AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Archive for the ‘Demography’ Category

Ichigen koji (271)

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, December 27, 2012

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

There has been a lot of discussion in South Korea recently that they’ve succumbed to the “Japanese Disease”. But the vast majority believes they can overcome it if they boost the growth rate. Whenever I ask South Koreans about the lack of manpower due to the aging of society, they say they can overcome their demographic problems by bringing in a large number of people from China and elsewhere. Most people answer, “All we have to do is utilize people from North Korea and China.”

- Suzuoki Takabumi of the Nikkei Shimbun

Posted in Demography, Quotations, South Korea | Leave a Comment »

An oasis in the desert of ignorance

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, December 5, 2012

IT’S an ironclad law that’s almost mathematical in its inverse proportionality: The more a commentator buncomizes with faux insight about the Japanese decline, the less that commentator actually knows about Japan. Now here’s an example that demonstrates the theorem works both ways. Gerald Curtis, a professor of political science at Columbia University, director of the Toyota Research Program at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, and the senior research fellow at the Tokyo Foundation, thinks the declinist debate is a diversion.

He starts out with some much-needed common sense:

Japan is declining in some respects and in other important ways it is not declining at all. It is well known that Japan’s relative standing in the hierarchy of the world’s economies has declined. Japan as number one has given way to a Japan that is number three. But would you prefer to live in the number two economy China or the number three economy Japan? If you think about living standards and the quality of the air you breathe, the water you drink and the food you eat, the health care and other social services you receive, and the number of years you can expect to live, the answer is obvious: better to live in a “declining” Japan than in a rising China.

More pertinent to the decline issue, is Japan’s diminished stature as an economic superpower really a matter of decline or the consequence of the ability of other countries to grow richer? The share of global GNP occupied by both the United States and Japan has declined thanks to the ability of other countries to emerge from abject poverty. That is good news not only for the people of those countries but for the United States and Japan as well, who have access to inexpensively priced goods and new markets for their exports.

It’s tempting to just copy and paste the whole thing:

The declinist narrative exaggerates Japan’s economic so-called decline because it fails to take into account the one indisputable aspect of Japan’s decline which is the decline of the number of Japanese. Has Japan’s economy performed notably worse than other advanced economies over the past twenty years? No, especially if you compare GDP growth per capita or per employee. Over two decades of “stagnation” Japan has grown, living standards have continued to increase and unemployment has been kept low.

Prof. Curtis is also aware of what so many people who presume to pontificate about Japan aren’t:

What about something we might call the nation’s social health. In terms of social cohesion, sense of community, and general civility, the Tohoku disaster showed the world how strong Japan is. Whatever political problems were revealed by the government response to the Tohoku tragedy, they pale by comparison with the self-discipline, restraint, outpouring of goodwill, and cooperation that Japanese people showed each other—and the welcoming attitude with which they greeted foreign assistance. And it is not only in rural areas like the Tohoku disaster zone in which these social bonds are strong. In urban Japan as well, cleanliness, low crime rates, and basic good manners still make Japanese cities like Tokyo some of the world’s most comfortable, civilized places to live.

The only problem he sees is demography, but he points out that Japan is by no means alone.

Demography may be robbing Japan of some of its vitality. Japan seems tired which should not be so surprising seeing that it is becoming more and more a country of older people; alas, elderly people tend to get tired. But this too is hardly a uniquely Japanese problem. Immigration brings vitality to the United States but most countries in Europe as well as South Korea, China, and many others face a demographic reality similar to Japan’s.

You’ve hit the link and read the whole thing? Good, because this is an excellent opportunity to mention one of my theories: people might be misunderstanding what’s happening with demographic decline. The cosmos naturally seeks the due mean, and extremes will always be balanced out.

The demographic decline might just be part of the ongoing process of survival of the fittest. Those people without the ability to protect themselves from predators, develop hunting skills, or recognize dangers and potentially fatal situations did not pass their genes on to later generations. The genes of those without the physical resiliency to withstand fatal bacteria also were not delivered to the future. All of us alive today are descended from stock capable of surviving massive plagues, which have continued into modern times. For example:

The influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 killed more people than the Great War, known today as World War I (WWI), at somewhere between 20 and 40 million people. It has been cited as the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history. More people died of influenza in a single year than in four-years of the Black Death Bubonic Plague from 1347 to 1351. Known as “Spanish Flu” or “La Grippe” the influenza of 1918-1919 was a global disaster.

Nowadays, saber-toothed tigers do not spring on us from out of the bushes, and improvements in medical science continue to extend our lifespans. Those who now do not pass their genes on to the next generation are the people blase about the brass tacks of life, whom modern society has rendered psychologically ill-equipped to follow the biological imperative of reproduction. It makes no difference whether the diversion is the contemporary manifestation of café society, computer games, Twitter addiction, or outré pastimes; they are all a divergent path.

When the due mean has been reached and the extremes balanced, most of the people then alive will be those who have demonstrated yet another facet of the fitness for survival.

Am I wrong? Perhaps, but it is likely that none of us will be around long enough to see that process work itself out.

Afterwords:

* Prof. Curtis is considered in some quarters to be one of the Japan Handlers.

* He wrote this post as a guest of the regular blogger, Sheila A. Smith. Considering what she’s offered in the past, it’s a pity he can’t replace her permanently.

Posted in Demography, Social trends | Tagged: | 4 Comments »

Hashimoto Toru (5): Onishi Hiroshi speaks!

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, April 5, 2012

ONISHI Hiroshi is the head of a marketing and management consulting company who also blogs about politics and business. His thoughts in a recent post about One Osaka and contemporary Japanese political conditions were quite sensible. Here it is in English.

*****
The One Osaka political juku received applications from 3,326 people, and after examining the applicants’ essays in the first screening, they selected more than 2,204 candidates from 46 prefectures for the start of lectures. There will be five sessions until June, when they plan to reduce that number to 400-1,000. Immediately, one ran across criticisms and concerns expressed in the mass media and blogs.

It’s my sense that most of them are wide of the mark. Because expectations are high, the criticisms and concerns were hurled in the way that fans of the Hanshin Tigers (baseball team) hurl harsh language at the players. The people who assembled at the One Osaka juku, went the criticisms, were after all just a group of amateurs. These people can’t be expected to shoulder the burden of national government.

But if we are to learn from the business world, innovation comes from the frontier and not the center. It teaches the lesson that many of the people who break through the limits of the industry experts and the mature business mechanisms are those who come from the outlying areas of the industry.

Speaking of political experts, that describes the Liberal Democratic Party, with their many years of experience of heading governments. But LDP politics have come to a dead end. There is no question that the current problems of a declining population, fiscal deficits, pensions, and nuclear energy are the bill left by the LDP government. Just because people are experts does not mean they are capable of good politics. Experts have their limits too.

There is also the criticism that the people who have come to the juku are the shades of the Koizumi Children and the Ozawa Children (younger Diet members elected on the coattails/influence of those two politicians in 2005/2009). It is nothing more than a rerun of people climbing on board a temporary trend, they say.

But the Koizumi Children and the Ozawa Children were a temporary grouping of people resulting from elections based on whether one supported or opposed the Japan Post privatization, or whether the LDP/New Komeito coalition should remain in government or be replaced by the Democratic Party.

The decisive difference is whether or not One Osaka can generate an impact on national government now, and whether they can become a force that spurs the reorganization of the political parties. They are not at the stage where they can suddenly take control of government. Even with the lecture courses and the further screening of the 2,000 students in June, they can not be treated in the same way. At this point, criticisms and concerns of that sort are not fair.

Certainly, there are different ways to go about it. Possible methods include selecting people after repeated workshops, or discovering the talented among them during dialogues. Perhaps they could somehow use social media. But that’s something for political parties other than One Osaka to think about. It’s not possible to arbitrarily determine that something absolutely won’t work at a stage when no results are visible.

Another frequent criticism is that they are being led astray by a superficial fantasy of reform. This feeling of doubting reform is understandable with the sense of disappointment that the Koizumi reforms didn’t continue, or that the DPJ was unable to proceed with the reforms the people expected.

It’s my feeling that the subject of the criticism is incorrect. One thing that prevents innovation is found in the saying, “The road to failure is paved with good intentions.” It seems to be something close to that. The classic comeback to crush new ideas in the business world is, “We did that before. We’d just be doing the same thing again.” That seems to be a superficial rejoinder along the lines of not wanting to be fooled. But that’s a poor position which results in protecting the politics of today and eliciting a condition from which there is no exit.

It doesn’t need to be said that Japan is in need of many reforms. It is self-evident that we must break free from the developing country model of bureaucratic leadership and the systemic fatigue and detrimental effects of a national structure with centralized authority. We must create the foundation in which more diverse industries can be created. We must change the national mechanisms for thinking about such issues as the government’s efficiency in responding to the problems of an aging society, or rebuilding the regional communities.

Both the DPJ and the LDP proclaimed they would move from the center to the regions, and raised the issue of dealing with the bureaucracy at Kasumigaseki. But there are limits to how both parties put their own interests first, and their concrete efforts lagged or faltered. Rather than regional sovereignty, the state/province system as proposed by Kasumigaseki was a shabby thing that, from the center’s perspective, would place daimyo throughout the country to maintain authority and complete control over the regions.

In reality, the concrete measures and efforts toward regional sovereignty have originated in the regions, as symbolized by One Osaka. At present, the existing parties are looking for a way to join in that effort.

The reform of the phrase “from the center to the regions” is not at all the superficial issue of changing procedures or the legal system. Rather, it means shifting the center of gravity for authority. In other words, there will be tremendous discord created over the question of authority, both on the surface and behind the scenes, as authority is seized from the existing political parties and the bureaucracy and shifted to the regions. If this were a period in which democracy had not been established, that sort of problem would result in hostilities or warfare.

In light of history, it is unnatural to think problems of that magnitude could be resolved by the Koizumi reforms or the change of government to the DPJ. To brush that aside by saying reform is nothing more than a fantasy is the same as defending the status quo. It is only that the elements who will address the issues of reform have not yet appeared, or have not yet matured.

True reform will be cultivated with the active and continuous participation of the people. Achieving that will require the creation of momentum and growth into a larger movement. Rather than abruptly take control of the government, the thinking and political methodology of One Osaka is likely that of increasing their influence on national politics and growing into a force while joining hands with the existing political parties.

Also, one becomes aware that the criticism and concern arises because of the ill will toward the “one phrase politics” in which One Osaka, and Mayor Hashimoto in particular, creates an enemy and uses that as an opening for repeated attacks. It is perhaps a good idea for commentators to talk of many subjects, or for politicians having it out in Diet skirmishes to talk of many subjects, but (one phrase politics) is a method that should be recognized for delivering a message to the people of the city and the country, and creating a sense of sympathy.

How you approach someone depends on whom you’re approaching. If you’re approaching mass media commentators, it’s a good idea to have the long messages those people prefer. But approaching the people of the city or the country requires something easily understood. Had One Osaka stopped there, however, I think they would not have been able to achieve their current high level of support, nor would they have been able to influence the existing political parties. Indeed, American presidential elections use the political methods of former Prime Minister Koizumi and Mayor Hashimoto; perhaps they employ them even more. Further, the criticism of One Osaka as unrealistic, or full of desktop theories, or that they champion the difficult-to-understand Osaka Metro District concept, cannot be ignored.

Just what is it that the people with the criticism and concerns are afraid of? Why are they so concerned over the One Osaka whirlwind that is now spreading. Wouldn’t that rather serve to heighten interest?

My sense of the current competition for authority between the DPJ and the LDP is that the differences within each party are greater than the sense of values and policy differences between each party. Further, the points at dispute have increasingly narrowed, and their debate centers on competing proclamations of their ability. Situations are often seen in the business world in which companies expand their battle for market share over minor differences.

In most of those cases, they have gradually become detached from the main issue of offering the higher value the market demands. New market entrants arise by creating an opening between the two. This sort of competition for share that creates no innovation has little meaning now in this great age of transformation from industrialization to digitization, and to globalization.

It is the same with politics. They have become detached from the needs of the people, and their struggle for authority is based on their self-interest. Politics have come to a dead end. Further, even if the LDP were to win a large victory in the next election, it will have been nothing more than an own goal brought about by their enemy’s blunders. They have not gained the support of the people, so their second collapse is clearly visible.

The reason for the very parties’ existence will be threatened unless they begin to address the people more directly, and make greater efforts to gain the sympathy and support of the people. These circumstances do not call for criticizing other parties, and enhancing one’s presence by repeatedly criticizing other parties is too short-sighted.

Nor are these the circumstances for existing political parties to play the game of political warfare within the party or the Diet, detached from the people. Speaking realistically, the existing political parties still have the forces to assume control of the government in national politics. I have a strong sense that if they have the spare time to criticize One Osaka, then we should more strongly present our requests to the existing parties.

(end translation)
*****
Some minor points:

1. Mr. Onishi specifically mentioned the problem of the “declining population” as one item on the bill left by the LDP. No political measures anywhere exist to halt or reverse a declining population. In fact, they’re usually counterproductive.

European style child allowances were one of the major policy initiatives of the Democratic Party government when it took power in 2009. Prime Minister Hatoyama justified it by citing the example of France, where subsidies are attributed to boosting the birth rate from 1.8 to about 1.9 (the last I looked). The French, however, offer many more benefits than the DPJ’s now rescinded straight cash payments, have higher income tax rates than Japan, and a VAT north of 19%.

The French also do not break down census information by religious affiliation, but some estimate that Muslims account for 40% of the population aged 20 or younger. Prof. Julien Damon of Sciences Po in Paris reports that approximately 20% of French births are accounted for by migrant families or those with one foreign-born parent. Foreign-born Muslims are likely to have more children than the ethnic French. Government benefits are irrelevant (unless it is a factor for Muslims with large families overseas moving to France to receive them.)

Pavel Kohout writes, in an article now behind a paywall:

“In 1927, Italian duce Benito Mussolini launched a program called Battle for Births. Mussolini believed that Italy had fewer people than it needed in order to play the part of a major world power. By the beginning of the 1920s, Italy had 37 million citizens. Il Duce set the number of 60 million by the year 1950 as national target. To achieve this target, Mussolini introduced generous benefits, especially for families with multiple children. Fathers of six or more paid no taxes at all. Of course, tax penalties for the unmarried were introduced, too. Abortions were outlawed, and contraception was hard to obtain. Later, career obstacles for unmarried men were officially introduced, mainly in government administration.

“The fascist government in Italy lasted long enough in peacetime that we may know its results. Exactly as economic theory would predict, the birthrate fell from 1927 to 1934. So did the number of marriages. Not surprisingly, the average age of marrying couples increased.”

And because this was a DPJ initiative, they couldn’t help tripping over their own diapers. In the first two months of the program, they paid about JPY one billion in public funds to foreign residents for 7,746 children living outside Japan. (It is an interesting bit of trivia that when New Komeito first proposed such payments in the Tokyo Metro District, the harshest opponents were the DPJ.)

All of this money was spent to boost a birth rate that fell below the 2.1 replacement level in 1957.

Of course the real problem lies elsewhere. Said Lord Sachs, the chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth:

“Parenthood involves massive sacrifice of money, attention, time and emotional energy…where today in European culture with its consumerism and instant gratification – because you’re worth it – where will you find space for the concept of sacrifice for the sake of generations not yet born?”

Then there’s the attitude of Barack Obama, who used his daughters as an example of his reason for supporting abortion:

“If they make a mistake, I don’t want them punished with a baby.”

The more likely explanation is the extension of the concept of survival of the fittest. Natural selection is weeding out the offspring of those people incapable of dealing with the modern world, in which today’s predators are psychological rather than saber-toothed tigers. How else to explain the phenomenon of the anti-lifers who think children are a “luxury good”, or who want to levy a carbon tax on people who have children? It’s natural contraception without the pill.

But I digress.

2. The Japanese deficit is not attributable to all of the LDP, as Mr. Onishi suggests. It was slightly over JPY 20 trillion when Mr. Koizumi took office. It hovered around that level for two or three years while his government dealt with the post-bubble problem of banks saddled with non-performing debt. It started to drop three years into his term, and fell to JPY seven trillion three years after that in the year of Abe-Fukuda. The deficit began to climb again under the anti-reformers Fukuda and Aso, especially after the global economic crisis of 2008, when Mr. Aso and the mudboaters saw an excuse to dish out the pork labeled as economic stimulus. Since 2009, the DPJ governments have set three new records with a debt explosion that is positively Obamanian. The Koizumi policies slashed it to less than one-third in six years. The rejection of those policies has resulted in annual deficit about twice what it was during his first year in the Kantei, or more than JPY 40 trillion.

