New DPJ cabinet is almost totally awesome

First, the bad news. Shizuka Kamei has been appointed minister of postal issues and financial services. The man is a fierce, fierce fighter who likes to dredge up personal scandals using his ties as a former police official. That’s probably how he got the job. Now he’s going to make sure Japan Post remains the world’s biggest and possibly worst-managed bank and he’s going to crush regional banks by allowing all the people they lended money to stop paying for three years. Great.

As I just commented over at Observing Japan’s assessment of the new lineup, I hope Kamei simply collapses under his own weight. He may well overreach in a position that gives him barely any authority at all. If any place should be safe from unwise political meddling, it’s the FSA which has SEC-like regulatory and law enforcement authority over all financial services institutions.

Otherwise, not a bad lineup. Though Time Magazine posits Ozawa as a “shadow shogun” (reflecting the “Ozawa is the real one in charge” theme trotted out by both Nikkei and Yomiuri, who are wary of a DPJ administration) the cabinet reflects a wide sampling from the party including people not so close to Ozawa, like finance minister Hirohisa Fujii who was an early voice calling for Ozawa to step down over the Nishimatsu political funds scandal.

Asahi had an interesting section listing some of the human side of each new minister. I reproduce some of it here:

Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada has a giant frog collection. I have heard it from an eyewitness that it’s really huge. Not sure if any of them are mutant.

The above-mentioned Kamei Shizuka is a sixth-degree black belt in aikido and has held exhibitions of his oil paintings.

Naoto Kan, head of the National Strategy Bureau, was DPJ president in 2004 when he was going after LDP politicians for failing to pay into the national pension system (a duty for all residents in Japan, including yours truly). When it was found that Kan himself failed to make his payments, he was forced to resign in shame. To get over the shock of the whole series of events, he decided to shave his head and make the traditional pilgrimage to 88 Buddhist temples in Shikoku.

Justice minister Keiko “Sonny” Chiba (not really her nickname) is a former Socialist Party member who’s against the death penalty, for dual citizenship, and pro letting women choose whether to take their husband’s names when they get married. The trifecta of policies I’ve been waiting for! There is no news that the DPJ plans to abolish the death penalty, but for the time being this election appears to have saved the life of Shoko Asahara, Tokyo subway sarin attack mastermind and Japan’s most famous blind cult leader/death row inmate (and my neighbor at nearby Tokyo Detention Center).

Social Democratic Party leader and consumer affairs, birthrate, and gender equality minister Mizuho Fukushima is not only a lawyer and former TV commentator, she is a huge Miyazaki fan and serves as a judge to select the Nikkan Sports film prizes, the top honors of which in 2007 went to “Even So, I Still Didn’t Do It” about a man wrongly accused of train groping.

Hirotaka Akamatsu, agricultural minister, was once a flight attendant in the 70s. One flight was hijacked by the PLO and he had to help negotiate with the terrorists in English.

Administrative reform minister Yoshito Sengoku had his stomach removed in 2002 due to cancer.

These two didn’t make it into the cabinet (this time), but I think it’s safe to say DPJ upper house member Ren Ho (who Ikeda Nobuo thinks would make a good press secretary) and “cosplay erotica writer” turned newly elected DPJ lower house member Mieko Tanaka are the two best-looking women in the Diet right now:

Ren Ho Tanaka 850745001

Handle with care, indeed.

Okada: No need for vice-minister press conferences; Nikkei: Take it back NOW

My new circumstances give me access to most of the daily papers, in real live dead tree format. So today I looked at the Nikkei and came away with some thoughts:

Nikkei has an editorial forcefully demanding that the DPJ scrap any plans it might have to eliminate press conferences for every ministry’s vice-minister (事務次官). The piece is a reaction to a recent comment from incoming foreign minister Katsuya Okada that they wouldn’t need to hold their own press  conferences because the traditional vice-minister inter-ministry meetings will be discontinued. Under LDP rule, the meetings had become a sort of shadow cabinet meeting and a manifestation of bureaucrat rule.

Calling the suggestion “rash,” the editorial writers lecture Okada that the people in power always try and reduce the number of press conferences as a way to escape scrutiny, and that it’s not up to those in power to decide what the public’s right to know is. One example of the benefits of these press conferences is that the agricultural vice-minister recently had to step down for making inappropriate comments at his press conference about a tainted rice scandal.

I checked, and none of the other major newspapers felt the need to devote an editorial to this issue (the Yomiuri for its part allotted its second editorial to lionizing Ichiro for his new hitting record). But I wouldn’t be surprised if some follow the Nikkei’s lead.

The incoming DPJ administration is expected to open up the press clubs in government institutions, which previously have been almost exclusively limited to domestic, mainstream newspapers and TV stations. Hence, the mainstream news media are on the watch for any signs they could lose their biggest asset – privileged access to those in power. The newspapers are more exposed to damage on this front than TV stations as the news is their only business, at least in their principal medium. The Nikkei in particular just got done posting its first loss since it started publishing figures, for the first half of 2009.

