European trouble may prevent prime minister Cameron’s trip to Japan

HMA-Official-Photo-website-348x448“If there is one thing that I want you to remember from this talk it is that the UK wants to have healthy growing partnerships with both Japan and China.”

That was the core message of the lecture which the British ambassador to Japan Tim Hitchens made to the Japan Society hosted by Nomura in London this week. He is an excellent communicator and his message was reinforced by an effective Power Point presentation.

The slides contained no words or numbers – only pictures. Many of them were pictures of Japanese people but Ambassador Hitchens also chose one very striking and famous image of a Chinese person: President Xi shaking hands with the Queen on his visit to London in the summer of 2015.

Prime Minister David Cameron said at the time that this was the start of a “golden era” in the relationship between Britain and China.

That caused disquiet in Japan, which has more in common politically with the UK than China. However, trade with China is far more important to the British economy.

The Ambassador announced that Prime Minister Cameron, the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and the Chancellor George Osborne are all planning to visit Japan in 2016. He did not give a date.

Mr Hitchens did not say this but my view is that at the moment, it would be difficult for Mr Cameron to leave Europe, where he is battling with other European leaders. He is also battling with cabinet colleagues over whether Britain should remain an EU member.

If a referendum goes in favour of a withdrawal, Mr Cameron’s credibility will be damaged and he may resign, according to the Financial Times. Most people expect the referendum to take place in June.

Britain’s politicians have little time to worry about Asia. Japan’s attention will also be elsewhere as Prime Minister Abe hopes President Xi of China and President Park Guen-Hye of Korea will visit Japan soon.

There may even be a trilateral summit but at prime minister level not at presidential level. If so, this would involve Mr Abe, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn of Korea and the Chinese premier Li Keqiang.

Ambassador Hitchens applauded Mr Abe’s efforts to improve relationships within the region. He himself will leave office at the end of the year but he has promised to return to the Japan Society to give an update on progress in 2017, by which time the political situation in Britain may look very different.

Minister quits and BOJ takes extreme steps to fight deflation

_87969094_87969093The resignation of Japan’s Economy minister Akira Amari has revealed the considerable influence of Japan’s gossipy weekly magazines.

Mr Amari told a press conference in Tokyo on Thursday that he is resigning.

He was under pressure following allegations of corruption made by the Japanese magazine Shukan Bunshun.

Shukan Bunshun is one of a number of weekly magazines which specialise in scandal. Most respectable people say they do not believe all things they read in them but a good story will be picked up by the quality newspapers and the Japanese broadcaster NHK.

In this case, the allegations, which were published last week, were that Mr Amari and his aides were given money and gifts worth twelve million yen by a construction company in return for favours linked to land ownership.

Mr Amari’s denial was less than robust. He said he did receive money but denied it was a bribe.

The international press concluded Mr Amari’s departure is a blow for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, although some Japanese journalists wonder if it was part of a power struggle.

“This is possibly the biggest scandal the Abe administration has faced,” said the BBC’s Mariko Oi.

It turned out that Mr Amari, who said he was trying to fight deflation, resigned just a day before the Bank of Japan picked up another weapon in that ongoing battle.

On Friday it announced it would introduce negative interest rates for the first time.

That move is designed to persuade the commercial banks to lend more money to businesses and to encourage Japanese people to spend some of their savings.

This policy will run alongside the Bank of Japan’s existing programme of buying Japanese government bonds.

The problem is that as it does so, it amasses more public debt.

Professor Masanaga Kumakura from Komazawa University complained about this in an article, published in East Asia Forum, saying that Japan is sinking “in a sea of money”.

The Bank has already bought more than 300 trillion yen (about US$ 2.5 trillion) of bonds and has pledged to go on buying more until the rate of inflation rises to two per cent.

Professor Kamakura said that this misguided policy is based on an inaccurate view of deflation.

Elsewhere, in an article for Forbes, Bryan Rich suggested that the Bank of Japan now holds the steering wheel of the global economy.

He claimed its policies will be beneficial to investors because it wants Japanese stock prices to rise and it is also aiming for a weaker yen.

But like Professor Kamakura, he is concerned that Japan will run up more debt without a credible plan to repay it.


