Hanging the terror cult highlights Japan’s unusual view of justice

Most people in Japan appear to agree with the death penalty, especially in the case of shocking crimes.

Yet this position leaves Japan at odds with the approach of most developed countries. It also associates Japan with places where the death penalty is used frequently, including China, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan.

Cult executed

This week, Japan’s Ministry of Justice announced that the leader of the Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth) sect Shoko Asahara (real name Chizuo Matsumoto), 63, and six of his closest associates were executed by hanging in Tokyo.

The cult was infamous for its sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo Metro system in 1995, which killed 13 people and injured thousands more. The incidents profoundly shocked Japan, which has a very low crime rate.

In this particular case – Japan’s most notorious terrorist attack – there seems to have been little dismay among the general public that the cult members were put to death in prison.

Strong opinions

Some time ago, the Japan Times ran an article about the death penalty which said that a government survey taken in 2014 suggested that 80 percent of people favour capital punishment. I have often challenged the value of such surveys in the Japanese media but I know that is rare to find people who are strongly opposed to the death penalty.

Yet, outside Japan one can hear voices of concern. Immediately after the recent hangings, the German government’s human rights envoy, Baerbel Kofler, called the poison gas attack on the Tokyo’s subway a “terrible deed.”

But he but also said that ” despite the seriousness of this crime the German government stands by its principled rejection of the death penalty as an inhumane and cruel form of punishment that should be abolished worldwide.”

Germany, because of its terrible history under Adolf Hitler, is particularly strong on condemning state killing of any form. However, the death penalty is banned throughout Europe, with the exception of Belarus.

The Daily Telegraph explains that Japan is one of only 53 countries worldwide which still employs the punishment.
It quotes some disturbing information from Amnesty International about the situation in Asia. “China remained the world’s top executioner but the true extent of the use of the death penalty in China is unknown as this data is classified as a state secret.”

Amnesty says that leaving China aside, 23 countries carried out at least 993 executions last year (down on the 1,032 that took place in 2016, and the 1,634 that occurred in 2015).

Nevertheless, Japanese Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa has said that capital punishment is “unavoidable” for heinous crimes. Speaking at press conference following the executions, she said that she ordered them only after “careful consideration.”

Experimental genius Ryuichi Sakamoto draws us into his musical orbit

There have been some major concerts in London this week.

Dave Grohl’s Foo Fighters played two nights at the London Stadium and Taylor Swift brought her Reputation tour to Wembley.

But the hottest tickets in town were for two shows by a 66-year-old Japanese pianist who has devoted the past twenty years of his career to challenging, experimental works.

Sell out success

I was fortunate enough to attend both the sell-out gigs by Ryuichi Sakamoto and my admiration for him has increased thanks to his remarkably bold performances.

Sakamoto is a legendary figure in Japan, thanks to his pioneering work with the techno band Yellow Magic Orchestra in the 1970s and 1980s. He went on to write beautiful, stirring soundtracks to a number of successful films, including the Last Emperor.

He still makes soundtracks, although they are usually quite dissonant, such as his 2015 score for the French horror TV series, the Revenant.

En vogue, in mode

Sakamoto performed in London as part of a festival he curated called Mode, which presented a range of emerging and established experimental artists from Japan to perform with like-minded musicians from Europe, South America and the US. The highlight was a big show at the Barbican which featured a collaboration between Sakamoto and Alva Noto, a musician from Germany originally known as Carsten Nicolai. Sakamoto played a grand piano while his friend provided various electronic sound effects and created beats from synthesizers and drum machines.

For the first part of the concert, Sakamoto rarely touched the piano’s keyboard. Instead, he stood beside the instrument, dropping coins onto its strings or plucking them with a pair of chopsticks. At one point, he crumpled up a paper bag up for a few minutes while the audience sat mesmerised by the sound amplified through a huge speaker system, accompanied by some thrilling computer-generated visuals.

Towards the end of the show, Sakamoto did play a few chords on the piano and steered us towards melody. But there was no performance of any of the tunes he made famous with YMO or through his films.

Is it music?

