Japan from the inside out

Archive for October, 2012

Three articles

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, October 31, 2012

THIS post consists of excerpts from three newspaper articles whose importance is self-evident. They require little additional comment from me. I present them here to contribute to their greater circulation.

1. Pork in the name of the public good

The first article is a classic case of the blind pig finding a root. It was published by the Associated Press, and unlike most of their product these days, it’s actually worth reading. The title is Japan spent rebuilding money on unrelated projects. Who’d have thought! Well, anyone who’s followed the story of stimulus expenditures in the United States for the past few years, but I digress. Here we go:

About a quarter of the $148 billion budget for reconstruction after Japan’s March 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster has been spent on unrelated projects, including subsidies for a contact lens factory and research whaling.

The findings of a government audit buttress complaints over shortcomings and delays in the reconstruction effort. More than half the budget is yet to be disbursed, stalled by indecision and bureaucracy, while nearly all of the 340,000 people evacuated from the disaster zone remain uncertain whether, when and how they will ever resettle.

Many of the non-reconstruction-related projects loaded into the 11.7 trillion yen ($148 billion) budget were included on the pretext they might contribute to Japan’s economic revival, a strategy that the government now acknowledges was a mistake.

Some people in Japan were aware this was happening from the start. They noticed that the commission appointed by the Democratic Party government to formulate a plan for reconstruction and recovery issued a report containing recommendations for programs that were cut-and-pasted from previous ministry requests.

In Japan, tax-and-spend government is driven primarily by the permanent bureaucracy rather than the politicians. The latter are either the enablers or the lobbyists for the ministries with which they are associated.

The only drawback to the AP article is the now-standard and usually unnecessary addition of comments from academics to buttress their point. They often miss the point entirely:

Masahiro Matsumura, a politics professor at St. Andrews University in Osaka, Japan, said justifying such misuse by suggesting the benefits would “trickle down” to the disaster zone is typical of the political dysfunction that has hindered Japan’s efforts to break out of two decades of debilitating economic slump.

“This is a manifestation of government indifference to rehabilitation. They are very good at making excuses,” Matsumura told The Associated Press.

This is really a manifestation of the inexorable and inevitable expansion of the public sector in any country. Give them the power to print and spend money, and they’ll work overtime to find ways to print and spend money. It’s not clear whether Prof. Matsumura was referring to the political class or the bureaucracy when he referred to “government”, because the word in this case applies to either or both.

Prime Minister Noda promised that unrelated projects would be “wrung out” of the budget, but his two DPJ predecessors, Hatoyama Yukio and Kan Naoto, made the same promises. Mr. Kan went so far as to say the budgets would be held upside down to shake out extra money until they got a nosebleed. That didn’t stop either of them from presenting and passing record-high budgets with record-high deficits. If anyone’s nose bled, they weren’t part of the public sector.

And Mr. Noda voted aye for those budgets, as well as this reconstruction budget. He didn’t know what was in it? He didn’t understand that they were wasting money?

But to ask the questions are to answer them.

2. Self-congratulation

The New York Times is congratulating itself for its recent expose of the finances of Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jibao and his family. The Times’ article charges that they’ve stashed away upwards of $US 2.7 billion. This post at the China Digital Times website quotes an article written for the Times’ sister-in-arms, the Guardian of Britain, that explains how wonderful it is the Gray Lady is practicing journalism again:

The Times’ story, by David Barboza, is the type of journalism that not only catches the powerful in flagrante delicto, but that revivifies the paper’s reason for being. This has not been a kind few years for the Times, with its management, its journalism, and its prospects, under constant and more often than not unflattering scrutiny. But a story like this is something of an instant brand turnaround.

The New York Times took on China and, in the first round, won. This being China, the Times will, surely, be engaged in a constant battle going forward – even, perhaps, a confrontation that defines the sides in some new international press battle. That will, no doubt, be to its short term economic disadvantage. But that is good news for the Times, too.

[…] The Times released dismal earnings yesterday and its stock dropped by more than 20%. But its real value took an incalculable leap today.

In other words, they think it was a triumph of investigative journalism.

