Japan from the inside out

Archive for the ‘Agriculture’ Category

All you have to do is look (148)

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, December 27, 2012

Giving young people the experience of harvesting and threshing rice as it was done in the middle ages at a rice paddy in Bungotakada, Oita, which has been designated as an important cultural landscape of the nation. It’s an annual event, and this year 500 people participated.

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

All you have to do is look (114)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Shiroyone Senmaida rice paddies in Ishikawa, registered both in the Guinness Book of World Records for having 20,000 pink LEDs, and as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System (GIAHS).

Posted in Agriculture, Arts, Photographs and videos, Popular culture, Thailand | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

If cleanliness is next to godliness, then…

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, November 8, 2012

Photo from the South China Morning Post

BAIDU, the most widely used search engine in China, has a bulletin board for discussion. One user recently started a thread asking, “Why are Japanese Roads So Clean?”

That someone in China thought this would be a worthwhile subject for public discussion contains the implicit assumption that Chinese roads are not as clean. Indeed, many Chinese who come to Japan for the first time are surprised at the cleanliness of its public places because they’re accustomed to streets filled with trash. The Japanese explain this with the general observation that roads and other public spaces in Japan are not for an individual’s exclusive use, so they think they have no right to throw trash there. Public spaces in China are not for the exclusive use of the individual either, but for the Chinese that means they don’t care what they do.

In fact, the thread title claimed that Japanese streets were 10,000 times cleaner than Chinese streets. Here are some of the responses the OP received to his call for opinions.

* Because China is 10,000 times dirtier than Japan. Are you satisfied with that answer?

* It’s the degree of civic awareness. Japan has become urbanized and has a high degree of civic awareness. Large Chinese streets require cleaning 10 times a day, but in Japan once every 10 days is sufficient.

* It’s because China is a developing country. It’s universal that developing countries aren’t as clean as developed countries.

* Japan has a maritime climate.

* 10,000 times? Are you saying that all Chinese streets are like toilets?

* Just because it’s dirty where you live doesn’t give you the right to say that it’s typical of China. It’s clean where I live, anyway.

One factor behind the objections to the thread itself might be that the people responding know only China and have no standard for comparison. The Japanese are relatively restrained in their comments about Chinese cleanliness — at least for public consumption. But Westerners aren’t restrained at all. You know how they can be.

One blogger from England let it rip:

Despite armies of street cleaners China is incredibly dirty. Streets are often littered with discarded food, fruit, paper and other waste. Even in some supermarkets the grime seen on floors would shock most westerners. The most noticeable dirty habit of many Chinese people is spitting. Chinese men especially have the disgusting habit of making loud hawking sounds and spitting the contents of their actions on the road, pavement or wherever they happen to be. While it is mostly men, women too can be seen participating in this vulgar habit. Some people even spit on the bus, and onto the floors of restaurants and public toilets. Many Chinese people also seem to blow their noses in a most indiscreet and vulgar fashion. Handkerchiefs or tissues appear to be too much trouble. Instead people are often seen to use their thumb and forefinger to press their nose and loudly blow out the contents onto the street.

He’s just getting warmed up:

If you’ve managed to survive the food prepared in unhygienic conditions and made it past crowds of spitting individuals, you will at some time need to use a public toilet. You will wish you never had. Chinese toilets are arguably the dirtiest and smelliest in the world. Even festival toilets are no match for what you’ll meet in a Chinese lavatory. There are cultural differences that can and should be tolerated, and there are just plain disgusting habits that hark back to an era of primitiveness when mankind still walked on all fours. China has squat toilets and Western style toilets. The squat toilets are traditional and are a cultural difference. But the toilet habits of many Chinese are not. They are extraordinarily dirty. Sometimes one might think even a dog has cleaner toilet habits than many of them.

He was so worked up, he continued his rant on another site. (At least I think it’s him.)

Could it be that the Chinese are practicing for the littering Olympics? Maybe, though a glance around China would prove otherwise, they feel that to win first prize in that event, they need more practice and so everywhere becomes a target for litter, including bus and train floors. Once I traveled from Wuhan to Beijing. At the end of that journey, the train’s floor was covered with spit, wrappers of all kinds, tissue, sunflower seed husks, apple cores, banana peel, orange peel, piss, more sunflower seed husks, egg shell, plastic bottles and bags, and bread that some bitch didn’t want to eat.

If you tell them not to litter, they look at you like you are a weirdo and ask you what you are doing in China. You are a foreigner; it’s not your business.

Chinese people refuse to accept that they have a problem. They will deny it. As an example, when I was teaching a class on cultural differences, spitting came up and one lady vehemently denied that Chinese people spit more than in any other culture. She noted that her husband had been to Germany recently and saw people spitting on the street too, with a greater frequency than Chinese people. So I questioned my German friend: do people in Germany spit like the Chinese? My German friend was vehement: that’s bullshit. You will hardly ever see people spitting on the street in Germany, except maybe the Chinese there.

At the bottom of the page he has a link to part two of his rant:

City people will claim these are dirty countryside habits but this is a blatant lie. For two years, I lived in a provincial capital in China’s northeast. I worked in a modern high rise building on the eleventh floor in the most cosmopolitan area of the city. You could smell the toilets when you got off the elevator, despite the doors to the toilets being shut. The act of going to use the toilet was filled with apprehension, because 75% of the time, when you entered, the toilet was unflushed by the last occupant and full of reeking shit. Judging by the amount of shit, sometimes it was the last 2 or 3 occupants. On many occasions, I almost puked. And even in the squat pots, they spit on the floor, not in the pot. So when you go in and squat, you’re staring at frothy spit in front of you.

And it isn’t just him, as a quick look at the comments will demonstrate.

It would seem the person who started the thread on Baidu wasn’t exaggerating when he said Japanese streets were “10,000 times cleaner”.

Remember: These are the people who use “flower” as a synonym for “China” and who think their behavior is the standard by which everyone else should be judged.

But it’s human nature to find someone else to look down on. There was a feeding frenzy and teapot tempest in 2010 when the Chinese amused themselves by passing around photos of Dirty India. You can read the response of Rajesh Kalra in The Times of India here. It’s called, “Do we need the Chinese to tell us we are dirty?”

I hope not.

Here’s a segment from a Japanese television program examining this issue in China from the perspective of pollution. It’s in Japanese, but language ability isn’t needed to get the drift. The fisherman says the river is so dirty there’s no fish to catch. A man and woman say the land is so polluted the farmers can’t grow crops. There is a lot of talk in the studio about water standards, and they mention there are 19 places in China where you’re not even supposed to touch the water.

Their first film clip is of air pollution on a city street in Fukuoka City caused by yellow dust storms from China. The second, when the Chinese man in the studio speaks, is back in China. He notes that rather than calling China the world’s factory, it should be known as the world’s trash can.

Another previous post explains the reason Japanese insist on buying domestically farmed fish when they get the chance.

But is all that just a prelude to the final disillusionment?

Posted in Agriculture, China, Environmentalism | 2 Comments »

The power of scum

Posted by ampontan on Monday, November 5, 2012

BIOFUELS are yet another example of how good intentions create unintended results that cause more problems than the one they set out to solve. Farmers in both developed and undeveloped countries can get more cash for their grain crops by selling them for fuel conversion rather than as food. Food shortages caused by the lack of affordable grain was one of the reasons for the political unrest in Tunisia and Egypt.

Some scientists are examining the use of other materials for biofuel use, and one of those materials is algae. They generate hydrocarbons when they grow and when their cells divide. But algaculture for fuel use has been impractical because the process of obtaining oil in quantity from them is slow and difficult.

That might be changing. Two years ago, Prof. Enomoto Taira of Kobe University discovered a variety of the botrycoccus alga that reproduces by photosynthesis alone and multiplies 100,000 times greater by volume than other botrycoccus in one month. It also produces a quantity of hydrofuel equivalent to 30 times its weight. In fact, it has the highest energy production of any alga in the world and more than 100 times the energy production per unit of area cultivated than other biofuels.