The second Sakamoto show was even more experimental. It was held at an abandoned factory in East London and the opening acts were two British bands with a taste for noisy abstraction. Sakamoto collaborated on stage with David Toop, a person who says he “doesn’t like music” any more but prefers the “silence and the space between notes.”

Mr Toop also plays the paper bag and at one point the pair were loudly scrunching together. Toop also uses all kinds of other tools and instruments which produce fascinating, impressionistic sounds. To accompany him, Sakamoto spent most of the time toying with the insides of his piano and almost never touched its keys – although this time he also used a small toy piano and a red electric guitar, with which he produced some astonishing noises.

A new generation listens

It was striking to watch the audience for these shows – particularly the tiny gig in the warehouse. Many of them were young and can’t have been aware of Sakamoto’s music or reputation until fairly recently. There were a number of Japanese fans but also people from China, Taiwan and South Korea. I made friends with a visitor from Seattle who had come to London just for the festival. It was a hip, international crowd and I think everyone felt pleased to be part of something special.

What really struck me, particularly about the Barbican show, was that Ryuichi Sakamoto’s approach to music has coincided with a more mainstream appreciation of art which draws on modern classical, techno and soundtracks. This has helped fuel a rise in interest in composers such as Jon Hopkins, Nils Frahm and Max Richter.

Sakamoto’s Mode festival continues with a few more interesting events in London running until mid-July but he is not scheduled to play live again. However, if you’d like to share your enthusiasm for Japanese music, do message me or post your comments below.


Japan’s tidy fans impress at World Cup

Japan has the best football fans at the World Cup, according to a report in the British tabloid newspaper, the Sun.

It says that the Japanese football supporters stayed behind to clean up the stadium in Russia following their team’s win against Colombia.

Apparently, the well-organised supporters took bin bags to the game with them, just as Japanese fans did when their team played in the 2014 World Cup.

The Sun, which is a paper obsessed with football, reports their behaviour with admiration and surprise.
Another website, News.com.au claims “this incredible gesture from Japanese fans has embarrassed every other supporter base at the Russia 2018 World Cup.”

Tidy team-work

I am not particularly surprised by this group clean-up. Nor do I think for a moment it was designed to embarrass or shame the fans of any other nation. It’s simply part of the Japanese mindset.

School children in Japan learn to clean the classrooms and playgrounds from a young age. Adults often judge others on the basis of their cleanliness. People say that a person who follows complicated rules on recycling is a “good neighbour”.

I have observed that the Japanese are particularly strong in two related areas – teamwork and problem solving. Group cleaning, whether at a football match, or at a school or an apartment block, is a reflection of those qualities. The Japanese also like to leave a good impression abroad and this is partly motivated by their desire to create a good basis for trade. In business, their primary goal is to gain influence and wealth through trade – and thus bring security and prosperity to their homeland.

Good example

Well-managed businesses play an important role in formulating ideas and guiding the behaviour of staff and wider society. Big companies have grand ambitions. For example, Itochu, one of Japan’s largest trading houses, has a mission statement which commits it to the Global Good and pledges to maintain “the Itochu values – Vision, Integrity, Diversity, Passion and Challenge – which have not changed since we were founded over 150 years ago.”

The personality traits of the Japanese are distinctive and intriguing. They leave a strong impression everywhere they go – just as they have in Russia. I am pleased that the Japanese national team won a victory in their opening game. But I am also pleased that their supporters showed in a simple way their nation’s strong sense of group responsibility – so much so that even the tabloid newspapers sing their praises.

Cleaning up the litter in a football stadium won’t serve the world’s problems. But it does show the Japanese are energetic, well prepared and ready to get their hands dirty.

Why does PM Abe remain so patient with President Trump?

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appears closer to Donald Trump than any other foreign leader. He could even be regarded as having an “America First” policy, with the goal of convincing Mr Trump to act in the best interests of America’s ally Japan.

Yet it is a far from easy relationship. For the past week, Mr Abe has been a constant voice in Donald Trump’s ear. First, he went to Washington for talks about trade and North Korea at the White House. Then, Mr Abe attended a difficult G7 meeting in Canada, at which Mr Trump clashed with other members of the group.

