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.”

Is your dog looking for a friend?

photoNext time I go to Osaka, I want to meet the people who have created a dating app for dogs.

It is a bit like Tinder, a mobile phone dating app for people, but this version lets you spend time with someone else’s pet.

The concept is not especially new. I remember making a radio programme for the BBC about dog dating in Tokyo some years ago.

At that time, people went to a shop and chose a dog from among the “professional” animals. They paid the shop owner money to take the dog away for a few hours, usually for a walk in the park.

This new mobile phone app connects “amateur” dog owners with dog renters, without any shop involved.

The concept is similar to Tinder and to other so-called “disruptive” types of business like the room rental service AirBNB or the taxi service Uber.

The idea of encouraging small start-up companies to develop innovative ideas, such as mobile phone apps, is relatively unusual in Japan.

The people who made Meet My Dog are based at The Lab in Osaka. The Lab brings together small companies and encourages them to pool their talent and ideas. It is backed by Osaka’s city government.

In fact, encouraging innovation is part of the Abenomics programme of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

It is not just Japan which could benefit. A senior economist told me this week that innovation is key to raising Asia’s economic output.

The economist, Shang Jin-Wei, works at the Asia Development Bank, based in Manila. Its main goal is to help the poorest parts of Asia out of poverty. Mr Jin-Wei is Chinese. The bank’s president Takehiko Nakao is Japanese.

Mr Jin-Wei told me that for every one percent that China’s economic growth slows, Japan can expect a slowdown in growth of a quarter of one percent. That does not sound much but it would be enough to drag Japan back down into recession.

He said that one way to counter the Chinese slowdown is for Asian countries to “introduce reforms to raise labour productivity and invigorate growth potential.”

Productivity – the amount of output produced for each hour worked – is quite hard to measure. But by most standards, Japan’s productivity is low compared to other developed countries.

I asked Mr Jin-Wei what would boost productivity. His answers are based on his consideration of Asia as a whole.

As well as innovation, Mr Jin-Wei recommends investment in infrastructure.

He said another way to grow an economy is to encourage people out of low productivity jobs in the countryside and into more productive jobs in cities. He also recommended reform of state owned enterprises and reform of the financial sector.

Finally, he said productivity rises when women are encouraged to work. He didn’t say anything about dogs.

The joy of being hugged by a Japanese

95808718_Sumo_news-large_trans++eo_i_u9APj8RuoebjoAHt0k9u7HhRJvuo-ZLenGRumAA businessman told me this week: “I knew I’d been successful in business when my Japanese business partner hugged me.”

The embrace came after a long period of negotiation. The businessman, a British gentleman in his sixties, was hugged by his Japanese associate after they reached a deal between their companies.

“It was special,” the businessman told me, “because the Japanese are not usually tactile and they don’t normally show their feelings physically.”

He went on to explain that he has been doing business in Japan for many years and has built up trust with his clients on many visits. When his clients came to England, he took them to a traditional pub and they greatly enjoyed the occasion.

Outside of pubs, bars and izakayas, doing business with the Japanese is not usually an emotional experience. In fact, one common complaint from those who go into meetings with the Japanese is that you can’t tell what they are feeling.

Another person I spoke to to at a conference organised by Asia House was a Chinese banker from Singapore. We talked about the different approach of Chinese and the Japanese business people when it comes to dealing with other Asian countries.

“The Chinese are very clear about things and that is why they succeed,” he said. He explained that if a Chinese organisation was bidding for a contract, it would begin by trying to find out what the client wants. The Chinese will also try to build a friendship with their potential partner, asking him where he goes on holiday and so on. They might even pay for their client’s holiday, he said.

He contrasted this with the Japanese, who he said tended to overwhelm their potential customer with information about their company and their product – especially technical information which was not particularly useful.

His view is that this helps the Chinese to succeed when they are in competition with Japan.

One recent example is when Japan lost out to China on a $5bn deal to export high-speed rail to Indonesia last year.

Officially, the Chinese won because they had a better plan and a better price. I don’t know how the Chinese treated the Indonesian decision makers. Did they pay for them to go on holiday?

Whatever the reason, Japan would do well to learn from the experience because Indonesia has a lot of money to spend.

It wants other countries to help it develop its infrastructure – especially maritime facilities, ports, airports and roads. It is potentially a very lucrative market for Japan but the competition with China is intense.

