Friday, February 27, 2015

(article) Former Kamikaze Pilots Worried About Japan's Shift to Right

article originally posted at

(Bloomberg) -- Hisashi Tezuka knew his life had been spared when he heard the Emperor’s voice crackling through the wireless. 

As Hirohito announced Japan’s wartime surrender on Aug. 15, 1945, the young kamikaze pilot was on a train to the island of Shikoku to carry out his sacrificial mission. He received his orders just two days earlier at a base about 1,150 kilometers (715 miles) to the north. 

The crawling speed of the locomotive kept him alive.

“If we’d been taken by plane, we’d have arrived before the war ended,” Tezuka, now 93 and one of the few surviving kamikaze, said in an interview at his home in Yokohama. “It was like fate intervened.” 

Tezuka was one of a few thousand men, some as young as 17, in Japan’s so-called special attack unit, or tokkotai. Another was Tadamasa Iwai, a 94-year-old who trained to be a human torpedo and suicide diver. Both had late reprieves, both saw the futility of the war, and both became passionate pacifists. 

This is a year of painful remembrance for Japan as the country marks the 70th anniversary of its surrender in World War II, a conflict that killed more than 30 million people in Asia and left the nation in ruins. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has hinted he’ll omit descriptions of wartime aggression in a statement for the anniversary, risking anger from countries like China and South Korea that felt the brunt of Japanese belligerence. 

‘Prewar Regime’
Abe is also seeking to loosen the restraints of the war-renouncing constitution imposed by the U.S. and strengthen Japan’s role in global security. Even so, polls show the Japanese public is deeply ambivalent about adopting a more muscular foreign policy. 

Fifty percent of respondents to a survey published in the Nikkei newspaper on Feb. 23 said they opposed legislation that would allow Japan’s military to defend allies, while 31 percent supported the bills that are set to be submitted to parliament in the next few months. 

“I’m concerned that Japanese politics and attitudes have shifted to the right recently,” said Tezuka, whose wrinkles and stuttering walk betray his years. “When Abe says he doesn’t want to dwell on the past, it’s like he is returning to the prewar regime.” 

As China asserts its territorial claims in the East China Sea, Abe has increased defense spending to a record, eased restrictions on weapons exports and is seeking a constitutional workaround to be able to project force abroad. His efforts are favored by the U.S., which is treaty bound to defend Japan in the event of conflict, and have been denounced by China and South Korea. 

Even though Iwai joked often during an interview at his small Tokyo apartment, he became furious when talking about Japan’s current political climate, for which he blamed the education system. 

“They don’t teach what really happened at schools,” he said. “Textbooks call it an ’advance’ rather than an ‘occupation’” by Japan. 

Hit Rate
By the summer of 1944, Japan’s weakened air force had become unable to match the U.S., prompting commanders to develop the suicide strategy. From October that year through to the final days of the war, Japan flew 2,550 kamikaze missions with a successful hit rate of 18.6 percent, according to the U.S. Strategy Bombing Survey on the Pacific War. They sank about 45 vessels, mostly destroyers, and damaged dozens more including aircraft carriers and battleships. 

At the time of surrender, Japan had more than 9,000 aircraft available for kamikaze, with over 5,000 fitted for attack, the survey said. About 6,400 men died, a figure that includes those who perished in training, according to the Tokkotai Commemoration Peace Memorial Association.

Three Choices Both men described the moment they knew their fate was in the hands of their commanders.
One day in training, Tezuka was handed a questionnaire with three choices: “I strongly want to be a kamikaze”; “I want to be a kamikaze”; and “I don’t want to be a kamikaze.” The final one was not an option, he said.

Iwai and his peers were summoned to a training ground at their base, where an officer asked them if they wanted to pilot the manned torpedoes -- again an offer they couldn’t refuse.

While both Iwai and Tezuka were opposed to the war, they were committed to their assignments. They look back with a mixture of guilt, relief and anger. 

‘Die Instantly’ “I knew that Japan would lose the war and I was bound to die anyway, so I thought I might as well die instantly,” said Iwai at his apartment, where he listens to classical music and looks forward to visits from his only daughter.

Tezuka said that many men, including a friend, died during training flights that involved soaring to 3,000 meters before nose-diving to a practice target.

“I was sorry for his death -- not just because he died, but because he couldn’t die as a kamikaze,” he said. “Everyone was serious about the training. We didn’t want to die meaninglessly before we departed. We really wanted to succeed as kamikaze.”

The stories of these pilots have returned to prominence in popular culture in recent years.
“Eternal Zero,” a 2006 novel by Naoki Hyakuta about a young man’s search for the truth about his kamikaze grandfather, was a best-seller. Abe, a friend of the author, said he was “deeply moved” by the movie adaptation, which became Japan’s third-biggest box-office hit of 2013. 

‘Glorified’ Kamikaze “The book glorified kamikaze, and people are following suit,” Tezuka said. “Kamikaze was brutal. We should give it a fair evaluation and never do it again.”

Last year, Japan applied for the final letters of pilots written before their missions to be included as UNESCO Memories of the World.