Patience under pressure

The G7 leaders tried to show Mr Trump the value of collaboration on trade, apparently to no avail. A photograph of the meeting shows Mr Abe looking frustrated at a confrontation between President Trump and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Almost as soon as he returned from Canada, Mr Abe was back on the telephone to Mr Trump ahead of the Singapore summit with Kim Jong-Un of North Korea. Mr Abe said that he hopes the summit will be a major step toward peace and stability in Asia and reminded reporters that Japan, the United States and South Korea share a similar foreign policy in response to the threat from North Korea.

The China factor

Journalists from Reuters helped to put the Abe-Trump relationship into context. “In dozens of conversations, Mr Abe has counselled President Trump to avoid making concessions to North Korea that could upset East Asia’s balance of power – including a military retreat from South Korea that would leave Tokyo alone on the front lines against China’s growing power.”

Mr Abe finds common ground with Mr Trump on the challenges arising from China and North Korea. Nevertheless, they fundamentally disagree about their basic approach to trade. Mr Abe favours multilateral, international agreements but these are anathemas to the protectionist tendencies of Mr Trump.

Intense debate

Mr Abe said after the G7 meeting in Canada that there had been moments of “intense debate” during the discussion on trade and suggested that “anxiety and dissatisfaction with globalisation” sometimes leads to protectionism. “But we must not turn back the clock,” he added. “For measures that restrict trade will not be in the interests of any country.”

“Measures that restrict trade will not be in the interests of any country”-

Japanese PM Shinzo Abe

Mr Abe has lobbied President Trump for an exemption on steel and aluminum tariffs imposed by America – so far, to no avail. Like other leaders, Mr Abe must wonder if he can trust Mr Trump to hold to international agreements.

Still talking

Yet a quote from the Financial Times by the former leader of the Conservative party in Canada, Rona Ambrose, indicates why Mr Abe still values his talks with Mr Trump. “There is is nothing more important than leaders looking each other eye to eye,” she said. “Minds are changed and opinions are swayed.”


Tourism is good for the economy but is it messing up Japan’s beauty?





Japan has become the fastest growing tourist destination in the world.  While much of the media praises its success, there are also articles pointing out the problems.

The United Nations World Tourism Organisation estimates that 28.7 million overseas travellers stayed in Japan in 2017, a rise of 334 per cent since 2010. The Daily Telegraph notes that this makes Japan the 12th most visited country on the planet.  

These impressive numbers were not achieved by accident. The Japanese government under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made tourism a top priority as part of its Abenomics policy to revive the economy.

Asian arrivals

The influx of Chinese tourists is particularly striking. Last time I walked through Shinsaibashi (心斎橋) in the centre of Osaka, I seemed to hear more people speaking Chinese than Japanese. Most Chinese visitors to Japan say they are charmed by the hospitality of their polite hosts and this is good for relations between the two countries.

In fact, people from most of Asia may now enter Japan without a visa, including visitors from China, South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Tourism pollution

However, as the media points out, there are challenges associated with the increased tourism. The Telegraph says that some residents of Kyoto complain the city is so overrun they can’t use local buses or get a reservation for their favourite restaurants. The paper says that the city’s refined atmosphere known as miyabi is under threat by kankō kōgai or “tourism pollution.”

When tourists come to Japan, they want to see peaceful tea houses in ancient zen gardens. Instead, they often find swarms of tourists taking pictures of each other outside famous attractions. This can be frustrating both for them and for the local residents. In an effort to address the problem, the Japanese government will, from next year, charge overseas visitors a ¥1,000 exit tax and use the funds to boost tourist infrastructure.

Neighbour’s admiration

Japan’s approach to tourism has been praised by other countries. The Joong Ang Daily says South Korea can learn from its neighbour’s success. Last year, Japan had double the number of tourists of Korea.

The Joong Ang admires the way the Japanese government has helped regions across the country promote their local histories, products and attractions. It says by not transforming every town and city into a generic metropolis, the government has welcomed overseas tourists to destinations beyond Tokyo.

This is a big contrast to Korea, where 78 percent of foreign visitors only visit Seoul and 20 percent restrict their travels to Jeju Island.

