Tofugu » Japanese News A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Thu, 10 Sep 2015 20:37:17 +0000 en-US hourly 1 What the Japanese Royal Family Can Learn from Prince William’s Japan Trip Fri, 17 Jul 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Britain’s Prince William recently went on his first trip to Japan. He spent three days there, as part of a larger trip that also included a few days in China. The Duke of Cambridge had his own animal rights cause to promote in China, but Japanese politicians had their own agendas for Prince William in […]

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Britain’s Prince William recently went on his first trip to Japan. He spent three days there, as part of a larger trip that also included a few days in China. The Duke of Cambridge had his own animal rights cause to promote in China, but Japanese politicians had their own agendas for Prince William in Japan. It was a chance to highlight their successes, in front of the world to some degree, but primarily for the benefit of the Japanese public.

Of course, Japan has its own royal family, and they fulfill their role in Japanese politics, just as the Windsors do back in the UK. However, having a foreign royal come to visit provides a unique opportunity. Moreover, despite some similarities between the royal institutions of each country, Prince William showed a somewhat different face of royalty to a country that really loves them some royalty.

Royal Roamings


The royals of Japan and the UK have been visiting each other’s countries for quite some time. In 1869, Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, became the first European prince to visit Japan. Just one year prior, the isolationist Tokugawa shogunate that had ruled Japan since 1603 had been overthrown and the emperor restored to power. Alfred had an audience with the newly empowered Emperor Meiji in Tokyo. As Japan became reacquainted with the West during the Meiji period, they didn’t fail to notice some similarities between themselves and the UK Both were island nations with long traditions of monarchy, manners, and tea. Japan was also interested in taking up another British tradition: imperialism, and looked to the British model in forming many of their new institutions. It is important to note that Britain was hardly the only imperial power that Japan drew inspiration from, taking elements from Prussia and France as well.

Over the next few decades there were some visits by princes and such on both sides, and then in 1921 Crown Prince Hirohito became the first of his rank to leave Japan when he went to the UK and other European countries via Singapore. Then relations went sour from the 1920s until the end of World War II. After normalizing relations, then Crown Prince (currently emperor) Akihito attended the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. In 1971, the emperor himself, Hirohito paid a state visit to the UK, and four years later Queen Elizabeth returned the favor. In 1986 Prince Charles and his wife, Princess Diana, went to Japan, and this visit would be often referenced during Prince William’s recent visit. Emperor Akihito visited the UK in 1998, 2007, and most recently in 2012 for Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee.

Prince William in Japan: Day One

Prince William arrived at Haneda Airport on Thursday, February 26th, where he was greeted by a welcoming crowd despite the rain. The duke’s duchess, Kate, did not join him on this trip, as she was seven months pregnant with their second child. It was a bit of a shame she couldn’t go, as she is quite popular.

Not only has Kate been a quite public figure, appearing at numerous functions and meeting various dignitaries, but she has become known for her fashion as well, not unlike William’s mother. She stands in contrast to Princess Masako, wife of Japan’s Crown Prince Naruhito, who has had difficulty dealing with public life over the years. She has suffered some emotional distress, and largely stayed out of the public eye since 2002.

Regardless of country, I’m sure being in such a position can often be stressful, but differing cultures and fates have made the situation worse for Princess Masako. Many have speculated that her emotional issues stem from pressure for her to produce a male heir. After six years of marriage, she had a miscarriage in 1999. Then in 2001, she gave birth to a daughter, Aiko. This ignited a lot of public debate over whether or not she could succeed the throne. This would require changing the Imperial Household Law of 1947. The matter was put aside in 2006, when Crown Prince Naruhito’s younger brother, Fumihito and his wife had a son. On the other hand, Kate gave birth to a boy, Prince George, in 2013, just two years into her marriage.

Soon after arriving, Tokyo governor Yoichi Masuzoe took the prince on a boat tour around Tokyo Bay to see some of the places that will host events in the 2020 Olympics.

Later in the day, William went to Hamarikyu Gardens to take part in a tea ceremony, where he was greeted by flag-waving schoolchildren. The gardens date back to the Edo period (1603-1867), and provided a nice setting for William’s first public appearance taking part in traditional Japanese culture. Of course tea, and the formalized serving of tea, is something that both the UK and Japan have long appreciated, but there are some key differences. William was excused from sitting in the usual seiza position (on his knees), and sat on a low stool instead.

Prince William in Japan: Day Two

On Friday, Prince William visited the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Yokohama. The cemetery is dedicated to the approximately 1,700 servicemen from the British Commonwealth (Britain, Canada, Australia, etc.) who died in Japan as prisoners of war during World War II. William offered a wreath and a silent prayer. He also signed the visitors’ register and was shown an album with pictures of his mother, who also visited the cemetery during her final visit to Japan in 1995. His grandmother, the queen, has also paid her respects there.

After the cemetery, William went to a luncheon hosted by Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko. It was not their first meeting, as the imperial couple met William and his wife in 2012 during the celebrations of Queen Elizabeth’s 60 years on the throne.

Later that day, William had tea with Crown Prince Naruhito. Some have noted the contrast in the personalities between the outgoing William and Naruhito. However, once again, some of the blame for what may seem like a colder attitude on Naruhito’s part must surely be laid on the more distant relationship between the imperial family and the Japanese public in general.

Prince William in Japan: Day Three

Saturday began with a visit to NHK studios in Tokyo, where William explored the sets of a historical drama. He was also allowed (persuaded?) to don some samurai costume, including helmet and sword.

Later that day William headed north to visit the Fukushima area with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which I’m sure the government thought would be a great opportunity to show the Japanese people examples of success in their recovery efforts following the 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster, and to reassure them that the government is still making progress in that area. Apparently some locals weren’t happy about the prince’s visit, feeling they were being used for political ends, when they have been dissatisfied with the same recovery efforts the visit was meant to highlight.

At any rate, most of the coverage has been positive. William and Abe went to an athletic center, in the city of Motomiya, which was opened in 2012 as a safe place for recreation in an area where there is less fear of radiation. William talked to local children and impressed them with his juggling skills. They also participated in a tree planting ceremony to wish for a quick recovery.

In the evening, William and Abe donned yukata (light cotton kimono) at a ryokan (traditional inn) in Koriyama, where they ate a dinner made from local ingredients. Of course this kind of thing is common on state visits, except that in this case using local ingredients from the Fukushima area argues for their safety, a point that both the government and Fukushima farmers are eager to make. After all, if it’s good enough for the prime minister and the crown prince of Britain, it should be good enough for you.

We’ll Never Be Royals . . . But Maybe They Can Be More Like Us


The next day Prince William bid Japan farewell and continued along his travels. So, what can we learn from his trip?

State visits are fairly common, but royal representatives that go between the UK and Japan are a bit special due to the many things their lives have in common, but also due to the many differences, usually stemming from differences in culture.

In both cases, the royals were once considered to have divine right in one form or another, but now they have neither that nor practical authority. In the UK the change came from within, whereas in Japan it was forced upon them from the outside. I think this has led to a lot of lingering ideas about the imperial family in Japan that both remove them from the public and at the same time put more public pressure on them. Perhaps, by seeing the example of William, a royal who is more open and tries to use his influence for good in a number of causes, while at the same time being a bit more down to earth than previous royal generations, Japan might take a closer look at their own relationship with the imperial family, and how it might evolve for the better.

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Japan’s Sacrificial Lamb – The Okinawa Military Base Controversy Wed, 11 Feb 2015 14:00:00 +0000 Despite its small size, Okinawa sure has giant problems. Due to its strategic location, Okinawa has struggled as a pawn in Japanese and US affairs since before World War II. Today, the independent kingdom turned prefecture houses the bulk of US military installations in Japan. For Okinawa, the situation brings a host of problems including increased crime and environmental damage. […]

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Despite its small size, Okinawa sure has giant problems. Due to its strategic location, Okinawa has struggled as a pawn in Japanese and US affairs since before World War II.

Today, the independent kingdom turned prefecture houses the bulk of US military installations in Japan. For Okinawa, the situation brings a host of problems including increased crime and environmental damage.

A history of resistance, including protests and even a riot, have done little to change Okinawa’s situation. However, its native population refuses to give up, voicing their frustrations in a recent local election that could change the face of Okinawa and its relationships with Japan and the US.

Why has controversy embroiled such a small group of islands? Can a single prefecture stave off the wills of two world powers? What does the future hold for the former Ryuku Kingdom, known today as Okinawa?

Okinawa Elects to Resist

Okinawa Military Base Controversy

Photo by Nathan Keirn

On November 16, Okinawans elected Takeshi Onaga as their new governor. Onaga’s election bears special significance because he opposes current Prime Minister Abe’s platform of continued US military presence in the prefecture. With the US planning to build a new military facility in Nago City, the time for Okinawa to act is now.

The election signifies Okinawa’s continued resistance to developments that guarantee US presence in the prefecture for decades to come. Matthew M. Burke and Chiyomi Sumida of Stars and Stripes write, “The former Naha mayor ran on a platform of blocking the move of flight operations from Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in central Okinawa to an expanded Camp Schwab in the remote north, a move seen as pivotal to the U.S. realignment of forces in the region and mutual defense agreements.”

Onaga’s first order of business is blocking the construction of the new military facility. His next move would be limiting US presence in Okinawa or removing it altogether.

Although the US military expansion in Okinawa lacks resistance in Japan as a whole, local opposition has grown. “He (Onaga) defeated incumbent Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima by a huge margin — 100,000 more votes of 620,000 cast”(Burke). Onaga’s recent victory represent’s the people’s will, a majority of which want change.

With many Okinawans opposed to the US and the Japanese presence there, one might wonder how Okinawa ended up in its precarious situation in the first place.

A victim of its size and lack of power, Okinawa had no choice.

The Ryukyu Kingdom

Okinawa Military Base Controversy

Photo by Shogyoku

Prior to the seventeenth century Okinawa functioned as an independent nation known as The Ryukyu Kingdom. Extending south into the East China Sea, the distance of this string of islands from Japan protected it from Japanese interference for centuries.

Ryukyu’s earliest ties lay in the west, with its influential trade partner China. As a result, Ryukyu culture developed a distinct Chinese flavor. Although Ryukyu’s king pledged loyalty to the Chinese emperor, the kingdom remained an independent nation with control over its own destiny (OPN-LA).

Japan’s Satsuma han (feudal domains ruled by daimyo in the Edo period) changed that in 1609 when they invaded Amami, Ryukyu’s northern islands. Satsuma exploited Ryukyu, forcing its people into sugar production.

Islanders underwent a period that they refer to as ‘Sato Jigoku,’ or ‘Sugar Hell.’ The Amami islands… became integral to the growth of Satsuma’s economy and consequently to it’s growth in military strength. (OPN-LA)

However, with Satsuma concentrated in Amami, the rest of Ryukyu remained relatively free from interference and the kingdom’s trade relations with China continued.

The 1854 arrival of Commodore Perry’s infamous black ships would help bring any semblance of Ryukyu independence to an end. In Crossfire Couples, Chris Ames notes that Perry created the first US base in Ryukyu when he stopped there on his way to Tokyo Bay in 1853 (199). The site would serve as a docking and supply station and signified the US’s first footprint on the islands.

The first in a long and distressing history of US military abuses occurred soon after Perry’s arrival when seaman William Board attacked, and according to many sources raped, an elderly Ryukyu women (Ames 199).

Although Commodore Perry had little influence in Ryukyu itself, his arrival in Japan ushered in a period of modernization known as the Meiji era. The Meiji government’s goal to become a world power ended any semblance of Ryukyu independence. OPN-LA explains,

Japan felt the intense need to develop some form of geo-political buffer zone to protect itself from possible military encroachments by western powers. The Ryukyu Islands presented the perfect candidate for such protection, by providing some form of security on Japan’s southern front… Japan forced the annexation of the Ryukyu Kingdom in 1879… ending the ruse of Ryukyuan sovereignty.

As an partially independent kingdom and trade-partner to China, Ryukyu represented a legal wrinkle that was ironed out in its transformation to Okinawa Prefecture. The prefecture has been forced to bend to the whims of Japanese and US interests ever since.

World War II Linchpin

Okinawa Military Base Controversy

Photo by W.wolny

Overshadowed by the commemoration of Iwo Jima and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, The Battle of Okinawa occupies a minor page in American historical lore. But it was a vicious battle.

Doug Bandow of Forbes explains,

The so-called ‘Typhoon of Steel,’ as the American invasion campaign was called, ran from April through June in 1945. Combat was brutal. Estimated civilian casualties ran up to 150,000.

The battle also saw astronomical military losses. In his book, Prompt and Utter Destruction: Truman and the Use of Atomic Bombs against Japan Samuel Walker writes,

The combined American casualties of 12,000 killed and missing and another 60,000 wounded far exceeded those of any other battle in the Pacific war… Japanese military forces suffered at least 70,000 deaths. (51)

Once occupied, US forces had planned to use Okinawa as a point of entry into Japan. But the Battle of Okinawa’s heavy casualties and the Japanese force’s refusal to surrender made the US second-guess its invasion plan, which was rendered unnecessary after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Japan’s subsequent surrender.

Although it did not serve the US as planned, Okinawa became a “veritable colony” (Bandow). The US military built installations as a measure to prevent a Japanese military resurgence (Sarantake 62). Okinawa remained under US occupation until 1972 when it was returned to Japan. The US military presence remained and continues today.