Prof. Enomoto is working with the Japanese companies IHI Corp., Gene and Gene Technology, and the Neo-Morgan Laboratory Inc. to improve and commercialize the process of fuel conversion using the alga that has been named after him. The hydrocarbon produced is said to be suited for use as fuel oil. Another advantage of the alga is that it’s said to be robust, which means that it could be grown in the open in ponds instead of photobioreactors.

Problems remain to be resolved, and they’re still in the process of developing cultivation techniques and facilities. It’s not economically competitive yet, because the fuel product now costs JPY 1,000 yen per liter. If science has its way, however — making everything smaller, cheaper, and faster — those problems will eventually be ironed out.

Neo-Morgan Laboratory President Fujita Tomohiro agrees:

“We want to reduce the price to 10% (to JPY 100) in ten years. It shouldn’t be impossible.”

No, it shouldn’t. And that might help Japan reduce its level of energy dependency. It would also allow grains to be used for food again, instead of biofuels — which gobble up 40% of the American corn crop and nearly 20% of British wheat and corn production. People don’t eat algae.

Well, yes they do. It is an ingredient in some food products, including ice cream, and it’s used for supplements. But you know what I mean.

Speaking of slime, it’s time to let some rip with Rip Slyme.

The group chose that name because RIP were the initials of the names of three founding members, and the Mattel-manufactured toy product Slime was popular at the time.

I prefer the name Sunshine and Bikinis, which is the name of this song. It’s also got a pink Cadillac, if you can tear your eyes away from the other performers.

So fine!

Posted in Agriculture, Science and technology | 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 »

Matsuri da! (132): Mugi, bakushu, and maekju

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, October 2, 2012

MOST Japanese festivals are several hundred years old and conducted at Shinto shrines that are usually much older.

But there are exceptions. One is a festival created this year and held for the first time last Saturday by the Koma Shinto shrine in Hidaka, Saitama. It’s called the Festival of Gratitude for Mugi and Prayer for Manju, and that’s a poster advertising it at the top. Mugi is the general term for barley, wheat, rye, oats, and other grains in the poaceae family. It’s been grown in Hidaka and the western part of Saitama for a long time. Manju are buns with a variety of fillings. Most often it’s bean paste, but there are many varieties, including those packed with meat and even cream custard. The first manju was brought to Japan from China in 1341, where they are also still eaten.

The priests offered a prayer for the bountiful sales of mugi products, and they gave a manju to everyone who came for good luck. To help promote those bountiful sales, there were booths offering a selection of delights, including the locally popular kinchakuda manju, made with wheat flour, Saitama’s own bean paste, and chestnuts. Inoue Hiroshi, the head of the Kawagoe (city) cultural treasure protection council, delivered a special address. Mr. Inoue spoke on Japan’s Wheat Manju, Past and Present.

The Mugi Culture Gratitude Festival Committee sponsored the event as one of the first activities to commemorate the 1,300th anniversary of the establishment of Koma-gun. (A gun is roughly equivalent to a county.)

Koma-gun was founded by refugees from Goguryeo on the Korean Peninsula. An ancient Korean kingdom, Goguryeo was the loser in a battle against an alliance of the Korean Silla Kingdom and Tang Dynasty China in 668. Koma is written as 高麗 in kanji, which are the same characters used for the Goryeo dynasty of Korea that lasted from 918 to 1392. Goryeo is the origin of the name of Korea, and is derived from Goguryeo. Koma was also used as a synonym for Korea long ago in Japan.

In fact, the Saitamanians think the newcomers established a Goguryeo court in exile there before giving it up and assimilating. One of the first to arrive was Koma no Jakko, an envoy from the court who showed up in 666. He might have been a member of the royal family known by a different name. His spirit is one of the three tutelary deities at the Koma shrine.

Goguryeo is said to have been a grain-producing area. The theme of the new festival is to celebrate the common food culture between the two areas and to remind everyone of the local grain-based foods.

The shared food culture hasn’t traveled on a one-way street. The Japanese introduced Koreans to another popular grain-based product in the first half of the 20th century: beer. Here’s an excerpt from Exploring Korea, a travel guide:

Beer is called Mekchu (맥주) in Korean. The Germans introduced beer to many Asian countries and helped countries such as China and Japan set up breweries and develop brewing techniques. When the Japanese colonized Korea they introduced beer and opened breweries to produce beer for the local elites.

Considering the wealth created on the peninsula and the increase in incomes over all social levels, I don’t know about that “elites” part, but let’s continue. The site has capsule summaries of the three South Korean mass market brewers. Here’s one:

Hite Brewing Company was founded in 1933 and was originally under Japanese ownership during the occupation of Korea. When the company began it was called Chosun Beer but later changed to Hite after gaining independence from Japan.

Chosun Beer was a subsidiary of Dainippon Beer (大日本麦酒株式会社), and was half-owned by local interests. Dainippon was created in Japan in 1906 through the mergers of the companies that made what are now Asahi, Sapporo, and Yebisu beers. It was split into separate units again after the war. Hite was founded in 1933, but didn’t start shipping until 1934.

The reason I provided the company name in characters was to show this part: 麦酒. That seems to have been pronounced biiru in the Dainippon name, and it literally means mugi liquor. The characters themselves were already in use for an older form of proto-beer in Japan and pronounced bakshu in that application.

The characters are also the source for the Korean word maekju, which is the Korean reading of bakushu. The Chinese call beer 啤酒, which is pijiu in Mandarin and bijiu in Cantonese. These days they often dispense with the second character. The first seems to have been a new creation/coinage when beer arrived in China. It’s a combination of 口, or mouth, which is used as a classifier, and another character also known in Japan that means low, base, or common.

OB is the second of the Big Three beer companies in South Korea. That brewery was founded in 1952 by what is now the Doosan conglomerate, but the company had already existed in a different form as Showa Beer, whose major shareholder was Kirin.

Koreans enjoy getting worked up over what they perceive as the faulty Japanese awareness of history and lack of recognition of their contributions to Japanese culture. The case could easily be made, however, that the opposite is closer to the truth. No one in Koma-gun, Saitama, is ignoring history, and one of the Korean county fathers is venerated in the local Shinto shrine. That’s not an isolated example, either: They do the same in Arita, Saga, to honor a key figure in the ceramics culture.

For contrast, allow me subject you to this Wikipedia article called Beer in Korea. Either some boy needs to do his homework, or his teachers gave him bad homework assignments. My guess is the latter.

The Japanese still make bakushu in special circumstances, such as proto-beer festivals at Shinto shrines. Here’s a look at one held annually at the Soja shrine in Koka, Shiga. They started in 1441. The shrine makes three types, and the captions in the video say they are sweet.

Posted in Agriculture, Festivals, Food, Foreigners in Japan, History, Japanese-Korean amity, South Korea | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Tokyo harvest

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, September 25, 2012

THAT’S not just any old hayseed harvesting those rice plants — that’s the Emperor of Japan. He put on his boots, grabbed a sickle, and got right to work, cutting down about 100 plants. The man’s no stranger to farm chores. He planted the seeds, too.

Bet they don’t do that at Buckingham Palace.

He grew two kinds of rice, one a variety of mochi. Reports say this Palace harvest was that of a typical year. The crop will be used in ceremonies as well as eaten at the palace.

It’s a simple photo, but the combination of rice and the Emperor lies at the heart of the Japanese identity. Inose Naoki, a prolific non-fiction author who also serves as the Vice-Governor of Tokyo, briefly describes one of the ceremonies at which the rice will be used.

Many of Japan’s holidays have a rather complicated history. Labor Day is originally associated with the Niinamesai (Harvest Festival), which is connected to the Tenno (Emperor).

Even those people for whom the name Niinamesai does not register should recall seeing on television the Tenno cutting the rice in the paddy at the Fukiage-gyoen (gardens) at the Imperial Palace. The Niinamesai is a festival to celebrate the rice harvest and offer a prayer for an abundant harvest in the coming year.

The Tenno’s rice harvest is a symbolic performance. The Tenno, whose spiritual power has been strengthened to the maximum through the Chinkonsai (Shinto service for the repose of the dead) held the previous night, conducts a ceremony at the Imperial Palace for offering the harvested grain to the divinities. The Daijosai is conducted when the new Tenno ascends the throne, and is best understood as a version of the Niinamesai on a larger scale.

