Japan from the inside out

Archive for September, 2007

Diet Library, Statistics Bureau, and ReaD

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, September 30, 2007

THERE ARE SOME NEW LINKS in the right sidebar that I highly recommend.

One is for the National Diet Library. They allow people to register as users to receive copies of documents by mail. Also, the library is now featuring an excellent exhibition of photos from the Meiji and Taisho eras (1868-1925). If you have the time and inclination for photo browsing you’ll be glad you visited the site.

Here is the link to the Statistics Bureau. One section on their site is called Japan in Figures, which includes updated statistics in many different sectors. There also is a section for international comparisons.

Then, there’s ReaD. Here’s what they say at the top of their website:

Directory Database of Research and Development Activities (ReaD) is a database service designed to promote cooperation among industry, academia and government. ReaD is the only Web site that collects and provides scientific information on research institutes, researchers, research projects and research resources in Japan.

I chose the design for this page based on the readability of the center section and the overall layout. One disadvantage of the design, however, is that the lack of separation for website links at the right makes it more difficult to read. You shouldn’t let that stop you from browsing, however. There’s some good stuff over there!

Posted in Websites | 1 Comment »

Okinawans: Were they pushed, or did they jump?

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, September 29, 2007

IT WASN’T THE ORIGINAL PLAN, but this has turned out to be interview week at Ampontan. I’ve got several different posts underway, but keep getting interrupted by other good stories.

Today in Okinawa Prefecture, citizens will hold a rally protesting the decision by the Japanese Ministry of Education to remove a section from textbooks stating that the mass suicides of civilians during the Battle of Okinawa at the end of the Second World War resulted from “military coercion”.

We already know without being told what narrative the world’s media will adopt for this story—resurgent Japanese nationalism and militarism, denial of brutal behavior, failure to come to terms with the war, and–one suspects–a failure to recognize one’s place and stay in it.

Hidden behind this narrative is a different picture of Japan, and one that is all the more compelling because it is the truth—the Japanese conduct the most robust and wide-ranging debate on the planet about their role and behavior in the Pacific War, and always have.


The Japanese media, regardless of their political orientation, will sometimes present the other side of the story. In the Nishinippon Shimbun this morning, I read an article on the rally that went into detail about the textbook controversy and military involvement in civilian suicides.

In other words, none of this information is hidden in Japan. All anyone has to do is pick up a newspaper.

Next to the article was an interview with Toru Oto, a member of the Okinawan prefectural assembly. (On the left in the photo, in good company) How could anyone in Okinawa support the government’s position? You’re about to find out.

As with the other translations this week, this one was uncredited and not on line.

The Okinawa Prefectural Assembly has twice adopted unanimous resolutions calling for the restoration of passages in school textbooks stating that the Japanese military compelled the mass suicides of Okinawan civilians during the Battle of Okinawa, which had been removed from the textbooks during the Ministry of Education’s certification process. Why are you opposed to those resolutions?

Several municipal assemblies adopted the same resolutions, and there were increasing calls within the prefectural assembly for our own resolution. The opposition parties wanted it written into the resolution that the mass suicides occurred due to “military orders or coercion”. I was opposed, however, and one reason is that a court case on this issue is pending. Opinion was divided even in the Liberal Democratic Party. In the end, they settled on the expression, “military involvement”. When the second resolution was adopted, I left the chamber.

The pending court case is the lawsuit in Osaka in which the family of the former Japanese commander of the military forces on the Kerama Islands (next to the main Okinawan island) is suing (author) Kenzaburo Oe and publisher Iwanami Shoten, claiming there were no military orders. They are seeking to prevent Oe and Iwanami from publishing the book. It is odd for the assembly, a legislative body, to politically intervene in an issue that is being contested under civil law.

If there were no military orders, why were there mass suicides?

Before the Battle of Okinawa, during the Battle of Saipan (where many people from Okinawa had moved), residents of the island committed suicide after the American military landed by jumping off a site they called Banzai Cliff. The newspapers incited this occurrence by referring to them as “magnificent Japanese” (rippa na nihonjin). The residents of Okinawa at that time had a strong fear of being taken prisoner. People in the upper levels of the local Okinawan government likely cooperated with the military. I wonder about the idea of blaming everything on the military without questioning the beliefs held by Japanese at that time.

The citizens of Okinawa have filed an objection seeking the restoration of the expression “military coercion”, and the movement has spread throughout the prefecture. As a backdrop to this, what about the deep-seated hatred of the Japanese military, which persecuted the residents during the Battle of Okinawa by either killing them or confiscating their food supplies?

Yes, that exists, but today in Okinawa this has become a political issue rather than a historical issue. Public opinion was manufactured by a series of reports in a media campaign, and as a result those who do not criticize the Education Ministry or the Japanese military are branded as being “anti-prefecture citizens” (hikenmin). The conditions are the same as before the war, when there was no freedom of speech. Even Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima, who was initially hesitant about joining the rally, was unable to turn them down.

What effect will the certification issue have on Okinawan society?

A considerable number of prefectural citizens are under the mistaken impression that the Education Ministry eliminated the textbooks’ references to mass suicide altogether. Even some of my supporters have asked me, “There were mass suicides, weren’t there?” The mass media have changed the points of the debate to manipulate public opinion.

Both the special attack squadron at Chiran (kamikaze pilots at their base in Kagoshima) and the battleship Yamato were thrown into the final battle, (because it was known that) if Okinawa fell, it was over for the main islands as well. But high school students believe that Okinawa was abandoned like some rock, or that it was sacrificed for the sake of the main islands, because that’s all they’re taught. As a result, the certification issue has increased the animosity of the prefectural citizens toward the military, the government, and the main islands.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Education, History, Military affairs, World War II | 21 Comments »

The Japan Post privatization: A dim view

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, September 27, 2007

AS MUCH AS THOSE WHO CHAMPION small government would like to make disposable bureaucracies go poof with the stroke of a pen, the political realities in free market democracies make that an impossible dream.

