Prime Minister Koizumi won the recent LDP leadership election hands down mostly for the long standing reason that there are still no suitable replacements capable of capturing the public's imagination. (Think Democratic Party in the USA and the Conservative Parties in both Britain and Canada and you'll get the idea.) In fact, the one person who could have unseated Koizumi, Shinzo Abe the new deputy leader of the party, chose not to run as he is/was a member of Koizumi's cabinet and it would be considered exceedingly bad form. (Long term sufferers will remember Abe as the foreign ministry official responsible for "helping" the five returnees from North Korea.)
Oddly, the most persuasive argument against Koizumi came from the always sour-faced LDP Old Guard member Shizuka Kamei. He pointed out that the LDP had recently lost two key Governorships in Chiba and Saitama prefectures while Koizumi was Prime Minister. It was clear, therefore, that Koizumi's popularity was not enough to help the LDP as a whole. To make matters worse, according to Kamei, Koizumi had said he wanted to destroy the LDP. (Actually, he said he wanted to destroy the old LDP ways of doing business.) The final straw was that Koizumi insisted on putting "academics and non-politicians" in his cabinet. (Trans: I hate Financial Grand Poobah Takenaka.) Such people were, by Kamei's definition, unqualified for the job and unable to work with the ministries. The people of Japan would be best served by having only LDP members in cabinet positions. (Trans: I hate Takenaka and Koizumi won't give me a job.)
Unfortunately for Kamei and the other candidates, Koizumi's popularity carried the day. During the odd, only-in-Japan joint campaign stumps from the top of a giant speaker van, Koizumi was waving at, smiling at, and conversing with the crowd while the other candidates were talking.
In the end, Koizumi may have proven he is very close to destroying the old LDP. This marks the first election since you're humble editor has been in Japan where the LDP faction system has been irrelevant. Faction members voted across faction lines and, in the case of the Hashimoto faction, one of the LDP's largest, some members didn't vote for the faction's official candidate and instead voted for Koizumi. One of your humble editor's Japanese colleagues was shocked by this turn of events and called the election "historic." On the other hand, Koizumi did rely on the support of LDP Old Guard MP Aoki, one of the key members of the Mori Coup. This had some people viewing the election with caution and many felt Koizumi was going to cut Takenaka loose for the sake of keeping his leadership post.
However, a few days after he won, Koizumi appointed a cabinet that included Takenaka and other "academics and non-politicians". He also gave the coveted Land and Transport Ministership to Nobuteru Ishihara, one of the few passionate reformers in the LDP. (He's also the son of Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara.) If Koizumi made a deal, it was a strange one indeed.
A month or so after announcing his new cabinet, Koizumi dissolved it and the lower house and called a national election. Once again the results were historic.
First, the LDP and its two coalition members, the New Komei Party and the Conservative New Party, suffered a huge setback. While New Komei rose from 31 seats to 34 seats on the back of some terrific commercials, the CNP not only fell from a paltry nine seats to a pathetic four, they also lost party leader Kumagai, whom long term sufferers will remember for his Pickwickian comments in an earlier issue. To make matters worse, the LDP droped from 247 seats to 237, losing their simple majority of 241 seats and making the New Komei party the most powerful party in Japan. If New Komei leaves the coalition, the remaining LDP-CNP coalition, while still holding a simple majority, will lose absolute control of committees and debate. One could almost hear Kamei laughing.
What's more, the quick election was called partly to take advantage of the confusion created by the recent merger of the Liberal Party and the Democratic Party into the New and Improved Democratic Party (not its real name). The LDP seemed to be hoping the transition pains would hamper the Democrats in a quick election. They were wrong. The DP published a "manifesto" (their exact word) of beliefs and positions that quickly caught the attention of the press. In fact, except for the LDP's plan to send Japanese troops to Iraq (apparently once the fighting's over) the DP's manifesto pretty much stole the show during the election. Add in party leader Naoto Kan's charm and charisma and the DP jumped from 137 seats to 177 while other opposition parties fell. The Communist Party dropped from 20 seats to 9 and the Social Democratic Party dropped from 18 seats to 6 following scandals and strange connections to North Korea. (Believe it or not, the Japanese Communist Party has no direct connections to Communist North Korea. They've also disavowed socialism.) Social Democratic Party leader Takako Doi lost her district seat, although she did win a seat under proportional representaton. (She quickly lost her party leadership post, too.) The independents dropped from 18 seats to 13 leaving the Democratic Party as the largest opposition party and Japan perilously close to a two-party democratic system.
