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.
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.
Two Japanese actress friends of mine here in NYC (note: this is all of the Japanese actresses I know in NYC) are involved in this theatrical production in honor of the one year anniversary of last year’s massive disaster in Tohoku. I’ll be going.
Join us on Sunday March 11, 2012, the one-year anniversary of the earthquake that devastated Japan’s Tohoku region, as we join theaters nationwide to present works by major American and Japanese theater artists. The Japan Playwrights Association will disperse the proceeds from this one-day-only event to the Japanese theater community affected by the disaster.
Exclusive reading performance of original Japanese scripts of Yoji Sakate, Oriza Hirata, Toshiki Okada and more! SAVE THE DATE and share this one-day only event with us!
Many thanks to the La MaMa Theatre for donating their space for rehearsal and performance of this event.
Sunday, March 11th at 2:30PM
Suggested donation: $10
R.S.V.P Seats are limited. Please make your reservation at
あの未曾有の東日本大震災から１年目を迎える２０１２年３月１１日、多くのシアター関係者によって開催される 「震災:SHINSAI Theaters for Japan」に参加致します。シアターコミュニティーの仲間による、 日本の被災地の仲間たちへのシアターパフォーマンスを通しての支援です。この特別な日のために寄与された日米の劇作家からの プレイを通し、集い、語り、繋がります。
This week, Japan’s political news was dominated by a political fight between the LDP and DPJ over whether Prime Minister Kan, the day after the March 11 earthquake, ordered Tepco to stop flooding the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant with seawater. Something shocking happened that poured cold water on that debate, however. The head of the facility admitted that regardless of orders from corporate headquarters to stop (apparently relaying the PM’s wishes), he continued the flooding operations because it was the right thing to do.
In many ways this conflict is a tempest in a teapot, at best a distraction from dealing with the nuclear accident and post-quake situation right now. But it does offer us a window, however slight, into how information has flowed (or not) among stakeholders and the public.
The Nikkei has an interesting lowdown on the farcical sequence of events:
The controversy began with a document issued Saturday by the government’s joint task force with Tepco, purporting to tell the “facts” of how seawater was injected into the No. 1 reactor March 12, the day after a tsunami crippled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Tepco began pumping ocean water into the hot reactor at 7:04 p.m. without informing the government, according to the document. A company employee at the Prime Minister’s Office later telephoned the power plant and the injections stopped at 7:25, only to restart 55 minutes later, the report stated.
A different picture emerged Thursday.
At the time the pumping began, officials at company headquarters had decided there was next to no chance that the seawater would cause the fuel inside to go critical again, Tepco Vice President Sakae Muto told a news conference.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan had asked about that possibility in discussions with Nuclear Safety Commission Chairman Haruki Madarame and other advisers.
But what headquarters officials heard from the employee stationed at the Prime Minister’s Office was that the “atmosphere” there was that the cooling operation could not go ahead without the prime minister’s approval, according to Muto.
In a video conference with plant manager Masao Yoshida, Tepco officials decided to halt the seawater injections. But Yoshida disregarded that order, and the pumping continued. Although final authority did rest with the plant manager, he never reported his actions to headquarters. Head office officials, for their part, never confirmed with Yoshida that the order had been carried out.
At that stage in the crisis, with reactor coolant going up in steam and the fuel rods melting, every second counted. The plant’s emergency manual prescribes seawater injections in such a situation. Regardless of the “atmosphere” at the Prime Minister’s Office, turning off the pumps would have been the wrong decision, based on the conditions at the plant.
Asked why he decided to reveal that the seawater injections continued nonstop, Yoshida said he “thought it over again carefully after it became a controversy in the newspapers and the Diet.”
Right off the bat, I want to say that getting the “real” situation is basically impossible for the general public, and that’s kind of the point of this post. But assuming this report is basically true, it seems clear to me that this is definitely not a case of Tepco or the government hiding information, per se. Mr. Yoshida (who was apparently quoted indirectly through a Tepco spokesperson) was the only one hiding anything, for reasons he must think make sense, even if they deprive outside observers of an accurate picture of the situation.
