AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Archive for March, 2009

“This time for sure” for Sonomanma?

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, March 31, 2009

WE’VE HAD SEVERAL POSTS about the political career of former comedian Higashikokubaru Hideo, who performed under the name of Sonomanma Higashi as an associate of Kitano Takeshi (film director and comedian Beat Takeshi). He was elected governor of largely rural Miyazaki in January 2007 in a runoff to replace a man who resigned over bid-rigging scandals (and who was found guilty just last week).

Mr. Higashikokubaru is wildly popular among his constituents and has also become a nationally-known spokesman promoting devolution to strengthen local government in Japan. (There’s a long interview with him in the current edition of the monthly magazine Ushio.) His frequent appearances on network television programs that have nothing to do with politics have fueled speculation that he would love to maintain his national audience. The best way to do that and stay in politics is to run for a seat in the lower house election that must be held by September at the latest.

In fact, our last post on Sonomanma described discussions he supposedly had with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party about running in an election that was expected to be held in the autumn. He was prevailed upon by local supporters to finish at least one term in the statehouse before making a national move. Or so the story goes.

Others claim he refrained because it looked very much like the LDP would be beaten badly in that election, and he didn’t want to be allied with the losing side. (One of his supporters used the Japanese equivalent of the expression, “draw a short straw”.) But he might have recalcuated his chances in the wake of the scandal currently engulfing Ozawa Ichiro, the head of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan. That has given the LDP something resembling a second wind, at least for the time being.

Speculation ramped up even further after Mr. Higashikokubaru held a fund-raising party at a Tokyo hotel last Saturday attended by about 700 people. Since taking office in January 2007, the governor has held 17 of these parties, but this was his first in the capital. Prefectural governors very seldom hold fund raisers in Tokyo, so this one raised more than a few eyebrows.

To allay concerns of the event being overtly political in an environment in which fund raising has become controversial, the only politicians invited were Diet members from Miyazaki. The reports did not include word on how much money the party brought in.

While he is being courted by the LDP, the governor ran as an independent in the gubernatorial election, saying that the only party a local politician needs is the citizens. But he is known to be philosophically closer to the devolution/reform wing of the LDP than to the opposition.

Then again, perhaps he thinks that siding with the DPJ, which is little more than an unwieldy anti-LDP coaltion held together by the Ozawan Iron Fist, would be the equivalent of drawing an even shorter straw.

Posted in Politics | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Japan’s economic stimulus: A list

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, March 29, 2009

“I will not let anyone tell me that we must spend more money.”
– German Chancellor Angela Merkel

1. THE GREAT AMERICAN stimulus measures of 2008-2009 are such a dismal failure they would be farcical had they not increased the likelihood of a calamity.

2. The Obamateurs now in charge of the government and financial policy instill a sense of confidence in no one.

3. The American President recently submitted his first budget, which will wind up tripling the deficit.

4. But he quickly assured the public he would eventually cut that new deficit in half.

5. You do the math.

6. The American public already has.

7. A recent poll in the United States shows they’re opposed to further bailouts of financial institutions by a 45%-34% margin.

8. Other polls show they are opposed to bailouts of other industries by even greater numbers.

9. They have plenty of company.

10. Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek told the European Parliament:

“All of these steps, these combinations and permanency, is the road to hell.”

11.

“We need to read the history books and the lessons of history, and the biggest success of the (EU) is the refusal to go this way.”

12. He added:

“Americans will need liquidity to finance all their measures and they will balance this with the sale of their bonds but this will undermine the liquidity of the global financial market.”

13. Desmond Lachman, the former deputy director of the International Monetary Fund’s Policy and Review Department, compares the United States today to countries with emerging markets whose currencies collapsed, such as Russia, Thailand, Indonesia, Peru, and Argentina.

14. Mr. Lachman thinks this is one of the problems:

“In visits to Asian capitals during the region’s financial crisis in the late 1990s, I often heard Asian reformers such as Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew or Japan’s Eisuke Sakakibara complain about how the incestuous relationship between governments and large Asian corporate conglomerates stymied real economic change.”

15. And is not the situation dire when the Chinese feel compelled to criticize the financial policies of a free market democracy?

16. To finance its stimulus (stimuli?), the U.S. government must sell more bonds and other debt instruments.

17. But signs have appeared that the interest of foreign investors in American debt is waning, as the bid/cover ratio (which compares the number of bids to the amount of notes sold) for the most recent offering of five-year notes slid from 2.21 at the last sale to 2.02, and they had to boost the interest they’ll pay to get that.

18. The investors have already lost interest in U.K. debt.

19. Last week, there weren’t enough bidders to purchase a tranche of “gilt-edged” 40-year British securities.

20. The global economic downturn means that Americans are importing fewer products, which in turn means that other countries will have fewer dollars to buy their debt.

21. That’s already happened with Brazil, and some are suggesting it might happen with Japan and China too.

22. If too few people buy treasuries, another solution would be to “monetize the debt”; i.e., print more money to cover it.

23. Say hello to inflation, everybody.

24. “You cannot spend your way out of a recession or borrow your way out of debt.”

25. Yet another byproduct of the stimulus measures will be white collar crime.

26. Said FBI Director Robert Mueller last week:

“The unprecedented level of financial resources committed by the federal government to combat the economic downturn will lead to an inevitable increase in economic crime and public corruption cases.”

27. Many in the United States are warning that the government shouldn’t deal with the problem in the same way the Japanese handled theirs in the 1990s.

28. So, how is Japan dealing with its own economic crisis today?

29. They’re using a unique one-two punch combination.

30. Not only are they imitating today’s American policies, they’re imitating their own policies from the 1990s!

31. Japanese Finance Minister Yosano Kaoru already pledged 10 trillion yen (US$ 104 billion) in stimulus measures last October.

32. Said Mr. Yosano:

“It’s not a situation where new fiscal spending of 2 to 3 trillion yen would be enough of a remedy.”

33. He added that a new package of 20 trillion yen would not be out of line.

34. Some financial wizards in Tokyo agree with him.

35. From Martin Schulz, a senior economist at Fujitsu Research Institute in Tokyo:

“The domestic economy might really tank and there’s basically no way out of it except if the government helps.”

36. Mr. Schulz thinks 10 trillion yen should do it, but some disagree.

37. From Junko Nishioka of RBS Securities Japan in Tokyo:

“The government should spend about 20 trillion yen at least to fill the supply-demand gap as Japan’s recession is deepening and facing the risk of falling back into deflation.”

38. “I’m bid 20 trillion, 20 trillion yen, do I hear 30, do I hear 30, anyone for 30?”

39. Yes–Japan Business Federation Chairman Mitarai Fujio and Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry Chairman Okamura Tadashi are asking the government to spend 30 trillion yen.

40. Hey a few trillion here, a few trillion there, and pretty soon we’re talking real money!

41. All this talk about turning on the cash spigot is causing some members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to have visions of sugarplums—and pork—dancing in their heads.

42. They’re looking forward to turning back the clock to the era of LDP hegemony and its Third World-style partnership of the ruling party, the bureaucracy, and business and industry.

43. They’ll get to sprinkle money in rural areas and the cities, in the towns and on the beaches, to build more roads, more bridges, and even faster maglev trains.

44. Happy days are here again!

45. But the Tokyo financial wizards have more prudent suggestions.

46. Junko Nishioka thinks the government should spend the money on such green projects as alternative energy, solar panels, and hybrid cars.

47. Martin Schulz prefers low-tech solutions, such as insulating buildings, which he thinks will support employment.

48. He says:

“Money should be spent as fast and as efficiently as possible.”

49. The old saw that you learn something new every day is true.

50. I just learned that someone believes there are no internal contradictions in the suggestion that government spend money as fast and as efficiently as possible.

51. I also learned that someone seriously believed there was an entity on the face of the earth that could efficiently spend that much money, regardless of how fast they spent it.

52. Is there anyone who doesn’t think that most of that money is going to be wasted?

53. As for the rest of it, let’s not forget Robert Mueller’s warning of the funds that will wind up in some bureaucrat’s pocket.

54. Don’t worry, it’s only money of the mind.

55. Japan already has the highest ratio of public debt to GDP in the world at 170%

56. But the only way the government of Japan can come up with that kind of scratch is by selling more public debt.

57. Since overseas investors, including other nations, are unlikely to buy even more Japanese debt—they’ve got enough problems selling their own, remember—the Bank of Japan will have to buy it instead.

58. And where will they get the money?

59. They’ll print it!

60. Didn’t I say this was money of the mind?

61. At least Junko Nishioka won’t have to worry about deflation any more.

62. Say hello to inflation, Junko.

63. But perhaps we should consider the benefits of all those new solar panels, the unemployed financial industry executives taking temporary work to insulate buildings, and the rural roads, bridges, and maglev trains the legislators will figure out how to fund anyway.

