How Japan Learned to Love Nuclear Power

January 27, 2013

A sparsely populated, wind-swept hook, Shimokita peninsula juts from the northern tip of Honshu, Japan’s main island, with a stark beauty reminiscent of the classical brush paintings of the 16th Century. Eagles hover over rolling pastures and swans bathe in quiet marshes. Idyllic but not ideal. With its long, cold winters and infertile soil, Shimokita is one of the country’s poorest and most inhospitable regions. Homes are huddled high on the hills, away from the often raging sea and the occasional threat of tsunamis.

Hardy villagers fish for squid and salmon, hugging the coast in small boats. Old men and women gather seaweed from the rocky shores to be dried for food on the boat landings; each village of the 10-mile-wide peninsula has a large, concrete jetty to protect its little fleet. Otherwise, the look and the slow, steady rhythm of life along these frigid waters seems little changed from generations past.

But looks deceive. While fishing remains the heart of the village economy, its role is rapidly shrinking. There are not enough jobs to go around. Where fishing boats used to carry 20-man crews, today automated equipment allows two or three men to operate them. And many young men aren’t interested in the dangerous, seasonal work. Most work year round on construction crews in distant cities such as Tokyo and Osaka, where they can count on regular income to send home to their families.

It has never been an easy life in Shimokita, and for as long as anyone can remember locals have drawn comfort and guidance from shamans, blind women who rub together long rosaries and commune with ancestral spirits at a nearby lake that reeks with the foul smell of sulfur atop a volcano called Osorezan, literally “frightful mountain.”

Now, in hopes of bringing prosperity to the region and keeping their young at home, villagers across the peninsula are embracing an even more frightening neighbor: nuclear power.

KEIZO KAWARADA IS MAYOR OF HIGASHIDORI VILLAGE, A SERIES OF small hamlets scattered along the eastern coast of the peninsula. The village, whose population has shrunk by 25% to 9,000 in the past three decades because of the lack of jobs, has just struck it rich. Kawarada is all smiles as he greets a visitor in his expansive office on the top floor of a three-story, mirrored structure that rises like a mirage above a desolate hillside. He will soon preside over a council meeting in the new and luxurious domed village conference center. Among the topics of discussion: plans for an extensive sports complex and homes for the elderly.

The source of the village’s municipal building spree? Higashidori agreed last year, after a 27-year-battle, to allow two electric utilities to build four nuclear reactors on its coastal land nearby. In return, Higashidori will receive an estimated $1.75 billion in government subsidies and tax revenues during the next 10 years. The village has already received millions of dollars in loans in anticipation of the money. Kawarada notes enthusiastically that the utilities bought enough land to accommodate 20 reactors, though there are no immediate plans to build more than the proposed four.

Opposition? Kawarada brushes off the question. The only opposition to nuclear power is from the kind of people who opposed the introduction of electricity decades ago, he says. “They used to say if you stood under a lamp, you would go bald,” Kawarada recalls. “They talked of deformed babies because they didn’t understand the technology.”

A few miles away in his modest, wood-frame house, on a day when heavy winds have kept him from taking his boat out, fisherman Mitsugu Higashida sits cross-legged with his thick brows furrowed in a frown. On the wall behind him is the large, framed fin of a 440-pound tuna he caught in his youth. As a senior member of the fishermens union that sold part of its fishing rights to the power companies so that they could build facilities to draw sea water to cool the reactors, Higashida, like the other union members, will personally receive about $117,000. Nevertheless, he is disgusted by the deal.

“A fisherman should never sell the sea,” he says. Yet Higashida, an influential member of the village’s 663-member union, had a hand in determining the fate he now rebukes. He persuaded the members to demand $416,000 each from the power companies in exchange for their fishing rights in the vicinity of the proposed plants. Only that amount, he argued, could allow the fishermen to buy the boats they would need to fish in the high seas should coastal waters become polluted by the plants. He concedes now that he had a separate agenda. “My feeling was that they would never be able to pay that,” Higashida says. But the companies were willing to talk money, if not in those amounts, and once the fishermen began negotiating it was just a matter of time. The issue had become how much, not whether to go nuclear.

“This money will be used up in a few years on drinking and fixing up homes,” says a discouraged Higashida. “And then what? We will have had just enough money to live a bad life.” He says the long battle has split up friends and family. Many people now avoid one another in the village. “It used to be peaceful here, now it is divided.”

