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This week, after immense pressure from the victims of traffic accidents and their families, Japan finally increased all its reck- less driving penalties for the first time in 15 years. The biggest increases were in the penalties for drunk driving, especially if you kill someone, and for driving without a license. In most cases the fines were tripled and jail time was included or increased.

On the same day these new penalties were announced, however, the Seibu Lions baseball team presented golden boy Daisuke Matsuzaka with a huge new contract. Matsuzaka, you will remember, was caught driving without a license and attempting to cover up the crime and is, supposedly, being punished by Seibu. Of course, we shouldn't be too surprised by this soft treatment, given that just two days before the announcement yet another police department was caught covering up traffic violations on behalf of a rich friend of the police.

By contrast, Toki, the sumo wrestler with the porkchop sideburns and the orange day-glo mawashi, has been confined to his heya quarters indefinitely after killing a woman in a car accident two weeks ago.

Last month, Japanese politics was shaken and stirred when Koichi Kato, the leader of the second largest LDP faction, and a man picked as a possible, if not the next Prime Minister, announced that if the opposition parties were to present a No-Confidence Motion against Prime Minister Mori he would support it. At the very least, he said, his faction would abstain from the vote. He was quickly joined by two other factions, giving the opposition, if all went according to plan, enough votes to unseat Mori whose popularity now floats around 17% while his disapproval rating hovers around 70%. (As to the strategy of eliminating a man whose presence can only help you in the next election, well, I leave that to you to judge.)

Unfortunately for Kato and his minions, he made the announcement while the Diet was in recess. In fact, it wouldn't be in session for another 10 days. This gave Nonaka and the old men of the LDP more than enough time to threaten, cajole and intimidate Kato's faction. In the end, Kato's faction was split, and all the factions involved decided to sit out the vote guaranteeing the motion would fail.

The fallout to all this was rather interesting. Nonaka was asked to resign. Although he put Mori in power and saved his behind a number of times, he failed to keep all members of the party in line. Kato retained control of his faction but has pretty much obliterated his chances at ever being Prime Minister if he stays in the LDP. The Kato faction and the two other factions were excluded from membership in Mori's latest cabinet. Mori's people, however, claim there are no hard feelings.

As to the strategy of defending a man whose presence can only hurt you in the next election, well, I leave that to you to judge.

Three months ago, Nagano ken elected a political outsider as governor, breaking a nearly thirty year hold by a faction that traditionally passed leadership from the governor to the vice governor. The new governor, a writer named Tanaka Yasuo, announced his candidacy late in the game, then ran a stunningly effective populist campaign to steal what should have been a shoe-in election for the vice-governor.

The old guard were not only stunned, they were pissed off. When Tanaka presented his business card to one of the old guard still in government, the man bent the card in half, saying that the name at the top didn't belong with the title of governor and he didn't want to look at it. All this happened on television sending shockwaves across a Japan that holds business cards more sacred than children. Another old guard member is reported to have crumbled up the card as the governor was leaving. The governor, apparently a believer in getting even rather than getting mad, merely smiled and then turned the police loose. Three other old guard members were arrested for graft and corruption a few days later and others are still under investigation.

To make matters worse for the old guard, Tanaka has continued his populist ways while in office: 1) he eats lunch at least twice a week in the Kensho cafeteria with all the rank and file workers. 2) he had glass walls installed around his office so that the people could see him work (okay, that's a bit gimicky for my taste, but it made his point) and 3) he immediately investigated and cancelled two 20+ year old dam projects when his investigation proved the dams were neither needed nor wanted.

In fact, my only real criticism of him is an inexplicable and large dog-shaped lapel pin he wears all the time. Finally, he is prone to peppering his speeches with English based jargon, "creative conflict" etc. This has earned him some criticism, but it comes across more as sour grapes than anything else.