64. The national legislators won’t be the only beneficiaries, of course.

65. Another group to benefit will be the Kasumigaseki bureaucracies, led by the Finance Ministry, who will get to think of creative new ways to spend all that money and further tighten their grip over the Japanese government.

66. In short, the primary beneficiaries of the new Japanese stimulus program will be the people who consider themselves the permanent governing class.

67. Happy days are here again!

68. But remember how FBI Director Mueller warned that public sector corruption was inevitable?

69. One manifestation of that corruption will be more slush funds, which are already endemic in Japanese government at both the national and local level.

70. We may not know how many buildings will wind up being insulated, but there will be more than enough softball uniforms and taxicab chits to go around for all of Japan’s public employees.

71. In 2001, former Foreign Minister Tanaka Makiko revealed that her ministry alone had a 20 million yen slush fund for internal staff parties.

72. At the same time, a total of 326 foreign ministry officials were disciplined for using more than $US 1.6 million of ministry money for personal expenses.

73. Another foreign ministry official was arrested on charges of defrauding the government of tens of thousands of dollars in phony hotel bills.

74. The Japanese consul general in Denver was fired for using government funds for personal items, including buying artwork for his collection.

75. And Ms. Tanaka dug all that up after only a few months in office!

76. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications released a survey of public-private sector partnerships and public corporations in Kyushu and Yamaguchi Prefecture last week revealing that local governments with a stake in those companies have indemnity contracts with financial institutions for 170 of them, 21 of which have debt exceeding their assets.

77. The debt covered by all these contracts amounts to 30.8 billion yen.

78. If those so-called Third Sector companies go bankrupt, the losses will have to be covered by funds from the general accounts of the local governments.

79. Heck, with the number of children plummeting every year, we didn’t need all those primary schools anyway.

80. If Mr. Yosano wants to spend the public’s money to benefit the economy, perhaps he could hire outside auditors—preferably from outside the country—to turn Kasumigaseki upside down, shake it by its heels, and see how much cash falls out.

81. What else could be done instead of printing more money of the mind?

82. One solution would be to slash taxes, downsize the government, and put the money back in the hands of the people.

83. Will the people of Japan suffer without the Sports in the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology; the Tourism in the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism; the Okinawa and Disaster Management parts of the Ministry for Okinawa, Northern Territories Affairs and Disaster Management (the Foreign Ministry can handle the Northern Territories); the entire Ministry of Science and Technology Policy and Food Safety; the entire Ministry of Consumer Affairs; or the entire Ministry of Social Affairs and Gender Equality?

84. However did they manage without them?

85. Author and college professor Ikeda Nobuo thinks the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries could be eliminated entirely, and explains how in Japanese here.

86. That ministry has an annual budget of three trillion yen.

87. If you want a stimulus, put that money back in the hands of the people and watch how stimulated they get.

88. Another solution would be to take an axe to Japan’s effective corporate tax rate of 40%, one of the highest in the world.

89. There’s no such thing as a corporate tax anyway.

90. Corporations are really tax collectors instead of tax payers—their customers pay the taxes in the form of higher prices while the company collects the money with one hand and gives the government its cut with the other.

91. Years ago, some Japanese would complain about their fellow countrymen who had a monkey see, monkey do attitude when it came to all things American.

92. The monkeys are still around, but this time they’re not asking for peanuts.

93. The problem is that these monkeys are going to wind up holding an empty tin cup and banging it on the sidewalk…

94. …of the road to hell, as the Czech President observed.

95. “You cannot spend your way out of a recession or borrow your way out of debt.”

96. But that’s not going to stop them from trying, is it?

Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Government, Politics | Tagged: | 6 Comments »

Is the magma of Japanese politics starting to move?

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, March 26, 2009

We must not expect political decisions to emerge from an elite chosen on the basis of competitive examinations. Rather, now is the time to establish true political leadership.
– Watanabe Yoshimi

No power on earth can sustain an idea whose time has gone.
– Peter Hitchens

EVERYONE WHO PAYS ATTENTION to Japanese politics is waiting for the volcano to blow. That the voting public will erupt, soon or late, is inevitable. The voters have been hungry for real reform for decades, and they know they aren’t going to get it as long as the current political structure stands. The ruling coalition dominated by the Liberal Democratic Party has, during the Fukuda and Aso administrations, slammed the door on Koizumian reform and is starting to hammer in the nails. The Democratic Party of Japan, the primary opposition group, has lost what little credibility it had among the electorate since gaining control of the upper house in the Diet a year and a half ago due to a combination of politically juvenile and inept behavior, the failure to present themselves as a credible reformers, and their alliances with anti-reform elements struck solely for the objective of gaining power. The leadership of both parties represent ideas whose time has gone.

An Asahi Shimbun poll published last week is testimony to the public’s disgust. It shows that:

  • 60% of the respondents are greatly dissatisfied with politics today, 31% are somewhat dissatisfied, 6% are somewhat satisfied, and only 1% is greatly satisfied.
  • 60% do not think the LDP is capable of contributing to the development of Japan
  • 59% think that politics would not change for the better if the DPJ were to lead a government
  • 67% do not see a significant difference in the policies of both parties
  • 68% think the best solution would be a political realignment, in which the parties split up and create new blocs.
  • 11% would like to see an LDP-led government
  • 15% would like to see a DPJ-led government
  • 19% would like to see a grand coalition
  • 65% would like to see a political realignment with the possibility of a grand coalition
Watanabe Yoshimi

Watanabe Yoshimi

The internal polls of both parties had been showing that the DPJ would take control of the lower house in the next election, thereby enabling them to form what would be only the second non-LDP government in Japan since 1955. That’s one reason the party leaders and Aso Taro, who was assigned the task of leading the LDP in an election last fall, keep putting off that election.

But that was until an aide of DPJ party chief Ozawa Ichiro was arrested in a fund-raising scandal involving at least one construction company, with the potential for several more shoes to drop. Since then, the weekly Shukan Bunshun has reported the most recent polling suggests the scandal could cost the opposition as many as 47 of the seats they were projected to win in a general election, depriving them of an outright majority.

The conduct of political and governmental reform is the responsibility of the legislators, but those who are aware of the opportunities that await by promoting reform are also aware of the potential peril. Japanese political parties demand Politburo-type obedience to leadership decisions. For an MP from either party to stake a credible claim to reform would mean voting one’s conscience rather than the party line, and that would result in harsh penalties, including expulsion from the party. Winning a Diet seat as an independent is no easy matter; candidates would have to find ways to finance their campaigns without party help, and the two major parties might send in an “assassin” from a different district to take out the apostate.

Those national legislators who value their political survival more than political principle—which, as anywhere else, includes most of them—will be the last to move, and only after extraordinary pressure has been applied from below. A revolution must emerge from the bottom up to succeed, after all.

The Middle-Aged Turks

The process of a volcanic eruption starts with the movement of magma beneath the earth’s surface, which is then ejected as lava. One man who thinks he sees the eruption coming is firebrand Watanabe Yoshimi, the son of a former foreign minister and himself a former Cabinet minister in charge of governmental reform. During his term in the Fukuda administration, he pushed through a civil service reform measure in the face of strong opposition by what seems to have been sheer force of will.

Mr. Watanabe looks as if his hair is on fire, and for the past few months he’s been acting that way too. He demonstrated that he is one of the few Japanese politicians who dares walk the walk as well as talk the talk by quitting the LDP in January and committing himself to creating a citizens’ movement to rein in the bureaucracy and encourage the devolution of power.

Speaking to a crowd in the street in Saitama City on the 14th during a campaign appearance for Shimizu Hayato, a Saitama prefectural councilman who left the LDP to run for mayor, Mr. Watanabe declared:

“The magma that will change this country is beginning to move”.

He was campaigning jointly with fellow independent lower house member Eda Kenji, with whom he has formed an alliance. Said Mr. Eda at the same event:

“Many are asking which party they should vote for. We will gather like-minded colleagues from the Diet to create a ‘receptacle’ for those votes in the lower house election.

Before that next election, which must come by September at the latest, the two have decided to campaign in support of local candidates nationwide in sympathy with their aims. They are seizing the opportunity to form a new political bloc, which might eventually become a new party. This opportunity was created by a combination of several factors that include the unpopularity of Prime Minister Aso, Mr. Ozawa, and their respective parties, as well as the failure of other viable reform candidates to take the lead. Rather than start at the top, they seem to have chosen the course of working from the bottom up.

One of their natural allies is the small-government deficit hawk Nakagawa Hidenao and his roughly 30 core followers, who are as intent on taming the bureaucracy as Messrs. Watanabe and Eda. (Whether they are as compatible on fiscal issues is another question.) Other potential allies include Takebe Tsutomu and his Atarashii Kaze (New Wind) group. Mr. Takebe was party secretary-general during the 2005 Koizumi landslide and took it upon himself to mentor the large number of new first-term Diet members, who were dubbed the Koizumi Children. (Mr. Takebe was once an early foe of Mr. Koizumi’s prime ministerial ambitions.) Dismayed at the reactionary turn the party has taken since their election–and their diminishing chances of reelection–more than 80 LDP MPs, primarily the Children, formed the group with their former mentor as their head. They are viewed as a pro-reform, anti-Aso bloc within the party.

