Japan from the inside out

Archive for August, 2009

Japan’s Communist Manifesto

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, August 30, 2009

DON’T MISUNDERSTAND–Comrade Shii Kazuo is not exhorting the archipelago’s convenience store workers to unite because they have nothing to lose except their ugly uniform jackets. The title refers to the manifesto, or party platform, of Japan’s Communist Party, currently running at about 2% in the opinion polls, in which they spelled out their policies for today’s lower house election.

Please don't squeeze the Chairman. He's a Shii.

Please don't squeeze the Chairman. He's a Shii.

While the content of the JCP manifesto is radically different from its better-known forebear created by Marx and Engels in 1848, both share one trait: adoption of their policies would boomerang with harsh unintended consequences that would guarantee a shared equality of misery for all. The consequences that would ensue from the success of the JCP manifesto would be less grievous than those of the original, though a record of 100 million dead, the loss of freedom everywhere it’s been tried, and the creation of an unaccountable ruling class of pigs on hind legs admittedly sets the bar at a very high level.

For an example of unintended consequences, take the JCP plank calling for free initial visits to medical institutions for those older than 75. In April 2008, the Japanese government instituted a new measure requiring the so-called late-stage elderly with the financial means to be liable for a slightly higher percentage of their medical expenses.

You know–“from each according to their ability”?

The government didn’t bargain on the severity of the backlash from the elderly welfare queens, however. Japan’s Gray Panthers were incensed at the idea that the government would have the temerity to ask them to pay their fair share for the services they receive. They popped up like so many fluke December mushrooms to denounce the government’s policy as “hurry up and die”. The news departments of the nation’s broadcast media, whose primary business is to egg on a fight, were more than happy to provide them with a platform.

The irony was that the legislation creating the new policy had passed the Diet several years before with barely a whisper from the national news media. The infotainment industry sheepishly admitted that the Diet discussed the bills during the initial American invasion of Iraq, and they devoted their attention to that story. Explosions and people dying on the other side of the world are more interesting than how health care is financed at home, after all.

Unintended Consequences

But what would be the unintended consequences of enhancing medical care if the oldsters were given the opportunity to visit their doctors for free? While the economic logic—or rather, the paradigm of human behavior—is beyond the comprehension of most people on the left of the political spectrum, it would surely lead to either a degradation of medical care for the elderly or an increase in their financial liability, if not both, whether they liked it or not.

People would have no reserve about using a service that they mistakenly believe to be free, so that would inevitably result in a sharp increase in initial doctor visits. It’s not as if the elderly in Japan are now foregoing initial examinations because of the expense, but they’d much more frequently avail themselves of the service because of the sniffles, some imagined ache, or boredom with daytime television.

Doctors and nurses don’t work for free, however, at least outside of the workers’ paradises, so they will have to be paid somehow. The JCP’s scheme proposes three revenue sources, one of which is to cut back on public works projects. That’s a reasonable course regardless of how the savings are allocated, though it would be too much to expect of politicians to allow taxpayers to keep their own money to begin with.

The problems start with the second, which is the eternally naïve suggestion of boosting corporate taxes. What the JCP ignores, or more likely, doesn’t comprehend, is that there is no such thing as a corporate tax. Companies consider taxes to be a business expense and part of the cost of providing a product or a service. Instead of depriving themselves of profits, which is why they exist, companies pass the liability for the taxes on to the consumer in the form of higher prices. In short, increasing corporate taxes is the equivalent of increasing the amount of money the companies collect as unpaid tax agents for transfer to the government at yearend.

So the higher cost of goods and services is tantamount to a higher tax on consumers, including consumers who fall in the late-stage elderly demographic group. That’s an odd choice for a leftist party, because politicos on that end of the spectrum ordinarily dislike what they consider “regressive” taxation. It’s also liable to reduce income flows to Japan by making products for export more expensive.

Whether or not this policy would enhance the lives of the elderly–a debatable proposition–this proposal would be sure to achieve an increase in the burden of taxes and consumption expenditures for the people of working age in Japan. Meanwhile, the membership of that group will continue to shrink in the coming years while those of the late-stage elderly continue to grow.

The unintended consequence of such a policy is that Japanese taxpayers really would begin to demand that the elderly hurry up and die as a way to cut costs, and this time it wouldn’t be senescent hyperbole. Another way to cut costs would be the de facto rationing of care, as occurs now in Great Britain, France, Canada, some American states (such as Oregon), and the entire U.S., if the current administration gets what it wants.

In other words, offering free medical care to the elderly would mean that cohort will eventually receive less medical care sometime in the future. Human nature being what it is, today’s seniors are unlikely to be concerned as long as they get theirs. The ones who’ll suffer are the people now in the workforce, and that means both ends of their stick will be short, because they’ll pay more to provide other people with services they might never receive themselves.

The Third Revenue Source

The third revenue source offered by the JCP is to use the money saved from a cut in defense spending. At the same time, the party wants to end the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty.

This is derived from their effort to preserve the Japanese Constitution and its so-called Peace Clause, Article 9, at least superficially. But the Preface to the Constitution also states: “(W)e have determined to preserve our security and existence, trusting in the justice and faith of the peace-loving peoples of the world.”

Is there a cluster of contiguous nations anywhere with the combination of brute military strength, malevolent intentions, and the sheer absence of an understanding of the words “justice”, “faith”, and “peace-loving” than the neighborhood street gangs of China, Russia, and North Korea? And let’s not forget that the government of the only other free-market democracy in the region, South Korea, still funds anti-Japanese propaganda activities overseas.

Meanwhile, the JCP seems to have overlooked another sentence in the Preface:

We believe that no nation is responsible to itself alone, but that laws of political morality are universal; and that obedience to such laws is incumbent upon all nations who would sustain their own sovereignty and justify their sovereign relationship with other nations.

Perhaps Japan should ask its neighbors to justify their sovereign relationship based on the laws of political morality. If that’s the criterion, Japan’s behavior in Northeast Asia has been the regional gold standard for more than half a century.

The JCP’s position is understandable, however; their political inspiration is derived from the same source as that of China and North Korea. Russia also derived its political inspiration from the same source for most of the 20th century, and the world still hasn’t recovered. The party’s unstated goal is to promote solidarity with its ideological soul mates and turn the country’s government into something resembling theirs, assuming that they don’t view those countries’ experiments with free markets as apostasy.

More Unintended Consequences

But adopting the JCP’s suggestion would inevitably result in still more unintended consequences. If the security arrangement with the United States is cancelled, the Japanese public will demand that the country be able to defend itself against the peace-loving peoples in its neighborhood. Indeed, removing the agreement would be the first shovel in the dirt for the construction of a royal road to a military buildup, the acquisition of nuclear weapons, and the renunciation of Article 9.

Have they really thought this through, or are they just mouthing platitudes out of a sense of sham morality?

Bonus Plank

In addition to platform planks that would cause the party to unwittingly walk its own plank, the JCP also supports maintaining proportional representation in the Diet and opposing efforts to eliminate those seats. That’s only natural, considering that the disappearance of proportional representation would mean the near evaporation of the party’s presence in the Diet. But for sheer entertainment, nothing beats their justification:

“Reducing the fixed number of proportional representation seats would constrict the minority parties in the Diet and result in the de facto monopoly of seats by the Liberal Democratic Party and the Democratic Party of Japan. Because this largely ignores the will of the people, it is an act of violence that is destructive of democracy from its foundation.”

Putting aside the fact that allowing losers of elections to sit in the Diet is by definition ignoring the will of the people, the idea that the Communist party is upholding the principles of democracy is as comical as any clause ever inserted into a political document.

Turning to the Communists for support for the principles of democracy—not to mention basic economics—is analogous to asking a Catholic priest for tips on sexual technique. Well, heterosexual sexual technique, anyway.

Has a more malignant system of government ever been devised? Communism has been a wretched failure everywhere it’s been implemented. Even fundamentalist Islamic theocracies have been more successful as defined by their own premises.