This award goes to Ogi Chikage the woman from the almost irrelevant Conservative Party who was forced to take the job of Construction Minister when no men wanted the job in the wake of a corruption investigation that is still sending people to jail. Ogi first cleaned up her Margaret Thatcher-ish look and then unleashed some of the most outspoken opinions I've heard a politician in Japan utter. She criticised and killed on-going projects, offered recomendations for improving the economy, and disagreed openly with a number of Mori's policies. Along the way she designed and modeled a new disaster relief uniform. Despite her outspoken ways, Ogi is one of the most popular politicians in Japan right now (more popular than her party, in fact) and Mori has tapped her to run the new Transportation Etcetera Ministry when the ministries are merged this January. This new ministry will be one of the largest in Japan and was considered a major prize. (Reports are that several LDP members wanted the job in a bad way.) After the announcement, Ogi continued her outspoken ways by openly questioning why the Narita as international only, Haneda as domestic only split should continue. Haneda, at the request of most of the foreign embassies in Japan, has finally been opened to accept international diplomatic flights. Chiba ken, which has been fighting a 30 year battle to build a second runway at Narita was, to say the least, incensed and Ogi eventually backed away from her comment/question. If I were Chiba ken, though, I'd be real worried right now. Once Ogi takes over the new ministry, she will be the undisputed most powerful woman in Japan. Not bad for a former actress and former member of the all women Takurazuka.

Curiously, although Ogi is doing well, the Conservative Party continues to suffer. In a recent poll, the same that said Mori is wallowing at 17%, the CP's popularity went up a whole percentage point to 1%. I leave it to the list's polling experts to analyze and comment on that result.

Winner: Akebono, who posted back to back victories this year to garner his 10th and 11th yusho after a three year dry spell. In November he went 14-1 and posted wins over Takanohana and Musashimaru. The victory over Maru was a reverse replay of the victory last year that stopped Ak's quest for his 10th yusho. This time, Ak had Maru at the edge and Maru somehow held on with only his toes for a good 15 seconds or so before Ak managed to belly him out. Not bad for a guy who is repeatedly written off and was on the verge of forced retirement last year.

First Runner Up: Wakanohana/Fujishima oyakata, who has announced that he will follow in KONISHIKI's footsteps and leave sumo altogether for the fame and fortune of television. He's already doing commercials and is a popular panel member on the ubiquitous panel shows. The Sumo Powers What Are expressed shock and outrage at the move. They seem to forget the pillorying Wak received at their hands while he was Yokozuna. They practically rushed him into the position then criticised his poor performance when he got injured. Add to this the fact that his brother Takanohana will almost certainly inherit Futagayamabeya (even though Wak is older) and you can see why he took the money and ran.

Second Runner Up: Ichiro Suzuki for daring to be the first position player to move from Japan to the major leagues. His self-deprecating humor and wide-eyed expression when he first entered the Mariner's stadium was a real pleasure to watch.

Special Prize: Matsunami Kenshiro, a former pro-wrestler and now a Diet member with the Conservative Party, who threw a glass of water at the opposition parties during the heated debate over the Mori no-confidence motion. When opposition jeering finally hit a nerve--I think they were making fun of his 1980's Steven Seagal pony tail--Matsunami picked up a glass of water and hurled its contents toward the opposition seats. This gave the opposition a chance to rush the stand and shut down speeches for nearly an hour. Matsunami got hit with a fine and a 20-something day suspension from the diet. He has refused repeated requests to cut off his pony-tail, which he refers to as his chonmage as if he had been a sumo wrestler rather than a performing clown.

Sports Prick of the Year: Chunichi Dragons manager Hoshino who broke an umpire's rib while protesting a bad call. He seemed put off by even the petty five day slap on the wrist he received for what could have constituted an assault charge.

Japan's professional baseball league has, for the first time, allowed agents to be present when players negotiate their contracts. This came after pressure from the players "union" and players themselves. Of course, not everyone is allowed into the room. The agent has to be registered with the Japanese Bar Association. This effectively prevents foreigners from serving as agents. (Foreigners, it should be pointed out, are banned from joining the Japanese Bar.) More specifically, this clause prevents Don Nomura, the man who found Nomo a loophole and got Nakata to Perugia from serving as an agent. One foreign writer has dubbed Nomura as the most hated man in Japanese baseball. Also, each agent can represent only one player each. This prevents the agents from applying group pressure to the owners.

Also, the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks, after losing to the Tokyo Giants 4-2 in the Japan series, were saddled with a 30,000 dollar fine for failing to secure the Fukuoka dome during the series. A group of heart surgeons had reserved the dome over three years ago to use as a convention location. As a result, the Japan series was stopped for three days until the dome became available again. Baseball officials were not pleased.