The privatization of Japan’s former Postal Services Agency (and the elimination of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications) demonstrates that the task demands a strong-willed leader who has captured the imagination of the citizens, is determined to overcome the opposition of politicians with vested interests and an entrenched bureaucracy, and has the political capital to pull it off.

ogawa 2

To achieve his objective, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi had to take the drastic step of dissolving the lower house of the Diet and holding a special election with the privatization issue as the centerpiece of the campaign—after throwing out of his own party those MPs who voted against him. He ignored the party bigwigs who begged him not to go through with it. Scorched earth tactics are possible only once in an administration, and only in popular administrations at that.

It helped that 70% of the public supported the privatization of Japan Post, according to an Asahi Shimbun poll at the time. (And the left-of-center Asahi’s polling methods always produce lower counts for right-of-center politicians and programs.) I suspect a good chunk of this support came from people who were thrilled by the political spectacle and supported Mr. Koizumi in the same way that sports fans will back an athlete in a high-stakes match. But that’s part of the reality of politics, too.

The prime minister’s legislation as originally submitted would not have made it through the lower house unless certain aspects of it were watered down or omitted. Politics is, after all, the art of the possible, and compromises were necessary. But many in the financial industry are displeased with the plan, particularly the government’s continuing involvement in the enterprises after privatization.

Yesterday’s post featured an interview with the Cabinet member who engineered the privatization, Heizo Takenaka. Today’s post includes an interview from the same series published by the Nishinippon Shimbun. As I noted before, these are uncredited and not on line, so I’m offering my quick and dirty translation.

The man interviewed was Tadashi Ogawa (photo), the chairman of the Regional Banks Association of Japan. (There are 64 of these financial institutions in the country.) His viewpoint is representative of those in the private sector who are not thrilled at the prospect of competing with a behemoth that could continue to receive government support for the next decade.

Mr. Ogawa is a former Finance Ministry official and a past chairman of JT (the former Japan Tobacco & Salt Public Corporation). Thus, he has extensive experience and knowledge of the nexus of the financial industry and government—not to mention inessential public corporations that survive well beyond their useful lifespans and have the functional efficiency of an appendix.

What areas cause you concern about privatization?

From the time it is established, the Yucho Bank (the Japan Post bank) will remain (indirectly) supported by government funds for (a maximum of) 10 years. In other words, the implicit government guarantees will continue. These conditions mean that the corporation will already be endowed with trust–the banking industry’s most important asset. As long as the government maintains its financial stake, the bank should not embark on any new enterprises.

These conditions for competing with existing private sector banks are unfair. No matter how often the term privatization is used, the post offices will stay the same as they are now. In fact, they themselves are already conducting a PR campaign based on the phrase, “We won’t change”. It won’t seem to the users as if the Yucho Bank were a private sector bank. With that being the case, of course there won’t be any changes in their business content.

The Yucho Bank is planning to become involved in consumer loans, such as home loans.

Today, with the Japanese economy growing at a gradual pace, private sector financial institutions have a low deposit/loan ratio, and they are having a hard time finding borrowers. Under these conditions in the Japanese economy, and with these financial mechanisms, the Yucho Bank’s position in the industry should be clearly identified.

There will be minimal conflict (with other private sector banks) for those banks whose objective is only investing the money received from deposits. The bank will be rational from the perspective of business efficiency. It is inappropriate for them to be involved in lending, however. In the home loan business, many regional banks are doing everything possible to survive in a climate defined by harsh interest rate competition. I think it’s inappropriate for them to be involved (in home loans).

Are there any advantages for the megabanks in forming ties with the postal bank, which has many regional branches in its network?

The banking industry has repeatedly criticized the bloated businesses and other aspects of the Yucho Bank. If we begin to talk about a specific business, it would naturally be strange for the industry to change its position and say, “We could use this to our advantage.”

What recommendations do you have for the Financial Services Agency’s approach toward inspections?

I want them to take the same approach from the first day of privatization that they take with us. They don’t need to be given any breaks because they’re new to the industry*.

Regional banks thoroughly study and prepare for new regulations in-house before they are implemented. The Financial Services Agency should conduct proper inspections (of the Yucho Bank) in the same way they inspect private sector banks, including their manner of conducting business.

* The phrase Mr. Ogawa used was wakaba maaku, or literally “new leaf sign”. Those Japanese with a new driver’s license must prominently display a special sticker, or wakaba maaku, on their automobiles during their first year behind the wheel.

Try this article for some pertinent information.

Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Government | Tagged: , | 8 Comments »

East Asian childishness

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, September 26, 2007

THERE IS NO BETTER DEMONSTRATION of the immaturity prevailing in East Asian relations than the situation described in this post at The Marmot.

Pundits occasionally wonder in print why the countries in this region cannot forge closer ties through free trade agreements and other treaties.

They’d have to outgrow their short pants first.

Also, note the excellent observation by the first commenter. Just imagine the soiled underwear worldwide if the design had come from Japan and not South Korea. (I suspect today’s Japanese would have more sense–and pay more attention to detail–than to sign off on that one, however.)

Posted in China, International relations, Military affairs, South Korea | Tagged: | 16 Comments »

Takenaka Heizo: Small government’s unsung hero

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, September 26, 2007

ANYONE IN GOVERNMENT WHO ENGINEERS the privatization of a government agency in this statist age deserves recognition for his efforts by those who favor small government—if not a medal.

That’s just what Takenaka Heizohas accomplished, because the process of fully privatizing Japan’s former Postal Services Agency, now known as Japan Post, a public corporation, will begin on 1 October.

Japan Post is not merely a post office—it also is a bank and a life insurer. In fact, it is the largest financial institution in the world, with more than 300 trillion yen (more than $US 2.5 trillion) in assets in its postal savings accounts and life insurance premiums. The entity will be split into four companies, with Japan Post remaining as the holding company.

