AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Archive for May, 2010

The scorpion and the turtle

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, May 30, 2010

A FABLE has been retold for centuries with several variations. Some say it was first translated into English from Sanskrit, others say it was originally a Native American tale, while others mistakenly attribute it to Aesop. Whatever its origins, the basic story goes like this:

A scorpion stands at the edge of a river wanting to cross, but frustrated by its inability to swim. Along comes a turtle, and the scorpion asks for a ride across the river on its back.

“Do you think I’m crazy?” says the turtle. “You’ll sting me while we’re swimming, and I’ll drown.”

“Come now,” rejoins the scorpion, “there’s no logic to that. If I stung you and you drowned, I would drown too.”

The turtle admits the scorpion has a point. “OK, hop on.”

Halfway across, the scorpion stings the turtle after all, mortally wounding it. As they both sink to their deaths at the bottom of the river, the turtle asks the scorpion, “Why did you do it? You said it would be illogical to sting me.”

“It has nothing to do with logic,” the scorpion replied. “It’s just my nature to sting.”

*****
It should be easy to recognize the fable’s reenactment in the shabby drama of the past week, when Prime Minister Hatoyama “The Turtle” Yukio fired Fukushima “The Scorpion” Mizuho, the Minister for Political Pandering to Women, for refusing to sign a Cabinet declaration reaffirming the agreement to move the U.S. Marine airbase at Futenma to Henoko.

Those with eyes to see...

Well, what did the turtle expect of the scorpion? The Social Democrats led by Fukushima Mizuho have floated so far from the mother ship they’re in a different political galaxy. (One of their favorite policies is unarmed neutrality à la Costa Rica.) He should have realized from the start that including them in a coalition with the intent of serious governance would prove fruitless. The SDPJ walked out on the first non-LDP government run from behind the scenes by Ozawa Ichiro more than 15 years ago, and sure enough, history is about to repeat itself as farce once again. Outcomes such as these are inevitable for the numbers games Mr. Ozawa plays when assembling oil-and-water coalitions, particularly when the government has to compete in the major leagues of international diplomacy and geopolitical strategy rather than the Nagata-cho sandlot.

The SDPJ contributes nothing except a sense of grievance and a handful of seats in the upper house, and their only weapon is the gesture politics of the drawing room. (Ms. Fukushima is the 15th wealthiest member of the Diet, with declared assets of JPY 138,940,000, or more than $US 1.5 million. She’s not the first leftist to get rich off the free market system while trashing it in public.) The party’s Japanese-language website clearly states their opposition to the American alliance, despite the bologna they feed visiting American journalists. Their leader has been threatening to make a Grand Gesture for more than six months, and she finally got the chance she’s been waiting for.

For the turtle’s part, Mr. Hatoyama has neither the nerve nor the political skill to change the minds of either the Americans or Ms. Fukushima about an agreement that took more than a decade to hammer out. Was the prime minister swimming out of his depth when he delayed a decision on the base policy to work out a deal with people uninterested in bargaining, or was it a Machiavellian scheme? Recall that last December Mr. Hatoyama was on the verge of a decision probably much like the one he finally made, until the SPDJ leader started making threats in public and private. Aware there would be no convincing the inconvincable, he put off the inevitable until the end of the Diet session and six weeks before the upper house election. Instead of buying time to change minds, he bought time for the pantomime of showing people, particularly in Okinawa, that he really, really tried. Meanwhile, Mr. Ozawa was busy installing the party’s electoral machinery nationwide.

Granted, such political calcuation is probably beyond the prime minister, but it isn’t beyond Mr. Ozawa. Whatever it is they were trying to accomplish, the government has wasted six months of the nation’s time that would have been better spent on other matters.

Meanwhile, the scorpion behaved as a scorpion. Ms. Fukushima was the only one in the Japanese government to have stood on her principles, such as they are, throughout the entire charade. She finally said she would refuse to sign the Cabinet order approving the new agreement with the United States and try to change the prime minister’s mind from within. When asked at a news conference whether she might resign, Ms. Fukushima answered:

I haven’t thought about it at all.

Viewed from her perspective, why should she think about it? She hasn’t changed a whit. Mr. Hatoyama is the one who broke his campaign promise, and, depending on who you think is lying, the three-party coalition agreement. Meanwhile, she’s the lead story on every newscast. It’s not as if anyone would take the party seriously otherwise.

*****
It would be unfair to say there hasn’t been any consistency within the Hatoyama Administration, however. Their Cabinet has always been full of loose cannons ready to open fire on their comrades, regardless of the issue. This time, Defense Minister Kitazawa Toshimi said Ms. Fukushima should resign if she didn’t agree with the decision. He added:

Opposing the decision while staying in the Cabinet threatens the viability of the Cabinet….Refusing to sign the Cabinet declaration is an expression of distrust in the prime minister.

That’s an understandable position, though it does assume scorpions have a sense of honor. It’s the nature of politics that all governments have to admit failure and settle for bitter solutions they’d hoped to avoid. The members of those governments who find the solutions intolerable should withdraw. But Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirano Hirofumi saw things differently:

That is an improper statement for (a) Cabinet (member).

In other words, it’s just fine for Ms. Fukushima–whose title was State Minister in Charge of Consumer Affairs and the Declining Birthrate–to fan the flames in a six-month agitprop offensive against the original agreement even though it’s unrelated to her official duties. Meanwhile, Mr. Kitazawa, who as defense minister actually does have responsibility for any matter related to American bases in Japan, is told to zip those loose lips lest they sink the ship.

*****
The next act in this vaudeville revue will be an encore of gesture games from the SDPJ. Senior party members, worried that Ms. Fukushima’s attitude might force them out of the coalition, have huddled several times since the 27th to forge a consensus. The party’s handful of lower house members reportedly met with the boss to change her mind, but had no more success than the prime minister. When the media asked her about possible divisions within the party, she denied it:

That’s absolutely unthinkable. This was decided unanimously without objections.

She added that she didn’t make the decision as party leader. Rather, she claimed, the decision was made as a party.

Meanwhile, the SDPJ members will meet again on the 30th to really decide this time—unless they’ve already done it. Earlier this week, party policy head Abe Tomoko said:

We’ve conducted simulations of our response as a party if the prime minister removes her from the Cabinet. We’ve decided what we will do.

Added another party official: “If she’s fired, the option to stay in the coalition no longer exists.”

One would hope so. When your party chief has been kicked out of the Cabinet, isn’t that the cue to look at your watches and say sorry, but it really is time to go?

This group, however, is every bit as consistent as the Cabinet in its inconsistency. Both the party’s vice chair, Mataichi Seiji, and Ms. Abe are thought to prefer staying in the government and keeping the Cabinet seat warm, despite the leader’s claims of unanimity. There are reports that some in the party think Ms. Fukushima should be dumped as party head, and it’s generally assumed they’re talking about Ms. Abe.

*****
Meanwhile, Mr. Hirano will temporarily assume the responsibility for Ms. Fukushima’s Cabinet portfolio, but the position is so inconsequential he’s unlikely to be overworked. If Ms. Fukushima accomplished anything in her nominal job during the past eight months, it escaped the notice of the rest of the country, and she still had plenty of free time to get involved with national defense issues.

Rumor has it that Mr. Hatoyama decided to fire her because doing so would demonstrate his firmness and stanch his decline in public support. His performance has been so inept, however, that even Viagra would be unlikely to lift his sagging fortunes. In any event, his surfeit of apologies at the news conference announcing the firing nullifies the effect he sought. Strong leaders don’t say they’re sorry when dumping people who don’t get with the plan.

Some in the DPJ are grumbling that Mr. Hatoyama should himself be sacked for his handling of the entire affair. That would have him leaving office at just about the time political handicappers thought he might. Journalist and author Hasegawa Yukihiro says in this week’s edition of the Shukan Gendai that a Finance Ministry source told him the ministry would be fine with Finance Minister Kan Naoto as the next prime minister. Since Mr. Kan has already made his peace with Ozawa Ichiro, he’s got the stamp of approval from everyone who calls the shots in the DPJ.

*****
This story differs from the original fable in two respects, however. The first is that Mr. Hatoyama, as the turtle, was never going to make it across the river anyway, even without a scorpion riding on his shell. He’s a poor swimmer and lacks a sense of direction.

The second is that Ms Fukushima, as the scorpion, would have been satisfied sink or swim.

The American man of letters and public intellectual Henry Adams once wrote, “Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, has always been the systematic organization of hatreds.” To confirm that statement, all one has to do is look at the eyes of Fukushima Mizuho.

Sometimes it is possible to judge a book by the cover, and those with the eyes to see should long ago have recognized the malice reflected from the window of her soul. Late last week, when the TV networks were allowed their video ops at the start of Cabinet meetings, she overlaid that predatory arachnid glare with an undisguised and insufferable smirk.

That scorpion never intended to cross the river. She was just looking for something to sting.

UPDATE:

Former Yokohama Mayor Nakata Hiroshi, now running for an upper house PR seat as a member of the Spirit of Japan Party, which he helped found, got straight to the point about Ms. Fukushima’s behavior.

Going to Okinawa (to hold a conference with the governor to discuss ways to fight the agreement) is not at the level of discord in the Cabinet. It is anti-goverment activity.

It might be worth the time of an ambitious journalist to check out Ms. Fukushima’s travel arrangements. She had no official business to conduct as a Cabinet minister when she met with the governor in Okinawa. Did the government pay for it? Did she or her party pay for it? Or did she find some excuse to drop in a few words along the way about consumer affairs or the birthrate to give herself plausible deniability?

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Letter bombs (3)

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, May 27, 2010

A FEW READERS have written to ask if my dim view of Japan’s current coalition government means that I don’t care for the Westminster parliamentary system. That’s not the problem–there are difficulties with every form of democracy, including the American system that I grew up with, and politicians always make things worse by making things better for them. What I see as the drawbacks to the parliamentary form of government are rules or procedures that aren’t essential to its function.

First, in both Britain and Japan, the political parties choose the candidates and the districts where they will run. The consequence of such a method is that MPs either in government or in opposition will vote in accordance with the instructions of their party leaders rather than in accordance with constituents’ wishes or their own principles. Aren’t politicians supposed to represent the will of the people, and not the decisions of their party’s central committee?

Too often the votes resemble the charades of the Democratic Peoples’ Republics, in which old guys with a chest full of medals staggered to their feet to hold up their party badges. It’s all party line, all the time, and the party leadership punishes those who step out of line, in government and in opposition alike.

A system in which the party members of a voting district choose their own candidates in a primary not conducted with public funds is much preferable. Of course some candidates will run unopposed, and the national party will recruit people to run as their anointed candidates, but on the whole that’s closer to the democratic ideal.

Then there’s the lack of residency requirements for candidates in the Japanese and British systems, which results in parachute candidates, or during the 2005 lower house election in Japan, female “assassins”. (After the Koizumi landslide, the media started whistling out of the other side of its mouth and called them Amazons. But the media would rather ingratiate itself with power than speak truth to it.) Recruiting candidates from outside a district to win a national election ignores the interests of local constituents in favor of party interests.

The difficulties in Japan are exacerbated by proportional representation, an idea that should be frog-marched over to the nearest vacant lot and shot without the option of a blindfold. People whose ideas aren’t appealing enough to win elections should neither be in government nor have input into policy. The British and the Americans get this right with their first-past-the-post/winner-take-all rules.

Further, consider coalition governments formed among oil-and-water combinations, especially when those parties owe their presence in the legislature to proportional representation. Two of the biggest policy failures of the Democratic Party-led coalition have been the Futenma base move and the de facto renationalization of Japan Post and its banking and insurance system. Regardless of what the DPJ might have done on its own, these two policies were driven by coalition partners with an aggregate support rate in the polls of less than 2% nationwide. The move of the Futenma base outside of the country is the signature issue of the Social Democrats, and the Japan Post renationalization is the only reason the People’s New Party exists. They might as well join the Hiranuma/Yosano Sunrise Party now that they’ve accomplished their goal of rolling back the Koizumi reforms, or die like the political mayflies they are.

While the two major parties in Japan want to move away from proportional representation, the British might move in the opposite direction. The Liberal Democrats led by Nick Clegg, the partner of Dave Cameron’s Conservatives in the new coalition government dubbed the Con-Dem coalition by some, want to introduce proportional representation there.

