Abe staging a comeback from Washington?

Checking the Brookings Institution’s site on other business, I came across info for this event happening on Friday in downtown DC:  

AN ADDRESS BY THE HON. SHINZO ABE, FORMER PRIME MINISTER OF JAPAN

A New Era Requires New Political Will
Event Summary

On April 17, the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at Brookings will host former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan for an address on key issues facing Japan, the United States and the world. Prime Minister Abe will discuss Japan’s role in addressing regional and global security concerns as well as the global economic crisis and climate change. He will also explore possible policy approaches to these and other issues for the Japanese and U.S. governments, as both countries and the international community face an era defined by urgent challenges and new leadership.
I’m sure that it does take “political will” to tackle difficult issues, just not Abe’s uniquely ham-fisted brand of it.
If this is indeed the start of some kind of political comeback, one can only hope that if the LDP stays in power after the next election, Aso will appoint Abe to multiple cabinet portfolios (I envision a right-wing hawk trifecta: foreign minister/NK abductee policy minister/Northern Territories minister).
Since I love to criticize without having any actual responsibility to run things, I will be sure to catch the audio of this when it comes out.

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Shocker: Japanese people prefer “Japanese food”

The Nielsen research company has conducted a global survey on dining out preferences (Japanese PDF). The Nikkei presents the results from Japan. When asked what type of food they prefer when dining out, Japanese respondents said:

  1. Japanese (48%)
  2. Italian (20%)
  3. Chinese (12%)
  4. French (7%)

Globally, Japanese food was the fifth most preferred food. Surprisingly, the 46% of Japanese people who eat out more than three times per week is only marginally above the 44% global average.

Japanese people have a comparatively high level of what I would term “gastronomic nationalism” – that is, their preference for their own food far exceeds the global rate of 27%.

Anyone who has spent any time in this country will not be surprised to see Japanese food topping the results. Inside Japan, Japanese food is simply everywhere. The children are raised on government-supplied lunches and mother’s obento box lunches, on TV there is an endless parade of B-list celebrities fawning over the latest restaurant, and on the street the vast majority of eateries are nominally Japanese. On top of that, Japanese food is objectively scrumptious and awesome, a fact not lost on people.

But what exactly is Japanese food? The survey was apparently taken based on the respondents’ own definitions of what “Japanese food” means, but this is not always so clear-cut. Under such conditions, food that might otherwise be considered foreign must have been included under the “Japanese” rubric. “Japanese food” spans a very wide variety – from obviously Japanese foods like sushi, pickled radishes, and soba buckwheat noodles to more complicated foods that blur the lines between “pure” Japanese food and fusion dishes that have developed over the years. Other foods that may have foreign origins might not be perceived as foreign by some of the consumers (yakiniku aka Korean barbecue comes to mind as I have heard some tell me it is Japanese).

For example, it’s hard to tell whether ramen would be considered Chinese or Japanese (though the recipe is distinctly Japanese, many ramen shops advertise themselves as chuuka (Chinese) and also sell gyoza, which are more or less Japanized versions of Chinese dumplings), or for that matter whether Japanese-style curry can be called Indian (it was apparently adapted from Britain, which itself adapted it from the Indian dish). And then there is the plethora of dishes that are considered youshoku (Western/occidental food) in Japan but would be hard to find on a table anywhere in the actual West. These include omuraisu (ketchup rice wrapped in an omelette) and hambaagu (a bunless hamburger often seasoned and stuffed with onions, served with a variety of toppings such as grated daikon radish (oroshi) and ponzu, a kind of  citrus/soy/vinegar sauce).

Conversely, much so-called Italian food has been considerably Japanized as well (think mentaiko spaghetti), but I doubt many respondents who go into their local Capricciosa to order noodles drowned in spicy fish eggs and mayonnaise would consider themselves to be eating at a “Japanese food” establishment. Confusing things further, many “retro Showa era” restaurants serve a “Neapolitan” spaghetti-and-ketchup dishes, but in a very Japanese izakaya atmosphere. And then there are the “rice burgers” served at Mos Burger, the new  soy sauce-enhanced fried chicken at KFC, and Okinawa-style taco rice (this unlike the other two would be likely termed “Japanese”). I could go on, but it’s getting close to dinner time.

So all that said, the data could be kind of biased in Japan’s case (and the same probably goes for other countries) since Japan has co-opted so much of the Western menu into its own native cuisine. As far as I am concerned, the world is all the richer for it.

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Surprise! You’re Brazilian

Awesome citizenship story from an Asahi reporter (translated from page 11 of the Asahi Shimbun April 10 morning edition):

[Correspondent’s Notebook] Sao Paolo, Brazil: A Dubious Fine

I paid a fine the other day.

