Saving Japan from the fate of death by overwork


The Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the Japanese Communist Party and the Bank of Japan all agree on one principle; the way Japanese people approach their work should change.

Labour reform is Japan’s “biggest challenge” according to Prime Minister Abe. When I met with representatives of the Bank of Japan in Tokyo recently they told me it is also Governor Kuroda’s top priority.

On the other side of the political divide is the Japanese Communist Party, which is fully committed to the opposition alliance aim to bring down the Abe government.

It describes workplace problems in stark terms: “Under the tyrannical rule of large corporations… workers are afflicted by long hours of work and excessively heavy workloads that could result in karoshi (death from overwork).”

The Communist Party complains about the problems of forced overtime, a lack of female participation in the workforce and a lack of job security. This strikes a chord with many hard working Japanese people and may explain why the party did well in recent elections and now has 14 seats in the Upper House of Parliament.

Death from overwork is rare but many people face hardship trying to balance their jobs with care for children or elderly relatives. An employee who hopes to rise in a corporation is often expected to work between 10 and 15 hours a day. Combined with commuting and afterwork socialising, that leaves little time for household work, the overwhelming amount of which is still done by women. Japanese men do some of the least housework of men in any developed country.

Foreign investors do not especially care if Japanese men clean the bathroom or do the washing up. But they are concerned that inefficient work practices hold back Japan’s economy. Take the view of Fisher Investments, an independent investment adviser with US offices in Washington and California. Its recent report on Japan complained about “protectionist regulations promoted by strong vested interests that discourage competition and a byzantine labor code that discourages companies from hiring new workers or effectively competing with each other.”

Mr Abe wants to change things. Earlier this month he unveiled a package which puts particular emphasis on helping workers who do not have secure full-time positions, including ensuring equal pay for equal work and raising the minimum wage.

Other reforms aim to boost female labour force participation, such as reducing excessive work hours and encouraging telecommuting.

These labour reforms form part of the third arrow of Abenomics – which is actually lots of little arrows, aimed at many targets.

The ultimate goal is profound social change within Japan, a process which is not easy to measure.

Abenomics dismays the foreign press

n-poll-a-20160805-870x625Japan’s finances are being pushed towards a cliff by a prime minister who is drunk on borrowed money.

These are two of the alarming images which were appeared in the international press this week to describe Prime Minister’s Shinzo Abe’s economic policy, Abenomics.

Abenomics is nearly always criticised by the foreign media for being neither innovative nor effective. The latest spending announcement from the prime minister was generally dubbed “disappointing”.

The general view in the foreign press is that fiscal stimulus packages, like the one announced this week, are part of a long-established, boring and unsuccessful attempt to solve Japan’s economic problems by spending borrowed money on wasteful projects.

The key criticism is that this racks up ever more debt for Japan and does not address fundamental issues with the way Japanese society is organised.

The fiscal cliff idea comes from the view that if Japan keeps spending like this, at some point the money will run out and Japan’s economy will face a precipice and then a terrifying, sudden fall.

The claim that the government is “drunk on money” comes from the idea that because the spending is of borrowed money, rather than money derived from tax, it cannot last. Barron’s Asia said Mr Abe is therefore like a drunk person high on a drug which makes his problems worse.

Despite being aware of such criticism, Prime Minister Abe continues to spend money on projects which he hopes will stimulate the economy and keep Japan out of recession.

The measures are popular among Mr Abe’s supporters.

Bloomberg explained that the latest spending package includes funds to provide better port facilities for cruise ships and to accelerate the construction of a high-speed maglev train line.

There is also a substantial sum to help with reconstruction following earthquakes.

And a large proportion of the money is specifically designed to help address the problems associated with an ageing population. For example, it will help to pay for child care for mothers who want to work. Getting more women to work is seen as one way of balancing the number of people who are retiring.

So in the minds of the Japanese, the real test of Abenomics is how well it fits together as a coherent set of policies which benefit the whole of society, including women and the elderly.

Few Japanese people regard it as a perfect solution to a complex set of challenges. But they accept it as a plausible approach even though it does nothing to reduce Japan’s mounting debt.

Is Abe pushing Japan to the far right?

Is it true that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe believes that Japan did nothing wrong in the Second World War?

That was the assertion made by the journalist Richard Lloyd Parry in the Times newspaper this week.

