Japan from the inside out

Archive for February, 2011

Third rate

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, February 13, 2011

It’s not your business model that sucks. It’s you that sucks.
– Andrew Breitbart, addressing the media covering a political meeting

READER Aceface sent a link to an article from the February issue of Factia Online. The title, roughly translated, is The Tokyo Bureaus of the Overseas Media: A lineup of third raters. Here it is in English. Be advised that this is a translation for the purpose of providing information. Factia is solely responsible for the accuracy of the content.

To hear the Tokyo correspondents of the overseas media tell it, there is no more degraded journalism than that produced by the Japanese media. But what about those reporters from the overseas media? As the documents that surfaced in Wikileaks demonstrate, they’ve given up their function of monitoring authority. The extent to which they’ve all become mere carrier pigeons is just a matter of degree.

Disbelief rippled through Nintendo’s investor relations office at about 2:30 on the afternoon of 29 September last year. The company’s stock, which had firmed slightly at around JPY 24,500, suddenly jumped to near JPY 25,000, then plunged again just before the close of trading.

The reason for the volatility was a report from the American news agency Bloomberg that the company’s Nintendo 3DS, their newest handheld gaming device and a product critical for their earnings recovery, would go on sale for JPY 18,000 on 28 October. The Nintendo stock reacted, as it had been expected the new game would not be ready in time for the yearend season.

Nintendo executives denied the story at a Makuhari game show the same day. Investors started selling, and as if it were on a roller coaster, the price fell to nearly JPY 23,000.

The villain was a group of Bloomberg reporters assigned to breaking stories called the Speed Team. The leader of this team filed the report after mistaking the existing DS package with Super Mario and others for Nintendo’s 3DS.

The Securities and Exchange Surveillance Commission launched an investigation, and Bloomberg deleted the erroneous article with the author’s byline. They then published an article under a different byline stating that Nintendo had delayed the sale of the 3DS, and hung it on the peg of Nintendo’s downgrade of their results forecast announced after the Tokyo Stock Exchange closed.

Bloomberg did it again a week later, on 6 October. They reported that the Financial Services Agency was considering more rigorous capital requirements for megabanks in Japan only. That touched off a plunge not only in bank stocks, but the market as a whole. The Financial Services Agency, however, denied the story. What happened was that the Bloomberg reporter had a quick, casual conversation with a Diet member, became too eager for a scoop, and got carried away.

It’s the same story with the New York Times, whose reporters don’t even understand the fundamentals. A female reporter in their Tokyo bureau who covered last year’s story on the Toyota recall became angry at an out of order coffee machine in Toyota headquarters and tweeted “Toyota sucks”. That’s the behavior of a bratty delinquent.

The Tokyo bureau of the Wall Street Journal is criticized for what appears to be conflicts of interest. They have a rule that reporters cannot cover organizations at which a spouse or other close relative is employed. The husbands of two of the bureau’s female reporters are executives at Morgan Stanley, a leading American financial services company. The husband of a deputy bureau chief is a banker in Hong Kong. The husband of another is the chief administrative officer of the Tokyo branch of Morgan Stanley. She writes stories on finance, and Morgan Stanley’s competitors complain there’s no guarantee her articles will be impartial.

The problems are not exclusively those of American-affiliated outlets. A Japan-U.S. financial symposium was held last October in Hakone with financial experts from both countries. What puzzled participants was that a reporter for The Economist, who was rumored to have left the company, attended with name cards identifying that reporter as a special business and financial correspondent for the magazine. A different Economist reporter with the same title was in Tokyo at the time. Those in attendance who were interviewed wondered which one was legitimate.

Also attending was a female reporter whose father is a well-known economist. Known as a troublemaker who sued The Economist, she claimed the company was at fault because she developed a neurosis as a result of a dispute with the magazine’s editorial board. The reporter is said to be on sabbatical, but the magazine allows her to walk around with the company’s name cards after leaving their employ, just to cover up the stench.

The Financial Times, another British publication, is no better. They’re known for having been critical of Goldman Sachs, but when Goldman purchased advertising for a book review event, the criticism was suddenly softened. Not a sound is heard from their former bureau chief, who wrote a book about the bankruptcy of the Long-Term Credit Bank of Japan.

The Japanese media is second rate? They’re the ones who are intolerable prigs with preconceived notions and vanilla coverage. How long do they think what they really are will remain hidden? The overseas media, and the reporters at their Tokyo bureaus in particular, are unquestionably third rate. They’re the ones who suck.

(end translation)
Chin-don is my preference for infotainment delivered by a vehicle for advertising. Here’s the face-off for the championship in last year’s national chin-don competition in Toyama. They’re pretending to advertise a stomach remedy. The second team won.

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Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Foreigners in Japan, Mass media | Tagged: , , , | 6 Comments »

The next word on sumo

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, February 13, 2011

LAST WEEK, some readers took me to task for using hyperbole in two posts about the revelations of match-fixing in sumo. One cited the line that everyone above the age of 10 knew about yaocho.

Yes, that was an exaggeration for effect, but I wasn’t far off. The Kyodo news agency conducted a telephone poll on Friday and Saturday. Here are some of the results.

76%.1: Thought match-fixing was prevalent before the story broke
18.6%: Did not think yaocho existed
27.8%: Think match-rigging is inevitable

One of the crusader rabbits at the Japan Times jumped on the back of the hobgoblin, writing that sumo should be shut down for the year and that its controlling body should be placed in private hands. And some people thought I was exaggerating? That’s what journos do for a living.

The publication printed a letter in reply from Tom Quinn, now in California. Mr. Quinn was one of the English-language sumo broadcasters for nine years on NHK. He writes:

“Early on I was taught by someone within the sumo world how to look at certain aspects of a particular match to see if it was on the level. Once I knew what to look for, I could predict the match winner from the beginning, a helpful skill for announcing.

“Having said that, I think the so-called yaocho scandal these days is a bit overblown.”

He adds:

“I even have doubts about whether it’s a true “sport.” Still, it remains my favorite athletic activity to watch. And I don’t think that bringing in some promotional outfit to oversee this world would work on any level.

“I believe that the Japan Sumo Association will take care of this problem.”

Wishful thinking? We’ll see.

The Kyodo survey also asked whether people considered sumo a sport, but the Japan Times couldn’t find the space for those numbers:

15.9%: It’s a sport
57.2%: It’s traditional culture
25.3%: Can’t say for sure

Note that Mr. Quinn still enjoys watching sumo, despite knowing for many years how to predict the outcome of certain matches and thinking that yaocho will always exist to some degree.

He’s not the only one who’ll continue to watch. Here are some more numbers from the Kyodo poll that didn’t appear in the Japan Times. The subjects were asked whether they would watch sumo when it started again.

42.5%: Want to watch it
14.6%: Don’t want to watch it
40.5%: Don’t watch it to begin with

After it was revealed that the spring tournament would be cancelled, another reader wrote in to chide me for calling it a “two-day teapot tempest”. The spring tournament is one of six held during the year.

OK then: Does “two-month teapot tempest” work better?


Posted in Sports, Traditions | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

The media owes Toyota an apology

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, February 13, 2011

ED WALLACE writing in Bloomsberg Business Week thinks that America’s mass media, and CBS in particular, owes Toyota an apology after their story about unintended acceleration in those automobiles was shown to be a hobgoblin. He wrote a year ago that it was all so much humbug, but he isn’t gloating:

What I would prefer…is that the media would take the time to report a story accurately rather than just stir up a public frenzy in pursuit of ratings.

