Sympathizing with Noriko Savoie

The US and Japanese media are focusing much attention on the arrest of Christopher Savoie in Fukuoka. The English language press deems this as yet another case of a victim of Japan’s pre-modern family law. Undeniably, there is a history of Japanese mothers suddenly fleeing to Japan where they are beyond the reach of the law, resulting in more than a hundred abduction cases involving Japan and the US alone, and this needs revision. But sympathetic press articles notwithstanding, Christopher is the wrong martyr to rally behind in this fight — an objective view of the facts makes Christopher’s ex-wife Noriko the figure of sympathy in this story.

Christopher and Noriko met and married in Japan. Christopher had a PhD and was a successful entrepreneur who founded a pharmaceutical business that he took public on the Tokyo stock exchange. He is also a naturalized Japanese citizen. They were married for thirteen years and have two children, currently ages 8 and 6.

While living in Japan, the marriage was breaking down and Noriko asked Christopher for a divorce, which he refused. Instead he convinced Noriko to move with him to the US and they did so in June 2008. No sooner had they moved than Christopher took up with another woman and served Noriko with divorce papers. Noriko was dependent on her husband and had no income for herself and had just been relocated to his home town in a country that she did not know, although she may have been relieved that she was getting the divorce she wanted a year earlier and probably also happy to receive custody of the kids and a generous financial settlement and monthly support. But the arrangements required that she stay in Tennessee and not even visit Japan without court permission. Although we cannot be sure, all the facts make it likely that Christopher was motivated to relocate to his home town to get divorced in a US court.

Thus Noriko was stuck in a country where she was culturally and personally isolated, abandoned by her husband but still expected to raise kids in a new country so her husband could get visitation. So in August, Noriko absconded to Japan with the two kids. Christopher then petitioned the court and was granted custodial rights. He then went to Japan and physically snatched his kids from his wife as they walked to school by force in a car — the very definition of “abduction.” He then raced to the US Consulate in Fukuoka, where the guards refused him entry and he was arrested outside by police. He is being held by police for 10 days and has not yet been charged.

What a US-Japanese citizen hoped to gain in a US consulate is questionable. And the action was clearly pre-meditated. But much of this narrative is lost in the US media reports, which are overwhelmingly sympathetic to Christopher and speak in implied terms of a vast, cultural conspiracy in Japan to favor mothers. The Huffington Post says “Divorced fathers in Japan typically don’t get much access to their children because of widespread cultural beliefs that small children should be with their mothers,” and Forbes writes that the case “underscores long-standing disputes over Japan’s traditional favoritism toward mothers in custody battles.” That’s utter nonsense. The statistics imply that mothers win custody in Japan at approximately the same proportion as the US — and as for Japanese “culture,” fathers were more likely to receive custody until the 1960s. On the contrary, the bias towards mothers is far more ingrained in US culture — for more than a century US courts followed the Tender Years doctrine, under which mothers get prima facie rights to child custody disputes. (Although many state courts have abandoned this on the basis of the 14th amendment equal protection clause, it still exists in many US states.)

There are also lots of factual mistakes in the reporting, such as reporting by CNN that “Japanese law… recognizes Noriko Savoie as the primary custodian.” Actually, Japanese law says that two Japanese citizens are still married, as they are both Japanese nationals and bust be divorced in Japan for the divorce to be valid, in which case there is no way that Noriko is the primary custodian. And while Japan does not have joint custody of children, there are visitation rights. (It is also reported that Noriko has dual US and Japanese citizenship, although the how and why of that is unclear.)

Terrie’s Take of Japan Inc. fame was cited by Debito as being “the best, most thorough, most balanced opinion yet on the case.” (Actually, like much of what Terrie writes, it’s a sloppy newsletter with numerous factual errors.) But beyond that, the most amusing part of that article is that it states,

What is surprising is that [Christopher] chose to get his kids back in a way that exposed him to many untested theories. One of these theories has been that it is OK to abduct your kids back. Indeed the police often do turn a blind eye to home disputes and will allow “mini-abductions” to happen.

Kidnapping as an untested theories? Yes, the cops and courts do try to keep out of family disputes whenever possible — but what Christopher did was kidnapping pure and simple, and even his lawyer has basically already admitted that he was wrong to use force. We can’t guess how this is going to be sorted out, but my guess is that Noriko is about to get some justice in court, and Christopher’s nutty stunts will prejudice him in getting visitation rights. That’s a good thing — and you can think that and still want Japan to modernize its family law to meet international standards.

