Two months ago, Japan sent Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) troops to Iraq in Japan's largest military operation since World War II.
Since then, the country has been holding its collective breath as the situation has rapidly deteriorated and the GSDF members have yet to move into their private fort in Samawah in Southern Iraq. The fort itself, when completed, will be a marvel of modern technology, security and convenience. The government's goal is to make the fort so attractive and fun that no member of the GSDF will either want or have to leave it for any reason. As such, the fort will contain a Japanese style spa bath, a karaoke bar, satellite communications and tv and several female members of the GSDF (wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more).
Until then, in a colossal historical irony, the GSDF are currently depending on Dutch troops for their safety. (The Dutch having apparently put aside the treatment their grandparents got at the hands of the Japanese in the Dutch East Indies and Dutch Borneo during World War II.)
There are also rumors that the Japanese government has paid upwards of 10+ million dollars to local leaders to buy the safety of the GSDF in Samawah. Although Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has said that he will not run for another term and the LDP is preparing for the “Post-Koizumi Era,” Koizumi wants to serve out his full term. If members of the GSDF are killed or taken prisoner, the general consensus is that Koizumi is out. Everyone had therefore been pleased that nothing much had happened until:
Two weeks ago, news reports flooded the airwaves with word that three Japanese civilians (two NGO workers and a journalist) had been taken hostage in Iraq by a group called “Something Tough-Sounding in Arabic” (not its real name). The kidnappers were demanding that Japan withdraw the GSDF from Iraq in three days or the hostages would be burned alive.
Japan as a whole pretty much freaked out, especially when footage of the the three being held at knife and gun point and being forced to yell “Allah Akhbar” and “Down with Koizumi” surfaced. The government scrambled to end the situation and started negotiations with a mediator named Abdel Salem al-Kubaissi of the Islamic Cleric's Association and a shady character named Mazhar al-Delemi, who claimed to be from a human rights group.
The families of the victims called for Japan to do whatever was necessary to bring back their loved ones, even if it meant pulling the GSDF out of Iraq. This, however, was reported as “Families call for GSDF withdrawal” and the government quickly and quietly declared open season on the families who began receiving threatening calls and letters.
The Koizumi Administration for its part was angry because it wanted as little attention as possible drawn to the fact that the only reason the three were in danger in the first place was because Japan had sent the GSDF. Until then, Japanese working for NGO's had been welcomed openly all over Iraq. The Foreign Ministry for its part was mad that 1) the families were attempting to interfere in “their” work and that 2) the three hostages had ignored the FM's sensible advisories against travel to Iraq. (In Japanese “You should be careful if you go to Iraq” translates as “Don't go to Iraq. Ever.”) When two more journalists were taken hostage, the government quickly urged all journalists to pull out of Iraq and even provided chartered aircraft for them to do so. Most of them did return, and the largest military operation by Japan since WWII is now receiving almost no press coverage.
Eventually the families “reversed” their “call” for a withdrawal and everything seemed to be fine, especially when the three hostages were finally released. (Followed quickly by the two journalists.) Unfortunately, one of the hostages said he intended to return to Iraq as soon as possible. This prompted some of the most hateful comments your humble editor's ever heard by a politician who wasn't either a Texas Republican or a Dixiecrat. Seated members of the diet began to call for the returnees to pay for their flight home along with other expenses accrued because of their abduction. (It is rumored, although the government denies it, that Japan payed a hell of a lot to secure the release of the three.) The press began quoting people who described the three as “reckless” and “selfish” or who chastised them for “causing trouble.” Local governments began charging the families for office space that had been provided free of charge at the beginning of the crisis.
By the time the three got back to Japan, they were dreading their return more than their kidnapping. They were greeted at the airport by people both welcoming them home and by people carrying signs saying “You Got What You Deserved”. The three are now in seclusion and the press are staying miles away from them.
The message the government is sending is, of course, very clear: Don't go to Iraq. We can't afford something bad to happen to you. Pay no attention to those men in the fort.
Sales tax has been in the news a lot the last couple months. As of April 1, all Japanese prices must be listed with the five percent sales tax included.
This has caused immense problems already as many retailers are actually cutting prices to keep them at the most psychologically effective level. Uniqlo, a popular discount clothing chain many long term sufferers may have actually visited, is cutting prices in order to keep products at or around the 1900 or 2900 yen level. Management feels that if prices are listed as 3045 rather than 2900, for example, that sales will fall. Some stores are even listing the price with tax as 2990. The result is a net loss of tax revenue for the government and another contribution to the alleged deflation the government has been fighting for the past few years.