I hope that next time I go to South Korea, I will be able to learn more about the country by heading out into the countryside and visiting small towns. My friends assure me that there is much hidden beauty in South Korea, just as there is in Japan.

The Trump-Kim summit carries many risks for Japan

In the classic British children’s story Alice Through The Looking Glass, the Red Queen tells Alice: “Sometimes I believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

I was reminded of those words when I met a South Korean diplomat recently who told me: “We would like to see the promise of peace emerging from something seemingly impossible.”

He was talking of the much anticipated summit between America’s President Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un.

A year ago, it would have seemed impossible to imagine such an event taking place. Then, after Mr Trump said he would cancel the summit, it would have been impossible to still expect it go ahead in Singapore in June. Now there are signs that it will indeed happen.

Trust issues

Diplomats thrive on a calm optimism; it is their job to keep hope alive. They can take inspiration from history, which shows us that during most seemingly intractable disputes, the promise of a resolution looks far off when the peace talks start. Nevertheless, conflicts are sometimes resolved in unexpected ways. So in diplomatic circles across Asia, one can still hear prayers of hope being muttered that a sustainable peace on the Korean peninsula can finally be achieved.

Japan’s support

The Japanese government is backing the idea of talks between Mr Trump and Mr Kim. It is not particularly enthusiastic about the summit in Singapore but will do nothing to prevent it. Japan’s Ambassador to London, Koji Tsuruoka, wishes the meeting success but says that holding the summit is not, in itself, a goal. “The goal that the world is expecting is complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearisation of North Korea,” he said.

“We’ve always been consistent in asking North Korea to comply with all the United Nations security council resolutions, which were unanimously adopted and represent the will of the people of the world. What we are now looking for is action which will bring us towards peace and stability,” said Ambassador Tsuruoka.

“We are looking for is action which will bring us towards peace and stability” Ambassador Koji Tsuruoka

Reading Trump

Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has been in regular touch with Mr Trump but cannot completely trust his ally. His concern is that Donald Trump could become so focussed on his America First agenda that he will compromise on protection of its allies in Asia.

If the meeting goes ahead, Kim Jong-Un is likely to say that any offer to scale back his nuclear programme should be balanced by a reduction of the American military presence in South Korea and Japan. Would Mr Trump offer concessions on that point if he felt he could extract a deal which would protect US cities from missile attacks?

Tokyo under threat

In Japan, Mr Kim remains a sinister figure who has threatened to obliterate Tokyo. Mr Abe has called the prospect of a nuclear-capable North Korea “absolutely unacceptable” and has said that the security situation is the severest since the Second World War.

Japan has the bitter memory of having been the only country to have suffered devastating atomic attacks. To put things in perspective, the Hiroshima bomb was 15 kilotons. Last year, the size of North Korea’s nuclear test was more than ten times that at 160 kilotons. With the prevention of another catastrophe uppermost in his mind, Shinzo Abe has ordered a review of Japan’s defence capabilities and advocates constitutional reform to strengthen the military’s role.

A clear agenda

Mr Abe also wants Mr Trump to use America’s enormous military advantage to press North Korea into line and he wants clarity on what a peace deal and denuclearisation actually mean in a Korean context.

For the talks to succeed, they require carefully preparation, which is why a delay would be no bad thing from Japan’s perspective. As things stand, a lack of trust all round puts the summit in the high risk category. But for those with sufficient faith, nothing is impossible.

Now Abe prepares to battle Trump over steel

Japan is preparing to take legal action at the World Trade Organisation against its ally and key trade partner, the United States.

The move is in response to Donald Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on Japanese steel imports into America. The US is the number one destination for Japanese exports and Japan sends around $2 billion worth of steel to America annually.

In March, the Trump administration applied a 25% tariff on imported steel and 10% on imported aluminum. Shinzo Abe personally asked Mr Trump to
relax the tariffs when he visited him in Florida recently but he refused to give way.


As a result, Japan is now formally threatening retaliation. It is reserving the right under WTO rules to impose retaliatory tariffs of more than $400 million on American goods imported into Japan. But as the Wall Street Journal notes, the filing at the WTO doesn’t say whether Japan has actually decided to do so.