Eda Kenji

Eda Kenji

Recent opinion polls have found that many are starting to seriously consider Mr. Watanabe as a future prime minister. However, his companion for the campaign appearances, Eda Kenji, is equally worthy of regard and also well known by the public. It is most interesting that the man who would tame Kasumigaseki is a product of that world himself: Mr. Eda’s career started in the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry. He rose rapidly through the bureaucratic ranks and made his name by becoming a senior aide to Prime Minister Hashimoto Ryutaro at the age of 39.

Mr. Eda left METI to pursue a career in electoral politics. He was endorsed by the LDP in his first election try, which he lost. After boosting his name recognition with frequent television appearances, he ran again as an independent to fill a vacant seat in Kanagawa, and won. A year later he was defeated for reelection by a transplanted DPJ candidate, but returned to the Diet from the same district in the 2005 Koizumi landslide. He was the only candidate in Kanagawa not from the LDP to win a directly elected seat (rather than a proportional representation seat).

He has demonstrated his independence and a true maverick sensibility in the Diet elections for prime minister. A supporter of postal privatization, he voted to re-elect Prime Minister Koizumi in 2005, but submitted invalid ballots when Abe Shinzo and Fukuda Yasuo were elected by omitting the name of his preferred candidate. He later voted for Ozawa Ichiro in the election won by Aso Taro.

Just as intriguing as his Diet career, and with perhaps greater potential to influence events, is his involvement in the formation of a group of eight former bureaucrats devoted to, in their words, “transforming the political system from one led by the bureaucracy and tribal MPs (i.e., Diet members that serve the interests of specific ministries) into one led by the people”. The group, whose name roughly translates to “The Association of Renegade Bureaucrats” (脱藩官僚の会) published a book last September describing the excesses of Kasumigaseki and their vision for the future. Mr. Eda wrote the first chapter.

The First Rumbles

And that brings us to what is perhaps the hottest—and most underreported—political story in Japan today. There is an extraordinary amount of intellectual ferment at both the national and local level focused on the reform of Japan’s political system. More than one Japanese commentator has compared the current situation with the one prevailing at the end of the Shogunate in the 1860s just before the Meiji Restoration. So much energy is being applied to find ways to best combat the bureaucracy and decentralize government that an eruption of some sort is surely inevitable.

Yet even some in Japan are unaware of this lively debate because the newspapers usually gloss over it, and the subject is too abstract for weekly magazines. Following the arguments requires keeping a close watch on about eight monthly magazines and the list of newly published books. I’ve been reading the horror stories for a while now, and it’s no exaggeration to say that the Japanese bureaucracy’s domination of the political process, abetted by unprincipled politicians, could be compared to an aggressive parasite that has taken over the host. The nutrients keeping the parasite alive, of course, are taxpayer funds.

The difficulties of this complex state of affairs are compounded by the millennia-old tradition in Northeast Asia of entrusting the operation of government to a bureaucratic elite. Naturally, this tradition includes parents encouraging their children with intelligence and talent to become part of that elite.

But today’s voting public in Japan has shown more than once that they will offer their support to any politician who vows to tame the beast. They, and a growing number of younger politicians, know that the time has come to put Kasumigaseki on a leash.

They also know that the leadership of all the political parties, including the two largest, will never do what needs to be done. Indeed, they would rather treat the Koizumi era as an unpleasant interlude that is best forgotten as soon as possible.

In 1517, a young theology professor named Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses to a church door in Wittenburg, Germany, in which he accused the Roman Catholic church of heresy. Many historians cite this act as the start of the Protestant Reformation.

In January 2009, Watanabe Yoshimi hand-delivered a list of demands for bureaucratic reform (and economic stimulus) at the Liberal Democratic Party headquarters and threatened to resign if his demands weren’t met. (He knew they wouldn’t be, and resigned shortly thereafter.) It is not out of the question that his list might become the spark for a Japanese political Reformation in the same way that Martin Luther’s Theses ignited religious reform.

One can only hope Mr. Watanabe and his allies are correct in their assessment that the magma is starting to move. It’s long past time for the pyroclastic flows of reform to bury permanently the people who have shown they are part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Posted in Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Memo to the AP: Words mean things

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, March 24, 2009

ERIC TALMADGE writes a brief and generally bland article for the Associated Press about the contemporary role of the Japanese military that is presented here by the International Herald Tribune. The latter is owned by the New York Times, which means we’re dealing with a tag team combination of media giants whose clout and credibility are rapidly evaporating due to self-inflicted wounds.

The article itself is harmless for the most part, describing the changing role of the Self-Defense Forces for a readership that generally doesn’t pay much attention to the subject. Mr. Talmadge mentions the mission in Iraq, the refueling operations in the Indian Ocean in support of NATO in Afghanistan, and the two ships sent to help deal with the Somalian pirates. In other words, it’s standard newspaper fare that can run whenever there’s a need to fill space.

Except for two sentences. Here’s the first:

Still, the new, more aggressive, role of Japan’s military is hard to ignore.

He uses the word “still” because it follows a statement from an officer that Japan’s military mission remains a defensive one. But what is this new “aggressive” role?

Mr. Talmadge doesn’t say. In fact, the body of the article describes precisely the opposite. He tells us that the 600 troops in Iraq were non-combatants. He notes that Japan does not have an aircraft carrier or the ability to conduct long-range air strikes because they are not compatible with a defensive posture. He informs us that the Chinese outspend the Japanese on military expenditures–and that Chinese spending grows by double-digit percentage points annually, while Japanese spending remains flat. He accurately reports that many Japanese would oppose sending combat troops to places such as Afghanistan.

Apparently the AP style manual has a definition for the word “aggressive” that has eluded the rest of the world’s lexicographers.

Here’s the second sentence:

Japan’s two biggest parties both advocate taking a higher profile on the world stage, largely for nationalistic reasons.

What are these “nationalistic” reasons? Mr. Talmadge doesn’t say that either.

He also doesn’t say that the primary opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan, did not support the three primary military operations he mentions. In fact, the DPJ tried to employ their upper house majority to try to end the Indian Ocean refueling operations as a means to oust the ruling Liberal Democratic Party from power.

Indeed, the leader of the DPJ, Ozawa Ichiro, is well-known for opposing any Japanese military operations other than those for strictly defined defensive purposes unless they are in the context of a greater United Nations effort.

So what is “nationalist” about the country with the second-largest economy in the world and a population greater than any EU member casting off the role of international wallflower and pursuing what it believes to be its interests? Would Mr. Talmadge have us believe that Japan is not entitled to behave in the manner of every other country in the world? That Japan’s national interests are anything other than benign, particularly as compared to three of the countries in its immediate neighborhood? That the country should just pipe down, continue to churn out Toyotas for the globe, and serve tea at international conferences while the real leaders of the world continue to make a hash of things?

But then we’ve known for a while that both the AP and the New York Times have a distorted grasp of the meaning of “nationalist”, especially when applied to Japan.

On the other hand, perhaps I’m being too harsh. Growing numbers of American newspapers are severing their ties with AP, or intend to do so, and the Times’s problems, both journalistic and financial, are common knowledge.

It would seem their lack of understanding involves much more than the definition of two ill-chosen words.

Posted in Mass media, Military affairs | Tagged: , | 26 Comments »

The lightness of being in Kyoto

Posted by ampontan on Monday, March 23, 2009

ONE THING FOR CERTAIN about the Japanese is that they love a good light show, particularly those involving traditional lanterns. Some of them are spectacular in appearance, such as the Chinese Lantern Festival in Nagasaki in February and March and the Rokugatsudo in Kagoshima in July. Others are spectacular in performance, as you can see from these posts on as the Kanto Festival in Akita in August and the chochin fighting festival in Hyogo in October.

kyoto-andon

Yet there are others that eschew the spectacular for an elegant sense of refinement. One of those events is the Kyoto-Higashiyama Hanatoro (literally flower lantern road), which began on the evening of the 13th in Kyoto’s Higashiyama Ward and ended tonight. The idea is simple: 2,400 andon, which are really more lamp stand than lantern, are set up along both sides of the road from Shoren-in, a Buddhist temple (whose head priests years ago were members of the Imperial family), to Kiyomizu-dera, another temple 4.6 kilometers (2.85 miles) away, to create a lovely, atmospheric walking course. The andon are made from a variety of materials, including Kiyomizu ware, bamboo, cedar, stone, and metal. They’re lit after six to create the mood, which is evident from the photo, and they’re extinguished at about 9:30.

