Does Japan have a deeply embedded gender bias?

p10-lotl-a-20160929-870x561Does Japan really have a deeply embedded gender bias?

That was the claim in the headline over an opinion piece about politics in the Japan Times by a foreign, male professor from a law school in Kyoto.

Gender was also discussed in a report about attitudes to sex and, quite separately, in the context of a puzzling TV advert in which a woman turns into an eel.

Foreigners are generally curious about the nature of relationships in Japan. In the media, journalists tend to highlight complaints of sexism or “a deeply engendered gender bias”. However, these views are less common within the Japanese press.

In his piece of the Japan Times, Professor Colin Jones discussed Renho, the leader of the Opposition. Her father is Taiwanese and her mother is Japanese. This led to a debate over whether she could stand for parliament. Professor Jones believes it would not have been an issue if Renho had a Japanese father. He says Renho’s case “thus offers a stark illustration of the deeply rooted structural impediments faced by women in Japan even today.”

In fact, the controversy appears to have been settled and Renho now attracts a lot of respect as Japan’s first female leader of the opposition. Of course, the hard won success of prominent female leaders does not indicate that gender discrimination has vanished but it partly explains why gender is such an issue for the media.

Away from politics, there was widespread interest in a story which showed Japanese young men in a rather negative way. The sex survey  claimed that about 40% of young single men and women have never had sex – a phenomenon that is being blamed for the low birth rate in Japan.

The Guardian reminded its readers that the study is one of several in recent years that portray Japan as a country with a collective loss of interest in sex. It was the theme of a prurient 2013 BBC documentary No Sex, Please, We’re Japanese.

But the Guardian suggested such claims are exaggerated and misleading.

Another story which was shared on social media was about a TV advertisement in which a Japanese girl turns into an eel. This ad was designed to promote ethical farming.

Many websites claimed – without much evidence – that it was “withdrawn for being sexist”. Yet the community which discussed it on Japan Today generally felt that it was unlikely to have been seen as sexist by its Japanese viewers. Many of them found it rather charming.

“Keep borrowing money – it makes no sense not to!”

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That would have been a suitable headline over an opinion piece in the Japan Times concerning economic and monetary and policy.

The newspaper said “excessive debt is always a concern” but it went on to encourage more government borrowing. “It makes no sense not to borrow when interest rates are this low,” it said. “Central bankers have done their part, it’s up to politicians to do theirs.”

The paper was responding to this week’s monetary policy meeting of the Bank of Japan. There was no headline-grabbing change to come out of the meeting. But the international media concluded the most significant point is that the Bank plans to keep its key interest rate in negative territory at -0.1%, for the time being. In addition to keeping short-term rates at -0.1%, the bank said it will also keep long-term rates, specifically the yield on ten-year government bonds, at about zero for the foreseeable future.

In its analysis, the Economist said the BOJ policies have “not only lowered interest rates, they have also flattened them.”

The Bank of Japan’s goal is to create an environment in which inflation can climb to two percent. It will therefore continue its costly QE programme through its purchase of government bonds. As I explained in last week’s blog, the bank has a serious credibility problem unless its goal is achieved.

The Bank of Japan’s policies are similar to those of the European Central Bank, which also has super-low rates and a QE programme. By contrast, the United States Federal Reserve is ready to raise rates. It had hoped to do so earlier this year but held back because of several factors, including uncertainty over the outcome of the US election.

Andrew Wilson, the CEO of Goldman Sachs Global Asset Management told the BBC: “I think this potential rate cut by the US Federal Reserve is well discounted by the markets. Other central banks are going in the opposite direction, so I don’t think it will have a broad global impact.

“At the same time as the Fed is moving interest rates up, the amount of liquidity created by the Bank of Japan and the European Central Bank will, we think, keep global interest rates at a relatively low level for a prolonged period.”

Although the Bank of Japan’s goal of reaching, or even surpassing, the two percent inflation target seems implausibly ambitious, it is hard to imagine that things could have been better had it done nothing.

Bank of Japan faces credibility crisis

http-%2F%2Fcom.ft.imagepublish.prod.s3.amazonawsThe Bank of Japan has a crisis of credibility, according to the Financial Times.