The former independent nation remains in a precarious position – under Japanese control and home to the US military. And despite resistance, neither world power wants to relinquish its position.

How Japan Benefits

Photo by BotMultichillT

Japan’s lack of allies and military power increases the significance of its alliance with the US. But Japan has to give in order to receive, and the US won’t lend its “services” without cooperation. In order to reap the benefits of US military presence, Japan must allow US bases on its soil. And for the small, resource-poor nation the benefits are many.

Japan lives in the shadows of neighboring world powers – China, Russia and North Korea. By allowing US bases on its soil, Japan gains vital military presence and protection. Any hostile action taken against Japan must be carefully considered thanks to the threat of instant US military retaliation.

US military presence in Japan may alleviate the worries of Japan’s neighbors as well. Doug Bandow writes that by preventing “a rearmed, resurgent Japan,”

The (US/Japan) alliance also eases Tokyo’s diplomatic burden, which otherwise would include reassuring neighbors still obsessed with Imperial Japan’s military depredations… It is a claim that even Japanese officials have used on occasion: protect us, since surely you don’t want the Imperial Japanese navy wandering the Pacific again.

Reliance on the US military eases the burden Japan would face if it had to maintain its own armed forces. Instead, those finances and resources can be focused elsewhere, providing economic relief.

How the US Benefits

The United States also enjoys its alliance with Japan. Located just outside the Asian mainland, bases in Japan give the US a military presence in East Asia. If the situation calls, the US can respond with immediate action.

By providing Japan with military protection, the US need not worry about Japan acting on its own. The partnership has been described as the “spear and shield.”Ankit Panda of The Diplomat explains,

The United States’ formidable offensive capabilities were the ‘spear’ to be paired with Japan’s ‘shield.’ After all, Japan, with its aptly named Self-Defense Forces, could hardly aspire to much more given the circumstances.

But the alliance isn’t all love and roses. No one wants a foreign military in their backyard, no matter how great the benefits might be. But what if there was a way Japan could enjoy the benefits of US military protection, without suffering the problems associated with military presence?

There is. And it’s called Okinawa.

Okinawa became mainland Japan’s sacrificial lamb. By allowing the US military to build most of its bases in Okinawa, Japan enjoys the advantages of US military presence without the disadvantages, which occur hundreds of miles south, far from the Japanese mainland.

Okinawa’s burden hasn’t gone unnoticed. “Although nearly six of ten Japanese is critical of the resulting burden on Okinawa,” Doug Bandow points out, “none of them wants another U.S. base near their neighborhood.”

The US has bases scattered throughout Japan but Okinawa houses the biggest concentration, earning it the moniker of “America’s unsinkable aircraft carrier”(Harumi Ozawa). Over half of the 47,000 US service personnel stationed in Japan according to AFP. And one Okinawa government website states that Okinawa is home to over thirty training facilities which translates into almost 74 percent of the overall US military presence in Japan.

And so Okinawa remains, a land torn between an independent tradition, Japanese control and US occupation.

Why Okinawa Wants the USA Out

Photo by LERK

Foreign military presence brings a host of problems to any location. But this is especially true in Okinawa, thanks to its small geographic size and large concentration of US bases.

Doug Bandow paints a picture of occupied Okinawa,

Long fences separate residents from property owned by their ancestors. Air bases crowd civilian neighborhoods. Prime beaches remain under U.S. military control. Thousands of young, aggressive foreign men transform local life—and often not for the good.

Okinawans must find it hard to consider the positives of military presence while confronted by the negative aspects in their everyday lives.

Military Accidents

Residents worry about military bases located near cities and residential areas. Aircraft bring noise pollution and the threat of major of accidents – a threat that has become an unsettling reality.

The worst accident occurred in 1959 when a military jet crashed into a local elementary school. “It was a major disaster,” Eiko Asato writes, “17 people were killed, 121 people were injured (wikipedia lists 210 injuries), 17 private houses, one public hall and three classrooms were completely burned.”

Another accident occurred in 2004 when a military helicopter crashed into a university. As recently as 2014 a helicopter crashed due to pilot error.

However aircraft pose less of a risk than frequent traffic crashes, which see nearly 200 fatal accidents a year (Burke). The most famous incident occurred in late 1970 when intoxicated military personnel struck an Okinawa man with their car. Building frustration exploded into attacks on military personnel and buildings that what would be known as the Koza riot.

Environmental Impact

The US military presence also has a sizable environmental impact. “Adding another military facility to Okinawa by destroying the beautiful water of Henoko is something we should never let happen” Onaga declared (Burke).

The military builds over pristine land and docks at Okinawa’s beautiful beaches. Construction even puts native species at risk, including the endangered dugong (Mitchell). Okinawa’s pristine beaches, mountains and forests act as an economic asset, attracting tourists and therefore outside money.


Instead of pleasure-seeking tourists with open pocketbooks, Okinawa brings in US military personnel. Unlike vacationers visiting by choice, soldiers stationed in Okinawa become bored, homesick and frustrated. At times these feelings escalate into aggression or crime.

According to an Okinawa government report on US military crime, traffic accidents make up the bulk of reported problems, with robbery accounting for most of the rest. But in regards to the US military, horrible acts of violence overshadow all other crimes and rape cases by military personnel have occurred with disgusting frequency over the years.

 Asato Eiko of the Transnational Institute reports,

According to a report entitled “Post-War Crimes against Women of Okinawa by US Soldiers” by the Association of Women in Action Against Military and Military Bases, the number of rape cases between 1945 and 1997 was about 180, of which 22 were committed against young women less than 20 years of age.

The disturbing trend first received major publicity in 1955, when a US soldier raped and murdered a six year old girl before disposing of her disfigured body. Outrage reached fever pitch when locals discovered that the crime would be handled by the US military and its courts. Thanks to extraterritorial rights perpetrators would avoid the local justice system and possible death penalty (Asato).

In 1995 the planned abduction and gang rape of a twelve year old girl again sparked outrage among Okinawa’s residents. In 2008 a marine Staff Sargent was convicted of sexually abusing a fourteen-year-old girl (Onishi). The most recent case occurred in 2012, when two soldiers making a brief stop in Okinawa robbed and raped a Japanese woman.

Military Efforts to Improve

The crimes and overall belligerent attitude taken by US military personnel have done nothing to help US, Japanese and Okinawan relations. However, the US military has taken preventative efforts after the 2012 incident. Travis J. Tritten of Stars and Stripes writes,

Strict new liberty and alcohol rules coincided with a historic drop last year (2013) in crimes committed by U.S. personnel on Okinawa… Okinawa-based troops were banned from all off-base drinking for the first half of 2013…. The Marine Corps leadership on Okinawa has also emphasized cultural awareness training for newly arriving service members.

Recent rules have decreased crime and other incidents. But how long will they last? The quick easing of drinking bans doesn’t bolster Okinawans’ confidence in the US military’s commitment to the changes.

The Trouble Continues

Photo by Nathan Keirn

As an elected official that promises to represent the will of those that voted for him, Onaga’s election has brought hope to many Okinawans.

“We’ll break through the wall that the Japanese and American government have put up,” Onaga declared (Johnston).

“It is against the spirit of democracy to ignore the consensus of the local public. It is outrageous for the government to ignore it,” law professor Hideki Shibutani of Rikkyo University in Tokyo said (Burke).

But not everyone wants the US military out.

Many Japanese believe that Japan needs the US military protection. Recent controversy over disputed islands has forced Japan to grow uneasy in the face of Chinese and Russian encroachment.

Some Okinawa residents hope the US base will bring economic opportunity to the struggling prefecture. Shop owners hope the military bases will bring business. Other unemployed residents hope it’ll bring construction jobs, among other opportunities (sbs.dateline).

Despite the noise caused by Onaga and his supporters, prior agreements will make it difficult to halt construction. Matthew M. Burke and Chiyomi Sumida write,

Despite the rhetoric, the Marine Corps and the Japanese government have said they remain committed to the relocation. Legal scholars said while there is a chance Onaga could block the move, it is slim.

Onaga’s recent election and ongoing protests have called renewed attention to the longstanding issues and human rights violations that have defined Okinawa’s tragic history. As the three-way dance continues we are left to wonder, will 2015 finally bring relief to Okinawa? Or will the people continue to be ignored?

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Japan’s Dependence on China’s Unsafe Food Wed, 14 Jan 2015 17:00:44 +0000 Fake eggs crossed the line.  I had gone through life in Japan, blindly filling my basket at the grocery store, hunting for the best bargains instead of the healthiest or safest options.  Then I heard about China’s fake (chicken) eggs – wonders of human innovation created by a complicated chemical process that look real enough to […]

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Fake eggs crossed the line.  I had gone through life in Japan, blindly filling my basket at the grocery store, hunting for the best bargains instead of the healthiest or safest options.  Then I heard about China’s fake (chicken) eggs – wonders of human innovation created by a complicated chemical process that look real enough to be sold and consumed by unsuspecting consumers.

Really?  Artificial eggs?  Chickens eat stuff off the ground and lay real eggs.  Ethical issues aside, I thought factory farming had that problem solved.  If any food seemed to be safe from forgery I thought the egg was it.  Boy, was I wrong.

Suddenly, I found myself giving the grocery aisles a shrewd eye.  The cheaper an item, the more suspect it became.

I interrogated products.  “Green tea, why are you so cheap?!”  Labels provided answers.  “Oh, because you’re from China huh?  Back to the shelf with you!”

Despite troubling trends in food safety, Japan depends on China for a surprising amount of food imports.  Everyone living in Japan can stand to take caution.  Yet the issue is not exclusive to Japan.  China’s continuing growth as a contributor to the global food market means the issue concerns everyone.

Too Bad to Be True?

Global confidence in China’s food products has taken several blows in recent years.  In 2007, when several brands of pet food made by the same manufacturer sickened and killed pets, the cause was found to be ingredients from China that were contaminated with melamine. Chicken jerky pet treats made in China have made also made thousands of pets sick and the illness has killed over a thousand dogs. The specific cause of that illness is still unknown and under investigation.

Since news of tainted pet food broke in 2007, scandals have continued to haunt China’s growing food industry.  The 2008 San Lu milk scandal shocked China and the world when milk and baby formula tested positive for traces of melamine, a chemical that can cause blindness. Vaughn M. Watson of World Policy Blog reported, “By the end of 2008, China’s ministry of health reported more than 300,000 children may have been affected by the contamination.”  But news of scandals only snowballed from there.

China’s food safety issues exploded into headlines earlier this year thanks to the tainted meat exported to Japan. A Shanghai company provided rancid meat to major Japanese fast food chains like McDonalds and Family Mart.  Zoe Li of CNN reported on the gloveless meat handlers and forged expirations dates among the company’s illegal and unsanitary practices.

By this point nothing should come as a surprise.  If food isn’t contaminated by toxins, it’s altogether counterfeit.  If it isn’t counterfeit it’s rancid.  At first, cases of gelatin injected shrimp, poison rice, and even glowing meat forced domestic customers to use caution.  Now expired meat and poison pet foods have forced the world to take heed.  When will China’s food scandals end?  More importantly, why are they happening in the first place?

What Gives?

China's Unsafe Food

Photo by High Contrast

As Chinese food scandals continue to break at home and abroad, consumers are left wondering why. Experts blame pollution, lack of regulations, and the strain of providing affordable food for the world’s largest population.


China’s air pollution may actually be more famous than its food scandals, a situation that gained notoriety thanks to the county’s quick cleanup before hosting the 2008 Olympic games.  Allison Jackson of Global Post writes:

It’s hard to overstate the severity of air pollution in China. In many cities the level of contamination in the air often reaches levels considered by experts to be hazardous, and much has been said about the devastating impact it’s all having on people’s health.

But the pollution problem doesn’t end with air quality. According to state reports, sixty percent of China’s underground water is also polluted (The Guardian). The less visible, less known problem of soil contamination is nearly as bad. The Wall Street Journal reported:

One survey declassified last December had found that nearly 20% of Chinese farmland could be contaminated with deadly heavy metals such as cadmium and lead. Officials in Guangzhou last year found high cadmium levels in 44% of rice samples.

Yet pollution has done little to deter the land’s use. “In Hunan, rice production in polluted sites has not stopped” said Mr. Wu of Greenpeace.

With its most important resources to food production heavily polluted, it’s no wonder China has given birth to food quality scandals.  Produce from polluted land still finds its way to the market and unlucky consumers pay the price with their health.


China's Unsafe Food

Photo by M M

If the Chinese government enforced regulations, pollution, contamination and counterfeiting wouldn’t be such a problem.  Instead, the government turns a blind eye, underplaying pollution and questionable practices. The Wall Street Journal points out, “Officials classify pollution data as ‘state secrets’ to prevent the public from pressuring them to take action.”

The Chinese government is so secretive that it falls under suspicion even when it takes visible action. The overemphasis of post-scandal government “crackdowns” force many to question their validity.  Conspiracy theorists believe the government set these smokescreens to reassure customer confidence and return things to normal.

Patty Lovera, Assistant Director of Food & Water Watch testified in Washington DC,

Since 2009, the Chinese government has made a point of making public displays of enforcing food safety rules, inspecting food facilities and punishing people connected with tainted food. News reports frequently reference millions of inspections of facilities and frequent “crackdowns” on particular products.