Those of us who still mourn the end of the inexplicable but wonderful SuperJockey now have another reason to mourn. Recently, the comedy trio Neptune have chosen to discontinue their extremely popular NepNage (Neptune Toss). In this act, one of the members, with his hair greased back, a penciled in cheesy mustache on his upper lip and dressed in a karate dogi, flipped women over his head onto their backs using the move that Captain Kirk would always use during fights in Star Trek. (Lay on your back, and use your legs to toss your opponent.) The women landed on a thick mat and then another member, dressed as, well I'm not sure what he was dressed as, would make a short little poem to describe how the woman flew and landed. It was all designed, as you might imagine, to expose panties and your humble editor was always impressed by the abilities of some of the women to keep their privates private while in mid air. The NepNage, for those of you who've been out of Japan for a while, had four variations: Regular, as described; Backward, where a large breasted woman was flipped backwards on to her stomach (which usually gave us a good look at her breasts); Vibe, where the woman was stopped in mid flip and vigourously shaken; and Phoenix, where the flipper forced the woman's legs apart as he flipped her, guaranteeing a free panty shot. The Nage was horrible, sexist, cheesy and magnificent. Neptune never ran out of willing participants, even over the course of a year.

What brought it all to end was complaints and pressure from a number of groups concerned about the effect this might have on children, not only as a bad moral example, but also what might happen if children were to flip each other on to rocks etc. Surprisingly, Neptune agreed with this, although they could have applied immense fan pressure, and promised to put an end to the NepNage. They did it in front of a packed arena in what may go down as the worst two hours in Japanese television history. (It was, in two words, boring and silly.) Still, although your humble editor can respect their reasons, he can only chant "phoenix, phoenix, phoenix" and wait for the next, cheesy, sexist act to arrive.

Kimura "SMAP Boy" Takuya recently announced that his live-in girlfriend Chizuka Kudo was pregnant with his child. They were, therefore, planning to do the right thing and get married early in the new century. This may mark the end of a Smap-ful era.

Crimes by 16 and 17 year old boys continue. In one of the most recent crimes, a sixteen year old boy with a penchant for building bombs in his bedroom--his parents agreed this was a peculiar hobby but felt powerless to stop him--tossed a pipe bomb into a video shop in Kabukicho injuring several people. At first, according to police reports, he claimed he did it because he wanted to experience what it was like to kill someone and because his application for a license to handle explosives had been rejected. (I swear I'm not making this up.) Recently, however, after holding the boy over two weeks, the police reported that the boy had stated he no longer had the desire to kill anyone. I've heard a fortnight with the Japanese police has that effect on a lot of people. . .

Japan modified its laws to allow children as young as 14 to be prosecuted as adults for violent crimes and murder. Some JR lines have created Women Only cars. Segregation is always easier than law enforcement or teaching women to defend themselves, I suppose. JR, by the way, in an event that makes the Florida voters seem rather normal, was caught overcharging for several routes. Some passengers apparently did a little ciphering using the JR schedule books and figured out that they were being overcharged as much as 500 yen for some local routes and 3,000-4,000 yen for some shinkansen routes. Oodles of gomen ne ensued and JR is paying pack a fortune to anyone with a pass or receipts.

Criminals knocked over an armored car in my neighborhood, about 300 feet from the station your humble editor uses everyday. The Sumo Powers What Are, responding to a year with no sold out days of sumo, have suddenly launched an advertising compaign. Not only were posters advertising the next basho put up in early December, the posters included 1) the price of tickets and 2) a list of places where tickets might be acquired for the aforementioned prices. Welcome to the 20th century, Sumo Kyokai, just in time for the 21st. The most popular movie in Japan right now is Battle Royale. It's premise is that a group of junior high kids are forced to play a kill or be killed game in which someone has to die every few hours. It is apparently one of the most violent films in Japanese history. It stars Beat Takeshi and has generated ample controversy/publicity. It was also, apparently, a popular comic book.

That's all the news for now. See you in the 21st century. Happy New Year, Happy New Century, Happy New Millenium.



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Timing I | Timing II | New And Old | Politician Of The Year | Sportsman Of The Year | Sports, Sort Of | Classy | Married | 16 and 17 | Other News

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Created October 2002