All posts by Curzon

The endangerered species known as local government assemblymen

The number of local government councilmen in Japan dropped a staggering 39% from 2003 through 2011, according to a recent survey by the Asahi Shinbun. The average compensation for assemblymen also dropped by 8% over the same period.

The drop was most pronounced in the municipalities that merged during the “Great Heisei Merger” of municipalities from about 1999, but it wasn’t limited to just those municipalities and also included prefectures. Municipalities subject to merger over the last ten years or so saw a drop of 58% in the total number of assemblymen—losing more than half the total numbers in just 8 years. The largest single drop was Niigata City, which ten years ago was 13 municipalities, where the merger resulted in a total of 314 local assemblymen to just 56, a drop of 82%. Even in the largest cities of the greater Tokyo area, and large cities mandated by cabinet order (seirei shiteishi), these regions saw a drop of 14% in the number of assemblymen, even though most of these regions were growing.

Having observed politics in the US and in Japan very closely for the past decade, what this shows to me is a surprisingly positive side of reform in Japan. The US would never be able to achieve this type of reduction of publicly elected officials, not even during the “Reagan Revolution.” In Japan it took place through a relatively silent, technocrat revision of government. It was a relatively top-down reform, implemented by incentivizing (or bribing) local municipalities to cooperate with money benefits and guarantees on various financial obligations, and while there are criticisms on both sides about the scope of the reforms, to me, this is a promising sign for Japan’s ability to change in the future.

No flag burning please, we’re Japanese

Russia calls for probe into provocative actions of Japanese extremists

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called on the Japanese authorities on Tuesday to prosecute Japanese radicals for desecrating a Russian flag during protests over a territorial dispute between the two countries.

Japanese ultra-right campaigners dragged the Russian flag along the ground outside the Russian Embassy in Tokyo on Monday amid the heating up of a diplomatic row between Russia and Japan over four islands off Russia’s Far Eastern coast, called the Northern Territories in Japan and the Kuril Islands in Russia.

“Not only did we protest, but we also asked the Japanese authorities to launch a criminal case over the desecration of the Russian flag,” Lavrov said. “We were told that in Japanese law there is an article that forbids the mockery of foreign state symbols.”

Correct, FM Lavrov! Article 92 of Japan’s Criminal Code is referred to as 外国国章損壊罪 (gaikoku kokusho sonkaizai), or “Foreign National Symbol Damage Crime”). Clause 1 reads: “A person who damages, destroys or sullies a country’s flag or other national symbol, with the intention of insulting that foreign country, shall be punished with up to two years imprisonment and a fine of up to JPY200,000.”

Importantly, this crime is a 親告罪 (shinkokuzai), and requires the formal request of the victim for the prosecutor to proceed. Clause 2 reads: “The crime in the previous clause shall require the request of the foreign government to be prosecuted.” So Russia’s statement is required for the prosecutors to act.

How many such cases have there been? Not surpringsly, very few.

  • In July 1956, the Qing Imperial flag was destroyed at an Osaka demonstration. The Osaka Prosecutors ruled that as the flag was private property, the act was not subject to prosecution.
  • In May 1958 in Nagasaki, a man desecrated a PRC flag and was fined JPY500 by the police. Both the ROC (the government of which Japan recognized as the government of China at that time) and the PRC (which Japan did not recognize) made formal complaints, and resulted in some commercial contracts between the two countries being terminated.
  • After an October 1993 soccer game in Qatar when the opposing Iraqi team tied with a final goal that disqualified Japan from the final rounds (known as the “Doha Tragedy“), Japanese supporters tore down the Iraqi flag at the Iraqi Embassy in Tokyo. The Iraqi embassy response was that the reaction was a “natural expression of patriotism” and they asked that the flag be returned by mail.

Japan is unique in that it only prosecutes desecration of foreign national symbols. There has never been a law prohibiting or punishing the desecration of the Japanese national flag. One reason is that, when the Criminal Code was drafted in Meiji Japan, the Emperor was soveign, and crimes against the emperor were the crimes against the state. These provisions of the law were cancelled after World War II.

How do I say “Stop touching me”…?

Sometimes, when looking for the right grammar for certain Japanese phrases, I’ll google words to see what grammar is used on internet pages. This is also the best way for me to find out if “wa,” “ga” or “wo”, for example, are the suitable grammar joinders in certain phrases. Just now, I wanted to find the right way to say ”私事で申し訳ありませんが” (and the other possible variants when speaking about your own affairs in polite conversation), and I typed in 私事 and 申し訳 into a search engine.