Proper inspections, performed by the Chinese government or other countries, only serve to shake consumer confidence. Stanley Lubman of China Real Time writes, “reports on the state of Chinese food processing establishments are discouraging. More than half of food processing and packaging firms on the Chinese mainland failed safety inspections in 2011, according to a report by Asia Inspection, a China-based food quality control company.”


China's Unsafe Food

Photo by MPF

Perhaps this is what it takes to feed the world’s largest population.  But in reported cases, profit trumps necessity, regulations and well-being.  Patty Lovera explains, “China’s food manufacturers often found to cut corners and substitute dangerous ingredients to boost sales.”

Food Scandals in China timeline on shows meat being injected with water to boost weight, cabbages sprayed with cancerous chemicals to prolong shelf-life and the use of “gutter oil,” a low-cost cooking oil made from “reprocessed garbage and sewage” (Max Fisher). All of these practices serve one purpose – increasing profit.  And that wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t at the expense of consumer health.

The Center for Investigative Reporting‘s Rachael Bale writes, “Halting agricultural production in many of the worst-hit areas simply isn’t an option.  It would put people’s livelihoods at risk and could result in food shortages.”

Enforcing food production and pollution rules with adequate inspections costs the government money. The abandonment of polluted land and disposal of contaminated goods equals net profit loss for producers.  In terms of profit, enforcement creates a lose-lose situation.  By turning a blind-eye everyone makes out, except consumers (and their pets).

But media exposure and the growing distrust of Chinese food producers may eventually lead to a loss of profit and food shortages anyway.  For example, the 2008 milk scandal forced many Chinese to avoid domestic milk products and empty supermarkets of imported alternatives, hurting China’s domestic producers and creating shortages

Recently exposed scandals and data hurt China’s reputation and its business’s wallets.  The government and businesses are slowly being forced to change.  Nations that buy from China are demanding proper regulations some conduct investigations of their own. Hopefully these scandals and tragedies will lead to true reforms that force China to become a trusted food source.

Why Import From China?

China's Unsafe Food

Photo by Angie Harms 

Unbelievable scandals and the disregard of its own citizens’ safety begs the question – why would anyone import food from China?

Considering the countries long history of distrust and even downright hatred for one another, the question is especially poignant in Japan.  But like other countries, Japan depends on Chinese imports because it cannot produce enough food to support itself.

In the past, Japan’s large population and small, mountainous landmass made providing enough food for its population a challenge.  Yet farming techniques and technology helped Japan meet the challenge and for years Japan produced a large percentage of its own food.

Today Japan’s percentage of domestic food production is at an all time low.  According to Kazuhito Yamashita of The Tokyo Foundation, “Japan’s food self-sufficiency ratio has dropped below 40%.” Lack of arable land is not the problem. In fact, nature has begun to reclaim abandoned plots of farmland in the country. Unused agricultural plots located in residential areas are being converted into apartments, convenience stores and solar farms.  Yamashita writes, “Some 2.60 million hectares-more than 40% of the 6.09 million hectares that existed in 1961 – have disappeared due to abandonment and conversion for residential or other purposes.”

Japan’s aging farming population has also forced Japan’s dependance on imports.  The country’s farmers have reached retirement age.  According to one government report, in 2008 sixty percent of Japan’s farming population was sixty-five years old or older (, and no one is replacing the void left by these retirees.  Most young people have no desire to live in the country or farm for a living.  They perceive the farming lifestyle as uncool, inconvenient and therefore undesirable. Current population trends show Japanese citizens are migrating to cities.  The Japan Times reports,

The three largest metropolitan areas around Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka combined had a record high population of 64.39 million as of January, accounting for 50.9 percent of the whole nation, while 39 of Japan’s 47 prefectures lost population compared to the previous year.

Thanks to government subsidies Japan still produces enough rice for its population.  But that’s not true of all Japanese food staples. Kazuaki Nagata of the Japan Times explains,

Although Japan’s self-sufficiency rate for rice, eggs, whale meat and mandarin oranges exceeds 90 percent, the rate for essential ingredients for Japanese cuisine, including soy beans, is a mere 5 percent, and just 13 percent for daily necessities like cooking oil.  Half of the meat products consumed in Japan is imported.

Japan isn’t alone – countries around the world are growing dependent on Chinese imports.  Patty Lovera, Assistant Director of Food & Water Watch testified in Washington DC on behalf of the American people,

China is the largest agricultural economy in the world and one of the biggest agricultural exporters.  It is the world’s leading producer of many foods… apples, tomatoes, peaches, potatoes, garlic, sweet potatoes, pears, peas – the list goes on and on.

Like Japanese and Chinese citizens, Lovera worries about the dangers of Chinese products and advocates stricter enforcement of import regulations at home to make up for the lack in China.  As China grows as a global food producer, we all have reason to use caution.

Major Chinese Imports

China's Unsafe Food

Photo by Nino Barbieri

After learning to read Japan’s food labels, I found the amount of food imported from China surprising.  And there was usually one dead giveaway – the lower the price of the product, the more likely it originated in China. Most of my local supermarkets’ honey and peanuts came from China. Honey from other countries sold for about five times the price.  Non-Chinese peanuts went for triple the cost.

Deeper investigation revealed the majority of Japan’s garlic, pumpkin seeds and frozen berries also come from China.  China’s garlic is so cheap that it undersells locally grown garlic, despite shipping costs.  In America, cheap garlic imports are putting California’s local garlic growers out of business. As China increases its production of green tea and kimchi, local Japanese and Korean industries might face the same threat.

Now I don’t want to seem unfair.  All countries have their share of contaminated food products.  Japan has strict regulations on American beef imports due to mad cow disease.  Germany and Scandinavian countries lead the world in incidents of campylobacter, salmonella, yersinia, e.coli and listeria. Perhaps some degree of contamination comes with the food business. But out of all the world’s food scandals, China’s are the most consistent, bizarre, and alarming.  And research shows we have reason to worry.

What You Can Do?

China's Unsafe Food

Although strict regulations and enforcement would be optimal, they are not a reality.  Right now we have to take responsibility for ourselves.  Since China has become a global food provider, anyone that cares about their health needs to remain vigilant.

But taking extra care can prove tricky abroad, where language and cultural barriers add a layer of difficulty.  Throw in three different types of characters (hiragana, katakana and kanji) and it becomes downright intimidating. That’s why Tofugu is providing these tips and tricks to help our fans in Japan protect themselves.

Most packaged foods feature important product information on the back of the package, framed by a convenient little table.  Here are the categories that usually fill out the table’s left side.

  • 名称  (meishou):  the product’s name.
  • 原料 (genryou) / 材料 (zairyou): ingredients.
  • 原料 原産 地名 (genryou gensan chimei): the goods’ or ingredient’s place of origin.  The following locations are featured on the right.
    • 国産 (kokusan) domestic
    • (ken) prefecture
    • 中国 (chuugoku) China
    • 韓国 (kankoku) Korea
    • アメリカ, 米国 (amerika, beikoku) America/United States
    • カナダ (kanada) Canada
  • 保存 方法 (hozon houhou): storage instructions
  • 商品の情報 (shouhin no jouhou):  product information
  • 内容料 (naiyou ryou): the content quantity/weight of the goods/package
  • メーカー名 (meekaa mei): name of maker/manufacturer
  • 製造者 (seizousha): manufacturer

Overwhelming labels become less intimidating when you know what to look for.  The most important kanji to remember are 原料 原産 地名 (genryou gensan chimei), 国産 (kokusan),  (ken) and if you intend on avoiding Chinese products, 中国 (chuugoku).

From the examples above we can see that the package on the right contains strawberries (イチゴ) from China (中国).  That label lists little information and is easy to decipher.  The one on the left contains more detailed information.  But when you know what to look for, finding the important information becomes easy.  It contains blueberries (ブルーベリー) from the United States (アメリカ).

Happy label reading!

The Label-less

China's Unsafe Food

Photo by Matt Smith

While produce like loose vegetables and fruit don’t have labels, they often have signs nearby explaining their origins.  In the case of imports, the signs will show the country of origin.  This is where knowing the kanji for China comes in handy.

In the case of domestic produce, the sign will display the prefecture’s name. Remember, prefecture/ken is written with .  So if the sign shows a bunch of kanji with  at the end, the item is probably domestic, from one of Japan’s prefectures.

Research Online

China's Unsafe Food

Photo by Merdal

If a food seems suspicious, for example it has an unbelievably low price or a strange taste, search for it online.  I didn’t know Japan imported green tea from China until I bought a cheap, odd tasting green.  The package revealed that it came from China and this article from Greenpeace informed me that Chinese tea leaves test positive for banned pesticides. From then on I made sure to buy domestic green tea.

When I searched for Chinese honey, I discovered that the United States bans the product due to illegal antibiotics and heavy metals.  Cassandra Profita of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports, “Chinese honey producers inject some honey with water, heat it, filter it and distill it into syrup, which wipes out antibiotics but turns it into a diluted, less valuable product that can be sold below the price of regular honey production.”  The enterprise is so profitable it has given birth to global Chinese honey smuggling rings.

A search for cheap garlic revealed that Chinese garlic had “high levels of lead, arsenic and added sulfites” (The Washington Post).  The trend continued and my searches exposed antifreeze contaminated toothpastes, “catfish laden with banned antibiotics, mushrooms laced with illegal pesticides, and others” (The Washington Post).

When you’re uncertain about the quality of a product from any country, do an internet search. What it reveals might surprise you and change your shopping habits!

You Are What You Eat

China's Unsafe Food

Photo by Arto Teräs

In the past, I shopped for the best deals. Price dictated what I bought and quantity ruled the day. But when getting more for your money includes extra antibiotics, heavy metals, molds, and pesticides it may be time to change your shopping habits. Watching your budget is important, but so is protecting your health.

China’s recurring food scandals should have us all taking extra caution. Although news of China’s tainted dog treats first broke in 2007, instances of sickness and deaths from those treats continue today.  It’s unfortunate, but these instances can be avoided.  Small efforts, like checking labels and doing a little research can go a long way.

Although I’ve become cautious, there are always new surprises. Thanks to this article I learned my frozen strawberries come from China! Time to do more research!

Of course, even with extreme caution, you can never be too sure. The idea of honey smuggling seems like a joke, but it’s a real problem. Though the label may say pure honey from India, customers might actually be buying watered down, contaminated honey smuggled from China.

Each new China food scandal makes the next one easier to swallow (pun intended).  Instead of shock, we’re left wondering, “what’s next?”

From gutter oil to fake eggs and poison milk, nothing about the bizarre state of Chinese food production surprises me anymore. But with a little effort I hope to avoid becoming a victim of food scandal – it’s bad enough having to read about them.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Miyagi 3 Years after 3.11: Slogans Are Cheap Wed, 05 Nov 2014 17:00:06 +0000 It’s been three and a half years since the disaster struck Japan. After writing about the situation in Fukushima prefecture, I was able to visit the tsunami disaster areas in Miyagi prefecture. Three and a half years after the tsunami, I have to wonder: how smooth has the “recovery” has been? How is it going now? How […]

The post Miyagi 3 Years after 3.11: Slogans Are Cheap appeared first on Tofugu.

It’s been three and a half years since the disaster struck Japan. After writing about the situation in Fukushima prefecture, I was able to visit the tsunami disaster areas in Miyagi prefecture.

Three and a half years after the tsunami, I have to wonder: how smooth has the “recovery” has been? How is it going now? How it will be in the future? The rubble may have been cleared, but there is still a lot to do.

Sendai and Matsushima


Is this what you would call disaster?

I first set off on a Monday morning on my trip from Sendai, the largest city and population hub for everything in the Tohoku region. Sendai, as you can imagine, shows virtually no signs of the disaster at present. At most there may be temporary housing for refugees but even those aren’t obvious.

The recovery is going well here then, I suppose.


New buildings at Tohoku University

My friends living in the city have told me that “recovery” has been pumping Sendai full of money. Aside from the reconstruction of damaged buildings, Tohoku University has been getting brand spanking new buildings and central funding. The city is finally going to have a new subway line next year. The Sendai which I arrived to on a Saturday evening was positively bustling. People shopping, young couples hand in hand – not very different from what you might find in Shibuya.

I first headed off to Matsushima, one of Japan’s “Three Views“. Nothing really seems off at all, but it wasn’t that heavily damaged by the Tsunami in the first place. On top of that, as a tourist location, it had to be cleaned up quickly.


The recovery is going well here too, it seems.

I boarded the train from Matsushima station towards Ishinomaki, the first major disaster spots I visited.

Matsushima → Ishinomaki


There is a reality of Japan that most tourists, zipping around with JR Japan passes do not see. Many think that Japan is all convenience with punctual and reliable public transport. That is true! However, forget “convenient” once you’re out of the big cities.

When you get to the more rural parts of Japan, the trains come once every hour or two and often only have one or two carriages. Train stations may often be just an elevated concrete platform. This is the Japan where a car is a must. The majority of people on the trains I saw were students too young to drive and the elderly too old to do so.


The rural landscape in late September Tohoku can be summarized by golden field after golden field. Beautiful, but the crisp chill in the air heralds the coming winter. The rice has just been harvested – you see the hanging bushels strung up on poles. These fields are broken only by the occasional settlement or wooded area.



How can you bring recovery to what was already sick?

Ishinomaki was one of the worst affected cities by the earthquake. It was – and is – a port city. Aside from the port being entirely destroyed, 3,533 people lost their lives and another 434 are still missing.

