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It is the end of the year and time to look back at what kind of year it was. This has turned into the most depressing year that I can remember. There is doom and gloom everywhere and it now takes extraordinary amounts of energy and effort to remain positive and optimistic. Crises are times to learn, to reconsider your priorities and options and to start on a new path. They offer infinite pain, but also infinite opportunities. Let’s embrace all what this crisis has to offer so we can re-invent ourselves and our society. To learn our lessons for 2009, let’s look at what 2008 has wrought:
Akihabara Massacre (秋葉原通り魔事件)
“I came to Akihabara to kill people. It didn’t matter who they were. I came alone.” This is what Tomohiro Kato, an impoverished 25 year old temp worker at an auto components factory, told police after he drove his car into a crowd of people killing three before going on a stabbing spree that killed another four. Japanese media attempted to paint him as an otaku, but he was not. He was a disillusioned underemployed isolated sad person, the kind that we see more and more in Japan’s brave new economy where 30% of the employees are short contract workers who earn 40% less than their full-time brethren and sisters who do exactly the same work.
Manga and anime —which have inspired millions worldwide— are not to blame, the new unfair unequal social and economic system is. Japan is full of people as desperate as Kato. Fortunately only a few are as sick and disturbed as he is, but he is the writing on the wall we need to learn from. Japanese police reacted by ending the long custom of closing Akihabara to traffic on week-ends. A stupid and typical Japanese response that creates economic pain for Akihabara business owners and depresses all the people who went there to enjoy themselves. Akihabara was not the well that needed to be closed after a child fell in. The real culprit is a rotten economic and social system that rewards the exact same job at the same company by paying one worker 40% less than another, with no hope for the future, a family and a better life. Democracy and capitalism should empower, not discourage and exploit.
Prime Minister Who?
In September former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda totally unexpectedly resigned. Gaffe-prone manga-lover Taro Aso was quickly selected —not elected, although the media and the LDP tried hard to make us believe so— to to fill his shoes. Shoes that were still warm from another change last year, when former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also suddenly threw in the towel. Japanese Prime Ministers increasingly look like Lego Blocks, indistinguishable from each other and totally replaceable. Unfortunately, they are not as constructive as Lego.
Although this year seemed to bring more of the same politically, it has been setting the stage for some extremely dramatic change. In polls the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) is finally surpassing the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has ruled Japan for most of the past half century. Even as late as last Summer, most Japanese worried that de DPJ was too inexperienced to rule. They are now so sick of the LDP and Japan’s decay that they are ready to hand them the reins when they get the chance. The next general election, whenever it comes, will undoubtedly mean the end of LDP rule. We can only hope that the new leaders will do a better job. Although considering the mess of the past few years, that can’t be too difficult to do.
The Food We Eat
On Jan. 11, 10 people from three families in Chiba and Hyogo prefectures experienced food poisoning after eating frozen gyoza imported from China. Investigations uncovered traces of the pesticide Methamidophos in the gyoza and on the packaging.
This was only the warning shot of a long series of food poisonings, mislabeling and outright fraud.
Several Japanese companies, among which Osaka-based trader Uohide and Kobe-based seafood wholesaler Shinko Gyorui Ltd., mislabeled many hundreds of tons of eels imported from China and claimed they were of the more expensive domestically variety.
Nagasaki-based Cassey Co. admitted that for some seven years it sold Chinese frozen vegetables as domestically grown produce to major frozen food processor Maruha Nichiro Foods Inc.
Several meat companies were found out to sell low-quality beef as high-end meat, or adding minced pork, chicken and lamb to products that were supposedly only made of beef.
A catering subsidiary of Central Japan Railway Co. sold some 15 million food items with expired dates on shinkansen bullet and other trains.
Confectionery giant Fujiya Co. Ltd. sold cream puffs and other pastries made with old eggs, cream and milk.
Bacteria were found in Baumkuchen layered cakes and popsicles sold by Sapporo-based sweets manufacturer Ishiya Chocolate Factory Co.
High-class restaurant chain Senba Kitcho K.K. falsely labeled beef products, reused food not eaten by its customers, and committed many other food-related frauds. The company eventually went out of business after the scandal just kept on growing.
Mikasa Foods Co. sold tainted rice intended for glue manufacturing, to companies that make rice-based products such as senbei crackers, shochu liquor and even miso paste.
And these are just a few of this year’s food scandals. They are the ones that we know about, and are undoubtedly only the tip of the iceberg.
Last year’s kanji of the year was fake (nise). Little seems to have been learned.