But other people suspect they were being used as a mouthpiece. From the Epoch Times:

Controversy continues to simmer around last week’s lengthy New York Times exposé of the US$2.7 billion fortune that Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s family is said to have amassed. Critics have said the story was planted by Wen Jiabao’s political foes, while the New York Times has defended the integrity of the story.

In an Oct. 29 blog post, the Times reporter, David Barboza, addressed head on the claim that the story might have been given to him:

“I have read the speculation that some ‘insider’ gave me information, or that some enemies of the prime minister dropped off a huge box of documents at my office,” Barboza wrote. “That never happened. Not only were there no leaked documents, I never in the course of reporting met anyone who offered or hinted that they had documents related to the family holdings. This was a paper trail of publicly available documents that I followed with my own reporting.”

You can believe that, or you can believe this:

On Oct. 30, the Chinese website of the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle claimed Barboza would have had difficulty getting information about who are the members of Wen’s family, information needed in order to track the family members’ appearance in corporate documents:

“The head of a Chinese media outlet that reports on business who used to be an experienced investigative reporter told Deutsche Welle Chinese that information about family members for common Chinese can be found by checking the household register information.

“However, this household register system maintains strict confidentiality for information for Chinese Communist Party officials with rank above the provincial level. It is very difficult to obtain the names of the family members for a person who is a member of Politburo Standing Committee. Therefore, the NY Times should have gotten some kind of assistance, which could even be a systematic set of materials.”

New Tang Dynasty’s political commentator Wen Zhao commenting on the NY Times story said, “I don’t think this is something a private investigation or media outlet is capable of doing in China. No doubt about it, this kind of thorough investigation can only be conducted by people who control the secret police or secret agents in China.”

Their point is that the neo-Maoist, anti-reform hardliners in China associated with former President Jiang Zemin funneled the information to the Times as part of the ongoing political struggle in that country.

Whether that’s true or not — and we’re never going to know — the idea that people would use of the New York Times as an international mouthpiece is plausible. I’ve read articles in that newspaper about Japan that I would bet cash money were nothing more than rewritten talking points e-mailed by the DPJ government. Some of the information in those articles bore so little resemblance to actual conditions that it was risible.

3. China on the march

The final section is a compilation of of pieces. The first is a translation of a Yomiuri Shimbun article that appeared on the Web today. Here it is in its entirety:

Five Chinese Surveillance Ships in the Contiguous Waters of the Senkakus — For 12 Straight Days

Four Chinese maritime surveillance ships and one fishing surveillance ship entered the contiguous waters (22 kilometers) around the Senkaku islets yesterday morning. They continue to warn Japanese Coast Guard ships not to approach their territorial waters. This is the 12th straight day that Chinese surveillance ships have entered the contiguous waters.

The 11th District Coast Guard headquarters in Naha reported that four Chinese ships entered Japanese territorial waters on the morning of the 30th. After leaving in the afternoon, they remained in the contiguous waters. As of 9:00 a.m. on the 31st, the four ships were 31-33 kilometers to the southeast, while the fishery patrol boat was 28 kilometers northwest of Kubajima and headed in a south-southwesterly direction.

A Sankei Shimbun article yesterday provided a few more details:

One of the surveillance ships used an electronic bulletin board to transmit messages in Japanese and Chinese that read, “Your ship has entered Chinese territorial waters. Leave at once.”

Compared to some in the Anglosphere, the Japanese media is rather subdued. Try this piece from yesterday in the Financial Times (that might require registration).

The Chinese State Oceanic Administration – which enforces the nation’s maritime interests – said four of its ships on Tuesday tried to expel Japanese vessels out of waters where they were operating “illegally”.


Last month, Beijing announced a territorial baseline for the disputed islands that defined the exact geographical location of its claimed territory to back its long-standing claim.

“Chinese government vessels did not chase Japanese boats out of the islands’ territorial waters in the past, as these waters were an area controlled by the Japanese coastguard,” said Li Guoqiang, an expert on border issues at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “But the situation changed when we created a legal basis for enforcing our claim by announcing the territorial baseline for the islands in September.”

