Don’t hate Yoichi Masuzoe for what he said — just look at what he has done

Yoichi Masuzoe has just been elected Governor of Tokyo after being the front runner more or less since the election race began. Predictably, the Western media is already finding the most superficially controversial angle to present him to the world: as far as I can tell, the usual offenders are parroting talking points that started out on the blog of former Socialist leader Mizuho Fukushima—more precisely, this post just over a week ago, where she dug up a 1989 article that quoted him as saying that women are not fit to lead government because they focus on single issues and have menstrual cycles. (She also cited a slightly more recent interview, in which he criticized local NIMBY types who sought to block nuclear plants, as evidence that he is a nuclear supporter.)

I will not defend Masuzoe’s statements about women, which are pretty heinous, but some context is necessary. 1989 was twenty-five years ago and Japan was still stuck in the “Mad Men” era when it came to gender relations. It was ten years before Masuzoe ran for political office and he was not that well known yet. I am pretty sure that he got over whatever strain of foot-in-mouth syndrome he may have had at the time, because Masuzoe’s detractors were hard-pressed to come up with a single damning quote from him since about 1995. Characterizing Masuzoe based on what he said about women back then is unfair—and also unnecessary given that there are more real issues with his governorship.

One concern I have comes from Masuzoe’s official resume. Summarized in one paragraph, Masuzoe started out as an academic studying French politics at Tokyo, Paris and Geneva, gradually gained notoriety as an author and TV commentator, and made a pretty decent showing against Shintaro Ishihara and Kunio Hatoyama in the 1999 Tokyo gubernatorial election. He won an LDP seat in the House of Councillors the next year. Despite his being critical of pretty much everyone else in the Diet, he was put in charge of the LDP’s constitutional reform commission and then became Health and Welfare Minister under Abe, Aso and Fukuda, during which time he came out as a quasi-hero in two major scandals. By 2009, he was the most popular politician in Japan. He bailed from the LDP as it fell from grace under Taro Aso, starting a new “Shinto Kaikaku” party amid hopes from the likes of Tobias Harris (link) that it would be the kind of force that would tank the LDP for good. It proceeded to do absolutely nothing, the LDP returned to power under Abe 2.0, Masuzoe declined to stand for re-election in 2013 and begged the LDP for forgiveness in order to run for governor under their quasi-endorsement. Summarized in one sentence, Masuzoe is a showhorse and not a workhorse, an Obama type of guy who can give a good press conference but who is not likely to actually do anything in a political context without seriously cocking it up, and that is not enough to run one of the largest subnational governments in the world.

Then there is the unofficial resume from the tabloids. Taking all of the tabloid stories I have seen at face value, Masuzoe supposedly met a Japanese woman while in France and they had a lovely wedding, but somehow didn’t actually get married. His first de jure marriage was to a French woman, but they were divorced for undisclosed reasons. (My wife recalls Masuzoe saying on a TV show that this first wife made rice pudding for dessert at one point, and he was enraged at the concept of rice being a sweet dessert.) After returning to Tokyo, he married his second wife, Satsuki Katayama, a promising young Ministry of Finance bureaucrat. The marriage lasted in earnest for only a few months, as Katayama discovered that Masuzoe had a short temper, and kept a collection of about twenty kinds of knives. They separated in short order and were officially divorced in 1989, but before the divorce was final, Masuzoe found a mistress and fathered his first child. He had two more children, at least one of whom was with a different mistress, and at some point married his secretary, who had two more of his children, for a total of five kids with three women. In the nineties he got serious about his horse racing hobby and started buying horses; two of them won the Japan Derby, in 1997 and 1998, but he got out of this business just before going into politics. At some point, he put his wife in charge of his “research institute” shell company, and transferred most of his valuable assets into it, including a 300 million yen house in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward and two vacation houses in Yugawara and Kawaguchiko. He reported a total of 360 million yen in assets when he was in the Aso cabinet, but insiders reckoned he was worth more like 1 billion and hiding most of it under his wife’s shell company. After leaving the Diet in 2013, he petitioned a court to reduce his child support payments to his first child (who is disabled) because his monthly income had fallen to just 100,000 yen; Katayama was quoted in the Mainichi Shimbun as being reluctant to support Masuzoe because of this. One tabloid speculated that he may have lost a ton of money betting on horses and needed to adjust his obligations for that reason.

