Snubbing Koizumi

I noted in a recent post that the opposition DPJ has just adopted a rule that would prohibit politicians from retiring from politics and letting their relatives run to replace them. This has long been a common practice in Japan, when long-serving members of the Diet retire and have sons or other close relatives run in their place.

Following on the DPJ adopting this rule, the papers are reporting today that the LDP is now discussing a similar prohibition, which could be implemented as early as the next election. Why is this a big deal? Because former PM Junichiro Koizumi is stepping down and is trying to hand off his seat to his son, Shinjiro Koizumi. Shinjiro would be prohibited from running as an LDP candidate if this rule is ultimately passed before the upcoming election. (Another candidate who would be prohibited from running would be Shouichi Usui, son of Hideo Ushi, a former Minister of Justice.)

There are ways for Shinjiro to get around this, of course. One option is for him to just run as an independent, and join the LDP after he’s elected (not an uncommon practice, and a path followed by some such as Makiko Tanaka). But I find it interesting that the LDP is choosing to adopt this policy now. While it’s probably a reactionary move to the DPJ’s platform, the motivation of some pushing this policy must surely be to snub the man who promised to destroy the LDP.

Way to go Japan!

Record number of Americans call Japan reliable

Eighty percent of Americans believe Japan is a reliable ally to the United States, the highest figure since the Foreign Ministry began polling in 1960, the ministry said. The latest figure marked a 13 percentage point jump from last year. Meanwhile, 91 percent of U.S. opinion leaders said the United States could depend on Japan, down one point from last year.

The Foreign Ministry commissioned Gallup to conduct the telephone poll in the United States in February and March.

Asked how they would describe the present level of cooperation between Japan and the United States, 73 percent of Americans said the relationship was excellent or good, up 10 points from the previous year. Among opinion leaders, 81 percent described the relationship positively, down four percentage points from 2008.

Asked to choose the Asian country they believe to be the United States’ most important partner, 46 percent of Americans and 44 percent of opinion leaders picked Japan, up three points and down 10 points from the previous year, respectively. Japan still was the top choice in both categories.

However, China is nipping at Japan’s heels, with 39 percent of Americans and 42 percent of U.S. opinion leaders choosing China as the most important partner to the United States. These figures marked increases of five percentage points and four percentage points, respectively, from the previous year.

I was interested to read the story, but have no real comment, except to ask — why?

Warren Buffett Hates Japanese Food

From TNR, concerning Warren Buffett:

He confines himself to the diet of an eight-year-old, refusing to eat anything much beyond spaghetti, hamburgers, and grilled cheese sandwiches. Schroeder describes a bizarre scene in which Katherine Graham escorted Buffett to dinner at the Manhattan apartment of Sony Chairman Akio Morita. Japanese chefs served plate after plate that Buffett left completely untouched. “By the end of fifteen courses, he still had not eaten a bite,” writes Schroeder. “The Moritas could not have been more polite, which added to his humiliation. He was desperate to escape back to Kay’s apartment, where popcorn and peanuts and strawberry ice cream awaited him. ‘It was the worst,’ he says about the meal he did not eat. ‘I’ve had others like it but it was by far the worst. I will never eat Japanese food again.’

Despite that pretty atrocious diet, Buffett appears to be relatively healyh at age 78. Maybe it’s due to his polygamous lifestyle.

Musical Chairs

Ichiro Ozawa resigned last week as leader of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) over a fundraising scandal. The opposition democrats had a leadership election on Saturday and were faced with the choice between Yukio Hatoyama and Katsuya Okada, two former DPJ leaders with solic track records as total losers. Hatoyama won by a comfortable margin.


The basic political profiles of the two men are:

* Hatoyama was head of the DPJ from 1999 to 2002, after which he resigned after taking responsibility for the “confusion” over rumors about the merger with the Liberal Party, which was at the time lead be former DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa. The two parties ultimately did merge, and Hatoyama took a role in party leadership. (Hatoyama’s tenure was preceded and followed by Naoto Kan, another regular in the leadership roster of the DPJ).

* Okada became head of the DPJ in 2004 and led the party to one of its largest electoral victories in history during the 2004 upper house election. The winning streak didn’t last — he resigned a year later after his party suffered a dramatic losses in the 2005 general election that saw Koizumi’s ruling party the Liberal Democratic Party take its strongest win in history.

For an opposition party that has been floundering in defeat for more than a decade as it struggles to take power, the candidates for the leadership are a sorry pair. Not only are they both uncharasmatic repeat losers, it shows the party has a poor ability at cultivating new leaders.

