Our Japanese fails us

I’m back from my trip with Lord Curzon and will be posting some pictures in the coming days. This tidbit, however, just couldn’t wait:

On Wednesday, rather than take a bus around the peninsula to catch our ferry to Hakodate, we decided to hitchhike straight through the mountains. This turned out to be pretty strenuous, as nobody was going all the way to our destination, so we had to thumb five rides and do a lot of walking in between.

The last car to pick us up was an aging four-door occupied by three thuggish-looking guys with buzz cuts. As we zoomed up the coast, headed for the very northern tip of Honshu, the driver opened up the conversation something like this:

DRIVER: Where you guys from?
CURZON: America.
DRIVER: Ha ha! Oh! You heard about Koizumi going to Yasukuni?
CURZON: (knowing smile) Oh, yes.
DRIVER: (more nervously) Heh heh… (awkward silence)

After they dropped us off at the ferry terminal, I remarked to Curzon: “It’s a pity we don’t know how to say ‘fuck yeah!’ in Japanese.”

Yasukuni Won’t talk to Asahi over Unauthorized Disclosure of Shrine’s Properties

Remember that piece saying that Yasukuni was in financial trouble? Well, turns out the shrine itself wasn’t too happy about it:

Yasukuni Shrine on Tuesday blocked Asahi Shimbun journalists from covering Junichiro Koizumi’s last visit to the site as prime minister on the 61st anniversary of the end of World War II.

The ban on Asahi reporters and photographers in the Shinto shrine’s precincts is in protest over a map of shrine holdings printed over the weekend by the daily.

The ban will remain in effect for an indefinite period, shrine officials said.

While one could argue that one less news agency covering major events in Japan could be beneficial (see what happened when the BOJ ended quantitative easing), it’s hard to see where this is coming from. The properties are a matter of public record, so it only makes sense that a story on the financial situation of a controversial shrine that, incidentally, may be nationalized if Foreign Minister Taro Aso has his way, would include information about the shrine’s holdings.

Anyway, I am not close to this issue. But I do have some questions:

  • For a news source to give the silent treatment to a news agency whose reporting it doesn’t like isn’t new, but perhaps Yasukuni is used to a more obsequious press that wouldn’t bother to inform readers of the actual facts behind the government’s proposals?
  • All major national newspapers, with the exception of Sankei, openly call for the PM and his successor to stop going). However, it is rumored that Asahi Shimbun has close ties to China and the Japanese left. And its editorials tend to be harder on the PM’s Yasukuni visits than other newspapers. Could the shrine (whose owners and major patrons do view it as the central national war memorial) and Asahi already have a bitter relationship? Does Asahi have a vendetta against Yasukuni?
  • The above question is premised on the fact that the Asahi Shimbun, as with other major newspapers, is not reknowned for its crack investigative journalism. Most reports are directed by government agenda-setting (see this latest “expose” on exploited foreign exchange students that looks as if it could have been written by the Ministry of Justice) and use scant outside sources (a by-product of the reporters’ club system and newspapers’ special privileges protecting them from competition).
  • Asahi has been reeling from scandals such as a faked memo that allegedly indicated that some of the postal rebels were going to form a new party. The scandals spurred the paper to launch a full-scale PR campaign as well as internal inquiries to reform the paper’s investigative journalism policy. Could the improved online access to more and longer articles from the newspaper, along with more expose-style pieces be the results of these new policies?
  • My two favorite “Western” reporters on Japan

    For some reason, foreign financial reporters on Japan seem to have the best perspective. Here are two examples:

    William Pesek, a columnist for Bloomberg, earned my admiration back in June when he cut through layers of government spin to find the real reason why BOJ Governor Toshihiko Fukui should resign:

    The scandal involving his 10 million yen ($86,950) investment in a fund led by a shareholder activist jailed on insider-trading charges has gone beyond theater and farce. It now threatens to tarnish Japan’s global reputation.

    Even if it turns out Fukui didn’t break any laws, his actions were dumb. Fukui invested in Yoshiaki Murakami’s fund in 1999, when he was at the Fujitsu Research Institute. He applied in February to sell his shares, raising questions of propriety as the BOJ prepares to boost rates for the first time since August 2000 and after his investment more than doubled in value.

    The bigger problem is how vehemently Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has come to Fukui’s defense. It means the BOJ governor, who is supposed to be independent, now owes the prime minister. The upshot is that a rate hike that was widely expected in July may be delayed until after Koizumi steps down in September.

    Fukui, 70, yesterday said “monetary policy isn’t affected by politics” and that the BOJ needs to adjust rates “without delay.” Even so, the mere perception that BOJ policies are paralyzed thanks to Fukui’s missteps is reason enough for him to resign.

    Preach it!