I am doubtful that Masuzoe will last for four years. He has what appears to be a fairly weak electoral mandate, with less than 50% of the vote in an election that appears to have had relatively low turnout (the snowstorm in Tokyo yesterday likely kept many undecided voters from going to the polls today). Like his predecessor Inose, Masuzoe does not have a record of coalition or consensus building, but rather a record of being outspoken and confrontational, which will not serve him well given that the Tokyo legislature is not the single-party paradise that the National Diet has become. I also suspect that, given all that the tabloids have already dug up, Masuzoe must have some more skeletons in his closet that could take him down if a political foe were willing to utilize them. So don’t worry, reporters, this guy has plenty of potential to be interesting without sticking his foot in his mouth.

Are we looking at a new political order?

We are less than a month away from the gubernatorial election in Tokyo, with the campaign officially starting a week from today, and it seems like it may be a key part of yet another massive political realignment.

Until last week, Yoichi Masuzoe was looking like a shoo-in, with the support of the Abe government and very strong results in both LDP and DPJ polls. Then former prime minister Morihiro Hosokawa, who led a coalition that briefly broke the LDP’s uncontested decades of power in 1993, came out of nowhere and announced his candidacy a couple of days ago on a platform strongly opposing the restart of nuclear power. He has the backing of none other than former LDP prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, who stood beside him for the announcement. According to some reports, perennial back room fixer and band destroyer Ichiro Ozawa is also behind the Hosokawa campaign. Meanwhile, Koizumi’s son Shinjiro, who has quietly become the most popular active politician within the LDP, is criticizing Abe for supporting Masuzoe, who ditched the party in 2009 to start his own third party that went nowhere—this despite the fact that there are no other potential candidates within the LDP who poll nearly as highly as Masuzoe.

Hosokawa and the alliance supporting him seem to be getting a groundswell of momentum, despite an obvious defect in his candidacy: he resigned as prime minister in 1994 because of a scandal that was essentially exactly the same as the scandal that just took down Governor Inose. Here is Hosokawa in April 1994:

Hosokawa has been fending off allegations that he accepted an improper donation of 100 million yen ($970,000) from a trucking company previously accused of bribery and links to organized crime. He has admitted receiving the money, but says it was a loan. His opponents say it was a bribe.

The sense of irony here is palpable. The coalition that Hosokawa heads came to power last August promising an end to the so-called money politics of the Liberal Democratic Party, which the coalition displaced. Now LDP members – whose 38-year grip on power was broken after a slew of bribery and influence-peddling scandals – fax each other copies of a receipt Hosokawa has released in an attempt to show that he paid back the money, because they believe it to be an obvious and sloppy fake. ``If you show this receipt to the tax authorities,’’ says Motoo Shiina, an independent member of Japan’s upper house who left the LDP six years ago, ``they will laugh.’‘

Here is Inose in December 2013:

Inose acknowledged in November he had received 50 million yen ($500,000) from the political family behind the huge Tokushukai medical group before last year’s gubernatorial election. The money, handed to him in cash, was kept in a safety deposit box and Inose said it was a personal loan that had nothing to do with his campaign for the city’s top job.

He has been grilled by a hostile assembly on several occasions, with the media picking apart his appearance and stuttering performance, focusing on beads of sweat that dripped down his neck. At hearings and in press conferences he has waved around a piece of paper he insists amounted to a loan agreement, although observers noted that it bore no date for repayment and showed no terms and conditions.

There is another obvious defect in both Masuzoe and Hosokawa, in that like Inose, they both made careers out of being outspoken and pissing off the establishment, but never managed to show much for it other than ignominious defeats.

So who else is out there? Besides the two media-anointed leading contenders, we have our good buddy General Tamogami running on the far right, and socialist/communist-supported lawyer Kenji Utsunomiya (who came in a distant second to Inose in the last election) running on the far left. Of the four candidates, three (Masuzoe, Hosokawa and Utsunomiya) are anti-nuclear in one form or another, while Tamogami’s energy policy, in line with his other stated policies, presumably relies on the Japanese air force.

Neither I nor most Japanese commentators are entirely sure what to make of all this, but it certainly incites a lot of speculation as to what will happen next. Will the retired DPJ insiders like Kan and Hatoyama manage to squeeze Utsunomiya out of the race and consolidate the anti-LDP vote under Hosokawa, or will Utsunomiya split that segment and let Masuzoe win? Will Tamogami leverage Shintaro Ishihara’s support and his own possession of actual administrative experience to eke out a victory while the others shout over each other about the nuclear issue? Will Antonio Inoki parachute in from North Korea at the last minute? Will everyone in Tokyo just stay in bed on the 9th and let Doctor NakaMats realize the fruits of decades of campaigning? Perhaps most importantly, what will all of this mean for the Abe government? It’s fascinating, and I for one can’t get enough of it.