Get a load of Tepco headquarters – they never confirmed whether he had actually stopped the water? I guess Yoshida just pretended to “restart” the operation when they said it was OK an hour later?
I have read so many articles saying that “Japan” has not been forthcoming with information about the nuclear accident, but I find that hard to believe. Information has been released by the truckload. The entire scandal got started when Tepco released a detailed breakdown of what happened. But even when important people have the best of intentions and submit a report in good faith, there’s no guarantee they will have all the facts.
The Kan government has recently announced an independent commission to study the accident, and the IAEA has its own people on the ground investigating. Openness isn’t the problem here. The problem is how difficult it is for outsiders to get a clear picture of a rapidly unfolding situation, even when the people in charge are trying to be forthcoming.
Again it’s hard to really feel like I have a sound basis to comment, but from my limited vantage point this incident makes a lot of people look bad, most of all the LDP who so quickly leaped on a potentially damaging decision by the prime minister for political gain, only to learn their entire premise was flawed. No one stopped the seawater because, thankfully enough, someone at Tepco had a cool enough head to not listen to superiors who were more worried about reading the Prime Minister’s “mood” than how to control the reactor.
Yoshida might be punished by Tepco for not reporting his actions, but I think he deserves a lot of credit for taking the necessary action. It also bears mentioning that his actions fly in the face of the common stereotype of Japanese deference to power.
On May 19, the Yomiuri Shimbun evening edition ran an open letter by House of Councillors President Nishioka Takeo in which he called upon Prime Minister Kan Naoto to resign due to his handling of the Fukushima nuclear crisis. This would be significant enough if Nishioka were a member of the opposition, but he belongs to the same DPJ as Kan himself. The letter, as well as the admission that Kan, based on unfounded concerns that the injection of seawater could induce re-criticality in the reactor, encouraged TEPCO to halt the injection of seawater based coolant into the plant, has spurred a movement towards calling a no-confidence vote, with support from the Ozawa faction of Kan’s own DPJ, as well as from the opposition LDP. Among the harsh critics are LDP leader Tanigaki Sadakazu, who, based on the newly released information, described the decision to suspend the injection of seawater at such a critical stage as a “man-made disaster”.
Although the English Yomiuri website summarizes the key points of Nishioka’s letter in the same article I linked to above, they did not originally post the entire text or even publish it in the English print edition, although they did promise that “The English translation of Nishioka’s open letter to Kan will be carried on The Daily Yomiuri’s Commentary page on Tuesday.” Well, Tuesday has passed and you can now read the entire letter in English, at Yomiuri or below here.
In the annoyingly typical fashion of the Japanese newspaper industry, they haven’t even published the original Japanese text of the full letter online! Luckily it can be easily found on a number of Japanese blogs, and here I will give my own quick and dirty translation.
To Prime Minister Naoto Kan:
I am sure the weight of the world is on your shoulders, with duties that require your attention day and night. I thank you for your hard work.
As a representative of one of the supreme organizations in the nation’s three independent branches of authority, I would like to venture to express my candid opinion in this open letter. Prime Minister Kan, you should immediately resign from your post.
I think many people share my present thoughts about you: among them survivors of the Great East Japan Earthquake, residents forced to evacuate their homes due to the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, members of the general public and Diet members from both opposition and ruling parties.
I also believe that heads of local governments and assembly members distrust and are concerned about you.
There is a reason why, despite this situation, hardly any voices have called, “Prime Minister Kan, you should resign.” It is generally believed it would be unthinkable to change the supreme leader of the nation at a time when serious problems are occurring that are not limited to national politics, and when measures are under way to deal with the situation.
However, you have continued to abandon your duties as prime minister since the March 11 disaster took place.
During the very early stages of last month’s disaster I wrote A Note on Energy Conservation, in which I explained why, energy conservation in western Japan would have no immediate effect in relieving the shortage in eastern Japan. This is because Japan’s electrical grid is, for historical reasons, separated into a 60hz grid (same as North America) in the western half of Japan and a 50hz grid (same as Europe) in the eastern half.
