Japan from the inside out

Archive for September, 2008

Wine ramen: Good to the last drop

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, September 30, 2008

JAPANESE LIKE TO HAVE A LATE SNACK after a night out drinking, and usually that means stopping off at a noodle shop on the way home. Now a Hokkaido company has come up with a new product that lets the tipplers kill two birds with one set of chopsticks.

Noodle maker Tokachi Ni’itsu Seimen of Ikeda-Cho, Tokachi, Hokkaido, and the Ikeda-cho Tourism Association held a tasting party on the 29th for Tokachi Wine Ramen, an instant ramen product they jointly developed.

Tokappu white wine, the primary product of local vintners Tokachi Wine, is one of the ingredients of the broth, and it’s kneaded into the noodles too. The association says the noodle soup has a plain but slightly salty flavor, and sprinkling grated cheese on top makes it even tastier.

One package costs 298 yen ($US 2.15 for the next five minutes, anyway). Sales will start next month, but will be limited to Ikeda-cho, alas. The association says there isn’t enough wine in the product to get tipsy by eating it, so it’s safe for both children and adults.

Maybe so, but who’s going to stop high school boys from buying and eating five bowls at once just to see what happens!

Posted in Food | 3 Comments »

More on Sentaku and the Miyazaki governor

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, September 30, 2008

THE NON-PARTISAN POLITICAL GROUP Sentaku is working to reform politics at the national and local levels by encouraging the devolution of authority and greater citizen participation. The group deliberately chose the word sentaku for their name because it is a homonym—one of the pairs means “(to) choose” and the other means “(to) clean”. (See this previous post for a detailed description of the group.)

Kitagawa M. (L) and Higashikokubaru H. (R)

Kitagawa M. (L) and Higashikokubaru H. (R)

Sentaku was back in the news this weekend as their Council for the Creation of Local Government, chaired by Kyoto Governor Yamada Keiji, held what was billed as an “emergency meeting” at a Tokyo hotel on the 28th. The council agreed on a resolution known as the Eight Sentaku Principles, which encapsulate the group’s policies for national and local governments. Their immediate objective is to make the next lower house election one that presents “a true choice for government”.

Their demands include the adoption of a provision in the Constitution to give local governments authority equivalent to the national government as a way to remove political power from the bureaucrats and return it to the people. They also call for a transfer of tax revenue sources to local governments and the elimination of wasteful spending.

The principles also address problems at the local level, challenging local governments to police themselves by prohibiting intercession when awarding public works contracts. There is also a provision seeking to eliminate the multiple election of governmental executive officers, which seems to be a call for term limits for governors and the heads of municipalities.

The draft of the Eight Principles was signed by 323 local politicians, including executive officers and assembly members. Twelve of them are prefectural governors, a total that accounts for roughly one-quarter of the number in Japan. At a press conference held after the conference, Sentaku head Kitagawa Masayasu told reporters that the Eight Principles would be distributed with an explanation to all political parties, and that the group would work for their adoption by the parties.

The Eight Sentaku Principles take their name from the Senchu Hassaku (The Eight Shipboard Principles), a political policy statement of reformer Sakamoto Ryoma, written while on board a ship en route to Nagasaki in 1867.

It’s hard to see how could anyone object to these ideas. But while Sentaku has the angels on its side, we should remember that the devil has plenty of disciples to do his work in Nagata-cho.

Sentaku charter member and Miyazaki favorite son

Meanwhile, one of Sentaku’s most recognizable members, comedian-turned-pol Higashikokubaru Hideo, the governor of Miyazaki, held a press conference of his own back home in Miyazaki City the next day. Local reporters are intensely interested in whether the governor, who has huge approval ratings in the prefecture, will run for a seat in the Diet in the upcoming election. It is widely expected that the governor will eventually aim his sights at the lower house to pursue a political career at the national level—he already has the name recognition—but the question is one of timing. He was elected to public office for the first time in January 2007 following a bid-rigging scandal involving his predecessor, so opponents can reasonably charge that he has used the governor’s office as a brief stepping stone.

The governor was asked yet again at the meeting whether he would be a candidate. He replied:

“I am not actively involved with running, but if it is the wish and the request of the prefectural citizens, as I am of the “prefectural citizens’ party”, my actions as a politician must conform to the will of the people.”

In other words: “I’m thinking about it.” (Mr. Higashikokubaru has to this point refused to declare a political affiliation. He insists that the “party” for a prefectural governor should be the people of the prefecture, hence his reference to a “prefectural citizens’ party”.)

Reporters being reporters, they couldn’t let it go at that, so they circled in from a different direction and asked, “Does that mean it’s not the case that you won’t run at all?” The governor did some circling himself, replying:

“The possibility is not zero…Politics is a living thing, as are government and the lives of the people. It is my responsibility to promptly respond.”

So from that, we should not conclude that the governor will not choose to run for a Diet seat instead of staying in the Statehouse.

And now you know what the Japanese mean when they say that their language is vague (though what they’re really saying is that their usage of it can be vague when it suits their purposes).

Posted in Government, Politics | Leave a Comment »

For the man who has everything

Posted by ampontan on Monday, September 29, 2008

HURRY WHILE THE OFFER LASTS! The owner of Mao Zedong’s personal jet when he was the Emperor of China Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, a Zhuhai company involved with real estate and other operations, is offering the airplane for sale. The company bought it 10 years ago for its publicity value and placed it in a square near their building. Subsequent urban development in the area has put a premium on space, however, and more room is needed for the parking lot next to the square, so they’ve decided to maximize the value of their assets and unload it.

According to a Hong Kong newspaper, China acquired three British-built Tridents from Pakistan in 1969. They were divvied up between Mao, Deputy Party Chairman Lin Biao, and the party’s Central Military Commission. One was taken out of service rather abruptly when it crashed with Lin aboard en route to Mongolia. Lin was fleeing the country after an aborted assassination attempt on The Boss. The other two aircraft were put out to aviation pasture in 1986.

Judging from the picture, it looks as if it might work as a diner in southern California.

Either that, or the company could put it on E-bay!

Posted in China | 1 Comment »

Are the Chinese the new African slavemasters?

Posted by ampontan on Monday, September 29, 2008

PETER HITCHENS offers this report in the Daily Mail on the Chinese presence in Zambia and Zaire. Not only are the Africans reduced to near-slavery, the Chinese workers being shipped to those countries (who are doing work the locals could do) are suspected of being criminals at home that Beijing wants to get rid of.

Some Africans are putting up with the Chinese presence because it is their only source of income, but nobody seems to like it much:

When Chinese President Hu Jintao came to Zambia in 2006, he had to cancel a visit to the Copper Belt for fear of hostile demonstrations. Thomas says: ‘The people who advised Hu Jintao not to come were right.’
He suspects Chinese arrogance and brutality towards Africans is not racial bigotry, but a fear of being seen to be weak. ‘They are trying to prove they are not inferior to the West. They are trying too hard.
‘If they ask you to do something and you don’t do it, they think you’re not doing it because they aren’t white. People put up with the kicks and blows because they need work to survive.’

