Did the Nikkei just collude with Aso to interfere with BOJ independence?

Bloomberg’s Japan coverage, from this morning:

All Nippon, United Parcel Forge International Cargo Deal, Nikkei Reports

All Nippon Airways Co. and United Parcel Service Inc. agreed to handle each other’s international shipments to help better position each company economically, Nikkei English News reported, without citing anyone.—-
BOJ May Have to Cut Rate as Investors See `Done Deal’ (Update1)

Oct. 30 (Bloomberg)—The Bank of Japan may have little choice but to cut interest rates tomorrow after a newspaper report raised investors’ expectations that it would.


Bloomberg, you’re not supposed to sound so obviously disgusted with another news outlet!

Sure, Bloomberg also runs stories sourced anonymously when the information is good. But the Nikkei’s case is extreme. This is just a guess, but the Nikkei’s pages often seem to contain more anonymous quotes than attributed ones.

Catching wind of a new business tie-up might be fair game, but considering the huge significance of monetary policy, and the potential for dirty tricks, there really is no business giving political insiders anonymity for the sake of a scoop, no matter who the source is. And who might that source be?

``The government is the one who wants the Bank of Japan to cut rates this week to show Japan is coordinating with other nations to ease turmoil in markets,’’ Mari Iwashita, chief market economist at Daiwa Securities SMBC Co. in Tokyo. Still, ``the economy and markets could worsen further even after they reduce interest rates and that’s what the central bank has to think about at the meeting this week.’‘

Considering the Aso government’s lack of respect for the improvements in Japan’s economic bureaucracy over the past decade, it isn’t surprising that they show no hesitation to interfere with monetary policymaking.

To be sure, Aso has generally been cooperative in taking steps to deal with the crisis, but that’s because he is listening to the FSA, perhaps the authority on managing financial crises, and anyone could be doing that. And the effects of a potential rate cut are reported to be mostly psychological and would not take much from the BOJ’s already limited wiggle room on the policy rate.

But there is a risk that Aso’s bloviating and posturing for political gain could take a dangerous turn, such using recapitalization money to force banks to lend to insolvent small businesses or pushing for even easier money to help his election prospects. That’s what makes it so disappointing that the Nikkei, far from playing the role of watchdog, is actively enabling Aso’s backroom maneuvering.

It’s enough to make you sympathize with Koizumi-era economics brain Heizo Takenaka, who has argued for years that Japanese democracy just doesn’t work. He thinks tough decisions should be left to a single strong leader, with the Diet and bureaucrats relegated to supporting roles.

UPDATE: Oh that’s right, the kind of underwhelming spending plan was already announced this morning:

In the new stimulus package, the government will provide a total of 2 trillion yen in fixed-sum benefits to all households, instead of introducing a fixed-sum tax cut, which had been considered key to the package. Based on the total number of households as of the end of March 2008, each household would receive about 38,000 yen.

For the housing loan tax cuts, the government is expected to reduce income and resident taxes by as much as a total of 6 million yen per person, a record high, for people who have housing loans of 50 million yen or less. About 500 billion yen to 600 billion yen is expected to be necessary for this measure.

The government will introduce a fixed-amount expressway toll system, in which expressway users are charged 1,000 yen on Saturday, Sundays and national holidays, regardless of the distance the driver travels on the expressway. Tolls for all kinds of vehicles, including trucks, will be reduced by 30 percent on weekdays. The Shuto Expressway and the Hanshin Expressway will be excluded from rate reductions. About 500 billion yen will be needed to cover the cost, with the measure expected to take effect within this year and continue through the end of 2010.


Considering that Japan is generally considered to be heading into an unavoidable but relatively mild recession, and the package is in fact relatively small and focused on populist handouts, has led people to dismiss this as a political ploy. But if it’s not doing any harm, maybe in this case we can let the baby have his bottle?

Google trends snapshot — US vs. Japan

Here is the lost of top 40 hot searches in Google’s new Japanese-language Google Trends. 17 are for celebrities, all Japanese except for Prince Charles, who is in Japan to visit the imperial family, among other things. Also a bunch about financial services.