The course passes a total of eight temples or Shinto shrines, all of which are specially illuminated for the occasion. They also allow visits at night, which is normally not the case at the temples.

Those who want to commemorate their walk may do so by being one of the first 100 to arrive at the Yasaka Shinto shrine. The early evening birds get to have their picture taken with dancing girls (of the traditional sort, not the ones who dance on laps).

Considering the age of the city and its religious institutions, one might think the flower lantern road is a centuries-old tradition that was once enjoyed by the nobility. In fact, however, it is very recent: it was started in 2003 with the objective of attracting more people to the neighborhood after dark. Even the local organizers must have been surprised just how successful the event would become, and just how quickly that success would arrive. Five years later, an estimated one million people showed up just to take a stroll in the Kyoto evening by candlelight.

In a world that seems to grow coarser and more willfully Philistine by the day, it is reassuring to know that so many still respond to quiet, understated beauty when the opportunity is available.

Posted in Festivals, Shrines and Temples | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

The Buddhist temple Koreans built in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Friday, March 20, 2009

THERE’S NO TELLING what’ll turn up when someone sticks a spade into the ground in Japan. In Okinawa, as we saw in this recent post, the diggers might strike undetonated bombs or artillery shells buried since the Second World War. More often, however, what they’ll uncover are fascinating glimpses of periods dating back more than a millennium.

Digging a hole

Digging a hole

That was demonstrated again last week when the Education Committee of Hirakata, Osaka, and the city’s cultural treasure research and survey association announced they had discovered a trench used to cast iron and bronze utensils at Kudara-ji, a Buddhist temple in that city.

Here’s where it gets interesting: The temple was built in the latter half of the 8th century by members of the Baekche royal family from the Korean Peninsula who fled to Japan. In fact, it was named for them: the Chinese characters for Baekche (百済) are read Kudara in Japanese.

One of the three ancient Korean kingdoms, Baekche was located in the southwestern part of the peninsula, an area that still maintains close ties with Japan. It wound up the loser in frequent battles with Silla and Goguryo, the other two kingdoms. Some members of its royal family dashed across the Korea Strait after the kingdom’s defeat by Silla and their Chinese allies. Japan sent a substantial military force to fight with Baekche, and it’s estimated that as many as half of that force did not return home after being beaten. Meanwhile, the transplanted Baekche royal family is credited with introducing the Chinese writing system, Buddhism, and the advanced technology of the period to this country. Indeed, one of the Baekche kings, Muryeong, was born in Kyushu. (He ascended to the throne after his elder brother was assassinated.)

The researchers think they’ve discovered the remnants of the facility used to build the temple and make the implements used there. Only a handful of these facilities have been unearthed nationwide, so scholars consider the find important because it may shed light on the structure of the temple buildings of the time.

The committee said they found a pit 2.5 meters in circumference at the northeast section of the site used for the placement of casting molds. In addition to iron and bronze utensils nearby, they found about 300 shards from a melting furnace which is thought to have been used for casting.

They also found the remains of six posts, which they think formed a gateway at the northern wall. About 500 meters to the north of that gate is the site of ruins in Kinyahon-machi. The researchers say the find tends to confirm the close connection between the latter district and the Baekche royal family, which was given preferential treatment by the Japanese state at the time–including intermarriage with the Imperial family.

City officials noted that in addition to aiding research into temple structure of the period, the discovery is important because it provides further support for the idea that the Baekche royal family enjoyed great influence in that area from the Nara period to the Heian period (covering the 8th century).

There is another significant aspect to this story that city officials might have mentioned had they been disposed to do so. Namely, some ungenerous expatriate foreigners in Japan, as well as some South Koreans misinformed by the political and media axis in that country, labor under the belief that Japanese do not care to be reminded of their ancient ties with the Korean Peninsula and the impact those ties had on their culture.

Yet this story about a temple named after Koreans was openly and widely reported in the Japanese news media. The reports also noted that archaeological excavations have been conducted at this site since 1932.

Or, to take it to another level of detail, the Baekche kingdom itself was founded by people who headed south down the peninsula from Manchuria. So who’s your daddy, daddy-o?

All of which suggests that the Nippo-crits might be less informed on this subject than the Japanese public they hold in such disdain.

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Posted in Archaeology, Foreigners in Japan, History, Imperial family, Japanese-Korean amity, Shrines and Temples, South Korea | Tagged: , , , | 25 Comments »

Seaweed for the emperor

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, March 17, 2009

It’s good to be the king.
– Mel Brooks, History of the World, Part I

Perquisites naturally accrue to the kingfish alpha males squatting atop the greasy pole of success—emperors and kings traditionally received tribute, China’s Mao Zedong had a parade of young virgins brought from the countryside for his delectation (reportedly eight in the same bed at the same time) and Kim Jong-il seems to have lived out a frat boy’s dream of despotism, indulging in multiple love affairs, a passion for motorcycles, and a taste for Hennessey VSOP cognac at US$ 630 a bottle.

And then Bill Clinton had Monica Lewinsky.

wakame-for-tenno

The same is true in Japan, too, though licentiousness is no longer a factor, if it ever was. The shogun and the tenno (emperor) received tributes of rice, and the tenno still does. But today’s tenno has another advantage in addition to being able to partake at will from the nation’s granaries: He receives free seaweed!

Well, wakame, to be precise, or to put it another way, Undaria pinnatifida. Every Japanese eats wakame, which is most often used in miso soup or tofu salads, and sometimes as a side dish or garnish. It’s rich in calcium, iodine, thiamine and niacin. It’s also said to burn fatty tissue and have a high nutritient-to-calorie ratio, which makes it a favorite of health food folk.

I bring this up because the Imperial Household just got its annual wakame shipment this week from the Munakata Taisha, a Shinto shrine in Munakata, Fukuoka. Jinoshima, an island in the Tsushima Strait that is adminstratively part of the city, produces the seaweed for the dining tables of Japan. A special shrine committee that includes local maritime industry cooperatives conducts a special harvest of 30 kilograms every year at the end of February and selects six kilograms for shipment to Tokyo.

The wakame is dried on boards and then sent to the Munakata shrine. The photo shows the shrine priests and the miko (shrine maidens) cutting it into sheets measuring 25 centimeters long by 20 centimeters wide. They then insert six sheets into a package, which are in turn put into about 15 bags that will contain a total of 1.5 kilograms of the delicacy. The bags are placed into a box of Japanese cedar, and four boxes will be shipped in all.

Come on now, you don’t send the man food wrapped in tin foil!

Interestingly, this tradition for the Munakata shrine isn’t as old as one might think. They’ve been shipping the seaweed since 1963, and this year is only the 47th time they’ve made the offering. Just as interesting, it seems that even Shinto shrines keep an eye on PR for the mass media. Here’s the statement the chief priest made to the press:

This year again, we were able to harvest excellent quality wakame of a deep green color with the strong aroma of the sea.

Ah, but the story doesn’t end there. The shrine doesn’t just send someone down to the post office to ship the stuff off to Tokyo—they take it to the Fukuoka Airport and hold a special ceremony to hand over the boxes to the flight attendants. And we’re in luck, because here’s the local RKB-TV report of that ceremony on video!

The only part of the narration that already hasn’t been covered is the explanation that the passengers on the same plane will each receive a commemorative ornament of a fugu (blowfish) on which has been written the character 福, or good fortune.

Ain’t that always the way? The top dog gets the pick of the wakame crop, and everyone else gets a cheap blowfish figurine.

The video says that the airline will deliver the seaweed to the Imperial Household Agency. Heck, if I were the tenno, I’d tell the agency to have those stewardesses deliver it in person to the palace and have them stay for lunch.

You just know Mao and Kim would have!

Afterwords: Here’s shocking news for wakame lovers everywhere–people outside of Northeast Asia don’t care for it very much. In fact, New Zealanders consider it a weed that’s clogging up the Wellington harbor, and it’s been nominated as one of the world’s 100 worst invasive species.

Posted in Agriculture, Food, Imperial family, Traditions | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Japanese court gets it wrong in sex-ed suit

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, March 15, 2009

THE TOKYO DISTRICT COURT ruled in favor of 31 plaintiffs employed as teachers and staff members at a Tokyo school by ordering three Tokyo Metropolitan District assembly members and the Metropolitan government to pay them 2.1 million yen (about US$ 21,440) in compensation. The court said the politicians were wrong to criticize the teachers at a special public school in the Nanao district of Hino for using dolls to teach sex education to children with mental disabilities. The court also found the government liable because local education officials were present during the the politicians’ visit in 2003 and did nothing to stop them.

In fact, the politicians didn’t stop the teachers either. They merely criticized the teachers to their faces (apparently in the classroom), as well as the materials the teachers used during their visit. It was later that year that the Metropolitan Education Committee severely reprimanded the Nanao 31 for failing to follow guidelines.