Higashidori is just one of three sites on Shimokita peninsula that have been targeted, because of their remoteness, for nuclear development. In Rokkasho, a village 25 miles south of Higashidori, a giant nuclear complex is springing up beside a picturesque marsh. A uranium-enrichment plant and a low-level radioactive waste dump capable of holding 1 million drums of nuclear waste have already been completed. And there are plans to add a plutonium reprocessing plant and a high-level radioactive waste dump. Two years ago, there were massive rallies to stop the projects. Today, Rokkasho boasts large new homes, two museums and a massive meeting hall, a testament to the trade-off the village has made.

North of Higashidori, in the village of Oma, anti-nuclear locals are in the last throes of a losing struggle against the construction of a new kind of nuclear power plant called an advanced thermal reactor, which will be able to burn plutonium extracted at the Rokkasho reprocessing facility. All that remains for approval is the financial settlement–cash that will be granted fishermen to compensate for their possible losses.

If all goes as planned, power companies–with full backing of the government’s financial and political resources–will invest more than $20 billion to create in Shimokita peninsula what then-Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone predicted nearly a decade ago would be “a mecca for the nuclear power industry.”

SHIMOKITA’S FATE IS BEING DETERMINED FAR AWAY, IN THE CONCRETEmaze of Tokyo, where neon signs and office lights blaze deep into the night. In hopes of becoming energy independent, Japan has set a goal of constructing 40 new reactors during the next 20 years, more than doubling its capacity to use nuclear power to generate electricity. That would push Japan past France and the former Soviet Union to make it second only to the United States in nuclear-power generation.

But the battle speaks to more than nuclear power. The way the Japanese government, in concert with industry, has used money, jobs and propaganda to overcome opposition and turn Shimokita peninsula into a key element of its nuclear strategy is a telling example of how a country’s leadership can push through policies it has determined to be in the nation’s best interests, even if those policies are unpopular.

Officials describe their drive to expand nuclear power as an almost messianic mission. “We are being tested by God, by history, to see if we can use nuclear power properly,” says Kazuhisa Mori, executive managing director of the Japan Atomic Industry Forum, an industry-funded organization.

The driving force of Japan’s policy is insecurity. Few here have forgotten that the United States once embargoed oil exports to Japan, a move that contributed to Tokyo’s decision to bomb Pearl Harbor, drawing America into World War II. “We are dependent completely on outside sources for fuel,” says Ryukichi Imai, adviser to the Atomic Energy Commission and an influential member of Japan’s nuclear industry establishment–an alliance of bureaucracy, politics and industry. “We aren’t talking about the fear of a day’s blackout. We are talking about not having enough energy to run our industry. Many of us still remember the days of the war when there was no light and no food. Life was terrible.”

For real energy security, Imai says, Japan must not only build more nuclear power plants but also must complete the nuclear fuel cycle. This means taking spent uranium fuel from nuclear power plants, reprocessing it to extract plutonium to use as a new, domestically produced fuel source. Today, uranium is so affordable and the process of extracting plutonium so costly that most other industrialized nations have rejected the option. But Imai says Japan is planning for the time, maybe three decades hence, when the world may begin to run out of oil and uranium resources could grow scarce. “You have to invest in plutonium today to use it in the next century,” Imai says. “It’s Saudi oil, Chinese oil and natural gas, Australian uranium or our plutonium. It is not an option we can forgo.” Nuclear power currently accounts for 26% of Japan’s electrical generation.

Although nuclear power plants are owned by Japan’s private electric utilities, some of the largest in the world, the risky operations are indemnified by the government. In addition, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party allows power companies to charge high electricity rates ($100 a month for a two-bedroom apartment is not unusual) to pay for new plant construction. And, recently, even the Socialist Party, to show it is becoming less ideological and more “realistic,” is considering a proposal to support the construction of nuclear plants, a radical departure from past policy.

In addition, Japan’s nuclear alliance has fought a vigorous battle to undermine anti-nuclear activists and to win the hearts and minds of those in important regions such as Shimokita.

The nuclear complexes planned at Rokkasho and Oma are examples of how the alliance operates. The complexes are financed and managed by Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd., a private company made up of 105 firms, including Japan’s nine major utilities. The company gets its technology and engineering expertise from the Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corp., a quasi-public corporation that has an annual budget of $1.7 billion and includes as shareholders 35 leading banks and insurance companies and the three nuclear plant manufacturers. These ventures operate at huge losses but are sustained by government subsidies that were set aside to finance risky nuclear projects. Much of this public money is used for propaganda.

