asazuke

Life in Japan, food, music, whatever…

Radiobeef and the missing 143 16 August, 2011

Filed under: food & drink,news,politics — johnraff @ 2:42 pm
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This isn’t good. It was about a month ago that the first radioactive beef started showing up in the consumer food chain; at first it was from cattle in the Fukushima area that had been fed rice straw contaminated by the reactor explosion. That was bad enough for the local farmers who had been struggling to get their lives restarted after the earthquake, but it now seems that straw from the danger zone – a major rice-producing area – had been sent to all kinds of places and traces of radioactive caesium have been found in beef from quite different places. This is bound to have an effect on sales of (delicious) Japanese beef, both here and, maybe more importantly, in Hong Kong, China and Taiwan where all kinds of Japanese food has been selling to the newly rich. ($100 apples, anyone?)

More: it now turns out that the Tokyo power company responsible for the Fukushima reactor is unable to trace 143 people who worked on the clear up operation, in order to monitor their radiation exposure. A lot of part-time workers were taken on in a shambling chain of sub-contractors to sub-sub-contractors and the bottom end included homeless people and alcoholics hanging out on the bad side of the railway station waiting for a bit of work from the gangster brokers who came round. They were offered 2 or 3 times the going rate for dangerous work, but nobody seemed to care too much about where they went afterwards. Of course this is just an extreme example of the return to Victorian-era exploitation that capitalists have been organizing on a world-wide level, but this time even token attempts to be concerned for workers’ welfare have broken down.

The Japanese population as a whole are, as you can imagine, less than enthused about repairing nuclear reactors, still less building new ones. Nobody believes the government or power companies when they try to reassure us that everything will be OK. Coming on top of the annual August commemoration of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the mood here is very much anti-nuclear. Of course public opinion is fickle, people forget quickly and the nuclear power consortium of electricity companies, big engineering, corrupt public servants, politicians and the media will do their best to fight back. Nuclear energy looks cheaper than renewable alternatives, untill you include all the hidden costs, and there’s lots of palm-greasing cash available. Still, can we allow ourselves some limited optimism that the much-fabled Japanese Consensus is about to be reached, and a major policy switch is coming up?

Fingers crossed (again).

 

Hamaoka 21 May, 2011

Filed under: news,politics — johnraff @ 2:49 pm
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Maybe you’ve heard of the Tokai Earthquake. The expected epicentre is a bit west of here, in Shizuoka prefecture, but near enough for the predicted magnitude of over 8 to do plenty of damage in Nagoya. Our house was built fairly recently to the more stringent standards that came in after the Kobe earthquake, so I’m hoping we’ll be OK. Whatever, it’s definitely on its way – this quake has occurred regularly every 100~150 years, and the last one was in 1854 so it’s overdue. The probability of it happening in the next 30 years has been estimated at 87%.

Now, right in the centre of where the Tokai Earthquake is expected is the city of Omaezaki, and right there, on the coast, is the Hamaoka nuclear power station. It’s hard to believe that permission was granted to build this even after the danger of earthquake damage had been pointed out in official reports, but there seems to have been an unholy coalition between the previous LDP government, the nuclear and construction industries, and even sponsored university professors and the media, all of which have set Japan on the way to generating a large proportion of its electricity from nuclear energy. Read the Asahi newspaper’s interview with Taro Kono, one of the few LDP Diet members to oppose nuclear energy: (English translation).

In the context of having to reduce, almost eliminate, cabon dioxide emissions if the world is to remain inhabitable for human beings, replacing oil-burning power stations with atomic energy seems to make some sense as a temporary stop-gap, even if the cost of disposing of used fuel rods and of dismantling old power stations is probably huge, and still somewhat unknown. The recent earthquake in Tohoku, though, has reminded us just how enormous the costs of a nuclear accident could be. Of course earthquakes are a fact of life in Japan, and though the power stations are supposed to have been built so as to withstand major shaking and high tidal waves, we have now seen how the best laid plans of mice and men…

The implications of a nuclear disaster within a couple of hundred kilometeres of Tokyo and Nagoya just don’t bear thinking about. Imagine having to evacuate Tokyo!!! So is an energy policy centred on nuclear power feasable for Japan? Prime minister Kan seems to have decided not, at least till they can harden the things up considerably, and two weeks ago he asked the Chubu power company to close down the remaining two reactors of five which were in operation at Hamaoka – a request they couldn’t really refuse.

