Japan from the inside out

Archive for July, 2010

Double secret probation

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, July 31, 2010

IT LOOKS AS IF the United States government has placed a certain large international company on double secret probation:

Senior officials at the U.S. Department of Transportation have at least temporarily blocked the release of findings by auto-safety regulators that could favor Toyota Motor Corp. in some crashes related to unintended acceleration, according to a recently retired agency official.

George Person, who retired July 3 after 27 years at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said in an interview that the decision to not go public with the data for now was made over the objections of some officials at NHTSA.

What the deuce? How did that happen?

“The information was compiled. The report was finished and submitted,” Mr. Person said. “When I asked why it hadn’t been published, I was told that the secretary’s office didn’t want to release it,” he added, referring to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Why would they want American consumers to think that safe cars are unsafe?

Well, the U.S. government is the partial owner of a certain car company, and it also gave an ownership stake in that company to the union (whose lavish retirement benefits were one reason the company wasn’t profitable.) Also, the party in control of the government is beholden to labor union support. Why should they be interested in (a) helping foreign competitors–regardless of how well that foreign competitor has tried to be a good American corporate citizen–and (b) spurning an important political support group?

The Chinese government and some in South Korea make no secret of their intention to poison the well of public sentiment regarding Japan for their own benefit.

Why would the United States government behave any differently–particularly an administration that makes no secret of its intention to bash its friends (Great Britain and Israel in addition to Japan) and to appease enemies that are beyond appeasement to begin with?

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Posted in Business, finance and the economy, International relations | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

A new and improved scorecard for Japanese politics

Posted by ampontan on Friday, July 30, 2010

IT’S NOT EASY to tell the political players without a scorecard in Japan, and matters are made more complex because the players wearing the same party uniform may not be on the same philosophical team.

Hara Eiji

Hara Eiji is a veteran of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry who served as an aide to Your Party head Watanabe Yoshimi when the latter was the minister for government reform during the Fukuda administration.

In a recent article for Gendai Business online, Mr. Hara helps clear up the difficulties by providing the best scorecard I’ve seen for the Japanese political leagues today, and added some words in praise of government gridlock. Here it is in English.

During the recent upper house elections, it became impossible to discern any policy differences between the two major parties. The greatest point at dispute was the consumption tax, and Prime Minister Kan declared that he would use the (opposition) Liberal Democratic Party’s policy as a reference. In addition, some candidates within the (ruling) Democratic Party of Japan were opposed to a consumption tax increase.

It has become impossible to choose a party based on policy.

That’s why the LDP claimed during the campaign that the DPJ couldn’t be trusted, and the DPJ played up the fact that Prime Minister Kan was the son of a salaried employee. Rather than policy, the main battles were fought over a sense of trust or personal background.

This occurred because it is no longer possible to distinguish the parties or their ideologies (political philosophies, policy directions, etc.). No sooner do you realize there are people in the DPJ and the LDP who share the same sort of ideas than you also realize there are MPs within the same party who mix like oil and water.

Before there was the problem of gridlock in the Diet, there was the problem of gridlock within the parties.

It would be easier to understand the true distinctions between the primary political forces today by breaking up the different wings of each party and rearranging them into the following four parties.

In something of a caricature of real political realignment, with a bit of hyperbole thrown in, it might look like this.

1. The Party that Listens to Organizations
Supporters: Those hunting for the votes of interest groups.
Party principles: We’ll listen to any of the requests of organizations or groups if they collect a certain number of votes for us.
Examples of pledges:
* We will solicit public works projects in areas that collect votes for us during an election.
* We won’t do anything that people associated with post offices dislike.
* Public sector labor unions are powerful support groups, so we’ll never cut civil servant salaries.

2. The Dreamland Party
Supporters: Those hunting for the floating votes of those with an agenda for “transformational change”
Party principles: When we’re in charge of government, the world will become a dreamland.
Examples of pledges:
* All public fees will be eliminated. We will increase national pension benefits. The money to pay for this will surely emerge.
* We’ll move American military bases overseas. We’ll defend our own country ourselves.
* We’ll fire all the bureaucrats. We’ll drive all the amakudari bureaucrats out of the country.

3. The Japan Bureaucracy Party
Supporters: Those hunting for the floating votes of people looking for stability.
Party principles: Leadership by politicians has resulted only in terrible turmoil, starting with the Futenma base issue. Bureaucrats are the ones who should rule Japan after all.
Examples of pledges:
* Policy will be entrusted to the professional bureaucracy. Therefore, to tell you the truth, it doesn’t make any difference what our campaign pledges are. “The same as the other parties” is fine with us.

4. Serious politicians
These people are different from the others in the three parties above, and support policies in consideration of the national welfare.

Today, members of both the Democratic Party of Japan and the Liberal Democratic Party are scattered among the membership of these four parties.

Of course I’m laying it on thick.

There are strong elements of The Party that Listens to Organizations and the Japan Bureaucracy Party in the LDP. In other words, they seem to be a blend of the zokugiin, those legislators who lobby for the interests of a particular ministry, and those dependent on the bureaucracy.

In contrast, the DPJ scored a victory in last summer’s lower house election with a Dreamland Party manifesto. After the election, however, they didn’t implement the pledges in the manifesto, and their transformation into a Party that Listens to Organizations accelerated.

Meanwhile, the Kan Cabinet has spurred the rapid ascent within the DPJ of the Japan Bureaucracy Party, which has now become the dominant force. There has been a quick recovery of the forces backing leadership by the bureaucracy, as illustrated by the Cabinet decision to pursue a course of “integration with the bureaucracy” on the day the Kan Cabinet took office.

Viewed from this perspective, the “change of government” (proclaimed by the DPJ) has, in fact, already come to an end.

The coalition government formed by the Party that Listens to Organizations, which was in power for many years, and the Japan Bureaucracy Party handed over control of the government last summer, but it quickly made a comeback even before the upper house elections.

Of course there were no policy disputes in the upper house election.

