AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Unique

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A few decades ago, books and articles frequently appeared under the rubric of Nihonjinron, and their content and concepts became a topic of public discussion. That’s a difficult term to translate comfortably, but “Theories on the National Character of the Japanese” will work. The general idea was to examine and explain what made the Japanese unique.

Books and articles of that type don’t appear as often these days. Author and essayist Tachibana Akira thinks one reason is the changed economic circumstances of Asia. For years, the Japanese were the only Asians to have succeeded on Western terms, while having a culture and customs clearly different from those in the West. The rise of South Korea, China, India, and other Asian countries has now altered that perception.

Mr. Tachibana has a different perspective on this subject, and he has written about it at length. The following is an excerpt from an article that appeared in the 14 May 2012 edition of the weekly Shukan Pureiboi. Here it is in English. Some people who read it might find that their preconceived notions did not survive intact.

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Nihonjinron was harshly criticized, with people asking, “Are the Japanese really that unique”. That’s because the traits used to explain Japanese exceptionalism, such as the vertical society, amae, and the dominance of public mood, are quite ordinary and observable in any society.

One researcher complied a summary with the essence of the characteristics described in the Nihonjinron, concealed the name of the country, and presented it to students in Australia. The Australian students thought it described Australian society. This incident reveals the illusion of the theory of Japanese uniqueness.

But the idea that the world’s people are all the same is a disorderly argument. Even though people share the same genes (operating system), their thinking and behavior is clearly affected by culture and society.

That was the basis for the start of a trial to objectively evaluate differences in values among people throughout the world by asking them identical questions about their views on politics, religion, work, education, and the family. People from more than 80 countries participated in this trial. The results showed that the Japanese had significant differences from the rest of the world in three areas:

1. To the question, “Would you willingly fight for your country if a war broke out,” Japan had the world’s lowest percentage of people who answered “yes”.

2. People were asked to choose an answer in response to the question, “How proud do you feel that you are (country name)?” The only group with a lower percentage of people than the Japanese who answered “extremely proud” or “very proud” was the people of Hong Kong.

3. To the question, “Should there be more respect for authority,” the percentage of Japanese who answered “no” was by far the highest in the world.

Japan has been described as a “village society”, but that was not apparent at all in this survey. There are several better examples in the world of nations that are a village society. The degree of openness of Japanese society is in the upper middle range, at the same level of some Southern European countries.

Several other international surveys show that the Japanese have a striking sense of worldliness and (personal) individuality. They don’t feel like fighting, even in wars, they aren’t proud of their country, they detest authority — what unusual people the Japanese are!

(end translation)

Afterwords:

Mr. Tachibana did not identify the surveys he cited. Those who can read Japanese might be interested in his book on the subject.

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For some more Japanese uniqueness, here’s Terauchi Takeshi and the Blue Jeans performing a shakuhachi tune.

Posted in Books, Social trends | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

Plankton picture book

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, November 9, 2011

WHAT other country’s knowledge and appreciation of marine life can match that of Japan on a national scale? Sushi and sashimi have become international cuisine, they’ve made seaweed of all sorts palatable and its cultivation quite profitable, they’ve prepared the potentially poisonous fugu as a dish for gastronomes for centuries, the appreciation of carp and their breeding is an elegant pursuit, carp streamers are part of the national culture, and their expertise on the best ways to eat whale and dolphin drive some people to spittle-flinging rages.

They also know a thing or two about plankton.

Plankton can be small enough to be measured in nano-units (one-billionth of a meter) or as big as a whale. Those that breed by absorbing carbon and phosphorus are classified as flora, while those that feed on the flora plankton are classified as fauna. When some types of plankton reproduce abnormally, they can change the color of the sea water. Those are the buggers responsible for red tides, which kill fish by reducing the oxygen supply in the water.

The Yuu Microlife Museum in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi, the country’s only facility specializing in marine microorganism research, published this year an illustrated encyclopedia of plankton that has generated a surprising response for a work of this type. They intended for it be of interest both to the general public as well as the specialist, and they seem to have succeeded. It’s easy to carry around and has many color photographs of plankton for quick recognition, including those that cause the red tides. Local government employees responsible for measuring sea water purity for the early detection of red tides now consider it an indispensable reference.

The 205-page book on A5-sized paper is an updated version of a similar book for the plankton of the Seto Inland Sea, which the museum published at the end of 2008. Researchers from the Fisheries Research Agency in Yokohama helped the museum put it together to present the primary 172 species of plankton inhabiting the seas around Japan.

For the hydrospace enthusiasts, there are color microscope photographs of the plankton and charts enabling the identification of species by their characteristics, including size and the presence or absence of tentacles and legs. There’s a companion DVD showing video of the plankton floating in the sea.

How often is a scientific reference book appreciated by children, research scientists, and commercial interests? This seems to be one. The museum published 2,000 copies in January, and the first print run has already sold out. Demand is such that they printed 2,000 more. Apart from the researchers and university libraries who would normally be expected to buy the book, it’s also popular among local government employees and people who just enjoy flipping through the photos.

The Yamaguchi Prefecture Maritime Research Center has issued the book to all four of its branch offices. Their employees are rotated once every two or three years, and some whose job it is to conduct periodic seawater inspections find it difficult to distinguish the different plankton species. Some were willing to drive two hours to the center just to refer to the book.

The center has also suggested that the firms breeding fish in seawater farms use the book as a reference for identifying harmful plankton and thereby minimizing losses.

If a plankton picture book seems to be just the thing for your home library, or, with Christmas on the way, you want to give a thoughtful gift to the marine biologist in your family, call the museum at 0827-62-0160 and get ready to send them JPY 2,520.

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Put it on the shelf next to the Dialogues.

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

Food roots

Posted by ampontan on Friday, November 4, 2011

It’s a mongrelized world we live in, and among those most aware of the degree of mongrelization are the people who study national dietary habits. The Korean dish kimchee is just one of many examples of the phenomenon. It’s such an integral part of Korean life that it’s served free in restaurants with meals in the way water is provided in other countries. The image of the food that immediately arises in the mind’s eye is tinted a bright red from the chili flakes used for seasoning. But though Koreans have been eating different forms of kimchee for at least 2,000 years, chili wasn’t cultivated there until 1600, after it was introduced from Japan. (That’s also roughly when Chinese cabbage and daikon radish became the main ingredients).

Also, the image of the basic/classic Japanese meal, both inside and outside the country, is of a bowl of rice, a bowl of miso soup, tsukemono (pickled vegetables), and some fish or meat on the side. But Katarzyna J. Cwiertka argues that what many consider to be the classic Japanese diet was a 20th century invention created with considerable Western influence:

(A)ll Japanese canteens (by which she means cafeterias at worksites or universities) share a common heritage, which can be traced to the 1930s military food. A standard menu in a Japanese canteen consists of a bowl of rice, a bowl of miso soup, and pickles (tsukemono) supplemented by two or three side dishes, one of them being a kind of “main side dish” usually featuring fish or meat. Other canteens’ mainstays include Japanese-style and Chinese-style noodles, spaghetti, sandwiches, and the Japanese-Western rice-based hybrids served on a plate (not in a bowl), such as curry on rice (kare raisu), pilaf, and rice pan-fried with chicken and tomato ketchup given the name ‘chicken rice’ (chikin raisu). As will become obvious in the course of this paper, the majority of these dishes appeared in wartime military menus.

Also:

The fact that the Japanese military fed its troops on novelties, and that these dishes were among the favorites, is extraordinary, considering that this was against the general rule of military caterers elsewhere, who precisely avoided serving unknown food…As practically no “all-Japanese” cooking existed in Japan at that time, and proper nourishment could be achieved economically only by adopting non-Japanese dishes instead of providing traditional food, Japanese military caterers chose to serve hybrid culinary experiments. We may surmise that the fact that these hybrids were served with a mixture of rice and barley eased the resistance towards the unknown food. Rice was the staple of choice for the Japanese (Ohnuki-Tierney 1993), but the conscription experience meant for many farmers’ sons and other drafted members of the underclass the luxury of having rice three times a day.

She’s even written a favorably reviewed book on the subject, called Modern Japanese Cuisine: Food, Power and National Identity. (The Amazon page contains the claim that “key shifts in the Japanese diet were, in many cases, a consequence of modern imperialism”. That would be true if one equates having a standing national military with imperialism, but some people have a taste for connecting all sorts of things Japanese with militaristic imperialism. Then again, it’s difficult for more than a few people to recognize that correlation doesn’t always equal causation.)

The question naturally arises of what sort of meals Japanese ate before the 20th century, especially during the Edo period (1603-1868), when there was little contact with the outside world. Fortunately, the Japanese keep excellent records, and some of those dishes can be easily recreated. In fact, the folks in Fukui conducted a series of events this year in which some seriously old-fashioned home cooking was served to curious gastronomes. One of the events presented four varieties of Edo period mazegohan, or “mixed rice”. The four were: sakurameshi (literally, cherry rice), with thin-sliced octopus legs arranged to resemble cherry trees; taimeshi, using the sea bream, a symbol of good luck, as the mixed ingredient; and kibimeshi and awameshi, made with different types of millet.

The dainty dishes set before the Japanese diners surprised them for several reasons. First, the sakurameshi was eaten in the same bowl with strained miso soup, (though they were less surprised when they saw the octopus parts still twitching.) The two varieties with millet were also eaten with broth, and the ratio of millet to rice was 6 to 4 in favor of the millet. Perhaps it would be more accurate to call those dishes mixed millet rather than mazegohan.

The event’s organizers didn’t have far to go to find period seasonings. The Muroji company in Fukui City earlier this year brought back one of their old favorites — soy sauce brewed from a recipe dating from the Bakumatsu period, which was the very end of the Edo period in the mid-19th century. They didn’t have to do much digging to find the recipe, either. The company was founded in 1689, and the current president is the 13th in an unbroken line of descendants running the firm.

One of the selling points for this classic soy sauce is that it will satisfy even the most ideological of food purists. It’s made from Fukui soybeans, wheat, koji-kin (a mold for fermentation), yeast, lactic acid bacteria — and that’s all. No preservatives or additives are used. It’s also allowed to ferment for a year, in contrast to the three-month period for most of today’s commercial varieties. The company’s Japanese-language website notes that it has 300 constituent ingredients, including amino acids, vitamins, and minerals, and they also provide a list of its many health benefits. If that sounds like something you’d like to try, the company will sell it and ship it to you, if you live in Japan.