It concludes:

Mr Li said the Chinese government was still restraining itself and would not lightly add to the tension. “But if the Japanese don’t change their ways and return to the path of negotiation, such friction could increase,” he said. “Then, it would not be a question of just four vessels but many more.”

On the one hand, it could be argued that the Japanese consider this to be Chinese bluster and see no need to make a big deal of it. On the other hand, it could also be argued that they are downplaying the situation to prevent the public from demanding that its government grow a made-in-Japan backbone.

In either case, it’s clear that the Chinese are engaging in international outlawry, are arrogant enough to press the legitimacy of this approach for their bogus claim overseas, and don’t seem concerned at all about what the United States might do.

The situation has the potential to become very ugly.

Posted in China, Government, International relations, Mass media, Military affairs, Politics | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

All you have to do is look (93)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Shirakawa Chochin Matsuri last month at the Kashima Shinto shrine in Shirakawa, Fukushima. One of the three largest lantern festivals in Japan, it is more than 350 years old and held every other year. It was supposed to have been held last year, but was postponed due to the effects of the Tohoku disaster in March.

Posted in Festivals, Photographs and videos | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Ichigen koji  (215)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, October 31, 2012

– A person who has something to say about everything

NHK warns that the rapid increase in “Twitter dependence” is dangerous. Much more dangerous than that is “NHK dependence”, which is the misconception that all the information presented by NHK is correct. It’s ironic that thanks to Twitter, “NHK dependence” has been drastically reduced.

– The Tweeter known as Tsugunosuke

Posted in Mass media, Quotations, Social trends | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

The only surprise is that they’re surprised

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, October 30, 2012

TO the extent anyone talks about it, people tend to present the Okinawan independence movement as more significant a factor in public opinion than the reality might warrant. This post from February 2007 contains the results of a survey conducted by the University of the Ryukyus:

The Okinawa Residents’ Identity Survey 2006 discovered that 78% of those Okinawans surveyed between the ages of 18 and 24 were opposed to independence. That’s more than 10 percentage points higher than the total of 65% for all respondents. The people favoring independence gave as their primary reason the difference in political, economic, and social conditions from the rest of Japan, as well as a different historical experience. The foremost reason for those opposed was that Okinawa did not have the capability to be independent.

When asked about their identity, 57% of the young people said they were both Okinawan and Japanese, a far higher total than the 40% figure for the entire population. Just 20% considered themselves Okinawan only, substantially less than the overall total of 30%.

My experience over the years with Okinawan students in the two university English classes I teach every spring bears this out. They are not clannish, and they are impossible to identify by observing their behavior, interaction with other students, or speech. As far as they and the other students are concerned, they are Japanese in every way, but with a heightened sense of regional identity.

I haven’t seen any news of that sort since the 2006 survey, but the events over the past five years are starting to make me wonder if there have been any changes. Okinawa, a small island chain, is still the home to 74% of all the American bases in Japan. The rest of Japan doesn’t want the Americans in their back yards. It isn’t easy to coexist with foreign troops in limited space, even if they do provide a reliable source of employment.

Then there’s the fact that it is part of the job of soldiers to behave like soldiers. That means jet fighters screeching overhead at all hours, and (according to one of my students) drills being conducted in public places that become off limits to the residents. The islanders were thrilled to award their votes to the Democratic Party of Japan when it promised that the Futenma base would be moved out of the prefecture, and ideally out of the country. It is not difficult to imagine their disillusionment and disgust when it soon became apparent that Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio was going to break that promise throughout a six-month charade when he claimed he was trying to come up with an acceptable solution. His term in office ended shortly after the promise did.

Yet despite all this, some Japanese outside Okinawa still have difficulty understanding what’s on people’s minds. Earlier this month, the Nishinippon Shimbun ran a special feature on the 56th National Roundtable Discussion on Ethics conducted by a national association of newspapers, broadcasters, and magazines in late September. This conference was held this year in Naha to mark the 40th anniversary of the return of Okinawa to Japan, and its theme was “Japan today and media responsibility”. The primary topic of debate was Japan’s security structure and its excessive reliance on Okinawa.