This is due in no small measure to Mr. Takenaka, an economist who was appointed the Minister for Economic and Fiscal Policy in 2001 in Koizumi Jun’ichiro’s first Cabinet. He later went on to hold portfolios as Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications and Minister of State for Privatization of the Postal Services in the Cabinet.

His efforts to straighten out Japan’s banking system, which was choking on non-performing debt after the collapse of the economic bubble in the 90s, generated a Takenaka-for-prime minister boomlet. He seems to have considered the possibility—the Constitution requires that a prime minister be a member of the Diet, and Mr. Takenaka ran for and won a seat in the Upper House. (It also had the benefit of helping deflect criticism from anti-reformers.) He subsequently resigned, however, and took a professorship at Keio University.

He was the subject of the occasional newspaper or magazine profile in the West, but as so often happens, those Japanese worthy of international acclaim for their accomplishments are largely overlooked. While his achievement would not have been possible without the full backing of Prime Minister Koizumi, himself buoyed by enormous public support, a similar accomplishment would be close to unimaginable in the United States, to cite just one country.

With the privatization process starting next week, the Nishinippon Shimbun published a brief interview with Mr. Takanaka. It was uncredited and not on line, so here is my quick and dirty translation:

Is this a turning point for the economy?

I hope so. For the past 10 or 20 years, the privatization of the former Japanese National Railways and the former Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Public Corporation has underpinned the Japanese economy. Had Nippon Telegraph and Telephone remained in the same form, the information and communications industry would not have grown as it has. Had JNR remained in the same form, transportation costs would be even higher. These two privatizations pulled the trigger on development. The privatization of Japan Post will have a major impact on the strategic banking and insurance sector in the future.

Why now?

Failure to privatize now would have serious consequences. While the amount of mail is decreasing each year, the market for international distribution is expanding, centered on Asia. We will provide operational freedom because the business of mail handling must survive. To the extent that we provide private sector freedom, we also will provide private sector competitive conditions.

The classic business model for the postal savings business was accepting money for deposits and investing it in government bonds. In many countries, the interest rate on bank deposits and government bonds is roughly the same, so there was no profit margin. That’s why we have to provide a form in which different things can be done freely.

What effect will it have on daily life?

Mail delivery is conducted as a public service, but this could also be handled by a private sector company. The Tokyo Central Post Office occupies prime real estate. Why should centralized collection and delivery be conducted on prime real estate when it can be done with trucks in the suburbs? With privatization, the company also can get involved in the real estate industry, the retail industry, or the hotel industry, providing more convenience for the citizens.

There are concerns that the post office network won’t be maintained.

Some post offices in urban areas are fewer than 200 meters apart. Are all those post offices are really necessary? On the other hand, the post offices play an important role in regional areas, so we should have them perform that function. That’s why we will create standards for establishing a post office, and the postal company will have the obligation to uphold them. Yet, they still must rationalize the parts of their business that can be rationalized.

We will maintain a strong post office network. But it will be the determination of management whether to maintain the incidental services they now provide without any changes. The essential services will remain. It is unreasonable, however, to make the post office the sole provider of services based on the social policy conducted by the national government. If there is a consensus that a service is essential, then it should be performed as a government service.

Endnote: There are definite signs of a small libertarian wing within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which I plan on writing more about in the future. One of its members is former Prime Minister Koizumi himself, who often remarked on the necessity of allowing the private sector to assume some of the functions handled by government in Japan. These people are not pure ideologues, however—Mr. Takenaka wanted to privatize NHK, the quasi-public broadcaster, but Mr. Koizumi demurred.

For his part, Mr. Takenaka favored the use of public funds to help the banks dispose of their non-performing debt. This was opposed by then-Minister of Financial Services Yanagisawa Hakuo. Mr. Takenaka prevailed in their policy debate, while Mr. Yanagisawa went on to become Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare. He later generated a firestorm that contributed to the downfall of the Abe Cabinet when he called women “baby-making machines” during a speech.

Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Government | Tagged: , | 11 Comments »

The finer distinctions

Posted by ampontan on Monday, September 24, 2007

MY WIFE THINKS she can spot Koreans, Chinese, and Vietnamese (in particular) at a glance most of the time on television.

A couple of years ago, I had her take the test on the site All Look Same. The objective of the test is to guess the ethnicity of Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese from their photographs. My point total was identical with hers, which temporarily brought the room temperature down a couple of degrees. (I’d been married long enough to have gotten the hang of marital arts judo and realized that I should have missed a couple on purpose. Maybe I’ll learn in my next life.)

Regular visitors here will know that a test such as this can be difficult, but others might not realize it is possible to devise a test that no one would pass–even East Asians. In San Francisco, I knew a young woman whose face could have been used as a model for an ukiyo-e print, but she was Chinese. She told me that even Chinese people meeting her for the first time thought she was Japanese.

Indeed, the reason I recalled this site was a photo in a feature story in today’s local newspaper about a ceramist. I live close to Arita, so features about ceramics in the paper are common. I thought the woman in the photo was Japanese–in fact, she looked like someone I thought I had met–but when I read the caption, it turned out she was Korean.

The All Look Same site has been around for a few years, but they’ve updated it with tests on food, architecture, and urban scenery. When I took the face test, registration was required, but they accepted assumed names. Try out your skills of observation–or your intuition!

And if you have the time, the page written by the site’s owner, Dyske Suematsu, on his philosophy, is worth reading. As an aside, this could fit in the recent post about regional characteristics in Japan:

I once had a Caucasian hairdresser who told me that he worked for a Japanese hair salon in New York for a long time. He looked at my hair and correctly guessed which region of Japan my parents were from.

Postscript: My wife’s clues for identifying Vietnamese are sharply sloping shoulders and a wider, flatter nose. I see her point.

Posted in China, International relations, North Korea, South Korea, Websites | Tagged: , | 10 Comments »

Getting it wrong about Japan–again

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, September 23, 2007

H.L. MENCKEN once observed that there is no idea so stupid that some college professor won’t believe it. That goes double for professors who are also fellows at foundations and other institutions.