The Asahi article reporting the story (here’s the English and here’s the Japanese; the links won’t last long) says the plaintiffs were thrilled because the decision strikes a blow in support of the “independence of education”.

Japan’s Fundamental Law of Education prohibits “undue control” of the educational system by government authorities. (Undue is the paper’s translation for 不当, which can also be translated as improper or wrongful.) Japanese courts seldom support teachers over school authorities in cases involving undue control.

The Asahi closes with the by-now standard quote from a college professor that allows journalists the world over to editorialize in the context of a news article by having others speak for them:

Teruyuki Hirota, a professor of educational sociology at Nihon University, welcomed the ruling as it stressed the education board’s role to protect teachers from political interference.

Why are the 31 teachers, the Asahi Shimbun, and Prof. Hirota dead wrong in this case?

Because public schools are not the private fiefdoms of school teachers.

The reason the decision is wrong has nothing to do whatsoever with the manner of conducting sex education in school. It has nothing to do with the boorish behavior of politicians on a field trip. The guidelines for teaching anything in a public school are for the Education Committee to decide–not for teachers in individual schools to ignore while acting as independent philosopher-kings responsible only to themselves.

That’s because the school in question is a public institution supported by taxpayers. And that means their entire operation must be subject to public oversight–and public oversight of public institutions is the legitimate responsibility of government.

Yes, it would be improper if politicians demanded that classroom teachers extol the virtues of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. But it would be just as improper for classroom teachers to sell their students on the idea that “From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs” was the proper way for a government to organize the economy. Indeed, the latter is more likely to be a problem in Japanese schools today than the former.

The question, therefore, is what constitutes “undue control”. Did the three politicians (at least one from the LDP and one from the DPJ) exert “undue control”? Is it undue control for educational authorities to set teaching guidelines? Obviously not, but that didn’t stop the judges from trying to exert undue control of their own by advancing what is surely their personal agenda.

Those who disagree should consider this: The military is another public institution supported by taxpayer funds. Civilian (i.e., political) control of military forces is a prerequisite for a democracy to effectively function. Any democratic nation that allowed military officers in the field to determine their own operational strategy without civilian oversight would soon be transformed into a military dictatorship with the potential to create serious problems both at home and abroad.

The principle here is precisely the same. If civilian oversight is essential for the military, it is just as essential for school teachers. Do you think teachers should be allowed to use dolls to teach sex education to the mentally handicapped? That’s a valid and defensible position.

So either start a private school funded without taxpayer money, or choose politicians who will appoint administrators that agree with your position. That’s what elections are for.

Still, there are two questions that the Asahi doesn’t address (natch). First, why sue the politicians? If the teachers oppose the educational policies of the authorities, they should sue them–or take the self-congratulatory stand of resigning in protest. The assembly members were on a one-day visit. It’s hard not to draw the conclusion that spite was the motivation for including those three in the suit.

The other question has to do with the teachers’ justification for using the dolls in classroom instruction. They claim that mentally deficient children often don’t understand what body parts are being discussed through the use of words alone.

The article doesn’t say how old the children were (natch again), but the website for the Nanao school shows they have classes for students from the primary school to the high school level.

If the students are incapable of understanding the body parts being discussed without some show and tell, would they have the mental capability to benefit from education regarding sexual behavior to begin with?

The case is yet another example of Little Jack Horners claiming a personal exemption from principles and policies they insist must be applied to other people. The Tokyo court should have known better than to award the plaintiffs money merely because their feelings were hurt. But evidently the temptation for judges to shape society to their own preferences is just as difficult to resist in Northeast Asia as it is in Europe and North America.

Posted in Education, Legal system, Sex | Tagged: , | 8 Comments »

This just in–journalists are still clueless about Japan

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, March 14, 2009

ONE WOULD THINK that in the instantly interconnected modern world–where international travel is so accessible that people can (and do) jet from Tokyo to New York after work on Friday to catch a Saturday night concert, and then fly back in time for work Monday morning–those getting paid for journalism about Japan would have developed at least a modicum of insight into the country before presuming to offer anything about it for publication.

Think again.

It’s apparent that the boon of ultra high technology has done little to ameliorate, much less eliminate, decades of know-nothing journalism about things Japanese.

The most recent Exhibit A is this article by Gavin Blair published on a website called Global Post. The article is titled, “Analysis: Japan Looks Inward”, in which the author claims the Japanese are “shunning the outside world”.

As evidence of this isolationist navel-gazing, Mr. Blair cites the declining popularity of subtitled rental movies, pop music, and foreign literature courses at universities. There is a smattering of the obligatory quotes from college professors, yet the author offers few statistics or specific facts to back up his dubious proposition.

You think I’m exaggerating?

In the days of VHS cassettes, a visit to a video rental shop here for a Hollywood blockbuster would often end in disappointment — all the copies would be out except the dubbed one. Listening in English while reading the Japanese subtitles was considered infinitely preferable because English was inherently cool. Today, an increasing number of young Japanese think it’s just too much trouble when they can watch a dubbed version instead.

It shouldn’t be all that difficult for a journalist to ferret out the statistics about DVD rentals or purchases in Japan, particularly if he were somewhat fluent in Japanese. But Mr. Blair doesn’t seem to know any of these statistics. (He doesn’t know how to use adverbs either, but I digress.) That deprives his claim of any credibility, unless we’re supposed to think his limited late-night observations at a nearby rental shop have identified the critical social trends in a country of 127 million people.

With this assertion—at the top of the article, no less–one also has to wonder if the author has ever seriously studied a foreign language. The ability to follow a movie or television program in a foreign tongue is achieved only after several years of dedicated effort, and then often only after spending a significant amount of time abroad.

Yet we’re supposed to swallow the contention that the Japanese are insular because they would rather entertain themselves with a movie they can easily follow than try to decipher the rapid-fire dialogue of native speakers?

Whereas in Western countries, of course, it’s all the rage for native English speakers to rent subtitled movies so they can enjoy it in the original language.

Yeah. Sure.

It appears that Japan is increasing looking inward and walling itself off from outside influences — a trend that’s showing up in everything from movies to music to learning languages. Even as the supposedly irresistible tide of globalization washes against Japan’s shores, insular and parochial attitudes are strengthening.

So what are the manifestations of these “insular and parochial attitudes”?

“When I was a university student, courses like English literature, German literature, French literature and foreign languages were difficult to get into, they were so popular,” said Takashi Koyama, a professor at Akita International University. “Nowadays, those courses are struggling to get students.”

Ah, so. Today’s university students aren’t so interested in studying Balzac in the original (unlike those diligent foreign language learners in the West), and that means the Japanese are insular and parochial.

Did the author consider that as the competition intensified for full-time jobs at Japanese companies over the past 15 years, when firms started hiring more temporary and part-time employees, university students might have wised up and realized it was in their best interest to pursue more practical studies? Japanese with degrees don’t want to make a career out of asking whether the customer would like a milkshake with those fries any more than a Western graduate would.

Wait. It gets…well, not better. Just more so.

The trend was certainly on display at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony. The event was the most successful in Japanese cinematic history, landing two gongs, including the first ever full Oscar for a non-animated movie. But even as Japan bathed in the glory of Hollywood approval, pundits and politicians were lining up to explain how the victory by “Okuribito” (“Departures”) in the foreign language film category reflected the “unique Japanese concept of death.”

Well, perhaps the film does reflect the “unique Japanese concept of death”. Do the Japanese have their own distinctive thanatopsis, or is this just a few people rooting for the home team too enthusiastically?

Mr. Blair doesn’t feel compelled to elaborate on this question. Perhaps he thinks the mere mention by Japanese of such a concept is prima facie evidence of ingrown intellectualism.

I read a hard copy of one vernacular Japanese newspaper every day and subscribe to the RSS feeds of about a dozen more, yet I managed to miss all those pundits and politicians “lining up” to make this explanation.

Mr. Blair doesn’t mention anyone in this queue by name.

And isn’t it odd that when the Japanese receive an award that is given almost exclusively to Americans, it is used as evidence that the Japanese are growing more insular?

Yeah. Sure.

As recently as 2000, imported movies outsold Japanese productions by more than two to one. In 2007, Japanese films took the majority of the box office total for the first time in more than 20 years, and last year, only three overseas films managed to break the top 10. “Younger Japanese audiences don’t connect so strongly with Hollywood films recently,” said Yusuke Horiuchi of Toho-Towa, which distributes overseas films in Japan.

Hey! An actual statistic! Shame it doesn’t mean anything.

Japanese aren’t the only ones who don’t connect so strongly with Hollywood films recently. I think I’ve managed to watch three from start to finish in the past decade.

But the Japanese don’t watch Hollywood movies as much as they used to, so that means they’re turning all Banzai on us again.

Yeah. Sure.