Muroji chose to market the product in a peculiar way, however: They gave it the name Bakumatsu Soy Sauce, with soy sauce written in the katakana alphabet based on the English pronunciation, rather than shoyu, the Japanese word. Few Japanese who used the product when it was first sold are likely to have known the term “soy sauce”.

It’s a mongrelized world we live in!

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The name of the group is Mazegohan and they’re performing a Japanese pop song (with a few English words for lyrics) that was recorded by Ray Charles. How’s that for mongrelization?

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Posted in Books, Food, History, Traditions | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Tattoos, copyrights, and human rights

Posted by ampontan on Monday, August 29, 2011

THE illogical logic sometimes used to interpret the law, particularly in civil suits, has long been a cliché in the West. For several reasons, one of which was a cultural tendency to avoid litigation altogether, logic of that sort had fewer opportunities to sprout in Japan. The non-native invasive species seems to have finally established itself, however, as a Tokyo District Court ruling last month suggests.

The case involved the cover of an autobiography written by a man who described his efforts to pass the test to become an administrative scrivener (or “certified administrative procedure specialist”) in the Japanese legal system. The man had the image of a Buddhist statue tattooed on his left thigh in 2001. When the autobiography was published in 2007, a photograph of the tattoo was used for the cover, though the photo was printed in sepia and used reverse shading. (The book is still in print, and the cover is shown next to the paragraph below.)

The tattoo artist sued for infringement of copyright, while the author countered that the tattoo was nothing more than a copy of a photo of the statue. Here come the judge: His honor ruled in favor of the plaintiff, saying that a tattoo could be covered by copyright if the artist’s conception was expressed in an original way. He also ruled that placing the tattoo on the book cover without citing the artist’s name was “an infringement of the human rights of the copyright holder”, and awarded the artist JPY 480,000 as compensation. That’s a skoche less than $US 6,300.

Explained the judge, “The tattoo differs in expression from the photo (of the statue), and presents the conception and emotions of the artist.” The human rights infringed were the right to decide whether or not the name of the copyright holder should be cited, and the right to prevent the display of an altered form of the copyrighted object without permission.

From the official records:

“It is recognized that creative devices were employed for the composition of the tattoo design and for the expression of the statue. Different tools and techniques were used for the outline and the other lines, as well the gradation of tone. The originality of expression of the plaintiff’s conception and emotions can be recognized. Therefore, it can be affirmed that the tattoo in question has copyrightability.”

The ruling also held that the techniques used to display the photo on the book cover were an infringement of the right to retain integrity.

Prof. Yamada Hajime of the Toyo University School of Economics objected on his website that the verdict was nearsighted and overly legalistic. Prof. Yamada notes that the city of Kobe is conducting a campaign to encourage the use of a local seashore area. Part of their campaign is based on a municipal ordinance that prohibits smoking, littering, and the exposure of tattoos outside designated areas. The ordinance forbids the “ostentatious display” of tattoos, as well as coarse and rough behavior, because it could cause other users of the seashore to become uneasy or frightened.

Japanese concerns about the public display of tattoos stem from the well-known yakuza taste for using them to decorate their bodies. But the gangsters usually show some discretion (or retain the means to smoothly conduct their daily affairs) by limiting even the most elaborate of tattoos on the upper body to the area that a t-shirt would cover.

Prof. Yamada pointed out that sports facilities have similar rules (though he didn’t mention public baths, many of which have a sign in front of the establishment notifying customers that people with tattoos will be denied entry). He takes issue with the decision by carrying its logic to the extreme. For example, anyone who had second thoughts about a tattoo and removed part of it due to social disapproval could theoretically be held to have infringed the right to retain integrity. He also mentions the suggestion of an acquaintance that merely getting fat could also infringe that right.

Finally, he cites one provision of Japanese copyright law that states: “The objective of protecting the rights of the copyright holder is to contribute to the development of culture.”

How, Prof. Yamada asks, does this contribute to the development of culture? It doesn’t, of course, but it’s worthy of note that some in Japan are still asking the question. Ask that question in the United States and you’re likely to be branded a philistine.

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The issue of copyrighting tattoos has also arisen in the West. It’s a complicated issue there, too (but unfortunately the problem with the WordPress software that keeps me from adding hotlinks for some reason continues from yesterday). The question in the United States, however, usually involves tattoo artists copying the work of another artist, rather than the point at issue in the Japanese case.

I tried to conduct some discovery but was unable to determine whether the Japanese tattoo artist had legally copyrighted the tattoo before bringing the suit.

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Why not take this opportunity to wander over to the right sidebar to examine the link to the Japanese Tattoo Institute, with examples of the ultimate in the art? They sell calendars too. There’s also a link to the excellent Hanzi Smatter site, devoted to the presentation and explanation of the unusual kanji that Westerners tattoo on their bodies. You’ll never laugh at the strange English on t-shirts and signs in Northeast Asia again. At least they’re easily disposable.

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Posted in Books, Legal system, Popular culture, Social trends | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

The memoirs of Im Mun-hwan

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, August 23, 2011

IM MUN-HWAN was born on the Korean Peninsula in 1907, three years before the merger with Japan. Bright, ambitious, and willing to work hard, he left Korea for Japan at the age of 16 to better himself. That was not unusual; Japanese sources claim that more than 90% of the Koreans who went to Japan to live and work during the period of merger did so voluntarily. Korea was a backwater in those days, and some Koreans moved to Japan for the same reasons Europeans emigrated to America.

Im pulled jinrikshaws, delivered milk, and worked as a cleaner while attending school, first at Doshisha middle school (which still exists as part of an educational corporation that includes the well-known Doshisha University). He also received private financial assistance.

He pursued an elite educational program that is still the model for young men and women with certain objectives today, and graduated with honors from the Law Department of Tokyo Imperial University (now the University of Tokyo). He then passed the difficult test for upper level bureaucrats.

Hoping to contribute to the betterment of his homeland, Im went to work for the government-general of Korea. He was stunned by the harsh prejudicial treatment he received from fellow Koreans, particularly because he had experienced nothing of the sort in Japan.

When Korea became independent with the Japanese surrender in 1945, he stayed in Korea — where he was vilified as “Japan’s dog”. Nevertheless, the Korean government hired him to work in the bureaucracy, which valued him for a “fastidious” approach to money that he said he learned in Japan. He eventually rose to the position of Agriculture and Forestry Minister, while managing to keep private his astonishment at the “irrationality” of the Yi Seung-man (Syngman Rhee) administration.

Late in life, Im Mun-hwan wrote The Memoirs of a Bureaucrat in the Service of Imperial Japan and the Republic of Korea, the source of these stories, in Japanese. It was republished this June by Soshisa, 18 years after his death, and sells for JPY 2,940 yen.

It is unfortunate that so many Korean politicians, academics, and opinion leaders demand that the Japanese look honestly at history while so few of them are willing to take that same look themselves. Perhaps they’re frightened of what they might see.

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Posted in Books, History, International relations, South Korea | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Ichigen koji (35)

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, July 31, 2011

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

This crisis will most assuredly be overcome. I think Japan can definitely achieve a utopia. I believe in Japan and the Japanese.

- Novelist Komatsu Sakyo, just before his death this month at the age of 80, speaking of the Tohoku earthquake/tsunami. Komatsu was the author of the award-winning SF novel, Nihon Chimbotsu (Japan Sinks). Published in 1973, the book sold more than four million copies and was turned into a television program and a movie.

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Posted in Books, Popular culture, Quotations | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Do the Chinese hate the Koreans more than they hate the Japanese?

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, October 14, 2010

DURING A VISIT to a large bookstore last weekend, I noticed a new and prominent display of non-fiction books about China. That’s not at all surprising considering recent events, and there are probably similar displays in bookstores throughout the country. Several books seemed to be worth reading, but the first one I came home with was Gaikokan ga Mita ‘Chugokujin no Tainichikan’ (The Chinese View of Japan as Seen by a Diplomat), by Michigami Hisashi, just published in August.

Mr. Michigami is a former Foreign Ministry official who specialized in Korean affairs. He studied the Korean language at the University of Seoul, served in the Political Section of the Japanese Embassy in South Korea, and was also stationed for two years in China (2007-2009).

One section of his book features dialogues he conducted with prominent Chinese scholars, media figures, public officials, and businesspeople, whom he identifies only with the collective Mr. A. One of those dialogues has the title, “Do the Chinese Hate the Koreans More Than They Hate the Japanese”? It captures in miniature some of the problems in East Asian relations. Here it is in English.

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Michigami: Here’s something I noticed when I read several Chinese newspapers. Most of the articles about Japan had a positive tone, and there was a tendency to talk about improved political (relations). I was surprised by the articles about South Korea, however. There was a tendency for the emotions at the popular level of friction and mutual disparagement to frequently appear in the media, rather than criticism at the governmental level. One public opinion survey in China showed that the country the Chinese most disliked was South Korea, followed by Japan. Incidentally, the country best liked by the Chinese in the survey was Pakistan, followed by Russia in second place and Japan in third.

A: There are also articles about how the people in Seoul treat Chinese. While they are kind to Japanese and Westerners, their attitude gets worse when they find out their customers are Chinese. Signs display shops with “No Stealing” written in Chinese. The Chinese who visit South Korea come back with a bad impression.

There is the criticism that South Korean television programs stereotype Chinese as barbarians from a backward country. The Chinese are always depicted wearing shabby clothes, the airport employees demand bribes, gangster groups are kidnapping or killing South Koreans, and fat Chinese send out for prostitutes from their hotels.

Some articles in the print media also contain detailed criticisms of how South Korean historical dramas distort China. The complaint is that they sensationalize serious historical subjects and reduce them to the level of pure entertainment. For example, a poem by Mao Zedong was written on a folding screen in the background of a scene with Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty (in the early 7th century). Programs have also identified the four great inventions of ancient China as South Korean cultural legacies.