In the southern part of the city there is a ridge. If you look at 3.11 disaster pictures, pretty much everything south of it was flattened.


This doesn’t look like a city that was flooded by a tsunami.

A sense of normalcy has been restored to the city. There were no obvious signs of the tsunami aside from the “Ganbarou Ishinomaki” signs near the station. Looking around you can see some buildings which look very new, newer perhaps than what would have been without the disaster. There is some building damage here and there, but you can’t be sure that those aren’t relics of three years ago.

The question is: if the earthquake didn’t damage this city, then what did?


Walking around, you notice rows upon rows of closed shutters in the shopping district, and entire streets of unused shop space. On some streets the number of open shops, outnumbered the shoppers. And while I would like to chalk it up as a symptom of Monday afternoon, the Monday afternoons I’ve seen in other places certainly haven’t been half as dead.


Ishinomaki was already losing residents long before the earthquake. Its population peaked in the 1985 census, after which it began to decline. Between 2005 and 2010, it lost around 6500 residents, or around 4% of its population. Latest statistics indicate a further decline with a loss of more than 10,000 residents between 2010 and 2014.

Look at official statistics and you’ll see that the largest age group in the city are those between 60 and 64 years of age. At the moment, they’re still considered part of the “labor force”, but a few years from now they’ll be part of the heavy inverse population pyramid driving the city into the ground.


Exploring Ishinomaki city center left me with a few questions. Was the decay I saw really due to the disaster or a part of the slow decline that would have happened anyway?

There are two disasters here: the tsunami and the crumbling population. Ishinomaki may have “recovered” from the first, but with second unaddressed, it has transitioned from a free fall to a slow downward glide.

Understand that the Japanese word for recovery is 復興 – a return (復) to prosperity (興). But fundamentally, how can you bring back to prosperity that which has not been prosperous for twenty years?

Ishinomaki → Minami-Sanriku


Yanaizu BRT station – the train platform can be seen in the background.

The trip to Minami-Sanriku involved more small trains that come once every hour or so. I had to switch at Yanaizu to a “Bus Rapid Transport” system which has replaced the destroyed portion of the Kesennuma Line.

JR East has not announced any plans to rebuild the train track. It doesn’t take a genius to see why. It’s not worth it.

Railways, trains and stations are expensive to build and buy and, even if they did rebuild the train line, would there be anyone to use it? Or would it be one of those lines causing huge losses like those that JR Hokkaido operates?

The buses are comfortable enough. A train ride would have been smoother and probably faster, but beggars and tsunami victims outside big cities can’t be choosers.



If Ishinomaki’s city center felt only whispers of the disaster, Minami-Sanriku was screaming Tsunami all over. The answer to the disaster seems simple. Rebuild what was destroyed.

And there is a lot to rebuild.


There’s nothing but wild grass and a few skyscrapers in the majority of the area. The shops that do exist are operating out of angular temporary buildings. Among the flat land there’s the building pictured above though. Am I the only one who sees the parallel between this and the Nuclear Dome in Hiroshima?


Aside from this, there is grass and grass and grass and construction vehicles rushing around doing reconstruction work which I couldn’t see anywhere. In some sense, it seems like they’ve tried to wipe away any reminders of the disaster by clearing the rubble. To me that just made the scene even more poignant. The debris would make the scene that of what was, now the lack of it smells of what had been.

You can see things in the area, some not very obvious, that have not been cleared yet. For one, they’ve entirely cleared any traces of the former train tracks and what used to be the main train station of Minami Sanriku, Shizukawa station. But they haven’t been able to clear it off Google Maps.


Below is what Google Maps led me to.



This used to be the station.


And this, perhaps is the most symbolic thing I saw in Minami Sanriku. Interpret it as you wish.

The population left in Minami-Sanriku is still trying to live their lives and have the same Japanese hospitality as everywhere else. Living and working in housing which resembles containers, there was a clear sense of perseverance and the Japanese sense of enduring with dignity.

Maybe it was the encroaching twilight, but there were wisps of despair all around. Three years after the earthquake and the future is still up in the air, tossed between the very tall grass, waving in the wind.



“A step towards the future, Ishinomaki; The breath of hope, Ishinomaki” – Ishinomaki High School.

After March 11, 2011, a few slogans became prevalent in Japan: がんばろう日本! (Work Hard Japan!), it’s sister slogans of がんばろう 東北!(Work hard Tohoku!), 絆 (kizuna, human bonds) because the disaster jolted Japan into (re)appreciating their loved ones and lastly, the aforementioned 復興 or recovery.

No doubt the Japanese have endured the crisis well with minimal chaos. But whether they’re actually working hard, or more importantly, effectively, to recover from the disaster is a different question. “Recovery” remains heavily uneven and, for some places, there may be no going back.

Because it isn’t as simple as recovery and ganbarou. It isn’t as simple as kizuna. To the disaster victims getting bashed online and Minami-Sanriku citizens visiting sparkling Sendai, the aforementioned slogans probably sound cheap.

But there are realities to deal with and loud unspoken questions: how much longer until things return to normal? How “normal” can “normal” possibly get? And more cynically, is returning to normal even worth it?

Bonus Wallpapers!

[Phone – 640×1136]

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Is Abenomics Working? Mon, 29 Sep 2014 16:00:38 +0000 This is a continuation of my previous article, which explains what the 3 arrows of Abenomics are and how they are supposed to work. It’s impossible to say with certainty whether Abenomics is working because the data is ambiguous. Actually it is almost always ambiguous in economics since there’s no such thing as indisputable data. This page […]

The post Is Abenomics Working? appeared first on Tofugu.

This is a continuation of my previous article, which explains what the 3 arrows of Abenomics are and how they are supposed to work.

It’s impossible to say with certainty whether Abenomics is working because the data is ambiguous. Actually it is almost always ambiguous in economics since there’s no such thing as indisputable data.

This page from the Prime Minister’s Office has a list of the grand achievements of Abenomics. But since it’s a government website trying to justify its own policies, you probably know that things aren’t as rosy as they are trying to portray. Richard Katz at The Japan Times for example, calls the whole policy bundle “Voodoo Abenomics”

The issue has two questions that need to be answered:

1. Has Abenomics been able to improve the Japanese economy in the short run? This we can discern from the current statistics.

2. Will, Abenomics ensure Japan’s long term economic health – and this requires speculation and will largely depend on the school of economic thought that one follows.

First, let’s look at some of the indicators so far.



Japanese government says: There has been a cumulative total of 4.2% GDP growth from Q3 (3rd quarter) 2012 to Q1 2014! This is a break from the prior recession in Q2-Q3 2012!


Japan just experienced a big slump in growth in Q2, with a quarter-on-quarter growth of -1.8% according to the most recent statistics. This is a slowdown worse than the effects of the 2011 earthquake.

The government’s being a bit sneaky by just limiting the data to until Q1 2014. The big fall from April to June of this year has mainly been attributed to the effects of the consumption tax hike in April. In short, because a lot of people spent stocking up on big items before the tax increase, consumption has slumped in the second quarter.

The problem is whether consumption will rebound significantly in the rest of this year and whether the effects of the tax hike will just be a heavy, but temporary hit. The Japanese government and the Bank of Japan are taking the optimistic view – and there are already some signs of recovery. Other commentators are expecting however, consumption to remain stagnant due to the tax hikes.

Big question: How permanent are the effects of the tax hike? Will growth recover?



Photo by Luigi Guarino

Inflation is defined as a steady and general increase in prices, with deflation being the antonym. The negative effects of the latter are explained in my previous article.

Deflation has been the bearbug of the Japanese economy since the 1990s. So how much has Abenomics been able to cause inflation? Bear in mind that the official inflation target rate is 2% at the moment.

Take a look at this link. At face value it looks like Japan has managed to reverse deflation, with positive inflation recorded from around June 2013 with a big jump near April 2014. So on paper it looks positive.

There are two main caveats to this, the most obvious point being that the big jump in April 2014 was due to the tax increase. This jump therefore will not be sustained and may lead to a long term lowering of the inflation rate as consumers spend less.

The second is that a big portion of this inflation is due to increased electricity / combustible prices which are in turn caused by the weak yen. If we exclude the increase in combustibles prices and tax from the inflation rate, inflation is even weaker and certainly below the targeted 2% rate. This suggests that inflation from consumer spending remains weak.

Big question: Will Japan be able to strengthen its inflation to reach their targeted 2% per annum?



Photo by Azlan Dupree

Employment in Japan is a complicated thing. While most of the world is battling very high unemployment, Japan is enjoying a very enviable unemployment rate of 3.8%. At present, for every job-seeker there are 1.09 jobs available in the job market. Needless to say this is far better than the situation in Europe and in the US.

The problems with employment in Japan aren’t with absolute unemployment but the form of employment. According to ministry statistics, at the moment more than one third of the Japanese workforce is tied down to “non-formal employment” (part time work, contract work etc). While this is justifiable in many cases (eg. A housewife working part-time at the local supermarket), the issue is that a large proportion of these are youth who actually want to be fully employed. After all, having only “non-formal” work means that you probably will get less benefits and pay than a full employee, not to mention less job security.

On the other hand, there is commentary about how Japan’s strict labor laws make their employees virtually unfireable. Thus, there are many non-productive and middle-aged staff in companies. Companies are also reluctant to formally employ new labor for the fear that they will not be able to remove them once employed. The Abe government will need to balance the protection of workers with the wishes of companies for more hiring / firing flexibility if it wishes to reform this area.

Labor Force Size

We’re moving on to the long-term issues. And in this sense, what seems to be a short term plus in the form of low unemployment is actually a sign of a long term minus: Japan’s workforce is shrinking and bringing with it a slew of issues such as the sustainability of the welfare system and labor shortages.



Photo by Azlan Dupree

So far the Abe government is pledging to increase women’s labor force participation rate. On the government’s official Abenomics webpage, they have a glowing figure of 620,000 more women joining the workforce since the administration came into power. Plus, the Abe government is also pledging to increase childcare facilities to alleviate the shortage which many parts of the country are already facing.

I’m a bit skeptical. Because firstly, 620,000 women is a statistic that is impossible to interpret without more context – after all it could just mean that more women were forced to work due to financial reasons. Secondly, increasing childcare facilities is just one part of the problem. If the state of Japan’s female employment is to change, issues of chauvinism and the “glass ceiling” need to be addressed. The culture of overwork needs to be lessened for change to occur too – after all given a choice of working 10 hours a day and doing housework, one can see the attractions of the latter.

Foreign Labor


If getting women to work doesn’t happen, or if it doesn’t happen enough, labor shortages will become serious enough that foreign labour will be needed.

There is less controversy with highly skilled labor entering Japan. After all professors and businessmen are considered to be rare resources that would be beneficial. In any case, their numbers would be limited. This is why, as I mentioned in the previous article, the government is putting in place measures to streamline the acquisition of permanent residencies by highly skilled residents.

Bigger controversy lies with allowing in lower skilled workers into Japan, for reasons such as fears about increasing crime, a breakdown of “social order”, wage depression, etc. However, the shortage is already happening and the government is making tentative steps towards allowing some foreign workers through a program which has already been criticized for allowing exploitation.

Big question: At the end of the day, how many people will there be in Japan working and paying the taxes needed for Japan to remain stable?

Structural Reform


Japan’s current Deputy Prime Minister, Taro Aso, pictured above in a parody of the 1958 film, The Ballad of Narayama, ridiculing his unfortunate statements about the elderly. I am not endorsing this as proper structural reform!

There are limited movements towards reforms, but they resemble needle pricks than a solid arrow at the moment. More are supposedly on the way.

Naturally, this depends on the industry. Main battle areas now are over free trade and the TPP, which exporters such as car manufacturers are pushing for. Agriculture is demanding exceptions. Even after removing it from the issue of free trade, Japan’s agriculture may be the target for reform in the future. View this article for a more detailed view on the issue.

Medical care is also facing its own problems as detailed here. As mentioned earlier in the article, labor reform is something which businesses are championing and which may be enacted.

This leaves us with two big questions:

Firstly, how much will Abenomics bow to vested interests (pro-reform or otherwise) and thus what reforms will it produce?

Secondly, are these largely pro-deregulatory reforms the correct solution in the first place?



Photo by Richard G

Then there’s this. Another big long term headache for Japan which I’ve written about in another article.

To summarize: the point is that the Abe government has succeeded in the last two years in bringing down the rate of borrowing – but borrowing is still happening and at a very large rate, as seen here.

It’s a balancing act – borrow too much and you can’t spend or will even crash in the future. Cut borrowing too quickly and you’ll cause lots of short term pain which may then crash in the future (some give European countries as examples).

Big question: Therefore, is the rate of cutting borrowing too fast or too slow right now?

So … is it working?


To be frank, I don’t know. Certainly I do have my own opinions. I do think that the indicators look generally positive though quite shaky at the moment. I consider myself also pro-reform, but since the majority of the reforms are still “in the works” I can’t even say what I think about them.

In any case, professors of economics argue about this stuff and mine is not a professional opinion. Since professors of economics don’t agree with each other you’re free to disagree with mine. Time will tell whether Abenomics will work or not for better or for worse.

Just giving a shoutout – anybody have any suggestions for stuff I should write for the next article? If there’s something about current affairs in Japan that intrigue you just leave a comment and I’ll consider. Thanks!

Bonus Wallpapers!

