The Crazy Japan Times

Laugh Down Babylon

Hiki | Tama-chan | Picking the Scab | Matsutake Madness | Takenaka Shock | Misery | Justice

It should first of all be announced that, since the rest of the world seems to be living in a Samuel Beckett adaptation of Orwell’s 1984, your humble editor is now adopting an official policy of “Presidentiary Logic” in all his relationships. As such, since none of you can prove that you won’t steal my wallet the next time I see you and, having done so, can’t prove that you won’t subsequently run up large bills on my credit card, I will be hacking into your banks and making “Preemptive Withdrawals” (get your minds out of the gutter) of amounts you can’t prove you wouldn’t take from me if you had the chance.

Also, as none of the long term sufferers can prove that they won’t look upon your humble editor with animal lust in their hearts—despite what are certain to be vehement denials arriving posthaste—I will be making preemptive slaps across your faces the next time I see you.

Don’t misunderestimate my resolve on this. There is after all much I don’t know about you all and much I will never know and I must apply a different standard of evidence as necessary to protect and further my personal interests. I can’t afford to let the smoking gun be a mushrooming cloud of debt. (More on mushrooms later.)

(Note: Although the CJT is specifically dedicated to occasionally humorous reports on the wonderful, absurd nation that is Japan, your humble editor is not opposed to slipping across the Pacific, as it were, and plucking the fruit of the Bush, so to speak. The goal is not to promote a political agenda. Rather, the goal is to poke fun at the absurd in all its shapes and forms. Those who feel this is “not appropriate” should first consider what the meaning of “is” is before passing judgment.)

Anyway, on to the task at hand. September and early October proved to be a tumultuous, painful and, arguably, historical time for Japan in its relationship with North Korea. As one pundit described it: “It’s the first time Japan has taken its own initiative on such an issue. Usually they wait to see what the United States wants them to do.” Let’s therefore begin with the most disturbing event of the past two months: the hasty marriage of Hikaru Utada and her late-thirty something video director.

People in Japan around the end of 1998 or so will remember a catchy pop tune called “Automatic” sung by the then 15 year old Hikaru Utada. Hiki, as her fans call her, stood out from the usual J-Pop crowd for one remarkable reason: she could actually sing. Add in some charisma, the ability to write catchy (albeit annoyingly repetitive) pop tunes, and a well-connected celebrity family and Hiki quickly became the best selling singer in Japanese history (at the time). In fact, her third single “First Love” outsold all Enka songs combined. (For the uninitiated, Enka is Japan’s home grown style of singing and is best described as nasal, Randy Travis style country music combined with fingernails being scraped across a blackboard.)

Despite heading off to New York City to study at Columbia U, competition from Fashion Cow, and new all-time bestseller Ayumi Hamasaki (best left unexplained), and the actually talented Misia and UA (two more women who can actually sing) Hiki has remained remarkably popular. One key to her success has been her elaborate and entertaining videos.

However, last month, right before PM Koizumi was scheduled to head off to North Korea, Hiki’s father/producer (himself a once famous Japanese singer now living in New York) announced that the now 19 year old Hiki had married her almost 40-something video director. This news was so shocking that it quickly became the number one news story in Japan. Koizumi, while preparing for the historic trip to NK was asked for his reaction. (He did a double take and said “Really? She’s so young.”) Even stodgy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda was asked for his reaction. (He raised his eyebrows a millimeter and said “Really? She’s so young.”) It took a typhoon, a lost seal and the revelations about the abductees to knock this story from the spotlight. (More on the latter two later.)

(Note: Your humble editor’s reference to Avril Lavigne is gratuitous and serves no purpose other than to express his horror at a recent viewing of AL’s “Complicated” video, which falls into what long term sufferer BW calls the “Let’s Go to the Mall and Be Bad” genre and is therefore both cliché and unforgivable.)