Ugly is the only way to describe it.

Posted in China | 1 Comment »

The American disease

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, September 28, 2008

IT’S ALMOST A RITUAL: Newly appointed Cabinet ministers hold press conferences or give interviews after their appointment, one of them says someting impolitic, and the ensuing uproar over the gotcha forces their resignation.

It happened again with the new Cabinet of Prime Minister Aso Taro. The new Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport Nakayama Nariaki is now history after criticizing the lack of a sense of public service in the nation and using as a specific example the difficulties in getting a second runway at Narita Airport in Chiba Prefecture. He also slammed the behavior of the Japanese Teachers’ Union. (That criticism was not unfounded, but politicians do need to know the time and place for keeping their mouths shut.)

Finally, Mr. Nakayama caught flak for an old chestnut that one seldom hears any more–he referred to Japan as a tan’itsu minzoku, i.e., a single ethnic group or homogenous people. According to this report from AFP:

Transport Minister Nariaki Nakayama apologised after saying in his first interview that Japan was a “homogenous” country. Similar remarks by lawmakers in the past have upset the Ainu, northern Japan’s indigenous people.
“I hear the Ainu people expressed displeasure and that’s not what I intended,” Nakayama said. “I decided to retract my remarks.”

In the not-so-distant past, when Japanese would more frequently talk about being a tan’itsu minzoku, they also used to complain about having become Americanized. That’s another line seldom heard any more, but it if it were, the need to apologize to the Ainu and retract that remark would be Exhibit A in the case for the plaintiff.

There are an estimated 150,000 to 300,000 people of either Ainu descent or half-Ainu now living in Japan. The largest Ainu settlement in Japan has just 130 people in 36 households. In fact, it’s an artificial community; the Ainu never used to live on that site, and the people there now earn a living primarily by being professional Ainu. Meanwhile, there are 127 million people in Japan.

Therefore, taking the high end of the estimate for those of Ainu descent and including those who are only half-Ainu, and performing a simple calculation, we find that they account for all of 0.23% of the country’s population.

If it were a question only of the Ainu, that would make Japan more homogenized than milk.

It looks as if Japan has caught a mild strain of the identity politics disease: Amplify an ill-advised comment into an ethnic insult and pretend that it’s offensive. There’s little difference between that and feigning serious injury after a minor traffic accident to get some free money from the insurance companies.

Thanks for nothing, America.

Note: For more on Japan’s professional Ainuism, try this post.

Posted in Government, History, Traditions | 15 Comments »

An Aso – Ozawa showdown?

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, September 28, 2008

OVERLOOKED WITH THE launch of the Aso Cabinet and the retirement of Koizumi Jun’ichiro has been the story of the two biggest guns in Japanese politics circling each other for what might wind as up a showdown with the whole country watching.

Last week, we mentioned that Ozawa Ichiro, head of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, held off on registering as a candidate in the Iwate district he’s represented in the lower house of the Diet for almost 40 years. Of course he’s going to run for a seat in the next election—that’s the only way to be prime minister—but he’s thinking about packing up and moving on, without explaining why.

DPJ Secretary-General Hatoyama Yukio, now just a hired hand in the outfit he put together, then said on television that Mr. Ozawa would not run in Iwate, and suggested/threatened that he would run for a Tokyo-area seat instead. Which one? Mr. Hatoyama brought up the possibility of a candidacy in Tokyo’s #12 district. That’s represented by Ota Akihiro, the head of New Komeito, the junior partner in the governing coalition with the Liberal-Democratic Party.

It began to look as if Mr. Ozawa were setting up an ambush for the New Komeito trail boss.

But then the new sheriff in town decided it was time to take a stand. On the 18th, LDP official Suga Yoshihide said the following about a possible Ozawa switch during a speech in Yokohama:

If Mr. Ozawa chooses to run from a district in Tokyo…the new LDP president (will) challenge Mr. Ozawa in Tokyo. I am thinking seriously (of that possibility).

Mr. Suga is known to be a close associate of the LDP President Aso Taro, now the prime minister. As another LDP cowpoke told the press, their close relationship means that Mr. Aso most certainly approved his statement in advance.

Mr. Aso is therefore telling Mr. Ozawa that if he comes gunning for his partner, he’d strap on his holster and get ready for a showdown.

This challenge only works if the prime minister is confident he can outdraw Mr. Ozawa. Public opinion polls consistently show that Aso Taro has roughly double the personal approval ratings of his DPJ counterpart, so both men know which one is more likely to eat lead.

This threat cuts several ways. First, there have been rumors that the tie-up between LDP and New Komeito might be getting a bit shaky, and that Mr. Ozawa would try to put the DPJ brand on the NK steers. But now Mr. Aso has shown that he is willing to put himself in the line of fire for the sake of the New Komeito leader. Second, the Shukan Shincho weekly magazine ran an article that suggests some of the church-going folk in Soka Gakkai, the lay Buddhist organization that is widely seen to be New Komeito’s foundation of support, dislike Mr. Aso because he is a Catholic. Mr. Aso’s willingness to take on the DPJ head could help patch up the LDP-New Komeito partnership and make it stronger.

Third, if the two did restage High Noon in the same electoral district, the entire country would watch spellbound from behind the swinging saloon doors and barred windows of the bank. The media would guarantee that the public got a chance to compare both men face to face, and Mr. Aso is almost certain to come off as the tougher hombre. That should have positive repercussions for his party in the election.

Finally, Mr. Aso is likely to be the last man standing in Main Street, regardless of the results nationwide. Mr. Ozawa has said he is staking his political bottom dollar on this election. If he loses his Diet seat, he’ll be carted away to Boot Hill. If the DPJ remains in the opposition, they’ll have to choose a new leader, and it’s by no means certain that the cantankerous bunch would be able to agree on a new boss appealing to all the party members and the public at large. And if the DPJ were to actually win and be charged with forming a government, they would be hard pressed to come up with a consensus substitute for prime minister. An Ozawa loss might mean the DPJ hands would have to pull up stakes and punch cattle on a new ranch.

But here’s the biggest benefit of all—for those people who think government is too important to be left to gunslinging political wonks, an Aso-Ozawa showdown would provide the Japanese electorate with a running policy debate during the entire campaign. The winner would be able to believably claim a mandate.

What would happen to Mr. Ota at his old watering hole? One possibility is to run as a proportional representation candidate. That would ensure he got to stay in the saddle, because he wouldn’t have to face a challenger directly. Another possibility is that the LDP could relocate him to a safe seat not threatened by a desperado looking to put another notch on his pistol.

The DPJ response to Mr. Suga was enlightening. Mr. Ozawa tried to hold his cards close to his vest, but came off clumsy. At a speech in Toyama last week, he said:

“As of now, I haven’t decided whether I’ll change my election district, and I certainly haven’t said that I’ll run in (Tokyo’s) District 12…I’m the head of the party, so I’ll make my choice last. I’ll reveal my decision after (the districts for) all the other candidates have been settled.”

Now that cowpoke is talking through his ten-gallon hat. The head of the gang always picks his bunk first.