There are stories that Chinese Internet users were very angry when some heartless South Koreans wrote on the Net after the Szechuan Earthquake that they were glad to see a reduction in China’s population. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak was visiting China at the time of the earthquake, and he visited the stricken areas. South Korea also sent personnel to help with the relief efforts, but I’ve heard that the writings on the Net had more of an impact. South Koreans fluent in Chinese are very assertive on Internet sites and don’t hold anything back.

Michigami: That’s regrettable, even though South Korean television dramas and young singers are also very popular in China. The historical disputes over Goguryeo and Balhae were already causing emotional antagonism between the people of the two countries. There are several times, or even ten times, more South Korean businesspeople and students than their Japanese counterparts throughout China. That might also be a factor behind the many instances of trouble or friction.

A: In addition to the disturbances when the Olympic flame relay passed through Seoul before the Beijing Olympics (c.f., here and here), there was also excitement in both countries about the women’s archery competition. South Koreans complained that the Chinese spectators were so noisy it affected the archery competition, which requires a high level of concentration. The Chinese shot back that there were more South Korean fans than Chinese, and the competition in the finals was conducted fairly.

Michigami: The South Koreans were livid about the conditions that resulted from the Olympic flame relay in Seoul, and the newspapers were harsh in their criticism. One asked, what right do the Chinese have to gather in the middle of Seoul, the capital of another country, and conduct such violent acts. Another asserted that the Chinese behavior planted an image in South Korean minds that China is an undignified, immature country. This was a blow to the Chinese reputation. The articles about archery (in South Korea) were even bigger the year after the Olympics. During the Japan-South Korea match in the Beijing Olympics, the South Koreans were shocked that most of the booing was directed at them rather than the Japanese. Booing anyone bothers me, and I would like to avoid these internal rifts among East Asians.

(end translation)
*****
Afterwords:

* Who knew that Pakistan would be the country the Chinese liked the best?

* Comparisons are odious, as Shakespeare had it, but it is worth noting the differences in international attitudes toward flame wars fought by post-adolescent Internet cybertoughs with more time on their hands than computer games can kill. The Anglosphere went through a period about 15 to 20 years ago when people got carried away with the freedom that anonymous and unlimited discussions of controversial topics on-line provided, and entire sections of the medium sank below the least common denominator. Those around at the time will remember the ugly logorrheic stupidity, particularly from college guys logging in with free .edu accounts when Internet service was still expensive for some. (It became a running joke that posters with .edu accounts were the least likely participants to have anything intelligent to say.)

Most everyone else has realized what a waste of time all that is. Some semi-lucid boyos still loiter looking for trouble, showing up more frequently in the comment sections of newspapers rather than independent websites, but they’re usually either ignored or made sport of.

That doesn’t seem to be the case in East Asia. Everyone’s seen how tediously relentless some South Koreans (and South Korean emigrants to English-speaking countries) can be about certain issues on the Internet, but few in the Anglosphere waste their time on more than a sentence or two before hitting the Delete button.

This dialogue suggests that’s not the case in China, however. The Chinese seem to be dead serious about it all. Perhaps that’s to be expected given the lack of normal outlets for political expression, the limitations under which even Internet discussion is conducted, and the sharp gender imbalance in a country of more than 1.3 billion, which means there are an awful lot of edgy guys with an awful lot of bottled-up energy and no way to turn it loose. The Chinese eugenicists—yes, that’s exactly what they are—are now reaping what they’ve sown, which has created that much more unpleasantness for the rest of the world.

During the recent Senkakus flap, the Japanese media reported that China’s political leadership was very aware of, and playing to, popular sentiment as expressed through the Internet. American politicians, if my observations at a distance are correct, tend to discount the distorting factor of mass Internet bleating unless the dissatisfaction manifests itself through other channels as well.

Japanese Internet opinion seems to be just as distorted. For example, Ozawa Ichiro was the runaway winner in many on-line surveys and polls during the recent Democratic Party presidential campaign, but he lost the real election to Kan Naoto. Conventional opinion polls show the margin of public disapproval of Mr. Ozawa to have been even greater than Mr. Kan’s margin of victory.

UPDATE:

I was going to leave the music out of this one today, but 21st Century Schizoid Man came up with the perfect choice:

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Posted in Books, China, International relations, Mass media, Social trends, South Korea | Tagged: , | 14 Comments »

But then, I regress

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, September 15, 2010

IN 2001, brothers Bradley and D. Craig Willcox teamed with Makoto Suzuki to publish The Okinawa Program, a plan for life extension based on the results of a 25-year study into Okinawan longevity. Here’s an excerpt from their first chapter:

Okinawa is the home of the longest-lived people in the world. People there seem to have beaten the aging process and the debilitating diseases that accompany the “Golden Years” in the West. Heart disease is minimal, breast cancer so rare that screening mammography is not needed, and most aging men have never heard of prostate cancer. In fact, as a group, the three leading killers in the West—coronary heart disease, stroke, and cancer—occur in Okinawa in with the lowest frequency in the world (1996 WHO study).

To understand the magnitude of this health phenomenon, imagine a typical town of 100,000 inhabitants. If the town were located in Okinawa, only 18 people would die from coronary disease in a typical year. If the town were in the United States, 100 people would die. Simply put, if Americans lived more like Okinawans, we would have to close down 80% of the coronary care units and one-third of the cancer wards in the United States, and a lot of nursing homes would also be out of business.

The Okinawan secret to longevity and the program they recommended is no mystery to people already interested in healthful living. From the Foreword:

The general principles of living the Okinawa way are not foreign. Indeed, they are highly accessible to everyone and quite consistent with the latest medical research on healthy lifestyles and healthy aging. They include getting lifelong, regular physical activity, eating a mostly plant-based diet that includes fish and soy foods with a great variety of vegetables and moderate amounts of the right kinds of fat, and enjoying strong social and community support as well as a sense of independence and self-responsibility for health.

While the authors noted that the Okinawans had pushed back the limits of population life expectancy, they also realized then that the pace of gains was slowing, and suggested: “What may potentially end this meteoric rise is not a biological barrier but the tragic loss of old ways.” In other words, younger Okinawans were increasingly adopting unhealthful lifestyle habits.

The day the authors dreaded may have arrived. The Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare yesterday released the results of their latest study on longevity showing that Okinawans no longer have the highest number of centenarians per 100,000 people in Japan. The national leader in that category is now Shimane, with 74.37. Okinawa—which had been the leader for 37 consecutive years—slipped to second place with 66.71.

The ministry thinks this might be due to the declining population of Shimane and the rising population of Okinawa. They have a point. Shimane has the highest percentage of population aged 65 or older in the country at 29%, though that has been the case for the past 35 years. Meanwhile, Okinawa has the highest birthrate in the country. (There has also been a slight trend for people from the rest of the Japan to move there in the same way Americans have moved from the Snow Belt to Florida, California, and Arizona over the years.)

Nevertheless, the results came as a jolt to the Okinawans. Said a prefectural official: “The impact (of the study) is overwhelming. We will immediately analyze the factors.”

They should already have an idea where to start. Here’s a blog post that quotes extensively from a Bloomberg article from three years ago that’s no longer on line. The headline of the article reads:

“Fries, GIs, Beef Bring Diabetes to Japan’s Isle of Centenarians”

And a quote:

The island that once boasted more centenarians than anywhere else in the world now has the highest prevalence of obesity in Japan, and life expectancy is falling rapidly. The government is concerned the deteriorating health of Okinawans may be a prelude to a nationwide crisis.

Don’t think that Bloomberg article is an exercise in American-bashing, either. If anything, the Americans are getting worse. Try this brief article with a clip from ABC news in which they interview a man who says that America is living in “The Periclean Age of Bacon”. He also says that for him, bacon fat is the meat and the bacon meat is the vegetables.

As if on cue, Lady Gaga (or her publicity machine) weaves all the strands together by crossing the Pacific to wear a raw meat bikini for the cover of Vogue Japan. Is that not a classic example of the primary motivation for all youthful rebellion—flouting contemporary social convention by shocking the easily shocked and living dangerously?

Now’s the time to trot out an old Chinese saying:

Everyone likes life, but few like the path of long life. Everyone dislikes death, but many like the things conducive to death.

Bon appétit!

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Posted in Books, Demography, Food, Social trends | Tagged: , , | 8 Comments »

The awareness gap

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, September 5, 2010

HERE’S a quick reprise of part of a post from a fortnight ago:

In Yoron no Kyokkai (The Distortion of Public Opinion), Sugawara Taku writes:

All the data indicate that the Liberal Democratic Party’s post-Koizumi agenda was a mistake. Public opinion rejected the readmission of the postal privatization rebels to the party and urged the Abe administration to correct their course. It was clear that the 2007 LDP defeat in the upper house election was not due to the Koizumi structural reforms. The data show that the idea that Aso Taro was a popular figure among the people was laughable. The party took a direction opposite to that indicated by the data, so their defeat in the general election (of 2009) was completely in accord with predictions.

Fujisawa Kazuki is employed at a foreign capital-affiliated investment bank in Japan, is the author of Why Do Investment Professionals Lose to Monkeys?, and has a popular Japanese-language blog. This week, he offered his thoughts on Mr. Sugawara’s book. Here they are in English.

******

Until the Democratic Party of Japan achieved a change of government by winning the 2009 lower house election, the mass media was tenacious in its Koizumi/Takenaka bashing. They claimed the people revolted because the Koizumi-Takenaka structural reforms led to greater (income) gaps and battered local economies. The author’s data, however, show that a revolt against the Koizumi-Takenaka course was not the cause of the Liberal-Democratic Party defeat. Rather, the opposite was the case. He concludes that the people continued to support the structural reforms, and the loss resulted from the rapid restoration, starting with the Prime Minister Abe, of the old LDP that protected vested interests.

I agree completely, and think the media’s bashing of the structural reforms is extremely odd. At the height of their attacks, they conducted public opinion surveys that showed Koizumi Jun’ichiro was far and away the favorite when people were asked to name the person most suited to be prime minister. They published these results in small articles in the back pages of the newspaper.

The reason for the continued decline in support for the Democratic Party of Japan is their insufficient enthusiasm for the reforms and politics that are obsequious to the vested interest class. Support for Your Party surged in the upper house election because they’ve picked up the Koizumi-Takenaka baton and championed structural reform.