Across the Pacific, the US hot searches included just 8 queries looking for info on celebrities, (including Obama, the biggest celebrity in the world). Lots of queries for specific movies practical services, or specific web memes like the “la times obama video” or the “live your life video”.

My armchair conclusions? Thanks for asking! I realize that these lists are hardly a robust look at what people search for in general, but I think this just underscores the huge role celebrity-obsession plays in driving Internet traffic in Japan, while the US is all about funny videos and piracy. Celebrity blogs are a major reason to be on the Internet these days, to the point that J-Cast news maintains a running feature covering some of the quirkier entries.

Lists after the fold.

Continue reading

92 yen to the dollar — why?

A quick look at the currency charts will show that the yen has rocketed from 110 yen to the dollar this summer to 92.5 as of this posting. Since this question is on my mind, I just want to post a couple of explanations for why this is happening.

Nikkei:
Almost Overnight, Yen Is King Of Currencies

The dollar lost 7 yen in one day alone, the biggest single-day drop since October 1998, when the greenback plunged some 12 yen due partly to the financial troubles of a leading U.S. hedge fund. The euro zone currency and pound suffered drops of 14 yen and 20 yen, respectively.

In the blink of an eye, the yen has become one of the strongest currencies in the world. With the U.S. financial crisis spilling over into Europe and emerging nations, investors seeking out high yields and strong growth have pulled money out of their investments in droves. They are instead taking refuge in the yen, since the Japanese financial market is relatively stable.

Bloomberg:

Oct. 24 (Bloomberg)—The yen climbed to a 13-year high against the dollar as a worldwide drop in stocks encouraged investors to dump higher-yielding assets and pay back low-cost loans in Japan.

Japan’s currency surged to the strongest in six years against the euro as the prospect of a deepening global recession prompted the unwinding of carry trades (ed: currency investments that seek to profit from differences in interest rates between currencies). The pound fell below $1.53 after the U.K. economy shrank in the third quarter. The dollar rose to a two-year high versus the euro as investors sought refuge in the greenback.

``It’s time to hunker down for the winter,’’ said Scott Ainsbury, a portfolio manager who helps manage about $15 billion in currencies at New York-based hedge fund FX Concepts Inc. ``It’s a flight to quality. It’s an unwinding of leveraged carry trades. Money is going back to dollars.’’

Financial Times:

Yen surges as panic grips market

By Peter Garnham

Published: October 24 2008 11:05 | Last updated: October 24 2008 11:05

The yen surged higher on Friday, hitting 13-year highs against the dollar and pound and jumping to a six-year peak against the euro as panic gripped global markets and forced investors to abandon risky positions.

Traders said investors around the world were being forced to liquidate positions in equities, commodities and higher-yielding currencies amid growing evidence that the global economy was headed for a sharp downturn.

I am just wondering how much stronger it will get! An ad for Shukan Bunshun told me to prepare for a world where 70 yen to the dollar seems normal, but I don’t usually turn to them for investment advice… At the very least, the yen might appreciate more in tandem with the worsening economic situation, at which point the govt might try to intervene, but they might not have the money… ARGH this is confusing.

Nobuo Ikeda: We don’t need no stinkin burasagari

Nobuo Ikeda is clearly not as sanguine about the Prime Minister’s press availabilities as our intrepid Sankei reporter (thanks again to commenter Aceface):

The “burasagari” press availability on PM Aso’s “extravagant nightlife” was hilarious:
Reporter: You’ve spent several nights in a row going to meetings at high-class restaurants that cost several tens of thousands of yen [per person] a night. I think this is rather divorced from the feelings of the people. What do you think, Prime Minister?

PM Aso: Does the Hokkaido Shimbun regularly use the definition “the people”? At the very least, I think I have mostly been going to hotels. You are changing the story to make it sound like I go to high-class restaurants every night, but that’s not right.

Reporter: But high class…

PM: I’m telling you, stop saying it in such a “gotcha” manner!


