Good news for the salaryman – you can go home early!

The Japanese are famous for working long hours in the office and I am afraid I have often hear foreigners complain that this doesn’t make them particularly efficient.

However, things are changing. Working hours in Japan have dropped for several years, according to a report I received this week from Oxford Economics.

I was surprised by this. But the report explained that many more women and elderly people have joined the labour force as part-time workers.

This has had a big impact on the working lives of traditional salarymen – people who used to give the impression of working like slaves.

Less pressure

Fortunately, the pressure on these poor souls seems to be easing as some of their work is now being taken up by the part-timers. You often see these people on the checkouts of department stores, or helping out on the railways and buses.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has encouraged companies to improve the work-life balance of their staff. This means many bosses now hesitate before pressing their teams to sacrifice their evenings or weekends for the sake of the corporation.

The good news for the part-time workers, including many women, is that hourly wages keep rising. But the head of Oxford Economics’ Japan team, Shigeo Nagai, notes a downside to this trend. He claims that family incomes are not rising due to an overall decline in working hours. In other words, if he main breadwinner is working less, this has an impact on the income of the family team.

Tight labour market

Mr Nagai believes that this is an inevitable result of the country’s ageing and shrinking population and he reckons that “the current expansion of employment, led by rising participation of women and elderly, will eventually end.”

As the Financial Times pointed out recently, a quarter of Japan’s population is over 65, making it one of the world’s fastest-ageing nations.

The FT says the very low unemployment rate – it was only 2.2 per cent in November 2019 – is caused by demographic change and shows that the country has “a chronically tight labour market.”

Money puzzle

But that leaves a puzzle. If the labour market is so “tight” why aren’t people’s incomes rising?

Given the stiff competition between companies to find staff – and the relatively small pool of people looking to find a new job – you would have expected employers to offer more money. Yet on the whole, they don’t seem to be willing or able to do so.

Jobs for life

One theory favoured by Mr Nagai and others is that Japan’s lifetime employment system holds back wage growth because it has restrained base-pay growth for regular workers.

I have heard this problem mentioned many times at meetings about Japan’s economy and I know that it is an issue which worries politicians, civil servants and the people who run the Bank of Japan. Yet no-one seems to be able to find a solution.

Of course, many people in Japan are relatively well off. The staff of the big successful companies can expect a good pension and a great deal of job security.

So for some the rewards are good. Yet as Oxford Economics notes: “stagnant household income been a major constraint on Japan’s economic growth.”

Carlos Ghson: The media are not delivering the full facts

Before the authorities in Japan can bring Carlos Ghosn to justice, they must answer two pressing questions.

Where is he?

And who is helping him to stay on the run?

The international press has given extensive coverage to Mr Ghosn’s story, focussing on claims he left Japan on December 29th, months before he was due to stand trial in Tokyo for financial misconduct.

Yet much of the coverage has been confusing and misleading. In my view, it is in danger of undermining trust in some of the world’s most respected media institutions.

Disputed facts

Let’s start with a “fact” that has been covered by nearly all the media: that Mr Ghosn has fled Japan and returned to Lebanon.

This is being reported due to a “statement to the media” which was said to have come directly from Mr Ghosn himself.

Yet there has been no clear information about who received this statement or from which email address it was sent.

If Mr Ghosn wants to communicate with the media, why doesn’t he contact one of the many journalists who have been assigned to the story?

Between them, CNN and the BBC employ five thousand journalists. Not one of them has been able to obtain any confirmation that Mr Ghosn is really in Lebanon.

Warning sign

Another warning sign is that the press are quoting “an anonymous source” who allegedly acts as Mr Ghosn’s mouthpiece.

This source, who has apparently spoken to the Wall Street Journal, is quoted as saying that Mr Ghosn was “tired of being an industrial political hostage.”

I say to the Wall Street Journal’s editors: tell me your source and prove it is from a credible person.

Conspiracy theory

Much of the media says that Mr Ghosn employed a group of helpers who helped him flee Japan.

One of his legal team in Tokyo – Junichio Hironaka – said that “he must have had a large organisation to pull this off.”