So what now? The nuclear lobby are kicking hard, making quite reasonable claims that renewable energy is nowhere near being in a position to take over, or cheap enough even if the windmills and solar panels could be put up quickly. Public opinion, though, is with Kan on this, even though his overall popularity is pretty low, and the mood now is very much into economy. A bit of effort – turn down the air conditioners, turn off some lights, stagger days off, introduce Summer Time – and power consumption this summer might be cut by 15%. It’s not enough, but it’s a start. The point is that once a consensus has been reached the Japanese have been known to move quite fast. Revolutionary changes have taken place here still within living memory, and the Edo era wasn’t all that long ago.

Maybe we can afford some cautious optimism. Maybe Japan will catch up with Europe on the use of renewable energy and set an example for a less wasteful lifestyle – “mottanai” started here. Maybe Japanese technology will take the lead in developing new sources of energy. Maybe between us the more sane places in the world can bring America on board too…

All we can do is hope that this disaster might trigger the action needed to avoid the far worse disasters staring us in the face.

 

He never meant it. 6 May, 2011

Filed under: politics — johnraff @ 1:04 pm
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The Democratic Party (Minshuto) came in to power on a wave of disgust with the LDP, who had been in power almost uninterruptedly since the war and had become associated with all that was wrong with Japanese politics. Even more than with Obama in the US, their support has pretty much unravelled and disillusionment is rife. Now, thanks to Wikileaks, we know that all that talk of moving American bases off Okinawa and giving the long-suffering inhabitants a break was so much hot air. They had secretly let the Americans know that if they said no, the Japanese were prepared to accept it. Read more here, courtesy of the Asahi:

asahi.com(朝日新聞社):THE TRUTH BEHIND JAPAN-U.S. TIES 1: DPJ government never committed to Futenma alternatives – English.

EDIT: that Asahi article has now been taken down for some reason. Here’s one from the American military site Stars and Stripes:

Report: Japan never fully committed to moving Futenma off Okinawa

 

Not so fast… 27 April, 2011

Filed under: news,politics — johnraff @ 2:43 pm
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While I was in the UK the Japanese earthquake almost vanished from the news. An occasional mention of yet more leaking radiation, but mainly it was all about Libya, where Britain and France seem to be the two main actors, generally totally failing to stop Qadhafi from shelling his own citizens. Now there’s talk of putting troops on the ground, going way over the UN mandate and starting to look like another Iraq or Afghanistan…

Meanwhile, here in Japan of course the earthquake is not going anywhere. Clearing up will take years, many thousands of people are still living in shelters, the already weak economy is gasping for breath and 2/3 of the TV news is about all that. Some items that came up in the last few days:

