Japan from the inside out

Archive for January, 2010

Free free speech

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, January 31, 2010

“Freedom of assembly and association as well as speech, press, and all other forms of expression are guaranteed.”
Article 21, the Japanese Constitution

NOW THAT they’ve been caught with their pants down yet again, the Democratic Party of Japan is proposing to further trash Article 21 by banning corporate political contributions altogether.

That this is a pointless exercise is demonstrated by Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio’s own fund-raising strategies. His entire political career has been bankrolled by an individual–his fabulously wealthy mother. He was also probably the one—notwithstanding his shifting of the blame and the legal responsibility to his aides—who managed to disguise, until recently, the source of those funds.

What’s the next bright idea? Banning contributions from dead people?

The reaction of the country’s political class to the funding scandals of the 1990s was to raid the public till to bankroll the parties, defined as groups with five seats in the Diet. The amount of funding corresponds to the number of seats each party holds. Putting aside the problems of numerically defining a political party and the serious obstacles this erects to the growth of new parties—which just by coincidence solidifies the dominant position of the big boys and other incumbents—this is also a clear violation of the right to free speech.

That right is not limited to allowing the expression of unpopular ideas. It also includes preventing the government from forcing people to dress alike, march to a nearby stadium, and sing hymns written by the Propaganda Ministry to the Dear Leader, if they happen to think the Dear Leader and everything he stands for is the political equivalent of leprosy. In other words, free speech also includes the right to remain silent.

But the proposed political funding law means that Japanese taxpayers (including me) are forced to subsidize, and thereby promote, the speech of people and ideas they dislike. This isn’t just a personal issue. Of course I abhor the idea that the government is rifling through my wallet to take the money I earned through honest labor to pay for the political activities of people like Social Democrat Fukushima Mizuho. But it also means that the government picks the pocket of teachers’ union apparatchiks to facilitate the political speech of those who think teachers should be required to sing the national anthem at school assemblies.

Forcing everyone to equally support everyone else doesn’t make it fair; it just means that everyone’s right to free speech is equally violated.

The case that limiting political contributions also limits free speech has become a point of discussion recently in the United States with the recent Supreme Court Decision striking down McCain-Feingold. As (Canadian) David Warren explains:

(T)he U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week that the First Amendment, which guarantees free speech, trumps the McCain-Feingold campaign finance act of 2002, and any other attempt to restrict election spending by “corporate persons” (in the broad sense that includes unions and any other formal organization). As Justice Anthony Kennedy explained in the majority decision, “The government may regulate corporate speech through disclaimer and disclosure requirements, but it may not suppress that speech altogether.”

The majority also homed in on this crucial point: that bureaucratic regulation of speech constitutes a de facto prior restraint…

Mr. Warren gets to the heart of the matter here:

(The) Nanny (state) audits political spending through an immense bureaucracy, which has the effect of reversing power relations between the “wise” political parties and those crazy voters.

Is this the argument for campaign spending controls? I think it is the real argument, but it is not the argument commonly offered. The “official” argument is that, sans Big Nanny, those big corporate interests on Bay Street or wherever would “buy” the elections.

This premise, in turn, is even more insulting to the electorate. It holds that we can be bought, as easily as politicians. The insult is also quite unfair. Canadians, as all other electors, have a human tendency to resent obvious attempts to buy them, and to express that resentment through the secret ballot.

He also offers a suggestion as to the real reason some politicos detest the Supreme Court ruling:

(T)he chief (ramification) is that the decision attacks the contemporary lobbying system. In effect, those advancing special interests are condemned to lobbying the entire electorate, instead of just lobbying the politicians behind closed doors. This directly undermines the political class. It goes to the heart of their ability to broker deals not in the public interest, and pass them into law without public debate.

Translated into Japanese, of course the connections between large construction companies and the likes of DPJ Secretary-General Ozawa Ichiro are squalid and detestable. The solution, however, is not to prevent the companies from contributing to his campaign war chest. Rather, force the disclosure of any and all contributions of big business, big labor, and big religion to the politicians and let the electorate draw its own conclusions.

If you think the electorate is incapable of drawing its own conclusions, take another look at the polling trends for the DPJ-led government since it assumed office. There are also dozens of similar examples in recent years at the sub-national level.

Taken to its logical extreme, this attempt to limit political contributions is an expression of the political class’s contempt for the voters, whom they treat as children unable to make the informed decisions only they are capable of. They’re going to cook the law books anyway with recipes that enable them to finance their campaigns by hook or by crook–mostly by the latter. They’re also going to compound the problem by making the public pay for whatever it is they decide to do, including taking three-day junkets to European capitals on fact-finding missions that could just as easily be accomplished through meetings with officials at Tokyo embassies. (Exhibit A: Kan Naoto’s trip to London last spring. Exhibit B: The smartly dressed Fukushima Mizuho’s recent trip to Paris)

It is an attitude profoundly antithetical to liberty. Take the shackles off, free free speech, and let the chips fall where they may. I trust the people to make the right decision more often than not.

Why don’t the politicians?


Lest you think I exaggerate about how politicians view the public, not two hours after I put up this post, I ran across this comment from Financial Services Minister Kamei Shizuka on television today:

“Substantial numbers of the people now lack the ability to make dispassionate judgments from their cerebral cortex.”

He was defending Ozawa Ichiro.

Posted in Legal system, Politics | Tagged: , , , | 5 Comments »

Marked man

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, January 30, 2010

IS THE JAPANESE MASS MEDIA being manipulated by Tokyo prosecutors to turn public opinion against DPJ Secretary-General Ozawa Ichiro in the latest installment of his political fund scandals?

That’s what some members of the media suspect, and a large Amen Corner of Ozawa supporters is backing them up in the Japanese blogosphere.

The 5 February issue of the weekly Shukan Asahi that hit the newsstands this week threw some more red meat into the cage. The magazine claims someone in the prosecutors’ office is feeding them leaks to make things look bad for Mr. Ozawa, and they slam the prosecutors for their conduct of the investigation. Here’s an excerpt.

“Someone sent the editors this information immediately before prosecutors interviewed Ozawa. It’s not clear whom the source is, but it is a leak from the Tokyo District Public Prosecutor’s special investigative team.”

‘Whatever happens, they’ll get Ozawa. Otsuru (Motonari, the head of the special investigative unit) is a hard-liner, and he said, ‘We’ve got the proof. Now it’s just a question of how we’ll do it.’ The goal is to get him for accepting bribes for influence peddling, but if that doesn’t work, it’ll be as an accomplice in violating the political funds law. They can even get him for tax evasion. In the end, there’s also the possibility of striking a deal in exchange for him resigning his Diet seat.’

“In fact, the same person brought us information last week.”

‘The person leading the investigation now is not Sakuma Tatsuya, the division head, but Mr. Otsuru. He’s deadly serious, so he lit a fire under his less aggressive superiors, which led to the arrest of Ishikawa (Tomohiro, a lower house MP and former Ozawa aide). That’s because Ishikawa lied his head off during voluntary questioning. The Shukan Asahi is going to badmouth the prosecutors anyway, but you’ll wind up embarrassing yourselves if you don’t quickly change your tune. Sources at the construction companies are blabbing. Ishikawa is going to go down. Ozawa’s done for too. If they indict and convict him, he won’t be able to serve in the Diet.’

“According to this source, six top-notch prosecutors have been brought in from Osaka, Kyoto, and other places in the Kansai region, so it’s possible there’ll be more support to build a case against Ozawa. Both the Justice Ministry and the lead prosecutor are worried about getting ahead of themselves, however.”

‘They’re going up against the Democratic Party, so Mr. Otsuru is well aware that the Justice Minister may exercise her right to halt the investigation. They have to use the mass media to further fan the flames and prevent that from happening. They might have to seek permission from the Diet to arrest him.'”

The reference to the magazine criticizing the prosecutors is clarified by the title of the article: The Out Of Control Prosecutors. The author of the article is Uozumi Akira, who writes: “The aim is to have Mr. Ozawa resign from the Diet. This is a crisis for parliamentary democracy.” He quotes former prosecutor Goharu Nobuo as saying: “The prosecutors have no clear direction. They’re just attacking Mr. Ozawa.”

If that’s the objective, they’ve gotten the public on their side. Here are the numbers from a recent Nikkei/TV Tokyo poll

61%: Think Ozawa should resign from the Diet
30%: Think Ozawa should not resign from the Diet
9%: Don’t know

Poll numbers notwithstanding, some in the media and the Japanese blogosphere think the prosecutors are abusing their power. Mr. Uozumi elaborated the reasons they’re going after Ozawa in a radio interview:

“They’re upset because Mr. Ozawa has political control of Japan. Kasumigaseki (the bureaucracy) wants to control politics. But they can’t put up with him because he’s reversing that situation. The special prosecutors are at the top of Kasumigaseki, and the structure is “All-Kasumigaseki vs. Ozawa”. It’s a struggle for control between politicians and the bureaucracy.”

Another reason cited for the prosecution’s full-court press is that the ambitious Mr. Otsuru is trying to recover from a previous setback. He was the lead prosecutor in a collusion case involving construction companies and politicians in Fukushima. Though local prosecutors were not anxious to pursue the matter, he is said to have brushed aside opposition because he wanted to further his career.

They eventually arrested and tried Gov. Sato Eisaku, who was found guilty, sentenced to three years in jail, and given a five-year stay of execution. Last September, the appeals court reduced that to a two-year sentence with a four-year stay of execution, though the court found that the governor received no money in bribes. Mr. Sato claims the prosecutors created the case out of whole cloth by the prosecutors.

Some hold that Mr. Otsuru—who also led the prosecution team that put young Internet entrepreneur and media sensation Horie Takafumi in prison—is trying to nail Mr. Ozawa to restore his reputation.

Other, more outré conspiracy theories abound. Some claim that Mr. Ozawa is being targeted by Wall Street capitalists and the CIA working with certain LDP factions, the Kasumigaseki bureaucracy, and the big Japanese advertising agencies (i.e., television sponsors).

