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The Long Arm of the Law – How a paper fan can get you fired

Click for article in Tokyo Weekender

You are a minister on the campaign trail trying to manufacture popularity for an upcoming election. You and your election team decide to take to the streets to distribute some promotional freebies. You print your name, face, a heartfelt slogan and a snapshot of your local policy platform onto a cheap sheet of round paper or cardboard. So far so good. Then, you notice it is 30 degrees celsius outside, so you attach a handle onto the leaflet, make it into a fan, and hand them out to sweaty constituents at a summer festival. Ok, now you have gone too far. You are fired.

Midori Matsushima, now former Justice Minister, did exactly this with her leaflet (pictured left) and was later forced to resign this month amid accusations of vote-buying. According to opposition DPJ lawmaker, Renho Murata, because Matsushima’s leaflet came with a handle and a fan-like frame, it was technically an ‘uchiwa’ (a paper fan). According to Renho, this qualifies as a ‘donation’ of ‘an item of monetary value,’ which is a violation of Article 139 of the Public Office Election Law (Japanese link). The Electoral Commission agreed with Renho.

Cue a flurry of fan-related political assaults across the parliamentary floor in both directions. Renho Murata, having led the attack against Matsushima, then faced questions herself regarding her own round paper leaflet (pictured right), which she had distributed while campaigning for election to the House of Councillors in 2010. In response, she maintained that without a handle or frame, her leaflet does not fit the traditional definition of an ‘uchiwa’ and is therefore perfectly legitimate. The Electoral Commission agreed with her, again, and her non-uchiwa leaflet got the green light.

So, what are we to make of all this triviality? For one, pushing legal loopholes is a very dangerous game. The prohibition against ‘donations’ or distributing ‘items of monetary value’ is a minefield of legal ambiguity that is as easy to get entangled in as it is to exploit. Take, for example, Article 139’s ban on serving any food or drink during an election campaign, ‘except tea and some sweets that are served only ordinarily.’ This means in theory that serving an extra cookie with a mildly expensive brand of tea could make the difference between lawful hospitality and an illicit indulgence of corrupt intent.

Indeed, if one were to take a fastidious interpretation of a clause as vague as a prohibition on ‘items of monetary value,’ then one could reasonably outlaw Renho’s leaflet too, for while it might not much resemble an effective ‘uchiwa’, it could certainly resemble a coaster/ place mat, or mouse-pad, or dartboard, or makeshift poopascoopa, or wobbly table stabiliser, or a myriad of other items.

But did she design the leaflet with such intent? Well, here marks the outer layer of the law – an area of almost unintelligible legal ambiguity (termed ‘zaruhou’ in Japanese). It is the frontier, the penumbra, the gray area of regulatory loopholes where the letter of the law ends and the drama of interpretation begins. Here is the quarrelsome task of determining when an act of self-defence becomes murder; when a genuine campaign contribution becomes a bribe; when harmless hospitality becomes self-serving indulgence – or, if you are in Japan, when a leaflet becomes a fan.

Just days after Matshushima’s disgraced ‘uchiwa’ was brandished in parliament, another fan-like leaflet came under investigation, this one belonging to LDP Deputy Defence Minister, Akira Satō. This leaflet – definitely an ‘uchiwa’ – was approved without spectacle, however, because it had been placed at a reception desk, rather than actively distributed.

When you work in an industry obsessed with scoring points and saving face in front of the voting public, the line between legal and illegal, job and no job, can become deceptively blurry. And it tends to turn politics into something of a fanfare – the kind of fanfare that convenes multiple times to debate nuances in the definition of a fan; that makes a politician as high up as Matsushima, Justice Minister, equivocate on what is clearly an ‘uchiwa’; that can get Matsushima’s ‘uchiwa’ (costing a mere 80 yen a piece to make) sold in Yahoo auctions for 16,500 yen; and that can doubtless make anti-politics cynicism regrettably more fashionable.


The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima – The (Mostly) True Story of a Budding Buddhist Pyromaniac

The protagonist Mizoguchi – an ugly, troubled boy with a horrendous stammer – is a Zen Buddhist acolyte at the much-enamoured Golden Temple in Kyoto after the war. Growing up with such terrible afflictions, he comes to both love and hate the Golden Temple  – the perfect conception of Beauty and the source of his torment. Though a seemingly amoral character, Mizoguchi tries to rationalise the hatred he begins to feel for the Golden Temple, ultimately leading him to burn it down. He does this using Zen aphorisms – the Koan.

