Welcome, Your Holiness, we share your values in Japan

We learned this week that a man who uses the name “Francisco” – the same name as the Pope – is the Deputy Prime Minister of Japan. This remarkable fact about Taro Aso, who is also Japan’s finance minister, was revealed by Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, when Pope Francis visited the political elite in Tokyo.

In a charming speech, which had all the hallmarks of his special advisor Tomohiko Taniguchi, Mr Abe said: “I have learned that Pope Francis has had a strong desire to visit Japan since he was young. A great many people have come in hopes of meeting you, your Holiness, including Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, who is sitting right there.”

Media star

The media coverage of the Pope’s official visit made a refreshing change from the political squabbles about how many people Mr Aso and Mr Abe have invited to cherry blossom viewing parties in Tokyo. It also eclipsed discussions about corruption, which the leaders would like to push into the background. Like a good priest’s sermon, Mr Abe’s speech, which he delivered in front of the Pope, was designed to direct people’s attention to higher matters.
It suggested that in terms of ethics, Japan and the Vatican aim for the same goals. And it implied that Christians, such as Mr Aso, are helping to set the national moral agenda.


Yet Japan is not a Christian country. When I last wrote about this topic for the BBC in 2008, I noted that only about one percent of Japan’s population identifies as Christian. My guess is that since then there has been a decline in the proportion of Christians, although there has probably been some growth in the congregations of a few lively churches.

The press does not care about the distinctions between spiritual and secular. The Pope’s visit generated enormous media interest. This was mainly a visual story and the highlight for TV was when Pope Francis held a

Mass at Japan’s largest venue, the Tokyo Dome, attended by 50,000 people. The Pope’s official translator, Father Renzo De Luca told Vatican News that he was amazed at how much coverage Pope Francis’ visit generated.

“So many people are really interested. They are following what the Pope says and where the Pope goes. People are wondering what Pope Francis will have to say to a non-Catholic country like Japan and also what he’s going to say about peace, atomic energy and nuclear disarmament, topics that are very crucial in Japan,” said Father De Luca.

Nuclear sin

Inevitably, the nuclear issue was high on the agenda when the Pope visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki. His words resonated across the globe. Pope Francis said in Nagasaki: “Peace and international stability are incompatible with attempts to build upon the fear of mutual destruction or the threat of total annihilation.” He suggested that the nuclear arms race wastes resources which could instead improve people’s lives and protect the environment.

“In a world where millions of children and families live in inhumane conditions, the money that is squandered and the fortunes made through the manufacture, upgrading, maintenance and sale of ever more destructive weapons are an affront crying out to heaven,” he said.

Prime Minister Abe had appropriate words when Pope Francis visited his office in Tokyo a few days later. “As the only country to have experienced the horror of nuclear devastation in war, Japan is a country with a mission of leading the international community’s efforts to bring about a world free of nuclear weapons.”

According to the PM’s advisor Taniguchi’s website, Mr Abe said: “For seventy plus years since the war, we in Japan have single-mindedly and unwavering pursued peace and freedom. At the same time however, when we enjoy peace, we recognise that there are people being persecuted. There are people imprisoned without cause, waiting for release.”

Prophetic resonance

That may have prompted the Pope to think about the issue of religious freedom in other parts of Asia. Just as Mr Abe was speaking in Tokyo, the BBC ran a report about the lack of freedom for Muslims in some parts of China. It suggested that up to a million people are being held in detention camps.

This issue has provoked much anguish in both in Muslim and Christian countries. The Vatican has limited influence over China’s approach to Muslims but it has tried to support Christians in Asia, including those in Taiwan, the breakaway island state which follows a pluralistic approach to religion, as well as politics. As things stand, the Vatican is the only state in Europe to recognize Taiwan diplomatically.

Rome and Beijing

However, there is much speculation that it may change its position. The theory is that the Pope will do a deal with China, which will see see the Vatican relinquish its special relationship with Taiwan, in order to become an official church on the mainland.