The Tenno system has continued even with the changes to the Constitution after the defeat in the war and the transfer of ultimate sovereignty from the Tenno to the people. When decisions were being made on new holidays, the Niinamesai was offered as a candidate, adapted as a day to give thanks for the new harvest. The associations between the name of the holiday and the Tenno gradually grew weaker, and the holiday was established as a day to honor work, celebrate production, and to have the citizens extend their thanks to each other for the work they do.

A poem in the Man’yoshu suggests the Niiname was once a ceremony conducted in the home. The name Niiname is not to be found among the harvest festivals held throughout the country in the early modern period, however. In short, it is best considered a ceremony restored under the Meiji Tenno system.

Here’s a previous post on ceremonial rice harvests by younger and prettier farmhands.

But the Imperial Palace doesn’t have the only paddy in central Tokyo. Here’s a plot in the Ginza district on the street right behind the Tiffany & Co. outlet.

The leader of the group that came up with the idea explained:

“The environment in which we can grow rice is Japan’s treasure. Nothing is possible without that environment. I want people to value this Japanese environment.”

There’s also a paddy on a rooftop in Akihabara, the consumer electronics district. The plot’s been managed since 2009 by an NPO whose slogan is, “You can even do it in the middle of Tokyo.” They plant the rice in June, so it shouldn’t be too much longer before it’s time to harvest their crop, too. Pressed into service as temporary agricultural workers are the maids in the district’s maid cafes, as well as voice actors.

Here are the pretty maids all in a row at last year’s harvest. They don’t swing a sickle, but they do approach the task with typical Japanese aplomb.

Posted in Agriculture, Food, Holidays, Imperial family, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

All you have to do is look (58)

Posted by ampontan on Monday, September 24, 2012

Airdome lettuce in Rikuzentakata, Iwate, which was severely damaged in the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

Photo from the Sankei Shimbun.

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

No cigar

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, September 1, 2012

TAKENAKA Heizo, the man responsible for cleaning up the post-bubble banking problem and launching the privatization of Japan Post, and Nakada Hiroshi, former Diet member and Yokohama mayor, serve as advisors to the most important politician in Japan today: Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Toru.

The two men published a collection of dialogues last fall called Nippon on Daimondai 30 (The 30 Major Issues Facing Japan). Here’s Mr. Nakada speaking about one aspect of the post-earthquake/tsunami Tohoku restoration:

The land that was covered in water and thoroughly ruined as a result of the earthquake and tsunami will require an enormous amount of money to be restored for agricultural use. I helped clean up the land at Rikuzentakata (Iwate) recently. At a glance, it looks like all the rubble has been cleared away, but that’s because all the large debris, such as collapsed houses, cars, and logs, have been removed. But up to 20-30 centimeters below the surface of the farmland, there’s an enormous amount of glass and plastic shards and other material buried there. It was also covered in salt (from the seawater), so the soil needs to be improved. The radioactivity has to be removed in some places too. The state of the land means that it isn’t possible for individual farmers to clean up their fields, even if they spent the rest of their lives doing it. It would be the height of stupidity to tell the small farmers, who are aging, to stick with agriculture.

At any rate, it would take an immense amount of money to provide assistance to the individual farmers, so the state should look after their interests, sovereignty should be restricted, and the land should be nationalized. Then, large agribusiness companies should be created to conduct agriculture on a large scale. They could employ the older farmers, who would earn more money than they do now. They also wouldn’t have to worry about who would take over the family farm. This is a major opportunity.

He’s right. It is a major opportunity, and all of his observations and ideas are excellent, with one exception: the first sentence of the second paragraph. Everything he thinks should be done can be done and done better without nationalizing the land and the government getting in the way.

The time for the conversion to large agribusinesses is long overdue, and some large companies are starting to get involved in the sector already. (The railroad company JR Kyushu grows six different crops on leased land.)

The same objectives could be accomplished by facilitating the formation of agribusinesses and letting them purchase the land.

It’s curious that Mr. Nakada would suggest this, because he is seen as an advocate of small government (as is Mr. Takenaka). He also understands the critical importance of limiting the power of the national bureaucracy at Kasumigaseki. Nationalizing the farmland would increase that power rather than reduce it.

Very close, but no cigar.


* Rumor has it that both of these men will join the new political party that Mr. Hashimoto and One Osaka are about to create. There are also rumors that Mr. Nakada will run for a Diet seat in the election expected by the end of the year, but he denied it on Twitter yesterday.

*One plank in the One Osaka platform is to make the appointment of deputy ministers (usually bureaucrats) and ministry bureau heads the responsibility of politicians. That might sound geeky to people unfamiliar with the issues, but it is an essential first step in resolving all 30 of the major problems.

* The government of Abe Shinzo backed measures to promote agribusiness, but Ozawa Ichiro saw that as a major opportunity too — to promise the farmers individual government subsidies, roll back the Abe measures, and thereby contribute to a DPJ election victory. Such a farsighted statesman he was.

It’s the weekend, and that means it’s time for some fun. Offbeat Thai rapper Joey Boy knows all about fun. Well, that and how to put pretty girls into his videos. This one is triple fun.

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

Lethal ladybugs

Posted by ampontan on Friday, August 31, 2012

The flightless aphid killer

FARMERS love ladybugs because they’re the natural predators of aphids, scales, mites, moth larvae, and other natural predators of their crops. That’s why they love to have ladybugs make a habit of hanging out at the farm. But the problem is one of unrequited love — the farmers can’t make them stay once they get there. They have wings and fly away, even when they’re released in a greenhouse. Ladybugs just got to be free.

Seko Tomokazu and his team at the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization in Fukuyama, Hiroshima, got to work on a way to neuter that flightiness. The team used measuring instruments to find and isolate the ladybugs that had trouble flying. They got them to mix and mingle, and finally succeeded in producing a landlubber strain that doesn’t fly at all. It just walks. Put one on a stick, and it strolls to the end and back down again without taking off. In other words, the scientists turned an inherited drawback for coccinellidae into an advantage.

Ladybugs can produce up to seven generations in a year, and it took from 20-35 generations to breed a master race of flightless aphid eaters. After all that effort, their next step was obvious. They registered it with the Agriculture Ministry as a biological control agent. Time to make some money off those bugs!

Here’s a Youtube that’s a slice of life its own self. Watch as a ladybug wolfs down an aphid. Who knew they were so ruthless?

Posted in Agriculture, Science and technology | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Ichigen koji (71)

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, November 8, 2011

– A person who has something to say about everything

* The TPP might or might not be an American strategy, but to be clear about it, that doesn’t have anything to do with Japan. The critical point is only what Japan will do. That is the point of departure, but many people think first of the other party’s intentions. To think first of the other party’s intentions without thinking of your own strategy is not an intellectually independent stance.

* Mixed healthcare (i.e., insured and non-insured) will not come up in TPP. The opponents insist that it will, but maybe that’s a good idea. The TPP will not particularly demand that agriculture be conducted by large business enterprises. Unless it is, however, the producers won’t survive, and it will also benefit the consumers. At any rate, the issue is what Japan will do. The U.S. doesn’t really have anything to do with it.

* Both the highly regulated agriculture and healthcare industries are really growth sectors. Japan cannot grow if their status quo is maintained. Both should be growth sectors, but they’re frozen by vested interests. Breaking that ice should lead to growth. Why does Japanese ramen taste so good? Because it’s not regulated. (I’ve forgotten the name of the famous female commentator who first said that.)

* It’s the basic principle of negotiations to start only with proposals that benefit you. To say that you won’t negotiate because the other party looks tough is defeatism.

* I’m saying that I favor lifting the restrictions on mixed healthcare and corporate agriculture. I’m not saying that I agree with the United States. That mistake is short-circuited thinking, and it is not an argument. I really, really understand that some people in both sectors are against that. They’re the ones I’ve been opposed to from the start.