    Coming in at No. 2 (only because he doesn’t cover issues I’m curious about often enough) we have David Piling, the FT‘s correspondent in Tokyo. Like Pesek, he’s adept at cutting through the BS, even when it comes from his fellow Britons as in this book review:

    To wish [the “unique” aspects of Japan] away would be to miss something recognisably Japanese. Yet, to treat Japan as inherently odd can quickly stray into stereotype, even prejudice. Just as bad, it can bolster the case of those Japanese exceptionalists who assert that Japan is unique, superior and unknowable by foreigners.

    In Atomic Sushi, May seeks to break the deadlock by recounting, wittily and often brilliantly, his personal experiences, greedily amassed during a year spent teaching at the University of Tokyo.

    The approach, as befits a professor, is to tell a story (often hilariously) and then to offer analysis. The interpretations are sometimes amusing and astute, but sometimes they are so sweeping as to be virtually meaningless. Take the account of a beautiful girl who, though standing, falls asleep virtually draped over a commuting businessman. Apparently in the depths of slumber, she nevertheless awakens the instant the train reaches her destination.

    She apparently displays the Japanese people’s “pervasive and acute alertness to their environment and its subtle signals, instilled perhaps by their constant vulnerability to earthquakes”. Or maybe she just heard the station announcement.

    As a reporter, Piling will undoubtedly be replaced when his time comes to be promoted or the FT feels that his closeness to Japan could pose a conflict of interest problem (one major reason why many news companies replace their foreign correspondents so often). I can only hope that they find someone with as keen judgment.

    There are many who feel that Japan shouldn’t have to put up with foreign criticism, or that Japan’s image needs to be mollycoddled by official propaganda and numerous underdisclosed shills. But I can’t stress it enough that open debate and frank discussion (most especially when it’s available for free on the Internet), such as the above examples, are desirable when you’re talking about understanding another society, discussing policy choices in a society in which you’re invested, in monetary terms or otherwise. It results in a better informed public and a broader range of ideas from which to draw inspiration and guidance.

    Yakuza Push Back as Rigged Boxing Match Makes Waves in the Japanese Internet

    Kameda Hide.jpg
    I haven’t been following this issue too closely, but here’s a quick rundown:

    On August 2, star Japanese boxer Koki Kameda fought Juan Landaeta of Venezuela for the World Boxing Association’s light flyweight championship. The match, which I naturally missed since I live outside Japan (but you can see some clips on Youtube here), was said to obviously have gone to Landaeta in terms of both points and the match’s momentum. However, at the end of the day Kameda was awarded the championship 2-1. The Japanese blogosphere (which scored its first political touchdown amid last year’s earthquake safety scandal) cried foul, the rumor being that the match had been rigged as a “present” for mob boss Goro Hide Hanabusa‘s birthday. Pictures of the two together (see above) soon surfaced, putting Kameda’s career in jeopardy not just for participating in a rigged match but for acquiring a dirty image in what is supposed to be a family sport.

    Marxy, who has been following this story, has noted that the story has broken much faster on the Internet than in weekly magazines, Japan’s usual outlet for yakuza-related scandals. While diffusion of the Internet into daily lives in Japan has lagged behind the US (your aunt Ikuko still can’t book discount flights online, for instance), the more popular uses of the net (anonymous message boards, then blogs, and now Youtube) have proven effective tools in getting around the notorious disinformation found in traditonal news media (case in point). Japanese wiki, for instance, contains frank passages on taboo subjects such as the real identities of TV stars, exposure of staged events on TV, and now the role of organized crime in fixing boxing matches.

    That is, it did until a few hours ago. Marxy just clued me in that Hide Hanabusa’s wikipedia entry was recently deleted due to “copyright issues”. Wikipedia will apparently instantly delete any entry that a rightsholder alleges contains a violation of his/her copyright. I have no idea whether that is the case in this instance, but it’s interesting to see that the yaks may have realized they’re being humiliated online and decided to take action.

    Will the Japanese yakuza expand its Internet savvy beyond cheap cons in order to protect its image? Well, as far as this blogger is concerned, I figure I’ll be safe as long I keep writing in English.

    I am going to miss Koizumi SO MUCH – no for what he accomplished, but for what he DID

    Look at him being awesome in Mongolia:


    Best Prime Minister ever? You bet. Too bad he’ll be checking out next month.

    What I really liked about Koizumi was his knack for political spectacle – you may remember his recent Elvis impersonation. We’ve spent a lot of time looking at Koizumi’s sheer presence on camera. He’ll be remembered in the US for his horrible karaoke at Graceland, but in Japan he is likely to go down as Japan’s biggest reformer since MacArthur.

    Now, R. Taggart Murphy at the New Left Review points out that Koizumi did precious little to shake up Japan’s real power structure – unchecked and all-powerful bureaucrats who are loyal lapdogs of the US because Japan’s immense dollar holdings leave them with few options. I can’t offer a complete response to the article, but he dismisses Koizumi’s reform drive as a “convincing act,” a claim that’s irritating as someone who looks at some of the trees among the forest of Japan’s government.

