Maehara should stay

Seiji Maehara is stepping down due to an absolutely ridiculous scandal-of-the-week summarized well by the WSJ Japan blog: “The $2,429 Donation That Brought Down Japan’s Foreign Minister.” Said donation came from a foreigner, which made it illegal.

I say “ridiculous” because the donor in question is a zainichi Korean who has run a yakiniku restaurant in Kyoto for decades; there was likely no way for Maehara’s staff to know whether or not she was a Japanese national. In a sane world, he would simply return her money, apologize and get on with his work. Instead, he succumbed to a peanut gallery of opposition cranks who were simply looking for any line of attack on the Kan government and saw a prime opportunity to imply that Maehara was selling out the country — to a permanent resident, for $2,429. Are you kidding me?

Of course, NHK and most other media outlets are simply reporting that “Maehara accepted donations from foreigners” without mentioning any details of the donations or the foreigners — making it sound like Maehara was getting briefcases full of hundred-dollar bills from Rahm Emmanuel or the evil-looking Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman (at least, those were the first two scenes which I imagined).

Evangelicals say no to Islamic finance… in Korea

The Korean Law Blog reports that a group of evangelical Protestants in South Korea have apparently killed a bill which would recognize tax deductions and other legal benefits for Islamic financial structures.

This sort of silliness isn’t unique to Korea, of course. Followers of the English-language media have undoubtedly seen tons of uproar over the Sharia courts in Britain which can make legally binding judgments under English law. The catch is, of course, that the jurisdiction of these courts is consensual, just like commercial arbitrators or The People’s Court — you are only bound by Sharia rulings if you voluntarily agree to go to Sharia court. So for the non-Muslims in Britain, you’d think it would be a non-issue.

The Korean backlash is just as ridiculous, if not moreso. Not only would the proposed law not hurt anyone, but failing to pass it seems to effectively hurt Korean companies, especially financial institutions, by depriving them of potential business in Islamic countries and from Islamic investors.

(Note that The Korean Law Blog is not the same as the late, great Korea Law Blog run by Marmot contributor Brendon Carr. But for all you comparative law geeks in the audience, it’s a reasonably informative substitute.)

More to life than growth?

So says the FT (hat tip to Dan Harris).

Underlying much of the head-shaking about Japan are two assumptions. The first is that a successful economy is one in which foreign businesses find it easy to make money. By that yardstick Japan is a failure and post-war Iraq a glittering triumph. The second is that the purpose of a national economy is to outperform its peers.

If one starts from a different proposition, that the business of a state is to serve its own people, the picture looks rather different, even in the narrowest economic sense. Japan’s real performance has been masked by deflation and a stagnant population. But look at real per capita income – what people in the country actually care about – and things are far less bleak.

By that measure, according to figures compiled by Paul Sheard, chief economist at Nomura, Japan has grown at an annual 0.3 per cent in the past five years. That may not sound like much. But the US is worse, with real per capita income rising 0.0 per cent over the same period. In the past decade, Japanese and US real per capita growth are evenly pegged, at 0.7 per cent a year. One has to go back 20 years for the US to do better – 1.4 per cent against 0.8 per cent. In Japan’s two decades of misery, American wealth creation has outpaced that of Japan, but not by much.

Those numbers are significantly gamed, since the US housing market was basically peaking in 2005/06 and began to collapse shortly thereafter, whereas 20 years ago (back when Clinton was first running for president) the US economy was in the toilet and Japan was still in the midst of its landing from the bubble. But you get the point.

I had a conversation with a local lawyer friend a few nights ago, part of which went something like this:

FRIEND: Man, this place is dead. No business, no innovation. Even the population is declining. Some guys respond “uhhh! uhhh! immigration will fix it all!” but I don’t buy that crap.

JOE: Well… [pause for effect] that’s one way to look at it. Tokyo is still growing even if the regions are hollowing out. Infrastructure is getting better. We can get real pizza and Mexican food now.

FRIEND: Yeah, but so what? There’s still no activity, no buzz, no meaningful deals in the pipeline. Everyone is just sticking their heads in the sand or living off of their savings.