Next, Hatoyama Yukio showed up again on television to fan the flames:

“I have had several conversations with him (Ozawa), and he told me, ‘I want to demonstrate my resolve. I’m going to burn my bridges, abandon the castle that I have built, and build a new one. I’m seriously considering running in Tokyo, for example.’ I don’t think he’s changed his mind.”

There’s another twist to this story. The LDP candidate in Mr. Ozawa’s “castle”, Iwate District #4, is Takahashi Yoshinobu, who for years was one of Mr. Ozawa’s most trusted aides and advisors. He was a member of the Liberal Party that Mr. Ozawa once headed, but left after it was absorbed into the DPJ. Mr. Takahashi won a Diet seat on his own in 2004 as an LDP-leaning independent, and then later formally joined the LDP. There was some bad blood between him and his former boss, but he refuses to discuss the details in public.

So instead of staying put on the same electoral ranch, as most party leaders do, Mr. Ozawa now has a choice: Move to another district and run the risk that Aso Taro will track him down, or go back to his old district and shoot it out with his former sidekick.

Will Ozawa Ichiro take his guns to town? Stay tuned.

Posted in Politics | Leave a Comment »

Journalism and its practitioners

Posted by ampontan on Friday, September 26, 2008

YESTERDAY, I created a link for the reply of Peter Alford, a Tokyo-based journalist for The Australian, to my previous post. Those interested can find it as an Update at the end of that post.

I make it a point here not to spend any time on repeated back-and-forth in the comment section, so his reply will stand as is without rebuttal. I offered my observations on a newspaper article, he answered, and there you have it.

But one sentence at the end of his reply is worth examining, however; not for what it says about Mr. Alford, but rather what it says about journalists. He said (while noting that he wasn’t referring to this site):

I feel the general standard of web commentary in the world today is woeful (and, of course, much of it wouldn’t exist without newspaper reportage to sneer at).

Where were the grapes for that whine grown, I wonder?

In fact, I tend to agree with the first half, which is why I read very few blogs. Most of the ones I do read are produced by vendors from the legacy media itself and attached to their websites. There are so many from those sources nowadays that it’s possible to read only a few. But I suspect Mr. Alford doesn’t mind that sort of web commentary. They’re members of the same guild, after all.

Focus instead on the self-defensive snark at the end of the comment, which is the Pavlovian response to any criticism of journalism or its practitioners. He observes that many of those web commentators rely on the journalists they dislike so much to peddle their own wares. That’s accurate so far as it goes, but it avoids the obvious-as-neon fact that those commentators exist only because they actively challenge a self-defined elite that abuses its monopoly with every edition. Instead of self-correction, their response to this challenge is to come out of the closet and to abuse their position even more flagrantly.

You think not? It takes no special talent to pick up any daily newspaper written in English and spot their political bias on the front page inside of two minutes. Often all that is necessary is to look at their selection of photographs.

In another sense, however, that snark hides a cri de coeur from someone stuck in a sunset industry. It is undeniable that journalism as has been traditionally practiced by the mass media is in serious trouble—newspaper readership is cratering and more people simply change the station when it’s time for the network news broadcast.

The evaporating interest in their product cannot be attributed to a declining interest in current events or reading in general. Indeed, the rise of web commentary demonstrates that an intense interest remains. The people for whom the content of the legacy media is packaged realize they have been patronized and betrayed, so of course they turn to other sources.

There is also no question that the legacy media’s wounds are self-inflicted. The bias in their reporting, both obvious and subtle, hangs awkwardly from the outline of their stories like a colostomy bag.

It is surely no coincidence that of the 596 articles on this site, the one with the highest number of hits is this report on the New York Times endeavoring to get Abe Shinzo in Dutch with the world by mistranslating (probably intentionally) one of his remarks during question time in the Diet. In second place is this report of (who else) the New York Times beclowning itself by claiming that a costume created as a joke by an avant-garde artist is in fact a sign of Japanese alarm over rising crime. (That post alone got at least a half a dozen overseas links.)

These two cases are not isolated examples–it is the standard operating procedure for daily journalism, and always has been.

During the American presidential election in 2004, the Associated Press’s White House correspondent was caught telling a colleague that he thought it was his “mission” to prevent George W. Bush’s reelection.

One female journalist during the Clinton presidency said she would “get down on her knees” and service the president herself if it helped preserve access to abortion on demand.

Reuters has been caught doctoring photographs with the sole intention of making the Israelis look bad. They routinely describe terrorists as “insurgents”.

Just this week, a Japanese blogger pointed out that the BBC was babbling idiotically when it attempted to describe the political views of the members of Prime Minister Aso’s new Cabinet. They didn’t have a clue, but it didn’t stop them from filing a story.

In America this month, ABC news correspondent Charles Gibson interviewed Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin and misquoted one of her statements to her face. When she objected, Mr. Gibson insisted that the quote was accurate. (It wasn’t.) ABC news then used another isolated quote to publicize its broadcast of the interview, claiming that Mrs. Palin accepted the possibility of a war with Russia.

No greater testimony is needed of the contempt in which ABC holds its consumers by their release of the full transcript of the interview, not even caring that the people who read rather than watch would immediately discover the fraud. Comparing what was broadcast with what was cut out and left on the studio floor shows that the governor’s views were considerably more moderate than the network wanted its consumers to believe. Indeed, ABC cut off one answer about Iran in mid-sentence lest she sound too reasonable.

And of course it was those woeful web commentators who caught CBS newsman Dan Rather in a stunt too stupid for a high school student to attempt when he tried to discredit Mr. Bush during the 2004 election campaign. Mr. Rather was eased out to pasture a few months later, where Kenneth presumably told him the frequency at long last.

This is not a new phenomenon. U.S. President Harry Truman once said that he felt sorry for his fellow citizens who “wake up in the morning, read the morning paper, and thereby think they have an idea of what is happening in the world.” Navy Yeoman Chuck Radford was Admiral Rembrandt Robinson’s aide when the latter ran the liaison office between the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Natural Security Council in the U.S. He told author Len Colodny, “I even stopped reading newspapers…They didn’t know what they were talking about.”

The problems are much the same in Japan. Here the mass media is called masu komi, an abbreviation of “mass communications”. But some also refer to it as masu gomi, or “mass garbage”. And they aren’t smiling when they say that.

For an example, try this post from last year when Miyazaki Prefecture Governor Higashikokubaru Hideo gave a speech at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Tokyo. In the aggregate, the media coverage of his talk more closely resembles the plot structure of Rashomon than what one would expect from journalism. Eight different media outlets report on the story, yet an interested citizen can consume every one and still not know exactly what went on.

Part of the problem in Japan is the kisha club system and the informal pressure exerted keep the scribes in line. But Japanese journalists have a way of subverting that process by passing along stories they can’t use to the weekly magazines and Akahata (Red Banner), the house organ of Japan’s Communist Party. And the villains aren’t just in the bad old Liberal Democratic Party, either. Here’s a story about a political charade staged by the opposition Democratic Party of Japan that only Akahata had the cojones to cover. The reporters of the masu gomi could only hint at it.