The increasing market share of domestic movies can be at least partly explained by a recent bump in the quality of Japanese film; it’s difficult to make the same case for the local music industry. “J-pop” is still dominated by saccharine acts manufactured by a small number of talent agencies and hit factories here, and yet they too are outselling international artists like never before. The last few years have seen a steady decline in sales of overseas bands with Japanese artists cornering 81 percent of the market in 2008.

Hey! There’s another actual statistic!

But to bolster his claim that the Japanese are once again drawing a bamboo curtain between themselves and the rest of the world, Mr. Blair tells us that Japanese teenagers prefer to listen to Japanese music, whose lyrics they can actually understand, instead of the recent product from Western countries.

Fancy that!

The assertion that young Japanese listen primarily to “saccharine J-pop” is a dead giveaway that the author has no idea of the musical interests of the Japanese nor of the music being produced here. Those claims about “saccharine J-pop” weren’t even true 20 years ago, when that style of music was at its peak.

Perhaps some junior high school girls may enjoy the treacly tunes, but certainly not all of them. That’s even more true for high school girls and most boys of any age.

I can say that because I actually know Japanese children.

Is Mr. Blair aware that:

  • Japan is the second largest jazz market in the world…
  • Conductor/keyboardist Suzuki Masa’aki is considered by some European critics (specifically those of Goldberg magazine and Len Mullinger’s Musicweb) to be the foremost contemporary interpreter of Bach’s cantatas…
  • Orchesta de la Luz performed well enough to have hits on the salsa charts overseas…and that it was a band with live human beings playing in clave, which is beyond the capabilities of most Western pop musicians. (At least those Western bands not using computerized rhythms to begin with)…
  • Japanese shops dealing in secondhand CDs pay more for used reggae and ska than other types of music…
  • P-Vine is a local vanity record label so successful at reissuing rare R&B, blues, and soul recordings on CD that Western lovers of that music were paying premium prices for imported copies?

I don’t think so.

But that doesn’t stop him from subjecting the reading public to an argument based on the tedious and culturally smug assumption that Western pop music is so superior that people should of course—of course!–prefer it, and a taste for something else borders on the xenophobic.

Why? The faux thuggery and monotony of hip-hop/rap and the nerdy, Nembutal-fueled neediness of today’s white pop have driven hordes of younger Western listeners to seek out older forms of popular music, as a visit to any Internet e-mail group focusing on those forms will attest. As one British DJ put it, this is the first generation in history whose parents had better taste in popular music than they do.

Besides, Mr. Blair exaggerates both the trend and the time of its emergence. The last time Western pop music outsold Japanese pop music in Japan was the year the song Last Christmas was used for a local TV series. It was performed by the duo Wham!, of which George Michael was a member.

That was a quarter of a century ago.

The causes of this increase in parochialism are somewhat hard to identify.

Oh, I don’t know about that. Crappy Hollywood movies and unlistenable Western pop music are quite easy to identify.

By the way, just why is Japan being singled out here? Ten percent of the population of India—90 million people–is capable of handling English, yet Bollywood movies and their musical spinoffs are much more popular there than Hollywood films and Western pop music.

Are they going all isolationist too?

The current global slowdown has been brutal to Japan’s export-driven economy. Whether this reliance on foreign economies emphasizes to Japan the interdependence of today’s planet, or whether the nature of this “imported crisis” increases resentment at the world beyond its borders, remains to be seen.

Whatever that’s supposed to mean. Perhaps it’s the “critic views events with concern” pose.

But whatever its roots, some are worried a rise in nationalist sentiment is mirroring this loss of interest in foreign languages and foreign affairs.

And just who might “some” of those worriers be? Mr. Blair doesn’t tell us that either, and he takes it as given that there is a rise in “nationalist sentiment”.

Need I mention again that the author offers nothing concrete in the way of justification for any of this “nationalist sentiment” stuff?

For people of a certain political persuasion, or people younger than a certain age, the adjective “nationalist” has become a substitute for what used to be commonly known as patriotism. Unfortunately, those people are either uncomfortable or unfamiliar with that natural sentiment.

There is nothing wrong with the Japanese thinking there’s nothing wrong with being Japanese, especially as it was once an emotion denied them in many quarters, both at home and abroad. Indeed, it is a healthy phenomenon indicating the restoration of a normal level of national self-respect.

“The decline in the English ability of Japanese people also means that people are becoming isolated information-wise,” Koyama said.

No it doesn’t, unless either Mr. Koyama or Mr. Blair wants to claim that “information” easily accessible overseas is not available at all in the Japanese language. One wonders exactly what that “information” might be.

You guessed it. Mr. Blair doesn’t tell us.

At Akita International University, Koyama teaches all of his classes purely in English. One of the principal aims of the university, founded only five years ago, is to raise the standard of English among young Japanese.

How about that? Mr. Koyama and I have something in common. I teach two classes purely in English at Saga University, a podunk third-rate state school in the Kyushu sticks. All second-year humanities students there are required to take two English courses.

One of the principal aims of this requirement is to raise the standard of English among young Japanese.

Indeed, this year’s Academy Awards were also memorable for the very limited English in the two directors’ acceptance speeches — in fact, the younger filmmaker appeared even less comfortable in English than his compatriot, more than two decades his senior.

At this point, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that cultural imperialism is the only reason the author has for supposing that Japanese film makers working in Japanese for a Japanese audience must necessarily be fluent in English.

Some observers in Japan however, no longer see creeping isolationism in a globalized 21st century as a laughing matter.

What glum observers might these be, and what is their political orientation, ideological baseline, and–most important–credibility?

All together now: Mr. Blair doesn’t tell us that, either. But that’s not all he doesn’t tell us.

He doesn’t tell us that the Japanese are traveling in record numbers to South Korea every year, a country with whom they share an unpleasant history and a sometimes contentious relationship. Or is Korea ignored because it’s not part of the Anglosphere?

He doesn’t tell us about the Fukuoka Asian Culture prizes, awarded in that city since 1990 to people who have made significant contributions to Asian culture. The laureates hail from more than 25 countries, including Mongolia, Laos, and Bhutan.

He doesn’t tell us that the same city has held an Asian film festival every September since that same year. Last year, they screened movies made in such countries as Syria, Kazakhstan, and Malaysia, instead of those from Hollywood.

He doesn’t tell us that Fukuoka City has the world’s only museum devoted to Asian art. (You’ll find a link to its English-language site on the right sidebar.)

He doesn’t tell us that…

But why continue? He doesn’t tell us because he doesn’t know any of that exists. Rather than perform the basic legwork, he finds it easier to offload a collegiate coffeehouse harangue based on the assumption that an interest in Hollywood movies and Western pop music correlates to international sophistication and awareness.

Coca-Cola sales are down, too. Does that mean Japan is shutting its gates on the hairy barbarians again?

It’s difficult not to draw the conclusion that Mr. Blair has little or no conception of what movies the Japanese actually watch, what music they actually listen to, how they actually interact with foreigners other than himself (particularly non-Western foreigners), or what information in Japanese is available to them. And that’s not to mention his lack of knowledge about the extent of political and cultural trends that might actually be described as so nationalist as to exert an overall negative influence on the culture. (Here’s a hint: Next to none.)

There’s an old proverb in Japan (and China and Korea) that a frog at the bottom of a well knows nothing of the sea. One has to hand it to Gavin Blair—he’s pulled off the difficult feat of turning himself into a frog in a foreign well who knows next to nothing about the well he’s in.

But—and how like the typical Western journalist writing about Japan–that doesn’t stop him from telling us all about it.

The tragedy is not so much that Mr. Blair wrote the article to begin with. As I noted at the beginning, ink-stained wretches have been peddling this hedoro for decades. The tragedy is that Global Post gave it a public platform.

Why tragic? A quick look at Google shows that the article got picked up by The Huffington Post and a few blogs that should know better, thereby spreading the contagion. It’s a shame that online sources are sometimes willing to sacrifice quality for the sake of offering daily content in volume.

The next time Global Post wants to run an analysis of contemporary Japanese society, perhaps they could do us all a favor by finding an author with an adult viewpoint, who knows something about the country, and who is competent enough in basic journalism to buttress his claims with something resembling research.

Posted in Mass media | Tagged: | 232 Comments »

Let’s hope this party isn’t a blast

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, March 11, 2009

THE CASUALTIES OF WAR are devastating enough when they occur during the heat of the conflict, but are a shocking tragedy when they recur without warning more than a half-century later.

Bomb disposal unit

Bomb disposal unit

The people of Okinawa need no additional explanation. Their islands became a charnel house in 1945 when they were the only extensively populated part of Japan to be invaded by Allied forces. Yet it is still possible for the Okinawans to be killed or maimed today because of that war, almost 64 years since the day it ended.

That’s because Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force (the army) estimates that 2,500 tons of unexploded bombs and other munitions remain underground, which they think will take another 80 years to remove. From the surrender to the end of last year, the SDF had disposed of a total of 1,378,060 unexploded devices, more than 30,000 of which were collected and defused in 2008 alone.