In principle, I agree with the Nikkei’s point that the powerful should be held up to scrutiny. But the Nikkei is changing the subject. Okada didn’t necessarily say he wanted to reduce the number of press conferences. As far as I can tell, Okada’s is merely saying that if the vice-ministers aren’t going to be in a position to speak for their ministries, of course they shouldn’t have press conferences. Maybe a political appointee would be the more appropriate person to put in front of the podium.

In fact, the DPJ’s plans to open up press clubs to independent media will open up government, so I would not be worried if the government stops holding press conference for people who are supposedly irrelevant anyway. The DPJ shouldn’t listen to the Nikkei. Remember, the media will try to portray itself as a defender of the public good, when in fact it’s an institution that’s exploited government secrecy for decades to its financial benefit. I would be happier if the Nikkei spent its vast resources not on acting as stenographers for the government and occasionally getting someone to say stupid things in public (as they did to make the vice minister resign), but instead on actual investigations.

Max Blumenthal at the 9-12 rally in DC

Just thought I’d pass this amazing video along.

Some of the interviews are unfair “gotcha” material, but it’s great to see people get confused when he asked them why they’re so opposed to health care reform and what exactly will happen when the “Obama revolution” goes down. These people really should stop and ask themselves what they’re getting so paranoid about.

Ayase crime update: Possible foreigner robs sushi restaurant… across the street from my apartment

While making breakfast this morning, I noticed a couple of news trucks around the sushi restaurant across the street, which is the first thing I see when leaving my apartment in the morning. I figured that Gal Sone was probably eating a metric ton of kohada or something, but the truth was far darker. Kyodo reports:

Robbery at Choshimaru kaitenzushi: 720,000 yen seized

Around 6:30 AM on the 13th, a man entered from the back door of the Ayase Sushi Choshimaru kaitenzushi restaurant in Yanaka 1-chome, Adachi-ku, Tokyo, held a knife to the clerk (26) opening the restaurant, said “Give me your money,” seized 720,000 yen in sale receipts from the safe and fled. The clerk was unharmed.

The Metropolitan Police Ayase Station are searching for the man as a robbery suspect.

According to the Ayase Station, the man is around 30 and about 160-170 cm tall. He was wearing sunglasses, a black short-sleeved shirt and jeans. The clerk claims that “he threatened me in broken Japanese.” (Kyodo)

The Jiji report uses a fascinating phrase to describe the perp: “アジア系外国人風,” which means something like “looks Asian, seems foreign.” Fortunately, I only fit half of those criteria.

Christian sign found in Tokyo

Biking around Takenotsuka, Adachi-ku today I spotted an interesting sign:


“The return of Our Lord Jesus Christ is near – The Bible”

This marks the first Christian sign I’ve seen in Tokyo, though I think that’s just because I don’t get around that much. The sign is posted on the outer wall of a house next to a Zebra pen distributor. There were no other indications that the inhabitants were Christians.

See my earlier post for more info on what these signs are all about.

Golgo 13’s nonsense promotion of hanko

Seeing Golgo 13’s commercials for the new LG Google phone reminded me that many of Japan’s famous cartoon characters have zero integrity. Doraemon and Sazaesan personally appear in commercials to tell kids they need to eat more chocolate, and Golgo himself has also been licensed to death – his face is featured on canned coffee and pachinko machines, among other things. But perhaps the most ridiculous Golgo 13-related promotion I have seen is his promotion of Japan’s hanko system – the practice of using ink stamps instead of signatures to officially verify documents.

In the manga, anime, and countless other products bearing his name, Golgo 13 is a mysterious, East Asian-looking (usually presumed to be half-Japanese) assassin for hire who travels the world killing undesirables. Each job usually leads to multiple plot twists and intrigue, some of it predictable – in just about every story he sleeps with a local woman who he must then kill due to some betrayal – but he always gets his man. You could think of him as James Bond’s evil Asian half-brother.

As seen in this blog post, the hanko industry association is running ads in which Golgo 13 tells someone off-camera that using seals is a unique Japanese practice, and if you don’t like it we may have a problem here. Though the campaign dates back to 2008, I recently saw an ad just like this on a Yamanote line station platform, so I presume they’re still around.


Since Golgo 13 is such a badass the ad leaves an impression, but the message makes no sense at all. Here’s my rundown of the ad text:

Reading right to left, in the first panel Golgo says, “Japanese people affix their seals to contracts instead of signing them.” Next panel, he holds up his seal and says, “An e-mail just won’t do.” Below the comic, the slogan reads, “Your seal is an important tool – A seal is proof of your decision. Therefore, [affixing your seal] comes with responsibility. Please use it carefully.”

The people paying for this campaign are the Japan Seal Industry Association, a group set up to further the industry’s interests. No doubt they know their business faces some grim prospects going forward as the population shrinks and technological progress makes seals and even signatures less relevant.