Open House New York

Next weekend, October 10 and 11, New York City will have its 7th annual Open House weekend, in which hundreds of normally closed-off sites, both public and privately owned, will be open to the masses for tours. I absolutely love this concept, and wish both that it existed in other cities, but even more that I had heard of it while I was home during that weekend in past years!

New York Times has an article on the event.

Official website, with details and schedules, is here.

I hope that every single reader in the NYC area takes advantage of this special opportunity, and if any of you do so, please drop a comment to say what you managed to visit.

Which passport to use?

Here at MFT we take great interest in passports, visas and travel restrictions–in part because we love traveling, and in part because we are constantly dealing with nationality-related issues. All five of our contributors (including the dear and basically-departed Saru) are US citizens. Four of us live in Japan and a couple of us have seriously contemplated taking Japanese citizenship. Curzon is a dual citizen of the UK and I am a dual citizen of Ireland. While Roy is only a US citizen (as far as any of us can tell), he has a strong academic interest in citizenship law.

I was recently taking a look at the Henley survey, which ranks countries by the freedom of movement afforded their passport holders. The full list is here, and the rankings surprised me enough that I decided to poke through the web to find out how travel restrictions differ for American, Japanese, British and Irish citizens.

It turns out that Ireland has the second-best passport in the world, tied with Finland and Portugal, and second only to Denmark’s. Irish citizens can enter 156 countries without an advance visa.

The US is tied for #3 in the global ranking, alongside Belgium, Germany and Sweden. US citizens can enter 155 countries without an advance visa.

Japan is tied for #4 in the global ranking, alongside Canada, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Spain. Japanese citizens can enter 154 countries without an advance visa.

The UK is at #6, tied with France, and UK citizens can access 152 countries. But British passport holders have to be careful about the type of passport they hold: it is possible to get a British passport without being a British citizen (most often by being a former subject of a defunct British possession such as Ireland or Hong Kong), and the travel restrictions on such passports are tighter. For instance, a British non-citizen passport can’t be used for a visa waiver to enter the United States–but on the flip side, a British passport held by a Hong Kong subject can be used to enter China without a visa.

The differences in visa waiver coverage are interesting, if seemingly arbitrary at times. In the chart below, an “O” means no visa is required or that a visa can be purchased on arrival, while an “X” means that a visa must be acquired in advance.

            USA  GBR  IRL  JPN

Belize       O    O    O    X
Bolivia      X    O    O    O
Brazil       X    O    O    X
Paraguay     X    O    O    O
Suriname     X    X    X    O

Rwanda       O    O    X    X

China (PRC)  X    X    X    O
Iran         X    O    O    O
Mongolia     O    X    X    X
Vietnam      X    X    X    O

They know me from internet

Apparently my profile is high enough that someone in China wants to sell me Metal Fun. I guess they finally realized that I don’t need any Viagra?

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BREAKING NEWS: Nakagawa Shoichi dead, suicide suspected

Breaking news is that Nakagawa Shoichi, defeated LDP politician and former cabinet member, has been found dead on his bed in his home. No external injuries were found on his body and suicide is suspected.


Nakagawa was defeated in August in his district in Hokkaido. Although he served in several prominent positions in the government, he resigned after his drunken press conference at the G7 meeting of finance ministers in Rome in February earlier this year. He was widely known in Nagata-cho to have a serious alcohol problem.

Hatoyama’s first wacky photo op as PM – foppiest PM ever?


Japanese PM Yukio Hatoyama and his wife Miyuki made a hastily arranged appearance at this fashion show to raise money for the disabled. While I applaud their attempt to lend some celebrity cachet to the event, this is nothing less than an epically insane fashion disaster — wine-red jacket with matching belt and pattern shirt for Yukio, and a rumpled black jacket and what looks like a satin trash bag for a skirt. With this photo, Hatoyama has now become the foppiest prime minister in Japanese history. Thanks to Kyodo News (via Nikkei) for being there.

Miyuki has already started to make waves with her fashion choices. Just today I read fashion designer and occasional TV personality Don Konishi‘s column in Shukan Asahi in which he tore the first lady a new one for this photo taken at the Japanese school in Greenwich, Connecticut during the couple’s trip to the various summits.