Here’s the most entertaining theory of all: Arrayed on one side is the Rothschild Freemasons of Europe (of which Mr. Ozawa is supposedly a member), the Chinese government, and the Ozawa-led DPJ, who are squared off against the Tokyo prosecutors, a “certain large religious group” (read: Soka Gakkai, whose political arm is New Komeito, whom Mr. Ozawa is trying to crush), the American embassy in Japan working with the CIA, and the Rockefeller-backed Freemasons of the United States.

The American Freemasons are supposedly upset because the DPJ is trying to worm its way out of the agreement to move the Futenma air base to another location.

One part of this theory holds that Mr. Ozawa has convinced Chinese President Hu Jintao to agree to force North Korea to release the remaining Japanese abductees in North Korea this summer just before the July upper house election. That, goes the story, has enraged the Americans because it will allow the Chinese to maintain the upper hand in dealing with the North Koreans.

This yarn has faint echoes of the case against Mr. Ozawa’s mentor as a political boss, Tanaka Kakuei. His daughter Makiko, Prime Minister Koizumi’s first foreign minister, suspected the CIA of being behind the plot to bring down her father—an advocate of closer relations with China.

Those inclined to look for leaks, conspiracies and the print media’s involvement might have a point considering the rash of stories over the past two months describing Mr. Ozawa as a dictatorial, iron-fisted, anti-democrat who brooks no opposition inside the DPJ. They’re believable, seem well sourced, and have turned public opinion against Mr. Ozawa and the DPJ. There are now more people who do not support the Cabinet than do, a sharp reversal in just four months.

Be that as it may, Mr. Ozawa is not helping his own cause. He is a very unlikely Sir Galahad. His political fund management committee has extensive real estate holdings, which have been a source of suspicion for years.

He hasn’t come up with plausible cover stories for the funding of the questionable real estate deal for which his aide was arrested, either. He’s told four different tales over the past year or so, and his most recent is that the money came from his father’s estate. Yesterday, however, a 27-year-old newspaper article surfaced in which Mr. Ozawa said that he received no money from his father’s estate.

When he finally did agree to talk to the prosecutors earlier this month, the conversation lasted four and a half hours in a Tokyo hotel room. He also reportedly spent several hours before the interview mulling over his strategy with his attorneys in a different room of the same hotel.

That doesn’t sound as if the facts behind the real estate deal in question and the money that paid for it are so cut and dried.

This week, some influential members of the DPJ seemed as if they started to put some distance between the party and Mr. Ozawa. There wasn’t as much talk of a full frontal assault against the prosecutors as there was before. For example:

24 January
Sengoku Yoshito, Minister of State for Government Revitalization and Civil Service Reform

We’ll make a decision (on Mr. Ozawa) when the matter is resolved taking public opinion trends into account.

25 January
Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio

I support his continuation in his post for now.

(The Japanese immediately seized on the “for now” part, or 現在は (genzai ha). The Japanese expression makes it obvious that Mr. Hatoyama was giving a clear signal he might not be so supportive in the future.)

26 January
Prime Minister Hatoyama (Referring to the extensive real estate holdings of the Ozawa fund management group)

That wouldn’t be possible for an ordinary Diet member, and I don’t think (an ordinary Diet member) would do it. I think the people view that (in the same way).

Maehara Seiji, Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport

(Fund management groups) shouldn’t use political funds to buy real estate.

Haraguchi Kazuhiro, Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications

Generally speaking, politicians and groups about whom there are suspicions must make a sincere effort to clear up those suspicions in the Diet.

(This one is also telling; Mr. Haraguchi is an Ozawa ally.)

29 January
Noda Yoshihiko, Deputy Finance Minister

I do not think the people want to return (government) to the LDP. The most important issue before us is achieving a stable government in the July upper house election. After some facts emerge (about Mr. Ozawa), we will make a judgment in accordance with that issue.

It is theoretically possible that Mr. Ozawa is going to be vindicated, but that will take some time to play out.

In the meantime, staying on as DPJ Secretary-General could seriously harm the party’s chances of achieving a majority in this summer’s upper house election.

If the party disassociates itself from Mr. Ozawa, however, or if he is forced to resign his Diet seat, it’s an odds-on bet that the DPJ will not hold together for the three and a half years remaining in the lower house term.

Yet it’s also unlikely the LDP as presently constituted could regain power. As Mr. Noda says, the brand has become too degraded, and the current leadership is in such a retrograde mode, the public will not be willing to hand them the reins of government anytime soon.

The cement of Japanese politics is still wet.


If you like conspiracy stories, you’ll love this. Rockefellers, Rothschilds, yakuza, the Imperial household, ninjas, earthquake machines–you name it, this one’s got it. In fact, this guy might be the source for the Rockefeller/Rothschild stories in the Japanese-language part of the web.

As whacked out as it is, I have to admit I was intrigued by the mention of LDP pol Kato Koichi getting wads of cash in an envelope, and the claim later in the interview that the North Koreans bought off the police and the LDP government with the income they received from Japanese pachinko parlors so the authorities would overlook their amphetamine exports.

Recall that Mr. Kato was adamantly opposed to the Abe hard line against North Korea…

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Coming up on the outside, Your Party

Posted by ampontan on Friday, January 29, 2010

RECENT POLLING about party politics in Japan has picked up a trend worth keeping an eye on. A joint Nikkei Shimbun/Tokyo TV survey conducted on the 26th and 27th asked the subjects which parties they supported and/or liked.

Here are the results in order from top to bottom:

  • Democratic Party: 42% (four points down)
  • Liberal Democratic Party: 24% (one point up)
  • Your Party: 5% (three points up)
  • Communist Party: 4% (two points up)
  • Komeito: 3% (one point down)
  • Social Democrats (part of the ruling coalition): 2% (no change)
  • People’s New Party (part of the ruling coalition): 0% (one point down)

In short, Your Party now ranks third among all parties in Japan, albeit at 5%. That’s still quite a development for a small party formed last year by LDP rebel Watanabe Yoshimi with long-time independent and bureaucracy reformer Eda Kenji. (Mr. Eda was a bureaucrat himself, so he knows where all the bodies are buried.)

This suggests the electorate is starting to realize they’re unlikely to get the reforms they seek from the DPJ and are looking elsewhere for alternatives. A few are turning to Your Party, whose reform message has so far remained consistent.

This still hasn’t translated into personal support for Mr. Watanabe, the party head. The poll also asked respondents which politician they would like to see exercise influence over Japanese politics in the future, and he didn’t show up on the list. But it’s also worth noting to see just who did, and the order in which they appeared:

  • Masuzoe Yoichi: 26% (eight points up) Mr. Masuzoe of the LDP is a former Health Minister. He has been hinting he might leave the party.
  • Maehara Seiji: 14% (seven points up) Mr. Maehara is the former head of the DPJ and now Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport. This indicates the public likes what it has seen of him so far in a role more highly visible than usual for MLIT ministers. He is also a sharp critic of Ozawa Ichiro and favors modifying the Peace Clause of the Constitution to permit self-defense.
  • Okada Katsuya: 8% (one point down) Another former DPJ head and current Foreign Minister
  • Hatoyama Yukio: 8% (four points down) Are you surprised?
  • Kan Naoto: 7% (Unchanged) Current Finance Minister
  • Ishihara Nobuteru: 6% (Unchanged) Served as Minister of State for Administrative and Regulatory Reform and Minister of Land, Infrastructure and Transport in LDP governments. He lost his bid for LDP party president last fall.
  • Ishiba Shigeru: 5% (one point down) Former Minister of Defense and Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in LDP governments. He could be described as what the British once referred to as a “wet” Tory.
  • Nagatsuma Akira: 5% (one point up) Current Minister of Health, Labor, and Welfare
  • Ozawa Ichiro: 2% (five points down) Are you surprised?
  • Tanigaki Sadakazu: 2% (one point down) Current LDP president. No one is surprised.

Could the terrain be slowly starting to shift? A political movement incorporating the likes of (1) Mr. Masuzoe and other disenchanted LDP reformers, (2) Mr. Maehara, who is on the right flank of the DPJ, has little in common with the teachers’ union refugees and other leftists in the party, and has informally associated with the Koizumians in the past, and (3) Your Party might just be a way out of the political wilderness for Japan.

These numbers also suggest that Messrs. Hatoyama, Kan, Ozawa, and the LDP old guard represented by Mr. Tanigaki are a spent force, regardless of the positions they currently hold. While free of the baggage weighing those people down, Mr. Okada is not the type of person to attract enthusiastic popular support. He may have become seasoned in the interim, but he was obviously out of his league when he led the party to a resounding defeat in 2005.

Former Lower House member Ono Jiro announced this week he met with Watanabe Yoshimi and agreed to join Your Party. He will be a candidate for a proportional representation seat in this summer’s upper house election in Yamanashi.

Mr. Ono was formerly an aide to Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro, who dispatched him to Yamanashi to run as an assassin in the 2005 election. He took on the incumbent opposed to postal privatization and won despite never having lived in Yamanashi. (His father was born there.) One of the so-called Koizumi Children, he lost his bid for reelection last August against the DPJ challenger.

Realizing that a) the LDP brand is fatal, and b) the party has become a field of Mimosa pudica (Sensitive Plants) and returned to its former configuration now that Mr. Koizumi has passed through, he left earlier this month.

Your Party is a natural home for some of the Koizumian reformers. One question now is whether any more will follow.

Another question is whether the observation of G.K. Chesterton will apply:

“The reformer is always right about what is wrong. He is generally wrong about what is right.”

One possible error is that Mr. Watanabe styles himself as an expert on economic affairs, but some of his ideas seem eccentric and unworkable. For example, in late 2008 when the world’s politicians were reeling from the financial crisis, he suggested the Japanese government should temporarily issue its own currency for use along with that of the yen issued by the Bank of Japan. (There is a historical precedent.)

Your Party also joined the ruling coalition and Komeito in the lower house on the 25th to pass a second supplementary budget that contains an added JPY 7.2 trillion in economic stimulus measures.