Hatoyama’s selection is especially ironic when you consider that weeks ago, the DPJ suddenly made their public pet issue the ending of hereditary elected positions. In many districts in Japan, long-serving members of the Diet retire and have sons run in their place. I don’t have current figures, but I’ve read that at one time, as many as one third of the districts had such hereditary members. The DPJ is trying to end the practice, but this new and sudden moral mission is amusingly ironic now that Hatoyama is the party leader. Hatoyama is the grandson of former Prime Minister Ichiro Hatoyama, the son of former Foreign Minister Iichiro Hatoyama, and his brother is the current ruling party Minister of Justice. Do the rules, or at least the spirit of the rules, not apply to the leaders?

Hatoyama’s impending task is leading the party into an election that is just months away. The DPJ was favored to win for months, but with the new fundraising scandals facing the party and PM Aso finally finding his mojo, the LDP may now manage to win yet another election. And when Hatoyama and Okada are the best possible men to be proposed to lead the nation, perhaps that’s for the best.

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How many people live in Tokyo?

So I’m back in the United States, and friends and family ask me over coffee and drinks: how many people live in Tokyo? The answer requires explanation — some sources say 8 million, others say 12.5 million, others 34.5 million. It’s not that the Japanese census is that unreliable. Instead, distinctions must be carefully made between the 23 wards of Tokyo, Tokyo Metropolis/Prefecture, and the Greater Tokyo Area.

Tokyo, Japan

Tokyo is the de facto capital of Japan, but there’s nothing in law that defines this as such. Tokyo is also the only prefecture called a “metropolis,” but there is no legal difference between Tokyo and other prefectures. The prefecture is made up of villages and cities, the same as any other prefecture, except that in the east the municipalities are called ku, or “wards.”

These 23 wards are just ordinary municipalities that are functionally the same as a city, but exist under a different name as a holdover from the pre-war local government regime. There is no unifying body or collective unit that binds these 23 wards together apart from the rest of Tokyo prefecture, but these 23 wards are collectively considered to be the heart of urban Tokyo. The population of Tokyo prefecture is about 12.5 million; the 23 wards have a collective population of about 8.5 million.

The capital of Japan; the green dot in the center of the map is the Imperial Palace.

But as the above map shows, the borders don’t mean the city stops. In many ways, nearby cities Chiba, Kawasaki, and Yokohama share more in common with the 23 wards than the mountains in western Tokyo Prefecture. And the three neighboring prefectures of Saitama, Kanagawa, and Chiba are therefore often included in the definition of Greater Tokyo, or Shuto Ken.

Tokyo’s 12.5 million people, Kanagawa’s 9 million, Saitama’s 7 million, and Chiba’s 6 million make for a combined total of 34.5 million people in this greater block, which is about 25% of Japan’s entire population concentrated in one area.

The four prefectures of Greater Tokyo

So that’s the short answer to the question that makes up this post title.

We Tokyo! Very bad here! Very bad Tokyo!

What is it about Hollywood that it can’t authentically portray Japanese people and the Japanese language to save their lives?

I use Hollywood here to collectively refer to all US film and TV media producers. From the Chinese actors in Memoirs of a Geisha to the Korean actor who plays Ando Masahashi on Heroes, Hollywood rarely bothers about accuracy when casting Japanese people and having actors speak the Japanese language. In defense of the casting in Geisha, Spielberg said that talent was more important than nationality. As for Heroes, the cause is entrepreneurial script writing, where the -Japanese- Korean and Japanese-American actors translate the English lines on set and say whatever Japanese they think sounds right. Time and time again the Japanese script is written badly, spoken poorly by actors who appear to have been casted because they were available and happen to have an Asian face. The end product is rarely checked for accuracy or authenticity. The result: a linguistic clusterfuck that’s excrutiatiny for Japanese speakers to watch.

Why the rant? This came to my mind because I was watching Diary of the Dead, the latest George Romero zombie flick, filmed with mock handheld cameras in the same manner as The Blair House Witch Project and Cloverfield. Check out this excerpt where the characters supposedly see a youtube video of a women from Tokyo who speaks about the situation in Japan.

I know how a Japanese person can speak English well. And I know how a Japanese person can speak English poorly. This is neither — it’s a native English speaker with an Asian face doing a bad job at faking a Japanese person’s bad English accent. (Her accent comes off as Hong Kong English blended with U.S. college campus mockery of Manhattan Chinatown English). And as for cultural accuracy, the woman in the video warns viewers not to bury the dead — laughable when said by a person in Tokyo, as that’s the last thing that ever happens to the dead in Japan, where cremation is the rule because there is no real estate to spare.

