Monthly Archives: June 2012

Why raising the consumption tax is a good idea AND good politics

The following is a lightly edited version of my e-mail reply to a friend who asked about the ongoing fight over passing a hike to the consumption tax. As of this writing the bill has passed the lower house but has still not become law. See Japan Real Time for a good breakdown of recent events:

The consumption tax was definitely too low for a country with such generous welfare benefits, so raising it only makes all the sense in the world. I almost wish they had put in a delay mechanism in case the economy is still in bad shape in 2 years, but hopefully that won’t be the case.

Fiscally, I think it is a drop in the bucket, and the short term economic impact is definitely not great. That is why there is such a strong knee-jerk negative reaction among the public. They either run or know people who run small businesses that will get hurt, but more importantly it’s one of the few policies that stares average people in the face every day and is easy to understand. Everything you pay for will get more expensive.

But at the same time it’s vital to get the house in order so to speak, or else Japan really is in for a hard landing. The social programs that Japan has are great and they need to be maintained. So they need to be funded in a way that’s not too onerous, and this seems like as good a way as any to me.

I have basically come to the conclusion that inflation is unlikely in Japan over the long term because there isn’t a fundamental basis for it. People are getting older fast and are just going to spend less. And productivity gains aren’t going to be fast enough to make up for that (economics isn’t my strong suit… but isn’t it the case that inflation is at least supposed to track economic cycles?) Japan isn’t going to necessarily have another growth boom, but what it can do is enjoy a comfortable and proud status as a rich nation. That is, they should be able to if people in their prime now can actually feel some security and expect a reasonable retirement not too different from what their parents had.

In terms of the political situation, there are a lot of people saying that Ozawa “won” but I don’t really see it that way. He didn’t stop Noda from doing what he wanted to do – there has effectively been a Grand Coalition in place since Noda came to power (note how close to unanimous the jail-for-download law was, or the postal reform bill, or take your pick) and for all the blustering among the parties they are pretty much united on a lot of policy measures because they are a) consensus among the Serious People muckimucks like the finance ministry and media opinion makers, and b) the subject of gaiatsu (I believe the IMF has been dogging Japan to raise the consumption tax).

And although Ozawa technically has the power to basically an early election through defecting, he is too afraid to do it because he knows that his clique is even more exposed to getting voted out than the others because it contains so many first-termers. It seems pretty shrewd for Noda to NOT punish the defectors in that case because it prevents the election from happening and lets the de facto grand coalition continue with him running the show.

If there is an election the DPJ will lose, the LDP will win (though maybe not get an outright lower house majority), Komeito will maintain, and Hashimoto’s party might make a serious splash, though Hashimoto himself has said he won’t run. So in that context I think all the established parties, especially the DPJ, have an incentive to delay an election as long as possible. Once Hashimoto has his foot in the door of national politics life won’t be the same. Every little thing will be a fight that can’t be worked out by getting drunk together at a ryotei.

Make no mistake, though, this is a big deal. This type of potential split in the DPJ was months in the making, maybe even years because Kan might have pushed for the tax hike had there been no earthquake (remember how he for whatever reason ran on that issue in the Upper House elections?).

And there is always the need to point out that this agenda of raising the tax was pushed by the finance ministry. Politicians in general are empty shells with voting power, and they need to get pushed in a certain direction by the people who they think will help them keep or increase that power. This time it was the ministry of finance because it is a permanent bureaucracy that has a political agenda that’s informed by its mission as the steward of the Japanese government’s finances.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing because if there is one thing that the DPJ coming to power has taught me is that it’s dangerous to allow people with zero expertise being responsible for governing convince themselves that they know what’s best for the country. It feels like all they are good for is posturing and fundraising. The DPJ made the critical mistake of making enemies of the bureaucrats instead of cultivating them and influencing them in the subtle, glad-handing way the LDP mastered. Or at least they could have brought in people with talent and real ideas.

Re-importing kabuki

From a recent NYT article on how globalized Japanese people supposedly have trouble finding jobs in Japan:

“Shukatsu” refers to the system in which Japanese companies typically hire the bulk of their workers straight from college and expect them to stay until retirement. Not getting a job upon graduation is seen as a potential career killer.