Considering the failure of the stimulus measures in the United States, and the growing public opposition to them, this does not seem like such a wise step. The demonstrable effect on private sector employment has been zero. (Saving public employees from being laid off doesn’t contribute to the economy.)

The way to strengthen a national economy is not by spending more money of the mind to incur more debt.

Eda Kenji explains on his website the reason the party voted for the measure:

“We reluctantly backed the measure for the negative reason that ‘it’s better than nothing’.

“There’s nothing new about it. They cut JPY 2.9 billion from the Aso administration’s supplementary budget, but found ways to put most of it back in. The whole budget cutting exercise seems to have been a way to exert their authority because they took control of the government.

“Not only that, much of what they did won’t have an impact on the economy, such as offsetting JPY 3 trillion in cuts of local tax grants and transfering JPY 350 billion to unemployment insurance. GDP will still decline by about 0.1%.

“The Hatoyama administration basically understands nothing about the economy, which is why they have no solutions. That’s not surprising when you have a minister who doesn’t even understand the difference between the multiplier effect and consumption propensity.”

Here is a summary of the Watanabe/Eda reform platform, which they published in book form before officially forming a party.

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Close, but no cigar

Posted by ampontan on Friday, January 29, 2010

IN THE CORNER, the blog at the National Review website, Jonah Goldberg quotes a Melanie Kirkpatrick review of two books about North Korea.

In attempting to understand North Korea, Mr. Myers argues, outsiders almost invariably get it wrong. The country’s dominant ideology is not Communism or Stalinism or Marxist-Leninism. Nor is it Confucianism or even the regime’s governing doctrine, called Juche Thought, usually translated as “self-reliance.” The real North Korean worldview, Mr. Myers notes, is based on a belief in the unique moral superiority of the Korean race.

So far, very good to see some real insight about Northeast Asia for a change. But then:

The closest analogy is the fervent nationalist ideology that governed prewar Japan and influenced North Korea’s founding fathers. Having grown up in colonial Korea, they embraced Japan’s propaganda methods after coming to power in 1948. Kim Il Sung, the founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — the North’s full name — even had himself photographed, Hirohito-like, astride a white stallion.

This doesn’t quite make sense. He says the closest analogy is the prewar Japanese ideology, but then talks about propaganda methods rather than ideology.

Perhaps that’s because the propaganda methods are those of the Japanese, but the ideological strain of Joseon racial purity was already thriving long before the Japanese got there.

It turns out that Mr. Myers is B. R. Myers, a professor at Dongseo University in South Korea. A foreigner in South Korea parroting the Korean Peninsula’s anti-Japanese line? Big surprise there.

Mr. Myers misses out on the cigar for two reasons.

1. He failed to mention that while these tendencies exist throughout the region, the undisputed East Asian champs in this weight class have always been the Chinese. They still are.

2. He missed the part of Japanese intellectual history in which the Japanese nationalists of more than a century ago used as one of their justifications for the annexation/colonization/merger with Korea the idea that the Japanese and the Koreans were the same tribe to begin with.

Ah, well. Some progress is better than none.


“Almost invariably”? An ideology “governing” a country, rather than people?

Is there an editor in the house?

Posted in History, North Korea | Tagged: | 40 Comments »

Lee Teng-hui on Japan’s foreign policy

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, January 28, 2010

FORMER PRESIDENT of the Republic of China, Lee Teng-hui has always had an affinity for Japan. He enlisted as a second lieutenant in the Japanese Imperial Army during the war, helped clean up Tokyo after the March 1945 firebombing, and graduated from Kyoto University in 1946.

Mr. Lee was the first native Taiwanese to hold the office of president. A democratic reformer, he was reelected in that country’s first direct presidential election.

He was in Japan for a week last fall during which he visited several cities and delivered an address at a symposium. In one part of that speech, he offered the Japanese some advice for their conduct of foreign affairs.

The Japanese should take it to heart. Here it is in English.


It seems to me that Japanese foreign policy has yet to break free from the spirit of self-flagellation and self-denial caused by the trauma that resulted from its defeat in the war. Self-reflection is very important, but when taken to extremes, it turns to self-flagellation and abjection. It is impossible to conduct a sound foreign policy in the spirit of self-flagellation and abjection. That sort of thinking will only be mocked by the rest of the world. In fact, I have yet to hear anyone utter the phrase, “A Japan that can be respected”.

Unconditional submission to the United States and an abject, kowtowing policy for the People’s Republic of China—in other words, a foreign policy of pressing one’s forehead to the earth in veneration–is inappropriate for a Japan that has built the second-ranked country in the world.

In particular, the relationship between Japan and the People’s Republic of China in the future must be one in which a clear line is drawn, as expressed by the words of (the novelist) Mushakoji Saneatsu: “You are you, and I am I, so let us get on well with each other.”

The other day, I used those words in a speech in which I said that relations between Taiwan and China must be based on drawing the same clear line. Considering the uncertainty that clouds China’s future, neither Japan nor Taiwan should be dazzled by the carrot that the Chinese are holding in front of our eyes. I think it is necessary to build good relations while maintaining a resolute attitude of independence that asserts, “I am I”.

It seems to me that in the past, Japan’s approach to foreign relations has been to submissively accept the assertions of the other party and to be careful so as to make as few waves as possible.

Unfortunately, however, no matter how much you humble yourselves, that will not be understood by foreigners. On the contrary, all of you must clearly recognize that stance will be scorned and despised.

Indeed, it is now time for Japan to have a proactive and bold foreign policy based on self-driven vigor and self-reliance.

Posted in China, International relations, Taiwan | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

The bogus and the bona fide (2)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, January 27, 2010

ONLY MAD DOGS and Englishmen venture into India’s noonday sun, it was once said, and the same could apply to Japan in August. Though neither a mad dog nor an Englishman, I was walking on the sunny side of Saga City’s main street early one Saturday afternoon in August 2007 when I heard the echoes of loud and frenzied drumming come thundering down the block.

The Ushikko

Encountering the unexpected is one of the delights of life in Japan, but the time, the place, and the combination of Japanese taiko and African rhythms meant that whatever was going on was not a matter of daily tea and rice, as they say here.

In the middle of that block is a plaza built into an open area occupying the space of about three or four shops. There’s a small stage at the rear, faced by a few benches and surrounded by some trees and shrubbery. On the stage that day were about 10 teenaged girls dressed in matching black t-shirts and shorts and performing synchronized dances while whaling away at the drums.

And boy, did they have rhythm.

Their audience numbered only a few more people than were in the group itself, and their performance ended about 15 minutes after I arrived. Still full of energy, the girls bounced off the stage, toweled off the sweat, and began packing up their gear. After striking up a conversation with one of them and an accompanying adult, I discovered they were part of an informal group from Ushizu High School in Ogi, Saga, that called themselves the Ushikko (牛っ娘, or cowgirls). In addition to the Japanese taiko, they were also playing the djembe from Guinea.

Saga City is a No-Shinkansen Sticksville of 180,000 in Kyushu, Ogi is a town in the outer suburbs that doesn’t even have express train service, and Ushizu is on the outskirts of Ogi. But someone else’s preconceived notions about life in the provinces didn’t stop a few local teenaged girls from creating a Japanese-Guinean drum fusion and giving free performances in a near-deserted downtown street on a hot summer Saturday.

The club was founded informally by a group of friends in 2003, and their dedication and novelty made them a popular attraction at local events. They’ve appeared during halftime of a soccer match on the home ground of Sagan Tosu, a second division J League team, and performed at the national presentation and concert of the New Life Adventure organization.

The Ushikko were recognized as an official school club in 2008, and it now has 31 members. Since I saw them in 2007, they’ve deemphasized the taiko rhythms to focus on Guinean drumming. They’ve also learned some of the language of that West African country to use as vocalizations and shouts of encouragement as they perform.

What inspires them? Outgoing group leader Ogata Kana told the Nishinippon Shimbun:

“I get carried away by the rhythms, and I feel refreshed in spirit when the performance is over.”

Said school faculty advisor Uematsu Atsuko:

“The students are passionate and practice with great enthusiasm. I’ve never seen students enjoy their club activities so much.”

Even with the greatest of passion and enthusiasm, it still would be difficult for small town girls to overcome the obstacles to learning and mastering a cultural tradition from a country on the other side of the world. They don’t have proper teachers, for a start. Their only instruction comes from clerks at a Kumamoto music shop that sells djembe, who visit three times a year to give lessons.

It’s difficult…but not impossible. The girls caught a break when they were filmed for a segment of a Kyushu regional television program profiling people and events of interest. Oyama Nobuo, the chief municipal officer of Mishima-mura in Kagoshima, caught the program by chance at home.

The story of Mishima-mura is as fascinating as that of the Ushikko. Classified as a village for administrative purposes, it actually consists of three small islands with a combined population of 4,000 in the East China Sea 100 kilometers from Kagoshima Prefecture. The name Mishima literally means “three islands”, which in this case are Kuroshima, Takeshima (no, not that one), and Iojima (or Iwojima, and no, not that one either).

Jamming with the Mishimanians

Despite their size and remote location, the islands are the place to go in Northeast Asia to learn about the djembe. Famed Guinean performer Mamady Keita visited about 15 years ago, which inspired the locals to start drumming themselves. They enjoyed it so much they started the first djembe school in Asia. It’s operated by Tokuda Ken’ichiro, whom Keita personally authorized as a teacher. He makes the trip from Guinea about once a year to help with their drumming and have a high old time with the Mishimanians.

Mr. Oyama was so moved by what he saw on the TV program that he mailed the Ushikko some instructional DVDs produced by the Mishima-mura school. In appreciation, the girls sent him a video letter with scenes from their practice. That prompted both him and Mr. Tokuda to visit the girls in Ogi for some hands-on instruction and a jam session.

Said Mr. Oyama:

“They have fun when they’re playing. The animated expressions on their faces are wonderful.”