It’s been suggested elsewhere that the JCP might contribute more to the country if it were to change its name to something less inflammatory—rebrand itself, as it were. Well, the Internet is nothing if not a haven for fatuous suggestions. Japan’s Socialists changed their name to the Social Democratic Party, and they are just as incapable of making a positive contribution to the national political dialogue now as they’ve always been. In fact, since their name change, their Diet representation has plummeted to the capacity of a mini-van. There are as many former socialists sitting in the Diet as members of the DPJ as there are in the SDP.

The JCP could change its name to the Friends of the Martian Space Party and they would still be nothing more than a temporary receptacle for voter dissatisfaction and an outlet for news stories that the mainstream media is prevented from running due to Japan’s press club system.

It will be what it always has been—a vanity party for people who refuse to recognize reality.

Afterwords: Yes, yes, an election post is next. I’m shooting for a doubleheader today.

Posted in Government, Politics | Tagged: | 11 Comments »

Japan’s DPJ: The LDP redux?

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, August 25, 2009

MOST OF THOSE PEOPLE interested in Japanese politics have already discounted a Democratic Party of Japan landslide victory in Sunday’s lower house election, to use a Wall Street term. Though the expected result will be a positive development (while still being no more than a first step), many have misgivings about what a DPJ-led government will bring. Let there be no mistake—this presumed result will most certainly not be a vote of confidence in the DPJ, who once again put their incompetence on parade within the past month when they proved incapable of writing a coherent party platform. It will instead be a resounding no the Liberal Democratic Party-dominated political system that has prevailed since 1955, and whose sell-by date has long expired, as many Japanese wags have noted.

Some of those observers are beginning to ask whether Japan’s new boss is starting to bear an uncomfortable resemblance to the old boss, declamations of reform and political cleanliness notwithstanding. The Nishinippon Shimbun recently ran a series of articles about the DPJ’s likely formation of a government. This specific article, which ran on 15 August, wonders aloud if they’re on the way to becoming a second LDP. Here’s my translation.


A doctor in private practice who is also an officer in the Japan Medical Association is concerned about one section of the Democratic Party of Japan’s political platform.

“That’s the clause that reads, ‘Provide greater remuneration for medical examinations (hospital admissions) to medical institutions that strive to increase the number of medical practitioners’. Why was it necessary to add the part about admissions? That limits the eligibility to institutions that admit patients. Almost all the medical institutions that admit patients are large hospitals. Isn’t this giving too much weight to the opinions of those groups consisting of doctors employed at hospitals?”

Another doctor is suspicious of the clause that limits the mention of (financial support for) cancer vaccines to cervical cancer. The explanation was that budget limitations forced them to focus on cervical cancer, for which preventive methods have already been established. But the doctor does not accept that explanation, saying “There are a lot of patients with other cancers.”

Are there not zokugiin within the DPJ too?


The zokugiin, national legislators who act on behalf of the interests of specific industries (i.e., legislator-lobbyists), are a product of the ties between government, the bureaucracy, and industry. Authority is required to obtain the benefits of those ties, and this has been seen as the trait of the Liberal Democratic Party, the ruling party of government for many years.

Today, however, with a change in government a real possibility, slight changes are becoming apparent.

Recently, an aide to a long-serving member of the upper house noticed there were many names of mid-tier construction companies printed on a visitor’s name card. The aide wondered if the visitor was hoping to receive orders for government construction projects. He thought that associating with this visitor had the potential for danger unless the background of the person was thoroughly vetted, including whether he had made any political contributions.

The Japan Medical Association, agricultural cooperatives, and construction industry groups have traditionally supported the LDP. Some groups are looking beyond a change of government and starting to disassociate themselves from organizations that support the LDP, and to make approaches to the DPJ, which is crafting specific industry-friendly policies. Does this not invite the formation of warped ties with industry rather than promote the DPJ’s announced policy of creating a government out from under from the bureaucratic thumb?

The chairman of the Ibaragi Prefecture Medical Association, which has decided to back the DPJ candidates in all seven of the prefecture’s election districts in a switch from their prior support of the LDP, is concerned. He says, “I’ve listened to the opinions of my friends, and I think this is a general phenomenon. There is danger in this policy, if only because these people (the DPJ) have never done anything.”

Control by Ozawa

Another matter of concern is the potential for control by Ozawa Ichiro. Last month, one DPJ employee heard a close Ozawa associate say, “After the election, Mr. Ozawa will probably become the party secretary general.” As the person responsible for the party’s election strategy, Mr. Ozawa has been sending his own aides out to help new candidates. It is very possible that a big victory by the “Ozawa Children” in the election could result in an “Ozawa faction” of nearly 100 MPs in the lower house.

As party president, Hatoyama Yukio has authority over party personnel matters, but the DPJ took the associate’s words to mean, “Mr. Ozawa’s sentiments cannot be ignored.”

Mr. Ozawa was schooled in politics by former Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei, whose political philosophy was “There is strength in numbers”. Will he bring his patron’s philosophy to the DPJ?

One young DPJ MP warns, “If Mr. Ozawa does create something like a second power base, he’ll attempt a coup d’etat.”


Zokugiin, control by Ozawa, alliances with industry groups, internal conflict—all the negative aspects of the party in power. The groundwork can be glimpsed for the potential of the DPJ to become a second LDP.

“I’m not going to whitewash anything by saying that it’s impossible for zokugiin to be created in the party,” observes a senior member of the DPJ’s upper house delegation with a laugh. “Before the election, I guess it’s inevitable that people would be worried about that.”

But the DPJ party platform has vague sections with many points that need to be clarified in order to determine whether they can be entrusted with forming a government. Those points are not only about the issues surrounding the financing of their show window policies; they also involve their fiscal policy, diplomatic and security matters, and regional devolution. It isn’t out of the question that these problems could lead to the decay of the DPJ in the future. Those questions will be asked of the DPJ during the campaign.


1. The Nishinippon Shimbun has long taken a harsh editorial line against the ruling LDP, so this article was not written from an LDP perspective.

2. The possibility of a lower house with more than 20% of its members loyal to Ozawa Ichiro rather than to the DPJ–or any other party–should give all sober-minded people pause. Some journalists in Japan would not be at all surprised if the man they call The Destroyer finds a way to break up the DPJ and realign Japanese politics on his own terms.

2. Keio University professor Kusano Atsushi published a paperback a year ago called Seiken Kotai no Hosoku, for which there is no elegant English translation, at least off the top of my head. It could be called the Law for Changes of Government, i.e., different parties alternating as heads of government in parliamentary systems. It’s an analysis of factions in Japanese political parties, and the professor also examines the “groups” in the DPJ. He holds that factions will inevitably form in the DPJ. One of his chapter headings is called “The Limits of Idealism”.

3. The last several posts have been translations rather than original material. That’s because I think the articles I translated need to be in English, if only to provide the Western press corps in Japan with chum. I’ve also been a bit busy with work.

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The Japanese dream?

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, August 22, 2009

THE NISHINIPPON SHIMBUN is running a multi-part feature examining the approaching centenary of the Japan-Korea colonization/merger next year. One article this week focused on 81-year-old Kim Yong-un (金容雲), who was born and grew up in Japan and first set foot in his ancestral homeland at the age of 17.

This introductory paragraph is directly under a photograph of Prof. Kim.


The Koreans Who Came to Japan

“An estimated 2.10 million Koreans were in Japan when the war ended in 1945. Most of them had come to Japan voluntarily looking for work after the merger. Of those, 90% were from the southern part of the peninsula. Some of them were subject to the citizen mobilization of 1944.”


The following is the text of the article. It is unclear whether this is a synopsis of an interview or whether Prof. Kim wrote it himself. In either event, since Prof. Kim is fluent in Japanese, it is likely that nothing was lost or modified in translation.


My father came to Japan on the Shimonoseki-Busan ferry in 1917, after the Japan-Korea merger. To use a modern expression, you might say he had the Japanese Dream; he dreamt of succeeding in Japan.

