Union Extasy court decision tomorrow

Back in March, while I was traveling, Adam wrote a post about Union Extasy, a two-man union of former workers at Kyoto University who decided to protest the limited term contract system after it forced them out of their staff jobs. While their most visible form of protest was the construction of a tent squat underneath the landmark camphor tree in front of the famous Kyoto University clock tower (a location which is the basis for the university’s logo and the preferred location for graduation photos and the like), they also engaged in the more traditional labor complaint route of filing a formal grievance, conducting formal union/management negotiations (団交), and eventually filing a lawsuit alleging the illegality of the mandatory limited-term contract system.

While the Union Extasy squat was inspired by the “temp worker village” set up in Tokyo’s Hibiya park during the 2008-2009 new years season, unlike that particular stunt it never actually ended. Although they had originally expected it to only last for a couple of weeks before shaming university management into doing something, when they realized that things were going to take a long, long time to resolve, instead of taking down the tent they instead expanded it, adding a public area with seating that was labeled the “Kubi Kubi Cafe.”Kubi is the Japanese word for the head or neck, and has also become a synonym for “firing” or “sacking”, as beheading is the Japanese metaphor of choice for such a practice.

The university was naturally displeased with the ongoing protest, particularly in such a prominent and symbolic location, and filed a lawsuit in May or so (the date escapes me at the moment) against Union Extasy, ordering them to vacate the premises. Why exactly they had or chose to actually file a lawsuit escapes me since I would have assumed that they could just ask the police to remove trespassers without any special legal maneuvering, but I presume there is some legal reason that they took such a course of action. Aside from the existence of the lawsuit itself, there were two things that struck me as rather odd about it. First, that the lawsuit was not filed against the two men (Ogawa and Inoue) but against the Union Extasy organization itself. The second odd point, and this one if very odd, is that they were not seeking an order for the union to vacate the campus completely, but only a specified zone including the area immediately in front of the clock tower. The university was actually so cautious about acting without a court order that they did not even disconnect the power cable siphoning electricity from the clock tower building (which kept the lights and vintage iMac running at night, network connectivity naturally courtesy of the campus Wifi). Inoue let me flip through a folder of documents that had been filed in the case, and sure enough there was a map of the campus with a rectangle drawn around the very specific area. Amusingly, among the supporting evidence was a land assayer’s appraisal of the land value of the entire campus, as if the market value of the national university’s grounds-which I expect is legally impossible to sell in any event-was somehow relevant to the matter at hand.

After receiving a court order to vacate the area, they complied with it-by moving about 10 meters over to another patch of lawn, just far enough away from the camphor tree and clock tower so as to allow an unobstructed view of the landmarks.

I have spent little time speaking with the involved parties since before I went home for the summer and had not been following the progress of their protests or court case, except of course to notice that the protest squat had never ended, but I just got word that the initial verdict of their lawsuit is due out tomorrow, presumably with a party to follow. I will be there tomorrow afternoon after lunch to see how things turn out and will report on it after, but in preparation, here is a gallery of photos I’ve taken at the Kubikubi Cafe.

Continue reading Union Extasy court decision tomorrow

Curzon visits Yamba Dam

Last week, I took a day trip out to see the Yamba Dam, a planned 130 meter high dam that would flood a small rural village snuggled in a valley in western Gunma. The primary motivation for the plan is to stop flash floods that rage through the Tonegawa River and cause havoc in Gunma, Saitama and Tokyo once a decade or so, and also to control and manage the water supply for the Kanto region and to generate power. If constructed it would only be Japan’s 25th largest dam and 10th largest reservoire, but it has turned into one of the more costly projects because of the massive peripheral infrastructure built to appease fierce local opposition.

The project has long been controversial and has dominated the headlines since the DPJ took power last month and announced the project would be cancelled — despite the fact that the project has burned through more than 70% of its US$4 billion budget.

As a student in the Robert D. Kaplan school of national policy, I wanted to see this project with my own eyes, and see the entire surrounding landscape, not suddenly arriving by train or car. So I took my bicycle by shinkansen out to Karuizawa in Nagano, from where I traveled north over the ride of Mt. Asama, then down into the valleys of Gunma and east into the valley, for a total day trip of more than 100 kilometers. This post summarizes my trip.

Traveling to the Dam
It’s easiest to feel the scale of the project by traveling from the west of the dam, down the river valley north of Mt. Asama in Nagano. As you approach the project, there are suddenly new bridges, most complete or near complete, covering imaginary areas of water. There is also the classic concrete lining of a natural water source that can be seen all over Japan. There are also brand new buildings sitting on the side of what will be a new lake.