“There is a growing trend of glamorizing the kamikaze as the number of people who experienced the war declines,” said Yukihiro Torikai, who teaches peace and development at Tokai University. “Abe may be capitalizing on this.” 

Tezuka was conscripted to the Imperial Japanese Navy while in his second year at Tokyo University, Japan’s equivalent of Harvard or Oxbridge. He said his study major -- the U.S. economy -- convinced him Japan would lose the war because of America’s industrial might.

During the war he flew a Mitsubishi A6M Zero, a fighter plane the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force describes as the most famous symbol of Japanese air power during World War II. The Zero was later customized for kamikaze missions. 

Tezuka described how pilots at the training base learned of their comrades’ demise.

Morse Code “They would send Morse code messages to their base as they flew their sorties,” he said. “When the sound stopped, we knew the pilot’s life had ended and we placed our hands together.”
Tezuka kept his coming mission from his family to avoid upsetting them.

After the war, he ran a business taking young Japanese workers at a soybean oil company to the U.S. for training. He now spends his days ink-wash painting and practicing calligraphy at his condominium overlooking Yokohama, which is adorned with a model of a Zero fighter he received from his daughter. 

Iwai spent much of his youth in Dalian, a Chinese city ceded to Japan from Russia in 1905, after his father retired as a soldier. On returning to Tokyo, he began to question the national regime that banned criticism -- or even discussion -- of the imperial system, and went on to study philosophy at Keio University. 

‘My Coffin’
He drifted between jobs after the war before learning Russian, which he used at a trading company and later as a translator. Disaffected, he sold all his wartime memorabilia and cut ties with his former comrades. 

In those last few months of the war, pilots would wait on a submarine until an enemy warship came into sight. They would then squeeze into a manned torpedo and pull the hatches over their heads, before being launched toward the target.

“When I first saw a human torpedo, I shuddered with the thought that this was going to be my coffin,” Iwai said. “It was a 15-meter-long iron stick. The cockpit was tiny and not fit for humans.”
A few months before the war ended, Iwai caught tuberculosis -- an illness that delayed his mission and may have saved his life.

Once recovered, he was moved to a base near Tokyo to join the “crouching dragon,” or fukuryu, unit of suicide divers in preparation for the expected arrival of U.S. battleships. The frogmen had to wait underwater to poke enemy vessels with a mine fitted to a bamboo pole. 

Cartoon Strategy “It was absurd,” Iwai said. “We felt our superiors got the idea for the strategy from a cartoon.”
After being transferred again, this time to Hiroshima, Iwai witnessed an event that changed everything.

“We were in a meeting on the morning of August 6, when there was a beautiful white flash in the sky, followed by a huge boom,” he said. “Hiroshima had been destroyed. A few days later, we learned it was the atomic bomb. And the war ended soon after.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Maiko Takahashi in Tokyo at
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Andrew Davis at Andy Sharp, Rosalind Mathieson

Friday, February 20, 2015

(article) In Japan, Chinese tourists are a welcome boost — if a loud, messy one

You can find the article at:

, February 20 at 10:01 PM
A tour guide holds a flag while leading a group of Chinese tourists wearing rental kimonos at the Kiyomizu-dera temple in Kyoto. Chinese visitors are flocking to Japan in search of fresh air and safe food, buoying the local economy. (Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg)ion

Chinese tourists come to Japan for the sushi and for the shopping. But increasingly, they’re also coming for one thing that money can’t buy: fresh air. 

“The blue sky and the clean air are great. They’re something we don't have at home,” said Xu Jun, an agent for a steel trading company from Guangzhou, a huge manufacturing city in southern China that is blighted by pollution. Xu was visiting the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido this month.

Over the previous two weeks, the Xu family had been to outdoor hot springs, taken an ice-breaker ship along the frozen coast and spotted some of the island’s famous wild red-crowned cranes.
They, like several million other Chinese, are beating a path to Japan.

The number of tourists coming to Japan from China went up 83 percent last year, compared with the year before. That put China in third place, behind only Taiwan and South Korea, as a source of visitors.

Promotional signs written in Chinese are displayed at a store in Tokyo. Japan is aiming to boost the number of visitors who come to the country to 25 million by 2020. (Akio Kon/Bloomberg)
This is despite the political tensions between the two countries over disputed territories and an official Japanese attempt to play down its wartime aggression against neighboring countries, including China.

Tokyo is perennially popular, with its glitzy shopping districts and Disneyland resort, but in winter, about half the Chinese tourists visiting Japan go to Hokkaido, a sparsely populated island renowned for its wide-open spaces and top-notch — and safe — seafood.

Visitor numbers have skyrocketed since the 2008 release of the Chinese movie “If You Are the One,” which showcased Hokkaido’s natural beauty.

“The first thing Chinese people do after they land is to breathe deeply,” said He Wenfan, of the Japan Tourism Board’s Chinese-language Web site. “People say, ‘I can finally breathe!’ ”

Last week, they came in droves to Sapporo, Hokkaido’s capital, for the city’s snow festival, where Japan’s underemployed soldiers had built massive sculptures — think “Star Wars” and cartoon characters — out of blocks of ice. At seemingly every sculpture and at every food stall selling steaming bowls of ramen noodle soup, Chinese could be heard.