The reason? It was my duty as a Brazilian.

I was born in Brazil due to my father’s job, but after returning to Japan at age 1 I was raised as a Japanese and never doubted otherwise.

All that changed when the decision was made to dispatch me to Sao Paolo. I headed to the Consulate General Brazil of Brazil in Tokyo to apply for a visa, but they refused to issue one, telling me, “You are a Brazilian.” They said I had no standing to get a visa as visas can only be issued to foreigners.

Brazil is a jus solis country, meaning that you automatically receive citizenship if you are born there. Well I never… Slightly confused, I accepted the green Brazilian passport and headed to my post.

In Sao Paolo, I tried to get my ID card and was told I needed to register to vote. On top of that, since I had neglected to register at age 18, they ordered me to pay a fine. Voting is mandatory in Brazil.

Though I retorted, “Until recently I was a Japanese living in Japan,” the official was ready with a comeback: “Just the other day, a native came in here and insisted, ‘I was living in the jungle until now, so I had no idea about registering to vote.’ But rules are rules!”

Not totally satisfied with the explanation, I gave up and paid the fine of 3.5 real (160 yen or USD $1.60).

(Ari Hirayama)

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Vocabulary for a Crisis

These days, news on the financial crisis is everywhere, and as a result I have learned lots of vocabulary words I might otherwise not have encountered.  Here is a brief list in no particular order:

大恐慌 (Daikyoukou) = The Great Depression. I had seen this word many times before but for some reason never bothered to look up the reading.

サブプライムローン(低信用者向けの住宅ローン) (sabupuraimu roon (teishinyoushamuke no juutaku roon)) = Sub-prime loans (home loans for persons with bad credit).  This phrase – the katakana-ized English followed by the full definition – must have appeared on every single page of the Nikkei every day for at least a year since the crisis broke in August 2008. As the phrase was mostly used as a key word in repetitive and perfunctory background sentences, it has largely been replaced by the more efficient “Lehman shock” (リーマンショック) or some other milestone of the crisis.  Other papers seem to have had different editorial approaches (Asahi used just “sabu puraimu mondai” (sub-prime loan crisis) with no explanation).

特別目的会社 (tokubetsu mokuteki gaisha) – Special Purpose Vehicle/Company (SPV/SPC) – these were the off-balance subsidiaries used by major banks to turn themselves into get-rich-quick schemes by investing in the subprime housing market without reducing their capital adequacy.

てこ入れ (tekoire) = leverage. I have also seen the katakana English レバレッジ and the opposite デレバレッジ

時価会計 (jika kaikei) = mark-to-market accounting. Funnily enough, while Japanese accounting standards at the time of their crisis never had mark-to-market accounting (or consolidated accounting for that matter), the US accounting board has moved to alter its rules to allow banks to hide the value of assets similar to their Japanese counterparts circa 1997. See this article from Baseline Scenario for an enlightening comparison of Japan’s situation with the current US financial crisis, and how it appears that our policy response is looking more and more like Japan’s. Also, the video report on TARP progress from the Congressional Oversight Panel was similarly clear and instructive:

 

対岸の火事 (taigan no kaji) = literally, “a fire on the opposite shore” is a metaphor for “someone else’s problem.” As in, the US financial crisis is no longer…

製造業派遣 (seizougyou haken) = “temporary labor in the manufacturing sector” (Japanese can be very space-efficient sometimes!), first permitted in 2004.  The labor movement’s reaction to the recession has been to make a counterfactual (and ultimately ignored) demand for wage increases for regular employees while pushing to ban certain types of non-regular employment on grounds that it is unjust. The types slated for the chopping block include temporary day labor services (日雇い派遣 discredited by the shady business practices of the Goodwill Group) and the aforementioned temporary factory work.  For Japanese-readers, I recommend Ikeda Nobuo’s recent post decrying the tendency for Japanese public debate to favor emotional arguments and completely ignore the concept of societal trade-offs (as in, what happens when the employers choose to scale back their businesses rather than incur the burdensome employment costs?).

三種の神器 (sanshu no jingi)- This is the word for the “three imperial regalia” – a sword, a jade necklace, and a mirror – which are symbols of the Japanese emperor’s divinity as descendant of the sun goddess and respectively represent valor, wisdom, and benevolence. In consumption terms, they represent the three modern necessities of a Japanese middle-class household – a color TV, an air conditioner, and a personal automobile. At PM Aso’s press conference last night announcing his new economic growth strategy, he indicated that Japan’s new consumption regalia will be (1) solar batteries (太陽電池), (2)  electric cars (電気自動車), and (3) energy-saving consumer appliances (省エネ家電). Apparently, people will be paying for these devices with all the money they will make selling fashion magazines in Taiwan

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Did I miss any good ones?

