asazuke

Life in Japan, food, music, whatever…

Fed up 31 October, 2012

Filed under: politics — johnraff @ 2:55 pm
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If you remember the euphoria that surrounded the election of Obama four years ago, that’s a bit how it was here in Japan when the Democratic Party of Japan took power from the Liberal Democratic Party, who had had pretty much a monopoly since the war. The names might sound almost identical, but in fact the DPJ were supposed to stand for a complete break from the stale policies and embedded corruption of the LDP – a “Change Has Come To Japan” feeling. Hah. Now the current prime minister, Noda, has public support figures under 20%, as do the DPJ.

People are thoroughly fed up, with plenty of reason to be. The DPJ have kept hardly any of the promises they made before the last election:

  • Okinawa. Okinawans have got even more to be fed up about than the rest of the country, and a good bit of it relates to the American army bases that occupy 18% of the main island. Hatoyama, the current DPJ leader promised he would move the highly dangerous Futenma air base out of the centre of Ginowan City, off the island and out of Okinawa prefecture. Eventually, betrayed by civil servants in the Foreign Office, he was forced to accept the plan to move the base a bit north to Henoko, on the same island, just as the LDP had already arranged. Okinawans were furious, and still are, and local opposition in Henoko has meant the base is still in the middle of the city – the worst outcome.
  • Free motorways. This was always silly, and after a couple of weekend trials seems to have been quietly dropped.
  • Child allowance. This struck me as a good way of redistributing a bit of wealth down to the younger generation, who would spend it and stimulate the economy, but since the LDP won a mid-term Upper House election they’ve successfully blocked it, along with most of the other useful-sounding legislation the DPJ were trying to pass. (Americans, does this sound familiar?)
  • Free high school. Another good idea that may not have been actually dropped, but one you don’t hear much about these days.
  • Pensions. Another big one. Everyone knows the government has a huge deficit and the consensus of opinion among young Japanese seems to be that by the time they’re old enough to claim it the pension system will have collapsed. As a result more and more people are failing to pay their (compulsory) contributions, making the situation worse. This is compounded by the big companies which have made a massive shift from employing full-time staff to using part-timers from agencies, who are much harder to keep within the national insurance system. The DPJ promised a fullscale review of the tax and social welfare systems to make a pension at 65 a realistic proposition. All Noda has done so far is force a bill through parliament to raise consumption tax by 5%, losing many members of his party in the process. This tax raise wasn’t even in the DPJ manifesto, and hasn’t exactly proved a crowd-pleaser.
  • Bureaucrats. Unelected civil servants have long had too much power here, and it was often said that politicians just rubber-stamped their decisions. The DPJ promised to rein in the bureaucrats and take power back for the people. The bureaucrats were outraged, fought the inexperienced DPJ politicians tooth and nail, and seem to have beaten them.

Well, the DPJ do have some excuses, the biggest of course being the Fukushima earthquake and tidal wave. This punched a big hole in the economy, and radicalized public opinion on nuclear energy in the process. The government soon promised policies that would “make nuclear-free energy supply possible by 2030” and at the same time authorized the building of a new reactor…

This list is long, but finally we must remember the total mess the DPJ government has made of foreign policy. Former PM Hatoyama must have royally pissed of the Americans when he announced in a public speech that Japan intended to move away from them and closer to the Chinese. The Okinawan base negotiations were, and still are, a complete mess. Noda completed the circle by buying the Senkaku islands after goading by the idiot Tokyo governor Ishihara (more about him in a moment), and provoked the worst crisis in Japan-China relations for years. Meanwhile things are little better with South Korea or Russia.

So, yes, people are fed up. However, the LDP, the main opposition party, have nothing to be pleased about. Their public support might be a few percent higher than the government’s, but nobody expects too much of them, and there’s no guarantee at all that they’d be able to form a government after the election that’s coming up soon. The DPJ want to delay the election as long as possible in the hope that their support might pick up a bit, while the LDP are being as obstructive as possible in the Diet to try and force an early election while they’re a bit ahead. The general public are not stupid and see all this quite clearly. There’s more – Ozawa (remember him?) broke off from the DPJ to form his own party, Osaka mayor Hashimoto has started one up too, our Nagoya mayor Kawamura is hanging about trying to get involved, and just the other day Tokyo mayor Ishihara announced his resignation to form his own party too!