The worst single incident involving these munitions occurred in August 1948, when an American ship tasked with removing them from the island of Iejima blew up, killing 106 and injuring 73 on a nearby ferry.

Incidents occur even in the most commonplace settings, however. Last January in Itoman, a workman was operating a power shovel during a minor construction project. The removal of the earth caused a hole to open under a hidden artillery shell. The hole collapsed, the shell detonated, and the workman was buried in dirt and bloodied by shards of glass.

The windows at the Itoman kindergarten

The windows at the Itoman kindergarten

In fact, the explosion hurled rock and earth for several hundred meters and shattered glass in the windows of a nearby kindergarten. The people in the neighborhood thought it sounded like thunder, but a nearby 74-year-old survivor of the Battle of Okinawa knew exactly what had happened. He remembered what exploding shells sounded like.

It’s astonishing to consider, but from the end of the war through this fiscal year, which ends this month, the financial liability for the disposal of any of these unexploded devices found during construction work or for other projects was split equally between the national government and the municipal government in which the munition was found. The Ministry of Finance has allocated enough funds in the new budget, however, for the national government to assume the entire expense starting next month, a step welcomed by the municipalities.

But just as astonishingly, the new allocations will apply only to public sector projects. The national government will pick up all the expenses if, say, an unexploded bomb is discovered when a local town is laying new sewer lines. The government won’t foot the bill if something turns up during private-sector projects, such as the excavation work to build an apartment house.

This is such an unusual policy that even local Okinawan government authorities are hard put to find a rationale for it. Several municipal officers have stated publicly they see no reason for a distinction to be made.

Not only are unexploded bombs still causing problems more than 60 years since the armistice—the Japanese government is still incapable of making level-headed decisions about the war after all these years.

Afterwords: This is also a problem in Germany, as one might expect. Here’s an excellent article in the English version of Der Spiegel about a bomb disposal expert, and another about the work to remove unexploded bombs at the Tegel Airport in Berlin.

The German expert thinks it wouldn’t be so difficult to find and remove all the unexploded devices, but the government won’t pony up for it unless they have to.

Posted in Government, World War II | Tagged: | 19 Comments »

Does opportunity knocking make a sound if no one’s at home?

Posted by ampontan on Monday, March 9, 2009

USUALLY, THE ONLY POLLS that interest me are the ones conducted on election day when the voters actually show up and make a concrete choice, but last weekend’s Kyodo poll is too informative to ignore. It found that:

  • 61.1% of the respondents think Ozawa Ichiro should resign his position as leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan. Fewer than half that percentage-point amount–28.9%–think he should stick it out.
  • 78.4% aren’t buying his story that he’s innocent of wrongdoing in the political contribution scandal involving a construction company. You know–the one in which his aide has already been arrested and those who funneled the money into his camp are singing to authorities. Polls do have a use after all, because we discover that 12.4% of the population are suckers enough to fall for it.
  • The support rate for the Cabinet of Aso Taro has climbed since the last poll all the way up to 16.0%. One hopes they don’t get a sudden nosebleed.
  • Their disapproval rating is still 70.8%.

They say even a blind squirrel finds a nut every once in a while, but now the field is so covered with ripe, edible nuts that a political squirrel, visually impaired or not, can’t take two steps without falling over them.

And speaking of things falling, is it going to take a brick wall collapsing on the politicians of Japan to realize that the opportunity of a lifetime is theirs for the taking? A genuine reform coalition consisting of serious people from the ruling LDP and opposition DPJ could seize the day, and–I’m not exaggerating here–not only make history, but guarantee its members’ political futures for life by creating a new bloc. All they would have to do is to keep out the mudboat crew from different parts of the spectrum–Messrs Aso, Mori, Ozawa, Kan, Hiranuma, the brothers Hatoyama, the Kamei family, and others too numerous to mention.

But who’ll bet against the likelihood that they blow it?

No punters are lined up at that window, that’s for sure. The smart money is betting on form.

Posted in Politics | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

Matsuri da! (104): Signs of spring in Toyohashi

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, March 8, 2009

PEOPLE THE WORLD OVER have rituals and customs to celebrate the arrival of spring, the season when the flowers bloom, the chicks hatch, and a young man’s fancy turns to you-know-what. Japan of course is no exception, but instead of maypole dancing or binge drinking in Ft. Lauderdale, the Japanese have traditionally heralded the annual rising of the sap with a cornucopia of Shinto festivals.

toyohashi-oni-matsuri

One of those is the Oni Matsuri (Ogre Festival), which was held on 10 and 11 February by the Akumi Kanbe Shinto shrine in Toyohashi, Aichi. Yes, February does seem a little early, but we’re talking the lunar calendar here.

It is one of those events the Japanese refer to as a kisai, or unusual festival, which means that they consider it a bit offbeat even by their standards. Then again, they’re used to the odd goings-on—the festival is more than 1,000 years old and has been designated an important intangible cultural treasure of the nation. It is offered in supplication for a bountiful harvest and protection from illness and disaster.

The festival itself is a reenactment of an old myth in which a divinity is fond of playing practical jokes on the people. That divinity is confronted by another in a battle, and the joker eventually repents the error of his ways. Instead of divinities, the parts in the Toyohashi festival are played by an ogre and a tengu (a goblin of sorts).

The initial events occur on the night of 10 February, when there is a performance of the iwato-no-mai, or dance of the (opening of the) rock cave. This is one of the kagura, or ceremonial dances to please the divinities, and is also based on mythology. The performers are about 50 local junior high school students dressed as blue ogres, and who dance to the accompaniment of flutes and drums. When the performance is finished, they and some shrine parishioners toss out tankiri ame, a type of boiled confection, to the crowd while emitting loud growls. They also sprinkle white powder over the crowd, which is supposed to protect them from bad fortune.

The main event with the red demon and the tengu follows the next day, and their confrontation is described as bantering. Before that, however, some Shinto events are conducted in the shrine, and then there is a performance of the dengaku, a dance in celebration of the harvest. During one of the scenes, the red demon, whose big thrill is spoiling the grain harvest, appears at the shrine and leaps about comically. He is confronted by the tengu, representing the god of military arts, and challenges him to a battle, but the tengu finally drives the demon out of the shrine grounds. Overjoyed by his victory, the tengu also performs a kagura.

The red demon sees the error of his ways and repents. To atone for his transgressions, he sweeps through the town handing out more tankiri ame. Meanwhile, back the shrine, a group of young people shout “a-ka-i” (red) and dump so much white powder on the onlookers that it hangs in the air like smoke from a fire.

The whole scene doesn’t sound like much more than a 1,000-year-old comic sketch, but 60,000 people show up every year to see the performance and get covered by the powder. The more powder that clings to you, the better the protection will be.

Maybe in Toyohashi, powder in the air is a sign that spring is in the air!

Posted in Festivals | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Quick political hits

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, March 5, 2009

HERE ARE two quick hits on recent events in the world of Japanese politics.

The First

A few posts down the page, I suggested that the Japanese political class might be the dumbest group of people on the planet. I neglected to mention that cowardly should also be on their list of descriptive adjectives.

The lower house of the Diet passed the Aso administration’s stimulus bill and other budget-related legislation yesterday after the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito muscled up and used their supermajority to reach the required two-thirds margin. The legislation had already been rejected by the opposition-led upper house, necessitating the second vote.

Only two members of the LDP failed to cast a vote for the bills. One was former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro, who didn’t bother showing up after warning recently that he didn’t like the stimulus package. The other was Ono Jiro, a first-term MP from Yamanashi, who left the chamber during the debate.

The votes to pass the bills were cowardly because it’s likely that as many as 100 of the current LDP members in the lower house would have voted against them if they had let their consciences be their guide. But doing so would have required advancing the date for what is shaping up to be a very messy election. Apparently they lack the stomach for the political realignment that will only become more wrenching the longer it is delayed.

This cowardice is nothing new, alas. There were rumblings of a revolt in the LDP over the Fukuda Administration’s gasoline surtax bill last year, but it never materialized. Likewise, the leadership challenge to Ozawa Ichiro by Maehara Seiji and others in the Democratic Party of Japan before last September’s election for the party presidency fizzled more dismally than a damp sparkler in the summer humidity.

Party loyalty in Japan is every bit as rigid as it was in Moscow during the days of the Soviet Politburo. The LDP warned Mr. Ono about his traitorous behavior, but decided to let Mr. Koizumi off the hook due to his past meritorious service. (How magnanimous of them; the former Prime Minister’s meritorious service is the only reason the party is passing legislation with a supermajority today.)

But I’ll have to save any more comments about party unity in Japan for later.

The Second

It seems as if opposition leader Ozawa Ichiro will be forced to deal with the fallout from a serious political contribution scandal. One of Mr. Ozawa’s aides and the former president of a construction company already have been arrested and the investigation is ongoing. A former company executive told the special task force charged with looking into the case that the requests for the money came from the Ozawa camp.