Kim yong-un

He was a landowner in a farming village in South Cholla, but the village was impoverished and didn’t produce much. A Japanese man who settled there discovered that the land was suited for the cultivation of pears and peaches, however, and he successfully created a fruit orchard. This inspired my father, who came to believe that he might be able to accomplish something in Japan, so he moved there.

He worked at first as a laborer in Shinagawa, Tokyo, but he later operated a small casting foundry. He seems to have had leadership ability, and he brought some relatives over from Korea to work in the plant. He got on well with the local police, and easily received their authorization for his relatives’ passage.

I was born in Tokyo in 1927, so that made me a zainichi kankokujin (Korean resident in Japan). When the name-change program came into effect in 1940, my father was reluctant, but he thought a Japanese name would make things easier. The Japanese name he adopted (Kanemitsu 金光) was convenient for business, and I didn’t have to continually explain my background at junior high school.

As far as I was aware, there was no great opposition to the name change program among Koreans in Japan at the time, even though they came from a different country.

But I was subject to some discrimination as a primary school student, which might have been the reason for the effort to hide our origins. We knew that some Japanese mothers didn’t want to have Korean children seated next to their children in the classroom, and that would hurt a child’s feelings. I didn’t particularly like it when my mother came to sports day dressed in the chima chogori, the traditional costume for Korean women.

Our family returned to Korea after the war. Eventually I began lecturing in mathematics and the theory of civilization, and I became a professor at Dankook University.

Actually, I was slightly acquainted with Kim Dae-jung, the hero of Korean democracy. We shared a similar world view, and I was asked to serve on the committee that drafted his speech when he assumed the presidency in 1998.

It is true that in his autobiography, he says that the period of Japanese rule “was filled with humiliation and hardship”. That might have been the case for his generation who stayed in Korea, but for me, I think it was evenly divided between the bad and the good.

Postwar Korean textbooks that deal with the name change program say that our names were taken from us by force. For the Koreans in Japan, however, it wasn’t as one-sided as that, as you can see from what I previously said. The same is true of the land survey from 1910-1918, which the textbooks treat as the ultimate thievery. In this operation, the Japanese took the land whose ownership was unclear and developed it. Before we went to Japan, my mother lamented that our land holdings were reduced because part of my father’s land was converted into dykes.

But at that time, the land next to ours was managed by one family group, and no registration papers (were needed). It is a fact that the land was left undeveloped because the ownership was unclear.

Were those bad times, or were they not? That question is tantamount to asking “if…” about historical matters, and simplistic judgments are not possible.


* Prof. Kim is the author of 醜い日本人 「嫌韓」対「反日」をこえて (The Ugly Japanese: Transcending hatred of Korea and anti-Japanism), which is published in Japanese. There are reports he will publish a new book this month in both Japan and South Korea claiming that his research shows the Korean language is derived from the old Silla language, and that the Japanese language is derived from the old Baekche language.

* The card on the lectern in the photograph of Prof. Kim reads, “Korea-Japan Exchange Symposium”.

* Japanese sources suggest the 1940 name change program was optional based on Japanese law.

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Posted in Foreigners in Japan, History, Japanese-Korean amity, South Korea, World War II | Tagged: , | 10 Comments »

Making the monkeys dance

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, August 20, 2009

THE PREVIOUS POST presented senior civil servants discussing their views of the current political situation, particularly in regard to how the upcoming election would affect them. Here’s a follow-up interview of Kinoshita Toshiyuki, who worked for the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, served as the mayor of Saga City, and now heads his own policy research group. He is also the author of Naze Kaikaku ha Kanarazu Shippai Suru no ka (Why Reform Will Never Succeed), a title meant as a challenge rather than a lament. The interview appeared in the Nishinippon Shimbun.

– Policy decision-making under bureaucratic control has resulted in citizen mistrust of the government. The political platforms of the ruling Liberal-Democratic Party and the opposition Democratic Party of Japan call for a reform of the civil service system. How do you view those platforms?

Kinoshita Toshiyuki

Kinoshita Toshiyuki

The declining population and other changes in the social structure have led to calls for a reappraisal of the national approach to politics. Despite this, the LDP platform fails to offer a proposal for eliminating the reliance on the bureaucracy, so I do not hold it in high regard. When the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries hired me 25 years ago, I was told, “Cabinet ministers are performing monkeys. Your job is to skillfully beat the drum and make them dance.” That is the presumption of the civil service. There has been no change to the general rule that the politicians do not become involved in policy formation, a role taken over by the bureaucrats.

The DPJ is offering a clear proposal to take the leadership from the bureaucracy and put it in the hands of politicians by having about 100 Diet MPs involved in government operations. But politicians have renounced their leadership authority, so it won’t be easy for them to control Kasumigaseki unless the minister, deputy minister, and parliamentary secretaries form a close-knit team.

– The so-called Iron Triangle of government, bureaucracy, and business have brought about such problems as the collusion on bidding for public works projects and amakudari (the practice of giving senior bureaucrats important jobs in government-affiliated organizations and private companies when they retire).

I worked for 15 years in Kasumigaseki, and more than half of that time was spent in power struggles with government offices. Civil servants don’t create wealth on their own, so they don’t understand what is wasteful, and they have no awareness of cutting expenditures. They wind up building big roads in agricultural areas that hardly anyone uses because they’re next to national highways. Amakudari is the symbol of waste by protecting the vested interests of the bureaucracy. It results in the wastefulness of the government-affiliated organizations and the creation of expensive projects.

– The LDP has proposed a system for eliminating waste in which external third parties check the budgets. The DPJ has proposed a large-scale reevaluation of independent administrative organizations and public-interest corporations and the elimination of bureaucratic bid-rigging and single-tendering of contracts.

Civil servants appoint specialists whose thinking is in line with theirs to chair blue-ribbon panels without a second thought. It will be difficult to effect change with the LDP plan. Both parties are calling for a 20% reduction in the civil service, and I support that, but the DPJ is also calling for a 20% reduction in the number of civil service personnel transferred to local government in conjunction with devolution. If the personnel expenses for those employees are transferred to local government, the reduction of the national budget will be meaningless.

– The parties have different approaches to the consumption tax in their plans to rebuild the nation’s finances.

The LDP proposes the implementation of tax reform, including an increase in the consumption tax, after the economy improves. They are clearly calling for the maintenance of public services, including welfare services for the elderly, with an increase in the citizens’ liability. I think that’s a good idea. The DPJ is seeking the elimination of waste from funding sources, but that omits the choice of either increasing taxes or reducing services if the funds are insufficient.

– The explanations of both parties leave something to be desired.

The LDP is sorely lacking in its analysis and explanations for the reasons it did not achieve the goals in its previous election platform. The DPJ has to be closely watched for how much reform it will bring to Kasumigaseki because it receives so much support from public sector unions. Politics must serve to pass the rudder of control from the bureaucrats to the politicians. I think the voters, who will select those politicians, have a heavy responsibility.

Afterwords: The Ministry had a point when it referred to politicians–everywhere–as performing monkeys, but still, that’s no way to run a government.

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Japan’s bureaucrats bite back

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, August 13, 2009

NO GROUP ANYWHERE has been on the receiving end of as many brickbats in recent years as the Japanese national civil service. Reformers nationwide are calling for the gutting of Kasumigaseki, the generic term for the bureaucracy taken from the Tokyo district where many of their offices are located. The platform of firebrand Watanabe Yoshimi’s newly formed Your Party has a plank that would cut civil service personnel expenditures by 30% and eliminate 100,000 positions altogether. The opposition Democratic Party of Japan, on the verge of taking power and forming a new government, has vowed to separate Kasumigaseki from the political process.