The tactics it is using to try to invigorate Japan’s economy are not yet working and it has made a promise which seems impossible to meet.

For that reason, trust in the Bank and its governor Haruhiko Kuroda is undermined both within Japan and abroad.

The promise the Bank has made is to raise Japan’s inflation rate to two percent “within a couple of years.” A former policy maker at the bank, Sayuri Shirai, has pointed out that Japan has not had inflation rate that high for more than two decades. She believes it is time to cut the inflation target to one percent.

The methods by which the Bank of Japan is trying to create inflation include a negative basic interest rate of -0.1%. This effectively charges banks money to keep their cash in the system and is designed to prompt them into lending more to consumers and businesses. However, Forbes Asia claims the policy discourages lending.

There is speculation that the negative interest could soon be increased from -0.1% percent to -0.2%. An announcement is due following the Bank’s policy meeting on September 21st.

The negative interest rate is unwelcome for savers who have put their money into the banks, many of whom are old people. Japan has one of the highest savings rates in the world.

The negative rate is not the most expensive of the Bank of Japan’s policies. It is currently buying ¥80 trillion ($780 billion) worth of Japanese government bonds a year.

This policy, sometimes known as quantitative easing, is designed to flood money into the system; “printing money” is the way journalists sometimes refer to it. Yet it adds to the mountain of debt the government must face in the future. It also interrupts the system by which the government uses banks to fund its borrowing.

For most people, huge numbers and jargon make it difficult to grasp complex monetary policy. Yet everyone can see the targets of higher inflation and sustained economic growth are not yet being met.

This undermines credibility of the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who is working closely with the Bank of Japan.
If people lose trust in both the government and the central bank it creates an environment of cynicism. Of course, Japan is not the only country to struggle to respond to the economic disruption following the 2008 financial crisis.

Yet other countries will not wish to copy Japan’s policies if they leave a trail of broken promises and distrust.

North Korea “playing with fire” with missile launches

Unknown-20The North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has called on his army to press ahead with its nuclear weapons programme. His statement came after North Korea fired three ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan this week.

Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe called the missile launch “an act of indescribable violence.”

North Korea tested a nuclear device earlier this year and it now aims to miniaturise nuclear weapons so that they can be attached to missiles, according to Professor Kihl-Jae Ryoo from the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
He was the minister for Unification for South Korea between 2013 and 2015.

Professor Ryoo was speaking on the record at Chatham House in London this week. He described the current situation as “explosive” and said that Kim Jong Un is “like a child playing with fire that could ignite at any time.”

He said that the threats from North Korea are now as strong as they were at the height of the Cold War. He said Kim Jung Un’s goal is to consolidate his power and to differentiate his leadership from that his father, Kim Jong-Il who died in 2011.

Professor Ryoo said that while he supported UN sanctions, North Korea has endured sanctions for many years without much impact on its regime.

The professor added that although there is some evidence that the economic situation is improving around Pyongyang, rural parts of the country remain in poverty and require humanitarian aid.

I asked Professor Ryoo if he believes a consistent message about North Korea is coming from Japan, South Korea and China. He replied that although the three countries are in broad agreement their perspectives are different, particularly because Japan and South Korea are US allies.

He urged Japan to adopt a missile defence system to protect itself from attack.

Professor Ryoo gave two scenarios in which the leadership of North Korea could change. One was “through an assassination or a coup d’etat”, although he added “I don’t think that is very likely.”

The other scenario is that North Korea becomes more open and its citizens are able to compare themselves to people in other countries. This might foster the start of a market-orientated economy which could lead to the gradual collapse of the present system. However, he added that “I don’t think that is happening at the moment.”

He repeated his wish to see the two Koreas reunite and contribute to the peace and prosperity of the Asian region but he said that such a goal seems a long way off.

The leaders of Japan and South Korea held talks this week in Seoul, during which they condemned the missile launches by North Korea. They also reported progress over an issue which has divided them in the past – the so-called “comfort women” form Korea used by Japanese soldiers in the war.