Japan from the inside out

Newspapers east and west

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, March 31, 2011

THE CHUBU SHIMBUN, a regional newspaper based in Nagoya, ran an editorial on Sunday titled The Key to Recovery is the Strength of the Private Sector. Here’s most of it in English:

More than two weeks have passed since the Tohoku earthquake, and the rebuilding work has already begun. While government measures are of course necessary, full consideration must be given to policies that utilize the strengths of the private sector…

…Many from the private sector are contributing to the relief effort. Toyota and Panasonic have pledged JPY 300 hundred million, and the head of the clothing company Uniqlo has offered JPY one billion as an individual. Doctors, nurses, and other volunteers have gone to the stricken area. We believe that the real strength supporting the recovery will arise from these expressions of goodwill, charity, and self-sacrifice.

Unfortunately, from the perspective of the victims and private sector support, the relief and rescue activities of the Kan Naoto government have been insufficient. While it is true that the unprecedented size of the disaster has probably caused delays in gaining a clear view of the situation, we wonder if the government’s efforts to exert control have been so harsh as to squeeze out the private sector’s rescue and support activities. For some time after the earthquake, for example, expressways leading to the Tohoku region were restricted to emergency vehicles from the police, fire departments, and Self-Defense Forces. Private sector vehicles carrying food, fuel, and other supplies found it difficult to enter the area.

It’s natural that the government would be in control of the efforts, but on the other hand, it’s not possible for them to have an accurate understanding of all the circumstances. It is essential that the activities be both detailed and adaptable, and that is possible only in the affected areas and the shelters.

The Democratic Party government were the ones one to have brought up the concept of a “new public commons” to begin with. They also should have been the ones to actively support private sector NGOs shouldering the work of the public sector. Gemba Koichiro combines his portfolio as the Minister for National Policy with the special portfolio of Minister of State for the New Public Commons.

When considering full-scale recovery measures, the government should use the perspective of the New Public Commons to think long and hard to devise measures that utilize the strengths of the private sector

One idea might be a sweeping expansion of the Furusato Nozei to create the funds for recovery. Under the current system, that is a mechanism in which households can contribute to specified local governments through deductions from their residential tax and income tax. The limits on these deductions could be raised. The mechanism could also be expanded to companies paying the corporate tax. The government would thereby encourage the private sector sentiment to help the people in the affected areas. We think this would be a splendid example in accord with the concept of a New Public Commons.

LDP Head Tanigaki Sadakazu has proposed a tax increase to fund reconstruction, but it is not the work of government to conduct rebuilding enterprises using tax money. If the distribution of funds was entrusted to the private sector without government intermediation, it is likely that the money would be used effectively.

Another idea is to establish a special recovery district. This district would be defined as the stricken territory without regard for prefectural or municipal borders. Preferential measures could be devised to enable private sector investment in the district and the use of tax money and subsidies for recovery activities. Again, the private sector should take the leading role–not the government.

Measures designed to maximize human resources are also necessary. Many in the affected area are at loose ends after losing their families and their homes. If they were to be hired by NGOs or companies, the government might subsidize their salaries. This would better serve their needs than being hired by the government directly.

The work of recovery presents employment opportunities. It is important that the basic approach should be to have the private sector take the lead in performing the work and to have the government provide support.

The financial hit from the disaster will probably reach 11 figures in yen, if the amount resulting from the expected radiation leakage is included. We should not be surprised if the cost of the government’s recovery measures also reaches 11 figures. Finding the money to pay for those measures will present problems.

Some have observed the confusion attending the implementation of the rolling blackouts and suggest that a surtax be levied on electric bills, citing energy conservation as the reason. Considering the chilling effect the disaster will have on the economy, however, tax increases should be avoided for the time being.

We think it would be a better idea to have the Bank of Japan subscribe to bonds floated by the government. The BOJ might also increase the money supply by purchasing the bonds in the market. In any event, a joint effort by the government and the BOJ should send a strong message of the intent to rebuild even if extraordinary measures are taken.