According to the feature, they were shocked at the response of Okinawans and what they termed the locals’ distrust of the rest of Japan, all because of the base issue. Said the newspaper:

We were jolted by what we heard repeated many times during the conference, such as “There is no democracy in Okinawa, ” and “Forcing the bases on us is structural discrimination.” This compelled reporters who seldom cover stories in Okinawa to start over with a clean slate in their thinking.

The keynote address was given by former Gov. Ota Masahide, now 87. He was an academic by profession before serving two terms as governor, and he also served in Japan’s upper house. Here are some of the excerpts from his address quoted in the newspaper:

“People are now seriously reexamining one issue in Okinawa — just what was the return to Japan all about? Was the return a good thing?”

“Okinawa was not returned under the terms of the Peace Constitution. It was returned under the terms of the Japan-U.S. security structure.”

“Democracy is an excellent system, but, ironically, Okinawa will be subject to discrimination by the majority forever. There is a structural discrimination.”

And about the deployment of the Osprey:

“You (reporters) shouldn’t be going on about the safety of the Osprey, which is the point you’re emphasizing. You just don’t understand that we don’t need any more bases or any more aircraft.”

Of course there are caveats. Mr. Ota once alluded to what he called “the impossible dream”, by which he means independence, and he is part of the generation most likely to favor it. He was unaffiliated with a political party during his term as governor, but he was considered a politician of the left. He is associated now with the Social Democrats, who are so far out on the political limb it’s a wonder it didn’t snap off years ago.

But he’s been making these points for years, and many people agree with him. If the average Japanese journalist is still being surprised by of local discontent after all this time, and after all the coverage the Futenma issue received during the Hatoyama administration, the Okinawans well deserve to be chuffed.

Decentralization and disorder are the trends of the age. Separatist movements are gaining momentum in Europe. People are even starting to wonder in print if the United States can hang together. If the “mainlanders” remain obtuse and the younger generation in Okinawa starts to warm up to the ideas of Mr. Ota, the rest of Japan need only look in the mirror to see where the fault lies.

Posted in Military affairs, Social trends | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

All you have to do is look (92)

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A public sculpture somewhere in China.

Posted in China, I couldn't make this up if I tried, Photographs and videos | Leave a Comment »

Ichigen koji (214)

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, October 30, 2012

– A person who has something to say about everything

My faculty advisor prohibited me from taking a class from another professor whom he hated. If you take classes from professors associated with the New Right (in South Korea), some people will hate you.

– A Seoul University student quoted in the Chosun Ilbo

Posted in Education, Quotations, South Korea | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

The ABCs of Japanese politics

Posted by ampontan on Monday, October 29, 2012

Hasegawa Yukihiro is a long-time newspaperman and non-fiction author of books about politics and government. He wrote a string of four Tweets yesterday. Here they are:

* The basis for the statements coming from the Democratic Party of Japan is the Finance Ministry path itself. This has thrown into relief the fact that the DPJ is not a party of reform. The ministry turned its back on the party long ago, and is treating it coldly.

* It seems as if (Prime Minister) Noda will squat in place (without calling an election). The Finance Ministry has turned its back on him, too, and there’s no telling what they’ll do next. Noda himself understands that much, but he still can’t do anything. He told Watanabe Yoshimi (Your Party head) that the Finance Ministry did him in. Why is it that newspapers can’t print this story? Watanabe talked about it openly at a news conference.

* The Finance Ministry uses and disposes of politicians all the time. This is the A of the ABCs for observing Japanese politics. They did the same with Yosano Kaoru and Tanigaki Sadakazu. Since the Meiji Restoration, they’ve believed they are the royal road in Japan.

* The essence for considering oneself a Third Force in Japanese politics is to break up the centralization of authority and the system of bureaucracy. (In real terms, that means breaking up the system of Finance Ministry control.) Without this, there is no point in talking about who is going to align with whom and do what.

And that is all you need to know about how Japanese politics works.

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

All you have to do is look (91)

Posted by ampontan on Monday, October 29, 2012

Torii at the Donen Inari Shinto Shrine in the Namamugi district of Yokohama. The Namamugi Incident occurred near here in 1862.