The following passage in the Rinsairokyu is used three times throughout the book and is repeated right before Mizoguchi does the terrible deed:

“When ye meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha! When ye meet your ancestor, kill your ancestor! When ye meet a disciple of Buddha, kill the disciple! When ye meet your father and mother, kill your father and mother! When ye meet your kin, kill your kin! Only thus will ye attain deliverance. Only thus will ye escape the trammels of material things and become free”.

He explains his abject hatred for the material world also when he talks of Tsukumogami-ki and opening “the eyes of men” to the spiritless nature of objects and material things. He implies that objectifying beauty in the Golden Temple only deceives the “hearts of men”, and in order to free men from their attachments to the material world, the Golden Temple must to be destroyed.

Contrary to the suggestion of Nancy Wilson Ross in the introduction, this is not simply the fault of “dogmatic teaching methods” or “modern conventions” in Zen Buddhism, because it is grounded in the doctrinal core of the “self-enlightenment” project and the contempt for the material world embodied within. I commend Mishima and Mizoguchi for shining a light and a fire on this apocalyptic nihilism and its Buddhist underpinnings.

Both Mishima and his translator, Ivan Morris, manage to pull off some brilliant description in the book. That said, I know not Morris, but Mishima is to blame for some of the drawn-out superfluous description in parts, particularly at the climax where Mishima dedicates nearly a whole page to the non-sequitur issue of a faulty alarm bell and the Deacon’s attempts to arrange for a competent repairman to fix it. It rather slowed everything down a little, I thought.

Stay At Home Generation – why are young Japanese inward-looking?

Click here for article in Tokyo Weekender

Japan’s next generation is increasingly saying no to study opportunities abroad, with latest government figures showing the number of Japanese international students now at a 15-year low after six continuous years of decline. As China, Korea and India continue to lead global figures in cosmopolitan education, the latest figures in Japan raise concerns of a revival of its age-old reputation as an inward nation.

So, what has caused it?

There is correlation, without necessarily proving causation, between when the first year the so-called “yutori generation” reached university (2005) and when the numbers of Japanese international students started to decline. That generation was schooled under the policy of Yutori education, or “pressure-free education” – a system introduced in the 90s (and discontinued since) that cut school hours by 10% and the curriculum by 30% in order, it was hoped, to produce more well-rounded children, unsullied by academic rigour and competition. It even changed the value of pi in primary school textbooks to “about 3”! Some commentators have blamed it for a drop in academic standards, as well as for its having produced unambitious and unmotivated students who, among other things, are less willing to test themselves in foreign environments.

Recent trends in employment could also be a factor. With companies turning increasingly away from more expensive, highly-protected, life-time employment (seishain) and towards cheaper, less-protected, contractual employment (keiyakushain), the stakes have been raised for Japanese students entering domestic job markets to secure more scarcely available life-time work. This has arguably had the effect of turning studying abroad into something of an unwelcome distraction, especially when there is a lack of career support available to Japanese international students, and when “studying in an overseas university offers no benefit to job-hunting in Japan”, as a survey by Genron NPO, a policy think tank, found to be the second most common reason (46.2%) for a disinterest in studying abroad.

It is true that studying abroad has not traditionally been considered an employable attribute in Japan, since Japanese companies have long preferred a “blank canvas” of new recruits, easily moldable and trainable into the image of a particular company. Unlike, the “ready-made labour force” that Americans, for example, present themselves as, Japanese students are, to borrow from author and anthropologist, Chie Nakane, “potential labour” who rely on companies for tutelage but whose lack of experience is by no means a disadvantage. The rich experience of studying abroad then, appears to offer little practical gain in Japan and thus sometimes struggles to warrant its lavish price tag.

Daiki Kumano, a business student at Rikkyo University, thinks conversely that there is plenty to be gained from studying abroad and enough appetite in the job market for students with such experience. He says, though, that the “traditional” character of his university actively discourages wander-lusting students like himself from studying abroad. “Senior professors said we should prioritize job-hunting … and take part in an internship program instead,” Daiki says. He has opted alternatively to go to Seattle to study.