* I am opposed to the vested interests of the Medical Association and the agricultural cooperatives. Large scale agriculture at a high level of quality should be the policy for survival. If the United States recommends that policy to Japan, I’m in favor of it. That is not playing the footman to the U.S. Japan should do what it should do.

* The people who are uneasy about the safety of food from abroad are saying that they trust the Japanese government’s determination of food safety and distrust that of foreign countries. The Japanese government is responsible for the nonsense that a radiation standard of 500 Bq per kilogram is acceptable. I do not understand why they trust the government here but not those abroad.

* The opponents of TPP bring up the self-sufficiency ratio of food. If high numbers are so good, the North Koreans don’t have any imports and their ratio is nearly 100%. Numbers such as these for Japan alone have no meaning at all. Cheaper rice is a good thing.

– A series of Tweets on the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations from Hasegawa Yukihiro, a member of the editorial staff of the Tokyo Shimbun

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Posted in Agriculture, Business, finance and the economy, International relations, Quotations | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Japan and the TPP

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Politicians can solve almost any problem — usually by creating a bigger problem.
– Thomas Sowell

DISCUSSIONS to create free trade agreements are always a bit like negotiating one’s way through a briar patch, regardless of the parties involved. The case for free trade isn’t easy to make, and appeals to our hard-wired tribalism often find a resonance whose amplitude far exceeds the input. Another complication is the natural tendency of countries to advocate the liberalization of those sectors in which they have an advantage and to get all huffy about industries in which they are at a disadvantage.

Those negotiations become more complicated when agricultural products are tabled for talks. When the crop being discussed is rice in Japan, it is next to impossible to separate the rhetorical grain from the chaff. It isn’t simply that rice paddies account for 56% of all Japanese cropland; there are cultural and spiritual dimensions to rice in this country that are difficult to explain to outsiders, assuming they’re interested in hearing an explanation to begin with. Despite declining consumption and the broadening of the diet, rice is still treated as the main attraction of any meal. Every other food is thought of as a side dish, both at the table and linguistically. And then there’s the dimension unique to Japan. The status of each new Emperor is affirmed in a state ceremony called the Daijosai. In this rite, the Emperor offers newly harvested, sacred rice to the divinities and then partakes of it himself. (Contemporary Japanese themselves recognize that the ceremony exemplifies the universality of the concept of You Are What You Eat.)

In short, to understand the role of rice in Japanese life, it might be useful to imagine how Westerners of an earlier age must have viewed wheat based on the line in the prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread”, and then multiply it by a power of three. Now imagine the response of some people in Japan when they learn that the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement, known as TPP, would eliminate all tariffs among member states in 10 years without exception — including rice.

All of these factors should be taken into consideration by anyone overseas who would report or comment on the debate in Japan over joining the discussions for the TPP, but that won’t happen with the Western media or its on-call stable of bite-sized quote generators in academia. Former Prime Minister Kan Naoto briefly glommed onto the idea in his Sisyphean search for a policy that would endow him with political legitimacy. But Mr. Kan soon fluttered over to some other issue — his priority was to prolong his survival in office, his interest in the matter was tepid and transitory, and even he knew he lacked the skills to either persuade or bulldoze the farming communities, the roughly 50% of his own party opposed to participation, and the agricultural lobby in the bureaucracy. His interest was so superficial, in fact, he carried out a Cabinet reshuffle after bringing up the issue of TPP participation and retained an agriculture minister opposed to the idea.

Now the new government of Noda Yoshihiko is eyeing the potentially poisonous fruit and wondering if it should take a bite. His government and the ruling DPJ will decide early next month whether Japan will take part in the TPP talks. (Mr. Kan was supposed to have decided early this summer, but the prompt execution of affairs is not the hallmark of DPJ governments in general or Mr. Kan’s in particular.) Their decision seems to be timed to coincide with the APEC summit.

Opponents offer the same protectionist arguments to be expected in any country, and chief among them is perhaps Nakano Takeshi, once a bureaucrat in the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy and now a Kyoto University professor. Mr. Nakano published a book this year called TPP Bomeiron, or TPP: On National Ruin. The knee-jerks might assume this is yet another example of Japanese isolationism, but Mr. Nakano himself would beg to differ. Also the author of a book titled Free Trade is a Trap, he claims his arguments are based on the economic nationalism of David Hume in Britain, Alexander Hamilton in the U.S., Friedrich List of Germany (the founder of the German historical school of economics), and even the neoclassicist British economist Alfred Marshall. (The inclusion of the latter is somewhat odd; Marshall has been described as “a firm but cautious adherent of free trade”, though he also advocated protecting new industries.)

Author and university professor Ikeda Nobuo has added TPP Bomeiron to his list of “books that must not be read” (either at the top or bottom, depending on your perspective). He dismisses it as a 200+ page rehash of two false arguments: (1) TPP is a de facto American FTA, and (2) The increase of imports in TPP will result in deflation.

Others who urge caution warn of being bulldozed in the negotiations by the United States. Superficially, it would appear they have a point; Japanese negotiators seem to be congenitally incapable of defending themselves against American pressure in any negotiations. Yet this argument ignores Japan’s partial ban on U.S. beef imports that has remained in effect since 2005 due to mad cow disease. Only meat from those cattle aged 20 months or younger is allowed in the country.

Meanwhile, DPJ member and former Agriculture Minister Yamada Masahiko is mobilizing opposition within the party. He also claims that half of the DPJ MPs are opposed to participation, and insists this is not an issue requiring urgent action. His estimate of half might have been too low. It’s now reported that he’s collected 191 signatures from party members in the Diet backing his opposition.

For an idea of the absurdities to which the obstructionists will resort, here’s a paragraph from commentator Yayama Taro, a TPP proponent:

Japan’s Ag Ministry bureaucrats, agriculture industry groups, and their allies in the Diet haphazardly oppose any attempts at liberalization without thinking of the future benefits. When the government wanted to liberalize banana imports, the apple growers of Aomori were fiercely opposed. They claimed they would no longer be able to sell apples. When the import of bananas finally was liberalized, the farmers made improvements to Aomori apples and were able to supply a greater variety. Today, they are exported to Taiwan and China, and domestic consumption has also risen.

It gets even worse:

An Oct. 12 meeting of DPJ lawmakers opposed to or skeptical about this proposal focused on issues related to the health-care and pharmaceutical industries.

At the meeting, senior executives of the Japan Medical Association warned that the deregulation of these industries resulting from Japan’s participation in the accord would cause the health-care system in Japan to collapse.

Foreign Ministry officials in charge of the TPP pointed out that a public health-care insurance program is not covered by the TPP negotiations, but the participating legislators refused to be reassured.

No one has ever gone broke underestimating the intelligence of the average politician. Then again, an intelligent person is unlikely to go into politics to begin with.

Japan’s Free Marketeers

Despite the broad unsupported assertions, verbal sand-throwing as a diversionary tactic, and superficial commentary, the Japanese public is being offered counter-arguments and is finding those arguments to be worth their consideration.

Asakawa Yoshihiro, the deputy editor of Nogyo Keieisha (Farmers’ Business) published Nihon ha Seikai Goi no Nogyo Taikoku (Japan is the World’s Fifth-Largest Agricultural Superpower) in February 2010. It ranked #2 on the Amazon non-fiction best-seller list for the year. (The copy I bought was printed in March 2011, and it was already in the 14th printing.)

Mr. Asakawa holds that the argument claiming Japanese agriculture is weak lacks a basis in fact. He claims that the Agriculture Ministry deliberately understates the agricultural self-sufficiency rate to maintain a crisis atmosphere among the public as a means to enhance its influence. He insists that the industry has successfully boosted production, that a decline in the farming population will not result in the waning of agriculture, and that Japan has enormous potential for becoming a food exporter.

This previous post summarizes an article in the September 2009 issue of Voice, which features an interview with Itochu Corp. Chairman Niwau Ichiro. Mr. Niwau also thinks Japanese agriculture can be internationally competitive, that it could thrive in markets that were completely open, and that even rice would be price competitive if the tariffs were removed. The key, he says, is to reform misguided government policy and amend current land use laws that encourage acreage reduction to prop up rice prices.