Is any foreign correspondent in Japan capable of following several daily newspapers, Akahata, weekly magazines, and the monthly magazines—in Japanese—to get a clear view of what might be happening in Japan? And still have time left over for Roppongi bar-hopping?

Of course not. What they offer instead is a view of a zebra through a picket fence, spiced with an artificial narrative to keep the news consumer reading long enough to turn the page to the advertising section, which is the real point of the exercise.

Another charade borrowed from overseas by the English-language press in this country (but not so much by the vernacular press) is the vacuforming of opinion by quoting college professors to say what they really want to say themselves, but can’t. This provides a convenient fig leaf to pretend that they’re just reporting the learned observations of experts in the field instead of promoting an agenda.

Why the second-rate obscurantists of the journalistic profession should think that news consumers are more likely to swallow a hook because it’s been baited with barely coherent comments from obscurantists in another racket is a puzzle. The former group can no longer fool even so much as a part-timer working at a convenience store, while the latter has never been able to fool anyone but a few teenagers who enjoy the warm tofu atmosphere of the campus so much they want to stay there forever. But their only response to failure is to do the same thing, only harder.

In Japan, they usually don’t bother with the professors, instead outsourcing their biases to other commentators, called hyoronka. Their bona fides are seldom mentioned; just being presented as hyoronka by the masu gomi is bona fide enough.

Some of these mythomanics have even infected the overseas press. One whose name and bite-size observations crop up in English-language articles is Morita Minoru. Mr. Morita is identified as a political independent, when anyone bothers to identify his orientation at all. That’s almost comical; read this interview with the Japan Times and see if you don’t start to wonder why anyone would listen to him for any reason other than common courtesy. He hacks at and misses former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro several times and shows off a man-crush on Ozawa Ichiro. (That cooled when Mr. Ozawa engaged in the grand coalition talks. Hell hath no fury, etc.) On his website—which I will not link to—Mr. Morita once claimed that Abe Shinzo would get Japan involved in a war. That’s the grand thing about being an on-call pundit for newspapers—you can be wrong every time and still get paged when a few column inches need filling.

In other words, Mr. Morita has no more insight or intelligence than the beery fellow warming a stool at the neighborhood tavern and ranting about that commie Franklin Delano Rosenfeld. But the journalists trot out him and the troupers with degrees in political “science” as the performers in their dog-and-pony show, and are offended when their consumers would rather patronize “woeful” web commentary instead.

To be sure, Japanese bloggers are not without their faults either. The one I linked to above regarding the BBC’s air ball on the Aso Cabinet sweeps so much DPJ dirt under the rug he might as well be moonlighting for Duskin.

The man who saw journalists with the clearest of eyes was one himself. H.L. Mencken, perhaps the finest non-fiction writer in English to use the press as a medium, dismissed the editors and scribes of his day as pecksniffs, after the character in the Dickens novel, Martin Chuzzlewit. (Does not the combination of pecksniffs and chuzzlewits perfectly describe the pairing of journalists and college professors?)

The legacy media prefers to ennoble its trade by claiming that their objective is to speak truth to power. But what they’ve really been doing is speaking lies to consumers in exchange for ad revenue and a seat at the table with the powerful. Once upon a time they were able to get away with it, but technology and the contours of the modern world have allowed the consumers to see not only that the faux emperors have no clothes, but that they might as well be practicing nudists. The average daily newspaper today is merely a milquetoast version of Pravda (“The Truth” in Russian) and Völkischer Beobachter, dumbed down and fleshed out with sports, comics, celebrity gossip, and horoscopes for easier digestion, and left for the waitresses at the coffee shop to dispose of.

Notice that there’s always room in the newspaper to combine celebrity gossip and politics by providing a venue for the vaporous political theories of actors and singers, most of which sound as if they were received as broadcasts from the Big-Eyed Beans of Venus on tin foil hats. For the press, this is just another form of entertainment—why else provide their consumers with examples of the political theory of people who dress up in fancy clothes and makeup and play pretend for a living?

So is the profession upset when their former consumers would now rather turn to the arbitragers of the web than suffer any longer the mimeograph machines of the legacy media, hired primarily because they hung around campus long enough to receive that imprimatur of mediocrity: a degree in journalism?

Cry me a river.

Posted in Mass media, Politics | Leave a Comment »

Reply to Mr. Alford

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, September 25, 2008

PETER ALFORD, the Tokyo correspondent for The Australian, sent in a comment today regarding an article that appeared here earlier this week. He said:

I suppose I’m being very unwise in not just copping this, but could you or Get a Job Son! provide sufficient examples of the frequent perpetrations of sensationalist tripe about Japan?
I am by the way an interested reader.

Here is my reply:

Thanks for your note and for stopping by to read. (Seriously.)

But to start with, the expression I used was “blatant nonsense” and not “sensationalist tripe”.

I really don’t have time to dig through the search engine at your site, but let’s take a look an article in today’s edition of The Australian about Aso Taro becoming prime minister.

The article describes Mr. Aso as a “conservative nationalist”.

It is not possible to do justice to this discussion on a website, but I’ve long held the use of the word “nationalist” should not be used merely to denote politicians who unapologetically give preference to working on behalf of what they consider the national interest. I don’t follow domestic Australian politics, but in the US there are some politicians on the left who think it is wrong to work on behalf of the national interest.

“Nationalist” is a loaded expression that does not really describe Mr. Aso, as I see him today. I suspect some journalists use it as a code word. It edges very close to some rather unsavory political characters of both the past and present. It is also usually used in a disparaging way, based on the assumption that it is backwards and regressive compared to “internationalism”. If the UN and the EU are examples of the latter, spare us please.

I discussed this at greater length last year by comparing Abe Shinzo’s political approach and a Jacques Chirac speech here.

“…succeeding Yasuo Fukuda, who after barely 11 months in office gave up on his attempts to govern against the DPJ-controlled Upper House blockade of his programs.”

Mr. Fukuda’s term (which ended today) lasted 365 days, according to an article I saw in the Japanese press. Did he give up? Perhaps. There has been rampant speculation in the Japanese press since early spring that the party was unhappy with him and would try to find a graceful exit for him after the summit, however. He announced his resignation a month later. I would not make that statement with such certainty.

It also should be remembered that the DPJ passed a non-binding censure of Mr. Fukuda during the last Diet session, merely for exercising his Constitutional authority. They would continue to use that as an excuse to stonewall his government in the future.

“Mr Fukuda, 72, and his cabinet resigned this morning to clear the way for Mr Aso’s team, although the new PM is unlikely to make major changes to the ministry.”

Mr. Aso retained five ministers and appointed 12 new ones. These included a new foreign minister, finance minister, justice minister, defense minister, and chief cabinet minister.

In the piece you wrote, linked to that article, you say:

“Each of Aso’s two immediate predecessors lasted barely 11 months, though they faced no serious threat within the Liberal Democratic Party”

See the above for the length of Mr. Fukuda’s term. Mr. Abe’s was one day longer. See the above also for a reference to the LDP spending most of the year trying to find a way to get rid of him.