I have been collecting links related to the energy situation and several other aspects of the ongoing crisis and recovery efforts and will probably be blogging quite a bit on such topics, but for now I want to just post translations of a series of brief comments on energy conservation in Kanto from Tokyo Vice-mayor Inose Naoki (who I believe will remain in his job allegedly doing most of the real work serving under Ishihara following his unfortunate reelection) that he tweeted a week ago.
#1: The pachinko industry said in a protest message to Governor Ishihara that “the maximum power usage of their 4000 game parlors in the Tepco region” is no more than 840,000 kilowatts” and this is where I learned precise numbers. Before this the only data I had was regarding a sort of “peak velocity” of 320,000 kilowatts. Since Toei and Metro [Tokyo’s subway systems] together are a maximum of 360,000 kilowatts, this is pretty big.
#2: Pachinko parlor electricity consumption is 40% air conditioning, 30% pachinko machines, 20% lighting. To reduce the gap in power supply during summer peak demand time, [we] must reevaluate [our] lifestyles. To speak half-jokingly and half-seriously, the pachinko industry must themselves come forward with plans such as operating only at night, or running without their coolers on during the day.
#3: Drink vending machines use 190,000 kilowatts. The real number may be even higher. Vending machines are refrigerators. The industry is voluntarily engaging in self restraint to halt the cooling function between the hours of 1 and 4 but do we really even need it during the day time? At the very least we do not need them next to a convenience store. Conserving energy at night has no relation with saving energy during peak hours.
#4: Energy Conservation Minister Renho says “vending machines are a large proportion of the drinks industry’s sales” and expressed a “contradictory point of view” regarding industry self restraint, saying “the industry is working to lower energy consumption” (Kyodo). She does not understand the meaning of revising our lifestyles to overcome summer. There is no need to put refrigerators on the street in order to raise the sale price to ￥150 from the ￥90 it is in a supermarket.
#5: The DPJ administration has finally decided to issue government directives, and although there are regulations for both industry specific controls and total volume controls [on energy consumption], they have only issued total volume controls. By issuing only total volume controls, it will only target electricity contracts of 500 kilowatts and up (large offices), which is only 1/3 of the total. The other 70% is voluntary restraint, and cigarette vending machines fall into that category. This is because they are not using industry specific controls.
#6: Tokyo is a commuter city. Toei and Metro together use a maximum of 360,000 kilowatts during rush hour. Outside of morning and evening rush, they are saving power by reducing service, reducing lighting/AC in stations and cars, stopping one set of escalators where there are two, etc. And compare this with how the pachinko or drinks vending machine industries – which add up to 100,000 kilowatts, are reacting.
#7: Cigarette vending machines are not refrigerators. Beverage vending machines are refrigerators, and guzzle 190,000 kilowatts. It may even be higher in reality. I previously had a number for the pachinko industry of 320,000 kilowatts, but their assertion that it is “no more than 840,000 kilowatts” gave me the real figure. The output of Reactor #1 at Fukushima Daiichi was 460,000 kilowatts. More or less.
#8: The concern is what to do about power use at peak hours. Late at night is not a problem. I have set the hot water heater on the bath in my working area to use electricity at night. I also installed solar panels one year ago. Even though Tokyo has been trying to encourage them the installation rate is low and I put them in myself. Personal experiences are in my book on working as Vice-governor.
#9: Roppongi Hills produces all of their own power. They have a contract with Tepco for backup. This is opposite the usual pattern. In the future, power generation will no longer be monopolized by Tepco. Factories had already begun installing their own power generation but it was expensive and efforts did not move forward. With the nuclear accident, people will start to question the real costs of power generation.
#10: Beverage vending machines. The Tokyo Prefectural Assembly DPJ proposed halting the coolers not from 13:00-26:00 but from 10:00-21:00. Energy Conservation Minister Renho is arguing for something different. In this proposal the Tokyo Assembly DPJ mistakenly wrote that vending machines use 110,000 kilowatts and the cool beverage industry corrected them saying it is actually 260,000 kilowatts. Thanks to that, I now know the real figure.