John L. Allen Jr, who is the editor of religious website Crux, writes “it seems reasonably obvious that one day, sooner rather than later, they’ll downgrade the Papal mission in Taipei in favor of diplomatic recognition by Beijing.”

Mr Allen, who has written eleven books on the Vatican and Catholic affairs, says: “Rome wants the ability to help shape the international agenda that comes from full diplomatic relations with one of the world’s economic and military superpower and a nation whose population represents almost one-fifth of humanity.”

Dramatic yakuza scenes in my favourite hotel


I was shocked the other day when I saw a group of hardcore criminals lurking in the lobby one of my favourite hotels in London.

I was even more appalled when I watched a gunfight in one of the hotel’s bedrooms, which led to a double murder.

The hotel where these scenes played out – the Kimpton, in London’s Russell Square – is a real place. But fortunately, the crime and violence were part of a fictional TV show on the BBC. The show will air on Netflix internationally.

Prime location

The Kimpton is actually a lovely, safe hotel and I’ve never heard of any real crime taking place there. Yet it was intriguing to see it turned into a set for a TV show.

The programme starred actors from Japan and the BBC used Japanese words in the title: Giri/ Haji. You can watch the trailer here.

According to BBC’s synopsis, Giri/Haji (“Duty/Shame”) is a soulful thriller that explores the butterfly effect of one murder across London and Tokyo, which sees Kenzo and Yuto, once devoted and now estranged brothers, driven to opposite sides of the world.”

Gang and family

Giri 義理 is a powerful idea. In the drama, it suggests a sense of obligation which drives the members of the yakuza gang to sacrifice their own lives or kill other people.

Another way the word giri is used in Japanese is to explain the link between a person and the family of their spouse. There is a strong sense of obligation towards one’s in-laws, who are known as giri no ryoshin – “duty parents.”

This may surprise people from western cultures, where the rivalries between a man and his wife’s parents have generated a lot of unkind humour.

Deeper insight

For a deeper understanding, I turned to the entry on giri, which was written by Julien Levesque for the book Japanese Business Concepts You Should Know.

The book explains that giri applies to a set of ethical and moral principles which set out the ways in which one should fulfil one’s obligations within society.

Apparently, there is no close equivalent term in English, although giri is variously translated as “duty, moral and social obligation.”

This idea runs deep in the Japanese psyche and affects family connections – such as with the parents of one’s spouse – and working relationships, including, it would seem, the ties between the members of yakuza who’ve been pestering the customers of one of London’s best hotels.

You can read the whole entry on giri, and indeed get the book for free, by following the link from Parissa Haghirian’s LinkedIn profile.

I am looking forward to reading it further and learning more about Japan.

Five million for a crab? It’s not really a crazy price


The world’s media have been fascinated by a Japanese crab this week.

Reporters were amazed that someone paid five million yen ($46,000 USD) for a large snow crab at an auction.

The price was a world record. This type of crab is a winter delicacy that can only be caught only between November and March.

A lot of the reports suggested the buyer must be wildly eccentric and prone to wasting money. However, I think they overlooked some important points which reveal the true value of the deal.

Fishy business

Firstly, the person who bought the crab has raised his personal profile and promoted his business. The winning bidder was Tetsuji Hamashita, who is the president of a fishery wholesaler called Hanashita Shoten.

So the record breaking auction provided a bit of a publicity stunt for Mr Hamashita and his business, which is focussed on selling seafood.

CNN said the crab’s meat “will end up on a few lucky diners’ plates at an upscale restaurant in Tokyo’s posh Ginza neighbourhood.” I think that if the restaurants are selling it in small portions of sushi or sashimi – or putting parts of it in bowls of soup – they could earn quite a lot of money from the crab, especially if they use it promote customer loyalty among people with expense accounts.

Putting Tottori on the map

The sale of the crab was also a way of raising international awareness of the small prefecture of Tattori on Japan’s northern coast. Tottori uses the name Kani Tori Ken – which means “crab catching prefecture” – to promote itself.

Following the auction, the governor of Tottori, Shinji Hirai, travelled down to Tokyo for a crab themed party at Yebisu Garden Place in Shibuya.

