The pension payment scandal, which Long Term Sufferer's of this venal institution will remember from the last issue, turned into a blood letting that brought down several key members of the two key parties.
The scandal first broke when it was revealed that “Pay Your Darned Pension Payments” Spokeswoman Makiko Esumi had in fact failed to pay her darned pension payments. At the time, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda had chuckled haughtily and said “How could they hire such a person?”
Of course, it turned out that seven of the eighteen cabinet ministers had also failed to pay, as had PM Koizumi. Naoto Kan, the charming and popular leader of the Democratic Party, made a lot of noise about this, even coining the phrase “the three non-paying stooges” when the first names were revealed. He kept up the public pressure until it was revealed that he himself was also in arrears. He bowed and apologized a great deal until it was revealed that Fukuda had also failed to pay. Fukuda responded by quickly resigning his position. This put immense pressure on Kan to resign, which he eventually did. (What's funny about all this is that, in both Kan's and Koizumi's cases, most of the payments they failed to make were, in fact, optional.)
This led to an odd and embarrassing display for the DPJ when it quickly became clear that no one else in the party wanted Kan's job. Every senior leader refused to seek the job and the only man willing to take it stated he was only an interim leader. The DPJ eventually settled on Katsuya Okada, a 51 year old former Ministry of Trade employee. Okada is not only young and inexperienced by Japanese political standards, he looks like he's still in his 20's.
The LDP was, therefore, practically gloating. To make matters worse for the DPJ, PM Koizumi made a surprising and hurried trip to North Korea and returned with the family members of four of the five returnees. (Hitomi Soga's family, for reasons to be explored later, were unable to come to Japan at the time.)
The DPJ seemed to be on the ropes and the dream of a two-party political system in jeapordy until the LDP passed a pension “reform” bill that set off a scatalogical storm. For the unitiated it should be understood that, in Japan, reform often happens without change. The ministries are powerful and are not afraid to destroy politicians or ordinary citizens when threatened. In fact, although it's not been talked about, it's clear that the information on who had and had not paid their pensions came from inside the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare itself as part of an effort to stymie any real reform. Instead, the LDP pushed through a “reform plan” that merely raised premiums and lowered benefits without addressing any real structural changes.
Suddenly, the LDP was being villified and Koizumi's approval ratings dropped remarkably. Add to this the public's negative reaction to sending troops to Iraq and attempts to reform the “pacifist” Article 9 of the Japanese constitution and other leaders in Asia were calling Koizumi a lame-duck leader.
Koizumi quickly arranged to have Hitomi Soga's family, including alleged Army deserter Charles Jenkins, flown out of North Korea and into Indonesia (which has no extradition treaty with the USA.) This was just in time for an upper house election.
Unfortunately for Koizumi, the problems outweighed the stunts and the LDP lost one seat in the upper house while the DPj gained over a dozen. The LDP and its coalition is still overwhelmingly in control of the upper house but the loss was both symbolic and damaging.
Now, Okada is gloating and the LDP is madly scrambling to find someone to replace Koizumi, who has said he will step down before the next election in three years.
A couple months ago, Prime Minister Koizumi surprised Japan with the announcement that he was returning to Pyongyang for a short summit with Kim-Jong Il. The reasons behind the meeting were kept secret but the entire island took note when Foreign Ministry officials hurried around giving special, personal debriefings to the five returnees from North Korea. Although nothing was said publicly after the debriefings, the entire island also noticed when the Chimuras quickly moved out of their small house and into a bigger house.
Koizumi flew off to North Korea with much fanfare and hype and returned with, well, nothing much, except promises from the North to 1) allow the families of the five returnees to emigrate to Japan and 2) to search harder for more evidence regarding the fates of the other abductees, including Hitomi Soga's mother, who is still not on Japan's official list of abductees even though she was abducted at the same time as her daughter.
The Association of Families of Abductees were highly critical at first and declared they wanted the promised food aid to be stopped until North Korea gave more information. The Foreign Ministry and Koizumi's office, however, hit them with a negative press campaign reminiscent of the one launched against the three Iraqi abductees, whom long term sufferers will remember from the last issue. (At one point those three were called “anti-Japanese elements.”) The Association, not wanting to waste its political capital, quickly backed down and thanked Koizumi for his efforts.
About a week or so later, a chartered jet flew into North Korea while the five returnees rushed to a hotel in Tokyo. A few hours later, it was announced that the children of the Hasuikes and the Chimuras would be leaving for Japan. Hitomi Soga's family, however, would remain behind. Soga's husband Charles Jenkins, an alleged Army deserter, refused to go, fearing his arrest once he set foot on Japanese soil. His children opted to remain with him.
When the Hasuike's and Chimura's children arrived, there were tearful reunions and an even more tearful speech from Hitomi Soga about how she wouldn't give up hope, even after two years apart from her family.