Writing in the Yorkshire Post, Bernard Dineen brilliantly explains the problems. Note the last paragraph in particular.

We had a glimpse last week of the glories of proportional representation. The days of horse-trading, bribery and confusion are precisely what would occur after every General Election under PR.

Say what you like about our first-past-the-post system: it is a thousand times better than the alternative. Transforming Nick Clegg into the most powerful political figure in Britain, after his party had lost both seats and votes in the election, was ludicrous.

We are told our present set-up is unfair to the smaller parties. Is that such a bad thing? Would you really like to see 10 BNP MPs in the House of Commons? Because that is what their total of votes would have entitled them to.

The BNP refers to the British National Party, which until last year restricted its membership to Caucasians.

Some might argue that the BNP or other parties of its ilk should be outlawed, but I’m not interested in walking anywhere near that very slippery slope on general principle, odious as BNP’s policies are. Those who support proportional representation claim the alternative is undemocratic; banning political parties for any reason is even more so. If the mainstream parties had addressed the public’s legitimate concerns about immigration, the BNP wouldn’t have any traction to begin with.

And I don’t buy the argument that toxicity would prevent other parties from forming a coalition with them. We all know somebody would. Few politicians anywhere are so honorable they would refrain from stooping that low if it brought them to power. The situation in Japan is less extreme, but the LDP had a shotgun wedding with the Socialists, and the DPJ with the SDPJ, when both of the smaller parties were considerably more Red than their name indicates. Those are ugly combinations, unless you find merit in the view that favors closer ties with North Korea and insists any problems with that country are all Japan’s fault.

Without proportional representation, the Social Democrats, New Komeito, the Communists, and a few others would evaporate in the Diet. The SDPJ’s leader, Fukushima Mizuho, has never won a Diet seat outright, and the party’s poster girl, Tsujimoto Kiyomi, wouldn’t have won her seat outright last year had the DPJ run a candidate in her district instead of leaving her an open field as part of the deal for a coalition government. What was Mr. Dineen’s phrase again? “Horse-trading, bribery, and confusion”?

A Westminster system with party primaries not funded by the public, residency requirements, and winner-take-all voting is fine with me.

Links

Dana wrote in to ask about Japanese-language sources on-line. This page has links to all the dailies published in Japan, with the exception of newspapers for specific readers, such as farmers or investment brokers.

This is the page for Blogos, a blog aggregator. It reprints the posts individual blogs, primarily from politicians and political and social commentators. I look for those writers I find worthwhile reading, visit their blogs, and link to their RSS feed.

And here’s the page for Agora, a site that contains articles longer than blog posts but shorter than those in monthly magazines.

Polls

Bender offered his opinion about Prime Minster Hatoyama’s problems with the Futenma base move:

Hatoyama and his gang did what the electorate wanted them to do.

Maybe not, B. Here are the numbers from an FNN/Sankei poll conducted in March asking the respondents’ preferences about Futenma:

It should be outside of Japan: 37.5%
It should be off the coast of Camp Schwab in Okinawa in accordance with the original agreement: 21.0%
It’s not necessary to move the base at all: 12.6%
It should be in Japan outside of Okinawa: 12.3%
It should be in Okinawa at a different location: 8.9%
Don’t know: 7.7%

Though a plurality favors moving the base outside the country, a majority of the respondents—almost 56%–thinks the base should stay in Japan somewhere. Also, a greater plurality, more than 42%, thinks the base should stay in Okinawa.

With 75% of the American military presence in Japan shoehorned into the Ryukyus, there’s no question the people of that prefecture have to bear the near-unbearable. But what do you expect when one country allows the country that crushed them in a war to maintain a military presence after the peace treaty and outsources national defense to them 65 years later? An attitude of equal partnership?

Of course the victor will continue to treat the vanquished as footling menials, regardless of the platitudes they mouth about an alliance. As long as the status quo is maintained and Japan doesn’t become self-reliant in national defense, any debates about individual bases will be an exercise in gesture politics. These questions will always be resolved with Japan backing down and paying the tab.

But the consensus for change is unlikely to form in Japan until the public realizes that the Americans are unreliable. Have those in national government drawn the same conclusions as political leaders elsewhere?

Try this from David Warren on the situation on the Korean Peninsula:

The Obama administration has already squandered its predecessor’s legacy. In any paragraph of any Obama speech on foreign affairs, the reader will discover that the new policy is walk softly and throw away the big stick. The recent obscene display of joint anti-American crowing from the leaders of Brazil, Turkey, and Iran, is the sort of thing that could not have happened under previous U.S. administrations. It was a frightening harbinger of things to come.

The willful naïveté reaches fatuous heights in the current U.S. demand that North Korea should find, try, and punish the perpetrators of the torpedo attack. Do they seriously expect the politburo in Pyongyang to put itself on trial for crimes against humanity? Don’t make them laugh.

Does anyone think the Kim Family Regime would have ordered a South Korean naval vessel to be torpedoed if John McCain rather than Barack Obama were president?

An obstacle to consensus is the claim that Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution requires pacifism. That interpretation might not be correct, however. When the new constitution was being written, Douglas MacArthur wanted to include a clause that prohibited Japan’s use of force “for its own security”. One of his aides, Charles Kades, had that clause eliminated because he believed self-preservation was every nation’s right.

That belief is hard-wired into the human race, and to deny it is to deny reality.

But denying reality is the lifestyle option of some politicians, commentators, and media outlets. One minor example: A few years ago, I wrote a comment on another blog that national defense was the most important function of government. Another reader wrote in to object that health and welfare services were more important.

It is not possible to convince those who enjoy believing otherwise that a government’s child allowance payments are pointless if the children and their parents have been incinerated by a Rodong missile, to cite one possible threat. That group can only be marginalized, which requires politicians willing to stand up in public and intercept the missiles aimed their way. But Diogenes needed a lantern to find an honest man; we’d need klieg lights to find a politico unafraid to stand up for principle in the current kultursmog.

*****

Finally, some readers think I’m a one-eyed moron for not taking global warming seriously, even though the only people who can find any seem to be those who are running their own game on the system.

Well, it ain’t just me. As Kevin Trenberth, head of the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research said, as we found out from the Climategate e-mails:

The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t.

Dan sent in this reply to the other readers:

As law professor Glenn Reynolds has said: “I’ll believe that there’s a crisis when those who insist there’s a crisis start acting like there’s a crisis.” Adding to that, Jay Tea at Wizbang said: When Al Gore leaves his huge mansion, hops on his private jet, then takes an armored SUV to lecture you about how we all have to reduce our carbon footprints and in general end our rampant (consumerism), it’s pretty easy to tell why his eyes are brown.

Dan could also have mentioned Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, head of the now-discredited IPCC, who wasn’t bothered by his carbon footprint when it came time to fly from New York to Delhi for a cricket match and back over the weekend. Why should he, when he and the rest of the global governance crowd are making so much money from the scam?

The indictment against the people who promote AGW would fill a book—now it turns out that some of the “peer-reviewed science” the IPCC cites was written by Guardian journalists working with the World Wildlife Fund—but for two-eyed people to see it requires the removal of their heads from the sand. That would also make it easier to see the people who have no compunction about saying GI give me chocolate using the AGW game to get wealth transfers from the developed world, as Roger L. Simon reports:

Could it be that Singh, Wen Jiabao, etc., just knew the whole thing was nonsense? I don’t know whether Mr. Rachman was in Copenhagen, but I was. I didn’t speak to Singh or Wen or anybody quite that august, but I did speak to a number of third world delegates and it was commonplace among them to admit the AGW was hooey, therefore acknowledging the obvious – that they were there for the money. In fact, I was stunned at how easily they admitted it.

Then again, I have a pre-existing bias against media-driven science scare stories, having been around long enough to remember every item on this list.

There are more notes worthy of your attention, but I’ve been busy with work and they’ll have to wait until next time. Mata nochihodo.

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Posted in Environmentalism, Government, Letter bombs, Military affairs, Politics | Tagged: | 9 Comments »

Beyond understanding

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, May 25, 2010

IT’S NEVER EASY to understand the reasons politicians behave the way they do. Sometimes even other politicians have trouble figuring it out. For example, Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio has been flapping like a flag in a stiff wind for more than six months trying to keep his campaign pledge to move Futenma, the U.S. Marine airbase in Okinawa, either outside the prefecture or outside the country.

This weekend, Mr. Hatoyama visited Okinawa to tell the prefectural governor that his new plan for the base is a dead ringer for the existing agreement painstakingly worked out over more than a decade by the preceding Liberal-Democratic Party administrations and the American government.

Fukushima Mizuho, the head of junior coalition partner the Social Democrats, the State Minister in Charge of Consumer Affairs and the Declining Birthrate, and a leftist lawyer specializing in gesture politics, said at a news conference on the 22nd that she’s mystified:

I do not understand at all why priority was given to the agreement between Japan and the United States and not to the agreement of the Okinawan people or to the agreement between the members of the coalition government.

We can let American commentator Charles Krauthammer, speaking in a different context, clear things up for her:

The genius of democracy is the rotation of power, which forces the opposition to be serious.

When it was in the opposition, Mr. Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan was criticized for behaving like a grade school boy with a loaded gun. Once they took office, their gun turned out to have been loaded mostly with blanks, though it’s still an open question whether their budget bullet has struck a vital organ. They’ve now gone back to Square One-A with Futenma, a de facto admission that they realize major policy changes involving treaty partners require prior thought and planning rather than magic beans and a magic wand. Could it be they also realize formulating a national defense policy requires transcending local interests and partisan politics?

Mr. Krauthammer was referring to a similar set of circumstances in regard to another grade schooler with a loaded gun in a different country. Despite vowing to reset George W. Bush’s foreign policy, Barack Obama’s foreign policy is starting to look remarkably similar. Guantanamo is still open, he’s approved a military surge in Afghanistan, expanded the war into Pakistan, increased drone attacks, and largely preserved the Patriot Act, wiretaps, e-mail intercepts, and military tribunals. That has puzzled his supporters on the left.

Just as Mr. Obama seems to have realized that his predecessor had good reasons for doing what he did, now Mr. Hatoyama seems to have figured out—or been told—that there are good reasons for the American military presence in Okinawa, starting with geography.

Another is that Japan’s security guarantors think they need to be prepared for any contingencies that might arise in the region, such as a crisis resulting from, say, a North Korean submarine torpedoing a South Korean naval vessel and killing more than 40 sailors. In fact, the prime minister found that incident convenient to use as one of the justifications for his Futenma decision.

Of course there are also valid arguments for removing the base from Okinawa, or even for the removal of all American military forces from Japan. Yamada Hiroshi, the head of a recently formed political party, published a book this month with a chapter asserting that people should take it upon themselves to defend their own countries–an assertion I agree with. So does former defense minister and current LDP policy chief Ishiba Shigeru, who this weekend said that Japan should have marines of its own to take back any islands that might be seized by a foreign power.

Indeed, the security treaty between the two countries gives Japan the option to tell the Americans to leave at any time as long as they provide one year’s notice. But Ms. Fukushima understands more than she is willing to let on. She’s aware that a Japanese invitation to leave is not going to be extended any time soon, so reliance on the Americans is the only realistic policy for the foreseeable future. She also knows that the Peace Clause of Japan’s Constitution allows her to rail against the American alliance (while talking out of the other side of her mouth to American journalists) without having to take responsibility for her positions. Responsibility is the Hatoyama headache.

There’s a reason I said she was a gesture politician.

The SDPJ was the Socialist Party in a previous incarnation, and their departure from an eight-party ruling coalition in the early 90s was the beginning of the end for the only other non-LDP government since 1955. But as of today, Ms. Fukushima says she plans to stay in the government and argue against the decision from within. Her only gesture will be to refuse to sign the Cabinet decision.

Why not withdraw as a matter of principle—which some in her party favor? Perhaps she’s calculated that absent any changes in party leadership, the DPJ is likely to lose seats in July’s upper house election. Depending on the results, that will either render her party’s presence in a post-election government irrelevant, or, if the numbers are really skintight, give her added leverage. Why should she take a stand on principle when she can enjoy another two months of perks and an elevated platform from a Cabinet portfolio she might never see again?