The newspaper also reminds its leaders that Japan has filed cases against the US at the WTO eight times and three involved steel trade.
China’s battle

The Guardian says that Japan has been caught up in a trade war between the US and China. Earlier this year, Donald Trump threatened $150 billion in tariffs and penalties on Chinese imports – including imports of aluminum and steel. Japan, Canada and the EU – which also import steel into America – faced similar penalties.

China told the WTO that it would retaliate but there was also an attempt to reconcile the dispute through talks when China’s Vice Premier Liu He visited Washington last week.

He spoke of China’s willingness to “appropriately handle and resolve trade issues felt by both sides on a basis of mutual benefit.”

Mr Trump sent a Tweet which seemed to suggest the meeting would do little to end the trade war. “Will that be successful? I tend to doubt it. The reason I doubt it is because China’s become very spoiled.”

“China has become very spoiled” Donald Trump

Split allegiance

The dispute over steel has left Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the awkward position of siding with China against the US. From China’s point of view, a weaker US-Japan alliance would be a welcome development in terms of economics. It could also lead to tension between the US and Japan on other sensitive issues such as security and defence.

The US and Japan also differ on what basis they should agree a trade deal. Donald Trump would like to sign a bilateral deal with Japan but Mr Abe has said Japan prefers a broad trade pact involving eleven countries, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP.

Japan’s parliament ratified the TPP last week, even though Mr Trump withdrew the United States from the deal during his first week in office. The New York Times says Mr Abe is still hoping Mr Trump can be persuaded to change his mind.

#MeToo Japan challenges old gender assumptions

A politician from Japan’s ruling party has been accused of sexism after he said women should have more children.

Kanji Kato suggested young women should have at least three children because childless women have become a burden on the state.

His comments were made at a meeting of the LDP, the ruling political party to which the prime minister belongs. They have been picked up by the national newspaper Asahi Shimbun and the international press.

I have found versions of the story translated online into Russian, French and Czech. His comments were also widely shared on social media.
Wedding speech

The English language version of the Asahi provides some context for the remarks. The paper tells its readers that Mr Kato is 72 and has six children of his own. His comments on childbirth were made at a meeting of the Hosoda faction of the Liberal Democratic Party.

“I always tell brides and grooms at wedding parties that I would like them to have three or more children,” he is reported as saying. “We need three or more children from those people to make up for couples who cannot bear a child no matter what they do.”

He also implied that it would be unfair if women with no children were cared for at nursing homes funded by other people’s taxes.

After the meeting, reporters asked Kato if he intended to amend or retract his “advice” to women. Apparently, Mr Kato was unapologetic. “Improving the birthrate is the most important issue facing our nation. That is all,” he said.

“Improving the birthrate is the most important issue facing our nation” Kanji Kato, LDP Politician

Sensitive issue

The birthrate of Japan is an issue that many people have strong feelings about. The BBC reports that last year, the percentage of children in Japan fell to its lowest level since records began more than 100 years ago.

Another issue which affects the debate is that women in Japan are typically more educated than their male counterparts but they are still faced with traditional expectations of motherhood.

For that reason, the media tends to report women’s cries of protest when they are lectured by elderly men on their family choices.
Ongoing battle

The Japan Times says Mr Kato’s remarks are among a number of apparently insensitive comments made by male politicians recently.

There have also been several sexual harassment scandals involving public figures in Japan this year and the #MeToo movement has galvanised women to challenge harassment and discrimination.

Earlier this month after a top-ranking Finance Ministry official was accused by a female reporter of sexual harassment asking her “Can I kiss you?” and “Can I hug you?” and “Can I touch your breasts?” during an interview.

This was one of the issue on the minds of 300 protesters who descended outside Tokyo’s busy Shinjuku station recently for a protest rally.

PRI’s reporter Thisanka Siripala spoke to one of the women who took part who said she joined the movement after seeing women in other countries speaking up. “The power of social media has inspired Japanese women to raise our voices and express that we’re not prepared to tolerate this,” she said.

North Korea tops the agenda at Tokyo’s Trilateral Summit








Prime Minister Shinzo Abe showed his skill as a diplomat by giving a cake to the South Korean President Moon Jae-in when he visited Tokyo this week.