In the middle of a financial crisis, it is a waste of time for the Prime Minister to have such worthless conversations twice a day. I think many readers don’t understand why these availabilities are called “burasagari” (literally “trailing behind”). Originally, it’s because the reporters would literally trail behind the PM as he walked from the PM’s office to the Diet building, but so many cameramen tripped and injured themselves that Koizumi took the policy that he would “no longer respond to burasagari.” In a bind, the PM’s office press club asked the PM, “We will behave properly, so please [let us do the burasagari]” and restarted the availabilities in a fixed location.

When Fukuda [announced his resignation] and stopped [holding press availabilities], the Worst Newspaper Ever (tr: Yomiuri Shimbun) whined “Relinquishing the Responsibility to Explain is Unacceptable“, but this kind of thing is neither a responsibility nor an obligation. It is a back-scratching arrangement with the press club to provide fodder to reporters who won’t investigate. In no other country in the world does the top leader hold two press conferences every day. I think that even the Chief Cabinet Secretary, whose job it is to administer the cabinet, should stop holding a press conference each morning and evening. Instead they should install a dedicated Press Secretary. Government leaders have much, much more important things to do than act as protector of the press club.

Rated “MOO+”

This passage illustrates part of the reason why banks bought so many crappy mortgages:

In one email, an S&P analytical staffer emailed another that a mortgage or structured-finance deal was “ridiculous” and that “we should not be rating it.” The other S&P staffer replied that “we rate every deal,” adding that “it could be structured by cows and we would rate it.”

(source)

An alternative perspective on the “Westerners in Japan avoid each other” phenomenon

This is a long one, but I hope you will bear with me:

Today Neojaponisme has posted a fascinating, Einstein vs. Freud style debate between David Marx and Matt Treyvaud on how Westerners should properly speak Japanese. Marxy writes:

As Japan’s global role shifts from fearsome economic power to lovable cultural hotspot, the tenor of foreigners living in Japan is also in flux. The majority of “foreigners” in Japan are Asian immigrants, of course: those working “immigrant jobs” and living at the margins of society. But if we may narcissistically limit the following conversation to Japan’s immigrants of non-desperation — those like ourselves who are here for more complicated reasons and/or have no obvious way of blending into the dominant racial paradigm — I would argue that the widespread respect for contemporary Japanese culture has summoned a new breed who enthusiastically embrace the Japanese language rather than see it as a noisome barrier for colonial English universalism.

The text in bold is David’s fancy way of saying White Men. As a subspecies of White People, Westerners living in Japan “who enthusiastically embrace the Japanese language” are often the topic of these blog posts. I feel that one important contribution of this essay is a firm definition of this group for the sake of discussion.

That brings me to today’s topic:

Michael Pronko in Newsweek—is it HIS Tokyo?

Newsweek Japan’s latest entry in the “Tokyo Eye” column, a feature written by a rotating cast of Tokyo residents, usually foreign, is titled “Looking Away: The Foreigners’ Battle Without Honor or Mercy—‘Tokyo is MY City!’”

The author, Meiji University lecturer Michael Pronko, explains for a Japanese audience how it feels to see other Westerners in Tokyo. You can read the entire column in Japanese from this PDF, but for those who can’t or won’t read the Japanese I will summarize the piece’s main points:

  • There is an unwritten rule for when Westerners encounter other Westerners living in Tokyo—don’t make eye contact, and don’t strike up a conversation. This rule is more or less strictly followed, to the extent that you could fail to acknowledge your Western friends in your effort to avoid anyone you recognize as Western. Nevertheless, if a Westerner sees another Westerner on the train, he/she will be unable to keep from glancing over at the other foreigner and wondering what they might be doing in Japan and how long they have been here. You can actually tell how long a Westerner has been living in Tokyo by how well he/she abides by this rule.

  • There are times when this rule doesn’t work. Example—one night when Pronko entered his favorite blues club—an “exotic secret” place he would prefer to keep to himself—he found it full of American lawyers holding a raucous birthday party. With so many of his fellow countrymen in the club, he couldn’t help but get involved in their conversation.