Tamogami, former ASDF “chife of stuff”, Running for Governor

Toshio Tamogami, rightwing blowhard and former Japan Air Force General, is officially running for Governor of Tokyo in February 9th’s election.

As you can see below, his official website profile is touting his strong credentials as “the former chife of stuff,ASDF”, in order to appeal to the Tokyo electorate’s strong appreciation for what is presumably intended to be some sort of executive experience.

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Anyone reading this right now, as the blog is only just barely stirring from a long hibernation, will certainly remember my feature-length November 4, 2008 post on the fraudulent essay contest scandal that led to Tamogami’s resignation from the military, and his connections to the world of right-wing politics.

These connections, which were rather obscure when I analyzed them, have become common knowledge since, as Tamogami has moved into a career as a professional rightist blowhard and – now – political hopeful.

For the hilarious website text, I must tip my hat to Curzon, (once and?) future contributor to this blog.

And speaking of hilarity, there are rumors being reported that professional wrestler turned politician, Antonio Inoki, will also be entering the race. This would certainly make Adam’s day.

But Masuzoe Yōichi, who ran and lost to former governor Ishihara Shintaro in 1999, seems to be the favorite. At least, that is, should he actually decide to run.

And for pointing that out, a hat tip to Joe, just so I have everyone covered.

Game review: Abe-pyon is a fun, free, no-nonsense smartphone game; political propaganda at its best

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A couple weeks ago the Japanese ruling Liberal Democratic Party released Abe-pyon (Abe Jump; iOS link / Android), its first official smartphone game. The release was timed ahead of the upcoming Upper House election to try and reach voters that might otherwise not be interested in politics.

You control a cartoon version of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as he jumps higher and higher. Hitting springs gives you an extra boost, and as you go higher you reach more elite government/party titles (LDP Youth Division Director, Minister, Secretary General, etc. all the way up to Prime MInister).

For a low-budget simple game, Abe-pyon has been very well received, but I am not surprised—the game is actually quite fun and addictive, it’s free, and unlike virtually all other high-profile smartphone games (that I have played at least), it is a pure and complete game with no in-game purchasing whatsoever. To control Abe you tilt the phone from side to side, and this is the first smartphone game I have played where that was actually fun and even doable on the train. It is a lot of fun to try and slip Abe between two platforms to get at one of the red super-bonus springs.


This person made it to 11,000

You might complain that you are being propagandized by a political party, but if this is what it takes to bring an actually enjoyable and no-nonsense game to my iPhone, then that part doesn’t bother me a bit.

The game’s simple but well-done mechanics remind me of some earlier endless runner type games I have played, most notably Nanaca Crash, a Flash game (and Mutant Frog favorite) where you control a bouncing boy who was sent flying by a girl who was apparently stalking him. That was back in a the good old days before Facebook games taught every game maker of the potential to get rich through microtransactions.

The sound in the game is also pretty great. You get to hear comical boioioioing! sound effects whenever you hit a bonus spring, and Abe lets out a panicked squeal when he dies (sadly that isn’t his real voice). There is a rollicking Blues Brothers-style rock song which is also pretty fun (though I keep it off if I am listening to podcasts).

Abe pyon high score

My current high score

That being said, there are a few drawbacks, most of which have to do with the nature of the game. For one thing, you have to start from the beginning every time, so it takes a while to get back near a high score. You can pause the game and come back, but my iPhone 4S has so little memory it often loses my progress if I open a few more apps. I find that my hand tires out a little after getting to 800 or so, so I tend to mess up after that. If the LDP decides to sell the game to an actual business, offering continues might be a good way to monetize.

All in all however, I have shocked myself at how long I have been willing to stare at Abe’s face (albeit in cartoon form) to play this game. That speaks to how enjoyable the game is, so I definitely recommend trying it out if it’s on your local app store and hope more political parties will get the idea to curry favor with the populace by making great video games.

Update: It has come to my attention that this game is very similar to a popular game Doodle Jump. I haven’t played that one but the screen shots seem very close. Thanks Dan and Emily!

What would doubling the JET program look like?

Recent news reports suggest that the LDP is planning to propose doubling the JET Program in three years and placing JET language assistants in all elementary, middle, and high schools within a decade. There are around 38,000 such schools in Japan, so that’s a LOT of ALTs!