While most of the opinions of the bureaucrats themselves about this trend are likely to be unprintable, the weekly magazine Shukan Asahi sent Yokota Yumiko to conduct a roundtable discussion with a group of them and find out what the civil servants were willing to say with a civil tongue. The discussion with Ms. Yokota, a journalist who often covers the Japanese bureaucracy, appeared in the magazine’s 24 July issue. The bureaucrats are privy to a lot of information, and they are sharp observers, so it’s worth reading in English. I translated most of it here, though I omitted some sections where there was a bit too much inside baseball. Those participating in the discussion were identified as follows:

Assistants to division heads in the following ministries

Ministry of Finance (MOF)
Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI)
Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare (MHLW)
Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA)
Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT)
Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport (MLIT)

We’ll start with the discussion already in progress:


MOF: The LDP really should hold a presidential election and change their leadership. Since they’re going to lose the lower house election, they could position themselves for the next one by putting such structural reformers as Ishihara Nobuteru and Koike Yuriko (both former Cabinet ministers) in prominent positions. At this rate, they’ll be in the opposition forever.

METI: On 10 July, the prime minister’s closest aides (from the bureaucracy) stayed at the official residence to attend a party given in appreciation for their services. They used the opportunity to begin developing a scenario for dealing with the DPJ, enabling them to deal with the transfer of power whenever it occurred. They didn’t go into much detail, however. It mostly involved creating in each department an A team of bureaucrats for the ruling party and a B team of bureaucrats for the opposition party.

MOFA: Come to think of it, one LDP Diet member lamented that the frequency of attendance of bureaucrats at briefings had fallen to 70%. Are 30% of the human resources now being devoted to the DPJ?

METI: There might have been an increase in the percentage assigned to the DPJ. Many of the party’s younger MPs are ex-METI employees, so they’re often sent to METI offices to call on former colleagues and subordinates.

MOF: There’ve been some rumors the MOFA has frantically been destroying important documents in anticipation of a change in government. A former high-ranking MOFA official recently testified about the existence of documents related to a secret agreement about American nuclear weapons on Japanese territory when the security treaty was revised in 1960, and that officials destroyed those documents.

MOFA: That’s because the DPJ says they’ll look into the problems with those treaties. It’s true that some politicians were told about this, including prime ministers and foreign ministers, such as Hashimoto Ryutaro and Obuchi Keizo. They were selected for their reliability.

MLIT: I’ve heard that the Foreign Ministry submits documents with slight differences to the ruling party and to the opposition party.

MOFA: There are two types of documents created, and some that were checked by superiors and had language changed or omitted have been submitted to the DPJ. They contain less information than those submitted to the (ruling) Liberal Democratic Party. Still, this is great progress, considering that the ministry never used to respond to DPJ requests for information.

MOF: Documents are being saved thanks to requests for the disclosure of information. There’s been a considerable decline in the ability of government offices to gather information. In the past, they would take notes on what was discussed with politicians in informal situations as if they were reporters, and share it with people in their bureau. Now, however, if they make poor judgments about what to keep, they’ll have to destroy the information. It would create serious problems if the information became public.

– Before the summit, it was unfortunate that Prime Minister Aso didn’t make any important personnel changes in LDP party officials, nor did he have a major Cabinet reshuffle.

MHLW: We’ve calculated that the DPJ will win an outright majority. It’s not another case of the “10 lost years”, but it certainly has been “several lost years”. It would have been better to name Masuzoe Yoichi (HLW Minister) party secretary-general and Higashikokubaru Hideo (Miyazaki governor) as the Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications. Mr. Masuzoe is a good minister, though he has a poor reputation in the department responsible for handling policy for those suffering from illnesses due to the atomic bombing.

MOF: He is a good minister. He worked with former MHLW Minister Otsuji on the Robust Policy 2009 to eliminate the gap caused by the ceiling of annual growth in social welfare expenditures to 220 billion yen (about $US 2.23 billion) as set forth in the 2006 policy. That caused a lot of trouble for the MOF.

METI: To be honest, the bureaucracy has it the easiest during an election period. Everyone wants the election to come so they can take a break. Even if the DPJ forms a government, we’ll be worried about the Cabinet they put together. It’s possible that Hatoyama Yukio’s problem with campaign contributions will prevent him from sliding into the prime minister’s job so easily. Each of the ministries has had to rework their initial forecasts for the ministers to be selected. That’s caused us a lot of trouble.

MOFA worried about Makiko and Muneo

MOF: And here we thought (DPJ Secretary-General) Okada Katsuya was going to be Finance Minister. If something happens to Mr. Hatoyama, he’ll probably become prime minister. The person holding the finance ministry portfolio in the DPJ shadow cabinet is Nakagawa Masaharu, and he’s incompetent, so the best he can hope for is Vice-Minister. The economist Sakakibara Eisuke would really like the job, but his personality makes that difficult. A lot of his ex-colleagues in the Finance Ministry dislike him.

MOFA: Some people have suggested (former party head and current Vice-President) Maehara Seiji as Foreign Minister, but that would complicate things with China, so he’d probably be better off as the Defense Minister. The worst-case scenario is the rumor of Tanaka Makiko as Foreign Minister, Suzuki Muneo as Vice-Minister, and Sato Masaru as parliamentary aide. Muneo has already asked Mr. Ozawa to put him in a Foreign Ministry post. There are also rumors that a non-politician will be appointed.

(Other rumors about more obscure people omitted)

– The DPJ has a policy of Kasumigaseki reform, including statements that they’ll have everyone at the bureau chief-level and above resign.

MLIT: The senior officials certainly seem to be fretting over it.

MHLW: There’s been a lot of higher-ranked officials drowning their sorrows in Shinbashi bars and grumbling, “What the heck, I’m going to get fired, too.” They’re working hard to get all the information they can, and they say things like, “I hope the LDP government lasts as long as it can,” or “I hope the political realignment hurries up and gets here.”

MOFA: But the DPJ lacks the personnel, so they can’t very well fire some 130 senior officials all at once. They’ll probably wind up keeping about 70%-80% of them.

(A discussion of which bureaucrats in the various ministries would be asked to go follows. One name mentioned was that of Tango Yasutake in the MOF, a former aide to Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro. Mr. Tango was a key person in implementing structural reform and stepped on a lot of toes in the bureaucracy. The MOF representative says that for the DPJ, he is “a Class A war criminal”.)

– Do your ministries have any key people for dealing with the DPJ?

MOF: We have Kagawa Shunsuke…who’s handling that by himself. It’s unusual to have a person like him (a former aide to Ozawa Ichiro).

MLIT: Mr. Kagawa wrote the rough draft for Mr. Ozawa’s 1993 book, Blueprint for a New Japan. I’ve heard that Mr. Ozawa praised him for being “the most accomplished civil servant”. We’re jealous, considering that we have so few connections with the DPJ.

(Further discussion of personnel omitted.)

– Are you making any progress in your response to the DPJ platform?

METI: That platform underwent some editing, and now it’s a lot more realistic. The younger (bureaucrats) are optimistic. They’re relieved, thinking, “At any rate, they won’t be able to achieve any reforms.” There’ll be more people coming over from the new government, but when so many Diet members and private sector personnel who don’t know anything about Kasumigaseki suddenly show up, they won’t know what to do or how to do it. A Cabinet minister can’t handle policy by himself. The vice-ministers and parliamentary aides Mr. Ozawa will bring over won’t be doing any work.

MHLW: Realistically, it will be too late to deal with one measure after the platform is finalized. That’s the idea of merging the Social Insurance Agency with the National Tax Agency. If they’re serious, the shortest amount of time in which it can be accomplished is six months. The DPJ wants to eliminate the citizen payment of insurance premiums and switch to a tax-based system, but there just aren’t any funding sources. Until now, the funding source has been half from taxes and the other half from the insurance premiums paid by citizens. In the end, raising the consumption tax is the only choice.

MEXT: At any rate, the Social Insurance Agency is supposed to be transferred to a new organization next year.

– The DPJ is seen has having a close relationship with labor unions.

MOF: The biggest concern about a change of government is in fact the problem of labor unions. Many of the DPJ Diet members are backed by the Japan Teachers’ Union, the Federation of Electric Power-Related Industry Workers’ Unions of Japan, and the All-Japan Prefectural and Municipal Workers’ Union. If the power of the unions increases, there’ll also be an increase in featherbedding, civil servants who don’t do any work. Forget about Kasumigaseki reform. Their slogan of Separation from the Bureaucracy and the facts on the ground don’t match.