The $25-million Rokkasho Visitors Center, for instance, is a high-tech ode to nuclear power. The center uses elaborate robotics, games, and flashing, life-like displays to argue the importance and safety of nuclear power. Since it was established in 1991, modeled in part after a larger Tokyo museum promoting nuclear power, 139,000 Japanese, tourists and nuclear industry officials from as far away as Britain have visited the center in remote Shimokita. Hostesses in Space-Age, baby-blue uniforms show visitors around the exhibits. They point to a display that shows how drums containing radioactive waste are checked by robots for holes and then laid in man-made caverns with 3-foot-thick, steel-reinforced concrete walls. The exhibits describe how radiation is not as dangerous as most people think–and more prevalent. Busloads of schoolchildren are instructed that food, clock dials and even hot spring baths contain radiation.

Scientists are sent to Shimokita to lecture on the safety of nuclear power. They are paid from a $40-million annual budget set aside by the government for the express purpose of “gaining the understanding of locals” on nuclear issues. Rokkasho council members were also flown to France and the United States, at industry expense, to visit nuclear facilities there.

“We got a feel for what these (plutonium) reprocessing plants are like,” says Shojo Oikawa, an innkeeper who went to France as a member of the Rokkasho council. “These plants really aren’t dangerous. The machines are so well made that if something goes wrong, it stops automatically.” He says nuclear opponents exaggerate the danger. “In a car, if the engine stops, it is in disrepair. If it crashes, it’s an accident. To say a nuclear power plant that has stopped has had an accident is wrong. It really just needs repair,” he says.

FIVE YEARS AGO, YUMIKO OSHITA ESTABLISHED THE ASSOCIATION TO KEEP Out Death Ashes, a group that has been fighting plans to dump radioactive waste in Rokkasho. The name is an evocative reference to the “death ashes” that fell from the mushroom clouds of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs in 1945, the violent introduction of the Nuclear Age. The horror of the American bombings remains burned in Japan’s mass memory.

Oshita, an associate professor of classical Japanese literature at Hachinohe Engineering University, based in a port town just south of Shimokita, led a drive that collected a million signatures on a petition to stop the Rokkasho development. Unable to win the battle at the village level, she worked long hours trying to build support for an eventually unsuccessful anti-nuclear gubernatorial candidate in the broader prefecture. That 1991 effort landed her in the hospital with a bleeding ulcer.

She’s frustrated that the serious issue of nuclear safety has been reduced to a debate over fishermen and how much money they will settle for. “Is the ocean just the property of the fishermen?” Oshita asks.

But anti-nuclear sentiments, once a major political issue in Japan, have waned under government pressure. The decision of the Higashidori villagers to accept nuclear plants was a major setback for the activists. After the Soviet nuclear accident at Chernobyl in 1985, there was a wave of public opposition to nuclear power. Many projects were put on hold. Higashidori was the first new nuclear plant siting in Japan in six years and was one of the most blatant cases of utility companies’ using money to win over locals.

In 1984, after initially being rebuffed by the Higashidori fishermens union, Tokyo Electric and Tohoku Electric, the two power companies hoping to put nuclear reactors on the site, opened a joint “preparatory office” with 35 full-time employees. Their sole job was “gaining the understanding” of the fishermen. “I would go to a friend’s house and there would be guys from the power companies,” Higashida, the fisherman, says. Villagers would be taken out to expensive meals. “Guys who used to be vocal in opposing the plants suddenly became quiet,” Higashida notes.

“If someone asks the power company for help in getting their son a job, they would help out. People feel beholden. That is how opposition crumbles.”

Last summer, in the final vote, two-thirds of the fishermen voted for a settlement.

NOT EVEN THE STAUNCHEST OPPONENTS EXPECT JAPAN’S NUCLEAR FACILITIES to create a Hiroshima-style disaster, but Oshita and her colleagues have raised serious safety questions about the Rokkasho facility. Japan is riddled with earthquakes, and some of the worst temblors have occurred in Shimokita.

Nuclear facilities will be designed to withstand a lot of shaking, but the Rokkasho plutonium processing plant and radioactive waste dumps are to be built on unstable ground right above a fault. “There is nothing you can do if the ground cracks,” says geologist Sunao Ogose, who has worked with anti-nuclear activists. Minutes of a meeting that Ogose says were leaked to him in 1988 record power company officials discussing how to hide the fact that there was a fault under the Rokkasho site. Today, officials acknowledge the fault’s existence but insist that it is not active.

