AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Archive for September, 2011

Surprise

Posted by ampontan on Friday, September 30, 2011

THE Canada.com website files a post that says, in full:

With the recent spotlight on the debt crisis in Greece and other European nations, we take a look at the countries that are most in debt, calculated by the World Bank’s data on gross external debt as a percentage of the GDP. The top ranking nations may surprise you.

They then provide a list the top 20 nations with thumbnail photos below the post. It is surprising, but not astonishing if one notes carefully the condition of “gross external debt as a percentage of the GDP”.

Japan is not among the top 20. In fact, the only Asian entity to appear is Hong Kong at 12. The list is here.

Posted in Business, finance and the economy | 7 Comments »

Matsuri da! (118): Bug off!

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, September 25, 2011

ARE the folks in Ichikikushikino, Kagoshima, keeping it a secret because it works so well, or because they don’t want other people to catch them in the act?

Yesterday, 35 children in this town of 30,000 staged the annual Mushioi Odori — the Dance to Drive out the Insects — in 12 locations to the accompaniment of drums and bells. Most of the dancers were primary school students, but a few junior high and high school students were mixed in as well.

In addition to serving as a bug repellent, the dance is performed in supplication for a bountiful harvest, which is certainly a congruent objective. Most impressive, however, is the costume they wear for the dance, which you can see from the photo. How many kids do you know who would be willing to prance around in public wearing that on their backs? Either they’ve got that southern let-it-all-hang-out attitude, or their parents have extraordinary powers of persuasion.

You might expect insects to be oblivious to this sort of thing, but it must be effective, because the Ichikikushikinoans keep performing it every year. There’s even a special committee that organizes the event to pass on the traditional art. And here’s the most curious aspect of all — this is the extent of the information I was able to dig up about this event on the web. There is no word on whether the dance is associated with a Shinto shrine, how long it’s been performed, or the story behind those three multicolored whatevers. Not only are there no videos on YouTube, the town’s own website doesn’t publicize it as a local event.

The Japanese are always the first to be intrigued and amused by their unusual festivals and events. For them to have overlooked this one is unusual in itself!

*****
Ain’t no bugs on these Brazilians in New Orleans, either. It must be the costumes and the dancing after all.

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

The little rascals

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, September 24, 2011

IT didn’t take long for Japan’s media to come up with a nickname for Prime Minister Noda’s Cabinet. In some quarters, they’re now known as the “Chibikko Gang”. That’s how the Japanese translated the name of the troupe of children that starred in the Our Gang comedy shorts made in Hollywood from 1922 until 1944.

No, it is not a term of endearment.

The two main reasons for the selection of the nickname are the new Foreign Minister, Gemba Koiichiro (47), and the new Finance Minister, Azumi Jun (49). Mr. Gemba was elected to the Fukushima Prefectural Assembly at the age of 26. He won election to the lower house of the Diet two years later. His previous Cabinet experience consists of positions created to pander to passing fancies rather than do any real work — three months in the first Kan Cabinet with the responsibility for sexual equality in the workplace, the population decline, and the creation of a new public commons. The latter was a Kan inspiration for building a bottom-up leftist government from the top down. He then was given responsibility for science and technology policy this January.

Mr. Azumi was an NHK announcer for eight years before he was elected to the Diet. He was the host of the network’s Sunday morning political discussion program for a few of those years. He was deputy defense minister for four months in the first Kan Cabinet, and then became the party’s Diet affairs chairman in January. And there you have his resume.

But this doesn’t require a detailed explanation. All you have to do is look.

Here’s a photo of Mr. Gemba and Mr. Noda in the Diet.

And here’s Mr. Azumi meeting World Bank President Robert Zoellick this week:

Now you know the reason for the Chibikko Gang nickname. You also know the reason it’s generally assumed that foreign and fiscal policy are being formulated and executed by the bureaucrats, and enunciated by the ventriloquist’s dummies seated on their laps. Everyone’s long forgotten the DPJ’s pledge to wrest political control from Kasumigaseki.

It is to sigh. The DPJ was finally able to give the country an adult as prime minister on the third try in Mr. Noda. Unfortunately, he was unable to do the same for two of the only four essential Cabinet positions in any government.

*****
What could possibly go wrong when children are given adult roles?

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

China’s got problems of its own

Posted by ampontan on Friday, September 23, 2011

MUCH of the discussion of China in the business and financial section of the American media these days consists of teeth-gnashing laments over their trade deficits with and indebtedness to the emerging global power. People have recently been made aware that the Chinese hold so much American government debt that interest payments on the debt will be large enough to completely fund the People’s Liberation Army by as early as 2015.

The view from Asia, however, offers a different perspective. Japanese journalist Miyazaki Masahiro provided a brief description of that view recently, and here it is in English.

*****
The dramatic change in Chinese trade patterns: The drastic decline in the trade surplus

The Chinese trade surplus is growing with the United States and the EU, but that country has a large deficit with resource-exporting countries. Their deficit with Australia is roughly equivalent to their recent surplus with the U.S.

China imports coal, natural gas, minerals, rare earth metals, and other natural resources from Australia. The unfavorable trade balance for China is about to reach $US 40 billion. They also have deficits with Canada, Brazil, and other resource-producing countries.

The Chinese import core parts, components, and high-tech products from Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, and their deficit with those countries remains unchanged. It is close to $US 30 billion with South Korea alone. The trade deficit with Japan is said to be a constant, but it has somewhat improved to roughly $US 22 billion. Japan continues to import vegetables, grains, seafood, as well as processed food products from China.

Chinese foreign exchange reserves are several times greater than their trade surplus, and direct investment in the country amounts to more than $US 100 billion. The influx of speculative investment is also thought to be several times greater than the trade surplus.

Meanwhile, the trade surplus remains unchanged with the countries of the EU, particularly Great Britain, France, and Italy. The surplus with the U.S. is greater than $US 30 billion, and about $18 billion with India.

