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Special Section--The Koizumi Factor

"Rock and Roll" Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's popularity delivered several new seats to the Liberal Democratic Party in what may go down as the strangest Upper House Election in Japanese history.

First, this election marked the first use of political commercials your humble editor has seen since he's been in Japan. The best was from the Liberal Party's Ichiro Ozawa. In the commercial he is walking along a country road when he is attacked by a giant robot adorned with the words "Japan's Ancient Politics" across its chest. After being slapped around and strangled for a bit, Ozawa dives through the robot's chest and walks off dirty but triumphant. The worst was by the prime minister and featured him making various vague promises while the depressing "Forever Love" by now defunct X-Japan blares in the background. (Apologies to those unfamiliar with X-Japan. Just think of President Clinton's love affair with one of the most annoying Fleetwood Mac songs of all time and you'll get the idea.)

Second, this election marked Japan's first use of Party Leader Goods. The best featured cartoon caricatures of the Prime Minister wearing a lion suit. This is because his wild hair reminds some people of a lion's mane. The character was called "Shishiro" which is a combination of the Japanese word for lion (shishi) and Junichiro. Thousands of t-shirts, key chains, and cell-phone straps were sold raising tens of thousands of dollars for the LDP. When Hatoyama, the leader of the Democratic Party saw all the money that was being made. He had a cartoon character of himself produced. This character made him look like an alien--i.e. big eyes, small mouth--but were also remarkably popular.

Finally, this election marked a pronounced increase in the number of celebrities and TV personalities running. One minor party actually specialized in having celebrities run. The celebrities included 1) a souvenir shop owner who actually lives in Canada or Australia most of the time and only came back to Japan to run in the election. 2) A former Olympic figure skater who spent the entire eleciton on in-line skates so that people would remember who she was. 3) A pro-wrestler with about 1/100 the intellectual power and political knowledge of a cedar tree, who went around chanting "ichi, ni, san, FIRE" ("1, 2, 3, FIRE" Get it?) He is, of course, already an embarrassment to the LDP as he is being sued by the company with which he was contracted to do a commercial (MP's can't do commercial commercials) and his long time lover has come forward and revealed his claim during the election that he had no lover was in fact a bit of an exaggeration.

The other items of note were 1) The Communist Party has emerged as Koizumi's most vocal and able critics. However, it's hard to take seriously a Communist Party that has denounced socialism and 2) thanks to PM Koizumi's wavy locks, most of the other party leaders altered and poofed up their hair styles.

[*Nota Bene: Sometimes, I do hit the easy ones--DL]


During the election campaign, Koizumi promised he would visit the controversial Yasakuni Shrine here in Tokyo on August 15th (the end of WWII for those who've forgotten)in an official capacity. Yasakuni is 1) the place where Japanese soldiers prayed for an honorable death during WWII and 2) the place where 14 Class A war criminals, including Tojo, are currently interred. It is also a holy place of sorts to the LDP's ultra-rightwing backers.

Well, Koizumi kept his promise. Sort of. After alienating 1) South Korea, 2) North Korea, 3) China, 4) Taiwan and, oddly enough, 5) Singapore with his promise, Koizumi decided to visit the Shrine on August 13th instead. Also, instead of going as Prime Minister, he went as an ordinary citizen. Ordinary citizens, you see, usually travel to the shrine in a bullet proof government car flanked by three other bullet proof government cars. Ordinary citizens are also granted a private audience while other, less-ordinary citizens are held back behind ropes and screens. Ordinary citizens also issue press releases via their official spokesman and have their staff pass out Japanese flags to the less-ordinary citizens behind the ropes and screens.