Of these four parties, the least influential is the Serious Politicians. The reason is simple: It is far more advantageous in elections to take the position of the Party that Listens to Organizations or the Dreamland Party. Therefore, more than a few people drift into one of these parties, even if they have the temperament or the vision of a Serious Politician. As long as they are in the minority, however, politics will not improve regardless of the political realignments that occur.

Is it not possible to achieve a politics in which people with different philosophies conduct policy debates and the Serious Politicians conducting those debates over party lines account for most of the people in political circles?

The gridlock between the two houses would be a way to achieve that. Use the gridlock as a lever to generate serious policy debate among the parties. If policy disputes are revealed to the public through debate, the good and the bad of each party’s policies will become apparent of themselves. This will expose the parties and their members that cannot withstand policy disputes, and enable everyone to see who is a Serious Politician.

(end translation)

Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku Yoshito is taking a “live it or live with it” approach to gridlock. He said on the 26th in Tokyo:

This situation will not change for six years. Regardless of who is in government, they must manage government affairs with the premise that gridlock will not change….Different alliances, coalitions, and groupings will emerge through policy debate, as long as they are not considered “unholy alliances”.

Mr. Sengoku has dropped hints of a grand coalition with the LDP, an idea the LDP says it does not intend to entertain. Let’s hope they stick to that decision. Those two parties as presently constituted locked in loveless embrace to govern Japan would be the equivalent of a person with cholesterol-clogged arteries deciding that a diet of sausage, French fries, and bagels and cream cheese would be the royal road to health.

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Horse feathers

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, July 29, 2010

The statesman who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals, would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could be safely trusted to no council and senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it.
– Adam Smith

A COMMITTEE OF EXPERTS in the Cabinet Office’s Tax Commission released on 22 June an interim report on amending the tax code. The commission is under the direction of Finance Minister Noda Yoshihiko, and its offices are located in the Budget Bureau of the Finance Ministry (i.e., the control tower of the Japanese administrative state). The report is calling for tax increases—in a deflationary period—and justify them this way:

It is an important task to arrest the spread and the growing permanence of income gaps in order to realize a society in which the people can live with peace of mind. Therefore, it is an important task to restore the redistribution function of the tax code in conjunction with the social security system…To achieve this, it will be necessary to implement reforms that return to the progressive structure of taxation for income and assets, and restore the redistribution function of the tax code.

Every word of this is horse feathers, including the “a”s, “and”s and “the”s. This is not a country in which people are dying of malnutrition in the gutter while toffs in top hats and tails laugh and look the other way. Though that comic book vision may have informed the politics of many DPJers when they were younger, they’re much more comfortable nowadays in karaoke sing-alongs with the background music provided by a television commentariat plucking the heart strings to play variations on a theme of income gaps and society’s weaklings.

Income taxes in this country are neither particularly low nor unfair. The top rate is 40%, equivalent to that in Britain and France, and higher than the current 35% in the United States. If local taxes are factored in, the highest rate climbs to 50%.

In any event, it is not the business of government to take upon itself the adjustment of any income gaps based on proper economic activity, nor would it be possible to do so, considering the eternal gaps among individuals and the groups they form in effort, abilities, and intelligence—all of which are evident as early as grade school. It’s even possible to observe the behavior of teenagers in a shopping mall to get a rough guide as to which end of the gap they’ll wind up on in adulthood. Which kids are browsing software and computers, and which kids are spending their time and their dimes in video game centers?

The only business of government is to see that economic activity is conducted honestly and within a legal structure that minimizes group privilege. Well, that, and to incorporate into their thinking consideration of events overseas, such as the reasons the Berlin Wall no longer exists, and why most of the countries that were on the eastern side of it have moved to flat or flatter taxes and away from the failures of the “income distribution function”.

Here’s how they’re planning to go after assets:

While financial assets are concentrated among the elderly, the income of young people is declining. Therefore, it is important to redistribute (those assets) between the groups…From the perspective of correcting these income gaps, the objective of tax reform for FY 2011 should be to expand the base of taxation by lowering the basic deduction for the inheritance tax and reexamine (i.e., change) the structure of tax rates.

Individual assets in Japan total roughly JPY 1,450 trillion, about 75% of which are held by people over 50. If the penalties for passing along one’s assets to one’s heirs are removed, as happened recently in Switzerland, Italy, Sweden, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand when those countries eliminated the inheritance tax, it is redistributed to the younger generation naturally.

According to the Economic White Paper for Small and Medium-Sized Business Enterprises of 2006, 70,000 of these companies go out of business each year—and an estimated 200,000 to 350,000 people find themselves without a job. The primary reason is that these businesses can’t be passed on to a younger generation, even if the younger generation wanted them (or decided to accept them and sell them to someone who did). The inheritance taxes are already so high they’d have to liquidate the assets of the business to pay them.

Now, the DPJ government wants to make that worse, all to provide for equality of result rather than equality of opportunity.

What has gone unremarked in Japan is the sheer arrogance required to claim that the old must have their assets redistributed, like it or not, to the young, and that anyone in government is capable of efficiently handling this task. Were not those assets accumulated by people to provide for themselves in old age? Are the eternal virtues of diligence and thrift to be nullified by political fiat and replaced by an airy, vague assurance that the government will probably take care of them too?

When Mr. Noda was deputy finance minister, he told a business magazine:

I’ve thought there must be no move to deny individual assets in a country based on liberty. If the assets created over three generations disappear, wouldn’t that be because individual assets were confiscated?

Even some people in the economically dimwitted Obama administration in the United States understand this. Christina D. Romer, the Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, and her husband David H. Romer of the UC Berkeley Department of Economics recently published The Macroeconomic Effects of Tax Changes: Estimates Based on a New Measure of Fiscal Shocks.

Here’s an excerpt from the abstract:

This paper investigates the impact of tax changes on economic activity…The behavior of output following these more exogenous changes indicates that tax increases are highly contractionary. The effects are strongly significant, highly robust, and much larger than those obtained using broader measures of tax changes.

In simpler language:

Our estimates suggest that a tax increase of 1 percent of GDP reduces output over the next three years by nearly 3 percent. The effect is highly significant.

