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The saga of Foreign Minister Tanaka ended in surprising fashion last Tuesday at around midnight when Prime Minister Koizumi announced that Tanaka was officially fired, as was her Vice-Minister, Mr. Nogami. Also included in the massacre was Muneo Suzuki, the head of the Lower House Steering Committee (one of the key committee's in the Diet) who was asked/offered to resign.

How we reached this point is truly bizarre. Last month, Japan hosted an international meeting to beg aid for Afghanistan. Everyone from Colin Powell to Kharzaid was there and, for a two day meeting, things seemed to go pretty well except for one, seemingly minor thing: at the end of the first day, Tanaka held a joint press conference with the leaders of two NGO's: Peacewinds Japan and Japan Something-or-Other (not its real name.) The two NGO's were complaining that, despite their history (albeit a short one) of working to assist Afghanistan--especially in mine removal--they were unfairly excluded from the international gathering. Tanaka said that she was unaware of this and complained that someone in her ministry was making decisions without telling her. She ordered the ministry to allow the NGO's to attend as observers, which they did.

A few days later (January 24th) during a Diet session, Naoto Kan, a leader of the opposition Democratic Party, asked Tanaka to explain why the NGO's had been excluded. She came to the microphone and announced that Vice Minister Nogami had told her in a phone conversation that Muneo Suzuki had asked him to exclude the NGO's. Nogami stood up and said that Tanaka had misspoken. He'd never mentioned Suzuki's name. (This is subtle Japanese for "Liar, liar, pants on fire.") Suzuki, in a later TV interview, openly called Tanaka a liar. The fight was on and, as you might expect, the Japanese press missed the point.

To the press it was a simple case of "Is Tanaka lying?" and another example of her big mouth getting her in trouble. The bigger implication, which they seemed oblivious too, was "Who lied, under oath, in the Diet?" To make matters worse, they seemed to completely miss the implications of Nogami's admission. If he was telling the truth, he was admitting to running the Foreign Ministry without consulting, or informing the Foreign Minister of his decisions--a questionable, if not illegal act. If he was lying, he was not only perjuring himself, he was guilty of allowing an outsider to bend Japan's foreign policy, even over what was basically a benign event. Either way, it wasn't a good thing.

The NGOs then came out and said that yes, Suzuki had been attacking them for at least two months, even going so far as to prevent an earlier Help the Afghans Conference from getting official sanction. He had even held a meeting with them where he threatened to cut off their government funding. (In Japan, you see, they apparently don't realize that NGO means NON-governmental organization.) They traced the cause of the fight back to a published interview where the head of Peacewinds said he didn't trust the government. After that, he said, Suzuki made them his pet project and even boasted he had power over the Foreign Ministry (As head of the Lower House Steering Committee, Suzuki essentially controlled the government's purse strings. Hence, his ability to threaten the NGOs' funding.) Suzuki, although admitting to all the meetings, denied he was attempting to intimidate or damage them. He also admitted to making the phone call to Nogami, but denied he was pressuring the ministry and denied he asked that the NGOs be excluded.

In just a couple days, the fight between the three got ugly. Suzuki, who has always been the LDP's fast-talking attack dog, was chasing after every reporter he could find to accuse Tanaka of lying and Tanaka broke down in tears asking "why is my word less believable than Suzuki and Nogami's?" When asked about this particular incident, Koizumi responded, ominously, "Tears are a woman's greatest weapon."

The opposition jumped on that quote: Takako Doi, leader of the Social Democratic Party, used her question time to ask Koizumi: "If tears are a woman's greatest weapon, is irresponsibility a man's?" In fact, women all over Japan were angry about Koizumi's comment. Women, long time sufferers will remember, were one of the key forces behind Koizumi's stratospheric popularity. They also were big fans of Tanaka. Then, sensing an opportunity to damage the LDP, the opposition walked out of budget talks on January 29th, preventing passage of a supplementary budget. (Remember, the LDP could pass it without them, but they need the opposition present to give a sense that an actual debate took place and give the bill legitimacy.) The official reason for the walkout was the government's unwillingness to properly resolve the issue of who was lying and who was telling the truth in the Tanaka/Suzuki/Nogami feud.