I’ve written here before about the considerable opposition within the LDP to Mr. Fukuda, starting from Takenaka Heizo’s article in the Bungei Shunju. The opposition was a reaction to Mr. Fukuda’s return to a reliance on the bureaucracy (specifically the Finance Ministry) rather than pursuing reform. There is even talk among the reformers of forming a new “urban-based” party. This wing is estimated to number about 100 Diet members, though of course the days are numbered for some of them.

“Even now, as another mild recession laps at their doorsteps, the Japanese are a point of stability in a world financial system gone wild.”

Public debt in Japan is a very serious problem, both at the national and prefectural level. Some prefectures are worried about insolvency in 2-3 years. The public debt was 176.2% of GDP in 2006, according to the CIA factbook. This is still, I think, the world’s largest governmental fiscal deficit (at least among developed nations). Consider that Mr. Yosano wanted until recently to raise the consumption tax to hack away at this.

“Ichiro Ozawa, the Opposition Democratic Party of Japan’s bullish leader, who has been correct in most calls for the past 18 months…”

Please name three of those calls.

“…might even give enough government MPs the nerve to try to break the DPJ’s deathly grip on the upper house, at least to the extent of driving through the Diet Fukuda’s emergency economic package.”

I don’t understand this. The DPJ grip on the upper house lasts until the next election, at least, which is three years away.

“Along the way there was only one misstep, but it was Ozawa’s and it showed why some senior DPJ members make no effort to disguise their loathing and suspicion. Late last year he was cleverly inveigled by Fukuda into private discussions about a grand coalition between their parties.”

I would maintain there have been quite a few Ozawa missteps, starting with the idea of challenging the government over the Indian Ocean refueling mission. And really, he wasn’t “inveigled” into talks about a grand coalition. He thought it was a great idea and the best way to implement some DPJ measures. There are also rumors that those talks continue on the QT, by the way, which I’ve mentioned here once before.

“But in a political society where blue blood is almost obligatory for leadership contention, Ozawa’s father was a mere businessman, a backbencher from Iwate.”

Blueblood to me means descended from royalty or nobility. While Mr. Fukuda’s father was a prime minister, and Mr. Abe’s father a foreign minister and grandfather a prime minister, the political antecedents of their predecessors were not that big a deal. Off the top of my head, the last Japanese prime minister to have been a blueblood was Hosokawa Morihiro. And Mr. Ozawa was born and educated in Tokyo, though he succeeded his father in representing an Iwate district, so he is no stranger to privilege.

“He wants to make manga and anime (animated video) and favours other otaku (geek) activities that are at the forefront of Japan’s cultural diplomacy.”

What other geek activities would those be?

“Words such as these won’t hurt Aso’s popularity. In the next weeks, expect to see his personal ratings rise high above those of Ozawa.”

The last poll I saw had his personal approval ratings at roughly double those of Mr. Ozawa’s in percentage-point terms already. But yes, they might go even higher, as Mr. Abe seems to enjoy retail politicking much more than Mr. Ozawa.

Blatant nonsense? Perhaps an overstatement in this particular instance, but clearly these articles could have been much better.

Still, I am not being facetious when I say this is superior to the efforts of many other newspapers. For example, the headline above the West Australian article is “Blueblood Nerd-In-Chief”.

Nor am I being facetious when I say thanks again, and please feel free to comment any time.

UPDATE: Mr. Alford responds in Comment #3.

Posted in Mass media, Politics | 9 Comments »

Aso, government watch North Korea like a hawk

Posted by ampontan on Monday, September 22, 2008

THIS ARTICLE in The Australian reports that Aso Taro, who will become Japan’s next prime minister later this week (barring a hole opening in the earth and swallowing him up), is urging the government to update its contingency plans in the event of instability in North Korea. The article also mentions there is a growing consensus overseas that Kim Jong-il has in fact suffered a stroke and is unlikely to fully regain his health.

The Japanese government is starting to draw conclusions:

The Cabinet Office is reported to be today convening a meeting of senior officials from across the Government to review and update the national contingency plan for dealing with North Korean military action, regime collapse or leadership instability.

What might happen?

The contingencies include conflict on the North-South and North Korea-China borders, uncontrolled refugee flows into the region, civil war between competing elements of the People’s Liberation Army, and the threat of missile attacks or, less likely, nuclear strikes on Seoul and Japan’s east coast cities, including Tokyo.

Planning will be complicated by another uncertainty in Pyeongyang: Who’s in charge there?

Nobody outside a few hundred people in the inner Korean Workers’ Party, the PLA command and the elite family groups around Mr Kim has any clear idea about the deployment of authority beneath him. But it is often speculated that the PLA top brass in the NDC are more belligerent and less attuned to external realities, except in relation to their associates in the Chinese armed forces, than Mr Kim.

Apart from the difficulty in dealing with the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, the situation in North Korea might also have an impact on the political situation in Japan.

A lower house election in Japan is expected to be held sooner rather than later, and some people think it could come as early as next month. Voters everywhere tend to shy away from domestic political change in the face of external threats or uncertainty.

If instability in North Korea becomes manifest, it might cause those Japanese willing to cast a vote for change and the opposition Democratic Party to think twice and stick with what they know: The LDP and the ruling coalition. The DPJ’s overall dovish stance wouldn’t help their chances in this climate, either.

And as this AFP article points out, the turmoil in global financial markets over the past week might be another factor working in the favor of Mr. Aso and the LDP.

Unfortunately, those who favor Koizumi-style reform might wind up as disappointed as the DPJ:

Aso…promises to return to the old ways of the long-dominant LDP by using public money to boost the countryside, where the economy is in particularly dire shape. He has hinted that he will ignore promises made by former reformist prime minister Junichiro Koizumi to rein in spending to tame the public debt, the highest among major economies.

But then Mr. Aso was never an enthusiastic reformer to begin with.

Afterwords: What a refreshing change to see an overseas newspaper run a responsible article about Japan without any blatant nonsense. It’s even more refreshing to see it in The Australian, which is often a perpetrator of that nonsense.

Now all they need to do is find a better translator. I’d didn’t see Mr. Aso’s original Japanese, but I’d bet it wasn’t that clumsy.

Posted in International relations, North Korea | 6 Comments »

Dokdo: Your dream vacation come true!

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, September 21, 2008

HAVING DIFFICULTY selecting the destination for your next vacation? Can’t decide between the surfside fun at Australia’s Gold Coast, the carnival at Rio, the romance and internationalism of San Francisco, or the Grand Tour of Europe?

If you prefer the more rugged and super-cool eco-tourist hideaways, are you torn between diving in Palau, sunning on Costa Rica’s black sand beaches, sailing through the Norwegian fjords, or taking snapshots of lions, elephants, hypertrophied snails, and other exotic creatures in Kenya?

Vacation wonderland

Vacation dreamland

Here’s some good news for those folks who can’t make up their mind. Now there’s another option to consider that will surely be the envy of your friends and co-workers for its sheer exoticism, if nothing else: Relax and enjoy the scenery for two days on Dokdo, and the Korea Times will foot the bill. All you have to do is be one of the lucky winners in the new contest for non-Koreans co-sponsored by the newspaper and the Northeast Asian History Foundation. To enter, write an 800-word essay on the topic, “Why is Dokdo Korean Territory?”