[1280×800] ∙ [2560×1600]

Further Reading:

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Peace and Japan Part 3: What’s With All The Arguing? Fri, 29 Aug 2014 16:00:00 +0000 For the past two articles of this series I’ve been talking about the current controversial changes about the “right to collective defense” and the strength of the Japanese military forces. This time however, I hope to take a look at who is saying what in terms of the debate: about the constitution, the army, and […]

The post Peace and Japan Part 3: What’s With All The Arguing? appeared first on Tofugu.

For the past two articles of this series I’ve been talking about the current controversial changes about the “right to collective defense” and the strength of the Japanese military forces. This time however, I hope to take a look at who is saying what in terms of the debate: about the constitution, the army, and the recent changes themselves.

I can’t possibly cover every single point of view so I’ll talk about the most common ones, get nice quotes if I can find them, and explain what I think about them. In any case,  I hope that this will help inform you about this very important part of Japan’s policy – a policy that people don’t like to talk about but may (in the worst case) affect Japan’s future.

The Constitution – In Particular Article 9


Photo by Satoshi KAYA

To know the background about Article 9 please see the first article.

“Article 9 was forced on Japan by America to gut it and keep it weak!”

And therefore, “we need to get rid of it so that Japan can resume being a normal strong country!”

Found on: Internet forums. Facebook comments. Not openly stated by mainstream politicians but some nationalist ones are certainly thinking it.

What I think: How much of the Japanese constitution is Made-in-America is a whole other debate that I’m not going to go into. However this bang-the-pots nationalism doesn’t really make sense to me because of two reasons.

Firstly, the constitution may have been written largely by the Americans, however the Japanese public has accepted article 9 and even until now, most polls show a majority against the revision of the article 9 (all links in Japanese). The sweeping claim that America has forced Japan into something it doesn’t want rings hollow when you consider this.

Secondly, it’s not as if Japan hasn’t gained from Article 9. After all, Article 9 pairs with America assuming of responsibility for Japan’s defense. Think about it – some countries would probably love to dump the need to have their own full army and receive the protection of the biggest military power on Earth. So Japan has benefited indirectly from the implications of Article 9.

On the other hand …

“Article 9 keeps us peaceful”


“I don’t want to kill. I don’t want to be killed. No to changing the constitution by reinterpretation.”

Photo by midorisyu

“Today marks 60 years from when the Japan Self Defense Forces were formed. Not a single serviceman has been killed, and we have not killed a single foreign person. This kind of army is exceedingly rare among the main countries in the world – and this is because of the principle of not allowing force to be used overseas, under this Constitution, and because of Article 9. Article 9 has protected the lives of our soldiers. Don’t you dare break this treasure!” – Japan Communist Party representative Shii Kazuo on Twitter.

Usually said by:
left-of-center groups. The majority of citizenry, which is opposed to a change in the constitution, also probably agrees with this.

What I think: This is certainly expressed often – but how Article 9 *actually prevents* Japan entering into war isn’t actually explained as often. Certainly, as a law it does constrain the government from having any too glaringly offensive armed forces. And while there is ample room for interpreting the constitution, especially given the historical interpretations, perhaps there is a limit before it becomes absurd and clearly unconstitutional.

But then…

“If peace was as simple as making a law for it, Japan might as well enact an anti-Typhoon law.”


After all, we just need a law against it right?

As mentioned by a friend of mine. And I don’t think anyone really disagrees with this.

The point is that war and peace are issues with political, economic and diplomatic dimensions – having a provision in the constitution prohibiting it alone certainly isn’t enough. This point of view doesn’t really view Article 9 as good or bad, but ineffective and at most symbolic.

But even so, perhaps symbols are useful anyway? Perhaps having a symbol, no matter how ineffectual, is better than not having one?

On Japan’s Military


Moving away from legal arguments, we come to debates about Japan’s military, what role they should play, how much should the government spends on them, etc.

“Japan needs to have a strong(er) military to defend itself given rising regional tensions”


“The security environment surrounding Japan has become increasingly severe, being encompassed by various challenges and destabilizing factors, which are becoming more tangible and acute.” – As stated by Japan Defense White Paper, 2014


“A strong(er) military itself provokes rising regional tensions”

Example: Chinese protests reported by CNN

What I think: Very chicken and egg / vicious cycle thing here but both are true to an extent. Regional tensions are rising and North Korea seems to have a good time firing missiles into the Sea of Japan.

On the other hand China and South Korea often protest against Japan when Japan makes moves to strengthen its military. There is something to be said for how both countries are using Japan as a political punching bag for domestic agendas. But then again, it’s not as if Japan couldn’t predict the above. So is Japan just trying to defend itself or adding fuel into the fire?


“Japan, being an economic and significant power needs to fulfill it’s military responsibilities”

Example: “Japan’s reliance on the United States for protection undermines Japanese credibility in the world. It projects the image of an economically strong country that is unable to defend itself … There is also the issue of the fundamental unfairness of the alliance to the American people. Should America be compelled to defend Japan for an indefinite period without reciprocity?” – Kyle Mizokami at the Atlantic.

What I think: This has been increasingly noted from the US in recent years, but then again it suits Japanese nationalists – who want to see a “Strong / Normal Japan” – perfectly well too.

Note that until 1991, Japan’s forces never participated in any peacekeeping operations. Not to mention that before the current change in the constitutional interpretation, the US would be obligated to come to Japan’s aid in the event of war, but not the other way around. Some would say that Japan, as the previous second and current third largest economy of the world, ought to pull their weight  – after all, it’s not as if they can’t.

Detractors, however, say that while it all sounds nice, this is a recipe for Japan to get dragged into unnecessary conflicts – not entirely unfounded when we consider the bungling of some peacekeeping missions in history.

But then,

“Japan really doesn’t need the economic burden of a military”.


Photo by EO Kenny

What I think: I’ve noted in the second article in the series that Japan spends only 1% of its GDP on defense, a rate which puts it near the bottom of the world rankings. I’ve also written elsewhere that Japan’s government is essentially broke – and really doesn’t need anything else on its plate to spend yen on.

So having a stronger military simply means a choice between three painful options: more debt, higher taxes, or less spending elsewhere – pacifists would add that military spending doesn’t actually improve the welfare of the Japanese people anyway. But of course, military spending is a very “contingency situation” thing – how much military spending is “adequate”? Does Japan want to run the risk of not being prepared in the case of a conflict? How high are the chances of such a conflict anyway?

About The US Army In Japan


Photo by US Navy

“We need’em”

As per official government policy.

“But not in our neighborhood”

As stated by…


“We don’t need the bases!” – Anti-US base protesters in Okinawa. (Picture by Nathan Keirn)

What I think: The US army doesn’t have a good rep in Japan, especially in Okinawa. One incident often remembered about it is the rape of a twelve year Okinawan girl by three US servicemen in 1995. Not to mention that the Japanese government does sponsor heavily the upkeep of bases in Japan (this is within the Japanese defense budget).

The crime point is to some extent overblown because the crime rate of US servicemen is lower than the general Japanese population. But nonetheless, the central government views the US forces as something that is welcome and which contributes to Japan’s defense. It’s just that on the local level no one really wants to have them on their soil.

About the Right to Collective Defense.


Photo by midorisyu

As in Picture,”The Right to Collective Defense = War!”

“If we allow the right to collective self-defense, in the case that a certain country declares that they are being attacked, it is possible that Japan will mobilize its forces and use military force overseas, following mobilizing US forces […] We cannot just let this move, which will allow our children to be sent to the battlefield, pass.” – Petition on


“If having this right is a right-wing plot, then all other countries in the world are ruled by fascists”

…A comment I saw on Blogos, a Japanese political blog collation site.

What I think: Japan gains pretty much nothing concrete from reinterpreting the constitution except for avoiding being called a leech. PM Abe says that a condition for the use of the right includes reasonable damage to the Japanese people’s welfare, but in essence what Japan gains is the ability to use its own military to defend someone else! Yay!

The US is happy with this, but why would Japan make such a reinterpretation in the first place? On a very common sense level, it is kind of absurd that you are in an alliance with someone and that you can’t help your ally in a time of war. However, on a political level, reinterpreting the law allows for more flexibility to use the JSDF forces. Ideology-wise, it also is a step towards the “normalization” of Japan as a country with normal military capabilities.

And this is true. The right to collective defense is “normal” in the world. Pretty much only Japan and Switzerland did not recognize its right to a collective self defense. Now Switzerland is hanging out alone in that party.

The counter point is that it is a right that Japan can live without. After all – if it is simply the right to fight for someone else, then Japan doesn’t need it in the least. And – as repeated for the umpteenth time – this may lead to Japan getting sucked into a conflict.

So After All The Arguing…


Paper crane art piece, entitled “Peace from Hiroshima”

All in all the public opinion appears to be 1) In favor of retaining Article 9, 2) Conflicted over the US army especially if they end up in their local neighborhood and 3) Opposed to the current reinterpretation (though this varies by survey). However, the ruling party is more conservative and nationalist than the general public opinion. And as can be seen from the current changes, it is also open to ignoring the public at times.

Nonetheless, the question still remains: Are we seeing a Japan that is moving towards war or one which is simply trying to ensure its own security? Is it possibly both at the same time? No simple answers here, but in the meantime you can be sure that there will be a lot of arguing about it, both in and outside Japan.

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Japan is Broke – But Maybe Things Aren’t So Bad… Mon, 09 Jun 2014 16:00:37 +0000 Just last month, the consumption tax (or VAT) in Japan rose from 5% to 8%, much to the horror of our wallets. However, public opinion was split and, while there have been worries about the impact on the economy, the current government’s approval ratings have not suffered. The reason for this is that the Japanese […]

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Just last month, the consumption tax (or VAT) in Japan rose from 5% to 8%, much to the horror of our wallets. However, public opinion was split and, while there have been worries about the impact on the economy, the current government’s approval ratings have not suffered.

The reason for this is that the Japanese public knows that the government is broke and national debt has already reached ridiculous levels. Action has to be taken or something will give way in the long term. But then, perhaps things are not as bad as they seem at first glance – Japan has not and probably will not have a public financial meltdown as was seen in Europe a few years back.

The Bad News First


Photo by Dick Johnson

Ministry of Finance, Japan

First things first: We have to look at the numbers.

Japan’s gross national debt has reached 214% of GDP as of 2012. This is the largest government debt as a percentage of GDP in the world. The second highest was Zimbabwe with 202.7% in 2012.*

Our Friends the Hondas: Imagine Japan as a family with the last name Honda. The Hondas will have to work for more than 2 years without spending anything (even on food) to clear their debt.**

Japan will borrow 41.2 trillion yen of the 95.9 trillion yen it will spend this year. This makes the bond dependency ratio 43%. This is after the tax increase as of April 2014.

Our Friends the Hondas: This year the Honda family will spend $95,900 this year, but mom and dad only earn $52,800 from their jobs. The other $41,200 they borrow from the bank. This is after a pay increase for dad in April this year.

Japan will spend 23.3 trillion yen of its 95.9 trillion yen this year on debt reservicing.

Our Friends the Hondas: Out of the $95,900 they will spend this year, the Honda family will have to pay $23,300 – or around a quarter – for their outstanding loans.

The amount of government debt per person in Japan is US$100,000 – in America it is $58,000 per person.

In short:

  • Japan has a ton of loans to pay off.
  • At the moment, it’s only earning half of what it spends.
  • The outstanding loans are already impacting government spending.

But Maybe It’s Not so Bad


Photo by Richard West

Some silver lining perhaps?

Despite these difficulties, Japan has not yet gone into full debt meltdown, at least for the moment. These are the reasons Japan has avoided the fate of Western Europe, courtesy of an economics lecture I attended.

Japanese debt is owned internally

Or, the Japanese government owes money to the investment firms and retirement funds within Japan. This means that:

  1. The owners of the debt, being Japanese, are less likely to pull their money out of Japan and self-destruct their own country. This is in stark contrast to foreign investors pulling money out of Western Europe.
  2. Since the debt has to be repaid in the longterm, the money will still technically be inside Japan. If it’s invested or spent somewhere, and not hiding under someone’s pillow, the money will still be circulating.

You can always raise the taxes more

Japanese taxes are still low compared to European standards. After all, even after the VAT tax raise, it’s still only 8%. Technically, if the government is really short of cash, it can raise the taxes more without reaching “ridiculous” rates.

The Japanese government still has quite a lot of assets

This is especially true in the post office system. The government can sell this and other things if it really goes broke. But this is a “solution” in the same way that Greece selling off historical buildings is a solution.

Low interest rates

A big debt will not crush you when the interest on it is low. Thus Japan, with its extremely low borrowing rates, gets much less pain from borrowing than other countries would get borrowing the same amount. However, as this article in the Japan Times points out, these interest rates are horrendously addictive.***

But in the long run…


Photo by Azlan Dupree

Something has to give. While the situation isn’t yet at a breaking point, it does not mean that this direction is sustainable.

For one, it’s clear that more debt right now means less spending in the future. Debt reservicing (repayment of current debt + interest) is already more than 20% of the overall budget, as noted above. So no matter how low the interest rates, what Japan spends today will be what it does not spend tomorrow.


Photo by Chris Gladis

Furthermore, Japan’s population is shrinking and rapidly graying. What this means is that Japan will have less people to pay off the current amount of debt, and fewer of those people will be actively producing. Unless specific retiree-oriented taxes are put in place, income tax receipts are likely to decrease.

