Shinzo Abe’s Iranian headache

The price of oil has shot up since an attack on a Japanese tanker called the Kokuka Courageous.

The Americans claim that Iranian forces planted a mine on the ship when it was it was passing through a narrow strait in the Arabian Gulf.

A ship from Norway was also attacked.

This was a huge shock because at the time, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was in Tehran, trying to calm down tensions been Iran and the US.

Threat of conflict

That clearly did not work, as a few days later the Iranians shot down an unarmed US drone – nearly provoking a missile strike in revenge.

The US is increasing its troop presence in the region and there has even been talk of war.

Japan is one of a number of Asian countries with close economic ties to Iran, even though the two nations have nothing in common politically.

The US has been trying to prevent other countries from buying any oil from Iran through sanctions and this has caused a major blow to the Iranian economy.

Amrita Sen from Energy Aspects told the BBC: “Exports of oil from Iran have almost ground to zero except for a few thousand barrels being smuggled into Syria. Previously Iran used to sell a lot of oil to Japan, China, Korea, India and Turkey but since this spring, the Americans have clamped down on their sales to other markets.”

Leaders targeted

President Trump has now extended the sanctions to target high ranking individuals.

“The supreme leader of Iran is one who ultimately is responsible for the hostile conduct of the regime. His office oversees the regime’s most brutal instruments, including the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps,” he told reporters in the Oval Office.

President Rouhani said the sanctions targeting Ayatollah Khamenei were “outrageous and idiotic”.

The BBC reported that in a televised address, he said: “The US wants to confiscate the leader’s property. The leader owns a Hoseyniyyeh [prayer venue] and a simple house. Our leaders are not like the leaders of other countries who have billions of money on foreign accounts that you could appropriate.”

Diplomat’s denial

The Iranians have also been trying to smooth things over in Tokyo. The Japan Times covered a press conference by the Iranian ambassador who flatly denied that his country had attacked the Japanese tanker.

Rahmani Movahed praised Mr Abe’s visit to Tehran, saying that Japan can play a major role in promoting peace and stability in the Persian Gulf.

“We consider Prime Minister Abe’s visit as a success,” he said.

That’s not a view shared by any of the mainstream media in Japan who see the situation as a mess.

Mr Abe will no doubt be hoping that President Trump stays friendly with Japan but doesn’t lash out at Iran in a way which causes instability in the region or threatens Japan’s supply of energy.

Japanese business focuses on the world’s plastic problem

We can expect an awful lot of rubbish when the world’s leaders descend on Osaka at the end of this month.

Thousands of diplomats, journalists and officials will gather alongside VIPs, including China’s president Xi Jinping and America’s leader Donald Trump.

The crowds will guzzle gallons of bottled water and munch their way through tons of convenience food, which typically in Japan, comes wrapped in many layers of plastic. In fact, Japan is second only to the US in the amount of plastic packaging used per person.

Toss it out

Faced with such a mountain of waste, some countries might just toss the mess into a landfill sight and try to forget about it.

But clean and tidy Japan offers a much smarter solution: only 1.2% of Japanese waste goes to landfill these days, 20 percent is recycled and much of the rest is burned in powerful incinerators.

Nevertheless, plastic does cause problems. For example, the sacred deer which tourists encounter in the ancient city of Nara are being poisoned by plastic bags. And inevitably, some plastic waste seeps into the oceans, threatening the ecosystem upon which Japan’s fishing industry depends.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has stated clearly that plastic waste is a crucial issue at the G20 summit. “As the chair of the meeting, we will exercise leadership to solve the matter,” he said.

Raging fire

So what can Japan do to help? One option is to offer other countries the powerful furnaces which it uses to burn waste at temperatures of up to 850 degrees.

I learn from the Washington Post that around 58 percent of Japan’s discarded plastic ends up being sent for what is called “thermal recycling” – incinerated to produce heat and electricity.

It’s a better response than abandoning the rubbish on stinking trash heaps, like those which fester in the slums of big cities in Pakistan and the Philippines.

But burning waste is not ideal, as it releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming.

Business solution

Japanese businesses which can offer better ways to tackle the problem have the enthusiastic support of national and local government.

They also have the backing of thoughtful citizens who meticulously separate their household waste into piles of different materials and don’t wish to see it all hurled into the fire.

These social factors create the perfect environment to invest in finding a more sustainable solution.

Sogo shosha

The incinerators are expensive to install and maintain. However, Japanese exporters, especially the big sogo shosha trading companies, are skilled at securing foreign customers.

Government agencies provide the export guarantees which smooth their overseas business.

It’s a pattern which works well in developing countries, where Japanese equipment such as cooling fans find a thriving customer base.

However, as the G20 conference will acknowledge, the scale of the problem is enormous. And while the world keeps producing millions of tons of single use plastic which is wasteful abandoned, the solutions offer by Japan or anyone else do little more than scratch the surface.

Melania’s the real enemy in the battle over shoes

A group of frustrated women from Japan have won worldwide support for their campaign against the pressure to wear high heeled shoes to work.

They have submitted a petition to the Japanese government, asking for relief from the uncomfortable footwear.

The petition gained more than 26,000 signatures and the issue has struck a chord with women from many other countries, who claim they’re also under similar pressure at work.