Koizumi, desperate to pass the supplementary budget, even though it was exactly the kind of thing he promised he WOULDN'T pass when he was campaigning for PM, did exactly what you might expect him to do, even though this was another thing he promised he wouldn't do: He executed everyone involved. Japan, you must keep in mind, hates conflict more than it relishes truth. If two parties are having a fight, both are at fault and must be shut up. Therefore, Tanaka's troubles with her subordinates were not caused by her ministry's resistance to her reforms, they were the result of her failure to cooperate with her subordinates. Similarly, industrial whistle-blowers are often treated very badly over here because of the trouble they cause and even people who want their face on television often have their faces blocked out if they are talking about something unpleasant or damaging.

The Japanese in general, and the press in particular, were stunned. No one had imagined it would go this far as no one imagined Koizumi would risk his popularity over such a silly incident. (It also bothered people that the firing was done at around midnight, when very few people were watching TV.) Another thing overlooked, though later pointed out by a foreign writer, is that Chief Cabinet Secretary Fukuda (the rough equivalent of the Chief of Staff in the USA) is the son of the man Tanaka's father trounced to become Prime Minister. His advice to fire Tanaka may have been a case of the son avenging the father. Fukuda was present, according to Tanaka, when Koizumi fired her.

As Naoto Kan pointed out, we still don't know who was perjuring themself. Koizumi didn't resolve that issue. As the head of yet another opposition party said: "This is the most pathetic government in the world and it has to end."

The fallout from this has been staggering: the NGO's provided even more evidence of Suzuki's threats and intimidation and a number of Foreign Ministry bureaucrats have said Nogami mentioned Suzuki by name in a key meeting to decide the inclusion or exclusion of the NGOs. Koizumi may have taken a fatal hit. As of yesterday his popularity had dropped from 74.2% to 51.5%. This is the biggest drop in Japanese history and surpasses even former PM Mori's "Kami no kuni/Divine nation" drop. (Mori's drop, about 17.5 points, is actually the third biggest. The number two man dropped 21% and lasted only seven-and-a-half more months as PM.) The general consensus is that Koizumi's strength has been his popularity--accompanied with the power/threat to call a Lower House election. He has, however, always seemed dumbfounded about what to do with it.

One Japanese writer said Koizumi's popularity was actually a false popularity, based more on promise than delivery. Your humble editor thinks this is a fair assessment. Koizumi's administration has always been about potential yet he's never had the nerve to openly challenge his own party. Then, he blows everything in what one fellow teacher--a Japanese--called "business as usual." To him, it's proof that Japan is still not a true democracy. Rather it's a bureaucracy run by shadowy figures who went to impressive universities. (This man, incidentally, despises Tanaka and considered her a bad choice from the beginning, but is hopping mad about her treatment.)

Reform, therefore, is apparently dead, although many still pay lip service to it. The stock market is falling almost as fast as Koizumi's popularity. The yen is at 135, great if you're a Japanese car maker, lousy if you import goods or send money home. Unemployment is at 5.6%. Great hair, Mr. Prime Minister. Too bad about the spine.
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Long term sufferers of this venerable institution will remember the story of Snow Brand Milk and how they caused the largest case of food poisoning in Japanese history by, among other things, mixing outdated milk with fresh milk and mixing milk outside in a non-refrigerated vat. Long Term Sufferers will also remember the discussion of Japan's first cases of BSE in the last issue. Well, Snow Brand is back, probably for the last time, and wouldn't you know it, it's because of BSE. Sort of.

After the cases of BSE were made public, the government, in an attempt to save the beef industry, announced an emergency subsidy program. The government would buy up all domestic beef produced before a specific date and dispose of it. This would allow the beef producers to cut their losses and help clean up all potentially hazardous beef.

