Monthly Archives: September 2010

“Ideological Suicide” to challenge Whalers?

I was fascianted to read in the American Lawyer an interview with an attorney who runs a small firm in Seattle that got caught up in assisting in the defense of Peter Bethune, the New Zealand activist who got caught up in the Sea Shepherd protests last year and who boarded a Japanese whaling ship back in February, and he was arrested by the captain. Some highlights of the interview are below:

Bethune was tried in Tokyo in late May. Did you both attend?

Yes, we both traveled to Tokyo. The trial was in Tokyo District Court, and there were pro-whaling protesters outside every day. More importantly we were the voice of Sea Shepherd to the world because nobody from the organization could go over there because they could be arrested.

And so it was the Japanese lawyers that were advising Bethune?

Yes. We were representing Sea Shepherd, which was funding Peter Bethune’s defense. So we oversaw his defense and we did this by working with four Japanese lawyers. We had a criminal, maritime, and litigation lawyer, along with one law professor. They did a great job representing Bethune, but I can’t even tell you their names… We have worked with a lot of Japanese law firms, and none of them would take on a case against the Japanese whaling institute, even though payment wasn’t an issue. A friend of mine who is a Japanese lawyer told me, “It would be ideological suicide.”

(Emphasis added.)

Interestingly enough, when the Greenpeace activists were arrested for stealing whale meat in 2009, I was also contacted by a former colleague to ask if I knew lawyers who could be interested in the case. I spoke to three lawyers, but no one was interested. I don’t think ideological suicide is the right word, but rather, there is a strong aversion in Japan to being associated with issues, particularly ones with a political nature, that means no one is interested in the hassle.

Paying and avoiding NHK

Like in the UK, you are required to pay the government if you have a television. However, there are no real fines if you refuse to pay. Sooner or later you will find an old guy from the Japanese government channel NHK knocking at your door and asking if you have a TV. Say no and he’ll go away for a while. Say yes and he will order you to pay. Over and over again. Even if you say you never watch NHK because it’s made for insomniacs who don’t respond to strong drugs, or never even turn on the tube at all, he’ll demand your money. And having a satellite dish hanging out on your balcony is a dead giveaway. One way around this is to live in a building where the building has the dish, and you just plug in your “broadcast satellite (BS) tuner” from inside your room.

That’s from The Japan FAQ, long one of my favorite English-language resources regarding living in Japan.

NHK reports that nearly 40 million households pay NHK fees. That’s out of about 50 million households in Japan—so non-payers are definitely in the minority.

NHK is getting better at collecting its fees, too. Analog TV has almost become obsolete, and digital TVs have identifying chips which make it possible to link an individual TV with an individual NHK contract. If you use a new TV for more than a month, it will start showing nag messages superimposed over the NHK BS channels, telling you to call NHK and get the TV registered to your NHK account. NHK has also sued some non-payers, which is somewhat intimidating but not an economically effective way to compel payment: 33 households were sued in summary court in 2006, and of those, two viewers’ appeals lodged with the Tokyo High Court were only dismissed this June.

I have always had an uneasy relationship with television license fees. On one hand, broadcasters supported by license fees, like NHK and the BBC, offer some of the very best programming in the world, almost completely free of commercial content. Terrestrial TV in Japan is largely a cesspool of talentless celebrities, product placement and blatant commercial fluff, but NHK’s channels carry a wide array of useful and sensible programming. Even for fresh-off-the-boat foreigners who don’t speak a word of Japanese, NHK dubs its evening news into English and rebroadcasts news and documentary programs from around the world (and they tell you how to pay for it all in English).

On the other hand, the license fee itself is essentially a regressive tax. Basically every household has to pay the same amount, and it isn’t pocket change—it’s currently around 15,000 yen per year for terrestrial broadcasts and around 25,000 yen if BS channels are included. There are exceptions for disabled people and people on welfare, but able-bodied working people with low incomes are shaken down to a proportionally higher degree than wealthier people. The fee is determined somewhat arbitrarily by NHK and approved by the Internal Affairs Minister. Even though NHK is nominally a viewer-supported private association, it is chartered by the government, its board is chosen by the Diet, and its budget is subject to review in the Diet.

I grew up with PBS in the United States, which is a sort of constellation of private non-profit broadcasters funded by a combination of voluntary viewer donations, corporate sponsorship, foundation grants on behalf of dead rich people, and state and federal subsidies (including a large amount of federal money pushed in through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting). The advantage to this system is that anyone can legally own a TV and watch PBS without paying a dime; the disadvantage is that the programming is dictated by the interests who actually do pay, and the way this works is not always transparent even to viewers paying into the system. There is also a lot of PBS air time devoted to begging for donations, usually through periodic “pledge weeks” which disrupt ordinary programming.

Personally, although I am a free-marketer in other spheres, I believe that if public broadcasting is going to be heavily government-influenced anyway, it might as well be funded by the government, and the costs spread among the public just as they would be for any other government expense. But if given the choice of either NHK or PBS, I would probably take PBS and throw money at it every now and then so long as it’s relevant to me, rather than live with NHK’s mandated entitlement to a fixed chunk of my income even if I don’t care for its programming at all.

