This summer, the world of relaxation in Japan was rocked by a scandal when a series of photos in a tabloid seemed to reveal an onsen proprietor pouring bottled salts in his baths to make them milky.
Subsequent investigations revealed that almost every onsen in Nagano's Shirahone district, an area famous for its milky water baths, were actually using bottled salts and minerals from other onsens to make the water milky.
The township's mayor admitted that after a few thousand years of being milky, the main spring had begun turning clear several years ago, prompting proprietors to “seed” their baths. Some of them used salts extracted from Shirahone but others opted for cheaper salts from other resorts. The mayor argued that they were merely selling an image, not water, but several thousand customers disagreed and canceled their reservations.
The revelations also led to a series of confessions from onsen owners all over Japan who suddenly admitted they were falsely advertising heated tap water as natural spring water or were mixing tap water with natural water. As your humble editor understands it, in order to classify as an onsen, a resort must use only 100% naturally heated spring water with nothing added to it. The water may only be cooled by stirring it in pools on the surface or running it through cooling pipes surround by cold tap water. Anything else has to identify itself as using wakashiyuu, or boiled water.
An organization responsible for certifying Japanese onsens is now investigating over 2,000 onsens in Japan to make sure they are following the rules and are considering a new classification system to help prevent confusion.
The tizzy in Japanese baseball has continued unabated for the past four months. The drama has created at least one hero, brought down a powerful leader and has set in motion a long overdue transformation of the league.
After his offer to buy the Kintetsu (Railway) Buffaloes was ignored, Takafumi Horie, owner of Internet services provider livedoor, announced he would start a new team in Sendai. As owners were gearing up to ignore him again, Rakuten, Japan's largest Internet shopping mall, owner of the J-League soccer team Vissel Kobe and livedoor's number one rival, suddenly announced that, by colossal coincidence, it was considering creating a team in Northern Tokyo.
Both companies approached the baseball commissioner and the owners and asked what the procedures were for bringing a new team into the league (something that hasn't happened since 1954). The owners said that the procedures were that they would consider new applications in 2006. When livedoor and Rakuten asked why they had to wait until 2006 there then ensued an explanation that seemed rather disturbingly like the instructions for the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch:
The application shall be considered in 2006 and the time of the consideration shall be 2000 and 6. Thou shalt not consider an application in 2007 and neither shalt thou consider an application in 2005 unless thou thereafter continue hence to 2006 which shall be the time of the consideration the time of the consideration being 2006. 2004 is right out. Thus sayeth the Lords.
Rakuten and livedoor said they could live with that, in so far as they understood it, but wanted to know what the application procedures were as they wanted to start their preliminary work but the owners said they would tell them the procedures in 2006.
The players union finally got fed up and announced the players would strike, for two days, starting on Saturday, September 11, 2004 if their demands weren't met by 5:00 pm. on the 10th. Their key demands, among many others, were for the Kintetsu-Orix merger to be delayed and for a procedure to allow a new team in 2005 to be implemented. Things looked especially bleak for the players when the baseball commissioner, who is supposed to remain neutral and do what's best for Japanese baseball, stated that the players, by threatening a strike, were interfering with the rights of the owners.
At around 7:00 pm. on the 10th, Atsuya Furuta, star catcher for the Yakult (Yogurt Drinks) Swallows, and head of the players' union, announced that the players had agreed to postpone the strike until the next weekend. Furuta, who is a rugged, intelligent looking man who normally comes across as both energetic and photogenic on television looked glum and more than a bit shell shocked as he announced the delay. The owners did their best not to gloat, which wasn't, quite frankly, a very good job.
The general feeling in the press was that the players had blinked and that round one clearly went to the owners. Fans, however, were almost unanimous in their anger that the strike had been averted and announced they were solidly for the players. On the 17th, the players and owners once again went behind closed doors. A few hours after the 5:00 deadline, Furuta came out and announced the first strike in the 70 year history of the Japanese major leagues was on.
What followed was the most polite strike in the history of sports. Only 12 games were missed and, rather than picketing, the players instead participated in a nationwide series of autograph sessions and baseball mini-camps that were well attended and solidified the support of the fans. On Monday, as promised, the players were back in uniform playing games and the owners, who by some estimates lost a cumulative million dollars during the strike, soon capitulated to the threat of another strike. They agreed to add a new team in 2005 and to develop the procedures necessary to do so as soon as possible. However, they refused either to stop or to delay the Kintetsu-Orix merger. Oddly, only the fans were angry, wishing the strike had gone on longer.