The path to work in Japan is indeed very narrow and one-dimensional – precisely why study abroad students cannot get the support they need. Nanami Fukuda, for example, who came back to Japan after studying for four years at a university in England, says she “felt left out of the system”.

“The job-hunting madness hit me when I came back” she continues. “It was like a culture shock. I was completely removed from the job-hunting process that everybody goes through at Japanese universities, and had to find a job on my own. And the longer I spent looking for a job, the more it looked to interviewers like I was doing nothing”.

Other paths to work may conceivably be forged when employers take heed of initiatives such as participation in Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and step up efforts to recruit young Japanese with international skills. Then, labour markets will liberalise, become a more fluid, and job-seekers, in the long run, will be forced to pit themselves more as self-reliant ‘ready-made labour’, less as moldable ‘potential labour’.

Efforts to globalize however – such as those undertaken recently by Rakuten and Uniqlo, speaking English in the boardroom, for example – will seem rather cosmetic unless educational institutions overturn the kind of structural bias and marginalization that Daiki, Nanami and others like her have faced.

Aside from the obvious need for more access to information, more scholarships and more careers support for students, universities might also consider more forcefully bringing their academic calenders in line with most other countries and changing enrolment to autumn, as Tokyo University has half-achieved.  Japanese universities could really use above all, however, a more robust liberal tradition – one that can break the inertia of the last several years and promote the rewards of study abroad as goods in themselves. For a country is only as good as its young, and if they are inward then so too are the institutions that helped shape them.

The 2020 Olympic Bids – How will Tokyo fare?

Click here for the article in Tokyo Weekender

On September 7 in Buenos Aires the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will announce the winning candidate city as host for the 2020 Olympic Games from between Madrid, Istanbul or Tokyo, in what will be either a second consecutive failed bid by Tokyo, or a glorious return of the summer Games to Japan for the first time since 1964. Following the IOC inspections in Tokyo this March and a presentation to IOC members in Lausanne, Switzerland in July, the Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC) has now done nearly all the campaigning/ingratiating it can. As clichéd as it sounds, the race is pretty tight. The IOC’s Evaluation Committee has said (albeit predictably) that “each one of the candidate cities could host perfect Games”, with veteran IOC member Dick Pound saying it was genuinely the closest race he could remember – partly because “all the bids had obvious strengths and weaknesses”.


Discover Tomorrow

Public support – 70% in Tokyo and 67% in Japan

Strengths –

The biggest strength of the Tokyo bid is in its apparent ability to deliver a well-funded, safe and secure Games without any of the instability saddling the other two bids. In a technical IOC report released in June, Tokyo was noted for its capital reserves as well as for being “a modern, dynamic city” with “one of the most modern and efficient” transport systems in the world. And the IOC can be pretty sure there will not be any protesting in Tokyo.

Referring to the failed 2016 bid, the Tokyo campaign team has said it aims to “keep the best and improve the rest“. Thus it has continued to boast about its ability to hold “an environmentally cleaner event in a compact area”, as well as being ”a world leader in anti-doping” that can offer a model of “clean sport”. The latter will hold particular sway for IOC members given recent revelations, with sprinters Tyson Gay, Asafa Powell and Veronica Campbell-Brown failing tests for banned substances.

The bid also addresses IOC concerns from 2007 about whether there would be enough space by planning to build the Olympic Village – in Harumi, Chuo ward – about 13 hectares bigger than that proposed for 2016. The Village has been praised also for its proximity to the sporting venues; it is within 8 km of 28 of the 35 proposed venues. Public support for the Games has also risen from only 56 percent in 2007 – a big issue for the bid then – to 70 percent this year.

Weaknesses –

While public support has increased in more recent polls, there does seem to be a lack of any deep enthusiasm to host the Games. When the IOC polled Tokyoites in May, the support rate was only 47 percent, versus 78 percent in Madrid and 73 percent in Istanbul. One reason for this might be because, as one commentator at the Lausanne presentations said, the bid “lacks a compelling back-story and is, to put it bluntly, a bit dull”.

At the presentations in Lausanne, Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso spoke of how the Olympics was a chance for Japan to show the world it has stood up and recovered from the disaster that afflicted it in 2011. While this is no doubt true, appealing to the misfortunes of those in Tohoku and Fukushima to bring the glitz of the Olympics to Tokyo is, to say the least, a little cheap. It is, nonetheless, very much a feature of the Olympic Movement and commercial sports more generally to affix messages of worth and virtue to the actions of athletes, and thus, it might not be enough for Tokyo simply to be ready and well-organised for the Olympics.



