Shinzo Abe’s tenure as Prime Minister began with some surprising successes. Less than a month later things began to fall apart.
At first, PM Abe managed to muscle his people into key positions, including the chairmanship of a tax advisory board that is usually chosen by the Finance Ministry. This is important because the board has been/is always pushing to raise the national sales tax. The FM especially likes to do this every time the economy is showing signs of recovery. At that moment, all the techniques used to bring about the recovery (lower taxes, freer trade, etc) are eliminated thus killing the recovery. The FM last did this back in 1997 when the Japanese economy began showing the first signs of recovery since the bubble. The result was the 1997 Asian financial crisis.
Abe also created several new positions directly under his office that act as a kind of Kitchen Cabinet/National Security Council for Japan. There was a general feeling in the public that former Prime Minister Koizumi’s reforms were going to continue and that was a good thing.
Unfortunately for PM Abe most of the regular cabinet was populated by old men competing for the job of Chief Idiot. First, Education Minister Ibuki declared that mandatory English in elementary schools was “useless.” This pronouncement came after over a decade of work to make English study mandatory (for reasons, to this day, neither understood nor actually explained to anyone) and scant months after English had become mandatory.
Other cabinet ministers made even more interesting gaffes. Health Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa, while speaking about Japan’s declining birthrate, made a clumsy economic reference: "The number of women between the ages of 15 and 50 is fixed. The number of birth-giving machines and devices is fixed, so all we can ask is that they do their best per head." Of course, many people took offense to the notion of women as machines. Your humble editor, of course, was more worried about the notion that the number of women between 15-50 is fixed, meaning that as someone turns 15 someone older has to be shot. (This argument is, of course, moot, as your humble editor has never met a woman older than 29.)
Still others decided that it was more interesting to insult all of Asia by denying the rape of Nanking. The Abe administration responded to criticism of this by investigating its own documents and concluding that, shock of shocks, the documents offered no proof the rape of Nanking ever happened. PM Abe himself chose to question the existence of the 200,000 or so so-called Comfort Women who were, depending on who you talk to, forced into prostitution or lucky to have found a Japanese man.
It’s telling, however, that the first person PM Abe actually fired was his man on the tax commission when he supported tax increases.
Early on, Abe also angered his own party, and a good deal of the public, when he supported the reinstatement of LDP rebels who’d been expelled from the party after voting against former PM Koizumi’s postal reforms. This means that several new MPs suddenly find their most serious competition for reelection coming from within their own party, from the very people they’d been recruited to unseat. It also meant that Abe’s honeymoon with his own party was over.
Abe’s primary success has been to elevate the status of the Defense Agency to a Ministry with a cabinet level Defense Minister (who recently had to resign after saying that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki “couldn’t be helped” and hastened the end of the war). He also appears content to focus primarily on amending Article 9 of the constitution to allow Japan to officially join military operations overseas. The same bill contains provisions to “clarify” the role of the Emperor as head of state. Other bills will modify the Basic Law on Education to require teachers to be relicensed every 10 years eliminating, for all intents and purposes, the notion of tenure and will also require students be taught, and evaluated on, their level of patriotism.
Of all Prime Minister Abe’s embarrassing problems, the Agriculture Ministry has been a particular embarrassment.
His first Ag Minister, Toshikatsu Matsuoka was caught padding his office utility expense accounts. The five million yen ($41,000) he charged for utilities were especially egregious as lawmakers are not actually required to pay office utility expenses at all. Matsuoka quickly backtracked and said the expenses were for “special water” for his water coolers although he was hard-pressed to explain what made the water special other than its 5,000 ($41) yen per bottle price tag.
Matsuoka committed suicide when a bid-rigging scandal came to light and he appeared to be the facilitator. The opposition parties then manipulated parliament procedures to keep Abe from attending the funeral.
Matsuoka’s replacement, Norihiko Agaki, has recently come under fire for declaring his parents’ home as one of his offices and therefore receiving expense and maintenance payments for it. Abe has responded to this scandal by refusing to talk about it.
It was learned earlier this year that 80,000 students at 461 high schools in 46 of Japan’s 47 prefectures had not completed the official Ministry of Education curriculum and were therefore not eligible to graduate.
In almost every case the schools had short-changed, or skipped altogether, courses in World History and Geography because they were not on entrance exams and because the five day school week forced them to ration time.
The 47th prefecture, Kumamoto, had no problems as it had already suffered through this scandal and had apparently already dealt with the problem by the time the others got caught.
One principal committed suicide after the scandal broke and almost every Board of Education in Japan is playing dumb saying they are shocked, SHOCKED to discover illegal practices going on in their towns.
It was recently discovered that the Social Insurance Agency had 50,000,000 unidentified public pension accounts and countless numbers of pensioners had been shortchanged as a result. In some cases, the SIA had no records of required payments having been made at all and hundreds nearing retirement were being forced to scrounge for old pay stubs to prove they’d made their pension payments.
The scandal sent the Powers What Are in the LDP into a tizzy and they not only hurried to pass barn-door closing measures, they actually pushed back an upper house election, much to the chagrin of the opposition parties which, inexplicably, kept fighting against any attempts to remedy the problems. The surreal opposition strategy seemed to be to prevent any solutions from being implemented in order to complain during the election that the LDP hadn’t implemented any solutions.
The debates literally became violent, with Social Democratic Party members storming chair persons and grabbing microphones. One incident became violent enough that an SDP member was reprimanded.
The LDP now limps toward the July 29th election with 70% of the country saying it’s mishandled the pension issue. It is expected that Abe will step down if the LDP loses the majority in the upper house.