Furuta suddenly emerged, not as a dumb jock, but as a savvy leader with a clearer business sense than most of the owners. Watanabe Owner eventually and surprisingly resigned as the head of the Yomiuri Group signalling that change was now free to happen and livedoor and Rakuten—which conveniently forgot its Northern Tokyo plan—quickly entered a bloody battle over which would get to start a team in Sendai. Both sides wooed city and prefectural leaders and announced their General Managers and Managers. Rakuten decided their team would be the Rakuten Tohoku Golden Eagles while livedoor's team would be the livedoor Phoenix.
Eventually, Rakuten won the battle to start the new team. This was based on three key advantages they had 1) They already manage a sports team and 2) they carefully stole livedoor's ideas and 3) their owner wears suits to press conferences while Horie kept up his tradition of wearing mostly t-shirts in public. Some owners, in a shameless bit of hypocrisy, were also “concerned” that livedoor allowed pornographic sites on its servers. (As opposed to the Yomiuri Group, which publishes several pornographic magazines and comic books.)
As if that were not enough of a tizzy, the Daiei supermarket chain, owner of the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks suddenly announced its on going financial crisis had worsened and it asked several banks to loan it money on the condition that the lenders lend the money 1) without requiring an audit and 2) without requiring any specific steps be taken by Daiei to alleviate the crisis. Fifteen years ago the answer would have been a resounding, dimwitted “okay” but this time the banks, under pressure from the government to clean up their bad loans, said “No way in hell.” Instead they insisted that Daiei turn over control of its core business to the government-funded Industrial Revitalization Corporation of Japan (ICRJ). The ICRJ, which is essentially a Japanese version of the Resolution Trust Corporation used to help resolve the US Savings and Loan crisis in the late 80's and early 90's can, in exchange for infusions of public money, force Daiei to take drastic measures to end its crisis, including a mandatory audit and the forced sales of money losing ventures, including the Hawks baseball team.
Daiei could offer no valid business reasons for keeping the Hawks given that it would lose the team anyway if it went bankrupt. It therefore, reluctantly, offered to sell the team. Computer hardware/software giant SoftMap quickly jumped in and has offered both to buy the team and to keep it in Fukuoka.
Finally, as if that were not enough, travel services company Kokudo, owner of the Seibu Railway Company and the Seibu Lions baseball team suddenly announced it was involved in a complex scandal involving the yakuza, graft, payola and lying about their earnings on their annual reports for over 20 years. As a result, Seibu is about to be de-listed from the Tokyo Stock Exchange and Kokudo is selling assets fast. It now looks like livedoor is the favorite to buy the Lions.
Nippon Telephone and Telegraph (NTT) recently announced it was considering eliminating the 72,000 yen (about 680 dollar) “deposit” it required of all individuals and companies seeking to get new telephone line installed.
NTT says the deposit, which has been around since 1954, when it was over 1,000 dollars and was used to help build the telephone network, is no longer needed and that's why they are pondering doing away with it.
The truth is that in the last five years, NTT has faced strong competition not only from the exponential growth of cellular phones, but also from line resellers who buy used lines and sell rights to them for as little 15,000-20,000 yen (142-187 dollars), usually including some form of broadband Internet connection as part of the deal. (Disclosure: Your humble editor's phone line and broadband connection were purchased from a reseller.)
Once paid, the line/fee acts as an asset that can be traded, seized for back taxes, used as collateral for loans and listed in corporate assets. The asset apparently never depreciates and therefore is often used to inflate book value. As a result, several different groups have risen up to oppose the elimination of the fee: line resellers; business owners using the deposit to inflate their book value; banks who will see the value of their collateral plunge; and the city government of Tokyo, which makes a handsome profit reselling lines seized for non-payment of taxes.
NTT has responded to the opposition by lowering the deposit to 36,000 yen, effective in January, thus giving new meaning to words “pondering” and “considering”.
In what is perhaps enough to drive a disturbing number of people toward religion, Japan has been beset by a relentless series of quasi-Biblical plagues during the latter half of this year.
No less than 10 typhoons made land during typhoon season. What's more, they usually hit in pairs, making the damage and loss of life more extensive than usual. In many cases, people had just gotten their homes back in order from the first typhoon when the second one hit. Damage in Kyushu and Shikoku has been extensive and hundreds have been killed. It was capped with Typhoon Tokage, the biggest to hit Japan since 1991, which left almost 100 people dead.