MEXT: If Koshi’ishi Azuma becomes the next Minister of Education, that will probably make the JTU more powerful.

MLIT: Government offices won’t be broken up, and you won’t be able to fire civil servants; the problem will just persist.

MOFA: Every organization (in the bureaucracy) has civil servants from labor unions who are really just professional agitators that don’t do any work. That’s particularly true for the non-career types. They can’t be fired, so some departments have even created “lucky charm” positions for them. If you’re looking for wasted money, there’s a good place to find it. I think they should eliminate amakudari (the practice of giving senior bureaucrats important jobs in government-affiliated organizations and private companies when they retire) and institute a system in which at least 10% of the senior positions are replaced. They should demote those in management who are incapable of working. I wonder if the DPJ is capable of that.

MLIT: With the amakudari problem, the biggest issue is how to deal with the non-career types. That’s how the public interest corporations and the government-affiliated corporations got created. The problem of watari with high-level civil servants got out of hand, but then again, how are we supposed to make ends meet with our career salaries? (Watari is the name for the ministries’ arrangement of finding successive jobs for retired bureaucrats at government-affiliated corporations, with the former civil servants receiving a pension each time.)

MEXT: Then there’s the campaign promise about changing the way the budget is formulated. Most agencies are fooling themselves by thinking it will go no further than the DPJ submitting its requests to each ministry.

MOF: The DPJ says they want to examine those budget practices that haven’t been looked at before. We can do that if they round up the best and the brightest from each ministry and increase the number of personnel at the Budget Bureau five-fold. And if they separate the Budget Bureau from the Finance Ministry and put it under the direct jurisdiction of the Prime Minister’s Office, it won’t diminish the Finance Ministry’s power. Rather, it will create a new foothold for us.

METI: Our budget is only about one trillion yen (about $US 104 billion), and our biggest worry in the special account is that the expenditures for small businesses are so great. In this economic downturn, some sectors can’t be touched, so we’re optimistic. Meanwhile, there are many sectors such as agriculture, where the ruling party and the opposition party are competing to see how much money they can throw at them. Just what does the DPJ think it’s going to do?

MHLW: Look at it from different angles and it doesn’t seem as if a DPJ government will last that long. Nowadays, the public’s expectations are too great. They can put together a terrific campaign platform, but with a lot of those planks, they’ll wind up saying, “We can’t do that,” or “We’ll put that off.” I wonder if political realignment will come sooner than we think.

MOF: At any rate, they’re only going to be able to find the funding sources for about one year’s worth of programs. There is nothing at all to fear from a DPJ government. No matter what government is in power, we just go quietly about our business. That’s the duty of the civil servant.

MHLW: There was the line in the recent drama, Summer of the Bureaucrats, that went, “We’re not rewarded for our work.” When I saw that, I cried in spite of myself.


* Note that one minister refers to Nakagawa Masaharu as incompetent. This May, Mr. Nakagawa told the BBC the government lost a lot of money from exchange rates after buying U.S. treasuries. He suggested that the American government issue yen-denominated bonds (so-called samurai bonds). His comments ignited a selloff of the dollar against the yen, resulting in a higher yen.

* Maehara Seiji is the former DPJ president who is in the party’s strong national defense wing. He and his allies were bitterly opposed to Ozawa Ichiro as party president, and by extension to Hatoyama Yukio replacing him. During the party election to replace Mr. Ozawa after he resigned, there were reports that he would make it his personal mission to ensure that those who wanted him to quit would never get a high-ranking party or government position in the future. It will be interesting to see where Mr. Maehara winds up.

* A Tanaka/Suzuki/Sato triumvirate at the Foreign Ministry sounds as if it is a nightmare rather than a rumor. Ms. Tanaka briefly served as Foreign Minister in Prime Minister Koizumi’s first cabinet, and the bureaucrats detested her. Their internecine warfare became great soba opera fodder for the daytime TV and current affairs discussion programs until she resigned. Mr. Suzuki had carved out a small fiefdom for himself in the Foreign Ministry until he was discovered carving out too much of a financial share for himself, and wound up doing a record amount of jail time for a Diet member. He’s now back in the Diet heading a vanity party and allied with the DPJ. Sato Masaru was a diplomat and Suzuki Muneo ally, praised by the latter as being the “Rasputin of the Foreign Ministry”. He was found guilty of malfeasance of office and his appeal was dismissed at the end of June, so he resigned his position and is now unlikely to be named to a position in government.

* A look at the English website for the Japanese Teacher’s Union has this on the top page:

Mr. Yuzuru Nakamura, President of JTU, referred first in his address to the issue of “poverty of children”, urging the participants that child-raising is not exclusively an “individual” issue. He said JTU should encourage the society to share the responsibility of child-raising among the “society” and the importance of returning the fruit of this effort to the “society”; and to shift the paradigm of educational philosophy (the value of coexistence and mutual assistance).
He also stated that the union should take every opportunity to have social dialogues with the communities, PTAs (parents’ and teachers’ associations), parents, children, educational and other administrations, and the government in order to exercise its social influence, and that it should issue easy-to-understand messages to the citizens.

One can imagine what sort of “social dialogue” they’d have with parents who insisted that child-rearing was an individual matter and that the union should butt out.

Combine that with Mr. Koshi’ishi’s recent statements that politics cannot be separated from education and it becomes apparent why the MOF official was concerned about labor unions. The JTU hobbled Japanese education with its “yutori education” policies of the 90s, some of which the Abe administration managed to roll back. Education and the schools are likely to become a political battleground in a DPJ administration.

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

Koizumi speaks

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, August 13, 2009

ONE OF THE SEVERAL REASONS former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro was successful with the voters was a confident and direct manner combined with a quick and sharp wit. He managed the difficult feat of capturing the popular imagination with a positive message while maintaining the ability to eviscerate his political opponents with the verbal equivalent of a terrible swift sword. Better yet, he lacked the glaring flaw of most politicians–an overweening sense of self-importance. It never seemed that he took himself too seriously, and it was often apparent that he was enjoying himself.

Even though he’s leaving public life at the end of the month, Mr. Koizumi still hasn’t lost his touch or the instinct for the jugular. Here are some comments from a Wednesday night speech in Kawasaki:

On the final, this-time-for-sure platform of the Democratic Party of Japan:

“They’re going to reduce the issue of government bonds, and they won’t raise taxes. I wonder what sleight of hand they’re going to use.”


“It isn’t that I don’t want the DPJ to take control off the government. I want to see the DPJ sleight of hand.”

That would sound heavy-handed coming from most any other pol, but he probably had the audience laughing.

He wasn’t entirely critical of the opposition, however:

“The DPJ are skillfully using the anti-LDP, time-for-a-change mood. That’s not a strategy to make light of.”

Perhaps most telling of all was his advice to LDP candidates:

“It’s not such a bad thing to experience being in the opposition. This won’t be the last election.”

Those aren’t the words of a man suggesting that the candidates resign themselves to their fate. Rather, it’s excellent advice from a man who realizes the benefits of a properly functioning two-party system. Some of those benefits include forcing those politicians rejected by the voters to reevaluate what they actually stand for, rather than cutting and trimming just for the sake of staying in power. Having to deal with being in the opposition for a change will present excellent opportunities for the superior politician.

Further, going from the opposition wilderness to the driver’s seat of power demands that politicians either put up or shut up–or both. The rash charges and irresponsible promises have a way of disappearing when people start dealing with the day-to-day reality of governing. And if they don’t disappear, and the politicians don’t put up, they’ll soon find themselves on the outside looking in again.

Finally, it will raise the political sophistication of an electorate unaccustomed to anyone but the LDP in charge of the government. Once they realize that the New Boss is just as unreliable, just as venal, and just as weird as the Old Boss in its own way–if not more so–they’ll tend to make better choices.

Here’s an example: Mr. Koizumi believed so strongly in the privatization of the postal system that he staked his political life on the issue by calling a lower house election four years ago to have the electorate decide one way or the other. The contrast with the DPJ’s ring binder approach to a party platform over the past month couldn’t be more stark. Try to imagine, if you will, Hatoyama Yukio staking his political life on anything. One man forced his party to take a stand on political principle. The stand taken by the other party is to corral every stray vote by shuffling papers, daubing on the white-out, and rewriting its drafts.