He reviews the problems with the media coverage, including an ill-advised reliance on self-proclaimed experts using someone else’s difficulties as a way to cash in. Come to think of it, wasn’t that what they all were doing? Mr. Wallace then concludes:

The first job of a journalist is to ask, “Is this information true?” It’s obvious that when it comes to automobiles, that’s the last question the broadcast media want answered.

Substitute “everything” in the above quote for “automobiles”, and we get to the core of the problem. Falsus in unum, falsus in omnibus.

Toyota deserves an apology, but everyone knows they won’t get one.

Thanks to RB for the link.

Posted in Mass media, Science and technology | Tagged: | 4 Comments »

Japan to sign free trade pact – with India

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, February 12, 2011

WHILE people are noogling on the question of whether those insular Japanese will ever be able to get over themselves long enough to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade discussions, the country will quietly sign a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement with India next week, as New in Malaysia reports.

The agreements are aimed at reducing or eliminating tariffs on over 90 per cent of the goods India trades with Japan…The pacts also aim at liberalising trade in services, an area of particular interest to India.

The agreement would boost the two-way commerce which stood at about USD 11 billion in 2009-10.

That amount isn’t enough to place India in the Top 10 of Japan’s trading partners, but the pact does show the country is capable of signing up for a free trade regime with zero-level fuss.

The agreement has flown under the radar of most observers only because they’ve turned their detection equipment in the direction of the United States, with occasional sweeps toward China and the EU. The other sectors are disregarded.

The prime minister who in recent years made closer ties with India part of his agenda, by the way, was Abe Shinzo.

Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Government, India, International relations | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

Under their thumbs

Posted by ampontan on Friday, February 11, 2011

PEOPLE wondering about the claim that the government of Prime Minister Kan Naoto is under the thumb of the Finance Ministry might consider the following sequence.

When Mr. Kan led the party in last summer’s upper house election campaign, their political platform contained this pledge: “We will begin discussions with all political parties about sweeping reform of the tax code, including the consumption tax”.

Read my lips–more new taxes. That turned out to be a losing proposition in the election.

He later changed his tune. Answering a question posed by Your Party Secretary General Eda Kenji in the Diet on 2 February, Mr. Kan said:

“Basically, we will not increase the consumption tax until August 2013.”

That’s when the four year statutory term of the lower house ends. In other words, the prime minister suggested he was returning to his party’s original promise in their 2009 election platform that there would be no consumption tax increase for four years.

Three days later, however, on 5 February, the Finance Ministry’s man in the Cabinet, Economic and Fiscal Policy Minister Yosano Kaoru, said this at a news conference:

“It is the obligation of the Cabinet to pass legislation (for a tax increase) in FY 2011.”

FY 2011 starts on 1 April.

Four days after that, on 9 February, LDP President Tanigaki Sadakazu asked about tax code reform and the consumption tax during Question Time in the Diet. Mr. Kan answered:

“We must have some sort of legal response by the end of FY 2011.”

That didn’t take long, did it?

The way he talks when he’s spoken to…He’s under their thumb.

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Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Politics | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Simultaneous silliness or coincidence?

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, February 10, 2011

To take part in a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress
– The editorial policy of The Economist

The folks at The Economist…seem to operate under a kind of distributed version of the divine right of kings — always asking whether the rulers rule wisely, seldom asking whether they have the right to rule at all, and never asking whether and how much we actually need them. That’s why The Economist is the in-house newsletter of The Establishment.
– Kevin Williamson

MORE INFORMATION is now available to more people than ever before, and more people have become more knowledgeable about events and conditions in parts of the world that were once difficult to visit, much less understand. In such an environment, one might assume the accuracy and pertinence of the content provided by the mass media would be exponentially higher than before.

So much for logic. The most significant change technology has wrought on the mass media is to accelerate the dissemination of errata and vapor-based opinion.

For example, was The Economist’s Tokyo correspondent delusional or desperate for content and up against a deadline?

“(J)ust as Mr. Kan seemed likely to follow his predecessors into the dustbin of history, he has put together a package of proposed reforms more radical than anything attempted during two decades of economic malaise. Even Junichiro Koizumi, the prime minister from 2001-06 who dazzled outsiders and quit while on top, did not attempt anything so bold.

“…(F)or the first time since Mr Koizumi, a prime minister is articulating a vision of Japan’s place in the world, as well as a response to a rising China.

“…If he cannot get politicians’ support for his reforms, he should, like Mr. Koizumi, go over their heads and appeal to urban voters fed up with cossetting farmers and others…”

These marvelous reforms presented by a man with one foot on the dustbin of history and his toenail dragging are the suggestion that Japan might–or might not–participate in the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks for free trade. The claim that the prime minister “put together” these reforms, or is articulating a response to a rising China, is hazardous to the health of the magazine’s readership. Laughing too hard and too suddenly might cause a cerebrovascular accident. The only thing going over anyone’s head is the reality of conditions in Japan flying over an oblivious foreign correspondent. Let’s take the last first and mention the most recent Shinhodo 2001 poll numbers for the Kan administration:

Support the Kan Cabinet: 22.2%
Opposed to the Kan Cabinet: 70%

If an election were held today, which party would you vote for?

DPJ (Mr. Kan’s party): 14.8%
LDP: 27.2%
Your Party: 6.8%

Japan’s opposition parties would be thrilled to have the prime minister call for an election and appeal to urban voters.

Here’s what Japanese freelance writer and blogger Miyajima Tadashi wrote about this article, translated into English.

“The Economist is irrationally hopeful about the increases in the consumption tax and TPP participation proclaimed by the Kan administration. As I’ve said before, there is no one so stupid among the Japanese reform wing as to be irrationally hopeful about the Kan administration. In particular, I would like to hear the reasons why we should be hopeful about the Kan administration’s participation in the TPP, considering their efforts to renationalize Japan Post.

“The British media and the self-proclaimed reformers of the Japanese intelligentsia viewed the Abe administration harshly for some reason, yet are indulgent with the Kan administration (as they were at the start of the Hatoyama administration).

“While the Abe administration was criticized for allowing the so-called postal rebels to return to the LDP, all of them had to sign a pledge to support Japan Post’s privatization. It did not halt the flow of privatization. In contrast, the Kan administration is promoting the renationalization of Japan Post. Indeed, they all opposed the privatization. After criticizing the Abe administration and voting for the DPJ in the 2007 upper house election, and being irrationally hopeful about the Hatoyama administration, the self-proclaimed reformers of the Japanese intelligentsia noticed the shift away from reform and became irrationally disappointed.

“To be blunt, these people are cabbage heads. They were accomplices in crushing reforms, and then became indignant when the politicians switched to the anti-reform course.

“The intelligentsia who are self-proclaimed reformers should recognize their mistake in crushing the Abe administration, which had aggressively promoted agricultural and other reforms. Yet they’ve learned nothing and now have irrational hopes for the Kan administration. One can only think they are deliberately playing the good cop as a way to crush reforms.

“The British media completely ignores the real reform wing in Japan and with great bias pays attention only to the intelligentsia who are self-proclaimed reformers. Bill Emmott, the former editor of The Economist, was irrationally disappointed in the renationalization of Japan Post when it was an inevitable result of the change of government. Even Mr. Emmott, who is familiar with Japan, had irrational hopes for the DPJ government for some reason (and later, irrational disappointment). For that reason, it is likely the information sources of the British media are heavily weighted toward the intelligentsia who are self-proclaimed reformers.