You won’t have to look far to confirm this: Weston Konishi’s article on Ichiro Ozawa and the Democratic Party of Japan that appeared in the Japan Times.

What you are about to read are the words of a paid expert who has no idea what he’s talking about:

Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) president Ichiro Ozawa’s success in orchestrating the downfall of Prime Minister Abe Shinzo is a major victory for his party. It is also arguably the first time since the resignation of Abe’s grandfather, Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke in 1960, that a prime minister has lost his job over an issue directly related to the U.S.-Japan alliance — perhaps the take-home impression of policymakers in Washington.

Arguably? The only person person making this argument is Mr. Konishi, who might as well be in a room by himself talking to the furniture. Everyone else realizes that the recent election turned on domestic issues.

Perhaps Mr. Konishi was aiming for a rhetorical flourish when he made a connection between the fates of Prime Ministers Kishi and Abe. It does make for a convenient opening paragraph–laughably incorrect, but convenient.

Opinion pieces that stumble so badly at the start at least contain the possibility for more loopy levity to come, but alas, Mr. Konishi shot his wad. The rest of the piece is so vapid you can almost count the air molecules.

The Japan Times notes that Mr. Konishi is a visiting research fellow at the Institute for International Policy Studies. Here’s what they say on their website:

The Institute for International Policy Studies is a non-profit, independent research institute based in Tokyo that examines security, economic, political, environmental, and other concerns in the world with an emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region.

The logo at the top of their website offers a small surprise. This Tokyo-based institute that emphasizes the Asia-Pacific region uses a world map centered on Europe, Africa, and the Atlantic Ocean.

But it shouldn’t have been surprising. After all, they’re working with Mr. Konishi.

Posted in Government, Politics | 7 Comments »

Kim Jong-il: Growing senile?

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, September 23, 2007

THIS STORY IS FLYING SO LOW under the radar, it makes me suspect that people who follow North Korea more closely than I do might not be taking it seriously.

The Daily NK reported on the 20th that a Japanese source confirmed a story American intelligence heard about a year ago: North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is starting to suffer from dementia.

According to the source, “The U.S. official obtained intelligence that Kim Jong Il is suffering from symptom of dementia since a year ago. Such news is a top-secret subject which only the most important figures in North Korea’s seat of power know.”
However, the source relayed, “The U.S. official said, they do not currently know whether Kim Jong Il’s symptom is Alzheimer or senile dementia.”

The report notes that Kim makes policy decisions by personally approving reports that are submitted to him, but some people in his inner circle concerned about his behavior have begun to bypass Kim and ratify those reports on their own.

They also report that Kim can go on inspection tours and will meet with South Korean President Kim Moo-hyun during the Inter-Korea summit as scheduled on October 2-4, but his aides are concerned because they “do not know what he will say and cannot control what kind of strange behaviors he will display.”

Secretive dictatorships such as the Kim Family Regime are hotbeds for the germination of overblown rumors, so the story might have no basis in fact. The DPRK website is the place to go for news on North Korea, and they haven’t mentioned it. Neither has The Marmot, unless I missed it. It might be that everyone is focused on the upcoming summit and North Korea’s connection with the recent Israeli raid in Syria.

Even if this is nothing but a rumor, however, it does compel one to consider the gruesome possibilities of what might occur if it were true, or were ever to come to pass. Kim is 65, which is a bit early for either Alzheimer’s or senile dementia. Then again, this is a man who by all accounts has lived a profligate life, and was at one time the world’s largest consumer of Hennessey’s. It is also not too early for people both inside and outside North Korea to begin thinking of who will succeed him.

Contingency plans may already be in place. It would not be out of the question for rough preparations to have already been made for dealing with a sudden death by heart attack or stroke, or a more drawn-out terminal illness.

It is not as likely, however, that people in the inner circle have considered their options if Kim slowly but inexorably grew mentally incompetent. Considering the Dear Leader’s behavior over the years and his seemingly supreme power, it is not pleasant to speculate on the potential occurrence of some disturbing events as he slips into a twilight world. (Was he serious about ordering those executions? The distribution of funds? Will he forget tomorrow, or will he execute us if we delay?)

The character, or lack of it, of the people around him would become just as important as his physical and mental condition.

And then we could start to think about what might happen if he turned his attention to South Korea and Japan one day, somehow thought it was 1975 again, and happened to be in a particularly petulant mood.

Posted in North Korea | 8 Comments »

Matsuri da! (51): Lighting up the paddies

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, September 23, 2007

WHEN THE JAPANESE HAVE A BRIGHT IDEA for a festival, they have no problems with creating a tradition out of a new one. One bright idea was the Doya Tanada Fire Festival in Matsuura, Nagasaki Prefecture, which was launched four years ago to help publicize the preservation of the local terraced rice paddies. Matsuura’s paddies were selected as among the 100 best terraced rice paddies in Japan in 1999. (The Japanese like to select the best 100 of any geographical features in the country—they’ve also designated the top 100 scenic views and the top 100 mountains.)

Now that the crop has been harvested, 2000 torches are placed on 200 paddy ridges at 7:00 p.m. and lit, creating the effect shown in the photograph. If you’re in Nagasaki now, you’re in luck—the fifth festival will be held tonight. The appeal isn’t simply the effect of the torch light in the paddies, it’s also the location of the paddies next to the Korea Strait.

They’re flexible about the timing, too. Last year’s festival was held in May, when the paddies were still full of water, but there isn’t any water in them now.

If you want to see some more photos, you might try this Japanese page, though the links to the four photos are in English. This blogger took several photos, both in the late afternoon before the lights came on, and at night. And this site has 12 photos.

This festival features no drinking, mikoshi bashing, or other revelry—just some people taking the time to make their part of the world beautiful for a night.

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

The Asian century?

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, September 22, 2007

BY ALL MEANS, take a look at this New York Times article by author and lecturer Robert D. Kaplan called Lost at Sea.