Kon Kichinori, the editor of the aforementioned Nogyo Keieisha summarized the view of the optimists in a recent article in Diamond Online. Here’s most of it in English.

Japanese agriculture is often thought to be suffering from declining numbers of agricultural workers, the aging of the agricultural workforce, small-scale farming, and the lack of competition. The backdrop to these assertions is the historical view of an impoverished peasantry, in which farm households are poor and weak. This view still survives in the contemporary administration of agricultural affairs. But we have already developed a dynamic class of agribusiness entrepreneurs, and it is time for us to abandon the romantic historical view of an impoverished peasantry.

This view is based on the historical awareness of the meager harvests and famines of the Edo period when farm productivity was poor. Another factor is the hardships resulting from the high percentage of production confiscated in annual tributes, in which the public sector took 50% or 60% of the crop. This awareness has changed, however, as more research has been conducted into the original documents of the Edo period. Based on surveys from the 16th century, it has been shown that the public sector share of annual tributes fell to 30% to 40% as new technology for agricultural production was developed, and in some cases below that. In addition, the production of such highly profitable products (other than rice) of tea, mulberries, cotton, vegetables, and tobacco rose in tandem with urbanization.

The concept of postwar agricultural reform has been based on the theme of the liberation of the poor peasantry. Laws related to farmland and agricultural cooperatives designed to protect smallholding farmers are still on the books. The historical view of an impoverished peasantry has been the premise of the characterization of agricultural issues as the declining numbers of agricultural workers, the aging of the agricultural workforce, small-scale farming, and the lack of competition.

According to the 2010 Census of Agriculture and Forestry conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organization, the (Japanese) farming population fell from 3.35 million to 2.61 million, a 22.3% drop, in five years. Meanwhile, the average age of the farmers rose from 63.2 to 65.8

Farm households, however, are defined as those with at least 10 ares under cultivation (one are = 100 square meters), or with at least JPY 150,000 in sales of agricultural products. Thus the term “farm household” is a concept that represents households, rather than an occupation. It does not refer to the people who sell their agricultural products. Even those people who have retired from regular jobs and have begun to cultivate at least 10 ares of land to distribute the crop to their relatives as an old-age pastime are counted as agribusinessmen. (Slightly less than 10% of farming households who sell their products report no sales at all.) The average age of 65.8 does not indicate the advanced age of the farm households with people involved in crop production. Rather, it indicates nothing more than the advanced aging of society itself. Apart from the issue of aging, the decline in the number of farm households — even though it is a desirable change — is viewed as a problem, and utilized to proclaim the waning of agriculture.

Most of the households known as farming households in Japan are those headed by salarymen, in which one of the grandfathers grows rice on several dozen ares of land. They won’t stop growing rice even if they lose a lot of money — it’s become part of their lives as well as a pleasant avocation. But the productivity and technological level of the hobbyist rice farmers is of course declining. There are some exceptional producers among those associated with the agricultural cooperatives, but the rice produced by small scale farmers with such self-satisfaction is mixed in the drying facilities with the crop from the producers associated with the cooperatives. The result is a deterioration and variation in rice quality due to small production units and the inability to properly conduct cultivation. The declining labor productivity of the hobbyist farmer who has lost his sense of professionalism has caused the quality of Japanese rice to worsen.

The agriculture industry insists that Japanese rice will be overwhelmed by the foreign product if the high tariffs are eliminated. It is very possible that foreign rice will become dominant if foreign rice and Japanese rice are of the same quality. But the Japanese consumer will probably select Japanese rice from farm households that grow high quality rice with lower costs, even if it is more expensive.

It is undoubtedly true there are aspects to agriculture that cannot be explained just from the industry perspective, which claims that it has maintained rural settlements and transmitted culture. Those people involved with agriculture who use that as a reason to cling to the historical view of an impoverished peasantry are preventing innovation in Japanese agriculture that exceptional agribusiness entrepreneurs are achieving. If they continue to insist on the fragility of Japanese agriculture, it is because they can harvest the benefits of protection through their defeatism.

We have already developed a dynamic class of agribusinessmen. If we abandon the romantic historical view of an impoverished peasantry, we will begin to see the great potential in Japanese agriculture and agricultural villages.

(end translation)

Former Finance Ministry bureaucrat and current university professor Takahashi Yoichi supports Japanese participation in TPP. Here’s the English version of a brief article that appeared in J-Cast on the Web:

The liberalization of trade has long been a matter for debate. In the end, liberalization is desirable for Japan’s national interest. The logic that trade liberalization is desirable has been demonstrated for the past 200 years in the field of economics. This wisdom is also the shared heritage of the world.

While there are of course negative aspects to trade liberalization, we know the benefits will outweigh these over the long term. Specifically, the trial calculations of the Cabinet Office finds the losses of joining the TPP to be about JPY 8 trillion, but the benefits to be more than JPY 11 trillion. The negative aspects would be borne by the domestic producers in agriculture, while the benefits would be enjoyed by consumers and exporters.

While there is some variation in the calculations depending on the preconditions applied, there is no change in the conclusion that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. Even the economists, who are always mocked for their divergence of opinions, agree that trade liberalization will result in benefits.

It is the job of politicians to determine how to make adjustments and redistribute the positives of trade liberalization to the negatives. This could create a situation in which no one in Japan suffers. The politicians opposed to TPP have abandoned the original intent of their jobs.

The principles that have survived throughout history demonstrate there are more than a few errors in the many arguments opposed to TPP. There is the argument that TPP will destroy Japanese agriculture. But the claim that opening the market will kill agriculture is incorrect. This is clear from the example of the liberalization of American cherry imports.

When the import of American cherries was allowed, some were opposed and claimed it would destroy the Japanese cherry sector. In fact, however, domestic cherry growers differentiated their product by upgrading the quality. The value of production soared by 1.5 times from 1977 to 2005. During the same period, the producers who avoid liberalization and cling to protection — rice — have become moribund. It is a fact that the producers who improved their strengths while having to compete due to liberalization — cherries — have grown.

There is even the extreme view that TPP will inevitably lead to the end of all tariffs. But there are always exceptions in international negotiations. Even in the original TPP talks with four countries, about 10% of the categories were exempted. Besides, the tariffs would not be eliminated immediately, but in stages. Long-term liberalization of more than 10 years has been sought by Chile for milk products and New Zealand for textiles and footwear.

Some argue that once Japan enters negotiations, it will have to participate. No international agreements and frameworks, however, have content that is determined from the start. That content is always determined through negotiation. There are many instances of countries entering negotiations and then not participating. There are also instances of countries that have compromised in negotiations and then not participated because they could not receive the approval of national legislatures.

At any rate, the arguments opposed to TPP are banalities that have been presented throughout the world over the years. At the same time, they provide people with important information: It enables them to clearly understand just who has the vested interests. No matter how much they say it is good for the people, if we carefully examine their claims, we will understand who has the vested interests, and who does not want to lose those interests. This is valuable information, so we must be always vigilant.

One thing we should keep in mind is that the high yen will minimize the advantages of TPP, making adjustment difficult. The government must work toward a lower yen to maximize the benefits of TPP.

(end translation)

It is no surprise that the free marketeers are the positive optimists who treat their audience as sentient adults, while the political class still talks down to them as children. Here’s an example: Japanese prime ministers distribute what they call an “e-mail blog” in both Japanese and English. Earlier this month, one e-mail sent out under the Noda name promised a new agricultural vision for the country. It starts this way:

Yesterday (the 10th), in order to obtain some insights into the revitalization of agriculture, I observed agricultural areas in Gunma Prefecture where people are engaged in leading-edge efforts such as the production of premium brand rice and the operation of direct-sales storefronts. Under the penetrating clear autumn sky, I was able to feel the fruitful nature of autumn throughout my entire being.

Yes, that clumsy translation was not rendered by a native speaker, but the original Japanese is just as dweeby and unlikely to have been finished by most of the people who received it. At the end of the note, the aide who wrote the post for Mr. Noda asks:

In what ways can the national government assist in order to revitalize agriculture and transform it into a growth industry?