The press loves a conspiracy theory.

The Times newspaper said: “The businessman who is 5’6” is believed to have been carried out of his apartment in Tokyo in a large musical instrument case by band members in an operation assisted by former special forces members.”

The Times told its readers that its story was “based on Lebanese and Japanese media reports.”

In fact, the story about the musical instrument case originated as a joke on a Lebanese TV station called MTV.

Paid Assistants

There may be people who are helping Mr Ghosn but it is difficult to see how he can pay them.

Since his arrest in November 2018 he has been either in detention or held on bail. At the heart of the case against him is the allegation that he understated his pay by tens of millions of dollars.

If Mr Ghosn does not appear in court, the Japanese authorities plan to confiscate all the 1.5 billion yen ($14 million) he posted as bail.

Meet the press

One way for Mr Ghosn to deal with the media would be to hold a press conference. But who would organise a press conference on behalf of a fugitive who is now subject to a red notice from the international police group Interpol?

Let’s imagine for a moment that the “presser” is held in Lebanon. The moment Mr Ghosn breaks cover there will uproar.

And as he leaves the venue, will he not be followed by a mob of reporters, paparazzi as well as secret agents or even bounty hunters?

Mr Ghosn was offered the chance to put his case at the court hearing in Tokyo. He made the fateful decision to leave Japan. Wherever he is now and whoever is helping him, it’s only a matter of time before the media uncovers his hiding place. And when the press find him, the story will explode back into the headlines.

Japan’s plan to help victorious Boris Johnson


Does the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson require any advice following his party’s landslide victory in last week’s general election?

As a former journalist, he may well feel he’s entitled to switch off the TV, unplug the computer and ignore the newspapers.

Nevertheless, thousands of reporters are eagerly offering him suggestions on which policies he should follow. One proposal which appeared in the Financial Times caught my eye.

The writer, Gideon Rachman, started by repeating the FT’s position that the Brexit is a disaster for the UK’s businesses and for its economy. He said: “a sceptical world believes that leaving the EU is an act of self harm.”

But he went on to suggest that a landmark deal with Japan could help “rebuild British power and influence.”

Trade opportunity

The article said that Britain should become a member of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an international trading pact which is strongly advocated by Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe.

Mr Rachman claimed that countries like Japan “have a clear interest in preserving international rules at a time when both the US and China are challenging the multilateral order.”

Following the Brexit, British diplomats face many years of trade negotiations with countries outside the EU.

One key consideration will be how to approach China, which is hugely important to the global economy but which is run on a quite different political system to that of the UK.

Mr Abe could make the case that if Britain sides with China through the TPP, this would help counterweight Chinese influence, especially within Asia. The TPP includes several nations which could be regarded as rivals of China, such as Singapore, Vietnam and Malaysia.

Other members include Australia, New Zealand and Canada, all of which enjoy a close relationship with Britain.

Trump’s world view

Japan had hoped that the United States would also be part of the TPP. Barack Obama agreed to join but Donald Trump withdrew America’s application as soon as he became president.

Nevertheless, Mr Abe has done his best to keep on good terms with Mr Trump. This pleases many people in Washington, who believe that America’s focus nowadays should be Asia and not Europe or the Middle East.

Mr Johnson and Mr Trump have a built a rapport and have some common ground.

Following the general election, Downing Street announced: “The prime minister spoke with president Trump, who congratulated him on the result.

“They discussed the huge importance of the relationship between the UK and US and looked forward to continued close cooperation on issues such as security and trade, including the negotiation of an ambitious free trade agreement.”

I doubt that during their short telephone exchange they got onto the topic the TPP. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s mentioned next time they meet, especially in the context of the importance of Asia to the global economy.

These are the skills you need to show the boss you’re worthy of work

Do employers in Japan, the UK and other countries share similar expectations when it comes it to new recruits?