This plan seemed to be going smoothly until about two weeks ago when a warehouse owner announced that Snow Brand Foods--an SB Milk subsidiary--had repackaged Australian beef and labeled it as domestic beef in order to take advantage of the subsidies. (For inexplicable reasons, most having to do with subsidies and price controls, here in Japan, imported beef is generally cheaper than domestic beef.) Snow Brand would therefore clean up both its stock of domestic beef and its stock of foreign beef--neither of which are selling very well now--while making a handsome profit.

To do this, according to the warehouse owner, Snow Brand was very subtle: 1) They shipped a bunch of empty domestic beef boxes to his warehouse; 2) the next day, eight Snow Brand workers showed up at the warehouse and ordered that the entire stock of Australian beef be brought to them; 3) after the beef was brought to them, they ordered the warehouse workers to wait outside; 4) they asked the warehouse workers to dispose of the empty Australian beef boxes; and 5) as the eight left, they asked the warehouse workers to print new labels, including false dates, for all the beef and boxes. (Which they did, of course, rather than risk losing Snow Brand's business. Result: loss of Snow Brand's business.)

The public reaction was immediate and brutal. Store owners pulled ALL Snow Brand products off the shelves and consumers have joined them in what is essentially an angry boycott. Beef sales, just barely creeping back, have stalled again. Your humble editor has never seen such anger from the Japanese before. Your humble editor was also expecting the opposite revelation: that potentially hazardous domestic beef had been repackaged as Australian or Kansas beef. (He was not aware of the subsidies at the time.) It's gotten so bad, Snow Brand Group subsidiaries are being allowed to change their logos and their names away from the Snow Brand snowflake. The general consensus is, Snow Brand, which had just crawled back from the milk fiasco, is now dead. They've already begun firing people.

Why the warehouse owner suddenly grew a conscience and reported all this we will perhaps never know. What we do know, after a brief investigation is that at least three Snow Brand divisions did the same scam, with orders from above, and that well over 50-60 tons of beef may have been repackaged, relabeled and destroyed. Also, it has been learned Snow Brand Foods has been repackaging imported beef as domestic beef for a long time in order to take advantage of the price difference. This has also brought pressure on the Agricultural Ministry and the Ag Minister. Not only have they badly bungled the Mad Cow outbreak, but people want to know where the hell the government's agriculture inspectors were during all this. Yesterday, the Ag Minister survived a no-confidence vote, even though members of his own party are calling for his resignation

By the way, if you're keeping score:

Foreign Minister Tanaka: Rude, loud, uncouth. Surprisingly naive for a lifelong politician (She shouldn't have mentioned Suzuki by name.) Failed to get along with members of her ministry. May have lied. Result: Fired.

Agriculture Minister: Mismanaged BSE outbreak. Has endangered the health of every man, woman and child in Japan. Has all but destroyed the Japanese beef industry. Result: Still working.
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Crime and Punishment Supplement:

Along with loosening Japan's restrictions on overseas military participation a few months ago, the government also granted the Coast Guard the right to fire back if fired upon. This is partly the result of September 11, but also the result of the mystery shop that led the Coast Guard on a wild chase a couple years ago. Then, in late December, another unidentified boat entered Japanese waters. Immediately, 25 ships and a dozen planes and helicopters began chasing it. When one Coast Guard vessel pulled along side the mystery ship, it took submachine gun fire and was forced to pull back. Later, the mystery ship, if you believe the infra-red video--The SDF got all this on video, by the way--fired a Rocket Propelled Grenade at another ship. The SDF then responded by firing "18 warning shots. 13 directly at the boat." (That's a direct quote.) Needless to say, the ship sank--although the government tried to sell the possibility it scuttled itself. Unfortunately, the issue is complicated by the fact that the SDF chased the mystery ship into Chinese waters, ruffling the feathers of all of Asia. The US response was, more or less, "please don't start a second front, yet."