So competition is fierce. In the last three years, the percentage of new graduates in Japan who found work was the lowest since the government started collecting comparable data in 1996. As of Feb. 1, with two months left in the recruiting season, a fifth of students in their final year at college had yet to find jobs.

“Shukatsu is like Kabuki theater,” said Takayuki Matsumoto, an Osaka-based career consultant. “It’s difficult when you don’t fit the template.”

His advice to returnees: don’t be too assertive or ask too many questions.


Something tells me that young people who study in the US and then spend most of their job hunt trying to land work with Japanese companies might have unrealistic expectations of potential employers. They might not realize that US employers also have similarly kabuki-like expectations of potential recruits. In a lot of ways, the experience of working at your first company might not be that different.

I feel like I must have read this same article like 5 times over the last decade, whether in the form of a primer in Japanese business practices or a feature like this one. The tone of this piece is at odds with my experience working at a US law firm and two Japanese companies so far. Internationally minded people with the right attitude can find a lot of success in Japan. There is such a limited population of truly proficient English speakers that opportunities abound.

I think there can definitely be a mismatch between employer and employee expectations, but overall I think Japanese firms are desperate for talent that’s proficient both with English and dealing with Western culture. It’s mostly sucked up by the foreign firms operating here, so they are hurting for it. That is to say, there may well be many companies that fit the stereotype outlined in the article, but I think there are plenty of others that will welcome the type of talent they describe. Instead of whining to the New York Times, you guys should have spent that time submitting a few more job applications.

Does your experience jibe with mine? Let me know in the comments.

(Thanks to regular reader Diana for sending this in!)

The Commandant’s House in Brooklyn

Last Saturday I was biking around some back streets in Brooklyn down which I had not wandered before and stumbled across what was clearly a very old fashioned mansion of landmark status, but surprisingly labeled as private property rather than a museum or public building, with no descriptive signage whatsoever.


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Poking around on the Google Maps satellite view I was able to locate the mansion (seen above) in the tiny and quaint neighborhood of Vinegar Hill, and a bit of keyword searching led me to discover that, not only is it in fact a registered historical landmark, but was the official residence of Commodore Matthew C. Perry for two years from 1841-1843, when he was first promoted to the rank of Commodore! As I am sure you all know, it was Perry who, a decade later, sailed into Uraga Harbor and began the process of forcing the opening of Japan, ending the Edo Period and leading to the Meiji Restoration.

I found a 2006 New York Times article about the Commondant’s House, formally known as Quarters A of the now defunct Brooklyn Navy Yard, where my grandfather worked during World War II.((The Yard was closed in 1964, but after being vacant for some time is now a city owned industrial park for incubating small and medium businesses.)) The article describes the history of the property as follows.

 The land for what was at first called the New York Navy Yard was bought in 1801. It is not clear whether the first officer in charge of the yard, Jonathan Thorne, was there when the house was built, a time frame traditionally given as 1805 to 1806. The archivist of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Daniella Romano, says that Thorne was later scalped and killed by Indians in 1811 while on a campaign in the Pacific near Vancouver.

The building that Thorne (or a successor) occupied is shown in 19th-century photographs as a clapboard house

four bays wide in front and five bays dee

The facade rose to a peaked roof and a rooftop observation deck.

The main doorway, on the right, was in an intricate Federal style with a fanlight. The cornice and roof trim also carried delicate detailing.

Charles Bulfinch, the architect for part of the United States Capitol, is often mentioned as the designer, but Ms. Romano believes that was the wishful invention of a 20th-century writer.

[...]

In fact, the terms of office in the 19th century seemed to run rather short: Perry’s successor, Joshua Sands, was commandant for only a year. The next commandant, Silas Stringham — who fought the slave trade off the African coast and pirates in the West Indies — served from 1844 to 1846.

It was halfway through his occupancy that The Brooklyn Eagle visited Quarters A and wrote that the house, “with its lawns, terraces and teeming gardens, is a conspicuous object.”

An Eagle reporter returned in August 1872 and wrote that, along with its orchard and vegetable garden, Quarters A had “a look that makes one feel that it must be a pleasant thing to be the commandant.” That was during the four-year term of Stephen C. Rowan, a Civil War veteran.