There’s talk of a “third force” in Japanese politics but it’s hard to be too optimistic about any of this. Ishihara is a raving right-winger who, like some other older LDP dropouts, seems to have inherited the outlook of the military era of the 30s. He hates communism (ie hates the Chinese), hates the Americans who defeated his country in 1945 and hates the “socialists” who he thinks have taken over the teachers’ union and are destroying Japan ( he fired some teachers for failing to stand up for the national anthem ). He also wants to completely re-write Japan’s pacifist constitution. Ishihara can be an entertaining speaker though, and joins the DPJ in lashing out at the civil servants. (Of course he isn’t in the position of having to actually do anything about them.) It was Ishihara’s plan for Tokyo to buy the Senkaku islands earlier this year that pushed Noda into buying them for the government. Ishihara would have put up anti-Chinese posters and who knows what, and Noda thought preempting him would keep things smooth with the Chinese. (He was wrong.)

Hashimoto is younger and a little more sane than Ishihara but still pretty much right-wing/authoritarian, as are most of the other politicians milling around looking for some of the action, except Ozawa who’s just a populist. Nobody has any particular expectations of any of them. People have had it with politicians in general. This all reminds me of nothing so much as inter-war Germany just before Hitler was elected. Exaggeration? Maybe. We can take hope from Marx – (roughly) “History repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”.

Get ready for a good laugh.

 

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The Wrecker again (yawn) 12 July, 2012

Filed under: politics — johnraff @ 2:52 pm
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“Wrecker” Ozawa has come to Asazuke’s attention before, eg here and here , and he’s been up to his tricks again.

Now, nobody I know enjoys paying taxes, and there are arguments to be made against raising consumption tax – for example, it’s regressive, and hits the poor harder than the rich – but that the Japanese government needs to straighten out its finances seems beyond doubt. Noda the boring prime minister, for lack of any more inspiring ambition, seems to have decided he wants to go down in history as the one who finally succeeded in forcing this tax increase down the necks of an increasingly inert and despondent Japanese public. There was no mention of such a tax increase in the manifesto of the Democratic Party of Japan at the time of the landslide election when Japan decided it had finally had enough of the Liberal Democrat Party, but politicians don’t generally base their campaigns on the promise of Higher Taxes.

The DPJ have actually done a lot less than they promised in those heady days a couple of years ago, but even without the earthquake and tidal wave there’s no way of avoiding the fact that Good Times are not really just around the corner, here in Japan or anywhere in the world for that matter. The bills for the consumption spree the developed countries have been enjoying the last 100~200 years are lining up to come in and hit us one after another. (Pity those in Asia and Africa who never got to come to the party, but are still going to get their share of the tab anyway.) Now Ozawa – to return to today’s topic – hasn’t actually put up any nifty proposals for dealing with any of Japan’s problems, but he is definitely against an increase in consumption tax, he voted against the recent Diet bill and has left the DPJ, taking some 50 members with him, to start a new party.

Maybe I’m cynical, but it looks as if he just thinks that no-tax-raise line will get him some votes in the election that must be held by next year at the latest. His “Peoples’ Livelihood First” (or whatever) party’s other line to date is opposition to nuclear power. Now that’s one I totally agree with, but it needs to go along with an urgent huge shift to renewable energy sources, about which they are saying nothing to date. That would cost lots of money, implying more cuts in our standard of living. There’s no way out, but politicians the world over are still avoiding looking reality in the face. Ozawa looks like a populist, just like Nagoya mayor Kawamura.

There are other new forces floating around that O. would like to team up with, Osaka’s Hashimoto and Tokyo’s Ishihara. Both these are trying to present themselves as some kind of cleansing New Wave in Japanese politics, but both are somewhat rightist-populist and don’t seem too keen on getting together with the somewhat leftist-populist old-school money-politics Ozawa.

Meanwhile, the public, going by recent opinion polls, don’t give a ****. They dislike the DPJ, they also dislike the LDP, they have no expectations of Ozawa’s new party – this is the fourth time he’s split off to form a new party – and more than 50% don’t support any party at all. Everyone’s just Fed Up with the whole business. This attitude is understandable, but it doesn’t really lead to any productive action. Is anyone else reminded of prewar Weimar Germany by all this? If we get a new Japanese Hitler before long don’t say I didn’t warn you…

 

The Third Beer 31 May, 2012

Filed under: food & drink — johnraff @ 1:49 pm
Tags: , , ,

Taxes. Unavoidable of course, and liable to change people’s lives. Fewer windows, less lung disease… Land tax in Japanese cities is high, with the result that empty lots are quickly put to some useful economic purpose to pay the tax. On the other hand, beautiful Japanese-style houses are knocked down because their owners could no longer afford to live in them.