According to internal affairs ministry statistics, in fiscal 2012 there were around 4,300 JETs in the country, so the plan is apparently to increase that by a whopping factor of nine. According to the statistics that METI keeps on language schools, there are 10,000 or so full- and part-time language teachers working for regulated schools. I believe that does not count the large number of contractors like the teachers working for ALT placement agencies or the poor devils at Gaba, university instructors, and certainly not the many student teachers or anyone operating their own eikaiwa that does not fall under METI’s purview. But even generously allowing for a teacher population of say 30,000 total (around 3 for every train station), in ten years this number will be more than doubled.

The program is designed to place youthful foreigners, generally native English speakers, in Japanese schools (and to a smaller extent, local governments) for up to five years with two explicit goals: supplement English-language education and promote international interaction at the local level. Another key benefit is that the participants often go on to take influential Japan-related jobs, be it in foreign governments, Japanese companies, or companies that do business in or with Japan. Having a stable of Japan hands around seems pretty necessary at this point, given the relatively poor state of English language ability among the Japanese population. Unlike normal employment situations, JET offers a high level of support in the form of a reasonable salary, free housing, and a network of fellow JETs and regional coordinators to help with problems.

I get the feeling that a ninefold increase in the JET Program isn’t realistic—could they even recruit that many people to come and live in Japan, or would they maybe just cannibalize the entire existing eikaiwa-for-kids market? Still, some increase in the program along these line seems like a fairly simple way for the Abe administration to make a bold move in the direction of “internationalization” that won’t run into much political resistance.

Regardless of your views on the merits of the JET Program or the Japanese education system in general, you must admit that even just doubling the size of JET would have a pretty profound impact.

For one thing, that is double the amount of people coming in each year. That means more foreign faces on the street and more non-Asian foreign exposure for the Japanese public at large.

It also means more “Japan hands,” maybe even double, and this can cut in different ways. I feel like Japan is sorely in need of talented Japanese-to-English translators, so an influx of native English talent that could eventually progress to ace-translator status is a good thing. At the same time, the increased supply in the market could put pressure on prices, and who knows maybe some whipper snapper could come after my job some day.

I think it would also revive the option of teaching English in Japan for graduates of US universities that (from my admittedly limited perspective) seems to have died down a bit in the wake of troubles in the eikaiwa market and competition from China, a bigger and perhaps more intriguing destination. I can envision a near future in which young men see the Tokyo Vice movie and become inspired to chase thrills and excitement in Japan.

And it would necessarily boost the number of international marriages and the resulting children, bringing Japan that much closer to becoming the Grey Race.

On the negative side, the JET Program might have to loosen standards to attract talent. Even if they don’t, the sheer number of additional people will likely result in an increase in the problems that occasionally befall foreigners in Japan – crime, drugs, suspicious visa activity, ill-advised YouTube rants, you name it.

JET is a net good, but not for Japanese people’s English ability 

I say bring it on, mainly to bolster Japan-related talent. Unfortunately, my support of the program is not for its value as an English teaching tool (disclosure: my application for the JET Program was in fact rejected. I am not bitter about it because I handed in a terrible application, but nevertheless I feel like I should own up about it).

I have spoken with/read about perhaps dozens of JET teachers and students over the years. The teachers by and large do not have a particularly high opinion of the job’s value in terms of English teaching, but they almost unanimously credit the program for giving them a great experience. And while the students might not master English thanks to their JET, in many cases they remember them being a friendly adult who helped make school more enjoyable.

From what I gather, the job of an ALT is generally to supplement a Japanese teacher of English by helping with pronunciation and various other tasks. Maybe I just don’t get around enough, but I cannot recall ever hearing someone even try to argue that they are an essential part of the learning process or that what they do has an appreciable benefit to the level of English ability in Japan. I don’t think that is really a problem though because of the program’s other upsides.

On the other hand, what I have heard and experienced is that ALTs can help inspire students to discover the joys and rewards of learning English or encourage them to keep going. I think the value of that should not be underestimated because it is life-changing and the ALTs deserve huge credit for it.

This is kind of an aside, but basically I do not share the government’s fascination with trying to make the entire country proficient in English because for most people that is just not necessary. The way things stand, the biggest result of the current system seems to be the long list of Japanized English loan words that are often such a headache-inducing component of the Japanese language.