Here’s how it starts:

The ultimate strategic effect of the Iraq war has been to hasten the arrival of the Asian Century.
While the American government has been occupied in Mesopotamia, and our European allies continue to starve their defense programs, Asian militaries–in particular those of China, India, Japan and South Korea–have been quietly modernizing and in some cases enlarging. Asian dynamism is now military as well as economic.

He then cites specific examples of the growing military strength of the region.

China’s military expansion, with a defense budget growing by double digits for the 19th consecutive year, is part of a broader, regional trend. Russia–a Pacific as well as a European nation, we should remember–is right behind the United States and China as the world’s biggest military spender. Japan, with 119 warships, including 20 diesel-electric submarines, boasts a naval force nearly three times larger than Britain’s. (It is soon to be four times larger: 13 to 19 of Britain’s 44 remaining large ships are set to be mothballed by the Labor government.)

The point about Russia is well taken, but one has to wonder how much longer (in geopolitical years) the Russians will be a factor in the region. Demographic trends in the country point sharply downwards, some of their health indicators are at Third World levels, and those people still remaining in the Russian Far East are moving west–lock, stock, and barrel–in growing numbers.

More pertinent is his acceptance of the enervation of Europe, particularly Old Europe, as a fait accompli. (Europeans objected to that phrase because the truth hurts.) Mr. Kaplan notes that in some European countries, soldiers are now seen as civil servants rather than warmakers.

He also sees signs of a growing Chinese effort to improve ties with Japan:

The United States should also be concerned about the alternative possibility of a China-Japan entente. Some of China’s recent diplomatic approaches to Japan have been couched in a new tone of respect and camaraderie, as it attempts to tame Japan’s push toward rearmament and thus to reduce the regional influence of the United States.

The article is not without its flaws, however:

Still, we should be careful about leveraging Japan and India too overtly against China. The Japanese continue to be distrusted throughout Asia, particularly in the Korean Peninsula, because of the horrors of World War II.

This assumes the United States has the power and the ability to leverage Japan against China, which is not a given. The Japanese and the Chinese have been dealing with each other for millenia. There is no question that Japan has a better understanding of its neighbor, from which it inherited so much culturally, than do the Americans. While the U.S. still has the advantage of sharing an open system of free-market democracy with the Japanese, it is they who run the risk of becoming irrelevant in the western Pacific in the future.

Mr. Kaplan is perhaps unaware that China (not to mention both Koreas) is playing a multifaceted game. It may be the case that they are warming up to Japan, but they themselves still leverage Japan’s past to manipulate their own population in the present. Try this recent article by Peter Harmsen about Chinese war museums (note that Yahoo news links don’t stay around forever):

“I feel a lot of hatred towards the Japanese after I’ve seen what they’ve done,” said 20-year-old student Zhao Xiaosui, visiting the museum for the first time with his girlfriend.

If China were interested in a serious alliance with Japan, it wouldn’t be spending so much time and money to build more than 100 of these museums to brainwash 20-year-olds about a political and social entity that no longer exists.

As the years go by, there is a growing sense of urgency, because the events of three generations ago gradually and inexorably fade out of living memory.
“In a few more years, no one will be left who actually remembers the events,” said Jin Hengwei, the museum’s deputy chief of publicity.
“That’s why we are here, to ensure that the memory of these terrible events get passed from generation to generation. History must not be forgotten. If it is, it’s the same as betraying our ancestors.”

In short, the Chinese are getting it backwards on purpose. I would suggest to Mr. Jin that unless historical memories are allowed to fade naturally, he is betraying the younger generation and his descendents.

The Chinese even have a tame American professor on a leash:

“In a way they’re trying to turn to a more positive interpretation of the past to people,” said James Reilly, a scholar from George Washington University who has studied the role of China’s history museums. “That’s sort of riding a tiger in China, trying to stay ahead of people’s nationalist feelings, putting the party in front of it all, and that’s a very tricky game to play…But the message is not so much Japan bashing. It’s more promoting the internal unity under the guidance of the party. And that is the main reason that they have been growing in recent years.”

Prof. Reilly has it backwards, too: It most assuredly is about Japan bashing. He’s ignoring the intent of the Chinese government to exacerbate nationalist feelings as a way to counteract domestic dissent with the regime.

For more on these museums and the Japanese response, try a previous Ampontan post here.

But I digress. Back to Mr. Kaplan:

As for India, as a number of policy experts leaders there told me on a recent visit: India will remain non-aligned, with a tilt toward the United States. But any official alliance would compromise India’s own shaky relationship with China.

This would explain the relatively cool reception soon-to-be former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe got in India when he suggested an India-Japan-Australia-U.S. alliance.

Kaplan’s conclusion:

“The military trend that is hiding in plain sight is the loss of the Pacific Ocean as an American lake after 60 years of near-total dominance.”

Indeed, Mr. Kaplan could have used a broader brush. There’s no reason to confine oneself to the adjective “military” when speaking of trends in this part of the world.

Posted in China, International relations, Military affairs, Politics, South Korea | 22 Comments »

More on the Imperial tombs

Posted by ampontan on Friday, September 21, 2007

FREQUENT POSTER ACEFACE, in regard to a recent post, made the comment, “Talk about synchronicity!” Well, here’s some more synchronicity.

Two days after I featured a post about archaeology and Japan’s Imperial tombs, today’s paper contains word that two tombs will be opened for inspection by archaologists early next year. (No digging allowed, just visual observation.)

I mention it here not because it’s especially newsworthy–there’s an archaeological report in a Japanese newspaper nearly every day–but because the account by The Guardian is a classic example of the yellow journalism that is the first resort of too many in the world’s media when the subject is Japan.

Try this for a first sentence:

Some of Japan’s mysterious imperial tombs are to be opened to archaeologists and historians for the first time early next year in a move expected to anger the country’s ultra-conservatives.

Now you know what it looks like to take a pinch of sand and present it as the entire beach. Ultraconservatives have as much to do with this story as a clinical account of Kim Jong-il’s venereal diseases. They don’t belong in the article at all, unless the objective is a malicious intent to slant the news.