There is a more detailed architectural history of the house in its National Register of Historic Places Inventory — Nomination Form (Quarters A was eventually granted landmark status on May 30, 1974), which cites Perry’s residency as one key reason for its registration, although I think anyone would agree that it would still qualify without the commander of the infamous Black Ships.

 It is unclear who lives there today. The Times says that the house has been “In private ownership since the Navy Yard closed in 1964”, but the aforementioned Nomination Form, dated July 1969, says that “Quarters A is owned by the Navy, privately occupied, and not open to the public.” It also lists the owner as “Adm. Harry L. Horty, Jr., Vice-chairman, U.S. Delegation U.N. Military Staff Committee”, which I suppose may mean that the house is still owned by the Navy and occupied by an admiral, but sadly the only thing I know for sure is that it remains closed to the public.

NYT making fun of Osaka Mayor’s dad

In a recent article about Japan’s idling of all of its nuclear reactors, the reporter made a casual aside about the parentage of Osaka mayor Hashimoto Toru.

Instead, the central government has found itself battling an improbable adversary: Osaka’s mayor, Toru Hashimoto, the young, plain-speaking son of a yakuza gangster who has ridden Japan’s loss of faith in government to become, seemingly overnight, the country’s best-liked politician, according to recent polls.

The Japanese Wikipedia page on Hashimoto, sourced from this article on the website j-cast, mentions that his father was a gangster who committed suicide when Toru was a second grade elementary school student, and that the couple had been divorced since much earlier.

Although it is factually correct that Hashimoto’s father was a gangster, he was apparently no more than a biological parent, out of his son’s life almost immediately, and no longer living just a few years later. The newspaper’s phrasing makes a very strong implication that his “plain-speaking”-ness is derived from his father’s example, but considering that he basically never knew his father, I think the association is just as unfair as the stupid attacks against Obama based on his father being a Muslim, or against both Obama and Romney because they had polygamist grandfathers.

I’m all for making fun of him for his own craziness, of which there is plenty, but don’t bash him for what his absent father may or may not have done.

On the other hand, Hashimoto has recently embarked upon a bizarre crusade against Osaka employees with tattoos, due to the traditional association between tattoos and yakuza. Perhaps he does, after all, have some latent father issues?

Kikuchi Naoko’s sarin, as described by another Aum member

By now everyone knows that Kikuchi Naoko, one of the last members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult wanted for the 1995 sarin gas Tokyo subway attacks, was arrested on Sunday. Although her face had been plastered on posters found in and around pretty much single police and train station in the country, she managed to remain at large for 17 years, until someone reported seeing her in the Tokyo suburb of Sagamihara.

Back in early 2006, Adam and I collaborated on a large job translating material about Aum Shinrikyo into English for some kind of security researcher down in DC doing a report about religious terrorism. The biggest single document in the project was the massive book Aum and I by Ikuo Hayashi, a medical doctor and member of the cult, who participated in the sarin release, which we translated a significant portion of.

I have previously posted a few excerpts from this book, including Hayashi’s description of the actual subway attack itself, the bizarre and stillborn plot to assassinate Ikeda Daisaku, leader of Sokka Gakkai, and a description of the gross practice of how cult members ate their own feces in a weird attempt to emulate the Buddha.

In honor of Kikuchi’s arrest, here is Hayashi’s memoir of his first encounter with sarin, found on pages 271-274 of the tankobon edition of the book.

  •     *     *     *     *

The first sarin dispersal experiment

At the end of April there was a phone call from Nakagawa to me at AHI. “Make the same preparations as when you treated Niimi and come to the Seventh Satyam, in Kamiku,” he said. The only treatment I had given Niimi was when he had been poisoned by sarin gas during the Daisaku Ikeda Poa incident, so I loaded up the station wagon with drugs, a respirator, an oxygen cylinder, and the other necessary supplies and went to Kamiku. Nakagawa went into the prefab that it was said Tomomi Tsuchiya had been assigned to, and came out carrying a box.

272


He told me that it had sarin inside it.