  • Reflecting on the above experience, he writes, “Even now, whenever I see a foreigner in an unexpected place, I want to ask ‘What on earth are you doing here?’ It’s just as if I were trekking through Africa in the 19th century and met another explorer in a safari helmet. In fact, I want to shout, ‘Tokyo is MY city!’ I [fancy myself] a bold explorer in uncharted lands. But this fantasy unravels the instant a foreigner appears other than myself.”

  • Occasionally, talking to other Westerners can be “fun,” such as when he and his wife ran into a couple at a hot spring in Gunma Prefecture.

Like the foreign correspondents in my more recent posts, I want to commend Pronko for being honest and opening up. Due in part to the sense of rivalry that can exist among foreigners living here, it can be hard to bring up some critical, basic issues no matter how glaringly apparent.

People who have considered this issue before will soon recognize that Pronko is expressing the consensus view on this subject. The Westerner’s explorer tendencies and need for authentic Japan experiences, the argument goes, are at the root of this need to avoid other foreigners. And to the extent that there exist many who consciously avoid English speaking situations in order to either improve their language abilities or otherwise have a more authentic Japan experience, this is an important and mostly true observation.

It also goes a long way toward explaining the second step in the Pronko scenario—i.e. why Westerners are interested in looking at each other after seeming to avoid one another. But I doubt this is the whole story.

It might be helpful to separate Pronko’s argument into two separate issues—his worry that seeing Westerners where they have no business being will destroy his adventure fantasies, and the “no eye contact” rule.

Tokyo as the ultimate hip ethnic neighborhood

To be more precise about what the adventurer motivation is all about, let’s consult the best source on the subject ever—the Stuff White People Like blog.

As insight into the world of American White People culture, humanity owes the SWPL an immense debt of gratitude. Take the entry on “gentrification“:

In general, white people love situations where they can’t lose. While this does account for the majority of their situations, perhaps the safest bet a white person can make is to buy a house in an up-and-coming neighborhood.

White people like to live in these neighborhoods because they get credibility and respect from other white people for living in a more “authentic” neighborhood where they are exposed to “true culture” every day. So whenever their friends mention their home in the suburbs or richer urban area, these people can say “oh, it’s so boring out there, so fake. In our neighborhood, things are just more real.” This superiority is important as white people jockey for position in their circle of friends.


Or consider this entry on “being the only White person around,” which I’ll quote at length:
This concept…is important [in order to] fully understand how white people view authenticity and experience.

In most situations, white people are very comforted by seeing their own kind. However, when they are eating at a new ethnic restaurant or traveling to a foreign nation, nothing spoils their fun more than seeing another white person.

Many white people will look into the window of an ethnic restaurant to see if there are other white people in there. It is determined to be an acceptable restaurant if the white people in there are accompanied by ethnic friends. But if there is a table occupied entirely by white people, it is deemed unacceptable.

The arrival of the “other white people” to either restaurants or vacation spots instantly means that lines will grow, authenticity will be lost, and the euphoria of being a cultural pioneer will be over.


And that’s especially true when you think about how Tokyo can be seen as the ultimate gentrification project—it’s halfway around the world, it’s a developed country but still very different and Asian, and it’s got a relatively low white person population. So it’s very easy to understand why Pronko might feel umbrage when his fantasies come crashing down. As you might expect, SWPL has already weighed in on the subject:
But it goes beyond just food, all white people either have/will/or wished they had taught English in Japan. It is a dream for them to go over seas and actually live in Japan. This helps them not only because it fills their need to travel, it will enable them to gain important leverage over other white people at Sushi restaurants where they can say “this place is pretty good, but living in Japan really spoiled me. I’ve had such a hard time finding a really authentic place.”

SWPL’s focus is a little different on this topic (he notes that White People who learn to speak Japanese “kind of ruin it for everyone else”), but its heart is in the right place.