In assessing Mr Abe’s nationalism, Lloyd Parry described what he believes are the views of the prime minister: “Japan did nothing wrong during the war – or nothing that western colonial powers were not also doing. The atrocities committed by the Imperial Army are gross exaggerations conjured up by Japan’s enemies.”

If those are indeed Mr Abe’s opinions, they align closely with those on the right wing extreme. Such views are associated with the neo-fascists who drive around Tokyo in black vans broadcasting propaganda, to the disgust of most Japanese people.

Yet Mr Abe has recently won a major election, which suggests that he is not regarded as an extremist by most voters. The Liberal Democratic Party – normally regarded as centre right – won a solid majority in the upper house of the parliament. Thus strengthened, Mr Abe could now prepare to revise Clause Nine of Japan’s constitution, which commits it to pacifism.

A sympathetic view for Mr Abe’s proposal for a revision of the constitution was expressed in an editorial in the Financial Times, now owned by the Japanese newspaper the Nikkei: “Japan is justified in adapting its national security framework to a changing world. But Mr Abe must first make the case to the Japanese people.”

The Financial Times also published an opinion piece by Sheila Smith, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She expressed concern at any revision of the constitution, which to her mind, strengthens the rights of individuals in Japan, including people’s right to make “choices of religion, work, protest and due process which Japanese citizens today take for granted.”

Even if Mr Abe wishes to change the constitution and has support in parliament, he still needs public support. That would mean a referendum.

Japan has never held a referendum and to do so now risks division. The Economist said: “Close advisors suggest that Mr Abe will not push for early change. Brexit, they say, has come as a stark reminder to him of how, without laying the groundwork, a referendum can divide a country and produce an unexpected outcome.”

For a cautious politician like Mr Abe, the prospect of calling a referendum that might go against him is an enormous risk. Yet he may take such a risk in pursuit of his long term goal of preparing Japan to take a much more assertive global role.

Japan car makers stunned by Brexit

25060445_-xlargeMany business leaders are stunned by the outcome of the referendum in which the people of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. There could be a big impact on the Japanese automotive companies which have factories in the UK such as Toyota, Honda and Nissan.

They may move some or all of their operations to other parts of Europe. The Financial Times said that there is a 75 % chance that Toyota and Honda will cease manufacturing in the UK if the EU imposes an import levy on cars manufactured in Britain and sold in Europe. The Nikkei says that Toyota predicts that this tariff will be 10 %, affecting both profits and sales. Toyota, which has a major factory in Derbyshire, is unlikely to use the UK as the location to build its new hybrid vehicles, according to the Times.

The Times also reported that Nissan, which employs 7,000 people in the North East of England, is under pressure form its partner Renault to move some operations to France. It says this could affect the development of the Nissan Leaf battery-driven car.

The Wall Street Journal said that Nomura Securities has downgraded its profit estimate for the seven major Japanese auto makers following the Brexit. Yet Nomura analyst Masataka Kunugimoto does not expect a bitter trade war between Britain and Europe: “We think the risk is relatively small given the high volume of automobile trading between the UK and the EU and the negative impact for both sides from higher tariffs.”

Since the Brexit, the pound has fallen and the yen has risen. The yen is up around 30 percent against the pound compared to a year ago. The fall in sterling makes exports from the UK cheaper, which is a potential benefit for UK-based manufacturers. However, many investors moved money from the pound into so-called safe haven currencies, including Japanese Yen. A strong yen is seen as a problem for Japanese exporters, including automotive firms.

“Sterling’s depreciation will make exports more competitive so will boost sales and hence production in the UK,” Professor David Bailey of Aston University, told the Daily Telegraph. “But it will also increase the cost of importing components and about 60% of the parts going into the UK-assembled cars are imported.”

Professor Bailey also warned about the impact on the car industry of an end to the free movement of labour between the EU and Britain – one of the demands of the leave campaigners in the referendum. He said: “The car industry in the UK has 30,000 vacancies and needs to be able to hire skilled workers from Europe.”

Mass protests against US presence in Japan

300AC611-16E8-4620-AB13-4B361A1FD3F2_cx0_cy6_cw0_w987_r1_s_r1Tens of thousands of people have taken part in angry protests against the American military presence in Japan.

Meanwhile, a Russian delegation has been welcomed to Tokyo to try to break the deadlock which has blocked a formal peace treaty between Russia and Japan since the end of World War II.