That’s not so difficult to understand, is it?

These nuts are a little tougher to crack, however.

The LDP takes off

The upper house of the Diet currently has 242 members. On the 21st, fewer than 200 were present for a vote for the first time this year. Nearly 50 MPs didn’t show up, most of whom were from the opposition LDP.

Fukushima Mizuho and friend in the echo chamber

A total of 195 voted up or down on an amendment to the law providing for rules for Independent Administrative Corporations. The LDP was opposed to the measure, but 31 of their Diet contingent weren’t present. The bill passed by 45 votes. It likely would have gone through anyway, but perhaps they could have rustled up a few more opposition strays, or tried to use a closer vote to score some political points.

Instead, they were back home stumping for reelection. If the reason for serving in the Diet is to represent one’s constituents by voting on matters that will become law, why were they absent from the Diet to ask their constituents to send them to the Diet as their representatives, thereby failing to cast an actual Diet vote on a matter that became law?

Consider they also rightly roasted then-DPJ head Ozawa Ichiro over the coals for missing a Diet vote when he led the opposition in January 2008. Mr. Ozawa had put Japan’s international reputation at risk by having his party defeat a measure in the upper house to continue providing fuel to the NATO forces in Afghanistan. He knew full well the LDP could again pass the measure in the lower house with the supermajority it held at the time, so when the second vote came up in the Diet, he had already bugged off for a campaign appearance.

What is it with these guys? You’d think the money and the prestige were more important to them than their job duties.

Solving a non-existent problem

Here’s a Sunday report from Kyodo:

Environment ministers from Japan, China and South Korea adopted Sunday their countries’ first joint action plan to deal with global warming, the problem of yellow dust and other priority environmental issues for the five years through 2014.

I don’t get it. Why do they need an action plan when global warming doesn’t exist? Particularly when the credibility of climate change activists has been shredded?

Kyodo also reported:

(T)he three ministers referred to the initiative to create an East Asian community, promoted by Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, and said cooperation in the environmental area would be a key element to that end.

I don’t get this one, either. Just as it’s finally dawned on some Europeans after watching the PIGS eating at the Euro trough that the EU isn’t really a viable entity, why are the three Northeast Asian countries talking about organizing a pigsty of their own? A free trade agreement is one thing, but an East Asian entity isn’t going to happen unless everyone agrees to let the Chinese play suzerain again.

Here’s another one I don’t get. Environmental cooperation is indeed a critical issue. Chinese air pollution is a health menace throughout the region, as this post describes. In 2007, children in four of Kyushu’s seven prefectures were told to stay indoors rather than inhale the pollution that floated over from China. There’s no disputing that the Chinese need to stop fouling Asia’s nest.

Yet Japan continues to send the country ODA, 30% of which was for environmental measures as of 2007. Meanwhile, China posted GDP growth northward of 12% for the first quarter this year. If the books in Beijing aren’t being cooked—a big if—why is Japan funding environmental measures the Chinese could afford themselves, thereby providing the Chinese the wherewithal to spend the freed-up funds for a military buildup that a national defense argument can’t justify?

Mr. Hatoyama still with us

Japanese pundits began speculating about the date of Prime Minister Hatoyama’s departure from office last December, just three months into his term. Many thought he would step down at the end of this month, particularly with the upper house election coming in July (probably the 11th). Of course he’s been shown the dismal poll numbers, and of course he knows that his party stands a better chance if either he or Secretary-General Ozawa Ichiro—and preferably both—fall on their stage prop swords beforehand. But if Mr. Hatoyama intends to resign, he’s cutting it awfully close. In fact, it’s starting to look as if both he and Mr. Ozawa intend to stick around through the election.

That’s got me flummoxed, but I’m not the only one. Plenty of Japanese are stumped, too. They’re particularly concerned about the Hatoyama state of mind, having given up on Mr. Ozawa behaving with integrity long ago.

During the past few weeks, the prime minister has boggled the minds of more than a few people by:

* Claiming that since the pledge to move Futenma was only a personal campaign promise and not in the party’s platform, it doesn’t count.

* Insisting that he has spent more time dealing with the base issue than any other Japanese politician in history, and that the record will back him up.

* Meeting at the Kantei with the three municipal officers of Tokunoshima, where some in the government wanted to move the Futenma operations, and starting talks by telling them he yearned to visit since his youth because he idolized the famous sumo rikishi Asashio Taro, a native of the island. He also said that he wanted to go to Tokunoshima later this month. They told him not to bother because they didn’t want to meet with him again.

* Responding to a request at a news conference for his views on the possibility that the SDPJ might withdraw from the coalition by saying:

I’ve held many discussions with the SDPJ and Ms. Fukushima, and I intend to make every effort to seek her cooperation in working hereafter as part of the coalition.

When another reporter told him that the SDPJ head said his decision contravened the three-party coalition agreement, Mr. Hatoyama replied:

I’m sorry to have to say this about Ms. Fukushima, but it does not contravene the three-party coalition agreement. The agreement of course states that we would lessen the burden on Okinawa. That’s why, for the past eight months, I have considered the hardships of all Okinawans and worked to lessen their burden as much as possible.

It beats the heck out of me why he forgot to mention that he went around the prefecture during the campaign hollering, “Out of the country, and at a minimum, out of the prefecture.”

It’s gotten so bad so quickly that people are now speculating about the reasons for the disconnect between his statements and reality. Is it due to an overly sheltered childhood owing to his family’s wealth, some wonder, or is he suffering from narcissistic personality disorder? (The Japanese are much less likely to say that sort of thing about political leaders than Americans.) Still others wonder if he’s hanging on just so he can stay in office longer than his predecessor, Aso Taro. (Their respective grandparents were both prime ministers and political rivals.) He’ll have to stick around into August to reach that milestone, however.

It’s beyond understanding. Maybe we can get Ms. Fukushima to return the favor and explain it to us.

UPDATE: J.E. Dyer writing for the Commentary blog Contentions gets one right and one wrong about the Futenma issue. The wrong one first:

The move remains deeply unpopular in Okinawa, but Hatoyama is quite explicit about his reason: his concern for Japanese security in light of the tensions on the Korean peninsula.

That’s the Johnny-come-lately analysis: Those who’ve followed the twists and turns from the beginning know that events in Korea provided a convenient excuse for Mr. Hatoyama to do what he was forced into doing anyway, and which was apparent he was going to do well before this incident.

Here’s the good one:

The alliance with Japan is worth tending better; it might have been possible to achieve this or a similarly advantageous outcome without leaving Japan’s government and the Okinawans feeling cornered and resentful. But our “smart power” administration didn’t even try.

Bingo.

There’s also one that deserved more comment than it received:

Hillary Clinton summoned the Japanese ambassador to lecture him on his government’s obligations under the previous agreement.

One of those obligations being the Japanese requirement to pay for the construction of facilities in Guam to facilitate the transfer of American personnel. Some Americans complain that the rest of the world is getting a free ride on security, but overlook the fact that in this case, a foreign government is footing the bill for a facility for Americans on American territory.

One also wonders when Hillary Clinton is going to start lecturing the ambassadors of NATO countries about their obligations–or is it that some allies are more equal than others?

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Posted in China, Environmentalism, International relations, Military affairs, Politics | Tagged: , , , , | 9 Comments »

Mango makgeolli: Another Japan-Korea love match

Posted by ampontan on Monday, May 24, 2010

Makgeolli is a very healthy drink, it is a good addition to one’s diet, and it has been used by women to enhance beauty.
- South Korea President Lee Myung-bak

IF YOU THOUGHT the mango beer presented in a post last week was an unusual combination for an alcoholic beverage, wait until you read about mango makgeolli!

Makgeolli is a hyper-sweet, milky-looking liquor made from rice that’s traditionally drunk from bowls. Part of its charm is the fermented rice solids floating in it, so it’s usually shaken or stirred before it’s poured. The popular conception of makgeolli has long been one of hooch for hayseeds, and in that sense it might be considered the Korean version of white lightning. Every one of these aspects makes it an analog for the Japanese drink doburoku, which you can read more about here.

Lately, the Koreans have been devising ways to turn makgeolli into an upmarket beverage, and these include adding fruit flavors and pitching it to women. Enter stage left a Japanese businessman from Noshiro, Akita, who worked with a Korean makgeolli brewer to develop a mango makgeolli creation suited for the Japanese market. The entrepreneur, Tsukamoto Tamio, operates a business hotel in Noshiro where he first sold the drink.

It’s 20% pure mango juice, so you can imagine how sweet the combination must be. It contains no artificial coloring or aromatics. Enough people discovered and enjoyed it for him to launch sales on this Japanese-language website since last month. It’s also available at mass merchandisers in Noshiro and Akita City, and eating and drinking places in Noshiro.

The nature of the drink has made it popular among women, and they’re a market segment always appreciates a low calorie count. Mango makgeolli has 19.4 calories per 100 milliliters, compared to 40 for beer, 75 for wine, 110 for sake, and 135 for shochu. Another number that some might appreciate is the 8% alcohol by volume.

It costs JPY 735 (about $US 8.16) for a 750 ml PET bottle, and JPY 420 for a 300 ml glass bottle, which is shown in the photo. The one on the right has been sitting on the shelf undisturbed, while the one on the left has been shaken.

Mr. Tsukamoto is importing it through the Port of Akita, and he’s set up a two-way commercial enterprise by selling local items to South Korea over the Internet. Akita currently enjoys a high name recognition in Korea because it was one of the locations where the big-budget, blockbuster television series Iris was filmed. The espionage thriller was wildly popular last fall in South Korea, and it generated a surge of Korean tourism to Akita. The same phenomenon in reverse had Japanese visiting the shooting locations for such Korean TV dramas as Winter Sonata. (Iris is now being broadcast on Japanese television.)

These two YouTube videos present an interesting contrast. The first is a Korean video in English promoting the new varieties of makgeolli. It’s well done–perhaps too well done in places. One of the supposedly casual customers interviewed on camera is a young woman attractive enough to be a model whose blouse color just happens to match the color of her drink.

The second is a video of a doburoku festival filmed in Shirakawa-go Gifu. The environment is quite different from the first video, but just as fascinating. It’s easy to see the resemblance between the two drinks–even down to the October date of their respective festivals. It also reminds me that I’ve been negligent writing festival posts recently!

The Japanese aren’t adding fruit syrup to doburoku, but here’s a post about a company that came up with the bright idea to make doburoku ice cream.

Notice all the connections between Japan and South Korea in this story? None of them will particularly surprise the people of either country. To quote once again a South Korean speaking in Japanese that I heard on a live NHK radio program broadcast from Seoul a few years ago, the only ties between the two countries that aren’t flourishing are the political.

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Posted in Festivals, Food, Japanese-Korean amity, New products, South Korea, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Worth a thousand words

Posted by ampontan on Friday, May 21, 2010

DONALD MARRON has a blog post about the governmental financing needs of the advanced economies. He used the current data to create a bar graph, which says more than any thousand words I could string together:

Some suggest that Japan doesn’t have to worry until the national debt exceeds the national savings, but that’s not how I see it. The national savings of any country belong to the citizens, not to the politicians to use for legal vote-buying schemes.

It’s also worth noting that the Koizumi/Abe administrations nearly got the debt under control, and a balanced budget was within reach–until the Aso administration used an economic crisis to try to buy off the electorate, and the Hatoyama administration made things even worse by trying to cement their party’s hold on power.

Here’s the full Marron post, which is short and written from the American perspective.

Posted in Business, finance and the economy | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Japanese food: More than just raw fish

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, May 20, 2010

WHEN THE JAPANESE apply their fertile imaginations to cook up new food creations, there’s no telling what delights they’ll discover.

Scratch that—there is telling! Here’s a look at what’s cooking (and brewing) in kitchens lately across the country.

Goya dumplings

Michifude Hiroshi was a successful challenger in one of the televised Iron Chef programs several years ago (in the Chinese food category). Fame begets fortune, so it was natural for the agricultural co-op JA Okinawa to sign a consulting agreement with the chef to provide advice for the development of processed foods using local produce and livestock. In return, his photo and name will be displayed on the packages of any products that result from their association.