That became the starting point for the Ogi-Mishima djembe exchange. The mayor invited the Ushikko to the islands and take lessons at the school. The national government helped with their travel expenses, the village provided the food and lodging, and the girls sailed off for five days of drumming and island fun when the fall term at school ended a month ago.

The officials at Ushizu High School agreed to let the girls make the trip on the condition that they practice as much as possible. That’s why the girls put in five hours of work a day, which impressed Mr. Oyama even further—hands get swollen after five hours of drumming.

At least they didn’t have to worry about finding a way to stay warm in mid-December!

Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for love, and then for a few close friends, and finally you do it for money.
– Molière

The criticism seems to be getting to Lisa Katayama. She sat right down and wrote herself a letter, and made believe it was addressed to you.

Ms. Katayama has made a name for herself, such as it is, by further cluttering the pop kultursmog with articles about the weirdness of Japan and the Japanese. Her pieces run in the outlets that pander to the tastes of those who swallow whole every eccentric aspect of Japan the infotainment media can dish up. Her audience consists of the sort of people who would find an excuse to convince themselves that half-chewed bubble gum in a museum vitrine is the ultimate in hip, postmodern irony. Indeed, the first paragraph of this letter to herself contains a favorable reference to a “beautiful” book about “fetish restaurants”.

She’s also developed an anti-audience of people who know a thing or two about the real Japan and wonder why she would purposely hold up the country she calls her “motherland” to the ridicule of the English-speaking world.

The letter Ms. Katayama wrote to herself was given the title, Why It’s Time to Lighten Up about “Weird” Japan. Why does she do what she does? Why is she so anxious to defend herself by ordering the rest of us to lighten up?

To make a short story even shorter, it’s because she, like Molière and the prostitutes, makes money out of it.

Oh, that’s not what she says. Oh, no. Heavens to Betsy. That’s not her intention at all. In fact, she would have us believe it’s “deeply personal” when someone criticizes Japan or her view of it. (More of the latter than the former, I suspect.)

“It’s most important to remember that it’s all in good fun. The way I see it, Japanese popular culture is like abstract art.”

The comparison to abstract art provides her with a cheap excuse for getting away with anything she wants. It has the added advantage of appealing to the soi-disant cultural elitists who pretend they really understand and appreciate abstract art.

“Both involve many components that can be interpreted in many ways. If you ask the artist what it means, he might say, ‘What do you think it means?’”

That provides two more cheap avenues of escape. One rescues the artist from having to do any heavy lifting to find the Deep Meaning himself. The other allows him to play it coy without offering an explanation that the cultural critics would gum to death and the rest of us would laugh at.

“And whatever meaning you attach to it is more a reflection of who you are than the composition of the art itself.”

How convenient for her: If you don’t like what she does, that’s your problem.

She even goes so far as to say:

“…none of this is meant to be taken seriously.”

Enough of the crap. She’s not fooling anyone but herself, and I doubt she’s even accomplished that. It’s obvious she takes it very seriously, for pecuniary reasons, if nothing else. She gets paid for providing product on order tailored to outlets such as Boing-Boing, where this lame lament appeared, knowing exactly why they ordered it. One look at the name of that publication and everybody knows what’s going down.

But when she’s called out by people who know as much—if not more—about this country than she does, she mounts the high horse and claims that she “strives to tell each story objectively without condescension or sensationalism.”

The mere fact that she goes out of her way to write and sell these stories is intrinsic condescension and sensationalism.

“I get hundreds of racially-charged comments from readers, long ranting responses from defenders of Japanese culture, and dozens of emails from people at big media outlets who want to find out more about these ‘strange’ phenomena.”

How novel to find someone who still thinks that big media outlets, the smokestack industry of the information age, set the standard for worthwhile journalism.

She also gets more than racially charged comments and long ranting responses. She got this previous post from me when she wrote about one man’s silly seduction techniques for Wired magazine. It was neither racially charged nor a rant. Instead, I pointed out that the article displayed the typical myopia of the anti-Nipponistic basher/mockers. This cool clique exaggerates some strange behavior in this country while overlooking the same strange behavior in their own backyard. Most of the time, that behavior is much more extreme than that of the Japanese.

In this case, Ms. Katayama found a man (with “beady eyes”) who peddles his techniques in Japan, yet she ignores–or is ignorant of–the fact that sales of seduction techniques is now a big business in America. There the “techniques” are even more unusual, such as the use of so-called neuro-linguistic programming, black fingernail polish, and their own insider jargon. Boing!

The reason she knew my post wasn’t a racially charged comment or a rant was because she wrote in to protest that she didn’t really mean to present the story as weird, honest, it was just those anonymous meanies who wrote the headlines at Wired.

Her self-justification continues:

“I went back home, honed my story-finding skills, and launched my own blog…”

All that’s required to hone one’s story-finding skills for this type of story is to go slumming at the trashy end of the convenience store magazine racks and to watch more daytime television.

“I got major Japan-related assignments from magazines, consulting gigs from print and radio outlets, and a book deal. It was really strange for me, because all I thought I was doing was telling people about the place I came from.”

Funny, isn’t it, that so many people in Japan don’t recognize this “place you come from”. Why is it that her work generates such a negative reaction? Is it because her gig is making a buck by pleasing one of the lesser common denominators? Is it because she indulges a narrative that she pretends is about this thing of the Western imagination called “Japan”, but is really about a few cherry-picked subcultures and misfits in the larger cities?

“One thing was clear: Weird Japan sells. “

One more thing was clear: She’s not the first to realize there’s good money to be made by selling out. People with real talent have been doing it long before she stumbled over the idea.

Is she old enough to recognize the name of Werner Klemperer? He was the son of conductor Otto Klemperer and soprano Johanna Geisler. Klemperer was both a violinist and a concert pianist, and he performed as an operatic baritone and a singer in Broadway musicals. He appeared in the Hitchcock movie Wrong Man and was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance in the 1987 Broadway revival of Cabaret. His 1981 role as Prince Orlofsky in Seattle Opera’s production of Die Fledermaus was well received by critics and the public alike. He was the narrator on a recording by the Boston Symphony of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, which won a Grammy. He also served as the director and president of the nonprofit Young Musicians Foundation of Los Angeles, and was a vice president of Actors Equity.

Most people wouldn’t recognize him from that career synopsis. They know him only from his role as the bumbling Nazi prison camp commandant Col. Klink in the American TV series Hogan’s Heroes.

Klemperer, who was Jewish, eased his conscience by insisting that his character be portrayed as a fool in every episode. Lisa Katayama eases hers by making believe she’s doing serious journalism about her homeland that isn’t condescending or sensationalist.

She concludes with this oddly worded sentence:

“I think we’d all understand Japan a little better if we made a commitment to roll with it.”

I think we’d all understand Japan a little better if Lisa Katayama found something else to write about.

Shortly after Ms. Katayama’ s Boing-Boing whinge appeared, she wrote a blog post for the same publication that makes me wonder if calling her to account is like getting upset at a child who wets his pants on a long car trip. This time the post wasn’t about Japan:

“I went on a trip to northern India to see the Dalai Lama. I traveled with a lawyer, a politician, a publicist, and a translator. While we were there, we met a bunch of kids who lived with no electricity but told us that, when they grew up, they all wanted to be computer scientists. So we whipped out our cameras and iPods — the closest things we had on hand to real computers — and showed them how technology works….Later, I found out that one of my travel mates thought what we had done was cruel. We had seduced these poor kids with luxuries they will probably never be able to afford, and sullied their pure, technology-free lives with the temptation of electronics.”

Her travel mates were a lawyer, a politician, a publicist, and a translator. I’d bet cash money the one who cried cruelty and thought being electronica-free equaled purity was one of the first three. They’re the ones in that group who can make a handsome living on hot air without having to worry about being real.

“So who’s right? Did we ruin these kids for life or give them hopes for a better future? Does it not matter? Is there even a right answer to this question?”

Where are the snows of yesteryear? And what is reality? So many questions that Lisa Katayama can’t answer.

Of course there’s a right answer to this question, which needn’t be asked to begin with.

Of course you show them the iPods. You show them every iPod function you can possibly think of. You let them handle the iPods themselves for as long as time permits. It’s never cruel to inspire a child. That’s exactly how adults are supposed to interact with children.

Asking these questions is like asking if it would be cruel to show a book to illiterates who want to learn how to read.

How odd that these city folk could be so provincial. How strange that the sophisticated white collar professionals could be so small-minded and elitist. How inexcusable, considering that Ms. Katayama grew up in Japan, where people often talk about the importance of “giving dreams” to children.

Children everywhere, and especially in the Third World, need all the inspiration they can get. I’m sure the teenaged Ushikko could have answered her questions correctly without a moment’s hesitation.

Meanwhile, the world will somehow manage to muddle through without yet another article about the Dalai Lama.

Hiding the iPods from those children would be like telling the Ushikko or the handful of villagers on three remote and tiny Asian islands not to bother learning to play the djembe. It’s unlikely they’ll ever be as skillful as Mamady Keita.

Then again, Mamady Keita doesn’t think it’s cruel to come halfway around the world once a year for 15 years to teach and have fun with the folks in Mishima-mura.

If answering those questions presents a dilemma for her, if she thinks it might have “ruined these children for life”, one wonders just how much of life she’s missing—and why she thinks she’s doing anyone any favors by writing about Japan for the English-speaking world.

Meanwhile the Ushikko and the Mishimanians are having a grand time playing the drums and learning a lot about themselves, the world, and life in the bargain.

Do you think this article is cruel and unfair?

Make a commitment to roll with it.


There are no YouTube presentations of the Ushikko—I’m going to have to call their school advisor—but there was a seven-minute film of a small group in Mishima-mura having a ton of fun combining a performance with a children’s art project. Here it is:

Here’s another video showing part of the Mishima-mura djembe school graduation ceremony. The first part consists of traditional Japanese music and dance, which should give you an idea why learning the djembe wouldn’t be so strange for them at all. Though the islands are officially part of Kagoshima, the whistling is very Okinawan. (You may want to stop halfway through when the speeches start.)