Overall, however, the pattern of rising national wealth fueled by trade surpluses is undergoing a dramatic change. Attention will be focused in the future on the contours of the curve in the distortion that occurs during the structural transition from an export-oriented nation to an import-dependent nation.

Regardless, the age in which China was the world’s factory with cheap labor is assuredly coming to an end.
(end translation)

*****
Meanwhile, Gordon Chang asks in Forbes: How can China save Europe when it’s defaulting on its own debt?

He explains:

About 85% of Liaoning province’s 184 financing companies defaulted on debt service payments in 2010 according to a report from the province’s Audit Office. The report also noted that 120 of these borrowers, de facto government agencies, operated at a loss last year.

Since 1994, provinces and lower-tier governments have not been permitted to issue bonds or borrow from banks. Despite the strict prohibition, their debt has skyrocketed as local officials incurred obligations through LGFVs, local government finance vehicles. The central government’s National Audit Office said these companies, at the end of last year, had taken on 10.7 trillion yuan of debt. No one, however, knows the true amount of LGFV indebtedness, and some have calculated the real amount to be more than double the official figure.

Due to a combination of circumstances:

China’s debt-fueled growth is slowing fast, probably faster than official GDP figures indicate…Xu Lin, a senior official at the National Development and Reform Commission, says there is no need to “panic,” but there are plenty of reasons to think that China’s economy is already landing hard. And a hard landing will soon cause LGFV defaults around the country, which will roil banks. Fitch early this month put China’s local-currency debt on downgrade watch due to concerns about bank asset quality and general concerns about financial stability.

*****
Then there’s the Chinese real estate bubble. Said the Wall Street Journal earlier this summer:

AFTER years of housing prices gone wild, China’s property bubble is starting to deflate.

That’s a relative term, of course:

Beijing has one of the most expensive real-estate markets in the world relative to the income of its citizens.

Calculations based on Soufun data show that in the opening months of 2006 an average-price new apartment in China’s capital would cost around $US100,000 — the equivalent of 32 years’ disposable income for the average resident.

By 2011, the average price had more than doubled to $US250,000, but relatively modest increases in income mean it would now take 57 years of saving for the average resident to cover the cost.

Why are falling prices a problem?

Residential prices are heading downward in some major cities, damping some undesired real-estate speculation but raising the prospect that the Chinese economy may slow more rapidly than anticipated with profound consequences for global growth.

Some countries have market risk, some have currency exchange risk, and some have inflation risk. As always with China, however, there is honesty risk:

A number of analysts think official data, which has continued to show a slight rise in prices, understate the slowdown as the government can affect the numbers by pressing developers to withhold or add high-value properties to the market depending on what it wants the data to show.

*****
Everyone in the United States and Europe sees and hears the Big Train coming round the bend, but those governments seem intent on finding ways to stay lashed to the tracks instead of fleeing or derailing the locomotive. Now, some people are taking notice that the Chinese might be tied to the same tracks themselves.

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Posted in Business, finance and the economy, China, International relations | 12 Comments »

Betting on the bulls now legal

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, September 22, 2011

IN MOST Western countries where bullfighting is performed in front of spectators in the guise of an art form, the fight ends when the matador kills the bull in the ring. (They are killed outside the ring in Portugal after the fight.) Indeed, there are reports that as many as 24,000 of the specially bred bulls are killed every year in bullfights in Spain. The artistry is held to derive from the toreador’s interpretative moves while very close to the bull, which means that he is in danger of being gored or trampled. To minimize that possibility, the bull is tranquilized, weakened by laxatives, beaten in the kidneys, partially blinded by petroleum jelly, confined in darkness before the fight, and stabbed by picadors and other men immediately after it enters the ring.

Bullfighting is also performed in front of spectators in Japan, Korea, and China. There is one significant difference, however — in this part of the world, two bulls face off against each other rather than a drugged and blinded bull charging a bully wearing a funny hat, tight pants, and twirling a cape and a sword. The winner is determined when the other bull backs off and runs away, and both bulls survive the match.

This academic paper (.pdf) offers a brief but informative description of bullfighting in Japan:

Although bullfighting occurs in six Japanese prefectures – Okinawa, Kagoshima, Ehime, Shimane, Niigata and Iwate – it is most popular in the Okinawa islands, in the Amami islands of Kagoshima prefecture and in Ehime. In Okinawa, there are eleven bullrings and thirty games a year in six locations – Okinawa City, Uruma, Ginowan, Motobu, Imakijin, and Yontani. (On the island of) Tokunoshima (Amami), there are thirteen bullrings in Tokunoshima, Isen, and Amagi and twenty games a year. In Ehime, there is one bullring, in Uwajima and five games a year.

This is what happens after a bullfight in Spain:

This is what happens after a bullfight in Japan:

The winning bull’s owner, his family and supporters always spill into the bullring to show their delight by riding on the back of the bull and dancing with hands and legs while singing Waido-bushi.

In South Korea, meanwhile, a bullfighting festival is held every year in Cheongdo:

The age-old tradition of Korean bullfighting is no longer just a simple tournament. While it was once only basic bullfighting, the sport has developed into an international event hosting tournaments such as a national bullfighting tournament, a Korea-Japan bullfighting festival, a rodeo tournament with US Army force participants in Korea, a tournament by world-renowned professional bullfight champions and the national bullfight picture-taking tournament.

The Cheongdo Bullfighting Festival is held for five days in April in that city in the southeastern part of the Korean Peninsula, about one hour north of Busan by train. It attracts roughly 300,000 people, some of whom come from Japan. (The festival website has a Japanese page to facilitate visits.) In fact, bullfighting is part of the thriving non-governmental exchange between Japan and South Korea. Here’s another passage from that academic paper:

There has been an exchange program between Korea and Tokunoshima since 1999 when three Tokunoshiman black bulls were sent to Chongdo and fought against Korean red bulls. The match was named the ‘Korea-Japan match-up’ and attracted an audience of several hundred thousand in Chongdo. After the event, goodwill ambassadors from Chongdo were sent to Tokunoshima. Honorable guests were also sent to the Bullfighting Summit in Japan (the fifth in 2002, the eighth in 2005 and the ninth in 2006).