Of course Mr. Obama will ignore it, as will the DPJ and the Japanese Finance Ministry. Empirically based economic policy is not the forté of politicos on the left, and they share with the bureaucrats a taste for scenarios involving secular political divinities with themselves in the lead role. Why be a bureaucrat or politician if you don’t have manna-money to spread around?

The Japanese thought the 1990s were 10 lost years. If the DPJ working with the Finance Ministry has its way, they’ll be losing a lot more than a decade this time.

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

Actions speak louder than words

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, July 28, 2010

KONO TARO, the Acting Secretary-General of the Liberal Democratic Party, is one of the leaders of the party’s reform wing. One of the few initiatives by the ruling Democratic Party that has found favor with the public is their televised “policy reviews”. These reviews have made a star of Ren Ho, but Mr. Kono was the first to conduct them, during the Aso administration. His panel was largely ignored by the media, and some of his recommendations were ignored by his party.

The latest post on his blog has some interesting observations on media manipulation. Here it is in English:

I’ve had some inquiries from the media asking whether I would participate in the DPJ’s policy reviews. (N.B.: Some members of the DPJ have suggested that he could join the panel.)

There’s been absolutely no contact from the government, so I can’t answer one way or the other, can I? Before the government tries to give the mass media the idea that cooperation with opposition parties is possible, they should contact people directly–if that’s what they really think. Because they haven’t made such contact, it’s clear they have no intention of doing so. It’s just a performance.

The inquiries have changed over the past few days. Now the mass media is asking whether there has been any contact from MP Tsujimoto (Kiyomi, who just left the Social Democratic Party of Japan). Apparently she said that she wants to create a network that transcends party lines. They asked if I would be a part of it.

I haven’t heard a word from her.

Actions still speak louder than words.

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Let the fun and games begin

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, July 28, 2010

THERE’S ALWAYS room for more fun in the world, and you can count on the Japanese to be on the lookout for ways to contribute to the world’s fun balance. In particular, they seem to have a flair for employing everyday items to modify existing games or to create new ones. For example, here’s a post about yacurling, played indoors with a traditional kettle instead of on ice with a stone. This one’s about bowling using squash (the vegetables) instead of tenpins and a ball.

Poster for an event at the Makkari spa in Hokkaido

Now here’s one more: Slipper ping pong, in which house slippers are substituted for the rackets. There’s no shortage of potential Japanese racketeers; one report claims there are 50 million fans around the country. In fact, the world championships of slipper ping pong are held every year in Kahoku-cho, Yamagata.

Yeah, I hadn’t heard about it, either.

The folks in Kahoku-cho decided to host the competition because it’s the municipality with the highest slipper production in Japan. Considering that everyone removes their shoes before entering homes and some buildings here, there are sure to be plenty of rackets at hand. They launched the event as a national championship in 1997, but upgraded it to a world championship in 2004. That was more nominal than real in those days because it took a few years before anyone not Japanese showed up to play. Since then, however, they’ve had participants from China, India, and South Korea.

Most of the players in the Kahoku-cho world championships use slippers and balls that are larger than normal. Ordinary house slippers are fine, but participants can’t use official slipper rackets for other tournaments, slippers made with special materials, or slippers with open toes. Otherwise, the rules of the game are the same. There are two entry requirements—you have to be at least of junior high school age, and you can’t consider yourself to be good at ping pong.

The sport has an estimated 50 million fans, so of course this isn’t the only event of its type. Earlier this year the PTAs of the Higashinakasuji primary school and junior high school in Shimanto, Kochi, held a competition using regulation school slippers. The schools conduct a joint annual sports festival for the students, so the idea was to get the teachers and the parents on the same page. They recruited 12 teams of three persons each—two parents and one teacher.

Said the PTA chairman when it was over:

We were worried no one would think it was fun, but everyone got more excited than we thought. We want to do it again next year.

They surely will, too. Another slipper ping pong tournament was held recently in Ureshino, Saga, as a charity event to raise funds for the Miyazaki cattle and pig farmers devastated by the recent foot and mouth epidemic. (The final restrictions on unnecessary travel in the prefecture were finally lifted this week, and a local JA official said it would take the livestock industry eight years to recover.) Ureshino is a hot springs town, and the restaurants at the local resorts use Saga beef, which comes from cows that were used to breed most of the Miyazaki beef cattle. It cost JPY 100 yen to enter, and the losers chipped in JPY 500. The matches themselves must have proceeded smartly, because all it took to win was five points.

Nakazono Shoichi from Oita said:

Instead of it being just an event to raise money, it was better to be able to have a good time and contribute money at the same time.

It’s curious that Mr. Nakazono came to Ureshino from Oita, by the way, because the hot spring resorts are much better where he lives. It’s a bit of a variation on the old expression about carrying coals to Newcastle, except that Mr. Nakazono left Newcastle to look for coals.

Chabudai kaeshi

Chabudai kaeshi means “overturning the tea table”, and Japan holds the world championships in this event too, at the shopping mall Aruco in Yahaba-cho, Iwate. This year’s showdown was held at the end of June.

Here’s how it works. A small tea table is set on a goza, or straw mat, and a tea service is placed on top. A woman seated next to the contestant gives a signal by saying, “Anata, yamete.” (Stop it, dear.) The contestant then reaches underneath the table and flips it while shouting his own response. Officials measure how far the teacups fly, and the person who sends them the farthest is the winner. The world’s record of 9.20 meters was set at last year’s contest. It might not be as easy as it seems, however, as one of the contestants managed only a two-centimeter shot this year. Among the prizes taken home by the winner is a gold-colored tea table.

Chabudai kaeshi

The contest was started by local merchants to promote the sale of agricultural products, but media coverage elicited national interest. Participating is easy—all you have to do is walk up and apply by the time the competition starts. The rules, however, are strict. The contestants must use an “official” tea table, and they have to flip the table from a seated position on the goza. If the table itself flies off the goza, it’s a foul. People may say whatever they like when they sling the table, with the exception of anything “in violation of world peace”.