JOE: It says a lot that they actually have savings. Anyway, if this is what an apocalypse looks like, none of us have much to worry about. I’m not in a rush to escape. Crowding and corporate lameness aside, life is pretty good here.

FRIEND: Ehhh, I just don’t see a future here.

JOE: Yeah, well, even when people “see a future,” they often get nasty surprises. (NOTE: It’s possible that being in Japan for a while has simply eroded my personal risk appetite.)

Death of Detroit: “The Karate Kid” vs. Eminem

I finally got around to seeing The Karate Kid (i.e. last year’s remake starring Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan) last weekend.

Though not a revolutionary classic of filmmaking by any means, it was still pretty enjoyable and interesting from my perspective. One reason is that it is the only Hollywood film I have seen that captures the modern experience of being an American expat in Asia — particularly of being an American kid coming to Asia. The protagonist, 12-year-old Dre Parker, goes through the same stages of frustration and emergence in Beijing that I went through as a 15-year-old in Osaka. This balances to hilarious effect with the “overawed clueless expat” character of Dre’s mother Sherry, who spends most of the movie fawning on the wonderfulness of everything Chinese.

The other interesting facet of the film is its historical context in the industrial decay of America and simultaneous emergence of China. At the very beginning of the film, Sherry and Dre move from a middle-class existence in Detroit to a middle-class existence in Beijing, and a long portion of the opening credits consists of shots of the decaying metropolis of Detroit. The reason for their move, which is only briefly mentioned in the film, is that Sherry worked at a car factory which closed down, and the only way she could keep working was to transfer to a factory in China. When Dre gets exasperated and wants to go home, Sherry emphatically tells him that they cannot go home because there is nothing left for them.

In short, it’s a movie primarily about a kid overcoming his weaknesses through kung fu discipline, and secondarily about America, China and the expat experience in the 21st century. On the latter point, it does a much less groan-worthy job than the likes of Rising Sun and Gung Ho did during the Japanese emergence of the late 1980s.

The decay of Detroit is, of course, nothing new; there have been a few big movies made on the theme, such as the non-fictional Roger & Me in 1989 and the fictional 8 Mile in 2002. Now Chrysler is using the legacy and the decaying grit of Detroit as selling points for their high-end cars; on Sunday, they ran the following ad during the Super Bowl, which is the most-watched TV program in the US just about every year, and got Eminem to pop in as a spokesman. (Hat tip to James Fallows for the link.)

The ad conveniently ignores the fact that Chrysler will be owned by Italians as soon as it pays off its debts to the US federal government. But hey, image is everything.

Yahoo STILL beats Google for mapping Japan, 4+ years later

Reprising a topic which I brought up in 2006, it seems that Google’s mapping team still needs to get its act together when it comes to covering Japan. Their map data is nearly a year out of date, while Yahoo seems to update its maps almost in real time.

I’ll focus on Tokyo area airports in this post, since they are one of my primary target areas of geekery. Here is Google’s map of the area surrounding Narita Airport rapid access line, which opened last summer:

View Larger Map

Note that the line doesn’t show up at all (though its timetable data is loaded into the transit directions engine, and the route will be vaguely highlighted if you search for it). On the other hand, Yahoo is completely up to date:

Now here is Google’s map of Haneda Airport, where a new international terminal opened back in October. Of course, they haven’t gotten around to updating yet, though they at least managed to include an icon showing one (but not both) of the new international terminal’s railway stations.

View Larger Map

Yahoo again is totally up to date, showing the full terminal building, the surrounding tarmac AND both stations (zoom in to see them).

So what gives? Both services are apparently getting map data from the same company (Zenrin) so you would think their maps would have almost identical content. One possibility, corroborated by the copyright legends at the bottom of the maps, is that Google is relying totally on Zenrin while Yahoo makes its own updates pending full updates from Zenrin. Another possibility is that Google simply doesn’t demand updates from Zenrin as often because their Maps team is based outside Japan and has no clue how much construction goes on here.

The mass graves of Toyama Park (well, almost)

Suburban Tokyo park may hide a terrible wartime secret, The Australian, January 15, 2011:

IF you knew nothing of its sinister history, you could pass by a thousand times without casting a second glance at Toyama Park.