“The Economist thinks Prime Minister Kan should follow Mr. Koizumi’s example and call an election to seek approval for the TPP policy and other measures. This is another incomprehensible delusion that treats the voters of Japan as idiots. Prime Minister Koizumi was victorious in the “Japan Post election” because the privatization of Japan Post was one of his long-held beliefs, and he had already established a track record for reform…

“That’s why Prime Minister Kan will not produce Mr. Koizumi’s results through imitation and newly coined slogans. Even before the question of policy content, the impotent Kan administration does not have the ability to pass difficult legislation, and voters, regardless of their political perspective, see no reason to support them. Another aspect real reformers absolutely cannot support is that despite the government’s incompetence, the only measures they have promptly enacted are those based on a left-wing ideology, such as those involving issues with a specific political perspective on history, and policies that protect their hard-core base of support–labor union interests.

“The people who would vote for this pasteboard-thin Kan DPJ are the lightweight intelligentsia who call themselves reformers. I don’t know about Britain, but the average voter in Japan is much wiser about politics than the witless intelligentsia.”

(end translation)

Mr. Miyajima hits most of the high points, but neglected a few because he was writing for Japanese readers. He is probably unaware that strong support for free trade, particularly in agriculture, is part of The Economist’s DNA. They were founded in 1843 to oppose the Corn Laws that limited corn imports and placed high tariffs on the corn that was imported. Not being a regular reader of the magazine, I don’t know their position on the agricultural subsidies British farmers receive from the EU.

But he, and not The Economist, is aware that the Abe administration had implemented reforms to facilitate agribusiness on a larger scale, critical to the success of an open agricultural market. The DPJ campaigned on a promise of higher subsidies to individual farm households. It is one of the few promises the DPJ has been able to keep.

Being a staunch advocate of free trade, however, does not explain The Economist’s circus-level hyperbole over a proposal Mr. Kan is merely mouthing on behalf of the Finance Ministry and Keidanren. They call it “the boldest reform in decades”. Placing it in that temporal context is accurate considering that the Nakasone government in the 1980s privatized the national rail system—before Britain privatized theirs—and the phone company—a year after Britain privatized theirs. It’s also been a couple of decades since the large-scale retail store law was revised to effectively end the old Japanese system of retail distribution and allow the creation of American-style shopping malls. Unlike the Kan proposal, however, those were deeds and not words.

Yet less than a decade ago, Koizumi Jun’ichiro put all his chips on the privatization of Japan Post and won big. In addition to being the nation’s postal service, Japan Post is also the world’s largest bank and sells life insurance. Meanwhile, Britain still hasn’t privatized Royal Mail, and Mr. Kan thought the de facto renationalization of Japan Post with a former Finance Ministry bureaucrat in charge was just hunky-dory.

The Economist is excited about a proposal for which a decision has been delayed until June, and for which the prime minister is serving as a messenger rather than a leader. Any of the accomplishments cited above are beyond the capabilities of Kan Naoto and his party. Indeed, in last month’s Cabinet reshuffle he couldn’t even replace his agriculture minister, who is opposed to the TPP.

In addition, the magazine ignores the Kan government’s shocking botch of national security issues in the Senkakus incident and its capitulation to the bureaucracy. This is reform?

Meanwhile, another article appeared on the same topic in the Asia Times this week by Daniel Leussink that concludes, “This is more Koizumi than Koizumi”.

Golly—what a coincidence!

Stranger still are the headline and the first two paragraphs, which proclaim that Mr. Kan is actually a “fundamentalist”:

“The biggest mystery in contemporary Japanese politics is perhaps the reason why a party that was voted into power in 2009 on a pledge to improve the lives of ordinary citizens has come to stand for economic fundamentalism. That has been the unexpected outcome of the one-and-a-half-year rule by Minshuto, the Democratic Party of Japan.

“Its sudden metamorphosis into a party that chases this kind of fundamentalism has best been illustrated by the full weight that its coalition government has thrown behind new free-trade policies and an overhaul of the tax and social security systems.”

The biggest mystery in contemporary journalism is how so many people who know so little about Japan manage to get paid to write about the country.

Another mystery is how an “overhaul of the tax and social security systems” that would result in hefty increases–eventually to European VAT levels–in the consumption tax, removing tax deductions to promote social theories, raising income taxes on those with higher incomes (above roughly $US 150,000) and raising the death tax, in part to pay for its new and unnecessary social welfare and legal vote-buying schemes, can be described as “fundamentalism”.

What is not a mystery is the reason for Mr. Kan’s turnabout–survival in office.

Had Leussink taken the trouble to pick up a Japanese newspaper last week, he would have read that Gemba Koichiro, the Chair of the DPJ Policy Research Committee and Minister for National Policy, explained the reason the party was voted into power. Mr. Gemba said it would be just fine for the DPJ to drastically revise its 2009 election manifesto without calling for a new election because the manifesto wasn’t the reason the people voted for them to begin with. (Here’s a hint: Disgust with the LDP for abandoning the Koizumi reforms of the economy and governance.)

Most of the article is an unexceptional review of others’ views pro and con on the participation in TPP talks, tilting slightly against free trade, with a brief summary of what would be expected of Japan:

“If Japan were to negotiate more free-trade partnerships, it would be forced to remove tariffs on food produce from the agricultural sector…The TPP is a tariff-free partnership. Subsidies would have to be faced (sic) out within a decade.”

The United States is part of this partnership, but Leussink does not mention whether that country will also have to “face out” its $US 50 billion in agricultural subsidies.

He also flirts with conspiracy mongering by running with this quote from an academic:

“The hidden purpose of Koizumi’s structural reforms was to assist the US government in its demands.”

The professor in question, Kaneko Masaru, is a self-described “al-Qaida economist” and a long-time foe of Koizumi and basic market principles. He thinks any benefits from deregulation and IT are “an empty dream”.

It’s curious that two articles with the incredible claim that Kan Naoto is out-Koizumi-ing Koizumi appeared at almost the same time. There are three possibilities. First, the authors might have simultaneously come up with the same weird idea independently of one another.


Second, Leussink might have ripped off The Economist and added his own peculiar spin. After all, the employees of The New York Times in the U.S. and the Asahi Shimbun in Japan have a hard time resisting the temptations of plagiarism.


Third, it might be that an aversion to doing their own research led both to cooperate in the attempted vivification of a political scarecrow. We already know that Kasumigaseki in general, and the Finance Ministry in particular, plants stories in the Japanese media to manipulate public opinion. The combination of English-fluent bureaucrats and an incurious English-language media has the potential for a marriage made in purgatory. It would be a shame for Mr. Kan to be tossed out so soon after selling out to Kasumigaseki and Keidanren. The least they can do for him is a little carnival barking in the direction of an indolent press.

Leussink shows that he is at least listening to them:

“But despite the economic growth that Koizumi’s policies generated, wages were stagnating or declining, the Ministry of Economics, Trade and Industry said.”

As if anything else could be expected from the bureaucratic elite speaking of a governmental privateer.

Unlike Koizumi Jun’ichiro, Kan Naoto has achieved nothing other than a sequence of poorly performed pratfalls. Though I support free trade in general, and this proposal in particular if the negotiations are not one-sided and Japan is allowed time to restructure before opening its agricultural market, I would suggest we wait until he actually does something before indulging in hagiolatry. But since it looks as if he will not be prime minister when the scheduled TPP decision comes in June, and his party may even have been turned out at the polls by then, that would be superfluous.