They’ve had four years since the last lower house election to make up their minds what they stand for as a party, rather than what they oppose. They’ve had two years since their upper house election victory gave them an indication that forming a government was a real possibility.

And they still haven’t figured it out?

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


Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, August 11, 2009

PART TWO of my honeymoon was a visit by my wife and me to my hometown and a few other cities in the United States. (Part One was a trip to Unzen before the eruption.) As we were driving around the former seat of the Ampontan manor one day, she suddenly turned and asked me a question:

“Doesn’t this city have any garbage collectors?”

I assured her that it did. In fact, I told her, all of us former municipal employees held the city’s sanitary engineers in the highest esteem. The only way we got a pay raise is when they threatened to go on strike.

“Then why is all this trash lying around in the streets?”

Kagoshima cleanup

That’s a good question I was never able to answer to her satisfaction. The best I could do was to shrug my shoulders. Guess what inevitably became a topic of every conversation with her friends when we returned to Japan and they asked her what America was like?

One reason she was taken aback by all the refuse in the road can be discerned from the accompanying photograph, taken last week at Clean City Kagoshima 2009. That’s an annual event in Kagoshima City, and this year an estimated 78,000 people in a municipality of about 600,000 turned out early on a Sunday morning to pick up where the garbage men left off in the local parks and roads.

In the city’s Tenmonkan shopping district alone, about 700 people representing 54 groups voluntarily came out to collect trash and do some weeding at a nearby park. The municipal authorities reported that 50 45-liter bags of empty cans and weeds were collected there.

Said one high school student, “There wasn’t as much trash as I thought there would be, but I was surprised at the number of cigarette butts. I wish people wouldn’t just throw them out on the street.”

Cleanup campaigns such as these are not exclusive to Kagoshima City. One of the best pieces of advice my boss ever gave me was to suggest that I participate in the neighborhood kawasoji two days after I arrived in Saga. Kawasoji is literally “river cleaning”, but that’s a bit of a misnomer. The rivers are really a network of small waterways throughout the city connected to the nearby bay. The banks have been concreted, the water is seldom more than knee-deep, and a grade school boy could easily throw a ball across them.

Twice a year, on a Sunday in March and September, residents gather at a pre-arranged spot at 8:00 a.m. to pick up equipment and head off to work. The job includes both cutting back the weeds and other natural growth at sections of the river nearest their home and removing the trash. (One year we even fished out a bicycle.) It only takes about two hours, and after cleaning up, we go to a nearby Shinto shrine to collect our pay—a bento lunch—and have some snacks. The beverages provided include tea, or for the hardy types that early on a Sunday morning, beer or sake. Some people stay only for a quick bite to eat and a drink, while others hang out longer and chat.

This actually does strengthen neighborhood cohesiveness among the people who participate. How could it be otherwise? People take each other more seriously after they’ve sweated and gotten dirty together, particularly when it improves conditions in their immediate surroundings.

Perhaps the people of my hometown could learn something from this. I sure did.

Posted in Environmentalism, Foreigners in Japan, Traditions | Tagged: , , | 7 Comments »

You decide…

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, August 11, 2009

HERE ARE two YouTube videos of recent television commercials in Europe. Both are about 30 seconds long.

The first seems to be for a paper manufacturer in The Netherlands. You can see it here.

Now for the second. I think, but am not certain, that the Dutch advertisement came first, because the second is currently being shown on British television.

We all know that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, particuarly in television, but one wonders about the motivation for the imitation in this instance. While the first did have a connection with the product–paper–the second is the identical advertisement, but this time for a confection called Mikado. The link is rather far-fetched. And while the lady on the copier certainly is lovely, Asian models aren’t really needed to sell the idea. Other commercials for the same product use Western models. Here you go.

I don’t know…

Incidentally, the second is being shown after 9:00 p.m., known as the “watershed” hour in Britain for allowing more adult content on the airwaves. Neither advertisement would have been possible in the U.S. when I lived there, but I haven’t lived there for some time now. And considering the publicity the problems with cell phone camera use received here a few years ago, I’m not sure it could be shown in Japan, either.

Posted in Mass media, Popular culture, Sex | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

Getting boared in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Monday, August 10, 2009

PICK ALMOST ANY TOPIC as a point of departure for exploring Japan, and it’s a near certainty that a fountain-full of serendipitous discoveries will emerge in short order. Even when the topic is boaring!

inoshishi hiroshige

The Japanese have eaten inoshishi (boar) meat, sometimes known as brawn, since ancient times, most often in stews in the winter. But boars are extremely skittish around people, perhaps as an evolutionary response for staying out of boiling cauldrons of water. They usually hightail it for cover as soon as they spot a human, making them difficult to hunt.

The meat of wild animals was considered taboo at times in the past in Japan, though that taboo was often ignored in mountainous areas. The hardy mountaineers kept eating boar meat, which was also known as yamakujira, or mountain whale (not to be confused with mountain oysters), due to a similarity in taste and texture. That’s a yamakujira shop depicted in the Hiroshige print. A Kansai rakugo comic routine called Buying Boar in Ikeda, which dates from 1707, relates the story of a man with gonorrhea who travels with a hunter in search of some wild game. (No, no, not that kind of game!) Izu, Shizuoka, was once the home of the Amagi Wild Boar Theme Park, and was enough of an attraction to draw as many as 400,000 visitors in 1985. It was shut down for good last year due to declining interest and the economic turndown.

The Japanese also consider the animal a pest, both in urban and rural areas. Packs of wild boar have been known to roam city streets at night, rooting through garbage and generally being rude and ugly. Farmers dislike them because they trample, root up, and eat crops. In fact, they’ve gotten so boorish in Takeo, Saga, the municipal government established a department this April and assigned it the task of finding ways to reduce the local population.

wild boar sausage

In a classic case of making lemonade when life hands you a lemon, the city employees hit on the idea of making boar meat a special local product and marketing it nationwide. To give local hunters an added incentive to track down the animals and sell the meat, they worked with a local butcher to create food products that can be eaten year-round.

The accompanying photo was taken at a recent event in which sausage and bacon-like products made from 100% boar meat were presented to the public for tasting. The boar for the breakfast table will hit the market later this month, selling for JPY 1,000 (about $US 10.25) for a 200-gram package. Lemongrass and spices have been added to the sausage to enhance the taste. The butchers have also developed a lunchmeat product resembling smoked ham, which will sell for JPY 500 yen for 60 grams. They plan to roll out hamburger- and roast ham-like products this fall.

Though the Amagi Wild Boar Theme Park no longer exists, those people who can’t live without boar exhibits in their lives might consider a trip to the Go’o Shinto shrine near the geographical center of Kyoto. All Shinto shrines have statues of what are called koma-inu, or guardian dogs. In 1890, the Go’o shrine took the somewhat eccentric step of replacing their statues of guardian dogs with those of boars.

inoshishi jinja

Since most boars are chicken and likely to run in the other direction when they sense a threat, they would not seem to be a logical candidate for selection as the guardian of anything. Ah, but the shrine had its reasons. One of the shrine’s tutelary deities is Wake-no-Kiyomaro, a Japanese government official who lived in the 8th century. He is known for his efforts to separate church (or rather, Buddhist temple) and state. After he became entangled with Imperial succession intrigues and fraudulent oracles at the Usa Shinto shrine, the ruling powers exiled him, had the sinews of his legs cut, and nearly killed him. He was later recalled from exile to serve in government again, and convinced the tenno (emperor) Kammu to build a new capital at Kyoto instead of Nagaoka.

The story goes that he was set upon by assassins as he was limping along the road on his way to exile. He was saved in the nick of time by the sudden appearance of a herd of 300 wild boars. Sometimes the cavalry arrives on something other than horseback!