UPDATE: The budget for FY 2012 was passed a few hours after I wrote the foregoing. The lower house approved it, and the upper house (where the ruling DPJ does not have a majority) rejected it, so it was enacted anyway in accordance with the Constitution. It came in at just a skoche more than JPY 90 trillion, which is the first DPJ budget to be lower than that of the previous year. It is also the lowest budget they have ever submitted, IIRC. However, that is only for the general account. The special accounts for the Tohoku recovery and pensions, which are also the responsibility of the national government, bring the total above JPY 96 trillion, the highest ever. This fact has been noted in all the news reports, so the Noda Cabinet will not get credit for “budget reduction”.

3. Mr. Onishi seems to offer a slight internal contradiction. He says that in another age, the required solutions for today’s problems would have resulted in warfare. If that’s the case, it’s difficult to see how joining hands with the people who created the problems will solve them.

4. He also thinks the Osaka Metro District concept is difficult to understand, but that seems to be a minority view. Most thought the arguments during last November’s election, pro and con, were easy to understand.

*****
I haven’t read the article yet, but the latest issue of the weekly Shukan Gendai (14 April, out yesterday) reports the results of their voter preference survey in the Kinki region. They say Hashimoto Toru’s One Osaka would sweep all the single-seat districts in a lower house election. It would be a historical rout for both the DPJ and the LDP. They also say both DPJ bigwig Maehara Seiji and LDP President Tanigaki Sadakazu would lose their elections (both are from Kyoto). That would not necessarily throw the bums out, however; with the odious proportional representation system, their parties would probably put them at the top of their respective PR lists.

Meanwhile, Yayama Taro has an article in the April issue of Voice about the phenomenon. The headline reads: The Hashimoto Whirlwind Will Not End as a “Diverson” (asobi, literally, play or pastime).

Here’s the first paragraph:

“One Osaka, led by Mayor Hashimoto Toru, has engulfed the political world in a whirlwind. Looking at the Tokyo editions of the major newspapers, it seems they treat the Hashimoto whirlwind as a local Osaka phenomenon. Pure and simple, this must be viewed as a major development that will lead to the reorganization of the central government. Having sensed that, I subscribed to the Osaka edition of the Sankei Shimbun.”

There’s a whole lotta shaking goin’ on.

He won’t have to read the Osaka editions if any bad news emerges. The Asahi Shimbun will be sure to cover that.

In any event, Mr. Hashimoto is also getting plenty of television coverage.

*****
The next posts in the Hashimoto series will examine his largest controversies/battles as governor and mayor in Osaka.

*****
What we need is some local funky diversity, and that’s what Cicala Mvta (pronounced “muta” in Japanese) offers. Any ethnic/folk/pop style of music that calls for a clarinet, leader Okuma Wataru plays.

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Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Demography, Government, Politics, Social trends | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Stale cigars

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, May 10, 2011

AUTHOR and columnist Mark Steyn is well known for having brought to public attention global demographic trends and their implications for the future.

People who achieve greater prominence after becoming identified with A Big Idea, however, often fall into the trap of shaking their moneymaker at anything that passes by, no matter how remote or nonexistent the connection. That seems to be the source of the problem with Mr. Steyn’s 5 April column in the National Review on the relative absence of post-earthquake/tsunami looting in Japan. The title of the piece as it appears on his website is Earthquake Demographics, and no, I have no idea what that pairing of words is supposed to mean either.

Mr. Steyn is also well known for a sense of humor that can be devastating when used in the appropriate context. This was not an appropriate context.

‘Why is there no looting in Japan?” wondered a headline in the Daily Telegraph. So did a lot of other folks. Various answers were posited:
The Japanese are a highly civilized people — which would have been news to the 22 British watchkeepers on the island of Tarawa who were tied to trees, beheaded, set alight, and tossed in a pit less than 70 years ago.

Rather than making a point about the Japanese national character, that passage works better to demonstrate the aptness of the Henri Amiel aphorism that cleverness is serviceable for everything, but sufficient for nothing. This Pavlovian flick of the wrist was serviceable for quickly distracting the reader from a positive explanation for the lack of looting and getting down to the real business of the article: promoting the author’s idée fixe.

As a serious observation, however, it was sufficient for nothing. Are we also to consider the Germans uncivilized (or, to be fair to the original wording, less than “highly civilized”)? A few more flicks of the wrist at the keyboard or in the card catalog of a library would be both serviceable and sufficient for finding examples of similar behavior from people in every country.

For example, is this the sort of thing British lads learned on the playing fields of Eton?

The deadline for his National Review piece prevented Mr. Steyn from reading an article that describes what everyone else would consider highly civilized behavior. The headline is, “Millions of ‘lost’ cash found in tsunami-hit coastal areas”. By millions, they mean yen, which translates into several hundred thousand dollars:

Rescue workers and Japanese citizens have handed over millions of ‘lost’ cash to police, which they have found while carrying out their tasks in the mud-covered coastal areas in northeastern regions of the country that were devastated following the March 11 earthquake-cum-tsunami.

Not only would most people consider this behavior highly civilized, they would also find it exceptional — unless Americans have moved to a higher evolutionary plane since I left, and it’s now possible for someone to leave a bag unattended on a seat in a bus station waiting area while making a lavatory stop.

It is in Japan.

After that, we’re treated to a megadose of Mr. Steyn’s trademark of marbling a serious argument with wisecracks:

Most analysts overlooked the most obvious factor: Looting is a young man’s game, and the Japanese are too old. They’re the oldest society on earth. They have a world-record life expectancy — nearly 87 for women. A quarter of the population is over 65 — and an ever growing chunk is way over. In 1963, Japan had 153 centenarians; by 2010, it had 40,399; by 2020, the figure is projected to be just under 130,000. This isn’t a demographic one would expect to see hurling their walkers through the Radio Shack window and staggering out under a brand new karaoke machine only to keel over from a massive stroke before they’ve made it through the first eight bars of “I Will Survive.” Any looting in Japan’s future is likely to come from rogue platoons of the “Yurina” — the well-named robot developed a year or two back by Japan Logic Machine to help out at the old folks’ home: Yurina can change your diaper and then carry you over to the tub for an assisted bath. But I would imagine we’re only a half decade away from advanced-model Yurinas that can unionize, negotiate unsustainable retirement packages, and rampage through state legislatures menacing non-humanoid politicians opposed to collective bargaining.

Well, perhaps that’s more a case of the wisecracks being marbled with a serious argument, assuming the cracking is all that wise and the argument has anything to do with looting after an earthquake. It isn’t often one sees so many contrived laff lines dragooned into service to disguise the lack of a point other than advertising the author’s brand.

And that brings us to the real point: the entire premise of the piece is goofy. It would be unfair to call Mr. Steyn an armchair intellectual — he did travel to Iraq, armed, when few civilians would have done so — but I suspect he hasn’t been in the presence of serious looting if he thinks it’s a young man’s game.

I have.

When Martin Luther King was killed and rioting erupted in several cities in the United States, I was nearing the end of my first year of pretending to study as an undergraduate at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. The impact of the event was amplified for me because Baltimore is my hometown, though my family had moved away a few years before that. Watching a riot in a distant city on television is one thing, but it’s quite another to watch it as it’s happening in the place where one grew up, while armed National Guard troops patrol in jeeps.

Being of a particularly stupid age, one of my black friends and I decided we would stroll through the East Baltimore ghetto to see for ourselves what was happening. We thought our presence together would be visible evidence to some very unhappy people that it was still possible for folks of different complexions to get along. (It was potentially more stupid for him than it was for me, as we learned that given a choice, people will threaten traitors with violence before they threaten enemies, but that’s another story.)

While walking down one street and discovering the reason tear gas got its name, we saw people streaming out of a small supermarket with all the groceries they and their clothes could carry. Just as one woman, old enough to be our grandmother, passed us going in the opposite direction, the bottom of her paper shopping bag collapsed. About two weeks’ worth of potatoes fell to the sidewalk and rolled in several directions. We stopped to help her pick them up and redistribute them among her other bags. In retrospect, that was an odd thing to have done, but it seemed natural to us at the time. Besides, our generation was among those taught that helping old ladies across the street was proper behavior.

“You aren’t going to tell the police about this, are you?”

After we assured her that we wouldn’t, she smiled, thanked us, and went on her way.

Old people will loot when the opportunity presents itself. It’s just that their judgment is more mature about prioritizing what to snatch while the snatching is good.

Perhaps it is ungenerous to be too critical — after all, when someone’s knowledge of Japan is derived what they’ve read or seen in the Anglosphere media, they won’t know much of anything about the country. Wisecracks aside, however, Mr. Steyn surely understands there are young families with children even in Japan.

His understanding might have been enhanced had he watched NHK-TV the Sunday after the column appeared on his website. The network broadcast a program about the people of the area coping with the effects of the disaster. One segment showed a married couple in their mid-30s on their daughter’s 10th birthday. They spent the day wading through the wreckage and muck looking for her body, which was still missing after a month. They had already found the body of her seven-year-old brother a week before that.

Pitching their walkers through a window to haul off a karaoke machine was not part of the birthday celebration.

There is a persistent urban legend about the American comedian Groucho Marx. After his success on stage and in Hollywood, he began a third career as the host of a radio and television quiz show called You Bet Your Life. It was a quiz program in only the most perfunctory sense, however. The real idea was to provide Marx, celebrated for his quick wit and ad-libs, a vehicle to say whatever popped into his head.

The story goes that one of his contestants was a woman with nine children. When Marx asked her why she had such a large brood, she answered that she loved her husband very much. He is supposed to have blurted, “I love my cigar, too, but I take it out of my mouth every once in a while.”

Marx insisted in several interviews that the incident never happened, but the story lives on, in part because it sounds like something he might have said on the spur of the moment. That’s too bad, because in addition to being funny, it also contains some excellent advice.

I’m sure Mark Steyn loves what his discussion of demographics has done for his career. Now it’s time he realized how foolish that stogie looks when it’s permanently stuck in his mouth.

*****
Speaking of cigars and demographics, here’s an idea from a manufacturer of the former about how to improve the latter.

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Posted in Demography, Mass media, Social trends | Tagged: , | 5 Comments »

Another way to make lemonade from lemons

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, December 8, 2010

THE FOLLOWING ARE some excerpts from an article that appeared in today’s Nishinippon Shimbun.
——
Production of paper diapers for adults is skyrocketing as the population ages, and local governments must consider how to dispose of them as garbage after use. In 2009, paper diaper production was 1.7 times that of 2003. Efforts are spreading nationwide to reuse them as a fuel source to reduce garbage volume, and some local governments in Kyushu have begun recycling them. Potential hurdles to their reuse, however, are the difficulty of separating them from other refuse and the recovery costs.

The municipal government of Hoki-cho, Tottori, teamed with local businesses to begin trial production of solid fuel using a system that processes used paper diapers. If the system is shown to be effective, they envision using it at such facilities as hot spring resorts to heat boilers. Trial calculations suggest the system could result in savings of up to JPY three million annually.

One of the first local governments in Kyushu to become involved is Oki-machi, Fukuoka. They formed ties with the Total Care System company of Fukuoka City, which has a recycling plant for paper diapers in Omuta. The municipality has conducted trials in which the residents collect the diapers separately in special bags and a municipal vehicle stops by to pick them up.

Oki-machi is currently paying a substantial amount of money to neighboring Okawa for the incineration of burnable refuse. Said a municipal official, “Paper diapers account for about 10% of the town’s burnable refuse. Recycling them would lessen the burden on the environment and reduce public expenditures.”

Total Care System also collects used paper diapers from hospitals and long-term care facilities. They treat and process the diapers and recycle them as fireproofing material.

The Japan Hygiene Products Industry Association reports that 5.019 billion paper diapers for adults were produced in 2009, an increase from the 2.996 billion paper diapers in 2003…The association points out, however, that few municipalities dispose of the diapers separately and treat them as burnable garbage…Those local governments with their own incineration facilities find that to be a more efficient and economical method of disposal.

(end translation)

Here’s a Kyodo article on the same subject from April, and another from CNET. Speaking of incontinence, the author of the latter managed to hold in the “Weird Japan” snark for most of his entry, but still wound up wetting himself in the last sentence.

*****
Noborikawa Seijin is 78 years old, but I don’t think he needs special underwear yet. He just released another CD this year.

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Womanizing

Posted by ampontan on Monday, October 18, 2010

We are not troubled by things, but by the opinion we have of things.
– Epictetus

IT WAS ONE OF THOSE teapot tempests that keeps the mass media in business. The incident was so trivial as to be nearly meaningless, but it provided the copy for newspaper articles that allowed some women to feel superior to men, some of the young to feel superior to the old, some of the self-congratulated progressives to feel superior to the unenlightened, and some Westerners to feel superior to the Japanese.

Yes, a Japanese politician slipped again and said something “sexist” in public.

This time it was Nakayama Yoshikatsu, the vice minister of economy, trade and industry, speaking at the Women’s Entrepreneurship Summit on 1 October in Gifu, Japan. The summit was jointly hosted by Japan and the United States.

“Japanese women find pleasure in working at home and that has been part of Japanese culture…That should be given more credit through (raising their husbands’) salaries, but it has become impossible as the situation surrounding men became severe.”

(He) also said that Japanese women hold the power behind the throne, and repeated that it was part of Japanese culture for them to stay at home.

Even though there’s more than a bit of truth in there–particularly the part about holding the power behind the throne–most of us could write the rest of the script before we read it.

“I was embarrassed because his remarks revealed how backward Japan is,” said a Japanese woman who runs her own business and attended the conference.

And:

Women angered by the remarks formed a protest group Oct. 7 to demand Nakayama, a House of Representatives member from the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, retract the remarks and apologize.

Here was his retraction and apology:

Nakayama told Kyodo News on Thursday that he “regrets” what he said. “I would like to do what I can, albeit small, for women to play a greater role in business,” he said.

One woman said:

A U.S. participant told her that in the United States, no one would say such a thing in public even if he or she held sexist ideas.

“In America, we’ve even succeeded in stifling free speech!”

Japanese women might want to think twice before they choose American feminists as role models. They’re the ones who killed feminism as a serious socio-political movement in the U.S. in 1998 by consistently supporting then-President Bill Clinton even after it was revealed that as the Governor of Arkansas, he had a state policeman summon a female state employee to his hotel room, whereupon he dropped his trousers and ordered her to “kiss it”. And even after a very credible woman went public with a very credible rape charge. And even after he played games with cigars with a young White House intern in the Oval Office while keeping international VIPs waiting for meetings to begin.

But he was a progressive, and sexual harassment laws aren’t written for them. They’re really written for non-progressive business executives and military officers.

The “feminists” haven’t changed a bit since then. There will be an election for governor of California next month to replace Arnold Schwarzenegger. Former governor Jerry Brown is running against Meg Whitman. Other than a few years spent as an attorney after graduation from law school and another few years working as a talk show host on radio, Mr. Brown has been a politician for four decades.

In contrast, Ms. Whitman was the former CEO and President of eBay from 1998 to 2008, was a senior executive for other companies, including The Walt Disney Company, DreamWorks, Procter & Gamble, and Hasbro, and has a net worth of $1.3 billion, which she seems to have made on her own without sledding on her husband’s coattails. Who would know more about empowering women in the workplace?

It was revealed last week in another teapot tempest that Mr. Brown’s aides referred to Ms. Whitman as a “whore” during strategy sessions. Less than a day later, the National Organization of Women endorsed Mr. Brown. (If you didn’t know the party affiliation of the candidates, you do now.) When the language used by the Brown campaign became an issue, national NOW President Terry O’Neill said that anyone who “from here on” calls a woman a “whore” should be fired.

Giri-giri safe!

Back to the article:

Last year, a United Nations committee recommended that the Japanese government deal with discrimination against women in laws, employment and wages.

Japanese women might also find better sources for advice. This the same United Nations whose peacekeepers ran child sex rings in Europe and Africa. You know what they say about idle hands. It’s the same UN that elected Iran to be a member of the Commission on the Status of Women, a body that is “dedicated exclusively to gender equality and advancement of women.”

The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran wrote a letter of complaint about their selection that said Iranian women:

“…lack the ability to choose their husbands, have no independent right to education after marriage, no right to divorce, no right to child custody, have no protection from violent treatment in public spaces, are restricted by quotas for women’s admission at universities, and are arrested, beaten, and imprisoned for peacefully seeking change of such laws.”

If the UN were really serious about women’s rights, they might more profitably spend their time on this:

According to the Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America, forcing your wife to have sex against her will really isn’t rape.