There then ensued a great deal of flying hither and thither by various Japanese diplomats as they searched for a suitable and safe place for Jenkins and his children to be reuinited with Soga. The third country had to meet three criteria: 1) it could not be China, which might be tempted to allow North Korea to take Soga, 2) it could not have an extradition treaty with the USA and 3) it had to be served by a non-stop direct flight from North Korea so that US officials couldn't arrest Jenkins in an airport.
Finally, Indonesia agreed to host the reunion and Soga's family was flown on a chartered jet out of North Korea to Jakarta where they were quickly hidden away in a Japanese owned hotel frequently patronized by Japanese tourists.
There then ensued a second round of flying hither and thither by various Japanese diplomats as Japan negotiated with the USA for permission to bring Jenkins to Japan. The USA conceded nothing and maintained the stance that Jenkins must be arrested and put on trial and that it would, per the extradition treaty and the Status of Forces Agreement, insist that Jenkins be turned over immediately if he arrived in Japan.
Even under the best of circumstances it's unlikely that the US military would allow Jenkins to go free without first questioning and prosecuting him; during a war, it's almost impossible to conceive it would do so. The symbolism of being willing to chase someone until they die is too powerful to current and future troops. (Your humble editor has had to explain that one a great deal to a great many people.) Jenkins, by the way, is currently charged with six counts: Desertion; Aiding and Abetting the Enemy; two counts of encouraging others to desert; and two counts of encouraging disloyalty. (Four days after he disappeared from the DMZ, Jenkins voice was heard making “life is wonderful here, come on over” broadcasts from North Korea.)
Eventually, it was announced that the 64 year old Jenkins, who had been seen casually smoking cigarettes with Japanese and North Korean officials and who had seemed to have little trouble walking up and down stairs in Pyongyang, was seriously ill and had to be flown to Japan immediately for surgery. US officials were clearly skeptical (as is your humble editor) but said they would allow Jenkins to undergo treatment. They also said they would be watching the situation carefully.
Jenkins, Soga and family arrived in Japan a few days later—Jenkins was now walking with a stoop and a cane—and were quickly wisked off to an undisclosed hospital in Tokyo (which everyone knows).
As if the situation were not complex enough, Japan then announced it had arrested Chess Master and International Fugitive Bobby Fischer, who has been on a wanted list ever since he 1) played a sanction breaking chess match with Boris Spassky in Yugoslavia and 2) insulted President Bush the Elder while spitting on a copy of the sanction. Japan said it would be more than happy to extradite Fischer and began procedures to do so. In many ways this is a brilliant move: the Japanese can show they still abide by extradition laws except in special circumstances, and President Bush the Lesser will have a chance to get some payback at the man who insulted Daddy. Everybody will be happy, except Fischer of course, who continues to blame the International Jewish Conspiracy for his problems.
Jenkins is now meeting with an approved military attorney. One suggestion is that he would be able to offer up, in exchange for no jail time, information on four other missing servicemen alleged to have deserted to North Korea. One Japanese pundit has suggested that it's in Jenkins best interest to turn himself in and face trial as he figures the military will trade information about North Korea for a dishonorable discharge and no jail time. This sounds plausible. There are, however, two possible complicating factors: 1) Jenkins lied about his age to join the Army at age 15 and 2) The USS Pueblo.
One of the more frequently cited rumors here in Japan and on the internet is that Charles Jenkins assisted in the interrogations of the crewmembers of the USS Pueblo after the ship was captured by North Korea in 1968. The rumor states that USS Pueblo survivors claim to have seen Jenkins, whom they dubbed “Jug-Ears,” and that he acted as translator for the North Koreans during interrogations. If true, Jenkins is facing more than a desertion charge: he's facing treason charges and a possible death penalty.
I was very skeptical of this rumor, however, as I figured the survivors of the USS Pueblo would be screaming bloody murder right now and Jenkins would already be in jail. I also believed that the US military would have made this public in Japan a long time ago to deflect any public sympathy from Jenkins.
Just in case, though, I tracked down the USS Pueblo Veterans Association website (www.uspueblo.org) and contacted their spokesman. According to Stu Russell, a Pueblo survivor and President of the Association:
“There is no truth to [the rumor]. The only white folks we saw were a few reporters for left leaning papers, one of those was Wilford Burchett. Also some crew members were visited by KGB officers. But that was about it. We were kept isolated and saw no other former service personnel.”
There is also a rumor that Jenkins may have assisted as a translator behind the scenes and helped guide the North Koreans around the Pueblo. This seems especially unlikely to me as it assumes that Jenkins, an Army sergeant who vanished in 1965, would be skilled enough by 1968 to 1) translate technical English into technical Korean, both spoken and written; 2) be able to pinpoint Navy spy ships in international waters; and 3) have enough technical knowledge of Naval spy equipment developed AFTER he vanished to lead the North Koreans around a spy ship. Sounds very far-fetched; however, stranger things have happened.
Regarding the announcements Jenkins allegedly made across the DMZ, another association source stated:
“I read that it was four days before he did his PR thing across the DMZ. Four days is more than enough to break a person, any person.”