This was the first link that came up, a yahoo community help page. A distraught Japanese girl wondering what the best English phrase was tell an Australian male friend, who tended to hug and kiss her as a greeting, to stop all the physical touching, as she had a boyfriend and wasn’t interested in him. The full Japanese text of her situation:

私事で申し訳ありませんが英語訳お願いしたいです。知り合った外国人(オーストラリア)さんがいるのですが、 私は過度なボディタッチが嫌なのでハグならあいさつなのでともかく、後ろから抱きしめてきたり、横に座ると腰に手を回したり、×ホッペにキスを無理矢理してきたり×と、向こうが私を好きな気持ちはわかりますが、私は彼を友達と思ってるから止めてと言っても隙あらばという感じで、触らないでと怒ってもあまり恐くないみたいでなめられています。冗談でも面白くないです。日本語ではあまり伝わらないみたいで、どうして?とよく言われます。ハグすると心が温かくなるとか…
私は彼を彼氏だと思っていないと伝えていますが、彼はきっとあなたは私の事を好きになるとか言ってきます。私は彼はタイプでさないのでこのままずっと友達でいたいのですが、あまりにもボディタッチをしてくるので少し不快に思うようになりました。
上記の事を伝えたく英語に訳して頂きたいです。
私事で申し訳ありませんが、お願い致します。

I found the responses by the eagerly helpful yahoo help community to be quite amusing:

I’m not very comfortable with you touching me too much. I don’t want you to touch me. You have to respect that. I want to stay friends with you, but if you keep doing that, I don’t want to see you anymore. DON’T TOUCH ME!!

“There is no way I’ll like you in any kind of ways so don’t waste your time trying to be too friendly”

“Everytime you come near me, I feel sick to my stomach. If you ever touch me again, I’m gonna throw up right in your face!”

“I see you just a friend, and I’m sure we are never going to be more than that. So, I need you to start treating me like your friend”

For me, as a native English speaker, all of these phrases seem too blunt and cruel. And it reflects to me a key problem that I think the Japanese have when speaking another language. The Japanese tend to believe that Japanese is a polite language, where people don’t say what they mean, whereas other langauges lack this subtley and you have to be more blunt when speaking your mind. Many Japanese also, in my experience, seem to think that politeness—such as demonstrated by the dozens of ways to say “I” and “you,” and the countless variants of many verbs depending on the level of politeness—is unique to Japanese.

The result of this misunderstanding (or linguistic prejudice) is that the Japanese tend to be very good at coming across as rude when speaking another language, despite the politeness the same people would have if they were saying the same thing in Japanese. To me, the above English sentences are examples of this.

Beef Bowl Capitalism and Consequences

A gyudon “beef bowl” is a common fast food in modern Japan, a simple dish of beef and onions over rice. For those of you who need more background, read this.

The gyudon industry has faced a major shake-up over recent years. A decade ago, Yoshinoya was the undisputed champion of the business. It was then victim to a chain of unfortunate events. First, in late 2001, a domestic mad cow incident critically damaged beef bowl sales in Japan, for which Yoshinoya was hurt the hardest. In late 2003, Japan suspended imports of American beef due to a BSE incident, cutting Yoshinoya’s main source of beef. This gave rivals such as Sukiya and Matsuya, which got their beef from places such as Australia and Mexico, a key market advantage which they milked for several years.

A key battlefront in this market competition was not just supply but also prices. Gyudon prices dropped significantly (10-30%) during the time of tight supply from 2001 – 2004/2006, but rose back to normal when supplies returned. (You can see a clear breakdown of the price movements on this Japanese article from Wikipedia.) Now with consumers tightening their belts during the post-financial crisis years, the gyudon industry, which has recent experience (and institutional memory) of price wars are back at the game of trying to bring in customers.

Yoshinoya, despite having the most to lose from a price war, is partially responsible for the situation. A year ago, they dropped gyudon prices from 390 yen to 310 to celebrate their 111th year anniversary. Sukiya responded by offering a gyumeshi “poor man gyudon” for a record-breaking price of 240 yen, and the game of offering alternative cheaper gyudon variants took off. Sukiya achieved its low prices by finding cheaper supplies of beef, onions and rice; offering smaller portions; but also through other cost cutting methods such as cutting down staff. Sukiya in particular has a money-saving option in its franchise manual referred to as “wan-ope” (one operator) to have just one member of staff during nightime operations when the trains aren’t running and when customers are scarce.

And here we see a key externality of the gyudon price wars—a rise in robbery attacks on gyudon chain stores during night hours. In 2010, there were 20 attacks on Gyudon chain stores in three prefectures (Aichi, Gifu and Mie). 18 out of 20 targets were Sukiya stores. It almost looks like the convenience store holdups that became an endemic problem in the US during the 1980s. The primary cause is attributed to the “wan-ope” policy.

In reading articles on these events, I was struck by the correct, yet rather Japanese, closing comment of one article:

“Of course the person to blame for a crime is the person who committed it, but criminal sociologists are sounding the alarm for the responsibility owed by companies to protect the safety of their customers and their employees. In trying to win the price wars, it is understandable to push a rationalization of store management, but it is a fact that there are voices calling on companies to demand an environment that prevents crime such as robbery.”