White People (at least those fitting Marxy’s definition at the top of the post), and by extension Westerners in Japan, are seeking authentic experiences through experiencing real, exotic foreign cultures. The presence of Westerners, while it can seem kind of irksome to a Pronko, nonetheless serves as a necessary barometer in determining how successful the Westerner is in attaining that authenticity (though paradoxically the very presence of another Westerner threatens to ruin the whole experience).

But is this why the “no eye contact rule” exists? Are Westerners so fragile and dependent on a facade of being first that the mere presence of a foreigner makes them cringe in terror? As you can probably tell, I am not so sure.

Everyone here averts their eyes

For the most part, Pronko is spot-on about the “rules.” But these rules cannot be explained simply by a SWPL-esque colonial quest for authenticity. If that were true, then wouldn’t a “no eye contact” policy be the default for those awkward encounters with other white people in the ethnic food restaurants?

I suspect it’s not quite that simple. Behind Pronko’s seemingly simple observation lies immense insight into the place of Western expats in Japanese society. The way people carry themselves on a daily basis is not just the response to unspoken rules between the type of people they might see once a week; it’s a response to the constant stimulus of exposure to people on the street and everyone else in their lives.

Meiwaku

First and foremost, it is perhaps the greatest social virtue in Japan to avoid being a nuisance (aka meiwaku in Japanese) to others. To quote one of my gaijin forefathers, Thomas Dillon, writing for the Japan Times:

Meiwaku is an important word in overcrowded, group-centered, harmony-obsessed Japan, and a concept that is pounded into children from an early age, along with a related term, wagamama, which means “self-centeredness.” If you are wagamama, you will no doubt be meiwaku. The lesson from pre-school on is this: Being wagamama and meiwaku are bad. Not being so is good.

Of course, much of this is a simple show of proper manners. Yet the motto of Group Japan seems not to be, “all for one and one for all.” Rather it’s “all for all.” All of the time.
...
I know how they feel. After almost three decades here my meiwaku senses are finely tuned. As a foreigner, I understand I will never blend in. Yet, I try like mad not to stick out.

Cross my legs on the train? Nope. Might bump the fellow next to me. Meiwaku.

Drop a plastic bag in the trash? Are you nuts? That’s unburnable. Someone has to separate it. Meiwaku.

Raise my voice on the train, on the street, or even in my shower? Absolutely not! Other people are too close.


Dillon doesn’t mention eye contact, but he does not have to. It is just simply not done here. So in other words, it’s not just Westerners who refuse to make eye contact or talk to strangers, it’s the entire nation of Japan!

He also characterizes this phenomenon as rather hard to understand. But while the finer details may elude people who did not get a full early education in the country, I suspect that this “don’t make eye contact and don’t talk to strangers” rule is readily obvious to even the most casual observers.

An example close to home—after a week in Tokyo, my mother realized that the young men never leer or check out women as they would in New York. And it’s true—people often seem to walk as if traveling in separate pneumatic tubes. As an aside, I happen to think that this type of behavior is neither good nor bad, but simply a necessity of living in a big city (New Yorkers are famous for wearing “don’t mess with me” expressions as they walk through Manhattan).

As a kind of scene-setting description of what this phenomenon is like, and to show that it’s probably not a Tokyo-only phenomenon, I’d like to quote from a literary critic’s description of Ghost in the Shell’s fictional Hong Kong:

Bilingual, neon-lit advertisement signs are not only almost everywhere; their often ingenious construction for maximum visibility deserves an architectural monograph in itself. The result of all this insistence is a turning off of the visual. As people in metropolitan centers tend to avoid eye contact with one another, so they now tend also to avoid eye contact with the city. (PDF)

Conclusion—it’s not about us

One of the eternal ironies of White People is the capacity for endless self-examination co-existing with a complete inability to see what is right in front of their eyes. We seek comfortable truths and wallow in our privilege even as we admit its complete absurdity.

And let there be no mistake—Westerners in Japan are a privileged upper class. While Marxy’s nativized Westerners do not receive the royal treatment of, say, an executive on an expat package or a high school Japanese language class visiting from Wisconsin, they are nonetheless praised as geniuses for speaking Japanese, handed cakewalk jobs merely for the language skills, and are directly subject to virtually none of the social responsibilities of actual Japanese people.