I think the assertions of the author hit the mark, and that gives rise to an important question: Why did the mass media bash the Koizumi-Takenaka structural reforms to that extent? I still don’t know the answer to that question. They never bashed those reforms when Mr. Koizumi was prime minister, so why did they start the groundless criticism so soon after he left office?

The appeal of this book is the author’s objective analysis of the statistical data. He also takes a dispassionate look at the influence of the Internet. Sadly, he draws the conclusion that the Internet has little impact (in Japan), and I think that’s largely accurate.

My blog has a large amount of traffic, and I like to think it could be called a part of the micro-media. Nevertheless, I have to say it has no influence at all compared to television and newspapers. The impact of the alpha bloggers is even less than that of a late night program that few people watch. The viewer totals of even the most popular programs on Nikoniko Doga (an Internet video site) are barely in the tens of thousands.

There is some dynamism in parts of the Internet media, but those parts are still extremely small. I think there is still room for large growth, however, and that the Internet has great potential.

(End translation)

Afterwords:

Long-time readers know I’ve been saying the same thing for several years about the prefererence of the Japanese voters for large-scale reform and the popularity of the Koizumi program. It’s gratifying to know there’s supporting statistical evidence, but the conclusion should have been obvious.

For example, Mr. Koizumi dissolved the lower house and called a general election to force the upper house to change its mind over their rejection of his plan to privatize Japan Post. He threw several veterans out of the party for their opposition to the plan.

Were the people on board? Oh, yes–His party won the second-highest postwar majority in the lower house, and he left office a year later with a 70% approval rating. He bequeathed those numbers to his successor, Abe Shinzo.

At the urging of Mori Yoshiro and other LDP mudboaters, Mr. Abe invited those bounced from the party to return. Some of them did. His poll numbers took an immediate 20 percentage-point hit.

Really, anyone who doesn’t see this just doesn’t want to look.

Earlier this week, I referred to an interview with Hokkaido University Prof. Yamaguchi Jiro in Sight magazine. Prof. Yamaguchi served as an informal advisor to the DPJ’s Ozawa Ichiro. He says the reason for Mr. Ozawa’s low approval rating is that he too failed to understand the public’s preference for Mr. Koizumi’s structural reforms and the reasons for the DPJ’s 2009 election victory. The public has had it with the old LDP style of politics.

Mr. Fujisawa also seems to be missing a few things, perhaps because he hasn’t been cured in the brine of the American media/political environment.

The full Koizumi package was structural reform, part of which included the destruction of the old LDP and its Iron Triangle with the bureaucracy and big business. But it also included smaller government, privatization, and encouraging private sector/individual initiative.

The Japanese media is just as infused with left-of-center thinking as their counterparts in the Anglosphere. They were on board with the part of the program that involved the removal of the LDP, but not the part about giving power to the people. Their real agenda emerged when Mr. Koizumi left office.

Meanwhile, the negligible impact of the Japanese blogosphere on events results from several factors. The American (or English-language) blogosphere has successfully disintermediated Big Media and destroyed their monopoly on setting the parameters of discussion. That hasn’t happened here yet. Too many people still cede the presumption of credibility too often to Big Media.

It also doesn’t help that much of the Japanese blogosphere is boring as hell, particularly the visual media. There’s no awareness of the need to be entertaining or to attract an audience. The video presentations I’ve seen are too long and a deadly combination of the amateur and the pretentious. People aren’t interested in tedious sermonettes or panel discussions with too little content consuming too much time.

One popular American blog has on its masthead a quote from H.L. Mencken: “Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.” The Japanese Internet could use a lot more of those buccaneers, as well as people who understand they’re supposed to differentiate themselves from the competition. NHK will always have the edge in soporific discussions, and Beat Takeshi’s TV Tackle will always present slicker infotainment. They can’t do what the Internet can, however–guerilla warfare.

Also, the synergy that’s been created in the Anglosphere sector of the Internet has yet to emerge here, perhaps because too many bloggers think they have to imitate the Big Media model. Mr. Fujisawa says he has achieved micro-media status, and that might be the problem. He and some others have staked out their own small patch of commentator/hyoronka turf, but haven’t created the horizontal connectivity that can take a story viral and blow a hole in the Establishment’s credibility.

There are Japanese capable of doing that. Most of them, however, spend their time writing books or articles in monthly magazines, and none of it appears online. A couple of weekly magazines are starting to get the idea, but all of this is still happening in the dead tree medium.

It’s time to draw the blades and start slashing. Lord knows there are plenty of targets that need some stout whacks, if not complete beheading.

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Posted in Books, Mass media, Politics, Popular culture, Social trends | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Shimojo Masao (6): The countries of the Confucian cultural sphere

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, December 8, 2009

WITH THE EXCEPTION OF JAPAN, the names of the countries that were once part of the Confucian cultural sphere are now entirely different. Qing of the Manchu Dynasty has been divided and become the Peoples’ Republic of China and the Republic of China (Taiwan), while Joseon has been divided and become the Republic of Korea and the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea. Their social systems have also diverged, with some becoming socialist states and some becoming capitalist states.

Of these, Taiwan and South Korea adopted the market economy and advanced economically. At the end of the 19th century, they were part of highly centralized states. The one on the Korean Peninsula was then called the world’s poorest country, and Taiwan was a remote region on the outskirts of Qing. What lies behind their achievement of economic growth on the level of that of developed nations?

The one factor both have in common is that they were under the administration of Japan until the latter’s defeat in 1945. Taiwan was ceded to Japan after the Japan-China War of 1894, and Joseon merged with Japan in 1910. During that period, the ground was prepared that enabled the economic structures of a centralized government to take on the characteristics of a market economy.

There are examples to corroborate this. Today, with its rapid economic growth, China cannot halt the expanding gap between the cities and agricultural villages. In 2006, the government decided to launch the semaul (new village) movement, an effort to strengthen agricultural villages that was first implemented in South Korea in the 1970s.

The roots of the semaul movement are found in the period of Japan’s colonization and administration. It began in 1907 with the activities of the Regional Financing Association (the forerunner of the South Korean agricultural cooperatives), which converted tenant farms into independent farms. Its slogan was “Diligence, Self-Help, Cooperation”, and it encouraged the autonomous activities of the farmers. The semaul movement had the identical slogan, and it closely resembled the agricultural promotion policies during the period of Japanese administration.

Grappling with the severity of the so-called Three Agricultural Problems (farming villages, agriculture, farmers), the Chinese government launched the “New Farm Village Construction” program modeled on the success of the semaul movement. That is difficult to achieve in the single-party dictatorship of China, however. It is the same sort of difficulty encountered after the centralized Soviet Union collapsed and a market economy was introduced into a national structure based on a planned economy. It is impossible to create a market economy without recognizing the private ownership of land and creating the foundation of a democratic society.

In this regard, the South Korean view of the Japanese colonial administration as nothing but an invasion is an incorrect historical understanding. That’s because the foundation that promised the economic growth of today had already been laid during the period of Japanese administration. That is the backdrop for the economic development of South Korea and Taiwan. This fact should provide some hints for the advancement of developing countries and considerations of an East Asian entity.

- Shimojo Masao

Posted in Agriculture, Books, China, History, South Korea, Taiwan | Tagged: , , | 9 Comments »

Will China buy Japan Inc.?

Posted by ampontan on Monday, December 7, 2009

GOT THE BLUES after all the gloom and doom about the economy in some recent posts? What’s the solution when the news on the financial pages seems so bleak?

Comic relief!

When the shtick is about Japan, however, the comedy is all too likely to resemble Dumb and Dumberer instead of something more sophisticated. Here’s yet another example from three people billing themselves as East Asian business experts.

John Haffner, Tomas Casas, and Jean-Pierre Lehmann wrote a three-part article earlier this year for The Globalist website that includes excerpts from their book, Japan’s Open Future. The authors’ premise is that vigorous and forward-looking Chinese free market shock troops could storm and seize the castle of backward Japanese protectionism and create an impact as much cultural and psychological as economic.

To support their argument, they’ve conjured up spaghetti-like strings of speculation woven together to create enough straw men to populate a Potemkin Village. Their premises are so dated the three names on the article might as well have been Rip, Van, and Winkle. In both content and writing style, the article resembles nothing so much as a collage slapped together after midnight by an amphetamine-fueled undergraduate for a class assignment due before lunchtime.

See for yourselves!

As China continues to push for a robust free trade regime in Asia, it will only be a matter of time before it pressures Japan to join — and Japan would find it hard to resist. If the Middle Kingdom is able to pressure Japan to join a free trade agreement, such an agreement would likely allow China to challenge Japan’s myriad forms of economic protectionism through the agreement.

The website of the Doing Business project of the World Bank Group says it “provides objective measures of business regulations and their enforcement across 183 economies and selected cities at the subnational and regional level.” It has global rankings for the ease of business in each country.

Their overall ranking for Japan: #15.
Their overall ranking for China: #89. It edged out Zambia at #90.

Their rankings are also broken down into categories that examine specific aspects of doing business. One of those categories is “Trading Across Borders”.

Japan’s rank in that category: #17.
China’s rank in that category: #44.

Meanwhile, in other news, representatives from Japan were down in Singapore last month at the APEC conference, talking to delegates from every country about trading across borders through free trade agreements. Remarkably, no one was photographed twisting their arms.

But you can tell these guys are Asia hands. They call China the “Middle Kingdom”, just like all the Timeweek journalists.

Japan could very well wake up one day to find, in a scenario no less dramatic than Godzilla’s arrival in Tokyo, that many of its top companies are owned by Chinese investors.

Godzilla destroyed Tokyo in 1954 during the Eisenhower Administration, the same year Elvis Presley began his career change from truck driver to singer. The filmographic record of this destruction arrived in the U.S. in 1956, when Eisenhower was still in office, and was specially edited to include the young actor Raymond Burr.

Ike, Elvis, and the man who played Perry Mason are as long dead as any Japanese perception of foreigners as Godzilla.

At least Rip Van Winkle was alive enough to wake up after 20 years.

There is a feeling in the West that despite Japan’s impressive economic performance, the country did not remember to include its friends when times were good.

That’s the problem with the West these days—too much touchy-feely and not enough study-researchy.

Japan become the world’s leading provider of ODA starting in 1993 according to the OECD, and times weren’t all that good for them—their economic bubble had collapsed and they were just beginning their 10 lost years.