The best way to assist is to get out of the way. Events on the ground are providing support for the people who think Japanese agriculture has the potential to be a growth industry without government help. The Diet relaxed the regulations on farmland rental in December 2009 (a step little noted at the time, which at long last puts one in the plus column for the DPJ). Since then, there have been, or will be by next year, 120 instances of companies from other sectors leasing land to grow crops.

One of them is the railroad company JR Kyushu, one of the six companies spun off from the 1987 privatization of the state-run railroad. They started by growing nira, or Chinese chives, on 0.4 hectares in Oita Prefecture last year and harvested 20 tons for use in their restaurant chain in China or sale on the market. They expanded their area of cultivation to 3.5 hectares this year and project JPY 10 million in revenue. Their initial efforts have been so successful, JR Kyushu’s agricultural subsidiary plans to diversify into citrus fruit, cherry tomatoes, and chickens. Their target is JPY 1 billion in revenue in two or three more years.

Also in Kyushu, the Saibu Gas utility is growing lettuce, the retailer Yazuya is growing strawberries and melons, and Kyudenko, primarily engaged in providing electric power facility engineering services, is growing olives. Other companies are producing tea, onions, shellfish, and organic vegetables.

On one side of the debate is the private sector, convinced that Japan can become an agricultural superpower, and that they can get gloriously rich by feeding the nation and helping to feed the world. The people standing in their way are those who always block progress everywhere. They are the romanticists who cling to a vision that was never real to begin with, and the wolf-criers who thunder about a foreign takeover that never occurs. (If it didn’t happen after the postwar Allied occupation, it ain’t going to happen.) Then there are the Ag Ministry bureaucrats protecting their turf, and the beetle-browed politicians who pander to them all to justify their existence when everyone else knows their most productive contribution would be to disappear.

What is likely to happen? As always, it will be a minor miracle if the sensible people win. If Japan joins the TPP after negotiating a treaty that it believes is fair, and the politicians can be prevented from spending everyone else’s money to buy off compensate the small farmers (particularly without Diet redistricting that gives those regions more seats than they deserve) it will be a miracle of Lourdesian proportions.

Here’s a different look at the benefits of open markets in the Taiwanese mod/trad group A Moving Sound’s performance of the Market Song. Note the American man playing the moon lute, a Chinese woman playing the cello, and the use of the electric bass to present a fresh take on an old sound.

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Mikan liquor-ish

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, September 11, 2011

ONE of the classic scenes of Japanese domestic life in the winter is a family seated around the kotatsu (a low wooden table with a futon around the sides and a heat source underneath), drinking green tea and snacking on the tasty citrus fruit known as mikan. As easy to peel as a tangerine but with more heft, the mikan is sometimes known as the mandarin orange or Satsuma orange in English. It is by far the mostly frequently eaten citrus fruit in Japan; statistics for 2006 show that per capita consumption of oranges was roughly 585 grams, while that for mikan was 4.55 kilograms.

Its ancestor came to Japan from China centuries ago through the port at what is now Yatsushiro, Kumamoto, but it’s generally accepted that the variety now grown and eaten in Japan is a hybrid created in Kagoshima. That’s based on the research of the late Prof. Tanaka Chozaburo, who spent his life studying the mikan, and who identified 159 seed varieties in the same genus. Mikan groves are most likely to be found in Shikoku and Kyushu, with Wakayama accounting for 19% of the national production, but there are orchards as far north as Kanagawa and Chiba, both of which border the Tokyo Metro District.

Mikan are most often consumed raw or in juice, but with overall consumption declining, the city of Arida, Wakayama, started looking for ways to boost demand for their local variety. It took two years, but local growers and processors working with a Nagano winery succeeded in developing a wine and a liqueur made from the fruit.

One of the people who worked on the project was Takano Yutaka of the Japan Sommelier Association. Mr. Takano said it was difficult because mikan have less sugar than grapes. They froze the juice first in the same process used to make ice wine, extracted the part with the high sugar content, and let it ferment for six months. The beverage is said to retain the fruit’s original aroma and tartness, as well as being thick and very sweet. Tipplers can down it straight, with ice, or with carbonated water, and all of this is starting to sound as if it’s being marketed primarily to young females.

The Wakayamanians have produced 1,500 bottles of wine, called Himekibana, priced at JPY 3,150 yen, and 3,000 bottles of the liqueur, known as Kahorikibana, sold for JPY 1,050 yen. If you’re in Japan, you can buy it at the larger Aeon stores and on the Internet. And if you read Japanese you can roll on over to the mikan page of JA, the agricultural cooperative, as well as the page of the Japan Sommelier Association.

I don’t think I’d be interested in drinking it more than once, but it does seem to have the potential for becoming a nice sherbet, doesn’t it?

Speaking of mikan, sweetness, and females, you get a chance to see and hear Morning Musume — the daughters of the morning — perform the song titled “Mikan”. Child love!

Those whose default attitude toward Japanese pop culture is stuck on “snide” should read this and adjust your metric accordingly.

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Steam cleaning

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, September 10, 2011

TAKING the waters at a hot spring is good for what ails you. Among the benefits are invigorated blood circulation, increased metabolism, and normalized endocrine function. With natural hot springs throughout the archipelago, the Japanese have known about and availed themselves of these properties for more than a millennium.

Now the Floricultural Group in the Agricultural Research Division of Oita Prefecture’s Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries Research Center in Beppu, the country’s unofficial spa capital, have discovered that hot springs are good for flora as well as fauna. Specifically, they’ve developed a way to use the steam from hot springs to disinfect the soil and the materials used for growing beds.

Here’s how the system works. They start with a 1.6-square-meter steam vat surrounded by a 60 centimeter-high block wall. The hot spring steam is brought up from underneath, and the entire apparatus is covered with a sheet during the sterilization period. At 120º C, it takes 30 minutes to give the treatment to pots or seedbeds and two or three hours to soil.

The research center says this method has several advantages to the chemical method currently used. It sterilizes both the surface and the interior. The materials can be used as soon as they cool, whereas the use of chemicals requires aeration after the process to release any trapped gases. In addition to its effectiveness, it’s environmentally friendly and labor efficient. The use of the system has gradually been growing in the prefecture, and 50 farmers have adopted it in the past year. Limiting its diffusion, however, is the cost of the devices used to create the steam and the higher fuel costs.

Who knows — if they ever get those problems ironed out, it might result in the emergence of an agri-spa industry in Oita!

Speaking of interesting devices, those inspired goofballs at Maywa Denki have created another new musical instrument. Polyrhythmic!

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Japan’s political kaleidoscope (8): The new, the old, and the Noda

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, September 6, 2011

PLENTY of people were saying plenty of interesting things last week with the start of the Noda Cabinet. Here are some of them.

The Asahi Shimbun

It wasn’t what the Asahi said in an English-language article that was remarkable. Rather, it was the fact that they — Japan’s preeminent newspaper of the left and Kan Naoto’s only reliable water carrier — were the ones to say it. It started with the headline:

Noda, Finance Ministry Speak as One on Tax Hikes

The first sentence:

Having an advocate of tax hikes as prime minister is a dream come true for Finance Ministry mandarins who have long championed an increase in the consumption tax rate.

The body of the article contains a good description of how the bureaucracy in general, and the Finance Ministry in particular, becomes entwined in the political process. Now for the finish:

Senior Finance Ministry officials asked Noda to appoint either former Secretary-General Katsuya Okada or former Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku as finance minister because both men support tax increases.
Eventually, Noda picked Azumi Jun, handing him his first Cabinet portfolio.
“Noda chose a lightweight minister without losing any sleep over the matter because he served as finance minister himself,” a DPJ lawmaker said.

That last sentence is clever for the plausible deniability it provides. Did they mean Mr. Noda isn’t losing any sleep because he is capable of acting as his own finance minister, or because he was a lightweight finance minister himself who subcontracted policy decisions to the ministry. I suspect the latter.

I don’t recall much of this from the Asahi when Kan Naoto, the preceding Finance Ministry puppet and tax hike promoter, was in office, but perhaps I disremember.

Please note that I’m still having trouble with the link function. I just sent a note to WordPress. The article should be easy to find, however.