Chocolate taxis promise exam success

taxi2Japanese taxis are not actually made of chocolate but a few are painted in the colours of Kit Kat, the famous chocolate biscuit made by Nestle.

Kit Kat in Japanese sounds like kitto katsu, which could be translated as “sure to succeed”.  Nestlé Japan has teamed up with the Nishitetsu taxi company in Fukuoka Prefecture, Kyushu, to provide a lucky cab service called the Juken ni KitKat model, or the “Sure to Succeed in the Exam” model.

The driver offers chocolate snacks to passengers although he cannot answer all exam questions.

Still, it is a fun marketing approach and it reminded me of a promise made by another taxi firm, Hailo, that using their cabs will help passengers spend more time with their family.

Hailo encourages working mothers to use its cabs to quickly travel from work to home or to pick up their children from school. The company says this is part of its corporate social responsibility. It is also a way to expand its customer base.

Japan has a huge number of taxis, most of which are safe, clean and quiet. The driver is usually courteous. The doors open automatically and there is normally a box of clean tissues (or, if you are lucky, a Kit Kat).

Yet I have found many drivers who do not know the routes to famous destinations, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the Imperial Hotel.

To my eye, it also looks like a very inefficient business with long lines of empty taxis waiting outside stations or idling in entertainment districts.

This over-capacity means I have never had any difficult hailing a cab in Japan but apparently, many people prefer to use a smart phone to book because they think it is cheaper or more efficient.

So Hailo has developed a smart phone app to connect with the taxi fleet. It launched in London in 2011 and expanded to Osaka two years later. The CEO of the Japanese operation is Ryo Umezawa.

Umezawa san was born in Tokyo but spent ten years in the Philippines where he learned English. He became an entrepreneur at a young age and sometimes people tell him they do not believe he is a CEO and ask him to bring an older colleague.

“Studying abroad and learning English helped me see Japan as a foreign country,” he said and this perspective makes him a useful partner for the British.

“Japan is an island country and in many ways it is closed. So outsiders coming in need to show to the Japanese that they are committed,” he said.

“Japanese people tend to see foreign companies coming into Japan as black ships,” he explained, in reference to the black ships of the US General Perry which sailed into Tokyo Bay in 1853 and which forced Japan to trade with America – a classic example of gunboat diplomacy.

What about the language gap with the managers from his British partner company?

“I do not think it is necessary for everyone in Japan to speak English. After all, you can use the services of a professional translator although I do think relationship building may be harder if there is a language barrier,” he said.

“A lot of foreign companies turn to English-speaking Japanese people to help them. Yet those English-speakers may not keep up with their professional skills. Their skill set is more important than language.”

I met Umezawa san through Export to Japan, part of the British government’s Department of Trade and Industry. Its webcast was hosted by Steve Crane, CEO of Business Link Japan, who helps British companies enter the Japanese market.

Mr Crane said: “I spent the first six months telling Japanese people how they should do things because I thought I could teach them. Then I realised that I really needed to listen more and understand how they do things. When I started to listen more, business became much more successful.”

Tabloid paper claims elite Shinzo Abe is out of touch with real people


Shinzo Abe does not understand what it is like to be poor, according to an influential tabloid newspaper in Japan.

It was dismayed by his comments about low-income families made in parliament this week. This added to the debate over the prime minister’s credibility at a time when experts are taking stock of his attempt to revitalise the economy.

Abenomics was examined in a special report called Japan and the World, jointly produced by the Financial Times and its owner, the Nikkei.

The FT’s respected economics correspondent Martin Wolf asked if the three arrows of Abenomics will deliver the revival Mr Abe promised. “It is, alas, unlikely,” he replied.

Mr Wolf believes that weak private demand within Japan itself is the main problem and he urged companies to use the profits they make overseas to stimulate the domestic economy. He also said an increase in consumption tax could encourage Japanese individuals to spend their savings.

That is not a view shared by Mr Abe’s political critics. They say raising the sales tax further would be discourage spenders and push Japan back towards recession. Mr Abe plans to increase the consumption tax to 10% in the spring of next year and according to NHK, he has said he will do this “as planned, irrespective of the business environment.”