The basic issue when dealing with a crisis is the reasons for a government’s existence, and what a government is capable of doing. The fundamental job of the government is to protect people’s lives and their livelihoods. Nevertheless, the government is by no means omnipotent. We should have faith in our own abilities first.

(End translation)
N.B.: The Furusato Nozei idea was devised a few years ago by current LDP head Tanigaki Sadakazu and championed by Suga Yoshihide as a way for people to contribute financially to their hometowns after they’d moved to a more urban area.

The basic ideas in this common-sense editorial are quite good (except the one about the BOJ), but if we bet on form, it will go over the heads of the Kan administration. The most apt explanation for that is the Japanese expression Uma no mimi ni nenbutsu—Buddhist sutras in a horse’s ear.

It as if Mr. Kan and his Cabinet are taking a page from the book of the unlamented Rahm Emmanuel, Barack Obama’s former chief of staff, who said that a crisis shouldn’t be allowed to go to waste. They’ve wasted little time in bringing up again the tax increase they’ve always wanted but were unlikely to achieve before the earthquake. One of the deals they cut to gain approval from Big Business for the increase was a reduction in the corporate tax rate. Now they’re ready to take that off the table.

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported that talk was circulating of nationalizing Tokyo Electric, if only temporarily. Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano Yukio denied that it was being discussed by any organ of government, demonstrating that he is just as capable of mincing words as he is at slicing bologna. It was certainly mentioned within the Democratic Party, which controls the government. That was evidenced by Mr. Gemba’s rebuttal of Mr. Edano, saying that nationalization couldn’t be ruled out. Further, no one needed another demonstration that the left hand of the DPJ doesn’t know what its right hand is doing, but there it is.

The nationalization of utilities can never be ruled out with governments of the left, and the Kan government in particular might find it a convenient step. They’re also thinking of applying the Act for the Compensation of Nuclear Damages for the first time and assume the complete liability for damage compensation. Those who qualify would be the 220,000 people who evacuated the area near the Fukushima plant, companies whose business suffered, and farmers who can’t sell crops due to concerns—even though the Kan government created the latter concerns themselves with bans of uncontaminated vegetables. The damages are estimated to exceed JPY one trillion.

The law states that the power company should be liable for any damages from a nuclear accident, but one provision allows the government to assume that burden after large natural disasters or social upheaval.

That raises the question of why anyone should be compensated for damages resulting from a natural disaster, absent a finding of negligence. That’s what insurance is for. But that’s a question the DPJ is incapable of answering.

Unless they need an excuse to raise taxes.

It’s not as if the DPJ is entirely serious about finding ways to save money and use the savings on relief. Even after the disaster, they wanted to maintain their unaffordable child subsidy scheme that most people didn’t want to begin with (and winds up costing some households money with the elimination of the income tax deduction for children). It’s one of the few pieces of legislation they’ve managed to pass that represents a clear difference from their predecessors. The subsidy is due to expire at the end of this month. Indeed, rather than cutting back, the government wanted to increase the payments to parents of children up to age three, but the DPJ’s lack of an upper house majority prevented its passage. Most of the opposition parties wanted to eliminate it altogether, but at the last minute the Communist Party said they would vote with the government to extend it.

There you have the augend of two and the addend of two producing the sum of four as the motivation for the payments. It has nothing to do with increasing the birthrate, because that’s not possible. It has nothing to do with helping parents financially, because the income tax deduction was eliminated. Rather, it has everything to do with getting people accustomed to depending on cash payments from the government for things they should handle themselves. In other words, it’s a gateway drug program.

Truman Capote famously said that he lost a point of IQ for every year he spent on the American West Coast. The endemic West Coast virus has infected the United States from sea to shining sea since Capote’s time, rendering geographical location irrelevant. The same effect can now be achieved, however, by reading any New York Times article on Japan. Those confident in their intellectual rigor can use their favorite search engine to find the Times’ latest exercise in the use of distorting mirrors. It’s headlined In Deference to Crisis, a New Obsession Sweeps Japan: Self-Restraint.