One married couple seems to have used it to let off a little domestic steam. The woman yelled, “You tricked me, gaining 20 kilos since we got married seven years ago!” (She probably didn’t finish before the teacups hit the ground.) Her husband’s yell: “Cook some more food.”

There were 29 contestants this year, and the winner was an English teacher in Gumma named Marcus Smith, whose flip sent the dishes flying more than eight meters. He shouted, “I don’t know what the rest of you are saying.”

He didn’t see what the rest of them were doing, either, because he wore his shoes on the goza until someone pointed it out to him.

Now to the tape! The first is the Saga television station’s report on the Ureshino event, and the second is Marcus Smith in action in Iwate. Previous events were held outdoors, but the weather must have been bad this year. Also, while the Japanese reports say the table isn’t supposed to leave the goza, it clearly does on his winning shot.

First, slipper ping pong.

Second, chabudai kaeshi.

Wouldn’t you want to try these at least once? I sure would!

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Posted in Foreigners in Japan, I couldn't make this up if I tried, Popular culture, Sports | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Two short; too sweet

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, July 27, 2010

HERE ARE two news items about Japanese politics whose sweetness is derived from their shortness; what they reveal about the people involved doesn’t require a lengthy explanation.

Hatoyama Yukio

The former prime minister is nettled at his successor, Kan Naoto. He recently said:

If I had known what the (election) results would be, I probably should have stayed in office. I can’t accept (Prime Minister Kan) placing the blame for the election defeat on the previous administration.

They say hindsight is 20-20, but for the former prime minister, it might be 20-200 in both directions. The DPJ won 44 seats in the election; their target was 54, and they really wanted 60. Had Mr. Hatoyama remained in office through the election, they would have been lucky to win 30. Mr. Kan’s ill-advised remarks about a tax increase served to focus the mind of the electorate on the many reasons they were disinclined to vote for the party to begin with, and his predecessor was responsible for most of those.

Be that as it may, Mr. Hatoyama’s group will probably vote to keep Mr. Kan in office during the party presidential selection in September. Replacing a prime minister after only two months looks bad for everyone.

Tsujimoto Kiyomi

Former terrorist pal and former deputy minister of land, infrastructure, and transport Tsujimoto Kiyomi is now a former member of the Social Democratic Party of Japan. We passed along speculation from the Shukan Gendai in April (see Afterwords) that she would leave the SDPJ and join the DPJ. She announced yesterday that she was leaving the party, so now it’s one down and one to go.

Her decision has little to do with political philosophy and a lot to do with political survival. Ms. Tsujimoto is one of the two SDPJ Diet members to have won a seat outright rather than through proportional representation, but that’s only because the DPJ cleared a path for her last September. She needed PR to slip on in before, but the DPJ decided to give a bouquet to what would be its new coalition partner by choosing not to field a candidate in her district. Ms. Tsujimoto defeated her LDP opponent, who was weighed down by affiliation with an unpopular brand.

But the SDPJ left the coalition over the Hatoyama administration’s handling of the Futenma base issue, and the DPJ won’t be so sweet in the next election campaign. She says that she’ll serve as an independent, but we’ll see if that lasts until the filing date for candidates. Her best chance of survival in the Diet is to join the DPJ and run under their nameplate. If that’s what she winds up doing, she’ll have plenty of company within the party; she wouldn’t be the only member who chose an expedient means to a Diet seat over philosophical purity.

Judging from her public bawling when she resigned her minor Cabinet post after the SDPJ left the coalition, she might also have acquired a taste for positions of authority. She’d be unlikely to sniff another Cabinet position if she stayed with the SDPJ, but moving to the DPJ would allow her to keep hope alive.

This isn’t a Japanese phenomenon, either. A contemporary example among Democrats in the United States is Barack Obama, but other examples in that party go back many years, to people like Bella Abzug and Ron Dellums in the 70s, or even Henry Wallace in the 40s.

Ms. Tsujimoto was arrested and found guilty in 2002 for diverting public funds. Despite her rap sheet, the DPJ appointed her to a minor position in the Cabinet. Not even the bad old LDP tried to foist an ex-con on the public when they were in power.

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Lip service

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, July 25, 2010

A READER of the Japan Times named Sugiyama Natsumi wrote the following letter to that newspaper. Quoting entire passages written by other people on one’s own website is in most cases unacceptable behavior. I’ve made this an exception because it’s a short letter to the editor that illustrates the essential problem with the ruling Democratic Party of Japan.

Regarding the July 18 Kyodo article “Hatoyama indicates he may not retire from politics after all”: Yukio Hatoyama is contradicting what he said when he resigned as prime minister. Resignation from the prime ministry should mean leaving the world of politics all together, which at one time was Hatoyama’s stance. In the past he criticized other prime ministers who remained in politics after resigning because he said doing so had a negative effect on other lawmakers.

He should take note of what he said and retire; otherwise, nothing will change in Japanese politics. His ignoring his own words is why he lost the trust of voters and was forced out after only a year. A small matter like this confuses voters and makes them distrust politics and politicians.

The author wrote that is why he (Mr. Hatoyama) lost the trust of the voters. I would change that word to they (the DPJ). It would be difficult to find any matter of policy, principle, or party conduct in which they have not gone back on or seriously hedged their pre-election word, starting with the planks of their party platform. As a result, they squandered the opportunity of a lifetime.

Books have been published about the DPJ’s conduct in office with the Japanese equivalent of “stabbed in the back” in the title, and they still haven’t reached their first anniversary as the head of the government.

There is no longer any reason to expect any meaningful reforms from the DPJ government as long as it stays in power with the present constituent elements. Any reforms they produce will be coincidental with their objective of retaining power and implementing their statist agenda.

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What do you expect?

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, July 24, 2010

David McNeill in the Independent writes a brief article about the new book by Kan Nobuko, the prime minister’s wife, called Now You Are Prime Minister, How On Earth Is Japan Going to Change? The piece is undistinguished, barely competent, and in its attempt to portray Mr. Kan as a henpecked husband, seems to have been written for the sort of audience that enjoys watching daytime television.