He commented that maybe because she is a former actress (she was a Takarazuka performer in the 60s) she is going out of her way to stand out and look flashy and glamorous at a time when people generally want more humanity from their leaders. He didn’t mention it, but Michele Obama’s ultra-casual look springs to mind.

No Tokyo Olympics, and that’s OK

As I write this the IOC has still not released who will get the games (Update: Rio!), but we do know this – it won’t be Tokyo. I was watching Fuji TV when the interpreter spoke the words “Tokyo has lost” (東京が落選しました) — the TV anchors fell silent for about 15 seconds, save for a few sighs.

For my own completely selfish reasons, I am happy to avoid the inconvenience of over a million extra people in the city during the spectacle.

On the other hand, I can’t deny a tinge of longing and disappointment that Tokyo won’t get its chance to shine. Whatever the practical and logical concerns (and there are many), Tokyo is a beautiful and complicated city that the world overlooks to its detriment. And it’s true that if 2016 Olympics offered Tokyo just 1/10th the cachet, prestige and aura of achievement and arrival that the Beijing Olympics had in China, there could be a credible case for wanting them in Tokyo too. Setting aside all issues of cost and objectivity, the propaganda value of a truly successful and memorable Olympics is very real.

But Tokyo already had its Beijing 2008 moment back in 1964. If the Olympics can bring any real, lasting impact, it’s because they underscore and promote underlying historical trends. If Tokyo had the Olympics in 2016, it wouldn’t shake the “Japan is dying” narrative – it would just be a perfunctory, lackluster games all but forgotten a decade later, like Atlanta in 1996. At this point the overall message of “Japan as ecological technology superpower” is just not getting through, and the IOC judges apparently were not convinced. If Rio gets it they will fit this model.

So while Hatoyama made an eleventh-hour decision to show up in Denmark and give a speech, I don’t think the concept of another Tokyo Olympics jived with the spirit of the DPJ’s push to shift the nation away from relying on ever-more construction and development as a source of prosperity. Better that Japan tidy set its house in order before winning another chance to showcase itself to the world.

Japan’s airliner industry

In the last week or so, there has been some buzz on the NBR mailing list about Japan’s airliner industry. Many very educated people seem completely unaware that Japan has built whole commercial planes before, and that it is still deeply involved in this business despite not having a strong brand in the aircraft business. For regional pundits who are newbies to the aerospace industry, here’s a brief history of Japan’s forays into my favorite line of business.

The Imperial days

Before and during World War II, various Japanese firms built a variety of propeller-driven planes which were used for both civilian and military transport purposes. Many of these models were based on, or provided the basis for, Imperial Army and Navy bomber airframes. Wikipedia has a good list of these planes in its article on Imperial Japanese Airways, the old state-sponsored airline. I particularly like the Kawanishi H6K, a flying boat which was used for flights between Japan and its South Pacific mandate. Flying boats are awesome.

Besides unique designs like the H6K, there were also Japanese planes based on American or European designs; in fact, the Douglas Aircraft Company was granting production licenses to Japanese firms as late as 1938. Throughout the Pacific War, the Japanese forces were flying transport planes almost indistinguishable from parallel models in the Allied forces’ fleet.

After Japan lost the war, the American occupation forces banned Japanese firms from developing or building aircraft, and confiscated all the related technical materials they could find. The demands of the Korean War, however, quickly revitalized the aircraft servicing industry in Japan, as the US needed skilled workers to fix its fighters and bombers at Japanese bases. Japanese aviation resumed in earnest with the peace treaty of 1952, which removed some of the restrictions and allowed scheduled domestic flying to resume.

The YS-11

In 1956, when the aircraft production ban was completely lifted, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry immediately made it a priority to develop a home-grown replacement for the war-era planes then flying throughout Japan. They negotiated with the Finance Ministry and Transport Ministry to come up with a production budget and implementation plan, and in 1957 secured funding to set up a Transport Aircraft Design Research Association (輸送機設計研究協会 Yusōki sekkei kenkyū kyōkai) based at the University of Tokyo, overseen by MITI and a consortium of domestic manufacturers.