Yamba Dam2

Traveling towards the dam brings the existing road “deeper” into the future lake, which brings us to the representative structure of the project, the No. 2 Yamba Dam bridge. The bridge is unique for its hollow structure and that they are building simultaneously out from the supporting stems. This bridge will permit road and rail to cross the lake and connect the two halves of the community. At present, there was also a JR line running through the town, which was also to be relocated up the mountain.

Yamba Dam1

You may notice that construction on the bridge is proceeding. The reasons for that soon became clear.

“Yamba Kan” (やんば館)
At the foot of the No. 2 Yamba Dam bridge sits a two-story facility called the “Yamba Kan,” built in 1999 by the Ministry of Land and Infrastructure to explain the dam’s purpose and its construction to locals and other interested visitors. Like a typical Japanese shiryoukan, it is a small but carefully organized and boasts an impressive set of topographical maps, audio-visual media, photographs, and information regarding the history and construction of the dam. There are also guides on hand to answer questions about the project.

Interest has exploded since the DPJ took power and have announced the cancellation of the dam. According to the informational (and pro-dam) website damnet.org, the number of visitors to the “Yamba Kan” hit a record in September, receiving three times as many visitors as in August. When I arrived on a weekday afternoon, the 40 car parking lot was full, and included a chartered tour bus.

The guides were busy answering visitor questions. I patiently waited my turn to ask questions and finally got to ask: “The government has said they will stop construction on the dam but the bridge is still being constructed, why is that?” I asked in the most neutral of tones, but the guide answered on the assumption that I was an anti-dam fanatic — she responded, “They have to finish it! There is no other option! Otherwise are community will be split in two! There are already people living in homes on both sides of the mountain!”

Her explanation and the Yamba Kan maps made the overview of the project more clear. Before the dam could be built, the government had to relocate all 355 households whose homes would be submerged by the lake created by the dam. After decades of fierce opposition, it was only when the central government conceded on a costly compromise to relocate the villagers up the mountain up the mountain from their homes did they finally agree. This is more expensive than it sounds, and calls for massive earthworks and bridges. It would have been easiest to move the people up or down the valley to join their neighbors.

Yet the project is even more expensive than just moving people up the valley mountains. The mountains are too steep to be flattened to accomodate the whole community on one side of the steep valley, so construction has taken place on two sides of the lake, with massive bridges being constructed to connect the two sides of the lake. The government is of course footing the bill to construct the new houses, schools, roads, bridges, and other facilities for the relocated community.

Most of this construction is completed, as evidenced by the almost finished No. 2 Yamba Dam bridge. But once all this is done, I started to ask myself,

What happens now?
Frankly, no matter how hard Transportation Minister Maehara and the DPJ hold out on refusing to construct the dam, I can’t possibly see how the project cannot be finished. At best the DPJ can delay the plan a year or two. Here’s why:

* All the preliminary infrastructure is complete. Learning more at the Yamba Kan, my understanding of recent news stories where the DPJ said that they would continue to invest in “lifestyle” construction became clear. The DPJ will only halt construction on the dam itself, which was scheduled to commence shortly, but will continue construction that affects the lives of the locals. In other words, the bridge will be finished, as will the rest of the construction, but the dam for which all the construction was invested will not be built. What this means is that billions will be spent relocating a community for no reason whatsoever.

* It could cost votes in important prefectures. The DPJ probably isn’t too worried that the conservative, LDP-allied governors of Nagano, Gunma, Chiba and Tokyo are opposed to halting the project. But the governors of Saitama and Tochigi are independents close to the DPJ. The DPJ caucus of legislators in the Saitama prefectural assembly is vocally opposed to the cancellation. The six affected prefectures together comprise more than 25% of Japan’s total population, and the DPJ has strong voter support in Tokyo, Chiba, and Saitama. The only people firmly opposed to the plan appear to be environmental interest groups. Who knows, it could cost the DPJ votes and they may decide to proceed because of it.

* A future LDP administration may turn things around. Even if the Hatoyama administration does refuse to proceed with the plan, the LDP could always pick up where the DPJ left off.

The other Tokyo Olympics which never were

The 1964 Tokyo Olympics were a milestone in Japanese history as the country’s great postwar coming-out party. The 1940 Tokyo Olympics, on the other hand, became a footnote, as they were planned and approved by the IOC but never actually took place.

Tokyo’s bid was announced in 1932 and won the IOC vote in 1936, defeating a rival bid from Helsinki, Finland by a vote of 34 to 27. There was some political maneuvering behind the vote: Rome had also been bidding for the Olympics, but Benito Mussolini pulled Rome’s bid as a gesture of support to Japan, then a strong ally of Italy.