That’s because, according to an Egyptian cleric:

Allah had created the punishment of beating a wife for refusing her husband sex and that this was a way of honoring her.

But they won’t, because the UN is just as useless as the National Organization for Women, and just as intent on pushing an agenda rather than on maintaining their integrity. They push against Japan–and groups and people like them–because they know they won’t get pushed back. Pushing Muslims around, however, can be hazardous to your health.

“Encouraging women to stay at home is a 20th century” way of thinking, said Mariko Bando, head of Showa Women’s University who drew up a number of policies related to women while she was a senior bureaucrat.

Putting aside the fact that Mr. Nakayama was not quoted as encouraging women to stay home, Ms. Bando might be surprised to discover that in the 21st century, there is a real possibility that women will choose not to follow the footsteps of Meg Whitman, but go with the flow back to patriarchy instead. That’s the thesis of demographer Phillip Longman, who wrote in an article on the website of the New America Foundation, “Like it or not, a growing proportion of the next generation will be born into families who believe that father knows best.”

He argued:

(F)alling fertility is a recurring tendency of human civilization. Why then did humans not become extinct long ago? The short answer is patriarchy.

Patriarchy does not simply mean that men rule. Indeed, it is a particular value system that not only requires men to marry but to marry a woman of proper station. It competes with many other male visions of the good life, and for that reason alone is prone to come in cycles. Yet before it degenerates, it is a cultural regime that serves to keep birthrates high among the affluent, while also maximizing parents’ investments in their children. No advanced civilization has yet learned how to endure without it.

Through a process of cultural evolution, societies that adopted this particular social system — which involves far more than simple male domination — maximized their population and therefore their power, whereas those that didn’t were either overrun or absorbed. This cycle in human history may be obnoxious to the enlightened, but it is set to make a comeback.

The charge of rightwing troglodyte won’t stick. Most of the directors of that foundation are on the left rather than the right, and Mr. Longman himself has written a book holding that public sector schemes for health care insurance are superior to those of the private sector.

Indeed, a case could be made that bad old Mr. Nakayama wasn’t so far off base at all. Here’s another Kyodo article from May this year on the results of a government survey:

The proportion of wives who favor a traditional domestic role is increasing, mainly among people in their 20s, a government survey showed…According to the results of the fourth such survey…45 percent of the total supported the view that husbands should work outside of the home while wives should attend to housework, reversing a downward trend from the first survey in 1993, when the figure stood at 53.6 percent, to the third survey in 2003, when it stood at 41.1 percent.

By age group, the figure for wives aged 29 or younger stood at 47.9 percent, up 12.2 percentage points from the previous survey in 2003…

And:

In the survey, 55.3 percent favored being full-time homemakers, followed by 43.5 percent who favored being self-employed or working for a family business, 39.6 percent who favored being part-time employees and 33.3 percent who preferred full-time employment.

The Japanese and those people familiar with the country are more likely to understand implicitly the nature and the circumstances of the women in the second group than people with less experience here. Mr. Nakayama certainly does.

To continue:

Of the total, 85.9 percent favored the view that mothers should raise their children without working outside the home until their children are around 3 years old, an increase of 3 points.

Perhaps those are some of the reasons women accounted for just 4.1% of department heads in private Japanese corporations in 2008. Well, that and the fact that spending 60 hours a week pushing papers with the objective of selling more zinc bushings is not an appealing lifestyle choice for many women, let alone men.

It isn’t that being young and single puts women at a financial disadvantage, either. Reuters reported on another survey this week:

Income for single women under 30 hit an average of 218,156 yen ($2,680) a month in 2009, edging above the 215,515 yen ($2,640) of their male counterparts for the first time ever, according to an Internal Affairs ministry survey.

This is attributed partly to a decline in men’s salaries and a rise in women’s salaries after the last survey was taken. According to Kumano Hideo, chief economist at the Dai-Ichi Life Research Institute:

“(M)any more men work in manufacturing than women, and after the Lehman failure things for this sector really chilled.”

Back to Ms. Bando:

“Japan ranks low (with regard to the status of women) because there are many politicians who do not pay attention to the realities of the world,” she said.

Perhaps it is Ms. Bando and her compatriots who should be the ones to pay attention to the realities of the world. If politicians had the ability to alter human nature and engineer social outcomes, socialism would have worked. The American feminist left is a spent force that rendered itself irrelevant, and if the UN weren’t so obtrusive, expensive, and intent on serving as the template for future global governance, it would be a parody of itself.

Broadly speaking, the Japanese women I’ve seen over the past quarter century are very capable of plotting the course of their lives and steering it in the direction of their choice, even if it isn’t always the direction those with a different agenda–politician or activist–would prefer.

Sometimes–but not always–it’s even in the direction Mr. Nakayama thinks it is.

Afterwords:

What better way to close this post than with a clip from composer/musician/singer Suzuki Saeko? She released four discs in the 1980s before retiring from the music business (though she might be eying a comeback; she appeared in a TV commercial not long ago). Japanese of a certain age will remember her has the singer for the Nissin Chicken ramen commercial (Sugoku oishii!). I’ll always remember her as the headliner of the first Japanese live show I attended. She played all the keyboards—including the Fairlight, which was a big deal in those days—marimbas, vibes, and drums. During that concert, she spent about 80% of the time behind the keyboards, but her opening number was this stunner on which she plays the marimba. That’s until the 4:30 mark, however, when she gets behind the drum kit and casually shows off chops that would have gotten her hired as a drummer by any band anywhere. In fact, they did; she was the drummer in Sakamoto Ryuichi’s first band.

There’s a Zappa influence, but the music is also feminine with Asian touches, and all of it’s hers. If there are Western women doing anything like this, I haven’t heard of them.

This video is almost 25 years old. If watching it doesn’t shatter some preconceived notions about Japanese women, nothing will.

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Getting old

Posted by ampontan on Monday, September 20, 2010

MONDAY the 20th is Respect for the Aged Day in Japan, which is a national holiday. One manifestation of the custom of Japanese (and other East Asians) to be deferential to the elderly is that all levels of government provide them with generous welfare services, as well as other gratuities that stretch the role of government beyond its legitimate functions and its means.

The Mainichi Shimbun lamented in an op-ed last week the lack of urgency for the restructuring of the health and welfare system for the aged. Everyone is aware of the critical factors: a population in demographic decline with a birth rate well below replacement level is being asked to subsidize services to older citizens, who constitute a larger part of the overall population than in other countries. That’s part of the reason some politicians and bureaucrats favor the low road of sharp increases in the consumption tax. That’s also part of the reason voters are objecting to those increases.

The government estimates that the large number of baby boomers turning 75 in 2025 will require JPY 30 trillion for their health care. As of last year, health insurance premiums brought in roughly JPY 12 trillion in revenue. To deal with this shortfall, the Liberal Democratic Party government created a new category for health care services and payment for those 75 years of age or older (or the bedridden 65 years of age or older), which total roughly 13 million people. That system took effect on 1 April 2008.

Without going into eye-glazing detail, the objective was to have those elderly able to afford it contribute more to their health care costs (though not by an onerous amount) and to equalize premium payments nationwide. Municipal governments pay for part of the system, and the wealthier governments provided greater financial assistance to their residents. The new system also automatically deducted payments from pensions, rather than have individuals be responsible for their own payments. (Japan’s system of convienient bank account transfers meant this was not a burden to begin with.) The revisions also made it easier for younger people to make the financial contributions to their own health care.

Many of the elderly immediately started complaining as soon as the new system was introduced, whining that it was a “hurry up and die” system. Of course the news media made haste to give them a platform. The opposition parties promised to roll back the reforms, but when the Democratic Party took power in a coalition government, they discovered that local governments and medical institutions didn’t want a return to the status quo ante. The new government was also unable to agree on how to modify the new system. That’s not surprising considering the DPJ’s general incompetence and the coalition partner Social Democrats pulling relentlessly to the left. Thus the system introduced two years ago remains in place.

The taxpayer-funded treats for the elderly extend far beyond health care, however, and some governments, particularly at the municipal level, are finding it difficult to face the facts. Here are two examples.

Shirahama-cho, Wakayama

Located next to the Pacific Ocean, the area is famous as one of the three oldest hot springs resorts in Japan. The Kogyoku Tenno (Emperor) bathed there in 658, and it’s still a popular resort today.

The municipality of Shirahama-cho operates four public baths, but the enterprise as a whole has been losing money. Chief municipal officer Mizumoto Yuzo told the Kii Mimpo newspaper:

I’m going to consult with the town council and the committee with jurisdiction (over the business) to see if there are some measures we can take next fiscal year.

Outdoor bath at Sakinoyu

The four baths are Sakinoyu, Muronoyu, Shirarayu, and Shirasuna. (The “yu” at the end of the first three means hot water, and is often used in public bath names in Japan.) Shirasuna is a sand bath that is open only from May to September.

The municipality’s tourism department says Sakinoyu earned roughly JPY 10 million in profit last year, but the other three are in the red. The aggregate losses for the Shirahama-cho taxpayers total JPY 9 million.

Everyone pays JPY 300 for admission to Sakinoyu. The admission fees at Muronoyu and Shirarayu are JPY 300 for people 12 and older, JPY 130 for children from six to 12, and JPY 70 for children aged five and younger. It costs JPY 100 to take a sand bath at Shirasuna. These fees were set in 1998 and haven’t been raised since.

The tourism department also says they’ve lengthened the operating hours of the baths to respond to public requests—they open earlier in the morning and close later at night—and have cut operating costs and reduced operating staff to a minimum, but they’ve reached the limits of their ability to finance the operation. This has been an ongoing problem for four years, and the lack of funds has caused the town to scrimp on upkeep. One result has been the visible aging and wear of some of the facilities.

Why is Sakinoyu making money and the others losing money? As the photo shows, the former will never have problems attracting customers. The real reason is that admission is free to Muronoyu and Shirarayu for people aged 65 and older. The age threshold was lowered from 70 and older in 1999. An estimated 240,000 people used those two facilities in FY 2009, and of those, 110,000 were old folks who got in for free. The paid admissions to Sakinoyu, meanwhile, totaled 83,000.

So now the politicos of Shirahama-cho have decided they’re going to talk about it. They might raise the fees, and they might start charging the seniors, but they haven’t decided when the changes will take effect.

What’s to talk about? Emperors are the only people who get to bathe for free. Changes to this system are overdue, but they’re still dithering in Shirahama-cho.

While they’re at it, they should come up with a plan for the immediate privatization of the facilities instead of wasting their time adjusting the fee schedule. As long as people aren’t living in mud huts without a modern water supply system, operating bathhouses is not the business of municipal governments, nor is using Other People’s Money (OPM) to foot the bill for the free baths of one age cohort. It’s no surprise that the taxpayers are subsidizing the admission of 45% of the customers at some facilities.

Chiba City

Also dithering are Mayor Kumagai Toshihito and the government of Chiba City. Neighborhood associations in the city hold different events for Respect for the Aged Day, and the Chiba City government provides financial assistance to those associations to pay for the parties. Starting this fiscal year, Mr. Kumagai says that Chiba City will raise the age limit for the per capita contributions to the neighborhood associations from 70 to 75 and lower the amount of the subsidy. He said the municipal government took the step because of an “unprecedented financial crunch”. This will amount to a saving of about JPY 50 million from the previous year’s budget. That’s a lot of ice cream and cake.

Here it is again: The municipal government of Chiba City is abandoning their fiduciary responsibility to all of its citizens by chipping in for the party favors of one group of them. Or, to be more broad-minded, they have an inadequate awareness of that responsibility to begin with. It is not the business of municipal governments to use OPM to show old people a good time.

Yet all Chiba City can manage to do is raise the age limit for the party and reduce the subsidies. What will it take for them to realize they shouldn’t be spending this money at all—municipal bankruptcy?

Suginami Ward

Some local government officials get it, however. Yamada Hiroshi, a former national Diet member and chief municipal office of Suginami Ward in Tokyo, and currently the head of the small Spirit of Japan party, is one of the few who realize the party’s over and is trying to do something about it. He is also one of the few politicians in Japan to preach the importance of personal responsibility.

Mr. Yamada often cites as an example the former practice of Suginami Ward to distribute Japanese confections (red and white manju) to meetings of associations for the elderly. The ward was so deeply in debt one of his first steps to put the government’s finances back on a firm footing was to end the free sweets. (He also cut his salary by 10%.) He was roundly criticized for being “cold” to the elderly, but he used that decision in local meetings as a teaching example to promote his efforts to restore fiscal sanity.

In 1999 Suginami Ward’s debt stood at JPY 95 billion with only JPY 1.9 billion in accessible funds. A decade later, after eliminating or privatizing some programs and reducing the municipal workforce, they were JPY 20 billion in debt with JPY 23 billion in accessible funds—in other words, in the black—and were on schedule to repay all the debt by 2011.

Fiscally responsible governments are possible–when they’re led by politicians who understand fiscal responsibility.

Roundtable Discussion

The monthly magazine Voice presents a roundtable discussion of Japanese fiscal issues in its current (October) issue with four university professors: Takenaka Heizo of Keio University (formerly of the Koizumi Cabinet), Ikeda Nobuo of Jobu University, Doi Takero of Keio University, and Suzuki Wataru of Gakushuin University.

They’re all in general agreement that the system of governmental largesse for the aged has to be reexamined. Prof. Suzuki said that people are not aware of just how generous the system is, and their awareness needs to be raised. Prof. Takenaka suggested that economic incentives are required, and proposed as one measure raising the fees people pay for the treatment of non-life threatening illnesses. He added:

I already know that people will say that human lives can’t be replaced with money, but the situation will soon be of out of control.

Prof. Ikeda said that he discussed the creation of a voucher system (also applicable for education expenses) with a group of DPJ Diet members, but one of them told him:

I understand what you’re saying, but the word “voucher” is taboo with labor unions.

Unions, of course, are the backbone of DPJ support.

Prof. Doi added that people will deliberately create the misunderstanding that such proposals amount to “market fundamentalism”. The idea, he says, is to stop the discussion of the idea by stopping thought.

The realization is growing among the people of the developed countries, if not their governments, that the Bismarkian welfare state funded with OPM (originally intended to head off the desires of a growing middle class for greater democracy) is no longer viable. If Japanese politicians at all levels and the bureaucracy don’t start to seriously examine more practical ways to provide services, and to reexamine their approach to distributing goodies that shouldn’t be free to begin with, before long the working population might get ready to pull the plug on a lot more than confections and the Japanesque bath time.

Afterwords:

Here’s a quick video tour of the Shirahama area, with a scene from the Sakinoyu bath that shows why it is so profitable.

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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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Message from an unknown Chinese mother

Posted by ampontan on Friday, February 26, 2010

THAT’S THE TITLE of a new book by Xinran, which has been reviewed by The Spectator.

There are roughly 120,000 adopted Chinese children living abroad with non-Chinese foster parents.

It is necessary to steel one’s self against three agonising thoughts: how did such children come to be here, why does one never meet an adopted Chinese boy, and what does one reply when the adopted Chinese child asks, ‘Why did my real mother let me go?’

They’re the lucky ones.

She had lived and worked almost her entire life in orphanages, and told Xinran that little girls sometimes arrived there with scars between their legs. Oil lamps or candles had burned them.

The first thing the village midwives did when the baby was born was not to clear its airway but to check [by the light of the lamp or candle] whether it was a boy or girl, because that was what the family wanted to hear. Some of the burns were on the baby’s private parts …

Or:

(W)hile the natural male-female gender ratio should be 103 or 104 males for every 100 females, in China, depending on the region, this varies from 110 to at least 130 males for every 100 females. One catastrophic result is a shortage of wives and the kidnapping of girls to be sold as wives in other parts of China. Chinese women also have the highest suicide rate in the world.

Or:

Mother love is supposed to be such a great thing, but so many babies are abandoned, and it’s their mothers who do it. They’re ignorant. They feel differently about emotions from the way you do. Where I come from, people talk about smothering a baby girl or just throwing it[!]into a stream … to be eaten by dogs, as if it were a joke.

The content of the article speaks for itself.

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Money matters

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, February 16, 2010

MONEY MATTERS a lot to the political class, and the money that matters the most is the money they liberate from other people. How else are they going to fund their wonderful schemes to convince us how wonderful they are?

Otsuka Kohei

The technique they use to pay for these wonderful schemes is to pick the people’s pocket, take a healthy cut, wrap the rest in a bright shiny ribbon, breathe a lot of hot air and platitudes on it, and then give it back. As Your Party chief Watanabe Yoshimi noted, the process is similar to an octopus thinking it’s growing by feeding on its own tentacles. The further left of center one goes, the more frequently and more blatantly this is done, and the more self-righteously the hot air is blown.