Illuminate The Future

Public support –  76% in Madrid and 81% in Spain

Strengths –

Largely counted out in the early stages of the campaign on account of its crisis-hit economy, Madrid is now a serious contender following an impressive performance at the presentations in Lausanne last month, in which Crown Prince Felipe – a former Olympic sailor – gave an apparently illustrious speech. Dick Pound of the IOC weighed in again: ”if you’re grading performance, Madrid did the best in terms of the message and delivery of it”, he said. “The star of the day was the prince. It was his content, his delivery, his genuineness”.

The glamour the Spanish heir brought to the presentations contrasts with the low-cost, no-risk message his team’s bid represents – “a realistic bid for realistic times“, they say, in what looks like an Olympics for austerity and the economic zeitgeist. A relatively low budget is feasible in the main because 80% of the facilities are already built.

Weaknesses –

There are two troublesome areas for Madrid. The team has tried hard to present itself as financially capable of hosting the Olympics with a very small budget, but it is hard to understate the crisis the Spanish economy has been in for the last five years; it very nearly joined the gang of damned European economies that needed a bail-out, has seen continuous anti-government protests in response to deep austerity cuts and has unemployment figures at 27%. Given the fragile economy, one could hardly say there was “no-risk” in the IOC investing in Madrid. It just remains to be seen whether members want to give Spain the leg-up it, and the Eurozone, needs, which given the doubts over the Brazil World Cup in 2014 as a result of the widespread protests against bad government priorities, might not be what the IOC wants.

A second consecutive Olympics held in Europe might also be a factor for the IOC. President of the IOC, Jacques Rogge has said he “would love to see the continents that have not yet organized the Games… do that in the future”. London, Europe, held the last games and  Beijing, Asia, before them, meaning if equity between the continents is what the IOC members like, they might be looking at Istanbul.



Bridge Together

Public support – 83% in Istanbul and 76% in Turkey

Strengths –

Turkey presents the IOC’s best opportunity to take the Olympic Movement to previously unchartered territory.

The Istanbul team claim Turkey can “foster global understanding and inclusiveness by being the first secular Muslim country to host the Games”. Though its secularism has been on the wane of late, the more idealistic members of the IOC could well see a chance in Istanbul to use the Games to transcend and perhaps even mitigate percieved clashes of civilizations, with and within the Middle East.

Given that Turkey’s economy is now one of the fastest growing in the world, Istanbul is the most ready it has been out of all five of their previous bids. Transportation infrastructure and sports facilities are still relatively under-developed, but the campaign team have done well to turn show how the Olympic Movement can leave a lasting legacy with these investments, particularly for the region’s young people.

Weaknesses –

Earlier this year, the IOC might just have considered giving Turkey the benefit of the doubt over security concerns. Now, however, security seems very much to be Istanbul’s elephant in the room, as well as, surely, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s ham-fisted attempts to quash nationwide protests.

The force of Erdoğan’s government against what started out as small, peaceful protests has ignited the public and broadened the criticism against him, but the protestors initially demanded only to stop the demolition of Gezi Park for redevelopment, one of Istanbul’s few remaining green spaces – all this before large-scale construction for the Olympics has even begun. The IOC would surely not wish for the Olympics to add to the grievances of the people of Istanbul, as the 2014 World Cup has for many Brazilians. More risk-averse IOC members will therefore opt for Tokyo.

The Myth of Mono-ethnic Japan

Click here for the article in Tokyo Weekender

It is the most common and universal of ice-breakers, but “where do you come from?” is a curious question, especially for those who, like me, do not apparently “look like” someone who comes from they say they come from.

The question can mean “where were you born?” or “where were your parents born?” or even “where do you feel you belong to?” for those who might not feel any particular attachment to wherever they happened to have been pulled out of the uterus. As a British man in every sense, it is a simple enough question for me to answer, but my Indian appearance often means I have to field further questions to confirm, to whoever needs it, that British nationality is no longer limited to white folk. I have concluded, however, that the half-Japanese, or the misleadingly “foreign-looking” Japanese with their larger noses and more exotic complexions, must encounter far more of these questions than I, as well as those inevitable presumptions that national identity and ethnicity are inseparable somehow.