Posted in History, Photographs and videos, Shrines and Temples | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Ichigen koji (213)

Posted by ampontan on Monday, October 29, 2012

– A person who has something to say about everything

“Even if Japan’s territory were to be invaded, it is just possible they might not be able to do anything”. That idea is beginning to take hold among some Chinese academics. Some people think the emergence of this disparaging attitude toward Japan is the backdrop for the increasingly harder line China has been taking since September.

– Fukushima Kaori

Posted in China, International relations, Military affairs, Quotations | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Poll results

Posted by ampontan on Monday, October 29, 2012

THE Shinhodo 2001 poll has a small sample size and is conducted only in Tokyo, so everyone knows that the numbers aren’t ironclad. Nevertheless, politicians are said to find the results a useful guide to assessing the public mood.

The most recent survey was taken on Thursday and released on Sunday. Here are the answers that people are looking at.

* Which party will you cast your vote for in the proportional representation round of the next election?

1. Democratic Party (Ruling party): 8.2%
2. Liberal Democratic Party: 28.2%
3. Putting People First Party (Ozawa Ichiro party): 1.8%
4. Japan Restoration Party (Hashimoto Toru party): 3.4%
5. Your Party (first national reform party): 3.8%
6. Don’t know: 43.6

The Jiji poll regularly has the non-affiliated group at more than 50%, and that continues to be the most important overall factor in Japanese politics. Whenever the next election will be held, the DPJ is facing a repudiation of their performance which will probably exceed that for the LDP in 2009.

The numbers for Mr. Hashimoto would probably be higher in the Kansai region. That demonstrates one of the problems he faces — translating his regional popularity nationwide.

It would seem that Ozawa Ichiro’s primary function now is filling space in newspapers.

* Do you support the Noda Cabinet?

Yes: 19.0%
No: 75.6%
Other: 5.4%

These numbers are as ugly as those for Hatoyama Yukio in the spring of 2010. The Japanese system is such that political parties can maintain control with approval ratings at 40+. The pols start to get edgy when it falls into the 30s, and they start thinking about life after the Cabinet in the 20s.

That said, it’s not easy to explain why Noda Yoshihiko’s numbers are this bad. The consumption tax increase was unpopular, but that was discounted months ago. Opposition to his restart of a few nuclear power plants is probably a factor, but that would not explain the corresponding rise in support for the LDP. They aren’t the ones clamoring to shut down nuclear power for good. His government’s response to both China and South Korea this summer has been measured and firm, unlike that of his predecessor, Kan Naoto.

I can only think the public is fed up with the idea of a DPJ government in general, rather than any one specific issue.

* What are your expectations for the new party to be formed by Tokyo Metro District Gov. Ishihara Shintaro?

Positive: 56.0%
Negative: 39.0%
Don’t know: 5.0%

This is puzzling — Mr. Ishihara is 80 years old and cranky. He is not the sort of man to attract voters half his age and younger. Then again, this survey was conducted in Tokyo, which is his base. But because his response to South Korea and China would be firmer still, it’s possible that the public realizes Obsequious Japan is no longer going to work. Standing up for the country — which is not the same as nationalism — is a winner with the public.

* What are your expectations for a possible alliance between Ishihara Shintaro and Hashimoto Toru?

Positive: 51%
Negative: 44%
Don’t know: 4.6%

This is more puzzling, even considering that the numbers for Mr. Hashimoto’s party have been sliding since late summer. (I suspect that might be due to concerns about the problems with China and South Korea, and the Osaka mayor’s inexperience in foreign affairs, rather than anything he did.) Evidently, a few folks in Tokyo like their Ishihara straight and not blended.

* When do you think the lower house should be dissolved and an election held?

This year: 64.2%
Next year: 32.2%
Don’t 3.6%

The impatience is understandable, but as a practical matter, it might be better to hold a double election with the upper house vote scheduled for next summer. That might create a mandate and give a party or an alliance a better chance of passing legislation. The winners of a lower house election now will still have to deal with upper house as it’s presently constituted until next year. Another lower house election would probably be needed, so holding one now might not accomplish much.

Whatever the schedule, Japan’s next election (or series of elections) is likely to be as transformative for this country than the one about to be held in the United States.

