News from and on Japan, February 11 – 24, 2018

No much Premium Friday, from heli’s to jets, US cars in Japan, happy (?) Japanese millennials, Japanese architecture in Paris, chewing is a must and a most remarkable book translation

Premium Friday was established to lessen the working hours of Japanese employees: the last Friday of each month employees (government officials and employees of private companies alike) could leave the office at 15:00 to spend time with the family, go out (and spend money) and above all: relax. Great idea, but the reality is tougher than anticipated.
And: despite PM Shinzo Abe’s encouragement to employers to raise wages 3% (and boost inflation), it is doubtful if this idea is followed-up. Reality is tougher than anticipated. But there is more to read in this News from and on Japan from February 11 – 24, 2018.
  • Politics:
    • Remarkable statement in the Washington Post by Yoichi Funabashi, Chairman of Asia-Pacific Think Tank and former Editor in Chief of the Asahi Shimbun: “At a time when Japan is doing more than ever to uphold the postwar international system, it is an extreme historical irony that Imperial Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere is finally being achieved. Japan’s leadership toward getting, on March 8, signatures on the final agreement of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), also known as TPP 11, will be a big step toward Asian regionalization without the United States. By default, Japan’s World War II ambition of Asian cultural and economic unity free of Western powers looks close to fruition.” And: “For now, Japan’s independent international leadership is an unprecedented postwar development with potential to shape the entire regional alignment in East Asia.” But as Mr. Funabashi also states, “East Asia has become the region with the highest potential for geopolitical instability with global implications.”
    • Rearmament in East Asia is progressing quickly  with China building its third aircraft carrier, Japan is considering refitting its 250m long helicopter carrier Izumo, launched in 2015, into an aircraft carrier, reports Asahi Shimbun. The Japanese government has ordered 20 more American F-35B stealth fighters on top of its previous order of 42 jets. The F-35B fighters will be suited for take-off and landing at the Izumo-class ship once the ship has been adapted.
      It is not only China and North Korea that pose threat to Japan. 2,000 Russian troops held military exercises earlier this month on the four islands, called the Southern Kurils in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan: these islands have been captured from Japan at the very end of WW2 and have not been returned, reason why Japan and Russia do not have a formal peace treaty. Some days ago Russia paved the way for its first military airbase in the area, much to the chagrin of the Japanese government.
    • In its effort to reduce the number of working hours, PM Shinzo Abe established in March 2017 “Premium Friday”: at the last Friday of each month workers would be allowed to leave office earlier (i.e. at 15:00) to enjoy free time (and boost consumption). That has been a disappointment so far: no more than 11% of the employees participate and those who do are to be found mainly in Tokyo, writes Nikkei. So: more promotion is needed, says the Keidanren, the Japanese employers’ association. At the same time all kind of Premium Friday promotional gigs and programs are launched incl. deep-fried food on skewers, DVD promotional gifts when you buy a Suntory Premium Friday beer, free shoe polishing service, special candy’s. I even read last year that lingerie maker Triumph launched a Premium Friday bra, with an integrated alarm clock in the cups that sounds at 15:00 to remind the wearer that it is time to leave the office.

  • Economy:
    • Japan’s economy has recorded its longest growth streak for 28 years despite the pace of expansion slowing in the final three months of 2017. The Cabinet Office reported an annualised growth of 0.5 per cent in the fourth quarter, falling from a pace of 2.5 per cent in the third quarter and less than the median forecast of 0.9 per cent from economists polled by Reuters. However, consumption and business investment were both strong, suggesting that Japan’s economic cycle was not on the wane, with robust expansion set to continue in 2018. One reason for the growth is, according to most CEO’s of listed Japanese companies, the favourable Yen <> USD / Euro rate, although the yen is gaining strength in the last months, causing headaches in Japanese board rooms. However, says Leo Lewis in the Financial Times quoting JPMorgan’s FX strategists, “that article of faith no longer holds: since the domestic demand side began really picking up from 2016, the correlation between earnings per share of the Topix index and the dollar-yen rate has clearly weakened.” Nevertheless, for many companies it is a good reason not to raise wages with 3% as PM Shinzo Abe promoted, but more moderately. Just another note: Japanese listed companies have no less than JPY 117 trillion of cash (USD 1.1 trillion) on their collective balance sheets.
    • Trouble in the making: US President Donald Trump has accused Japan of employing “a variety of non-tariff barriers” against American automobiles, effectively urging Tokyo to further liberalize its auto market, reports Japan Today. “The United States has expressed strong concerns with the overall lack of access to Japan’s automotive market for US automotive companies,” Trump said in a report submitted to Congress on Wednesday. “A variety of non-tariff barriers impede access to Japan’s automotive market, and overall sales of US-made vehicles and automotive parts in Japan remain low,” said the Economic Report of the President. Japan, however, imposes no tariffs on imported cars. Question is: do Japanese people really like to buy American cars? 
    • In 2009 DUJAT organised a seminar in Tokyo, with the late former Dutch PM Ruud Lubbers and Ms. Yukito Koike as key note speakers. Theme: CO2, Nuisance or Opportunity? There was a wide variety of solutions offered for using CO2. This week the Japanese government announced it will start practical trials in fiscal 2018 to utilize carbon dioxide discharged from industrial plants and other facilities, turning it into fuels such as ethanol and synthesizing it into materials for producing synthetic resins. It will establish about four facilities in the nation for the trials, which will be conducted for five years until fiscal 2022 to examine profitability and other factors. If the conversion of CO2 is put into practice, it is expected that the nation’s CO2 emissions could be drastically reduced. (Yomiuri Shimbun / The Japan News.)