I watched some televised excerpts of Mr. Kan’s performance during question time in the Diet yesterday with the leaders of the LDP and New Komeito, and it was compelling. The opposition tastes blood in the water and hammered the prime minister in an uncharacteristically charged atmosphere. No one took Mr. Kan seriously, and he had trouble looking at his questioners when offering his excuses. It must be crushing for a person to realize that he has failed so completely after less than a year at a job he had coveted for more than 40.

Hope and change, or I hope there’ll be a change?

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Posted in Mass media, Politics | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Now they tell us

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, February 9, 2011

THIS REPORT from the New York Times tells us something we knew before they printed the story: There were no design flaws in Toyota automobiles despite claims a few had accelerated for no reason at all.

After dissecting Toyota’s engine control software and bathing its microchips in every type of radiation engineers could think of, federal investigators found no evidence that the company’s cars are susceptible to sudden acceleration from electronic failures, the government said Tuesday.

Rough justice was done by having Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood deliver the verdict:

“As a former member of Congress, I thought we should listen to these members,” said Mr. LaHood, who represented a district in Illinois until President Obama named him transportation secretary. Speaking of his former colleagues, he said, “I hope they get the message today.”

In claiming victory, though, Mr. LaHood was far different in his tone toward Toyota than he was last year when news of the acceleration problems broke. At one point, during a Congressional hearing, Mr. LaHood said that owners of recalled Toyotas should stop driving the vehicles if they were having a problem and take them back to the dealers, though he quickly backtracked.

It took the government quite a while to pull its thumb out and release the report, however. As the site Overlawyered points out, people suspected last summer that the Obama administration was sitting on the information that would have exonerated Toyota. Overlawyered also sticks its fork into the government’s media mouthpiece. Last July they wrote:

An editorial today in the New York Times — a newspaper that almost comically underplayed the revelations earlier this month about the NHTSA probe’s pro-Toyota results — flatly asserts that the Japanese automaker’s vehicles suffer “persistent problems of uncontrolled acceleration,” and demands that the sweeping new legislation “be passed into law without delay.” It’s almost as if they are afraid of what might happen if lawmakers pause to take a closer look.

Why was this predictable? We had a choice of taking the word of the Obama government, which had just taken de facto control of General Motors, and which was backed by its enablers in the dinosaur wing of the American mass media, or taking the word of Toyota engineers. Spotting politicized science doesn’t require a lot of thought, especially considering the sources.

As for linking to the New York Times and contributing to their hit count, I can only say, shikata ga nai.

The story won’t go away, however.

The government studies were conducted by NASA engineers, but that was before the patient came down with the American disease:

“Our experts tell us that the report is just wrong, and they are confident that they are going to be able to show that the electronic throttle control contributed to unintended acceleration,” said Steve Berman, co-lead plaintiffs’ counsel in a class-action suit filed on behalf of millions of Toyota owners who say the controversy caused their cars’ value to drop.

If they insist on using a class-action suit to gouge for money, the defendants should be the government and the news media.

Posted in International relations, Mass media, Science and technology | Tagged: , | 5 Comments »

The empty elites at the seat of power

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, February 9, 2011

THE PRESUMPTION of the bureaucratic mandarins in an administrative state is that they are the elites who determine policy. The politicians are merely extras in a drama that they script and direct.

When Ishii Hirohisa, briefly the Finance Minister in the Hatoyama administration–but more importantly the former head of the Finance Ministry’s Budget Bureau, was named deputy chief cabinet secretary in the new Kan Cabinet, reformers in Japan collectively groaned. They already knew that the DPJ government’s promise to reverse the roles of the bureaucrats and politicians had become inoperative shortly after they took office, but now they knew it was dead. Mr. Fujii was brought back into the Cabinet specifically to keep and eye on and give instructions to provide advice and guidance to Mr. Kan. That’s the prime directive of the elite bureaucrats dispatched to serve in a Cabinet, especially those from the Finance Ministry.

Most Japanese have no idea who the deputy chief cabinet secretary is at any given time, and they seldom are quoted in the newspapers. But everyone’s hip to the game now, and the people who pay attention pay attention more closely to what Mr. Fujii says than to what the replaceable extra now playing the Finance Minister says.

Here’s what Mr. Fujii said during a speech in Tokyo on the 7th, responding to questions raised by some that if/when the consumption tax is raised, the rate should be lower for food and other daily necessities:

“A method of selecting (rates) by category, such as beefsteak or beef donburi, won’t work…(Lowering the rate on certain categories of products) would create vested interests.”

The closest analogue to the Japanese consumption tax in Europe is the value-added tax. Here are the tax rates for some European countries as of the present, with the rates for certain categories as of 2008. (I assume they still apply.)

United Kingdom
VAT rate: 20%
The rate for food, publications (books, newspapers, magazines), children’s clothing, and pharmaceuticals: 0%
The rate for household fuel/electricity: 5%

VAT rate: 19.6%
Food: 5.5%
The rate for publications varies from 2.1% to 5.5%
Pharmaceuticals: 2.1%
Movie, drama, and concert tickets: 2.1%

VAT rate: 19%
Food and publications: 7%

VAT rate: 25%
Food: 12%
Publications: 6%
Movie, drama, and concert tickets: 6%
Pharmaceuticals: 0%

In contrast–

Consumption tax: 5% on everything

The Finance Ministry knows this—I found the list of rate discounts in a Japanese magazine, and the ministry was the source of their information. As the elite bureaucrats at that ministry would have it, these discounts create vested interests.

This illustrates the nature of the battle that Japanese reformers must fight: a civil war within government. It would be entertaining, if not educational, to hear an explanation how these exemptions create vested interests. True, one reason the Japanese print media keeps raising the issue of staggered tax rates is that they are intrigued by the British exemption for newspapers and magazines. Exemptions in their case, however, would not create vested interests—their interests already are deeply entrenched.

The lower rate in France for cultural events is worth noting. It’s not surprising that the French would consider culture to be as important for daily life as food and medicine.

It’s also worth noting that one of the complaints from the Left about the consumption tax is that it’s regressive—i.e., it falls on everyone equally regardless of income. The champions of progressive taxation would prefer a system of lower consumption tax rates on daily necessities to lessen the burden on those with lower income. But though he’s a man of the left, the congenitally cloth-headed Mr. Kan suggested instead that people with lower incomes could receive consumption tax rebates after an increase. After all, why streamline government and make it more efficient by not collecting some tax money to begin with when the role of government can be expanded, and dependency and a sense of entitlement to the tax spoils can be created among the citizens instead?

Further, exemptions or lower rates on the same categories that the U.K. exempts would negate the need for the DPJ’s budget-busting child allowance payments that Mr. Kan described as “epochal”.

That Mr. Fujii dismisses the idea out of hand exposes the emptiness of the Finance Ministry elites. That fine education doesn’t disguise their true nature as glorified bean counters with a will to power. The more money that flows to them, the more power they have.

One of the primary objectives of Eda Kenji and Watanabe Yoshimi in creating Your Party was to break the stranglehold of the Japanese bureaucracy on government. Before starting his career as a politician, Mr. Eda was an employee of the old Ministry of International Trade and Industry and also served as an aide to Prime Minister Hashimoto Ryutaro. The Hashimoto Cabinet conceived the idea of creating a policy council of advisors from outside government to help formulate the budget. It was to be called the Economic and Fiscal Policy Advisors’ Council. Hashimoto, well aware of the games the bureaucrats play, insisted that the word “fiscal” be included in the title.