The reactions to this kind of treatment vary widely—some exploit it adeptly, some accept it and demand still more, some see it as a subtle form of rejection, but many, perhaps like Pronko (I don’t really know what his life is like but I know others), find their niche and stick to it, growing used to the rhythm of Japanese life, fielding the questions about why your Japanese is so good, and taking that job as a token foreigner or everyone’s favorite gaijin at the karaoke bar.

So what does this status have to do with these random encounters with other Westerners on the train? Reactions like Pronko’s may reveal the underlying White Person culture reaction to other Westerners—that is, seeing another Westerner kicks in that rival explorer instinct and the need to compare one’s Japan experience with others. I mean, why is the first reaction to seeing another Westerner “how long has this person been in Japan?”

Another possibility is that the curiosity upon seeing another Westerner is merely a mirror image of the typical reaction when a Japanese person meets a foreigner. In fact, the list of questions is almost the same—how long have you lived in Japan, how good is your Japanese, what you are doing here, etc. Those are the characteristics that justify why this odd person is in Japan in the first place, and at some point I think nativized Westerners develop a similar need. This attitude is a close analog to how Westerners living in Japan, particularly Americans, fall into the trap of endlessly contrasting the US and Japan, largely because that’s what Japanese people do when they talk to an American.

Pronko expressed a bit of alarm at the noticeable increase in the number of foreigners popping up in unexpected places. I think he was expressing pure surprise, and perhaps some consternation at an interruption to his routine, but the increasing presence of Westerners in Japan—not just Army and expats but former exchange students, JET alumni, former NOVA teachers, or whoever has come to make a life here—means that dealing with a Japanese-speaking foreigner is probably a semi-regular encounter for Japanese people in general. My hope is that they will break from the golden cage of White People privilege and work to “fit in” even if they cannot “blend in” as Matt notes in the essay linked at the top of the post. As the American brand continues to tank and Japan gets around to reassessing its immigration policy priorities, I doubt the White privilege gravy train will last forever.

Interviewing Masahiko Fujiwara – FT from March 2007

The Financial Times’ David Pilling interviewed Dignity of a Nation author Masahiko Fujiwara (see Marxy’s epic summary of (battle with?) the book here) back in March of last year. I realize this is old but there were some juicy elements that are worth repeating, particularly on the topic of foreign correspondents.

 The article, part of an FT series in which reporters have a casual conversation with opinion-makers over a gourmet lunch (here’s what I wrote about another entry), begins with Fujiwara laying out his thesis more or less by rote as various course arrive. Here are his main comments with the food talk edited out (emphasis mine):

The “notorious” Masahiko Fujiwara – his word not mine – is the talk of Tokyo. His slim volume has sold more than 2 million copies in Japan, trumped only by the latest Harry Potter. That is not bad for a book – written by a mathematician-turned-social commentator – whose themes are rather more heavygoing than Hogwarts: the limits of western logic, why Japan should return to samurai values, and the unique sensitivity of Japanese to nature.
...
“Japan used to despise money, just like English gentlemen,” he says. “But after the war, under American influence, we concentrated on prosperity.”
...
[Soon,] Fujiwara is talking about bushido, the chivalrous samurai code whose essence, he says, is being lost. “When bushido started in the 12th century it was swordsmanship. Since there were no wars in the 260 years of the Edo era, that swordsmanship became a kind of value system: sensitivity to the poor and to the weak, benevolence, sincerity, diligence, patience, courage, justice.”
...
The model of liberal democracy that Japan inherited is flawed, Fujiwara says. As well as putting faith in unreliable masses – he prefers a cool-headed elite – it overemphasises rationality. “You really need something more. You might say that Christianity is one such thing. But for us Japanese, we don’t have a religion such as Christianity or Islam, so we need to have something else: deep emotion.”
...
... Fujiwara continues. “I am against market fundamentalism. It might be a very fair contest. But being fair is just a logical concept. It doesn’t mean much. It means being against weaker people, against less talented people. This gets on my nerves,” he concludes, the final flourish presumably emotional rejection rather than logical refutation.