In addition, Japan already spends about one third of its budget in social security (or welfare, in other words). With more elderly people, welfare and healthcare costs are expected to increase – meaning the government will have to spend more to maintain the same level of welfare.

Finally, the more debt Japan accumulates, the more likely the chance of a loss in confidence and a future financial crisis will become.

So, What Can Be Done?


Photo by Junpei Abe

Japan’s Parliament Building

As many countries in Western Europe have discovered, there really isn’t any easy solution to the situation. Here’s some possible solutions that Japan may employ, all with their own drawbacks:

Public spending is fundamentally the difference between spending and earning. Thus, logically speaking, the Japanese government is probably going to have to solve the problem through increasing earnings and/or decreasing spending.

So, on the spending side:

1.  Austerity

Ie. slashing government spending on public works, officials’ pay, welfare etc.

Drawback: The number of angry people in Western Europe speaks volumes about the dangers of this approach. Money that the government does not spend is money taken out of the economy – recession is a real risk when the government cuts spending.

In short: Angry voters. The economy may tank.

2.  Allowing Inflation

If inflation occurs and the value of money drops, the value of Japan’s existing debt similarly drops too. Thus, in real terms, the government has to pay less.

Drawback: Higher inflation often comes with higher interest rates. Thus, this doesn’t really help if Japan has to continue issuing new bonds (making new debt), which will be at the higher interest rate. Also, the amount of inflation that Japan can allow without causing uncertainty is limited.

In short: Japan would need to stop borrowing first before this has an effect. Plus, it will have a limited effect.

On the income side:

3.  Raise taxes

Drawback: Raise income and consumption tax and people spend less – and get angry. Raise corporation tax and you may make businesses unprofitable – and angry. Again recession becomes a problem.

In short: Angry voters. The economy may tank.

4.  Somehow make the economy grow.

This will automatically lead to the government earning more in tax. The government, through free trade and loosening some regulations, is probably aiming for this right now.

Drawback: This one is no east task. If it was, Japan would not have been in a rut for 20 long years and counting. Some concrete measures, such as deregulation also have their own drawbacks – free trade may, for example, damage the health of Japan’s agriculture – while others are hard to implement, such as having more women enter the workforce.

In short: Probably wishful thinking. Concrete actions also come with their own pain.

No Pain, No Gain


As you can see, Japan is probably in for some pain in the long run. Perhaps by some miracle the pain will be avoided, but for now this looks like more than a “when” than an “if”.

In any case, Japan is unlikely to go into full austerity mode (if ever) until 2020 because of the Tokyo Olympics. In the best scenario envisioned by the government, by the time 2020 rolls by, Japan will have all its growth engines kicked in and blazing forward – this would allow them to withdraw government spending and allow growth to continue.

But of course, that’s the best case scenario, which is not guaranteed. We’ll have to see how Japan advances from now on and dutifully pay our taxes in the meantime.

Extra Reading


* There are other measures of debt such as Net Government Debt in which Japan still fares very badly, but doesn’t end up at the very bottom.

** To compare, other country’s national debt: Greece – 161.3%, USA – 72.5%

***Comparison for 10 year bonds (the lower it is the cheaper to borrow):
Japan – lowest on list at 0.61%, USA – 2.65%, Greece – 6.46%


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Japan’s Solar Revolution – The Sky’s (Not) the Limit Thu, 29 May 2014 16:00:47 +0000 My neighborhood is changing. When you run everyday, you get to know your surroundings. You learn the locations of the essentials – water fountains, vending machines, and toilets. There are familiar faces and places. You remember which houses have dogs and learn alternate routes for when oncoming trains block your path. And you tend to […]

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My neighborhood is changing.

When you run everyday, you get to know your surroundings. You learn the locations of the essentials – water fountains, vending machines, and toilets. There are familiar faces and places. You remember which houses have dogs and learn alternate routes for when oncoming trains block your path. And you tend to notice even the smallest of changes- whether it’s the blooming of flowers, a new street sign, the disappearance of a building, or the appearance of a new one.

Years ago I marveled at the number of rice paddies replaced by housing units and convenience stores. Every month another paddy was filled in and construction began. But a new trend has gripped my neighborhood. Instead of buildings, rice paddies are being replaced by new farms – the type that yield energy instead of produce.

The first one appeared next to my apartment building. Next one sprang up by work. They built one by the river too. On a recent run I discovered one in the mountains. It didn’t stop there. They appeared on top of new houses as well. Even older buildings are fitted with them. The black solar panels are popping up everywhere.

Welcome to post-Fukushima Japan.

Wake-up call


The events of March 11th, 2011 forever changed Japan’s perception of nuclear power. Fukushima’s meltdown and the resulting radiation destroyed people’s lives and contaminated the surrounding area, rendering it uninhabitable for years to come.

Fukushima provided a wake up call to the dangers of nuclear power – the worst case scenario became a reality. Suddenly, anti-nuclear groups had a new cause to rally around. Faced with disaster, people on the fence swayed to oppose nuclear power. Those that never gave the topic thought were forced to consider it.


Photo by 保守

Protests sprang up almost immediately. USA Today reported on one protest that drew an estimated 20,000 people in Tokyo. The article went on to say, “55 percent of Japanese want to reduce the number of nuclear reactors in the country, while 35 percent would like to leave the number about the same.” Popular opinion forced pro-nuclear contingencies to regroup and weather the storm.

Whatever the stance, the dangers of nuclear power became an inescapable issue that forced its way into Japan’s consciousness. Three years later, the issue still weighs heavily on people’s minds and Fukushima continues to shape Japan’s politics and energy policies.

Nuclear Shutdown


Photo by Jihara19

Fukushima’s meltdown and the resulting outlash against nuclear power led to the shutdown of all of Japan’s nuclear reactors. Kanoko Matsuyama of Bloomberg reported, “Japan, which got about 30 percent of its electricity from nuclear power before the Fukushima disaster, now has all 50 of its operational reactors lying idle.”

With 30 percent of it’s power supply derived from nuclear sources, the shutdown had a significant impact on Japan’s energy production and economy. The country scrambled for alternatives.

Despite it’s large population, Japan is a small, resource poor nation. The Japan Times explains, “Japan has long been characterized as a nation with virtually no natural resources like oil, natural gas, coal, iron and copper.” As a result, Japan depends on foreign imports of raw materials and natural resources.

The nuclear shutdown forced Japan to find energy substitutes. How was the lost power production replaced? A look at an NBR report entitled Energy Mix in Japan Before and After Fukushima shows a renewed reliance on fossil fuels. In fact, according to Reuters, Japan’s imports of fossil fuels reached record highs after the 2011 disaster. But high prices, pollution, and dependence on imports make fossil fuels an unattractive long term solution.

What Alternatives?


Photo by Tnk3a

Aside from nuclear power and fossil fuels, Japan has limited options. Difficulties have prevented alternative power sources like hydroelectric, geothermal, biomass and wind power from making significant impacts.

According to The Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan, the country has already maxed out its large scale hydroelectric potential. Eric Johnston contends that high costs and environmental limits make small hydroelectric operations an unattractive investment.

Biomass (the incineration of organic materials and wastes) would utilize Japan’s trees, its most abundant resource. But as Sumitomo Corporation and Partnership for Policy Integrity explain, biomass’s energy output is inefficient and leaves a significant carbon footprint.

Geothermal energy faces its own share of problems. Deutshe Welle, a German news site reports that while Japan has enormous geothermal potential, “many in Japan are resisting the deep boring that is required to access geothermal energy.” Most raise concerns with the ecological impact. And since drilling time and steep development costs mean no short term profits, geothermal remains an unattractive investment.

Though supported by government subsidies, technological issues hamper wind power’s growth. The Japan Times explains, “Wind power has barely gotten off the ground… because installation costs for small-scale generators are still too high to be profitable.”

A lack of technology and affordability, and environmental limitations, have prevented alternative energy sources from impacting Japan’s power crisis. The FEPC reports that Japan’s renewable energy power percentage stagnated at about ten percent over the last two decades. But change is in the air, or more appropriately – the sky.

Why Solar Power?


Photo by Σ64

One of Japan’s remaining solutions leaves a limited environmental footprint, requires little investment, and sees almost immediate turnover in production. Unlike the alternatives, it doesn’t involve drilling or a long development time. Deutshe Welle points out it can return income in as little as 12 months. So it should come as no surprise that solar power is gaining a foothold in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Other countries have already embraced solar power. Cleantechnica explains that Germany became one of the first – thanks to its efforts to ease regulations, offer subsidies, and educate its public. Solar power became understandable and affordable and Germany came to dominate the world in solar installation and production.

Japan’s government followed Germany’s example – enacting tariffs to make solar panel installation financially attractive. The FEPC reports, “Electric power companies are required to purchase excess electricity produced by (solar panels) installed on ordinary houses at about twice the previous purchase price.” Thanks to the tariff, solar produced electricity fetches premium prices and leads to almost immediate profits. Equipment and installation costs pay for themselves making solar panels an attractive investment.

The Fukushima Effect on All Scales


Photo by CoCreatr

Japan’s policies have spurred grassroots solar power operations. Perhaps that’s why so many houses in my neighborhood are being fitted with solar panels. According to Cisaki Watanabe, even convenience stores are getting in on the act: “Lawson sells electricity generated from solar panels to utilities and plans to use the income for more energy-saving equipment.”

In fact, Japan has become a global leader when it comes to small scale solar installations. Solar Buzz reported, “Japan was the clear leader in the small-scale segment (in 2013) with almost 40 percent of the global demand (for solar equipment).”

The Fukushima disaster and booming global market have sparked Japanese businesses to invest in large scale developments as well. The Economist reports, “Sharp, Kyocera, Sanyo and Mitsubishi Electric are investing billions of dollars to double their (solar equipment) production… over the next three years. They expect an increase in demand owing to growing subsidies for renewable energy in America and Japan.”

Large solar plants are popping up across Japan as well. accounts for large-sale plants in Nagasaki, Okayama, Aomori, Hokkaido, Fukushima and Miyagi prefectures. “Instead of just lamenting the current situation, we wanted to take action to make Japan a better place,” Houtoku Energy President Takeo Minomiya, whose company supports large and small scale solar projects in Kanagawa prefecture, remarked in a Japan Times interview.

The Sky’s (Not) the Limit


Photo by NASA

The power crisis has even sparked some ventures that go beyond the ordinary. For example, Smithsonain Magazine reported on the Kagoshima Nanatsujima Mega Solar Power Plant, that sits atop artificial islands in the ocean. Solar Internation describes Hydrelio solar panels that seem tailor made for Japan. They float on water, protecting them from earthquake damage while preserving valuable farmland.

Another Japanese solar venture is literally out of this world. In his book, Solar Power Satellites, Don M. Flournoy explains that Japan was the first country to put hard money behind solar plants in space, offering rewards to corporations that can achieve the feat within the next thirty years. With Japan pushing the envelope, solar technology should enjoy significant progress in the decades to come.



Photo by mrhayata

Even before the March 11th, 2013 Fukushima disaster, Japanese national policy called for the abandonment of nuclear power by 2030. But The Japan Times reported a recent about-face by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. “The (Japanese) government will ‘promote reactivation of nuclear reactors’ if they clear the new safety tests.”

Why would post-Fukushima Japan consider going back to nuclear power? For profit, practicality, and necessity – at this point there just aren’t any realistic alternatives. However, the country is making efforts to change that fact.

Increasing large and small scale solar operations, including those in my neighborhood, are proof. And I’d rather see more solar panels than new convenience stores – how many of those does one town need? Although solar power may only make a small dent in Japan’s carbon and nuclear footprint, it’s a step in the right direction. And with demand spurring new technologies, Japan’s solar power looks to have a bright future.

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The Secret World Of Kisha Clubs And Japanese Newspapers Tue, 11 Feb 2014 17:00:23 +0000 Other parts of the world might be gloomily declaring that print news is circling the drain, but not in Japan, where newspapers have morning and evening editions and newspaper circulation rates are the highest in the world. (Japan’s top newspaper, the Yomiuri Shinbun has a circulation of about 10 million. Compare that to the 2 […]

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Other parts of the world might be gloomily declaring that print news is circling the drain, but not in Japan, where newspapers have morning and evening editions and newspaper circulation rates are the highest in the world. (Japan’s top newspaper, the Yomiuri Shinbun has a circulation of about 10 million. Compare that to the 2 million of The Wall Street Journal and you start to get a sense of scope.)

But even though Japan is rocking the Casbah when it comes to the number of newspapers people are reading each day, there’s some serious work to be done with the reporting in those papers. According to Reporters Without Borders, Japan dropped 31 places in the World Press Freedom Index in 2013. Kind of strange for a liberal democracy, right? Welcome to the secret world of “kisha clubs.”

Kisha Clubs: What They Do And How They Do It


Photo by M M

Kisha (記者) or “reporter” clubs are exclusive groups of reporters from major Japanese newspapers, like the Yomiuri Shinbun and the Asahi Shinbun, who set up camp in government and political party offices. The clubs receive press releases from whatever agency or business they’re assigned to cover. (Usually the agency’s PR offices are right down the hall from the kisha club – so convenient!)

The reporters in the club then edit or paraphrase those press releases to publish in their respective newspapers. Besides reading and revising a whole lot of press releases, kisha clubs also organize press conferences. (The life of a kisha club member: So excite; much report.)