The typhoons, in turn, disrupted the food supply of Japan's black bears who are now foraging in villages and cities. From Gifu up to Aomori, more than 78 people have been injured in bear attacks, including seven in Niigata. (Your humble editor's in-laws recently had a bear roaming around their neighborhood.)
The prevelance of bear attacks has led to a bit of soul searching in Japan, which considers itself more in-tune with nature than the west, even as it dams rivers, covers its beaches in tetra pods, and chops down trees. On the one hand are those who consider the bears an integral part of the natural ecosystem and thus advocate returning them to their homes deep in the woods. After all, they say, it's not the bears' fault they can't find nuts and berries. On the other hand are large groups of elderly farmers shouting “Kill them! Kill them all!” and pointing out it's not their fault either that the food supply was disrupted.
The best suggestion your humble editor has heard involves feeding the excess deer in Nara and the excess monkeys in Nikko to the bears, thus solving three animal problems at once.
As if that were not enough, a volcano in Gifu started erupting and Niigata got hit with an earthquake. The Niigata earthquake, especially, has cast a bit of a pall on things as it's clear that the government has learned very little since Kobe in 1995. Resources were slow to arrive, rescue efforts were equally slow, and there's a huge flash-flood problem building as landslides have cut off the Imo river in five places and water is building up behind the obstructions. In some cases the water is reaching the second floors of houses that survived the initial quake.
The Construction and Transport Ministry, which is responsible for dealing with the latter situation, responded to the problem by changing the official name of the blockages from tennen-damu (natural dam) to kado-heisoku (a water-blockage caused by a landslide) as they figured the former put too positive a spin on the situation. (As usual, I couldn't make that up. --DL)
The aftershocks, of all kinds, are still continuing in Niigata.
Prime Minister Koizumi discovered, as many US presidents have, that sometimes the best place to be when problems beset your country is someplace else. He therefore went on a big tour of Central and South America, that included a particularly embarrassing stop in Brazil.
During a speech to a group of Japanese-Brazilians, Koizumi broke into tears as he described the warm reception he'd received from the people. The Japanese press were surprisingly speechless as they didn't really know what to think. Your humble editor, being never, if ever, cynical, thinks Koizumi was moved to tears by the site of beaches overrun with droves of Brazilian women in thong-bikinis.
Koizumi finished his trip by throwing out an impressive first pitch during the Yankees-Redsocks series that, although it was nowhere near the strike zone, at least had a bit of force behind it.
Since getting back, however, Koizumi has been under a bit of political pressure. First he openly declared he hoped Bush would win the US election and was forced to say that what he meant was that because Bush was his friend he hoped to see him again in an official capacity not that he was choosing sides in the presidential race. A few other LDP politicians made similar claims, mostly in regards to Bush's policy toward North Korea, which your humble editor is hard pressed to describe, but of which the pro-Bush group in Japan seemed very certain.
Second, Koizumi was faced with yet another hostage crisis, when a young film student wandered into Iraq “out of curiosity” and came back in two pieces. Upon hearing the young lad had been taken hostage, Koizumi declared he would not negotiate and the man was killed soon thereafter. Many blame Koizumi for his death. The foreign ministry remains amazed that there are still people who won't heed their very reasonable suggestion against travelling to Iraq.
Finally, Japanese Ground Self-Defense Forces in Samawah in Southern Iraq have recently been shot at with mortar and rocket-propelled grenade fire. When confronted by both this turn of events and his promise that Samawah was safe, Koizumi pulled a page from his good friend George W.'s playbook (which was copied, in all fairness, from William J's playbook) and declared he'd never said, before sending the GSDF, that Samawah was safe. When people pointed out that he had, in fact, said it was safe, he pointed out that all he'd said was that it wasn't a war zone.
Many people, surprisingly, didn't feel a sense of relief.
Shinzo Abe, whom long term sufferers will remember from his work with the five returnees from North Korea, stepped down as the Secretary General of the LDP in a move that all but announced his intention to run for Prime Minister when Koizumi decides to retire. What's more, to secure the vote of the ultra-right, he also declared that, if he were Prime Minister, he would go to Yasakuni Shrine as Prime Minister and not as himself. This is in contrast to Koizumi who goes as himself and not as Prime Minister.
This all makes sense if you've been in Japan too long.