That brings us to the Democratic Party of Japan’s family allowance proposal to dole out JPY 26,000 (almost $US 290) per child to each family every month. The income tax deductions Japanese parents already receive for their children will be eliminated. After all, how can they be expected to redistribute money to the people without taking it from the people first?

The idea is to give money to every family with children, regardless of the family income. If the family thinks they already have enough money, the national government will make arrangements for them to donate it to local government. Is that not a wonderful plan? “Here’s some of the money we took from you, but if you don’t want it, you can give it back to us.”

The DPJ swore they could come up with the scratch by eliminating government waste. (If that much money is to be gained by eliminating waste, they could stop wasting it, cut taxes by a proportionate amount, and allow people to spend their own money on their children without involving themselves in the process. But that’s not how politicians think.)

Even some in the party pointed out the funding plan was impossible to achieve. But their alternative was to make a bad plan worse—they would force local governments and the private sector to contribute.

Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio insists that at least one or two of the promises in the party’s election platform be kept, if only for form’s sake. Well, on certain days of the week, anyway. For example, on a Sunday (the 14th), he said:

My idea for the funding source (for the family allowance) is to basically create a mechanism of cutting waste and using the amount saved.

He added that it was possible the government would not be able to provide the full amount promised right away.

Then, on a Monday (the 15th), the noted expert on fund-raising matters said:

Of course we’ll provide the full amount (of the child-rearing allowance) as planned. We’ll find the funds to pay for that by making every effort to cut expenditures.

He got indignant when the press corps suggested he was flip-flopping.

I am not flip-flopping at all!

Well, if a politician’s going to lie, in for a penny, in for a pound, as they say. It’s not as if he has a reputation for honesty to begin with.

He added:

I do not want to float government bonds as the funding source for the child-rearing allowance. That money absolutely will come from cutting expenditures.

Except it won’t—it’s not possible. Also not possible is achieving the stated objective of the program, which is to lift the birth rate.

So, where’s that money going to come from? One possibility is the general fund, which is now being engorged by funds from the “temporary” gasoline surtax. Remember how that money was allocated for building roads? They made the temporary surtax permanent and pointed the sluice in the direction of the general fund. Ain’t reform politics grand?

Another possibility is to boost the consumption tax. In fact, Finance Minister (and Deputy Prime Minister) Kan Naoto said on TV, also last Sunday:

After the budget passes (by the end of February), I want the government’s tax panel to start a comprehensive discussion on tax, such as income tax, corporate tax and perhaps consumption tax and environment tax.

I agree. I say reduce the first two and reject the fourth as unnecessary.

Here’s his justification:

We need to discuss whether the current tax system, which only generates revenues of JPY 36 trillion, is appropriate.

What we need to discuss is whether current government expenditures are appropriate, but that’s not going to occur to Mr. Kan, whose political career started in a socialist organization.

He also said that Prime Minister Hatoyama had agreed with him a few days before.

It’s time to cut and paste that “I am not flip-flopping at all” quote again!

And that’s just what the prime minister did. He reminded Mr. Kan that the party promised during the election campaign the consumption tax would not be raised for four years.

But what happens later this year, after the upper house election, say, when Mr. Hatoyama is no longer the prime minister and someone else—such as Mr. Kan—is?

Show us the money

So, how much of a bite do they want to take for the next consumption tax hike?

Otsuka Kohei, a senior vice minister in the Cabinet Office, gave us a peek at the cat in the bag on the 12th at a debate sponsored by the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals.

Mr. Otsuka is a rising star in the DPJ. A member of the upper house, he’s a handsome fellow whom the party’s called on to question LDP prime ministers in the Diet more than 100 times, starting with Mr. Koizumi. He was also involved in writing the party platform, and, as a former employee of the Bank of Japan, is considered something of a financial expert.

Sakurai Yoshiko, the former newscaster and current director of the institute, and Koizumian reform/privatization guru Takenaka Heizo questioned him specifically on this subject at the debate.

He answered:

At the next general election, we will indicate the percentage to which it should be raised and how it will be used, and receive the people’s decision.

Why?

We must obtain income to turn the primary balance back to the black, so the consumption tax will indeed be an issue at the next election.

Mr. Otsuka also added his personal opinion about that percentage.

As of now, a double-digit figure less than 20% is realistic.

In other words, the ante from now on will be double the present rate.

At a minimum. As of now.

The check is in the mail

Once that funding spigot is turned on, they’ll find all sorts of wonderful things to use the money for. Mr. Otsuka’s specific area of responsibility in the government is the renationalization of Japan Post. Also during the past week—it was a busy week—the government and the ruling party convened a policy council to discuss how to rework the postal operation with its savings accounts and life insurance policies. Jiji Press reported that some ruling party MPs expressed the opinion that “the government and beneficiaries” should assume the costs for uniform services nationwide for post, savings, and insurance.

The idea behind the government paying for uniform services is based on considerations of unprofitable post offices in remote areas, said…Otsuka Kohei. There’s that name again. He also asked:

Aren’t standards for government liabilities required, even if only for the costs for (post offices) placed in those locations as determined by the national will?

Give the man credit for a comprehensive spending plan. He’s going to push the consumption tax up to double digits and then spend it on Japan Post.

Of course they could have left the Japan Post privatization process in place and scaled back their consumption tax dreams, but nah! And did you see how he suggested the government had to fund the whole process because the national will was to provide universal services at remote locations?

The last time the people were asked their opinion specifically about Japan Post in an election, they answered by giving the privatization forces the second-largest margin of victory in the lower house in postwar history.

The Jiji article (in Japanese) noted that the government’s interpretation was that the national government has the obligation to pay for universal service and will outsource the work to Japan Post. Rather than have Japan Post assume the full costs for performing this obligation, the government has another wonderful plan to create a preferential tax system for the entity.

In other words, taxpayers will pay both both directly and indirectly to maintain the network.

And what if they can’t afford it? Well, Mr. Otsuka was one of six Diet members to write an article in the monthly Voice in September 2003 calling for Japan to accept 10 million immigrants. More taxpayers! More money!

The man’s just full of wonderful ideas, isn’t he?

One reason for privatizing Japan Post was to keep the money in the savings accounts and life insurance policies from falling into the clutches of politicians to use for public works schemes.

Speaking of which…

On the road again

That same day, the government submitted the individual allocations for the 2010 public works budget to the directors of the lower house Budget Committee. The government proposes to freeze 49 road construction projects with individual budgets of less than JPY 100 million they’re conducting as national highway projects.

Good idea, right?

But the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport called for the freeze of 120 projects during the budget request period at the beginning of last December.

In other words, after thinking about it for two months, the government thought better of it and restored about 60% of those road construction projects.

The common assumption for the cause of the government’s sudden attack of white line fever is their desire to satisfy what were termed “strong requests” by the DPJ and local governments in advance of the summer upper house election.

The bill for those projects will be JPY 60 billion.

Is the reason for renationalizing Japan Post getting any clearer?

Oh, but the national government won’t pay for everything. The plan was to eliminate in FY 2010 the liability of local governments to maintain and manage the roads built by the government. You remember how the DPJ was so anxious before the election to please local politicians in general, and people like Osaka Governor Hashimoto Toru in particular?

The local government liability for these roads will be maintained.

In questioning today at the Diet, Land, Infrastructure, and Transport Minister Maehara Seiji insists that requests from the DPJ were not a factor. But the party still needs some work on its message coordination skills, it would seem. Tottori was the prefecture that benefited the most from the restored projects, and the Yomiuri Shimbun reports that senior officials of the Tottori DPJ branch claim their “strong requests” were the reason for the restoration. Local party officials in the Kyoto Metro District, Mr. Maekawa’s home turf, also took credit for the restoration of road construction projects there, too.

Here’s a thought: Green tea works just as well for Tea Parties as any other kind.

Afterwords:

I’ve had two posts on the government’s family allowance scheme in the works for a while, and it looks like now’s the time to finish them. But in the meantime:

The stated objective is to raise the birthrate. The more likely result—as has happened in the past—will be a depressed birthrate.

When their wonderful plan does not increase the birthrate, the left will claim that the measures were insufficient and that even more government programs and outlays are required.

That’s the only thing the left offers that you can take to the bank.

And if that doesn’t work, Mr. Otsuka can always bring up his plan for 10 million immigrants again.

The real objective is implementing a dependency agenda. The idea is to keep the people gnawing on the government’s shin, as the Japanese put it, from birth to death. A self-reliant populace?

That doesn’t matter. It’s counterproductive, not to mention counter-revolutionary.

Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Demography, Government, Politics | Tagged: , , , | 5 Comments »

Yes, an Evil Empire

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A new great power is in the making, but one whose pursuit of its self-interest takes the amorality of power to a new plane. It is not just the Chinese who should be concerned about its institutional and moral failings; all of us should be.
– Will Huttton

IT WAS for good reason that Ronald Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as an Evil Empire—the Soviet empire was, by any defintion, evil.

The rot of moral relativism has grown more severe since then, which is perhaps the reason that fewer people are willing to reaffirm reality in the modern era. But that’s exactly why this needs to be said: China is an Evil Empire in the making, with the potential to be even worse than the Soviet Union.

The Chinese do not yet have satellite states, though, like the Soviets, they have forcibly incorporated minority ethnic groups living at the borders of the dominant ethnic majority within the greater state. Unlike the Soviets, the Chinese do have the freedom to make money, but that freedom creates more problems than it solves when isolated in an immoral context.

The Soviets, however, had one freedom that the Chinese of today lack—the most basic freedom to create life. Here’s yet another example of how the deprivation of that freedom continues to result in ugly deformities.

In an article at Mercator.net, one Constance Kong (a pen name) writes:

(T)he Communist Government’s Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) says that the (one-child) policy has created a huge gender imbalance with significant implications for future social stability.

That’s a rather bland euphemism for “serious problems today that have the potential to become horrific in the not-distant future”.

According to the report, 24 million men reaching marriageable age by 2020 will never marry because of the sex imbalance. Think of it in these terms: what if the entire population of New York City or of Australia was never able to marry. Imagine the social implications in a city or nation that large where no one can marry. Imagine if that city or country is comprised solely of 24 million men; men with no homes to return to at night; men without the responsibilities of a family to keep them engaged in productive pursuits.

We don’t have to imagine what will happen. There are already reports that the country is becoming the Wild, Wild East of lawlessness. One example: bars where young male customers pay to assault the waiters.

That’s not what the government’s worried about, however:

The main concern raised by the CASS report is that 24 million men condemned to a life alone will result in a major strain on the State welfare system.

That’s going to be the least of their troubles. Most people would be able to provide for themselves in a society governed by the rule of law. But that’s not China.

While the number of baby girls being born has declined, the number of kidnappings and trafficking of young girls has risen. According to the National Population and Family Planning Commission…abductions and trafficking of women and girls has become “rampant”.

Young girls are being kidnapped within China and also from neighboring countries (Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand) by organized gangs who sell them to families with boys of a similar age. The girls will be raised by the families and given as brides to their sons as soon as they reach marriageable age. Others are shipped to brothels within China for a life as sex slaves.

If the Japanese government weren’t under the control of a party so anxious to kowtow to the Chinese, this might be the time for the Diet to pass a resolution condemning the Chinese comfort women. Then again, the Japanese are seldom so presumptious.

Even more bizarre crimes have been reported in this patriarchal society where it is believed that a wife is necessary to tend to her husband even after death. A rising practice in some remote areas of China is to dig up the corpses of single women to sell to families whose sons may have recently perished. Posthumous wedding ceremonies are held to ensure the deceased son does not have to endure the next life alone. With higher prices commanded by fresh corpses of young women the practice has led to murders of young girls by some crime gangs looking to capitalize on distraught parents enduring the loss of a young son.

The phrase Evil Empire doesn’t quite cover it, does it?

Ms. Kong concludes:

By 2020 some 24 million men will start realizing that a family life is not for them – no matter how much they yearn for it. China should expect them to be just a little angry.

Let’s not be so circumspect. In a previous post to which I linked above, I wrote:

If sober and clear-minded people in governments around the world are not already devising ways to handle a hyper-nationalistic nuclear power with more than a billion people at the mercy of the largest and nastiest fraternity house in history, there’s going to be serious trouble.

Unfortunately, that still works for me.

Just as unfortunately, not everyone sees it that way. Which type of article is more frequently presented in the English-language media: Stories about the absence of human rights in China, which results in the warped behavior described above, or stories about whale hunts in the South Pacific?

China is not the only one that suffers from institutional and moral failings.

Posted in China, Demography | 5 Comments »

Anti-Nipponism

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, August 6, 2009

“…This is but one example of the encounters that I have on a regular basis with friends, family, and colleagues who have no idea what is going on in the world. They read the New York Times and believe they are informed. There is no intellectual curiosity, no questioning of reporting, and no analysis of what the mainstream media is pouring out to the masses. While we all like to blame the…media…at some point we all have to take responsibility for our own thoughts and decisions.”
– Lauri B. Regan

A FEW WEEKS AGO, a man associated with a well-known American mass media outlet called from Tokyo for a pleasant chat that at one point touched on the media’s coverage of Japan overseas. He asked me how I thought the broadcast and print media could improve their reporting on this country.

I replied that the media’s reporting on Japan is never going to improve, and gave as my reason their preference for offering a preexisting narrative rather than providing factual descriptions of events in news articles and leaving their interpretation or agenda to the op-ed pages.

What I didn’t tell him is equally germane: There are two reasons the media relies on preexisting narrative templates for countries, issues, or people. (In addition to the one for Japan, there are templates for Israel, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, the UKIP in Britain, and dozens more.) First, the narrative is meant to simplify issues and personalities for readers in bite-size form, converting them to a form of entertainment that helps sell their product and the accompanying advertising. It also spares the readers from the time required to peruse an in-depth characterization and the trouble of having to think too much about something they might not be interested in to begin with. Serious consumers of news realize at an early age that what the media really offers is infotainment, and that it’s a feature of the product, not a bug.

Second, it should now be obvious to even the casual observer that the Western media and its public intellectuals will never accord even-handed treatment to Japan, despite an exemplary record of conduct unmatched by any of its G7 counterparts for more than 60 years. Alone among the nations of the world it combines the absence of military aggression with an altruistic financial generosity that is ignored, taken for granted, or unrecognized. It contributed $US 13 billion to the reconstruction of oil-rich Kuwait after the Gulf War, for example, but when the government of Kuwait took out a full-page ad in the Washington Post to thank the nations that came to its assistance, Japan was left off the list.

Saddam Hussein deliberately drained the wetlands where roughly 500,000 Shiite Arabs lived in southern Iraq, destroying the local ecology and forcing them to become refugees. How many people realize that Japan paid $US 11 million for the restoration of those marshes, much less give them credit for it?

No, it’s much easier and more entertaining to fill the space with annual stories about whalers and the whacked-out eco-pirates who ram them broadside. Bad Oriental guys, rakish Hollywood-funded good guys, and photos of bloody whales sells product. Then recall how many stories you’ve seen about the imminent resurgence of Japanese militarism that somehow never seems to resurge.

After seeing the pattern repeat itself time and again in the stories published by every important Western print media outlet in English and the op-eds and magazine articles of public intellectuals on both the left and right over several decades, one can only conclude that the media’s narrative template about Japan is informed by an ill-concealed deformity of thought that deserves a term of its own: anti-Nipponism.

The following is yet the latest demonstration that the default view of Japan for Western elites is the Goofball Kingdom of East Asia, populated by otaku xenophobes and female children aged 18 to 80. It has all the disfiguring characteristics on display: media presentations that are a superficial gloss of the facts–whenever they crop up amidst the editorializing and inaccuracies–and rendered so as to present Japan in the worst possible light.

These presentations were swallowed whole by soi-disant public intellectuals who make elementary mistakes in reading comprehension that seem to derive from seeing what they want to see regardless of what the words say. They toss off a combination of sophomoric snark and anti-Nipponistic criticism before losing interest in toying with the lightweights of the world, furrowing their brows, and turning their attention to serious issues.

You think I’m exaggerating? First we’ll look at the facts. Then we’ll look at the people who can’t handle the facts.

Let’s start with this Japanese-language link to a 31 March announcement from the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare about a voluntary government plan to provide assistance allowing financially strapped ethnically Japanese foreign workers with no job prospects to return home. My English translation follows. (Keep in mind that a bureaucrat wrote the original.)