#11: Changed in electricity consumption. Proper mastery of a proposition is a precondition for linguistic skill. If we look back, the 1990s are not so long ago. Since the 1990s, GDP has not risen, but electricity usage has increased. Therefore, we need to reassess our lifestyles over the last 10-15 years. Why has GDP not risen even though we use more electricity?
There have been many many reports of what it’s like at the earthquake-affected areas, and now there is a growing number of reports coming from inside the nuclear evacuation zone. According to Google News, the Global Post, the Telegraph, and CNN have reports, and a Japanese team recently posted a video of their trip. Here is what the Wall Street Journal had to offer:
Eerie Hush Descends on Japan’s Nuclear Zone
FUTABA, Japan—In the Coin Laundry, a dryer is still loaded with clothes: an orange hooded sweatshirt, a green worker’s vest and two pairs of jeans, damp and smelling of mildew.
At Joe’s Man restaurant near the train station, a menu lists the lunch specials, starting with bacon-and-eggplant pasta in a tomato-cream sauce. A flyer on the open doors of the Nishio clothes shop promotes a five-day “inventory clearance” sale. Over the road that runs through the town center, a white-and-blue sign proclaims: “Understanding Nuclear Power Correctly Will Lead to an Abundant Life.”
But life, by and large, is what is absent in this town, just a few miles away from the troubled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
A little further down the reporters describe an interesting exchange after explaining that the zone isn’t illegal to enter but strongly discouraged:
“What are you doing here?” a fireman asked a reporter walking in the street. From the passenger seat, another firefighter held up a radiation monitor. “You are not supposed to be here. It’s dangerous,” he said. “Please leave soon.”
To me, if there are enough reporters on the ground that they are running into each other in an evacuation zone, something is very wrong here. Whatever value there is to tell the story of the evacuees has been eclipsed by the reporters’ attraction to a sexy location with post-apocalyptic trappings. These people are not looking to provide useful information for a discerning public. They are just entertainers hoping to sell an interesting story to the folks back home.
Most of the time media as entertainment is fine and more or less harmless. The tradition of Westerners reporting back on exotic travels goes back at least to Marco Polo, and it’s only natural for people to have a voyeuristic interest in world events. I’ll even allow that there may simply be no other good way to get digestible information about other countries. It’s just that from the perspective of someone living in Japan with a stake in the quake’s aftermath, seeing these kinds of reports is frustrating and makes me think they’re exploiting a tragedy.
After the earthquake, a lot of foreign residents of Japan received panicked messages from their relatives and friends back home, myself included. In my case, I had to tell my mom to stop watching CNN and turn to more reliable sources like NHK World. Since she didn’t have that on cable, she ended up turning to CCTV9, the international version of China’s state-run TV, because it had much more straightforward, facts-based reports. Other relatives also contacted me, some telling me to consider leaving. One conspiracy theorist relative told me to check the Drudge Report to get “the real story.”
Normally, average people are served well enough by whatever media they choose to access because it never affects their daily lives. People can read well-written articles in The Economist that might be wildly inaccurate because hey, who’s going to know the difference unless you’re actually from the country they’re writing about? It’s all just entertainment for the commute. Sadly, there’s no separation between the entertainment media and where you should turn when there’s real news.
Tomorrow Japan will hold many, many local elections. The schedule is set by the central government, which prefers to hold all local elections around this time every four years. It’s sort of like Election Day in the States, except it’s on a holiday because Japanese officials actually want people to vote.
Gubernatorial and mayoral elections are decided by majority popular vote (first past the post, no runoffs), while prefectural and local assemblies are a mix of single-member and multi-member districts, though I am not sure which is more prevalent.
In the wake of the massive earthquake last month, many elections in the affected areas have been postponed. Even outside the northeast, many local officials want them put off, to the point that Urayasu (located on reclaimed land, partly sank into ground after earthquake) has steadfastly refused to hold the vote as scheduled. Given the somber national mood, an enthusiastic campaign full of upbeat promises could look unseemly, and voters are understandably distracted by post-quake anxieties.
All the same, the decision has been made, and now it’s up to the public to show up and choose their leaders. There is a very wide field, but a few themes have emerged to keep an eye on as the votes are tallied tomorrow night.