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

All you have to do is look (90)

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, October 28, 2012

Harvesting rice at a nukihoshiki ceremony in Ube, Yamaguchi. The rice will be used as an offering.

Here’s a video condensation of the same event at a different location from start to finish, from the inside out. Excellent!

Posted in Agriculture, Photographs and videos, Traditions | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Ichigen koji(211)

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, October 28, 2012

– A person who has something to say about everything

■ “I have fantasized — don’t get me wrong — but that what if we could just be China for a day? I mean, just, just, just one day. You know, I mean, where we could actually, you know, authorize the right solutions . . .”

– New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman on “Meet the Press,” 23 May 2010

■ “China Blocks New York Times Website After Article”

-headline, Associated Press, 26 Oct. 2012

(Stolen from James Taranto at the Wall Street Journal. Here’s the reason for the ban.)

Posted in China, I couldn't make this up if I tried, Mass media | 1 Comment »

PSYched out

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, October 27, 2012

SOME people have caught on that the Japanese seem impervious to the delights of the Gangnam Style Youtube video by PSY, which has now become one of the top ten most-watched Youtubes ever. That’s a matter of degree, because the song did make it into the lower level of the iTunes top 30 in Japan. It didn’t mirror the success that it’s had in the United States and Britain, however, or the lesser success in China.

Those folks are puzzled because Japan is perhaps the country most open to South Korean pop culture in the form of K-Pop, television shows, and certain types of movies (i.e., the ones middle-aged women like). Different theories are being offered for the limpness of the interest, but they’re ultimately unsatisfying because they miss another reason for the relative popularity that might be the most important of all.

One theory floating around is that Facebook postings gave a boost to the PSY video in the West, and that with only 30% of Net users, Facebook has a lower penetration in Japan than elsewhere. That might have something to do with it, but the Japanese are just as aware of Youtube and use it just as frequently.

Another theory is that the K-Pop performers regularly release Japanese-language versions of their performances, and PSY’s song is only in Korean (as far as I know). Foreign language pop songs for the teen and early 20s demographic in Japan are unlikely to be much more popular than a foreign language pop song in the United States, for example. There are some exceptions, but all of them are in English, the language everyone studies for six years in secondary school.

As this report points out, however, PSY was slated to release a Japanese-language version of the tune (called Roppongi Style) earlier this year, but his plans came a cropper. That post quotes a translated opinion from someone in the Japanese television industry:

PSY had already begun to be featured on Japanese morning variety news programs back in July, but the reaction from viewers was horrible. This was right around the time when Japanese media were under fire for over-promoting K-pop while attitudes toward Korea were souring, and the reason K-Pop became so popular in Japan in the first place is because Korean artists are known for being beautiful, so PSY looked completely out of place on screen. Even if he debuted in Japan, I don’t think he would have sold very much.

The industry insider raises some important points, and it’s not just the one about beauty. PSY first appeared in July, and the problems with South Korea didn’t erupt until August, but it was natural for those problems to dampen the enthusiasm for Korean pop culture. Lately I’ve been quoting and featuring excerpts here from a book by Tsukuba University Prof. Furuta Hiroshi, who is fluent in Korean. He studied for a time at a South Korean university and had a Korean roommate while there. He later returned to teach Japanese at another South Korean university from 1980 to 1986. He says his hobby is watching South Korean and North Korean movies and collecting them on DVD.

In a current edition of one of the Japanese monthlies, however, Prof. Furuta dashed off an article in which he declares that after the events of this summer, he will not visit the Korean Peninsula again until attitudes there change. The behavior of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, combined with the frothing-at-the-mind articles in South Korean newspapers (which they conveniently translate for their Japanese-language websites) has poisoned the well of Japanese goodwill. A connection has been snapped.

There might be an attempt to start restoring those connections by the end of the year. Every New Year’s Eve since 1954, NHK TV has broadcast live a program called Kohaku Utagassen, which presents the most popular singers in the country. The show’s concept is a singing contest between the men’s team and the women’s team. The results are judged by celebrities, the audience at NHK Hall, and now on the Internet.