Connie Tsoi and her husband came to Sapporo to see the snow festival. Asked if she’d ever been to China’s own well-known festival, in the northern city of Harbin, Tsoi scrunched up her face and waved around the cheese tart she was eating. “No! Never!” she said. “It’s so dirty. Japan is so much cleaner, and the people here are so nice.”

Hokkaido’s ski resorts of Rusutsu and Niseko enjoyed another influx this week during the Chinese New Year holidays.

One of the draws for Chinese tourists is the decline in value of the Japanese yen, which once made the country prohibitively expensive. “The taxis and the food are a little bit more expensive than China — maybe 20 percent more expensive — but everything else is about the same,” said Yuan Xiang of Shanghai, who was spending all of his first visit to Japan in Hokkaido, most of it skiing.

Of all the visitors, the Japan Tourism Agency estimates that Chinese tourists are the biggest spenders. They shelled out about a quarter of the $17 billion that foreign tourists spent in Japan last year — or about $2,000 each. 

Grin and bear it
The 2011 Fukushima earthquake and tsunami had an impact on tourism, but political issues are just as seismic. Flare-ups over a string of disputed islands, and politicians’ visits to the Yasukuni shrine, which China and Korea see as honoring Japan’s war criminals, take their toll on tourism.

“We suffer a noticeable drop every time, so we are nervous every summer,” said He, of the tourism board, referring to the period in August marking the end of World War II, a traditional time for politicians to visit Yasukuni. (Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did not visit the shrine last year, instead sending an offering with an aide.)

Shopping at a multistory electronics store here, Xu certainly wasn’t letting the political tensions cramp his vacation style.

“It doesn’t bother me,” he said while perusing $800 cameras in the store, which accepts Chinese debit cards, is staffed with Chinese-speaking clerks and was packed with Chinese tourists buying everything from rice cookers to beauty products.

In a country still struggling to emerge from two decades of on-again, off-again recession, this foreign money is welcome. But it is often accepted through gritted teeth.

Japan is a nation famous for its culture of exacting politeness and adherence to a multitude of rules encompassing elevator etiquette and buffet behavior. And Chinese tourists, well, seldom let such rules constrain them.

A common complaint is that they are too loud and that they are not considerate of the people around them.

“They take home as much free stuff as possible once they hear it’s free, like brochures,” Tokie Shimomura, a tourist desk volunteer in Sapporo, said of Chinese visitors. “They let their children climb up on a train seat with their shoes on. Japanese people would stop them or have them take off their shoes.” 

This bad reputation abroad isn’t escaping notice at home. China’s president, Xi Jinping, last year told his compatriots to improve their manners when traveling.
In “Ramen Alley,” a narrow strip of tiny restaurants here, Chinese tourists come to slurp up bowls of Sapporo’s special noodle soup, which comes with a large square of butter sitting on top of a mound of corn.

In one eight-seat joint, the owner rattled off a list of complaints about Chinese customers, like the ones who come in to drink beer and then pull out their own snacks, often leaving the wrappers strewn over the floor.

But he, like other business owners, has to suck it up, like a bowl of ramen.
“The tourism business wouldn’t survive without Chinese customers, so we don’t want to complain about them,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid antagonizing those very customers.

“It’s 50/50, give and take. We appreciate them coming, but we wish that they would come with a little more cultural awareness.”

Yuki Oda contributed to this report.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

"11 Japanese customs that are shocking to foreign travelers" (article and reaction)

This is my response to the article "11 Japanese customs that are shocking to foreign travelers," written by Asta Thrastardottir, posted on February 19, 2015.
To read, click the link below:

During my time in Japan, I've found some of these customs to exist, others to be fading away, and others to remain with us under certain conditions.  I should add that I'm in Tokyo almost all of my time here, so I can only speak to what I experience in this city.

Anyway, below are the "customs" as written in the article (in green text), followed by my own observations and views.  

1. Custom:  The number four is avoided at all cost.
My observations:  No, no.  While it is correct that the number 4 is by superstition a bad luck number, and for the reason that the writer states, buildings generally have a fourth floor, elevators a fourth floor button, and people do things in groups of four all the time.  I was pretty surprised to see this claim at the top of the article.

2. Custom: Blowing your nose in public is considered rude.
My observations: During the 90s, before I came to Japan, I read this too.  Can't recall which Japan guidebook it was, but I came across it.  When I arrived here, I saw nobody leave the room to blow his/her nose.  However, I think it's considered polite to turn away from others when blowing one's nose, especially when in at eatery, such as a ramen counter or kaitenzushi place.  About the handkerchiefs, most of my Japanese friends and colleagues have them, but usually for wiping dry their hands after washing.  I don't see people use handkerchiefs for nose-blowing; instead, people use the excellent packs of free tissues that they receive on the sidewalk; companies wishing to advertise often do so through free tissues in lieu of fliers.