As I have argued earlier this year, I think the system should be abolished because seals make it simply too easy to forge documents (that and I can’t be bothered to carry one around). They’re also one of the biggest sources of demand for the ivory trade.

In one sense, I can see why Golgo 13 would find common cause with the inkan makers. If the world used seals instead of signatures, an assassin could much more easily travel the world using various aliases or even forge the documents of others.

As should come as no surprise, I find this campaign depressing and selfish. That the association falls back on the national pride/Japanese uniqueness argument tells me they can’t make their case on the facts. Turning to a menacing figure like Golgo to make an emotional appeal comes off as a near-threat. Who is Golgo talking to? Is he insisting on using his seal on an assassination contract? If so, since when have contract killings been put in writing? Maybe his message is literally threatening the Japanese people in general. It’s as if he’s saying, “People of Japan: You will use hanko whether it makes sense or not!”

Quick notes

Just a couple quick links related to the DPJ’s transition to power:

  • Nikkei reports that ministries are struggling to find enough individual offices for the more than 100 DPJ political appointees who will serve as their new midlevel bosses. The DPJ demands they don’t need their own offices – let the political appointees sit among the rest of the bureaucrats, the better to let them order them around. But the bureaucrats (unnamed as always) are saying unless the DPJ MPs are segregated into their own offices, this could result in a world of face-losing hurt if division directors and other higher ups have to be yelled at by politicians in front of their subordinates, particularly the political appointees’ assistants (actually very capable mid-level bureaucrats provided by the ministries).
  • Great caption from the English service: “Like these historic ministry nameplates, the Ministry of Finance has survived war and economic downturns with its powers intact.”

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  • Here’s a list of major political pressure groups in Japan and their vote-rallying power, again from Nikkei. Most of them are not hesitating to ditch their support for the LDP in favor of the new patron.

    Dentists’ association (日本歯科医協会) – 228,000 votes
    National construction industry association (全国建設業) – 227,000
    Medical association (日本医師会) – 186,000
    Pharmacists’ association (日本薬剤師協会) – 168,000
    Nursing association (日本看護協会) – 167,000

Buy two teiki and save money, legal and perfect for budget-conscious salarymen

(Updated with note; corrected)

A lot of new stuff going on in my life prevents me from posting much, but I felt I should weigh in with this tip for fellow commuters in Japan:

Business weekly Shukan Diamond President has an article that explains how you could potentially save around 9,000 yen a year by buying two commuter passes  — one that goes most of the way, and another that covers the rest of the ground. Because of the oddities of Japan’s train pricing system, your commuter pass might go up or down if you split your commute into two separate passes.

But it’s not as simple as buying two train passes along the same route. If you do that, generally you’ll have to either get off and on again halfway through your commute, or explain to the station attendant every time you get off the train. Not practical.

But one successful example they give is this: If you live in Omiya and commute to Tokyo Omori station, you could save 9,060 yen a year by buying one pass from Omiya to Ochanomizu, and the second from Ochanomizu to Tokyo Akihabara to Omori. This will let you ride all the way to Tokyo Omori (and let you stop at Ochanomizu at no charge if you want).

As you can see, it can get kind of complicated. To help sort things out, someone has developed an application that determines the most advantageous route for any given individual. Sadly, it’s already gone viral and is thus unavailable.Those who don’t want to wait for them to add server space and Google ads can try experimenting with Yahoo’s train route finder in the meantime (if you’re desperate, try waiting until late late at night when most others are sleeping. If you do, open a mirror site for the rest of us!).

The article states that this practice is hardly new and has been used by train-savvy salarymen for some time now.When some of Tokyo’s planned new routes come online it should create whole new levels of complexity to exploit.

(Diamond article found on Yahoo Japan front page)

Note: This practice is not the same as a train scam known as kiseru in which the rider has a ticket for the beginning and end of the trip but skips out on the rest of the fare.

A Graphical History of the Democratic Party of Japan

The Nikkei on Saturday had a chart of the history of the Democratic Party. I have translated, and substantiated, the graph and included it below here.


Thus did the party arrive at it’s coalition today of LDP defectors, socialists, and free market conservatives. After a decade of wondering what the DPJ would do in power, we finally get to see what happens. Let the party begin.

Change! ニッポンをカエル

Reports are out that Katsuya Okada will be the foreign minister in Hatoyama’s first cabinet, which is (unfortunately) not nearly as cool as the footnote to the AFP report:

One of [Okada’s] more peculiar hobbies is collecting items that depict frogs. But there is a serious political point — “frog” in Japanese is a homonym for “change” — the slogan used by the DPJ during last month’s election campaign.

This is a fairly popular pun in Japan. Last year I came across this banner at the Akasaka Sacas complex in Tokyo. It says “アカサカカエル、オイシサヲカエル” (Akasaka kaeru, oishisa wo kaeru) which could be read several ways, such as “The Akasaka Frog is changing tastiness,” or perhaps “Change Akasaka and frog the tastiness.”

Yay for kaeru puns