It was soon after Japan’s defeat in the War that America began to use Japan as a military base.

Nearly 30,000 of the 47,000 US troops stationed in Japan are on the small tropical island Okinawa. Even though they contribute to the economy, their presence there has long been resented by locals.

The anger intensified after a former US Marine was arrested in connection with the death of a local woman in May.

Last weekend, more than 65,000 people demonstrated on Okinawa against the U.S. military presence. A few days later, 7,000 people demonstrated near the parliament building in Tokyo.

The Japanese government knows the Okinawa base is unpopular but feels it has little choice to accept it. In return for its big military presence in Japan, the United States promises to protect its ally against aggression.

Recently the defence links with America were strengthened when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe brought in new security laws which commit Japanese forces to defending its military allies, including the United States.

These laws, which seem to stretch the concept of pacifism enshrined in Japan’s constitution, are unpopular; studies show that more than half of Japan’s population is opposed to them.

However, the need for defence was reinforced by more missile launches by North Korea this week.

Japan’s Defence Minister General Nakatani responded by saying the threat to Japan is intensifying.

Official media reported North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un as saying “We have the sure capability to attack in an overall and practical way the Americans in the Pacific operation theatre.”

In the face of such belligerence, Japan wishes to keep the peace with neighbouring countries where it can.

Japan and South Korea recently agreed to expand an emergency communication system between their defence ministries, including a new direct line between their defence ministers.

Japan is also seeking closer military ties with Vietnam, Indonesia and other nations surrounding the South China Sea.

It complicates things that South Korea, Russia and China have territorial disputes with Japan over certain islands and territory.

But with North Korea increasing the pressure and anti-American feelings running high, Japanese diplomats are working hard to prevent its neighbours from becoming enemies.

Media storm sweeps Tokyo governor out of power

The resignation of one of Japan’s most famous politicians has shown the power of a weekly gossip magazine called Shukan Bunshun.

The governor of Tokyo, Yoichi Masuzoe, quit after an expenses scandal was revealed in the magazine, which specialises in stories about the shady side of powerful people.

The magazine specialises in stories about well-known figures; the more scandalous the better. Its reporters deny it pays money for information.

In a country where most people are very respectful towards privacy and hierarchy, the reporters from the weekly magazine break the rules to get the stories.

Although most people say they do not believe all the articles in magazines like Shukan Bunshun, journalists from other media repeated its allegations about Mr Masuzoe in the newspapers and on TV.

Social media outlets also distributed the gossip.

The allegations against Mr Masuzoe were published in the magazine in April. They included claims that he used his political expenses to pay for private stays in hotels, meals and works of art.

Mr Masuzoe said that there were some mistakes in the way the money was accounted for but he insisted that all the spending was reasonable.

Nevertheless, a media storm built up and just before he quit, opinion polls showed a disapproval rating of 97 per cent for the governor.

This is the third time this year that a scandal revealed by Shukan Bunshun has led to a resignation.

Firstly, the Economy Minister Akira Amari stepped down after allegations of corruption.

A few weeks later, the magazine reported that a member of the Diet (Japan’s parliament) called Kensuke Miyazaki was having an extramarital affair days before his wife gave birth. That ruined his image as a caring family man.

Mr Amari and Mr Miyazaki were little known outside Japan but Mr Masuzoe was a high profile figure so his resignation was big news internationally.

Some of the articles were quite judgemental. The Daily Telegraph noted “a perception of arrogance and entitlement on the part of the governor.”

That is quite different to the impression I received when I went to a meeting with Mr Masuzoe in London last year; I was impressed by his excellent English and his sense of fun.

However, the governor’s foreign trips – like the one to London – were expensive, as he flew first class and took his staff on business class.

The Japan Times said that nine business trips abroad cost more than ¥200 million.

Mr Masuzoe’s energy and fun appealed to voters in Tokyo. People also hoped that he would be reliable and honest – especially because the previous governor of Tokyo stepped down because of a scandal in 2013. Mr Masuzoe had been a vocal critic of “money politics” on national TV and other media. He had cultivated a clean image as a university professor

Political resignations do not help the image of Japan. Foreign readers get the impression that widespread corruption is a characteristic of Japanese politics.