I read the same story this morning in Japanese in my local paper–top of page 3–which includes more information with nary a mention of ultra-conservatives. Few in Japan, other than professional hand-wringers, give them more than a moment’s thought. But The Guardian knows that.

Some historians, however, put the agency’s reticence down to fears that close inspection of the burial mounds could reveal evidence that shatters commonly accepted theories about the origins of the Japanese imperial family.

Once upon a time, failed novelists went to work for advertising agencies. Now they satisfy their urge to write fiction by turning to journalism.

The “commonly accepted theories” to which The Guardian refers are commonly accepted only in the imaginations of people who fancy Japan as an imperialist caricature rather than accept the country as it really is.

If concrete proof were forthcoming of Korean blood in the Japanese Imperial line, it would be met with a collective yawn by 99 44/100 of the population. That The Guardian would even publish this piece as written is prima facie evidence of a disinterest in journalistic integrity. It’s as if they think that offering their readers the facts would deprive them of the fun of getting upset at primitive reactionaries.

And no, this has nothing to do with hunting for an anti-Japanese conspiracy. The Guardian (and the other usual suspects) merely need something to sustain the supply of red meat for their audience on the left. They’ll snap at the chance to satisfy their readers’ political blood lust while filling column inches in the International section and driving up their hit count. That’s how you kill three birds with one stone.

Presenting readers with an accurate view of the day’s events ceased to be the point long ago. Now it’s just about indulging consumer prejudices in their market niche to keep selling product.

By the way, one of the two tombs to be examined is that of the Emperor Meiji, who died in 1912. They’re not going to be finding any clues about a continental origin for the Imperial line from that site.

If I may make so bold, read my previous post if you want an overview of the issue in Japan today.

If you want to amuse yourself by getting indignant at a distance about a Japan that lives only in the minds of people who can’t handle or aren’t interested in the truth, read The Guardian’s article. If you must.

Let’s stop the pussyfooting: In the aggregate, this and other articles of the type are the equivalent of a contemporary comic book series resembling nothing so much as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

And you can quote me on that.

Posted in History, Imperial family, Mass media, Traditions | 8 Comments »

Japanese personality types by region

Posted by ampontan on Friday, September 21, 2007

PEOPLE EVERYWHERE LOVE TO TALK about the regional quirks of their fellow citizens, and Japan is no exception. The country is divided into 47 entities at the state or provincial level. These are usually called ken, or prefectures, but there are a few exceptions (check out the link for more details).


Over the years, several books have been written about the personality traits of the people in each prefecture. Ed Jacobs, writing for Japanzine, put together this article in English describing a few of those traits. Despite some omissions and inaccuracies, it makes for interesting reading. Here’s a glance at what he came up with, some additional information, and the correction of some mistakes.


“The women in Hokkaido are said to be the most liberated in Japan. They have the unusual habit of proposing marriage to their men and are also number one in Japan when it comes to initiating divorces. No one knows whether it’s the men or the women that are to blame, but Hokkaido also has the highest divorce rate in the country.”

One possibility: Hokkaido was not widely settled by indigenous Japanese until the 19th century. The situation is analogous to the settlement of the American West. Perhaps a residual frontier spirit is the reason for the more assertive women.


“Say the word ‘Akita bijin’ (an Akita beauty) to a Japanese male and watch his eyes light up. The idea that women from Akita are beautiful dates back to at least the Heian period, and women from this prefecture are famous for their pale white skin. Akita’s women have an average skin whiteness index of 29.6%, making them far paler than the average Japanese women, whose whiteness index is only 26.6%.”

I’ve actually heard more praise for the complexions of Hokkaido women than Akita women. Some people say the cold weather has a lot to do with it. (They start wearing jackets at night in the latter half of August.) The two prefectures are neighbors, so they share the same harsh winters.

I didn’t know that somebody had a “skin whiteness index” somewhere in Japan, but I can’t say I’m surprised.


If you like to sleep and eat ramen and hate automobile seatbelts, this is the place for you.


Not included in the article is the stereotype of the Ibaraki policeman. A high percentage of men from this prefecture choose careers in law enforcement, particularly in the National Police Agency. The image of the Ibaraki cop is similar to that of the Irish cop in New York City in bygone days.


Only five percent of the people in this prefecture continue their education after high school, the lowest percentage in Japan after Okinawa. The people also have a reputation for loving pachinko and horse racing.


Detest karaoke? Don’t go near Tochigi—they love it.


“Saitama is the New Jersey of Japan and is widely known as ‘Dasaitama’ (Ugly Saitama).”

That poor translation fails to convey the clever construction of dasaitama. Dasai doesn’t mean ugly—it’s slang that means uncool, unfashionable, or dweeby, and which was then compacted with the name of the prefecture. The rough analogy of calling Saitama the New Jersey of Japan derives from Saitama’s location next to Tokyo, as New Jersey borders New York, and that many Americans on the East Coast enjoy saying unpleasant things about the Garden State. Some attitudes are universal!


“You’re less likely to die of cancer if you live in Shizuoka than in any other prefecture.”

The author doesn’t tell us the reason: Shizuoka is the prefecture with the highest green tea production in Japan. The folks in Shizuoka are more likely to drink green tea as their beverage of choice during the day. And the more green tea you drink, the less likely you are to get certain kinds of cancer.


Jacobs writes that Osakans are the fastest walkers in Japan, and like to jaywalk, jump yellow lights, and spend money on fashionable clothes.

Oddly, he neglects to mention in this section that Osaka is famous as a mercantile city—the common local greeting is “Making any money?”—and their well-known dislike of Tokyo. (He mentions their money-making reputation in the Nara section.) Young Osaka women also are known to have a yen for horror movies, the gorier and creepier the better.

Years ago, I saw an article about people in the Kansai region and their television viewing habits. Apparently, they think the programming of NHK, the public TV and radio network, is Tokyo-centric. NHK’s audience numbers in the Kansai region were abysmal.