The Japanese expression chototsumoshin (猪突猛進), the first kanji of which is that for boar, means a headlong rush, and also has the nuance of rashness in action. Now combine that with the boars’ providential rescue of the hobbled Wake-no-Kiyomaro. That was enough to make the shrine a destination for those seeking divine assistance to ensure sound lower limbs, regardless of their current condition. Petitioners include both those in wheelchairs or people who use canes, as well as ekiden runners and soccer players.

Given the ever-fertile Japanese imagination, it was inevitable that someone would put two and two and two together to combine boar cuisine and their straight line foot speed to come up with a new form of entertainment. The folks in Sasayama, Hyogo, have been holding Inoshishi Festivals for several years now in January that draw upwards of 20,000 people. What’s the big attraction? After dining on different dishes featuring wild boar meat, the revelers head for a nearby track to watch the boar races.

wild boar races

But the feast comes first, of course, and several well-known area restaurants set up a special area where they offer original cuisine, including boar meat soup, boar croquettes, and oden. The meals are reportedly so tasty that the diners form lines to enter one shop while eating the offerings of another. The restaurants usually sell out their stock every year.

Then it’s time for the main event, which features wild boars sprinting around an enclosed track. The trotters are given ear-catching names, just as if they were thoroughbreds running the Triple Crown. Can’t you almost hear the track announcer barking out the name of one contestant? “Heading into the far turn, it’s Dekan Showboy by a snout.” The reports don’t mention whether parimutuel betting is allowed.

Now I ask you–where else can you get the chance to spend a day at the races and eat the entrants!

The idea of making lunchmeat out of brawn is not originally Japanese, as a look at this British website will show. They even sell boar meat salami. Note the high protein and low fat content compared to other meats.

Posted in Food, New products, Shrines and Temples | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Four days in North Korea

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, August 8, 2009

HERE’S ANOTHER depressing account of life in Northeast Asia’s workers’ paradise, written by Sarah Wang for Slate.

Perhaps the most telling part of the article is the account at the end. Ms. Wang wanted to wander around at night for herself, but was prevented from doing so.

The island on which our hotel stood was guarded, and we could not leave at night. There may not have been any point going out anyway: There are no streetlamps, and after sunset, the only lights came from the windows of residential buildings. Around 9 o’clock, all the lights were turned off, and the city sank into darkness.

Yet she managed to get past the guards during a heavy rainstorm because they gave her only a cursory glance from under their umbrellas. She got lost in Pyeongyang–it was dark, after all–and then returned to the hotel.

When I returned to the island, I visited the revolving restaurant on the hotel’s 47th floor. It offered a panoramic view of Pyongyang, but there was nothing to see except the darkness.

Ms. Wang’s account differs from most because she includes a brief description of the elites. The pigs have learned to walk on their hind legs in this part of the world, too:

The train for Pyongyang had 15 cars, but only the three “international compartments” had fans to fight the sweltering heat. Well-dressed North Koreans took up the majority of seats in the compartment. The women wore silk blouses, nice skirts, and high heels, and the men were decked out in good T-shirts, which sometimes showed off their big bellies. They were the only fat North Koreans that I saw on the trip.

But there were also some odd passages. Here’s one:

There is no Internet access in North Korea—the Pyongyang elite use an intranet to listen to music and watch movies.

Entertainment is not the first thing that comes to mind when I think of the Internet, but I’m probably out of step with the modern world.

Here’s another:

Our guides repeatedly reassured us that the people had enough food and that each Pyongyang resident receives a ration of vegetables and rice every day. They didn’t mention meat or fruit…On one occasion, I drew a banana on a piece of paper and showed it to a waitress; she had never seen one. She knew about apples, but she had never eaten one.

So what did she bring them to eat?

I brought 150 Kit-Kat bars into the country, and I always took several out of my bag when I was alone with a North Korean. They would hesitate for a few seconds, look around to make sure that no one else was watching, and then stuff the Kit-Kats into their pockets.

I understand that she wanted to bring them a treat, but giving all that refined sugar junk to malnourished people? Gack!

Bring 150 bars of dark chocolate or a more healthful snack the next time!


While we’re on the subject of North Korea, the always interesting DPRK Studies website links to this English-language Chosun Ilbo article on a new book by Chang Jin-song, formerly associated with the North Korean Workers’ Party, about the Dear Leader’s personal life. Here’s the first sentence of the article:

Yun Hye-yong was a woman beyond the reach even of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il. Yun, the lead singer of Kim’s former favorite band Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble, was brutally executed after she spurned Kim’s persistent advances and fell in love with another man.

Security forces discovered her affair with the band’s keyboard player because they had tapped her phone.

It would seem that “absolute monarch” would not be an inappropriate word to use for the world’s most powerful otaku. Here’s the article speaking about a different woman:

Kim loved her more for her bold personality and sharp wit than her looks, and granted her the privilege of speaking informally to him.

“Privilege”? That says it all right there, doesn’t it?

Posted in North Korea | 2 Comments »

Hatoyama talks money, others talk Hatoyama money

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, August 8, 2009

AS WE’VE SEEN before, the opposition Democratic Party of Japan leader Hatoyama Yukio–who could well be prime minister by this time next month—has been embarrassed by revelations of campaign funding oddities. (That’s assuming a man who has spent that much time in politics is still capable of embarrassment.) His campaign war chest is enormous, dwarfing those of other party leaders and past prime ministers. That war chest was filled by an eyebrow-raising number of both the anonymous and the dead.

We’re about to find out some more next week. The September issue of the monthly magazine Bungei Shunju is due out on Monday, and it will have a long feature on some of Mr. Hatoyama’s financing issues. In addition to the personal contributions, it will examine some problems that may exist with the money received from his mother, 86-year-old Yasuko, the daughter of Bridgestone Corp. founder Ishibashi Shojiro. It’s widely suspected that she has shoveled a substantial amout of cash to both Yukio and his younger brother Kunio, who recently left the Aso Taro Cabinet.

Another publication taking a closer look at the Hatoyama finances will be the weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun in its holiday 13/20 August issue. The same company publishes both the monthly magazine and the weekly magazine.

This is serious money we’re talking about here. Hatoyama Yasuko still owns about 70 million shares of Bridgestone stock. Before he died, grandfather Shojiro gave both brothers enough Bridgestone stock to ensure they would remain plutocrats for life. In January 2008, Kunio said he had suffered a paper loss of “three to four billion yen” on his holdings, and added that his brother took a four-billion-yen hit. Yukio’s comment? “He talks too much.” (JPY 4 billion is about $US 42 million. If those were just valuation losses, you can imagine what the size of the portfolios must be.)

The article will reportedly focus on the connection between the Bridgestone fortune and the brothers’ assets, and the lack of transparency in Yukio’s campaign money. Whether any damaging revelations will emerge remains to be seen, but considering how the Japanese electorate feels about money politics and the DPJ leader’s attempt to don the clean party mantle, the articles are unlikely to burnish his reputation.

Coming out the same day will be an article in the September issue of Voice featuring an article written by Hatoyama the Elder holding forth on other people’s money rather than his own. Mr. Hatoyama says he would like to work toward the creation of an East Asian Union with a common Asian currency in the future. (The article isn’t out yet, so I don’t know how close of a union he has in mind.) Mr. Hatoyama says the union would be a framework for economic cooperation and security in the region.

Titled “My Political Philosophy”, the article also discusses the problems of a global currency system centered on the dollar. Mr. Hatoyama thinks the current financial crisis will accelerate the trend toward regional union.

One the one hand, he writes:

“Stronger economic ties and regional interdependence have formed a sufficient foundational structure for an economic sphere.”

He refers specifically to Japan, China, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the ASEAN countries. But on the other:

“There are differences in population, development, and political systems, so an economic union won’t be achieved overnight…it will require at least 10 years.”

Considering the differences in population, development, and political systems, not to mention scores of other factors, a properly functioning common currency would take so many years one wonders why Mr. Hatoyama is talking about it at all, but the man does love him some pie in the sky. Yes, he really is serious about that yuai stuff.