The government’s cut back a bit on ODA since then, however. They plummeted to second place in 2000 and third place in 2006.

They helped out their Kuwaiti friends in the 1990s to the tune of $US 13 billion after the first Gulf War, but their “friends” in Kuwait left them off the list of nations it wanted to thank in a full-page ad in the Washington Post.

They’ve been so helpful to their American friends that Japanese car makers built plants in the United States to keep alive the polite fiction that Americans can still build competitive automotive products.

Japan might also be surprised, in this scenario, to discover that the Europeans and Americans would not rush to provide Japan with a diplomatic or financial cushion against Chinese economic and political pressure, regardless of how strongly Japan might continue to align itself with the United States on political and military matters.

Meanwhile, in the real Japan scenario, no Japanese make the assumption that the West will provide it with a “cushion” against Chinese economic or political pressure, whatever the authors intend by the term “cushion”. If the premise is that the Chinese are going to crack open a protectionist Japanese market and buy Japanese companies, what “financial cushion” could the West provide?

As for protection against Chinese political pressure, the Europeans and the Americans couldn’t even cushion themselves.

Mercantilism excludes, it alienates potential friends and lonely Japan has failed to cultivate loyalty or allies in the world.

In contrast, the mercantilism of the immensely popular Chinese has won them a Facebook full of loyal friends and allies on which the sun never sets.

There is a feeling in the West that despite Japan’s impressive economic performance, the country did not remember to include its friends when times were good, as the United States has done, and as China is doing now.

We’ve already seen some examples above of the Japanese remembering friends when times were both bad and good. The authors fail to gave us concrete examples of how China is “including its friends” in their piece. They certainly haven’t helped with Iran and North Korea. Surely they aren’t referring to the Chinese presence in Africa.

Just what the deuce are these people talking about?

Warning, non sequitur ahead!

A minority of forward-looking Japanese would be comfortable with the larger significance of such a development (i.e., Chinese takeover of Japanese firms). As the Hong Kong joke goes, China just had a couple of bad centuries and is back in business.

How’s that for a concept: when business interests from Country A, many of which would be state-owned, snatch up the corporate jewels of Country B, the “forward-looking” people of Country B would find that “comfortable”. After all, China’s state-owned enterprises are such upstanding, responsible corporate citizens compared to the dead-in-the-water Japanese private-sector firms.

Curious, is it not?

And how they define “forward-looking Japanese” and how they’re sure who and who would not “be comfortable” with such a development aren’t explained. Maybe the authors are like Topsy. Topsy just grew. They just know.

Throughout the long article, the authors quote only one supposed authority—Ohmae Kenichi, who has thrown so many darts at the board over the past 20 years one of them is bound to stick eventually.

(A)s management consultant OHMAE Kenichi comments, “Over the last 4,000 years of history, Japan has been a peripheral country to China, with the exception of this one last century. In the future, Japan will be to China what Canada is to the United States, what Austria is to Germany.”

Drat, missed again! That wall around the dartboard is starting to look awfully tacky.

That’s the same Ohmae Kenichi who wrote a slapdash article of his own in the August 2008 issue of Voice magazine titled, “The Limit for One China Has Been Reached.” In true consultant fashion, he forecasts, without offering anything in the way of support, a loosening of the center in China over the intermediate term and the country’s transformation into a confederation of Chinese-speaking states.

It’s hard to see how Japan would be a Canada or an Austria to that.

In its roughly 2,000 years as a polity, Japan has never been to China what Canada is to the United States, nor what Austria is to Germany—and those two groupings share the same language. What reason is there to expect it will happen in the future?

For the first time, modern Japan could see a fellow Asian country — a country it invaded and colonized — as the catalyst of its own reform and economic improvement.

Has one of the major flaws of this article become clear now? It is ostensibly written about Japan, but the perspective is that of contemporary China. Japan did colonize Manchuria and Taiwan, and it did set up puppet governments with a shaky hold on authority. But the colonization of China, as most people other than the Chinese define it? Not in this time-space continuum.

It is not uncommon for Japanese to discount any advantages the Chinese might be gaining on these fronts with the kinds of rationalizations that, funny enough, the West tended to apply to Japan when it was gaining competitiveness in previous decades: lousy quality, advantages based only on cheap labor, lack of innovation and technology pirates.

Why shouldn’t it be uncommon? Funny enough, every one of those rationalizations is true.

From a subscriber-only article:

Who’s Monitoring Chinese Food Exports?
Nicholas Zamiska
The Wall Street Journal, 13 April 2007

Tainted foods from China are becoming a growing problem as the country plays a greater part in the global food chain. Chemical use is high, regulations are lax, and while the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has the authority to check imports for contaminants that are in violation of U.S. law, it is able to physically inspect only a small fraction of them…

China’s contamination problems stem in large part from its loose regulations and highly fragmented food production. Hundreds of millions of small farmers grow its food, and they rely heavily on chemicals to coax production out of intensively cultivated soils and to fight pests.

The result: “China has one of the world’s highest rates of chemical fertilizer use per hectare, and Chinese farmers use many highly toxic pesticides, including some that are banned in the United States,” according to a report published last November by the economic-research service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Dateline!

Jan. 4, 2009: Yomuri Shimbun reports that the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries will set up a mechanism to protect Japan’s intellectual property rights in farm, forestry, and fisheries sectors in China.

Back to our story.

Unless Japan undergoes a huge change in national psychology, therefore…

Shouldn’t there be some QED before we get to “therefore”?

…a forced Chinese economic opening would likely evoke a range of negative emotions, from mild embarrassment among moderates to a sense of unprecedented humiliation among hard-core nationalists.

Putting aside the lighter-than-air speculation, isn’t it odd they don’t mention leftists? It’s almost as if they don’t exist. Their boundaries of political thought are defined by moderates on one extreme and hard-core nationalists on the other.

By the way, those hard-core nationalists, assuming they exist in significant numbers, are unlikely to find any humiliation unprecedented. Japan did lose the war, after all.

But that was in the pre-Godzilla period.

But even if Japan does go nuclear, this is not a war that would be fought with military weapons or deterrence, just as Commodore Perry and General MacArthur did not use economics and the rule of law to force reform. In fact this is not game of war at all, although it would be a contest of sorts. China would be using economic jiu-jitsu, beating Japan at its own mercantilist game.

So, if Japan has nuclear weapons, it will fight a war with China, but instead of being a military war, a war-war, or a game war, it will be a sort of a contest in a mercantilist game.

Gotcha.

Meanwhile, here’s a question: if General MacArthur didn’t use the rule of law to force reform, what was the big idea with the Japanese constitution?

Let us here recapitulate the ironic sequence of moves: The postwar Japanese economy kept itself focused on exports and closed to imports in an effort to deal with foreigners on Japanese terms. And precisely because it has maintained this economic model for so long, it has become asymmetrically dependent on China. Thus Japan’s very strategy may have unwittingly created the conditions for foreigners to come in once again.

Let us here recapitulate the ironic sequence of facts:

In 2002, China replaced the United States as the largest exporter to Japan. In 2007, China replaced the U.S. as Japan’s biggest trading partner in combined value of imports and exports, even though the value of Japanese exports to China was less than that to the U.S.

In 2008, Japan’s exports to China were valued at JPY 12.95 trillion yen. Their imports from China were valued at JPY 14.83 trillion yen. Apart from the Middle East region, which exports oil, hummus, and pita bread, China is the only country to have a trade surplus with Japan. This surplus has existed since 2003.

The authors refer to this as asymmetrical dependence on China.

Now let us recapitulate Rip, Van, and Winkle: “The postwar Japanese economy kept itself focused on exports and closed to imports in an effort to deal with foreigners on Japanese terms.”

Instead of behaving like normal, well-adjusted countries and dealing with foreigners on the foreigners’ terms.

(Japan) is threatened by its own ambivalence, intransigence and isolationism.

You’ve heard of sister cities? Busan in South Korea and Fukuoka City in Kyushu have sister municipal fish markets with their own trade agreement. It is one of 23 measures recently adopted by the two cities to further their development of a supra-national economic sphere.

Are these people listening to voices in the air?

Japan is not contributing to defuse this state of affairs, and, on the contrary, its “realists” and hawks seem oblivious to the threat of a self-fulfilling prophecy of conflict.

Only a committee of three with nine academic degrees among them could write the second half of that sentence and still have the contacts to get it published somewhere.

Japan is no more likely to be involved in a war in the foreseeable future than Norway. The scare quotes around realists denote that the authors think they’re not really realistic, unlike, presumably, themselves. The authors neither identify nor describe the pseudo-realists.

Of course, there are some Japanese who think the country should have the same rights of self-defense as other sovereign nations. They’re the “hawks”.

Japan must therefore decide whether it would like to embark on a clear path centered on a commitment to building stability, openness and peace in Asia.

Which is exactly what they’ve been doing for the past 64 years. Whereas China…

Not only Japanese leaders, but also ordinary Japanese need to ask themselves: Are we willing to cultivate trust and learn how to cooperate with Asian powers, especially China?

I asked Hiroshi, who runs the noodle shop down the street, if he would be willing to cultivate trust and learn how to cooperate with Asian powers, especially China. He said, yeah, sure, they can stop by for lunch any time.

Many in Japan with personal experience of the Chinese, on the other hand, would say they’ve got it backwards. The guy running the noodle shop in Xian needs to ask himself: Are we willing to cultivate trust and learn how to cooperate with Asian powers, especially Japan?

Take any 500 Japanese off the street at random and any 500 Chinese off the street at random, and I’ll bet cash money the Japanese give far better answers to that question than the Chinese.

If the answer is that “Japan can say no, and says no,” what positive vision does Japan have for Asia in this negative affirmation?

If you reread that a few times, it gets even funnier.

The China-Japan nexus is also a crucial space in which energy and environmental history will be written for good or ill.

Maybe it isn’t voices in the air. Maybe it’s peyote.

If the world fails to act decisively in responding to climate change in the next decade, the whole planet, and Japan in particular, will face unthinkable challenges from extreme weather events, to flooding along the banks of Tokyo, to climate refugees, to food and water shortages.

No wonder they fancy the Godzilla metaphor–they’re big science fiction fans!

Of course the challenges are unthinkable. Nonexistent challenges always are.