In the flask was a triangular flask, protected by a buffering agent. When I saw the liquid at that time, it was a faint fluorescent green. Since Nakagawa had said that it was sarin, I always thought of sarin as being that color a liquid afterwards. “So, Aum has sarin after all,” I thought. However, at this time I still had no confirmation that Tsuchiya was making sarin.

At that juncture, I still had no realization of what degree of chemist this Tsuchiya person was. Nakagawa said that because he and Tsuchiya were performing sarin experiments together, if by any chance one of them was poisoned, that I should come and treat them. I had a feeling that I had learned yet another secret. I myself was not receding, not progressing, being shown the true forms of Aum’s “secret work” one by one. I naturally felt the discomfort, the unsettlement of the treatment that came with it,

Those “sarin experiments” were to discover the volatilization volume of airborne sarin. I thought that this sarin was meant to be one means of defense against the American military and the [Japanese] Self Defense Force when the “war” broke out.

A truck was parked in front of the Seventh Satyam. It was loaded with several canisters, large storage batteries and a converter, plastic bottles and a sprayer that seemed to be the type used for the spraying of agricultural chemicals and pest removal. Driving the truck was a Samana in the Truth Science Research Department.

Nakagawa and Tsuchiya got in the car together saying to me and the young Samana that we should follow them and set off.

273


I had no idea whatsoever where we were going, but when we arrived it looking like a dry riverbed near the mouth of theFujiRiver. The time was night, just before dawn, and in the vicinity were no other people or vehicles. The riverbed was a broad area, and I got the feeling that they had chosen the location in advance, and we had gone to that place.

They used an ultrasonic nebulizer (sprayer) places on top of an electric balance to spray sarin into the air, measured the wind velocity and force at that instant, and checked the amount of sarin consumed based on the change in mass.

When the experiment was over, he sprayed some neutralizing agent from the nebulizer, but because he had been poisoned I gave him two intravenous injections each of two ampoules of PAM and atropine sulfate. When I examined Nakagawa it looked like there was some mild pupil dilation, but I couldn’t really tell. I treated Nakagawa based on his subjective symptoms.

Nakagawa and Tsuchiya didn’t say in what way they were going to use that data. I didn’t ask. The experiment was over, and we went back to Kamiku. Seeing this experiment, I thought that they really were going to use sarin for defense at the time of the “war.”

Thinking about it now, a much greater volume of sarin would be needed for defense and so the question of how they could get such a quantity comes up is raised, but at this time I was not thinking such thoughts very strictly, and only thought loosely about this.

Why was I called at this time? I think that it may be because I was supposed to perform treatment for sarin poisoning later on. At this time I was thinking that it would be fine if Asahara used me to treat sarin poisoning.

274


I supposes that Asahara must have had the intention of making me participate as a member of the medical team in his plans, particularly his plans to use sarin.

Now I think that Asahara had me join the on-site activities with a notion to “acclimate” or “condition” me, and made me participate in that experiment as a first step.

I think that after the Daisaku Ikeda Poa incident, Asahara stepped up the “fumie” [tests of faith] and “narashi”[habituation, conditioning] that he been giving me to the next level.

 

Read up on the upcoming changes to immigration policy – pretty much all positive!

Happy foreigners love the new system!

Starting next month (July 9), the immigration authorities are going to implement a series of changes to the rules for foreigners in the country. The biggest is probably replacing the foreigner registration card (gaikokujin torokusho) with a residency card (在留カード). It’s more or less the same, but it will now be administered directly by immigration, not the local authorities.

There are a lot of other changes as well, so it would probably be a good idea to sit down for maybe an hour and familiarize yourself with them. The government’s handy website can be found here for Japanese and here for English.

All in all, these represent some real benefits for expats, so I think the authorities deserve a pat on the back on this one. So far my personal experience with immigration has been very positive, and it looks like my warm feelings will only continue. Here are some of the new rules that caught my eye:

  • The general term for a medium-term visa will be extended from 3 to 5 years.

  • A “deemed” re-entry system will allow anyone on medium-term or permanent resident visa to leave the country and return without a special application or fee, provided they come back within one year. Longer periods out of the country will still follow the old system of filing an application and paying a fee for a temporary re-entry permit.

