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.

Abe supporter fired in row over defence policy

ED-AU349_Auslin_J_20151111130257A university president who publicly supported Prime Minister Abe’s defence policy has lost his job. The news has led to a debate about freedom of speech and highlighted the divisions within Japan over the sensitive issue of national security.

Koji Murata, 51, a professor of political science, was until recently the president of Doshisha University in Kyoto Prefecture. In the summer of 2015, he was invited to Tokyo to give his views on controversial proposals concerning defence and security, which Mr Abe was trying to bring into law.

During his testimony before a committee of MPs, Mr Murata said the security legislation proposed by Mr Abe was necessary for Japan. This caused anger among many of his colleagues from Doshisha. More than people from the university signed a petition denouncing Mr Murata’s comments.

The petition said “we are ashamed from the bottom of our hearts that despite [the nature of] the legislation, the professor who serves as the president publicly expressed support for the bills.”

When Mr Murata stood for re-election last week, he lost the vote and was replaced by a candidate who had criticised him.

As in the US and Europe, it is common for university staff in Japan to be openly critical of government policies. For example, Noriko Hama, a professor of economics at Doshisha uses the phrase Stupidnomics to pour scorn on Mr Abe’s economic policy.

Professor Hama is often quoted in the international media as she speaks perfect English and has a dynamic term of phrase. I interviewed her many times for the BBC.

Support for Mr Murata came from the Wall Street Journal. The paper commissioned an article about the case by Michael Auslin from the right-leaning think tank the American Enterprise Institute. He suggested the university staff curbed Mr Murata’s freedom of speech by removing him from office. Mr Auslin said Japanese academics normally accuse Mr Abe of repressing their liberal views.

Events at Doshisha reflect the passion stirred by Mr Abe’s security reforms. There was nearly violence in the Japanese parliament when they were debated earlier this year. The changes allow the Japanese military to fight in defence of allies such as the US even if Japan itself is not directly attacked.

This is based on a reinterpretation of the pacifist clause of Japan’s constitution, which was drawn up by the American occupying forces at the end of WWII. That clause forbids the use of military force except in self-defence.

However, the reinterpretation is a less drastic step than a permanent rewrite of the constitution, which was at one time on Mr Abe’s mind. The security issue has lost him support among many voters.

Mr Murata’s profile has been raised by his dismissal. Given his outspoken views, striking appearance and fashionable clothes, there will now no doubt be plenty of offers for him to exercise his freedom of speech through the media.

Relations warm between Japan, China and South Korea

tpbje20151102017_53734637There has been a breakthrough in Japan’s diplomatic relationship with China and South Korea. The leaders of the three countries met for the first time in three years last weekend. A few days later, China’s premier urged Japanese businesses to maintain their trade with China, despite a slowdown in China’s rate of economic growth.

On Sunday, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, China’s Premier Li Keqiang and President Park Geun-hye of South Korea met in Seoul. Such meetings had been suspended since 2012 amid disagreements over history and territory. Afterwards, the leaders issued a joint declaration stating that their trilateral cooperation has been “completely restored”. They promised to resume their regular meetings and said they would work towards greater economic integration.

The media were largely positive about Japan’s role in the summit. For example, Joseph Nye of Harvard University wrote in the Huffington Post that Mr Abe has been relatively successful in terms of foreign and defence policy. Defence has been a keynote issue for Mr Abe. He has enhanced the role of the Japanese Self Defence Force but he has not overturned the pacifist clause of Japan’s constitution, a step which would have infuriated China.

This week, more than two hundred members of the powerful business association the keidanren travelled to Beijing. The Chinese premier Li Keqiang urged them to strengthen business ties with China. He promised to broaden market access and provide a more open and fair investment environment for foreign companies.

The relationship between South Korea and Japan still suffers from the pain caused by Japanese occupation. The biggest stumbling block, according to President Park of South Korea, is the issue of comfort women. Such women were enslaved by Japan to provide sex for its troops, and articles which shame Japan over the issue often appear in the Korean media. Following the meeting in Seoul, the two countries agreed to hold more talks on the issue and Mr Abe said they “should not leave behind difficulties for future generations” in building a co-operative relationship.

When it comes to the legacy of occupation, China shares similar resentments against Japan to South Korea. However, that does not mean they necessarily gang up on their former enemy. South Korea and Japan have more in common politically with each other than they do with China; both are allies of the United States. For Japan, the ultimate diplomatic goal is cordial relations with all its neighbours and with with the US, a challenge made more more complex by China’s rapid economic rise and increasing diplomatic assertiveness.