Until last month, this would merely have been the equivalent of tabloid journalism for self-appointed public intellectuals. But since then, we’ve discovered that Trofim Lysenko and the Piltdown Man left a very large carbon footprint when they stomped through the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. Now, it’s cat box liner.

By opening its business climate — and pushing forward international efforts to define a meaningful successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol and build carbon markets — Japan could become the center of green innovation in Asia and the world, magnificently positioned to help bring China and India back from the environmental precipice.

Japan’s environmental ODA has averaged more than 20% of its overall ODA for more than a decade, and some years has exceeded 30%.

Why should Japan be responsible for cleaning up after the Chinese when the Chinese choose to live in their own filth while spending money on much more military than they need? Heaven forbid they divert some money from building a blue water navy to building some sewer systems for their dirty water instead.

As for India:

India is (the) first country to which Japan extended the first Yen Loan and India has been one of the largest recipients of Japan’s ODA. Japan has long been actively providing assistance to India, primarily in the form of Official Development Assistance loans, for upgrading of economic infrastructure, alleviation of poverty through public health and medical care, agricultural and rural development and population and AIDS countermeasures, support for small business and for environmental conservation…

India has actively pursued economic liberalization and market oriented economy since 1991. With India’s push towards greater economic liberalization policies, Japanese corporations’ interest in India has risen, and private-sector investment has increased dramatically and it is expected to rise further in future….Japan’s assistance under ODA since fiscal 1990-91 to 2001-02 cumulates at ¥977.14 bn.

However (for many Japanese companies), the inhibiting factors are differences in business practices, environment and culture etc…there is a lack of clarity in the policy guidelines. Also, most of Japanese investors feel that ground level hassles like labour laws, taxes, legal and regulatory framework are high in India. They consider procedural delays a major discouraging factor for potential investors. The infrastructure forms the backbone of development of any country. According to the majority of the Japanese investors, overall infrastructure facilities are lacking in India….Japanese investment in India is driven by Indian domestic demand, and that for reasons such as geographical factors, high tariffs and other regulations, it would be difficult to expect the same level of growth as in Sino-Japanese trade.”

And that’s not even a Japanese website.

Recall that Doing Business ranking that had Japan at #15 worldwide and China at #89?

India was at #133.

And now, for the stars of the show!

John Haffner moved to Japan in 2001 to study mixed martial arts.

I’m biting my cyber-tongue.

While in Japan, he developed and delivered an advocacy skill development program for senior Tokyo consultants of McKinsey & Company and coordinated a project to improve McKinsey’s knowledge of foreign-affiliated companies in Japan.

Now we know why only Ohmae Ken’ichi was cited. He’s a former McKinsey employee.

Since 2004…

Just three years after going to Japan to study mixed martial arts…

…Haffner has worked in strategic planning in the energy industry, with extensive experience in electricity regulation, climate change and nuclear policy. Haffner holds five degrees — from King’s, Dalhousie, Queen’s and McGill universities — and was a 2008 World Fellow at Yale University.

Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink

Tomas Casas I Klett is based in Shanghai. He worked in Tokyo for three years at the headquarters of a leading Japanese electronics company.

Ah. A Japan hand.

He has developed a number of entrepreneurial ventures with Chinese partners that lead him to travel frequently throughout China, his native Spain and other Western countries.

In other words, he has a vested interest in the success of Chinese enterprises in Japan.

Jean-Pierre Lehmann has taught and worked in many parts of the world, and offers insights into Japan from a global perspective.

His biography on another website indicates that he did spend a few years in Japan, mostly in the sort of positions that involve talking about other people doing things. He was a visiting professor. There is also mention of a “business strategy research and consulting organization”. There is no mention about being in Japan to learn about something from the bottom up, or listening to others instead of talking at them.

He is also Founding Director of the Evian Group, a coalition for liberal global governance comprised of business, government and opinion leaders from Asia-Pacific, Europe and the Americas.

The Evian Group likes to hold what it calls Multi-Stakeholder Dialogues. They appear to be what most people call “conferences”, but using that sort of commonplace terminology makes it more difficult to pad the bill.

Here’s a quote from one of the papers on the website:

How long do we need to wait before we mobilise ‘political will’? Do we wait until the temperature rises by 2 degrees? Or 4? Or 6?

If you wait that long, you’ll never mobilize political will.

He obtained his undergraduate degree from Georgetown University — and his doctorate on Japanese 19th century economic history from Oxford.

…and thinks time has stood still for the past 110 years.

Well, you have to hand it to them. They’ve succeeded in their aspirations to become part of the academic wing of what Mark Steyn dubbed “the transnational jet set — the EU, the UN, the NGO neo-imperialists, the foreign correspondents for CNN, the BBC and so forth”.

They don’t have to know or do anything. All they have to do is talk about business strategy research and liberal global governance and riff on implausible scenarios. That’s the beauty of a gig like theirs.

We all know that some people will write one-offs based on a highly distorted hypothesis to stand out from the pack, thereby promoting themselves and making a buck from the publicity they generate. The unfortunate aspect of this lot is their cynical manipulation of a common lack of knowledge about Japan and East Asia to enrich themselves while intellectually impoverishing anyone unlucky enough to stumble across this and read it.

Here’s the link to part one of the article. To read parts two and three, click on the authors’ names on that page. One link for this is plenty.

Posted in Books, Business, finance and the economy, China, India | Tagged: , | 6 Comments »

A textbook from the South Korean New Right

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, November 7, 2009

RECENT ACTIVITY in the Comments section has prompted me to present a summary of a longer article sent to me some months ago by Prof. Shimojo. It is not part of his recent series of short essays, but it is worth reading for the information it presents. Here is my very quick translation.

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A Textbook from the South Korean New Right

In March last year, the Textbook Forum of South Korea, consisting primarily of economists, published the Proposed Textbook of South Korean Recent and Modern History. This textbook has attracted attention both inside the country and overseas because its view of recent South Korean history is not based on the theory of Japan’s colonization of Korea as an illegal seizure of territory. Rather, it offers (to a certain extent) a positive evaluation of Japan’s role in the modernization of the country. For that reason, it is viewed in some quarters as a Korean version of the New History Textbook published in Japan. That is why it was subjected to a concentrated attack by the Left.

At just that time, a new conservative government took power in South Korea that emphasized a practical relationship with Japan rather than the issues of the past. The publication of this textbook portends the advent of a new period for the historical problems of Japanese-Korean relations. Therefore, let us consider how best to deal with those historical problems as we refer to this textbook of the New Right.

The creation of the Textbook Forum

The preface of the proposed textbook states that the Textbook Forum was created in 2005. On 16 March that year, Shimane Prefecture passed an ordinance establishing Takeshima Day, which inflamed nationalist passions in South Korea. It was also a period in which historical issues were brought to the forefront. Then-President Roh Moo-hyon made historical problems a matter of national policy and established the Presidential Commission on True History for Peace in Northeast Asia. That resulted in the emergence of a narrow-minded nationalism in South Korea, and the forces of the Left gained strength. This trend was accelerated by a special law passed by the Roh Administration in 2004 that enabled the investigation of collaborators with the Japanese during the colonization period. Thus began a period of research into the past.

At the same time, Shimane Prefecture passed an ordinance declaring Takeshima Day and commemorated the 100th anniversary of the incorporation of the islets into the prefecture. Opposition to these moves erupted in South Korea. The backdrop to this opposition was the South Korean historical view, formed in the 1950s, that Takeshima represented the first territory sacrificed in Japan’s invasion of the Korean Peninsula. However, then Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon (now UN Secretary-General) took the stance that the Takeshima issue was of greater importance than the bilateral Japanese-Korean relationship itself. President Roh also declared that the claim of sovereignty over Dokdo (Takeshima) constituted a “second invasion”. Thus, historical issues became a matter of South Korean foreign policy.

This further inflamed nationalist sentiment in South Korea, for which Prof. Emeritus Han Sung-joo of Korea University paid with his reputation. At that time, Prof. Han had written an article for the April 2005 issue of Seiron titled, “The Stupidity of the Condemnation of the Japan-Friendly Faction, Stemming from Communist and Left-Wing Thought”. In the article, he argued for a reexamination of the merger between Japan and Korea. The university stripped him of his title, and his vilification as a pro-Japanese professor spread to campuses throughout the nation. The previous year, in 2004, Prof. Lee Yeong-hun, a central figure in the Textbook Forum, published The Latter Joseon Period Reexamined from the Perspective of Quantitative Economic History. That prompted a reevaluation of Japan’s colonization and merger. The Textbook Forum was founded in this environment.

A different approach

In South Korea, the new proposed text was viewed as a Korean version of the New History Textbook. Since the textbook problems of 1982, however, Japan’s Neighboring Nation Clause has permitted interference from China and South Korea. In regard to the Tsukuru-kai’s New History Textbook, the self-restraint in the writing of textbooks has limited efforts to championing the cause of the liberal view of history.

The dispute over textbooks in South Korea, however, originated in the South Korean nationalist view of history that arose during the negotiations for the normalization of diplomatic relations between the two countries, which began in 1952. This is rooted in the intellectual conflict between Left and Right. It was in this context that the Roh Administration employed the issue of historical views as a card in diplomatic relations. In February 2008, the Roh Administration in its final days distributed educational videos both in South Korea and overseas that focused on seven separate issues: the Yasukuni shrine, comfort women, history textbooks, Takeshima, the East Sea, Chinese historical research into its northeastern region, the former Mongolia (which caused an uproar in South Korea), and the border dispute between China and North Korea involving Mt. Changbai. The objective was the Takeshima dispute, however. The aim was to isolate Japan by mobilizing all the historical issues and insisting that the colonization was a Japanese invasion. In 2007, legislatures in the United States, Canada, The Netherlands, and the EU also took up the comfort woman issue after being urged to do so by South Koreans.

Japan, however, views the comfort woman issue as a single issue, and so was unable to respond from a broader perspective. When the problem with history textbooks arose, the Neighboring Nation Clause was adopted. When the issue with comfort women arose, the simplistic response was the Kono Statement. The South Koreans thus extracted commitments from Japan. Both the Koizumi and Abe administrations encouraged the joint study of Japanese-Korean history, but the result could be seen in advance as long as there was a problem with historical views in South Korea.