A number of factors led to the eventual cancellation of the games. Several IOC members were uneasy with Japan’s military adventures in China, and the US was planning to boycott the Tokyo games in protest. The Japanese government was focused on the war with China and was becoming more reluctant to divert strategic and monetary resources to an international sporting event. Japan formally withdrew its bid on July 15, 1938, and the Olympics passed to runner-up Helsinki by default. However, the Helsinki Olympics were cancelled following the German invasion of Poland in the following year, and there were no Summer Games until 1948.

The plan for the 1940 Olympics centered around two main venues–the Jingu Gaien in central Tokyo and a new Olympic park in Komazawa. These venues were never built before the war, but both sites were later used for staging the Tokyo Olympics of 1964. Another instance of re-using resources: Ichiro Kono, who led the opposition to the 1940 Olympics in the Imperial Diet, became Construction Minister and Minister of State for the Tokyo Olympics under Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda, and thus got the chance to oversee the successful Tokyo Olympics on the government’s behalf.

Police oversight in Japan

I love Japan, but there are a few things which I really hate about it. The police are one big issue in my mind.

Case in point: Their recent knife kick. I read an outrageous story on Debito’s blog about a 74-year-old American tourist getting arrested for carrying a pocketknife over the maximum legal length (which was recently shortened). It seemed unbelievable until a commenter there pointed out a similar fate for a Japanese manga artist, and then our own commenter Durf shared a story about getting searched for knives.

Fortunately, my few run-ins with the Japanese police have been tame. I’ve been carded a couple of times while biking around central Tokyo, and once got into a spat with a cab driver late at night which the local koban cop helpfully mediated without even checking my papers. Still, reading others’ experiences makes me believe that police here, while helpful when they want to be helpful, also have an undue amount of power and very little responsibility for misusing it.

On paper, this is not how it should be. On paper, there are officials who oversee the police, both on a national level (through the National Public Safety Commission) and on a local level (through prefectural public safety commissions). They are appointed by elected officials (the prefectural governor/assembly or the Cabinet) and serve fixed terms.

But these are woefully ineffectual bodies plagued by systemic problems, as laid out by Japanese Wikipedians:

  1. Each commission is located on the premises of the prefectural police headquarters and police officers perform its clerical functions, so there is no guarantee of neutrality or confidentiality.
  2. The prefectural government has no authority vis-a-vis the police, so there is no way for local government to investigate or punish the police without going through the commission.
  3. The commissions are often packed with local elites who have little experience or interest in police or criminal justice matters.
  4. This often creates a conflict of interest, because such individuals won’t want to effectively challenge the local police in many instances.
  5. The police end up being taken more seriously and can effectively dictate policy to the commissions. This happens on a local level as well as a national level (between the NPA and NPSC).

For illustrative purposes, the NPSC currently consists of the following individuals:

  • Motoo Hayashi (chairman): LDP legislator and state minister in the Aso cabinet (for disaster prevention, Okinawa and Northern Territories policy, and possibly other irrelevant portfolios as well)
  • Yukio Sato: Former diplomat and president of the Japan Institute for International Affairs
  • Nobuyuki Yoshida: Senior director of the Sankei Shimbun, responsible for its right-wing editorials
  • Yoshiyuki Kasai: Chairman of JR Central
  • Mariko Hasegawa: Professor in the School of Advanced Sciences at the Graduate University for Advanced Studies who apparently specializes in sociobiology and has a strong academic interest in the biology of sexuality
  • Kenjiro Tao: Chief judge of the Hiroshima High Court (an intermediate appellate court), somewhat famous for handing down the verdict against serial killer Tsutomu Miyazaki.

The face of futility



Tonight Yoshifumi Nishikawa, the former president of Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation hand-picked by Koizumi to lead Japan Post through the privatization process, has announced he will step down rather than fight the inevitable. Shizuka Kamei, the minister in charge of revising the privatization plans, gave him the news personally yesterday that there had been a change in plans, though he was not explicitly told to resign (Kamei had said that enough in public already).

This picture of a downtrodden Nishikawa was taken before tonight’s press conference, I think right after his meeting with Kamei. He had worked for about four years preparing Japan Post to become a stock corporation and prepare for an eventual public offering. Now it’s all over. Barring another reversal, there will be no IPO and the government will now re-emphasize Japan Post’s role as publicly owned infrastructure instead of as a potential source of cash for the ailing treasury.