The bullfighting in Cheongdo isn’t limited to the five-day festival, however. There are matches every weekend throughout the year in a domed ring with a capacity of 12,000. There’s no telling how the bulls will behave, so a 30-minute time limit has been set for each match. Ten matches a day are held in the 31-meter ring.

The spectacle is popular enough in South Korea that, starting on the 3rd of this month, spectators can now wager on the bulls, with the chance to win anywhere from KRW 100 to 100,000. (The max is only about $US 87.00 or JPY 6,644.) It is South Korea’s first public sector gambling operation.

Here’s a look at the Cheongdo bullfighting festival with red bulls:

And here are some scenes from Tokunoshima bullfights with black bulls, though the last features a battle between le rouge et le noir. There’s also a scene of the happy supporters riding the back of one of the winners. The last one on the bull’s back might be about the same age (six) at which some Mexican bullfighting schools accept trainees.

As a rule, my position is that comparisons are odious, particularly comparisons between East and West. This is one of the exceptions to the rule.

Afterwords:

The title of the academic paper is Transperipheral Networks. While it is worth reading to learn about Japanese bullfighting, it was written to present a different argument. As so often happens in the social sciences, the argument is trite and already obvious to the average junior high school student:

The Bullfighting and cattle raising networks discussed in this paper show that major centres are not essential to cross-regional networking. In this manner, the seemingly ‘backward’ activity of bullfighting shares aspects with the more general globalisation of information in which every (facilitated) individual in the world can relate to each other through the medium of the internet. The formation of a ‘transperipheral’ network among the bullfighting areas thereby suggests another entrance to the world of globalisation that actively counters the massification and homogenisation of centrally-produced culture in favour of translocal difference.

Ah, well. On the one hand, it gives the three authors something to do with their time and keeps them off the streets. On the other, all the authors are affiliated with Kagoshima University. That’s a national university, which means the professors are paid with public funds.

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Posted in Festivals, Japanese-Korean amity, Popular culture, South Korea, Traditions | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

Cruisin’

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, September 18, 2011

PEOPLE who think they have to go out of their way to find current events-based political or social satire just don’t know where to look. Alert observers have long understood that actual events and their presentation by witless media jesters contain more real mirth than anything contrived for a mass audience. Why buy a ticket or sit through commercials to consume the humor of expensive gag writers? Pay attention and the comedy comes to you.

And here comes example number one from USA Today Travel:

North Korea’s first cruise ship set sail last week with 130 or so passengers, most of them Chinese tour operators and foreign journalists traveling on a junket, an attempt by the poverty-stricken pariah state to woo visitors – and foreign currency.

See what I mean?

“A lot of people like going to obscure places. And this is the most obscure part of a very obscure country in tourism terms — the least visited part of the least visited country,” Simon Cockerell head of the Koryo Group, a Beijing-based tour operator specializing in North Korea, told AFP.

I’m willing to bet cash money that the intrepid travelers flush enough to make this trip to Obscuria and fork over their foreign currency to the Kim Family Regime are the same sort of people — if not the same people and their children — who insisted on economic sanctions of the South African government a generation ago to prevent them from getting their hands on foreign currency. And I’d wheel a quinella that they’ll use the experience of their vacation cruise as material for an arch monologue at the dinner party they’ll throw when they get back home.

The newly refurbished, yet reportedly rusty, 39-year-old Man Gyong Bong, a former ferry, made the 21-hour cruise from the coastal city of Rason to the resort area of Mount Kumgang.

To get the joke, you have to know that the Man Gyong Bong is the same ship that once cruised between North Korea and Niigata, Japan, until the Japanese prohibited its entry as a navis non grata. But now it’s been refurbished, or “repurposed” as an article in the Huffington Post amusingly had it.

Understatement makes for the most elegant of satire:

The mountain resort opened in 1998 with financing from South Korea and the prospect of thawing the freeze that has existed between the two Koreas since 1953. A series of problems – including the shooting death of a South Korean tourist in 2008 by a North Korean guard – didn’t help business. Then last month, the North Koreans seized the resort’s assets. Now they’re actively seeking Chinese visitors, London’s Daily Mail reports.

Dumb and Dumberer must be one of the Western films in the Dear Leader’s personal library. The North Koreans had an excellent source of foreign currency through a resort at a tourist destination that the South Koreans paid for because many South Koreans were willing to pay to visit. But killing a tourist and nationalizing the facility is not the sort of hospitable welcome that will attract well-to-do Chinese and Americans with money to burn for trips to obscure locations.

Americans comprise a tiny segment of foreign visitors to North Korea, whose tourist scene isn’t exactly robust. But 2012, the 100th anniversary of the birth of “Eternal President” Kim Il Sung (which could spark some spectacular public spectacles) could be an opportune time to visit.

One wonders whether USA Today Travel would have thought the Rally of Victory during the fifth Nazi Party Congress in Nuremburg — recorded for posterity by Leni Riefenstahl — was another spectacular spectacle that could have been an opportune time to visit.

The English-language edition of the Asahi Shimbun was just as entertaining. Their humor starts with the dateline:

MOUNT KUMGANGSAN, North Korea

Though the USA Today sensibly stuck with Mt. Kumgang, the Asahi retained the – san suffix, which means “mountain”. In other words, the Asahi journalist is filing a report from Mt. Kumgang Mountain. It’s even funnier when you realize that the same construction is used in Japanese for Japanese mountains. The patient explanations of the redundancy by the Japanese over the past few decades have resulted in smoother usage everywhere but in a Japanese newspaper.

The ship, the Man Gyong Bong, used to ply a route from North Korea to Japan, but Tokyo banned port visits to protest North Korean missile tests in 2006.