The final salt in the wound for the LDP was the rebirth of Makiko Tanaka as a political force. In the last month Tanaka has 1) had her name cleared of all charges against her 2) announced she would run again with or without LDP support (remember, she was on suspension for past shenanigans) 3) decided to run as an independent and 4) won, taking a seat away from the LDP. Even Koichi Kato, whom long term sufferers will remember for his aborted and badly timed coup against then PM Mori, won a seat as an independent.
The LDP is now in a precarious position. The last time the LDP lacked a simple majority they briefly lost power, heads rolled, and chairs were thrown. However, Koizumi is still more popular than his party or any of the alternative leaders. Although the coalition lost 12 seats, they still have firm control over committees and debate and the opposition parties are still firmly divided. Everyone agrees, however, that Koizumi's decisions on Iraq may be the final deciding factor in his leadership. The vast majority of Japanese do not want to send Self-Defense Force troops to Iraq. Even the LDP is queasy. When several Italian police were killed in an area "just 100 kilometers away" from where Japanese troops were scheduled to be deployed, Japan quickly and indefinitely delayed the deployment pending further investigation. Now that two Japanese diplomats have been killed in Iraq, there is real pressure on Koizumi to fully utilize the excrement disposal facility on which he is sitting or to remove himself posthaste. So to speak.
*The repeated use of "erection" in place of "election" is gratuitous, a borderline racist cheap shot and highly indicative of your humble editor's base sense of humor.
In Other News:
In between the party election and the national election, there was ample time for some good old-fashioned spite. After being named Land and Transport Minister, Nobuteru Ishihara quickly moved to do some house cleaning. His first target was the Japan Highway Public Corporation (JH), a quasi public/government corporation responsible for running Japan's highways and motorways. Ishihara was especially interested in ousting JH President Haruho Fujii.
Bad blood between the two goes back a couple years or so. Ishihara, who at the time was the head of Aministrative Reform was appointed by Koizumi to oversee a "Highway Reform Committee." This committee consisted of writers, politicians, business leaders, and Fujii and one other LDP Old Guard member who served as the chair and co-chair. It quickly became clear that the majority of the committee would vote for radical reform, prompting Fujii into a number of coughing fits and other actions designed to delay debate. When the committee ultimately voted to freeze all highway projects, especially a project in Hokkaido, Muneo Suzuki, whose district contained the project, was brought in to loudly crash a progress report meeting, leaving Ishihara visibly fuming. (Ishihara had said that more bears than cars used the highway. Suzuki said this was an insult to Hokkaidans even though Ishihara was quoting actual statistics and had a video to prove it.)
Fujii and the other OG member implored that any changes might lead to confusion and therefore suggested that the committee should suggest that nothing be changed until change was not necessary and was therefore acceptable. (Something like that, but not actually that much of an exaggeration.) They argued that since the Powers What Are in the LDP would reject any real attempts at reform, sending a proposal that would be rejected would be like sending no report at all. When this argument was scoffed down, they suggested offering two recommendations: theirs and the other one. That way the Powers What Are could make an informed choice. When that suggestion was refused, Fujii and friend stormed out of the meeting and later refused to call another one so that a vote could not be held. A vote was eventually held and the "radical" proposal was adopted. Keep in mind, the committee was only offering non-binding recommendations, not making law. The proposal was, of course, tabled but the entire process drew attention to the muddled mess at JH and allowed an unusual glimpse at some of the more ridiculous highway projects under construction. This may have been Koizumi's plan all along.
Since then, Fujii, thanks to a whistle blower, has been caught passing off a doctored set of books that said the Japan Highway Public Corporation was operating in the black and therefore didn't require privitisation or cancelling of highway projects. Anyone who's ever seen the dearth of cars and trucks on a Japanese expressway outside of Tokyo, thanks in no small part to the exhorbitant tolls, knows this had to be a lie. When the claim was investigated, a second set of books detailing pages and pages of red ink was discovered. Fujii was charged with fraud/dereliction of duty, but little was done until Ishihara took office.
It's no surprise then that Ishihara's first act as Land and Transport Minister was to ask for Fujii's resignation. Fujii was at first obsequious and magnanimous and said "I'm not a person who would cling to my post and status." He proved this by refusing to resign and telling Ishihara he'd have to fire him. Ishihara said "Okay, you're fired." to which Fujii said "I have rights." to which Ishihara said "You're right. We'll conduct an investigation then fire you." A review panel was convened after 10 days and although Fujii asked for all proceedings to be televised so people whose tax money he'd wasted could see how he was being victimized, only the opening statements were broadcast. From the transcripts it looked like the meeting went:
Chair: "You are lying scum."
Fujii: "I know you are, but what am I?"
Chair: "You are lying corrupt scum."