  • Changes of address will still go through local government offices the same as Japanese people, but changes to marital and employment status, etc. will need to be reported to immigration. That could be a pain in the butt, but apparently they plan to allow you to report changes by mail, which would be a huge improvement.

  • The new card won’t include personal information such as employer or school name on the card. Instead that information will be stored in an on-board chip.

  • Violations of the new system are now subject to penalties and fines!

  • People whose old gaijin cards are still valid in July don’t need to get the new cards right away. You will have up to three years to get the new one.

  • Foreigners will be added to the juminhyo system instead of being part of a separate registry. I am not sure exactly why this is a big deal, but presumably not maintaining a totally separate database will save the government some money.

UPDATE: Another big benefit is that for newcomers, residency cards will be issued upon entry, so you will no longer need to show up at city hall to register and wait for the card to be issued. This along with some other services is only available at major airports. You are still required to go to the local office to “notify” them of your presence… But if I’m not mistaken this is functionally not that different from what Japanese people have to do when they move.

Did I miss anything big? Please let me know in the comments, and be sure to read up on the new system!

Fukushima media looks back on disaster coverage, one year later

Last month I translated the first half of a very interesting round-table discussion for Nippon.com, consisting of several reporters and editors from local Fukushima media, discussing both the developing situation in the prefecture and the way it has been perceived by the outside world. (The second half, no less worth reading, was translated by an internal staff member.)

I found reading (and translating) the piece to be very interesting, and made me realize that despite all of the attention I had devoted to the unfolding disaster and subsequent recovery efforts, I had never put any significant effort into looking at reporting actually producing by Fukushima residents, rather than national and international reporters sent in to cover the story. And, as the discussion makes clear, there was a lot of difference in tone.

For example, Murakami Masanobu of Fukushima Central Television says,

I remember the impression I had when the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant was opened to the press for the first time in November, 2011. The event was organized by the press club attached to the Cabinet Office, with the local media also allowed to take part. But we had been inside the plant several times [prior to the accident], and tended to emphasize aspects likely to be interesting from the local perspective—how things had changed since the explosion, and so on. But the cabinet press club members all took a very predictable line. It was as though they were learning about the high radiation levels for the first time, even though the results of monitoring had already been made public.

He also has a rather (and I must say, justifiably) exasperated take on how foreign media has covered the events.
If they come across a child with a nosebleed, sore throat, or diarrhea, they just go right ahead and run the story without checking to see if there is any scientific basis for attributing these symptoms to radiation. Then we get criticized by people in Japan who have seen these reports in the foreign media and want to know why it is not being covered here. There’s a misunderstanding that the local media is obsessed with conveying the impression that everything is safe. But that’s not true—the reality is that we’re just trying to report the facts accurately. But when irresponsible reporting appears in the foreign or national media, they end up distorting our local coverage. Ultimately, it has the effect of eroding the trust that local residents have in us. It’s a depressing situation that’s been dragging on ever since the disaster happened.

I think all of us, and Americans in particular, will also find the following assessment of Hayakawa Masaya, of the Fukushima Minpou newspaper, familiar on a certain level.
I think the local media has a vital role to play in continuing to broadcast the latest facts and raising the issues. As time passed after the disaster and nuclear accident last year, and especially after the national government announced that the nuclear crisis had been “concluded,” there was a conspicuous drop in the levels of coverage of the situation by the Tokyo-based media. There’s a vague sense that people just want to regard the story as finished and move on. But, as I said earlier, cleanup operations in Fukushima are at a standstill, and the situation is pretty much unchanged from the way it was immediately after the disaster. How can you call this a “conclusion”?

I very strongly suspect that a similar phenomenon occurs whenever a major disaster is concentrated in a less populated and less powerful region of a country rather than a major city, for example the way New Orleans has been largely ignored by the national press since the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In part 2 of the discussion, Hayakawa makes explicit comparisons with the long-term national coverage of the Hiroshima atomic bombing, and the Minamata Disease of Kumamoto Prefecture, based on discussions he had with reporters from both of those regions.

These are just a few sections that stood out most to me, but please read the whole thing and let us know what you think.