This marks Nishikawa’s second major fall from grace as a top executive, though this one wasn’t his fault. At SMBC he had to step down in 2005 to take responsibility for losses. Financial regulators later slapped the bank with a partial business suspension order for forcing small businesses to invest in derivatives as a condition of getting a loan, a practice that took place under his watch. Heading Japan Post was his attempt to leave a more positive legacy.

Guy eats Y4000 worth of Yoshinoya, then robs the place

Yeah, that’s what happened. A middle aged man ate 10 separate items including several full meals at a Kobe Yoshinoya, waited until there were no other customers, and then robbed the place with a wooden chopstick, nabbing Y80,000. He is still at large. How he could still move after 10 meals, let alone make a run for it, I will never understand.

UR in a nutshell

For folks trying to find an affordable apartment near a major Japanese city, one useful resource is the Urban Renaissance Agency (都市再生機構 toshi saisei kikou), usually called “UR” in Japanese.

UR has a vast portfolio of properties. Although the agency is associated with danchi, the intimidatingly enormous apartment complexes scattered around the suburbs of Japanese cities, they also offer upscale center-city properties, such as the high-rise apartments on the south side of Shiodome in Tokyo (within spitting distance of Shinbashi and Ginza).

There are several advantages to renting through UR. Unlike many private landlords, UR does not charge for “key money,” only imposing a (theoretically) refundable 3-month security deposit at the start of the lease. There are also no brokerage fees, and no additional fees to renew the lease upon its expiration.

Perhaps most saliently for the readers of this blog, UR also has few barriers to entry. Anyone with a certain level of income or assets can generally rent a UR apartment, and even the less financially well-off can get into UR by prepaying their lease. UR does not discriminate against foreigners, against unmarried couples, against same-sex roommates or against part-time renters, despite the fact that private landlords routinely shun all four groups for unclear reasons.

How UR came to be

UR is a government-mandated developer established in 2004, and claims to be “probably the largest landload [sic] and developer in the world.” It functions like a private company with an enormous balance sheet, but remains under the supervision of the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry, like its many forebears.

The first forebear of UR was the Japan Housing Corporation (日本住宅公団), established in 1955 to build housing for workers in major cities during the post-Korean War economic boom. JHC built many of the classic danchi around Tokyo and Osaka, starting with Kanaoka (Sakai) and Inage (Chiba). In the sixties and seventies it became more deeply involved in mixed-use “new town” projects in the suburbs, incorporating apartment buildings, single-family homes and commercial properties. Another state-owned Residential Land Development Corporation (宅地開発公団) was set up in 1975 and is chiefly remembered today for its work on the Chiba New Town project (the Hokuso Line in Chiba was once called the “Corporation Line” or 公団線 since the Corporation owned everything around it).

These two entities merged into a single Housing and Urban Development Corporation (住宅・都市整備公団) in 1981, which was renamed to Urban Development Corporation (都市基盤整備公団) in 1999. During this era, the corporation shifted from crowded apartment complexes and suburbs to more spacious and comfortable projects, as the postwar urban population explosion began to slow down and wealthier consumers started to demand more than a few tatami mats surrounded by reinforced concrete.

UR’s other family line starts with the Coal Mining Area Development Corporation (産炭地域振興事業団), founded in 1962. This entity was set up to encourage business development in hard-hit coal-mining regions and to support the re-training of former coal miners. In 1972, the entity’s mandate broadened, and it became the Industrial Relocation and Coal Mining Area Development Corporation (工業再配置・産炭地域振興公団) for two short years, before the Diet settled on a less unwieldy name, Japan Regional Development Corporation (地域振興整備公団), in 1974. For the next thirty years, JRDC worked on various projects to spur industrial and economic development in the nether regions of Japan, focusing on isolated prefectures like Akita, Aomori and Miyazaki.

UR was formed when JRDC was broken up in 2004. The urban planning operations of JRDC were folded into UDC to form UR, while the industrial development operations of JRDC became part of a new (and very awkwardly-named) Organization for Small & Medium Enterprises and Regional Innovation (中小企業基盤整備機構).

The agency is now governed by a special statute which defines its purpose in one enormous run-on sentence:

…to plan the renewal of major cities and regional urban centers where foundational arrangements for effective urban activity and rich urban living have not been adequately conducted in response to changes in social and economic conditions, by conducting services related to improving the arrangement of urban districts and assisting in the provision of rental housing, through increasing urban functions and improving the residential environment in response to changes in social and economic conditions, and by conducting services related to the management of residential housing inherited from the Urban Development Corporation, to plan the sustainable preservation of rental housing which has established a desirable residential environment, thereby contributing to the sound development of cities and the greater sustainability of citizens’ lifestyles.