A remedy to this casting problem is super-obvious. You could find a Japanese person in any North American city to do a perfectly authentic job for minor roles such as this. And if Hollwood insists on using other actors, you could use the same such person to coach the actor or actress to not sound like such a fraud. It wouldn’t take much for Hollywood to avoid sounding ridiculous in Japan (an enormous market for consuming American film and TV media), and avoid being mocked by bloggers such as myself.

As for zombie attacks, Tokyo would be the absolute worst place to be stuck in the event of a Romero-style zombie attack. The city is crowed, guns are scarce, and there are few isolated areas to which the survivors could escape. It would be intense. And actually… that sounds like a great movie idea! If anyone in Hollywood wants to pursue that, I volunteer my services in screening the cast.

Japan, Czech Republic, and Spain: Foreigners, we’ll PAY you to leave

Japan made world headlines in the last few weeks as it began a program to pay second generation Latin American immigrants to go home. It may have been the first domino in a chain of rich countries — now the Czech Republic and Spain are offering immigrants a similar “buyout” if they’ll leave and promise not to come back:

During its manufacturing boom earlier this decade, the Czech Republic wooed immigrants with plentiful jobs and comparatively higher wages. Now the Czech government is paying them to go back home…

Other countries in Europe have reacted similarly, amid rising unemployment. Last November, Spain’s Socialist Party government launched a program to send 100,000 immigrants home. Those who promise not to return to Spain for three years get six months of unemployment benefits — an average payout of €14,000 ($18,500). Some 4,000 immigrants have taken the cash.

The catch, of course, is that once the immigrant leaves, they promise not to come back. But from a practical standpoint, it’s not quite that simple, especially in the EU, where a migrant can take the cash and mozy into another part of the EU.

Europe has a history of offering immigrants cash to go. After World War II, countries including Germany and France recruited thousands of guest workers to help rebuild shattered economies. France launched the first of these programs in 1977, and thousands of immigrants went home.

But there were drawbacks. Many immigrants who took the cash later broke the ban and returned to France. And apart from making them feel unwelcome, the payments often weren’t enough to entice workers who felt job prospects back home remained bleak. Such complications also bedevil the Czech Republic’s program.

You’ve at least got to hand it to the Europeans for being sensitive about the topic. Czech NGOs and government officials stress that, in distributing information on the buyout, they’re only informing immigrants of their options. Japan is being borderline dishonest. When the plan was announced, some thought that the package was almost a paid family leave scheme, and the promise never to return was only fine print.

A History of Violence

Yesterday, I was supposed to go and eat lunch at either the infamous coffee ramen joint or Tokyo’s oldest horse stew restaurant with other contributors of MF. Instead, I was called on a family excursion to a different type of interesting cuisine — Banya, a cafeteria next to a local fish market in southern Chiba managed by a fishing union cooperative that has recently gained cult status among gourmet followers. The restaurant, which seated hundreds, was crowded, and for good reason — it was delicious. But the grotesque nature of the meal made me think about the inherent violence in the way food is often served in Japan.

In the West, it’s no secret where meat comes from — animals. Often the beasts are harvested and processed in the same way as agriculture. And there has long been a certain Puritan virtue associated with vegetarianism. As many as 20% of the U.S. population believed to be vegetarian. Yet we rarely see evidence of the kill in our meals. Most meat is well processed. We rarely see evidence that the meat we eat was once alive.

Vegetarian advocates have long said that, if the public was aware of the violence inherent in consuming animal flesh, they would realize that “meat is murder” and more people would be vegetarian. The case of Japan, where there is much violence in food yet low prevelance of vegetarianism, suggest otherwise. In much of Japan’s cuisine, the violent inherent in meat is more obvious, and this is no more so the case than with raw fish. At yesterday’s lunch we had an assortment of freshly slaughtered fish, often prepared ikitsukuri style, freshly slaughtered and with the carcass, sometimes wriglign, on display on the same plates from which we ate. Read more below, but viewer discretion is advised.

Continue reading A History of Violence

Horiemon was Right! The Kanji Kentei Scandal Considered

The Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation (KAT), the English name of the Nihon Kanji Nouryoku Kentei Kyoukai, has been in the news over the past weeks for “improper business practices” and high salary and retirement allowance payments to the officers of the board. Like many such scandals in Japan, the matter is partly one of fraud — but the foundation is also a victim of its own wild success, and is a case study in the perils of ignoring gyousei shidou “advice” from the government, and falling victim to the authorities in Livedoor-esque Takafumi Horie style.