While we’re at it, check out the New Life Adventure website, which is worth a quick glance even if you don’t understand Japanese. It’s a part of Japan that Lisa Katayama, the Boing-Boing culture mavens, and the FCCJ barflies don’t know about. I doubt they’d be interested even if they did.

And Mishima-mura has its own website, also in Japanese only.

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


Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, January 26, 2010

HECKLING DURING QUESTION TIME in Britain’s Parliament is a tradition that I sometimes wish were possible in the United States, if only for the demonstrations of spontaneous wit. The classic exchanges in Britain were between Nancy Astor and Winston Churchill, with both giving as good as they got. Churchill once told her that having a woman in Parliament was like having one intrude in the bathroom. Astor shot back: “You’re not handsome enough to have such fears”. The most well-known was Churchill’s reply to Lady Astor’s statement, “If you were my husband, I’d poison your tea.” Said Sir Winston, “Madam, if you were my wife, I’d drink it.”

Japan’s Diet also has question time, which is broadcast live, and heckling (yaji in Japanese) is also allowed. The wit of most of the MPs, alas, more closely resembles a butter knife than a rapier. The sharpest blade in my experience was wielded by former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro, who provoked my spontaneous laughter more than once, but that was as much out of surprise for his bluntness as for his humor.

Question time is now underway in the Diet, and though there’s plenty of heckling, it’s often difficult to hear what the back benchers are saying. Second-term MP Ozato Yasuhiro of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party wrote a short post about it on his blog in Japanese focusing on the heckling from the ruling Democratic Party members. Mr. Ozato’s objective was to show how the DPJ was trying to avoid the hard questions, but the examples he presents are little more than schoolyard taunts.

For example, when Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio was being pressed on the party’s reaction to the scandals enveloping Ozawa Ichiro, their de facto boss, Finance Minister Kan Naoto yelled out, “Show us the proof!” That’s the best he can do?

Mr. Ozato also reports some of the comments made sotto voce by a first-term DPJ legislator sitting behind him during the questioning. They weren’t very inspiring:

  • “Stop these stupid questions.”
  • “You’ll be sorry for this.”
  • “How about it? We’ll reveal (your scandals) too.”

The best I’ve heard so far this year is the dry comeback from former Health Minister Masuzoe Yoichi of the LDP during his questioning of both Mr. Hatoyama and Mr. Kan about the budget. The prime minister deferred to his finance minister for an answer that was evasive at best.

Deftly skewering both the DPJ’s reliance on the Finance Ministry civil servants despite their pledge to minimize Kasumigaseki influence, as well as Mr. Kan’s well-known lack of expertise about financial matters, Mr. Masuzoe commented, “That sounds like a bureaucrat wrote it,” and then asked the question again.

It worked because it did sound as if a bureaucrat had written it.

We’re probably not going to get much better. As I write, there’s so much shouting the NHK radio announcer had to break in twice to explain to the listeners what program was being broadcast. The noise is understandable–the questioning turned to Mr. Hatoyama’s excuses for his own fund-raising scandals. Now that’s laughable!

Posted in Politics | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Yes, an Evil Empire

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, January 26, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ms. Kong concludes:

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

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

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

Unfortunately, that still works for me.

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

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

Posted in China, Demography | 5 Comments »

Down on the farm

Posted by ampontan on Monday, January 25, 2010

THE GLOBAL INFOTAINMENT MEDIA is intensely curious about trends in Japan, both to satisfy its voracious appetite for content and to maintain its preferred narrative of Japan as East Asia’s Goofball Kingdom. But here’s one trend they seem to have overlooked. Prof. Ito Motoshige of Tokyo University and the director of the National Institute for Research Advancement recently interviewed Itochu Corp. Chairman Niwa Uichiro for publication. This is how Prof. Ito set up the interview:

“Interest in agriculture is intense now. Publications ranging from business and economics journals to fashion magazines are covering the subject, and the slang term no-gyaru has even arisen to denote the young women engaged in farming.”

No-gyaru is a pun based on nogyo, the Japanese word for agriculture. Who knew that it was hip to be a hayseed in Japan nowadays? Certainly not the readers of the English-language media.


Itochu is a large trading company with its fingers in a bakery full of pies, including the refining and sale of Chinese rice, so Mr. Niwa has at his fingertips a cornucopia of fascinating statistics about farming in Japan.

He asserted in the interview that Japanese agriculture could be internationally competitive, and the way to achieve that goal would be to maximize the use of land as an asset to produce value and to inculcate a sense of entrepreneurship among the farmers. Here are some highlights from that interview.

By the numbers

12% of Japanese territory is farmland
16% of Japanese territory was farmland 45 years ago
8.3% of Japanese farmland is not cultivated.
The latter figure represents an increase of three times in 20 years, and is equal to the land area of Saitama Prefecture.

2.99 million people: The farming population in 2008, a drop of 80% in 49 years
60%: The percentage of the farming populaton 65 or older

Demonstrating the fundamental problem with bureaucracies the world over:

290,000 people: The number of JA group employees 45 years ago (The central committee of agricultural cooperatives)
300,000 people: The number of JA group employees today

410,000 households: Employed in agriculture only, 16% of the total involved in agricultural production either full time or part time

56%: The ratio of Japanese cropland accounted for by rice paddies
4.2 tons of rice per unit of production area: The global average
6.7 tons of rice per unit of production area: The Japanese average

The Itochu president argued that Japanese rice is not as expensive to produce as some might think. Production costs per kilogram range from JPY 344 for 0.5 hectare plots or less, to JPY 160 for 10-15 hectare plots. He says that Itochu’s costs for refining and selling Chinese rice are JPY 105 per kilogram, and don’t include export costs.

Japanese rice would be price competitive, he maintains, even if all agricultural tariffs around the world were immediately removed. The key is to promote agribusiness on a large scale rather than through small farms.

This would be financially beneficial for agricultural workers, too. Converted to hourly wages, the producers on larger farms make JPY 3,100, or more than salaried employees. In contrast, those on the smallest farms make JPY 300 per hour, less than convenience store workers.

Mr. Niwa suggests that rice production should be concentrated in areas with broad plains, such as Hokkaido and the Tohoku region, while areas in the more mountainous western Japan, where it would be more difficult to operate larger farms, should switch to other fruits and vegetables. He says the latter farms would produce crops competitive with imports. For example, he reports that the more expensive Japanese cherries still sold well against imported American cherries due to their superior taste and freshness.

He proposed the delivery of food directly from the production site to the consumption site as an avenue that should be explored further. (I can vouch for this myself; we get apples shipped directly to our house from different production areas in Japan once a month from October to March. I’d recommend it to anybody.)

The government gets in the way

Mr. Niwa laments, however, that laws on land use and agriculture haven’t changed in 50 years. The government’s policy over the past half century has been to encourage acreage reductions to prop up rice prices. He holds that this has been a complete failure from a market perspective, and he used an analogy to demonstrate the bankruptcy of the approach.

It is as if, he suggested, a company responded to poor sales figures by slashing production and raising prices.

He is not the first to claim that the Ministry of Agriculture has been a complete a waste of time and resources. He also mentioned the zokugiin of the Diet, the MPs allied with different ministries and who promote their interests in the legislature. The zokugiin, he says, work to maintain those policies to receive the electoral support of rice farmers in particular, who benefit financially from the higher rice prices and the subsidies for acreage reductions.

The ruling Democratic Party of Japan is taking a step backwards from moves to encourage agribusiness and larger farms that were begun during the LDP administration of Abe Shinzo. The DPJ offered as part of their election platform a promise to provide subsidies to individual farm households.

That, says Mr. Niwa, is a mistake. The formulation of agricultural policies should be left to local governments, based on local conditions, and focus on policies for enterprises devoted exclusively to agriculture, whether operated by an individual or by a corporation.

He also suggests that local governments could form committees to lease farmland from individual farmers, aggregate it, and lease it in turn to those who want to work the land, including companies involved in agribusiness.

This is already happening today, and not all those companies are purely agricultural concerns. For example, Fukuoka City-based Kyudenko, primarily engaged in providing electric power facility engineering services, announced last week it had formed an agreement with the city of Amagusa, Kumamoto Prefecture, to grow olives. The agreement starts in FY 2010 and will run for three years. The company will plant 6,700 olive trees on unused cropland in the city, and will study cultivation techniques and the potential for profitability over that three-year period. If they like what they see, they will continue to grow olives. Kyudenko says it is open to using either public land or privately owned land.

In short, applying market principles would improve Japanese food production, make it a competitive enterprise, and solve the problems of unused land, the aging of the farming population, and the lack of successors. Key for the success of that endeavor would be to devolve authority to the local level and remove the influence of the bureaucracy and national legislator-lobbyists.

Where have we heard that one before?

Exploration and discovery

How did the media miss the chance to find out about the no-gyaru phenomenon and this discussion of domestic agricultural reform? They didn’t turn the page.

This interview appeared in last September’s edition of the monthly Voice. It was the same issue that published an article by Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio explaining his political philosophy. It later was translated into English for the New York Times and caused a minor stir for its eccentric positions and apparent tilt away from the United States in foreign policy matters.

Mr. Hatoyama’s article ended on page 141, while this one began on page 142. The quote about no-gyaru was in the first paragraph.

Why should the impractical thought processes of a man destined to have the political lifespan of a firefly be of greater interest than a disussion of how a nation feeds itself?

Posted in Agriculture, Food | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

Less than zero

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, January 24, 2010

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW what’s happening in Japan, don’t go looking for the answers in the news media. Here’s yet another example, this time from CNN, which now–understandably–is the least watched of the four American cable TV news networks.

Their latest story on Japan starts with this headline:

“Japanese monks serve up alcohol and hip hop music to lure in followers”

How many monks? Read the story and you’ll find out they cite one who serves alcohol and one who performs sutra raps, for a total of two—the threshold needed to permit CNN’s use of the plural.

To put it another way, more men bit dogs in the greater Atlanta area last year.