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TRUE FACTS from Shukan Toyo Keizai

FACT: Tokyo’s GDP is 46 times greater than that of Tottori Prefecture, the smallest prefecture in terms of GDP. (Source: Cabinet Office data)

FACT: One in eight single men who were single three years ago got married. 

FACT: 36.9% of workers have unpaid overtime due to them, as of Oct. 2007.

FACT: 58.5% of all persons killed or injured in bicycle accidents were aged 65 or older.

FACT: 77.4% of adult males agree with the statement “underaged people should never drink alcohol.”

FACT: There were 18,564 homeless people in Japan as of Jan. 2007.

FACT: The average annual salary of 4-year university graduate males in their late 20s is 3.127 million yen.

(The sources for most of these are unverified, but I trust they are official government stats)

You can see these and other awesome economic statistics on my BRAND NEW Shukan Toyo Keizai widget (Japanese language only) on the Adamukun blog sidebar!

One way to lessen the blight of hereditary politicians: enforce their inheritance taxes!

 Tobias Harris has an article in the Far Eastern Economic Review overviewing the theories for why Japan has a “leadership deficit” which he defines as the current state of affairs in which “The three prime ministers who have followed the dynamic Junichiro Koizumi have shared a degree of tone deafness to the concerns of the Japanese public; have done little to fix the many problems facing Japan, problems compounded by the country’s stunning economic collapse; and have struggled to control their unruly Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).”

He lays out a three-pronged explanation: leadership as he defines it has failed due to “institutional constraints” (gridlock in the PM’s attempts to carry out policy in contention with bureacratic and intraparty LDP interests), “a generational constraint” (lack of good presentation skills), and “the immensity of the problems facing Japan.” He concludes that as an institution, the LDP itself is part of the problem, and,  that a change in political leadership (preferably under a “feared” Ozawa who can act decisively) would be a step toward eliminating these barriers, if the DPJ does not become overwhelmed with the task of governing this troubled nation.

As part of his argument, he dismisses as essentially irrelevant the common view that the large number of  hereditary politicians is behind Japanese leadership deficiencies:

There is no shortage of theories for why Japan’s politicians are so inept. One popular explanation is that Japan is cursed with hereditary politicians. The argument is that the princelings, having ambled into politics without having to forge close relations with the voters who elect them, have lost touch with the concerns of the average citizen. With roughly a quarter of the members of both houses of the Japanese Diet being representatives by inheritance—and reportedly 40% of LDP members—the idea is that Japanese politicians are a pampered lot, insensitive to the concerns of the people.

But it is unclear how hereditary politicians are any worse than their ancestors or their nonhereditary peers. There is a sense that this argument amounts to “Abe, Aso, and Nakagawa Shoichi, Q.E.D.” Except that lineage is not destiny. After all, Mr. Koizumi, recognized as one of postwar Japan’s most able leaders, is a third-generation politician; his predecessor, Mori Yoshiro, regarded as one of postwar Japan’s worst prime ministers, was not a hereditary Diet member. If Japan has a leadership deficit, its source likely lies elsewhere.

One question I would ask: If inheritance and incumbency are the easiest paths to a stable Diet seat, which in turn has traditionally led to leadership positions for those able to earn enough reelections, then doesn’t the high rate of political dynasties necessarily form an important pillar of the LDP as an institution?

But on the whole I can accept Tobias’s premise. While the widespread and well-established nepotism in Japan in many ways is a serious problem as it crowds out newcomers and entrenches the elite (just as it is elsewhere), I will allow that for the purposes of a more narrow discussion on Japan’s immediate political problems, it might not be the most productive aspect of the debate to focus on. Rather than pushing for internal reform of the longtime incumbent, the knowledge that underperformance will mean getting voted out of power would be the best way to motivate politicians.

Now that Japan’s postwar leadership cabal has failed fairly consistently for the past two decades, people, or at least certain corners of punditry, are less forgiving of practices that were completely acceptable and typical of serious leaders. Hereditary politicians are just the most prominent example of the back-scratching and nepotistic practices of the people in charge.

But while estate taxes in Japan are designed to limit the ability of wealthy citizens to create multigenerational empires, according to Takashi Uesugi loopholes in the estate tax rules allow politicians to pass their policial fund management groups onto relatives without estate taxes. It’s an obvious protection for incumbents that has been left untouched for decades, and I only learned about it the other day. I am not sure of the extent to which this serves to pass on the incumbency advantages (name recognition and blood ties might be even more significant than the initial funding base), but I am surprised not to have seen it before (though that might say more about me than anything else).