Situated in Shinjuku ward, in the heart of Tokyo, it is an affluent area of hospitals and universities, a place of trees and tennis courts where old ladies take slow walks with elaborately groomed poodles. A tramp dozes in the winter sun in a deserted children’s playground. A vacant plot, where an old apartment once stood, lies cleared by bulldozers. There is nothing to suggest Toyama Park’s past, and the wartime secret that may soon surface after seven decades of silence.

According to the recollection of elderly witnesses, Toyama Park is the site of mass graves, the improvised burial place of the victims of one of Japan’s most notorious war crimes.

Unsurprisingly, this article is subtly misleading in several ways. Toyama Park is within walking distance of Shinjuku if you have good legs — inside the Yamanote Line, between Waseda University and the Shin-Okubo Korean district, so not really “suburban.” It is split in half by Meiji-dori; the western half wraps around the north and west sides of the engineering campus of Waseda University, while the eastern half is crammed between apartment buildings, schools, and the National Center for Global Health and Medicine, an enormous hospital complex currently in the process of being completely rebuilt. Many of my in-laws live nearby, and the National Center is where my wife was born.

The fact of the graves is also hardly “hidden” or “secret” any more, since the article mentions that bones were unearthed in the area starting in 1989. And a quick reference to a two week old Asahi article in Japanese confirms that the graves are not actually *in* the park, which is owned by the city of Shinjuku, but rather at various adjacent sites which are owned by the national government.

The National Center sits on the site of what was originally the Army Medical College and Army Hospital, and so it had relations with Unit 731, which used some of the base’s land to dump bodies. The Asahi article describes three sites, the first being underneath what is now a dormitory for the Medical Center. It sticks out into the middle of the park but is technically outside its boundaries. The other two sites are on the east side of the hospital, well outside the park. One of these sites is underneath what is now the quite sinisterly-named Infectious Disease Surveillance Center, and the other is underneath another government employee dormitory.

Since the article and accompanying map will undoubtedly expire, I have made my own (clearer) map in Google Maps, with relevant Japanese quotes regarding each site from the Asahi article.

View Unit 731 gravesite map in a larger map

My own suspicion is that the issue is not swept under the rug out of spite for the Chinese, or out of lack of atonement for World War II; it is swept under the rug because the area is heavily populated (including a number of large public housing buildings) and plays an important role in Tokyo’s and Japan’s public health infrastructure. In Japan, nobody wants to live next to graves, much less mass graves, much less get a checkup or operation there. So it’s one of those things that’s easier not to think about.

The Haneda trick

Haneda Airport has been all over the Japanese news lately, so it’s about time that I write some more about it.

The new international terminal opened today, and long-haul flights will commence at the end of this month. The catch is that they will all have to operate between 10 PM and 7 AM, the hours when Narita Airport is closed. Only flights to certain cities in East Asia are allowed to operate during the day. This is commonly interpreted as a compromise to keep Narita traffic up, but there is a more subtle and less reported effect of the schedule: it helps Japanese airlines and screws over foreign airlines. Here’s why.

Within this rule, the most attractive schedule from a passenger’s perspective is to leave Haneda between 10 PM and 1 AM, and to arrive at Haneda as close to 7 AM as possible. If you leave Haneda in the early morning hours, you either have to get there on the last train the evening before (requiring a wait) or take a car or taxi in the wee hours of the night (expensive). If you land at Haneda after 10 PM, you have to hustle to get ground transportation to your final destination in Tokyo.

It’s easy for JAL and ANA to offer such schedules because they have operations at Haneda during the day. If a JAL plane comes in from Europe at 6 AM, it can be cleaned, refueled and sent on a round trip to Seoul, Beijing or Shanghai, and still get back in plenty of time to take people overseas at 10 PM. On the other hand, if a foreign plane flies in at 6 AM, they have to sit at Haneda for fifteen hours until they can fly again. The best compromise that non-Japanese carriers can come up with is to have their flights arrive at Haneda around 10:30 and depart around 6:30 — meaning that most Tokyoites will have to get up very early and catch the first train of the morning, then catch the last train home after their trip. A couple have managed to put together flight schedules that leave Haneda around midnight, but this is not always realistic because of time zones and the longer turn-around times for long-haul aircraft.