But it is worth remembering that everyone’s opinions on Mr Masuzoe were based on an article in the Shukan Bunshun – a magazine which regularly smashes through the politeness and respect which lie on the surface of Japanese society.

Chinese warship raises the fear level in Japan

China has been harshly criticised again by the Japanese government, reinforcing the negative impression of China that is widely held in Japan.

The Japanese criticism came after a Chinese navy warship  sailed close to a group of islands in the seas between the two countries.

These islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China, have long been a source of dispute.

“We are worried that this action raises tensions to a higher level,” Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a press briefing in Tokyo.

Any confrontation between China and Japan over the islands receives a great deal of media attention in Japan, mainly due to fears that it could lead to an armed conflict.

As the story spreads worldwide via agencies such as Jiji Press, it suggests to an international audience that the tension between Japan and China is rising to a dangerous level.

The Chinese media also fans the flames of fear. According to CBS, stories about China’s claim to territorial rights in the seas off the coast of Japan have flooded Chinese state television recently.

As well as the arguments about territory, Japan and China often still clash over their interpretations of the history of the 20th Century.

China continues to criticise Japan for its imperial past even though the Japanese feel that they have repented and apologised.

Japanese people often feel that China exploits historical tragedies for its own political purposes, especially to validate the Chinese Communist party.

This week, there was a stark reminder of the war. A Japanese company that used Chinese forced labour in its coal mines during the Second World War agreed to compensate and apologise to thousands of victims and their families.

Mitsubishi Materials, one of dozens of Japanese companies that used labourers from China and the Korean peninsula, said it would pay 100,000 yuan (US$15,000) to each of the surviving victims and the families of those who died.

Despite problems stemming from history and territorial disputes, at a business level, the links between China and Japan are strong. A record number of Chinese tourists are visiting Japan at the moment and have been celebrated for their extravagant shopping habits.

The Japan Times this week published a story about the warm personal links between people who take part in a Chinese language exchange in Tokyo every Sunday afternoon.

“Most Japanese citizens are friendly – they oppose war,” said Hu Ziyun a young Chinese student who went to the event. He said that the impression he got from chatting with his Japanese friends is different to the impression he receives from Chinese television.

The paper also spoke to Duan Yuezhong, a Chinese person who has lived in Japan a long time: “Most of the two countries’ people usually pick up information about each other from the media, which leads to distrust because it does not reflect the reality,” he said.

NHK president faces calls to resign

nhk_logoIs NHK Television – also know as the Japan Broadcasting Corporation – acting as the government’s public relations agency?

Its role is being scrutinised after its president appeared to say it would give priority to official government sources and offer less airtime to people with other points of view.

The comments by Katsuto Momii followed the recent earthquake in Kumamoto prefecture.

He was reported as saying: “If various assessments by experts were broadcast, it would only end up unnecessarily raising concerns among the public.”

Some newspapers, including the Asahi Shimbum, complained.

In an editorial criticising NHK, the Asahi said that Mr Momii has ignored the basic premise of broadcast journalism, which is to accurately reflect a range of views on controversial subjects and not just the opinion of the government.

The Asahi claimed that a citizens’ group has demanded Mr Momii should resign.

Most Japanese people trust NHK but they are have concerns about its accuracy and independence.

They do not want it to “unnecessarily raise concern” but they also do not want it to hide bad news for the convenience of the government.

That is what happened at the time of the Fukushima disaster and it undermined people’s trust in both the government and the media.

In Japan, the relationship between those two institutions has a troubled legacy.

In the run up to the Second World War, almost all the Japanese media was turned into a propaganda tool for the military government. Dissenting voices were suppressed with intimidation and violence.

So the culture of freedom of speech which has emerged since the War is relatively new. It is also relatively unusual in East Asia, where countries such as China routinely censor media reports.

Japanese journalists who work for the major newspapers and broadcasters tend to have a fairly deferential approach towards the government.

This is in contrast to the more adversarial approach of the press in the UK and America, where journalists see it as their role to point out the shortcomings of their leaders.

This week, a senior figure in the Japanese media told me he thought political journalists in Japan often miss the big stories because they are too pre-occupied with trying to predict who will be the next prime minister.

He compared it to sports reporters trying to predict the winner of a horse race.

However, he said there is still a robust and lively media culture in Japan, even though the influence of newspapers is declining as social media grows more popular. 