Mr Abe’s apparent “lack of understanding” of the economic situation of ordinary people was a discussed in the popular magazine Nikkan Gendai. It reported Mr Abe’s comments in parliament about how a low income couple could be entitled to a tax break by combining the earnings of the husband with the salary of the wife’s part-time job. The magazine said his answer suggested he is out of touch with how much money real families earn. It said that Mr Abe is an elite and wealthy politician who does not understand his citizens.

Masamichi Adachi, an economist at JP Morgan, believes “Mr Abe is doing Abenomics 2.0 because Abenomics 1.0 was not going well at all. He should have started with Abenomics 2.0 first because the most crucial issue is the population issue”.

That is a reference to Japan’s falling population. One theory is that many Japanese people resist having children because they are so expensive, according to research by the University of Pennyslvania. It also says many people think motherhood can harm the professional status of women.

However, there was encouragement for Mr Abe in the Nikkei Asian Review.

It said that in the three years since the prime minister’s economic policies were rolled out, corporate Japan has achieved record earnings. Furthermore, unemployment has dropped to about three percent, the lowest of any developed country in the world.

The magazine says that: “Abenomics has given foreign investors plenty of reasons to be interested in Japan.”

The former head of the US Treasury Larry Summers agrees that Abenomics has made Japan a better place, although Mr Summers remains concerned about the lack of a normal inflation environment and he suggests that the Bank of Japan should now halt to its expensive quantative easing programme.

Mr Summers told the FT: “The next decade will be pivotal for Japan. We all hope that Abenomics – to borrow from Winston Churchill – will not even be the beginning of the end but the end of the beginning of Japanese renewal in the 21st century.”

North Korea taunts Japan with “thrilling sound of H-Bomb blast”

CYAdo8eU0AAl2kN-150x150What can Japan do in response to North Korea’s claim it has tested a hydrogen bomb? Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has promised firm action but his options are limited.

North Korea exploded a weapon early in the morning of Wednesday 6th January 2016 and claimed on the television news at 10am that it was a hydrogen bomb.

A note from the leader Kim Jong Un was used as propaganda.

He wrote: “Let’s start 2016 with the thrilling sound of a hydrogen bomb blast”.

The media turned to nuclear experts in South Korea, the US and Japan for advice. The general view is that it was probably a nuclear weapon but not a hydrogen bomb.

“North Korea’s nuclear test is a serious threat to our nation’s security and absolutely cannot be tolerated. We strongly denounce it,” prime minister Abe told the parliament in Tokyo. Japan sent surveillance planes to the region.

Mr Abe said: “Japan will take a firm response, including at the UN Security Council, in cooperation with the United States, South Korea, China and Russia.”

It is a path the countries have been down many times before but it does not seem to concern the North Koreans.

President Barack Obama talked by telephone with Mr Abe after the explosion.

Mr Obama reaffirmed the US commitment to Japan’s security and the two leaders “agreed to work together to forge a united and strong international response to North Korea’s latest reckless behaviour,” the White House said in a statement.

Christopher Hill who led the US delegation in North Korean nuclear talks told the BBC that even if it was not a hydrogen bomb this time, North Korea clearly has the intention to develop hydrogen weapons.

He said the only country which could now influence North Korea’s behaviour is China.

“(North Korea) is already one of the most sanctioned countries in the world,” Mr Hill said.

“The real issue is whether or not their only friend in the world, China, can be used to put pressure on them. If the Chinese cancelled all tourism and if they stopped buying North Korean raw materials and if they stopped allowing North Koreans to use their banking system, that would be real sanctions. But I don’t think we’re there yet.”

China immediately condemned the bomb test and said it wants an end to all nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula.

China’s other concern is a collapse of North Korea, which could mean a flood of refugees. A reunification of the Koreas would create an enlarged country allied to the United States. Such a situation would be a relief for Japan but a concern to China.

In an excellent piece for the Daily Mail, the former British Ambassador to North Korea John Everard said China does not want North Korean aggression to disturb the delicate political and military balance in East Asia.

He wrote: “It’s notable that relations between South Korea and Japan, both close U.S. allies, have grown notably warmer in recent months, which will not have pleased China, which hopes for a loosening, not a tightening, of ties between the Asian democracies.”