The former Iron Chef’s first suggestion was to use vegetables that otherwise would be thrown out because their irregular shapes disallow them from being sold commercially, their esculence notwithstanding. His idea was to use the ugly vegetables as filling for gyoza, the Japanese name for the vegetable- or meat-stuffed dumplings often known as pot stickers in Chinese restaurants in the United States. JA Okinawa now plans to sell 12 different varieties on a seasonal basis, including those filled with rakkyo (an Asian scallion) or karashima (mustard greens).

First out of the box were the goya dumplings, with a package of 12 selling for 500 yen. The goya is a bitter green vegetable that’s quite popular among health conscious Japanese, particularly Okinawans. It’s slightly smaller than an American cucumber with a soft, knobby skin. Like a green pepper, it’s hollow on the inside, with some pulp and seeds. The goya is so nutritious the Western vegetarian might be tempted to turn it into an object of religious veneration.

One of the JA officials thinks they have a winner:

These non-standard products that can’t be sold commercially are reborn in popular food products. That has two advantages. It’s environmentally friendly because it reduces waste, and it boosts the income of farm families.

Katsuobushi cookies

Every 10 years, the city of Makurazaki in Kagoshima holds a fish cuisine competition to celebrate their incorporation as a municipality, a blessed event that occurred 60 years ago. The Makurazakians held their once-a-decade fest earlier this year, and the Grand Prize winner was a 16-year-old high school girl who created three varieties of katsuobushi cookies. Katsuobushi is dried, fermented, and smoked skipjack tuna that’s been shaved into flakes. It’s usually used to make soup broth.

Katsuobushi cookie winner with Mom

If you think fish cookies sound unappetizing, consider this: The reports say the girl’s creations were the overwhelming favorite of the judges. They had 133 entries to choose from, including hamburgers made with aji (horse mackerel) and vegetables instead of beef. She pocketed JPY 50,000 (almost $US 550) in prize money.

The cookies are made by mixing okara (high fiber soy pulp, also as healthful as the dickens) with the katsuobushi, and flavoring with ginger and soy sauce. She deliberately kept the use of butter and eggs to a minimum, which means they’re unlikely to appear on the shelves of your neighborhood convenience store anytime soon.

She also had incentive—she kept working to refine the recipe because her mother entered the same contest and she wanted to prove her chops. Mother and daughter still get along fine, however, as the photo shows. Perfecting the cookies did require some effort, as she later admitted it was difficult to get them to turn out soft and plump. She’s glad everyone likes them and thinks they might go over well as a snack in drinking establishments.

Soy yoghurt beverage

When Prof. Yanagida Fujidoshi, the head of the Institute of Enology and Viticulture in Yamanashi, downed a soy milk beverage made by Hakushuya Mamekichi of Hokuto at a food fair last July, the proverbial light bulb went on over his head. He contacted the beverage company, and together they developed a yoghurt beverage made from soy instead of milk, using wine yeast. All the ingredients—the soy, the natural spring water, and the wine yeast—are local products.

The professor and his creation

The beverage tastes so much like the real thing it’ll fool yoghurt fans despite the absence of milk. The company says the fermentation of lactic acid causes an unpleasant aroma, and conventional yoghurt products mask that aroma with milk products and fruit flavors in the later processing stages. That’s no problem with their product, however, because it’s soy and nothing but. Brewing one bottle requires about 30 soybeans, or 150 grams.

The company also claims the use of wine yeast doubles the production of lactic acid and increases by 1.7 times the amount of succinic acid, which provides the umami . They suggest selling a bottle for JPY 150 (about $US 1.63), though they won’t make an issue over it. The beverage is currently available in local supermarkets and michi no eki (literally, road or trail stations), which are rest stops along Japanese highways. Most have shops that sell local goods. There are 871 nationwide as of the moment.

The company is planning a full lineup of soy yoghurt beverages with local fruit added. It’s going to be called the Yanagida series and feature the professor’s picture on the label.

Who knows? The professor might become as well-known a celebrity as the Iron Chef.

Blueberry udon

The Japanese have been slurping down udon noodles since the Asuka period, which ended exactly 1,300 years ago this year, but the blueberry udon recently created in Asago, Hyogo demonstrates there are still some new things under the sun after all.

Udon is soup with noodles that tend to be as thick as a chopstick, but chewier and fluffier than spaghetti. The broth is usually either miso- or fish-flavored, and all sorts of varieties can be created by adding different ingredients and spices.

An Asago park well-known for its wisterias has been staging a festival for the past month and a half, and they came up with the idea of publicizing the event by creating a new dish in which blueberries are added to the flour-and-water udon noodle mix. The resulting purple noodles, color coordinated with the wysteria, were served with tempura-fried vegetables, including a type of green onion local to the area and mushrooms. This in turn was placed on wisterial petals and placed in a bowl. Reports say the tartness of the blueberries enhanced the flavor of the other ingredients.

There were plenty of blueberries available because the local chamber of commerce and industry has been growing them and looking for something to do with the surplus crop. The festival ended just last week, and during that time they planned to sell 100 bowls of blueberry udon every day for JPY 500 (about $US 5.45) each, which is not a bad price, as well as take-out meals for two or three people at JPY 450 yen each, an even better price. The producers are going to look at overall sales and make a decision on whether to commercialize the product.

Lotus ice cream

The lotus is mentioned in the Kojiki of 712 (Record of Ancient Matters), which means the Japanese have been growing the plant for as long as they’ve been eating udon. There’s more to it than the beauty, however—the lotus is a big deal in Buddhism, whose theorists have used it to symbolize the human condition. The plant is rooted in the mud of a pond, but it rises above the water to bloom and attain enlightenment.

My sweet tooth says I want to, but my wisdom tooth says no

And if you’re in Minamiechizen-cho, Fukui, anytime soon, they’ll enlighten you with some lotus ice cream, which they’ve given the name Hasukoro Inpact. That’s one prime example of the many visual treats in the written Japanese language, by the way. It’s rendered はすコロINパクト, which combines the two Japanese alphabets of hiragana and katakana and the Roman alphabet.

Speaking of treats with multiple ingredients, the Somoyama hot springs resort in Minamiechizen-cho created the lotus ice cream (actually soft ice cream) to sell on the premises. Instead of the usual crunchy cone, they use one made with cornet bread that has ground lotus leaf mixed in the dough. Don’t miss a trick, do they? The outside is crisp, but the inside is chewy. To make the confection, they start with regular vanilla ice cream and add some raspberry sherbet mixed with another sherbet made from lotus wine. The local epicures say it’s a delectable combination of the sweet and the tart. The spa is selling it until the end of June at their restaurant on the premises for JPY 380 (about $US 4.14). The reports say it will be sold after that for JPY 450, but didn’t specify how or where it will be sold.

If you’re in Japan, though, you can always call the spa at (0778) 47-3368 and ask.

Socho curry

The pictures of Chef Michifude and Prof. Yanagida adorn the labels of the products they helped develop, but Prof. Oike Kazuo of Kyoto University got his photo on the package of Socho Curry mix just because he happened to be the president (socho) of the school when the product was created.

The curry was jointly developed in 2005 by the Kyoto Broadcasting System and the Kyoto U. Co-op with the idea of making then-President Oike, the 24th, more familiar to the students. It was intended to be sold only at the campus cafeteria and in nearby shops. But it became an instant hit with the students, so they decided to produce it as a retorted curry rice product and flog it on the market for JPY 630 apiece. They’ve sold so many they’ve earned an aggregate of JPY 100 million (about $US 1.09 million) in revenue to date.

There’s no word why it’s been so successful in Japan’s crowded curry market, albeit in just one part of it, but then again college students aren’t known to be finicky eaters as long as the price is right. Nevertheless, the Socho Curry success story has got the Co-op so excited, they’re planning to develop more products.

Now for the hard stuff—here comes the hooch!

Mango lager

Hideji, a microbrewery in Nobeoka, Miyazaki, wanted to create a special beer using something distinctively Miyazakian. That was the inspiration for brewing mango lager, mangoes being a special product of the prefecture. Don’t get the wrong idea—some, but not all, of the yeast used to ferment the beer is been made from mango rinds, and some of the fruit is used in the mix. That’s why it’s classified as a happoshu (“sparkling spirits”) for Japanese tax purposes rather than beer, because it has less than 67% malt by content.

Mango lager

Theirs wasn’t an overnight success—it took three years worth of product development to come up with something they were willing to sell. The pluses include the fresh spring water the brewery uses near its location at the foot of a mountain, a slightly sweet flavor, lightness, and fewer calories. It has just 25% of the sugar content of regular beers. It also has plenty of malic acid, which is said to have energy-enhancing and anti-aging properties. In other words, it builds you up and tears you down at the same time.

Still others will appreciate the 5.2% alcohol by volume.

The Hideji brewery is so pleased they’re going to work with Miyazaki University to examine the possibility of creating other microbrews with 80 different types of yeast, including those made from such local citrus fruits such as the hyuganatsu and the kumquat. Now that’s a lab I wouldn’t mind working in.

They’re selling the beer in 330 ml bottles for JPY 600 apiece, which is a bit steep, but it is a microbrew after all. It’s available at the gift shop in the Miyazaki Airport and at the local michi no eki shops. What the heck, if you’re in Japan and the beer and mango combination has whetted either your thirst or your appetite, give the brewery a call at (0982) 39-0090 and ask if they’ll ship you some.

Firewater

Beer in all its forms has far and away the highest sales of any alcoholic beverage in Japan, but some people unfamiliar with national alcohol consumption habits might not be aware that sales of the distilled beverage shochu, which resembles vodka or gin, top sake sales in some years. Way down south in such prefectures as Kagoshima and Okinawa, shochu far outsells sake, and Kagoshima doesn’t even have a sake brewery.

The word shochu is written with the Chinese characters for “fiery liquor”, which literally makes it firewater. I can testify that if you drink too much, it just might start some spontaneous internal combustion.

Fighting fire with firewater

The head of the volunteer fire department in Kajiya-cho, Kagoshima City, is naturally concerned about fire prevention, so he hit upon the idea to create his own shochu and call it Hikeshidamashii, which means “fire extinguishing spirit”. No, not spirits–spirit, as in demon, and no, not demon rum, either! The distinguishing feature of his brand is that the label has a fire prevention message—it reminds people of the law requiring smoke detectors to be installed by the end of May 2011. He developed the drink with another volunteer fireman who works at a liquor wholesaler. Another reason for the choice of the name is that volunteer firefighters like to wear t-shirts with hikeshidamashii written on them.

So, to put it all together, a fireman in a city renowned for its firewater has a burning desire to prevent fires, so he creates a new kind of firewater called Fire Extingushing Spirit to remind the people drinking spirits to install smoke detectors.

Try saying that without stuttering after a few shots of shochu.

If that inflames your curiosity, and you live in Japan, give the shop a call at 099-224-4531 to see if he’ll sell you some. A 1.8 liter bottle sells for JPY 1,800, which is a reasonable price for shochu.

Microbeers making a comeback

Microbeers took off in a macro way in Japan with the amendment to the tax law in 1994 that made it financially more feasible to brew and sell them. But Japanese will be the first to tell you that boomlets there quickly skyrocket and just as quickly fizzle out. That’s what happened after the middle-aged drinkers switched to the recently developed, and much cheaper so-called “third beers” made with such ingredients as pea protein, soy protein, or soy peptide instead of malt. (Yes, I agree. Ugh.) In addition to the bargain prices, the taste is much lighter than that of the real thing.

But the Japan Craft Beer Association (see link on right sidebar) reports that microbrews began making a comeback three years ago, primarily among younger people. That year, 28,800 kiloliters were brewed, double the total from 2005. A spokesman for the association said:

Most new customers are people younger than 40 who don’t have any preconceived notions about beer.

He added that they tend to view the high-quality brews as they would wine, an outlook they share among microbrew aficionados in the West. Another reason this is a welcome trend for brewers is that national consumption of all types of beer has been trending downward recently. Year-on-year sales were down 3.2% in April, the fourth consecutive monthly decline. That was the second-lowest April total since tracking of the statistic began in 1992.