KAT is not a kabushiki kaisha (K.K.) private stock corporation, but a zaidan houjin, the oldest and most basic form of the non-profit incorporated entities in Japan roughly translated as “foundation.” It has no members or shareholders, no distributions of profits, and it has no owners, only officers of the board that operate the foundation’s business. (Due to recent reforms, all foundations must now add a board of trustees to act as quasi-shareholders that elect officers). The foundation is not alone in its governance structure. Other similar types of corporations are the shukyou hojin (religious corporation), gakko hojin (school corporation), iryou hojin (medical corporation), and other entities that are the corporate form of ownership and operation for churches, temples, shrines, schools, universities, trade schools, hospitals, elder care centers, and many more of the ordinary institutions of civil society.

But what are these entities to do when they are well managed? Are they to accumulate large cash reserves? The salaries of the board of directors can be raised to an extent, but the officers cannot share in the profits. And for many years, it has been an accepted practice that “non-core” activities of these non-profit corporations can be outsourced to private companies. Hospitals are supplied and consulted, schools recieve their books and other services, and temples buy their incense, from these outside private corporations. Typically, it’s kabuki-style theater of maintaining nominal non-profit status — the private corporations are tyically owned and operated by the very same directors of the non-profit corporation.

(To see one very public example of how this is accepted as legitimate, check out the Japanese web page of the Aso Group, the conglomerate owned and operated by PM Aso’s younger brother, and click the “healthcare” sector. Several hospitals and care centers in Kyoto and Fukuoka are affiliated with the private Aso Group but are non-profit iryou houjin or shakai fukushi houjin. But these entities are listed as secondary to “K.K. Aso Group – Medical Operations Development Department,” “Aso Care Services K.K.”, “Aso Medical Services K.K.”, and other Aso Group entities that manage all non-medical practice services of the hospitals and which are used to extract profit from the hospitals which are required to be non-profit by law.)

KAT issues some of the most popular kanji chinese character tests taken by the citizenry in Japan. Test takers would take certain levels of the test to prove their aptitude in understanding, writing and reading the characters. The tests were wildly popular, such that the group developed plump bank accounts such that it began outsourcing services, such as printing of the tests, to K.K. Oak, owned by Mr. Okubo, the chairman of the board of KAT. Oak subsequently gave off benefits to its subsidiares, which included Okubo family members. The other list of grievances are relatively minor — about 9 million yen (US$90k) was given to various politicians, and about 3 million yen to a temple in Kyoto.

I can report to readers from experience, having reviewed the structures and books of a number of non-profit foundations, school corporations, and medical corporations, that this level of minor fraud is standard operating procedure. Of the thousands of private schools and hospitals operated as so-called non-profit entities, many engage in nepotistic, family-favoring practices that make KAT look minor. But KAT made two big mistakes that brought its operations under scrutiny.

* It ignored a decade of gyousei shidou guidance from the Ministry of Education. Thirteen times, between 1999 and 2007, the Ministry instructed KAT to lower its fees for the top-level course by 500 to 1,000 yen. It also instructed that Okubo should resign as representative of printing house Oak and loosen the ties between the two organizations (KAT rented its main building for US$1.8 million a year from Oak, yet another way in which Okubo profited from the structure).
* It was too profitable. KAT was run the same way plenty of trade schools and hospitals are run, and in my own professional experience, I’ve seen far more dodgy schemes of fraternal profiteering from allegedly non-profit corporations. However, KAT’s tests became a national craze. With its popularlity came wild profits. And with profits came scrutiny.

I know Adamu will SLAM me for using the word “kabuki” in this post, and I could take the cliche train another stop and talk about the nail that sticks up gets hammered down. But as loathe as MF is to those types of analogies, we are seeing instances where they are basically true, where the authorities selectively target only the successful rulebreakers. KAT got screwed in the same way as Horiemon back in 2007. (And on that note, I share Horie’s sentiments recently publicly expressed, and noted here, that he was only targeted because he was a successful rebel, or in other words, that he made the two big mistakes itemized above.) It seems unlikely that KAT will survive in its present form as this scandal continues to spread, and this may be a chance for some of the competitor tests to gain a share of the market. But the two lessons for this for every businessman engaging in the soft fraud that is part of tax, accounting, business, and audit in Japan, make sure that you (1) pay attention to any advice given to you by the government, even non-binding advice, and (2) be ready for the increased scrutiny that will come when you’re profitable. Don’t make the mistakes of Horiemon and KAT.