Potentially the most dangerous plant to be built at Rokkasho would be the plutonium reprocessing facility. A significant leak of radioactivity could result in thousands of deaths, asserts Jinzaburo Takagi, executive director of the Citizen’s Nuclear Information Center, a nuclear engineer and one of the few anti-nuclear activists with a technical background.

Takagi also says that marshy grounds around Rokkasho make the site unsuitable as a nuclear waste dump. Water could seep through any cracks in the concrete walls of the facilities, polluting the ground water used for drinking in the area. Most dumping sites in America are in isolated, dry, desert areas.

Japanese officials also often downplay the seriousness of the waste problem that has hounded the nuclear industries of the United States and other industrial nations. Mori of the Japan Atomic Energy Forum, for example, refers to Japan’s traditional craftsmanship when talking about the problem of storing waste that will remain radioactive for thousands of years. “Storage isn’t difficult even in Japan’s unstable soil,” he says. “Horyuji temple (in Nara, the ancient capital near Kyoto) is made of wood but it has been standing for 1,000 years.”

But Japan’s record in developing nuclear technology is often spotty. For instance, a nuclear-powered ship called Mutsu, named after the Shimokita peninsula port at which it was anchored, has leaked radiation. The Mutsu has taken to the sea only four times since being built in 1967, and its nuclear reactor is now being dismantled. Meanwhile, Japan’s nuclear power plants, once the envy of the world with the lowest incidence of shutdowns, have recently been plagued with near-accidents. In July, the nation’s Nuclear Safety Commission, a government oversight agency, belatedly ordered utilities to work out measures to deal with serious accidents. Previously the commission insisted such measures were unnecessary because accidents couldn’t occur.

Unlike the United States’ Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Japan’s oversight agency has little power. And the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, which is responsible for actually enforcing safety standards, is also charged with promoting nuclear power.

Despite the obvious problems within the industry and with government regulators, however, activists find it difficult to organize resistance to the power companies. “Japan is pushing this as a nation. You can’t go against that,” says Rikisaburo Terashita. He should know. Terashita has been fighting the government for more than two decades. From 1969 to 1973, as mayor of Rokkasho, Terashita led the fight against a government plan to build a massive petrochemical complex behind the village. He lost and was voted out of office. The complex was abandoned because of the oil crisis, but the land was sold to the power companies to develop a nuclear fuel facility.

TERASHITA, WHO NOW WORKS WITH GROUPS LIKE OSHITA’S, BEGAN TOhold meetings with villagers to explain the risks involved in a facility that processes plutonium. It wasn’t easy. Village officials refused to allow public meeting halls to be used for anti-nuclear gatherings. Villagers would gather instead on the concrete landings where the fishing boats were stored for the winter.

After Chernobyl, a “mothers’ group” sprang up to fight nuclear development. But small successes were followed by big defeats. In 1990, the anti-nuclear groups managed to elect a moderate as mayor in Rokkasho. He promised to freeze nuclear development efforts. Once in office, however, he announced that the planned nuclear facilities were safe and would proceed as planned.

Other opposition has crumbled as construction activity at the nuclear sites created hundreds of new jobs. Inns are filled with technicians and engineers from the power companies. New housing complexes are springing up. Local merchants say the business is welcome and they can’t afford to alienate their new customers. Says one restaurant owner: “We businessmen can’t oppose it or we lose business.” In fact, critics charge that city contracts for gardening, maintenance and even for archeological digs are steered away from nuclear opponents and their relatives.

Still, villagers are acutely aware of the trade-off they are making. A few see Rokkasho as playing an important role for the nation. “We don’t want to be dependent on America for everything like during World War II,” says Takeo Mikado, a restaurant owner and member of the village council, somewhat defensively. “Then we are finished. We should go 100% nuclear.”

But Mikado’s wife’s perspective is more typical of the local view. “It is frightening but we have nothing else,” she says quietly. “We have to make a living.” A young official sipping coffee at the restaurant counter pipes in: “Anyway, there is no use even trying (to stop the plan). It’s like trying to stop a train.”

Nevertheless, groups such as Oshita’s continue to fight. “It is expensive and tiring; they are waiting for us to fall apart,” she says. “They have huge sums of money and are supported by the government; we are working from pocket money.” These days, Oshita is focusing her energy on the courts, where she is challenging the Rokkasho nuclear complex on grounds of safety. The courts, however, have traditionally sided with the government.