Then there’s this part:

(T)he book also reveals that Mr Kan had no great ambitions for the job and was catapulted into office by the resignation of Yukio Hatoyama.

Wrong verb. It doesn’t reveal that he had no ambition for the job, it claims that he had no ambition for the job.

Had McNeill been anywhere near a Japanese newspaper or magazine for the past two months, picked one up and read it, or hired someone to do his reading for him, he would have known that Mr. Kan has made no secret of his ambitions to be prime minister since his 20s. This has been amply supported in the Japanese media by quotes from people who have associated with him over the years.

He also would have known that Mr. Kan quickly saw the writing on the wall about the duration of the Hatoyama Cabinet, and began positioning himself as the successor.

This is the third time he’s served as DPJ party president, and he also ran at least once for the post and lost. It would be odd to say the least that the head of the primary opposition party in a parliamentary system would have no ambitions to become prime minister.

This is the sort of thing a competent journalist would have found some way to include in the article.

But what do you expect to emanate from the FCCJ bar?


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Tune in, turn on, and drop in

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, July 22, 2010

COMMUNITY RADIO STATIONS began broadcasting in Japan in 1992 on shortwave frequencies, and there are now more than 200 nationwide. They’re limited in both wattage and broadcast area, and while that keeps their potential audience down, it also allows for more relaxed formats and closer ties to their community. I spend a lot more time listening to the radio than I do watching TV, and most of that is spent tuned into NHK AM and FM with occasional detours to KBC in Busan. The fare on regular AM and FM stations is too aggressively commercial and has too much chewing gum content, making them more annoying than listenable.

But as this article in the English version of the Yomiuri explains, some community radio stations can now be accessed through the Internet at this page called Simul Radio:

Every morning I switch on my PC and access a radio service called Saimaru Rajio (Simul Radio). On the central homepage are listed around 30 such radio stations available across the nation. The service uses the word, Simul, for simultaneous, as they broadcast not only to their respective local areas, but also literally worldwide via Internet streaming.

I tried it this morning, and it works fine. The stations I visited had pleasant music, congenial and uncontrived announcers, and low-key advertising.

There are no instructions in English, alas, but the links are clearly identified.

That got me in a clicking mood, and I found this page (Japanese-language) with a comprehensive list of the websites for these stations around the country. Not all of them broadcast over the Internet, but Churajio in Okinawa does, and it’s not on the Simul Radio list.

Their playlist says they stick to Okinawan music. I’ve been listening for the past 15 minutes, and while they’re telling the truth, most of it falls in the pop-rock range rather than the hard core roots music of Kina Shokichi, the Rinken Band, or Nenez (not to mention Daiku Tetsuhiro). It’s still very listenable, though.

Ain’t the Internet grand? If you were listening in your car, you probably couldn’t pick up any of these stations outside city limits or in certain pockets in town with bad reception. Current regulations limit their broadcast range to a radius of 20 kilometers and an output of 20 watts.

I would have loved this when I was studying Japanese at university. As it is, I’m about to become a regular listener.

Overseas readers: Please send in a comment to tell us about the reception where you are. And if anyone finds a station they particularly like, be sure to let us know!

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Posted in Mass media, Music, Popular culture, Social trends, Websites | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

It’s natto for everybody

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, July 20, 2010

THREE JAPANESE MEN who became friends when I was studying the language at an American university invited me to dinner at the apartment they shared. We met when they saw me puzzling my way through a Tanizaki novel in the student union, and they struck up a conversation.

It was late spring, and guys will be guys, so the meal was an informal affair—make-it-yourself makizushi (rolled sushi). One of the ingredients they offered with the rice and the dark green nori rolling material was natto, fermented soybeans sold in a commercial package. It’s made with special bacteria that give it a distinctive odor and taste that cause even some Japanese to wrinkle their nose. Pick it up with chopsticks and you’ll see that it’s coated in transparent, stringy gloop.

One of them said, “You probably won’t like this. Foreigners usually don’t.”

Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said that one of the secrets to establishing good relations with people from overseas is to eat whatever they offer you. The reason they’re serving it is because they consider it a special treat, after all. I thought I could use that advice to my advantage, because I’ve always been willing to eat anything once.

That’s why I slathered a generous serving of natto into the middle of the rice and rolled it up. It certainly got their attention.

I took a bite and almost gagged.

“What do you think?”

There’s no backing down when you’re in that far, especially for a young man among young men, so I gulped it down and told them it was great. They actually believed me. I stuck with natto makizushi the rest of the night, though I gradually reduced the proportion of natto to rice after that.

Wouldn’t you know it? They invited me back for dinner a month later, and when I got there, one of them said, “You liked natto so much last time we decided to have it again tonight.”

My wife thinks that no dinner is complete without natto, but she didn’t force it on me. Shortly after getting married, I saw a television program that presented convincing evidence for its nutritious and healthful properties, so I steeled myself to trying it again. She heard that mixing the natto with grated daikon radish reduces the odor and the stickiness, and that got me eating it every day. After about a year, she decided it was too much trouble to keep grating the daikon, but by then I had gotten used to it. Now I consider it health food.

The Japanese aren’t sure when they started eating natto, but it was a long time ago. They’ve figured out their ancestors had the technical means for making it in the Yayoi period (300 BC-300 AD), but the oldest documentary evidence for its consumption comes from the mid-11th century in the book Shinsaru Goki by Fujiwara no Akihira (989?-1066), a Confucian scholar and man of letters. He listed shiokarai natto (salty natto) as one of his favorite foods. To put that in perspective, they’ve been eating it in Japan before William the Conqueror’s victory in the Battle of Hastings.

In the Edo period (1603-1868), peddlers hawked it in the streets of Kyoto and Edo every morning. It was also a regular menu item for soldiers and sailors during the war.