With the economy still wallowing near the southern end of the spectrum and a slow news month at hand, the Japanese press found itself disconcertingly close to having to, gasp, actually report on the state of the economy and measures to fix it. Fortunately, some sharp eyed fishermen noticed a white seal in one of the rivers near central Tokyo and the press found its desperately needed distraction. The seal, dubbed Tama-chan because it was first spotted in the Tama River, has become something of a folk hero and a national past time. Droves of people flocked to get a glimpse of Tama-chan. Enterprising people with digital cameras or scanners and nice printers began running off t-shirts and cups while another man dubbed his ice cream “Tama-chan Ice” to increase sales. Then, a nasty typhoon hit and Tama-chan disappeared. Concerns about “his” safety were alleviated when Tama-chan was spotted in the next river down the coast. Droves of people re-flocked to see Tama-chan and sell Tama-chan related goods. Tama-chan disappeared again, prompting even more “Is Tama-chan okay” “news” reports and then he reappeared again, in the next river down the coast. (Noticing a pattern here?) Droves of people re-re-flocked and the whole cycle began again.

The spectacle was complicated by the appearance of a second seal in yet another river. Although everyone is enjoying the view, only one person has expressed concern over the seals having to swim in the rancid waters of Tokyo’s rivers. The police, also, issued a caution to people not to yell at Tama-chan or chase him with their water bikes. After the most recent hurricane, the worst in Japan since 1958, Tama-chan has once again been spotted, alive and well.

The revelations regarding the North Korean abductees have been coming fast and furious, leaving little time for either the families or the public to digest the information. To make matters worse, the information provided as been both suspect and disturbing—-and that’s just the information provided by the Japanese Foreign Ministry, which for its part has badly bungled this from day one. Actually, it turns out they’ve bungled it since before day one. After the last CJT special bulletin, it was revealed that the FM actually knew about the abductees a few days before Koizumi’s visit but kept it quiet pending further investigation.

It was also revealed that they withheld the reported death dates from the families. (Their excuse was they didn’t have time to translate a simple one page document from Korean to Japanese despite a plethora of translators standing around.) The death dates were remarkable in that they revealed that at least two of the people died on the same day and that a few others had died within a year of being abducted of “disease and disaster.” The ministry also revealed it had spoken with all five surviving abductees and family members of some of the dead, but hadn’t bothered to videotape or record the interviews. Nor, apparently, had they bothered to prepare a list of questions to ask them or even to take notes. It sounds as if the interview amounted to:

FM Official: “Are you alive?”

Abductee:    “Yep.”

FM Official: “Jolly good that.”

As one ministry official said, “perhaps we could have prepared better.”

Also, during the meeting, the FM was apparently handed recent photographs and personal possessions, like Megumi Yokota’s clothes and badminton racket—she was coming back from practice when she was abducted—in order to help corroborate the stories. They kept these away from the families for a few days, too. All this stumbling has revealed that, not only is the FM an insular club bordering on a secret society (a claim, long term sufferers will remember, former Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka made), they actually admit to having no viable mechanism or procedure for revealing information to the public.

North Korea also revealed a woman abducted from Sado Island along with her mother 24 years ago was still alive. This was a bit of a shock to the Japanese government as the woman was not on the official list of abductees. She has recently been added to the list, however, and the police are now investigating her abduction. (Her mother, it should be noted, has not been added to the list.)

North Korea also revealed how all of the dead abductees died. Megumi Yokota, the junior high girl abducted from Niigata, apparently died of suicide in a mental hospital in 1992 while she was being treated for depression. Others died of the aforementioned “diseases and disasters.” The two who died on the same day (two months after they managed to slip a letter out to Japan) died along with members of their family from carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a faulty heater. The families, of course, have been freaking out, especially over the suicide (e.g. If I were abducted to another country, cut off from my family, friends and way of life and told I could never go home, I wouldn’t be depressed enough to commit suicide.) This, however, is probably just the denial phase of death and is both expected and forgiven. North Korea hasn’t helped matters, and only added to suspicions, by revealing that a number of the graves were conveniently washed away during floods. The grave of the girl from Niigata is being “looked for” by hospital officials. After another grave was washed away, the remains were found and re-cremated, making DNA analysis impossible.

Finally, the five surviving abductees, including the couple from Kashiwazaki, the woman from Sado, and another couple will be returning, sans families, to Japan on the 15th. The families in Japan have been upset that children, etc., have to remain behind as they are clearly hoping the five will choose to stay in Japan and they are obviously less likely to do that with their children still in North Korea. One man whose brother is returning was so angry at this he was actually willing to say no to the visit.