Mr. Eda describes what happened in Datsu Kanryo (Disassociating from the Bureaucracy), an extended dialogue with Mr. Watanabe. The bureau that serves as the liaison between the Cabinet and the Finance Ministry was asked to draw up a framework. The paper they submitted no longer had the word “fiscal”. When Mr. Eda asked why, the ministry bureaucrats explained it wasn’t necessary because the word “economy” in a broad sense encompasses fiscal policy. He reinserted the word and sent the request back, aghast at how blithely the bureaucrats had disregarded the instructions of a prime minister.

When the bureau resubmitted their proposal, they had removed the word again. Mr. Eda said they went through the charade three or four times before they finally relented. The reason, of course, was that the Finance Ministry didn’t want to relinquish control of fiscal policy formulation to anyone else. Lest you think this was a pointless game, the manipulation of terminology is one of the Kasumigaseki tools to debone reforms in practice while maintaining the appearance of implementing reform. They were abetted for years by those LDP legislators who served as de facto lobbyists for each ministry.

During the course of the conversation Mr. Watanabe said he had seen the same thing several times when he was the minister of reform in two LDP governments. He added that when he proposed a major reform of employment practices for national civil servants, one bureaucrat working as a Cabinet aide told him that unless he withdrew the proposal, the bureaucracy would stage a “coup d’etat”. What he meant was that they would find a way to bring down the government.

Every politician in Japan knows they are capable of it. When the Hashimoto Cabinet tried to remove the oversight of the financial services industry from the Finance Ministry, an unexpected credit crunch emerged just before an upper house election—along with the revelation of the previously suppressed news that a major Japanese securities company was bankrupt.

During his speech in Tokyo, Mr. Fujii made a veiled reference to the nation’s recent prime ministers and complained that they lacked a sense of urgency. He made of point of saying that he was not singling out the current prime minister, but the message was clear.

Prime Minister Kan has been put on notice by the people who think they control the Japanese government.

Don’t feel sorry for Mr. Kan, however. He began waving the white flag even before he became prime minister.

Pull another string…

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Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Government, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Shimojo Masao (14): The Senkakus Weren’t Taiwanese Territory Either

Posted by ampontan on Monday, February 7, 2011

THE HEADLINE on the article in the 23 December Sankei Shimbun leapt from the page: “The Senkakus (are) Chinese Territory: Old document sold for JPY 166 Million”. The article reported that it was proclaimed the old document contained conclusive proof identifying the Senkaku Islets (Chinese name: Diaoyutai) as Chinese territory. The document was put up for auction in Beijing, and the winning bid was CNY 13.25 million (about JPY 166 million). The auction attracted attention because the sponsors announced in advance that foreigners would be prohibited from bidding to prevent “the destruction of this conclusive evidence”.

The old document in question was identified as the Zhongshan Jili, Volume #5 of the Fusheng Liuji by Shen Fu, which was thought to be lost. This previously unknown document was said to have been recorded in the Jishizhu, which was abstracted by the Qing Dynasty scholar Qian Yong.

To start with the conclusion, not only does this JPY 166 million document fail to offer conclusive proof that the Senkakus are Chinese territory, the idea that a Japanese would purchase it “to destroy the conclusive proof” is a groundless concern.

Until now, the Chinese have used the records of Chinese emissaries sent to the Ryukyu Kingdom (today’s Okinawa Prefecture) since the Ming Dynasty era to assert that the Senkakus were historically Chinese territory. These records include the directions for a sea route. The name of the island of Uotsuri (Chinese name: Diaoyutai) was variously recorded as Chenkan in the Shiliuqiulu (1534), Guorulin in the Chongbian Shiliuqiulu (1562), Wangji in the Shiliuqiu Zalu (1683), Xubaoguang in the Zhongshan Yunxinlu (1719), Zhouhuang in the Liuqiu Guozhilue (1756), Lidingyuan in the Shiliuqiulu (1800), and Zhaikun in the Xuliuqiu Guozhilue (1808).

Then, in the fall of 2005, a copy of the Jishizhu was discovered in a Nanjing antiques market. Inside was an excerpt about the dispatch of an emissary to the Ryukyus in 1808 titled Celiuqiu Guojilue, that read, “Sighted Diaoyutai on the morning of the 13th.” Chinese and Taiwanese scholars regard the Celiuqiu Guojilue as part of the lost fifth volume (Zhongshan Jili) of the Fusheng Liuji. They claim it is proof the Diaoyutai islets were discovered 76 years before the discovery by the Japanese Koga Tatsushiro.

It is impossible to claim that the records of the Celiuqiu Guojilue immediately prove that Diaoyutai was Chinese, however. To be sure, the text does say there was the intent to establish a vassalage with the Ryukyu king in 1808, and that Zhai Kun was named the principal emissary and Fei Xi-zhang the secondary emissary. Both men did travel to the Ryukyus in 1808. The name Diaoyutai is recorded in the Liuqiu Guozhilue, which both men edited, as being on the route from Fuzhou to the Ryukyus.

To use the appearance of the name Diaoyutai on the sea route as the basis for making the claim that it is conclusive evidence proving the Senkakus are Chinese territory, however, is not possible. Zhai Kun himself did not recognize Diaoyutai as Chinese territory. In his poetry anthology Dongying Baiyong, he includes a poem recounting the trip from the port at Taiping to the port at Naha. The poem states that Mt. Jilong in Taiwan was the limit of Chinese territory at that time.

Zhai Kun set sail from Fuzhou in May 1808 and reached Naha on the night of the 17th, passing Wuhumen, Jilongshan, Diaoyutai, Chiweiyu, Heigouyang, Gumishan, and Machishan on the way. Recounting the trip, he writes that Mt. Jilong is located between Wuhumen and Diaoyutai, and that the mountain marks the outer border of China. He demonstrates the same geographical awareness in another of his poems when he writes that he “passed Mt. Jilong, the outer limit of China”. This enables us to confirm that Zhai Kun was aware that Mt. Jilong delineated the farthest boundary of Qing Dynasty China.

Why did Zhai Kun state that Mt. Jilong, in what was then Taiwan Prefecture, was the edge of China? Because the Qing Dynasty had established Taiwan Prefecture as a Chinese possession in 1684 and designated Mt. Jilong as the northernmost limit to their area of jurisdiction. The Taiwan Fuzhi, compiled every year during the reign of Emperor Kanxi by Jiang Yu-ying, states that the prefecture extends 2,315 li north to Mt. Jilong, That is echoed in the 1696 edition, when the same distance to the mountain is cited and the mountain is called the boundary.

In any event, the Jilong Castle near the present city of Keelung and Mt. Jilong are located that distance from Taiwan Prefecture, and were the outer limits of that prefecture. That’s the reason Zhai Kun writes in Dongying Baiyong that the mountain was the boundary of China, and that when he passed the mountain he passed outside of China. The Senkaku Islets, about 200 kilometers east-northeast of the northern edge of Taiwan at Keelung, were not included in the Qing Dynasty administrative district for which Mt. Jilong marked the border.

This fact can be confirmed in the Qinding Gujin Tushu Jicheng, a collection of maps published in 1728. Before Zhai Kun was sent as an emissary to the Ryukyus in 1808, the maps in that collection showed Mt. Jilong as the northern boundary of Taiwan Prefecture based on the text of the Taiwan Fuzhi. The Daiqing Yitongzhi published in 1744 shows the same thing. This geographical awareness is continued through the era of the Republic of China in the Huangzhao Xuwenxian Tongkao, compiled in 1912, and the Qingshigao of 1927. From the Ming Dynasty, through the Qing Dynasty, to the days of the Republic of China on the mainland, the Senkaku Islets were not part of Taiwan’s territory.