In a classic case of government excess, the Japanese Cultural Agency has destroyed a 1300 year old tomb in order to save it.
Thirty-five years ago, researchers opened up the Takamatsuzaka Tomb in Asuka, Nara Prefecture after a farmer accidentally discovered it. Inside the tomb were several intricate murals. The researches dug out the area around the tomb and built a concrete shell around it. The result, of course, was an influx of humid air that started the destruction process, mostly via mold, as well as cracking due to temperature changes resulting from the tomb now being in an uninsulated concrete shell. (Not unlike your humble editor’s current apartment, it should be noted.)
Every effort to repair the murals simply created more destruction and led to the area around the tomb looking suspiciously like Jonathan Pryce’s apartment in the movie Brazil after the government workers came to fix his air conditioner.
The tomb was recently dismantled and the murals moved to a “secure” location nearby where they can be displayed after being restored. By colossal coincidence, the town now has a potential tourist attraction, which it didn’t have when the murals were still in the tomb.
This, incidentally, is the second tomb in the area destroyed by the JCA. The first was the Kitora tomb which was also dismantled to save it from humidity.
A private hospital in Kumamoto opened, to much fanfare and criticism, a “Baby Hatch” where parents or single mothers could drop off unwanted babies rather than, say, tossing them in dumpsters to die.
The facility was modeled on a similar program in some countries in Europe but was immediately used by conservatives as a symbol of the cultural destruction of Japan and proof that a culture of selfishness had conquered the country.
Much to the hospital’s chagrin, the first child left in the hatch was a three year old boy who quickly led police back to his father, who’d brought him across several prefectures by bullet train to leave him in the hatch. The chorus of “I told you so’s” from social conservatives nearly triggered an earthquake and could probably be heard, without special equipment, in space.
Since then, four infants have been left in the hatch and the furor has died down a bit. It hasn’t hurt that no less than four toddlers have been beaten to death, beaten into a coma or thrown off bridges in the past few months by parents who suddenly snapped. (Your humble editor, who has two kids, does not condone these actions, although, some days, he does understand them. Oh yes he does…)
The Lucy Blackman case ended with a somewhat surprising not-guilty verdict for defendant Joji Obara that was most surprising for actually having followed the evidence. The judge dropped all charges for Blackman’s murder but convicted Obara of rape in six other cases and for manslaughter in the case of Carita Ridgeway. The judge ruled that the evidence in the Blackman case was, at best, circumstantial, while the prosecution had presented actual video’s of the other women being drugged and raped as well as forensic evidence linking Obara to the murder of Ridgeway. Obara was sentenced to life in prison. Both the defense and the prosecution are appealing the verdicts.
English woman Lindsay Hawker was apparently killed by Tatsuya Ichihashi when she went to his house for a private English lesson. Ichihashi appears to have tried to hide the body by burying it in a bath tub, adding chemicals to speed up decomposition, and planting flowers. Because Ichihashi was seen on a security camera leaving a coffee shop with Hawker, nine police officers showed up to his apartment. Despite the presence of that many of Tokyo’s finest, and the fact he wasn’t wearing shoes, Ichihashi was able to run out of the apartment and escape. He hasn’t been seen since. Most odds are on suicide, your humble editor’s betting on rich parents helping hide the lad or helping him escape the country.
Long term sufferers and people in Japan during the late 90’s will remember the very public break-up of model Anna Umemiya and her charming actor/human sponge boyfriend Kenji Haga. Haga was recently arrested for trying to extort money from people to help him pay his debts. According to Umemiya, who has been speaking with surprising glee—paybacks being best served by a bitch (something like that)—Haga was always demanding money and always working an angle. He even managed to manipulate her father into loaning him money. She paid off the debts she incurred and has been living happily without him while occasionally penning best selling memoirs about growing up as a half-Japanese in Japan. Dad also seemed to be enjoying the arrest in his public statements.
Mongolian sumo wrestler Hakuho was promoted to yokozuna after the last tournament. He’s adopted the jinxed shiranui ring entry ceremony style. (For long term sufferers, that’s the style that Wakanohana used: during the performance, the yokozuna bends over, sticks both hands out in what represents an attacking move and slowly moves to a standing position.) He’s currently 7-0 and looking good. Experts are still waiting for the jinx to kick in.
Izumi Sakai, the former lead singer of ZARD, died after an “accidental fall” from a first floor walkway at the hospital where she was being treated for uterine cancer. Officials have made no attempt to explain how this happened, but Japan has lost one of its best, and most beautiful singers. Sakai was a former race queen and model who became the rarest of Japanese idols: she could both carry a tune and write good songs. In the early ‘90s she stopped performing live, citing stage fright. Her last public performance was on the long-running MusicStation and it’s easy to tell she was not comfortable, especially when compared with earlier performances. Instead she and her band would put out respectable albums every few years. She was preparing to release another album when she died.
In old and dusty news, former New York (City) Met, Hanshin (Railway) Tiger, Nippon Ham (Meat Packing) Fighter Tsuyoshi Shinjo retired from baseball late last year after a blubbering final performance that made your humble editor recite again and again “there’s no crying in baseball” while wishing Japan had fallen in love with American-style football instead of the world’s most boring game. Shinjo was crying so hard he couldn’t see and on the last out of his career, the left fielder had to run over and cover an easy fly ball. He’s now modeling and doing commercials.
A man recently committed suicide in what may be the most original, hardcore manner your humble editor’s ever seen: he tied a rope around a tree, tied the rope around his neck and sped off in his car. He was found with his head beside the car and his body still in the front seat.