Your humble editor has never seen an issue bring as much pain and anger to the surface as he’s witnessed this past month. There also seems to be a clear lack of direction about how to proceed. On the one hand, Japan just raised a heavily armed North Korean spy ship they “sank” a few months ago (long term sufferers will remember) and that’s raised the paranoia level. North Korea’s explanations of the deaths and locations of the bodies are absurd. On the other hand, there’s a feeling that it would have been very easy for North Korea to make the deaths appear all neat and clean and believable. Since the bodies were cremated, a real cause of death, short of poisoning would be hard to discover, so why hide the bodies? DNA testing, as has been requested by the families, would also be difficult. The fact that North Korea’s explanations are relatively absurd and damaging to North Korea might actually make them true. Some families believe their children are still alive despite the reports, but that sounds like the denial phase too. Whatever the truth is, it’s a sad, sad story in international relations and it makes that Axis of Evil thing seem a little less absurd.

(*Said with an appropriate Sean Connery accent, ala “The Hunt for Red October.”)

The revelations regarding the abductees have thrown the ultra-right in Japan into a tizzy as they find themselves in the unenviable position of suddenly being proven right and, therefore, being suddenly without an issue. Hatred of North Korea has been one of the cornerstones of Japanese foreign policy as defined by the ultra-right. (The others being the return of four islands off Hokkaido still held by Russia; the return of a few bits of rock called islands held by China down towards Taiwan; and the divinity of the Emperor). The North Korean issue has been especially vehement given North Korean incursions into Japanese waters and the abductions. The far-right has maintained that ties with NK must not be normalized until the issue of the abductees is resolved. Now that that issue is quickly on its way to being resolved the ultra-right is grabbing at straws. Or, in this case, mushrooms.

A few days after Koizumi’s trip and the revelations about the abductees, a group of ultra-right LDP members suddenly came out and accused the Koizumi administration and the Foreign Ministry of accepting a large gift of matsutake mushrooms from North Korea. For the uninitiated, matsutake mushrooms are expensive, disturbingly penis shaped mushrooms that are a popular Japanese delicacy this time of year. Imports of the mushrooms from China have slowly begun to eat away at the market share of Japanese producers and the fight is beginning to turn nasty, with local agri-groups accusing the Chinese of putting metal filings, etc into their matsutakes.

The ultra-rightists accused the admin of accepting the gift and then of trying to cover it up. If unloading them off the plane and wheeling them uncovered into the airport in full view of dozens of cameras can be considered a cover up. Especially as the boxes had pictures of the contents on the side.

There’s already been one surprisingly angry hearing about this, and there will almost certainly be more. There is some proper concern about the size of the gift (we’re talking almost 20 cases with thousands of dollars in value here) and the appropriateness of accepting a gift from a long term enemy after they’ve revealed human rights violations and the deaths of eight of your citizens, but much of what’s being done and said is silliness. This was, after all, the first visit by a Japanese Prime Minister ever. It’s not surprising a few gifts were exchanged. As one FM official said: “I didn’t think souvenirs were worth getting this upset about.”

At long last, to some Powers What Are in the LDP, Koizumi finally shuffled his cabinet. Specifically, he bounced out the Agricultural Minister who so deftly handled the BSE outbreak and the Defense Minister who so deftly handled the creation of black lists. Unfortunately for the PWA’s, Koizumi waited until after his trip to North Korea and the subsequent bounce in his popularity (he’s back up around 55% after dipping as low as 35%). Although he made more changes than expected (six), he once again assigned positions without considering the desires of the LDP factions and, much to the horror, of many, he not only kept Financial Policy Poobah (not his real title) Takenaka, he actually gave him a second finance related position in addition. Koizumi, who may have learned something from his earlier failures, suddenly turned Takenaka loose and told him to speed up the time table for resolving the Bad Debt issue which has more or less paralyzed economic growth and the rise of new industries.