“The Buddhist religion has largely remained the same over the past few centuries, but a group of monks in Japan are spicing things up by turning to alcohol and rap music to lure in followers.”

Suddenly, the number “two” has now taken on the meaning of a “group”.

Kansho Tagai…a Buddhist monk, believes it’s time to change for the future and doesn’t mind if it means dropping the chants and bringing on the rap music.
Tagai also prefers to go by his street name — Mr. Happiness.

Some questions for Mr. Tagai:

1. What will you do when rap music loses its image of hipness and becomes a thing of the past? It won’t be too much longer now.

2. Just what is this thing referred to as a “street name”, and how many people—if any—actually call you Mr. Happiness?

“Getting the young people back to religion is key to Buddhism’s survival,” Tagai told CNN. “In Japan, it’s a religion in crisis.”

What CNN doesn’t tell you is that you are unlikely to see any Japanese person at a traditional Buddhist temple, other than the monk or his family, for anything other than a funeral service. (When people have a religious or semi-religious wedding ceremony, they usually choose Shinto.)

All of my residences in Japan during the nearly 26 years I’ve been here have been across the street from a Buddhist temple. I could throw a rock from the front yard of my house into the graveyard of a Buddhist temple across the street, were I so inclined. I could also have pitched one underhand into the entrance of another temple from the front steps of my previous apartment. The only people I’ve seen visiting those temples for a reason other than to attend a memorial service were there to clean and pray at the family gravesite.

“Each year, hundreds of temples close in Japan and it’s a similar struggle seen by other religions around the world.”

What CNN doesn’t tell you is that Buddhist temples are even more neighborhood-based than churches in the U.S., and that temples sometimes close for reasons other than a lack of religious faith. Temples in rural areas that have lost population to the cities are not going to survive. Neither are some temples in urban areas that have become primarily business or commercial districts.

Nevertheless, there were roughly 76,000 Buddhist temples of all sects in Japan as of last year to serve a population of 127 million. Meanwhile, there were roughly 68,000 Christian churches of all denominations in the United States three years ago to serve a population of more than 300 million.

Of Japan’s 127 million people, 96 million identify as Buddhist. Those numbers, however, don’t translate into regular traditional religious practices, and haven’t for some time.

“Another idea that monks hope will help get more young people involved is mixing faith with fun at something called the Monk Bar. This modern day bar serves up alcoholic drinks while teaching the Buddhist mantra, according to Zenshin Fujioka. ‘This is closer to what Buddhism was intended to be,’ Zenshin said.”

One of the Five Moral Precepts of traditional Buddhism was the prohibition of intoxicants, so Mr. Fujioka’s conception of what Buddhism was intended to be may not be the consensus opinion. It might instead be just a clever way for Mr. Fujioka to indulge his favorite recreational pastime. I was once shown a very small, exclusive drinking establishment set back from the other shops on a narrow side street. My guide told me the prices were so high only doctors and Buddhist priests could afford to drink there.

“While many traditionalists may criticize both the Monk Bar and hip hop rapping styles, it seems their ideas are paying off. ‘Twice as many people, especially the young, are now visiting the temple,’ Tagai said.”

Zero doubled is still zero, though Mr. Tagai likely gets a few more visitors, if only out of curiosity to see a rapping monk once or twice.

Really, this is past the point of absurdity. The network is wasting its enormous resources to generate for its dwindling number of viewers a story that is a waste of time to watch. If anyone thinks they’re learning something about Japan by following any print or broadcast media outlet, I honestly feel sorry for them.

The tragedy in today’s Wiki-age is that such vapid ignorance is the standard rather than the exception.

For example, a Google search will occasionally throw up such detritus as the website that claims to offer the general reader basic information. Here’s what it says about religion in Japan:

“In Japan, Shinto and Buddhist practices are combined into a single religion, with Buddhist temples being built at the sites of important Shinto shrines.”

Here’s what it should say:

“In Japan, Shinto and Buddhist practices are not combined into a single religion, and Buddhist temples have been prohibited from occupying the same building as Shinto shrines by government order since March 1868. The contiguity on some sites does not mean they are syncretic in function.”

The most puzzling aspect of these misleading news reports and websites peddling inanity instead of knowledge is why they exist at all. Discovering the truth is so easy to do.

But being this stupid is difficult. People have to go out of their way and work at it.

Afterwords: A Japanese woman in her mid-60s once told me that she was married in a Buddhist temple wearing a Western-style wedding dress, which is an unlikely combination even for this country. I asked her how that happened, and the other Japanese in the group were just as interested in her answer as I was. Unfortunately, she just laughed and said it was a long story. I’ll bet!

Posted in Religion, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , | 5 Comments »

Shimojo Masao (8): Loyalty and filial piety

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Loyalty and Filial Piety

Though Japan is one of the countries of the Confucian cultural sphere, its native psychological temperament and social systems differ greatly from those of the Korean Peninsula and China. One of those differences is the strong Japanese awareness of belonging to an organization. The sense of loyalty to organizations and groups is stronger in Japan, while the tendency on the Korean Peninsula and China is to favor independence. People there will move to competing organizations and groups if the conditions are favorable.

Of the Confucian virtues of loyalty and filial piety, loyalty is given greater emphasis in Japan. The respect for filial piety on the continent is related to an emphasis on the blood relationship between father and son. When deceased ancestors are celebrated in religious rites in the Confucian culture, those related by blood must conduct the services. Therefore, one objective of marriage is to produce a male heir. It was a tradition that the failure to bear sons would be considered legitimate grounds for divorce, and the wife could not complain. The reason for such practices as taking concubines and adopting children from blood relatives was to maintain the bloodline. Historically, the interests of the family rather than those of the individual are emphasized on the Korean Peninsula and China.

That’s why, on the Korean Peninsula and China, castration was used as a form of criminal punishment and there was a role for court eunuchs. Such was not the case in Japan. Save for execution, castration was the most serious punishment that could have been administered. Cutting off the sexual organs and removing the ability to procreate eliminates the possibility of descendants, which also meant that honoring the spirits of one’s ancestors would no longer be possible. That was regarded as the absence of filial piety.

In China, those who received this punishment would be assigned important roles in the court, but an official system for court eunuchs did not exist on the Korean Peninsula. Instead, they were put in the service of court officials or those in authority in such places as temples.

The Korean system was not adopted in Japan, even though the latter was also influenced by Confucian culture. That’s because in Japan, the subordinate-superior relationship with land as an intermediary factor was considered of greater importance than a blood relationship. Private ownership of land began earlier in Japan than on the Continent, and with the appearance of the samurai class, land was bequeathed to one’s descendants. Those in superior positions allowed others the right of land ownership. That in turn led to the creation of a psychological structure in which the subordinates felt a sense of obligation and rendered their loyalty to the superior.

During the Edo period (1603-1868), the daimyo granted the samurai with a heredity land stipend usually assessed in units of koku (one koku = 4.96 bushels). The standard was the amount of rice the land produced, and the stipend was based on the samurai’s rank. The samurai converted the rice to money and lived off the proceeds. The same concept survives in the corporate world today; Japanese salarymen still think of themselves as corporate warriors who owe allegiance to the company. The basic unit is now the nuclear family rather than the extended family.

Koreans, in contrast, continue to compile records for the entire clan (known as jokbo), and such clans with the surname of Bak or Kim still thrive. That’s the difference between societies which emphasize blood relations and those that emphasize organized groups.

– Shimojo Masao

Posted in China, History, South Korea, Traditions | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Out, damned smell

Posted by ampontan on Monday, January 18, 2010

FOR THE LAST POST on the execrable behavior of politicians in Japan and China, I lifted a line from Shakespeare about a villainous smell offending the nostrils. I lifted too soon; even the Bard would be at a loss for words to describe the sulfurous airs excreted this weekend by the Democratic Party of Japan and its allies. Their tinhorn bravado as they try to shift the blame to the prosecutors for the latest arrest of one of their leaders’ aides reeks of the sewer. (It’s four arrests in the past year, for those keeping score.)

The time has come to put the players on stage and let them speak for themselves. We’ll start with Sir Flatulence himself, DPJ Secretary-General Ozawa Ichiro, delivering a soliloquy at a party conference over the weekend:

“I absolutely cannot tolerate this sort of behavior (from the prosecutors). I have resolved to stand firm and fight…It’s as if the arrest was timed for this conference. If this is allowed to stand, it will be a dark day for democracy in Japan. I am alarmed.”

We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender

He’s misreading the script–the lines that describe the behavior as intolerable are referring to him. And speaking of time, he’s the guy who couldn’t find any to show up when the prosecutors asked him to drop by and answer questions voluntarily. Besides, the timing idea works better when you consider the Diet is due to convene this week.

His call to arms was echoed by upper house member Mori Yuko, a former member of Ozawa’s Liberal Party who followed him to the DPJ and wound up in his faction. On her official Japanese-language website, she describes herself—in English—as a “Fighting Mama”.

She’s not just shadow boxing, either. During a Diet committee debate in 2003 over the question of sending Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to Iraq, she stood on a table and whacked in the head a guy trying to defend the committee chairman.

Here’s what she said at the party rally conference:

“This is all-out war between the prosecutors, a bureaucratic institution, and the DPJ, who represents the people.”

Yes, it’s a People’s Revolt against the bureaucratic oppressors!

Suzuki Muneo couldn’t resist adding his opinion, but then he never can. Recall that Mr. Suzuki, a petit baron formerly of the Liberal Democratic Party when they were in power, was arrested and did jail time for his own kickback schemes. He still holds the record for jail time by a Japanese MP. He’s since formed his own vanity party, made common cause with the DPJ, and become involved in another court battle that could send him back to jail again.

“My feeling about the prosecutors’ actions is that it is a despotic step like the young military officers of the February 26 uprising.”

He’s referring to the failed coup of 26 February 1936.

The party apparatus has also been mobilized for the all-out war effort. On the Japanese-language portion of their website, they’ve posted an article on Comrade Ozawa’s address to the cadres this weekend and repeated his pledge to fight. The last sentence reads:

“This address was validated with thunderous applause.”

