Abe claims “crisis” demands a snap election

Is it true that Japan needs of an election to deal with a “national crisis?”
That’s the claim made by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has called a snap election to take place soon – probably on October 22nd.

The escalating threat from North Korea could well be seen as a “crisis” situation.
Domestically, however, things are calm in Japan. Its economy is growing at the fastest rate for two years. Unemployment is very low and by many measures, it remains one of the richest and most peaceful countries in the world.

The Asahi Shimbun newspaper, which is not generally supportive of Mr Abe or the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), says the prime minister’s opponents were “left flustered” by his portrayal of Japan as a nation in crisis.

The Asahi says suggests that Mr Abe is dissolving the Lower House of the parliament in order to avoid questions about political scandals and allegations of corruption.

However, the widespread view in the press, supported by a poll by the Nikkei newspaper, is that Mr Abe is in a good position to win the election because the opposition parties are so weak. Mr Abe’s LDP is supported by 44 percent of voters, with the opposition Democratic Party of Japan on only eight percent.

The Financial Times suggests that Mr Abe will fight a populist campaign, aimed at exploiting a weak opposition rather than winning a mandate for painful economic reforms or drastic constitutional change. For example, Mr Abe has said there’ll be a big push to provide free childcare for three-to-five-year-olds, paid for partly by a rise in consumption tax in 2019.

Another candidate for the role of Japan’s prime minister – the governor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike – may be better placed to claim the populist ticket.

Although Ms Koike’s background is in the LDP, she presents herself as a challenger to the vested interests and the status quo. She has named her new political party Kibo no To (“Party of Hope”).

So for many voters, the election presents a choice between returning Mr Abe for a fourth term or voting for change and Japan’s first female prime minister.

The press often portrays Mr Abe as a nationalist, provoking bad feelings with Japan’s neighbours, China and South Korea. A detailed profile of Mr Abe was prepared by AFP and ran in the Daily Mail under the headline: “Shinzo Abe – Nationalist blueblood at home, shrewd diplomat abroad.”

It points to his efforts to build relationships with Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, while pushing a nationalist agenda domestically.

Another question is whether his policy of Abenomics, designed to restore Japan’s economy, is working. With recession now out of the picture and activity related to the 2020 Olympic Games ramping up, the situation looks bright.

And Abenomics is set to continue, especially its first two “arrows”. That means more massive economic stimulus through public spending and no tapering of the expensive asset-purchasing scheme, conducted by the Bank of Japan.

We don’t trust China’s win-win rhetoric, warns ambassador

A lack of trust and an underlying threat of violence are harming China’s relations with Japan, according to Japan’s former ambassador to Beijing.

 

Masato Kitera represented Japan in China from 2012 until 2016.

He claims that when Chinese people tell him collaboration creates a “win win” situation, he hears them saying to Japan “we win.”

 

“I don’t believe it when the Chinese say win-win. I’ve heard it many times. China often says the relationship is advantageous for both Japan and China. But when Chinese people say win-win my ears only hear we win.”

Violent threats

Mr Kitera said that at the start of his tenure as ambassador there was a wave of violent anti-Japanese protests in China, including attacks on the Japanese Embassy and Japanese-owned factories.

He said that when he called on Chinese leaders to denounce the violence “no-one agreed with me.”

Mr Kitera, who is now Japan’s ambassador to France, was speaking at Chatham House, the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London.

Challenge or opportunity 

He was taking part in a debate on whether China’s economic growth was an opportunity or a challenge for Japan.

“I see it as both,” he said, noting that although Sino-Japanese diplomatic relations are cool at the moment, the Chinese government nevertheless encourages ongoing Japanese investment to stimulate its economy.

More than 23,000 Japanese companies operate in China, employing more than 10 million people. Mr Kitera said that for that reason, the economic relationship is important to both countries. He said he would encourage Japanese companies to invest long-term in China in order to “gain leverage.”

China’s debt to Japan

Ambassador Kitera said that Japan’s investment in China in the 1970s and 1980s had formed the basis for its economic transformation. “Today’s economic development would not have been possible without Japanese support,” he said.

However he said that Japanese investors in China should “be mindful of the risks” and he said that President Xi Jinping’s recent claim that China was a champion of free trade was “met with an ironic smile.”

He claimed that tariffs and duties are applied inconsistently, creating pressures on Japanese businesses operating in China.

China’s denial

The speech met with a robust response from Mr Kitera’s fellow panellist at Chatham House, Professor Jia Qingguo from the Department of Diplomacy at the School of International studies at Peking University.

He challenged Mr Kitera’s dismissal of the frequently used phrase “win win.”

“I don’t like it when you say you never believe what the Chinese people say,” Professor Jia told Ambassador Kitera. “It’s like a joke. Maybe some people don’t say what they mean but this is not a fair statement. A lot of people – when they say “win win” – they mean it.”

Peaceful coexistence 

Professor Jia pointed out that many Japanese companies choose to remain in China, despite the complex relationship.

“China and Japan were enemies and now we are at peace. We co-exist peacefully,” said Professor Jia. “We are economically interdependent. Our relationship has its problems but I believe it is still a win-win relationship.”

The panel on China was part of a conference at Chatham House entitled Anglo-Japanese Cooperation in an Era of Growing Nationalism and Weakening Globalization. The event was on the record and the discussion was moderated by Isabel Hilton, the editor of chinadialogue.

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Hitachi weathers the Brexit storm

It will soon be possible to catch a Japanese bullet train along one of the most scenic and stormy coastal rail routes in England.