3.  Custom: Tipping can be seen as insulting.
My observations: I don't know if people in customer service feel insulted by tips, but I agree that generally such offers are refused.  And the writer is quite right in saying that workers will run down the tipper in order to return the money.

4. Custom: Walking and eating is seen as sloppy.
My observations: This is one of those things that may be fading, but I don't know for sure.  It took me some time to find out that walking and eating, or even standing on a sidewalk and eating (e.g. a sandwich or onigiri) was considered by some to be rude, since no one ever came out and said so directly.  I found out through some of my older colleagues at school who took offense at seeing others commit this act of open consumption.  The Japanese term they used was gyougi warui or, more properly, gyougi ga warui.

Over the years, I've been seeing more and more Japanese people eat out on the sidewalk or street.  At first I was tempted to call it a generational conflict, as most of the people who did it were younger folk.  However, I've found that some of the people who are strongly against such behavior teach their children to be strongly against it; so some of my teenage students take umbrage probably at least as much as their parents do.

All in all, though, I see the standing/eating and walking/eating  happen more and more, so I'm somewhat inclined to expect that an inevitable change is coming.  I've never seen polls on what percentage of the native population here is for prohibiting it, and what percentage for allowing it (and I would be interested to know, so if anyone has data, please share it), but in terms of raw numbers I think the future is going to see more eating in public places, and without chairs or other kinds of furniture.

 5. Custom: There are designated people who will push you into a crowded subway car. 
My observations:  Yes, true!  I don't see these white-gloved people on every train line, but certainly on the more crowded ones.

6.  Custom:  People will sleep on the trains with their head on your shoulder.

My observations:  Yes, it happens.  It moves and impresses me that Japan is still a safe enough place that people can sleep on the train, and feel safe enough to fall sleep.

7.  Custom:  There are toilet slippers for the bathrooms.
My observations:  Yes, and I like this custom.  If you've ever been in a public men's room and have had to stand in front of  a urinal, you know what that floor is like.

And someone did a parody of it.

8.  Custom:  You must always bring a host a gift.
My observations:  I don't know about always, but I think it's a nice thing to do.  If someone didn't, I don't think it'd ruin the evening, but I always bring something.  I see it as being akin to bringing along a bottle of wine or dessert to a dinner party.  The elaborate wrapping part is spot-on in my opinion; expensive brands also do much to impress a segment of the population.

9.  Custom:  Pouring you own glass is considered rude.
My observations:  Well, yeah, I guess. . .I mean, people pour drinks for one another at dinners and nomikai.  If your glass is empty and continues to be that way.  then it reflects kind of badly on the people sitting immediately near you.  So I don't know if pouring one's own drink speaks worse for the pourer or the neglecters.  But yes, the custom is to pour drinks for one another.  When I'm drinking with my Western foreigner friends, it drives a lot of them crazy if I try to pour their drink.  They're like, "No, don't do that.  Don't do that."

10.  Custom:  Slurping noodles is not only seen as polite but also means that you have enjoyed your meal.
My observations:  My understanding is that it's seen as okay to slurp with Asian noodle dishes (ramen, soba, udon) but not with Western dishes (spaghetti).  I've seen some Japanese people enjoy their spaghetti with loud slurps and I never saw anyone complain, but the general consensus seems to be Asian noodles = slurping ok, Western noodles = don't slurp.

11.  Custom:  Sleeping in capsule hotels that aren't much bigger than a coffin is very common.
My observations:  To tell the truth, I've never done this, and most people I know never have, but this could be simply because of the environments in which I work and live.  I don't hang out with a lot of salarymen, and they're the ones I always hear about going to capsule hotels.  

A more recent and trending option has been for people to sleep overnight at onsen places.

Below is the original article by Asta Thrastardottir.  I've copied and pasted it as is.  The original post, for some reason, has a lot of gibberish text characters, and I just left them in.  If you want to see it, it might be better to click the link at the top of this entry; maybe Yahoo! will correct it and take out the mojibake.

11 Japanese customs that are shocking to foreign travelers

Japan has a unique culture that has a very strict code of etiquette. 

There are specific ways to eat noodles, good practices for accepting gifts, and certain rules to follow so that you avoid insulting a host. 

This complex web of social rules and traditions can be  overwhelming for those traveling to Japan, so we’ve compiled a list of some of the things that foreigners find most shocking when visiting the country. 

Here are 11 customs you should know before traveling to Japan. 

1. The number four is avoided at all cost. 


In Japan, the number four is avoided because it sounds very similar to the word for death. In the same vein as the number 13 in Western culture, the number four is extremely unlucky and is used as little as possible. You must always avoid giving anyone something in fours since it can be seen as a very ominous gift. 

Elevators will often be missing a fourth floor — and in some extreme cases, they will not have the floors 40-49. The number 49 is especially unlucky, as it sounds similar to the phrase which means “pain until death.” 

The practice of avoiding the number four is called “Tetraphobia,” and is common in many East Asian and Southeast Asian regions. 

2. Blowing your nose in public is considered rude.  

Blowing your nose in public is not only seen as rude, but simply disgusting. Instead, people will generally sniffle until they find somewhere private. If you simply must blow your nose, it is recommended that you do so as discreetly as possible. 