Spotting an opportunity, the Kansai region’s microbrewers held the first microbrew festival in Kyoto on the 23rd last month at a shopping mall favored by young people called Shin-Puh-Kan (That’s a groovy way to spell shinpu, which means new wind.) A total of 20 breweries participated and presented 40 brands, selling their wares for JPY 300 a glass. Said an organizer:

With overall beer sales declining every year, the resurgence of microbrews is a trend both old and new. I hope we can reestablish ourselves in the Kansai area.

Judging from the following YouTube video, the mall seems to be enclosed with an open courtyard, making it an excellent site for people to mill about and drink without disturbing the neighborhood. (Don’t worry about the narration if you don’t understand Japanese–it’s just standard PR.) The mall also vaguely resembles the view of the neighborhood from Jimmy Stewart’s apartment in the Hitchcock film, Rear Window, a perennial favorite in Japan. Coincidence?

Here’s an idea: The high school girl from Kagoshima could provide the Craft Beer Association with her katsuobushi cookies to sell as snacks at the microbrew festivals, and after polishing off a few rounds of mango lager, everyone could stop off for a bowl of blueberry udon on the way home!

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Posted in Food, New products, Social trends | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Letter bombs (2)

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, May 18, 2010

MR. ROBOTTO sent in a comment to the weekend post, Lame and Shameless, which dealt with example #26, 941 of the Anglosphere mass media’s distortion of Japan into Weirdo World. He wrote:

It does not help being perceived as normal people when the Japanese are being married by robots.

He included a hot link to an AP article about a wedding ceremony in Tokyo during the weekend presided over by a robot.

Domo arigato, Mr. Robotto!

No, that’s not facetious. I’m glad you passed it along. Not only does the article illustrate my point, I planned to write about the same story anyway. How’s that for synchronicity?

In fact, Mr. Robotto, I’ll see your bet of an AP link and raise it with a link of my own, this one to a Raw Video from Yahoo!

I saw it by accident on an American website. The video has no explanatory context at all. It consists only of excerpts of the ceremony, in which an attractive couple in Western wedding dress are married by a robot priest named i-Fairy as Ave Maria plays in the background.

It’s those goofy Japanese again with their weird robot obsession!

But it’s not so weird at all—and a lot less weird than some Western ceremonies—once the context is provided to understand what’s happening. If context is what you’re looking for, however, don’t look for it there.

Google News had northward of 300 hits on the story. All the news outlets light on Weird Japan stories like flies on stink. My RSS feed alone burped up articles from CBS News, the Seattle, Miami, and Boston newspapers, The Taipei Times, China Daily, The Gadsden Times, New Jersey Online, BBC, USA Today, Reuters, and the Times (of London) Online.

Let’s try the AP story Mr. Robotto sent us. Follow along with the hot link in his comment above.

The article is nine paragraphs long. It isn’t until the end of paragraph seven that the author gets around to mentioning the bride works for the company that made the robot. It isn’t until the end of paragraph eight that we discover in passing her new husband is a professor of robotics.

Starting to get the drift? There’s a reason that couple had a robot presiding over their ceremony, and there’s another reason all the stories in English stashed that information well to the rear.

An article at CNN.Go provided more context, perhaps because it was written by a Japanese woman:

Tomohiro and Satoko Shibata were a natural choice for the wedding…Tomohiro is an associate professor in the Theoretical Life-Science Lab at the Nara Institute of Science and Technology, and his bride just happens to work at Kokoro, the company that produced the robot. For her part, Satoko was more than satisfied with the decision to put her wedding in the hands of an android, declaring in an interview with the Japanese website Robonable: “I hope our actions set a precedent for helping robots spread through Japanese society.”

But that’s still not enough context to fully understand what happened. Let’s try the story from the Times of London. The last time I read that newspaper’s Japan coverage, they had chosen, faute de mieux, to dispatch one of their lesser lights to Tokyo to report on this country. One day, he thought the most important story out of Japan was the uncanny resemblance of former Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo to the American cartoon character Homer Simpson. “The Japanese Prime Minister Is a Dork” stories didn’t start with Mr. Hatoyama.

By the way, can you recall seeing a journalist for any publication comment on the resemblance of Barack Obama to a cartoon character?

To get to the story on the Times’s site, you have to go through their World link. The World page has some PR that reads: “Times experts go behind the headlines”.

Access that page and you’ll see some of the headlines the Times experts take us behind:

* “Aghan army pays its dues in blood – Roadside bombs take their toll — but an on-the-spot testing kit gives US soldiers the edge in finding those responsible”

* “Ash travel misery as BA strike looms – Heathrow and Gatwick, which closed overnight, were partially reopened at 7am but problems are expected nationwide”

* “Rogue general dies as Redshirts ordered out – Thai government gives protesters three hours to leave rally site as Major General Khattiya Sawasdipol dies in hospital”

* “BP reduces leak as scientists find hidden oil – Technicians use robots to insert a pipe into the broken riser partially sealing the spill and diverting the oil to the surface”

* ”Ordination of lesbian bishop deepens Anglican rift – Dr Rowan Williams called the move regrettable and said that it raised serious questions about the US Episcopalian Church”

Every one has serious content that merits coverage in the World section of a newspaper. But here’s the next one:

* ”Robot dressed in white conducts Japanese wedding – Professor of robotics marries technology-company employee in ceremony overseen by I-Fairy, the plug-in priestess”

That’s strange–I thought I was at the Times of London site, not the Daily Sun.

This article was written by Leo Lewis. Thankfully, it lasted only five paragraphs—the tone is more wiseguy journalism major masturbating in print than serious observer of world affairs. Here’s part of it.

Japan’s obsession with robots took another giant leap into the absurd as a mechanised priestess joined two people in matrimony. It was both a romantic and static affair, possibly the first wedding where the official had self-illuminating eyeballs and required a supply of 100V DC to stay upright.

As you can see, he combines clever wordplay with incisive social commentary.

But even he managed to include a critical bit of context that the others missed:

The event highlighted the oddity of Japanese weddings, where the ceremony carries no legal weight — by the time they get to the altar most couples have been married for months and the “priest” is often an English teacher in a cassock.

Despite the journalistic equivalent of writing his name in the wet cement of the sidewalk, he does tell us that Japanese wedding ceremonies are not a legal requirement for marriage. In the United States, for example, receiving a marriage license does not mean the couple is married. The license must be signed by a legally recognized official. That can be the priest or rabbi at a religious institution, or a civil authority, such as a judge or justice of the peace. (No ship’s captains!) A ceremony of some sort is required for the marriage to be legal, even if it’s performed by a justice of the peace in his living room with the only witnesses his wife and the next door neighbor.

All that’s required in Japan, in contrast, is to file a notification at City Hall. The wedding’s just for show.

In short, the context required to understand what happened took three different stories, slipping through sleight-of-hand, and wading through a bucketload of bilge.

Let’s look at that last paragraph again. I apologize in advance to the reader for submitting them to torture by the cat ‘o nine tales.

“The oddity of Japanese weddings, where the ceremony carries no weight…”

The Times of London thinks the millennia-old customs of another nation are “odd”. If anyone wants to make the case that this phrase–and the entire slant of the piece–isn’t a snotty example of cultural imperialism, not to mention Japan-is-weird journalism, please write in. Comment is free, as the Guardian says.

“Most couples have been married for months…”

There are no stats to back up the claim of “most”. Since anecdote seems to count as a data point, I’ll mention that I went to a wedding reception last July for a couple who were officially married last February. Several of the Japanese who attended thought the five-month lag was unusual, including my Japanese wife.

“…the “priest” is often an English teacher in a cassock…”

According to the latest Japanese government statistics I could find in a quick search, there were 719,822 marriages in 2007. Is it British journalistic practice to use the word “often” to describe an occurrence that happens, say, 0.006% of the time, at most?

The author does mention the employment status of the bride and groom—in the last paragraph, and only as a chance to lather on more snark:

“The choice of marriage official by Satoko Inoue, 36, and Tomohiro Shibata, 42, was not entirely coincidental.”

“Not entirely coincidental”? It was the whole bleedin’ point, mate!

So, what do you think? Did the Times copy editor happen to be out on tea break when the story was filed, or was he complicit in approving a story whose objective isn’t to report news, but to present the Japanese as peculiar and the author as a swingin’ wordsmith?

The story was also covered in Japan. The Japanese version from Reuters contained only three short paragraphs, and it emphasized the employment of the couple in the first paragraph.

There you are. The Japanese article was short because the audience understands the context of its own wedding ceremonies. Readers already know there were no robots at any wedding ceremony they’ve ever attended, including their own. They understand immediately it was a PR stunt, dismiss it as an anomaly, and either turn the page or click on the next link.

Readers in the English-speaking world might do the same—if the media in the Anglosphere covered stories in Japan they way they cover stories everywhere else.

Most Japanese wedding ceremonies are Shinto rites in which nothing particularly weird happens at all. I was married in a Shinto ceremony 23 years ago, and none of it seemed odd to me. About the only novel thing I saw was the tamagushi, a Shinto implement made from a sakaki branch with a shide, a special folded paper that denotes a sacred space. The priest offers this to the divinities at the ceremony.

Roman Catholics, in comparison, have church services in which they eat a small wafer and drink some grape juice and believe it is the body and blood of Christ. No one except an atheist thinks that’s weird.

Is it weirder for two people in the robotics industry to use for PR an event with no legal or religious significance than it is for Westerners—for whom the ceremony does have a legal standing—to get married at a baseball stadium, at an ice hockey rink, in mid-air in the middle of a skydive, at a White Castle fast food restaurant (Good God!), underwater while scuba diving, at a drag racing track, or at a graveyard at Halloween? Is it weirder than the score of companies advertising on the Internet to provide wedding services at unusual locations for a fee?

Another commenter named Author writes that I was peddling a conspiracy theory. Please! Of course this is on purpose. As the second half of this previous post describes, Lisa Katayama, the Queen of Weird Japan journalism, admits that the major news media outlets in the U.S. knock on her door looking for strange tales. She was astonished to discover that Weird Japan sells, but at least she’s open about it. She got huffy in a story she submitted to BoingBoing because so many people complained that her approach was unfair and demeaning. At that point, she still didn’t have the nerve to admit to herself she was in it for the money.

*****
A third commenter wrote in to say that the Japanese still had issues with xenophobia. Really? I live in a city of 180,000 a 35-minute limited express train ride from the nearest metropolis and 90 minutes by air from Tokyo, and it’s less xenophobic than a town in Pennsylvania I spent part of my childhood in.

But in another bit of synchronicity, poster Mac yesterday sent in one of his occasional reports from No Shinkansen Sticksville. Let’s let him talk about Japanese xenophobia:

“I just got back from a local festival in what used to be the samurai’s grounds of one of the more beautiful, rambling castles in Japan. Putting aside the wide range of what is called ‘world food’ in the West (everything except the usual commercial Japanese stuff), and eclectic stalls selling and teaching everything from Al Gore and 9/11 conspiracy books to how cut your own hashi (chopsticks) from bamboo, my lasting impression is sitting there under a clear sky watching an amazing rock bassist and guitarist playing along with a sitar, a woman chanting and playing a vina, and another on a digeridoo, to which another guy was overtoning some Mongolian throat song…with the backdrop of the beautifully ornate castle rising high behind them.

“One of those “Perfect Day” days one could not ask for more of.

“And if you think that is something … wait until you see what is coming to a neighboring rice field festival …”

*****
I don’t know what’s going to happen at the rice paddy festival in Mac’s No-Shinkansen Sticksville, but this previous post describes a few others. Take a look if you have the time or the interest.

You might as well. If you want to know what’s happening in Japan, the last place you’re going to find anything worthwhile is in mass media English-language journalism.

Well-meaning people sometimes write in to say, Oh, Bill, the journos aren’t really being malicious on purpose, they’re just doing their jobs.

Oh, poop. Some people are intentionally feeding you a narrative of Japan as a nation of dweebs, and other people just love to swallow it whole, as yesterday’s post made clear. If you want to see how that perverts the views people around the world hold of Japan, try this post.

But if you think the diet of Japan-is-weird junk food masquerading as infotainment is a tasty dish, dig in.

Bon appétit.

UPDATE: The Times of London has shifted the story to their Technology section, without any change to the text. I do think this is worth covering as a technology story. Too bad the major media outlets didn’t write it that way.