“This is a sekani record” he said, playing on the words sekai for “world” and kani for “crab.”

Places like Tottori hope that their traditional industries, such as fishing and farming, can help them cope with serious economic challenges caused by an ageing and shrinking population.

The Japanese government supports this plan and aims to increase exports of agricultural and fisheries products worldwide. In fact, the Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga recently visited Sakaiminato in Tottori to encourage its export effort.

Tender beef

Tottori is also promoting its cattle farms by selling high quality beef in other parts of Japan. Governor Hirai went to Osaka in July to open a restaurant which sells high quality Tottori beef in the busy district of Shinsaibashi.

In an interview with The Japan Times, Mr Hirai explained that the beef’s fat makes it unique and tender.

“Its fat is quite different. It features a high oleic acid content, the melting point of which is 16 degrees Celsius. It’s as if the fat melts in your mouth,” he said.

“We have hoped that high-end restaurants will use our foods,” the governor said. “We’d like to test out our potential on discerning international guests in the Shinsaibashi area, which is often compared to Ginza in Tokyo.”

The Japan Times points out that the restaurant in Osaka sells high quality Tottori crab, too. So, although the price of a big snow crab seems surprising, as a promotional tool for a proud community, perhaps it represents good value for money.

“Watch out China!” – A warning from the top of a new Tokyo tower

There’s a fabulous new location to get a view of central Tokyo.

It’s on the viewing platform of Shibuya Sky, high above a famous pedestrian crossing known as “the Scramble.”

The observatory is on the 45th floor of the skyscraper, 230 metres above the ground. It offers a breathtaking 360-degree view of the capital’s landmarks.

The designers say the tower aims “to embody the future of a dynamic, international and ever-changing city.”

Yet such projects are enormously expensive and depend on borrowed money.


This week, I was fortunate to join an excellent conference in Tokyo, at which the experts discussed some of the economic risks the world is facing.

In Japan, the end of the so-called bubble era of the economy preceded a long recession.

At one point, a panel discussed whether China faces similar trouble.

The Chief Economic Commentator of the Financial Times Martin Wolf said China is keen to avoid a property bubble, followed by an economic slump.

He said that the government is tightly controlling credit by placing restrictions on the amount of money which people and firms can borrow.

Mr Wolf claimed that “a lot of money which China has invested has been wasted” and he said that he often meets Chinese experts who express anxiety about the sustainability of economic growth.

Mr Wolf said: “It’s pretty clear that the Chinese economy has slowed dramatically from the heady days of ten percent growth, marking a downturn which is almost certainly much more severe than the numbers which are officially recorded.”

Watching carefully

China is the biggest destination for Japanese exports.

Toshitaka Sekine from the Bank of Japan said that Japanese companies are “watching carefully” what is happening there but have not yet fundamentally changed their approach.

His view is that companies around the world are postponing investments in their operations and this impacts many firms which supply them with goods and services.

Investing money into trophy buildings like the Shibuya Sky is one way in which the Japanese government often tries to stimulate the economy.

Such projects provide business opportunities for Japanese corporations and investors get a good return if the buildings rise in value.

According to the Nikkei newspaper, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will soon offer lucrative government contracts to firms which repair damage caused by the recent strong typhoon, Hagibis.

Such an approach would be broadly in line with Mr Abe’s policy of Abenomics, which is designed to put an end to deflation and boost economic growth.

At the conference I attended, which was titled the FT Commodities Tokyo Summit, the newspaper’s Tokyo’s Bureau Chief, Robin Harding, asked the principal economist from the Institute of International Monetary Affairs, Kikuko Takeda, if Abenomics is finished.

Ms Takeda acknowledged that there are no simple answers to Japan’s economic challenges.

“We need a lot of incremental small steps towards big solutions,” she said.

She replied: “We can see very clearly what we need to do to help Japan thrive in the global economy. We need to help people prepare for an ageing society and we need to help businesses increase their productivity.”

Japan is generally held to have a low level of productivity, although this seems surprising to me, especially when I look down from the top of the city and the busy hard working people scurrying across the famous “Scramble” in Shibuya.