The Japanese are also repelled by the idea of a handkerchief. 

3. Tipping can be seen as insulting.  

Tipping is considered rude — and can even be seen as degrading. Tipping will often cause confusion, and many people will chase after you to give you back your money. 

If someone has been particularly helpful and you feel absolutely compelled to leave a tip, Rough Guides suggests leaving a small present instead. 

4. Walking and eating is seen as sloppy.

.women eating ice cream in Japan 

Although walking and eating is often convenient and widely accepted in many Western cultures, the practice is looked down upon in Japan. Many also consider it rude to eat in public or on the trains. 

There are just a few exceptions to this rule, including the fact that it is okay to eat an ice-cream cone on the street. 

5. There are designated people who will push you into a crowded subway car.


Oshiya, or “pushers,” wear uniforms, white gloves, and hats and literally push people into crowded subway cars during rush hour.

They are paid to make sure everybody gets in and doesn’t get caught in the doors. 

6. People will sleep on the trains with their head on your shoulder. 

If someone falls asleep with their head on you shoulder in Japan, it is common practice to just tolerate it. People have very long commutes and work dreadfully long hours, so many will often fall asleep on the train. 

"There is a tolerance that if the person next to you falls asleep and their head kind of lands on your shoulder, people just put up with it. That happens a lot," Sandra Barron told CNN. 

7. There are toilet slippers for the bathrooms. 

Japanese slippers
Flickr/Andrea Schaffer It is customary to change into slippers when entering a Japanese home, a traditional restaurant, temples, and sometimes museums and art galleries, according to Rough Guides. Basically anytime you come across of row of slippers in Japan, you should just put them on. 
There are even special toilet slippers kept inside the bathroom, so you’ll take off your house slippers and put on the toilet slippers.  

8. You must always bring a host a gift. 

It is an honor to be invited to someone’s home in Japan, and if this happens you must always bring a gift. The gift should also be wrapped in the most elaborate way possible, and lots of fancy ribbons are suggested. 

You should also never refuse a gift once offered — but it is good practice to strongly protest the gift at first. 

9. Pouring you own glass is considered rude.  

It is customary in the US (and many other countries in the world) to serve others before you serve yourself, but in Japan you are never supposed to pour yourself a drink. If you have poured for others, another guest will hopefully see that your drink is empty, and pour for you. 

You must also always wait for someone to say “Kanpai” (cheers) before drinking. 

10. Slurping noodles is not only seen as polite — but also means that you have enjoyed your meal. 

Slurping noodles in Osaka, Japan

Slurping is considered polite in Japan because it shows that you are enjoying your delicious noodles — in fact, if you don’t eat loudly enough it can be mistaken as you not enjoying your food. 

Slurping noodles isn’t entirely for the sake of politeness, but also to avoid having a burnt tongue. Japanese soup and noodles are generally served steaming hot, hot enough to burn, and slurping helps to cool down the food.

But unlike some other Asian nations, it is still considered rude to belch at the table. 

11. Sleeping in capsule hotels that aren't much bigger than a coffin is very common. 

China first capsule hotel
REUTERS/Aly Song Capsule hotels are used as cheap accommodations for guests who purely want a place to sleep — and are most often used by businessmen working or those who have partied too late and have missed the last train home.Â

The sleeping quarters are small capsules that are not much bigger than a coffin, and the beds are stacked side-by-side and on top of one another. The concept has been around in Japan since the 1970s, but has begun to spread to a few other countries around the world.  

The hotels are a cheap alternative to a hotel, since a bed costs only $65 a night, but should be avoided for anyone who suffers from even slight claustrophobia.Â

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Japan OKs aid to foreign troops' non-military operations
TOKYO Mon Feb 9, 2015

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a Northern Territories Day rally to call on Russia to return a group of islands, known as the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kuriles in Russia, in Tokyo February 7, 2015. REUTERS/Yuya Shino
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a Northern Territories Day rally to call on Russia to return a group of islands, known as the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kuriles in Russia, in Tokyo February 7, 2015.

Credit: Reuters/Yuya Shino
(Reuters) - Japan revised its foreign aid charter on Tuesday to allow funding of non-military operations of other country's armed forces as part of its drive for a bigger role in global security.
The charter repeated Japan's long-standing policy that foreign aid should not be used for military purposes, but added that aid for armed forces' non-military operations such as disaster relief should be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Tokyo has previously extended such aid but it is the first time such a policy has explicitly been stated in Japan's foreign aid charter, a foreign ministry official said.
The stance has raised concerns that Japan's overseas aid could, in fact, end up funding foreign military activities.

"The government says its aid is only for such purposes as post-disaster rescue. Let's say trucks or helicopters were bought under such programs. The problem is it is impossible to make sure they are used only for such purposes," said Yoichi Ishii, professor emeritus at Kanagawa University.

"The best we can do is to make sure intended equipment was purchased. When it comes to how they are used, it is very difficult to draw a clear line between military and non-military," he added.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has a stated goal of a stronger security profile for Japan that includes passing a law in 2015 to reinterpret its pacifist constitution.