*****
Re: Providing financial assistance to displaced workers of Japanese descent for returning to their home country

With the prevailing social and economic conditions, it is extremely difficult for laborers of Japanese descent in unstable types of employment, such as seconded workers or subcontractors, to be reemployed once they have lost their jobs. Some have insufficient Japanese language ability, are unfamiliar with Japanese employment practices, and lack work experience in this country. Therefore, reemployment after returning to their home country is increasingly becoming a realistic alternative.

In view of these circumstances, the ruling party’s project team for new employment measures has proposed that financial assistance be provided to these persons of Japanese descent who wish to return to their home country for that purpose. The Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare will implement a program starting in business year 2009 (i.e., 1 April) offering financial assistance to those displaced workers who have decided to return to their home country, under the following specified conditions, to respond to their acute need. (Refer to separate document.)

In addition, we are working to utilize all the existing programs and financial assistance for obtaining housing in support of their efforts to find new employment, and to maintain that employment for those people who continue to stay in this country and seek reemployment, just as we would for Japanese people. In the future, we will provide appropriate support, including that for reemployment, through the expeditious enhancement of systems for support and consultation with such measures as increasing the number of people providing interpretation and consultation services in accordance with local circumstances, and efficiently implementing employment preparation training that increases skills, including Japanese language ability.

*****
The first Ministry page links to the separate document (pdf) with charts that contain more detail.

* There we find out that guest workers who are still receiving unemployment compensation and choose to return will be granted an additional JPY 100,000 if they have 30 days remaining in unemployment benefits and JPY 200,000 (about $US 2,100) if they have more than 60 days remaining in unemployment benefits.

* It also mentions that in those regions where the nikkei (ethnically Japanese) workers are concentrated, 9,296 foreign job-seekers visited Haro Waaku, the government employment agency, for the first time ever from November 2008 to January 2009. That is a roughly 11-fold increase from the year-before period.

* The page emphasizes that the offer is being made to those people who are “extremely unlikely” to find employment due to a lack of Japanese language ability or job skills.

* The workers are being given special help for finding jobs at nine separate branches of Haro Waaku, and the help included interpretation. By mid-March, one-stop service centers to deal solely with this issue were established in municipal offices in 33 locations.

* An additional three new centers for consultation and advice have been established in areas with many foreigners and the benefits have been increased

* The site says these measures implement activities to enhance support for reemployment and maintain present employment. These include subsidies for trial employment and compensating employers for hiring them. There are also measures to enable people to retain their housing.

* Starting this year, the government will offer more interpretation and consultation services. They will also conduct job training programs to improve their job skills, including Japanese language instruction, during the period they are receiving unemployment compensation. They have budgeted JPY 1.08 billion (about $US 11.355 million) for the current fiscal year to help roughly 5,000 people.

* The training programs will be the responsibility of the Japan International Cooperation Center (JICE), a non-profit foundation that conducts human resource development programs for developing countries.

* The training will be conducted over a three-month period with the objective of improving Japanese language communication ability, and inculcate an understanding of working conditions, employment practices, and government benefits for employment and other social insurance schemes. It also provides unemployment benefits for a minimum of 90 days to assist the unemployment find new work and to take part in this training.

* When basic training is finished, they will be eligible to move to more advanced training, with subsidies provided during the extended training period. Special “navigators” for the guest workers will be assigned to help them until they find steady work.

Asahi Shimbun

Brazilian <em>nikkei</em>

Brazilian nikkei

Here’s a link to a Japanese-language newspaper article that appeared in the Shizuoka edition of the Asahi Shimbun. It contains a range of opinions from native Japanese and nikkei alike on the program, including those from Japanese who think the government should have done more to encourage the nikkei to stay. This is not unusual; the Japanese media is just as capable of examining their behavior from different perspectives as the Western media, if not more so.

One of those who thinks the departure of the nikkei is a “great loss” also had this to say:

“This is a test case. There are still many adults who chose to live only among foreigners without learning Japanese. If they lose work at the seconding company, their inability to speak Japanese prevents them from getting another job…the national government’s support for those people who came to Japan as migrant workers and don’t have the funds to return home is perhaps a humane policy.”

Insisted one ministry official involved with the program:

“The assistance for returning home is provided at government expense to those people who are suffering from unemployment and do not have the funds to return if they want to. The intention is not to remove the nikkei from the country.”

The new policy is good news for local governments, which are financially responsible for welfare payments and are having trouble finding the money due to the sharp increase in households consisting of foreigners receiving government assistance. Said one local government official:

“It would be cheaper for Japan if they returned home.”

The city of Hamamatsu is where the most Brazilians live. At the end of February, it had 116 Brazilian households receiving welfare benefits, compared to 70 at the same time the previous year. The benefits total more than 100,000 yen per month per family. They receive the welfare benefits after their unemployment compensation runs out.

Michiko Ramos, a third generation nikkei, commented:

“Brazilians are too lax. If they don’t like the government program, they don’t have to use it. Each person should decide for themselves how they’re going to live, and it’s their responsibility to do so.”

The article also notes that the Japanese government will pay travel agencies for the tickets and deposit the remainder of the money in dollar-denominated accounts in the recipient’s name in Brazil.

Private correspondence

One reader of this site is employed by a national Japanese media outlet. He spent two months covering this issue on the ground, and here is some of the information he provided to me.

* The program targets almost exclusively Brazilians (with either Japanese ancestry or a Japanese spouse) in Japan on working visas who can not speak Japanese and have no savings. Most have at least $US 30,000 dollars in annual income, with their housing expenses paid by the company.

* The same program was not offered to Okinawans who came to the same part of Japan to work and were laid off at the same time for the same reasons. (Okinawa is roughly 800 miles from Nagoya, the hub of the Japanese auto industry, and is only accessible by air or sea from there.)

* The correspondent notes that the workers can be divided into two broad groups: Those who “have a plan” and those who don’t. The people in the former group put their children in Japanese public schools, learned to speak and read Japanese, and received permanent residence visas.

* The workers’ hourly wages start at JPY 1,200 yen for unskilled labor, but the auto industry in that part of Japan often pays JPY 1,400 (about $US 14.70) an hour. Most households have two workers because the wives also work. The income of many Brazilian families is about 4 to 5 million yen annually, not counting inexpensive or non-existent housing costs, because the company covers them.

* Some Brazilian workers rejected the option of becoming full-time employees because doing so meant that pension and insurance funds would be withheld from their salaries. They see themselves as migrant workers and wanted the cash immediately.

* Why do some people need financial assistance to return home? As my correspondent reports, in what he admits is an extreme example:

“Many simply spend too much. I’ve been to a house in Shizuoka where all four family members work in a factory. This family has four cars (although you do need cars for everyday life in that part of Shizuoka), a house, and a racing car and trailer. (Drifting has become a popular sport among Brazilian youth). They can’t speak Japanese despite being here for 17 years…Many Brazilians who don’t have money to buy tickets back home are not literally broke. Many of them have houses in Brazil built with their money they earned working in Japan. They just don’t want to sell them for the tickets, which is (a) rational (decision). However, if they are in Japan asking for welfare to sustain (their lifestyle) in Japan, that’s another story…”

* They are not ordinary guest-workers, because they have become “spoiled in a way” now that their community has become established in all “dimensions of life” (i.e., media, schools, supermarkets, and entertainment). (N.B.: the Brazilian primary school in Hamamatsu recently closed.) Therefore they no longer need to associate with Japanese and live in a Portuguese-only environment. He also notes that municipal transportation facilities in Nagoya have Portuguese-language announcements.

* He reports this direct quote (his English translation) from the Brazilian vice-consulate and said he’s got it word for word in his notes:

“They are in their mess, because they are in their mess. We didn’t put them in their mess. It’s called self responsibility.”

The reporter wryly notes that Nissan (and Renault) CEO Carlos “Cost Killer” Ghosn, a Brazilian (and French and Lebanese) national was lionized by the Western media as the savior of Japanese business when he turned around Nissan some years ago by laying off thousands of Japanese workers. The BBC described his moves at Nissan as “savage”. CNN and the Detroit News dubbed him a “superstar”.

This February, the Brazilian Cost Killer brought out the knife again and announced he will cut 8.5% of the company’s staff worldwide by laying off 20,000 workers. Not all of the cuts were specified, but of those 20,000, 10% were in Japan.

My correspondent points out that when the CEO of Toyota lays off Brazilian workers for the same reason, and the Japanese government provides the funds to those unskilled workers with no Japanese ability and no savings who choose to return home voluntarily, it becomes a “humanitarian crisis”.

Sidebar 1: Mr. Ghosn was in Tokyo this week to unveil the new Nissan Leaf, an all-electric car. He says he spends 40% of his time in Japan, and he has been head of Nissan for more than a decade, yet he chose to speak to the Japanese broadcast media in English.

There’s a reason I provided this information. The following is a description of a newspaper article and a magazine article, with an attendant blog post for each one. They all presume to criticize Japan for its policy, yet 95% of the above information is not included.

Freakonomics

University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and New York journalist Stephen J. Dubner published Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything in 2005. It has since sold 3 million copies, and they operate a blog on the New York Times website called Freakonomics: The Hidden Side of Everything to “continue the conversation”.

Somebody named “Freakonomics” wrote the following post this April.

When Japanese unemployment edged up to a three-year high of 4.4 percent in February, the government started looking for creative ways to lower it. One solution: get the unemployed out of the country by offering citizenship buyouts. The program applies only to unemployed people of Japanese descent who were born abroad but now live in Japan (they’re known as nikkei). The plan pays out-of-work nikkei $3,000 to return to their country of origin, not to return until economic conditions improve in Japan. Like other strange Japanese ideas, we don’t expect this one to spread to our shores any time soon.

Somehow, Mr. Freakonomics—the journalist or the university professor, whoever—got the idea that the Japanese program is a “citizenship buyout”, despite having nothing to do with (a) citizens, (b) buying anything, or (c) buying out citizens.

In fact, the author was so enamored of this idea that he created a hot link for the phrase to a Time magazine article, which you can see here.

Time magazine conveniently saves their readers of taking the trouble to weigh the factual evidence and make up their own minds by giving the article the deliberately misleading headline of, “Thanks, but you can go home now”.

Immediately under the headline is a photo captioned, “Brazilian workers of Japanese descent stage a protest against layoffs in central Tokyo on Jan. 18, 2009.”

One wonders what the point of the protest was. Japanese automakers are also laying off Japanese workers, so the protest isn’t going to get them rehired. None of them live or work anywhere near central Tokyo, so perhaps they were demonstrating in front of corporate headquarters, though Time can’t be bothered to tell us that. Another possibility is that they were angling for media coverage. For that matter, one wonders why Time printed the photograph, which is of only tertiary importance to the issue, and gave it this page positioning, unless it was for propaganda purposes.

The photo is followed by two paragraphs more suitable for a daytime soap opera than a news story, which includes the claims that the Japanese government has made the unemployed feel “unwanted”. The first person quoted—indeed, the first person mentioned—is the leader of the nikkei labor union crying “discrimination”.

After all, we know that labor union leaders are the go-to source of information about government programs.

The seven-paragraph article contains only one sentence about the Japanese government offer. The third paragraph is a straightforward description of current domestic economic conditions. The rest is nothing more than an anti-Nipponistic editorial, and Time manages to mangle the facts while it’s at it:

The money isn’t the problem, the Brazilians say; it’s the fact that they will not be allowed to return until economic and employment conditions improve — whenever that may be.

No, they will not be allowed to return at all on a special nikkei work visa, and the reason for the incorporation of that restriction should be obvious: to prevent repeated use of the program and scamming extra money off the deal.

Then Time benevolently dispenses to its readership the wisdom of the Western biens pensants regarding how Japan should conduct itself as a nation:

“The U.N. has projected that the nation will need 17 million immigrants by 2050 to maintain a productive economy.”

Yes, we all know how accurate UN projections are for 40 years in the future, particularly for global warming climate change.

Does Japan need to add a total number of immigrants equal to 13% of its present population to “maintain a productive economy”, or does it need that many people to maintain its social welfare system for an aging population—which is not the same thing—and in so doing, eliminate the concept of “Japan” as we know it as a functioning entity? But what’s that to public intellectuals and their acolytes in the West?

As we saw here recently, the Canadians have concluded that large-scale immigration is not the answer. And we’ve also seen how the huge influx of Muslim immigrants, specifically admitted to fill unskilled labor jobs and prop up the social welfare system for an aging population, has worked out in Western Europe. (By the way, they’ve been rioting in France again, and this time it’s so bad the French government has forbidden the police from disclosing the statistics.)

There’s some input from Carlos Zaha, a “community leader”:

“I don’t think [the government] thought this through well.”

The government is offering a generous financial assistance program that is entirely voluntary. The ones who have to think it through are the Brazilians—take it or leave it. Leaving it means that to survive in this economic climate, they’ll actually have to do stuff like learn Japanese and job-related skills for something other than sweeping up the shop room floor. Fortunately, the Japanese government is making it easier for anyone with the motivation to do just that.

The article also quotes the union leader’s son:

“They have to help people to continue working in Japan,” he says. “If Brazilians go home, what will they do there?”

If we know “they” are helping people to continue working in Japan, why doesn’t he? Perhaps he’s one of those who didn’t bother to study Japanese, but then again the Japanese government provides free interpreters to explain the program. He also doesn’t explain why the government “has” to do things for a group specifically targeted because they chose the easy money route rather than the assimilation route. Nor does he explain why it is the business of the Japanese government what Brazilian citizens do in Brazil.

But back to Mr. Freakonomics. He/they conclude(s): “Like other strange Japanese ideas, we don’t expect this one to spread to our shores any time soon.” The gratuitous “other strange Japanese ideas” phrase (there are so many, after all) is hot linked to another post by that Freakonomics guy presenting some photos of “Only in Japan” strange “products”. They discovered this hidden side because a reader of their blog sent them a chain e-mail letter.

If you have a Windows machine and right click the photos as if to save them to your computer, which is what Freakonomics did, you’ll see that they’ve already been given a title at their site. I’ll show two of those photos here; their site’s title for the first photo is “Japs 1”, and the title for the second is “Japs 3”.

Hmm, the hidden side of everything…

Here’s the photo of the first product at “Japs 1″.

freaks 1

Yes, that is a strange product. It looks like something a junior high school student might buy if she were in a spending mood and had some money to burn. But since I’ve never seen this product in anyone’s home, any store, or in any broadcast or print advertising, that’s only speculation on my part. Perhaps they’re hidden in this country somewhere.

Maybe the money earned from the book transformed the lives of Messrs. Freakonomics so much they no longer have to shop where the simple folk do. Or perhaps they had a refined upbringing. That would explain their unfamiliarity with the idea of novelty products.

Still, they should be old enough to remember Pet Rocks. In 1975, American advertising executive Gary Dahl bought ordinary rocks for a few cents apiece, wrote a tongue-in-cheek manual to accompany them, and packaged the combination as Pet Rocks. Each product unit cost less than 30 cents to produce, and Mr. Dahl sold them for $3.95. In fact, he sold an estimated 5 million pet rocks in six months, earning him about $US 15 million. I’ll bet those cushion makers wish they could cash in like that.

pet rock

Another example of a highly profitable American novelty item is mood rings. These rings are most often made with a sham gemstone covering a thermo-chromic liquid crystal that responds to body temperature. The people who take these rings seriously claim that body temperatures change in tandem with emotion, and that the rings turn specific colors to match the specific emotion of the wearer. Though they were a faddish novelty item of the 1970s, they’re still being sold today, sometimes for less than $US 4.00. Indeed, the concept has spread, as you can see from one note on this page:

“Ahh, but the newest version of the mood ring? Mood Piercing! That’s right, body jewelry with the mood ring twist. It’s a curved bar bell with the mood piece on the lower ball. It’s intended for a navel ring, but I have mine to determine my sexual mood, if you catch what I’m saying. It was a joke between a friend and I who both have our clitoris hoods pierced how cool it would be, so I got us each one. I’m not sure it’s ever really been accurate…”

Moving on to “Jap 3”, here’s a photo of what the post’s author thinks is a Japanese “product” because that’s what someone told him in a chain e-mail.

Freaks 2

Long-time friends of this site will immediately realize that isn’t a product at all. It’s a one-of-a-kind item known as chindogu, or “unusual tool”, and could best be described as comical pop art with an avant-garde twist. Those who want to delve into the hidden side of chindogu can read this previous post. Who knows, a gallery exhibition in Western countries might be quite successful.

Actually, this is not the first time someone’s been made the sucker by chindogu. This post describes how the New York Times interviewed another chindogu artist who stitched together some fabric to make herself look like a soft drink vending machine. Somehow, this was enough to convince the Times it was a sign the Japanese were concerned about crime in the streets.