The Times described Kim Jong Un as a “fat bully who is a great deal more scared of us than we are of him”.

In his analysis, the Times’ Tokyo correspondent Richard Parry suggests it would be a grave mistake to dismiss Kim as mad. He said Kim’s actions reflect his desire to protect his regime despite the enormous financial burden of the nuclear weapons programme.

Yet what use is a diplomatic response to a country which rejects negotiations?

North Korean television said in the wake of the explosion: “The way of peace does not lie across a dirty conference table.”

Abe urges language learners to share Japan’s true colours

2E98404300000578-3325204-image-a-2_1447932307024Foreigners who speak Japanese are able to understand Japan better than people who cannot speak the language, according to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. For most foreigners, mastering the language is a daunting task. Fortunately, the Japanese themselves are striving for better English and claim to have invented a wonderful machine which translates Japanese to English if you hold it in front of your mouth when speaking.

Some foreign diplomats based in Tokyo had a treat this week: lunch with the Prime Minister. He chose guests who speak Japanese and praised them for learning his country’s language.

“It is very encouraging for us to have people like you who can understand and speak Japanese,” Mr Abe told his guests.

“I would like people like you, ambassadors, to speak about the true colours of Japan and charms of Japan in what I hope will become a powerful force in promoting understanding of Japan,” he said.

I have respect for any foreigners who can understand the prime minister’s Japanese. Despite intense efforts to learn the language, I would find it difficult to grasp a phrase like that, especially if it were delivered in the formal type of language known as keigo.

The article led me to ponder the question: how much of what I know about Japan came through speaking about it in English? And what extra things have I discovered about the country through learning Japanese?

Before attempting an answer, let me share some responses to Prime Minister Abe’s speech on the discussion area of Japan Today, which is often used by foreigners who know Japan well.

A poster called Katsu asked: “Isn’t the job of ambassadors to promote their countries’ interests in their host country and not the other way around? That’s why they live in their host countries but don’t get paid by their host countries.”

A poster named Strangerland said people who understand Japanese “can obtain information that is not filtered through translation (translation almost always loses some nuances and subtleties), and in learning a language, one learns more of the culture… (because) language shapes the thought of the people.”

The majority of things I have learned about Japan comes from conversations I have had with Japanese people in English. After that, books, newspapers and the internet written in English have shaped my understanding. But my enthusiasm to learn the Japanese language and my willingness to use it has encouraged the Japanese to tell me more about their country, so my understanding has deepened.

Fortunately for foreigners, the Japanese enjoy learning English. For example, this week we read of a plan to test junior high school students in English conversation.

However, all that study is tiring so how fantastic to read about a machine that automatically translates spoken Japanese into English. It appears to be an old fashioned megaphone, with a clever translation device built in. Speak into the end and your Japanese words change to English. You can judge for yourself how well it works by watching the video.

I would love one for Christmas.

Amnesty condemns Japan’s death penalty and criminal justice system

_65021058_tokyopolice_afpIs Amnesty International right to call Japan’s criminal justice system “deeply flawed”? Should it abolish the death penalty to prevent innocent people being killed?

Many of Japan’s social systems have much in common with the West. However, its criminal justice system is significantly different.

There are often reports in the international media which are critical of Japan’s police, prisons and the death penalty. Some of those reports lack understanding of Japanese culture. But the Economist magazine has produced a well-researched study of Japan’s criminal justice system, which provides useful context when comparing it to the West.

The Economist said that crime rates in Japan are roughy a tenth of those in other rich counties. It says a wallet left on a train is often handed into the police. Great effort is made to rehabilitate criminals, especially young people who are caught up in minor crime. This means that Japan has a low prison population in comparison to the USA and the United Kingdom.

The problem the Economist identifies is an over reliance on confessions, which it says are seen as the “king of evidence”. Almost everyone who confesses to the police is found guilty but some people confess by mistake or under duress. This causes miscarriages of justice. For example, Keiko Aoki spent twenty years in prison after she confessed to killing her daughter in a fire. The fire was in fact caused by an accident and she was released from prison in October.