Spirits like whisky and shochu are relatively low-taxed, so there’s not much reason to buy anything in the duty-free shops on your way here; beer, however, is hit with something like 45% tax! It used to be luxury item, for the snooty westernized Japanese who didn’t want to drink sake or shochu. Postwar, everyone started drinking beer, but the government, addicted to that nice 45% revenue, aren’t going to lower it any time soon. There are more oddities in the messy Japanese liquor tax system. The level of tax on beer is determined by its malt content. Under 67%, and it has to be called “happoshu“, not beer, but as compensation the tax rate is only 35% or so. Happoshu tastes vaguely like beer, but it’s pretty anaemic stuff, not really worth putting up with for the ¥15 you save over the price of a real can of beer. Even so, in these hard times pseudo-beers have been selling quite well, especially since the beer manufacturers discovered yet another tax category: this is for those “alcopops” that have been popular in the West, just flavoured water with some distilled alcohol added, and much lower taxed even than happoshu.

These so-called “third beers” were flavoured with anything the maker could come up with – soy beans, seaweed, or if you were lucky a very weak happoshu – dosed with some extra hops and a dash of cheap industrial alcohol to bring the strength up to the usual 5% or so. They tasted about as horrible as they sound, but cost about half what real beer did – maybe ¥2400 for a case of 24 350ml cans. Every month or so a new brand came out, each tasting as vile as the last, but the market shifted down from beer to happoshu, and finally the only sector where sales were holding up was that Third Beer stuff.

OK now the (sort of) good news. Over the years, those beer companies’ R&D departments have been hard at work, and the latest varieties of beeroids are very slightly less disgusting than they used to be. A couple of years ago Sapporo had a happoshu called “Sugomi” which wasn’t bad at all; it was soon dropped for some reason, but now they’ve got a Third Beer called “Mugi to Hoppu” (麦とホップ) which I’d have to admit isn’t really too bad. Mugi to Hoppu BlackThe name means “wheat/barley and hops” and somehow they’ve managed to concoct this stuff only from those ingredients without going into a beer tax bracket. It seems as if they brew a low-grade happoshu with a little bit of malt, boost the taste with some unmalted barley or wheat, add more hop flavour and some alcohol which has been distilled from wheat or barley (the two words are the same in Japanese). Put it in the fridge for a while, and amazingly it’s not too bad, especially on a hot summer day. Now don’t get me wrong, I’d rather drink real beer any time, preferably a craft beer from one of the local microbreweries, but at ¥100 a can this will do for a quick one after work. Last winter a “black” version came out which is even harder to distinguish from some kinds of black beer. If you don’t want to work your way through every variety of beer-like beverage in the supermarket, check this one out. (Sapporo haven’t yet paid me anything for writing this, but of course donations are welcome…)

Now the recent sales of beery things have been generally pretty poor in fact. Young people are abandoning beer in favour of sweeter “cocktails” and those alcopops which might have inspired the Third Beers. Actually, young people are abandoning alcohol in general, believe it or not. Instead of going for a quick one with the gang from the office after work, they go straight home and… do whatever it is they do… The single beverage category whose sales are booming is non-alcoholic beer. Seriously.

The country is going to the dogs.

 

Radiobeef and the missing 143 16 August, 2011

Filed under: food & drink,news,politics — johnraff @ 2:42 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,

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).

 

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…

 

Sushi for Christmas 10 January, 2011

Filed under: city,food & drink — johnraff @ 7:29 pm
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This goes back thirty years or so, but a couple of minutes from the English school I used to teach at was a little sushi shop in the corner of a local market. The owner was a friendly guy who made good sushi and every day he had a lunchtime special for ¥380 that used whatever was in season at the fish market that day and made a great lunch. I used to drop in quite often. At that time there were little privately owned sushi shops everywhere, just like izakaya and yakitori places, but gradually the big companies moved in; they can buy in bulk and prepare stuff in big food factories so, as our local sushi lunch guy complained one day, there was no way that people like him could compete. A lot of places went out of business, but his solution was to move up, up-market. He bought the best fish at the market every day, however much it cost, and charged prices to match. Although he was still in the corner of this scruffy little market it was now hard to leave there without spending ¥10,000 or more, and the only people who could afford to eat there were yakuza.

And that’s how things are now – there are cheap, cheap chain sushi places where you can take the kids, and really expensive places. Having tasted decent sushi you don’t feel like MacSushi, and really can’t afford to go to the good places any more… what a drag. However, the other day when we were thinking of going out for dinner at Christmas and all the French restaurants were either too expensive or booked up T found a sushi shop via the internet that didn’t look too bad, and was just a short bike ride away from our house. In fact it was really OK – one of a “chain” of two, occupying a previous coffee shop and completely lacking the sterile gleam of those shiny new chain places, and not expensive at all. Not everything was fantastic, but most of the sushi was pretty good, and the two of us ate our fill, along with drinks (beer, sake and shochu), for about ¥7,000 total which seemed quite reasonable. So those corner sushi shops haven’t completely died out after all!

 

And the loser is… 27 September, 2010

Filed under: news,politics — johnraff @ 9:47 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,

…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…

 

 
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