How UR works

Some UR developments are essentially intended to monetize government land. The Shiodome apartment buildings, for instance, are on the site of what was Tokyo’s main rail freight terminal during the days of nationalized rail. The huge Hikarigaoka development (at the end of the Toei Oedo Line in Tokyo) was redeveloped from Grant Heights, a US military housing complex returned to Japan in the 1970s (itself built atop an Imperial Army air field).

Other developments such as Chiba New Town, the Tsukuba Science City, the Saitama New Urban Center and the Kansai Science City are built on land purchased from private owners, no differently than a private real estate developer might operate.

Besides its government equity fund of 948 billion yen, UR also issues special Urban Renaissance Bonds (都市再生債券), currently totaling about 1.8 trillion yen. But its main source of funding is the Ministry of Finance, which has pumped ten trillion yen of loans into UR through its Fiscal Investment and Loan Program. Another two trillion or so comes from debt investment by domestic banks and life insurance companies.

Aside from being a developer, UR is also a policy arm of the Japanese government, and of MLIT in particular. The government regularly passes down policy statements to UR. This February, for instance, MLIT made the following pronouncement (I’ll spare you a word-for-word translation this time because the original badly needs editing):

Looking at the state of cities in our nation amidst globalization and a developing information age, the largest cities are losing allure and international competitiveness as they stand shoulder-to-shoulder with cities overseas, while they continue to be troubled by the expectation of severe damage in crowded urban areas in the event of a disaster.

Regional urban centers are losing their urban functions as city halls and other public facilities move to suburban locations along with major commercial facilities, as city centers become vacant and as industrial production weakens in outlying regions. The state of these regional urban centers reflects not only a decline in urban functions of the cities themselves, but of their entire surrounding regions.

Cities are the source of our national dynamic. In response to major socioeconomic shifts–the information age, globalization, declining birth rates, aging, depopulation and environmental problems–it is necessary to increase the competitiveness of cities, and to increase their allure using the history and culture of each city, by constructing “compact cities,” beautiful cities where one can safely live in a relaxed environment, and by constructing a society where sustainable development is possible.

This all sounds like fluff so far, but the next few paragraphs start indicating otherwise:

Such urban development demands drawing upon and deploying capital, know-how and other civilian power in these cities to arouse new demand. However, it is difficult to plan improved development through governments and private businesses alone because (among other issues) the legal relations between these parties are complex and difficult to coordinate.

Taking this situation into account, in order to advance the development of new 21st-century urban centers, UR will take a leading role in urban development, spur private investment in cities and contribute to the revitalization of the economy…

Moreover, in the global economic downturn spurred by the subprime loan crisis, our nation’s economy is in a deeply troubled state of falling stock prices, less available capital for businesses and ongoing labor restructuring. As private businesses become less interested to invest in urban development, UR shall strengthen its efforts to spur private demand, and while supplementing private urban development, shall make efforts to plan a shift toward a more domestic demand-led economy.

On CNN’s Factchecking

Our post on the Savoie case opened up a pretty fierce discussion about the facts of the case and the background, with many of us taking issue with the liberal reporting of “facts” by CNN’s correspondents. I was even further perplexed by CNN’s story on a US father caring for his disabled child in Okazaki, Japan, as asking the most rudimentary questions about the story result in a pretty clear conclusion that the facts are just wrong (which I wrote about here).

It turns out that the mistakes on the Savoie story are not a result (or at least not the sole result) of institutional Orientalism. CNN apparently has a problem at the core of its information management when it comes to checking facts, and has a habit of reporting anything heard as fact without double checking anything. This was the subject of a brutal evisceration of the network by the Daily Show that I thought was worth sharing with readers — I think it helps understand why the Savoie case turned into such a media circus and a scapegoat for Japan’s antiquated family laws. The relevant section starts at 1:05.

CNN Leaves It There

Emoji in Gmail

Anyone receiving messages send from Japanese cell phones to their Gmail or Yahoo mail (or Hotmail?) account may have noticed that Emoji can be displayed in your web mail inbox. The newest update to Google Labs, the optional experimental features that can be enabled in the settings screen, now has a feature called “Extra Emoji”, which when enabled allows for the insertion of emoji into ordinary email messages. When I realized that emoji support was included in all iPhones, even though it was disabled by default in those sold outside of Japan, I predicted that they would soon be spreading worldwide, and it looks like I was right. As far as I know, this makes Gmail the first non-Japanese service to seamlessly implement emoji input, but expect Apple to enable emoji on non-Japanese iPhones and for more systems to support this gradually spreading standard in the near future.