Self-restraint is the term most commonly used to translate the Japanese word jishuku. This self-restraint is exercised, both individually and socially, when celebrations of any sort would be unseemly. For example, one funerary custom is to refrain from sending New Year’s cards when a close family member has died during the preceding year. People in Japan consider New Year’s to be a happy and auspicious occasion, which is evident from the o-medeto gozaimasu phrase used as a greeting during the season. Some people send cards later to explain the reason they didn’t send a New Year’s card.

That same custom is observed by society after national disasters, such as the death in 1989 of the Showa Tenno and the Kobe earthquake in 1995. That the nation would respond in the same way after the Tohoku earthquake earlier this month should have been anticipated by anyone familiar with Japan.

That leaves out the Times.

The international section of a newspaper is supposed to be a window on the world presented by people employing nation- or region-specific expertise to provide information of interest or of use to the lay reader. What the Times presents instead is an upper-middle class Weird Japan article that gives its readers another excuse for self-congratulation.

That much is obvious from the use of the words “new obsession” in the headline to describe a social custom that is probably more than a millennium old and isn’t obsessive in the least. And no, that word wasn’t chosen by some slope of a headline writer—the authors of the piece use the same term in the body of the article.

Here are some examples of the attitude:

Even in a country whose people are known for walking in lockstep…

A fact known only by those people who don’t know anything about the country.

…a national consensus on the proper code of behavior has emerged with startling speed.

Nothing startling about the speed at all—it arose naturally, as long-established customs do. The unfamiliarity of freewheeling Manhattanites with walking in lockstep seems to have rendered them incapable of recognizing a shared sense of national purpose.

…anything with the barest hint of luxury invites condemnation.

They of course offer no specific examples of the barest hints of luxury resulting in condemnation. In contrast, it would have been easy to find examples of Japanese commentators urging people not to get carried away with self-restraint—for those who read the Japanese-language print media.

For example, Tobita Hidekazu, the director of the Kanagawa Keizai Doyukai, a business group, gave a speech in which he warned that self-restraint in areas unaffected by the earthquake–most of the country–could bring the economy to a standstill. He added that this was a good opportunity to implement tax breaks for companies that choose to relocate their headquarters or factories outside of Tokyo in regional areas.

But his speech wasn’t delivered in central Tokyo, so the Times missed it.

Cosmetics and karaoke are out; bottled water and Geiger counters are in.

They could do their consumers a favor by choosing the appropriate tone–either that of the paper of record they pretend to be or that of a supermarket checkout stand tabloid. Smirking is incompatible with the former.

The almost overnight transformation is likely to continue for months, if not years.

At least this sentence is unobjectionable, including the last three words. The self-restraint won’t last years.

The hot summer ahead is expected to further strain the nation’s electrical network, leading to more disruptive blackouts that make it hard for business to be conducted the Japanese way, face to face and often into the night.

The authors seem not to have noticed that the Japanese also use e-mail these days. They also seem not to know that the western and eastern parts of the country are on different grids. That means the amount of electricity Western Japan can contribute is limited, so the strain on the network will not be nationwide.

The vast entertainment industry that greases corporate Japan, including sushi bars and cabarets, is likely to be deeply hurt.

Last weekend, my wife, two brothers-in-law, a sister-in-law, and I took the Shinkansen to another city to attend a wedding. We spent the night there, so 10 of us went out to dinner together afterward. The downtown restaurant was so crowded we had to wait for half an hour to be seated. We decided to stick it out because the wait at all the other restaurants in the building would have been just as long.

The Kyushu leg of the Shinkansen began full service one day after the earthquake. There were supposed to be ceremonies commemorating the start of service, but they were cancelled. The Shinkansen service itself began as scheduled. That is typical of what self-restraint means in these circumstances.

Japan has gone through spasms of self-control before…

Were the editors on a coffee break, or is contorted prose and a superior attitude part of the Times stylebook?

The authors mention that politicians running in the upcoming gubernatorial election for the Tokyo Metro District have toned down their campaigning. They quote only Higashikokubaru Hideo, however, and identify him as a “politician” and “former comedian” without citing his successful term as governor of Miyazaki Prefecture. Conforming to the guidelines of the Weird Japan style manual, they also present examples of politicians who will not exercise self-restraint in the election—the Communist Party, which few people pay attention to, and a vanity candidate.