Sending Papers, Reloaded

Almost a year ago, I explained the concept of “sending papers” and its procedural role in prosecuting criminal acts in Japan. I posted on the topic because photographer Kishin Shinoyama was indicted on suspicion of public indecency for shooting photos of nude models in public spaces. (Afternote: In May 2010, the Tokyo summary court found him guilty of public indecency and disrespecting a holy place and ordered him to pay a fine of JPY300,000.)

“Sending papers” has been in the news yet again recently, and today I spotted two stories in English with that expression in the title.

Police may send papers on JCG officer next week
Police will likely send papers on a former navigation officer of the Japan Coast Guard to prosecutors next week for leaking video footage onto the Internet of a Chinese trawler’s collisions with JCG patrol vessels near the Senkaku Islands in early September, sources said Thursday.

Papers sent in airport death of Ghana man
Japanese Police have sent papers to prosecutors on 10 immigration officers in connection with the death of a Ghanaian man whom they subdued immediately before his deportation by plane, it was learned Tuesday.

The last story ends with, “The Chiba prefectural police said sending papers was just a routine step in their standard criminal procedures.” True, but it lacks the explanation and context provided by my post back in January, which I’ll repeat here for clarification:

“Send papers” or “Send papers to prosecutors” is a crude (but accurate) English translation of 書類送検 or shorui souken, a word frequently seen in Japanese news stories.

The word “sending papers” is not actually used by the police or prosecutors and does not appear in any criminal procedure legislation. Those words also have no legal definition. They just describe the legal requirements of the police officers to provide information to prosecutors where they have not arrested someone, or initially arrested them and released them. Prosecutors can, and do, designate that some minor crimes be up to the discretion of the police to process independently, but for all but the most minor crimes, the police are obliged by law to send papers to the prosecutors, and leave the decision of whether or not to prosecute the suspects with the prosecutors.

In which Curzon finally gets impressed by the DPJ

No further comment. All of these are good steps forward—many of which could never have been accomplished with an LDP administration.

Adventures in Bureaucracy

Bureaucracy in any society has ups and downs, pros and cons, benefits and absurdities. Just after an interaction today with Dubai’s bureaucracy, I read with painful amusement about Debito’s trials and tribulations in getting his Japanese passport renewed, a narrative of which was just published in the Japan Times. It’s worth reading in full, and I won’t spoil the ending, but consider the conundrum when Debito goes to renew his passport, which bears the name “Arudou Debito”...

I walked in with all the necessary documentation and filled out the forms. The friendly clerk gave everything a once-over (very professionally; no double-takes at a Caucasian applicant), and all was going smoothly… until he got to the rendering of my name in Japanese.

Clerk: “Er, about your last name. You wrote ‘Arudou’ on the form. Officially we only accept Hepburn-style Romanization, so you have to write it as ‘Arudo’ or ‘Arudoh.’ ”

I sighed, and said, ” ‘Arudou’ is how it is spelled. My expiring Japanese passport also had it rendered as ‘Arudou.’ Clearly that was acceptable then and should be acceptable now.”

Clerk: “Yes, you can write ‘Arudou’ on the back of your application to indicate how you would like your name rendered on the passport itself. But for our bookkeeping purposes, you must render it as ‘Arudo’ on the front. We can only take Hepburn. Please remove that superfluous ‘U.’ ”

I said I could do that, but then that person would not be me.

I won’t spoil the ending—read it yourself. Continue reading

Pick a cause, any cause…

From Tokyo Reporter:

I can spot at least the following:

  • Reform the constitution to allow for the SDF to be a real defense force
  • Eliminate retirement pay for criminal diet members
  • Eliminate the research allowance for [certain?] diet members
  • Strengthen the Anpo [US alliance?]
  • Eliminate the Teacher’s Union
  • Long live the Emperor
  • Political Corruption Prevention Law

The Chukosha of Lebanon

I just got back from a trip around Lebanon.

One characteristic of the country is utter chaos on the roads. I’ve seen some bad driving in my day—rural China, Vietnam, and Saudi Arabia being some of the worst—but I would venture to say that driving in Lebanon tops all of them, with the added factor that the roads in the country are absolute rubish (as one colleague told me, roads in Lebanon aren’t built to last longer than a few years, as that’s about how often the Israelis bomb the country). Most of the cars on the road are ancient Mercedes and Renaults, which, while having a certain retro cool, are rickety and unreliable rides on the road. According to people I spoke with, most cars in Lebanon come from France.

But clearly not all of them. I saw a number of trucks and vans with Chinese, Korean and Japanese writing on the side. I snapped a shot of one such truck and thought it worth sharing with MF readers:

Interestingly enough, 森力製作所 is a Nagoya company, and one other truck I saw (out of perhaps half a dozen trucks with Japanese letters) was a Nagoya city municipal vehicle. I wonder if Nagoya and Beirut have sort of special relationship when it comes to exporting second-hand trucks?