The definitive proof is that on maps showing the sea route when the emissaries were sent to the Ryukyus, the islands of Huapingdao and Pengjiadao were incorporated as part of Taiwan. In the Jilong Shizhi, a report from the city of Jilung in 1951, it is stated that a 1905 reorganization placed Mt. Jilong, Mt. Pengjia, Mt. Mianhua, and Mt. Huaping within the territory of the city of Jilung. The Senkaku Islets are nearly 150 kilometers to the east-northeast of Mt. Huaping, Mt. Pengjia, and Mt. Mianhua. It is self-evident that when the Qing Dynasty took possession of Taiwan in 1684, the governing authority of Taiwan Prefecture extended only to Mt. Jilung.

The Chinese claim that the Senkakus were their territory is vague, lacks a historical basis, and is nothing more than a mistaken impression. The old document that has been declared to present conclusive evidence that the Senkakus are Chinese territory demonstrates, when examined, that the Senkakus were not Chinese territory at all. There are reports an enormous sum was paid for the document to prevent the Japanese from destroying this “conclusive evidence”, but we don’t want to destroy the evidence showing the Senkakus were not Chinese territory.

In recent years China has become emotional about the Senkakus issue, and it has built up its military capabilities, intimidating other countries. That is the height of folly, because neither China nor Taiwan has any historical basis enabling it to claim the islets. Ignoring those historical facts, Japan’s Democratic Party government assigned about 100 members of a coastal surveillance team to Yonaguni Island near the Senkakus on 21 November to use radar for detecting Chinese ships and aircraft, while deliberations were ongoing regarding the National Defense Program Guidelines. To counter this move, the Chinese immediately dispatched two fishing patrol vessels to the area near the Senkakus, sailing for many hours near Japanese territorial waters.

An extreme overreaction of this type is not a wise choice. It is not too late for the Chinese to reexamine their awareness of history and discover the errors before both Japan and China become emotional. As with South Korea, which continues to illegally occupy Takeshima with no historical basis, China does not offer a historical ground for their assertion that the Senkakus belong to them.

Since the Democratic Party took power in Japan, the country’s diplomacy has been thrown into confusion, amplifying the instability of East Asia as a whole. While the lack of ability of the people in leadership positions in the DPJ administration is one factor, the LDP too, which had reigned as the ruling party until then, had a negative approach to resolving territorial issues.

What the people seek from politicians is the assurance of national sovereignty and stability in their daily lives. Part of the territory of postwar Japan has been invaded by neighboring countries, and this situation remains unresolved after more than half a century. Such a situation is tantamount to slavery. While we live contentedly in conditions of slavery, the political dramas of past and present only for the dogged pursuit of the seat of power have been a disgrace. If neither the DPJ nor the LDP has the wisdom to recover our national sovereignty after repeated invasions, they should promptly quit the political stage.

– Shimojo Masao

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Posted in China, History, International relations, Military affairs, Politics, Taiwan | Tagged: , | 11 Comments »

At a loss

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, February 6, 2011

IN NORMAL circumstances anywhere else in the world, it would have been an unremarkable display of political party schmoozing. Considering the people involved in the circumstances of today’s Japan, however, the following scenes highlight the putrefaction of politics at the national level and the numbness of the national political class.

Foreign Minister Maehara Seiji and Koshi’ishi Azuma, the Chair of the Democratic Party Caucus in the upper house, glad-handed each other at a party meeting in Yamanashi yesterday

Said Mr. Koshi’ishi:

“When will springtime arrive for our party? The most important issue facing our party is whether we will be able to pass the baton to Foreign Minister Maehara and others of his generation….Expectations are rising day by day for Mr. Maehara and others to create a vibrant Japan.”

Replied Mr. Maehara:

“To say that I am the “anti-Ozawa” is a nonsensical distinction. I sincerely respect Mr. Koshi’ishi, who is said to be pro-Ozawa….He has supported me in the bad times and the good. I will never be able to forget that.”

On the same day, Kamei Shizuka of the People’s New Party, the DPJ coalition partner, addressed a meeting of DPJ upper house delegates in Onomichi, Hiroshima:

“I spoke to former party president Ozawa Ichiro, and unfortunately, we are now in a state a year a half after the change of government in which it is inconceivable that the coalition government will meet the people’s expectations. The DPJ can’t possibly pull itself together without the 200-strong group led by Mr. Ozawa, ‘the master teacher’.” (宗師)

Mr. Kamei also recently met with Hatoyama Yukio (DPJ) and Mori Yoshiro (LDP), prime ministerial failures who laid eggs so large it’s a wonder they can walk without pain. At that meeting, he reportedly said that Ozawa Ichiro’s indictment meant it was unavoidable his political strength would decline. The two men agreed with him.

Mr. Koshi’ishi is correct to say it’s time to pass the baton to a new generation. Prime Minister Kan Naoto now resembles a walking sandwich board for the embalmer’s art—Lord knows he pumps himself full of enough preservatives—and Messrs. Koshi’ishi, Kamei, Ozawa, and Yosano Kaoru could moonlight as wax museum exhibits. The monthly bill for black hair dye alone must be staggering, and that’s not including the retainer the 74-year-old Mr. Kamei pays his barber to create a head of hair that ages 40 years just by walking behind the man and looking at him from the back.

The nation’s political leaders are starting to bear a strange resemblance to the late-period Sovetskies Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov (15 months in office before dying) and Konstantin Chernenko (13 months in office before dying), all of whom looked as if they lined up to sleep in the same tomb with Vladimir Lenin at night.

The political mechanism and philosophy those Japanese men represent is the same walking invalid the Soviet system was in those days.

If they were part of a coherent political mechanism, Mr. Koshi’ishi and Mr. Maehara would not be in the same party. The only way they would even talk to each other is to fire verbal mortar rounds from different trenches. The former is another DPJ Socialist Party refugee who got into politics by way of the Japanese Teachers Union, which is even more noxious than its Western counterparts. Makieda Motofumi was the JTU chairman when he was a member. Mr. Makieda was a fan of Kim Il-sung, juche, and the North Korean educational system. He wrote a book with a passage claiming there was no thievery in that country, which rewarded him with a medal in 1991.

Mr. Koshi’ishi also thinks it’s not possible to educate children without politics, and it’s obvious what political mickeys he would slip into their milk at school lunch. When there was talk of interdicting North Korean ships on the way to the Middle East to check for weapons or nuclear processing equipment, he was opposed and suggested inspecting the Aso government instead.

Mr. Maehara, meanwhile, is in favor of revising the Japanese Constitution to remove any restrictions on the maintenance of military forces—a stance directly opposed to that of the Article 9-loving Koshi’ishi Azuma. He is one of the DPJ MPs who favors a hard(er) line against the Chinese. He began his career with the Japan New Party of Hosokawa Morihiro, the first non-LDP prime minister since 1955. Other members of that party included former Yokohama Mayor Nakada Hiroshi of the Spirit of Japan Party and Koike Yuriko, now in the LDP. Both champion individual responsibility and freedom, and both tend to be social conservatives. (Current Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano Yukio was also in the party, but his tent isn’t pitched near that philosophical camp.) There was also talk that Mr. Maehara might split from the DPJ after he began associating with former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro and Koike Yuriko in an informal group two years ago.

And now they talk about each other as if they were actors on honorary career Oscar night.