And they think the Japanese are insular?

While the Chubun Shimbun editorial is full of good suggestions, and the New York Times article is just full of it, a recent Dong-a Ilbo editorial is chock full of the deep-space eccentric wackiness that characterizes much of the South Korean approach to the Takeshima issue. In baseball terms, you might say it’s the face of the franchise.

The Japanese government recently restated its claim to the islets, which the South Koreans seized by force more than 50 years ago. That was all it took for the newspaper to break out in a truther/birther/Heaven’s Gate rash.

The Dong-a finds it mighty suspicious that the Japanese bring up their claims anywhere from four days to one month after one of several North Korean outrages, and “soon after” the Lee Myung-bak administration was inaugurated and anti-American protests about beef imports evolved into anti-government protests. It hasn’t occurred to them how easy it would be for any event to occur in temporal proximity to the most recent unanswered Pyeongyang provocation or a South Korean street demonstration. They don’t explain what they think the point of the timing would be, or what they think the Japanese might gain from it. They’re just sayin’.

There are other possibilities than the figment of Japanese neo-colonialism in the Joseon imagination, however. One might be that the default state of mind about anything to do with Japan in the Korean media is semi-hysteria. Another is that some South Koreans share a personality quirk with the fictional Basil Fawlty, who thought an order for shrimp cocktail from a German patron in his dining room was a reference to the Second World War.

If it is true, as some South Koreans suggest, that the Japanese restatement of the claim puts a damper on the former country’s sympathy following the earthquake, then that sympathy was only ankle deep to begin with.

The Chinese in Tokyo also succumbed to the vapors. The following photo was taken in Narita Airport on the 18th. The lines at the Chinese airline company counters were reported to have been 400 meters long.


Speaking of hysteria, here’s a link to an article about how the problems at the Fukushima reactor have caused frothing at the mind in Europe.

And to close on a more realistic note, here’s a link to an article that offers six reasons why Fukushima is not Chernobyl.

Thanks to Get A Job Son for the link to the Times article.
Talking loud and sayin’ nothing in New York, Seoul, Nagata-cho…and Shinjuku too.

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7 Responses to “Newspapers east and west”

  1. toadold said

    One of the joys of my later years has been watching the NY Times dribbling down the drain,
    Bob Herbert is now gone along with a lot of readers and advertisers. Their new paywall got defeated with 4 lines of java script. It’s stock is now below $10. If Sr. Slim doesn’t start to see some return on his investment Mr. Pinch is likely to have an accident. They have to have the laziest reporters in the world. If a dinosaur like me can find English language sources (NHK, Japan Times, Kyodo,numerous in Japan blogs, and etc.) that give a more accurate picture of what is going on why can’ they? If they have a source in Japan it most be welded to a bar stool somewhere.

  2. Harry said

    And this from FOX News…

    Japan’s Nuclear Rescuers: ‘Inevitable Some of Them May Die Within Weeks’
    By Dominic Di-Natale

    Why did they put “inevitable” and “may” in the same headline?

    I’m appalled by the sensationalist media, and quite frankly, it’s quite irritating and it doesn’t help us in Japan in any way.

  3. toadold said

    The leads for that story vary depending on the source. The center and right oriented press in the US seem to play up the heroism of the workers angle. The left kind of ignores it.
    See the comments section from a conservative online news magazine.

  4. toadold said

    The author praises Japanese workers,blasts Western press coverage, and also points out the worst screeching is comming from the anti-nuke, AGW, moonbat, and communist loving crowd.

  5. 21st Century Schizoid Man said

  6. Marellus said

  7. TonyGoalder said

    Quick question. The DPJ removed the income tax child deduction to help pay for the increase in family allowance. Are they considering reinstating the deduction if they can’t increase or keep the current ¥13,000 per child allowance? I doubt it. Rarely has a party done so little for so many for so long.
    TG: I haven’t seen anything about that. I think the current plan has been extended for six months. A Yomiuri poll just released found that more than 80% of the respondents thought that money should be used for relief and reconstruction instead.

    – A.

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