Ishihara the indestructible? Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara is running for a fourth term, and is expected to win handily despite challenges from some recognizable faces.
Ishihara was most recently in the news making and then apologizing for a statement that the recent earthquake and tsunami were divine punishment for Japan’s immorality. If you have been following the quake news, you might wonder, Why is his re-election assured despite such an offensive statement? Well, there are two reasons. First, he has a long history of getting away with being outrageous, banking on the admiration he earned as a writer/celebrity and the large number of people who agree with much of what he has to say. Second, he is a skilled politician who has gained the backing of large blocs of reliable voters at a time when support for the rival DPJ is essentially in tatters (they didn’t even field their own candidate this time) and the turnout of unaffiliated voters is expected to be low.
For more on the first reason, I would direct you to David Marx’s profile of the governor over at Neojaponisme. Key line: “He is not a “loose cannon,” accidentally saying things he later regrets. He likely thinks that success of his endeavors requires raising the ire of groups to which he does belong.” Suffice to say, people expect Ishihara to be outrageous. The only surprising thing about his most recent offense is that he apologized. Probably even some supporters told him to watch his words this time.
As to the second, maybe I can shed some light. You see, the LDP and New Komeito hold influence over a fairly disciplined voting bloc. The Komeito is especially important in this equation because of their numbers and highly reliable turnout.
For example, let’s look back to my coverage of the 2009 Tokyo prefectural assembly election. In Adachi-ku, the LDP and New Komeito delivered around 70,000 votes each of a total turnout of around 250,000. That’s 30% of the vote right there in a high turnout election, and if I remember Adachi-ku was broadly consistent with the overall result. It wasn’t enough to win then because LDP/Komeito support was in the gutter following the financial crisis and subsequent recession, so unaffiliated voters went for the DPJ, handing them control of the Tokyo legislature.
Ishihara’s two major challengers are Hideo Higashikokubaru, the comedian-turned-Miyazaki governor, and Miki Watanabe, founder of discount restaurant chain Watami. Unfortunately for them, now is not a good time for new faces, especially not Higashi with his feel-good enthusiasm, or Watanabe, who just exudes “smarmy corporate big-shot.” These two and other more minor candidates are likely to split the vote, handing another advantage to Ishihara.
According to a recent poll (JP), Ishihara has the support of around 70% of LDP supporters, 60% of New Komeito supporters, and even has the edge in support among DPJ and unaffiliated voters. Unless there’s a major upset, expect to have Ishihara around for another four years.
Regional parties to gain ground. Osaka Governor Toru Hashimoto took to Twitter to join those calling for the elections to be postponed. He may just have been posturing, however, because his party, the Osaka Restoration Association, may well win a majority in the Osaka prefectural legislature tomorrow, with an Asahi poll giving it a lead of several points against the other parties.
Regional political parties, with charismatic leaders and often populist platforms, have gained attention, not to mention power, recently. In Aichi prefecture, elections in February and March gave the upper hand to Genzei Nippon (Tax Cut Japan), a populist party with a platform to slash local taxes.
Hashimoto’s plans for Osaka look even more ambitious. By forming a party loyal to him and gaining control of the legislature, he hopes to push hard for reforms including a plan to unify the administrative functions of Osaka city and prefecture. This, along with infrastructure investment and neoliberal stand-bys like market-testing government functions for possible privatization, he argues will give him the ability to put Osaka on firmer fiscal and economic footing after years in the doldrums.
Japanese speakers can watch this video for an outline set to a Sega Genesis-era synthesizer soundtrack:
Success for Hashimoto could give momentum to ambitious politicians in other regions wishing to open their own “Restoration” franchise. One area where this idea could find traction is in the northeast, where the gargantuan task of reconstruction all but guarantees intense frustration among the locals.
How will the results affect national politics? Until a few days ago, the biggest political news story was the potential for a grand coalition, a sort of unity government to give top priority to quake reconstruction (and maybe throw in tax hikes to pay for social security for good measure). LDP President Tanigaki has thrown cold water on the discussions, reportedly because they want PM Kan to quit as a condition of joining the government. Indeed, LDP Secretary General Nobuteru Ishihara (Shintaro’s son) is now back to openly calling for Kan’s head. Wow, that didn’t take long!