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Run of good news for Aso

Ever since the beginning of the Ozawa scandal, I can’t help but feel like Prime Minister Aso has had a non-stop run of good news, from the glowing applause from the media for the recent move to lower highway tolls to 1,000 yen to the passably competent response to the NK missile threat. A Bloomberg article today notes that if this keeps up, the LDP might actually manage to stay in power:

Kim Jong Il’s missile launch over Japan is giving Prime Minister Taro Aso a much-needed boost in opinion polls before elections he must call by September.

Aso’s public support rating rose 9.4 percentage points from last month in a Nippon Television survey completed April 5, the day North Korea fired its rocket. A separate Yomiuri poll gave him a statistically insignificant 1.1 point increase.

The prime minister will look to build on his momentum in the next two days by extending sanctions against Kim’s communist regime and announcing a 15.4 trillion yen ($154 billion) stimulus package to help revive the world’s second-largest economy.

Ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Ichita Yamamoto and Hidenao Nakagawa, formerly the party’s No. 2 official, say Aso, 68, should seize the moment and call elections in May, four months before he is required to do so. The premier told reporters on March 31 he would decide the election timing after gauging opposition reaction to his government’s third attempt at economic stimulus.

“Until Ozawa’s flop, some would have put money on the DPJ winning the majority at the election,” said Gerald Curtis, a political science professor specializing in Japan at Columbia University. “Now there’s a possibility that Aso’s LDP may come out with more seats.”

If these developments are all it takes to convince people that the LDP should still be in charge, I will have nothing left to say. At that point, what will be left to conclude but that Japan’s public is simply getting the government it deserves?

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iPhone

I decided that if I got into the MA program and had a guaranteed two more years in Japan I would go out and get a nice new cell phone on a two year contract. I previously had a fairly mediocre (but very cheap) smart phone when I was living in the US the year before last in the form of the Samsung Blackjack, and although its functionality was very limited compared with these newer models, having the Internet in my pocket was an amazingly useful thing. Weighing my options between Windows Mobile phones (still a disappointing OS overall, despite some impressive hardware), Android (not in Japan yet), Palm Pre (not out yet anywhere) and the iPhone, I ended up going with the iPhone.

This is the first Apple product I’ve never actually bought, but looking at it objectively there was simply no better choice at this time. Although having a music/video player, web browser and phone all in one unit was attractive enough in and of itself (particularly since my 60GB Creative Zen Vision:M is on its last legs, with the case literally cracking apart) there was a single feature that absolutely sold me when I saw it: the ability to switch between input languages just as easily as you do on a PC. Perhaps Android or the most recent version of Windows Mobile also allows this, but I had never before seen a phone that would easily and without hacking allow the installation of more than just English + one other foreign language, but picking up a friend’s iPhone I was able to immediately add a Chinese IME, without having to install any extra software from, to look up a character.

Here are some of my impressions so far, in no particular order.

  • I can’t get over the multi-language features. Yesterday I switched to Korean just to let a Korean girl I know type her name in hangul into the address book.
  • Being able to download new podcasts over the air is amazing.
  • The touch interface is excellent for almost everything, but typing takes a LOT of getting used to, and can never be as good as a decent physical keyboard. This is particularly true for Japanese, which does not have the ability to compensate for your typing mistakes when using the full keypad in the same way the English IME does. While one can also use a telephone style numeric keypad for Japanese entry, without the tactile feedback of a traditional phone. Anyone who uses a mobile phone in Japan knows how easy it is to enter Japanese one-handed and without even looking at either the keys or screen much, and the iPhone really just isn’t as good at Japanese text entry.
  • They have added “emoji” as one of the three keyboards (IMEs) under the Japanese language section, but in fact someone in any other country could install JUST the emoji IME without the actual Japanese language. I think Apple should start encouraging that, perhaps even set it as a default, and get credit for introducing a new feature to the non-Japan market.
  • Battery life is really insufficient. I’m absolutely going to have to get a battery pack and spare wall outlet charging cable to carry around with me. When the same device is phone, web browser, music player, ebook reader, game player, etc. you can really suck through the battery FAST. I would be extremely happy with 50% or 100% more battery life in exchange for a couple more milimeters of thickness.
  • The included headphones are absolutely terrible, but I accidentally destroyed my good old Sony headphones so it looks like a trip to the electronics store soon.
  • I found a great free Chinese dictionary app called Qingwen, and a usable Japanese one called Kotoba! which uses the Jim Breen JDIC file (Qingwen uses a similar file, for Chinese.) There is also a $9 app for sale that uses the Eijiro (ALC.com) dictionary, and some commercial dictionaries, including  大辞林 and 漢字源, as well as Japanese to English ones.
  • The New York Times app isn’t bad. It downloads new articles in text format and allows you to browse them offline, resize the font, etc. The free Sankei app that lets you view the paper as it is in print is cool for like a minute, before you realize that having to slide around a phone screen over an image file of gigantic broadsheet newspaper is a totally retarded way to read it. Nice job making it free, now how about delivering in a usable format?
  • Although integrated email app works fine with gmail over IMAP, I wish it used gmail style threading and its other unique features. The Android mail app offers those native gmail features (since it was written by Google) and their iphone web page is excellent, but unfortunately there is no way to get that interface in a way tied to the new mail notification of the iPhone OS mail application. Hopefully Google will deliver a proper Gmail client once iPhone OS 3.0 arrives, with its notification API.
  • Seriously, still no copy/paste function? How was that not in 1.0? At least it’s coming this summer.
  • The lack of an infrared data port is seriously annoying. This is how EVERYONE exchanges contact information in Japan, and it’s way more convenient than any other method.
  • On a related note, the iPhone address book is fairly weak, offering an annoyingly small number of different data fields. This is in contrast to Japanese phones, which have an insane number of fields on the order of a Facebook profile, even including crap like zodiac signs or blood type. (This is an even bigger problem for gmail itself, which has a truly and surprisingly lousy address book.)