“Fukuoka, despite being relatively rural, is second only to Osaka when it comes to high crime rates.”

The author is right about the crime rate, but obviously has never been to Fukuoka.

The population of Fukuoka Prefecture is about 5 million. It has two cities with a population of more than one million. The prefectural capital is Fukuoka City, where 1.3 million people live. Right next door is the city of Kitakyushu, with a population of 1.1 million. That doesn’t count the concentration of people in the suburbs ringing both of those cities. “Relatively rural”? At least half the prefecture’s population lives in a megalopolis.

The reason for the crime rate is found in the extreme concentration of heavy industry in the Kokura district of Kitakyushu. The huge factories and smokestacks are easily visible from the train window. (Americans: Think Gary, Indiana and you’ll get the idea.) In fact, the second atomic bomb dropped on Japan was intended for Kokura. They were lucky the cloud cover over the city that day caused the bomber’s crew to head for the secondary target of Nagasaki.

The Kokura factories operated full-bore around the clock, so required a lot of unskilled manual labor during the night and graveyard shifts. A willingness to show up for work was a more important job qualification than personal character. Guys fitting that description aren’t always model citizens.

I knew a woman several years ago who worked in mizu shobai—the water trade, a euphemism for the night-time entertainment industry. She moved to Kitakyushu because the money was better, but moved back after several months because she said she didn’t feel safe in the city, particularly at night.

Kitakyushu is changing, however. Many of the factories have closed down, and the city is working very hard to change its image to one of an environmentally aware metropolis.


The author doesn’t mention Nagasaki in the article, so I will. It’s at the southwest corner of Kyushu facing the Asian land mass, which has brought a strong Chinese influence. It was the only place in Japan where foreigners could reside during the Edo Period (albeit only on the former island of Dejima), so it has always been more open to the rest of the world. A relatively high percentage of the population is Christian. (Anecdotally, 5% for this area, compared to 1% for the country as a whole.)

A final word

Ignore the opening paragraph explaining the reasons Japan has an “emperor” and “empire”. Somebody got carried away by the English words and forgot the Japanese equivalents.

The Japanese word for European-style emperors is kotei, but that’s not what they use for Akihito and all those guys. The call him the tenno, or heavenly sovereign.

In fact, the Japanese tenno has seldom, if ever, been viewed as a conquering military/political figure in the way that European emperors are. Throughout most of Japanese history, his primary role has been to serve as the head priest of Shinto. Indeed, long centuries ago, he was thought to have magical powers and was therefore kept from participating in governmental affairs because they were beneath him. Those were left to his ministers.

The shoguns were the ones who led the armies and knocked off the local warlords.

As a translator, I’ve had a desire for many years to dispense with the word “emperor” and use tenno instead, but that’s too eccentric to ever happen…

Posted in Popular culture, Traditions | 29 Comments »

Does the Emperor wear Korean genes?

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, September 19, 2007

A DISPUTE OVER THE LOCATION of the burial mound of the Emperor Keitai, thought to have ruled from 507 to 531, serves as a backdrop to a much more interesting question: were the first members of Japan’s imperial family Korean and not Japanese?


Takatsuki in Osaka Prefecture claims it has found artifacts at a local site suggesting that Keitai is buried there, though it has been assumed the emperor was buried nearby in the city of Ibaraki. It is no easy matter to confirm the identity of a person interred in a mound of dirt 1,500 years ago, of course, but other factors add to the difficulty. One is that the practice of placing epitaphs in the mound identifying the person buried did not begin until the 8th century, and then was conducted only intermittently. Therefore, it is just about impossible to identify the occupants of burial mounds older than that.

Further, it is by no means certain that the Emperor Keitai actually existed. According to The Modern Reader’s Japanese-English Character Dictionary by Andrew Nelson (the standard Kanji-English dictionary for many years):

“Much of the early chronology before the introduction of writing is legendary rather than historical. Japanese textbooks now usually begin such a list with Emperor Kimmei (reigned 539-571). But legends often play an equal role with history in a nation’s literature, and it has been thought well to give the full traditional list.”

The Emperor Kimmei was number 29 according to this list, with Emperor Keitai 26th. The latter’s reign is given as (507)-531, and interestingly, numbers 27, 28, and Emperor Kimmei are considered the sons of Keitai.

Yet another factor is that the Imperial Household Agency, which is responsible for the management of the burial sites and perhaps the most conservative of any government agency in Japan, refuses to allow excavation of the sites except in special circumstances. They cite privacy concerns as one reason for their refusal, saying that the “peace and calm” of the late emperor must be maintained. They claim that excavations of the burial sites are “tantamount to destruction” of the tombs.

Some historians assert that the real reason for the refusal is that a full-scale, open excavation would show that the earliest Japanese emperors were Korean–either horse-riding invaders who conquered the native population early in the fourth century, or priest-kings. Foreigners in Japan like to circulate a rumor that the excavation of one important imperial tomb was trumpeted in the press some years ago, only to be hushed up when too many Korean artifacts were discovered.

The substantial contact between the Korean Peninsula and Japan in those days is not in question. The current Emperor Akihito admitted some Korean heritage during a press conference in 2001. He said he felt a close “kinship” with Korea because the Shoku Nihongi (Chronicles of Japan) records that the mother of Emperor Kammu (#50, 781-806) was from the line of King Muryong of Baekche. This article appearing in the Guardian at the time provides details about the press conference, as well as the lack of general coverage in the Japanese press, though the Guardian’s headlines and their unwarranted tone (“the silent fury of many Japanese nationalists”) exaggerate both the relationship and the story. (Just what is it with the childish–and churlish–attitude of left-of-center newspapers toward Japan, anyway?)

For its part, however, the Guardian fails to report that the reason the emperors are related to King Muryong is that Muryong is thought by many to have been born in Japan in June 461—specifically Kakara Island, part of Chinzei-cho in Saga Prefecture. The people on the island have been holding festivals for the past few years honoring his birth as a way to promote exchange between Japan and South Korea. The Baekche royalty wound up in Kyushu—some say Miyazaki Prefecture—because they had to flee the Korean Peninsula after winding up on the short end of battles with the other two major kingdoms in the region.