That 万雷 (banrai) literally means “ten thousand claps of thunder”.

At least I steal from Shakespeare; the DPJ is stealing from the stylebook of the house organs published by every dismal, dead-from-the-waist-down Democratic People’s Republic that you forgot existed. It’s a living linguistic museum. But that’s no surprise for anyone who’s read the small print of their party platform. It’s filled with similar language because it was written by the sort of people who would have loved to have been part of the ruling class for a Democratic People’s Republic of Japan.

You think not? Take a look at their English-language website (link on right sidebar) and see if it doesn’t remind you stylistically of a current events summary from the North Korean news agency.

Since everyone else has an opinion, it was only a matter of time before Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio, the party’s haribote, or papier-mâché stage property, was allowed a walk-on role:

“As the president of the DPJ, I believe Secretary-General Ozawa. I ask that he exert every effort to perform his duties, and explain his innocence, without any trepidation.”

Someone must have wound him up too tightly because the gears inside the toy hadn’t run down yet. He added:

“Please fight.”

The groundlings quickly noticed that the prime minister was asking a Diet member of his own party to resist the officers of the law, suggesting that the prosecutors were abusing their authority. His answer when called on it?

“I don’t think it was (an) inappropriate (statement). It wasn’t a criticism of the prosecutors or a presumption about the investigation.”

While it’s true that Mr. Hatoyama is a rare combination of figurehead, dunderhead, and scheißkopf whom no one takes seriously as a politician, he’s still the chief executive officer of the national government. If he thinks Mr. Ozawa is right, that must mean he thinks the prosecutors are wrong, and it’s his job to do something about it.

Mr. Clean of the Clean Party

Mr. Ozawa says it’s a dark day for Japanese democracy, the Fighting Mama says it’s an all-out war between The People and The Bureaucracy, Mr. Suzuki compares it to a coup by militarists in a reference every adult immediately recognizes, and the prime minister is playing cheerleader and waving his pom-poms.

If the prosecutors are behaving that badly, then isn’t it the government’s job to stop them? It’s legally possible for Justice Minister Chiba Keiko to exercise her authority and suspend the investigation altogether. There’s even a precedent: Inukai Ken did it in 1954. He was so distressed by circumstances that he resigned the next day.

A former member of the Socialist Party, Ms. Chiba would be unlikely to resign over principle if she were ordered to chose to use that authority—the only principle for the left is power. Their own appeals to principle are just a weapon used to attack opponents.

The possibility didn’t escape firebrand reformer Watanabe Yoshimi of Your Party. He said that Mr. Hatoyama must have resigned himself to stopping the prosecutors, and statements of that sort made it inevitable.

Meanwhile, DPJ leaders have told rank-and-file party members to be careful about what they say. In other words, they’ve issued a gag order. The plebes don’t care for it at all, and they’re complaining about it off the record to the media, but in public it’s ten thousand thunderclaps of applause for Dear Leader.

The vox populi does not bear good tidings for the DPJ either. The Asahi released the results of a telephone poll it took on the 16th and 17th. The Asahi’s polls always slant left, which means this is the best the DPJ can hope for.

67%: Ozawa should resign
23%: Ozawa should stay
51%: Self-identified DPJ supporters saying Ozawa should resign

5%: Approve of his response
88%: Disapprove of his response

12%: Approve of Hatoyama’s response
79%: Disapprove of Hatoyama’s response

Here’s the worst news of all:

71%: Supported Cabinet in September
14%: Did not support Cabinet in September

42%: Support Cabinet now
41%: Do not support Cabinet now

20%: Independents who support Cabinet
54%: Independents who do not support Cabinet

The only silver lining:

16%: Support the Liberal Democratic Party

The last word should go to Watanabe Kozo, formerly a senior advisor to the DPJ. His ties with Mr. Ozawa stretch back to the days when both were friends and members of the ruling LDP. But the DPJ Secretary-General has littered the political landscape with so many former allies they could start a political party of their own.

“(The party) is just like the pre-war Imperial Rule Assistance Association.”

He’s referring to a body founded in 1940 as the nucleus of the “new political structure”. The nation’s political parties dissolved to become members, and their fellows included the bureaucracy and the army. It was an attempt to concentrate political power on the eve of the war that ultimately failed.

Mr. Watanabe’s remark had some traction. He made it on the 14th, and by the evening of the 17th there were 37,100 Google hits in Japanese for the combination of the association’s name and the DPJ.

The plot is about to become even thicker. Reports surfaced in the media on the 17th on the discovery that Kaikaku Forum 21, a political organization affiliated with Mr. Ozawa, had deposited in their bank account sometime in 2004 about JPY 1.5 billion in cash they failed to report on their income and expenditure statement.

As it turns out, the Liberal Party, which Mr. Ozawa headed, disbursed the same amount of money in 2002 to party Secretary-General Fujii Hirohisa, who recently resigned as Finance Minister.

The funds are suspected to be from the subsidy the national government provides to the parties to prevent dirty money from corrupting politics.

It’s too much to ask either Mr. Ozawa or Mr. Hatoyama to accept responsibility. That’s what they pledged to do last year when the first of Mr. Ozawa’s aides was arrested. At that time, Mr. Ozawa was party president and Mr. Hatoyama was secretary-general.

Their definition of accepting responsibility was to trade jobs. Now Mr. Ozawa is secretary-general and Mr. Hatoyama is party president.

Since then, two Hatoyama aides and another Ozawa aide have taken the fall.

When four aides responsible for handling the money of the two top men of a party that claims to be committed to reform are taking the rap for their bosses, this play’s turned into a farce.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a tragedy; all the leading characters die, and Hamlet himself lies dead on stage at the end. But if that’s to be the fate of these players, few in the audience will be reaching for their handkerchiefs when the curtain falls.

There’ll be ten thousand thunderclaps of applause instead.

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

Ex-Im in East Asia

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, January 16, 2010

The rankest compound of villainous smell that ever offended nostril
– Shakespeare

THE IDEA that the governments of the region should consider forming an East Asian entity is a classic case of putting the cart before the horse. What the politicos in those countries should be doing instead is cracking open a civics book and reading about government by the people, of the people, and for the people.

Let’s wait a few seconds for the laughter to subside.

OK, back to the plot. Chinese President President Hu Jintao recently told the Politburo that they should work together to “establish..a clean government by eliminating corruption.”

Assuming for the sake of discussion that President Hu is serious, eliminating corruption in China would require…

Sorry, I didn’t realize you weren’t finished laughing yet.

That he’s not to be taken seriously is demonstrated by the stench already emanating from the country’s political infrastructure. As this article explains, University of Technology, Sydney Professor Graeme Smith has spent four years in rural China holding his nose as he followed the money. He described sniffing the trails in an article titled Political Machinations in a Rural County, published in The China Journal.

His depiction of the behavior of local Chinese authorities makes one wonder if the country is governed by a crime syndicate:

“(T)he top cadres are dividing up the taxpayer spoils over hot pot, gambling, saunas and prostitutes, usually in that order. It’s not just carnal pleasures that are up for sale, but investment projects, procurement contracts and almost every key position in the bureaucracy.”

In the county government described:

“(T)he Communist Party secretary is king. He has the final say in all personnel decisions and the interpretation of central government policy. He runs the bureaucracy like a giant franchise system.

“The 12 members of his standing committee vie for his favour rather than hold him to account. Below them are the party departments and government bureaus, whose rank and status are determined mainly by the amount of money flowing through them from above…

“Smith says all the township party secretaries paid money for their posts, as did the heads of 80 per cent of government bureaus. Lower officials pay lower sums to ”show their appreciation”. (In another…county…the party secretary was convicted of taking 334 bribes, 297 of which were for bought positions.)”

Some of the problems are universal. Japanese in particular will recognize this one:

“The status of bureaus shifts with government policy. Each new grant from Beijing is an opportunity to open a new bureau or add graduates, retired soldiers and relatives to the payroll of an existing one.”

The journalist speculates:

“My guess is that the sorry state of governance…is more or less replicated across China’s 1600 rural counties. Equivalent systems operate in urban areas, although usually in less blatant form. The patronage networks extend well into the Politburo.”

Malodorous Beijing

The sense of entitlement by the Beijing elites is no less brazen or odiferous, as a China-sourced article in the Nishinippon Shimbun this week makes clear.

The report explains that the Beijing municipal government prohibited the sale of newspapers in city subway stations starting 8 January. The city fathers said they enacted the prohibition to provide for public safety in the event of a disaster or an emergency.

There are no kiosks in the Beijing subway; rather, newsies set up a one-meter-square space next to columns in the stations to peddle their papers. In contrast, there are newspaper stalls in the Shanghai and Guangdong subways.

The subway riders are upset with the new prohibition because most commuters buy a paper at the station and read it while on the train. The subscription and home delivery of newspapers in China is the exception rather than the rule.

The newspaper publishers are upset too, and it’s easy to see why. The municipal authorities distributed a list of dailies whose sale is now verboten on the premises, but left one off the list. That was the Beijing Yule Xinbao (娯楽新報), a free paper distributed under a contractual agreement with the city of Beijing.

The Chinese government already tells people how many children they can have. Why would they stop at telling people what newspapers they can buy where, especially when they’re getting a cut of the action?

Here’s the best part: The other newspapers wrote editorials attacking the policy.

Hang on a minute—now it’s my turn to laugh!

Toilet water, or water from the toilet?

Speaking of Politburos and rank government corruption, here in Japan Democratic Party General Secretary Secretary-General Ozawa Ichiro is discovering that hubris is a concept applicable to Asian politicians, too.

You’ll recall that Mr. Ozawa had to step down from the position of party president last spring after his chief aide was arrested for receiving kickbacks from construction companies. The former DPJ boss insisted at a tear-stained press conference that he was innocent, really, honest to God, and the usual political hacks lauded his three-tissue masterpiece of defiance, but they found an audience only among the terminally gullible and those with double-digit IQs. Of course his own party knew better than to believe him.