Fujii: "I know you are, but what am I?"
When asked why he had two sets of books, Fujii claimed that accounting involved many complex choices and that he had never been given specific directives on how to account for expenses. (The chair never pointed out that Fujii only handed over the set of books that made him look good.) The circus ended with Fujii being fired and heading for the talk show circuit where he claims that, in exchange for immunity, he will blow the whistle on other corrupt people associated with the Japan Highway Public Corporation.
Japan Railways, JR, is the backbone of Japanese public transportation. For those of us used to Amtrak or British Rail, the on time precision and efficiency of JR is truly remarkable. Not only are the trains on time, they actually stop at the "Door Here" marks on the platform. However, those familiar with JR also know that when things go wrong with JR, they go way wrong. Recently things have gone wrong. In fact, to say that JR has had an annus horribilus is an understatement.
Earlier this year, a bullet-train driver fell asleep on the job and rolled past a station. (The trains pretty much stop themselves, but the driver is required to do the final breaking.) Criticism ensued of JR's excessive work schedule and lack of an extra driver both of which are the result of criticism of JR's perennially operating in the red. Most recently, a driver was caught, while driving, using his cellphone to take pictures of other bullet trains and then emailing the pictures to his girlfriend.
What's really gotten people's ire up, however, is a very unpopular project in Western Tokyo. For the uninitiated, Tokyo is cut in half east to west by the Chuo Line and Sobu Line which reach deep into both Western Tokyo and Chiba Prefecture. Every morning and evening they are among the most crowded trains in Japan and literally hundreds of thousands of people rely on them to get to work or to go shopping. However, they also run along the ground creating large bottlenecks of people and cars at railroad crossings, especially in Western Tokyo where some people have to wait as long as an hour for the security gates to open just to find out they're only open for a few seconds. Two years ago or so, JR decided to raise the tracks in Western Tokyo in order to relieve this pressure. The press was very docile and happily interviewed angry people in the long lines. One crossing was dubbed "The gate that never opens." Some reporters did report that many of the locals were opposed to having an elevated train nearby and would have preferred the tracks moved underground.
JR went ahead with the project and began building a second set of tracks along side the old tracks. JR's plan was to switch the trains over to the new tracks, build the elevated tracks where the old tracks were and then switch everything to the elevated tracks. One wonders, although no reporters did when the project was announced, why JR didn't just build the elevated tracks instead of a second set of ground tracks. One also wonders why they're still running traffic on the old tracks.
In late September, JR shut down the Chuo and Sobu lines in the middle of the night and prepared to make the switch. The plan was to have things up and running by 7:00 a.m. the next morning. To help stranded commuters, they had JR buses on standby to help bypass the closed section of track. However, at 7:00 it was clear something was wrong. The switching system on the new tracks wasn't working. It took until almost 2:00 p.m. to discover one of the control boxes had been wired improperly and to correct it. In the interim, people were stranded, especially when the extra busses stopped running at 9:00 a.m.
It's times like this that passengers discover that, for all their precision, professionalism and pride, JR workers have not actually been trained to handle people. A typical conversation with a JR worker goes:
Passenger: "Excuse me how--"
JR Worker: "The train is delayed."
Passenger: "How long will the train be delayed?"
JR Worker: "The train is delayed."
Passenger: "Yes, I know, but how LONG will it be delayed?"
JR Worker: "The train is delayed."
Passenger: "We've established that, but for how long?"
JR Worker: "The train is delayed until it is no longer delayed."
Passenger: "But about how long will that be."
JR Worker: "The train is not moving."
Passenger: "--expletive deleted--"
JR Worker: "The train is delayed."
Things finally got going again and there was much bowing and apologising from JR Higher Ups. However, a few days later, a train hit a steam shovel scoop construction workers had left near the tracks. More bowing and apologising ensued. Now sensing blood in the water, the press started investigating rumors of long delays at Western Tokyo crossings. Because JR doubled the size of most crossings, many people suddenly found themselves facing mad sprints to get across after waiting nearly an hour. If they didn't get across, they could find themselves stranded for another hour at a little rest area JR set up between the tracks. The press especially loved filming the elderly as they struggled to hurry across. In one particular incident an old man who ignored pleas not to cross fell down once he got across and broke his leg. Prime Minister Koizumi saw this and quickly issued a reprimand to JR for their lack of planning.
Now the sharks were tearing flesh and we saw nightly reports at every crossing and the press even reported on some ill conceived crossings people had been complaining about for years in other parts of Japan. JR promised to spend millions to build extra overpasses which won't be usable for two years.