Opponents of nuclear power do have two things on their side: economics and foreign pressure. Because of an international uproar over Japan’s recent import of 1.7 tons of plutonium by ship from France, reprocessed from Japanese spent fuel, Tokyo is considering delaying some elements of its nuclear effort.

And although Japan will proceed this year with plans to operate an experimental breeder reactor, so called because it produces more plutonium than it consumes, in western Japan, there is talk that construction of a commercial version of the plant will be postponed. The United States, Germany and France dropped plans for breeder reactors after tens of billions of dollars were spent because of technical and safety concerns. Power companies may also delay construction of the plutonium processing plant at Rokkasho because of the high cost of plutonium.

TERASHITA, THE FORMER mayor of Rokkasho, spends most of his time these days setting nets in the nearby marshes to catch tiny fish, which he uses to make salty snacks to be eaten with sake. His wife operates a small candy shop out of their home. Terashita says his son, now 50, is a policeman in a nearby town and finds him a “troublesome old man” because of his vocal anti-nuclear views. Kids taunt him by calling him henji (strange old man). But Terashita’s dignified manner and the pictures, banners and other mementos of anti-nuclear campaigns tacked on his walls reflect a pride in his long, if vain, battle against the government. A battered sign outside the candy shop offers: “Help for the refugees of nuclear power.”

Up the coast, at twilight, the village of Higashidori grows energetic as fishing boats return and villagers help unload the day’s catch. What do they think of the nuclear plants? “The whole thing is a big bother,” says one elderly woman as she packs fish into ice-filled plastic foam containers to ready them for trucking. “All six of my children are gone. They won’t come back anyway.”

Higashidori council member Satoshi Nishiyama wants to see young people back at the village but he wonders whether the money from the plants, now being spent on Mayor Kawarada’s fancy village hall and various expensive projects, will really help. Says Nishiyama: “What we really need is a place for us old folks to play croquet.”

Fisherman Higashida says: “From old times we have lived off of fishing. We can’t suddenly stop and work on the ground. The salmon come in droves. To put nuclear power plants in such a fruitful place is ridiculous.” The old man also doesn’t want to leave a legacy that could haunt his progeny. “The poison from nuclear plants lasts hundreds of years,” he says. “We shouldn’t pass that anxiety on to our kids and grandkids.”

The Death of an Intellectual Giant

January 16, 2013

Leslie D. Helm
First published on on November 21, 2010
Johnson passed away yesterday after a long career that influenced generations of scholars
A great man died yesterday. Chalmers Johnson was the kind of intellectual the world no longer seems capable of producing. I had the good fortune of studying Japanese political economy under him at the University of California, Berkeley in the late 1970s. He later taught at the University of California, San Diego and launched the Japan Policy Research Institute, an independent think tank. Always a bit of a maverick, he was alternately embraced by the right and the left. At one time in his career he advised the CIA.

A former student of Johnson’s wrote a great piece here. But since Johnson influenced me so deeply, I wanted to say a few words as well.

It has become a cliché to talk of paradigm shifts. But Johnson is the one man I know capable of singlehandedly creating a paradigm shift–a new framework for looking at the world. And he did it again and again, each time influencing whole new generations of scholars.

At UC Berkeley, while still a student, Johnson wrote a book that transformed our understanding of China. His book, Peasant Nationalism, argued, persuasively, that the Chinese revolution should not be seen as the outcome of some kind of Marxist ideology, but rather as a powerful nationalist movement that gained power, in large part, as a popular uprising against the Japanese invasion.

Johnson, who had spent his early career studying Chinese politics, turned his attention to Japan, he once told me, because the Chinese government had made it impossible for serious scholars to study the country.

As a student of Japan, Johnson changed the way the world understood the Japanese economic miracle–creating another paradigm shift. Johnson showed that America’s effort to fashion a democracy on the ruins of postwar Japan should not be seen as a successful case of democratization, as it had widely been viewed. He showed that this democracy was little more than a veneer over the strong bureaucratic institutions that remained in place in Japan from the pre-war days. It was these bureaucratic institutions that had played a key role in the industrial development of Japan both before and after the war. Johnson described the anatomy of this developmental state, a form of state-led economic development that would become the model for Korea, Singapore, Thailand and China. When I met recently with a Minister of Technology Development from Brazil, he said that nation was learning from the Japanese model.