The odds look pretty good. It’s unlikely there will be many entries, and Grand, Golden, Silver, and Bronze prizes are being offered. Here’s what the winners will receive:

Grand Prize: Five two-day round-trip tickets to Dokdo.
Golden Prize: Four two-day round-trip tickets to Dokdo.
Silver Prize: Three two-day round-trip tickets to Dokdo.
Bronze Prize: Two two-day round-trip tickets to Dokdo.

And here’s the clincher: All the prize winners get a plaque.

The sponsors have thought of everything. The winners who live overseas will get a round-trip ticket from their home to Seoul (from the nearest airport with Korean Airlines service).

The Korea Times also says that “Applicants providing new pieces of evidence on Korea’s sovereignty over the islets, including unpublished maps, photos, and documents, will be given high marks.”

One has to wonder what the Korea Times thinks of the existing “evidence of Korea’s sovereignty” if they’re fishing for foreigners who just happen to have centuries-old maps of the Sea of Japan rolled up in a rubber band and stuck in a corner of their sock drawer.

There’s another aspect to consider: A prize is almost certainly assured for foreigners who are not ethnic Koreans, if only because it will allow the sponsors to boast of an international consensus. The stated objective of the contest is “to promote international awareness about the history of the rocky islets.” Now ask yourself how many people who are not ethnic Koreans will be entering the contest. See what I mean?

It shouldn’t be too hard to conduct research, either. Spend an hour sifting through all material the Koreans have dumped on the web over the past few years, cherry-pick the most popular and outrageous arguments (look to university professors for the latter), rework it all with some punchy prose, throw in a reference that the evidence for Korean ownership is so obvious a grade-schooler could understand it, and then mention in passing that the Japanese claim is motivated by a desire to reestablish their imperialist hegemony over the Korean Peninsula.

Really, how can you lose?

Heck, I’m tempted to write an essay myself!

You’d better hurry, though. The deadline for submission is 17 October.

Confidential to Gerry Bevers: You’re disqualified!

Here’s a link to a post about the contest from ROK Drop, which reproduces the ad in full. Thanks to Get a Job Son for passing along the info.

Posted in I couldn't make this up if I tried, South Korea, Travel | Tagged: , | 6 Comments »

Wanted men: The Sea Shepherd eco-terrorists

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, September 21, 2008

IT’S ABOUT TIME: The Japanese government, according to this account from UPI, has asked Interpol to issue red arrest warrants for three members of Sea Shepherd, the pirate-wannabe vigilante group that tries to prevent Japanese whaling in the South Pacific every winter. Arrest warrants already are outstanding for them in Japan.

Interpol is not yet prepared to go that far, however, but they did issue a blue notice, which means they are investigating the case further.

Regardless of their ultimate decision, this is a welcome step from Japan for two reasons.

First, it demonstrates that the Japanese government is now willing to take active steps to advance its interests internationally. It is a small sign that the passive, don’t-make-waves mentality of the post-war generation has run its course.

Second, let there be no mistake: By its attitudes and its actions, Sea Shepherd has clearly demonstrated that it refuses to behave as a responsible member of civil society, preferring to resort to the law of the jungle instead. This group has sunk 10 ships around the world, and its leader, Paul Watson, has done jail time in Canada and The Netherlands. It has also been reported that they carry AK-47s on board when they go to sea.

But more than that, Sea Shepherd is a symptom of a more serious illness sweeping the Western world. What too often passes for citizen activism today is in fact the barbarity of a hysterical, unhinged element that self-indulgently takes upon itself the role of judge, jury, and executioner. The structures of civilized society evolved and were created precisely to prevent activity of this sort.

That this disease has reached epidemic proportions in other parts of the world is undeniable from even a dispassionate observation of events in the United States during the past three weeks, to cite just one example.

If Sea Shepherd is ready to stand by its principles, they should have no problem serving time in a Japanese jail for them.

Japan should be commended for doing its part to curb this behavior.

Notes: Sea Shepherd has an annual budget of two million dollars. Most of their budget is supported by contributions from wealthy Hollywood actors, including Martin Sheen, Sean Penn, and William Shatner. Richard Dean Anderson (MacGyver) is (or was) on its Board of Directors. Pierce Brosnan is on its Board of Advisors.

Have you rented or purchased a DVD of one of Pierce Brosnan’s four James Bond movies? If so, you have directly contributed to keeping Sea Shepherd afloat.

Posted in Food, International relations, Legal system | Tagged: , | 103 Comments »

Dancing the ufudehku in Okinawa

Posted by ampontan on Friday, September 19, 2008

LAST MONTH, we had a post about a women-only festival in Saga called the Dotchan Matsuri, in which the ladies show they can be just as rough and ready when it comes to carrying mikoshi as a hair-legged boy. But that isn’t the only traditional ceremony in Japan in which participation is limited to women.

Another is the Ufudehku, held in Yaesu-cho, Okinawa, last month. Ufudehku is the name of a dance offered in honor of a local, non-Shinto female divinity. This year about 50 women ranging in age from their 20s to 90s performed the slow and solemn dance at three religious sites and on the streets of the town in a procession between those sites.

The ceremony itself dates from more than 250 years ago and was designated an intangible cultural property of the municipality in 1994. The women congregate at a local religious site with hand-held drums, rhythm sticks, and fans. They form two rows to travel to the three sites to pray for local prosperity, offering the stately dance at each one. The dance itself is said to be the original form of an old Okinawan dance for women.

In the past, the ceremony was held once every seven years, but Momohara Sachie, the head of the local preservation society, says it became an annual event in 1988. Though Ms. Momohara is 90 years of age, she wasn’t the oldest of the women joining the performers this year. One of the dancers was 96, and she told reporters she began doing the ufudehku in the ceremony with her sisters at the age of seven. “I’m still young,” she exclaimed as she danced down the street. (That’s probably not wishful thinking, either—take a look at the post two stories down that touches on one of the reasons for Okinawan longevity.)

The reports mentioned religious sites and a homage to a female divinity that clearly weren’t Shinto, and the names of two of the sites the dancers visit are Okinawan and not standard Japanese. A friendly fellow in the Yaesu municipal offices confirmed they weren’t Shinto, though he said there was a similarity. He explained that the three sites are from a local tradition and are for ancestor worship.

Japan is a fascinating place, but it gets even more interesting in the corners that most people overlook.

Posted in Traditions | Leave a Comment »

Ozawa backs Fukuda in upcoming election

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, September 18, 2008

NO, NOT THAT FUKUDA—Opposition leader Ozawa Ichiro flew down south to Nagasaki to ask Fukuda Eriko to run for a lower house seat in the city’s second district against former Defense Minister Kyuma Fumio. Mr. Kyuma, a 28-year veteran of the Diet, is best known for being dumped from his Cabinet post after suggesting that the atomic bombing of Nagasaki “couldn’t be helped”. A formal announcement of Ms. Fukuda’s candidacy is expected later.