The horse laughs over that journalistic pratfall still reverberate through cyberspace. My post on the topic received quite a few links from around the world, and ranks #2 on the site Hit Parade. I suspect Messrs. Freakonomics are right about this strange idea being unlikely to spread to their shores, though. That would require having a sense of humor.

Besides, they don’t need any more strange avant-garde artwork over there. They’ve got plenty of their own. For example:

Piss_Christ_by_Serrano_Andres_(1987)

That’s the notorious 1987 photograph Piss Christ by Andres Serrano, which shows a plastic crucifix in a glass of the photographer’s urine. It won an award in the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art’s “Awards in the Visual Arts” competition, partially sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, a United States Government agency that funds artistic projects. Mr. Serrano received $US 15,000, some of that from the taxpayer-funded NEA.

In addition to strange Japanese novelty products or pop art, Messrs. Freakonomics are convinced the U.S. won’t go for this strange Japanese immigration relief measure either. That’s probably because they think America has a perfectly wonderful immigration system.

Well, the perfect part has it right. The American immigration system is perfectly dysfunctional and has been for years. The United States lost control of its borders decades ago and shows no sign that it will ever regain that control.

Consider:

* Immigrants account for 13% of the current U.S. population, and 30% of those are illegal aliens. Except now they have their own lobbying organizations that wet their pants in indignation for a living, so the phrase “undocumented migrants” is often used instead. In raw numbers, estimates of the latter range from 12-20 million in a country of 300 million.

* Between 1-2 million immigrants, both documented and illegal, arrive every year. On the whole, they have fewer job skills and less education than Americans, and they receive more from taxes than they contribute by a 3-1 ratio.

* Many of these immigrants never intend to assimilate. For several generations, it’s been possible to live from birth to death throughout the country, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Miami, and most of Texas, without speaking a word of English, much less become a legal resident. An estimated 85% of the Mexicans living in the U.S. are thought to be there illegally.

This has been a problem for some time. Here’s a direct quote from the New York Times, circa 1951, in the days before the political correctness of language:

“The rise in illegal border-crossing by Mexican ‘wetbacks’ to a current rate of more than 1,000,000 cases a year has been accompanied by a curious relaxation in ethical standards extending all the way from the farmer-exploiters of this contraband labor to the highest levels of the Federal Government.”

One of the several concerns was that the illegal immigrants worked in the agriculture sector for half the salary paid to Americans, which put the Americans out of work. That concern is ongoing, and opponents of guest worker programs in the United States often point out that the lower salaries distort the economic structure.

In contrast, the nikkei in Japan were paid salaries identical to those of Japanese in the same positions.

In 1986, the U.S. government threw up its hands entirely by passing an amnesty bill that allowed an estimated 2.7 million illegal aliens to receive citizenship. Many naturally complain that this was a reward for breaking the law. Six additional amnesties (not all blanket amnesties) were passed from 1994 to 2000.

The American political class is incapable of formulating a coherent immigration policy. Business interests want to keep the cheap labor source, and they are abetted by politicians in both parties. (Not just the big business GOP, either; as a senator, the later-to-be President Lyndon Johnson, a Texas Democrat, favored lax immigration enforcement.) Labor unions dislike guest worker programs, but their favored party, the Democrats, realize that the beneficiaries of so many government programs tend to vote for that party, and that guest workers usually wind up as permanent residents. President George W. Bush failed to gain passage of an immigration reform act that included amnesty, but President Barack Obama is going to try again, even though Mr. Bush’s legislation was defeated due to public opposition. As the New York Times put it:

But, (Obama) said, immigrants who are long-time residents but lack legal status “have to have some mechanism over time to get out of the shadows.”

Nothing describes current immigration policy and enforcement in the U.S. better than this lead sentence from a CNN article.

“Six months to the day after Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi flew planes into the World Trade Center, the Immigration and Naturalization Service notified a Venice, Florida, flight school that the two men had been approved for student visas.”

So it’s entirely understandable that the Messrs. Freakonomics, Americans both, would find the Japanese success at controlling their borders and the influx of guest workers to be a strange idea that wouldn’t work on their shores.

If I were Japanese, I’d be proud of the country for their handling of the situation.

Sidebar 2: Some people were impressed the two Freakonomics authors discovered that sumo wrestlers in certain situations tend to lose matches they statistically should be expected to win, which suggests that they’re throwing the matches for the benefit of their fellow rikishi.

Except the Japanese have known this for centuries, and have never been shy or hesitant to write or talk about it. You just have to be able to read mass-market Japanese paperbacks and talk to Japanese people in Japanese for all these hidden sides to come to light.

Imagine if you will the reaction in the West, particularly by these media outlets and public intellectuals, if a Japanese were to observe pet rocks, mood rings (including those on pierced clitoris hoods), Piss Christ, and an endemic problem with illegal immigration, and wrote:

Like other strange Western ideas, we don’t expect this one to spread to our shores any time soon.

Not an attractive image, is it?

Daniel Drezner

Mr. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University. He is given space to write a blog for the Foreign Policy website, which is part of the Slate group, which in turn is part of the Washington Post/Newsweek group.

Prof. Drezner decided to weigh in on the Japanese government policy. The title for the link to his post, which shows up at the top of the Internet browser page, is “A Demographic Disaster of a Country Kicks Out Immigrants”. His post is headlined, “Reason #347 Japan is less influential than it should be.”

His post is not quite as bad as the Freakonomics post, though I realize that is damning it with faint praise. But he still lets fly with this corker:

“Apparently, Japan is trying to kick out some of the paltry number of immigrants it currently has in its territory.”

Readers, it’s time to congratulate yourselves. By now, you are already more knowledgeable about Japanese policy toward Brazilian immigrants than a grad school professor of international politics at an elite American university writing a blog on a mainstream media website. The difference, however, is that you don’t get paid to spout off.

Prof. Drezner was so taken with his “kick out” line that he turned it into a hot link to this New York Times article.

Incidentally, he doesn’t attempt to make any connection between the specific policy and Japan’s “punching below its weight” in international politics. Perhaps he’s used to students nodding at everything he says so they don’t jeopardize their chances for a post-graduate degree.

In regard to what he terms this “puzzling maneuver”, he concludes: “In terms of demographics, about the best thing one can say about Japan is that at least it’s not as bad as Russia.”

The snark may be on a more sophisticated level than in the Freakonomics post, but it’s still snark. According to UN statistics, the Japanese fertility rate is slightly below that of Russia, equivalent to that of Italy, and higher than Bulgaria or South Korea. It isn’t significantly different from that in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Belarus, or the Ukraine. While it’s still less than that for the countries of Western Europe, all those countries are still under the population replacement level even when counting the offspring of their fertile Middle Eastern immigrants. What specific contribution the latter makes is difficult to say because many of those European countries forbid the breakdown of demographic statistics by ethnic group.

Here’s an idea: Is the reason Japan is “punching below its weight” due in part to the fraudulent coverage given at every turn by an anti-Nipponistic Western media and the dismissive indifference to the facts shown by anti-Nipponistic public intellectuals?

A comment on this post at the site is also worth looking at.

“The xenophobic mindset of Japan, is something akin to the Wahabi equivalent in Islam – if it goes so far as to exclude ethnic Japanese, from Brazil!”

Lord knows the man can’t stop ignoramuses from posting in his comment section, but that’s clearly anti-Nipponism, and all the more revealing because one would expect the site itself would attract a highly educated and aware readership.

But Prof. Drezner still has no justification for his claim that the Japanese are “kicking out” the nikkei, based on the New York Times article.

The New York Times

This article is written for a section called Global Business, but only 212 of the 1,261 words describe the actual policy itself without editorializing. It includes only the barest of facts. Another 120 words blandly describe the economic circumstances that led to the formulation of the policy. There are 10 direct quotes. Three of those are sob stories, three are direct criticisms of the Japanese position by Japanese calling it a “disgrace”, “baffling”, “cold-hearted”, and “an insult”, and two are accounted for by a simple question and answer. There is an unattributed quote calling it “short-sighted” and “inhumane”. The single quoted Japanese who defends the policy is also given a chance to say, “I don’t think Japan should ever become a multi-ethnic society”.

And I don’t think the New York Times should stack the deck, but let’s proceed.

The government will pay thousands of dollars to fly Mrs. Yamaoka; her husband, who is a Brazilian citizen of Japanese descent; and their family back to Brazil. But in exchange, Mrs. Yamaoka and her husband must agree never to seek to work in Japan again.

Not only is this incorrect, but the author knows it. She later says that they can return on different visas:

But those who travel home on Japan’s dime will not be allowed to reapply for a work visa. Stripped of that status, most would find it all but impossible to return. They could come back on three-month tourist visas. Or, if they became doctors or bankers or held certain other positions, and had a company sponsor, they could apply for professional visas.

My, but isn’t that “certain other positions” a convenient formulation? The author doesn’t mention it also includes recent graduates of universities with bachelor’s degrees in the contemporary equivalent of basket weaving hired to teach English at chain schools.

Notice also the doctor/banker part. That’s inserted to offer a frisson of righteous indignation over the injustice of it all to the newspaper’s upper-middle class/upper class readership, some of whom are doctors or bankers, who will then finish reading the paper and head off to their six- or seven-figure jobs elsewhere on the island of Manhattan, or in a private cubicle in some ivory tower.

Here’s the first direct quote:

“I feel immense stress. I’ve been crying very often,” Mrs. Yamaoka, 38, said after a meeting where local officials detailed the offer in this industrial town in central Japan.

Yes, that’s the Grey Lady and not the National Enquirer.

Here’s the first quote from a Japanese:

“It’s a disgrace. It’s cold-hearted,” said Hidenori Sakanaka, director of the Japan Immigration Policy Institute, an independent research organization. “And Japan is kicking itself in the foot,” he added. “We might be in a recession now, but it’s clear it doesn’t have a future without workers from overseas.”

Prof. Drezner also repeats that last sentence approvingly, as if everyone with functioning cognitive facilities can see the blinding clarity of its correctness. Perhaps he needs to read the Canadian report issued above showing that immigration isn’t going to solve anyone’s population problem. It’s also not so clear that the aging of society would be a problem if citizens assumed a greater liability for their own social welfare benefits and responsibility for long-term care, combined with growth-friendly taxation policies and reductions in the sheer mass of government.

And it’s also clear that most of Western Europe—as we know it—does not have a future with workers from overseas.

The guest workers quickly became the largest group of foreign blue-collar workers in an otherwise immigration-averse country, filling the so-called three-K jobs (kitsui, kitanai, kiken — hard, dirty and dangerous).

Japan isn’t so averse to immigration from people with job skills, a willingness to assimilate, and a desire to learn the language. I’m one of those in “some other position” who easily received a permanent residence visa. I know many more who did, and I have no doubt they and I could just as easily become naturalized citizens.

Sidebar 3: Recruitment of Chinese and Korean workers in Fukuoka
From a Nishinippon Shimbun article, buried in the local news section:

Fukuoka Prefecture and other groups sponsored a joint job interview conference on 30 May for foreign students looking for work in Japan. A total of 194 students at regional universities and graduate schools attended. Many companies are not hiring at present due to economic conditions, so only seven companies sent representatives. That was less than half of the companies represented last year, which caused some uneasiness among the students. This year’s conference was the eighth, and the prefecture said that about 30 students are hired as a result of the interviews every year.

“Naturally, we don’t want those same people back in Japan after a couple of months,” Mr. Kawasaki (Jiro, an LDP official formerly with the Health Ministry) said. “Japanese taxpayers would ask, ‘What kind of ridiculous policy is this?’ ”

That’s the first sensible thing I’ve read in any of those articles or blog posts yet.

At the packed town hall meeting in Hamamatsu, immigrants voiced disbelief that they would be barred from returning. Angry members of the audience converged on officials. Others walked out of the meeting room.

And I’m sure others went to the rest room, wandered aimlessly in the hall looking at the artwork, or went outside to smoke a cigarette. Why should they be angry about an optional program? Are the comments of Michiko Ramos and the Brazilian vice-consul above beginning to make sense now?

Claudio Nishimori, 30, said he was considering returning to Brazil because his shifts at a electronics parts factory were recently reduced. But he felt anxious about going back to a country he had left so long ago. “I’ve lived in Japan for 13 years. I’m not sure what job I can find when I return to Brazil,” he said. But his wife has been unemployed since being laid off last year and he can no longer afford to support his family.

Note that Mr. Nishimori and his wife both worked and that Mr. Nishimori has been here 13 years, presumably employed the whole time, yet he has neither the financial wherewithal to survive a layoff of a few months nor the job skills to find employment elsewhere. Nor, obviously, the desire to participate in the Japanese government’s job-training and language instruction program.

“They put up with us as long as they needed the labor,” said Wellington Shibuya, who came six years ago and lost his job at a stove factory in October. “But now that the economy is bad, they throw us a bit of cash and say goodbye….We worked hard; we tried to fit in. Yet they’re so quick to kick us out,” he said. “I’m happy to leave a country like this.”

With that attitude, Mr. Shibuya, I suspect that “a country like this” is even happier with your decision than you are.

Summary

There is nothing inherently wrong with privately owned media outlets using a preexisting narrative template to offer their information. That’s how they choose to present themselves to their customers, and their customers are free to accept or reject the template as they choose, according to their time, level of interest, and intellectual inclinations.

The problems arise when the templates are manifestly inaccurate and biased. There is no question that the employees of these media outlets are accomplished and intelligent people, and that the outlets themselves have the financial resources and access to information to enable those people to get it right.

Yet, as I have noted here often in the past, those media outlets seldom, if ever, get it right when the subject is Japan. That accomplished, intelligent people with the resources to get it right never do cannot be laid to incompetence. It must necessarily be the result of intentional design, either on their part or the part of ownership.

The articles by Time magazine and the New York Times plainly do not get it right. Just as plainly, it was because they chose not to get it right. I submit that the cause of this disfigurement and abuse of their resources and customers is anti-Nipponism.

There is also no reason to object to privately owned media outlets having a point of view. That point of view belongs in sections clearly labeled as opinion, however. As with both articles under review here, editorial opinion should not masquerade as news. If these were opinion journals, such The Nation or Commentary, for example, it would be a different matter entirely.

But these two media outlets insist on calling themselves news organizations. The two articles here are putatively news articles that present the facts, yet both are unfair and ugly distortions of the facts. I submit the cause of these distortions is anti-Nipponism.

Let’s not pretend any longer, shall we? These are not honest mistakes. This is not sloppy research. Someone, somewhere, has made a conscious decision to depict the Japanese as negatively as possible, however possible, whenever possible. These depictions of Japan are the rule rather than the exception.

University of Chicago Prof. Levitt and Mr. Dubner of Freakonomics are also without question intelligent and accomplished people. Yet the Messrs. Freakonomics read a Time magazine article and draw the breathtakingly incorrect conclusion that it is about a “citizenship buyout”. They find a harmless novelty item to be yet another one of those strange ideas from the Goofball Kingdom, while overlooking even stranger—and financially successful—novelty items from their own back yard. At least the Japanese product is functional.

They take the word of a chain e-mailer that an innocent, amusing, and obscure work of pop art is a commercial product, and snicker with their oh-so-hip audience at the Japanese weirdness for even conceiving of it. Yet they seem oblivious to situations in their own country (how often this happens!), in which a downright peculiar work of art was given a cash award partially funded by taxpayers, and which was the subject of a loud public controversy for that very reason.

They are citizens of a nation with perhaps the most dysfunctional immigration system in the modern world, yet they conclude that the Japanese government’s generous and considerate offer of a voluntary program to people in need, who seem to more closely resemble Aesop’s grasshopper rather than his ant, is stranger still.

Certainly Tufts University Prof. Drezner is equally accomplished and intelligent. Yet he reads a New York Times article and draws the breathtakingly incorrect assumption that it is about “kicking out” people from Japan. He then suffers an intellectual short-circuit and concludes this is one of the reasons Japan lacks diplomatic clout. He (or someone at that site) thinks Japan is a “demographic disaster”. Well, perhaps it is, but if it sinks, it’s going to go down on the same ship as Western Europe, South Korea, and Singapore. Yet he will only allow that it’s not as bad as Russia.

If either of those university professors were submitted a paper that reached those conclusions based on evidence that slim in any other subject, they’d flunk the student faster than you can say Cliff’s Notes.

Perhaps that is due to what might be called a big-league complex, common among people of certain professions (particularly lawyers). They think it’s their job to behave as if they know something about everything, and so act accordingly to uphold their professional reputation. Freakonomics is about “the hidden side of everything” after all, and “international politics” covers quite a lot of territory. But I don’t think that’s the reason.