These economies do not operate according to some theoretical view of free markets. They have a strong sense of what economic policies to pursue in their own national interest. The United States should be aware of those policies and the thinking behind them so it can respond intelligently. That framework for looking at the world influenced my reporting on Japan first for Business Week and later for the Los Angeles Times.

Toward the end of his life, Johnson wrote about the dangers of America’s overextended empire. His book, “Blowback” predicted the nation would suffer from its efforts to play such a major role in so many regions of the world. The book foresaw the conditions that would make us ripe for attack. It foresaw our descent into a downward spiral as we were forced to spend huge sums to support multiple wars as well as bases across the globe. What made Johnson’s analysis so powerful was his deep understanding of economics, of such powerful institutions as the Department of Defense and of other levers of power.

Johnson was also a strong advocate for the importance of area studies. Political theory, he would often say, can offer little perspective on a country unless it is accompanied by a deep understanding of that country’s language, its culture and its institutions. The lack of this kind of understanding, as our universities have drifted away from area studies, has contributed to our mishandling of the two current wars we are in.

Once again, our country needs a new paradigm, a new way of looking at the world, that will help extricate us from the mess we are in. We need a new way of looking at economics that will help us tackle the high unemployment rate we are suffering. I wonder who we can turn to now to provide that guidance.

The Changing Values of Japan’s Generation X

January 16, 2013

COLUMN ONE : Rebels Without a Cause? : Japan’s first ‘me’ generation has come of age. These ‘Junior Boomers’ hope to escape the corporate culture that bound their parents. But no one quite knows what they will embrace instead.


TOKYO — They hang out on the side streets of the overcrowded Shibuya district, bathed in the blazing neon of a thousand bars, game arcades and fast-food stores.

They send coded messages to each other on pagers and worship the heroes and heroines of their favorite video games.

They love to drink beer and sake, sing in shoe-box-sized karaoke rooms and have their palms read by old ladies in the dim light of paper lanterns.

Call them Japan’s Generation X, its Junior Boomers.

Born at a pivotal point in history when rapid growth created a previously unknown level of prosperity here, these young people, ages 19 to 22, are developing a culture centered on technology, fantasy and a yearning to break out of the stiff confines of Japanese tradition.

Already, as they begin to enter the work force this year, no one seems to doubt that their new values and experiences will resonate and collide with Japan’s traditional corporate culture and may have a profound influence on Japanese business and society.

The core of the Junior Boomers’ generation, the offspring of the globally notorious baby boomers, were born between 1971 and 1974. They constitute a demographic force numbering 8 million here. As an attractive market and potential labor pool, they have been dissected, surveyed and psychoanalyzed by corporations and consultants.

Experts find the Junior Boomers to be pampered by their parents and unchallenged by their schools. They are physically imposing, all too often possessing limited social skills and lacking traditional loyalties. They are prodigious but skeptical consumers. And most important for this strait-laced strivers’ society, they often appear to be nonconformist, selfish and indifferent workers.

At first glance, the Junior Boomers–beneficiaries of some of the best diets and health care in Japan’s history–look very different. The men average 5-feet-8, four inches taller than their fathers. Many wear their shoulder-length hair in a ponytail. The women, too, have grown taller and favor miniskirts to show off the long, slender legs that are the envy of an older generation. The “surfer” look, now in for both sexes, requires them to use bronzing lotions or to go to “solar salons” and to bleach their hair.

Their differences, though, are more than cosmetic. Dentsu, the giant advertising agency, calls them the “Dolphin Generation” because they are said to travel in small groups. One writer calls them “slime,” contending that they have a weak sense of self and adapt to whatever environment they happen to be in. Some analysts say they conform and lack initiative. Nonetheless, others suggest they are creative individualists.

Whatever the case, early indications are that many of them won’t take readily to the suffocating conformity and frequent drudgery demanded by Japanese corporations. In surveys, young people express pity for their parents, the grinding corporate “salarymen.” The young people resolve to put their own needs first.

“I just want lots of my own time,” said Keigo Kugimoto, 20, voicing a common view. Kugimoto, who is saving his money so he can travel, works long hours delivering lunches for his father’s business. “I want to go anywhere I haven’t been,” he said. “To see lots of things. To learn what I don’t know by meeting lots of people.”

Takashi Kurokawa, 19, who wears popular baggy, knee-length shorts and desert boots, wants to work for a trading company when he gets out of school. But he knows his priorities, saying, “I want to work so I can have time to surf.”

A decade ago, a “New Breed” of young people also thought they would be different from their workaholic parents.