The Japanese Mobile has Landed
Uh, call that crashed. A new law forced Japan’s mobile phone providers to charge the actual price for the phones they sold. Previously the cost was borne by high subscription fees. Not surprisingly, the Japanese mobile phone market —once the most vibrant in the world— crashed. People used to renew their phone the way they changed fashion with the season. No longer.
Corporate Japan on its Knees
As late as October, it seemed that Japan was barely affected by the global economic meltdown. And then it all changed. One after the other Japanese company —most of them world-renowned brands— announced that their profits had evaporated. Sony, with 80% of its income coming from abroad, announced it would lay-off 16,000 employees by 2010. Just about every day, the Japanese news media announce new lay-offs. By the end of the year, the Japanese stock market had lost more than 40% of its value compared with a year earlier.
The worst hit are employees working on temporary contracts. In addition to making 40% less than regular employees, the majority of them are also not covered by health insurance, pensions and unemployment insurance. Even worse, most of them live in company-provided housing. They are loosing both their job and their home in one single stroke. The number of homeless is reportedly skyrocketing.
Post-Cold War US-Japan Alliance Dies a Silent Death
In 1996, US President Clinton and former Prime Minister Hashimoto reaffirmed the special relationship between the US and Japan. It was the start of the Post-Cold War US-Japan Alliance in which the US and Japan saw themselves as enemies of an increasingly stronger China. The alliance was especially obvious when the US and Japan acted as one during the six-party talks with North Korea. Cooperation on missile defense, and between US Forces in Japan (USFJ) and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) increased markedly.
There are many reasons that the alliance is dying silently, but two reasons stand out. When the US decided earlier this year to remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, it shocked Japan to its very core. Many in Japan felt deeply betrayed. The global economic crisis is the second reason. It has shown how interdependent the US, Japan, China and the rest of the world are, and how weak the US. The US need for China, and visa versa, has become embarrassingly obvious and this completely rearranges strategic realities in the North-East Asian region.
As the de-listing of North Korea so clearly demonstrated, Japan can no longer expect that the US will always respect Japan’s wishes (not that they always did before, though…). The US bases in Japan won’t be dismantled and corporation will continue, but a new framework will certainly be sought.
With Japan’s population decreasing and growing older, the country has put much hope on robots. Last year the Japanese Trade Ministry called for 1 million industrial robots to be installed throughout Japan by 2025. At that time, the market for lifestyle-related robots is expected to reach 7.2 trillion yen (US$ 80 billion). Japan is already a world industry-leader in cutting-edge robotic creations, and it aims to become even more so.
This year robots stepped deeper into Japanese society. An increasing number of Japanese hospitals experimented with robots. Some guide patients, others move supplies around the hospital. There were also more challenging projects. For example, a robot suit to assist weakened people to carry heavy items was introduced. Even more amazing, a 200-pound, 5-foot humanoid robot in Kyoto was moved by the thoughts of a monkey in North Carolina.
Nishizawa Electronic Measuring Instruments received an award from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) for its page-turning robot, called Book Time. It was designed for people with limited use of their hands or arms. Another award went to a rice-planting robot developed by the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization (NARO). It autonomously plants rice within an area through programmed coordinates.
Most of the robots are still stuff for play, like Tomy Co’s 3.4 cm high Robo-Q. It can kick a football, find its way out of a maze and dodge unexpected obstacles. But the lessons learnt from making such toys will eventually spill over into other areas, as well as inspire people to think up new concepts.
The G-8 Non-Summit
The G8 held in Hokkaido earlier this year was a total waste of time and money. Not much was decided, and the host and main guest, Prime Minister Fukuda and US President Bush, were lame ducks. Although Yomiuri readers selected it as one of the ten most important domestic news stories, this was a non-story if there ever was one. It was painfully embarrassing to see the leaders of the world eat frightfully expensive and luxurious meals while people were starving in Africa. Yes, that was one of the topics on the agenda, in case you have already forgotten.
The only good thing that has come out if it, is that it has made more Japanese aware of the threat of global warming and environmental disaster. Unfortunately, a lot of CO2 was added to the atmosphere to organize this G8. Additionally, it was the most expensive G8 ever. The money could have been much better used for social welfare. it is certainly needed.
Next time, let the leaders confer by videophone. Hey, you can use Skype for free!
A new medical insurance system for people aged 75 and older was launched on April 1 (who chooses these dates?). In an attempt to cut health care spending, many needy people lost part of their insurance-checks. Many were confused, even more ran out of money to pay for food and daily needs. The G8 money could have been used better, and there would still have been money left over for all those new homeless.
This list is long, but far from complete. What are your thoughts about 2008?