An article in the Japan Times provides an in-depth look at the issue, but unfortunately the newspaper has not put it on line. (Here is a companion piece on the same page.) It’s a shame, because they quote two of the few foreign archaeologists expert in this field casting doubts on the theory of Korean origin for the imperial line. Gina Barnes of the University of Durham in Great Britain admits the possibility while citing the lack of evidence:

“There is no direct historical evidence of a (Japanese) emperor born on the Korean Peninsula. There is considerable evidence of contact with peninsular kings and elites. But given other monarchical systems in which ‘stranger kings’ may be incorporated, such as the British Hanover line, which has produced the current queen, it’s not an impossible thought that the Yamato rulership incorporated foreign allies.”

Walter Edwards of Tenri University in Nara Prefecture downplays the Korean connection:

“Would we expect to find that the occupants of the earliest large tombs, the third-century figures who originally carved out the Yamato polity, to have been Korean aristocrats who came over and wrested power from indigenous leaders, helping raise a backward nation up to the level of early statehood? That is what is all too often implied by whisperings of ‘Korean bones’. That view I reject. The emergence of the ancient Yamato polity was an indigenous phenomenon.”

The debate about the Korean origin of the Japanese state extends to the field of linguistics. Though linguists place Japanese and Korean in separate language groups, there are clear parallels in the grammar of both languages. Both languages also extensively borrowed vocabulary from China. And there are some intriguing examples in Japanese of words or phrases that may have originated in Korea. (For a previous post on this subject, try this.)

John Douglas has a very good overview of the issue in this article on the website of the Association for Asian Research. Written in 2004, it is excellent for the most part, though there are a few flaws. He discusses the Emperors Sujin (#10) and Ojin (#15) as if they were real people, without bringing up the possibility that they might be legendary figures. Douglas also quotes Gina Barnes without mentioning her assertion quoted above that there is no direct evidence for a Korean-born emperor. Most regrettably, he can’t resist a snide and hopelessly outdated cliche about Japanese attitudes all too common among some scholars and observers:

“Even now, the slightest suggestion that Japan’s revered and unbroken dynasty of emperors might have Korean ancestors comes as an unspeakable heresy.”

Allow me to finish the sentence for him:”…to a handful of diehards.” One wonders how much contact some of these people have had with real flesh-and-blood Japanese alive today.

One thing is certain—archaeologists will not be able to make a determination one way or another until the Imperial Household Agency allows the tombs to be excavated and the findings publicized, but that is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Posted in Foreigners in Japan, History, Imperial family | 47 Comments »

Chin-don lives!

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, September 19, 2007

JAPAN’S INDIGENOUS URBAN STREET MUSIC, otherwise known as chin-don, is the subject of this brief AP article that appeared a few days ago.

But the AP is behind the curve! Ampontan has already featured posts about the most seriously silly music this side of Spike Jones. If the AP article whets your appetite, try our more detailed account, or this interview with a contemporary chin-don performer.

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

Uniforms back in style at Japanese workplaces

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, September 19, 2007

UNIFORMS ARE A UBIQUITOUS PART of the Japanese landscape. People start wearing them early; sometimes in kindergarten, and no later than junior high school. They often continue to wear uniforms throughout their working lives, for white collar and blue collar jobs alike. Both males and females wear uniforms at school and at blue collar worksites, but usually only female clerical workers are required to wear them at white collar establishments (though you easily could make the case that business suits and ties are the equivalent of a uniform for males.)


Japanese residents are also familiar with film clips on the evening news of politicians, both at the local and national level, showing up at construction sites, factories, disaster sites, or any place there are likely to be a large contingent of manual laborers, dressed in the standard-issue, uniform-like work coveralls. They invariably show the creases where they were folded, the dead giveaway that they were just pulled out of the drawer. Still, I can understand why they’d want to wear a working man’s duds—it beats getting their expensive suits dirty and smelly when a farmer takes them on a tour of his chicken ranch.

The requirement to wear uniforms, for adults at least, has been relaxed over the years as the Japanese have come to favor individual expression in lieu of their former preference for group solidarity. One small indication was the Fukuoka Bank’s change in policy in 2002 that allowed its female employees to choose their own clothing on the job. They claimed the reason was to present the image of a dynamic company that respected the individuality of its employees. Another unspoken factor was that allowing today’s young women to dress as they pleased ensured they could continue to attract a steady stream of job applicants. There are students, after all, who choose their high schools based on the school uniform.

The Nishinippon Shimbun (article not online) recently reported, however, that the bank has reverted to its former policy of requiring uniforms for female employees. It’s not quite as restrictive as it sounds; the ladies have retained a degree of freedom in their clothing choices. In addition to having two different colors for the basic uniform, the bank also offers three different colors for blouses and two different colors for scarves. The employees are able to mix and match as they choose.

Bank officials cite two reasons for bringing back the uniform requirement. The first is their desire to present a unified organizational image. The second is their concern over an inability to distinguish between employees and customers during robbery attempts.

I don’t think this is a regressive move, because it’s impossible to reverse the trend toward greater individualism in Japan. That particular dyke has been broken. Though I’ve never been to the Fukuoka Bank, I suspect there may be another reason for the uniform requirement—a lack of what the bank might consider minimum standards of presentability and basic clothes sense among young Japanese women (which is shared by young Japanese men). The females working at commercial establishments that in the past would have required uniforms nowadays show up for work in t-shirts and jeans. (So much for individual expression.) I’ve even seen young female pharmacists wearing t-shirts and jeans, which would have been unthinkable not so long ago.

While I’m sure that’s not how the women at the Fukuoka Bank dressed for work before the reversion to uniforms, it’s conceivable that management may have been dissatisfied with their overall sense of style (or propriety) and wanted to see something more in keeping with the image of a bank.

Posted in Social trends | Leave a Comment »