To which should be added the Japanese suspicion that Japanese-born Korean nationals with ties to the North were using it to transport hard Japanese currency. And let’s not forget that a former North Korean engineer testified before the U.S. Congress that the vessel was also used to ship missile parts.

Some stories are so good they’re worth repeating.

North Korea, which desperately needs foreign currency, is hoping to woo Chinese to the Mount Kumgangsan resort to fill the void left by South Korean visitors after a woman tourist was shot dead by a North Korean soldier in 2008.

And the result:

The disappearance of South Korean tourists is believed to have dealt a serious blow to the North Korean economy. South Korean sources estimate that North Korea gained at least $480 million (37 billion yen) from the inflow of South Korean tourists.

Pyeongyang has regrouped by formulating a business plan:

North Korean authorities hope to attract 100,000 Chinese tourists a year.

Here’s how they’ve executed that plan:

(F)acilities on the Man Gyong Bong are pretty primitive. The wash basin did not work most of the time.

Orange-colored lifesaving equipment was manufactured in August 1988, according to descriptions written in Japanese.

It took 27 hours from Mount Kumgangsan to Rason, seven hours longer than scheduled, because of strong winds, according to a sailor.

How long will it be before they decide to speed up the voyage by employing the enormous labor pool at local concentration camps as galley slaves?

The ship was repainted just a week ago and finished trial operations the day before we went out.

Unfortunately, the Asahi reporter didn’t mention whether the entire ship has been painted this time. When it sporadically sailed to Japan, there were reports in the Japanese media that only half of the Man Gyong Bong had been painted — that half of the ship facing the shore when docked.

The North Korean authorities seem to like that half-and-half concept. Here’s the painted side of the resort:

Mount Kumgangsan was almost deserted the day we visited. A bathing resort on a stretch of a white sand beach was desolate, duty-free and other stores were closed, and a beautifully tended golf course was empty.

And the unpainted side of the resort:

Barbed wire lined the roads, and soldiers kept guard. Many districts had signs that they are managed by the military, and there were warnings of land mines.

No wonder the golf course was empty. What duffer would risk life, limb, and his favorite mashie niblick after his drive sliced off the fairway?

A Chinese media representative said, “North Korea has made more progress in opening up its economy to foreigners than before.”

Yes, they haven’t gunned down any tourists for three years now.

Eavesdropping on the arguments between the Joseon neighbors is always entertaining:

Kim Guang Yun, a senior North Korean government official in charge of the Mount Kumgangsan international tourist zone, was scathing of South Korea’s decision to suspend tours to the mountain resort.

“It is the South Korean government that suspended the Mount Kumgangsan tourism for three years for political purposes and broke the long-term contract (to develop the area),” Kim told the participants of the observation tour. “I want you to clearly understand this point.”

Gotcha.

According to South Korean officials, North Korea gave 50-year exclusive rights to the Hyundai group and agreed to solve disputes through negotiations and protect investors’ assets. But North Korea announced last year that it would confiscate the assets held by the South Korean government. It also deprived the Hyundai group of exclusive rights this year. Sources said South Korean companies, including Hyundai Asan, invested a total of $320 million in the Mount Kumgangsan area.

Meanwhile, the South Koreans display their own considerable talent for farce:

The South Korean government is considering bringing the case to an international organization to settle the dispute.

When another country steals their steals their property and kills their citizens, they’re hot to trot to an international organization for dispute resolution. When they stole Takeshima from Japan and killed some Japanese citizens during the heist, and the Japanese suggested dispute resolution by an international organization, they just got hot.

Taking the comedy to another dimension is a YouTube video of a report on the cruise. If the scenes of the sink, the staterooms, and the on-board entertainment don’t have you boiling tea in your navel, the narration surely will. The author was shooting for the pose of ironic snark that passes for wit and repartee in some circles these days, but he missed so badly it’s turned into two minutes of verbal pratfall.

And speaking of verbal pratfalls, wait’ll you hear the narrator’s pronunciation of “karaoke”.

Really, this story has more laughs per minute than The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, with the bonus of not having to watch the host mug shamelessly for the camera or playing pretend on different levels.

Finally, if the people in charge of this enterprise are thinking of hiring Western entertainers for the Man Gyong Bong cruises, here’s the perfect match. The combination of performer, performance, and audience are funnier by accident than the previous video tries to be on purpose, and Kim II’s heir apparent Kim Jong-Un could mingle with the other candidates for metabolic syndrome and feel right at home

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Posted in International relations, North Korea, South Korea, Travel | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Ichigen koji (59)

Posted by ampontan on Friday, September 16, 2011

一言居士
– A person who has something to say about everything

Reform is not possible with the Democratic Party of Japan government. I would like to work under a motivated prime minister and Cabinet minister after there is a change in government.

- Koga Shigeaki, METI bureaucrat and reformer, after announcing that he will resign later this month. He later withdrew that statement after METI head Edano Yukio said at a news conference it was not a matter he should deal with personally. Mr. Edano had originally encouraged Mr. Koga to resign.

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Posted in Government, Quotations | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Kiyohiko Senba and the Haniwa All-Stars Live

Posted by ampontan on Friday, September 16, 2011

WATCH the video to the end and your brain will spontaneously create new synapses to transport all the delightfully perky electrons that it sends your way. The name of the “song” is Tai-ikusai, or Sports Festival. It sounds and looks like something Frank Zappa might have composed had he been Asian and had a sunnier disposition.

Haniwa, by the way, were clay and terra cotta sculptures buried in the tombs of the elites in the pre-Buddhist era.

Posted in Music | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

The Hasegawa-Hachiro interview

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, September 15, 2011

TAKAHASHI Yoichi might have been the first to smell something fishy in the news media’s version of the second of former Economy, Trade, and Industry Minister Hachiro Yoshio’s two gaffes. Mr. Hachiro might have survived the first one, but the second resulted in his resignation.

