<i>Sympathique</i> for former Prime Minister Taro Aso

By Metro President David Bragdon of Portland, Oregon.

If only Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso knew how to hang on, little tomato, he and his Liberal Democratic Party might not have ended up as ketchup in yesterday’s election.

Oh, I know, his defeat on August 30 came as no surprise to observers of Japanese politics, and a party that has ruled through nearly two decades of a sluggish recession was probably bound to get the boot eventually. Still, having had an opportunity once to meet Prime Minister Aso, I tell myself now that if only I had been able to give him the magic words I wanted to, he might have been able to hang on.

The soon-to-be-former Prime Minister and I met at an "Eco-Cities" conference in Kita-kyushu, Japan, last December. Japan takes its leadership role as the host nation of the Kyoto negotiations seriously, and its government has encouraged municipalities to adopt localized strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. During a period when the U.S. Bush administration was hostile to local initiatives, Prime Minister Aso and his predecessors provided grants and other assistance to cities which agreed to implement GHG-reduction strategies involving public transport, non-fossil fuel use, and stewardship of resources. At the invitation of the government of Japan, I got to witness one feature of this "Eco-Cities" program: a convention, convened by the national government including cabinet ministers at the highest level, where representatives from cities across Japan show and tell each other how each of them is reducing reliance on carbon. It’s both competitive and cooperative: imagine our U.S. President – plausible since January 20 of this year - calling together localities from across the country and listening to communities audition for federal funding based on commitments to reduce GHG: Cleveland might boast it is going to install wind turbines along Lake Erie, only to be upstaged by a presentation from Denver saying it is going to cut automobile use by doubling its transit system, before New York City takes the floor to say with the right support it will plant two million trees. That’s what an "Eco-Cities" conference in Japan is like, with cities trying to out-do each other in carbon reduction.

Bragdon.sakebarrelI was privileged to be at their conference in December 2008 because (again unlike how the U.S. often is) the Japanese government believes it can learn from, and share expertise with, other nations. In addition to the nearly 100 cities from Japan, they invited representatives from the regions of Malmo, Sweden and Freiburg, Germany to speak, along with me to describe the Portland region’s Metro Council approach to transportation planning, recycling, and natural areas acquisitions. During three days in Japan, the Swedes and Germans and I were given tours of energy-recovery facilities, transit systems, and environmental education classrooms. On the final day we were given a major honor with the surprise announcement that Prime Minister Aso would be coming to the convention hall in person to give his endorsement to the "Eco-Cities" program and meet with us. The Japanese officials who had been escorting us grew more earnest than ever: it was a big deal that the Prime Minister was coming.

I grew nervous too, never having met a Prime Minister, and believing that especially in Japan it would be appropriate to present him with some diplomatic token of my homeland. Unfortunately the gift boxes of hazelnuts and smoked salmon that I carried were in my larger bag, on the other side of the security cordon, so I hurriedly looked through my briefcase to see what Oregon trinkets I still had. Ah ha! My bag contained the perfect gift: an autographed copy of Pink Martini’s CD, "Hang on Little Tomato." The album even contains the Portland band’s version of the Japanese song, Kikuchiyo to Mahshimasu, originally written by Michio Yamagami and Yoichi Suzuki for a Japanese film noir over forty years ago.

When the Japanese protocol officer told us where to stand and how to approach the stage, I showed her the Pink Martini CD and asked if I could present it to Prime Minister Aso as a symbol of international understanding conveyed by music. She looked politely stricken, and ran off with the CD to a security officer, who I saw in turn dashed behind a curtain to consult with someone higher-up. Was I inadvertently creating an international incident, all with the intention of giving a gift of music?

The security officer returned to the protocol officer who returned to me, apologetically. "We are sorry," she said, "the Prime Minister cannot accept gifts." I reluctantly stashed the CD back in my bag.

Moments later, the crowd rose, and I was ushered to the stage. The Prime Minister and I shook hands. He looked me in the eye and said, in English, "Portland is a beautiful city. Congratulations." In Japanese, I said, "Arigato gozaimasu," thank you.

That exchange was the extent of our conversation. But now that Prime Minister Aso is leaving office, I wish I could have a second chance to thank him for Japan’s commitment to averting climate change, and tell him to "Hang On, Little Tomato," and not allow yesterday’s election results to discourage him. Even after a bruising campaign, there’s still music in the world. So, if we were to meet again, I might breach protocol this time, and give him the Pink Martini CD, so that he could be consoled by listening to Timothy Nishimoto croon on the Japanese-language song: "Why this sadness... why this sadness/I wish it could have gone on forever... "

Then I’ll turn my attention to the next goal in my multi-lateral campaign to give CDs by Portland bands to the appropriate heads of state: an attempt to get through the Kremlin’s gates and hand a Decemberists album to Vladimir Putin. If his security is rough and you don’t hear back from me on Blue Oregon soon, send the C.I.A. to look for me where the original Decembrists ended up – Siberia.