It’s not possible to make educated assumptions about the potential policies of a Prime Minister Maehara because he also leads a group in the DPJ with Mr. Edano and Sengoku Yoshito, both men of the left. Who knows what he believes this week? After all, some thought Kan Naoto would be a pragmatic centrist. With people openly talking about the end of the Kan administration, Mr. Sengoku is said to be preparing the ground for Mr. Maehara to succeed him. Such a move reminds people of the taraimawashi (literally, passing around the tub) of the bad old LDP, in which the party bosses rotated the prime minister’s chair amongst themselves with little regard for public opinion.

Ozawa Ichiro is the former secretary-general of the LDP and favorite political son of its Boss Tweed, Tanaka Kakuei. He wrote a book nearly 20 years ago advocating more individual responsibility and liberty as the prescription for what ailed Japan. That impressed Ms. Koike so much she joined the Liberal Party when he created that group, which eventually became part of a coalition government with the LDP. Then he merged the Liberal Party with the DPJ and formed close ties with Mr. Koshi’ishi in particular and other members affiliated with labor unions.

Before that, however, he created and ran from behind the curtain an eight-party coalition led by the aforementioned Hosokawa Morihiro. Mr. Kamei, then in the social conservative wing of the LDP, was instrumental in bringing down that coalition by coaxing the Socialists to leave, form a new coalition with the LDP, and launch a new government. He successfully replaced one cryptozoological fantasy with another because he and they thought Mr. Ozawa was a “fascist bastard”. Now he thinks the man’s indispensable, calls him “the master teacher”, and used the honorific term of address sensei for him in the above quote, though he is older by several years. (Mr. Ozawa has been in the Diet roughly a decade longer, however.) Ozawa-sensei, of course, is the master chef of Japan’s stew of dirty political money. He is the only politician whose funds management committee owns real estate, and that property portfolio is worth several million dollars.

Yet this is the man whom Mr. Kamei laments is losing his political influence in a meeting with two other men that people will suspect was called to gum over plans for a grand coalition of the politically halt, lame, blind, and fabulously well-to-do that will be just as unpopular with the public as the Hatoyama, Mori, and Kan administrations were.

When the DPJ won a majority in the July 2009 elections, I wrote that it was the first flush of several needed to purge the coprolites from the system. It seems likely that the next big flush will occur this year, perhaps before the cherries have finished blooming. Any attempt at a DPJ taraimawashi or a grand coalition of the pork-swilling will only put wings to the feet of the electorate as they rush to the handle.

National politics in Japan will not improve until the only reason these men travel to Nagata-cho is to show their great-granchildren where they once worked. Fortunately, the Japanese public is showing signs of starting a flushing festival at the sub-national level. (That may yet lead to real change, but I’ll have more on that later.) In the meantime, these badgers from the same hole, as the Japanese have it, are at a loss as to what to do next, and that is the nation’s loss.

UPDATE: Maehara Seiji comes a bit closer into focus. Today Mr. Maehara said it would be a mistake to return the LDP to power after the DPJ failures because that would make Japan “like 1980s Britain”.

The prime minister of Great Britain from 1979 to 1990 was Margaret Thatcher. That’s the same Mrs. Thatcher who cured the Sick Man of Europe plagued by unannounced power blackouts, uncollected garbage in the streets, and untouchable labor unions. If Japan is suffering from national malaise, it should wish for the same 80% rise in total personal wealth she helped create–starting with her privatization and tax reduction measures.

Perhaps he and Mr. Koshi’ishi are closer in spirit than it once seemed.

The phrase “to be at a loss for…” in Japanese is toho ni kureru, which is the title of this song.

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More on the sumo scandal

Posted by ampontan on Friday, February 4, 2011

DEMONSTRATING once again that there’s a first time for everything, Japan’s DPJ-led government is responding both promptly and appropriately to the revelations of match-fixing in sumo. While match-fixing in that sport is not illegal (as it is in others), the Sumo Association is registered as a public service corporation. A new legal framework regulating those corporations was created a few years ago, and a five-year transition to the new system began on 1 December 2008. Certification as a public service corporation means an entity’s income-generating activities are tax-exempt. The Sumo Association is still registered under the old system and wants to be certified under the new system.

According to members of the government, they’ll have to clean the Augean stables first. Said Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano Yukio:

“I can only say that certification as a public service corporation will be difficult if the corporation has a chronic problem with match-fixing…First, we will have them clarify all the facts and present them to the public.”

The word “difficult” is often used by Japanese government officials at all levels as a euphemism for “impossible”. The phrase Mr. Edano used for “present them to the public” was literally “squeeze out the pus.”

Education Minister Takaki Yoshiaki (the Ministry is also responsible for regulating sports activities) met with the Chief Cabinet Secretary yesterday. After the meeting, he told reporters that certification would hinge on whether the Sumo Association was capable of full disclosure, and hinted that their status might be revoked.

Ren Ho, the Minister for Government Revitalization who also plays the role of MC at the policy reviews, took the opportunity to indulge in some grandstanding. She said she thinks the association does not now fulfill the conditions of certification, and added that their governance has been called into question due to incidents involving violence (i.e., former Mongolian rikishi Asashoryu’s brawling in the back seat of a taxicab) and the gambling on baseball. Yes, she’s right, and yes, politicians everywhere pile on to glom some cheap publicity and face time with the cameras.

The issue is very clear, however: If an organization thinks its cultural value entitles it to such privileges as tax-exempt status, they’ll have to behave as if they deserve it. Even the DPJ’s got that one covered.

UPDATE: Now the police are saying that the e-mails of one of the arrested rikishi are creating suspicions that he also bet on sumo matches, but add that the matches on which wagers were placed were not those whose outcome was arranged in advance.

UPDATE #2: I spoke too soon. The Education Minister is trying to downplay the idea of decertification, preferring to wait for a report, and he also specifically downplayed Ren Ho’s comments.

That highlights two problems. First, I read articles in two different newspapers this morning about Ren Ho’s statements, and neither one mentioned that she has responsibility for the reform of public service corporations. That’s why I wrote that she seemed to be grandstanding. It is example #15,492 for me of how information in the Japanese news media is often scattered, incomplete, and decentralized. It is “difficult”, as Mr. Edano would say, to find a single report from any news outlet on any subject with all the pertinent information.

Second, once again a DPJ Cabinet can’t get its story straight before addressing the public. The minister responsible for regulating sporting bodies says one thing while the minister responsible for public service corporations is in another room saying something else. Loose cannons, no coordination. That’s the responsibility of either the prime minister or the chief cabinet secretary (and ultimately both), but the integrated conduct of affairs seems beyond their capabilities.

Meanwhile, Defense Minister (!) Kitazawa Toshimi just had to chime in with his opinion too. He said:

“It’s no laughing matter when the yokuzuna (top-ranked wrestlers) and other upper level rikishi are foreigners and the lower level Japanese rikishi are fixing matches.”

That man’s just begging for a pie in the face.

Some people try to make excuses for all of this by attributing it to inexperience in government. Nope. It’s inexperience in life of the type which most people should have by the age of 40.

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Behind the mask

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, February 3, 2011

We are all hypocrites. It is in our very nature to be so. So much so that even our protestation of hypocrisy is, in itself, patently hypocritical.
– Claire Worthington

THE CURRENT two-day teapot tempest blowing through the Japanese news media is the story that police, in the course of a gambling investigation, discovered evidence from cell phone messages that sumo rikishi in the sport’s second division fixed matches.

What a surprise.

Since this is just the sort of story that matches well with the sludge-colored glasses the Western journos wear when promoting their Japan narrative, scandal-mongering is the meat and potatoes of the news biz, and coverage requires little in the way of taxing research, the overseas media is filled with the reports as well. It’s no surprise that The Guardian’s Justin McCurry, who’s built a career on finding unpleasant things to write about the country, hopped on the story like a fly on stink. He’s even Tweeting updates to stay on top of events as they emerge. Perhaps his editors make him do it.