In his book Multiethnic Japan, John Lie of University of California, Berkeley finds these ethnically-based perceptions of national identity very prominent in Japan, due in part to the legacy of what he calls, the “myth of mono-ethnic Japan” – a denial contrived after the war with the hope of building unity, or rather, uniformity in aid of the recovery. Japan’s ethnic minorities – Koreans, Ainu, Okinawans, Chinese, Burakumin, people of mixed ancestry, and others – though rich in their own cultures and histories were, he argues, subsumed under a national polity dominated by the Yamato majority, repressive of all related to war and colonialism – and diversity.

The “myth” largely exists today as a political currency for particular flag-waving politicians who want to pit themselves as protectorates of Japanese, or Yamato, culture against the often exaggerated “threat” of diversity and foreign forces. Former Foreign Minister and Prime Minister Taro Aso, for instance, said in 2005 that Japan is unique for having “one nation, one civilization, one language, one culture, and one race”, as if to prove the enduring nature of the “myth” Lie describes. He neglects to add, of course, that Japan has one Emperor with Korean blood, one parliament based largely on Westminster, and one language imported from China.

Taro Kono, contrastingly a myth-busting LDP member of the House of Representatives who has lobbied to radically increase the number of immigrants in Japan, went as far to tell me in an interview that Lie’s “myth” has congealed; that there is a “psychological barrier” between the Japanese and immigration – a point which, after I pressed him further, he called “xenophobia”. This, he claimed, was the driving force behind his party’s repeated blocking of his proposed immigration legislation to help solve the problem of shrinking labour markets. They always “change the topic” to women or seniors when discussing the issue, he said, as though they are mutually exclusive with increased immigration.

This “barrier” could also have been behind the selective immigration of the Latin American nikkeijin in the 90s, who were awarded working visas to Japan purely on the strength of ancestral blood ties, and later, the cold-hearted unemployment-reducing attempts in 2009 to send some of them back, or indeed, the 2005 Supreme Court ruling, after a decade-long fight, in which Chung Hyang Gyun was barred from becoming a supervisor at a public health center because she was technically a foreigner (according to nationality laws), even though her mother was Japanese, she was born in Japan, and had lived all her life here.

Carer Yasuko Amahisa thinks Japan is “decidedly anti-immigration” and unwilling to tap into the foreign labour market, which, she says, is why robots have been employed to make up the numbers in elderly care instead. Her reasoning is instructive as to the trepidation felt towards immigration in Yamato parliament, since robots need only to be programmed, whereas immigrants with their own affinities bring the demands of assimilation and, with it, all the unpredictability that conservatives apparently abhor.

Interactions with foreigners on the streets are rather more benevolent than these policies might suggest, but there is no denying the real lack of acquaintance with diversity in Japan. The Q&A section of one of the most popular Tokyo restaurants – the ninja-themed restaurant in Akasaka – asks, for example, “May we bring in foreigners?”. It answers in the affirmative, thankfully, then continues, “there are many foods that foreigners cannot eat. Can [the restaurant] accommodate this?”, answering, “there are times where we cannot [accommodate them] of course, but we will do what we can”, as if the foreigners who have ventured to Tokyo and taken it upon themselves to try out a novelty ninja-restaurant are going to be the picky kind? Anyway, only asking the question reveals what you might call, an inclusive exclusivity – that is to say, an acknowledgment of the existence of an exclusive club that knows foreigners not as members, but as guests.

These guests may be, and almost always are, treated with the utmost kindness and grace by Japanese people, but they nonetheless retain their transient, non-member status in Japan because of the protracted illusions of parliament toward diversity and immigration; that they are disproportionately criminal and unstable, that they seek to displace Japanese culture, that they can offer little of their own culture to Japan, and that it is heritage not values that constitute the essence of Japan.

Mr. Kono represents the small, if expanding, side to the discussion that wants to challenge this status quo and repackage foreigners as unthreatening, and he may well find a more receptive audience for his reforms as Japan watches its aging demographic decline further and further; its elderly less supported, its labour markets shrinking, and its social and healthcare bills climbing.

The pragmatic case, as compelling as it is, has done relatively little so far to make the myth-makers flinch, but the momentum is against them and it is getting harder and harder to deny the contribution that foreigners, mixed raced Japanese and others have hitherto made in what is actually, multi-ethnic, if not yet multi-cultural Japan.