This would allow the country to come to the aid of an ally and pave the way for its troops to fight overseas for the first time since World War Two.

The new foreign aid charter, revised for the first time in 12 years and approved by Abe's government, also extended official development assistance to richer nations.

The adoption of the new charter coincides with China's decision to expand its foreign assistance, particularly to resource-rich African countries.

Japan is the world's fourth-largest donor of official development aid behind the United States, Britain and Germany, and its foreign minister, Fumio Kishida, has called its development aid "Japan's biggest diplomatic tool."

(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)

Friday, February 6, 2015

Some Japanese see slain hostages, Abe as troublemakers

Associated Press

TOKYO (AP) — In Japan, where conformity takes precedence over individuality, one of the most important values is to avoid "meiwaku" — causing trouble for others. And sympathy aside, the two Japanese purportedly slain by the Islamic State group are now widely viewed as troublemakers.

So is Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Many Japanese feel that if the hostages had not ignored warnings against travel to Syria, or if Abe had not showcased Tokyo's support for the multinational coalition against the Islamic State militants, Japan wouldn't have been exposed to this new sense of insecurity and unwelcomed attention from Islamic extremists.

"To be honest, they caused tremendous trouble to the Japanese government and to the Japanese people. In the old days, their parents would have had to commit hara-kiri (ritual suicide) to apologize," said Taeko Sakamoto, a 64-year-old part-time worker, after first expressing sympathy over the deaths of Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa.

Sakamoto also sees Abe as part of the problem, for not being more mindful of the risks at a time when he had already been pushing to expand Japan's military role, which is limited to its own self-defense under the U.S.-drafted pacifist constitution after its defeat in World War II.
"I don't want Mr. Abe to do anything else that may be seen as provocation, because that's what would put us at a greater risk," Sakamoto said.

Japan until recently had not become directly involved in the violence surrounding Islamic State militants, who now control about a third of Syria and neighboring Iraq. Days after Abe announced during a Middle East trip last month that Japan would give $200 million in non-military aid to support the fight against Islamic State, the militants demanded a $200 million ransom for the two hostages.

The hostage crisis came to a grisly end with news Sunday that Goto, a journalist, had been beheaded by the extremists. The killing of Yukawa was announced earlier.

In the video posted on militant websites that purportedly shows Goto's slaying, a man says, "Abe, because of your reckless decision to take part in an unwinnable war, this knife will not only slaughter Kenji, but will also carry on and cause carnage wherever your people are found. So let the nightmare for Japan begin."

Abe has been adamant about his commitment to fight terrorism as part of an international effort. On Thursday, Japan's lower house, the more powerful of the two parliamentary chambers, unanimously endorsed a resolution condemning the Islamic State group's "beyond dastardly act of terrorism" against the two Japanese nationals.

In the resolution, Japan also vowed to expand humanitarian support for the Middle East and Africa, and to strengthen anti-terrorism efforts with the international community.

Japan's tensions with other countries have been largely limited to its neighbors China and South Korea. The Middle East is an unfamiliar, distant, dangerous place.

"That's where the two men dared to go and that's probably why many people see them causing trouble," said Koichi Nakano, international politics professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.

The public's response to the hostages was chilly from the beginning. Few seemed to sympathize with Yukawa, a 42-year-old gun aficionado and adventurer who was taken hostage in August. Media attention toward his case quickly faded and he was largely forgotten until Jan. 20, when militants made their ransom demand in a video that showed Yukawa and Goto in orange gowns and kneeling beside a masked militant.

Goto's reputation as a veteran journalist whose reports focused on children and refugees in war-torn areas won him more sympathy and small rallies by his friends and other supporters. According to his wife and others who had spoken with him, Goto had gone to Syria late last year to try to save Yukawa.

Still, to address the "meiwaku" problem, both victims' families apologized repeatedly to the government and the people for "the trouble" their sons caused, even after they died.
Just two days after Abe's office put a national flag at half-staff to mourn for the pair, a senior member of his ruling party cast Goto as a troublemaker, not a tragic hero.

Masahiko Komura, vice president of the Liberal Democratic Party, said Wednesday that Goto ignored the government's repeated warnings against his trip to Syria.

"I must say that was reckless courage, not true courage, no matter how high his aspirations might have been," Komura told reporters, reminding them not to cause trouble by following Goto's path.

Criticizing the dead in public is extremely rare in Japan, and Komura's comment reflects how individuals are expected to act in line with the national interest.

When three young Japanese were taken hostage in Iraq and later freed in 2004, they faced nationwide bashing as troublemakers. They had to cover their own medical examinations and part of their chartered flights home.

Some critics accuse the government of promoting the "self-responsibility" idea as a way to shirk its own responsibility to protect Japanese citizens.

"It's a dangerous trend and we must watch," said Taku Sakamoto, a journalist and Middle East expert.
While Abe, his party's lawmakers and other nationalists say the terrorist threat justifies Abe's push for a tougher military posture, others say it is exactly that sort of policy that is putting Japan at greater risk of attack.