For starters, true currency integration would mean that individual countries or territories would have to give up control of their monetary policy. While you’re calculating the odds of that one, consider how long it will be before the Chinese provide enough transparency in their financial system to make the idea workable.

Before getting grandiose, how about encouraging smaller-scale steps first, such as fostering the growing economic ties between the southeastern Korean Peninsula and Kyushu? Meanwhile, the Sinosphere can work on its own regional integration.

The public intellectuals who like to talk about this sort of thing will probably love the idea, but there’s going to be so much on Mr. Hatoyama’s plate, let’s hope someone in the DPJ will attach a tether to the Man from Outer Space—as even he refers to himself—to keep him from floating into the ether and his mind focused on more immediate and pressing issues.


Here is a very brief explanation of what can happen with common currencies, and what is needed before they can function well. The conclusion:

A common currency can be expected to result in comparable prices in different regions only after a substantial equilibrating period of widespread trade.

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Posted by ampontan on Thursday, August 6, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asahi Shimbun

Brazilian <em>nikkei</em>

Brazilian nikkei

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

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

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

Insisted one ministry official involved with the program:

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

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

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

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

Michiko Ramos, a third generation nikkei, commented:

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

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

Private correspondence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The article also quotes the union leader’s son:

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

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

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

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

Hmm, the hidden side of everything…

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

freaks 1

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

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

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

pet rock

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

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

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

Freaks 2

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not an attractive image, is it?

Daniel Drezner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The New York Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the first direct quote:

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

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

Here’s the first quote from a Japanese:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes. However:

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

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

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

The article also has internal contradictions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think not.

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Tokyo on tap

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, August 2, 2009

A CONTROVERSY HAS ERUPTED in Scotland over a new beer created by the microbrewers BrewDog that has the highest alcohol content by volume of any beer in the U.K.: 18.2%. James Watt, one of the brewery founders, said their goal was to create high-quality “progressive” beers with exceptional taste that encouraged safe alcohol consumption and kept people from drinking too much.

Tokyo beer

Scotland and the rest of the U.K. have been dealing with a serious binge drinking problem, however. As you can imagine from that staggering alcohol content, the criticism of the beer—actually an oak-aged imperial stout—has been loud and immediate.

  • Alcohol Focus Scotland chief executive Jack Law:

“This company is completely deluded if they think that an 18.2% abv (alcohol by volume) beer will help solve Scotland’s alcohol problems. It is utterly irresponsible to bring out a beer which is so strong at a time when Scotland is facing unprecedented levels of alcohol-related health and social harm.”

  • The British Liver Trust:

“The notion of binge-drinking is to get drunk quick, so surely this beer will help people on their way?”

  • Ross Finnie, the Scottish Liberal Democrats’ health spokesman:

“I am not sure at all what place producing stronger strength beer has in a Scottish society where, across all age groups and all socio-economic categories, the medical evidence is that, as a nation, we are drinking too much alcohol.”

The brewer has its defenders as well. Zak Avery, a former UK Beer Writer of the Year:

“To claim that this type of beer is part of the alcohol abuse problem is akin to blaming Michelin-starred restaurants for the oft-reported obesity epidemic.”

Yet one aspect of this story that doesn’t seem to be piquing anyone’s interest is the name of this beer.

It’s called Tokyo* (with the asterisk).

Now what could the reason be for that?

Most people overseas would associate Japan with sake when thinking of alcoholic beverages. While there are some fine beers in Japan, the country is not known for oak-aged imperial stout. Most of the beer on the market here is no higher than 5%-5.5% alcohol by volume. In fact, one company is promoting a new brew it just released with a large number 7 on the container denoting that it has 7% alcohol by volume. (Asahi, I think, but I’m not sure.)

Tokyo* beer is made with jasmine, cranberries, malts and American hops, and is fermented with a champagne yeast to boost the alcohol content. None of those ingredients has a Japanese connection. Binge drinking is not really a problem here.

BrewDog has gotten in hot water before over the name of one of its products. They named a beer Speedball, which is a slang term for a mixture of heroin and cocaine. The brewery claimed then it was producing a quality product for responsible drinking and was educating people from misusing drugs. (Does there seem to be a pattern developing?) A local liquor watchdog group sent a non-binding letter to merchants asking them not to sell the product unless the name was changed.

There are no reports of the group thinking there was anything wrong with this name.

So the company has already produced one beer and “pushed the envelope”, as they say, by giving it a name with strong connotations of dangerous, illegal behavior and death. Is the intent the same with this product? You know, kamikaze pilots, World War II…

The spirits industry likes to promote itself this way. We’ve all heard the stories about the pictures of skulls hidden in ice cubes in magazine liquor advertisements. And really, naming a beer Speedball is blatant.

What would the Scottish reaction be if a Japanese brewery produced a new type of sake with an ABV content more than triple that of ordinary sake and named it after one of their cities? Raucous drunken laughter? Pride in the national reputation abroad?

The company also produces a beer named Trashy Blonde. Why should Japan be flattered to be included in a product lineup like that?

If I were the Japanese ambassador—or in the Foreign Ministry—I might want to have a word with someone in the Scottish government.


Scotland is not known for a healthful attitude toward food and drink to begin with. They even eat deep-fried chocolate bars.

Not surprisingly, the residents have the lowest life expectancy of any developed country in the world.

UPDATE: Reader Durf sends along a link to an Internet beer merchant in York for a Cumbrian ale known as “Dent Kamikaze”, which is a mere 5% alcohol by volume. Fortunately, the illustration on the label is of a ram’s head other than something more lurid.

Posted in Food, I couldn't make this up if I tried, New products | Tagged: | 17 Comments »

Boxers or briefs?

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, August 1, 2009

JAPANESE MEN have a reputation for disdaining household chores, but even they might think Wakata Koichi went too far—he showed up at work every day for a month straight wearing the same underpants.

Wakata Koichi

Wakata Koichi

It wasn’t as bad or as malodorous as it sounds, though. None of the 12 coworkers in his office complained, which means the experiment for which Mr. Wakata served as the guinea pig was a success.

His u-trou were special–they’re called J-Wear and were designed by JAXA, the Japanese space agency. Going without an underwear change for a month was one of the duties the Japanese astronaut handled while spending the last 138 days aboard the International Space Station. The space shuttle Endeavor gave him a lift back to Earth yesterday. There was no word on whether his underpants started walking around under their own power.

That wasn’t all he did when he was in orbit. As this article in The Scotsman describes:

One had him flying through the cabin standing upright on a white sheet that performed like a surfboard. Another was to administer eye drops in space. That involved him squeezing the liquid into a tiny ball at the tip of the bottle and effectively head-butting it to get it into his eye.

Mr Wakata’s J-Wear included more than futuristic Jockey shorts. JAXA also provided him with special socks, T-shirts, and trousers. He brought all this dirty laundry back home, just as any man on a business trip might do. Instead of leaving the laundry with his wife, however, he gave it to JAXA scientists for study and testing. How’d you like to be one of their lab techs?

And give the spaceman credit, too. Would you want to wear the suit in the photo knowing that you wouldn’t be able to scratch your itchy crotch?

But this wasn’t an outer space first. Doi Takao wore the underpants on the ISS last year, though his experiment lasted for only 16 days. That means a new outer space underwear endurance record has been set!

As chance would have it, I saw part of a television program last night that featured interviews with American astronauts who went to the moon. One described how difficult it was to deal with bowel movements in a weightless environment. Since everything floats, it wasn’t easy making sure everything stayed in the bag without sailing through the cabin.

When people say space is the final frontier, they’re not kidding about the frontier part!

Incidentally, Mr. Wakata made 2,208 earth orbits and traveled for 57,000,000 miles during his more than four months on the space station. The space shuttle has now become a de facto ferryboat, providing taxi service to the station and back.

Perhaps the most newsworthy part of the story is how blasé we’ve become about all this. Mr. Wakata’s adventures didn’t even rate an article in today’s Nishinippon Shimbun.

Afterwords: Here’s what the duds look like.

UPDATE: The coverage of this story by the Japanese media came a day late. It’s on the front page of the newspaper today.

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