Japan still uses the death penalty. The opposition Democratic Party wants to abolish it but they have little power. However, there are plans to improve the safely of convictions. For example, by forcing the police to make audio recordings of all interviews with suspects.

The relationship between prosecution and defence lawyers is also under review. The aim is to ensure more robust legal argument. The Asia Pacific Journal claims Japanese prosecutors have a tendency towards tunnel vision which leads them to dismiss evidence that is inconsistent with their preferred outcome as irrelevant, incredible, or unreliable.

The international human rights advocacy group, Amnesty International also has concern about Japan. Its East Asian researcher Shoji Hiroka asks how locking someone up in a cramped cell, alone for decades can ever be justified. He asks: “Does the Japanese criminal justice system guarantee fair trials and provide enough safeguards against forced confessions? And if the risk of executing the innocent is always present, will there ever be enough safeguards?”

His conclusion: “Japan’s criminal justice system is still deeply flawed and conditions on death row remain inhumane.”

Indian nuclear deal challenges Japan’s green credentials

nuclearJapan’s prime minister says its innovative green technology can tackle global climate change. But a plan to sell nuclear power reactors to India has been criticised as “eco-destuctive” and condemned by the former mayor of Fukushima.

This week, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was among the world leaders to give a speech at the COP21 conference on climate change in Paris. His comments included a classic piece of chequebook diplomacy, as he pledged that Japan would increase its support for developing nations from a trillion yen to 1.3 trillion yen ($10.6 billion) a year by 2020.

Japan supports the United Nations-backed Green Climate Fund and plans to assist vulnerable nations by promoting technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

For example, Mr Abe said the next generation of Japanese made batteries will enable electric cars to travel five times further than they do at the moment.

Japan has a strong motivation to be energy efficient as it relies on other countries for its oil and gas.

It recently restarted its nuclear power reactors following the Fukushima disaster. The nuclear shutdown led to more fossil fuel use within Japan and that caused a rise in greenhouse gas emissions. It also deterred other countries from signing deals with Japanese energy companies. The UK chose China as its nuclear energy partner.

Japanese multinationals such as Hitachi, Toshiba and Mitsubishi are seeking opportunities elsewhere. They will have Mr Abe’s support when he visits India next week. There is speculation that a deal could be struck to invite Japanese companies to develop nuclear power reactors in India.

India’s Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP) has gathered a petition condemning the move. It said: “We strongly demand that Japan must not proceed with negotiations for sales of nuclear technology to India and also must refrain from nuclear export to other countries. The India-Japan nuclear agreement must be terminated for its dangerous international implications and for unleashing an anti-people and eco-destructive nuclear expansion in India.”

Another critic is Katsutaka Idogawa, who was the mayor of Fukushima when the nuclear accident happened in 2011. He has appealed on Youtube, asking Mr Abe not to sell the nuclear technology to India.

United Nations urges Japan to accept refugees

Syrian refugees at Bashabsheh camp in Jordan...epa03308933 A Syrian refugee who fled the violence in his county flashes the victory sign at Bashabsheh refugee camp, at Jordan-Syria Border, Ramtha City, 90Km North of Amman, Jordan, 17 July 2012. Jordan on 10 July said it had begun construction of the countrys first Syrian refugee camp, as part of efforts to cope with a refugee influx that has reached as high as 1,000 people per day. The camp, designed to host up to 5,000 refugees, will be jointly funded by the UN and the JHCO and completed by the end of the week, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).  EPA/JAMAL NASRALLAH

The United Nations is putting pressure on Japan to accept more refugees, especially people displaced by the war in Syria. Prime Minister Abe has said Japan should deal with its own problems before taking in newcomers.

This week, the head of the UN body responsible for refugees, Antonio Guterres, was in Tokyo. He was quoted by Reuters as saying he would like the Japanese government to increase the number of people resettled in Japan and be especially open to the the humanitarian admissions of Syrians.

There was no direct and official response from the government, although Prime Minister Abe has so far pushed aside the issue of accepting refugees, preferring to respond to the crisis by offering money.

He recently told the United Nations that Japan would offer some $1.6 billion to assist Syrians and Iraqis displaced by conflict and for building peace across the Middle East and Africa.

Another influential person calling for more refugees to be accepted is Sadako Ogata, 88, who used to be the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees.