"The hostage crisis is causing a tremendous impact on Japanese society, and has polarized views about which direction Japan should go in terms of national security," said Nakano, the professor. "In a way, people saw what could happen under Abe's security policy."

Some Japanese, like Toshihiko Ozeki, a 67-year-old pensioner, say Japan should be strong enough to defend itself, and that he supports Abe's push to expand Japan's defense role.

"Mr. Abe has gone a bit too far, trying to make Japan look tough," said a 55-year-old man who would provide only his family name, Arai, because he is afraid of being targeted by the Islamic militants. "We don't want to be seen in that image, and we don't want to have anything to do with combat."

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Abe pledges Japan constitution rewrite after election win

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday vowed he would try to persuade a sceptical public of the need to revise Japan's pacifist constitution, the day after scoring a thumping election victory.

The premier, who was re-elected by a landslide in Sunday's polls, pledged to pursue his nationalist agenda while promising to follow through on much-needed economic reforms.
"Revising the constitution... has always been an objective since the Liberal Democratic Party was launched," Abe told reporters.

"I will work hard to deepen people's understanding and receive wider support from the public."

Abe's desire to water down Japan's constitution, imposed by the US after the end of World War II, has proved divisive at home and strained already tense relations with China.

His attempt earlier this year was abandoned, with the bar of a two-thirds parliamentary majority and victory in a referendum thought too high.

The conservative leader has also said he wants reforms to education that would instil patriotism in schoolchildren and urges a more sympathetic retelling of Japan's wartime misdeeds.

His ruling LDP and its junior partner Komeito swept the ballot on Sunday with a two-thirds majority in the lower house of parliament.

The coalition won a combined 326 of the 475 seats, crushing the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan. Their slightly-improved tally of 73 did not include leader Banri Kaieda, who fell on his sword on Monday.

Abe is expected to reappoint a broadly similar cabinet after he is formally named prime minister again by the lower house on December 24.

- Abenomics go-ahead -

He insisted the election had been a necessary plebiscite on his big-spending, easy-money policies, known as Abenonmics, although critics said the record low turnout of around 52 percent tarnished his mandate.

"We must go ahead with Abenomics swiftly, this is exactly what has been shown in the vote. We have to respond to that," Abe said, pledging to "compile an economic stimulus package immediately, within this year".

The 60-year-old stormed to power in 2012, pledging to revive the animal spirits of Japan's flagging economy with a blend of monetary easing, government spending and structural reforms to cut red tape.

The printing presses at the Bank of Japan have run hot ever since, pushing down the value of the yen -- to the delight of exporters -- and giving the stock market a huge boost, as stimulus programmes have provided an economic shot in the arm.

But the premier has shied away from tough reforms that economists say are vital if Japan is to get back on a firm footing, including employment deregulation and tackling the entrenched interests of the agriculture lobby.

A sales tax rise in April snuffed out consumer spending, sending Japan into the two negative quarters of growth that make a recession.

"From now on, he has to show results in line with his promises," said Hideo Kumano, chief economist at Dai-ichi Life Research institute.

"If he fails to improve the economy, his political capital will be reduced easily. A crucial phase is still ahead."

On the diplomatic front, his election victory may temper frayed relations with China, which has painted him as a dangerous revisionist, said Gerald Curtis, a veteran Japan watcher and professor at Columbia University.

Relations began to thaw last month after more than two years of chill, which Beijing blamed on Abe's provocative nationalism, including a visit to a war shrine and equivocations on Japan's wartime record of enslaving women for sex.

Beijing said it had "noted" the outcome of the election, and offered a familiar call for Japan to "learn its lessons from history (and) play a constructive role in regional peace and stability".

"In the short-term, at least, Sino-Japanese relations are on a better track... signals coming from Beijing and from Abe (are aimed at trying) to improve the relationship," Curtis said.

Masaru Kohno, a politics professor at Waseda University in Tokyo, said despite his professed desire to retell the history of Japan's aggressive warring -- an instinct largely unshared by the Japanese public -- Abe will be pragmatic.

"Many of the issues Japan is facing such as depopulation and women's advancement should be resolved with liberal policies," he said.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Hit by recession and higher taxes, Japan's working poor speak out

Analysis: Prime Minister Abe promises economic recovery, but working people shoulder the heaviest burden of his policies

Higher sales taxes have hit Japan's working poor and shaken faith in the economy. The prime minister has called snap elections for Dec. 14.
Yoshikazu Tsuno / AFP / Getty Images

TOKYO — Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe faces a vote on Dec. 14, seeking a mandate to continue economic policies that have imposed a harsh cost on working people. Eighteen months ago, Abe vowed to “bring back a strong Japan,” but the economy is reeling and a growing section of the electorate is losing faith.

Many analysts were shocked last week by the release of GDP figures showing that the world’s third-largest economy is in recession. Those numbers are widely seen as a key factor in Abe’s decision to call a snap legislative election.

Abe hopes the poll will restore some of the momentum he lost after hiking the sales tax from from 5 percent to 8 percent in April, which triggered a plunge in demand and a second consecutive quarterly downturn in the economy. The latest GDP bombshell forced him to postpone next year’s planned hike that would have brought Japan's sales tax to double the pre-April 2014 rate.