The first initials of the Association’s Japanese name, “YS,” were applied to the name of their final aircraft design, the YS-11. With mock-ups prepared and the design ready for production, the Association turned over control to a newly-formed parastatal Nippon Aircraft Manufacturing Corporation (日本航空機製造) or “NAMC,” comprised mainly of staff seconded from the major keiretsu manufacturers.¹

The first YS-11 rolled out in 1962 and represented a major advance in Japanese aircraft-building technology.

There was still work to be done, though. Although most production took place in Japan and was overseen by Japanese firms, Japan did not have the technical capability to make the airframe materials or engines for a modern aircraft, and ended up acquiring these parts from Alcoa and Rolls-Royce respectively.

Still, the YS-11 was a pretty solid aircraft, seating 64 passengers with a cruise speed around 650 km/h. Although most found themselves on regional flights within Japan, Japan’s neighboring countries also bought many of the type. Piedmont Airlines flew YS-11s around the southern United States for a while, and Olympic Airways operated the type around Greece. Having made some return on the government’s investment (though not enough to turn a profit), NAMC set its sights on more advanced planes which never saw the light of day.

The YS-33

In the mid-1960s, NAMC got cocky and decided that it would try to clone the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 widebody trijet, which was one of the most popular airliner models at the time despite an array of safety issues. The initial plan called for three models seating 100 to 150 passengers, but by 1970 it was clear that the market was demanding something more in the range of 200 to 250 passengers. Planned development costs skyrocketed from 15 billion yen to 100 billion yen as the plan got bigger and more technically complicated.

NAMC realized that the government simply could not afford to home-grow an entire jumbo jet, so the YS-33 (alternatively known as the “YX”) never made it past badly-drawn concept art.

In 1971, NAMC shut down its production and design departments, effectively becoming a mere servicer for the YS-11. The company wound down its operations over ensuing years and finally closed in 1983.

The Boeing cooperation era

Around 1970, the global airline industry was suffering from a glut of overcapacity and rising fuel prices, and was shifting its demand to more efficient aircraft. Every major aircraft manufacturer was planning a widebody twinjet at the time: two-engine DC-10s and L-1011s were on the table, as well as the first Airbus (now known as the A300) and a Boeing project tentatively called the “7X7.”

The key Japanese aerospace companies, led by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Kawasaki Heavy Industries and Fuji Heavy Industries, set up a Civil Transport Development Consortium (民間輸送機開発協会 or CTDC) in 1973. CTDC signed a memorandum of understanding with Boeing to become a technical development partner on its 7X7 project. The 7X7 turned into what is now the 767, and Japan ended up providing about 15% of each aircraft, including fuselage and wing sections. The aircraft flew for the first time in 1981.

Since then, Japan’s involvement in large Boeing aircraft has continued. The next Boeing widebody, the now-ubiquitous 777, rolled out for the first time in 1994 with even more Japanese components, comprising 21% of the aircraft. On Boeing’s latest large aircraft project, the ongoing and beleaguered 787, Japanese firms have been contracted to build most of the wings and part of the center fuselage, a total of 35% of the plane, and an extremely important 35% at that.

These huge components are currently built in Nagoya, loaded onto pregnant 747s, and flown across the Pacific to the final assembly line in South Carolina.

This is one reason why Boeing aircraft are ubiquitous in Japan. Airbus’s last sale here was an ANA order for five long-range A340s, which ANA cancelled after placing the first non-US order for 777s. ANA and JAL both later became launch customers for the 787, and ANA has extensively advertised the unprecedented Japanese-ness of Boeing’s upcoming model. But neither airline is particularly beholden to Boeing. In fact, production problems with the 787 led JAL to threaten shifting its order to Airbus.

Airbus, for its part, has not paid much attention to Japan. Instead, it has thrown its money and time into marketing in China, going so far as to open an entire assembly line in Tianjin for its popular A320 family of short-haul jets. Airbus planes are becoming more and more common throughout China, and it’s likely that China will use imported Airbus know-how to jump-start its own large aircraft industry.

Meanwhile, the Boeing partnership is the most successful segment of the Japanese civil aircraft industry today–at least much more successful than all the other money-losing projects to build a “truly Japanese” airliner.

The 7J7

CTDC also came up with a “YXX” plan, first proposed in 1979. They sought to develop a 100-seat jet plane that could be used for domestic routes to secondary cities. Based on their success with the Boeing partnership, CTDC decided to get Boeing on board, and thus was born the Boeing 7J7.