The cake was to celebrate the first anniversary since Mr Moon took office last year.

The Chinese premier Li Keqiang also attended the trilateral summit. It was first time leaders of the three countries have met as a group since 2015.  

He invited Mr Abe to visit China later this year and Mr Abe willingly accepted the offer – although he must still overcome some serious political problems at home if he’s to stay in office.

The Diplomat points out that the summit came as Mr Abe remains besieged domestically by scandals, so hosting the other Asian leaders was an opportunity for him to present himself as a leader with regional influence and that could boost his public approval ratings.

Korean discussion

The issue of North Korea dominated media coverage of the trilateral summit.

China, Japan and South Korea all agreed to work together to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

Mr Abe reiterated Japan’s position that it would normalize ties with North Korea only if the latter took concrete steps toward abandoning its nuclear and missile programs and also resolved the issue of Japanese abducted by North Korean agents.

For Mr Abe, words alone are not enough: he wants proof the whole weapons programme is being shut down. Japan has therefore offered to pay 300 million yen ($2.75 million) to cover the cost of an inspection of North Korean nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The two Koreas

Korea’s president Moon met the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, which was held two weeks ago Panmunjom.

Korea’s KBS says the trilateral summit in Tokyo was a good opportunity for Mr Moon to gather support for the Panmunjom declaration. It says close cooperation between the three Asian countries is indispensable to achieve the common goals of peace and denuclearisation.

China has applied pressure on North Korea through sanctions and clearly wishes to be closely involved in the next stage of the process. Kim Jong-Un made two surprise trips to China, where he met President Xi.

The Trump card

This is the point at which the United States takes centre stage. Donald Trump is preparing for talks with Mr Kim, probably in Singapore in June. Before then, Mr Moon will hold a meeting with Mr Trump in Washington on May 22nd at which the two leaders plan to have close consultations on North Korea issues.


The Talent Trap

In the West, the word talent has become a popular way to refer to staff. There are many guides for managers on how to recruit and retain talent. When the labour market is competitive, companies often complain of “a talent shortage.” This strikes me as a rather grand phrase to use for all the humble workers within an organisation. Are they all really blessed with special abilities?

In Japan, the English word talent is used very differently. A person who is a talento is normally a television celebrity who is famous primarily for being famous. They might have been a model or a comedian originally – now they are just a talking head on the box. So, to be called a talento is to be damned with faint praise.

Finger Dance

One talented group I have enjoyed watching though are called XTRAP (pictured above) and you can see their amazing finger dance on YouTube. It made them famous but I am not sure if it brought them great riches. However, if you want a top job in a prestigious company, you don’t want to be seen as talento, even if you can finger dance. Japanese companies prefer to describe the people who work for them as “associates”.

Humble pay

Traditionally in Japan, a rather modest approach has been reflected in people’s salaries. On the whole, people accept lower pay than they do in other countries in exchange for secure employment. There is also a smaller pay gap between top executives and ordinary workers than there is the United States. In fact on average, CEOs in Japan are paid about one tenth of the American counterparts

More money

But there is one area where salaries are soaring and that is for IT professionals, with particularly high pay on offer to top software engineers. Bloomberg reports that Start Today Co which operates a popular online fashion shopping site called Zozotown is seeking seven “genius” tech experts to work in Tokyo and is offering annual salaries of as much as 100 million yen ($944,000). It is looking for workers in fields ranging from artificial intelligence to cryptography and robotics, according to a blog post.

This is an unusual type of business, where a small number of people with particularly special skills can find well paid work anywhere in the world. This means Japanese companies feel they need to pay salaries which look competitive in comparison to China and the U.S.

But for those without those rare skills, there’s still some good news. The Nikkei reports that Japanese workers are headed for their biggest wage increase in two decades. It says businesses lifted wages by an average of 2.4% this year, and it is apparently companies in the logistics and retail sectors which have been most generous in their increases.

So if you notice an extra bright smile next time you walk into a Japanese shop, perhaps it’s because the assistant has become a little richer thanks to her hard work and commitment.