Kicking off

For example, Summer Brennan wrote a piece in the Guardian titled: “Listen to Japan’s women: high heels need kicking out of the workplace.”

And Holly Thomas wrote an article for CNN entitled: “I don’t wear high heels for anyone but me. Got that, boss?”

The domestic Japanese media have given the campaign a name: KuToo.

That has a strong echo of the MeToo campaign which highlights harassment in the workplace. KuToo is a play on two Japanese words; kutsu, meaning shoes, and kutsuu, meaning pain.

The whole thing started with an idea from Yumi Ishikawa, who like me is a freelance writer. I admire her success in getting so much media attention.

Legal footing

But the story is not quite what it seems, especially in the way it’s been interpreted by the international press.

There is no law in Japan decreeing that women should wear high heels to work.

They do so because they are following a strong social convention. To break the habit might create disapproval but it won’t land you in prison. In most professional situations, dress customs are quite strong in Japan but they are never legally enforced.

The Japanese government does not decide what people wear, so petitioning the government over the issue of shoes is a gesture designed to grab attention, rather than a meaningful political campaign.

I therefore felt rather sorry for Japan’s Health and Labour Minister Takumi Nemoto when he was put on the spot on this topic during a parliamentary committee meeting.

According to Kyodo news, he said that: “It is socially accepted as something that falls within the realm of being occupationally necessary and appropriate.”

That seems to me to be a carefully worded response to a trap question.

However, the press decided to present poor Mr Nemoto the enemy to Ms Ishikawa. Many stories appeared with his picture, stating that the government was fighting back against the KuToo campaign. Blame was laid at the feet of male politicians such as Mr Nemoto.

First Lady

However, another more powerful enemy of the sensible shoe brigade has also been making headlines.

When America’s First Lady Melania Trump stepped off a helicopter in Tokyo during her recent trip to Japan she wore a pair of ostentatious and expensive high heels.

Her outfit was photographed and analysed.

I found a wonderful description of the shoes on Footwear News.

“For footwear, the first lady went with soaring navy Christian Louboutin’s Agneska pumps. The shoes boast an almond toe, low vamp and curvy counter that shows off the sides of the foot, with a mid-heel and a pointed silhouette. The brand describes the shoes as “sensual, steeped in 1970s allure.” Set on a 4-inch heels, they retail for $695 on”

If the First Lady uses high heels to emphasise her status and power, other women will be tempted to try them on for size, too – even if the kutsu feel a bit kutsuu.

And I doubt that Mrs Trump will worry about the KuToo petition next time she’s looking through her wardrobe, trying to decide what outfit to wear to impress the world.

Japan has flattered Trump but Xi gets the red carpet next

Donald Trump loves to be flattered, so he must have been delighted with the abject pandering he received on his recent visits to Japan and the United Kingdom.

The Japanese were the first to roll out the red carpet. President Trump enjoyed a round of golf with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a trip to see the Sumo wrestlers and a meeting with Emperor Naruhito.

Japan’s business elite gave him an especially warm welcome and he flattered them in return. According to the Nikkei, he called them “the greatest business leaders in the world.”

Mr Trump has a special place in his heart for Masayoshi Son – the boss of SoftBank – whom he received with a warm embrace.

Mr Trump urged Mr Son and the other business leaders to increase their investment in the United States.

Divided loyalties

However, Softbank and the other companies also have extensive business interests in China, so that leaves them mixed loyalties. Even if they are inclined to be pro-American, they don’t want to upset the Chinese and are therefore concerned about Mr Trump’s burgeoning trade war with China.

China’s President Xi Jinping will travel to Tokyo later this month and the Japanese will warmly welcome him, just as they have welcomed President Trump.

The Times newspaper noted in an editorial: “It would not be wise of Mr Abe to goad Mr Trump on further against China, even though the temptation is to try to use this as a way of glossing over Japan’s own difficulties with trade imbalances with the United States. A trade war on a global scale would be disastrous and Japan would not be immune.”

Royal welcome

In London, Mr Trump met business leaders at a breakfast hosted by Prime Minister Theresa May and the Queen’s son, the Duke of York.

Mr Trump offered a free trade deal between Britain and the US following the Brexit and claimed it would more than replace what Britain might lose from its loss of trade with Europe.

The Director of the British Chamber of Commerce Adam Marshall was not convinced.

He told the BBC: “Trade with the US trade accounts for about 15 percent of the UK’s total world trade and European trade is about three times that size. So British business are quite clear that they can already trade quite successfully with the US but they’re really worried about their trade with Europe.”

The US view

In America itself, Mr Trump seems to have maintained the support of many leading business figures, despite his disruptive approach.

James Lewis from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington told the BBC “people like the tax cuts and they like parts of the trade war, as well as the general direction of the economy. Most American companies think they are doing pretty well, despite all the irritations and the disturbances.”

A strong US economy – as well as a stable security alliance – are crucially important to both Japan and the United Kingdom.

For now, their leaders have decided that flattering Donald Trump furthers those goals, so they put on a big smile, sometimes through gritted teeth.

When he flies home though, there’s time to reflect that both countries’ relationships with the United States are significantly unbalanced politically and under Trump, somewhat precarious.