This promises to be a drawn out case featuring a clash of cultural values not seen since the USS Greenville sank the Ehime Maru and the Captain wouldn't apologize. In my opinion, the US military has been extremely fair and extremely patient thus far and there's little doubt they will continue to be so after Jenkins inevitably surrenders. For the record, I don't believe the Japanese (in general) actually care one bit about Jenkins as a person; it's Soga and her children they are worried about. Anything that upsets Soga is bad. The Jenkins case is merely something that's keeping her from being happy.
(NB: I'd like to give a special thanks to Stu Russell for both his patience and his insights into North Korea, the USS Pueblo incident and the Jenkins case. To my other source, thank you as well. I encourage everyone to check out the Pueblo website and read the crew's story. Stu Russell can be contacted from the website if you want further information.)
One month ago, the Orix (Rent-a-car) Blue Wave (who gave the USA Ichiro Suzuki) and the Kintetsu (Railway) Buffaloes announced they were planning to merge. Japanese baseball went into a tizzy.
First there was the problem of Japanese Major League Baseball having only 12 teams to start with. If two teams merged, it would leave the Pacific League with only five teams while the Central League had six. It was therefore suggested, in an owners' meeting, that the two leagues be merged into one league. This made Pacific League fans upset as the “Parigu” is famous for having both real character and real characters where as the “Serigu” is more staid and conservative.
As the two teams met to hammer out the terms of the merger, Takafumi Horie, the billionaire president of internet service provider livedoor Co. Ltd. announced he'd be willing to buy the Buffaloes. He even outlined a plan to make the company profitable by turning it into an independent corporation and selling shares to fans. This is in contrast to the current state of affairs, where all but one Japanese team is, for all intents and purposes, part of the advertising division of a major company and all but a few are losing money.
To say Horie's offer was ignored is an understatement. The owners all looked at each other as if a small child with green hair and blue ears had run in the room screaming “The Wheat Is Eaten! The Woods Are Aflame!” and then run back out. They paused, shook their heads and went on about their business as if nothing had happened. The big issue was where the new team would be based and should it have two home stadiums or just one.
In truth, in the conservative world of Japanese baseball, only a “traditional” company like Mitsukoshi or the Sumitomo Group would be allowed to buy a team. (Horie doesn't help his case by wearing t-shirts during press conferences.) Kintetsu tried to sell the naming rights to the Buffaloes last year but refused to sell the rights to either high tech or consumer finance companies and, ultimately, withdrew the offer.
The owners met and another team, the Seibu (Railway and Department Store) Lions, whose owner hadn't been to an owners' meeting in 12 years, announced it would be happy to have its own merger partner, potentially leaving the league with only ten teams. Tsuneo “Watanabe Owner” Watanabe , the owner of the Yomiuri (King of All Media Groups Media Group) Giants, thought this was great and announced his vision of a ten team league where each team had two farm teams. Fewer teams would improve the over all quality of the league. (By collossal coincidence, fewer teams would also help the Giants, the league's richest team, by putting several high quality players on the market at very low prices.)
At this point the players union finally woke up and realized what was going on. Not only were they losing a sixth of their jobs, but the owners would be able to drive wages down by merely dropping players into the minors. The players demanded a committee be formed to analyze the effects of the hasty merger on Japanese baseball but were ignored. When they intimated they'd be willing to strike if the mergers were approved, Watanabe Owner showed off his well honed diplomatic skills by saying: “That's rude. Players should know their place. They are just players.” (Apparently Watanabe Owner believes that fans go to the ballpark to watch the owners.)
The fans began getting upset when they realized that one league meant the end of the both the all-star game and the Japan series. (Which, by collossal coincidence, also favors the Giants, as they typically end the season with the best record but lose in the Japan series.)
Finally, a few owners broke ranks and opposed the merger, while others supported the merger but opposed a single league, while a few others adopted a “wait and see” attitude. The result is a stalemate with no one really able to say why livedoor's offer should be rejected. (Kintetsu shareholders, who've seen their net worth drop for over three years, must be livid at the wasted chance to dump a perennial money loser.) Watanabe Owner has thrown a couple tantrums at the press who keep hounding him over the merger. Horie has announced the possibility of creating his own team if the merger goes through.
By Japanese standards, this is a tizzy.
Top selling singer and shameless fashion cow Ayumi Hamasaki shook up the world of Japanese music when she announced she would be leaving her current record company Avex to start her own company with her long time producer. Imagine what would happen to Jive Records if Brittney Spears suddenly jumped ship and you'll get the idea. (Quality sky-rockets; revenue plummets.)
Mongolian born Yokozuna Grand Champion Asashoryu won 36 straight bouts before losing a couple matches in the third tournament of the year. He won that tournament, however, and then won the July tournament giving him four straight victories. He continues to look unbeatable.
The police in Hyogo Prefecture got caught forging 200 arrest documents to spruce up their arrest numbers for the police version of “March Sweeps.” They assigned names of convicted criminals to unsolved cases and even put their own names on some documents. In a collossal irony, a man who went to them for help and was rebuffed, was recently found dead in a mass killing.