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Posted in I couldn't make this up if I tried, Letter bombs, Mass media, Science and technology, Traditions | Tagged: | 8 Comments »

Lame and shameless

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, May 16, 2010

Any half-informed piece of disinformation seems to suffice where Japan is concerned.
- Jenny Holt

THAT’S ODD, I thought. I hadn’t read anything about this at all.

I was looking at a story from the BBC website that claimed Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio was in serious trouble with the Japanese public because he wore a goofy shirt to a barbecue for ordinary voters last month at his official residence.

Then I ran across another article on the same topic from the China Post.

Why haven’t I heard about this before, I asked myself. I subscribe to a Japanese daily newspaper, and nothing about Mr. Hatoyama’s shirt appeared there. I have an RSS feed that receives daily downloads from 17 more Japanese newspapers, four of them published nationwide. My feed also receives daily posts from 11 Japanese-language blogging sites, one of them a major blog aggregator. All of the aggregated sites are those of politicians, journalists, or commentators.

Nothing.

My wife is the television monitor in the family. I asked her if she had seen anything.

“There was something about a pink shirt a while ago, but it wasn’t a big deal.”

You mean you haven’t seen anything about the five-colored, checkered shirt he wore to the barbecue?

“No. Why?”

Because I just read a blog entry at the Atlantic magazine, which said it was “a fashion misstep (that) may be contributing to the derailing of (his government).” They said it was “so hideous it has drawn an international backlash.” The headline called it an “international furor”.

She briefly regarded me with a puzzled expression, but then shook her head. “What do you expect from the international media? Accurate reporting about Japan?”

Indeed.

I found the Atlantic blog post after curiosity prompted me to insert the search terms “Hatoyama” and “shirt” in Google News.

Google threw up 336 hits. The Atlantic story was at the top of the heap.

It quoted CNN’s Kyung Lah talking about an article written by “critic” Don Konishi for a national magazine, in which Mr. Konishi claimed the prime minister was out of touch.

The Atlantic also reported that the French news agency AFP collected and translated further commentary by Mr. Konishi, who suggested that the prime minister’s political party “is over with this shirt”. Mr. Konishi is a fashion designer by trade.

They quote the Daily Caller’s S.E. Cupp:

It’s like something Walker, Texas Ranger would have worn to a gay bar in 1994.

They add further commentary by someone identified as Gawker’s Jeff Neumann, who wrote:

Japan’s embattled Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama…may have done himself in by wearing a multi-colored plaid shirt that has pissed off the entire country. … Hatoyama recently hosted a cookout for everyday voters…in an effort to reach out to some of the people who hate him. But when he showed up wearing this shirt, people went crazy.

Enough.

Let’s make this simple and direct, shall we?

Most people in Japan wish that Mr. Hatoyama were no longer their prime minister. But none of them really hate him, except perhaps a few Okinawans who think he double-crossed them over his intentions for the Futenma airbase. None of them went crazy when he wore this shirt. He did not piss off the entire country. In fact, most Japanese don’t even know that he wore this shirt. Those that would like to see him gone from office feel that way because of his performance in office, not because of his haberdashery.

Let’s continue to keep it simple and direct.

Jeff Neumann knows as much about what the people of Japan think as Britain’s Queen Elizabeth knows about marijuana cultivation in Humboldt County, California.

Gawker is a site that seems to be half show business gossip, half political snark, and zero Japanese cultural or political news.

S.E. Cupp may know what guys wore to Texas gay bars in 1994, but she’s in a dark closet when it comes to Japan.

If the AFP spent more than 20 minutes rounding up and translating anything Don Konishi said about this shirt in print, they need to hire competent researchers.

But you don’t have to take my word. Empirical methods can be used to examine the question.

The article Don Konishi wrote was for the Shukan Asahi, one Japan’s six major news weeklies. It appeared in their 23 April edition. The Atlantic blog post reproduces part of the page.

Recall that Google News had 336 hits about this international backlash that could bring down the Hatoyama government. Naturally, I switched over to Google News Japan, and input the search terms “Hatoyama” and “shirt” in Japanese.

It got three hits.

Three.

The first two were from sports dailies. The subject of every article was not that Mr. Hatoyama’s admittedly unusual shirt had caused revulsion throughout the archipelago. Rather, the articles focused on what the overseas media was saying. The reason for the overseas focus? Because the only person talking about it in Japan is Don Konishi, shown demonstrating his fashion sense in the photo at right.

The third hit was from a major Japanese news outlet. That was the daily Asahi, published by the same people who publish the Shukan Asahi.

Links in Japan don’t last long, so I usually don’t provide the ones in Japanese, but I’ll make an exception in this case. Here’s the daily Asahi article, and here’s the first sentence translated into English:

Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio’s taste in personal clothing has been increasingly criticized by the Western media.

Does the Asahi talk about the Japanese reaction? No, how could they? There is none, other than that of Don Konishi. They talk instead about the people CNN interviewed. None of them are Japanese.

Here’s the English translation of the end of the Asahi article:

Does the prime minister’s personal clothing look all that bad in the West? The Asahi Shimbun interviewed Mark-Evan Blackman, chairman of the menswear design department at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. He said, “That five-colored shirt really is pretty bad. But Prime Minister Hatoyama looks rather svelte, and he could look elegant depending on the way he dresses. I would recommend that he wear either a bright cashmere sweater or a silk sweater with some tasteful jeans.”

Here’s what we have. Don Konishi is roughly the Japanese equivalent of Mr. Blackwell, who achieved notoriety in the United States for his annual Ten Worst Dressed Women of the Year List. The Shukan Asahi published his cattiness as amusing space filler and everyone who read it promptly forgot about it.

Everyone that is, except the know-nothings of Western journalism, who have deluded themselves into thinking that the shirt has “pissed off the entire country” and caused an international furor.

Long-time friends of this site know exactly what’s happening, however—anti-Nipponism. As I wrote in a post with that title: “These are not honest mistakes. This is not sloppy research. Someone, somewhere, has made a conscious decision to depict the Japanese as negatively as possible, however possible, whenever possible. These depictions of Japan are the rule rather than the exception.”

These people enjoy thinking of Japan as the Goofball Kingdom of East Asia. It’s not as if any of them have ever bothered to file a story providing any real insight for the reasons Mr. Hatoyama is seen as a failed prime minister–or any story providing real insight into Japan, for that matter.

Are they incapable of such stories, or are they uninterested in such stories? Most likely it’s a combination of both. People do tend to take the lazy way out, after all, and the Japanese-are-so-weird game is a marvelous diversion. How much easier it is to display junior high spitball artistry instead of expending the effort on research or study. Why should the too-cool-for-school crowd waste their time on analysis when they fall for the line that a dorky shirt threatens the political position of the prime minister of Dork Nation?

Who do they think they’re kidding? More to the point, just what is their problem? Ms. Holt, quoted at the top of this post, has a theory of her own that she offered to The Guardian:

I have lived in Japan for nine years, I have a Japanese husband and son, and I can honestly say that the most striking thing about people here is how downright normal they are….This is modern normality, and if foreigners who came here actually bothered to learn the language and find out what ordinary Japanese people think they would appreciate that….The stereotyping also speaks volumes about the western psyche. It suggests that westerners resent and fear successful non-white cultures and that they cope by denigrating and dehumanising them. What Britain chooses to see in Japan says more about its own insecurities than about the Japanese…

You think she’s exaggerating? The same Atlantic post took the opportunity presented by Mr. Hatoyama’s non-problem with the shirt to cite a brief report from Best Week Ever’s Sarah Walker titled, This Is Far From Japan’s Craziest Clothing. She mentions the “rice bra,” which is wearable and filled with soil and rice seeds. Walker takes a publicity stunt as something real, failing to listen as her inner Foghorn Leghorn protests, “It’s a joke, son. I said, it’s a joke!”

But she doesn’t want to get the joke. She wants to believe the Japan of her imagination actually exists.

Then again, this post was published in The Atlantic, which also prints the blog posts of Andrew Sullivan. His link to reality is so tenuous, he has been suggesting—for almost two years–that the fifth child of Sarah Palin, the 2008 GOP candidate for Vice-President in the U.S., was actually her eldest daughter’s baby, despite the physical impossibility of those circumstances.

Perhaps we should just consider the source.

Regardless of the motives or the character deficiencies of those who indulge themselves with these fables, one thing is certain:

If what you know about Japan is derived from the English-language mass media, then everything you know about Japan is wrong.

UPDATE: More front than Blackpool

I sent a link to this piece to Neumann by e-mail, and he replied twice. Here’s the first:

Ha! I love blogs by expats that “explain” other countries. They “get it”!

Neumann’s visibility, such as it is, derives from the fact that he quit his job as a T-shirt vendor in a baseball stadium, went to Iraq, and wrote a book about it.

That’s right. He was an expat who wrote a book to “explain” another country. He “gets it”. He parlayed that into a gig at an Internet gossip site.

He sent me another one a few minutes later:

I’m guessing you’re a white guy English teacher who creeps around Roppongi trying desperately to get laid.

He didn’t have to guess who I was. He could have read About at the top of the page to find out.

Nah, that would be research. Too much like real work.

For more on this phenomenon, try The Bogus and The Bona Fide, #1 and #2. For more on life in No-Shinkansen Sticksville, as a reader calls it, try this.

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Posted in I couldn't make this up if I tried, Mass media | Tagged: , , | 27 Comments »

Fast fashion in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Friday, May 14, 2010

THE FAST FASHION TREND–the global mass production and sale on short cycles of inexpensive clothing incorporating up-to-the-minute styles—has hit Japan, where fashion consumers have traditionally been known to prefer pricey, brand-name items. Sales are booming for fast fashions, including such brands as Uniqlo (Japan’s leading retail clothing chain), H&M, and Forever 21.

The J-Cast website interviewed Tsujita Yasuko, the manager of the Retail Business Solutions Unit in Branding Group #1 of Itochu Fashion System. She is a specialist in department store and other commercial facility development, conducts marketing surveys and business planning, and creates retail sales floor planning proposals. Here it is in English.

- What sort of people buy fast fashions?

People across a wide range of generations are buying them, but most are young people aged 15-29. Of course economic conditions have an impact, but they’re not selecting inexpensive items because they lack money. There’s a sense that they’re buying them because the trend is for inexpensive merchandise. It’s true of other generations too, but that’s particularly true for young people. Luxury was the trend for a time, and everyone cut down on their food expenses and took part-time jobs to buy designer handbags because that’s what was in. Now it’s the reverse—people try to buy trendy items as cheaply as possible. It’s become a topic of conversation among friends.

- Which brands are popular?

We recently conducted a survey and asked young people interested in fashion which brands they liked, and Uniqlo topped the list. Included among the choices was United Arrows (a Japanese company) and the luxury brand Prada, but Uniqlo had a presence above those. They liked it the best, and they bought it the most. Other than Uniqlo, few brands were mentioned as their favorites.

- Are young people no longer interested in upscale brands?

There’s no question that passionate loyalty toward famous brands has waned. Rather, what’s important now is the shop where an item was bought, or whether it is the same as what a friend or celebrity has. People do go into the upscale brand shops for a look, but only as a reference. What’s growing is the purchase of goods with a similar design at inexpensive shops, or finding things at auctions.

These shoppers want freedom of choice to match their moods, and they have the skills to combine different items. They want to be always in season, so they don’t buy expensive clothing. Female employees in their 20s at our company tell us they buy flashy dresses for parties at Forever 21, but seldom wear the same thing again.

- Will fast fashion have any legs?

Rather than that, fast fashion will be taken as a matter of course as the basic attitude for purchases. H&M and Forever 21 got started in downtown areas, but they’ll be expanding nationwide. It would be a mistake to think that things sell just because they’re cheap, however. They must have a unique appeal. Also, if you reduce the price and unit sales don’t grow, you won’t make any money.

The clothes worn by models in the Tokyo Girls Collection are selling very well, but I hear that’s not the case with other items of the same brands. It will be difficult in the future for brands whose only advantage is that celebrities wear the clothes. The spill-over effect won’t last long.

- Will conditions be difficult for clothing outside the fast fashion category?