Mr. Takahashi, a Finance Ministry veteran and a proponent of a radical reform of the bureaucracy, noticed there were variations in the Hachiro comment as quoted by the major media outlets. He provided the following list.

* “I’ll contaminate you with radiation.” Sankei Shimbun 9 September 23:51
「放射能をうつしてやる」

* “I’ll contaminate you with radiation.” Kyodo 10 September 00:07
「放射能をうつしてやる」

* “I’ll put some radiation on you.” Asahi Shimbun 10 September 01:30
「放射能をつけちゃうぞ」

* “I’ve put some radiation on you.” Mainichi Shimbun / 10 September 02:59
「放射能をつけたぞ」

* “Hey, it’s radiation!” Yomiuri Shimbun / 10 September 03:03
「ほら、放射能」

* “How about if I put some radiation on you?” Nikkei Shimbun / 10 September 13:34
「放射能をつけてやろうか」

* “I’ll give you some of this radiation.” FNN 10 September 15:05
「放射能を分けてやるよ」

To be sure, the Japanese news media tends to be less rigorous than their Western counterparts about presenting direct quotes that precisely represent what someone said. One bad habit in particular is ignoring the use of the ellipsis when eliminating some of the quoted matter. Another is a failure to provide sufficient context.

Nevertheless, Mr. Hachiro’s statement was short and made directly to a small group of people. There should have been little, if any, variation.

Hasegawa Yukihiro, a member of the editorial staff of the Tokyo Shimbun, is another proponent of bureaucratic reform. He became radicalized after serving on what the Americans would call a blue ribbon panel during the Abe administration, when he saw first-hand how bureaucrats attempted to usurp the role of policy formulation from politicians and to destroy politicians that opposed them.

Mr. Hasegawa’s suspicions were such that he arranged for an interview with Mr. Hachiro about the incident. It appeared on the 13th in Gendai Business Online and was updated yesterday. The interview started with Mr. Hachiro’s admission that he did use the phrase “town of death” about the area surrounding the Fukushima nuclear plant. That was the first gaffe, and he apologized again for it. Here is most of the rest in English.

*****
Hasegawa: Tell us about your informal discussion with reporters on the night of the 8th.

Hachiro: About five or six reporters were waiting for me when I returned to the lodgings for Diet members in Akasaka after my observation trip. I think they were all from the business/economy desk. Until then, I hadn’t had any relations with (reporters from) the business/economy desk, so I knew none of them by sight. I think there were two reporters from the political desk in the rear. I know them.

I had a radiation dosimeter when I was in the area of the nuclear power plant. My reading for the day was 85 microsieverts (N.B.: Higher than normal but not a serious dose.) I clearly remember telling the reporters those numbers. (The reporter who wrote) an article in the Asahi (on 13 September) said, “I peeked at the dosimeter and read the numbers.” That is not correct. I left the dosimeter in J Village (the base for the plant workers in Fukushima).

Hasegawa: Did you really say “I’ll contaminate you with radiation”?

Hachiro: I truly have no memory of saying either “I’ll contaminate you”, or “I’ll give you some”. I might have said, “Hey”, but I don’t even remember that clearly. There’s a report that I said, “Hey, radiation”, but I don’t know if I used the word “radiation”.

What I can say clearly is that I made no gesture of rubbing my work clothes (the overalls Japanese politicians wear at sites where a suit would be inappropriate) on the reporters. I might have taken a step toward the reporters, but I didn’t make any move as if I were going to rub against them. I would remember it if I had.

Hasegawa: Didn’t the reporters record your statements?

Hachiro: I don’t think they did.

Hasegawa: According to the Asahi article, the first report of the “I’ll contaminate you with radiation” statement was by Fuji Television (FNN). Was the Fuji reporter there that night?

Hachiro: FNN wasn’t there. The FNN reporter is XXX, a woman, so I would know if she was there.

Hasegawa: To ask bluntly, there is a theory that (you) were framed by the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry. What do you think?

Hachiro: That’s speculation. I have my own guess, but I don’t want to talk about it.

Hasegawa: Didn’t you have a dispute with the bureaucracy? A story is circulating that you were thinking of replacing some of the senior ministry personnel.

Hachiro: I’ve never discussed with anyone what I should do with the senior ministry personnel.

Hasegawa: What are your ideas for reducing the reliance on nuclear energy and energy policy?

Hachiro: There is a two-tiered arrangement for studying this issue. The government has the Energy-Environment Council at the ministerial level, and METI has the Advisory Committee for Natural Resources and Energy. The former is not based in law, but the latter is (the Ministry of Economy and Industries Establishment Act). The Advisory Committee will submit an interim report this year and a formal report next year.

In June, before I was appointed, an internal decision had already been made on the personnel for the Advisory Committee. There were 15, three of whom were opposed to nuclear energy, with the other 12 in favor. After the nuclear accident, I thought we would not gain the understanding of the people unless there was at least a 50-50 balance between those opposed and those in favor. So, I intended to add nine or 10 people opposed to nuclear energy to bring their total up to 12 or 13. The number of committee members was not fixed, so there would have been a balance of about 12 supporters and 12 in opposition.

Hasegawa: The bureaucracy opposed that, didn’t they?

Hachiro: Their answer was that they understood. I had already finished selecting the people from my list of candidates, and all that was left was to announce it at a news conference.

Hasegawa: I’ll ask again. Didn’t you have a sharp disagreement with the bureaucracy? Feigning obedience to your face and opposing you behind your back is one of their specialities.

Hachiro: My mind was made up from the start. I did not want a report with content that presented just one opinion. I wanted both support and opposition. In the end, the Advisory Council would make the decision, so (I thought) it would be a good idea to combine both positions in a report from the government. I gave my list to my successor Edano Yukio. Now the decision is up to him.