Ms. Fukuda, who at 27 is 40 years younger than Mr. Kyuma, has no political experience to speak of. The head of the Democratic Party of Japan sought her candidacy to capitalize on the public attention she garnered as one of more than 170 parties in a lawsuit against the government and a drug company.

She was seeking compensation for damages because she contracted hepatitis C as an infant due to a transfusion of a tainted blood product shortly after birth. The plaintiffs’ position was that the government was aware of the problem but allowed the product to be used anyway. Ms. Fukuda was not told of the condition until she was 20, and the subsequent treatment caused such side effects as hair loss, fever, and itchiness.

Spurred to activism, she began attending the court cases of other patients to offer encouragement and to publicize the issue. She eventually became the public face of the issue in Japan. (For a detailed look at the story, try this page.)

The government of Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo, who is not related to her, came under fire for its response to the issue when a settlement negotiated by an Osaka court fell through last year. His Cabinet then drew up a bill providing more than 20 billion yen to roughly 1,000 patients affected by the same problem, (and overcoming Health Ministry objections in the process).

Mr. Kyuma, running as the Liberal-Democratic Party candidate, seems to be taking her candidacy philosophically. He observed that she might struggle with the hard work involved with politics, noted that politicians often have to overlook their personal beliefs to represent the will of their districts, and wondered if she could fulfill those expectations.

Local LDP officials said the campaign would be the same regardless of the opponent, but were doubtful that she had the ability to work on behalf of Nagasaki to overcome its economic disparities with larger metropolitan areas. They also wondered if, despite her name recognition, the “parachute candidate” would win enough votes in the district to win. (Ms. Fukuda is from Nagasaki, but apparently not that district.)

Defending her candidacy, Ms. Fukuda said “It is politics when hepatitis C kills so many people, and it is politics to save those people.” She added that a better system would end the suffering of those afflicted with the disease, and she wanted to prevent any more deaths caused by government negligence.

Stepping backward from the specifics of the race to look at the situation from a broader perspective brings two things to mind.

First, this is reminiscent of former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro’s successful 2005 tactic of recruiting well-known, attractive women to parachute into the districts of prominent LDP opponents of his postal privatization legislation, though most of them had more experience before entering the race. The media, always ready to turn every story into a colorful narrative, dubbed them “assassins”. The soap opera pathos inherent in this story makes it unlikely the same moniker will be applied to Ms. Fukuda, however.

Second, her name recognition and lack of other germane experience pushes her close to the territory of being a celebrity candidate. Both major parties in Japan like to run famous people, usually from show business or sports, for Diet seats. While some take the job seriously, and a few even become effective politicians, most are at best one-issue candidates–if they have an issue at all. They are more often fronts for the person or persons behind the scenes backing their candidacies, and usually vote as instructed.

If she is elected to the Diet, reform of the Health Ministry is unlikely to take up much of her time. How will the young and inexperienced Ms. Fukuda vote on such matters as tax policy, collective self-defense, and structural reform?

However Ozawa Ichiro tells her to vote, of course.

Posted in Politics | 10 Comments »

Tastes terrible–give me a second helping, please!

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, September 17, 2008

BY MAKING the most unhealthful foods sinfully delicious and the most nutritious foods a challenge to the palate, Mother Nature played a cruel trick on us all. Beefeaters are legion the world over, yet a graph showing the per capita beef consumption in Japan after World War II has a vertical curve almost identical to one showing the increase in the incidence of colon cancer during the same period. On the other hand, we all know the dinner table wars many parents have to wage to get their children to eat spinach.

There are several reasons the Japanese life span is among the highest in the world, and one of the most important is diet. One Japanese doctor told me the secret for a long life is to eat the way Japanese women did 40 years ago: fish, tofu (soybeans), rice, and no fatty foods. That’s a secret worth knowing, considering that Japanese women have the world’s highest life expectancy at 86 years. In fact, Japanese women have had the world’s highest life expectancy since 1985.

Among the Japanese, the traditional Okinawan lifestyle results in even greater longevity. As Bradley Willcox, Craig Willcox, and Suzuki Makoto (all doctors) write in The Okinawa Program, a book promoting the islanders’ healthful diet and lifestyle,

“If Americans lived more like Okinawans, 80 percent of the nation’s coronary care units, one-third of the cancer wards, and a lot of the nursing homes would be shut down.”

So it won’t come as a surprise to find out that some foods in the traditional Okinawan diet are unfriendly to the taste buds.


One of those is a vegetable whose generic Japanese name is nigauri, but in recent years has come to be commonly known by the word used for it in Okinawa: goya. Despite the switch in terminology, the former is the better descriptor: in Japanese it means bitter gourd (or melon).

The goya is green and slightly smaller than an American cucumber (which is thicker than the Japanese variety). Like a green pepper, it is hollow on the inside, with some pulp and seeds, and it has a soft, knobby skin.

It is indeed bitter; it’s not the sort of vegetable that people would slice and put into a tossed salad. That’s why the Okinawans most often eat it in a stir-fry with eggs, tofu, and bean sprouts, and sometimes pork, though some people keep it simple and just use the eggs.

It’s an excellent source of vitamin C, and is also said to moderate the blood pressure. What sets goya apart from other vegetables rich in vitamin C, however, is that it retains the vitamin even when cooked at high temperatures. The reason for its bitter taste is that it contains curcurbitacins, which doctors think help prevent cancers.

Goya is not native to Okinawa or Japan, but is thought to have arrived in the country from China several hundred years ago. The Chinese variety is known as chin-li-chih, goo-fa, or ku gua, and is slightly less bitter than the strain found in Japan. It’s also eaten in Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and India.

Not only is goya nutritious, it’s also good for what ails you. People throughout Asia have used it as a medicinal plant, including the Chinese and Arabs. It’s also used in the traditional Ayurveda medicine of Inda to treat skin diseases.

Thus it’s only logical that Kamiita-cho municipal employee Dan Hitomi in Tokushima has created a trial version of goya soap to publicize the town’s goya production. The first photo shows Ms. Dan holding a cube of the pale green soap, which is made entirely of natural ingredients and commercially available vegetables.

To create the soap, Ms. Dan took the liquid squeezed from goya rind and added it to water, sodium hydroxide, olive oil, and other vegetable oils. She poured the mixture into a mold, let it harden for a day, and then dried it out for a month.

Ms. Dan, who has been making soap as a hobby for 10 years, claims there is no goya odor (though the vegetable doesn’t have an unpleasant smell to begin with) and it is more gentle on the skin than other soaps using discarded oil. That makes the bitter gourd good for you, both inside and out

But goya has even more benefits. The vegetable grows on a vine, and the Okinawans often suspend those vines from the roof eaves of traditional houses. This has a two-fold effect. First, it provides the plant with the sunshine it needs to grow, and second, it cools off the interior of the house during the hot summer.