In this regard, the Textbook Forum’s publication of the Proposed Textbook of South Korean Recent and Modern History represented a different approach—one that did not follow the South Korean historical perspective that viewed history as an invasion by the Japanese.

The Textbook Forum

The Textbook Forum has criticized conventional education in history for its nationalistic view based on a single perspective. The basis for its position is statistics and other data. Prof. Emeritus Park Son-su of the Academy of Korean Studies stated, “The description in the textbook showed that Japan contributed to the improvement and modernization of the Korean colony’s economy, society, and culture.” He was also critical, however, saying “The Japanese colonial government was the worst government, with none other like it in the world.” This is just historical viewpoint speaking, however, and is not historical fact.

In the 1970s, President Park Chug Hee’s Semaul Movement put South Korean agriculture on an independent footing and promoted economic development. President Park used the Japanese colonial administration as his point of reference for this movement. Past textbooks denied those successes, however, because the Park Administration was a military dictatorship, and he was considered friendly toward Japan.

That Park Geun Hye, a presidential candidate of the Grand National Party, is his oldest daughter was another factor in the political use of history. South Korea’s historical disputes are extremely political.

Park Geun Hye praised the Proposed Textbook of South Korean Recent and Modern History, saying, “It highlights the problems with current textbooks.” The South Korean Chamber of Commerce and Industry has presented to the Ministry of Education a proposal to revise the current textbooks. Thus, through the recognition of diverse values, the waves of democratization are beginning to break over South Korean history textbooks.

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Afterwords: Long-time readers know I am loathe to use the expression Right Wing or any of its permutations because its meaning became degraded beyond any practical use years ago. I asked Prof. Shimojo about the use of the term New Right, and he answered that the term is used in South Korea itself. Therefore, I used it here.

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Posted in Books, Education, History, International relations, South Korea, World War II | Tagged: , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Hatoyama Yukio, AKA Klaatu

Posted by ampontan on Monday, October 12, 2009

I think of my husband as a man from outer space.
- Hatoyama Miyuki, the wife of Japan’s prime minister

GOING BY the shorthand version in the English-language media, Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio was given his nickname “The Man from Outer Space” because Japanese think the shape of his eyes make him look like an alien.

Those looking for a more satisfactory explanation than the ones found in the English-language media might refer to the recently published Hatoyama Yukio no Uchujin Goroku (Roughly, The Collected Sayings of Hatoyama Yukio the Spaceman) for more background.

Yukio-chan

Yukio-chan

The book explains that the moniker started to gain traction back in 2001 when Mr. Hatoyama’s party, the Democratic Party of Japan, was desperate to create an identity for itself among the electorate after Koizumi Jun’ichiro of the Liberal Democratic Party became prime minister. Mr. Koizumi’s support in the polls transcended the stratospheric and touched the lower levels of outer space itself. The LDP tried to capitalize on the phenomenon by selling key chains, cell phone straps, and other merchandise that featured likenesses of the PM, whose unique hair style made him a natural for caricature.

Meanwhile, support for the DPJ was teetering at the bottom end of the seesaw. The party wanted to raise the visibility of Mr. Hatoyama, who was then serving as party head and came off a poor second in comparison to his LDP counterpart.

Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, the party decided to create a cartoon character of Mr. Hatoyama that they called Yukio-chan. The caricature exaggerated the shape of his eyes and placed them somewhere below cheekbone level. It does make Mr. Hatoyama look non-human and otherworldly, and it’s easy to see how people made the spaceman connection. In fact, the shape of the eyes and the jawline somewhat resemble those of the alien drawn for the cover of the 1985 Whitley Strieber book Communion, whose subject is alien abductions. (Whoa, now…I’m not going there!)

The DPJ was so pleased with its creation that they put it up on the home page of their website, used it to sell their own character goods, and hung a life-size poster of the caricature at party headquarters in Tokyo.

One wonders what the office ladies thought the first time they saw it.

As often happens, the law of unintended consequences came into effect. Instead of raising the profile of either the party or Mr. Hatoyama—neither of which happened for several years—the caricature cemented in the public mind the image of the DPJ boss as a bug-eyed visitor from another galaxy.

To be sure, this was all done with Mr. Hatoyama’s approval. In fact, he seems to rather like the spaceman idea. He’s on record as having said:

“I want to transcend (being) an earthling.”

Isn’t that as good an explanation as any for the basis of his political philosophy and policies?

Streiber's alien

Streiber's alien

The caricature was a natural target for the LDP. One of the first to spot the potential was then-Foreign Minister Tanaka Makiko, who always led with her dokuzetsu, or poison tongue. The book quotes a political journalist who says that she and Mr. Hatoyama often became embroiled in what he referred to as “strange disputes” in those days. Whenever a reporter would bring up the subject of Hatoyama Yukio, she’d dismiss it with the reply, “Ah, that spaceman!”

(Ms. Tanaka had quite the knack for nicknames, by the way. The late Hashimoto Ryutaro, who served as prime minister in the 90s, had a full head of slicked-down hair that he combed straight back. She referred to him as Uncle Pomade, or Pomado Oji-san.)

For an interesting twist, and example 35,472 of how politics makes strange bedfellows, Ms. Tanaka and her husband are now officially Space Cadets as members of the Hatoyama-led DPJ.

So, if the Japanese public thinks Mr. Hatoyama looks like a spaceman, perhaps that’s because they were encouraged to do so by both the man and his party.

And if you think the DPJ has unusual ideas for the visual promotion of its candidates, wait’ll you see how Deputy Prime Minister Kan Naoto sold himself once upon a time.

Posted in Books, Politics, Popular culture | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Nihonjin no Senso

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, October 6, 2009

ON SUNDAY, I served as one of the judges for the Saga Prefecture English speech contest for high school students. It was held at Imari, a country town that was once famous as the port for shipping Arita ware overseas. The views of the forests and mountains are beautiful, and I thought it would be an excellent place to spend one’s high school days.

The students might have a different view, however, especially as they get closer to graduation and either university or the workaday world beckons.

The room reserved for the judges was the school library, and when I had some free time I looked at their book selection. A student could learn quite a bit by exploring the books in that room.

Prominently displayed on a table next to the librarian’s desk was a book called Nihonjin no Senso (The War of the Japanese), edited by Donald Keene. He described the book in a recent interview in the Japan Times:

You recently published a book titled “Nihonjin no Senso” (“The War of the Japanese”). What is its theme?

It’s about what the Japanese people did during the five years from 1941, when World War II broke out, to 1945, when the Allied occupation of Japan began. That was an extremely interesting subject, because during the war my principal duty was translating handwritten Japanese documents, and though other people had great trouble reading them, I taught myself to do so. I read many diaries that were written by ordinary soldiers or sailors, not literary people. But for the book I decided to examine the diaries of literary people who could express their feelings adequately and who had kept their diaries faithfully during the war years. Their attitude was totally different and proved what I’d always believed — that the Japanese were not fanatics eager to die on a battlefield. There were such people, certainly. But there were a lot of people who were terribly unhappy about the war going on and had very strong thoughts about it. The importance of the book, I hope, will be to show the diversity among Japanese people even during the war, when everyone was expected to conform to everything the government said.

I’ll emphasize again that this book was not stuck on some shelf in a back corner, but placed on a table in the open where everyone would see it.

Some people–in East Asia, the West, and even in Japan–would have you believe the Japanese consider topics such as that off limits in schools.

Now you know how much credibility they have.

Posted in Books, World War II | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Monkey see, monkey don’t

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, July 22, 2009

ONE RECURRING VOICE IN THE NATIONAL CONVERSATION in Japan when I first arrived here was the tendency by some people to promote a political, social, or cultural cause by claiming that it was already a common practice in the West (usually the United States), so therefore Japan should adopt it too. Those who didn’t care for the ideas countered by accusing the proponent of saru mane, or monkey imitation—in other words, monkey see, monkey do.

Japan’s postwar success means they no longer have to crane their necks to look up at other countries they think might be more advanced. That means fewer pet theories are justified by pointing to behavior in other parts of the world. But the practice hasn’t entirely disappeared, and the following describes two examples that I ran across last week.

Rather than advocating a particular position, the first example is the unnecessary use of the United States as a standard for comparison. It’s harmless in this case, but it was presented by a man who should know better. In contrast, the second example has the potential to bring about some downright ugly changes to Japanese society.

Japanese Unemployment

Appearing on a recent NHK TV program, Prof. Noguchi Yukio of the Waseda Graduate School of Finance, Accounting, and Law created a stir when he claimed that Japan’s unemployment rate, which as of May was officially 5.2%, is really about 9%.

Here’s what Prof. Noguchi said:

“If the (effectively) unemployed still working at companies due to the Employment Adjustment Subsidy were counted, the unemployment rate would be more than 9%, a level not much different from that of the United States.”

The subsidy is offered by the government to companies who are cutting back on operations due to deteriorating profits as a result of the economic downturn. The government provides part of the funds for job furloughs or the rent of employees temporarily furloughed or seconded elsewhere. The government calls it a “subsidy for corporate efforts”, but it’s in fact a measure to keep those companies from terminating the people they’d rather lay off.

Noguchi Yukio

Noguchi Yukio

The program has mushroomed over the past seven months. The Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare reported that in October 2008, 140 companies received these subsidies for 3,632 workers. Those figures had risen to 67,192 companies and 2,338,991 workers by May 2009. Technically, those workers are not unemployed, but that’s only because the government is subsidizing their continued presence at their place of employment.

Prof. Noguchi’s point is that adding those 2.3 million people to the unemployment roll would lift the rate to 9%. In fact, the unemployment rate might be higher still. It does not count NEETs (people not currently engaged in employment, education or training), or the furiitaa, the underemployed youth (15-34) who tend to live with their parents after leaving school and shift from one low-skilled, low-paying job to another (such as convenience store clerk) rather than start a career. The latest figure for the former category is 640,000 and 1,700,000 for the latter.

Of course Prof. Noguchi is trying to drive home the point that employment conditions in Japan are much worse now than the government cares to admit, and he’s probably right. But the man received his doctorate in economics from Yale, so he is well aware that the American government is just as likely to blow smoke over employment statistics as its Japanese counterpart. The United States is not the gold standard for government honesty, assuming that any such standard exists.