Hasegawa: One of the reporters at the news conference during which you announced your resignation shouted out “What are you talking about with this ‘creating a sense of distrust’? I told you to explain!” (N.B.: Other people in the news media have also criticized that unidentified reporter, and referred to his tone and word choice as being yakuza-like.) What did you think of that question?

Hachiro: That reporter and his superior just came to my office a while ago to apologize. I didn’t think anything of it. I said it wasn’t necessary to blame either the reporter or his superior. It’s just their job.

*****
After the interview appeared on the web, the FNN public relations office called the Gendai Business editors on the afternoon of the 14th. The person calling said:

An FNN reporter was present at the conversation with Mr. Hachiro. It’s regrettable that you did not ask us about this.

Later that afternoon, Mr. Hasegawa again spoke to Mr. Hachiro. The latter said, “The female reporter wasn’t present.” When asked if a male he didn’t know might have been there, he answered, “I don’t think a male reporter was there either, but…”

*****
You can see where Mr. Hasegawa is going with this. The lobby within METI that favors maintaining nuclear energy saw Mr. Hachiro as a threat and, perhaps sensing some weakness, moved quickly to be rid of him. That also serves as a warning to the Noda Cabinet and the DPJ.

Mr. Hasegawa explains that the bureaucracy considered the Advisory Committee within the ministry to be the critical group. The council at the ministerial level did not have a statutory basis and could be eliminated with a change of government. That would also dispose of their decisions. The Advisory Committee is a different matter, however. They would submit an official government report containing more than one opinion, which might have a major impact on energy policy. Therefore, Mr. Hasegawa suggests, they could not afford to ignore it.

Note that Mr. Hasegawa thinks it is very possible the ministry (or someone) manipulated the news media. Indeed, he has written an award-winning book (and many articles) explaining how the bureaucracy thinks the manipulation of public opinion through the news media, and the formulation of policy through the manipulation of politicians, is part of their job. Media outlets that don’t cooperate get shut out of the information loop. I’ve explained several times here how some believe the Finance Ministry deliberately created an environment that led to an upper house election loss during the Hashimoto administration when then-Prime Minister Hashimoto wanted to create an independent ministry for the oversight of the financial industry. In addition, when the Abe Cabinet moved forward with the privatization of the Social Insurance Agency, agency personnel revealed the mishandling of retirement accounts dating from a decade earlier. That effectively ended the Abe Cabinet.

Most noteworthy of all, however, is that neither Mr. Hachiro nor anyone in the DPJ is fighting back. It is as if they think this is a fight they can’t win.

*****
This just in: New METI chief Edano Yukio has instructed another reform bureaucrat, Koga Shigeaki, to begin preparations for resigning.

A METI official, Mr. Koga has offered sweeping proposals for reform of Japan’s power industry in general and Tokyo Electric in particular. He’s also published two books within the space of a year. This has so displeased his superiors at METI that they first tried to force him to resign, and then treated him as a potted plant and stuck him by the side of the window.

When Mr. Edano was appointed to his position at METI last week, Mr. Koga sent him an e-mail saying that if he was not given some work to do, he’d quit. Mr. Edano said OK.

The media thinks this demonstrates that Mr. Edano is no reformer, but that shouldn’t be a surprise. He’s a long-time associate of Sengoku Yoshito, who barked out a gangsterish veiled threat at Mr. Koga during the latter’s Diet testimony last year.

In fact, the entire DPJ folded like the cheapest of suits on the issue of bureaucratic reform within weeks after forming their first government.

ADDENDUM:

After rereading this, I saw that I left out an aspect of the story that has to do with Hachiro Yoshio’s news conference at which he announced his resignation.

The reporters from the political desk who attended also noticed the discrepancies among the various news outlets in their quote of Mr. Hachiro’s second gaffe. Rather than ask the other reporters who work at the same company about it, they tried to pin Mr. Hachiro down on what he actually said. He told them the same thing he told Hasegawa Yukihiro, but they didn’t believe him. The same reporter who was criticized for his gangsterish attitude (and who later apologized) accused Mr. Hachiro of deliberately obfuscating the issue. He started to harangue the former minister, saying of course it was clear in his memory; if it weren’t, he wouldn’t be resigning. The “I told you to explain” part came right after that.

In other words, younger political reporters saw the inconsistency in the reports of the outlets they represent and badgered Hachiro Yoshio about it instead of making an in-house inquiry.

On the other hand, Takahashi Yoichi and Hasegawa Yukihiro — both older than 50 and both well aware of the bureaucracy’s MO — saw the same discrepancy and what seems to be Mr. Hachiro’s attempt to deny his second statement without directly accusing the media of a high tech lynching, so to speak. Based on their professional experiences, they drew other conclusions.

Are the political reporters playing high stakes charades, or do they really fail to see what’s staring them in the face?

This is yet another example of why I don’t find it necessary to read fiction any more.

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Ichigen koji (58)

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, September 15, 2011

一言居士
– A person who has something to say about everything

The Nikkei Shimbun quoted the responses of the leaders of the five major opposition parties to Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko’s inaugural speech in the Diet this week. Here they are.

That method was straight out of the past. The bureaucrats wrote it.
– Tanigaki Sadakazu, Liberal Democratic Party

There was no explanation of any specific approach on their part as a government. I felt that it left something to be desired.
– Yamaguchi Natsuo, New Komeito

My impression was one of flowery language connected by bureaucratic boilerplate.
– Watanabe Yoshimi, Your Party

An examination and soul-searching of the DPJ’s response to the earthquake/tsunami and nuclear accident is needed.
– Shii Kazuo, Communist Party

It was a bureaucratic composition with no central axis. It was like the LDP before the change of government.
– Fukushima Mizuho, Social Democratic Party

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Management

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, September 14, 2011

IF Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko hadn’t realized there were risks in appointing people who required training wheels to the most important Cabinet positions, he knows it now. It took less than a fortnight for former METI chief Hachiro Yoshio to slip on two banana peels and take a pratfall into the airshaft, quickly casting a pall over any inicipient Era of Good Feelings that bubbled up with the departure of Kan “The Millstone” Naoto.