Recaldent-branded teeth cleaning milk

I feel the need to record the extreme case of the jibblies that this news brought on:

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In about two weeks, Meiji Dairies Corporation plans to release a teeth-cleaning milk called “Milk de Recaldent.”

Basically, this is nothing more than a new type of milk with tooth-fortifying “recaldent,” a product of the Cadbury company which they explain is “an effective ingredient that rebuilds the tooth by replacing the minerals where cavities can begin to form and leaves teeth more resistant to plaque acids.”

But in Japan, the brand “Recaldent” is almost inextricably linked with sugar-free gum, so I can’t help but think they are making trying to make my milk taste like minty gum for the added dental benefits, thanks to commercials like this one:

The release explains that the milk’s flavor won’t change, but by the time I saw that I was already jibblied out.

jibblies

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Late night supermarket salarymen

Nikkei had some interesting coverage of a new social trend – men in supermarkets!

Besuited Men Begin To Haunt Supermarkets Late At Night

TOKYO (Nikkei)–Suit-attired men have become a conspicuous late-night presence at urban supermarkets. They often buy stuff for breakfast the next day or snacks to have with a drink or two before hitting the sack. At some supermarkets, late-night sales are beginning to surpass last year’s figures.

Most of these men buy something to munch on while they unwind with a drink or two. Croquettes, fried potatoes, packages of sliced fish as well as canned mackerel and saury sell well at these stores. Also popular are sushi, instant-noodle cups, frozen food, cut fruit and other ready-to-eat items.

One reason besuited men are haunting supermarkets late at night is the economic downturn. Japan’s armies of white-collar workers are going out to drink with coworkers and friends less often these days as they try to save money. But they are also loath to cook. “My wife fixes dinner,” one male grocery shopper said, “but I buy these snacks just for myself.”

Late-night shopping used to be done at convenience stores, but lower supermarket prices have given some night owls an irresistible choice. At supermarkets, a package of sliced tuna that goes for 400 yen during the day is often marked down to half that at night. Bread and side dishes sell for 30-50 yen less at night. “It’s difficult to ask my wife for a raise in my monthly allowance,” a man in his 30s said. “But I can cut costs by buying these discounted things.”

Could the translator have chosen the term “haunting” as a reference to the salaryman’s typically defeated, dead-inside demeanor? A blogger can only speculate.

One thing I have really noticed as a salaryman who shares grocery shopping duties with my wife is that I am something of a rare breed. Ito Yokado is overwhelmingly filled with housewives shopping for dinner, even at night. But occasionally (and I guess there are more than before but I feel like it’s been constant for at least the past year) there are the salarymen who line up with just three items – a ready-to-eat piece of food, some ostumami beer snack, and the ever-popular but morally reprehensible happoshu or other near-beer. There seem to be more of them shopping at the discount supermarket Big A than Ito Yokado, which is a more traditional supermarket/department store. In addition, Big A is where the off-duty construction workers buy their own happoshu-and-otsumami sets.

If these men are foregoing drinking sessions with their colleagues in favor of quality time at home, so much the better!

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Check the Adamukun blog for Adamu’s shared articles and recommended links.