Jesus, Japan and the sacred Shinto shrine

n-brozat-a-20151102-870x615Many Christians have tried to persuade Japanese people to follow Jesus. Few have been successful.

Despite concerted attempts by missionaries to convert the Japanese, only about two percent of the population call themselves Christian. They are more or less equally split between members of the Roman Catholic church and the members of other denominations.

Many people have tried to analyse why the Japanese are resistant to conversion. One theory is that Japanese people generally feel that to join the Christian religion would put them in conflict with their society, which is heavily influenced by the Buddhist and Shinto religions.

There seems to be a particular anxiety about abandoning rituals connected with the family and ancestors. A potential convert might feel he would jeopardise his heritage if he follows a “foreign god”.

In Shusaku Endo’s historical novel Samurai one character says: “The Japanese don’t care whether God exists or not.”

The suggestion in the novel is that for the samurai there were more important things than God: namely the system of harmony, or wa, which holds society together.

However, there are places where Christian influence is evident in Japan. Schools, universities and hospitals which were founded by Christians do valuable work. They reflect Christian values through their service to society, rather than through missionary activity. And they employ and serve people of all backgrounds and faiths.

The Japanese Christians I have met generally want to help people live better lives but try not to impose any doctrine on non-believers. If they pushed people to convert, they would find themselves rejected and potentially isolated from their families and society.

Religious education is not part of the school curriculum in Japan. That leaves people to find their own spiritual paths.

Some people never give religion much thought. Often, they follow the traditional rituals of society without considering what they symbolise or how they relate to faith.

Buddhism and Shinto shape many traditions and this week the leaders of the G7 countries who are visiting Japan for a summit will go to the most sacred Shinto shrine – the Great Shrine of Ise, in Mie Prefecture.

Some Shinto followers have questioned whether it is appropriate to invite the foreigners onto such holy ground. But the majority of Japanese people seem pleased the leaders will spend time at the beautiful and holy site.

The Shinto priests at Ise will pray that the leaders are able to share in the concept of harmony or wa – a sacred idea which transcends the boundaries of nation or religion.

Action man Abe gets royal welcome

abequeen “I never worry about action, but only inaction.” Those were the words of a British prime minister quoted by Japan’s prime minister this week.

Shinzo Abe used the words from Winston Churchill when speaking to reporters in London.

“We must take action before the world gets bogged down in a crisis,” he said.

The “crisis” that he fears is linked to a global economic slowdown. In Japan, that slowdown could soon drag the country back down into recession.

I was invited to a meeting with Mr Abe at smart London hotel. It was a good opportunity for me to hear directly from the prime minister about his concerns.

Mr Abe came to London as part of a European tour, arranged during Japan’s Golden Week holiday.

In London, he met the current prime minister, David Cameron, at 10 Downing Street.

In the afternoon, he went to Buckingham Palace for an audience with the Queen. In the evening, he went to the Prime Minister’s official residence, Chequers, where he spent the night. Mr Cameron said the more informal setting would be a good place for the two leaders to have constructive talks about difficult foreign policy issues.

Japan will soon host a summit meeting of the leaders of the G7 countries on the island of Ise-Shima. Japan is the chair of G7 this year and Mr Abe wants to raise its international profile.

So in preparation for the summit, his European tour has taken in Belgium, Italy, France, Germany, the UK and Russia, even though Russia is not a G7 member.

Mr Abe said an Abenomics type approach to economic growth would be good for the world. This would include fiscal and monetary stimulus as well as a programme of structural reform.

These policies are widely advocated in parts of Europe, but Britain’s Conservative government rejects the idea of fiscal stimulus. In the UK, government spending is being reduced as part of an austerity programme.

Many of the questions put to Mr Abe by reporters were about Japan’s relationship with Russia. Mr Abe pointed out that there has not been a proper peace treaty between Russia and Japan since the Second World War – a situation he called “regrettable”.

Russia and Japan dispute the ownership of a group of small islands that lie to the north of the Japanese mainland but Mr Abe said that he hopes his talks with Mr Putin will improve relations.

He was also asked about the rising value of the Japanese yen, to which replied “Any drastic fluctuation on the exchange rate will have a major impact on the trade of Japanese companies, which is not desirable.”

And when questioned about the forthcoming referendum on whether Britain should remain a member of the European Union he said: “A vote to leave would make the UK less attractive as a destination for Japanese investment.”