  • Some 95% of the deaths – approaching 30,000 – were caused by the tsunami, rather than the earthquake itself, and 2/3 of those were of people who were over 60.
  • More than a month later the aftershocks are still going on. Every day there are a couple more, some of magnitude 4 or 5 – not that small by any means, but they hardly get a mention in the news any more.
  • While abroad there’s been a lot of talk about the stoical, steadfast Japanese, here it’s about the people of Tohoku: the North-East region of Japan which is cold and traditionally poor, inhabited mostly by farmers and fishermen. They don’t complain much, just get on with the job – sort of more Japanese than the Japanese.
  • It’s “hanami” time – the annual Spring flower festivities when you have a few drinks under the cherry blossom and celebrate the end of Winter. This year, though, people look a bit guilty to be having a good time and the nighttime light-up of the cherry trees has been cancelled in many places – partly to save electricity, and partly because it just doesn’t feel right.
  • There have been many generous gifts from private individuals, in Japan and all over the world, along with all kinds of volunteer assistance. Some people from Bangladesh loaded a van up with ingredients and made curry (very popular with kids here). Others put together a laundry truck, India sent 20,000 blankets, the US army sent their band, who were really good apparently, the Australian prime minister brought cuddly koalas, others did free hairdressing, brought flowers… Seriously, some of these things might sound silly, but were genuinely appreciated, I think.
  • Even so, at a time like this what people would appreciate most of all is some money in their pockets, having had to flee their homes with nothing except the clothes they were wearing. At this point, however, the various local government authorities, those that still exist that is, are struggling with trying to figure out who’s in which refugee centre, how much each person’s house has been damaged, what compensation should go to which person where… in other words the usual red tape, so in spite of all the generous gifts that have come in, no-one’s actually seen any of the cash. Add to that rumours that the big organizations like the Red Cross have been creaming off as much as 40% for administrative costs or something – could that really be true? It’s easy to get cynical, or think of maybe just driving up there and /doing something/ directly.
  • Not all the victims were Japanese. While Japan is still not a major immigrant destination, there are still people here from Korea, China, Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Nigeria, not to mention my own UK. Not all those people can understand emergency tsunami warnings, evacuation instructions and the like in Japanese, and efforts have been made to provide translations into English, Chinese, Korean, Portuguese… This is obviously a major task and recently there has been talk of providing important information in simple Japanese which relatively recent arrivals might be able to understand. This seems to make more sense.
  • Back to school. Often in shared classrooms somewhat remote from their own home towns, but a lot of children have been starting classes this week. School dinners for some of them have been just a bottle of milk and a piece of bread, though. The kitchens are still not usable. Maybe they can have proper hot dinners in a few more weeks.
  • Radioactive refugees. Of course the Fukushima reactor breakdown has turned out to be a major part of this catastrophe, and possibly the one with the longest after-effects. Some 100,000 people have been forcibly evacuated from the area, with no immediate prospect of return. Now kids from that area are being picked on at school, and even adults have been refused admission by hotels and ryokan because they might be radioactive.
  • People are not the only victims. Farmers were forced to leave their animals behind, and even pet dogs are not allowed in the shelters, so many animals in the zone round the Fukushima reactor have starved to death.
  • Cars. More than 400,000 were trashed by the tsunami, made worthless by salt water and mud and now have to be disposed of. First, though, the owners have to be identified and permission obtained…
  • The economic effects continue to spread. Japanese restaurants in Hong Kong are threatened with bankruptcy because people are afraid of radioactive fish. Factories in Thailand and China cannot get the parts they need. Beer manufacturers are cutting down on the varieties they will make this year. Rice will not be planted in the restricted area, maybe for the forseeable future. “Buri” (a kind of tuna) is just coming into season, and delicious, but the price has collapsed because the distributors cannot guarantee having reliable electricity supplies to keep their freezers running.

In the end of course taxes are going to have to go up to pay for all this, so we can look forward to higher VAT or income tax, or possibly both. Would it be over-optimistic to hope that this disaster might be an opportunity to rethink the country’s (the world’s?) whole energy policy, shift towards renewable resources and more efficient use? Fingers crossed…

 

Our Mayor: Part Three 4 March, 2011

Filed under: news,politics — johnraff @ 2:34 pm
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The story goes on… Kawamura won his election, by a landslide. He got re-elected as mayor of Nagoya, got his candidate elected as governor of Aichi Prefecture (where Nagoya is) and got his proposition to recall the city council passed – all with big majorities!

Now, I’m sort of in two minds about this. Of course I’m delighted those over-paid councillors will get thrown out, kicking and screaming till the end no doubt, though some of them seem to be coming round to the idea of having their salaries halved to 8 million yen a year ($100,000), now that it’s that or no job at all. That’s still a pretty good income I’d say – certainly more than I’ve got any chance of ever seeing…

On the other hand, Kawamura’s main platform seems to be “less tax” and he’s planning to cut Nagoya city tax by 10%. That appeals to most people for sure – who wants to pay more tax? Well… when they ask Scandinavians, for example, how they feel about their incredibly high tax rates, most of them seem to think it’s OK, because they get back pretty good government services in return. There’s the rub – what city services is K. going to cut to pay for this 10%? At the end of the day it’s a redistribution of income back to the rich, who have more tax to cut, from the poor who would benefit from the city services to be axed.

So is he a democrat, fighting city hall for the common folk, or a disguised conservative demagogue? It gets murkier too: at the national level the ruling DPJ is in trouble. Their popularity is collapsing, partly because of, again, taxes. There’s no escaping (in my opinion) that the rising proportion of elderly people in the population, along with the huge national debt, mean an increase in tax is coming, like it or not, along with a fall in standard of living in all the “developed” countries. My personal complaint is that the government want to raise this money by increasing consumption tax, which hits the poor hardest, rather than income tax. This comes just after reducing corporation tax by 5%, along with backing out of all kinds of promises made in their pre-election manifesto: child allowance, free motorways… People are getting fed up, and “wrecker” Ozawa, who’s caught up in another money-politics scandal, sees an opportunity to divert attention from his wrongdoing and set himself up as a kind of champion of the poor.