All this begs one final question: Why don't people just use the existing overpasses? There is a pedestrian overpass right next to the most notorious crossing yet no reporter ever comments on the fact that no one, even young, healthy people, ever uses it. One family actually moved to a new house to avoid the crossing.
I'd ask JR, but they'd just tell me the train was not moving.
One of the strangest phenomena witnessed in Japan this year has been Bob "The Beast" Sapp.
Bob Sapp is 6'7" and weighs upwards of 370 pounds (most of that, from the looks of him, muscle.) He's also the brother of Tampa Bay Buccaneers all-pro Warren Sapp. Bob Sapp himself had a brief stint in the NFL. After getting suspended from the Minnesota Vikings for steroid use (may explain the muscle), he found himself out of work and broke. Like many in the same situation, his natural destination was Japan.
Since his arrival, Sapp has literally forced his way into every aspect of life in Japan. He's appeared in countless commercials hawking things from ramen to DVD recorders and has appeared on every major TV talk show, including a long-running show where celebrities eat things they don't like. He's competed every major fighting martial art, including PRIDE, a kind of organized bar brawl, and K1 Kickboxing. Sapp is well-spoken and funny and not afraid to prance and glare at the camera or to play up the shirtless "noble savage" image. He's also self-deprecating and gave one of his best interviews after an under-one-minute loss.
His most recent media coup was persuading Hawaiian-born sumo wrestler Akebono to retire from the Japan Sumo Organization and join K1. Akebono retired earlier this year and is now earning steady pay as an Oyakata (sumo elder). However, given sumo's natural predilection for keeping foreigners out of positions of power, there's very little chance of him getting his own training stable and therefore doing more than just hanging around. Akebono and Sapp are scheduled to fight December 31st of this year. Sapp has mentioned that he'd like to compete against Akebono in a Sumo match, something Akebono could not do as an Oyakata.
However, Akebono has been doing some K1 training. Reporters have been allowed access to sparring matches where a bloodied 6'10" tall Akebono gets beaten about the face by a much smaller, better trained opponent and many people don't expect him to do much against Sapp in a real K1 match. On the other hand, Sapp relies only on brute strength punches to knock opponents out quickly. If he can't knock them out in 30 seconds to a minute, he runs out of strength and curls up a bit like a turtle partially receded into its shell. He can't kick and his record has proven he can't take a punch to the face. Akebono has lost a great deal of weight since he retired, but he's still top heavy. (For the uninitiated, Akebono has long skinny legs topped by an impossibly large belly and torso.) It's hard to imagine him kicking much either. Your humble editor suspects this fight could turn out to be a human form of turtle racing.
Long term sufferers will remember the story from the last issue about how Japan has been plagued by a series of produce thefts where thieves manage to harvest hundreds of pounds of cherries or apples without anyone noticing. Recently, the thieves have been targeting the very symbol of Japan and the one product most central to Japan's psyche: rice.
Unscrupulous wholesalers and dealers have been caught mislabling cheaper forms of Japanese rice as the more expensive Koshihikari. This was discovered by experts who, after fielding complaints from some consumers about the taste of the rice, actually did genetic tests on grains of rice to determine they were not Koshihikari.
Then, in Niigata and a few other prefectures, storage houses were plundered of newly harvested rice. In your humble editor's favorite crime, almost an entire rice field was harvested at night with out anyone noticing anything was going on. (trans: insurance fraud.)
The impetus for this crime wave was an exceedingly cool summer. Not only did rainy season never officially end, it was actually jacket weather in Tokyo during much of August. This resulted in what is being called the worst rice harvest in over 10 years and has made rice-jacking a valuable past time. However, now that it's rice involved, the government and the police are getting serious.
Musashimaru has been eerily silent since since his retirement. No grand retrospectives. No endless inane interviews. No “crying show” appearances. (For the unitiated, Japan has several shows based around the sole purpose of getting people and celebrities to cry by reminding them of touching stories about their lives.) Maybe because Maru all but retired a year ago, his absence is normal and nothing that will be missed. Plus, Takanohana’s retirement is a big act to follow.
Actually, Maru’s received almost as little attention as t.A.T.u.’s recent return to Japan after their disasterous first visit. They had to crash a debate between Koizumi and Kan to get any attention at all. Koizumi, however, stole the show by first asking who they were which took them back a bit. Then, after hearing details about them, he said, in English “Ahh, from Russia with love?” That went so badly they posed nude in Friday in order to get their face on a magazine cover. Other than that, no TV news show or variety program has had them on and only today did your humble editor see a report about their concert. Only about half the tickets for their inaugural concert were sold. They're not gonna get us indeed.
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Copyright © 2003, Dwayne Lively. All Rights Reserved.
Created December 2003