And when choosing between China and Japan the Indonesians won’t just be swayed by technical expertise and cost – the human factor also will also play a crucial role.

Don’t scorn Japan’s powerful old people

japan_100year-oldForeign journalists have a habit of using a lot of judgemental language in their articles about Japan.

“The country is quite simply dying,” is a very judgemental phrase. It was used in a prominent article which appeared on a US political website called The Week. Another piece said “it is hard to appreciate the scale of the crisis” caused by Japan’s ageing population.

The articles were written by opinionated journalists who also proposed solutions to Japan’s problems. These are, namely, to bring in lots of immigrants, to pay people to have babies and to stop sexist discrimination against women at work.

Japan’s ageing population is a topic of daily debate in the Japanese media. Thousands of different versions of the story have been written. Yet these two foreign journalists approach the topic with nothing new in the way of research.

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry who writes for The Week is a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Centre in Washington, an organisation which says it “applies the Judeo-Christian moral tradition to critical issues of public policy.”

As he examines the sensitive issue of the ageing population in Japan, Gobry informs his readers that the country is selling more adult diapers than infant diapers.

According to current projections, he says, by 2060 Japan’s population will have shrunk by a third and people over 65 years old will account for 40 percent of the population.

His suggestions on how to stem the declining birthrate are that Japan must incentivise women to have children and also that it must adopt a more open immigration policy.

One phrase that journalists often use in connection with this issue of population decline is “time bomb” – a term which suggests future disaster.

The time bomb idea is used prominently in a piece by journalist Zack Beauchamp writing in Vox.

Beauchamp says Japan’s demographic problem is “very, very bad”.

He notes that Japan has a very long life expectancy but adds that it also has a low birth rate. “And for that, we can place a lot of the blame on one of history’s greatest villains: sexism.”

The Vox article says that Japan forces women to choose between work and children and it cites research by Yale University’s Frances McCall Rosenbluth, an expert on gender and the Japanese economy.

Neither author has spoken to any Japanese people about the issues, let alone to older people. Gobry’s piece presents Japan’s dignified and powerful older generation as a dying breed of people wearing diapers like babies.

For credibility, writers must show they are engaged in a dialogue with Japanese people about the issues which shape their society. The best articles hold back judgement and show the world a Japan which Japanese people themselves recognise as real.

What does Japan want from Africa?

3-25-japanafricaOne of the most profound changes to the world in the past decade has been vast Chinese investment into Africa. It has exceeded 100 billion US dollars and the money has stimulated development across the continent, lifting millions of Africans out of extreme poverty.

Yet Chinese state media says that the country’s investment into Africa declined by 40 percent last year. That is partly as a result of slowing economic growth in China but also because of lower commodity prices.

So could Japan step in to fill the shoes of China? The Chinese investment still far exceeds that of Japan. But this year, Japan is promoting projects in Africa which will benefit its own international businesses.

For example, Marubeni recently announced that it plans to build a new power station in Egypt – a classic example of a big infrastructure project backed by loans by the Japanese government. It is also the kind of project where Japan and China are seen as rivals.

Foreign expertise in power generation is welcome in Africa, where electricity shortages are a serious problem.

Shinzo Abe will talk about Japan’s role in Africa when he visits Kenya later this year. And in late August, Japan will host the TICAD (Tokyo International Conference on African Development) in Nairobi.

This Japanese activity in Africa can annoy China. There have been occasions where the Chinese have tried to stir up anti-Japanese sentiment among the Africans. And as the Japan Times recently pointed out, China’s propaganda ministry tries to use the African media to present China in the best possible light.

However, both the Japanese and the Chinese want peace and stability in Africa because that helps safeguard their investments. Japan places special emphasis on quality growth and human security.

This week, I asked the CEO of Sumitomo Corporation for Europe and Africa, Mr Kiyoshi Sunobe, if the Japanese view on Africa was changing because of the slowdown in Chinese investment.

He told me that fall in commodity prices was a much more significant influence on Japanese investment decisions.

His answer reminded me that the prices of oil and metals such as iron ore, copper, and platinum all declined substantially last year and the people who will feel the impact the most are the people living in sub-Saharan Africa.

The World Bank Economic Outlook report for the region says its economic activity decelerated from 4.6 percent in 2014 to 3.4 percent in 2015, the weakest performance since 2009.

Sadly for the Africans, that means the gains in income from abroad they have enjoyed in recent years will be very hard to maintain, regardless of any actions by China or Japan.