And if you ask the Nihon Shinbun Kyokai (Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association), there are super duper awesome reasons for keeping kisha clubs around. For one thing, they sort through gobs of boring political information, for which everyone is grateful. And although it leads to some pretty homogenous news articles – sometimes quite literally, with identical articles being printed in competing newspapers – kisha clubs receive news incredibly fast. After all, they’re in the same building as their sources.

They’re also a united front: plucky reporters against shifty politicians. Who would dare withhold political information when you have an entire kisha club staring you down? Kisha clubs run on the Wildcats principle…


We’re all in this together.

Majorly Bad Business

The problem is, well, journalism doesn’t really work that way. A journalist’s role is to hold feet to the fire, not give foot massages. (Okay, that metaphor got a little weird.) What I’m trying to say is that journalism works best when it works for the people and not for politicians. Kisha clubs, by their very nature, go against journalistic principles of working independently and maintaining an objective distance from news sources – not acting as a mouthpiece for them. And when these ideals get thrown out the window, all sorts of sketchy things start to occur.

We don’t even need to look very far for one particularly glaring example: the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of 2011. (To catch everyone up to speed: A terrible domino effect occurred in March 2011 when the Tohoku earthquake hit Japan, which triggered a tsunami, which resulted in a catastrophic failure at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant, releasing all sorts of radiation into the surrounding area.)

There was not much investigative reporting following the disaster and very little transparency from the government about subsequent radiation levels, evacuees, and how this disaster could have been averted.

The company in charge of these Fukushima power plants, TEPCO, has its own kisha club, but funnily enough, those kisha club reporters never quite got around to asking the questions the Japanese public most wanted and needed to know. Independent and foreign journalists also reported on the disaster. But, because they aren’t part of any kisha clubs, they were often barred from press conferences – one of the many kisha club rules – making reporting that much harder. Those independent journalists who did make it into these press conferences were often shouted down by kisha club members if they dared to ask any off-script questions.

Blackboard Agreements


Whether it’s your 1998 kid detective club devoted to Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen (cough) or your standard, government lapdog kisha club, clubs gotta have rules. (Insert your own Fight Club joke here.)

Besides not often allowing journalists from independent and foreign newspapers to participate in press conferences (let alone join a kisha club), there are also these things called blackboard agreements. Sometimes literally written on a blackboard, these are news items and topics that the club has agreed not to report on until a specific later date. The kisha club golden rule? You don’t “scoop” your fellow club member, even if he’s from a competing newspaper. (This is completely counter to how journalism normally works, where reporting a news story first is how many news media survive.)

Following blackboard agreements means having to maintain friendly relations with your sources as well as rival journalists. As with any club, you can get kicked out for not heeding club rules. Some kisha club members do break the rules on rare occasions, because sometimes it’s totally worth it. If a story is huge enough to be worth temporary club banishment because of all the papers it would sell, a kisha club member might just break the story anyway. Of course, there are ways to have your mochi and eat it too.

Weekly Magazines


Japan’s weekly magazines provide an outlet for news stories that may be stuck in blackboard agreement purgatory. A kisha club member will sometimes sell a blackboarded scoop to a weekly magazine, occasionally even writing the magazine article himself. (Club members have been known to sell news stories to foreign presses as well.)

The problem with having your news bombshell break in a weekly magazine as opposed to a newspaper is that Japan’s weeklies aren’t the most respected game in town. Weekly magazines are usually printed on cheap paper and are a whirlwind mix of news, sports, manga, celebrity gossip and porn. Sort of like if The New Yorker and The National Enquirer had a baby.

But, in the most roundabout way ever, once a story breaks in a weekly magazine and gains enough traction, the blackboard agreement becomes null and void and everyone can cover the story in their own newspapers.

But The Internet!


The Internet has decreased some of the power kisha clubs hold, and may yet be a game changer. Independent presses, foreign news sites and citizen journalists have all been part of a movement to provide news outlets that aren’t heavily influenced by government channels.

Independent online news sources like Days Japan and Free Press Association of Japan have started to pop up, but they’ve had some difficulty gaining traction with a Japanese public who are somewhat reluctant to trust online news media over traditional news outlets.


Unfortunately, things are probably going to get worse before they get better. In December of 2013, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe enacted a state secrets law, a move many consider a major step backwards for civil liberties in Japan. Under the new law, those who leak classified information will now face 10 years in prison and anyone found guilty of abetting a leak will get five. Kisha clubs also show no signs of going away.

But there have been some victories in all of this, too. For example, in 2001 Nagano Prefecture’s then-governor, Yasuo Tanako, abolished kisha clubs in the prefectural office. Any journalist, whether they were associated with a major newspaper or a small website, were given the same opportunities to gather information, no blackboard agreements required. And even though Yasuo Tanako has moved on from his Nagano roots, the kisha clubs he pwned haven’t come creeping back.

It’s been relatively easy up until now for kisha clubs to party down without anyone noticing. But with the continuing controversy over how the Fukushima catastrophe was reported in the news and the public outcry against Abe’s new state secrets law, the days of the kisha club may be numbered after all.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Rent-A-Gaijin For All Your Temporary Gaijin Needs Fri, 24 Jan 2014 17:00:24 +0000 A little while back someone sent me a link to an interesting website. On it, they said you could rent a gaikokujin (foreign person) who will do various things for you, depending on the person. They could speak English with you (seems like the most obvious application), be a model, DJ, write, be a bartender, […]

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A little while back someone sent me a link to an interesting website. On it, they said you could rent a gaikokujin (foreign person) who will do various things for you, depending on the person. They could speak English with you (seems like the most obvious application), be a model, DJ, write, be a bartender, hang out with you, etc., etc. As long as it is legal and the gaikokujin is willing, your imagination is the limit.

Looking at the website, it was apparent that two gaikokujin were available for rental. One Australian with dark hair and a smirky smile and one American with a beard and blue eyes.


Turns out they are the co-founders and they have had many clients between them… too many, in fact. If you’re a gaikokujin in Japan get in touch with these guys. They’re looking to add some folks to their roster. You can visit their website at

Although they are in their early goings over at Gaikokujin Rental, I thought it was an interesting idea. I also had no idea what it was they were doing, so I sent them an email asking if they’d be willing to do an interview. They were very gracious and got back to my questions super quickly. What follows is said interview, and it includes stories, success stories, and information on what the heck all this gaikokujin rental stuff is all about.

#Interview START

1. Who started

Two guys, one Australian and one American. Both have called Japan home for a handful of years: Six and ten respectively.

2. Why did (you) start it?

“Why has someone not?,” is what we have been asking ourselves for years. Peer to peer business in Japan has always been BIG. Big for both client and contractor. Yet it seems every year the market is not adequately accessed, and unfortunately for many the public space for self-promotion is in, we feel, terminal decline.

For-hire platforms available at present are largely top-down corporate to individual, not peer to peer, and we think peer to peer is important and remarkable. We think it makes for new economy.

Also, we feel Gaikokujin Rental serves as an alternative meeting space to the usual foreigner/Japanese social venues which exist in Japan today.

Author Note: Oh, so it’s like AirBnB but for people and their skills/time. Now I’m starting to get it.

3. How long have you been renting foreigners?

Gaikokujin Rental officially launched on November 29, 2013.

4. It looks like you have two people being rented out. Who are they?

They are the co-founders, Austin and Adams.

5. Are you looking to add more people to rent out?

We are actively looking to add more foreigners as well as increase Japanese readership at our site – We wish to bring as many people together and build as many success stories as possible. To this end, we have invested energy and time into the idea, sustainability and scalability of Gaikokujin Rental.

Author Note: There’s a contact form on their website if you’re interested.

6. What kinds of things have you done? I need a bedtime story.


I once had a woman hire me to look after her children and clean her house.

I was hired by a Japanese women to go shopping with her and pick out a birthday present for her husband because he was a foreigner.

I was asked to attend a bonenkai with a group of salary men and speak only English with them.

I was asked by a young Japanese couple to come to Kyoto and take pictures of the two of them.

Author Note: Now Austin tells a story:

Well, it started around 8:00 on a Friday night. I got off from work and was asked to meet my client at Nagoya (Meieki) station. We engaged in small talk for a few minutes, after which she asked me if I could do two things. The first was to check some English paper work which she had been given by her boss. I was asked to explain it and help her with some possible answers.

After that, she wanted me to join her for dinner. My client enjoyed eating spicy food but none of her friends or family enjoyed spicy food. We had exchanged mail previously and found that we both had a liking for spicy food. She had already found one of the spiciest Nabe restaurants in Nagoya and made a reservation.

After making our way to the restaurant we entered, took a seat and decided what we wanted to eat. I then helped my client with the paper work which had been mentioned earlier after that our meals arrived and we chatted while we ate. She asked me some questions about what it was like living abroad ( because she was thinking of doing the same one day).

And also asked me questions about my country. The rental period was for 2 hours. So after the 2 hour period was up we talked about the possibility of meeting again, paid the check and went home.


I’ve had clients ranging from housewives to businessmen to ramen chefs to entrepreneurs to bohemian outcasts – a motley cast of characters. Once I was asked to work in a Ramen shop to take orders from Russians, because apparently the Ramen shop Master “couldn’t understand the Russians.” I’ve done interpretation work between Italian businessmen and a Japanese apparel firm, but most of the work involved making reservations at onsens for the Italians.

I’ve been in front of and behind the camera for modeling and photography work, behind a desk as a freelance journalist and webshop master, a private mail courier for digital products, Santa Claus… YES, Santa Claus, an English teacher, a flyer boy, a bar server, and a BIG buyer of Switzerland-made outdoor clothing for a Japanese Trading company.

7. Have you run into any problems while running this service?

Yes, but not the kind one would bemoan about. Actually at present there are simply too many orders to fill for our current line-up of two foreigners. This is the scenario we envisioned, and to ratchet up both the supply and demand we are working in earnest to promote our service via virtual channels, magazines and ultimately word-of-mouth.

8. What’s the best success story of someone using

It would be difficult to only talk about the best success story and not mention all the really good ones. On the Japanese side of it, students have increased their TOIEC scores, hobbyists have procured parts and various nick-knacks from abroad that otherwise could not have been gotten, local businessmen have been fed detailed information on foreign market trends, party-goers have been entertained, and the list goes on.

On the foreigner side of it, success is in the MAGIC. The magic being that once your profile goes up online at Gaikokujin Rental you can get paying customers who deal with you directly. Furthermore, your new customer is an in-road into their own network – ehem, your new network.

9. What are you hoping to achieve with

In a word, symbiosis. We want to turn the disconnect between peer-to-peer business into uber-connection! To us growth means lots of little success stories the length of Japan, new networks forged, smiles, and satisfied customers. We plan to make this happen by staying online as a professional go-between for that all-important first connection between Japanese and foreigners.

For Japanese, we hope to attract anyone and everyone, including businesses, who seek to employ foreigners in one way or another.

For foreigners, we hope to attract everyone from young transplants to long timers to even those residing abroad who perhaps offer services via the Internet, and in general anyone here who seeks odd-jobs, freelance stuff, part-time work, one-off arrangements, and basically new money and customers. That’s teachers of all sorts, musicians, caregivers, models, IT people, photographers, artisans, entertainers, self-proclaimed ambassadors and more.

#END interview

So there you have it. At first I thought Gaikokujin Rental was some kind of joke. Something someone put up as a kind of commentary about how “differently” gaikokujin were viewed in Japan. Or, at the very least I thought it was a hobby that a couple of dudes set up because they thought there was an opportunity to make some extra yen.

It turns out, in my opinion, to be a pretty smart business idea. Of course, they have to find new people on both sides (Japanese and gaikokujin), and they are eventually going to have to deal with the problems that come with bad experiences, etc., but in Japan I can see this business model working. Anywhere else? Not so much. Just imagine if there was a “Rent a Norwegian” company in America, where you would get your Norway-related needs filled. There would be a small mob outside the Rent-A-Norwegian office demanding that this racism stops.

In Japan, however, I doubt this is going to be seen as racism. There’s actual need for gaikokujin-related tasks in Japan, as was illustrated in the stories above. A Japanese person needed an opinion from a foreigner about a gift for her foreign husband. Some people needed someone who could speak English. Another person just wanted to eat spicy food with someone (which I can attest to, Japanese people don’t know what “spicy” really means).

I hope they keep on trucking along and start to grow and do okay. Maybe we’ll see if we can meet up with them and see what they’re doing the next time we’re filming in Japan.



Bonus Wallpapers!

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Welcome To The MLB, Masahiro Tanaka Thu, 23 Jan 2014 17:00:31 +0000 The new fifth highest-paid pitcher in baseball history has never played Major League Baseball. The Yankees are giving Japanese mega-ace Masahiro Tanaka a seven-year contract worth $155,000,000 (with an opt-out after four years and a measly $88 million). Just who in the world is this guy? Who Is Masahiro Tanaka Tanaka is a Kansai-born, Hokkaido-bred […]

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The new fifth highest-paid pitcher in baseball history has never played Major League Baseball. The Yankees are giving Japanese mega-ace Masahiro Tanaka a seven-year contract worth $155,000,000 (with an opt-out after four years and a measly $88 million). Just who in the world is this guy?