The governor and Miss Natto

Despite that illustrious history, the Natto Cooperative Society Federation of Japan (Japanese only) still works to promote the food. Since 2005, they’ve selected an attractive young woman to serve as Miss Natto and publicize the dish nationwide. This year, the reigning Miss Natto is Tashiro Sayaka, who is the fourth in line. Last month, she paid a courtesy call on Nara Gov. Arai Shogo, as you can see from the photo.

There’s a reason Nara was selected for the promotion. The ancient capital was established in Nara in 710, and this year they’re commemorating the 1,300th anniversary.

The Japanese have long used a linguistic device called goroawase, in which syllables or short words from one expression are combined to create other words or expressions for an interesting or comic effect. It’s often employed in TV commercials using the variants for the pronunciation of numbers to create a word or expression that makes it easy to remember a telephone number, for example.

In Japanese, a child could convert natto into 710.

Said Ms. Tashiro at her meeting with the governor:

There are probably many people who hate natto and don’t eat it, but I really wish they would because it’s very healthful. I recommend natto toast. Spread some natto and cheese on bread and toast it.

She’s right, it’s as healthful as the dickens, but dumping it on top of white bread and the rubberized melty cheese they sell in supermarkets might negate its benefits. The governor has his own favorite:

Natto became popular when I was a college student, and I like it now. I think it’s good to mix with nori and eat like a snack.

Mr. Arai likes it now? Does that mean he too didn’t like it at first and had to grow accustomed to it? It’s not out of the question.

If the idea of natto cheese toast or a natto/nori snack doesn’t whet your appetite, take a look at this post about the natto rolled cake a high school class invented. It looks scrumptious.

They sold out, too.

And if that doesn’t convince you, think of this: Eating it might make a natto angel out of you!

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Posted in Food, History, Popular culture | Tagged: , | 5 Comments »

Getting centered

Posted by ampontan on Monday, July 19, 2010

THE AUGUST ISSUE of the monthly Shincho 45 reports that when current Democratic Party of Japan Secretary-General Edano Yukio ran for reelection to a lower house seat in 1996, he exchanged a “memorandum of endorsement” with a man police suspect was a senior member of the Kakumaru Faction, the Revolutionary Marxist Faction of Zengakuren.

Edano Yukio

The man, identified as Mr. A, was the chair of the executive committee of the Omiya Branch of the East Japan Railway Workers’ Union (JREU) in Saitama. In the memo, Edano said, “I understand the (activities and policies) of the Japan Confederation of Railway Workers’ Unions (JRU) and the East Japan Railway Workers’ Union and will act in solidarity with them.”

Mr. A was arrested in 2002 for threatening and verbally abusing another employee and forced to resign. According to a contemporary account in the Tokyo edition of the Asahi Shimbun, the police suspected him of being one of the principal members of Mangrove, a Kakumaru group within the JREU.

The Kakumaru Faction split in the 1960s from Chukakuha, another radical terrorist organization (with whose members the Social Democrat Fukushima Mizuho has ties). Kakumaru’s objective is Marxist revolution, and their members have been involved in murders and other crimes. They have penetrated the two railway workers’ unions and are said to exert a substantial amount of influence over them.

Mr. Edano’s political fund management group received JPY 4.04 million (about $US 46,400) from the two unions for four years after the memorandum was exchanged. He frequently attends JRU meetings and has given a speech to the membership in support of all the members arrested in the 2002 case, which is currently before the Supreme Court.

In last week’s upper house election, JRU member Tashiro Kaoru won a PR seat running as a DPJ candidate. Shincho 45 says that in 1996, he was the driver and close associate of Matsuzaki Akira, whom police suspect is a key member of the Kakumaru Faction. Matsuzaki has admitted being involved with the group when they were formed. This website calls him “a mortal enemy of the working class, a hundred-percent Fascist”, which gives you an idea of what sort of people we’re talking about. (They also think the Obama administration is an enemy of the working class.)

The Kakumaru Faction still exists and has an estimated 4,000 members.

The overseas English-language press likes to describe the DPJ government as “center-left”. The three most important people in the government today are Prime Minister Kan Naoto, whose political career started with the Socialist Democratic Federation; Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku Yoshito, whose political career started with the Socialist Party; and Secretary-General Edano Yukio, who hangs out with people in the Kakumaru Faction.

If the DPJ wanted to get down with the “center” part of that label, wouldn’t now be a good time to start?

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Run silent, run deep

Posted by ampontan on Monday, July 19, 2010

THE SILENCE is disquieting.

To be sure, the nation does need a breather from politics. It’s been in a state of either semi- or full-scale upheaval since Koizumi Jun’ichiro left office in 2006. Events culminated in the historical change of government after last September’s lower house win by the Democratic Party of Japan—and then the bottom fell out with their staggering display of incompetence in the management of governmental and political affairs. The replacement of Hatoyama Yukio with Kan Naoto did not improve matters, and might have made them worse. Regardless of who wins the race to the bottom, both have clearly demonstrated they are not of prime ministerial caliber.

The respite from politics comes none too soon for the people, who will turn their attention to more relaxing pursuits now that the school year’s summer vacation begins this week.

While the public begins to enjoy the stillness, political observers are growing concerned about the disquieting silence from other quarters—former DPJ Secretary-General Ozawa Ichiro.

Mr. Ozawa has still not appeared in public or talked to reporters since the election, maintaining a silence that some are starting to call eerie. He’s told supporters that he’s resting after the election campaign, which is probably true, but few think that’s all he’s doing.

No one’s sure where’s he been during the week—he hasn’t been at home, though he seems to have gone on a fishing trip on Sunday. Most observers, however, suspect that he’s sharpening his swords for the DPJ party presidential election in the first week of September.

The silence must be disconcerting for Mr. Kan and his allies, who, after all, were the ones to suggest that Mr. Ozawa keep quiet for a while. (He did, except to blast the prime minister in the middle of the campaign for bringing up a tax increase.) Likely compounding their discomfort is Mr. Ozawa’s refusal to accept any calls from Mr. Kan. He sent word instead through a third party for Mr. Kan to specify in advance what he wants to talk about.