To make matters worse, products priced at 150 yen should technically be listed as 157.5 yen. Stores have to round up, according to the government, when they list the price but can't overcharge the customers if they buy in bulk. For example, the price on the item may be 158, but if you by 10 of them you will only be charged 1575 yen. If you buy 10 from 10 different stores, however, you will pay 1580 yen. (This may, in fact, be a step up as Japan is one of the only places in the world where buying in bulk not only doesn't get you a discount but can, in a few cases, end up costing you more.)
What makes all this inexplicable is that, although many countries use a similar system, in Japan there's been very little call for prices to be listed with tax. It's not as if hundreds of little old ladies have been caught by surprise at the register when they discovered they had to pay more. (In fact, the biggest complaints are about the fact that there's a sales tax at all.)
The general conspiratorial consensus is that, because the government is gearing up to raise the sales tax—the numbers being thrown around are between 7 and 17 percent—listing prices with tax included now better disguises the effects of the eventual increases.
The rapidly declining birthrate coupled with the longevity provided by Japan's healthy diet are forcing the national pension plan increasingly into the public's view. It's clear that the government is going to have to raise premiums, cut the payouts and push back the age of eligibility. (Currently, there is a five year or so lag between mandatory retirement age and the first pension payment.)
First, however, the government is also going all out to get people to pay their premiums. The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry launched a nationwide “Pay Your Premiums” campaign to remind people that they have to pay each month. Unlike the USA, where Social Security is, by law, automatically withdrawn by your employer, in Japan you are responsible for paying even if your employer doesn't withdraw the money. The spokeswoman was Tough Looking Leggy Supermodel Makiko Esumi whom some long term sufferers will remember as the lead actress in the weekly drama “Shomuni”.
Unfortunately, a quick study of Esumi's financial records showed she hadn't been paying her premiums. Although her failure to pay was the result of both her and her agent misunderstanding the system, much bowing and apologizing ensued and much outrage was vented. Then, as this was unfolding, a report came out slamming the Pension Fund's managers for wasting pension money on, to be kind, utter crap real estate investments. Along with more than 30 money losing apartment complexes were a dozen or more large resorts, complete with tennis courts, golf courses, hiking trails and spas. The resorts are all named some variation of Green Pier and all feature a remarkable lack of tourists. Several billion dollars was spent acquiring all this land and building the resorts and tens of millions of dollars are required each year to keep each of them open.
This, of course, made people think twice about paying their premiums but the government managed to ride out the ensuing storm and damaging news stories until just yesterday, when it was announced that three cabinet level ministers and directors were in serious arrears on their pension payments.
The guilty parties included 1) Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications Minister Taro Aso, whom long term sufferers will remember as the Koizumi rival who encouraged people to invest in countries with lots of rich Jews. He hasn't payed in almost four years and owes about 6,000 dollars. 2) Defense Agency Director Shigeru Ishiba who hasn't payed in a year and a half and owes 2000 dollars. and 3) Our winner by knockout, Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Shoichi Nakagawa who hasn't payed in about 21 years and owes tens of thousands of dollars.
To complicate matters, for reasons understood only by bureaucrats, it is only possible for a person in arrears to pay two years' worth of back premiums. Nakagawa, therefore, makes out like a bandit, especially once he starts receiving his Diet pension and “Descends From Heaven” into a cushy position with a government contractor.
Prime Minister Koizumi, however was unphased, saying it was no big deal because they weren't deliberately not paying, they were merely forgetting to pay.
Your humble editor's going to keep that in mind next tax season.
Sports in Japan have been rocked by a series of scandals and What The ?s for the past couple months. Two of the scandals prove that skill, however great, is meaningless when you're butting heads with mid-level bureaucrats attempting to become upper mid-level bureaucrats. The other scandal proves that skill is meaningless when you're a bunch of drunken jackasses.
First, defending Olympic marathon champion Naoko Takahashi was denied a place on Japan's 2004 marathon team despite six consecutive marathon wins and having briefly held the world record. Unfortunately for her, Japan chooses its Olympic team based on the results of only four races held in Japan. Although Takahashi finished second in the first of these four races—the winner was not from Japan—her time was way off her usual pace, partly as the result of terribly windy conditions. The selection committee was then surprised and angered that she didn't run in the fourth race, especially after they strongly encouraged her to run. (Translation: Run. Or else.) They, therefore, chose a relative new comer to round out the three member team.
In defense of the committee, Takahashi did have the slowest time of the top four contenders, and being Japanese she should know better than to challenge a Japanese committee. On the other hand, she is still one of the best runners in the world and is famous for being unintimidated by either the spotlight or the competition. Expect Japan to lose out on a medal this year in women's marathon.