Leading economist tells Shinzo Abe of challenges to Abenomics

20160312_ASD001_0
Not many leaders call on international experts to bring them bad news. Yet Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe this week invited one of the world’s leading economists to talk to him “candidly” about Japan’s situation in the world.

The message from the Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz was not encouraging.

“A few years ago, no one would have anticipated that the global economy would be as weak as it is today,” he said at the prime minister’s office. “When economic circumstances change, you have to adapt your policy.”

Professor Stiglitz also urged Mr Abe not to raise Japan’s consumption tax, or sales tax. That is a contentious issue as it is closely linked to Abenomics. A higher consumption tax should mean more government income. But it can become a drag when the economy is close to recession.

Mr Abe’s meeting with Professor Stiglitz was not primarily about tax or domestic Japanese politics. It was more about how the changes to the global economy will affect Japan. In particular, the slowdown in Chinese growth and the knock-on effect of low energy prices.

Mr Abe was not the only person listening to Professor Stiglitz. The Economic and Fiscal Policy Minister Nobuteru Ishihara, the Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and the Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda all attended the seminar.

More experts are due in Japan for similar top levels meetings soon, including another world-class economist, Paul Krugman.

Japan’s leaders may be prepared to listen to the opinion of foreign experts but they do not find it easy to change their policies in the wake of their advice. That is partly because the the civil service is so slow at implementing policy change.

Foreigners who study Japan’s economy nearly always prescribe reform – sometimes radical reform. But resistance to reform is strong, particularly among elderly conservative Japanese people who support Mr Abe and his ruling party, the LDP.

The Economist magazine uses its voice to encourage more reform in Japan. This week, its analysis of Mr Abe’s political challenges warned that voters will blame him if the economy does not recover as he has promised.

The Economist believes that Mr Abe’s primary political goal is the reform of the constitution, in particular Article Nine which commits Japan to pacifism. It says in order to change this, Mr Abe needs the overwhelming support of both the upper and lower houses of the Japanese parliament. He could then put the issue to the country in a referendum.

But the Economist says that such a move would cause deep alarm among many Japanese people. That may not be a point of view that Mr Abe wishes to hear.

Fukushima anniversary leads to fresh debate on nuclear power

la-fg-japan-fukushima-robots-20160310-001“There is a saying in Japanese: put a lid on something that smells. Loosely speaking, that means hide a problem rather than deal with it.”

That was the comment made on a TV programme by Olivier Fabre of Reuters Television. His view, as an experienced journalist covering Japan, is that it is difficult to persuade people to speak openly on camera about painful experiences.

No recent experience has been more traumatic for Japan than the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake which occurred five years ago.

A reluctance among the Japanese to speak openly about the trauma has presented a challenge for the foreign journalists seeking to cover the event’s anniversary. What human stories can they tell if the humans don’t want to tell them?

In one report, the BBC’s Rupert Wingfield Hayes chose to focus not on the humans, but on animals.

He entered a home that had been deserted after the nuclear disaster and found it has been attacked by wild boars. The desolate scene looked like something from a horror movie. The boars were not shown on camera but the report showed the mess they had caused as they looked for rotten food in a broken refrigerator.

Other reporters spoke to people who had lost relatives or were forced to abandon their homes because of the nuclear disaster. CNBC interviewed Noshiyuki Kouri from Namie, a town just 10 km from the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

“I don’t know what to do,” he said.

“My kids and their families have no plans to return but my ancestors are buried here. I need to keep coming back to honour them and keep my home intact.”

The main issue covered by the media was Japan’s relationship with nuclear power.

A few days before the anniversary of the disaster, a court ordered the shutdown of two nuclear reactors which had previously been declared safe.

Naturally, this disturbed the Japanese, whose trust in the authorities was undermined by a series of mistakes and cover-ups at Fukushima.

The new shut down was especially worrying because the reactors in question had been restarted relatively recently. Their owner insisted they comply with rigorous safety standards.

Despite this setback, the Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe told a press conference: “Our resource-poor country cannot do without nuclear power to secure the stability of energy supply while considering what makes economic sense and the issue of climate change.”

He said the government would “not change its policy”.

The New York Times showed some sympathy for Mr Abe’s position, pointing out that Japan is a rather small, mountainous country that has always been short of natural resources on its own.

Japan is the biggest importer of natural gas in the world and that is why the alternative of homegrown nuclear was always so attractive—before Fukushima.