While greater affluence and the resultant increase in disposable income and decentralization of culture have lessened the program’s impact, it is still the touchstone for identifying the performers the mass audience most want to see, with demographic differences taken into account. Three K-Pop acts performed on last year’s program. As of last month, it was starting to look as if none would be invited this year. Said one person affiliated with the program’s production team:

“President Lee’s problematic statement about seeking an apology from the Emperor had a serious impact. Many Korean performers do not refrain from shouting “Dokdo is our land” at the top of their lungs. Their appearance would elicit a negative reaction from viewers.”

That now seems to have changed. The question was raised at a meeting of department heads at NHK on Wednesday, and reports say a network official answered: “We are considering this from the overall perspective and will separate politics and culture.” That could mean that some K-Poppers will appear after all.

Given the South Korean predilection with taking everything that happens in Japan the wrong way, an overreaction to the Japanese ambivalence toward the global cultural success of the Korean Nation was to be expected. Some Japanese music bloggers suggested the South Koreans used bots, or automated viewing programs, to pump the Youtube viewing totals. Others started calling the song “F5 Style”, referring to the keyboard key for refreshing a browser window.

Those witticisms detonated a small explosion at the premises of the Korean Wave Research Institute. That organization is a non-profit established in 2010 to conduct research into and promote Korean culture, particularly the pop variety. (They also display the seals of the Presidential Council on Nation Branding, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Korea Tourism Association on their website, which suggests government funding.)

Anyone in Japan could have scripted the response of KWRI President Han Koo-hyun in advance:

Denouncing the “conspiracy theories” of YouTube chart manipulation, KWRI president Han Koo-Hyun said the “outrageous” Japanese argument was “tantamount to doubting a world record in an Olympics marathon.”

Skepticism about the song’s worldwide popularity on YouTube “should be viewed as a primary school kid’s jealousy and envy”, Han said in a press release.

Not content with defending the success of “Gangnam Style,” Han launched a vitriolic attack on the only Japanese entry in YouTube’s chart of the 30 all-time, most-viewed videos.

Currently ranked 29th with more than 237 million views, the video shows a young Japanese woman engaging in the popular Internet meme activity of dropping some mentos candy in a bottle of diet coke so that it sprays soda everywhere.

Mocking what he described as the “most grotesque and preposterous content” on the entire chart, Han said it was “another lowly example showing the video-related preference of the Japanese.”

And some people would have you believe the attitudes of the Japanese are the biggest obstacle to improved bilateral relations.

“A primary school kid’s jealousy and envy”? I put it down to collegiate spitballing — it’s the Internet, dude. “Grotesque and preposterous” are terms that should be reserved for the continuing Korean ban on Japanese performers on Korean terrestrial TV and radio. If South Korea has a television program resembling the Kohaku Utagassen, Japanese singers are prohibited from appearing on it by law.

The extent of Japanese popularity aside, however, there is another aspect to the intense interest in the video that people tend to reference obliquely. Brian Ashcraft, the author of the piece at the first link cited, wrote:

Online in Japan, however, some seem to think that the idea of a fat Asian guy wearing sunglasses and dancing about is probably humorous to Westerners—hence the song’s popularity.

Last month in the Guardian of Britain, Arwa Mahdawi took that one step further in an article titled, What’s so funny about Gangnam Style? The subhead:

The South Korean pop video taking the internet by storm does little to overturn tired stereotypes of east Asian men

She concluded:

The last time the west laughed so uproariously at a Korean singer was when an animated Kim Jong-il bewailed how “ronery” he was in the film Team America, and how nobody took him “serirousry”. The puppet had a point: popular western media doesn’t tend to take east Asian men seriously – even when they’re brutal dictators. The stereotype of a portly, non-threatening Charlie Chan-type who speaks “comical” English is still very much alive, apparent in everything from hungry Kim Jong-un memes to Abercrombie and Fitch T-shirts. And it’s hard to escape the uncomfortable feeling that this stereotype is contributing something to the laughter around Gangnam Style.

I’ll take that another step further. Consider:

* The only people who understand the social commentary of PSY’s lyrics are the Koreans. Everyone else is working off the music and the video.