Koizumi's defense of the visit/not vist, both before and after, has been remarkable bordering on the absurd. When it was clear that his decision to go was dividing not only the country but his coalition, he tossed out a defense based on Buddhist principles. (One of his coalition partners is the official party of a lay Buddhist organization called Soka Gakkai.) He explained that the Japanese believe that the dead have received a spiritual body and now reside as part of the body of Buddha. Therefore, they are no longer held responsible for the actions of their lives, unless they are reincarnated, in which case their new bodies reflect the sins of their most recent lives. His defense was eloquent but suffers from a couple of fatal flaws: 1) Japan has a constitutional separation of church and state and 2) Yasakuni is a Shinto shrine, not a Buddhist temple. His defense is a bit like defending the Taliban by citing the Book of Mormon. He also defends himself by pointing out that the most conservative elements in his own party are angry he did not go on August 15th, and he promises to explain his actions in person to each and every leader in Asia (i.e. China and Korea) when given a chance. If the other leaders can forget history as well as the Japanese leaders have, they should all get along famously.


The Yasakuni visit, it should be pointed out, was essentially the last straw for most of Asia and came at the end of a long controversy over several of Japan's new "official" textbooks. For the uninitiated, it should be pointed out that Japanese school districts can only choose to teach from a handful of texts approved by Monbusho (the Ministry of Education, Sports and Something-or-Other). Publishers and private councils produce textbooks and submit them to Monbusho every five or six years. Monbusho reviews the texts and recommends revisions and then considers them again once they've been revised. This year, Monbusho approved a history textbook written by the ultra-conservative Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform. The text waters down Japan's WWII history with a series of vagaries including a delightful reference to the Rape of Nanking. "When the Japanese Army occupied Nanking they behaved very badly and many Chinese were killed, but nothing on the scale of the Holocaust." Now, in all fairness, this is perhaps a true statement, but it's really a sin of omission. A real history book would have included specific numbers. It's interesting to note that this is the only reference to Japanese attrocities in the book.

There are also other statements offensive to Koreans and South Korea has reacted the most sharply, cancelling friendship exchanges between Japanese and Korean schools and reimposing its ban on Japanese Pop Culture despite the fact that Japan and South Korea are co-hosting the World Cup next year. (Take that Morning Musume. Take that SMAP.) That having been said, although the book has been a best seller as people buy it out of curiousity and ultra-conservatives buy it to keep it on the charts, only six school districts in all of Japan have chosen to adopt the book.


Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka continues to come under fire for her various gaffs. During the Upper House campaign she made a series of remarks about her own party that were subsequently deemed inappropriate. Most notably, she was invited to speak on behalf of a candidate in Gunma Prefecture. Tanaka had to ask the candidate her name and then complained that the LDP shouldn't run an election the way they'd been running them. (The LDP has a habit of, when and wherever possible, keeping candidates names a secret until the last minute.) When the candidate, who featured a great smile, cute figure and no brains to speak of, touched Tanaka's arm, Tanaka shook her off and said "Don't touch me. I don't know you." This was clearly a joke but it, coupled with the fact she left the rally early, was enough to earn Tanaka an official letter of reprimand, the LDP's second weakest punishment.

In a more serious, and politically stupid note, Tanaka got into a direct pissing contest with Prime Minister Koizumi over who should be replaced in her ministry. She finally found at least one person she could trust, but Koizumi wanted to replace all the top people as a symbol of his efforts to reform the government. This spat got so ugly Koizumi had to call her into his office and issue a direct order before she would agree to stop complaining.

This did not stop her from publicly asking Koizumi to reconsider his decision to visit Yasakuni Shrine on the grounds that the visit would destroy what little was left of Japan's credibility in Asia. (Japan, you will remember, is the world's 2nd biggest economy, but wields about as much international authority and respect as Liechtenstein and the Azores. This despite strenuous efforts to improve its influence.) Many feel that Tanaka's criticism of the visit was one factor in Koizumi's decision to change the date of the visit to a less politically charged day.

Finally, despite the best efforts of her own party to destroy her, Tanaka retains a 77% approval rating with the public at large. In the mean time, the Foreign Ministry has been rocked by 1) yet another discretionary fund scandal and 2) a taxi voucher scam where ministry officials convinced a taxi company to issue false bills that allowed the officials to pocket the difference between the voucher and the actual fare. Needless to say, many more heads are rolling.


Special Section II--Crime and Punishment

Takeshi Abe was the head of a Japanese commission studying the spread of AIDS back in the middle '80's. His decision to delay the introduction of heat-treated blood products from the United States has essentially made him directly responsible for the deaths of thousands of people here in Japan. (Although nothing on the scale of the Rape of Nanking, it should be noted.)