Bring it on, prosecutors!

It’s turning out that corruption with Mr. Ozawa resembles the layers of an onion: peel back one and the more pungent ones underneath are exposed. The man just doesn’t know how to get people to stop peeling, however. There were reports that he was so enraged at the most recent prosecutorial investigation, he would embark on a project with his party to “restructure” the Justice Ministry. He would go at it with them mano a mano. Bad idea.

The prosecutors asked him to voluntarily come in and provide them information on the new revelations at his convenience. Mr. Ozawa, however, demanded they limit the scope of their investigation, and said he couldn’t stop by because he didn’t have the time.

Meanwhile, he did find the time to have a game of go with a 20-year-old whiz around the time of the coming-of-age ceremonies for young people earlier this month. He also found the time to throw a gala New Year’s party for Diet members at his home. It was almost as if he were thrusting out his lower lip and snarling, “Come and get me, coppers!”

Then came a report in the February issue of the Bungei Shunju, the nation’s most prestigious current affairs monthly, about five cardboard boxes filled with “dangerous contents” that somehow got hidden during the previous investigation of his political fund-raising group’s affairs. A report also slipped out about testimony that Mr. Ozawa directly handed over a paper bag containing JPY 400 million ($US 4,372,210) in cash for a land deal. Well, somebody’s got to be the bagman, right?

Now that’s inviting the punishment of the gods. Divine or not, the prosecutors decided that if Mr. Ozawa was too busy to see them, they would make the time to visit him. So a squad of investigators paid a call on his fund raising office as well as his personal office to see whether they could find any of those five cardboard boxes with dangerous contents, loose cash in paper bags, or any other items of interest. Prosecutors in Japan seldom go on fishing expeditions in these cases, by the way. They go loaded for bear, and they make a point of heading straight for the place they think they’ll find one.

Had they still been in the opposition and Mr. Ozawa been of the other party, the DPJ would be screeching for his scalp like a city full of alley cats in early spring under a full moon, but they were playing Cigar Store Indian instead. The impersonation was so good people would swear they actually had wooden heads.

Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio said he has no intention of asking Mr. Ozawa to step down. Of course he’s not going to ask, unless he wants to watch his party and administration disintegrate by alienating (or cutting adrift to float on their own) the DPJ MPs now sitting in the Diet seats Mr. Ozawa bought for them.

Disclaimer: This website cannot be held responsible for any cases of suffocation resulting from holding the nose while reading Mr. Hatoyama’s defense of his party’s strongman, regardless of the stink:

“He’s a unique politician the likes of which we’ll never see again. He has very strong convictions, and he displayed an extraordinary amount of strength enabling the DPJ to form a government. I hope he continues to display that strength in the future.”

Let’s play a game!

It’s beginning to look as if the countdown has already started for both the prime minister and the secretary-general, but perhaps Mr. Hatoyama thought he could delay the near-inevitable by dreaming up a new amusement for the electorate. This one’s so childish he could have found it in the teacher’s manual of the neighborhood nursery school.

Here’s an excerpt from the latest e-mail message from his office:

“(W)e held a kick-off event in the morning of January 14 for the Challenge 25 Campaign, a national movement for the prevention of global warming.
“The captain of the team of supporters for this campaign is actor and singer Mr. Yuzo Kayama. People active in their respective circles are participating as supporters of this campaign.
“Captain Yuzo Kayama displayed his strong determination, saying, ‘We make a fresh start today. I want everyone to join hands for the sake of our children and future generations.’
The campaign calls for the people to take on the following six challenges.
1) To choose an environment-friendly lifestyle
2) To choose energy-saving products
3) To choose natural energies
4) To choose environment-friendly buildings and houses
5) To support activities that lead to the reduction of CO2 emissions
6) To participate in community activities to prevent global warming”

Capt. Kayama reporting for duty.

Captain Kayama and his Challenge 25 Campaign? If this were a Sunday morning cartoon show, kids would roll their eyes and reach for the remote. Then again, the DPJ has been treating the voters like children since they first put together their party platform in a ring binder, so why should they change now?

He doesn’t specify what “community activities” would prevent “global warming”, but then how could he, now that people are starting to realize the threat of global warming is nothing but junk science paid for with government grants?

Not that Mr. Hatoyama is capable of seeing any of that for himself. At least Mr. Ozawa buys elections, politicians, and construction companies fair and square—he and his lads hit the street and run the hustle themselves. The prime minister, on the other hand, is perhaps the most gormless head of government to have held office in the past…well, I’ll start the bidding with a quarter of a century.

The only reason he woke up to find himself the prime minister of Japan is because Mommy spent an estimated 5% of the Bridgestone tire fortune, by some reports, to buy him a political career and a political party. His party thanked him by electing him to serve as the Hello Kitty prime minister for the first few months of this Frankenstein’s monster of a reform government instead of giving him a gold watch and telling him to get lost. Now they’re going to have to do that anyway, soon rather than late.

Time to try the imported goods

There were reports this week that China likely overtook Germany in 2009 as the world’s leading exporter. Japan, of course, has long been known as an exporting nation.

Exports and imports are transactions between people, rather than between governments, even though public discussions are seldom conducted on that premise. Considering the state of their respective governments, perhaps it’s time for the people of Japan and China to consider importing a concept rather than goods or services.

Applying the principle of the Tea Party movement started this year by Americans fed up after a few months of rule by Mr. Obama and Democratic congressional leadership would go a lot farther toward improving their lot than new passenger aircraft or beef imports.

They might keep jasmine tea in mind. It’s not to everyone’s taste, but at least it has a pleasant fragrance.

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

Matsuri da! (109): The ice walk

Posted by ampontan on Friday, January 15, 2010

HEARING OR READING the phrase “naked festival” might generate a response that is positively Pavlovian—just as the Russian doctor’s dogs started salivating at the sound of the dinner bell, the shaggy among us would surely begin drooling in the realm of their imaginations. Even the prudish or the bashful might detect an involuntary acceleration in their pulse rates.

The Japanese hold naked festivals, or hadaka matsuri, throughout the archipelago year round, but few, if any, would appeal to anyone’s prurient interest. To begin with, most of the festivals are for male participants who aren’t in the buff, but wear loincloths similar to those of sumo rikishi when doing battle in the ring. Further, many of those festivals are conducted in mid-winter as a trial of the participants’ grit and spirit to overcome the elements. Finally, they often resemble sporting events, in which teams or individuals compete for the possession of an object, sometimes being drenched with cold water by onlookers. And yes, those who overcome and prevail are believed to have done so with the help divine assistance.

The Hirakasa Hadaka Mairi, more accurately a naked pilgrimage than a festival, is held on 8 January in Hachimantai, Iwate. It’s considered unusual because most of the participants are female, but neither the lecherous nor those with an exquisitely fine sense of curvilinear beauty would have been aroused. That’s because the intangible cultural property of the city is known as one of the few festivals conducted as an exercise in religious asceticism for women. The participants dress in white from head to toe and hold pieces of paper called kuchigami in the mouth to prevent the entry of evil spirits. That would seem to be enough to stymie any would-be Lotharios from jump street.

This year, 28 people took part in the event held in supplication for household safety and a good harvest, and 15 of them were women. They started by dumping water over themselves for purification, and considering that recent air temperatures can be calculated on the fingers of one hand, I sure hope they got good and spiritual. After several religious rites at the Miyata Shinto shrine were finished at 9:00 a.m., they departed on a 10-kilometer walk to the Yasaka Shinto shrine. During their trek, they carried long poles called kenzao and rang small bells.

The relatively light clothing worn by the women is one of the reasons this is considered an ascetic ritual. Iwate is in the northern part of the country, and the temperature is usually about 2.5° C in early January. This year it was minus 9.6° C on festival day.

The festival is said to have originated shortly after 1710 to pray for the safety of the local inhabitants after the eruption of Mt. Iwate. Women became the primary participants during the Pacific War, when most of the men were away, and they continued the event to pray for the safety of the soldiers at the front.

If I met the winter walkers, I’d take my hat off to them for their determination and wish them well—but not if I were outdoors. Heck, I live in relatively balmy Kyushu, and even here at this time of year I wear long underwear and two layers of socks indoors.

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

News from North Korea

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, January 14, 2010

THE SITUATION in North Korea must be deteriorating. Kim Jung-il has been reduced to telling the truth.

The General (or Shogun), as the Northerners call him, has admitted in a Rodong Shinmun (Labor Newspaper) article that the country isn’t a workers’ paradise after all:

“The president has said that people should be allowed to eat white rice and meat soup, wear silk clothes and live under tiled roofs. But we’ve so far failed to carry out this goal. I will certainly resolve the issue of people’s livelihood within the shortest possible period and achieve the president’s last wish.”

By the president, he means his father, Kim Il-sung. You know how dictators in some countries appoint themselves presidents for life? In North Korea, Kim Il-sung has just been appointed president for eternity. There were no reports of his reaction to the news, if any.

As the Daily NK put it:

To speak so clearly about the situation, experts suggest Kim Jong Il must have judged that people’s complaints about his rule have grown almost uncontrollable.

But the Rodong Shinmun article bucks up the public by explaining how the crisis is affecting the Dear Leader:

“Living in a train on a rigorous schedule is now a habit for the General. Until he has solved the people’s living problems he cannot sleep deeply at home.”

Well, it’s either that or he’s worried about assassination attempts.

In still more news, Kim Jong-eun’s position as his father’s eventual successor was seemingly solidified by the designation of his 8 January birthday as a public holiday. The workers receive three days off for his father’s and grandfather’s birthdays.

“'(W)orkers all over the country were involved in athletics competitions, cultural performances and loyalty singing gatherings. In provincial party organizations, there were lectures for cadres listening to recorded materials distributed by the Central Committee of the Party.’ The recorded materials…consisted of praise for Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il’s achievements.”

Many happy returns. Bonnie Prince Kim may yet become Kim III, but I hope he understands that he should enjoy it while it lasts.

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