“Take hostile takeovers. That might be very logical and legal but it’s not a very honourable thing for us Japanese.”

Japan’s slide into militarism can be traced to its abandonment of an honour code. “We became very arrogant. We wanted to become president of Asia, so we invaded one country after another. We lost our senses.

“I always say Japan should be extraordinary; it should not be an ordinary country. We became a normal country, just like other big nations. That’s all right for them. But we have to be isolated, especially mentally.”


Despite Pilling’s claim at the end, “Our conversation has been robust, but entirely friendly,” hints of a somewhat heated exchange emerge toward the final third of the article, as the two apparently ignore their lunches:
“I always say Japan should be extraordinary; it should not be an ordinary country. We became a normal country, just like other big nations. That’s all right for them. But we have to be isolated, especially mentally.”

Indeed, the social stability of Edo Japan, so admired by Fujiwara, came at the price of almost total isolation from the outside world. The downside was that, rather than adapting to the threat of the west, it imploded, ditching feudalism overnight and embracing an approximation of western parliamentary democracy. Besides, is his version of the samurai system credible? Wasn’t the reality a stratified society, with downtrodden peasants and a sword-wielding aristocracy exerting arbitrary power?

“There were very poor peasants and feudalism, but there were many good points too. We should look at both sides. In some senses it was horrible, but in many senses it was much nicer than now,” he says, taking a middle path rarely trodden in his inflammatory book.
...
The Japanese do indeed have a genius for making things beautiful, though they have done less well with nature, which they ransacked in the second half of the 20th century. His section on Japan’s unique sensitivity to nature provoked particularly heavy scribbling in the margins of my copy of his book.
...
“When we listen to that music we hear the sorrow of autumn because winter is coming,” he tells me. “The summer is gone. Every Japanese feels that. And, at the same time, we feel the sorrow of our life, our very temporary short life.”

The “music” Japanese people hear is surely a cultural construct, I counter. It has come to represent mononoaware, the pathos of a fleeting life epitomised by the short-lived cherry blossom, which Fujiwara contrasts with westerners’ preference for the thick-petalled rose. But don’t Japanese people make these connections because their poets and philosophers have told them to, just as the English hear summer and the village green in what to the average Japanese might sound like the mere knocking of a ball against a cricket bat?

Fujiwara cedes some ground, but is ultimately unrepentant. “One professor of a Tokyo university, using some electronic apparatus, concluded that all Japanese listen to insects as music because we listen with the right hemisphere of our brain and westerners listen with the left hemisphere.”

We are deep in nihonjinron territory here. Yet in spite of his pride in things Japanese, some of his warmest words are reserved for Britain. Does he have a sneaking regard for the place, despite its penchant for roses, logic and outsize tea cups?


After Marxy went through the entire book and summarized it almost page by page, I believe his conclusion was “these arguments are kinda retarded.” And of course they are, but they are the sort of feelgood tropes, typical of anywhere in the world, that might not make much sense but nonetheless offer a soothing tribalistic pride.

And while you can tell that Pilling looks down on arguments that reach “nihonjinron territory” I remain impressed by his approach if saddened that he chose such an unworthy subject. He took the time to sit down with one of the most impactful thinkers of the Abe era (it was short-lived, but there was a time when this was the unofficial intellectual force behind the “beautiful Japan” movement, such as it was) and did not merely act as a stenographer but engaged the subject and tried to put his words in context. Not a lot of questions were answered, and Pilling doesn’t exactly exude an air of expertise or that all-important journalistic trait of “savviness,” but the readers certainly benefitted from the exchange.

A junior Sankei reporter on working the Prime Minister beat

While we are covering first-person accounts of reporting on Japan, I will post a translation of a recent blog post by Sankei reporter Kaori Fukushima. She offers some details of her work covering the prime minister.