But raised by authoritarian fathers when Japan was still on its upward sprint, the “New Breed” turned out to be old-fashioned. While their elders initially criticized them for their ignorance about such corporate basics as knowing how to bow and greet people, they were, within a few years, suddenly winning praise. They had fallen into line, changed their ways to get ahead and were dubbed “New Hard Workers.”

The Junior Boomers are different, analysts insist. They are not made of the stuff it takes to create “corporate warriors.” They lack the “hungry spirit” on which traditional Japanese companies thrive. Traditional values like perseverance and patience have given way to instant gratification.

This Japanese generation’s defining characteristic–a life in the lap of prosperity–may explain why it differs from its counterparts around the globe, or even from its parents.

By 1970, the year when some of the first Junior Boomers were born, key elements of Japan’s infrastructure, including the bullet train and a new road system, were completed as part of two decades of rapid growth. The nation celebrated its arrival in the modern world with Expo ’70, a lavish demonstration of its cultural and technological strengths. When Junior Boomers had turned 8, half of their families had cars, 90% had color televisions.

“Just about everything you see in Japan today was already here in 1970,” said Kenichi Kobayashi, associate marketing director at Dentsu.

The early 1970s also proved to be a boom time for weddings, as the ’60s generation of student radicals began to marry and have babies. The new parents rejected their own parents’ authoritarian ways, giving their children clothes, toys, fat allowances and often private rooms. Their children were expected to study, but otherwise they seldom were disciplined.

Today, Junior Boomers enjoy average monthly allowances of $380, Dentsu experts say; they earn as much again from part-time work. The average Junior Boomer spends a hefty $70 on a single date.

Experts and young people agree that Junior Boomers will work hard–if they like their work. If bored, they are liable to show it.

Take Hideyuki Takeuchi, 18, who works at a health center and spends his days at game centers. He loves to draw. His mother paid $6,700 to enroll him in a design school. He dropped out after one month. “It wasn’t what I wanted to do,” says Takeuchi, who wears a ponytail. “Drawing was fun as a hobby, but when it became work it wasn’t fun anymore.”

Analysts describe the Junior Boomers as Japan’s first real “me” generation, possessing little sense of loyalty to country, company or even to their parents–who express some exasperation but no real clue about how or whether to try to influence the young people’s lives and conduct.

And while companies aren’t eager to hire the Junior Boomers, they are clamoring to try to find out how to sell to them. This generation represents the last major boom likely to be seen for some time in Japan, where births have been falling almost steadily for two decades. “This is the most important age group for us,” Shinsaku Sugiyama, a Shiseido Cosmetics spokesman, says. “We have to raise their loyalty to our brand now.”

But these young consumers, who saw the mindless brand worship of the late 1980s, have turned cynical about advertising, analysts note.

To better reach them, Shiseido picks out student representatives at major schools to test new products and to give out samples. Matsushita, the industrial giant that offers a range of consumer goods here, holds lotteries to choose student “monitors” who receive free products and are expected to spread the word among their friends. “The best way to sell products to this generation is through word of mouth,” Sugiyama says.

Their dress, like many of their attitudes, underscores the Junior Boomers’ fascination with things foreign. In a switch from the past, when conformist Japanese dyed their hair to ensure that it was black enough to match that of their peers, many young people bleach their hair brown to show they don’t feel the need to embrace all things Japanese. In fact, Shiseido last year used Sean Lennon, son of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, to tap into the attraction of being “half Japanese.”

While they sometimes look and act like young Americans, the members of Japan’s Generation X are different in important ways. The Junior Boomers were educated in schools where their lives were totally managed. Early on, they received hensachi , an academic score that indicated clearly where they were headed. By the time most reached junior high, they probably knew what level of university they would be able to attend–if any at all.

The young who have been through elite schools still want posts in major companies. Many adapt well. “They are even comfortable enough to ask the division head out for drinks,” said Kobayashi of Dentsu.

But for the majority of young people, who knew they would not go to elite schools, there was little incentive to work hard or to show initiative. Because they live in a compulsively orderly society, many of the young–rather than rebel–sought escape in computer games and obsessive collections of dolls or useless trivia.

Many are socially awkward and have developed their own means of communicating. At the entrance to a darkened Shibuya computer arcade, where the sound effects are deafening, Hiroyuki Matsuzawa, 21, carefully sketched his favorite video game character, a female samurai, in a notebook chained to a small table.

“It is really sad that they (the arcade management) are going to take away this book,” he said of the bound volume of graffiti in which visitors draw and write long commentaries on games and their lives.