However, the rebroadcasting on television of the terrible events five years ago will be a stark reminder to the Japanese of the risks involved with nuclear power in a country prone to earthquakes and tsunamis.

Japanese journalists claim they are bullied by the government

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a news conference at his official residence in Tokyo, Japan, October 6, 2015. REUTERS/Yuya Shino

The prime minister of Japan is bullying journalists, according to one of the most experienced foreign correspondents in Tokyo.

Richard Lloyd Parry of the Times, who has written about Japan for more than twenty years, said Shinzo Abe and his government’s intimidation is causing newspapers and broadcasters in Japan to become “timid”. He said the situation is becoming worse.

His comments follow the departure of several leading broadcast journalists – Ichiro Furutachi, Hiroko Kuniya and Shigetada Kishii – who were noted for their tough line of questioning of politicians.

Mr Lloyd Parry told the Japan Now conference that the government has “been spinning pretty hard to get things reported their way. It’s the government’s job to try to tell the story their way – but it’s the job of the media to resist that.”

Another British paper, the Guardian, said the departure of the television reporters followed a warning by minister Sanae Takaichi that broadcasters which repeatedly failed to show “fairness” in their political coverage, despite official warnings, could be taken off the air.

“This is nothing but intimidation against broadcasters,” the Japan Federation of Commercial Broadcast Workers’ Union said in a statement. “[Takaichi’s] remarks represent a glaring misinterpretation of the law and we demand that she promptly retract her remarks.”

Richard Lloyd Parry of the Times said: “As a British reporter, you aim to heap embarrassment and shame on someone in authority and if you do so, you win admiration of your colleagues. In Japan, some reporters, as individuals, want to dig dirt and want to challenge power. But that is generally not true of the big media companies. They explain power rather than challenge power.”

However, scandals revealed by the press have led to two high level political resignations in Japan so far this year.

Firstly, Japan’s Economy minister Akira Amari stepped down after allegations of corruption appeared in the weekly Japanese magazine Shukan Bunshun.

A few weeks later, the same magazine reported that a politician Kensuke Miyazaki was having an extramarital affair days before his wife gave birth. That ruined his image as a caring family man, who was calling for laws to protect fathers who want to take time off work to care for their wives and young children.

Both resignations received extensive media coverage in the Japanese mainstream press and were picked up by the international media.
So although most respectable people say they do not believe all things they read in gossipy magazines like Shukan Bunshun, they hold considerable influence.

And their reporters cannot be described as timid when it comes to revealing the shady side of powerful people.

Watching Sumo can tell us about Japan’s economy

1200x-1Watching sumo on television can provide an insight into how the economy is faring, according to one of Japan’s top economists.

He senses positivity and optimism, in contrast to the negative and pessimistic reports about the economy elsewhere in the media.

The economic analysis of the sumo starts with the wrestling itself. Forbes informs its readers that last month, a sumo wrestler named Kotoshogiku became the first Japan-born wrestler in a decade to win a tournament after domination by Mongolian fighters.

“It was a great day for all people in Japan”, a Tokyo-based real estate dealer told Forbes.

The theory is that sporting success raises people’s spirits and makes them more willing to spend and invest. Plausible, but not particularly scientific.

However, the advertisements which are shown during a sumo match, appear to provide an indication of how companies spend their money.

Sumo is most widely watched on NHK, the national broadcaster which does not show advertisements. However, it does relay pictures from the wrestling ring, which show people parading around with banners.

Those banners, which are rather old fashioned, carry ads for comics, snacks and beer. They cost around $500 dollars each. NHK allows them to be seen on TV, even though it does not receive any income from them.

Akiyoshi Takumori, an economist at Sumitomo Mitsui Asset Management, believes that by counting the number of advertisements, investors can gauge whether executives are bullish on the economy and willing to spend their companies’ cash.

“The ads are like supplementary traffic lights to the main ones, regular economic indicators,” Mr Takumori  told Bloomberg. “If you watch them, you can tell whether the main lights will turn red or not.”

Away from the wrestling ring, the red lights were being flashed by Nomura, the leading bank. Its latest report clearly predicts another downturn in the Japanese economy, pushing it back towards recession.

Nomura says that although it expects the negative interest rate policy adopted by the Bank of Japan last month to have some effect in terms of weakening the yen, it is unlikely to provide a major boost to the economy, given such factors as the negative impact on earnings at financial institutions.