* The music, while catchy, is not that compelling. I sent a link of the Youtube video to a friend in England before it caught on there. One of his three income sources is his work as a DJ at pubs on weekend nights and at wedding receptions. (He’s also a big technopop fan and has played piano since childhood.) He thought the video was fun, but commented that the music reminded him of 20-year-old European disco.

* The video features several attractive Korean women. The Japanese are already familiar with northeast Asian pulchritude. But in the United States and Britain, where the video is especially popular, such a free concentrated shot of exotic beauty is seldom seen all at once in the same place.

* PSY is variously described in English-language accounts as “portly”, chubby”, or “dumpy”. He performs a goofy horse-trot dance; a moonwalking Michael Jackson he isn’t. I can see junior high school kids clumsy with the initial rush of puberty trying it out as a joke at a dance party, but that’s less likely for high school students and not at all for college men and women. (If someone did that at a party where I attended university, guys would have either hooted him out of the building or asked where he got the mushrooms.)

* One of the first places I saw the video referenced on the Internet was at an American site for the fans of the baseball team I follow. A frequent poster used the video to create a short gif file to accentuate a humorous reference in a point he was making. He didn’t use the scene with the women covered in feathers or that Korean yogini with the pert and shapely butt. He instead snipped several seconds from the scene near the beginning with a shirtless PSY sitting outside in a lounge chair and a boy doing the dance in the foreground.

There you have it: This video has become an example of Weird Koreana in the same way that Westerners incapable of taking successful East Asians seriously have for years found Weird Japan stories and photos as entertaining as the dickens. I’ve seen English-language websites focused on politics and world affairs whose only links or mentions of affairs in Japan are limited to goofball stories. Now it’s Korea’s turn.

They’re not laughing with PSY. They’re laughing at him. PSY himself may be laughing all the way to the bank, but that doesn’t alter the reason he’s got the cash in hand to begin with.

This is an observation that Westerners do not like to hear. To see how they usually respond, try some of the commenters on Arwa Mahdawi’s article at the Guardian. “What’s the problem with you Guardianistas,” they ask. “This is all in fun.”

My worldview is about 180° away from that attributed to the Guardianistas, but I agree with Ms. Mahdawi. I’ve made the same point about Weird Japan by commenting on one or two Western websites (with less politico-cultural stridency than she uses) and the outraged backlash is the same. Telling people in the Anglosphere to their cyberface that they really aren’t as clever, classless, and free as they like to think they are does not earn hits on the Like button.

I suspect PSY is hip enough to know that he’s seen as a clown in the West, but he’s now so rich that he probably doesn’t care. The question he’ll have to come to terms with is whether he’ll want to work against the typecasting in the future, and, whether he does or doesn’t, if the creators of his video can keep coming up with ideas as striking as the one for his Big Payday.

It’s understandable that the Gangnam Style phenomenon has generated excitement in South Korea about the potential for spreading Korean pop culture worldwide and creating cultural ties where few now exist. I hope they can and do.

It would be most unfortunate, however, if their excitement causes them to overlook the ugly side of the Gangnam Style phenomenon.

The photo above is of the K-Pop song-and-dance team Shojo Jidai. The group has the same name in Korean. They were one of three Korean groups to appear on the NHK New Year’s Eve program last year. This electronic disco number is similar musically to Gangnam Style, and is sung in Japanese (with a bit of English). The Japanese-language version of their song has more than 66 million views on Youtube. So much for anti-Korean childishness.

Other than the language, the differences with Gangnam Style are obvious.

Posted in Foreigners in Japan, International relations, Japanese-Korean amity, Music, Popular culture, South Korea | Tagged: , , | 11 Comments »

All you have to do is look (89)

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, October 27, 2012

World Boxing Association women’s strawweight (105 lbs. max) champion Miyao Ayaka, from Chikuwa, Nagano, after her title match last month. She won by a 3-0 judges’ decision. This seems to be the last round.

Posted in Photographs and videos, Sports | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Ichigen koji  (210)

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, October 27, 2012

– A person who has something to say about everything

A reported conversation between former prime ministers Koizumi Jun’ichiro and Abe Shinzo:

KJ: So Abe, what do you think is the most important thing for a politician?

AS: I’d say it’s leadership and insight.

KJ: That’s not it. It’s luck. Luck.

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