This week, I heard a radio interview with Claire Birch from the employment firm Reed, who helps people find work in the British Midlands. She told BBC Radio Four’s Today programme that the following three qualities are crucial

1. Communication skills

2. Having the correct mindset

3. Promoting yourself as a suitable employee

The Japan Business Federation, the Keidanren, which annually surveys its member companies about the emphasis they place when they hire new workers, also found that “communication skills” and other factors related to a candidate’s personality are almost always seen as more important than their expertise.

Communicating well

I am pleased that there is a consensus that communication is highly prized. Although it is a difficult skill to assess, there are many ways in which it can be nurtured; everything from writing poems to making YouTube videos. Japanese teenagers often get a boost by putting on school plays, which are performed to a very high standard.

In the context of international work, being able to communicate well in English is also useful. Yet according to Nippon.com, Japan came a disappointing fifty-third in a ranking of countries based on their citizens’ ability to speak and write English. That puts it in the “low proficiency” bracket for English globally.

Thinking right

But what about the second quality that Claire Reed mentioned – having the right mind set? I am sure that this must be influenced a great deal by the sector in which one is seeking work and the culture of the company.

In Japan for example, does a willingness to play golf with your boss reflect the right mindset? Or is that an outdated way of thinking about things, which grates against creating a diverse workforce?

And what about Claire’s point about promoting yourself as a suitable employee? In the US and Europe, LinkedIn and social media are often used proactively by people who are looking for work or who want to expand their network. But relatively few people in Japan use such platforms. Instead, many people use clubs linked to their old universities to network and promote themselves.

However, a recent article in the Nikkei Asian Review suggested that Japan “risks falling behind in terms of global skills competitiveness if it sticks to its conventional hiring practices, which place more weight on applicants’ characters rather than their expertise.”

The article suggested that Japanese universities should do more to encourage people to take post-graduate qualifications and it suggested employers should reward them for doing so.

“The Japanese market is isolated from the global standard of evaluating human resources,” said Eiji Oguma, professor of social science at Keio University.

This may be partly because Japan has low unemployment. Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications puts the unemployment rate for October at 2.4 percent. In the UK, the official unemployment rate is also low, at about 3.8%.

That means there is less competition for jobs but of course, this greatly depends on the type of work for which one is applying. In both countries, finding people to work long hours in shops or care homes is a struggle.

But I am sure that people who want the most rewarding positions in prestigious organisations will always have an advantage if they can prove to their potential employers that they have the skills which mark them out as special candidates.

Is Trump pressing Japan to take up nuclear arms?

 

This week, I joined a discussion of experts on East Asia, which included speculation on whether Japan would, in future, acquire nuclear missiles.

I said on the broadcast that it has absolutely no plans to do so. But the other radio panellists expressed the view that one day, Japan might decide to develop its own deterrent, rather than shelter under America’s so-called “nuclear umbrella.”

Tong Kim, a distinguished columnist for The Korea Times, said: “Donald Trump has made it quite clear that America will not play the role of world policeman for much longer and the US is therefore retreating from established global security arrangements.

“But ironically, Mr Trump is beefing up America’s own military capabilities and even modernising its arsenal of nuclear weapons. He is not doing so not to protect its allies or to maintain global security but in order to protect the mainland of the United States.

Dr Kim asked the question: “If Trump pursues his policy of isolation, will it make the world a safer place?”

Chinese perspective

Our discussion was broadcast live on China Radio International. Professor Wang Yiwei from Renmin University was in the studio in Beijing.

“No country can be the global policeman anymore because of a shift in power. Partly due to new technology, the world has become more horizontal, less vertical. And many people in the United States seem to think it’s unfair for them to pay for security for the rest of the world,” said Professor Wang.

Abe’s enthusiasm

For my part, I said that I saw little fundamental change in the security alliance between Japan and the United States. There are still 55,000 American troops stationed in Okinawa and Tokyo and Prime Minister Abe has enthusiastically cultivated his relationship with Mr Trump.

However, there is a financial imbalance to the arrangement. The US Defence Department puts the total cost of maintaining the US presence in Japan at $5.7 billion but the Military Times estimates that Japan’s support only amounts to $1.7 billion.

Mr Abe’s government has never challenged the value of the alliance although some Japanese people resent Mr Trump’s call to pay more.