  • Kurt Chapman (unverified)

    Well, it was no unexpected. Maybe now we can re-deploy some of the 50,000 US trrops and family members back stateside.

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    Ack! I accidentally posted this initially over my name instead of as a guest column for David Bragdon. My apologies to David.

    I've never been to Japan -- though I'm a big fan of Pink Martini, too!

  • David Bragdon (unverified)

    Kurt re comment #1 - You may get your wish, as the new government has indicated they may want the American military to leave, at least from Okinawa. (The LDP, now ousted, was in power almost continually since the U.S. occupation post-WWII, so has traditionally accepted the U.S. bases as more or less a given.) One of many changes in assumption after single party rule for nearly 50 years.

  • Kurt Chapman (unverified)

    Thanks David. I would see fewer US servicemen and women in Okinawa and Japan as a good thing for both nations.

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    Sunshine Lollipops and EcoRainbows aside, the LDP has been largely resposible for the design and perpetuation of Japan's Neo-Feudal government and industrial system for the past 65 years.

    This corporatist model of society was adopted by Singapore, then, China, and we see a lot of it creeping into the planning and management of most industrial societies in the last couple of decades. It works too. Happy drones are worked hard and taught to consume, but are expected to blend in and not make waves. Any unapproved social deviation is quashed. Itsa Brave New World Order.

    The fact that the LDP boyz (and I mean boyz) are smart enough to see business opportunities ten to fifteen years in advance of US politicos and industrialists, speaks more to our systemic deficiencies than to their progressivism.

    The new guys may be a bit better and certainly couldn't be much worse. Read any mid '80s William Gibson story for a summary of the system as it exists and is perpetuated.

  • mp97303 (unverified)

    The sooner we can get them home from everywhere, the better.

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    Yes, see youtube of Pink Martini's "Kikuchiyo to mohshimasu" here. Not one of my favorites, but still Pink Martini (and why are they not our state band?).

  • Richard (unverified)

    It's no surprise to see Daveid Bragdon clamor on about CO2 emissions reduction. He also mistakenly thinks the region's planning has produced sweeping successes at Gatemway, Beaverton Round, Villebois, SoWa, Cascade Station and everywhere else BIG tax subsidies try to spur big development where their planning won't.


    Worse yet Bragdon et al think they have a model for the nation approach to land use and tranportation planning while they're oblivious to TriMet's imploding fiscal structure.


    "TriMet says it had to slash the Portland rider advocates program as part of a $20.5 million cut in operations to deal with a $31 million budget gap this fiscal year.

  • Metro Observer (unverified)

    Pontificating Richard, I think that Mr. Bragdon would not suggest that Portland and Metro have a model for the nation. In reality, we had a model for the nation 25 years ago; not now.

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    There is an aspect of the power shift in Japan that is relevant to policy discussions in Oregon. I’ve been arguing for several years for the strategic importance of a rising China to Oregon, that it is key to many issues that concern us (climate change, energy, economic growth), and that we in Oregon needed to engage China by increasing our Mandarin and study abroad in China educational programs (Oregon could have many more high school students studying in China at no additional costs). Oregon leaders so far have avoided this issue. Nothing has been done.

    The Democratic Party of Japan is coming into power. They see the importance of a rising China. As the Wall Street Journal reports (here) “Japan will likely seek greater independence from the U.S., and focus more on its ties with China and the rest of Asia…”

    And “"The era of U.S.-led globalism is coming to an end and we are moving away from a unipolar world toward an era of multipolarity," party leader Yukio Hatoyama, widely assumed to be Japan's next prime minister, wrote this month in a Japanese magazine, Voice.”

    As the WSJ reports, China was Japan's biggest trade partner in 2008 at 28 trillion yen. The US was next at 22 trillion, then Korea, Taiwan, Australia, UAE, Thailand, Indonesia, Germany and Hong Kong (which is also part of China). So it is not surprising that Japan would seek to focus more on engaging China.

    We need to do the same.

  • Bob Tiernan (unverified)

    Pat Ryan:

    The fact that the LDP boyz...are smart enough to see business opportunities ten to fifteen years in advance of US politicos and industrialists, speaks more to our systemic deficiencies than to their progressivism.

    Bob T:

    A consistent set of policies would help, rather than ever-changing manipulations based on the emotional issue of the month.

    Bob Tiernan Portland

  • M. Simon (unverified)

    only to be upstaged by a presentation from Denver saying it is going to cut automobile use by doubling its transit system,

    And 100,000 San Fanciscians top them all by promising to commit suicide. Pour l'encourager les autres.

  • M. Simon (unverified)

    The sooner we can get them home from everywhere, the better.

    Then the World Wars so brutally suppressed for the last 65 years by American Hegemony can begin anew with a vengeance.

    Hey. It got us out of he great depression. And we will have plausible deniability. "Hey. We was just sitting here doing nothing and they started it. It's not our fault."

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