I’m sure they would vehemently deny they are guilty of what amounts to knee-jerk prejudice—some of their best friends are Japanese, no doubt. But I submit the cause of their misguided thinking and behavior is anti-Nipponism.

As Ms. Regan (a financial attorney) says in the quote at the start of the article, it is time for people to ignore the fishwrap farce that the New York Times, Time magazine, and their ilk have become, and take responsibility for their thoughts and decisions. Unfortunately, the people described here seem to have used those publications as giftwrap to beautify their preconceived notions.

As for the Japanese, it is time to start drawing conclusions from the fact that the anti-Nipponism of the Western media and its public intellectuals will always prevent them from getting it right.

Shelby Steele, part African-American, a former university professor, and current research fellow at the Hoover Institution, long ago wrote that one of the most important things he ever learned he heard during a conversation with an elderly Jewish woman. “No matter how hard you try,” she told him, “they’re never going to love you.”

It doesn’t make any difference how pacific your behavior or generous your contributions have been for the past few generations. Most media outlets and many influential people in the West have become so infected with anti-Nipponism that they are never going to love you.

If those conclusions you draw require that Japan choose a more independent course of action in the world, so be it. As the Arabs say, the dogs bark, and the caravan moves on.

Afterwords:

* Anti-Nipponistic attitudes are apparent in more than just political or pop culture reporting. Note how the AP handled their obituary for a prominent Japanese psychiatrist at the end of this recent post.

* I didn’t include Chinese or Korean examples in this post, though anti-Nipponism is of course present in those countries, too. But Japan’s relationships with the Han Chinese on the mainland and the people of the Korean Peninsula are deep and stretch back for millennia, so the current strand of anti-Nipponism in northeast Asia has a different meaning. It is most often fomented or exacerbated by the political class for domestic advantage. Westerners have no such excuse.

* This post doesn’t begin to address the problem of Brazilian workers who either chose not to participate in the national pension system to begin with, or have not worked long enough in Japan (25 years) to quality. The Brazilian workers have been coming to Japan for more than 15 years, and those who came in their mid-40s are now hitting the age of 60. That’s when many Japanese retire, and the unskilled Brazilian laborers working through employee seconding agencies that age are not going to be called as frequently for work. As a result, they receive welfare payments and other benefits from the Japanese government. In those areas with a concentration of these workers, the older ones who can no longer find employment are now starting to hang out during the day on street corners and park benches. One can imagine the reaction of younger Japanese taxpayers who work for a living and are footing the bill. Why should the Japanese government support the elderly citizens of another country with whom it has no pension reciprocity? That’s Brazil’s responsibility, is it not? (Japan does have agreements with the U.S. and Germany, among others.)

* As the New York Times article in particular hastened to assure us, some Japanese are also critical of their government’s policy. Higuchi Naoto, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Tokushima, expressed his criticisms in this English-language article in the Asahi Shimbun.

While I disagree with Prof. Higuchi’s solution, he gets to the crux of the matter here:

I have interviewed more than 300 Japanese-South Americans, and according to my observation, those who graduated from unstable non-regular employment to regular work had one thing in common–strong Japanese-language skills….To survive in the labor market, Japanese language skills are more important than academic qualifications or work experience.

Yes. However:

The majority of these have never been given the financial support or time to acquire Japanese language skills, without which they have virtually no chance of finding new work at a time when they need it most.

Disclaimer: I have a biased outlook in this matter. Not one of my great-grandparents was a native speaker of English, yet all of those who reached the United States acquired English language skills. (That includes two grandparents.) All the men were originally unskilled laborers, and one grandfather had only one year of schooling in Russia.

Needless to say, none of them were given financial support or the time to acquire English-language skills. They just went ahead and did it on their own. One great-grandfather died at the age of 40. His five children quit school and went to work, and his German-born wife did the nurses’ laundry for the nearby Johns Hopkins Hospital. She studied English by reading the newspaper aloud every evening to her twin daughters and having them correct her pronunciation and explain unfamiliar words.

The article also has internal contradictions:

Some 400,000 Japanese-South Americans are said to live in the country. One-third have already obtained permanent residence visas. Many families have also taken out loans to buy homes…In order to earn 300,000 yen a month from a job that pays 1,200 yen an hour, a worker needs to put in 250 hours a month. With such long hours, it is almost impossible to spare time for studies.

It’s also almost impossible to take out a home loan with that sort of income, either. But as for language studies, you know what they say about there being a way if there’s the will. Turn on the TV or radio and voila! Instant language instruction 24 hours a day.

Because there was no need for them to learn Japanese, there was also no motivation.

Living here is not motivation enough? Surely the reason they came was because they thought they would have more opportunities in Japan than in Brazil. The opportunity to stay and make the most of those opportunities should be sufficient motivation for anyone.

The government should devise a learning program under which participants are paid aid equivalent to one year’s unemployment benefits, allowing them to focus solely on the language…. A system is needed to allow them to enroll in Japanese-language schools on a full-time basis for a year so that they may acquire communication skills, including reading and writing, needed to work in Japan.

In other words, the sociology professor thinks that people whose motivation was such that they were unable to use whatever education they received at home to acquire rudimentary job skills are going to be able to read and write Japanese after a one-year course, rather than a three-month course.

As someone who has spent the last 18 years working full-time as a Japanese-English translator after spending a considerable chunk of my life gaining Japanese-language fluency, and who also has taught English, I can only conclude that Prof. Higuchi is a cockeyed optimist.

That’s the basis of most Japanese complaints—the government didn’t do enough to help the nikkei assimilate. But there are two serious problems with that suggestion. First, it completely ignores the responsibility of the people themselves to take charge of their own lives. Ten ha mizukara tasukuru mono wo tasuku—Heaven helps those who help themselves.

Second, it also completely ignores the lesson that everyone left of the political center has failed to learn, and alas, probably never will learn.

If it were so easy for governments to accomplish these things, socialism would have been a success.

A big thanks to the people who helped with this post. You know who you are!

UPDATE: I just found out the program has been amended to allow for re-entry after three years. In other words, it is almost identical in terms to a Spanish offer to unemployed immigrants for repatriation. According to that article, more than 5,000 people accepted the offer. Most of them are from other Spanish-speaking countries, so linguistic assimilation should not have been at issue.

The fertility rate in Spain, incidentally, is nearly the same as that of Japan.

Does this mean there will be a sudden outbreak of Spain-bashing or a let-up in anti-Nipponism from the Western elites?

I think not.

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Posted in Demography, Foreigners in Japan, International relations, Mass media | Tagged: , , | 66 Comments »

A dime’s worth of difference?

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, July 28, 2009

AS THE DATE for the lower house election in Japan approaches, the electorate is becoming increasingly interested in identifying policy differences between the two major parties. In some instances, they’re discovering that the differences among some candidates are negligible, and that party labels resemble nothing so much as merchant ships flying a flag of convenience.

The following article, which appeared in the Nishinippon Shimbun last week, describes an extreme example in Kagoshima. Here’s a quick English translation.

*****
Enthusiasm was high at a hall in Kagoshima City on the evening of the 16th as a crowd of 1,600 overflowed the 800-capacity venue at a rally for Uchikoshi Akashi, a new Democratic Party of Japan candidate for a lower house seat in the Kagoshima District #2. When Uchikoshi declared that the time for a change of government had come, a man in his 70s who has known the candidate for many years was overwhelmed with emotion. “He was finally recognized as a DPJ candidate,” the man said.

L-R: Uchikoshi Akashi and his new boss

L-R: Uchikoshi Akashi and his new boss

Uchikoshi’s political career began as a delegate in the prefectural assembly. A member of the Liberal Democratic Party, he served for four terms over 15 years and rose to chair the group of LDP assembly delegates. When he chose to run for a seat in District #2 in the 2005 lower house election, circumstances in the electoral district meant that he had to run as an independent. He was defeated, left the party, and joined the DPJ in June 2007 at the invitation of then-party head Ozawa Ichiro.

When Uchikoshi began leaning toward joining the DPJ, his supporters from his days in the prefectural assembly objected and urged him to continue to run as an independent. A friend convinced him to join the DPJ, however, by telling him that the next election would be fought between the two major parties, and he would be unlikely to win unless he was affiliated with one of them.

In the 2007 upper house election held immediately after Uchikoshi joined the party, the DPJ candidate received 99.3% of the vote total of the LDP candidate in the Kagoshima district. A senior member of the local DPJ organization said that was due in large part to Uchikoshi’s efforts, who has a strong base of support among the conservative elements in the district.

***
Two current LDP lower house delegates met at a rally on Amami Oshima on 26 June: Yasuoka Okihiro of Kagoshima District #1, and Tokuda Takeshi of Kagoshima District #2. When Tokuda said they should overcome past history to fight the campaign together, the hall erupted in applause.

L-R: Tokuda Takeshi and his new boss

L-R: Tokuda Takeshi and his new boss

The past history to which he referred was the intense “Yasutoku War”, political battles fought in District #1 between Tokuda’s father Torio and Yasuoka in the days when the electoral system was based on multiple-representative districts instead of the current single-member districts. Today, the two men cooperate by supporting each other in their separate districts.

Tokuda was elected to the Diet for the first time in 2005 when he ran as an independent with backing from the DPJ. He joined the LDP at the end of 2006, however. One of his chief aides explains: “He was unable to accomplish anything for one year. As a member of the ruling party, he was able to exert his efforts for the area.”

The aide had a jarring experience during a campaign swing in June, however, while circulating among supporters. One supporter asked, “How do the LDP’s policies differ from the DPJ’s?” Inside the house, he spied a DPJ pamphlet placed there by Uchikoshi supporters. It called for rooting out wasteful expenditures of tax money, improving healthcare, and boosting the rate of self-sufficiency in the food supply. The language was almost identical to that on the LDP flyer the aide had brought.

This election is a clash between Tokuda and Uchikoshi, both of whom were supported by different parties four years ago. Supporting Tokuda this time are agricultural cooperatives, the Chamber of Commerce, and the construction industry—all of which campaigned for his LDP opponent 2005. In contrast, Uchikoshi is being supported by the labor unions that backed Tokuda last time. The labor unions justify their choice by saying they should close their eyes to any minor differences between the two for the sake of a change in government.

*****
There have been pre-election skirmishes over the promises of pork made by both parties. It is difficult to distinguish a clear demarcation between the parties’ policies in some cases. The DPJ promises to make expressways free, provide income supplements to individual farm households and others, and pay a monthly child-rearing stipend of JPY 26,000 (about $US 275.00). The LDP is offering a JPY 2 trillion economic stimulus rebate (about $US 21 billion), reduced highway tolls, and a resumption of temporarily frozen highway construction projects.

According to Saga University political science Prof. Hatayama Toshio, “The voters know that the days of pork will not return. The hearts of the voters will be disengage from a party unless they can create a trustworthy platform.”

(End translation)

*****
Meanwhile, the Sankei Shimbun briefly summarized some of the areas of similarity in the LDP and the DPJ platform planks regarding child-rearing, and the DPJ’s acceleration of the period of implementation.

The centerpiece of the DPJ platform is their child-support allowance, which will eventually be JPY 26,000 per month. The party has moved up by a year, to FY 2011, the period at which the full amount will be paid, as well as the period for providing their subsidy to individual farm households. Until then, the party would pay JPY 13,000, or half that amount, as a child-rearing stipend.

That allowance will require JPY 5.5 trillion annually, while the farm household allowance will require JPY 1.0 trillion every year.

In contrast, the LDP’s platform has a plan to allow parents of 3-5 year olds to send their children to authorized preschool facilities without paying tuition. This is viewed as a measure to counter the DPJ allowances and the opposition’s plan to make high school free. It is estimated to cost JPY 790 billion per year.

Afterwords

* Were party discipline in Japan a bit looser—i.e., not at the Politburo level of conformity—the party switching such as that in Kagoshima might not be so significant. But votes in the Japanese Diet are usually conducted along party lines without the opportunity to create ad hoc coalitions for individual issues. Party policy, and therefore government policy, is determined higher up the food chain, and that will usually determine individual votes.

* I’m going to be on the Saga University campus tomorrow to give two final exams, and I’m tempted to drop in on Prof. Hatayama to see if he’s smoking any contraband in his office. Look again at Mr. Tokuda’s reason for joining the LDP—he was unable to accomplish anything for a year as an independent backed by the minority opposition. In other words, he wasn’t able to bring home the bacon for the people in his district.

The days of pork have never gone away.

* This morning’s newspaper contains a report on a Kyodo survey that shows 37% of the respondents hadn’t made up their mind which party to vote for in the proportional representation phase of the election. (The DPJ still leads by about 30% to 15%, but that’s a 5.5% drop for the DPJ since the last survey.)

All things considered, that demonstrates an astonishing lack of trust in the DPJ.

* The child-rearing planks in both party platforms are classic examples of legal vote-buying schemes. They’re counting on the public not taking the time to think it through, and the media not to help them by prompting. Of course the free money for school won’t be free, because the beneficiaries will pay for it through some other form of taxation. There goes the supposed benefit of lowering the financial burden on families to encourage them to have more/some children.

It’s also unlikely to improve Japan’s birthrate–certainly not to a level required to produce more revenue sources for social welfare programs, which is the point to begin with. The claim that people are not having more children because it costs too much is an excuse, not a reason. People just aren’t as interested in creating families as they used to be.

Since the program will have no requirements to spend the money for specific uses, such as children’s clothing, it will be a rerun of the pattern for Third World foreign aid, in which the cash was diverted to the discretionary spending of the ruling class rather than infrastructural development. (In the early 1990s, the World Bank said it absolutely no idea what happened to 30% of all the money it gave to Indonesia. The U.S. stopped giving financial aid to post-Soviet Russia when they discovered most of the money was being shifted from Moscow to Swiss bank accounts within 24 hours after the initial transfer.) It is just as likely to enable non-essential expenditures for the parents as it is to be spent on children.

That’s just one inevitability. Here’s another one—the scheme won’t result in a higher birth rate (they never do) and the people who originally pushed it will insist that’s because an insufficient amount of money was allocated to the families. They will therefore call for increases in the amount of the payments rather than admit the program is a failure.

It’s like the sun rising in the east every morning.

Also, no one seems to be mentioning the additional tax burden this will impose on working singles and newly married couples without children who won’t receive any of these funds at all. If the DPJ thinks thinks folks aren’t having children because of the financial burden, why—by their logic—are they making it harder for people of prime child-rearing age to start families?

If they were serious about giving families with children a break, they would increase rather than eliminate the current income tax deductions for children, which the DPJ proposal entails. Instead of taking money from people at tax time and then distributing it, let them keep their money to begin with.

But that wouldn’t serve the real purpose of the scheme. That’s to shift the political debate from more fundamental questions to the issue of the level of government services, and which party is prepared to use the most tax money to attract votes.

Meanwhile, many people have resigned themselves to voting for the DPJ because they promise to more actively pursue the devolution of authority and weaken bureaucratic control of government.

Yet the tiara in the crown of the DPJ platform will engender more dependency on the central government and create yet another bureaucracy.

There’s a Japanese phrase applicable to all this: fu ni ochinai, or, “it doesn’t fall into the bowels”. In other words, it’s not convincing at all.

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

Shanghai ending one-child policy

Posted by ampontan on Monday, July 27, 2009

THE TIMES OF LONDON is reporting that the municipal government of Shanghai, China, is now encouraging married couples to have a second child. The government has been holding the line at one toddler for 30 years, and has gone so far as to forcibly sterilize women or abort pregnancies.

The reason?

“The move was prompted by the growing demographic imbalance in the city and fears that the younger generation will not be able to support the ageing population

And:

‘Shanghai’s over-60 population already exceeds three million, or 21.6 per cent of registered residents,’ Zhang Meixin, a spokesman for the Shanghai commission, said…

And:

The elderly population is rising at a similar rate across the rest of China, mainly in cities, with the working-age population expected to start shrinking in about 2015. The overall population will peak in 2030, with China becoming the first country to grow old before it grows rich and therefore able to support a nation of pensioners.”

(Emphasis mine)

It is worth examing the cause for the aging of the population in China. The article quotes one of the parents:

“It costs more than 35,000 yuan (£3,500) a year just to leave our baby in a kindergarten. Why spend this amount of money on a second?”

This is of interest in Japan, and not only because of the country’s aging population. One of the centerpiece policies of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan is the introduction of a monthly government stipend to parents for child-rearing through junior high school. They seem to be on the verge of taking power, and they promise this measure will be one of their first legislative acts.