Although the head of the bank of Japan has proposed buying shares of depreciated stock directly from banks, thereby raising stock prices and boosting the banks’ capital bases while endangering the stability of the Bank of Japan and, let’s face it, the world, most people, Takenaka included, think this is a “questionable measure” (translation: really damned stupid.) Takenaka, once turned loose, fired the first salvo of the new battle when, during a lecture on the basics of capitalism, he said “No bank is too big to fail.” (Just ask Neil Bush, brother to the current president and son of the then president, about his experiences at Silverado Savings and Loan and the folks at Barings for their opinions on that statement.) Unfortunately, many in the press skipped their classes in capitalism at University and began running off that Takenaka planned (some would say “finally”) to kick a little ass at the four mega-banks formed from mergers over the last few years: Mizuho, Mitsui Sumitomo, Mitsubishi Tokyo and UFJ. This would force the banks to kick a little debt-ridden ass and lead to bankruptcies, unemployment, and, more horribly from a Japanese perspective, confusion. It would also open the way for new companies and new industries to rise because the banks would be able to issue new loans, but that’s neither here nor there. (Your humble editor, for the record, is not as glib as he sounds about this, having witnessed this very transition, and the pain it can cause, through out the late 70’s and early 80’s.)

The stock market responded with a 330+ point drop in the Nikkei (3%ish) and lots of nervous looking chain smokers gathered around ticker boards to complain about Takenaka. The line “Takenaka Shock” was apparently first delivered by a rather worn looking salaryman standing near Tokyo Station and was quickly picked up by the press. Takenaka has backtracked a little and claimed he was only warning that even the biggest companies can fall and not saying he was going to make efforts to knock them down. Either way, it was a much needed wake up call.

Seeing the treatment TEPCO got for covering up faults and its reactors and sensing that they might be next, both Chubu Electric and Tohoku Electric confessed to similar problems and similar cover-ups at a number of their nuclear power plants. Tohoku Electric admitted that it had repaired and painted over cracks in a water pipe four years ago in Miyagi and Chubu admitted covering cracks in a key coolant pipe in its plant in Hamaoka. This plant is an especially big nightmare for Chubu as 1) they voluntarily shut down a damaged reactor last year (without telling anyone apparently), 2) at least one of the reactors is shut down for inspections and 3) the remaining two reactors have recently been shut down pending further inspections and repairs. As for Kashiwazaki, the list of problems keeps growing and includes more cover-ups. It’s possible all the reactors at Kashiwazaki could be shut down within the next year. Locals want it shutdown now and have expressed outrage that TEPCO could continue running a damaged reactor.

One expert has pointed out that Japan is one major earthquake away from a major nuclear disaster, and another has pointed out that as Japan shuts down reactors, it is becoming more dependent on imported, expensive energy, which will weaken the economy even more.

Seiyu Department store in Sapporo was caught mislabeling imported beef and selling it as higher priced domestic beef. In an attempt to make amends, the store decided, in a nice gesture, to give the ill-gotten gains back to its customers. Unfortunately for the store, the payback was apparently managed by the same Brain Dead Individuals (BDIs) who thought up the scheme to steal from their customers in the first place. The money was given out at request, without any receipts being required and, apparently, without any limits. Word quickly went out via cell-phone emails to various bulletin boards and the payback line filled up with gold and red haired college kids who’ve obviously never purchased and cooked anything more than instant ramen and potato chips their entire lives. These same gold haired people started making outrageous claims upwards of 2,200 dollars (the actual maximum amount handed out to an individual) only to see the claims paid. Finally, it occurred to one Not As Brain Dead As the Other Brain Dead Individuals Individual (NABDATOBDII) that the store had paid out over three times as much as they had taken in from the initial scam. The store quickly stopped the payback, leaving dozens of individuals, many of them with actual receipts, out in the cold. A small scuffle ensued and moral indignation spread out across the land at the decrepit state of Japanese youth. After all, who could, with good conscious, steal money from a store that had 1) committed an act of fraud and 2) stolen money from its most loyal customers? Sounds like the store got its own lesson in fraud and an even better lesson in the mental capabilities of its managers.

That’s all for now. Can you prove it didn’t happen?



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Hiki | Tama-chan | Picking the Scab | Matsutake Madness | Takenaka Shock | Misery | Justice

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Created October 2002