Second, the fate of Taekwondo master Yoriko Okamoto, who got a bronze in Sydney, is also tenuous as, since the last Olympics, internal fighting in the Japan Taekwondo Association led to a schism and the formation of the rival Japan Taekwondo Federation. Because there are two organizations of substantial size claiming to be the official representatives of TKD in Japan, the Japan Olympic Committee has no choice but to refrain from making a choice until the two groups can agree on a unified list of competitors. A similar rift between rival international groups has kept karate out of the Olympics.
In the case of Karate, however, the argument is over rules and the fundamental nature of the sport, in the case of Japan's two TKD groups, it's merely a battle between personalities. One man has the power; the other man wants it. The smaller JTF is essentially holding the sport hostage until its leader gets what he wants, which is the leadership of the JTA. As a result, Japan's TKD masters have been forced to miss several international competitions and it looked as if Okamoto was set to miss the Olympics until the JOC dusted off a technicality that allows countries with out official organizations in a certain sport to send individual athletes to the Olympics. If, for example, Albania had a world class TKD expert but no TKD association they could use this rule to send the one athlete. The International Olympic Committee seems satisfied with this and it looks like Okamoto is on her way to Athens.
Finally, Zico, the head coach of Japan's national soccer team, created a mini-scandal when he bounced eight players off the team, including one of the team's best strikers, for being drunk and disorderly jerks at one of their preparation camps. The suspension affected mostly the under-23 players trying to qualify for the Olympics and was done ahead of a match with the very unintimidating Singapore, but the point was well made. Brazillians may seem laid back, but they're very serious when it comes to soccer.
For the record, now that it's do or die time, at least two of the suspended players, including the aforementioned striker, are back on the team.
One of the oddest things about living in Japan is that over-the-counter drugs are only slightly more accessible than prescription drugs. Whereas in the west we can run into pretty much any convenience store and grab a bottle of aspirin or ibuprofen as needed, in Japan such items can only be bought from a licensed pharmacy.
This state of things is the result of much lobbying and many sweetheart deals between the pharmacists and the government. Recently, however, there have been several moves to open up the marketplace. With most of the pressure being applied from the pharmaceutical companies themselves.
The first moves actually began several years ago when convenience stores were authorised to begin selling Japan's ubiquitous power drinks. These vitamin and caffeine filled potions provide a much needed burst of energy and are, for the most part, a fortified soft drink, but were treated as a medicine and were only available in pharmacies. Opening up the marketplace made the drinks available 24 hours a day and increased sales dramatically.
The second step has been fought long and hard and is much smaller than many had hoped, but it was taken recently when convenience stores were authorised to begin selling balms, lotions and other non-internal medicines. The pharmacists managed to keep non-prescription medications out of the stores by arguing that people are stupid and if we, the pharmacists aren't there to guide them, they will make stupid choices. And when people make stupid choices, PEOPLE DIE. (Something like that.) Of course, the dirty little secret is that if you ask Japanese pharmacists for advice they will always recommend medications from the same major company. (Whose name, for the record, beings with “T”.) By collossal coincidence, Company “T” also offers pharmacists the largest discount and therefore a largest profit margin. Health, therefore, is not really an issue.
Still, it's a step in the right direction. A company called Don Quixote has begun pushing the limits of the law even further by offering videophone consultations with a pharmacist. This is a loophole that allows them to sell over-the-counter medications. If people need a pharmacist, they argue, one is available. If they don't, well at least the drugs are available.
Rumor has it that the recent outbreak of Avian Influenza may have actually been spread by the Japanese press. It seems the Powers What Are neglected to seal off the first infected farm and instead allowed reporters to traipse hither and thither. Many of them then ran to other poultry farms to interview other farmers about how afraid they were of Avian Influenza. It reached the point where area farmers would refuse to give interviews to a reporter unless the reporter was coming in from Tokyo.
Japan recently set up a hotline to allow people to report foreigners who've overstayed their visas. (A very serious crime in Japan listed along side rape and murder in the official statistics.) What's not clear, however, is what foreigners who've overstayed their visas actually look like so that they can be reported. Ironically, despite growing fears of terrorism—the Spanish train attack has prompted Japan to pull all trashbins from its train stations—there is no hotline citizens can call to report people walking around with explosives.
Mongolian Yokozuna Asashoryu has now gone undefeated in two consecutive basho and is looking unbeatable. The last basho was, by the far, the best in over three years. Everyone was healthy at the start and stayed healthy. Four days left, four people undefeated. Everything decided on the last day. There is hope for the world.
Well, maybe not. Mike Tyson will be appearing in his first K1 match sometime on or around July 29th. Not in Japan, thank goodness, as his felony conviction keeps him from getting a visa.