging to LDP Deputy Defence Minister, Akira Satō. This leaflet – definitely an ‘uchiwa’ – was approved without spectacle, however, because it had been placed at a reception desk, rather than actively distributed.

When you work in an industry obsessed with scoring points and saving face in front of the voting public, the line between legal and illegal, job and no job, can become deceptively blurry. And it tends to turn politics into something of a fanfare – the kind of fanfare that convenes multiple times to debate nuances in the definition of a fan; that makes a politician as high up as Matsushima, Justice Minister, equivocate on what is clearly an ‘uchiwa’; that can get Matsushima’s ‘uchiwa’ (costing a mere 80 yen a piece to make) sold in Yahoo auctions for 16,500 yen; and that can doubtless make anti-politics cynicism regrettably more fashionable.

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima – The (Mostly) True Story of a Budding Buddhist Pyromaniac

The protagonist Mizoguchi – an ugly, troubled boy with a horrendous stammer – is a Zen Buddhist acolyte at the much-enamoured Golden Temple in Kyoto after the war. Growing up with such terrible afflictions, he comes to both love and hate the Golden Temple  – the perfect conception of Beauty and the source of his torment. Though a seemingly amoral character, Mizoguchi tries to rationalise the hatred he begins to feel for the Golden Temple, ultimately leading him to burn it down. He does this using Zen aphorisms – the Koan.

The following passage in the Rinsairokyu is used three times throughout the book and is repeated right before Mizoguchi does the terrible deed:

“When ye meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha! When ye meet your ancestor, kill your ancestor! When ye meet a disciple of Buddha, kill the disciple! When ye meet your father and mother, kill your father and mother! When ye meet your kin, kill your kin! Only thus will ye attain deliverance. Only thus will ye escape the trammels of material things and become free”.

He explains his abject hatred for the material world also when he talks of Tsukumogami-ki and opening “the eyes of men” to the spiritless nature of objects and material things. He implies that objectifying beauty in the Golden Temple only deceives the “hearts of men”, and in order to free men from their attachments to the material world, the Golden Temple must to be destroyed.

Contrary to the suggestion of Nancy Wilson Ross in the introduction, this is not simply the fault of “dogmatic teaching methods” or “modern conventions” in Zen Buddhism, because it is grounded in the doctrinal core of the “self-enlightenment” project and the contempt for the material world embodied within. I commend Mishima and Mizoguchi for shining a light and a fire on this apocalyptic nihilism and its Buddhist underpinnings.

Both Mishima and his translator, Ivan Morris, manage to pull off some brilliant description in the book. That said, I know not Morris, but Mishima is to blame for some of the drawn-out superfluous description in parts, particularly at the climax where Mishima dedicates nearly a whole page to the non-sequitur issue of a faulty alarm bell and the Deacon’s attempts to arrange for a competent repairman to fix it. It rather slowed everything down a little, I thought.