Daibutsu, Kamakura

Daibutsu, Kamakura
Daibutsu in Kamakura, June 2010. There were thousands of school kids visiting that day. It was still great fun.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Is Japan all doom and gloom?

Below is an AP article from MSNBC. It paints a pretty gloomy picture of Japan's future. My question, is this article just another typical gloomy Japan article based on exaggerations and oversimplifications or is this trull what Japan's present and future look like?

Japan has been overtaken by China as the world's No. 2 economy. Its flagship company, Toyota, recalled more than 10 million vehicles in an embarrassing safety crisis. Its fourth prime minister resigned in three years, and the government remains unable to jolt an economy entering its third decade of stagnation.

Image: Office workers head for a train station in Tokyo
Shizuo Kambayashi / AP
For once-confident Japan, 2010 may well mark a symbolic milestone in its slide from economic giant to what experts see as its likely destiny: a second-tier power with some standout companies but limited global influence.

For once-confident Japan, 2010 may well mark a symbolic milestone in its slide from economic giant to what experts see as its likely destiny: a second-tier power with some standout companies but limited global influence.

As Japanese drink up at year-end parties known as "bonen-kai," or "forget-the-year gatherings," this is one many will be happy to forget.

Problem is, there's little to look forward to. With a rapidly aging population, bulging national debt, political gridlock and a risk-averse culture slow to embrace change, Japan's prospects aren't promising. And a tense, high-seas spat with China has intensified fears of its neighbor as a military as well as economic threat.

A few optimists hope Japan can harness its strength in technology and its "Cool Japan" cultural appeal — from fashion and art to "anime" cartoons. The country needs to shed its reliance on manufacturing, they argue, and find new growth areas such as green energy, software engineering and health care for its elderly.

But talk to university students, and their outlook is bleak.

Many worry about finding steady jobs and whether they can support families — concerns that have contributed to Japan's low fertility rate of 1.3 children per woman. Average household income has fallen 9 percent since 1993.

Makoto Miyazaki, a 22-year-old student at prestigious Keio University in Tokyo, senses forces outside his control — and Japan's — are going to dictate his future.

"Internationally, Japan is between big countries like China and the U.S. And Korea is becoming a major competitor — that's a big threat to Japan," he said. "I feel like we have fewer choices."

It's a startling contrast with the 1980s, when Japan was flush with cash and some experts believed its economy was poised to dominate the world.

Millions have given up the goal of lifetime employment at a major corporation and become "freeters," flitting among temporary jobs with few if any benefits. As companies cut costs, temporary workers have grown to a third of the work force, up from 16 percent in the mid-1980s.

Further, the population is projected to fall from 127 million to 90 million by 2055 — 40 percent of them over the age of 65. That's going to place a heavy tax burden on workers.

Economic difficulty is a chief reason more than 30,000 Japanese have committed suicide every year for the past 12 years.

Hopes for change from the Democratic Party, which toppled the long-ruling conservatives last year, have fizzled. The Democrats lost control of the upper house of parliament in July elections, setting the stage for political gridlock.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan has acknowledged Japan's declining status.

His prescription: "Open up the country." He advocates reducing trade barriers, loosening regulations and making the country a more attractive place to invest.

His Cabinet recently approved cutting the corporate tax rate by 5 percentage points to 35 percent and is weighing whether Japan should join a U.S.-led free trade zone, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that would slash tariffs on everything from electronics to food.

Business leaders say doing so is vital, but farmers fear a flood of cheaper imports would ruin them. Analysts say it could be a vehicle for economic revival but also lead to job losses and social dislocation, especially in rural areas.

"Merely unleashing the forces of competition and the free market isn't going to do the trick because people who feel vulnerable will crawl back into whatever they have," said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.

Nakano and others say sweeping changes are needed in both policy and mindset, from expanding the social safety net to overcoming a deep fear of failure that has constrained entrepreneurship and risk-taking — and Japan's economic potential.

About 77 percent of Japan's jobless aren't getting unemployment benefits, according to International Labor Organization data, in part because temporary workers don't qualify.

Shizuo Kambayashi / AP
Japanese will drink up at year-end parties known as "bonen-kai," or "forget-the-year gatherings," noting 2010 is one year many will be happy to forget.

Japan can be innovative: It is the world leader in hybrid vehicles and industrial robots. Nintendo's Wii gaming console is a hit in living rooms around the world. Entrepreneur Tadashi Yanai, Japan's richest person, built Fast Retailing Co. and its low-cost Uniqlo brand into one of Asia's biggest clothing retailers.

But Japan sometimes undermines itself by being insular. Its sophisticated mobile phone industry, for example, has failed to grow overseas because it operates on a network hardly used anywhere else — earning it the nickname "Galapagos Syndrome."

One optimist is Michael Alfant, an American who has worked in Japan for 20 years. He sees the country becoming more entrepreneurial and focusing on opportunities in service industries.

"Japan is reinventing itself," said Alfant, CEO of Fusion Systems, a startup software company, and the incoming president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan. "I'm very confident Japan will get there."

Any change is likely to come gradually.