The excuse they give echoes that of the parents above: Japanese parents say they can’t afford more children. But I use the word excuse instead of justification intentionally, and the next sentence in the article explains why:

Many young couples are willing to have one child to continue the family line, but they let the grandparents raise it so that they can go to bars and restaurants and go shopping and travelling without being restricted by the responsibilities of children.

The Japanese don’t slough off child-rearing responsibilities to the grandparents to an extent worth mentioning, but the idea is the same: Having children cramps one’s style.

Someone has the wit to see the contradiction:

“One person remembered the policies of the 1950s and 1960s when Chairman Mao appealed for large families. ‘Our parents were poor and they had five or six children.'”

Alas, this reporter too is not immune to the journalistic afflication of a failure to distinguish news reports from op-eds:

The one couple, one child family-planning policy is less rigorous than its name suggests. Urban parents are permitted to have two children if the husband and wife were only children. In rural areas, couples are allowed a second child if their first is a girl.

That still sounds excessively “rigorous” to me. Besides, it’s not a question of degrees of rigor; when a government gets involved in family planning, either by limiting or encouraging new babies, it is a question of despotism.

“The one couple, one child family-planning policy is not applicable to all households” is shorter and contains no reference to what the author thinks is or isn’t harsh.

This is the subject of another post I’ve been working on, which will include why government schemes encouraging larger families have historically failed, and why the DPJ speaks with a forked tongue on this issue, as they do with several others.

Since the concern is really about finding revenue units to fund social welfare services, the obvious solution would be to reduce costs by having people accept more responsibility for their own social welfare, and eliminating large swaths of otherwise unnecessary government while they’re at it, but that’ll have to wait until later.

Soon come!

Posted in China, Demography, Government | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Japan’s cosplaying Wiki-diplomats

Posted by ampontan on Friday, July 24, 2009

“Embassies are relics of the days of sailing ships. At one time, when you had no world communications, your ambassador spoke for you in that country. But now, with instantaneous communications around the world, the ambassador is primarily in a social role…I would recommend we redo the whole embassy structure.”
– Ross Perot

A FEW WEEKS AGO, reader NB sent this message with a link to a Kyodo article:

“(Here’s) an item I’d like to see in another post.
What do you think about the Japanese government harnessing stereotypes about the Japanese and using “pop culture diplomacy” to sell themselves around the world as “cute” manga-reading girls in short skirts?”

Here’s the story in brief: The Japanese Foreign Ministry has appointed three people known officially as “pop culture ambassadors”, but known casually as “ambassadors of kawaii (cute), to promote the Japanese version of chewing gum culture to people in other countries. Their appointments will last for one year.

L-R: Misako-chan, Yu-chan, Shizuka-chan

L-R: Misako-chan, Yu-chan, Shizuka-chan

The three are Aoki Misako, a model associated with the magazine Lolita Fashion; singer Kimura Yu, referred to by some Japanese as a “fashion leader” of the Harajuku type, and Fujioka Shizuka, an actress known for wearing designer brand high school uniforms.

Ms. Fujioka appeared at an event called the Kawaii Festa in Thailand in March to offer fashion advice. Japanese-language Internet sources suggest that the word kawaii has become part of the international lingua franca. A photo at the link shows a banner at the event bearing that title.

There’s a reason she was sent to Bangkok. School uniform-type outfits are now the rage among college-age Thai girls (the phrase “college women” no longer seems applicable) due in part to the local success of a Japanese anime.

The article quotes one young Thai (boy or girl, we don’t know; the article is sloppily written):

“You look very pretty in the uniform. I would like to go to Japan.”

The other two envoys to Global Youth Land visited the Japan Expo in Paris earlier this month, an event that drew more than 100,000 people last year. The Kyodo article says that cosplay has intrigued young people in France.

The word “cosplay” is derived from the Japanese kosupure, which itself is derived from the English words costume and play. It involves people dressing up in costumes as characters from comic books or animated cartoons and acting out those roles.

That the Japanese government has become involved with cosplay—there’s no better way to describe older females wearing high school uniforms as a fashion statement—should tell us that we’re dealing with a serious international phenomenon here.

Epictetus, a Greek philosopher born in the first century AD, had it right when he said, “Preach not to others what they should eat, but eat as becomes you, and be silent.” That applies just as well to a person’s taste in the arts and his leisure time activities. As long as they’re not breaking any laws, how people to choose to spend their time and money is their own business.

The fashion aspect is not so difficult to understand. Women have always spent an enormous amount of time trying to guild the lily in ways unfathomable to men ever since there have been men and women, so this is just the latest chapter in a never-ending story.

Cosplay is not as easy for me to get my head around, however, particularly when males are involved. I’m one of those people who think that most people on the planet wake up every morning, put on a costume, and pretend to be the person whose name is on their birth certificate. Is that not a form of cosplay to begin with? But then esoteric philosophy is not a theme of this website.

On the other hand, reader Mac commented:

“What “better” or more commonly used PR is there in the world than using beautiful young women?”

Eat as becomes you…

An international phenomenon

I’d rather the Japanese had chosen other parts of their culture to present to the rest of the world—festivals, for example—but might there be a bigger picture that we’re missing?

Plug the word kawaii in English into Google and you’ll get 7,590,000 hits. Do the same with cosplay and you’ll get 24,200,000. Yes, I was astonished too. When the words kawaii and cosplay are so commonly known and accepted around the world, I think it’s safe to say we’re dealing with a phenomenon that transcends Japan.

Is this infantile? Yes, and that’s inescapably the truth. (That’s not preaching, that’s just an observation.) But infantilism seems to be the default position for a lot of people these days. Witness the global reaction to the recent death of the mega-infantile, Michael Jackson. Should we be shocked that every American television network chose to cover his funeral live, or should we just note that that’s how the modern world turns?

A few years back, an American comedian joked that Michael Jackson was the only example he’d seen of a poor black boy growing up to become a wealthy white woman. Jacko was so wealthy, in fact, that he could go beyond clothes and cosplay for years with his pigmentation and facial structure.

But even that does not tell the full story of conditions in the United States. Try this account from a Detroit newspaper:

“Two hearses jammed with stuffed animals left in memory of Michael Jackson were given a two-car police escort Friday to the toys’ burial at Woodlawn Cemetery…
Detroit Police officials said they couldn’t say how much the escort cost the city. The escort guided the hearses from the funeral procession through red lights.
Mourners had left the toys and other items at the Motown Historical Museum on West Grand Boulevard since the singer died June 25 at age 50. After sitting outside for three weeks, the toys were not safe to donate to a children’s museum or orphanage, museum Chief Operating Officer Audley Smith said.
“We have now concluded that it would be best to bury the items,” Smith said Friday morning…
At the cemetery, the toys were unloaded from the tops of the hearses and from boxes inside the vehicles. They were then placed into clear plastic bags and then inside donated vaults…”

The article reports that senior officers of the Detroit police are upset, but let’s not forget that someone in authority thought it was a good idea and executed the decision to provide a police escort to a hearse full of ruined toys given to a dead 50-year-old child, including the right of way through stoplights, to be buried in a cemetery.

This infantile reordering of priorities might be closer to the norm than we think. Consider baseball fans in the United States, who have morphed into something their parents and grandparents would have found unimaginable. Once upon a time, the priority for young American men in their 20s was to get married and get started on a career and a family. Those who were interested in the sport followed it by watching the occasional game on TV (most games weren’t televised) or listening on the radio, reading accounts in the newspaper the next day, and perhaps attending a handful of games a year.

The harder guys joined softball leagues—fast pitch—for summertime recreation.

Now, however, there are websites for baseball fans in which they analyze every play of every game with game threads during the action, and argue about player evaluations using such newly created statistics as VORP and OPS+. Those evaluations not only include the players on the major league team, but also every last player on each of a team’s seven minor league affiliates, with occasional examinations of the players in the Dominican summer league. The U.S. major leagues hold their annual draft of amateur players in early June; these fans already began talking about the June 2010 draft before the June 2009 page was torn off the calendar. Many are members of fantasy leagues, in which they create their own teams from scratch and play simulated games on a computer. When the lads actually do attend a real baseball game to watch real players in real time, they often wear the jersey bearing their favorite player’s name and number and a team hat. Some even paint their bodies and faces.

Is that whole subculture not a type of cosplay too?

Perhaps it’s time to draw conclusions from these facts, and one of the conclusions we may safely draw is that society everywhere—Thailand, Tokyo, or Toronto—has become more infantile. To say that 40 is the new 20 is already a commonplace observation.

Since things are thus, who among us would dare single out young Japanese females as somehow being a goofy exception? Suddenly, a magazine named Lolita Fashion doesn’t seem all that strange any more.

There comes a point when you realize there are only two choices—either live it or live with it.

Foreign Ministry involvement

But there is one aspect to this whole business I do find inappropriate. To wit: I can understand that the private sector would be anxious to leverage the zeitgeist for national PR, or to boost tourism. It’s good for business, after all.

But why is the Foreign Ministry wasting its time and our money on this?

One of the Japanese-language links sent in by reader Ponta contained this explanation, though it sounds more like an excuse to me:

(These projects select) people to serve in PR roles for the country or a region…Today, with the spread of the Internet, anyone can express their opinion to the world. The ideas of the general citizen have a much greater impact on relations between two countries. Rather than improve relations between Japan and other countries by limiting discussions and contact to diplomats, it is important to further mutual understanding based on a mutual interest between citizens.

The same entry reminds us that the cartoon character Doraemon was designated an “anime cultural ambassador”, and in that role, the feature-length movies in which the cartoon character appeared were screened in 65 countries around the world in five languages.

While Ross Perot’s 1992 suggestion that the concept of diplomacy be reworked has been shown to be prescient despite the initial ridicule it received, even Mr. Perot might be astonished to see that less than a generation later, the conduct of relations among nations has degenerated into a kind of Wiki-diplomacy.

The goldbricks of international diplomacy

The only response to the infantilization of culture throughout the world might be to sigh and shrug the shoulders, but the Japanese foreign ministry, like its counterparts elsewhere, still has serious business to attend to.

Unfortunately, the Japanese equivalent of Foggy Bottom doesn’t seem to be doing much in the way of attending to those issues.

* When the Japanese government donated $11 million to restore the Mesopotamian marshlands in Iraq that Saddam Hussein had purposely drained, then-Prime Minister Koizumi asked the Foreign Ministry to conduct a survey of local residents. The ministry said it would take a year to complete.

Not wanting to wait that long, the government turned to the Self-Defense Forces already in Iraq and asked them. The SDF personnel conducted the survey in their spare time and finished in a week.

* The story of the five Japanese citizens forcibly abducted and finally returned by North Korea more than two decades later is fading from public memory, but it’s worth remembering that Pyeongyang at first allowed the abductees to return only temporarily. The abductees didn’t see it that way, however. After having been captured while minding their own business in their own country and held prisoner in another, it was natural that they wouldn’t want to go back.

Yet the people responsible in the Japanese Foreign Ministry were upset by their decision and publicly criticized it. They insisted that Japan throw its own innocent citizens into the hellhole once again. Their justification was that Japan had to uphold its part of the deal with a country that’s welshed on every important international agreement it’s signed during its existence–and who were holding those people unlawfully to begin with.

Could they have been more wrong? The five abductees stayed and their family members followed later, demonstrating yet again that the hard line does work in diplomacy, especially with tinhorn bullies.

* One capability the Foreign Ministry does have is setting public policy without conducting public debates about that policy. Try this from a recent article in a Canadian newspaper:

“A Japanese diplomat once told me that his assignment in Canada was to acquire lessons on the merits of multiculturalism in an effort to convince the Japanese people that, for them also, immigration will fix the problem of an aging society.”

“For them, also”? Immigration without assimilation has never fixed any problem anywhere, much less “the problem of an aging society”. The problem they’re really talking about is finding a tax source to fund the social welfare services for an aging society when the birthrate is far south of the replacement rate and isn’t going rise in the foreseeable future—particularly when those of prime breeding age are adult kiddies in a cosplay world.

As the article points out, however, even the Canadians are realizing that immigration isn’t a solution to that problem. The result of that policy, as the Europeans are also starting to understand, is that the problem will cease to exist because the country as they have known it will cease to exist. Japanese like to cite the proverb, go ni ireba, go ni shitagae (in other words, when in Rome, do as the Romans do) as the model for behavior when living overseas.

What the dwindling native European population is discovering, however, is that their Muslim immigrants aren’t in the least interested in go ni ireba. To them one part of Europe is a lost area of the ummah, the Community of Believers, that once was theirs. As for the rest, the immigrants’ fertility rates will eventually incorporate that into the ummah too, while the Europeans fade out by cosplaying everything except traditional family life.

One phrase some Japanese use in public debates is the charge that if a certain person is allowed to continue in office, or certain policies are maintained/not adopted, then kuni ga horobiru, or the country will cease to exist. Often the use of this phrase is language inflation of the same type used in debates in other countries, too.

Except in this case Japan’s foreign ministry has apparently decided on its own, without telling anyone else, that the country must adopt a policy by which it really will cease to exist.

Try this instead

While Mr. Perot might have had a point when he said that embassies are obsolete, the foreign service does have a role to play overseas by speaking up for its country. Japan’s foreign ministry, however, is too often tongue-tied instead of calmly but forcefully making the government’s case, whether the issue is Takeshima with South Korea, undersea natural gas rights with China, whaling with Australia, or the comfort women issue with the United States.

The point here is not about agreement or disagreement with any of those policies. Instead, Japan’s Foreign Ministry does little or nothing to promote the stated policies of its own government overseas–and that is their job. It chooses instead to cosplay as diplomats in international conferences using the obsolete postwar paradigm of presenting the country as a responsible international citizen reborn. Sign up for everything, pay for a lot of it, and smile and say nothing.

But since 1945, Japan has been a more responsible international citizen than any other country whose name could be drawn from a hat. It’s time for the Foreign Ministry to draw that conclusion and take the initiative to make that point abroad.

Instead, they spend their time promoting Misako-chan, Yu-chan, and Shizuka-chan as the face of their country to that part of the world inhabited by childish spirits in adult bodies.

When are they going to stop cosplaying the role of foreign service officers, knock off the Wiki-diplomacy, and speak for Japan in the world?

Or have they become so integrated in the global infantile culture that we should forgive them, for they know not what they do?

Afterwords:

* The Canadian newspaper article is worth reading for several reasons, chiefly about how immigration won’t work. It also contains this classic bit of journalistic stupidity about Japan:

It’s true, for example, that by working insanely hard, the Japanese are able to maintain high productivity despite their low fertility rate. But a 17-hour work day in a Tokyo cubicle, where you feel guilty taking bathroom breaks, is hardly a family-friendly environment.

45 words, five mistakes resulting from sheer ignorance masquerading as knowledge.

* When I have occasion to mention Nakagawa Hidenao here, it’s usually in a positive light. But Mr. Nakagawa is one of the most prominent politicians to have taken a clear public stand in favor of large-scale immigration. We disagree. Perhaps I should start sending his office e-mails.

* Anyone is free to disagree with me about multiculturalism without assimilation, but I suggest to put your socks on first. I grew up in the United States speaking only English. My father’s father was born in what is now Belarus and was not a native speaker of English. My father’s mother was not exactly sure where she was born, but the family thinks it might have been that part of Romania held for a while by Russia. She too was not a native speaker of English. (She used to joke that she was Austrian; her birth certification said Austria-Hungary.)

Meanwhile, of my four great-grandparents on my mother’s side, one each came from Poland, Lithuania, and Bremen, Germany; none of them were native speakers of English either. The fourth, however, was from Canada.

I’ve been multicultural since I was zero years old.

* Why is it that Japan shies away from talking about the Europeans’ experience with immigration? Not all the immigrants are going to come from China or The Philippines. As someone who occasionally is called by public prosecutors in Saga and Fukuoka to interpret for illegal aliens apprehended when they were being smuggled into the country, I know that many of the people who would come to take the unskilled labor jobs will be from Muslim countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, statistics show that the most frequently used name now for male babies born in Brussels–the capital of the EU–is Mohammed. And in Amsterdam. And in Rotterdam. It’s creeping up the charts in England. Sometime around 2025, there will be more Muslim babies born in The Netherlands every year than ethnic Dutch. Huis ten Bosch in Sasebo might wind up being more Dutch than the European country in another generation.

It’s time for the Japanese media to start talking about this openly.

Thanks to NB and Ponta for the links!

Posted in Demography, Government, International relations, Popular culture, Social trends | Tagged: | 38 Comments »

 
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