We’ve seen a trend in fashions for young Japanese women to be inspired by fast fashion, in which prices are lowered to the level of H&M. But clothes that haven’t been influenced by fast fashion are also selling. Recently, the Earth Music & Ecology clothes in the TV commercial with actress Miyazaki Aoi have been selling well. Those people who saw the ad and thought the company was involved with ecology and not a fashion brand flocked to their website. Ms. Miyazaki’s singing voice and the atmosphere are in tune with the mood of the times, I think. Of course, the product prices are also reasonable.

In essence, different approaches are required. For example, the key word of ecology has resonance for people in their 20s. It’s important there be a sense that one’s activities after purchase be connected to something, such as part of sales being used for ecological activities.

Afterwords:

For those with an elevated consciousness who are serious about their carbon footprint, here’s an article from the BBC about the dark side of fast fashion.

This New York Times article focuses on the involvement of top designers in fast fashion, which misses the point, but then again, it is the New York Times. It has plenty of words and mentions a lot of names, but says rather less.

And here’s the YouTube clip of the Miyazaki Aoi commercial. When she claps her hands above her head, she’s imitating a missile.

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Posted in New products, Popular culture, Social trends | Tagged: | 48 Comments »

Petty

Posted by ampontan on Friday, May 14, 2010

IT’S HARD TO BELIEVE the largest country in the world with the soon-to-be second-largest economy would stoop to such pettiness, but that’s what China has done yet again with the Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lama fled China in 1959 to live in Dharamsala, India. Last month he was the special guest at a cricket match there and spoke to a few of the players, as described by Britain’s Telegraph.

His was an innocuous visit of the type that occurs every day around the world when a celebrity or noted person attends a sporting event. He spoke to the players, drank some tea, and talked about his interest in sports when he was younger. The Chinese didn’t see it that way, however:

Beijing’s ire was voiced earlier this week in an editorial in the government-run People’s Daily newspaper, in which the spiritual leader was denounced for describing himself as a “son of India” and pretending a love of cricket to please its government.

“The religious leader was trying to prove to be a worthy son of India by participating in the country’s favourite pastime… Cricket is one of the most popular sports in India and the Dalai Lama of course has to have fun with his ‘dad’ since he wants to be a son of India,” the article said.

The People’s Daily claimed he had no right to speak on “China’s internal issue concerning Tibet” if he was the “son of a foreign country”.

Stooping to juvenile sarcasm over harmless remarks at a cricket match suggests the depth of Chinese concern about the stability of their rule over Tibet.

The Times of India quoted some additional snark in the editorial, which does not seem to be in English:

So far, the writer hasn’t read any reports showing that India or Dharamshala expresses any willingness to accept such a son,” the article said.

That childishness is combined with an arrogance that their word is law in the earthly realm:

Sri Lankan players had earlier been warned by their government in Colombo not to meet the Dalai Lama because it would anger China.

There are words to describe the type of governments that presume to tell people, even foreigners, with whom they can or cannot freely associate. I’m sure you don’t need any prompting from me to recall them.

Incidents that may occur or individual policies notwithstanding, governments are generally either respected or feared. Is there anyone—other than Thomas Friedman—who respects the Chinese government?

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One door opens while another one closes

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, May 13, 2010

LOST OR OVERLOOKED in the rubble of the Hatoyama administration and its faux reforms are some honest-to-goodness changes of real merit. As the Japanese-language website J-Cast reports, one is the near complete opening of national governmental news conferences to journalists outside of the kisha clubs.

The system of kisha clubs (reporters’ clubs) limits access to government officials and business executives, both during formal and informal news conferences, to the club members–the so-called Big Four national newspapers, the wire services, and TV and radio broadcasters that belong to such trade associations as the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association. They are the medium through which most news in Japan passes, from the prime minister’s office in Tokyo to specialized departments in every prefectural capital. Representatives from Japanese magazines, Internet publications, and overseas media have been excluded from the system.

The original arrangement was a step forward for Japan’s young democracy in the Meiji period, guaranteeing journalists formal access when there had been none, but it developed into a closed clique of quid pro quo. The government maintains some control over the news with the threat of shutting uncooperative reporters out of the loop, and the news industry benefits by being allowed a near monopoly on coverage.

The new DPJ government led by Mr. Hatoyama promised to change all that last fall, but as this previous post describes, the only change was at the Foreign Ministry under Okada Katsuya. The boys in the bureaucracy even managed to convince the prime minister that his first news conference was open, even though nothing had changed.

Opening the door

It took them a few months, but the administration is finally keeping its promise. In addition to the affiliated kisha club journalists, all the news conferences of the major organs of government are now open to members of the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association, the Internet News Association of Japan, and freelance writers who submit articles to those members publications, as long as they register in advance.

There are only two exceptions: The Cabinet Secretariat, presided over by the Chief Cabinet Secretary, and the Imperial Household Agency, which is responsible for matters related to the Imperial family.

Even the public prosecutors, thought to be the least likely to provide more access due to privacy concerns, have opened up.

The Supreme Public Prosecutors Office sent a notification on 22 April announcing changes to their access policy to local prosecutors and those with jurisdiction over penal institutions nationwide. They followed with an announcement of the required procedures on their website the next day. Their new policy is more stringent owing to the special circumstances involved. The other government ministries allow applications to register for news conferences to be sent by fax, but the prosecutors want a color copy sent by mail. Reporters will not be allowed anywhere else on the premises other than the site of the news conferences to protect the privacy of those people in the building because of their involvement in prosecutorial investigations. It will also not be possible to tsudaる (tsudaru, and that’s just how the word is rendered on the Internet in Japanese), the current slang term for providing instant updates on Twitter. The word was coined by turning into a verb the surname of journalist Tsuda Daisuke, one of the first of his profession to popularize the use of Twitter.

Independent video journalist Jimbo Tetsuo, who has long fought for access, says:

99% of the objectives have been achieved. There is still a disadvantage for people who cannot film videos, but this should be considered separately from the role played by the opening of news conferences in a democracy.

The prohibition on the filming of independent videos has likely been maintained at the request of the television networks, who wish to protect their monopoly.

One advantage of the new system for the government side is that it might allow them better control of leaks. If an article appears that they suspect contains leaked information, they can now question all the reporters at the news conference about the source of that information. That would not have been possible under the closed press club system.

The two holdouts

The problem with opening the Cabinet Secretariat is the frequency of news conferences. The prime minister might hold a formal news conference once every few months, but the Chief Cabinet Secretary meets the press twice a day. That creates a security and logistics problem in the Kantei, Japan’s version of the White House, and they’re still working that one out.

Meanwhile, the Imperial Household Agency club says it’s looking into the issue and asks for a little more time.

That should not be unexpected. Unlike the situation in Britain, for example, the Japanese media generally treats the Imperial house with deference and respect, and more than a few Japanese prefer it that way. Many would be displeased at the publication of stories with selected excerpts of telephone calls between royal philanderers, or photos of an ex-wife of a prince sucking on the toes of her latest paramour at poolside.

That’s not to say every member of Japan’s Imperial family is a model of rectitude. All Japanese have heard the rumors that Prince Akishino, the brother of the Crown Prince and the father of the boy in line to become Tenno, bonked anything ambulatory in a skirt during his bachelorhood. They’ve also heard that the parents of his wife, Princess Kiko, got fed up with paying for abortions and demanded that his parents either get him to marry her or leave her alone.

Not a panacea

While this is a welcome step, it is certainly no guarantee that it will herald the dawn of a golden age of journalism. That will depend on the behavior of both journalists and politicians in the future, neither of which are paragons.

Writing recently on the Contentions blog of Commentary magazine, John Steele Gordon quoted a political public-relations man: “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the work ethic of the average reporter.”

Journos in the United States might have freer access, but they all too often voluntarily hold their arms out for the handcuffs and snap them shut themselves. The leading print and broadcast media outlets tend to mount the high horse of speaking truth to power and digging up the dirt and making it stick on only one of the two main political parties. Their approach to the other party is sometimes indistinguishable from that in a state-owned media system.

In passing, it should be noted that the two leading newspapers in Japan, the Yomiuri and the Asahi, and their affiliated TV networks, present viewpoints from different sides of the political fence. That means the Japanese news consuming public is offered a greater variety of opinion in the mainstream print media than their fellows in America. There, the primary newspapers, network news operations, and the leading wire service have as much diversity as the grains of rice in a bowl.

Nevertheless, the Japanese media is just as liable to sacrifice in-depth reporting in favor of an appealing story line.

Access without availablity

Another potential difficulty is that politicians will make themselves less available to the news media, regardless of who is allowed to attend their press conferences. Prime Minister Hatoyama has already started limiting his time in his daily informal press briefings, as this English-language report in the Yomiuri points out:

According to The Yomiuri Shimbun’s calculations, in October–right after taking office as prime minister–Hatoyama spent an average of about 12 minutes every weekday answering impromptu questions from reporters, except when he was not in his office for some reason, such as an overseas trip. The longest time he spent answering such questions in a single day was 18 minutes.

In April, however, he spent an average of about six minutes on such questions. This month, he spent about six minutes each on two impromptu rounds of questions by reporters.

Opinions on this new reticence are divided:

Some within the government welcomed the change. “He’s finally become more of a prime minister,” one said. “He’s learned from his own experience about the importance of a prime minister’s words,” another said.

Yes, the Japanese government tries to spin the stories too, regardless of how implausible it sounds.

On the other hand:

(O)ne observer said, “It’s typical in the last days of an administration for a prime minister to become unwilling to answer reporters’ questions.”

That’s because the longer they stay in office, the more difficult it becomes to stand in front of the scribes and videocams with a straight face and pretend that what everyone knows to be fable is fact.

No journalistic reform will ever do anything about that.

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Posted in Government, Mass media, Politics | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Mr. Shii goes to America

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, May 11, 2010

HOW DID YOU SPEND Golden Week? Many Japanese took advantage of the concentrated holiday period from 29 April to 5 May to travel abroad. Last year, 1.03 million Japanese went overseas in May, which represented a 19% plunge from the previous year, the largest decline since concerns over the SARS epidemic kept people at home in 2003.

Nothing keeps those adventuresome young Japanese women home, however—the Japan Travel Bureau estimates that 24.4% of women in their 20s visited a foreign country during Golden Week this year, compared to 12.78% of men the same age.

Shii Kazuo

One of the many Japanese who grabbed their passports and hopped a plane or ship was Shii Kazuo, Chairman of Japan’s Communist Party, who spent the better part of the last fortnight in the United States. Mr. Shii thus became the first head of the JCP to visit the main kennel of the running dogs of capitalism since 1922. While there, he attended the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Conference, hung out with the Swedes at a UN disarmament conference, and addressed the legislature of the state of Vermont. That last one’s not as odd as it might seem. The state’s been sending Bernie Sanders to Congress for the past 20 years, making him the only self-identified socialist in the national legislature. (The other ones masquerade as Democrats to get themselves elected.)

All work and no play makes Kazuo a dull boy, so he also found time to take in a Broadway musical and visit a meeting of an NGO, where he hummed along while the others sang, “We Shall Overcome”.

Mr. Shii has wanted to visit the United States for some time, but until the late 1980s they kept stamping nyet on his visa applications because he told the truth about his Communist Party membership. This time, however, he wrote a personal letter to Barack Obama and got a reply in addition to his visa approval. He held the Presidential epistle aloft for reporters and said:

The American government has torn down the wall of anti-communism!

Ah, but that’s because the Berlin Wall got torn down first. After all, the Soviet Union and its “We Will Bury You” mentality were still alive and pretending to be well in the 1980s. Everyone’s gotten a lot more relaxed now that the political philosophy succumbed to its internal contradictions and its repeated failures wherever it was tried. There are other factors as well. Here’s one. Here’s another.

Asked for his impressions, Chairman Shii said the US had a “unique vitality”. That’s a common response for a tourist in an exciting new country—foreigners visiting Tokyo for the first time often say the same thing. Then again, one of the reasons America has a unique vitality is that it isn’t a communist state. Journalist/humorist P.J. O’Rourke, who visited many Eastern bloc countries behind the Iron Curtain, once wrote they were all “crap-in-your-pants ugly” and “dead from the dick up”. He also observed that communism was to life what pantyhose was to sex.