Hasegawa Yukihiro

It’s worth reading anything by Mr. Hasegawa, an award-winning book author, columnist, and member of the editorial board of the Tokyo Shimbun. Here are some excerpts from an article in Gendai Business Online commenting on Noda Yoshihiko’s use of the term “no side” after winning the DPJ presidential election.

The phrase comes from rugby and is (or at least was) used by the referee to signal the end of the match. I’ve read that it’s obsolete, but being from a country that doesn’t play rugby, you could fool me. Japanese politicians often use it in this context to call for party unity.

“The use of the expression “no side” is straight from the Liberal-Democratic Party politics of a generation ago.

“In those days, Kasumigaseki (the bureaucracy) handled all the policy questions. Policy was essentially identical to that which they created, so the politicians in Nagata-cho promoted themselves using traits unrelated to the core of policy, such as decision and execution, or tolerance and compassion. It could even be said they had no other way to compete than to emphasize their capacity to execute policies or their broad-mindedness.

“People understood that politics of that sort was a failure, so the Democratic Party championed the cause of disassociation from the bureaucracy and political leadership during the general election two years ago. The politicians said they would retrieve policy from the hands of the bureaucracy. In the end, however, they were ensnared by Kasumigaseki, and their effort at eliminating the reliance on the bureaucracy failed. We’re now in the third DPJ government with the Noda administration, and there’s nothing else to say but “no side”….

“….The “no side” politics are unlikely to be successful because politics that are carried piggy-back by Kasumigaseki no longer functions. Kasumigaseki has gotten too big. It micromanages everything in the private sector (literally, every time [the private sector] raises or lowers its chopsticks), and maintains a system of skimming off taxes through amakudari. There will be no revival for the Japanese economy.

“The recognition that the root cause of the economy’s stagnation is the system of Kasumigaseki leadership has begun to spread throughout the population due to the bitter experience of the Tohoku disaster and the Fukushima accident. In Nagata-cho, they are beginning to realize that perception is growing.

“Many Democratic Party MPs are in a mouth-to-mouth feeding relationship with Kasumigaseki, and the politicians have noticed they’ll be at risk in the next election. While Noda won the DPJ election, many within the party are still opposed to a tax increase.

“The euphoria following the selection of the new party president had an immediate feel-good effect, but the Diet members will shortly return to reality. The turbulence will reemerge with a vengeance as soon as a serious effort is made to pursue a policy of higher taxes.

“What’s more, that day will soon arrive. They’re now at the stage of formulating a third supplementary budget calling for an increase in core taxes as a funding source for Tohoku reconstruction. They also plan to present a bill by next March to raise the consumption tax to fund social welfare. In short, the debate begins in the fall.

The thaw

The first of the highly publicized governmental policy reviews held by the DPJ in November 2009 was one of the most transparent political dog-and-pony shows ever staged. The idea was that the politicians would put the bureaucrats’ feet to the fire by grilling them about questionable policies. They would end the wasteful enterprises and use the money to fund their campaign promises.

It didn’t take long to find out that the reviews were scripted — literally — by the Budget Bureau of the Finance Ministry, complete with recommendations on which policies to cut. It was a convenient way for the ministry to strengthen its control relative to the other ministries. Further, the recommendations of the review panel had no force in law. Some of the programs ostensibly cut, such as one for the Education Ministry, were quietly restored into the budget of a different ministry a few months later.

The panel did have some good ideas, however. One of them was a freeze on building new housing for national civil servants, other than reconstruction in the event of an emergency. (This is often a job perquisite in both the public and private sectors.)

But it seems there’s been a late summer thaw. Construction began on 1 September of an 800-unit apartment block in Asaka, Saitama. Whatever debate was conducted about lifting the freeze hasn’t been reported, and there’s no indication the Government Revitalization Council was involved.

Each of the apartments has a living room, dining room, kitchen, bath, and three extra rooms. The rent and deposit are free, courtesy of the taxpayers. The cost of the project has been estimated at JPY 10.5 billion. Despite a location next door to the Asaka municipal offices, only national civil servants are eligible to live there. It’s prime real estate 10 minutes on foot from the train station.

The housing accommodations for national public employees are under the jurisdiction of the Finance Ministry, so the Finance Minister had to give his authorization to end the freeze and begin construction. Based on the timing, that means the person who approved the project in apparent contravention to government policy was the new prime minister, Noda Yoshihiko.

How thoughtful of him to let us know.

If the government was serious about ending wasteful government expenditures, all these properties would be sold and no new ones built. The private sector has no problem handling housing construction. The public sector has the problem of funding rent-free accommodations for its employees with public funds.

Eda Kenji on the polls

Mr. Eda is the secretary-general of Your Party. Here are excerpts from two blog posts last week:

“It was predictable to an extent, but all the polls conducted over the weekend showed the support rate for the Noda Cabinet at roughly 60%. The highest was the Yomiuri at 65%, and the lowest was the Asahi at 53%. Interestingly enough, the rate of support in the newspaper polls was highest at those papers leaning to the right, perhaps because Mr. Noda leans to the right himself. (Note: Does the motivation for the first Asahi article make more sense now?)

“This high support is likely the result of the effect of the Aida Mitsuo poem (about the dojo fish), Mr. Noda’s personal modesty, and the good feelings about the Cabinet selections made with party unity in mind. The polls also probably reflect the reaction to the fact that Mr. Kan was so terrible.

“Nonetheless, I think the people of Japan are really kindhearted. (To use the analogy of the traditional wedding present of cash), the amount of the present for a third wedding and honeymoon in two years shouldn’t be the same as it was for the first….If this continues, I am deeply apprehensive about the disappearance of a sense of tension from politics and the politicians. Most politicians are risk-averse opportunists. They’ll look at the going rate for wedding presents. If the Cabinet is a failure, they’ll think all they have to do is replace the head….At any rate, when the yearend budget formulation is finished, the rate of support will have plummeted and the government will again be on the verge of collapse….

“…Meanwhile, some in the LDP are saying it will be difficult to combat the Noda Cabinet and its initial support rate. Well, of course it will be. The LDP has joined with the DPJ as two of the parties in the three-party agreement, they’ve laid out a course of tax increases to pay for reconstruction, and they’re on board with a 10% consumption tax increase for social welfare schemes. With the difference between the two parties on these issues so small, no wonder the LDP finds it difficult to attack.”

A note on polls

Some in the Western media have reported that the new Cabinet has received “strong voter support”. If this is the best they can do when filling space, they should consider syndicated horoscopes instead. The support is nothing more than a first impression, it’s skin deep rather than strong, and since the polls are conducted by random digit dialing, no one knows whether the respondents are voters or not.

One doesn’t have to have a long memory to recall that Kan Naoto had even higher ratings in June 2010 when he displaced Hatoyama Yukio and shut Ozawa Ichiro’s supporters out of the Cabinet. As summer turned to fall, however, he lost more than 40 points in one newspaper poll in two months over his government’s mishandling of the Senkakus incident. Mr. Noda’s numbers are only a tad better than those of the LDP’s Fukuda Yasuo when he took over in 2007, and he lasted just a year.

Besides, there’s no reason to pay serious attention to what the foreign media writes about Japanese politics until they demonstrate that they understand most Japanese prime ministers aren’t “leaders” as understood in the Western sense, but the principal spokesmen for the decisions of their party.

The obvious exception was Koizumi Jun’ichiro. His successor Abe Shinzo tried to do the same, and did have some success (as the next excerpt shows). But Mr. Koizumi was an act nearly impossible to follow, and the primary audience was a news media more irritated than a pack of gunpowder-fed junkyard dogs after five years of success and popularity by someone who wasn’t a European-style social democrat. Kan Naoto tried too, but because character is one of the prerequisites for leadership, he was unlikely to succeed from the start.

Okazaki Hisahiko

Mr. Okazaki was once ambassador to Thailand, and he writes on diplomacy and foreign affairs. Here are some excerpts from a piece that appeared in the Sankei Shimbun.