    I mean, he’s basically right. Of course any responsible Japanese politician isn’t going to commit political suicide by disrupting the precarious world financial system (Taggart admits that elsehwere in the paper), and any policy pursued by the PM’s office is going to be riddled with concessions to the “real power holders” – hence the directionless postal privatization policy and failure to get Japanese bond issuances down under 30 trillion yen, as well as leaving many other unanswered questions. And he makes a good point – that the push for so-called “neoliberal” economic policies that has been going on since the 90s were often nothing but smoke and mirrors hiding more cynical policy objectives.

    But at least in terms of political reform, Koizumi did a lot – the dismantling of the LDP’s faction system (as seen in the rush to support Abe), the rise of the CEFP style of policy making, and the fruition of Japan’s new electoral system, all Koizumi-led developments. These are not merely “imported suits of clothes” as he puts it but (late) responses to demands from the public to take power away from the bureaucrats, who have lost significant public trust in the last decade or so.

    But it looks like Japan’s next PM, Shinzo Abe, in addition to offering very little on policy issues (reports on his new book and promotional campaign seem pretty wishy washy – I mean, 2nd chances for failed business owners?!). And it’s certain that he will offer nothing even remotely closely resembling Koizumi’s early classic bike safety display in full, shiny reflective business attire.

    I mean, just look at this guy (on the left of course):
    abe and koizumi with chicks.jpg

    As much as I’d like to know what this picture is all about (Chinese source!), it’s clear enough that this man is zombie Jon Arbuckle – boring, lame, and flesh-eating. He’s typical LDP blah and Japan needs none of it.

    Koizumi, you’ll be sorely missed. I’ll be crying as I clutch my lion keychain (get them at the LDP HQ while they’re hot!) during Abe’s swearing in.

    Support the Reemerging State Shinto – Visit Yasukuni!

    Yasukuni Shrine, Japan’s controversial unofficial war memorial, is in financial trouble, says the Asahi Shimbun. Apparently, the drop in major donations spurred by the disappearance of the war generation has run headfirst into plans for a revamping of its war-nostalgia museum in preparation for its 130th anniversary. Let’s look at the numbers:

    Total cost for renovating the museum: 8.3 billion yen
    Annual budget: 1.8 billion, down 5% from last year and almost half of the 1985 budget of 3.2 billion yen. So they’re dipping into the endowment, it looks like.

    In terms of revenue, Teikoku Databank shows that Yasukuni only reported 235 million yen (parking fees, rent for the gift shop and building, and entrance fees for the museum), down from 400 million yen in 1996 (NOTE: edited from original post). It’s the 3rd highest earner of all Shinto shrines, but only makes 1/5 of the top earner, Meiji Jingu. At this rate, the shrine is currently moving forward with rationalizations such as not replacing retired workers, outsourcing some operations, and getting estimates from multiple contractors and auctioning out construction/repairs.

    Obviously, this development will have an effect on the recent reemergence of proposals to nationalize the shrine. Although the Asahi warns that “it is doubtful that Yasukuni will agree to dissolve itself” it’s not like a bankrupt Yasukuni (or its backers in the war bereaved association) could really say no to national patronage if it means saving the expensive but apparently effective museum.

    To the far end of the island, and the near end of the next

    Lord Curzon and I are going on a little trip next week. His ultimate plan is to trek around the north side of Hokkaido by bicycle. Unfortunately, being all about the benjamins, I don’t have an extra two weeks to spare for that part. Instead, I’ll be accompanying Curzon on the first leg of our trip, from Tokyo through the northern tip of Honshu and into Hokkaido.

    Our itinerary will find us visiting Aomori (population 300,000), Mutsu (population 50,000), Osorezan (a volcano traditionally believed to be an entrance to Hell), the miniscule port of Oma (population 6,000), and finally Hakodate (population 300,000–thank God, I was starting to feel lonely). From Hakodate, Curzon will continue on up through Hokkaido while I head back to Tokyo by train, seeing half of Japan in the process.

    Liquid terrorism

    Andrew Sullivan says that the most interesting thing about the recently foiled terror plot is that the terrorists were planning on using “liquids” of some kind in the attack. Since the authorities are still being tight-lipped about the actual details of the attack we have no idea what exactly that liquid was, but there are a number of possibilities. Andrew’s pet theory seems to be that they were using a device that combines liquids from two different chambers to create hydrogen-cyanide gas. According to this BBC article, it was in fact liquid explosives, with electronic detonators hidden inside portable devices, which presumably would be dis and reassembled within the plane.

    Whatever the exact nature of the liquid being used in this particular attack was, there is one major past terrorist attack perpetrated through the release of liquids inside a vehicle. I am of course talking about the Aum Shinrikyo Tokyo subway sarin gas attack of March 20, 1995.

    Earlier this year I had a large translation project in which I translated a couple of hundred pages of Aum Shinrikyo related material, including a large portion of Aum and I by Ikuo Hayashi, a medical doctor and member of the cult, who participated in the sarin release. Below are some excerpts describing the preparation for, and actual release of the sarin inside the subway.
    Continue reading Liquid terrorism