Abe, however, was recently acquitted of all the manslaughter and negligence charges against him. The Judge ruled that Abe, despite the fact that his job mandated he stay informed of the latest trends in AIDS research, could not have known, and therefore did not know, about 1) the dangers of unheated blood products and 2) the availability of heated blood products in the USA. Because he was ignorant he could not be considered culpable and was therefore innocent. Also, because he was ignorant of his job, he couldn't be found negligent. [Couldn't make that one up if I tried.--DL]

As a result of this ruling, Abe has subsequently been awarded a substantial libel settlement from a weekly tabloid magazine that called him a murderer and outlined his crimes in very specific detail. The author pointed out that Abe's commission had received a large grant from Green Cross, Japan's largest supplier of blood and blood products. Soon after receiving the grant, Abe delayed the decision to allow the import of US heat-treated blood products the judge said he couldn't have known about. Abe has frequently stated he was afraid of the safety of US blood products. (AIDS, you see, is an American thing spread by Americans not by Japanese.) This delay would, by collossal coincidence, give Green Cross the chance to develop and sell its own heat-treated blood products--after it managed to develop a heat-treatment process. We know this, as the author pointed out, because Abe actually wrote to Green Cross after about a year, telling them to hurry the hell up and develop a heat-treatment system. Hardly the act of an "ignorant" man.

Of course, none of this ever happened you see, because Abe was acquitted. Therefore, even though the article ran before Abe was acquitted, the magazine and the author are guilty of libel and must pay.


The U.S. Marine Corps added another great contribution to their already friendly relations with the Okinawan people when Sergeant Timothy Woodland was accused of raping a woman in a parking lot a few months ago. As you probably know, Woodland has refused to admit any wrong doing and the US refused, at first, to turn him over to Japanese authorities, creating lots of hand-wringing and cries to throw the bums out. (Woodland, it should be noted, is just one in a string of rapes, attempted rapes, arson and car accidents committed or caused by the US Military in Okinawa this year.) The USA pointed out that it only agreed to give due consideration to a hand over and the Japanese pointed out that, given the indirect nature of the Japanese language, such wording constitutes an explicit agreement.

The refusal to hand him over caused an interesting crisis in the Japanese press. Although the Japanese police can hold a suspect for up to 23 days without an indictment (and therefore without lawyers, etc, present) most Japanese people seem willingly ignorant of this. Because the US insisted on an indictment, saying essentially, "If you have enough evidence to charge him, why don't you charge him? What could possibly be gained by holding him without counsel?" The Japanese press suddenly found itself in the odd position of trying to explain the US's position without delving too deeply into the Japanese "Justice" system, which manages to garner a 93+% conviction rate based mainly on confessions. Matters were exacerbated when the police requested their first extension. (The usual procedure is a suspect can be held 8 days, but police can request a 7 day extension, a five day, and then a three.) The US started a small media blitz and once again the press had to explain the system without actually explaining it. Mercifully for the press, the police finally issued a formal indictment, and actually made a couple small concessions regarding his translator and his lawyer, and the whole issue has now gone away, at least outside of Okinawa.


Japan got a surprise Friday night when Inagaki Goro of the Pop group SMAP was arrested for resisting arrest and attempting to evade police. Goro, also known as "Gorosmap," "Winesmap," and "You know, that other member of SMAP, the short one with dark hair" had been illegally parked. As three police officers attempted to give him a parking ticket (probably costing him $20 or so) he ignored them, climbed into his car and attempted to drive away. A police woman jumped in his way and he hit her before he could get stopped. He's now facing a very large fine and up to five days in jail.


Special Section III--Sports

People heading to Tokyo to the World Cup next year should pay careful attention to a pair of incidents that bode ill for football fans. First, during the Confederation's Cup tournament earlier this year, Niigata city experienced delays of up to four hours for people waiting to get busses from the station to the Stadium. Niigata is not a difficult city to get around in (as compared to say Osaka or Tokyo) and the lines were filled with very patient Japanese. Imagine how patient English and German hooligans will be in the same line.