That pall may well deepen with the Democratic Party’s response to the incident. Whether they’ve finally understood that the waiver from the journo ambuscade they enjoyed until 2009 has expired, or that the people they’ve appointed to critical positions in this Cabinet won’t be ready for prime time until the end of the decade — or both — the party is taking steps to deal with the problem in its own inimitable way. Said Koshi’ishi Azuma, the new secretary-general:

With our 411 Diet members, unity of strength results from unity of spirit. Properly recognizing the weighty decision of former Minister Hachiro, we will fully enforce information management, including our response to the mass media.

It’s not surprising that Mr. Koshi’ishi is openly talking about “information management” as a mechanism for interacting with the news media. He’s a card-carrying member of the left flank of the party’s left wing, and was an official of the Japanese Teacher’s Union when the union president was an open sycophant of North Korea’s Kim Family Dynasty. The shift to managing the news required only a short hop. The skip and the jump weren’t necessary.

Prime Minister Noda in the Diet

So instead of an Iron Curtain, the DPJ’s Red secretary-general is going to bring down the Koshi’ishi Curtain after Mr. Hachiro, an ex-Socialist, talked himself out of a job in nine days, and after Matsumoto Ryu, an ex-Socialist, talked himself out the Reconstruction Minister’s job in even less time earlier this summer. And who can forget Yanagida Minoru, an ex-Democratic Socialist, who talked himself out of the Justice Minister’s job last fall after all of two months? He resigned after saying that his job was a snap because all he had to do was repeat two meaningless stock phrases to stiffarm any questions.

Let’s go out on a limb and say a pattern is starting to emerge.

Meanwhile, all seven opposition parties are livid that the DPJ government decided to convene an extraordinary Diet session for a mere four days. (That includes New Komeito, which Mr. Noda has been trying to sweet talk into a coalition.) The Liberal-Democrats asked them to extend the session to late October, but the government did not deign to reply.

When asked the reason for such a brief session, DPJ lower house Diet Affairs chief Hirano Hirofumi explained that it was because the new Cabinet ministers were inexperienced. That was too much for even Social Democratic Party head Fukushima Mizuho, who retored, “Cabinet ministers are Cabinet ministers from the day they take office.”

The party’s Diet management resulted in some unpleasantness during Mr. Noda’s first address to the chamber as prime minister yesterday. Some heckling goes on during the speech regardless of the party in power, but a few LDP members amped up the level so drastically, it was as if they were trying to shout the man down.

Even DPJ Senior Advisor Watanabe Kozo admitted they had a reason to be sore. He thought the government should have at least convened a meeting of the lower house Budget Committee to have the Cabinet face Question Time. (The opposition party leaders will get to question Mr. Noda one-on-one, however.)

So, just two weeks after being shed of Kan Naoto, the Noda Cabinet has royally cheesed off the news media and the opposition parties. That sound you hear is battleaxes being sharpened on whetstones.

Didn’t get off on the good foot, now did they?

*****
For reference, this is what the Good Foot looks like.

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Uukui in Okinawa

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, September 14, 2011

WHATEVER else can be said about the folks in Okinawa, they sure roll their own. At some point in the summer, usually mid-August, everyone in Japan celebrates O-bon, a holiday originally for welcoming the spirits of the dead back to their homes for a brief annual visit. At the end of the holiday, the living sometimes cast small boats on the river to represent the return of those spirits to the netherworld.

The Okinawans, however, have a more elaborate ritual known as the uukui. It starts with the eisa, a performance of drumming and chanting for the repose of the dead. (Eisa performances have also become more secular over time.) Then, entire families head in a group to the graveyard, with those in the lead carrying lanterns and others bringing incense. In some villages, entire streets are filled with lanterns.

The photo here shows an eisa performance by a youth group on 14 August in Itoman. The group gave seven different performances, one at a national memorial park for those who died during the fighting on Okinawa during the Pacific War. They had suspended those performances for a while, but resumed them three years ago.

In some places, people use the family O-bon gathering to combine traditional celebrations. The folks in Miyakojima, for example, had a tog-of-war contest during uukui for the first time in 12 years. The procedures are the same as those events conducted as part of a Shinto festival. Residents of the Gusukubetomori district were divided into two teams, representing the east side and the west side. The Strong Boys get to claim that the divinities will favor them with a good harvest or fishing catch, and protection against illness and disaster.

The tug-of-war was not originally an o-bon event, but the Miyakojimanians made it a moveable feast because it was easier to rustle up the rope pullers when everyone was visiting the old folks at home. Here, however, they traditionally use a vine known in English as the common derris instead of a rope. Unfortunately, the derris hasn’t been common enough lately, so they retwined half the rope used at the Miyakojima summer festival in July.

Said one of the organizers:

“We want to do it every year. It’s an important event for conveying the spirit of group unity from the older people to the younger people.”

The combination of the difficulties in Japan presented by the recent natural disasters, what seems to be the approaching economic calamities in G7Land — accelerated by Phase II of the collapse of the experiment in socialism (this time socialism lite instead of the SAE50 viscosity variety) — and other trends suggest we could be seeing a return to whatever the local definition happens to be of that Old Time Religion (OTR).

For a look at sacred hoedowns elsewhere in Japan during the season, here’s a look at three wild and wooly O-Bon dancing festivals. Don’t pass up the excellent video of the Awa Odori.

*****
And it doesn’t get any more downhome than this video of the Uukui Eisa in one Okinawan neighborhood.

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The gaffe overlooked

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, September 13, 2011

PRIME MINISTER Noda Yoshihiko’s first choice as Economy, Trade, and Industry Minister, Hachiro Yoshio, lasted all of eight days before two doofus comments, one in public and one to a group of reporters in private, cost him his job. Neither of his comments was related to policy, but they did suggest a level of discretion and common sense lower than that of the average convenience store clerk.