The local elections will likely only give the LDP more reason to keep up pressure on Kan. In a number of key races, the DPJ has opted not to field its own candidates, apparently because it took a hard look at the numbers and decided not to embarrass itself. However, the party has candidates running in gubernatorial races in Hokkaido and Mie—polls show the LDP with a lead in Hokkaido and slightly ahead in a close race in Mie. These will likely be two of the major headlines tomorrow night.
National politics in Japan are stuck in a morass of cautious leaders who end up getting bogged down in petty scandals. Kan’s approval ratings have jumped sharply since the quake, from the 20% range to the 30s. However, setbacks and the usual drumbeat of criticism from the media will likely send it back on a downward trajectory. Since winning big in the 2009 lower house election, the DPJ’s control of the government will likely last another 2.5 years. Even with rock-bottom approval ratings, the DPJ seems more likely to rely on changing the prime minister to gain temporary support from the public rather than calling an early election. Note that the disaster, as well as a recent Supreme Court decision that mandates a lower house redistricting more closely in line with the population, make it next to impossible for Kan to call an election for a while.
Many articles in the foreign press have expressed hope that the earthquake would serve as a wake-up call for Japan’s leaders to enact reforms to put the country on a firmer footing. Count me as skeptical. Constant attention to short-term political momentum, such as the impact of these local elections, ensures rudderless leadership that remains too distracted to form a meaningful political vision. As a friend noted to me over Chinese food the other day, Kan’s post-quake speeches have been long on uplifting rhetoric but very light on anything specific to inspire actual confidence.
Though I am skeptical of Japan’s political system regardless of which party controls it, it’s important to make some distinctions. The government deserves a lot of credit for its post-crisis response, though it bears stressing that no effort will be enough. They have been prudent, fast-acting, transparent, and open to foreign aid where needed. Also, the government is currently debating plans to cut electricity use in the summer in a way that completely avoids rolling blackouts. Given the huge damage to generating capacity, pulling off coordination on that level would be nothing short of heroic.
It’s just that the political system is paralyzed as long as its leaders flail in the face of petty scandals and public perceptions. It’s possible that the central government in Tokyo, itself suffering reputation damage from the blackouts and its perceived proximity to the Fukushima disaster, might start ceding political clout to brash self-proclaimed “restorationists” like Hashimoto who, unlike the past few prime ministers, are adept at shaping public opinion rather than being shaped by it.
After meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy today, PM Naoto Kan commented that Japan needs to debate whether Japan’s current electric utility system should exist in its current form. At present, the government grants monopolies to regional utilities, which are private corporations listed on the stock market.
Admittedly, I had not thought much about this issue until this crisis came along, but now I am trying to learn more. Countries take different approaches to who owns the power utilities. For instance, the US has investor-owned utilities that provide around 38% of generating capacity, with the rest a mix of public and cooperative-owned entities.
I don’t have an opinion one way or the other at this point, but I can see how the different ownership structures can skew incentives. If you are trying to provide returns to shareholders, you might be more inclined to promote more electricity usage, as Tepco has done by offering discounts to people who use “all-electric” homes with electricity-powered stoves and baths, etc. On the other hand, both privately owned and public utilities can cultivate the types of entrenched, bureaucratic management teams that lead to the types of massive cover-ups and bungling incompetence we have seen at Tepco.
(Disclosure: I own a small investment in Tepco. Take nothing I say as investment advice)
There is an awful lot of panic and speculation regarding the situation at the Fukushima #1 (Daiichi) Nuclear Power Plant and in particular its possible effects on the Tokyo Metro area. What is really going on?
Short answer – things seem to be pretty safe for now, but there is still a possibility of danger if things don’t go well.
Since I am continually updating this post (first published on March 15 at 6:40PM) I have reassigned the date to bring it back to the top, but edited the formatting slightly to keep its length from blocking out the other recent posts.
I have also been very active on twitter the last week and will continue to post there more often than here, but probably less often than I have been since I have a lot of other stuff to take care of. You can follow me there @mutantfroginc.
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