Japan offers its sporting venues to the world

c44adf44925f415ab24b53e9d75bdbddJapan wants big sporting events to boost its economy and bring it international prestige. It is hoping to learn from the UK how to gain long-term benefit from hosting international tournaments.

For the past month, England has been hosting the Rugby World Cup and has been widely praised. “We couldn’t be more pleased with how England 2015 has succeeded. We believe it has succeeded at every level,” said Brett Gosper, the managing director of Rugby World Cup Limited.

On the field, it was the Japanese performance which really impressed Mr Gosper: “Possibly the greatest story of 2015 has been the success of the Japanese team. The Japan-South Africa game, I’m sure they’ll make Hollywood films of that one day,” he said.

The Japanese victory over South Africa was probably biggest upset in rugby history and the buzz of excitement over rugby in Japan at the moment is enormous. The Japanese TV commentator was so shocked when Japan won the game in extra time that he was unable to speak for 45 seconds.

Japan is now looking forward to hosting the Rugby World Cup in 2019.

This week, I attended an excellent event in London called Presenting Japan, organised by Dentsu. Among other things, it emphasised the great opportunities for Japan associated with the Rugby World Cup and the Olympics in 2020. For example, there will be investment in signs in English, which should make it easier for foreigners to travel in Japan. There are plans to encourage more community sports participation, especially among Japan’s older people. Japanese people are also going to promote sport in developing countries.

This week the logo for the Rugby Word Cup was revealed bearing two of Japan’s most recognisable symbols, the rising sun and Mt Fuji. It has apparently been rigorously tested to ensure it is original and not a copy. The logo for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games was criticised for its similarity to something designed for a theatre in Belgium.

Japan hopes that the legacy of the Rugby World Cup and the Olympics will be beneficial, both economically and diplomatically. At the London presentation, the Tokyo 2020 Chief Operating Officer Yukhiko Nunomara looked back to the last time the Olympics was held in Tokyo, in 1964. He said that it transformed the way Japan was seen by the rest of the world following the war. He also said it was a factor in bringing about the rapid economic growth which began in the early 1960s. One example is the famous shinkansen train, which went into service at around the time of the games.

David Cameron hails the UK’s “golden era” with China

chinese-queen-jinp_3477676bThe British prime minister David Cameron said the relationship between Britain and China is entering a “golden era”. Many business deals were signed during a trip to London by the Chinese president. Should Japan be worried?

There was a warm welcome for President Xi by the Queen, Mr Cameron and Britain’s politicians and business leaders. One Chinese newspaper called it a match made in heaven because the UK wants to attract overseas investment and Chinese investors are seeking quality destinations for their funds.

The UK would like Chinese money for big transport and energy projects, such as high speed rail lines and nuclear power plants. Those are fields in which the Chinese and the Japanese compete. For example, Chinese investors have agreed to take a stake in a new nuclear plant. Japanese companies such as Hitachi, Mitsubishi and Toshiba are also keen to help build nuclear power plants in Europe. However, the Fukushima disaster has damaged Japan’s safety reputation.

Another concern for Japan will be the diplomatic impact of President Xi’s visit. China and Japan are sensitive when their rival is courted by other countries. Yet even as the red carpet was being rolled out for President Xi at Buckingham Palace, the British Parliamentary Group was holding a reception for the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry in a building beside Big Ben.

President Xi mentioned Japan briefly during his speech in the City of London. He said this year marks the 70th anniversary of the victory of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance against “Japanese Aggression and the World Anti-Fascist War”.

He praised George Hogg, a British journalist who he says exposed the “atrocities committed by Japanese aggressors” in his reports.

Mr Xi said: “The enduring friendship forged between the Chinese and British people in the flames of war is an invaluable asset of China-UK relationship.”

Such rhetoric is so often used by the Chinese it was barely noticed by the British media.

However, there were some people who expressed disquiet about the British establishment’s enthusiasm for China. One critic used the BBC’s flagship radio programme Today to voice his concerns. China expert James McGregor warned that Britain would now be seen as being “on a leash” by the Chinese leadership. Mr McGregor, who is the chairman of consultancy group APCO Worldwide’s Chinese operations, said: “This is incredible what’s going on right now, with the British Government saying ‘we want to be your best friend, we want to be your best friend, we’ll do anything for it’.

“Well, if you act like a panting puppy, the object of your attention is going to think they have got you on a leash. China does not respect people that suck up to him. I think England is going to rue the day they did this.”

The Chinese state newspaper China Daily said the business deals stemming from the visit will only be the low-hanging fruits. “This visit is more about diplomatic realism. It is too early to talk about a UK-China ‘love story’.”