If you don’t want to pay NHK, there are a few ways to legally avoid the fee:

  • Don’t own a TV. Note that, legally speaking, any sort of TV tuner which can receive NHK will subject you to the NHK tax. This includes mobile phones and computers that have TV tuners built in.
  • Don’t use your TV for the purpose of receiving broadcast signals. (Or get a TV which is incapable of receiving signals. Many expats get TVs from US military bases, which can be used for watching movies on disc, or as a large-screen computer display, but cannot get Japanese TV signals; therefore no NHK tax is incurred by owning one.)
  • Set up a school or welfare facility of some sort (these are exempt from fees).
  • Become gravely disabled and/or go on government assistance.
  • Leave Japan.

The Japan FAQ is still correct in that illegally avoiding the fee is easy. Unlike the UK, where TV freeloaders can be fined by the government, Japan decided not to impose any penalties for failing to pay the NHK tax. The only practical penalties are BS nag screens, periodic doorbell rings by NHK collectors, and the risk of a lawsuit (which generally has no teeth in Japan, since there is no contempt of court here and appeals are both easy and time-consuming).

Trying to understand the DPJ Leadership Race

“I have long since given up trying to read Ozawa’s mind and am willing to believe that any, or all, or none of these reasons is the real reason for Ozawa’s decision.”

If you are as confused as I am about the motivations, possibilities, and prospects of the current DPJ leadership race, you can take comfort that the quote above is taken from a blog post of chief DPJ cheerleader Tobias Harris.

Yours truly is a pessimistic conservative, with a very low opinion of the DPJ. Yet I am surprised to find myself too dumbfounded by the ironies and contraditions of the DPJ leadership race to have an opinion at this latest round of musical chairs. In lieu of asserting any case or opinion one way or the other, I would note these ironies and contraditions and open up the floor to comments.

1. Public opinion polls put Ozawa as the favored candidate to be PM by 17%, and Kan favored by 64%. With those poll numbers, Ozawa would not be a viable contender, let alone favorite to win, in any other parliamentary democracy.

2. The poll numbers reflect a fascinating contradition: Kan is well-liked, but who brought the party to lose the last election, while Ozawa is widely mistrusted, yet is a master electoral strategist.

3. Said otherwise, Kan has a record of being a pretty incompetent political leader (like saying that he should raise taxes just before an election), but he ironically has more popularity with the public, perhaps mainly due to a few lucky breaks in his political career. Meanwhile, Ozawa is one of Japan’s politicians when it comes to planning election campaigns and fielding the right candidates in the right districts, but he is tainted by dozens of scandals and featherlight loyalties to any institution other than himself.

4. As observed by Shisaku: “If [Ozawa] wins the contest, he destroys the party: either metaphorically through the collapse of its public support or physically as large groups break off, forming new parties. If he loses a formal leadership contest, he gashes his aura of awesome power. The humiliation of losing could indeed drive him to leave the party, with a passel of his followers in tow (taking his ball and going home—which he has done time and time again).” No matter who wins, the DPJ will be the loser.

5. Despite Shisaku’s comment, I don’t deny the possibility that, after five feckless prime ministers, Ozawa just might be the right candidate to break the cycle and serve out a proper term, providing some much-needed leadership, and could turn out to be a successful, and even popular, prime minister.

The leadership election takes place on 14 September. It will be interesting to watch because it will be the first DPJ leadership vote in 8 years to be more than a vote by parliamentarians. Votes will be cast by party supporters and members, using a “point system” to allocate votes to the candidates.

Lies, damned lies and the Nikkei

Fewer Than Half Of Young People Support Themselves: Report

TOKYO (Nikkei)—Just 44% of those aged 15-34 subsist on their own income, the Labor Ministry wrote Thursday in a report that reflects young people’s struggle with low wages.

A full 46.8% of the group rely on additional income from some other source, such as their parents.

Of those 15-34 with full-time jobs, 51.6% live on their own income, but only 30.3% engaged in other types of jobs are self-reliant.

I got this article from a co-worker earlier today. He remarked “What’s interesting is that only 51% of people with full-time jobs can (or rather do) support themselves.” But that conclusion falls apart when you see the original statistics in the original Japanese (here):

Note the column headings. The options for the survey were:

Living Expense Situation (Multiple Answer) Combination (生計状況(複数回答)の組み合わせ)
(1) Own income only (自身の収入のみ)
(2) Own income plus other income (自身の収入+他の収入)
(3) Other income only (他の収入のみ)

Now the situation becomes clearer. That 44% figure only includes people who are actually paying for all of their living expenses with their own income. It excludes many people living with their parents or grandparents, all working couples (even where one person is a part-timer), and probably even certain parents with working children. It excludes me and Adamu, both productive employees in the financial industry who just happen to have working spouses.

Of course, that fact doesn’t help push the narrative that young Japanese people are getting poorer and/or lazier—and here we can see that respected Japanese media like the Nikkei can skew facts toward their chosen narrative just as badly as respected foreign media like the New York Times.