A lot of the DPJ diet members owe their seats to Ozawa, and when the current Kan cabinet excommunicated him last month for his sins there were rumblings and stirrings in the ranks. It now looks as if a split in the party is not out of the question. This is where Kawamura steps in. He’s an old Ozawa associate, and he’s been seen in meetings with the old fox lately, about who knows what, but Kawamura’s “Less Tax Party” which is about to fight in the Nagoya city council elections might get into some sort of coalition with a breakaway Ozawa wing of the DPJ, destroying the government so many people hoped would put an end to the old style money politics of the LDP.

One up for The Wrecker, and of course the equally unpopular LDP must be delighted.

 

Our Mayor – continued 17 December, 2010

Filed under: city,news,politics — johnraff @ 2:32 pm
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Takashi Kawamura - mayor of Nagoya

Maybe you remember this guy? The mayor of Nagoya I wrote about last March. His attempt to force the city councillors to cut their numbers and pay by half has been simmering on since then, but recently it got more exciting. The collection of signatures for a petition went ahead in November and, after a slow start, they eventually got some 400 + thousand within the couple of weeks allowed. It was tight, but they made a big push in the last week and ended up with more than the 360,000 (1/5 of the electorate) needed to call a popular vote on dissolving the council. BUT – the Nagoya electoral commission ruled about 110,000 signatures invalid, taking the total below what was needed. Oddly enough, most of the members of that commission are ex-councillors…

It didn’t end there though. There was a chorus of complaints, and people who checked their names on the petition found they had been invalidated for some pretty poor reasons: a single mistake in the address or phone number, smudge on the paper, illegible signature… Kawamura’s supporters put in complaints on sme 35,000 of them, maybe the ones they thought had the strongest case of getting through, and after more checks – all of this costing a fortune in taxpayers’ money – eventually got another 12,000 valid signatures, enough to get over the quota!

So now there will be a popular vote here in Nagoya on whether to dissolve the council, and hold another election. It looks as if the vote will succeed, and there’s a good chance that the new council will have enought sympathetic members to pass Kawamura’s motions to cut their pay by half. They’ll still get 8 million yen (~$95,000) which is enough to get by, I’d have thought…

 

65 years 13 October, 2010

Filed under: politics — johnraff @ 3:02 pm
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I was born not long after the war and its after-effects reverberated through my childhood. Boys’ comics were full of brave British soldiers battling nasty Germans shouting “donner und blitzen!” (although I preferred spacy stuff like Dan Dare), my parents got nervous at the sound of the siren from a nearby airfield, friends would mutter in the corner of the playground about fiendish “torture” practiced by evil Germans or Japanese and distant mushroom clouds were a regular item in my dreams for some years. But some 580,000 Japanese civilians, and more than 2 million soldiers died in that war – far more than for the UK or USA, if not coming up to Russia or Germany ( Wikipedia ) and most Japanese of that generation have terrible memories of the war.

The last couple of years, NHK, the national TV network, have made a project of interviewing eyewitnesses to build an archive of war experiences while they still can. Many Japanese soldiers died in the most horrific circumstances, with little support from central command beyond exhortations to rely on their “samurai spirit”. Most older Japanese have strong anti-war opinions, and I think it would be fair to regard the civilian population as co-victims, along with many fellow-Asians, of the militarism that gripped the country in the early 20th century – a time when people were tortured to death for mentioning in a letter that they hoped the war would end soon… So maybe NHK are hoping to maintain this pacifism into the next generation, who grew up in the postwar era of prosperity. Good luck to them!

The anniversaries of the monstrous flashbulbs that went off over Hiroshima and Nagasaki come early in August, just before the end of the war itself. Now, more people actually died in the firebombing of Tokyo, but that doesn’t alter the suffering of children who were fried on their way to school. Tragedy, like peace, is indivisible – it’s not really a question of numbers – and I was glad to see the American ambassador at Hiroshima this year, to pay his respects. Just a natural human response, you’d think, so why was this the first time since the end of the war 65 years ago? Even more, why did so many Americans get angry about it, complaining that there was nothing to apologise for? Leaving the issue of whether the atomic bombing was justified or not – there are arguments on both sides – surely there’s nothing wrong with recognising the suffering of innocent people?

Now, maybe it’s time for Japanese to face up to the Nanking Massacre?