[Reporter Blog] Working the Prime Minister beat (1)

by Kaori Fukushima
2008.10.15 00:19

I don’t have time right now to write anything that delves deeply, so I’ll pass on that by way of talking about something light. Let me tell you about some of the lingo and code words used in the Politics section.

This has nothing to do with my job on the PM beat, but today I worked on “toriteki” (tr: transcription) (actually I was forced into it). “Toriteki” is shrot for ”tekisuto wo toru,” in other words transcription from a tape recording. It consists mainly of watching live Diet or Budget Committee interpellations and transcribing what is said. It takes time and is quite a pain in the neck, so the beat reporters, i.e. the younger members of the Politics section, are mobilized to do it. As a freshman in the Politics section, I count as a younger member.

Since Sankei is currently serving as managing secretary (the press club administrator), I also have to set up the PM’s daily press availability (burasagari) and tend to some other related matters. This job entails gathering around the PM, asking him questions, and writing down his answers. We call the midday burasagari the “hirubura.” The evening busagari thus becomes “yorubura”—basically we use words that only political reporters would understand. The press club administrator for newspapers and wire services is in charge of setting up the hirubura, and the administrator for the TV stations takes care of the yorubura. The administrator calls the PM’s secretary and asks, “What’s going on with today’s hirubura?” and he will reply “11:30 AM” or some other time. However, they cancel quite often, claiming they are too busy, such as on days like today when interpellation sessions were scheduled for both the morning and afternoon. Usually, the administrator (that’s me) asks the first question, but I am never on TV because there are no TV cameras in the hirubura.

Another job is the “evening agenda.” That is when the PM leaves his offices and meets guests, attends meetings, or dines with his secretaries or his inner circle. Beat reporters follow the PM on his evening agenda and wait outside the restaurants or bars until he is finished eating. Right now, with the weather as nice as it is, I don’t mind so much, but I am a little worried about how to handle this evening agenda in the dead of winter.

The best(?) part about being a beat reporter is definitely the “PM-bura,” i.e. the PM’s press availability. Such a reporting style, permitting journalists to stand no more than a few dozen centimeters away from the most powerful leader in the nation and freely ask questions, I think is hardly seen elsewhere in the world.

What’s more, it generally takes place twice a day. As long as they are part of a media organization with membership in the press club, there is no exclusion of critical media organizations. Sankei has often been excluded from press conferences at the Chinese Ministry of Public Security, but [here] media orgs that ask annoying questions are OK, though whether the questions will be answered is a separate issue. Still more surprising, the reporters asking the questions are not veterans but young beat reporters in their 20s and 30s.

There is absolutely no way that [Chinese] Prime Minister Wen Jia Bao or President Hu Jin Tao would ever allow such green reporters to gather around him and ask questions. [US] President Bush doesn’t do it either. China and N. Korea may be different, but most foreign democratic countries would never do this. But this system actually exists in Japan, and as far as I can see, I have to think, “Japan’s politics are quite open, and in fact very casual.” This is of course only the system, so I am not sure about the true substance. Still, considering how Japanese newspapers lampoon the PM in cartoons and such, it reminds me of the how good a country with (a certain level of?) press freedom is.

In my last entry, some commenters offered criticism that the level of questions is too low. Looking at some scenes, I acknowledge that there may be no avoiding such criticism. The time is short, and it may be too great a task for young reporters to draw out the day’s most critical public comment from the PM. In that sense, beat reporters would actually love to leave everything to the senior (キャップ)veteran reporters. If you think you have a question that should be asked to the PM, please post it in the comments section. It might be reflected in my questions. By the way, you can see the full text of the PM-bura for free on the web!

<2008/10/14 19:06>

Fukushima’s blog, titled Vignettes from Beijing and the Kantei

(thanks to Aceface for the link!)

The best part about blogging in your real name…

... is seeing your Sitemeter regularly register hits from people searching for “Adam Richards swamp donkey.”

Just a quick thought in reaction to the latest clast post from Marxy, which deserves a much more thorough response that I don’t have the patience for right now (maybe in the comments section? Do you think the development of the Japanese blogosphere is merely a lateral move that will bring no change to the existing order?).