After over forty years of spitting out only X chromosomes, the Royal family and thousands of ultra-conservative Japanese nationalists have received a bundle of joy a few weeks ago when Princess Kiko, wife of the Emperor's second son Prince Akishino, delivered a baby boy.
The first announcement of the Princess' pregnancy came, suspiciously, the day Prime Minister Koizumi was bringing to the Diet a proposal to change the succession rules and allow females to once again sit on the Chrysanthemum Throne. This has led scores of people (i.e. your humble editor) to suspect a major conspiracy. To wit: Princess Kiko was kept out of the public eye during most of her pregnancy and when she did venture into public she didn't seem especially pregnant. A month before her due date she was diagnosed with placental previa and conveniently hidden away in the hospital and the baby was eventually delivered via caesarian section. Even the news reports were muddled: "The baby was delivered minutes after a successful C-section." Your humble editor doesn't consider that news . "The baby was delivered HOURS after the successful C-section." THAT would be news. Also, your humble thought a successful C-section WAS the delivery.
Barely a week later, the princess walked out of the hospital looking as thin as she had before her pregnancy, showed about one third of the baby's face to the cameras and ran for her car. Your humble editor suspects 1) the royal family bought a baby boy or 2) they swapped the baby girl Kiko actually had for a boy or 3) we should all be on the look out for a grave with a dead jackal in it.
Either way, the issue of changing succession rules seems to be on the backburner for at least another 40 years. Especially as almost 80% of Japanese have said they would support a female monarch.
As of this past April, all electrical appliances made before 2002 will be illegal to sell unless they are certified as safe. The rule has musicians and recycle shop owners up in arms.
Under the Electrical Appliance and Material Safety Law, every electrical item made before 2002 from vintage Fender amplifiers to washing machines to rice cookers to photo enlargers must bear a PSE (Product Safety Electrical Appliance and Materials) sticker that certifies its safety in order to sold. The law was passed by the Diet with surprising stealth in 2001, an immediate five year hold was placed on it and it was almost literally shoved into a drawer. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry placed an announcement somewhere on its website but didn't announce it on the home page. It also didn't bother announcing the changes via the traditional media. As a result, when the announcement came in late 2005 that the five year hold would be ending in early 2006, everyone wondered what the heck they were talking about.
METI, which clearly expected no one would care about the new law, even though such great extremes had been taken to keep it secret, was clearly surprised by the negative reaction. It quickly made an exception for "vintage" musical items without expressly explaining what constituted vintage. As an acquaintance of your humble editor once wrote: "Some things are classic. Some things are just old."[*]
What intrigues your humble editor about all this is the eerie silence of the Japanese press who are second to none when it comes to scaring the public on behalf of the government. They run stories about little old ladies being conned, robbed, and murdered to justify police cameras and sting operations; they run endless reports about dangerous elevators and revolving doors to encourage regulation and damage foreign companies; to support the ban on US beef, they've run several stories about a family in England who believe their daughter contracted CJD from BSE in British beef. Yet on this issue, we've not seen a single story about a high school kid killed by a defective amplifier or an old woman electrocuted by her toaster oven.
Your humble editor suspects this is all a ploy to kill the second-hand goods business, which has steadily eaten away at the new product market and which remains, for the most part, an unregulated free market. Flea market sales are excluded, except for people who earn their living selling goods in flea markets. The government has offered no standards for determining the difference but your humble editor suspects it will involve governmental intrusion into the flea market business.
Also, as recycle shop owners may buy testing kits and certify that goods are safe by themselves, the other result of the law is that product liability is transferred to the store owner and not the manufacturer.
Almost immediately, recycle shop owners began looking for loopholes. The most popular idea is "leasing" non-PSE items and then giving the items away to the leasee when the lease is up.
[*]For those who don't know, the same musician, Bob Walkenhorst, formerly of The Rainmakers, is also the author of the song "Long Gone Long" from which this issue blatantly steals its title.[back]
US beef is once again back on the menu, sort of, in Japanese restaurants. After stalling for as long as it could, the Japanese government finally lifted the ban on US beef. The ban had been lifted earlier this year, but one US producer shipped t-bone steaks and other products with spinal material and Japan temporarily reinstated the ban. For the record, your humble editor volunteered to dispose of the steaks by incinerating them to a nice medium rare, grinding them up with his teeth and dissolving them in stomach acid.
Japan used the second ban to run a last minute scare campaign. The Agriculture Ministry held town meetings in agricultural regions and were shocked, SHOCKED to discover that Japanese beef producers preferred Japanese beef to US beef. They were also shocked, SHOCKED to discover that pork producers (who by colossal coincidence have been making a fortune the last few years) also preferred to keep the ban on US beef in place. Several surveys were conducted with purely objective questions apparently along the lines of "Would you rather eat safe beef or US beef?" and, surprisingly, according to the press, people tended to prefer safe beef.
The Japanese press dutifully ran scare stories, including interviewing the aforementioned British family who are convinced their daughter got CJD from tainted British beef—a redundant phrase if ever there was one—without ever showing exactly what that had to do with US beef. (One presumes that CJD contracted from Japanese beef would be just as bad as that contracted from US beef.)
Several restaurant chains have begun serving US beef, but supplies have been spotty, mostly thanks to rules banning import of cattle over 20 months old and the deliberate sloth of the inspectors. Yoshinoya, Japan's largest rice bowl chain, is serving beef bowl once a month and will put it back on the menu full time in December.