To have a more realistic and beneficial impact, I would rather them focus on establishing separate programs for the kids who excel at languages and giving them a place to shine on their own (and while they’re at it they should devote resources to helping returnees re-integrate when they come back while maintaining their language skills). That would hold out the hope of producing a larger population of Japanese adults with near-native English skills.

I feel like there is negative feedback loop whereby most Japanese people are in an environment where the norm is to not be good at English and therefore most people choose the path of least resistance. Separating out the kids that have a real talent and placing them in a more encouraging environment might keep them from missing out just because they have to go along with the crowd.

All in all, JET seems like a worthy program for giving kids a glimpse at a world outside of Japan and the teachers an interesting start to their post-college lives in a way that usually ends up benefiting Japan in some way.

PS: This independent video guide to the JET Program is very well done. If you are reading this and considering doing the program yourself, it is definitely worth a look:

Japanese people can’t speak English because they live among tainted, Japan-savvy foreigners

It seems to me that a major factor behind Japan’s vaunted problems with the English language could have to do with the learning environment.

Specifically, some Japanese people are not sufficiently aware that Japanese-accented English is often incomprehensible to listeners who are not familiar with it.

I call it the Heisenberg property of language – simply being among Japanese people causes native English speakers (eikaiwa teachers, friends, coworkers, etc) to get used to how Japanese people speak, and of course alter how they speak to ensure Japanese people understand them.

This concept came to my attention in a big way at an investment conference that I recently attended for work.

The keynote speaker was a well-known American investment manager, and when it came time for the Q&A session, there was a roughly even mix of question-askers who were native English speakers, Japanese who asked their questions through the interpreter, and Japanese who opted to ask in English.

The guest speaker had trouble understanding all of the Japanese people who asked questions in English. One person in particular asked something like, “What is your view on Abenomics?” and it took about three tries before the speaker got that it was something about the new prime minister.  I understood it the first time because I could hear him say the katakana “abenomikkusu” just really fast and with an attempt at English inflection. But to the American guest speaker, the questioner must have sounded like he was mumbling “obb-nom” instead of the properly enunciated “Abe-nomics” that sounds similar to Reaganomics.

This is just one small example, but I encounter cases of this phenomenon all the time:

  • Several English-speaking Japanese people in my life have heavy accents, but I can understand them because my years in the country have gotten me used to how Japanese people tend to speak. 

  • Japanese commercials are flooded with simplified English

  • Eikaiwa teachers tend to use simplified English to make themselves understood in class. I have even known some to incorporate common Japanese phrases like “hora” to get students’ attention.

  • Lip my stocking!

And so on.

If a Japanese person spends all their time in this “Japanese-familiar” bubble, then when it comes time to go face-to-face with a less Japan-savvy foreigner, they are likely to run into trouble.

I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing. For the sake of communication, speaking to make yourself understood (and listening carefully to understand) is only the most natural thing in the world. I just feel like pointing it out because Japanese people who equate speaking English with native speakers in Japan with “immersion” might be in for a rude awakening if they ever step outside that environment.

Adamu will be on Livestream helping break down the election this Sunday starting at 8pm!!

Two major elections are coming up in Japan this Sunday—a general election to choose members of the Diet’s lower house, and a race for the Tokyo governorship. The chances of a change in government are high and of all people, that great buckler former PM Abe Shinzo is the favorite to become Japan’s next prime minister!

To help make sense of it all, I’ll be participating in a Livestream broadcast with Garrett De Orio and Kozo Ota, two of the Tokyo English-language blogosphere’s foremost political (and yakyu) junkies. You can save the URL here. We go on air at 8pm, once the polls close. It promises to be a fun and informative evening, so if you like sarcastic commentary and wading deep into the swampy weeds of the Japanese political system, this one is for you my friend.

During the stream we will be answering Twitter questions live with the hashtag #japanelection. Please drop a line! Given its importance, we will be focusing mostly on the general election.

Before Sunday I will try and do some posts highlighting aspects of the election that might fall through the cracks of what has become a quite robust Japan blogo/Twittersphere of late. Outfits like Japan Real Time, Japan Probe, and Shisaku have all been great.

Otherwise you can follow me at @adamukun on Twitter for regular updates. Please let me know in the comments below what sort of issues you want to hear about, and I hope to see you on the stream! Oh and if you’re a Japanese citizen make sure to get out there and vote!!

LDP presidential candidate Hayashi: “Let’s play kabuki”

This morning’s NHK Sunday political show contained a disturbing reimportation of the term political kabuki.