American unemployment

To look behind the smokescreen covering current American unemployment figures, try this article in the Wall Street Journal by Morton Zuckerman, the editor in chief of the US News and World Report.

June’s total assumed 185,000 people at work who probably were not. The government could not identify them; it made an assumption about trends. But many of the mythical jobs are in industries that have absolutely no job creation, e.g., finance. When the official numbers are adjusted over the next several months, June will look worse.

- More companies are asking employees to take unpaid leave. These people don’t count on the unemployment roll.

- No fewer than 1.4 million people wanted or were available for work in the last 12 months but were not counted…(b)ecause they hadn’t searched for work in the four weeks preceding the survey.

- The number of workers taking part-time jobs due to the slack economy, a kind of stealth underemployment, has doubled in this recession to about nine million, or 5.8% of the work force. Add those whose hours have been cut to those who cannot find a full-time job and the total unemployed rises to 16.5%, putting the number of involuntarily idle in the range of 25 million.

- The average work week for rank-and-file employees in the private sector, roughly 80% of the work force, slipped to 33 hours. That’s 48 minutes a week less than before the recession began, the lowest level since the government began tracking such data 45 years ago…If Americans were still clocking those extra 48 minutes a week now, the same aggregate amount of work would get done with 3.3 million fewer employees, which means that if it were not for the shorter work week the jobless rate would be 11.7%, not 9.5% (which far exceeds the 8% rate projected by the Obama administration).

So while unemployment in Japan might be worse than people realize, conditions could be harsher still in the United States.

The 9% number should be shocking enough for the Japanese public. There’s no need to bring the United States into the picture, but old habits die hard.

But as I said, that’s a harmless example. The second is a classic case of saru mane that is troubling because, while based on what the advocate thinks is commonly accepted conditions in the United States, it combines a failure to understand the real circumstances with a transparent sense of self-importance. If adopted, her proposal would seriously degrade the Japanese political dialogue.

Election Reporting

Oguri Izumi began working for the Nihon Television Network as a newscaster in 1988, and spent three years on the Kyo no Dekigoto (Today’s Events) late-night news program. Her husband is a reporter for the Tokyo Shimbun.

Oguri Izumi

Oguri Izumi

Ms. Oguri left the network in August 2007 to accept a Fulbright Scholarship to the Edwin O. Reischauer Center For East Asian Studies at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in The Johns Hopkins University.

She released a book last month about her observations of broadcast journalism in the U.S. called Senkyo Hodo, or Election Reporting. (It’s an inexpensive Chuo Koron Shinsha paperback on display in bookstores now.)

I haven’t read the book, but I have read the promotional material, and here’s the scoop:

During her stay in the US, she was shocked to see many television journalists openly declare their support for presidential candidates.

Ms. Oguri thinks this is a capital idea. She proposes that all Japanese television journalists be allowed to become “opinion leaders” and openly advocate the candidates they favor on the air—not as a disclaimer, but as a matter of practice.

She claims that supporting a party is not necessarily a violation of fairness or neutrality, and offers her book as a plan for creating a “good country”. She added that she had a hard time maintaining her own fairness or neutrality while on the air in Japan.

Specifically, she says that newscasters should make their choices based on their reading of party platforms and then explain those choices to the viewers.

Let us count the ways in which that is a very bad idea.

Had Ms. Oguri turned off the TV set and talked to off-campus America, she might have discovered that they too were shocked—and angered—that many television journalists openly declared their support for presidential candidates. They do not watch television news to see manipulated reports or hear a talking head tell them what they should think.

The consumers of news are intelligent enough to know where to find political opinions when they want them. There are already plenty of outlets for that expression, both in the United States and in Japan. What the consumer of basic news programs seeks is a straight accounting of the facts.

The job of journalists in the print and broadcast media outside the op-ed corner is to present just the facts, and nothing but the facts. That so many of them feel compelled to twist those facts to conform to their own biases, and then aver that true neutrality is not possible, is testimony to flawed temperaments underpinned by a belief in their superior intelligence.

It should be a simple matter to stick with the facts, regardless of what the biens pensants would prefer us to believe. I have no doubt that if I were a television journalist, or responsible for the production of television news programs, that—unlike Ms. Oguri—I could handle that part of the job in my sleep. It would be easy money. Indeed, it would be a lot more difficult (not to mention creepy) to insert propaganda while trying to pretend that I wasn’t.

All Ms. Oguri is trying to do is to take the difficulty out of pushing her own views on everyone else by hijacking a medium that should remain neutral. Supporting her pet plan by saying that the Americans do it–without realizing that many Americans detest the mockery the practice has made of the political process–is nothing but saru mane.

It’s tempting to buy the book to see how she tries to make the case that open advocacy isn’t a violation of the principle of neutrality, but who has the time for what is likely little more than a string of excuses?

One reviewer stated the obvious objection that since private-sector television is supported by advertising, overt support for specific candidates could subject the network or the station to pressure from those advertisers. The pressure from ownership cannot be overlooked, either, considering that the press is really only free for those who own the enterprise. It’s one thing to claim to speak truth to power; it’s another thing entirely to speak truth to the man who signs your paycheck and tells you to parrot his line.

Broadcast journalists who openly support candidates will surely do so on the basis of pre-existing beliefs. The idea that they will read and judge a platform is a false front, and it’s hard to believe that they’re even fooling themselves. Anyone can find reasons for either supporting or opposing the planks of any specific platform, based on their own cast of mind. Lawyers do the same sort of thing every day with the law and legal precedents. It’s their job.

Taking this one step further, broadcasts journalists freed from the obligation to be objective will then be guided by their political preferences. That would prevent them from exercising the self-examination required to root out the idea that they alone have the intelligence or the right to decide which facts should be broadcast, which should be emphasized, and which should be glossed over. Does Ms. Oguri seriously believe this would not happen? Has she even thought this out?

That would leave us with an overtly biased media, which would mean that none of its news content could be trusted. If this sector of the media cannot be trusted to stick to the facts, they have eliminated the reason for their existence. They would have in effect become the PR wing for a particular politician or a cause using an enormous megaphone. Let the politicians and the activists do that on their own time.

Far from being a model for Japan, the former news gatherers of the American print and broadcast media now find themselves in exactly this predicament. That’s why so many of them are going out of business, in the case of newspapers, or ignored, in the case of network news.

The electorate does not need opinion leaders, and the idea that it does is insulting to its intelligence. All it requires is that the facts—as many as the limited programming time allows—be reported. Self-appointed elites are not required to filter those facts for anyone, especially since the people on camera don’t seem to be any more intelligent than anyone else on the street. Indeed, viewed from the perspective of day-to-day life, they’re likely to have less practical intelligence than most people on the street.

People are capable of figuring things out for themselves. If Ms. Oguri lacks the insight to understand that, she lacks the insight required to offer us her political opinions while claiming to be fair and neutral.

And if she has that much trouble squelching her bias on the air, she should find another job.

Are Japanese broadcasters unprejudiced now?

In passing, I should note that more than a few Japanese would laugh at the idea their broadcast media is neutral to begin with. The general approach of the Asahi network is from the left, and even I could see the slant in their broadcasts before I was able to make the connection between the announcers and the network.

Some Japanese have long thought that the news on the quasi-governmental network NHK is also tilted. A common observation is that they are soft on China and hard on the United States.

It should be obvious that anything other than strict neutrality for a public broadcaster is an affront to the ideals of democratic government. The network is supported by funds that all citizens are required to pay, so they have a moral obligation to present the news impartially. If people do not care for the programs offered by a private sector broadcaster, it costs them nothing to stop watching. If enough people take that step, it will lower the network’s ratings and cut into their ad revenue. Viewers can even go over the head of the network itself directly to the sponsors to complain.

From reporting to making the news

Regarding the connection between the media and politics, by the way, I recently ran across a Japanese-language article reporting that more people from both the print and broadcast media are becoming professional politicians. For the upcoming lower house elections, the opposition Democratic Party of Japan is running at least 23 people who came from that industry, either recently or longer ago, while the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is running 10.

Takeuchi Ken, former mayor of Kamakura, founder of the Internet newspaper JanJan, and a visiting professor at Waseda University, thinks he knows why there are more in the DPJ. It’s not necessarily because of political philosophy:

“The DPJ most definitely have the wind at their back, but a careful examination of local conditions shows that they lack an organizational base. That’s why, as a party, they look for people who can catch that wind. In contrast, the LDP is an organizational party from the candidates’ perspective, and younger people have a difficult time obtaining their recognition. People from the mass media have name recognition due to their exposure, and they’ve mastered communication skills, which makes it easier for them to pick up votes. As a result, more of them have gravitated toward the DPJ.”

Perhaps Ms. Oguri should take the hint. If she thinks her analyses are so penetrating, she should try her hand at retail politics instead of making Olympian pronouncements from a TV studio.

Or get a blog!

Afterwords:

Ms. Oguri also represents another aspect of saru mane, and that’s what some Japanese refer to as the madoguchi phenomenon. It dates back at least to the beginning of the Meiji period, when the country reopened to the outside world and was hungry for knowledge of other places and the technology of the modern age.

Madoguchi is the word for a clerk’s window at a bank, venue for ticket sales, or other similar facility. There has long been a tendency for some people here to go abroad to study some specialty—Chinese regional cuisine, Scotch whisky distillation, Italian sports cars, British politics, watermelon cultivation in Missouri, black gospel music recorded but unreleased by local labels in the American south in the 1960s—in short, anything and everything. Then they return to Japan and create the equivalent of a madoguchi (glorified lemonade stand?) to offer their knowledge, much as the delegations dispatched overseas by the Meiji-era governments brought back knowledge from their observation tours of Western countries. The idea is to make a career out of their specialty.

The easy accessibility of international travel has removed many of the obstacles that prevented people from pursuing their interests abroad, so the practice is less prevalent than it once was. It’s been a while since I’ve seen such a clear example, but with this book, Ms. Oguri seems to be setting up a madoguchi of her own.

Incidentally, I have no idea what Ms. Oguri’s political ideas might be. Another former newscaster on the Kyo no Dekigoto program, Sakurai Yoshiko, is quite conservative politically, and now quite active writing opinion pieces for monthly magazines.

Posted in Books, Government, Mass media, Politics | Tagged: | 7 Comments »

 
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