In the mean time, feed lots in Hokkaido have been caught using the illegal animal-based feed that causes BSE and illegal pesticides have been discovered on several farms. The official story on the latter, of course, was that Japanese farmers were not breaking the law; rather the pesticide flew in on the wind from China.
Workers in the prefectural office of Gunma Prefecture have been systematically embezzling tax money for the last 12 years. This is not much of a surprise. That they've managed to steal over 14 million dollars during that time is.
Most of the money was acquired through false travel claims, either by claiming trips that didn't exist or by claiming expenses for travelers who didn't participate in the trip. The money went to various sources, including a local charity, drinking parties and the prefectural workers' pension fund. There was a rumor that nearly six million yen (about 51,000 dollars) had, literally, been burned, but the workers making the claim later recanted and admitted they'd spent the money on parties.
The prefecture's former governor originally denied that any money had been stolen at all. Then, after investigators proved money had been stolen, he denied his involvement. After evidence surfaced he'd not only condoned the embezzling but had actually benefited from it by putting money in his retirement fund, he vowed (with bureaucratic logic) never to give back even a single yen because the money was for his retirement and people shouldn't have to give up a happy retirement after sacrificing so much for the prefecture as a public servant. (Something like that.)
To make matters worse, it now appears that seven suspended workers are being supported by a union slush fund established with the stolen money.
Shinzo Abe was recently elected as the president of the Liberal Democratic Party and will soon be sworn in as Japan's next Prime Minister. He's the son of Shintaro Abe, a former secretary-general of the LDP, and the grandson of former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi. He is also an unapologetic nationalist.
Abe's won a lot of kudos for his work with the families of abductees to North Korea. As a politician his basic theme is national pride, ala Ronald Reagan (Morning in Japan?) and he seems intent on revising or ignoring Article 9 of the Japanese constitution and instituting the military as a cabinet level position and allowing Japanese forces to operate in United Nations operations. (Presently the Self-Defense force is an extra-governmental organization and not referred to as an "army".) He has said that improving relations with China and Korea is paramount for Japan's future but he also regularly visits Yasakuni Shrine which is bound to strain relations. That said 1) at least, unlike Koizumi, Abe can say his visits are nothing new and 2) your humble editor suspects that China will always find something to complain about.
With Korea, he's unlikely to deal with the Dokudo/Takeshima Island dispute (both countries claim the island and, more importantly, the fishing and drilling rights that come with it) in any constructive way and the Yasakuni visits and pressure against North Korea will not make him popular in Korea. (Not that much would.)
Domestically, he's promised to continue Koizumi's governmental and fiscal reforms. He seems less keen on raising the consumption tax than the rest of his party, but Abe doesn't have the personality to publicly take on the ministries and force them to cut back on waste and corruption which means a tax increase is inevitable. (Your humble editor hopes he will at least keep it in single digits rather than the 17% that's been tossed around in the press.)
It will also be interesting to see if he can keep the LDP's penchant for factional politics, which Koizumi stomped masterfully, in check. If he can't, he could be doomed to a short term in office and Japan's revolving door Prime Ministership will begin again with a vengeance.
Former livedoor CEO Takafumi Horie spent three months in jail before finally being released on bail. Because he refused to confess, prosecutors had originally openly scoffed at the idea of bail, but eventually let him out to enjoy 24 hours surveillance and limits on his ability to use the phone and email. His trial began this month and he surprised a lot of people by pleading innocent, even though four co-workers, including his CFO have confessed to wrong-doing and claim he knew what was going on. Horie's lawyers claim that not only did he not know what was going on, but that what was going on was not illegal.
Yoshiaki Murakami, head of M&A Consulting and one of Japan's new generation of Michael Milkenesque financiers, recently pleaded guilty to insider trading and solved the mystery of how Horie was able to acquire controlling interest of NBS (which long term sufferers will remember from a previous issue.) in only 20 minutes. It seems Murakami and Horie were playing golf one day and Horie let slip he intended to takeover NBS. Murakami, who had controlling interest at the time, then offered his shares for sale at exactly the moment Horie said he would start buying. Inexplicably, Horie has not been charge for this, which is as blatant an act of insider trading as your humble editor's ever seen.
In dusty and decayed news: Princess Nori, only daughter of the Emperor, was married late last year and immediately stripped of her Princesship. Not only was the marriage a surprise (The Princess is, in blind date code, "A really sweet girl with a great personality".) but even more surprising was the relatively paltry 1.3 million she received as a parting gift. She's now working as an ornithologist and is known as Sayako Kuroda. Her husband, Yoshiki Kuroda, works for the Tokyo municipal government and will go down in history as the first commoner without aristocratic background to marry a princess. Rumor has it that 1.3 million doesn't go as far as it used to and the couple might be looking at retirement on a pension.
Finally, earlier this year, singer Minako Honda, a beautiful and surprisingly talented singer, died of cancer at age 38. She was known as Japan's "Madonna" for her sexy outfits and is most famous for her performance as Kim in Miss Saigon. Unfortunately, before she died she recorded a cover of "Amazing Grace". This has spawned both a small boom of dramas playing her version in the background and no less than two other versions. The two singers in question, Mika Nakashima and Ua are amazingly talented and their versions are impressive; however, one can only hear "Amazing Grace" so many times without going insane. Your humble editor's fast approaching that line.