Hitachi is building special waterproof trains which will be able to run along a track beside the sea in Devon in Southwest England, where gale-force winds often blow seawater onto the line.

The the new Class 802 Intercity Express Trains, which will run from London Paddington to Exeter, Plymouth and Penzance from next year, have been designed to withstand the storms.

Hitachi a Japanese company with deep links to Britain and its presence is felt in many regions.

It is a major player in the UK’s railway industry. Hitachi trains, known as Javelins, carry passengers from London St Pancras station to the Southeast coast of England at great speed.

Now Hitachi Rail is bidding for a £2.75 billion contract to build trains for the planned HS2 high-speed railway which will connect London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. The government says HS2 will boost the economy but its cost has been challenged by opponents.

If Hitachi wins the HS2 deal, it plans to build the trains at its factory in County Durham in the Northeast of England. That could create hundreds of new jobs in a region which has been affected by industrial decline.

Julia Potts from Hitachi Rail says: “Train building is a craft. There is a lot of manual work which cannot be done by robot or machine. We can produce great quality trains here but we depend on skilled people.”

British politicians are delighted that Hitachi intends to keep producing jobs in the UK, especially in regions where unemployment is a problem. Another example of the company’s commitment to Britain is a new laboratory for Hitachi High Technologies in Daresbury near Liverpool, where it will develop sophisticated electron microscopes. Elsewhere, Hitachi Construction Machinery has a successful factory in Hebburn in Northeast England which makes excavators and dump trucks.

Naturally, there are concerns over Brexit. Japanese companies which invested in Britain, including Hitachi, expected to use the UK as a gateway to Europe’s single market and will be impacted by Britain’s exit from the EU. Prime Minister Theresa May spoke to Hitachi’s chairman Hiroaki Nakanishi about the issue during her visit to Tokyo earlier this month. She said Britain would seek a free trade agreement with Japan following Brexit, although the time scale is unclear.

Hitachi’s success in Brexit depends not so much on the Brexit as its future role in major infrastructure projects, such as HS2 rail. It also plans to build nuclear power plants in Wales and is expecting substantial financial support from the Japanese government.

Hitachi and other Japanese companies which build nuclear plants are focussed on winning foreign work following the Fukushima disaster, which has led to a suspension of new reactors within Japan. This puts Japanese companies in competition with Chinese rivals. However Britain has signed deals with both Asian countries. Hitachi’s Welsh project will be matched by a huge Chinese nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point in England, with both plants expected to come on line at some point in the next decade.

Does macho Japan oppress its talented women?

Some people regard Japan as a macho society, where powerful men work long hours, play golf and ignore the house work while the women do menial office jobs or stay at home to raise children.

Such stereotyping is common in the international media, which often presents a rather pitiful image of Japanese women, suggesting that they are oppressed by men and lag far behind their western sisters in terms of gender equality.

I have often felt this rather negative picture is based on misunderstandings and fails to appreciate the warm and affectionate relationships which thrive between men and women throughout Japan.

Womenomics

Nevertheless, the role of women is changing and the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has outlined a policy of “womenomics” to encourage more organisations to promote women to top level jobs. In the past few years, women have reached unprecedented positions in public life, such as Leader of the Opposition, Defence Minister and Governor of Tokyo.

This week, I attended a symposium about gender at SOAS, part of the University of London. SOAS asked a team of experts what social changes they have observed since the enactment of Japan’s Equal Employment Opportunity Law in 1986.

“The changes seem slow in comparison to the United States or the UK; they do not amount to a revolution. Yet things are changing, partly due to demographics,” said Professor Machiko Osawa, Director of the Research Institute for Women and Careers. She noted that the shrinking pool of working age people due to the ageing population creates more job opportunities for women. She also said she would like to see more legislation, education and career development programmes so that women and men can reach similar levels of income and responsibility.

Women “don’t want to work like men”

Another theme of the symposium was how to create working environments in which both men and women are productive and happy. Professor Peter Matanle from the School of East Asian Studies at University of Sheffield noted the workplace pressures facing Japanese men.

He claimed that half the overtime that men do is unpaid. He also said: “Men also have unpredictable career patterns, so that they are transferred at short notice to other parts of the country or abroad, away from their family and without their consent.”

Professor Matanie said that his research shows that many women in Japan choose not to take full-time regular employment because “they don’t want to work like men.”

Professor Matanie condemned the culture of long hours which permeates many Japanese organisations, saying it undermines productivity and efficiency.

His views echo those of Tokyo’s governor, Yuriko Koike, who said recently that long hours are not appropriate to the modern era and have a negative impact on people’s life–work balance. Governor Koike has initiated a programme within the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to reduce overtime – a move which she hopes will benefit people who want to spend more time with their families.

Fulfilment

The symposium’s moderator Professor Helen Macnaughtan, who teaches at SOAS, acknowledged that in some respects “the gender dividend difference has worked rather well for Japan” and cautioned against stereotyping Japan as a society which is as “anti-women.” She explained that many women gain satisfaction from fulfilling traditional roles, such as raising children.

However, Professor Macnaughtan bemoaned the fact that many well-educated women drop out of their careers because they find their work frustrating and restricting. She also criticised a system which traps many married women in low-paid jobs.

What are your views on gender in Japan? Does there need to be more social change to create equality in the workplace? How do you think the role of women is different from other countries in Asia or the rest of the world?

Please share your thoughts below.