A conformist, consensus-based culture means Japan is generally slow to make changes or respond to crises — as seen in Toyota Motor Corp.'s handling of its safety woes.

"One would think there would be more of a sense of urgency here," said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University's Tokyo campus. "At best, Japan will muddle through, meaning it will avert catastrophe, but it is hard to see anything but bleak prospects in a country that should be doing better given its enormous strengths."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Tokyo residents the sleepiest people in the world

If you live in Tokyo than I know this is very familiar to you. This is an article from CNNGo.com.

public sleeping trains tokyoTwo passengers end up at the last stop on the JR Yamanote line which runs a one-hour loop around the city.

City dwellers in Tokyo get the least shuteye in the world, according to a survey from food company Ajinomoto.

It's not that Tokyoites are rising early -- citizens of Shanghai, New York, Paris, Stockholm and Tokyo all get up at an average of 6.40 a.m. It's the late-night drinking culture that's making our citizens drowsy.

public sleeping trains tokyo
A father sits beside two children sleeping on a bench in the shade at Toshimaen amusement park in Tokyo.

Shanghai advantage

As the only ones staying up after the stroke of midnight, respondents in Tokyo are hitting the pillow at 12.19 a.m. on average, compared to 10.20 p.m. in Stockholm, 10.38 p.m. in Shanghai and in New York, supposedly the city that never sleeps, people are doing just that by 11.15 p.m on average.

That means Tokyoites are sleeping an average of just five hours and 59 minutes each night, one and a half hours less than their Shanghai counterparts.

Forty-nine percent of respondents in Tokyo said they were unhappy with the situation, a sign that many still feel obliged to join late-night drinking sessions with colleagues. Only 29 percent were happy with their sleeping habits, compared to 68 percent in Shanghai.

The survey also revealed that commuting times were not to blame with Tokyo and New York posting the same results.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Japan, manga, anime: Tokyo bans sales of sexually explicit comics to minors - latimes.com

Hmmm, what took them so long?

Los Angeles Times

Tokyo bans sales of sexually explicit comics to minors

The ordinance also outlaws certain images, stirring a debate about freedom of expression.

By Kenji Hall, Los Angeles Times

December 16, 2010

Reporting from Tokyo


The titles in one corner of Kinokuniya bookstore in Tokyo's Shinjuku district suggest the kind of themes that manga comics fans crave: romance, feudal-era adventure, betrayal.

But above the packed bookshelves a sign reads, "Adult manga."

It's the hard-core content within this genre of comics or cartoons, depicting rape, incest and sex crimes, that lawmakers in Tokyo want to keep out of the hands of minors.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly on Wednesday approved an ordinance that makes it illegal to sell or rent sexually explicit manga and anime that "unjustifiably glorifies" violent sexual acts to anyone younger than 18. The law, which goes into effect next year, also bans images of fictional characters that appear to be underage and are engaging in sexual acts. Publishers, retailers and artists who break the rules face fines of up to about $3,500.

"It's common sense.... This is the conscience of the Japanese," Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, who proposed the measure, told reporters after the vote. "Would they show that kind of stuff to their kids?"

The ordinance, which amends an existing law, applies only to the Tokyo metropolitan area, where about 13 million people live.

But opponents of the revised law said there already are regulations to protect youths and that the new rules were an attempt by politicians to rein in freedom of speech.

Some opponents of the changes say authorities could use the law to ban any book, movie or video game or block any website that they deem inappropriate. Others worry that the law might be used to crack down on sexually explicit content in theater, painting and other art forms.

"The governor and his supporters say that it's not about curbs on expression, but we think this will have a negative impact," said Yasumasa Shimizu, vice president of Kodansha, a major Tokyo-based publishing house.

Last week, 10 major Japanese publishers threatened to boycott the Tokyo International Anime Fair in March if the measure was approved. On Monday, Prime Minister Naoto Kan weighed in, pleading with both sides to keep the fair from being canceled.

On Wednesday, as the 127-seat assembly prepared to vote, about 200 people demonstrated against the new law at Hosei University in Tokyo.

Manga comics and anime films and TV shows are popular among adults and children in Japan. They run the gamut from sci-fi tales and historical classics to schoolgirl romances. The most well-known manga comics often have a second life off the page as mainstream TV dramas and films, and it's common to find characters in ads hawking products as diverse as watches and cars.

The issue involving sexually explicit manga has highlighted the predicament Japanese policymakers must wrestle with: Though manga comics and anime films rank among the top cultural exports, there has long been a darker side to the material that might tarnish the industry's image overseas.

Many critics of Tokyo's new rules acknowledge that the most violent and sexually explicit books and films should not be for children, but they also say the issue goes well beyond comics.

"Legislators should be focusing their attention on improving sex education, rather than targeting the manga and anime industry," said Meiji University professor Yukari Fujimoto, a former manga comics editor. "The worst thing that this law might do is stifle artists' creativity. Their imagination is the reason Japanese manga and anime have so many fans worldwide."

Hall is a special correspondent.

Copyright © 2010, Los Angeles Times