  • Corporate:
    • Last week I had the pleasure to dine in Tokyo at the Tanita Shokudo, the cantina of scale and health measuring equipment manufacturer Tanita. Great food, all measured in calories, fat, salt etc. The company started in the 40’s as a cigaret-lighter maker, but shifted to a more healthy device: body weight scales. In japan it has a market share of apr. 50%, so Tanita is a household name. I just read in Forbes that the company is planning to make Twinstick controls, which is quite a deviation from scales and body measurement devices. Click at the Twinstick game, video below, to see a promotional video of a Japanese game.
    • The vegetables at Tanita’s were pretty hard boiled: I learned that a lot of chewing is better for your digestion – and it results in a longer eating time: 20 minutes (at least) is better than a quick bite. 
      That is different from the easy to chew lettuce produced by Spread, a Kyoto start-up that grows vegetables indoor, and sometimes at the premises of the restaurant. Factory-grown greens are a hit in Japan, also as the price is not depending on weather conditions (Nikkei.)
    • In October 2011 there was a major scandal at Olympus, the camera and medical equipment maker. Michael Woodford, then Olympus CEO, blew the whistle on the company’s USD 1.7 billion accounting scandal. He was fired on the spot, had to leave Japan and received a GBP 10 million out-of-court settlement. It looked like the end of an unhappy episode. But never say “finished”: now Woodford is back as he is fighting a legal battle with insurers ahead of an upcoming High Court clash with his former employers. He is defending a GBP 55 million lawsuit brought against him by KeyMed, a UK division of Japanese camera-maker Olympus. KeyMed alleges that he and an ex-colleague committed breaches of duties connected to the administration of KeyMed pension schemes (Financial Times.)

  • Society:
    • Are Japanese millennials happy? Seems so, writes Economist. “Young Japanese are surprisingly content. They are less so when they think about the future”. It is an interesting observation as, according to this article, the ambition level is pretty low. If the status quo is fine, why worry about the future? As Noritoshi Furuichi, a sociologist, states: “one reason why young people are becoming more satisfied with their current lives is precisely because they see little to look forward to. They focus on enjoying the here and now.” Yohei Harada of the Youth Research Centre at Hakuhodo, an advertising firm, has a rosier view. He calls today’s young men and women the satori sedai, or enlightened generation, “meaning that Buddha-like, they eschew big aspirations and seek happiness in simple things. That may indeed be the path to nirvana.”
    • Japan in Paris: there are ample examples of Japanese architecture in Paris to be found (and none in London), writes the Financial Times. Ando, Tange, Kurokawa (who designed the new wing of the Van Goghmuseum), Fujimoto, Ban … all major Japanese architects are present with their works. Why? “Tokyo is everything Paris is not. Its architecture is unruly and unregulated, it is high-tech and highly illuminated, a sci-fi city of filmic intensity and churning change. It is a city of fleeting images rather than permanent physical fabric. Paris, on the other hand, has long been stuck in its own perfection, bound by strict codes that govern appearance, dimensions and materials. Its architects dream of Tokyo’s freedom and easy- going attitude to the existing physical fabric. They yearn for an architecture of disappearance rather than solidity. Just as Barthes was seduced by a city of mysterious codes, contemporary Parisians have been attracted to a culture of ethereality.” By the way, Empire of Signs by the French structuralist Roland Barthes, or in French “l’Empire des Signes” that is referred to in the opening of this article is a great read.
    • And there is surely a relation between Japanese architecture and Japanese cooking. “How ‘Japanese Cooking’ changed the way the west eats”, refers to the book (and cooking school) of Shizuo Tsuji, written 40 years ago. “Japanese Cooking, a simple Art, is both a book with recipes and a book that explains the essence of the Japanese cuisine (and so: culture. Financial Times.)
  • Recommended reading
    • To understand any society, it pays off to read its countries novels. More challenging is reading novels that describe that very country in action at war, on the battlefield, from the trenches, under attack. Novels like Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Jonathan Littell’s Les Bienveillantes / The Kindly Ones or Erich Maria Remarque’s Im Westen nichts Neues / All Quiet on the Western Front …. how difficult and sad they can be to swallow, these novels often provide insight in societal cohesion, organizational power, planning mechanisms, group behaviour, individual perseverance. They also demonstrate that hope, despair, love, hate, quest for survival are the true human and universal conditions, independent from culture and society.
      Two weeks ago the (first) Dutch translation by Jacques Westerhoven of one of Japan’s great war novels, Ningen no Joken (人間の條件 or Human Condition) by Junpei Gomikawa was published. Junpei Gomikawa, pen name for Shigeru Kurita (1916 – 1995) was born in Japan occupied Manchuria. Human Condition tells the story of a young Japanese, Kaji, who starts working as a labor camp supervisor in Manchuria, is drafted as a soldier by  the Japanese Imperial Army and becomes a Soviet POW. In his attempt to rise above a corrupt and de-humanized system, Kaji struggles to keep his own morals, understanding that they are an obstacle as well as an advantage. More than 13 million copies of this book have been sold; the movie by Masaki Kobayashi based upon this book is one of the longest ever made: 9 hours, 47 minutes. The book also pictures the war between the Soviet Union and Japan in 1945, something that we are hardly aware of in The Netherlands. A deeply moving book.

Have a great working week.
Radboud Molijn

Global Bridges BV for DUJAT / Dutch & Japanese Trade Federation