The JCP chairman’s kind words for the United States may not just be the impressions of a tourist or the flattery of a visiting politician, however. The Japanese Reds have been rehabilitating their view of America for some time now. At their January 2004 party conference, they approved the amendment of the Miyamoto Kenji Doctrine, named after a previous chairman, to eliminate the clause that cited American imperialism and Japanese monopoly capital as the “two enemies”.

The Miyamoto Doctrine of the 1960s itself marked a change of direction for the party because it made favorable references to democracy and freedom, two concepts not usually associated with Marxism.

Mr. Shii has changed his own tune, too. He has lately toned down the criticism of American monopolistic capitalism and replaced it with more favorable encomia. During the most recent party conference in January this year, he said:

We have respect for the great history of the U.S. (for its revolution and democracy)

At the conference, he also cited the letter Karl Marx sent as head of the International Workingmen’s Association in 1864 to Abraham Lincoln to congratulate the latter on his re-election as president. He quoted this passage:

…where hardly a century ago the idea of one great Democratic Republic had first sprung up, whence the first Declaration of the Rights of Man was issued, and the first impulse given to the European revolution of the eighteenth century…

What gives? He’s not running for office, because he’s already a member of the Diet.

The Sankei Shimbun speculates he might be trying to create a softer, more realistic image as part of a process to make the party acceptable as a partner in a future coalition government. The idea is that a more realistic stance will appeal to the growing number of independent voters, which account for about half the electorate.

Every Japanese political party apart from the DPJ and the LDP has been touting itself as a “third pole” (i.e., third force) in politics, especially those that have been formed within the past year. They all can’t be third poles, however, least of all the JCP, whose support in public opinion surveys shifts between the narrow range of 2% to 4%. That’s substantially less than the current support figures of about 10% for Your Party, which was created just last August.

The party enjoyed a surge of membership after the global economic crisis of 2008, but it was not able to translate that into additional Diet seats in the August election. They managed to maintain their previous total of nine seats, while their share of the vote slid to 7.0% from 7.3% in the previous election of 2005. It had been as high as 11.3% in 2000.

That might explain why Mr. Shii and the JCP are trying to present a more realistic front. Even after fears of a global economic collapse, trends are not moving in their direction. If you can’t lick ‘em, join ‘em…right?

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Posted in Holidays, Politics | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Dined and sated

Posted by ampontan on Monday, May 10, 2010

MOST MEN prefer women with hourglass figures, and many prefer the skinny to the fully cushioned, but the guys in Katsuyama, Fukui, have made it a point for centuries to fatten up the local females. For more than 400 years, as a matter of fact.

That’s the idea behind a traditional event formally known as “The Serving of Kannon” (the Buddhist goddess of mercy), but which some women probably think of as the Rice Attack. The event combines a supplication for good health and a good harvest with an acknowledgement of the hard work women do every day of the year. It’s an intangible culture treasure of the city, and the custom is currently continued by 12 families. This year it was held at 8:00 p.m. on 20 February.

The children of the neighborhood collect about 11 liters of rice from the families in the district, which is then steamed and make into gruel (o-kayu). The women and girls sit in a circle and get ready for the food onslaught by covering their laps with a towel.

The men circulate around the room and chant, “This is the serving of Kannon,” and put heaping helpings of rice in their bowls. Judging from their singing and staggering in the video clip below, the men likely passed the time waiting for the rice to cook by filling their own bellies with rice wine.

The women try to cover the rice with their hands, or turn to the wall, but the men keep looking for an opening to fill their bowls until they overflow.

That works as a metaphor for me!

The woman at the end of the 1:16 video, by the way, laughs and says, “Ah, I’m full, I’m full.” Maybe the protestations from the women are mostly for show–they’re clapping and singing during the rice pounding at the start of the video, and they all know what’s coming next.

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Posted in Festivals, Food | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Shimojo Masao (11): Ignorance and incomprehension

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, May 9, 2010

JAPAN AND SOUTH KOREA are currently embroiled in a dispute over the territorial rights of the Takeshima islets (the Liancourt Rocks) in the Sea of Japan. Takeshima became subject to dispute between the two countries on 18 January 1952, about three months before the Treaty of Peace with Japan was to take effect, and the country defeated in war was to return to international society. The South Korean government proclaimed the existence of the Syngman Rhee Line in international waters, and Takeshima was on the Korean side of the line.

From the perspective of historical fact, Takeshima was Japanese territory under the jurisdiction of Shimane Prefecture. In 1905, the Liancourt Rocks, which were technically terra nullius, were given the name Takeshima. Japan continued to effectively rule the area until its defeat in World War II. The South Korean government unilaterally claimed it as Korean territory and occupied it by force in September 1954.

The Japanese government proposed to the South Korean government on 25 September 1954 that the case be taken to the International Court of Justice, but the South Korean rejection of the proposal barred the path to resolution through dialogue. That is where the matter stands today, as Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution says the people “forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes”. The resolution of the Takeshima issue was hopeless as long as the South Koreans would not come to the negotiating table and conduct talks.

The path to discussions opened again in 1994 when the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea came into effect. It became necessary to establish a median line and an Exclusive Economic Zone in accordance with international rules. Therefore, Shimane Prefecture passed an ordinance creating Takeshima Day in 2005, 100 years after the islets were incorporated into the prefecture, to establish its territorial rights.

This met with the fierce objections of then-South Korean President Roh Moo-hyon and Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon (now UN Secretary-General). The South Korean government formulated as a state measure the Presidential Commission on True History for Peace in Northeast Asia, now known as the Northeast Asian History Foundation, and began promulgating anti-Japanese propaganda internationally.

They have used the comfort women issue and the issue of the name of the Sea of Japan (which they call the East Sea) to put a lid on Japanese moves to claim territorial rights to Takeshima by forcing a connection between Shimane Prefecture’s incorporation of Takeshima in 1905 with Japanese rule over the Korean Peninsula that began in 1910, and characterizing Japan as an invading country. As a result, the Takeshima issue has become known internationally. But this South Korean historical awareness, which is not based on historical fact, has caused confusion in the international community.

They have also taken out full-page ads in the New York Times and Washington Post claiming that Takeshima is Korean territory, as well as purchased advertising promoting their view of Takeshima on outdoor electrical signboards in New York’s Times Square. After Koreans in the United States bought advertising on billboards along Los Angeles expressways claiming that Takeshima was Korean territory, the Japanese embassy demanded that they be taken down. That resulted in an escalation of the activities of Koreans in the U.S., who thronged to the Japanese consulate to demonstrate.

It is not a fact that Takeshima was historically Korean territory, however, and the historical basis claimed by South Korea is in error. On 15 April this year, Chung Mong-joon, the president of the ruling Grand National Party of South Korea, visited Japan to gave an address. He claimed, “Takeshima has been Korean territory since the Silla period,” and added the criticism that, “The voices of the nationalist politicians in Japan are growing louder, which should be a matter of concern.”

There is no basis for Mr. Chung’s statements.

Chung Mong-joon thinks that Takeshima has been Korean territory since the Silla period because of a section in the Samguk Sagi (Chronicle of the History of Three Countries; i.e., Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla) written in the 12th century. That section claims the territory of Usan was part of the Silla kingdom. The South Korean story is that the island of Ulleung and the subsidiary islets of Takeshima were part of Usan.

That interpretation of the text is incorrect, however. The South Koreans base their assertion that the Takeshima islets were a subsidiary part of Ulleung, and that Takeshima has been Korean territory since the sixth century, on a note included in the Dongguk Munheon Bigo (Explanatory Notes for Korean Documents), which was compiled in 1770. It contains this passage: “According to the Yeojiji (Topographical Records), Ulleung (island) and Usan (island) are all part of the Usan territory. Usan is therefore what the Japanese call Matsushima (now Takeshima).”

The note to the Dongguk Munheon Bigo, however, has already been demonstrated to have been an alteration of the original text added by an editor. The original wording of the Yeojiji says that “Ulleung and Usan are the same island”. Thus it is clearly a fact that Takeshima was neither a subsidiary part of Ulleung nor of Usan.

In addition, the 512 clause in Samguk Sagi defines the borders of Usan. It says the island is about 100 li wide, with the South Korean li being about 400 meters. The ancient Chinese characters used for this expression, however, are not an accurate measurement for the size of Usan. They refer only to the island of Ulleung. The Samguk Yusa compiled in the 13th century says that the circumference of Usan is about 48 kilometers, which is the same as that for Ulleung. Therefore, Takeshima, which lies about 90 kilometers to the southeast of Ulleung, was not a subsidiary part of Usan.

Despite the absence of a historical basis, Chung Mong-joon visits Japan and says, “The past that the victim remembers and the memory of the past for which the victimizer repents must conform.” Thus the Korean victimizer that invaded Takeshima criticizes the victim Japan. The proliferation of these irresponsible words and deeds is due to a lazy textual analysis. The arbitrary interpretation of the text is the responsibility of South Korean researchers.

Hosaka Yuji, a naturalized Korean born in Japan who has kept his Japanese name, argues the Korean position on Takeshima. He said in a newspaper interview, “Takeshima became Korean territory after the Usan territory, which ruled both Ulleung and Usan (Takeshima), surrendered to Silla in 512. There are many Korean and Japanese documents that attest to this fact.” This is a typical example of the arbitrary interpretation of the clause about the year 512 in the Samguk Sagi.

How then has the Japanese government responded to South Korea, which continues to illegally occupy Takeshima? When questioned about the Takeshima issue before the Foreign Affairs Committee of the lower house of the Diet this February, Foreign Minister Okada Katsuya said, “I have decided in my heart not to use that expression (illegal occupation) so as not to elicit unneeded friction, and am conducting negotiations (in that way).” He has kept silent about the ongoing South Korean work to upgrade the heliport on the islets and to build maritime bases nearby.

Is this the intent of Prime Minister Hatoyama, who visited South Korea as DPJ secretary-general in May 2006? According to the October 2009 edition of the Monthly Chosun, Mr. Hatoyama was lectured for ninety minutes by the aforementioned Hosaka Yuji. The Japanese prime minister told then-Korean Prime Minister Han Myeong-suk, “All the territorial issues begin with history. It is necessary that I make an effort so that Japan has a more accurate understanding of historical fact in regard to the Takeshima issue.”

The South Koreans create a ruckus about Japanese historical distortions despite a far from satisfactory ability to read the relevant texts, and Japanese politicians in the DPJ administration have swallowed those South Korean claims whole. They themselves would cover up the fact that Japan was invaded. With this ignorance and incomprehension, has not the time come when it would benefit the people of both Japan and South Korea to have knowledge of that ignorance?

- Shimojo Masao

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Posted in History, International relations, South Korea | Tagged: , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Getting ready for a rumble?

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, May 8, 2010

THE PHOTO at this link to an article in the New Scientist shows two of Japan’s most recognizable visual symbols: cherries in bloom and Mt. Fuji.

Kaneko Takayuki at the University of Tokyo’s Volcano Research Center is starting to wonder how long one of those symbols will remain in its present form.

Prof. Kaneko has been conducting research into the dormant volcano’s structure and composition. As a result:

He says the deep rumble of low-frequency earthquakes beneath Fuji in 2000 and 2001 suggests movement inside the basaltic magma chamber, and adds he would not be surprised if Fuji erupts in the very near future.

Meanwhile, Phil Shane of the University of Auckland in New Zealand thinks not enough is known about Fuji to make that suggestion.

It might not erupt, but that’s by no means out of the question. Mt. Unzen had been dormant for 199 years until its 1991 eruption killed 43 people, including three scientists. Fuji-san has been quiet since 1707. There have been 10 volcanic eruptions in Japan during the last decade, one of which occurred last year at Sakurajima just offshore Kagoshima City. Its 1914 eruption was said to have been the most powerful in Japan in the 20th century.

Kagoshima City is an attractive place, and I once asked my wife what she thought about moving there. She nixed it immediately—Sakurajima regularly emits enough ash that hanging clothes out to dry can make them dirtier than before they were washed. We live about a two-hour drive from Unzen, and that eruption covered our car in ash like a light snowfall.

In addition to the lives lost or property destroyed, however, the disaster of a Mt. Fuji eruption would be compounded by the psychological impact of disfiguring a national icon.

Posted in Science and technology | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

 
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