Nuclear Issue

On the nuclear issue, I said that Prime Minister Abe spoke clearly following the Pope’s recent visits to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

He told Pope Francis. “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.”

After the debate on Chinese radio, I did a little more research and I discovered that during his 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump did suggest that South Korea and Japan should have their own nuclear weapons to defend against North Korea.

The threat from North Korea
“At some point,” he told Anderson Cooper on CNN, “we have to say, you know what, we’re better off if Japan protects itself against this maniac in North Korea, we’re better off, frankly, if South Korea is going to start to protect itself…. Wouldn’t you rather in a certain sense have Japan have nuclear weapons when North Korea has nuclear weapons?… Wouldn’t you rather have Japan, perhaps, they’re over there, they’re very close, they’re very fearful of North Korea.”

Presidential orders

The Commander-in-Chief of the United States cannot order an independent democratic ally to arm itself with nuclear missiles – especially as that would have such enormous political and constitutional implications for Japan.

But on reflection, I wonder, given the America First approach of Mr Trump and his supporters, whether the suggestion that Japan could one day become a nuclear-armed country might not be quite such a shocking idea, after all.

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.

Non-Christian

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.

“Honourable Madame monkey! I am big loving your thing!”

This week, I’ve been learning more about Japan’s language of affection.

The Japanese don’t have words that are direct equivalents to “honey” or “darling” but they have some nice alternatives.

For example, o-saru-san お 猿 さん means literally “Honourable Madam (or Mr) Monkey”. It’s a term of endearment, meaning something like the English phrase “You little monkey!”

Similarly, one may tease someone by saying お馬鹿 さん o-baka-san – literally “honourable idiot.”

The implication is that the other person is a lovable fool.

Intriguingly, the Japanese word for idiot combines the symbols for horse 馬 and deer 鹿 – suggesting that a person with the characteristics of both animals will behave idiotically.

Your special thing

Provided the other person is not a hybrid beast, you might want to tell them that you like them.

好きですsuki desu will cover you for that, or if you really like them, you can add a 大 big character to the like symbol 大好きです daisuki desu, which lifts your declaration up to the level of love.

Higher still is 愛しています aishite imasu, an unequivocal declaration of romantic love.

Who are you?

At this point, I should warn you of a trap.

Foreigners often carelessly use the word あなた anata which is normally translated as “you”.

But my language sensei tells me this word also means “darling” or “dear” and is used by women as a sign of affection towards men, especially when they are speaking to middle-aged or older gentlemen. So this is a word I would like to hear more – but I will hesitate before speaking it!

Pet name

The blog Fluent-U claims that as you establish a romantic relationship with a Japanese person “you’ll probably receive a pet name from your partner.”

For example, a man may call his girlfriend o-hime-san“my princess” or a lucky fellow might be regarded as 白馬の王子様 (はくばのおうじさま – hakuba no ojisama – “a prince on a white horse.”

If you really want to stir the emotions of a Japanese person, you may with to deploy the metaphysical into your declaration of love.

You could declare  that you greatly love their “thing” as in the phrase あなたのことが大好 き anata no koto ga daisuki.

This suggests that your love is centred on their soul rather than their physical being. And that could be useful if they are a wonderful human being but no longer a vision of youthful beauty.

Happy anniversary

Happily, in a country where many people live long lives, marriages often last decades, so here’s a sweet phrase which should you set you up for the long term.

一緒に年を重ねよう。(いっしょに としを かさねよう issho ni toshi-o kasneyo means “Let’s grow old together.”

And if you really want to up the drama, you could ask this profound question:

俺と一緒のお墓に入らないか?(おれといっしょの おはかに はいらないか?) Ore to issho no ohaka ni hairnaika? “Will you share my grave with me?”

No-one’s likely to say yes to that on a first, or even second, date.

But on reflection, I think it’s quite a quite wonderful suggestion.

After all, the ultimate goal in Japanese society is to spend eternity in a communal tomb – a space which banishes loneliness forever.

And to be invited to join a family group in there is surely a sign of deep love, trust and acceptance.