Mr. Ozawa denies any wrongdoing, but nobody believes him. Not that he’s any more crooked than anyone else—everyone wearing a Diet membership pin could probably be frog-marched tomorrow down to the pig box, as they say in this country, for similar offenses. Usually the policy of MAD (mutually assured destruction) prevents politicians from using financial irregularities to take down an opponent, if only because they are so vulnerable themselves. But with the opposition on the verge of taking control of the government, some people in the LDP surely realized that serious problems required drastic solutions.

There have been rumors of Ozawa real estate holdings that are suspiciously large for a politician not from a wealthy family, but the DPJ leader had managed to avoid scandals of this sort until now. His long-time association with both Tanaka Kakuei, the Boss Tweed of postwar Japanese politics, and Kanemaru Shin, who was caught with an at-home political war chest that included gold bullion, must have impressed upon him the necessity—and the means—to keep certain secrets well hidden, but now it might have all caught up with him.

Others in the DPJ, including Hatoyama Yukio, are claiming the investigation was politically motivated, and they’re almost certainly right. Mr. Ozawa was a real threat to the LDP’s increasingly tenuous hold on power. But it’s not going to make a whit of difference how right they are if Mr. Ozawa is arrested.

One would think that the combination of the LDP’s problems and this emerging scandal in the opposition would finally stiffen the backbones of reformers in both parties to join forces, pitch a tent on higher ground, and watch the public flock to them, but as I said when I started, there’s no underestimating the stupidity–or the cowardice–of the Japanese political class.

Update:

The latest on Mr. Ozawa’s delicate condition is a report in today’s paper that someone involved in the scheme has told the authorities that the construction company in question used a dummy political group to give the DPJ leader 25 million yen a year since about 1995, for an aggregate amount of roughly 3 million yen, or more than US$ 3 million. The objective was for some quid pro quo in getting public works contracts in the Tohoku region, from where Mr. Ozawa hails. It would seem that things do not bode well for him.

If he steps down, the most likely replacement now might be Okada Katsuya, who was the DPJ’s sacrificial lamb during the whipping Koizumi Jun’ichiro administered in 2005. His chief political objective seems to be to establish a viable second political party in Japan, rather than any specific policy. On a scale from 0-100, his charisma factor would be in negative territory.

Political predictions aren’t what I do–such a waste of time, and most of them are wrong anyway–but it will be fascinating to see how this plays out. The worst case scenario would be if this emboldens the LDP’s mudboat wing to think they might somehow be able to salvage the next general election and keep any potential LDP reformers in the fold. Since the LDP still doesn’t control the upper house, this might raise the potential for a grand coalition between the mudboat wings of both parties, much to the detriment of the country and its political system.

Posted in Politics | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

One man’s gunk is another man’s gold mine

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, March 3, 2009

FOR MOST PEOPLE, seaweed is just unpleasant gunk that gets in the way of a good time. It’s the stuff everyone tries to avoid when swimming at the seashore, or that gets tangled in fishermen’s lines and stuck on the bottoms of boats.

But the Japanese, of course, love to eat it.

And now, the Okinawans are beginning to view it–as well as other aquatic plants—as a marine bioresource.

The grapes of the sea

The grapes of the sea

To turn all that gunk into products that are beneficial for the user and profitable for the consumer, the Okinawa government, through the Okinawa Prefectural Fisheries and Ocean Research Center, has been working for the past three years with the University of Tokyo, the University of the Ryukyus, and bioventures and health food companies in the private sector to develop the marine bioresource industry. They’re also working to establish better control of intellectual property, primarily through the Okinawa Technology Licensing Organization, to ensure that research results and benefits flow to local enterprises. The Ministry of Education is kicking in 100 million yen (about $US 1.026 million) to help with the effort, and the prefectural government is adding another 41 million yen to the pot.

One project they’re working on is the cultivation and promotion of so-called green caviar (Caulerpa lentillifera), or sea grape, as it is known in Japanese. Usually found on sandy or muddy sea bottoms in shallow protected areas, it is eaten in salads and all sorts of other dishes, as you can see from this link. They’re also studying ways to maintain hygiene in the production of the plant as a food item, the creation of secondary products using the plant (such as shampoo), methods for increasing yield, and the development of a fertilizer specifically for the plant.

Try to imagine the fertilizer delivery mechanism for a plant that grows on the sea bed!

Another project is an examination of the efficacy of fucoidan, a substance present in such popular Japanese seaweed varieties as hijiki, kombu, and wakame, and which some think has potential for cancer treatment. In the same way that many local governments in Japan are doing with other products, the Okinawans are trying to boost its value by creating a regional brand.

Still one more project is the development of a kit for the simple and quick detection of ciguatera toxins, which are found in some subtropical fish.

One man’ s meat is another man’s poison, some say, but Okinawa is hoping that some people’s gunk turns into a treasure for all the islanders!

Posted in Agriculture, Business, finance and the economy, Food, New products, Science and technology | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Spending the public’s money

Posted by ampontan on Monday, March 2, 2009

SOME POLITICOS come from the left, some come from the right, and the other 90% come from the position of expedience to ensure their own survival in office, but one thing they all have in common, regardless of their country of origin, is the love of spending the public’s money as if it were their own.

Love Island

Love Island

The idea that public funds are not theirs to use unless there’s a good reason and the public interest is at stake seems to have escaped them. That in itself is bad enough, but the problem is compounded when the money is spent on useless endeavors. It isn’t just a taste for pork; public servants also find it delectable to dine on taxpayer funds by spending money on projects that sound good, regardless of their inadvisability.

It’s not easy to track the wastage at the national level, and it’s made more difficult because the self-congratulatory marvels of the media usually can’t be bothered to stir themselves from their porta-thrones to do any serious digging. Imagine then how difficult it is to keep tabs on these expenditures at the local level.

Some examples have been coming to light in Japan in recent years, most notably the case of Yubari, Hokkaido. Smack dab in the middle of a snow belt, the town of 13,000 people had a municipal Ferris wheel, History Village, robot museum, stuffed animal museum, fossil museum, and coal mine museum. There were more than 20 facilities paid for by the central government with the objective of attracting tourists to a semi-isolated rural area, but they were all dismal failures, as anyone in the private sector could have predicted. The town now has a debt equivalent to $500 million, forcing them to curtail more mundane but much more useful city services. Yubari once had 11 schools; soon it will have only three or four. It once had a library, city hall branches, bus discounts for the elderly, municipal trash collection, and a lavatory at the train station. Not any more.

And the Ferris wheel isn’t operating either.

Still other examples of wasteful public expenditure are in plain sight, and people seem unmotivated to do anything about them. Take the case of Naka-cho, Tokushima.

Twenty years ago the municipality formed a public-private partnership to operate a resort on public property. The resort is named Aiairando (Love Island; Love Love Land is also possible). It is owned by Naka-cho and operated and managed by the partnership, which is called I.F.

The resort covers about four hectares of land. It has a wooded plaza, 14 cottages, a woodworking studio, a campsite, tennis courts, a restaurant, shops, and a garden with 10,000 hydrangeas. The public was initially interested in Aiairando, and visitor totals reached 38,640 in 1991, generating income of roughly 37 million yen (about $US 400,000 today).

But public interest soon waned, so an attempt was made to lure back the public by installing playground equipment and eliminating the admission fee. This resulted in a temporary rebound, but the numbers started falling again. The park was visited by 15,767 people in 2007, and it generated income of only nine million yen (about $US 92,000). Five million yen of that was accounted for by the operating commission paid by the municipal government.

I.F. executives attribute the visitor falloff to the number of similar resorts in the area and the diversification of leisure activities. They also note that the facilities themselves have aged, and warn that visitors will not come unless new facilities are provided. Yet, they say, the municipality is on a tight budget and it would be difficult to ask them for money.

Here’s the worst part: Naka-cho’s chief municipal officer says the original objective for the resort was not to generate income. Yet, despite the problems with finances, the municipality is still considering ways to improve the facilities.

If he’s serious about any of that, the man should be out of a job. It is not the business of municipal governments to operate resorts, for any reason whatsoever. Yet, when everyone admits there are similar resorts in the area, why is Naka-cho still involved in this one?

And why did it get involved in operating a resort if the idea wasn’t to generate income to begin with? A municipal park may improve the quality of life in a district, but people are capable of fending for themselves when it comes to finding more sophisticated ways to spend their free time.

So the resort wasn’t really needed, no one’s coming any more, the facilities need replacing, and what does the CMO say? The town will look for ways to find the money the resort needs.

In the private sector, people are cautioned about throwing good money after bad. Apparently that concept hasn’t penetrated the public sector yet.

But why should we expect it to?

It’s easy to spend money when it isn’t yours to begin with.

Posted in Government | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

 
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