Meanwhile, Hirano Tadao, one of Mr. Ozawa’s most trusted confidantes, appeared on the Asahi TV program Scramble and said:

It was a terrible insult (for Prime Minister Kan) to tell the man who contributed to the achievement of the DPJ government to stay silent.

Did that heighten the sense of alarm among the old-line DPJ members, or are they still deluding themselves that things will somehow work out—even though nothing’s worked out for them since last September?

They should be alarmed. Had it not been for Mr. Ozawa’s practical lessons in political conduct, they’d still be coffeehousing on the outside looking in. That didn’t stop them from trying to make him the scapegoat in public, starting with the master political blunderer Hatoyama Yukio at the end of May.

Yet it’s almost as if the current DPJ leadership is trying to pretend that nothing very bad happened last Sunday. Not only have they shown no willingness to accept responsibility for their defeat, their behavior seems to suggest they intend to stay in office for the indefinite future.

But if there is anything Mr. Ozawa knows how to do, it is how to maneuver in situations such as these. That is precisely what the old-line DPJ members do not know how to do. Now they seem to be on the verge of a confrontation with a man who is motivated, angry, contemptuous of their abilities, and has a political war chest rumored to be as much as JPY 300 billion (almost $US 3.5 billion). Japanese law has no spending restrictions on internal party elections, either.

It’s quiet now, but if a battle breaks out in six weeks, it could be very noisy, very bloody, and will have the potential to reconfigure Japanese politics even more drastically than last year’s lower house election.

The ideal outcome would be if both of these camps were flushed out of Japanese politics forever. They may yet find a way to bring that about on their own. Until that happens, however, half a loaf will be much better than none.

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Pyeongyang’s public works

Posted by ampontan on Monday, July 19, 2010

WHENEVER the subject turns to North Korea’s Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, the world’s most powerful otaku, the mass media likes to bring up the question of his sanity. They’ll begin an article questioning whether he is of unsound mind, but conclude he’s crazy like a fox, usually based on the eyewitness testimony of such experts in the field as former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

I'm OK, you're OK

It’s curious that the journalists never consider the effect on his mental and emotional gyroscopes of whatever his upbringing must have been like, his position in North Korean society for most of his life, and the North Korean social environment. Can you imagine how anyone else would have turned out in the same circumstances?

Regardless of whether he was ever the picture of Korean compos mentis, some people are now starting to wonder whether he’s sailed over the edge for good. The excellent North Korea Leadership Watch website has the details:

(T)he Pyongyang rumor mill about KJI continues to hum along. In late April, KCNA reported that KJI attended the “light comedy Echo of Mountain” by the State Theatrical Troupe. He was reported as having attended the play again on 8 May, after his return from his week-long sojourn to China. According to RFA’s sources, Kim Jong Il ordered the demolition and reconstruction of the theater in which the play was performed (the theater was previously renovated in 2003.) This report has been construed by some external observers in the ROK as an indication of KJI’s diminishing mental faculties.

If there’s one avocation all dictators share, it’s a love of urban planning and grandiose public works. Indulging that hobby by tearing down and rebuilding a recently renovated theater for no apparent reason in a country where political torture is routine and reports of cannibalism occasionally emerge does seem to suggest an occluded front might be passing through the Kim cranium.

Meanwhile, the same website reports another public works project is underway in Kangdong:

The latest Kim Jong Un [Jong-un; Chong-un; Jong Eun] rumor is that the Central Party has ordered the construction of a KJU-related historic site, or “shrine” in Kangdong County. According to Lee Young-hwa, of Rescue North Korean People Urgent Action, a railway extension to the site commenced construction in March, 2009. Work temporarily ceased during the summer of 2009, but resumed in early July of this year. It should be noted that there are railway lines that run through Kangdong, so it would seem an extension to an existing route is what they are constructing….It seems the effort to construct a site for Kim Jong Un is part of his official biography, which may claim Kangdong County as a place where he spent his childhood.

One of Kim Jong-il’s sons, Kim Jong-un is widely believed to be prepping for the role of Kim III in the Kim Family Regime. The article also contains some interesting historical background on Kangdon, which the KFR claims is the burial site of Dangun, the legendary founder of the first Korean kingdom in 2333 BC. Aficionados of public statuary should scroll down to the photo of the two representations of Dangun’s sons.

While the public coffers seem to be full enough for razing and rebuilding theaters and building a shrine with its own railroad spur for the heir presumptive, two international groups are in a dispute over whether there’s enough left over for such public services as hospitals, doctors, and medicines.

Here’s how it started:

(World Health Organization Director-General) Margaret Chan praised the communist country after a visit in April and described its health care as the “envy” of most developing nations.

Yeah, that was a bit much even for the AP:

Some groups may fear being expelled from the country if they are openly critical of Pyongyang, which is highly sensitive to outside criticism. Still, Chan’s comments were uncommonly ebullient.

Amnesty International conducted its own study (pdf), however, and last week released a report with different conclusions:

Amnesty’s report on Thursday described North Korea’s health care system in shambles, with doctors sometimes performing amputations without anesthesia and working by candlelight in hospitals lacking essential medicine, heat and power. It also raised questions about whether coverage is universal as it — and WHO — claimed, noting most interviewees said they or a family member had given doctors cigarettes, alcohol or money to receive medical care. And those without any of these reported that they could get no health assistance at all.

Doctors routinely accepting booze and smokes makes it the envy of the developing world? In some countries, maybe. But that wasn’t all:

(W)hereas Chan had noted that North Korea “has no lack of doctors and nurses,” Amnesty said some people had to walk two hours to get to a hospital for surgery. Chan cited the government’s “notable public health achievements,” while Amnesty said health care remained at a low level or was “progressively getting worse.”

WHO is also having trouble justifying its claims:

Asked Friday what countries were envious of North Korea’s health, (WHO spokeswoman Fadela) Chaib said she couldn’t name any.

It seems that WHO’s conclusions were based on some puzzling data.

Amnesty had spoken to North Koreans as well as to foreign health care and aid workers, and relied heavily on WHO for information — including the assessment that North Korea spends $1 per person per year on health care, the lowest level in the world.