The candidates for LDP president were debating their stances on US base relocation, and one, Yoshimasa Hayashi, made the comment (if memory serves) that if Japan cannot deliver progress in negotiations then the bilateral talks would be nothing but political theater.

Specifically, he said they would turn into “let’s play kabuki” (レッツプレイカブキ) apparently referring to the tendency for the US media to refer to kabuki theater in this sense.

Ugh. My least favorite media cliche is now being adopted by the highest levels of Japan’s political establishment.

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I don’t even really like this show that much because it tends to be nothing but unsurprising political bromides, and whatever value they have is directed at the politicos in Nagatacho, not a general audience. I always end up watching though because it comes right after one of my favorite shows 小さな旅 (“Little Adventures” is how I prefer to translate it). It’s a fun travel show but I especially like it for its amazing theme music, written by Yuji Ohno of Lupin III fame. Here it is thanks to the magic of YouTube:

My Chinese Bride (中国嫁日記) – an awesome manga blog I can relate to

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Right now I am mostly immobile thanks to a herniated disc. I might blog about that later, but for now I want to share what has been keeping me entertained on my days stranded on the couch:

It’s 中国嫁日記 (if I were a publisher I’d translate the title “My Chinese Bride”). It’s a funny and heartwarming read, and very relatable for someone in an international marriage like myself. If you want to skip my review and get started, the entire series is free online. Just start from the first post and work your way backwards. He also sells compilations that I am considering buying for some people as gifts.

It’s the blog of a 40-something Japanese tabletop RPG designer and self-described otaku about his 26-year-old mainland Chinese wife Yue-chan, who he apparently met in an arranged-marriage style introduction from a Chinese friend. She is new to living in Japan but already speaks the language a bit because her sister also married a Japanese man and Yue thought it would be useful to know the language when visiting.

The writer (Yue calls him Jin-san based on the Chinese reading of his real name, Inoue) writes mostly about her various encounters with culture shock, many of which come from her cooking misadventures. She puts coriander in miso soup, serves oshiruko with eggs and toast for breakfast, and marvels that Japanese meat is sold pre-sliced unlike in her native Shenyang. With the story told in real time less than two years after their marriage, we get a window into their relationship as it is developing – we get vignettes about her need to clean every day, learn how she leaves out the small tsu sound in Japanese, and even a series detailing their long-delayed honeymoon to an onsen. They fight kind of a lot, but in a healthy way that seems to actually resolve their problems.

Her cute foreign accent is probably the central joke of the whole manga, and he brings up many wacky anecdotes from their life together. If it weren’t written with such obvious love and care you might be forgiven for thinking he was making fun of her. There are touching moments, too, such as when Yue was scared for her life and just wanted to be with her Jin-san just after the March 2011 quake.

In news articles, Inoue says he started the blog to provide a more personal look at Chinese people in order to help improve bilateral ties and further understanding of the many Chinese living in Japan. That is understandable, especially when many of his fellow otaku harbor strong anti-Chinese sentiment and seem to love making broad generalizations about the culture. And the series contains a lot of interesting trivia about China (Yue-chan could go visit Japan initially because at the time visiting a foreign relative was one of the few ways mainland Chinese could travel abroad). But at the same time I get the feeling this is his way of processing both the joys and frustration of married life.

Sometimes Jin-san writes about his former Chinese teacher, who had an extremely outgoing personality and left a deep impression. The sample above is one story she told him and is a good entry in our list of embarrassing Japanese mistakes. (if someone asks I’ll explain in the comments)

He started the blog without her knowledge, but the quality of the work got the better of him – it became so popular that a friend clued her in eventually. Thankfully she understood and was ok with him continuing. Now that I’m hooked, I hope he’ll keep this up for the foreseeable future!

The similarity to the classic international marriage manga ダーリンは外国人 (My Darling is a Foreigner) is obvious and probably no accident. But there are some key differences that make it more enjoyable for me. First is the real time intimacy of learning about their relationship as it happens. That makes the story feel more genuine. Also, it’s told from the man’s perspective, so I found myself nodding my head when he talked about needing his office to be a “sanctuary” where it’s sometimes ok to leave a mess. And perhaps most importantly, it is not about another American living in Japan. If it were, I wouldn’t be able to help comparing myself to him in terms of language ability and attitude toward Japan.

So if this kind of thing appeals to you (and you read Japanese of course) please please go check it out. I learned about it on a Sunday morning NHK program about successful Internet original manga artists, so I have a feeling we might even see a movie version someday.

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.