What worries your humble editor is that the Japanese police have been given a similar right to fire and we've already had dozens of police related shootings. The police have been so trigger happy, the ministry has been forced to put its officers through some actual weapons training and impulse control classes.

World Cup fans planning on coming to Japan: You have been warned. (again.)
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Late last year, a man named Chida from Aomori prefecture was caught after embezzling almost 12 million dollars from the Aomori prefectural government over a period of about eight years. Investigations showed that the most of the money had been stolen in the last five years. By remarkable coincidence, it turned out that Chida had married a woman from Chile about five years before and, by remarkable coincidence, the wife--who lived in Chile--had 1) a two-million dollar mansion 2) a popular night club and 3) enough money to build a hospital. Further investigation showed, not surprisingly, that the man had sent most of the money to Chile.

Although the man has been mostly incommunicado, the wife, Anita, became something of a minor celebrity here in Japan. (She still has most of her looks, although her hair always looks like she just got out of bed after some serious sex.) She's also outspoken, fast talking and doesn't always wear a bra. She met her husband when she was working at a hostess club here in Japan and she fell in love with his charm, wit and expensive presents. Their accounts differ after this. She claims he never explained where the money was coming from. He now claims she knew and that she ambushed him in the Santiago Airport and forced him to sign a marriage agreement. Either way, she's not giving the money back and won't come to Japan to be interviewed/arrested. People in Aomori want to know how Chida was able to steal that much money without anyone noticing. Turns out he was the person in charge of inspecting the books and making sure there was no irregularities or corruption.
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In Nagano prefecture, a group of Prefectural Assembly members created a small scandal when it was revealed they'd spent about 10,000-18,000 dollars each for trips to Europe. The reason: they were all members of a tourism commission and were doing research that would help revitalize Nagano's dwindling tourism industry. To do this they flew business or first class, stayed in 5 star hotels and one man even charged an AS Roma game to the prefecture. When asked about all this the reasons were great: Business class: "It's a long trip. I needed space so I could relax" (one presumes to keep a clear head for all that research.) On 5 star hotels. "I wanted to see how the rooms were arranged so I could make recommendations to Nagano's hotels." On AS Roma (Nakata's team at the time): That's something I'll need to reflect on.

Your humble editor's favorite response came when the press asked a particularly crotchety old Assemblyman about using taxpayers' money like this. He literally turned red, looked ready to explode and walked off saying: "Don't talk about spending taxpayers' money. That's our job. That makes it okay."
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The men (the white team) won the annual NHK New Years Eve Red and White Music Contest. For those who don't know, the Kohaku (Red and White) is a four hour song contests with "popular" female singers (red team) versus "popular" male singers (white team)--i.e. young pop stars and Enka singing friends of the NHK president. It is the most watched show on Japanese TV and comes across a bit like The Lawrence Welk Show combined with Hee-Haw, The Ed Sullivan Show and Donnie and Marie. The men put on a surprisingly entertaining show backed up by attractive women (most of the judges were men) and the dead. (One singer did a duet with a video of a man who died last year. Think Natalie Cole and Nat King Cole and you've got it.)

Surprisingly, SMAP, despite its popularity, was excluded from the show, mostly as a result of the legal problems Goro SMAP has been having. However, just last month, Goro returned from his forced exile and the Fab Five are whole again. For better or worse.

It was recently announced that, as of the end of March, two long-running shows will be discontinued. First, the late night sex, videogame and snack food spectacle Tonight2 will be cancelled. (It's been going down hill for a long time, actually, and has gotten so tame that even the former porn director who does a segment every Thursday night has been focusing on ramen rather than raunch.) Sunday night star vehicle Asayan will also be cancelled. Asayan is a kind of star search, where we follow the birth of a singer or group from the first cattle call to the release of their first single. Along the way we witness things that border on child abuse and mental cruelty and produce, on occasion, a decent single. Despite the success of many of the groups it's created, apparently the show isn't doing that well.

Not much elso to report. More as I know it.


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Written February 2002
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