Who Is Masahiro Tanaka


Tanaka is a Kansai-born, Hokkaido-bred pitching machine with what everyone is telling me is the best split-finger fastball in the world. A split-finger or splitter is a pitch that looks like a fastball then breaks sharply downward before it reaches the plate, and it’s thrown while holding the ball with the index finger on one side of the ball and the middle finger on the other end, with a large gap or “split” between your fingers at the top. Japan, for some reason, is really into the splitter. And guess what? Tanaka’s got one of the most deceptive splitters in the world, and that (combined with the Yankees’ dearth of pitching, Tanaka’s monster stats with the Rakuten Golden Eagles, the baseball TV rights money bubble, the outsized merchandising revenue earned for Japanese players, and the relatively recent in historical terms development of an international free market) is why he’s getting $155 million before he’s even shown what he can do in America.

Like most Japanese stars, Tanaka first reached the spotlight in the mega-popular Koshien high school baseball tournament, which he helped Tomakomai High School win in 2004 and 2005. It wasn’t until 2006 however that he really became a celebrity, when he dueled Jitsugyo High School and their ace Yuki Saito, “The Handkerchief Prince” (he wiped his sweat off with a handkerchief during games).

saito14If this doesn’t sound like a baseball anime waiting to happen, I don’t know what does.

Tanaka and Saito faced each other in the Koshien final, with Tanaka coming on in relief in the third inning then going the distance, matching Saito in a 1-1 draw until the 15th inning, when rules called for an almost unheard-of Koshien finals rematch. Incredibly, Tanaka and Saito would pitch again the next day, resulting in a 4-3 victory for Saito and Jitsugyo. These two games made celebrities out of both Tanaka and Saito, and it was a huge event when, five years later, they faced each other in Nippon Professional Baseball. This time, Tanaka was the 4-1 victor, and he even expressed great disappointment that he didn’t manage to shut out Saito’s Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters. The two pitchers would earn parallel nicknames: Ma-kun and Yu-chan.

Unlike Saito, Tanaka would declare himself for the NPB draft to enter the pros, and he very quickly became the ace starter for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, a team based in Miyagi Prefecture in the northeast that got started in 2005. Like all Japanese professional teams, the Eagles are named after and primarily known by their primary sponsor company’s name, in this case the Amazon-like online retailer Rakuten. With Rakuten, Tanaka has been nothing short of spectacular. He started pitching professionally for the team when he was just 18, and his career ERA is a preposterous 2.30 with a career record of 99-35 (oh come on, why didn’t he get one more win?).

People really started to speculate that Tanaka might come to America after his 2013 season, in which he went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA, then won six more games in the postseason to give the Eagles their first Japan Series title. What’s funny is 2013 wasn’t even his best season. That would be 2011, when Tanaka again had a 1.27 ERA in 27 starts, threw sixty more strikeouts than in 2013, gave up fewer walks, pitched more innings, and yet only went 19-5. A lot of people would call those “video game numbers,” but I’ve never pitched for stats like that in any video game.

And I’m sure you’re asking “Okay, great, so he can pitch. But can he dance along with a Japanese idol group?” The answer to that is “not really.” But please watch the video below to see Ma-kun say “Pi-pi-pi-pi-pitchingu, ca-ca-ca-ca-catchingu, cha-cha-cha-cha-charmingu.”

Munenori Kawasaki definitely still reigns supreme in terms of dancing.

So, Masahiro Tanaka’s a pretty amazing guy. Let’s see how he got to the MLB (it wasn’t via dancing, I can tell you that).

How He Got Here


Japanese players who are still under contract for their NPB team are sold to MLB teams through the “posting system,” which has traditionally been designed to get as much money as possible for the team while forcing the player to accept a below market-value contract. With Yu Darvish and every other Japanese player posted before this year, MLB teams entered a blind auction, with the auction winner giving millions to the NPB team and earning the exclusive right to sign their player. That’s why Yu Darvish, despite having nearly the same credentials as Tanaka, signed a contract worth a hundred million dollars less, because once the Rangers had paid their posting fee, he had to either sign with them or stay in Japan.

This year, the posting system became much more player-friendly. The Japanese team names a posting fee (with a max of $20 million), and any MLB team willing to pay that much gets a right to negotiate a contract with the player, with only the player’s eventual team having to actually pay the fee. So Tanaka got to enjoy the attention of virtually every Major League team, as they all squabbled and fought over who could give him the biggest contract. He could even theoretically choose a smaller contract if he wanted to play for a certain team, as many people thought he might when rumors insisted that his wife Mai Satoda wanted to live on the Pacific coast. Early reports suggest that he did however choose the largest contract, as the Yankees outbid the Dodgers, Cubs, White Sox, and Astros to secure Ma-kun.

So, the money, the glory, the city, and the probable playoff games are what called Tanaka to the Yankees. What Japanese person doesn’t want to go to New York, though? The only thing that could be possibly more tempting is the Angels’ proximity to Disney Land.

What Will Tanaka Do In The MLB?


Okay, so Tanaka might have lit Japan up with his split-finger fastball, but the NPB is not the MLB. Major League Baseball dropouts Wladimir Balentien and Matt Murton have the single-season home runs and hits records in Japan, so it’s not as strong a league. Every Japanese pitcher has seen their stats drop as they come into the MLB, but how much? Tanaka could afford to drop a half-point of ERA and still be the best pitcher in the American League next year. And Tanaka is, after all, still only 25 years old, and baseball players traditionally peak in their age 27 season. How will he pitch?

One site specializes in projecting Japanese players’ stats for if they joined the MLB, and it lays out the following statline for Masahiro Tanaka: 8.8 strikeouts per 9 innings pitched, 2.9 walks/9, and a 3.59 ERA. This statline would make him ace-quality, but not anywhere near the god-quality he had in Japan, and not as good as fellow Japanese international Yu Darvish has been in the States.

Baseball stat site Fangraphs raises a few more questions about Tanaka: Will his thousands of high-stress pitches in high school wear out his arm too soon? And will his relative lack of strikeouts for a pitcher so dominant hurt him in the MLB, where what used to be ground balls in Japan may now become line drives and home runs? It remains to be seen, and now I’ll be forced to watch Yankees games to find out. Welcome to the MLB, Masahiro Tanaka. Welcome to the MLB…


Bonus Wallpapers!

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Japanese “Firsts” In Outer Space Mon, 20 Jan 2014 17:00:51 +0000 There’s been some excitement among Japanese space enthusiasts in regards to Japanese manned space exploration. The spread of excitement and hype could possibly be tied with spike in popularity over a recent manga, Uchuu Kyoudai, or “Space Brothers” (宇宙兄弟). Set in the near future, the manga focuses on two brothers’ struggle to becoming astronauts and […]

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There’s been some excitement among Japanese space enthusiasts in regards to Japanese manned space exploration. The spread of excitement and hype could possibly be tied with spike in popularity over a recent manga, Uchuu Kyoudai, or “Space Brothers” (宇宙兄弟). Set in the near future, the manga focuses on two brothers’ struggle to becoming astronauts and fulfilling their dream of going to the moon together.

cRZBeZ6Hibito, on the left, has become the first Japanese to land on the moon, while his older brother, Mutta, chases after to becoming an astronaut himself.

Space Brothers won some notable manga awards, and has recently been turned into a live-action film and an anime series— so it’s definitely increased the attention on Japan’s role in space exploration, which is mainly guided by Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).


Photo by Kirt Cathy.

But a manga alone isn’t the only thing increasing attention over Japan’s role in space exploration— or specifically, Japan’s leadership role in space!

Coming this March, the International Space Station (ISS) will have its first Japanese astronaut as the commander of the ship!

But before we get into this future head honcho, I asked myself, who was the first Japanese man in space? Who was the first Japanese woman? Who was the first Japanese to spacewalk? I thought it’d be interesting to touch upon some of the “firsts” in space for Japanese people and see some of their awesome, out of this world (literally) accomplishments.

First Japanese Man- or Men- in Space?

So I think it’s a given that we should identify who the first Japanese person was to go to space.

Except I have come to the realization that this is kind of hard to determine.

It really depends on how you define “first” and if you consider Japanese ethnicity or citizenship.

If you want to know who the first person of Japanese ethnicity (regardless of citizenship) to fly to space, then it would probably be Great Astronaut Onizuka Ellison Shoji Onizuka, a NASA astronaut and the first Japanese American (and the first Asian American) to reach space.


Photo by NASA

Onizuka went to space for the first time on space shuttle Discovery’s mission STS-51C in 1985. But most remember him as being part of the crew of space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986 that killed Onizuka and six other astronauts shortly after launch.

tribute-onizukaA tribute monument for Onizuka in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles. Photo credit Sam Howzit

But if you want to know who the first Japanese person with Japanese citizenship to reach space was, then it would be Akiyama Toyohiro.


toyohiroPhoto credit famille.sebile

Toyohiro was actually a journalist who was working under Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS) when he was chosen in 1989 to train for a commercial flight to the Mir space station, which was maintained by the Soviet Union at the time. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Soviets claim to have received 14 million dollars for his flight, and TBS is expected to have spent about 20 million dollars for Toyohiro to fly and report about life in outer space for 8 days. That’s a really expensive first commercial spaceflight!

I actually had no idea that a journalist was the first person of Japanese citizenship to reach space— but as a space enthusiast myself, it kind of gives me hope that someday, I too, will maybe be able to go to space…

Okay, so Who’s the First Astronaut of Japanese Citizenship to Reach Space?

Growing up in Japan, I remember constantly hearing this guy’s name as the first Japanese astronaut— so I guess it was natural that I didn’t really know who the aforementioned journalist was.


Photo by McGill Research and International Relations

Mamoru Mohri was a Japanese astronaut selected by Japan’s National Space Development Agency (NASDA, before it was renamed to JAXA) in 1985. He was eventually chosen as the first Japanese national astronaut to board space shuttle Endeavor’s mission in 1992. Growing up, I remember everyone referring to him fondly as Mohri-san, the first to represent Japan in outer space. Because of US and Russia’s clear dominance in space exploration, Mohri-san boarding the Endeavor was considered to be a big honor and a step for Japan to continue building their influence in space exploration.

Mamoru MohriMohri-san influences Hibito and Mutta in their dream to becoming astronauts.

Mohri-san can even be found in the aforementioned anime Space Brothers as a critical role in influencing the two protagonist to become astronauts. Mohri-san continues to be revered to this day by many Japanese, old and young.

First Japanese Woman in Space

So we’ve exhausted our debate on who the first Japanese male in space was. What about female?


Photo by NASA

Chiaki Mukai, or Dr. Chiaki Mukai, was the first Japanese female to go to space. Before becoming an astronaut, she worked as a cardiovascular surgeon. In 1985 she was selected by NASDA as an astronaut along with Mohri-san, and flew off to space in 1994 on space shuttle Columbia.

Seeing as female astronauts was not as common back then (let alone a Japanese one), Mukai may have inspired many Japanese women to take on the dream of becoming astronauts themselves, or getting involved in science-related fields. Her life as an astronaut has been made into a drama as well, and along with Mohri-san, she continues to be respected by many Japanese.


First Japanese to Spacewalk

Space walks are the trippiest things ever. I mean, just the thought of being flown to space gives me the chills (in a good way), but, being outside? Exposed to space? Now that must be an experience.

So who was the lucky Japanese guy that got to be the first space walker? His name is Takao Doi, and while he no longer is an active astronaut with JAXA, he continues to work in space-related fields.


Photo by Giving to Rice University

Doi was chosen as an astronaut by NASDA in 1985, along with Mohri-san and Dr. Mukai. I guess 1985 was a big year for NASDA, having chosen some of the earliest Japanese astronauts. Doi flew to space on space shuttle Columbia in 1997 and conducted Extravehicular Activities (EVA), dubbed by many as “space walks”. Through two space walks he logged close to 13 hours in outer space, and became the first Japanese to do so.

Doi space walkDoi-san is all smiles in outer space.

Doi, no longer an active astronaut, began working at his appointment in 2009 at the United Nations’ Office of Outer State Affairs (UNOOSA).

And last but most relevant to current news…

First Japanese Commander of the International Space Station (ISS)

First Japanese man (or men) in space, first women, first space walk… Japanese astronauts have come quite far in manned space exploration, and Japan will finally have their own astronaut, Koichi Wakata, be the first commander of the International Space Station (ISS) this March— and he’s in space right now as I write this!

koichi-wakataAstronaut Wakata as he boarded the Soyuz rocket in November, along with the Sochi Olympic torch.

Wakata, chosen by NASDA in 1992 as an astronaut candidate, flew to space for the first time in 1996 on board space shuttle Endeavor. He’s flown to space quite a lot and has been on four space shuttle missions. He’s quite the veteran, getting the job done up in space, but he’s recently been known to have created some fun light painting photos in zero-gravity, which he tweeted.


He’s been hailed by Japanese space enthusiasts as stepping up the leadership role for Japan in space exploration. I suppose you could say he’s going through a bit of celebrity-phase right now— the guy has his own biographical manga now for kids that aspire to become astronauts like himself.


There’s Much More…

These astronauts are very famous and well-regarded as paving a way for some of the “firsts” in space for Japan, but they’re certainly not the only ones contributing to space exploration. JAXA recently selected three new astronauts, two of which have already been assigned on a mission in the near future. I’m positive that in the future, we’ll see these currently active astronauts continue to represent Japan and make some remarkable accomplishments of their own!

jaxa-astronautsEverybody wave!


Bonus Wallpapers!


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