Alas, the AP couldn’t resist the urge of many in the global mass media to offer that lamest of excuses for the failures of a Democratic People’s Republic:

The country has relied on foreign assistance to feed much of its population since the mid-1990s when its economy was hit by natural disasters and the loss of the regime’s Soviet benefactor.

South Korea is smack dab on the same peninsula and subject to the same natural disasters, but everyone there manages to eat three meals a day. The same is true of nearby Japan, where earthquakes, typhoons, and floods are a part of life. Neither of them needs a benefactor, either.

Would this be a hint as to the nature of the problem? The AP thinks the “country…feed(s) its population.” Meanwhile, South Korea and Japan let the people feed themselves.

Zarifi of Amnesty said the whole debate would be ended if North Korea’s government provided access to monitors so that everyone had a better understanding of the country’s health care system.

Does this mean WHO was unable to rely on the well-known North Korean willingness to let foreigners snoop wherever they like and talk to anyone they want?

Allowing access to monitors probably would clear up matters.

Perhaps the construction of special facilities for international monitors could be Kim III’s first major public works project. That way, those countries of the developing world envious of North Korean health care could send representatives to study the system that flourished under the benevolent leadership of Kims I and II and perhaps score some surplus liquor and cigarettes.

Either that or learn how to mass produce date rape drugs.

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Sweetfish, fireworks, and summertime fun

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, July 18, 2010

MUNICIPALITIES everywhere hold special events outdoors when the weather gets nice, and often those events include large fireworks displays. As you might imagine, summer galas with fireworks are common in Japan. My wife’s family home is near a river, and the second floor of the house offers an excellent view of the local fireworks festival. Our house is a 10-minute walk from the municipal offices, where another fireworks extravaganza is presented every year.

Not many of the summertime events I saw in the United States started off with a special ceremony. For the fireworks festivals, people just head for a site with a good view and wait for the light and sound show to begin.

That’s not usually how it happens in Japan, however. People here like to hold a ritual/ceremony/event first to get off on the good foot, even if it’s small and few people attend. One opening ceremony that’s particularly appealing is conducted by the people who present the annual Hita River Opening Sightseeing Festival in Hita, Oita. The city is on the Mikuma River and likes to promote itself as a hydrophiliac municipality, so that’s where the events take place. As they do every year, the city began their 63rd festival this year with a small observance to thank the river divinities and ask their blessing for a safe event. Three young women, serving as the public relations face of the festival, dressed as miko (Shinto shrine maidens) and released 34 ayu, or sweetfish, into the river from the edge of a small stage.

Is that not a short but sweet gesture that shifts the emphasis from receiving to giving, and a gentle reminder of that which should come first?

About 90 people came to watch, including local government officials and representatives of the tourism industry. A much larger number of people came to watch the fireworks, in which 10,000 individual devices were released into the sky over the next two nights. There’s also what the Hita folk call the Hangiri Gempei Contest, which involves goofy competitions on the river. In one of them, individuals dressed in unusual costumes climb into what look like oversize wooden washtubs to do battle and try to capsize each other. They probably laugh themselves silly while everyone else enjoys the scene from the riverbank.

This is the first public event of summer in Hita, so it’s held at the end of May every year. The story got lost in the shuffle among the other files on my computer, but I thought it was good enough to present even if it is two months late. And speaking of good sweetfish stories, here’s another one about taking the ayu from the river instead of putting them back in.

Oh, and before I forget—here’s a superb photo of the fireworks over the river.

What the heck! To find out what’s been going on in Kyushu this weekend, take a look at the mad morning dash in Fukuoka City, the Kagoshima lanterns, and weather forecasting using the Divine Wind.

I’m tellin’ ya, this is a happening place!

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Posted in Festivals, Popular culture, Traditions | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

Hydrangea heaven on earth

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, July 17, 2010

HYDRANGEAS have been a favorite of mine for as long as I can remember. My grandparents had a comfortable house in Baltimore with two large, attractive hydrangea bushes, so perhaps that’s where it started.

When I moved to California, I was pleased to be able to rent a house with a superb hydrangea bush in the front yard in front of the bedroom window. And I was delighted when I moved to Japan to discover that hydrangeas, known here as ajisai, were popular throughout the country.

When my wife and I built a house and talked about what to plant outside, my first suggestion was a hydrangea bush. Unfortunately, my wife doesn’t care for them as much as I do. She explained that she associates hydrangeas with the rainy season, when the weather is always hot, wet, and muggy whether it’s raining or not. Many Japanese find the season unpleasant, which is why they usually don’t associate summer with outdoor fun the way Americans do. So we planted azaleas and other flowering shrubs instead.

That hasn’t limited my opportunities for hydrangea viewing, however, because plenty of other people like them enough to have them in their yards. But one of the best places to see the flowers in Japan is the Deshiomonju-do in the Murakisawa district of Yamagata City. If there were such a thing as hydrangea heaven on earth, that might be it. The city has held a hydrangea festival there for the past 15 years. One of the attractions features another of Japan’s summer delights—a yukata fashion show, yukata being the traditional lightweight robes worn in the summertime. Had I been lucky enough to see on the 11th the 40 varieties of 2,500 hydrangeas in full bloom along a 500-meter path at Deshiomonju-do with the yukata-clad women in a full bloom of their own, my eyes might well have thought they had died and gone to heaven.

There were 30 models in the show, ranging in age from 1 to 70+, with hair-legged boys as well as women modeling the yukata. Some of them weren’t even Japanese! And if that wasn’t enough excitement, local adults and children performed dances and sang.

YouTube’s been used for a lot of things, and now here’s a 1:50 clip solely of hydrangea flowers, which I’ve added below. It’s well done and gives everyone a good idea of what Deshiomonju-do looks like. It gets particularly interesting at the one-minute mark. Unfortunately, it doesn’t show us what the models looked like!

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Posted in Festivals, Popular culture, Traditions | Tagged: , | 8 Comments »