That goya vines have a cooling effect has been demonstrated by an experiment conducted this summer at the Environmental Disaster Prevention Research Center of the University of Tokushima. The second photo shows the vines suspended over the windows of a small building at the center. The study found that this “goya curtain” reduced interior temperatures by 1.5° to 2.5° C when the outdoor temperature was 30° C or higher. The use of the goya curtain made the interior cooler than hanging a traditional bamboo curtain.

And just think—the people who live in homes with a goya curtain don’t even have to go outside to pick some for the dinner table!

The only drawback is that the cooling effect is negated by closing the windows, which will turn off those people who can’t live without air conditioners. Then again, those folks would be unlikely to live in a traditional Okinawan house to begin with.


Okinawa is also home to some fruit tart enough to cause tongue spasms. One of those is known as shiikwasa, which is the Okinawan name for the hirami lemon. This small, green citrus fruit is extremely sour, with a touch of bitterness. It is packed with flavonoids, which fight cancer, and also lowers both blood pressure and blood sugar levels.

A shiikwasa is sometimes squeezed over sashimi or cooked fish to add flavor, much as lemons are used in the West. The juice is sold in concentrated form, and this can be drunk as a beverage if mixed at a roughly 8-1 ratio with hot water (which I sometimes do).

The shiikwaasa harvest has now started in the Katsuyama district of Nago in Okinawa, and some of the crop is shown in the third photo. Local farmers say this year’s harvest is a good one owing to excellent weather conditions—no typhoons hit during the growing season, total rainfall was down during the rainy season, and the heavy rains came just at the right time.

The use of the fruit depends on the time of year it is harvested. The shiikwasa picked now will be used to garnish fish, but the fruit taken from October to mid-December will be used for juice. Finally, the fruit harvested from the end of December to the end of February will be sold as produce to be eaten raw. (I can’t imagine eating one raw, but surely the Okinawans know what they’re doing.)

For accuracy’s sake, I should add that many similar kinds of fruit with different names are grown throughout Kyushu. Perhaps the most well-known is kabosu, which is grown in Kumamoto and is also being harvested now for sale at produce shops throughout the region. (I don’t know anyone who eats them raw, either.)

Though Okinawa farmers produce an abundance of food that promotes longevity, there’s a reason the doctor told me to follow the dietary habits of Japanese women 40 or 50 years ago. That’s because many younger Japanese women (and younger Okinawans) no longer follow those dietary habits themselves. Like most people everywhere, they tend to eat more of the things that taste good, rather than the things that are good for you.

Those Epicurean ways new to post-war Japan might make for more delectable dining, but it comes at a cost. Life expectancy figures may start slipping for Japanese women, as they already have for younger Okinawans.

But then, Mother Nature is the one who sets the rules, and we break them at our own risk.

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Posted in Agriculture, Food | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

Quick political hits

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, September 16, 2008

HERE ARE SOME quick hits from the world of Japanese politics:

October election?

Appearing on NHK and other network television programs on Sunday, Liberal-Democratic Party Secretary General Aso Taro, the odds-on favorite to replace Fukuda Yasuo as prime minister, hinted that a lower house election could come as early as next month.

Mr. Aso said the government was confronted with many problems, such as formulating comprehensive economic measures, and that if the opposition Democratic Party did not “properly respond”, calling an election would be the correct step to take.

Considering that the DPJ has seldom, if ever, made a proper political response since capturing the upper house last July, it would seem as if it’s time to start printing up campaign materials.

But some politicians didn’t even wait for Mr. Aso’s Sunday comments. The local LDP representative in my district has had generic campaign posters up for more than a week, and I saw the first poster for the local DPJ Diet member on Friday.

Mr. Aso’s statements on television were an anti-climax. The public already knew, just by walking down the street.

Bigger fish swallow the little fish

Cultural traditionalist and anti-reformer Hiranuma Takeo was thrown out of the LDP three years ago for failing to support Prime Minister Koizumi’s postal privatization plan. He has been promising/threatening to form a new political party for some time now—to create a “true conservative third way”–but hasn’t quite gotten around to it yet. He’s also been talking with DPJ head Ozawa Ichiro about forming a post-election alliance in the event the opposition forms a government. (Hopefully the people who thought the DPJ would bring real reform to Japan won’t be too disheartened.)

Now comes word from the Sankei Shimbun that Mr. Hiranuma will meet Watanuki Tamisuke and Kamei Shizuka of the People’s New Party in Tokyo on the 16th. The PNP is a small grouping of the other flotsam and jetsam heaved overboard by Mr. Koizumi during the postal privatization affair. They are expected to talk about a post-election alliance or, suggest some, the creation of yet another new party. That one might include the participation of Suzuki Muneo, the emotional and excitable ex-con who once held sway over a petty fiefdom within the LDP, but formed his own vanity party when he returned to the Diet after his release from prison. You can find some background on their association here.

That’s just one of the options being ground through the political rumor mill, however. The Asahi Shimbun reports that during a speech in Matsuyama on the 15th, DPJ boss Ozawa said that his party wants to coordinate their election effort with the PNP (i.e., not compete against each other in the same district), and that a merger of the two parties is a possibility.

He also plans to meet Mr. Watanuki on the 16th to sign a memorandum agreeing to a drastic reevaluation of the postal privatization scheme (i.e., kill it), if they ever get their hands on it as the ruling party/parties in government.

Packing up

Meanwhile, Mr. Ozawa announced he is going to kick the dust off his shoes and leave the Iwate district he has represented since 1969 behind. Instead, he will run for reelection from a district in the Kanto region (i.e., greater Tokyo).

That does makes sense in a way. Over the past 40 years he’s probably spent more time in Tokyo than Iwate.

DPJ Secretary General Hatoyama Yukio said Sunday that Mr. Ozawa might even choose to go head-to-head with New Komeito leader Ota Akihiro in Tokyo’s #12 district. New Komeito, of course, is the junior partner in the LDP-led coalition government. Reported the Japan Times:

Hatoyama said it depends on “the distance between New Komeito” and the DPJ.

One possible translation: Play ball with us, Ota, and you have nothing to worry about.

As has been reported here before, there are rumors that discussions between the LDP and the DPJ to create a grand coalition continue, despite the furor such talk created last November. That’s because the upcoming election would result in even greater government gridlock if the LDP loses its lower house supermajority and the DPJ’s alliance doesn’t win outright. This time, rumor has it that the lower house seats allocated by proportional representation might be eliminated in such a scenario. That would effectively neuter the political importance of the smaller parties, including New Komeito.

Incidentally, no one was more surprised by the news that Mr. Ozawa wouldn’t run in Iwate than local party officials in Iwate. The DPJ boss has the reputation of behaving in a manner befitting the chieftain of a petty emirate, and it seems he forgot to tell anyone in his home prefecture that he would be leaving, much less why. Some in Iwate are holding out hope that his decision isn’t final, but have resigned themselves to finding another horse on short notice–after 40 years–if he’s gone for good.

People have said many things about Mr. Ozawa over the course of his career, and a lot more will probably be said about him before he’s done, but here’s one thing they’ll never say:

Ozawa Ichiro was an honorable man.

Posted in Politics | 1 Comment »