Also, and much more seriously, 11 people, including 8 children were killed trying to cross a crowded bridge to see fireworks on a beach near Kobe. The police and the organizers are playing pass the buck. What's more, there's even a split between NHK, the government's offical television mouthpiece and the other news networks. The former place blame squarely on the organizers, while the latter place the blame almost entirely on the police. What's quite clear is that there's lots of blame to go around. To wit: The organizers are guility of poor planning and therefore bad coordination with the police. They underestimated the number of people who would show up and didn't bother setting up lanes on the bridge that would allow traffic to easily flow in both directions. Although they had an alternate route to and from the beach, they didn't bother marking it with a sign. It also appears that their early claims about Japanese rowdies pushing and shoving and causing panic were a lie.

As for the police: before the event, they refused the requests of organizers to move food stalls from a piece of private beach near the bridge to a piece of public land 100 meters away. This would have moved the bulk of the crowd down the beach and people coming down the stairs wouldn't have crashed into a wall of hungry, drunk revellers. However, moving the stalls to the public beach would have required the police to provide direct security, something they did not feel like doing. Also, by their own admission, the police refused repeated requests to assist the organizers on the night of the fireworks when it was clear the situation was out of hand. When the crush happened and the police finally responded, they arrived in full riot gear and began shoving and knocking people around. Finally, they apparently didn't monitor their own security cameras which monitor the beach and would have shown the situation was out of hand.

All this without drunken football fans. You have been warned.


Not only has Ichiro (whose name, for those who don't know, translates roughly to "1st boy" or "son number one") taken US major league baseball by storm, he's also managed to almost single handedly destroy interest in Japanese professional baseball here in Japan. Ratings and revenues are down for every team, and even the universally beloved/beloathed Tokyo Yomiuri Giants are facing 9.9% TV ratings for night games. The situation is so bad that the owner of the Giants has ordered his network (Nippon TV) to lead with Japanese baseball and his newspapers and magazines (including the Daily Yomiuri) to put Ichiro stories deep inside the papers. Add in the sometimes brilliant/sometimes incompetent Shinjo, Nomo, and nearly a dozen other Japanese baseball players, and the Japanese Majors are approaching crisis.

To rub a little salt in the wound, although the recent National High School Baseball Tournament drew it's usual big ratings, it had only one superstar (a 17 year old with a 98 mile per hour fastball) and he didn't make it to the final game. He may have a pro fastball, but he's got a predictable pattern and a weak curveball. Also, Koshien Stadium (the Mecca and Medina of Japanese High School Baseball) was overrun with infidels from US Major League teams looking to pick up the cream of the Japanese crop before their arms have been blown out from over work. If any of the best players head to the USA, Japanese pro baseball will panic and we will see all kinds of new rules and regulations as this would leave only one last taboo unbroken: a Tokyo Giant breaking ranks and heading to the US majors. Could be fun to watch.

Beyond that, not much is going on. Long time sufferers, er, readers of the CJT will remember the story from 1998 relating how, just one month before the Nagano Olympics, organizers prayed for snow and how the next day all of Japan was hit with a massive snowstorm. Well, we've recently suffered through a hot, dry summer and a very short rainy seasons. Temperatures reached 100 farenheit (38 Celsius) in Tokyo, and 104 (40 celsius) down in Nagoya. Most reservoirs were down to under 50% of reserves with some as low as 30%. Almost every part of Japan was on water rations. To remedy the situation, a number of farmers in the dryest areas held a formal ceremony at a Shino shrine to pray for rain. Two days later, Japan got to enjoy 10-15 inches of rain from the slow moving Typhoon Paduk, aka, Typhoon 11. Paduk hit the Southern Island of Shikoku and then worked it's way up the coast--it's path looks like a sketch of Japan's Pacific coast--dumping a hell of a lot of rain all over the country. This is the first typhoon to hit the mainland in almost three years and the water shortage is essentially over at the cost of 8 lives and a couple dozen injured. Looks like the Shinto Gods are batting 2/2, but be careful what you wish for. Maybe your humble editor should ask them for a few thousand yen. . .

Yours always,

DL



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