 

And the loser is… 27 September, 2010

Filed under: news,politics — johnraff @ 9:47 pm
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…China I’d say. I thought the first rule of diplomacy was not to cause your opposite number to lose face, and the Chinese are supposed to have mastered this stuff 4,000 years ago, but it either hasn’t occurred to them, or they’re so fired up about the Senkaku/Daioyu islands thing that they don’t care, but their behaviour is being nervously watched all over SE Asia. Vietnam, the Phillipines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei all have territorial disputes with China, and the Big Cuddly Panda image China has been trying to sell in the region is being seriously undermined by their bullying tactics towards Japan – cutting exports of rare earths, discouraging tourism, clamping down on trade in general, arresting four Japanese on spying charges and now sending more ships to the region. If as big a country as Japan can be treated like this, they might ask, how would we little ones get on?

Of course Japan lost a lot of face, but no-one cares that much about Japan these days anyway…

The winner? America of course. All that fuss about bases in Okinawa might just fade away as everyone in the region rediscovers how much they love Uncle Sam. Personally, I’d say “a pox on both your houses”. Just hope it doesn’t lead to a war or anything…

 

The Wrecker 4 September, 2010

Filed under: news,politics — johnraff @ 3:12 pm
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Ichirō Ozawa got that nickname “こわしや” a long time ago, and I still remember him saying there was no way he could work with the Japanese Socialist Party, whom he was supposed to be in a coalition with, back in 1993, when a guy called Hosokawa (now a potter) led a historic non-LDP government for about half a year. The Socialists were shortly after visited by a beezebub from the LDP who whispered in leader Murayama’s ear asking how he’d like to be Prime Minister. The subsequent LDP-Socialist coalition got back power from the first successful attempt to break the LDP’s monopoly on power since the war, and the now completely discredited Socialist party dwindled away to their current irrelevance. Since leaving the LDP years ago Ozawa has been involved in the formation, and breakup, of numerous parties – hence his nickname.

He’s actually a rather conservative polititian with a somewhat nationalistic attitude to foreign policy – this is what caused the fallout with the Socialists. Even today he’s well to the right in the generally progressive Democratic Party of Japan, and a lot of people resent the power he weilds. Add to this that he’s under a cloud over some suspicious land dealings that he claims to be innocent in. Few people believe him and he is not popular at all in the country in general, compared with Prime Minister Kan who seems to have more popular support, if anything, than his DPJ party.

So what’s Ozawa up to, standing against Kan in the upcoming DPJ leadership election? If he won, the DPJ would almost certainly fall further in the opinion polls and quite possibly lose to the LDP in the next election. Unfortunately he still has a lot of support in the party behind the scenes, among the more conservative members. While poor at speaking in public he’s a brilliant “old school” politician who thrives in meetings and grass-roots work, and a lot of new DPJ Diet members, the “Ozawa children” owe their seats to him and will probably vote for him.

Moreover, rumour has it he wouldn’t care too much if his election as leader led to the breakup of the DPJ, because he’d be able to go on to form a coalition with fed-up LDP members with political views more to his taste.

The Wrecker strikes again.

 

Our Mayor 20 March, 2010

Filed under: city,news,politics — johnraff @ 2:27 pm
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Takashi Kawamura‘s a bit of a character. He first crossed the radar when he was running as Diet member for a constituency round here – his trademarks were riding around on a bicycle and speaking with a broad Nagoya accent, the kind nobody except him actually uses these days. He got elected and bicycle canvassing caught on, but nobody else tries that Nagoya accent… It’s OK for a bit, but he does lay it on a bit thick. It’s all about the Common Touch no doubt, and he’s doing something right because now he’s the Mayor of Nagoya.

There are other reasons for that, though, a big one being his promise to cut Nagoya city tax by 10%. Of course 20% would have been even better, but you can see the appeal of that idea – for those on low incomes (like us) city tax can be quite heavy as it doesn’t have as many allowances as national income tax. Of course for those whose incomes are too low to be taxed at all the 10% reduction has no meaning. For them, more important might be the social services that would have to be cut to pay for that tax reduction.

Kawamura has laid on a distraction though – his plan to halve the number of city councillors from 75 to 38 or so, and halve their salaries too, as well as stopping their expense allowances! Here he has rather more support among the general Nagoya population than in the city council, where the overpaid leeches are fighting him tooth and nail, understandably. Even at half, they’d still get much more than I do so I’m with Kawamura on this one, and it has to be admitted he’s already halved his own salary. He’s going to try to dissolve the council if they don’t pass his motion, and I’m sure they won’t, but needs to collect a huge number of signatures in order to do a “recall”. He’ll probably succeed, but it will take some time, during which the councillors can continue drawing their inflated salaries and collecting their expenses…

So is he a genuine man of the people or a right-wing demagogue in disguise? We’ll see eventually…

 

 
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