Roughly two-thirds of his story by volume is an attempt to parlay the revelations into a fugue on the general malaise affecting the sport. Among the incidents reprised for the article was one in which “several wrestlers were expelled following revelations of widespread marijuana use” two years ago. Readers who follow his hot link for “widespread marijuana use” will find one of his earlier stories about the bust of three Russian-born rikishi.

In fact, the police confiscated the cell phones because they were investigating the wrestlers’ gambling on other sports. He would have his readers believe this is a sensational revelation.

He saves more important information for paragraph 7 in a 17-paragraph story—match-fixing in sumo is not illegal, and none of the rikishi seem to have bet on the matches themselves. (In this case, they bet on baseball, but they also wager on golf, cards, and mahjong. Also, the law forbids match-fixing for profit for other specified sports, but not sumo.) He adds toward the end the information that the Sumo Association has never investigated match-fixing charges.

But he neglects to mention the most important information of all: The reason the association is so negligent is that everyone above the age of 10 in Japan not only knows there is match-fixing in sumo, they know there has always been match-fixing in sumo. They also understand that none of the people involved think they’re doing anything wrong.

The word for throwing a sporting event in Japanese is yaocho, said to be a portmanteau derived from sumo. While linguists caution the explanation cannot be confirmed, most accept the theory that the word was coined when a merchant named Chobei in the produce business (a yao-ya) became the favorite go partner of sumo stable master Isenoumi in the early Meiji period. (That began in 1868, and Isenoumi died in 1888.) The story has it that Chobei was a much better player than Isenoumi, but he often lost on purpose to ingratiate himself. Others put the man’s name and occupation together when they discovered Chobei’s real skills on their own.

The concept began much earlier, of course. Sumo was originally a Shinto ceremony (the referees’ uniform is still that of a Shinto priest), and there was a ritual in which a rikishi would enter the ring alone, mime a match with the divinities, and take a fall in the hope of receiving a blessing. The competitions in many Shinto festivals were a form of divination; a victory by a person or team meant that they had received divine favor, and their home district would enjoy a good harvest or catch of fish. Thus it was common for one rikishi in local sumo competitions to throw a match to another from an area where people were worried about a poor harvest.

During the Edo period, feudal lords became the patrons of individual wrestlers, who were given samurai status within that lord’s domain. An informal system of tradeoffs for wins and losses developed to allow the lords to maintain face. It included tie matches and simultaneous falls by the rikishi.

A modification of that system still exists today. There is a rigid system of promotion or relegation in rank, and the rikishi make arrangements among themselves to help those for whom a win or a loss could mean a rise or fall in their standing–and therefore, their income. Also, cash is said to change hands between rikishi of the two-highest ranks when they face the same situation. That’s what’s been reported in this incident. That those of a lower ranking are implicated may be the reason the Japanese media is taking a keen interest in the matter.

Indeed, Ikeda Nobuo, a professor at SBI Graduate School, titled a blog post “Yaocho is a Japanese Tradition”. He says it is praiseworthy (literally utsukushii, or beautiful) because it is a win-win proposition for those involved, and because it’s an arrangement through which they can help each other out when they’re on a losing streak. (Prof. Ikeda used yaocho in the post as an example to make a broader point about bandwidth use in Japan.)

In short, the news about match-fixing in sumo isn’t really news to the Japanese, and some of them even view it as a beautiful tradition. It isn’t really news for the Western media, either—for them, it’s just another excuse.

So why is this story being broadcast so widely?

If it weren’t for the fascination with the social lubricant of hypocrisy, the only news would be the weather report.

All sorts of things are exposed when you look behind the mask.

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Posted in Mass media, Popular culture, Sports, Traditions | Tagged: , | 6 Comments »

Letter bombs (15): Flagrant fouls

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, February 2, 2011

READER Andrew in Ezo sent in the following to the Comment section. It deserves wider reading:

“I was interested in seeing the reaction from the Asian press (and the inevitable Western mirroring of opinions) about the winning goal scored by Lee Tadanari in the Asia Cup football finals. Being that Tadanari is a naturalized Japanese of Korean descent, it would generate more than usual interest from non-fans, I assumed. Sure enough, here is an article from Straits Times:

Headline: “Japan embraces ethnic Korean star but many face discrimination”

“But there is no mention of said discrimination in the article body, and there is a weak caption mentioning “a minority of Japanese netizens were unhappy that the winning goal had come from a naturalised Korean player”. I guess that’s evidence that Japanese hate Koreans and discriminate relentlessly against Zainichi, kind of like how white Americans are all secret racists, based on the number of US-based extremist hate groups and their web presence.


It’s worth reading the article, if only to remind oneself of the egregious nonsense published every day throughout the world masquerading as serious journalism about Japan. (That sentence works just as well without the last two words.)

This article in particular is remarkable for its incoherence, starting with the headline.

Another article in the Dong-A Ilbo is only marginally better. As is typical with South Korean newspapers (and rather unlike the Japanese mass media), they’ll never pass up an opportunity to complain about their neighbors. The article gets off to a promising start, however, by citing an example of positive discrimination:

Keikyu Aburatsubo Marine Park, an aquarium located in the southern part of the Miura Peninsula in Kanagawa, Japan, started a unique event Tuesday to celebrate Japan`s win in the Asian Cup soccer finals. The event allowed free admission to the aquarium by people who have “Ri” or “Lee” in their names to honor Tadanari Lee, who scored the winning goal against Australia in the tournament final.”

They quickly revert to form by following up with an interview of the soccer player’s father. A great deal seems to have been lost in translation, but Lee the Elder is a bit lost himself:

“Many in Japan are still unaware of why ethnic Koreans live there.”

Considering that 90% of the forebears of the ethnic Koreans in Japan came voluntarily–economic opportunity beckoned–one wonders who is unaware of what.

“Negative sentiment prevails in Japan on ethnic Koreans because they`re considered poor and violent. I`m happy that my son contributed to breaking down such prejudice.”

We all share his sentiments about his son. But the Straits Times article did mention the most common perception of ethnic Koreans in Japan:

“The ethnic Korean Japanese player…turn(ed) the spotlight once again on Japan’s ethnic Korean community and their strong presence in sports and entertainment.”

Yet there’s another side to the story. In the September 1996 issue of the monthly Ronza, the late Takayama Tokutaro, the ethnic Korean head of the Aizukotetsu gang (birthname: Kang Oe-su), was quoted as saying:

“About 30% of yakuza are Koreans. My group is 20% Korean.”

In those days, ethnic Koreans accounted for 0.45% of the Japanese population. When that interview took place, Takayama’s group was engaged in a feud with Japan’s largest gang, the Yamaguchi-gumi. It involved gunplay in the streets. The membership of ethnic Koreans in the Yamaguchi-gumi in those days was estimated to be 10%.

The author of an article for the monthly Gendai in January 2001 reports that the National Police Agency told him seven of the 33 designated yakuza groups from 1993 to 2000 were led by ethnic Koreans.

Perhaps there is a reason for the perceptions Mr. Lee mentioned. If those perceptions have a basis in reality, it will take more than a flash of athletic glory to erase them.

That reality is inconvenient for the Dong-A narrative, however–as are the sentiments of Lee Tadanari himself:

“I was born in Japan and brought up in Japanese culture. To win as a member of the Japanese team is the supreme happiness.”

– A.

Posted in Foreigners in Japan, Mass media, Sports | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »