Very bad news. Bill Sakovich, the writer of what was the best single-foreign-country-specific blog in English that I’ve ever read, Ampontan, a blog on all things Japanese but especially its politics, passed away due to a suddenly-discovered stomach cancer this December 21. I just found out and am very saddened.
I came across Ampontan about a year and a half ago, due to a Japanese friend earnestly asking me about what I thought about the proposed TPP treaty, and my realizing that I knew absolutely nothing about this America-focused political issue so important to so many Japanese.
Actually, I still don’t know that much about the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade treaty–Bill didn’t think it was that great a deal for Japan, incidentally–, but what matters is that I learned about Ampontan itself. Bill’s posts were arguably too long, which to some degree explains his relative neglect, but they were very knowledgeable, richly primary-source-linked, and quite well-written. The subject of Japanese politics, utterly boring and ignorable in the pages of the Economist or such, came alive. One saw that a major voice for providing “conservative foundations of the liberal order”, or less grandiosely, an Asian Chris Christie, was emerging in the Osaka mayor Hashimoto Toru. One saw that many Japanese had HAD IT with bureaucracy-protecting and deficit-spending politics as usual. And so much more. And in between the political posts, Bill’s ongoing education about Japanese culture continued. Finally, he gave us utterly authoritative posts on the island-disputes with China, and the ongoing but very under-reported-in-America rift with South Korea. A book compiling his best posts is surely deserved.
Details on Bill’s passing are at Japan Probe, with a link to the last condolences and praises comment thread. And here is my initial praise of the blog about a year ago, and one of my more Ampontan-informed posts on China-Japan tensions.
Our loss is incalculable. There is reason to fear that sound foreign-policy reporting on Japan could be needed in the U.S. very soon, given certain unhealthy Chinese political dynamics. And as Bill showed us again and again, given his wide reading and very solid Japanese, that many of the Japan-hands for the Western press are pathetic hacks. They tend to be too economistic, too liberal, too hostile to healthy Japanese patriotism, and too inclined to go with the easy how-bizarre-is-Japan angle. Bill spanked them and good, reminding me of Mickey Kaus in the early days of the blogosphere analyzing NYT journalism.
And I’ve come to think, in part from reading Ampontan, in part due to several friendships with Asians (an Indian, a Japanese, and a Chinese, no less!) while at Washington and Lee University, that the overall fate of modern democracy is going to depend a lot on its development, or failure, in the two not-rooted-in-Christianity nations that now have the most experience with it, India and Japan. This accounts in no small part for my interest in the Pankaj Mishra book that I spoke of in my other post from today.
What I found at Ampontan was a blogger who went above and beyond. The free wisdom and information Bill gave us on a daily basis, in high-quality heaps, will be much missed. My condolences to his family in Japan, and my sincere pleas to any publisher who will listen to make his important work more widely available. I hope to have a few posts this Spring that will link to his best stuff.