The 7J7 was a fairly unique design in that it would have used propfans for engines. These are basically very aerodynamic propellers mounted on jet engines. Propfans are very fuel-efficient compared to regular jet engines, and are capable of attaining similar speeds. However, propfans are also very loud, which makes propfan aircraft less attractive from a passenger’s standpoint.

In a high fuel price environment, and with the Iranian revolution casting fear in the hearts of fuel-hungry airlines, the propfan’s advantages were extremely attractive. By the mid-80s, though, most airlines were out of money and fuel prices were back to manageable levels. Boeing shelved the 7J7 plan and concentrated on making more efficient conventional jets.


Undaunted, the Japanese aerospace industry started chasing another pet aircraft project called the “YSX” in 1986. This aircraft was conceived as a direct replacement for the aging YS-11s, using a similar body with more modern wings and turboprop engines.

The YSX was a very underdeveloped plan which mainly fell victim to bad timing. By the late eighties, Japan was in the middle of an asset bubble while Europe and the US were facing a recession, and domestic manufacturing was no longer quite as competitive. Then came the Pan Am 103 disaster and the Gulf War, which tugged at the finances of already-strained airlines across the globe. By the time the industry picked back up in the mid-1990s, Japan was in a recession, US aircraft manufacturers were turning their attention to Chinese and Korean partnerships, and new types of aircraft were muscling small turboprops out of the market.

Mitsubishi Regional Jet

Today, propeller planes are becoming rarer and rarer. More airlines are switching to small jet aircraft for both short flights (where jets are more comfortable and almost as efficient) and long flights (where small jets can operate more convenient frequencies carrying less people on each flight). This is a market which Boeing and Airbus almost completely overlooked, and as a result, its leading players are now Bombardier of Canada and Embraer of Brazil, hardly countries one would expect to gain a strong toehold in the airliner market. Chinese, Russian and Ukrainian firms are also getting interested in this market segment.

In 2002, the newly-renamed Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry decided that Japan should get in on the regional jet game, and started throwing billions of yen at a regional jet development project led by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. The resulting design is called the Mitsubishi Regional Jet, and has managed to capture twenty-five orders from All Nippon Airways, though no other carriers have shown interest so far.

There seems to be little chance that MRJ will ever be profitable, as estimates show 600 airframes would have to be produced in order to yield a profit.

*** UPDATE: Just hours after this post came out, Trans States Airlines, a feeder contractor for a few major US airlines, ordered more than 100 MRJs.

Why can’t Japan build a jumbo jet?

The large-aircraft industry has long been supported by government funding. Boeing’s early money-winners, the 707 and 747 lines, started out as military transport planes and were later adapted for passenger service.² Airbus started out with a huge amount of funding by the British, French and West German governments as a way to jump-start the lagging European aerospace industry, and its parent company EADS is still subsidized to develop military aircraft for European forces. The other country to develop a significant big-plane industry was the Soviet Union in its heyday, and since the collapse of its command economy, its once-great aircraft manufacturers like Antonov and Ilyushin have been relegated to making poor copies of designs developed elsewhere.

While we all know Japan has no qualms about throwing tons of money at questionable business plans, the state’s obvious disadvantage here is Article 9. Strategic military infrastructure is legally out of the government’s reach, yet this is the sector which has the deepest technical nexus with large airliners. Without the prospect of national defense applications, there is much less economic rationale to invest in a whole production line for a plane with more than a hundred seats. It takes a hell of a lot of infrastructure, too: Boeing’s assembly line near Seattle is the largest building in the world, covering 400,000 square meters, and is mainly for assembly, not even producing all the huge components.³

Japan certainly has the native technical capability to put together a jumbo jet; the question is whether they could ever make money on it, and whether they could even put together a business plan which makes more sense than piggy-backing on a foreign producer.

* * *

¹ NAMC’s chief technician, Teruo Tojo, was a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries employee who also happened to be prime minister/war criminal Hideki Tojo’s second son.

² The 707 airframe is still in military use as an airborne command post and mid-air refueling platform; the 747 started out life as a bid for a giant military transport plane, and morphed into a giant passenger plane after Boeing’s bid lost to Lockheed’s (which became the C-5 Galaxy).

³ It also allegedly has the busiest Tully’s Coffee in the world.