The prime minister argues that raising the sales tax will help pull Japan out of years of deflation by generating revenues to help offset the country’s mounting debt. But critics say that sales taxes are regressive—forcing the less affluent to shoulder a greater share of the tax burden—and they argue that Abe's policies are pushing more workers into unstable jobs while only temporarily boosting corporate profits.   

Stock prices have risen, and the yen has weakened since Abe came to power, which has helped export-dependent companies. But critics argue there is no evidence of a trickle-down effect from “Abenomics,” the prime minister’s market-oriented economic creed, and that its policies have hurt the working poor.

“I couldn’t quite see how Abenomics would ever work,” said Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Tokyo’s Sophia University. 

The third arrow

Abe had promised to fire three “arrows” into Japan’s stagnating economy. In 2013, he implemented the first two: fiscal stimulus in the form of more than 10 trillion yen ($117 billion), and monetary easing, which boosted stock prices and weakened the yen.

But his third arrow — creating a national growth strategy based on long-lasting structural reforms — has proved most painful to many ordinary Japanese.

Midori Ito, a care worker, said her life has become “extremely difficult” following Abe’s sales-tax hike.

She is among the growing ranks of Japan’s working poor who earn less than 2 million yen (about $17,000) a year. Their numbers have increased by about 290,000 since Abe came to power in 2012, according to the National Tax Agency.

Ito has been trying to cut spending by socializing less and trimming non-essentials. Working two days a week caring for old people and juggling other small jobs, she lives on 100,000 yen a month ($851).

Living in Tokyo, where even cheap accommodation can cost as much as her monthly income, Ito says she has become more creative with money — one of her recipes involves cooking a 25 yen (21 cent) bag of bean sprouts to feed herself and her roommate. “We have learned to lower our living standards,” Ito says.

The company she works for has begun assigning workers to short shifts of less than an hour, which means less income for Ito and her colleagues. Even if their pay complies with the legal minimum wage of 888 yen ($6.80), care-workers struggle to earn enough income to cover the cost of living.

Abe has sought to make it easier for companies to hire and fire irregular workers but has not raised the minimum wage. The prime minister believes that Japan’s job market is still too protected and that job mobility will boost productivity.

But the erratic schedules and poor pay drive many casual staff away, Ito says, and full-timers end up working late into the night, on weekends and holidays. Even then, they pocket no more than 200,000 yen ($1,685) a month. “We are made to think that’s still better than nothing.”

Ito is not alone. Real wages fell for the 15th consecutive month in September, and the working class is spending less than last year, according to the labor ministry. Evenmajor corporations, which have so far this year enjoyed rising profits, have expressed concerns over consumer spending trends, according to a survey by the Asahi newspaper.

“Consumers have become sensitive to prices,” an executive with Nippon Ham, a major Japanese food processor, told Asahi. “We can’t yet claim that consumers are experiencing economic growth.”

To boost corporate spending, Abe asked major companies in April to raise wages for salaried workers but left out casual workers. Critics say this only encouraged corporations to replace permanent stable jobs with temporary work.

Japan had 1.23 million more irregular workers in the July-September quarter this year than in the same period a year earlier. They now make up over 30 percent of Japan’s workforce.

The change has been especially tough on women. They now make up half of Japan’s entire workforce but are disproportionately represented among part-time workers—despite Abe’s promise that his policies would provide more opportunities for women to “shine.”

Calls for help

Akai Jinbu, a Tokyo Youth Union organizer, said temporary workers are regarded as even more expendable today than in 2008, when tens of thousands were dismissed at the start of the global recession.

Many temp workers in their 30s, 40s and even 50s end up living with their parents or sharing rooms because they cannot afford the rent in Tokyo, where a single bedroom can fetch $1,100 a month.

“I’m just stunned thinking about how they are going to be able to survive after the layoff,” Jinbu said.

The union says that calls for help from workers have doubled over the past year. Jinbu says his organization fields more than 200 phone calls a month—most from callers who have been left without any backup plans or social security after being laid off.

Abe sees things differently. He says that without the second sales tax hike, Japan’s economy will worsen and investors will lose confidence. The nation must stabilize social security systems and rebuild its finances, Abe said this month. Japan carries the largest debt in the industrialized world.

Political scientist Nakano calls Abe’s economic policies a time bomb, warning that the snap election will simply postpone the explosion. “As long as it doesn’t blow up while he’s holding it, he doesn’t seem to mind,” Nakano says.

Analysts believe that a strong showing in the election would give Abe a mandate to pass unpopular policies, including plans to steer Japan away from its postwar pacifism; beef up defense; increase government secrecy; and switch on the nation's nuclear reactors.

But public interest in the election is low, Japan’s opposition is in disarray, and Abe may be reelected simply because voters see no alternative. The big question then is not whether Abe and his Liberal Democrats will win, but whether his conservative coalition government will return with a clear majority.

“Many people are finding it hard to believe that there is something better to follow,” Nakano said. “We had the lowest voting rate the last time in December 2012 in postwar history, and it’s most likely to be lower this time.”