I have hopes for the Noda Cabinet

“After it seized power, the DPJ offered only those anti-establishment arguments that are the critical elements of their defining characteristics, were uncontrolled in their self-indulgence, and were rebuffed at every turn. They learned from those lessons, and their promise to change the planks of their party platform for the three-party agreement is the most concrete example….They tested the most childish ideas of postwar liberalism, such as anti-Americanism and an approach to Asia, and they learned how unrealistic that is…

“They get the sequence backwards when they ask for experts’ opinions after something has happened. They should be listening to opinions regularly, and when something happens, they must decide. Their subordinates are already busy, and the excessive workload of selecting and convening the members of a commission is too heavy….

“If they’ve learned the lesson that the people have suffered and had to bear heavy burdens since they’ve taken power, it will be a positive for the two-party system in the future. Most important, I think, has been the generational change….In the DPJ, the generation of radical student demonstrators has left the scene, and they’ve moved on to the next generation.

“The LDP has also changed during this time. Prime Minister Abe Shinzo stepped down due to illness, having amended the three laws regarding education, established the legal framework for a national referendum (for amending the Constitution), and came right to the point of permitting the exercise of collective self-defense. The party responsible for frustrating the end of the postwar regime was not the DPJ, however, but the LDP. Since it’s been in the opposition, the LDP has firmed its support for recognizing the exercise of collective self-defense as party policy…

“With the new administration, they should not be so niggardly as to worry about the DPJ recovering its reputation and the effect that would have on the next election. If there is an offer to cooperate on policy, it would be best for them to humbly accept it and cooperate. It’s more important to deal with the crisis in Japan of the continuing (political) vacuum.

“I returned from a banquet in a taxi on the night the DPJ held their presidential election, and even the other passengers were saying how relieved they were that it went well. No one knows what’s going to happen in the future, but those were the voices of relief that the days of Hatoyama and Kan, who used the nation of Japan as the subject in a vivisection experiment for amateurs, are over.”

Takahashi Yoichi

The relentless Mr. Takahashi is a former Finance Ministry bureaucrat, author, journalist, and university professor. He is not as sanguine about Mr. Noda as Mr. Okazaki:

“Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko wrote the book The Enemy of Democracy when the DPJ was still in the opposition. In it, he said:

26,000 former national civil servants have taken amakudari jobs in 4,700 (public) corporations, and JPY 12.6 billion of hard-earned tax money flows to these amakudari corporations annually. No matter what budgets we formulate, we will be unable to overcome our economic crisis until this gimmickry is ended.


The facile recognition of an increase in the consumption tax represents the suspension of thought, and it ends the elucidation of such gimmicks as the wasteful use of the special account.

“The people’s hopes in these words were betrayed. The DPJ was unable to compile a budget or effectively utilize the Finance Ministry or the Bank of Japan because they did not reform the civil service system. That meant their plan to assert political leadership went nowhere. What I look forward to is to the extent to which the Noda administration will reform the civil service system.”

The aforementioned Eda Kenji thinks it’s impossible for the DPJ to reform the civil service system because they depend on public union support.

Kono Taro

Mr. Kono presents himself as a small-government classical liberal, but he’s not quite there yet. Here’s a sentence from a recent website post:

We’ve attacked the ruling party by saying, for example, that the child allowance was just an example of doling out of baramaki, i.e., lavish entitlements (which it was) and we made them stop. But I cannot say the LDP has explained how it will support child-rearing.

And neither does it have any business supporting child-rearing. They can explain that government can best support child-rearing by creating an environment in which the economy thrives and allowing parents to handle child-rearing by themselves. In other words, by butting out.

Mr. Kono would do well to examine the tax proposal by former ambassador to China and Utah Gov. Jon Hunstman, who is running for the Republican presidential nomination in the U.S. Mr. Huntsman is no small-government classical liberal, but he’s got the best idea for tax reform presented by any of the candidates. From The Wall Street Journal:

The heart of the plan lowers all tax rates on individuals and businesses. Mr. Huntsman would create three personal income tax rates—8%, 14% and 23%—and pay for this in a “revenue-neutral” way by eliminating “all deductions and credits.” This tracks with the proposals of the bipartisan Bowles-Simpson commission and others for a flatter, more efficient tax system.

That means economically inefficient tax carve outs for mortgage interest, municipal bonds, child credits and green energy subsidies would at last be closed. The double tax on capital gains and dividends would be expunged as would the Alternative Minimum Tax. The corporate tax rate falls to 25% from 35%, and American businesses would be taxed on a territorial system to encourage firms to return capital parked in overseas operations.

Mr. Huntsman would repeal two of President Obama’s most economically debilitating creations, ObamaCare and the Dodd-Frank financial regulation law. Mr. Huntsman has it right when he says, “Dodd-Frank perpetuates ‘too big to fail’ by codifying a regime that incentivizes firms to become too big to fail.” He’d also repeal a Bush-era regulatory mistake, the Sarbanes-Oxley accounting rules, which have added millions of dollars of costs to businesses with little positive effect.

Mr. Huntsman says he’d also bring to heel the hyper-regulators at the Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration and the National Labor Relations Board, all of which are suppressing job-creation.

In addition to the foregoing, Mr. Kono should consider restoring the policies to promote agribusiness that were begun under the Abe administration and ended under the Hatoyama administration. There was quite a bit of unused farmland in Fukushima Prefecture, to cite one example, even before the nuclear accident. The DPJ chose to offer baramaki in the form of individual farming household supplements to take advantage of the disproportionate representation of agricultural regions in the Diet for electoral purposes.

Both Japan and Mr. Huntsman would also do well to heed the success of Russia, which introduced a 13% flat tax a decade ago. That resulted in a string of annual budget surpluses that started in 2001. They had a deficit of 3.6% of GDP in 2009, not the best of years for government budgets, but were back into surplus last year.

While he’s at it, Mr. Kono might also take a tip from Gouverneur Morris, who wrote much of the American Constitution:

If the legislative authority be not restrained, there can be neither liberty nor stability. However the legislative power may be formed, it will, if disposed, be able to ruin the country.

And Morris wasn’t a classical liberal — he believed in a natural aristocracy.

The high yen

The sharp appreciation of the yen hasn’t been all bad for Japanese businesses. Japanese companies are shopping till they drop in corporate supermarkets overseas now that prices are at bargain levels. According to M&A originator and executor Recof, their purchases of overseas firms from January to August alone were valued at JPY 3.8842 trillion, already more than last year’s JPY 3.7596 trillion. They amounted to JPY 465.8 billion in August, double the amount for July. The buying is on a pace equivalent to that of the second-highest year, 2008, when JPY 7.4256 trillion was spent to snap up overseas corporations. Recently Kirin Holdings bought a large Brazilian beverage company, and Asahi Holdings now owns an Australia/New Zealand-based liquor manufacturer.

It’s all in the name

Here’s the first sentence from an AP article yesterday:

Typhoon Talas dumped record amounts of rain in western and central Japan on Sunday, killing at least 25 people and stranding thousands as it turned towns into lakes, washed away cars and set off mudslides that buried or destroyed houses.

Forget the AP’s frustrated novelist prose — What is this “Typhoon Talas” of which they speak, which isn’t a name a Japanese person would come up with? Here in Japan, it’s Typhoon #12.

It turns out to be the creation of the Typhoon Committee of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, and the World Meteorological Organization, a revealing bit of nomenclature itself.

While those bodies need a way to quickly differentiate the storms, how is their function enhanced by names they don’t need and no one other than they or the news media use?

An article on the Discovery News site explains about the lists of names:

The two lists most Americans are familiar with cover the Atlantic and East Pacific. But there are also lists with culturally appropriate names that cover the Central North Pacific, Western North Pacific, Australian Region, Fiji Region, Papua New Guinea Region, Philippine Region, Northern and Southern Indian Ocean.

In other words, it would be news to Discovery News to discover that Talas isn’t “culturally appropriate” for Japan, the only country affected by WNP #12.

The article concludes:

As to whether using human names is the best approach: “That actually is an issue that comes up,” said Read (director of the National Hurricane Center). “Is there a better way to do this?”

Yeah. The way the Japanese do it.
Sounds like an Okinawan/Indonesian blend to me.

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