To replace him, Mr. Noda selected Edano Yukio, the second Chief Cabinet Secretary in the Kan Cabinet. The Yomiuri Shimbun reports that Mr. Edano asked the prime minister to reconsider because he needed some time to recuperate after the stress from dealing with the Tohoku earthquake/tsunami. He added that he thought there were other people suitable for the position.

The prime minister was faced with two problems, however. First, other party members urged him to appoint someone from the DPJ left wing to preserve the Cabinet’s ideological balance. (Mr. Hachiro was a member of the old Socialist party, and ideological balance was one of the reasons a cuckoo clock ornament was given the job to begin with.) Second, an extraordinary Diet session begins today, and Mr. Noda could not afford to appoint yet another amateur incapable of biting his tongue whenever some stray silliness floated into his brain. Therefore, his choices were limited to the party’s roll of logorrhea-free leftists who knew something about nuclear power plants (which METI is responsible for). That seems to have eliminated everyone except Mr. Edano.

The prime minister called him up for some gentle persuasion. According to the Yomiuri, Mr. Edano said:

It has long been my position that Japan, with its declining population, will not achieve large economic growth. Is that acceptable to you?

“That’s fine,” the prime minister answered.

Soon after the article appeared, former Finance Ministry official, author, university professor, and government reformer Takahashi Yoichi fired off this Tweet. It contains a graph with a comment in Japanese below. The graph is titled, The Rate of Population Increase and Real Economic Growth (2000-2008). The comment below reads:

Japan is in the proximity of the position of origin (of the graph). There are many countries whose population growth is lower than Japan and whose (economic) growth rate is higher than Japan. I do not understand the reason for saying that population decline means there will be no growth.

Mr. Takahashi does not label the axes, but it would seem that the horizontal axis is for population growth and the vertical axis is for economic growth. He also does not identify the countries by name. (This is a Tweet, after all.) I don’t have the time now to do the research, but the first place I’d look for verification is the countries of Eastern Europe that have adopted the flat income tax.

Assuming the Yomiuri report is true, Mr. Edano is guilty of a gaffe much more serious than that of Mr. Hachiro.

Hachiro Yoshio’s gaffe was just dopey. Edano Yukio’s is dangerous.

UPDATE: LDP lower house member Nakagawa Hidenao also jumped on this right away. He examined OECD statistics on population growth and economic growth from 1971 to 2001 and concluded:

While the rate of population growth is an important factor determining a nation’s overall economic growth rate, (the data show that) other fundamental economic conditions such as capital assets, levels of technology, and human capital are equally important.

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Hashigo in Hakodate

Posted by ampontan on Monday, September 12, 2011

BAR-HOPPING is a casual affair for most people — they meet at one joint and when the spirits move them, they decide where they’ll hop next. Most Japanese boozers make their choices the same way, but here they don’t hop from one place to another. They climb the ladder — the expression used is hashigo-zake, hashigo being a ladder.

Up north in Hakodate, however, they’ve turned liquor ladder climbing into an official event, with a schedule and a pre-determined itinerary. The logistics are made easier because there’s a district in town called Bar-gai, where many eating and drinking establishments are concentrated. Groups throughout the country thought that was a splendid idea, so the Hakodate Bar-gai Executive Committee decided to hold the first national Bar District Conference on Saturday for everyone to share their experiences. Roughly 100 people from 18 different regions showed up, including Fukuoka City and Itami, Hyogo.

The meeting included a panel discussion, during which the representative from Itami reported that their 2009 event, Itami Machi Naka Bar, sparked similar expeditions in 23 other locations in the Kinki region. Another participant was Ide Osamu, the director of Idea Kyushu-Asia, a non-profit involved in activities to promote tourism. One of those activities is Barwalk Fukuoka. Said Mr. Ide: “It’s important to maintain the quality and community spirit of bar districts.”

I’ll say! It’s also important to maintain your balance so you don’t fall off the ladder during a Saturday night of bar-hopping! The participants at this conference had a more sober outlook, however. After the morning meeting, everyone went out for lunch instead of out ladder climbing.

The idea of an organized bar-hop in general, and a non-profit sponsoring an evening of bacchanalia in particular, will make a lot more sense once you’ve seen a video of the 2008 Hakodate barwalk. No sawdust, peanut shells, or air hockey tables here. They even chose a nice place for the customary ramen shop stop on the way home.

And of course Idea Kyushu-Asia has a Japanese-language website.

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Ichigen koji (57)

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, September 11, 2011

一言居士
– A person who has something to say about everything

The Minister of Economy, Trade, and Industry Hachiro Yoshio has resigned over his comments (that the area around the Fukushima nuclear power plant resembled a “death town” and his joke to reporters in Tokyo after his return that he was going to “put some radiation” on them). These statements call into question his qualifications as a human being even before his qualifications as a politician, so of course he had to resign.

The seriousness of the problem, however, is that Prime Minister Noda’s personnel decisions, based on maintaining harmony within the party, are evidence that he is thinking only of the party and not the people or the country. His assertion that he would appoint the appropriate person to the appropriate position is nothing more than his specialty of lip-service politics. In fact, it is a superb piece of evidence that what was once called (intraparty) factional balancing results in the consideration only of maintaining party peace and order.

(It is in fact) the appointment of amateurs — a Defense Minister who publicly stated that he was an amateur, and a Foreign Minister and Finance Minister that everyone in Nagata-cho knows to be amateurs.

The prime minister has given priority to the household circumstances of the Democratic Party to appoint amateurs, even to posts that form the foundation of the state. It represents the reversion to bureaucracy-led politics, the establishment of a state governed by the Finance Ministry, and a course toward a tax increase.

All of this happened within days after the inauguration of the Noda government, but it is best that the people, which had hopes for that government, awaken to these facts as soon as possible.

- Eda Kenji, Secretary-General of Your Party

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