She said it was nonsense to suggest Japan does not have the resources to accept refugees and it is not doing enough on the humanitarian front, despite its desire for a bigger global political role.

The interview with Lady Ogata was a scoop for Reuters’ Tokyo team Linda Sieg and Ami Miyazaki who point out that Japan accepted less than a dozen asylum seekers last year, despite five thousand applicants.

Japan’s attitude towards immigration puzzles many foreigners, particularly Americans, who are used to living in a multicultural society drawn from immigrants from all over the world.

Farah Stockman, writing in the Boston Globe, says that although most Americans consider the influx of talented, energetic immigrants to have benefitted their economy, Japan thinks the opposite way. Her report focusses on members of the Nikkei community in Japan; Japanese-Brazilians, whose families emigrated to South America at the turn of the 20th century and who have now returned.

Their situation is difficult, as I witnessed when I made a programme about them for the BBC and found a family of six people sleeping on the floor of a tiny flat in Hamamatsu.

A poster called Sensato made an interesting comment on the Japan Today website: “In the late 1800s into the early 1900s the Japanese government actively encouraged massive emigration of Japanese people to North/South America and elsewhere in Asia as a means of alleviating poverty in Japan’s rural areas (not to mention the enormous emigration push by Imperial Japan). It is time for Japan to return the favor and accommodate many more refugees who need a fresh start.”

Accepting refugees and encouraging immigrants to come and work in Japan are different issues. In discussing the latter point, the American business newspaper the Wall Street Journal claimed that Prime Minister Abe has ruled out a significant increase in immigration, despite many economists’ contention that it is essential to meet Japan’s long-term demographic challenges.

The WSJ said that even though Japan has an unemployment rate of just 3.4% –  one of the lowest in the world – it still faces labour shortages in many sectors.

Women claim chauvinism and harassment hinder gender equality

20150905_asp501The media often presents Japanese women as sexy and strange. Yet it also frequently reports on the pressures women face to become successful in their careers, suggesting they have a duty to assist Japan’s economy.

This week, the readers of the leading US business newspaper the Wall Street Journal were presented with a striking image of three Japanese women wearing bikinis, bathing in red wine at an onsen. Apparently Beaujolais Nouveau is good for the skin. It was a typical fun picture story and a dramatic contrast to the heavyweight piece in the Financial Times about female entrepreneurs being coached for leadership roles. The FT piece showed two women leaning over a laptop, working hard.

The FT explained that the Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe is pushing for more women to take leading roles in business and government. If he succeeds in closing the gender gap in employment, Goldman Sachs estimates it would boost Japan’s gross domestic product by almost 13 per cent.

The contrast of the pictures and articles in the FT and the WSJ reveal Japan’s dilemma over gender. Many sources this week covered a report from the World Economic Forum showing that Japan ranks 101st out of 142 countries in the global gender gap index. That was a few places higher than last year but Japan’s female participation rate in the labour force remains one of the lowest among developed economies.

It has been claimed that one of the reasons for this is because many women have trouble maintaining careers after having babies because of mata hara,” short for “maternity harassment at work. A government survey suggested this is a widespread problem and the British newspaper the Guardian cited it as an example of widespread discrimation against women by Japanese men.

Examples of Japanese male chauvinism are seized on by the press. Take the case of the manga cartoon called Himozairu. It showed men learning how to become good at housework in order to attract girlfriends. The Washington Post said that the cartoon by Akiko Higashimura, a well-known Japanese manga artist, was withdrawn from a magazine called Morning because some readers claimed it was demeaning to men.

Another area where there is a lively debate over gender is gay rights.

Japanese women are often seen as depending on men for emotional and financial fulfilment. Yet the widely circulated photographs of Hiroko Masuhara and Koyuki Higashi, who recently signed a civil partnership in Tokyo, presented a different image.

The Tokyo ward of Shibuya has issued them with a certificate which allows them to enjoy many of the benefits of a couple which are normally reserved for married people. Writer Erica Friedman discussed the issue in Slate and asserted that LGBTQ groups in Japan are becoming braver every year. She said that many people who have never really thought about gay rights are now considering the issue due to the media.