JAL and ANA will run their first long-haul flights on October 31, but American, Delta, Air Canada and British Airways won’t start flights until next year, and might even decide that Haneda isn’t worth it unless the hours are relaxed further. The only non-Asian carrier that will serve Haneda this year is Hawaiian Airlines, who will bring their daily flight into Haneda right at 10 pm, then turn it around back to Honolulu after midnight. They can get away with this because Honolulu is only a few hours ahead of Tokyo (minus a day), so the midnight departure translates to a lunch arrival, and the 10 pm return arrival translates into an afternoon return departure — both good timings for vacationers. On the other hand, American’s proposed HND-JFK flight is horribly timed, leaving HND around 6 AM and arriving at JFK around the same time, virtually guaranteeing that every passenger on it will be jet-lagged out of their mind for a week. But they don’t have much of a choice.

The new division of duties between the airports won’t be sustainable, and I believe Kasumigaseki will eventually open up HND to flights around the clock — in which case Tokyo’s airport situation will eventually look like London’s. Haneda will be the equivalent of Heathrow: close-in, popular, charging a premium, and a key intercontinental hub. Narita will be the equivalent of Gatwick or Stansted: a haven for cheap flights to holiday destinations, mainly serving Tokyo locals.

Ethnicity and the census

Debito, writing in the Japan Times:

Japan’s census does not measure for ethnicity (minzoku). It still measures only for nationality (kokuseki). In other words, on the form you indicate that you are Japanese or that you are miscellaneous (indicate nationality).

So what does that mean for the Ainu? They are Japanese citizens, of course, but their indigenous status remains unaccounted for.

Then how about naturalized citizens? I of course wrote down “Japanese” for my nationality on the census. But I would also have liked to indicate that I am a hyphenated Japanese — a Japanese with American roots, an Amerika-kei Nihonjin.

But it’s not just about me. How about children of international marriages? My kids are just as American as they are Japanese, so why not have it formally acknowledged? It would be in other societies with ethnic diversity. Why can’t we show how genetically diverse Japanese society is, or is becoming?

I wrote about this subject at MFT back in March, and my conclusion, having thought about it some more, is that ethnic distinctions are simply not that meaningful in and of themselves. Usually, they are completely arbitrary — just as arbitrary as nationality.

Debito, for instance, wants to identify as an “American Japanese.” This is his right, but it doesn’t tell you anything about him. You could correctly apply the same label to someone who would be considered an ethnic minority in America (like Akebono) or even someone who would be considered Japanese or Japanese American in America (like Hikaru Utada).

Or, as Donald Horowitz once put it (as quoted by Samuel Huntington in The Clash of Civilizations):

An Ibo may be an Owerri Ibo or an Onitsha Ibo in what was the Eastern region of Nigeria. In Lagos, he is simply an Ibo. In London, he is a Nigerian. In New York, he is an African.

And in most of the US, he would just be “black” — much like the current president of the United States, whose ancestry and upbringing has practically nothing in common with the majority of “black” people in the same country.

This brings me to the barely-informed assertion, not knowing much about census practices elsewhere, that the US has some of the most thoroughly developed racial and ethnic census profiling in the world, and while it generates a ton of data, it is all pretty useless.

The most common American view is that the population consists of five races: white, black, Asian, Hispanic/Latino and Native American. In reality, “Hispanic” or “Latino” is not a race–there are Hispanic people of European, African and Native American origin, and of varying combinations thereof–so the US Census recognizes four races, has a “multiracial” alternative option, and treats “Hispanic or Latino” as a separate descriptor which can apply to a person of any race. But because Hispanic and Latino people are not used to being called “white,” they often trip up when being asked to identify themselves as such (more on this here). That’s not the only arbitrary distinction. Arabs, Iranians and Turks are treated as “white” even though their groups hail from parts of Asia and are reviled with suspicion by legions of ignorant “white” people. Indians and Pakistanis are treated as “Asian/Pacific Islander” alongside East Asians, Polynesians and Australian aborigines. You get the idea.

To confuse matters further, the US Census lets people self-identify using a more detailed “ancestry” field, and in practice nearly anything you can think of gets written down in this space, including unhelpful answers like “United States,” “Southerner” and “Amerasian.”

Debito continues:

I believe the government still wants to maintain the image of Japan’s ethnic homogeneity, as it justifies a lot of status-quo policymaking (e.g., a closed-door refugee regime, no official immigration policy, the firm and oft-repeated belief that Japan is not and will never be an “immigration nation”).

After all, Japan’s identity is currently based on the ideals of cultural and even racial purity. Why would one dare to collect official data that would undermine that?

The US Census is arguably set up with the opposite purpose in mind — to provide tons of (probably misleading) data that show off the diversity of the population.

I agree that Japan should do a better job of acknowledging the presence of other ethnic groups within its borders. To me, though, it’s a tough call, because all of the possible approaches have serious flaws.

The government’s main objection is somewhat legitimate. As Debito puts it:

The official reason I keep getting from the Census Bureau is that this is a privacy issue. Asking people for their ethnic backgrounds is apparently too personal.

He doesn’t buy this because there is other highly personal information which is surveyed, such as household income (not so personal in Japan, by the way, but I digress). It is clearly an intensely personal issue for many affected people–just look at how many effectively “hide out” as Japanese people, with a Japanese name and hazy family background, so that they can lead normal lives among the mainstream of the population without being viewed as an outsider. Or look at the burakumin, whose leaders don’t even want anyone to know where they used to live hundreds of years ago.

Even setting that issue aside, there are still serious problems with any survey of ethnicity in Japan.

The question could be most simply phrased: “Do you have any non-Japanese ancestry?” But there is a serious scientific problem: everyone would technically be forced to say “yes” because we are pretty sure that the human race did not spontaneously form in Japan. And there is a practical problem: nth-generation Japanese citizens who happen to have a great-grandparent from Korea are in a different situation than a half-Japanese person from Japan, a half-Japanese person from South America, a multi-generation zainichi, an Asian immigrant laborer or a JET teacher.

If the census can’t be so vague, it has to be multiple-choice; “choose your own answer” doesn’t work, as explained above. So what should the choices be? There are countless Japanese people who have lived and had families in other countries for over a hundred years, so national origin doesn’t say anything. “Race” is tricky because most foreigners in Japan are technically of the same race as “purebred Japanese” people (i.e. East Asian/Mongoloid). Any classification has to be further broken down by specific combination; is a half-Japanese half-American person counted as Japanese or American, and how is American counted anyway? Do you need to know how many “black” or “white” people there are? How Korean do you have to be to be “Korean?”

I am pretty content with the fact that the Japanese census doesn’t get into these issues, and only looks into declared nationality, which is at least not a gray area: any given person in Japan is either Japanese, stateless, or entered Japan as a national of one other country (i.e. the passport they most recently showed to immigration). It doesn’t say a lot but it is at least legally relevant.

Breakin’ Supply: Electric Boogaloo

During the spat between China and Japan this week, China made headlines by temporarily cutting off the supply of rare earth metals to Japan, which were necessary for much of Japan’s high-end industrial production. The ban was reportedly repealed later in the week.

More interesting, and unfortunately much less widely reported: in the middle of all this, a publicly-funded Japanese research institute suddenly announced a cheaper alternative to rare-earth motors for hybrid vehicles, which would allow production to continue even if China kept the ban in place.

I want to say that this was a little victory for Japan, but now it’s pretty unsubstantial. So I would call it more of a warning to China: as any country gets more aggressive about screwing over foreign companies through economic restrictions for self-serving reasons, foreign companies will find ways to avoid that country. This is more true in the 21st century than it has ever been. Another good example of this, coincidentally in the same industry, is the recent Chinese rule requiring electric vehicles to be built in foreign-domestic joint ventures. Nissan bit the bullet and moved forward, but Peugeot decided to stand its ground and threatened to move production out of China.

For the comments (since nobody ever comments on economic pieces): Is “rascal” an acceptable translation for 野郎?