“This is how we became friends,” he said, shrugging toward a few other pale youngsters in the arcade. Some say they traveled an hour to read and scribble in the book.

“With young people recently, we can talk on the surface, but we don’t open up inside,” Matsuzawa added.

“There are a lot of things you don’t feel comfortable saying that you can write in the book,” his friend noted.

Computer games fill a void for many Junior Boomers, who “have no sense that they are important or necessary in this world,” said Shinji Miyadai, a professor at a small Tokyo college. “While they are playing (computer) games, they feel they have a clear-cut role in the world.”

But do the Junior Boomers have the right stuff for corporate Japan?

Shigenobu Nagamori, Nippon Densan’s president, has a well-known tactic when picking recruits for his motor-manufacturing business, where he demands that workers be almost fanatic about their labor. He takes prospects out for a bowl of curry rice and watches to see which ones devour their meals fastest.

Now, among the young, he sees no famished candidates who display the proper “hungry spirit,” he complained recently in the monthly Nikkei Business.

To many young people, however, the issue is not their appetites for corporate life but how they can keep from being devoured by what they see as the overwhelming power of the Japanese company.

“In Japan, culture and company is the same,” says game aficionado Matsuzawa, who plans to work for a large publisher. “If you have your own identity, it’s OK. But if you don’t have a strong identity, you will be swept away.”

A Look at Japan’s Efforts to Discourage Lawsuits

January 16, 2013

COLUMN ONE : Long Haul for Japan’s Plaintiffs : A town’s effort to seek redress for arsenic poisoning illustrates how citizens are discouraged from aggressively pursuing valid legal claims.


TOROKU, Japan — Deep in the mountains of Kyushu, a small group of elderly villagers huddled around a kerosene stove last month to talk about their long battle with arsenic, bureaucracy and the courts–in their view, three equally virulent strains of poison.

Their experiences tell a sorry tale about the state of justice in Japan today.

Forty-one villagers filed suit against Sumitomo Metal Mining Co., owner of a primitive arsenic manufacturing operation whose fumes had polluted the narrow river valley for nearly half a century. As the case dragged on for 15 years, 23 of the plaintiffs died, most as a direct effect of the arsenic. The others saw little choice but to settle.

“Why keep fighting in court if you have only so many years left to live?” asked Tone Sato, who lost her husband to cancer and has felt the poison numb her hands and feet and take away her sense of smell.

The Toroku case defies the conventional wisdom that the Japanese avoid the courts because they are a harmonious people, culturally averse to free-swinging, American-style litigation.

The Japanese court system encourages claimants to seek mediation, generally eliminating the prospect of big, unpredictable awards by judges or juries. In the process, Japanese are forcefully discouraged from pursuing lawsuits, no matter how valid their claims.

To sue, for example, Japanese plaintiffs must pay courts up front as much as 1% of the damages being sought. They face a far heavier burden than their American counterparts in proving their case. There is no “discovery” process for rooting out confidential information they might need.

Custom and precedent dictate that any awards granted by Japanese courts be kept low. And pain and suffering count for little or nothing in determining damages.

It is no wonder then, experts say, that Japan has fewer lawsuits than the United States (a 10th or 20th of the number) and fewer lawyers (one per 9,300 people compared with one per 360). And it is no wonder that Japanese companies pay one-fifth the liability insurance U.S. firms do.

Just how frustrating the Japanese judicial system can be was driven home last month by the hanging suicide of Toyohiro Yamanouchi, an Environmental Planning Agency official in charge of fighting lawsuits involving 2,000 victims of mercury poisoning in Minamata, a port on the southwest coast of Kyushu.

Lower court judges noted that, since 35 years had passed since the Minamata disease was discovered and with 1,167 dead, it was time for the government to settle. The government, which had been accused of negligent conduct in regulating and responding to problems in Minamata, refused.

Those close to Yamanouchi say he couldn’t reconcile his sympathy for the victims with a government decision to extend a trial that would outlast many of the plaintiffs.

“We see their suffering,” said Morihiro Hosokawa, the Kumamoto prefecture governor who recently took the unprecedented step of breaking with the central government to push for a quick settlement with the victims. “The government is so far away they don’t see the pain.”

The Toroku case illustrates how difficult it continues to be for Japanese to get a fair shake.

Tazuyuki Kawahara quit his job as a reporter for Asahi Shimbun a decade ago to support the Toroku villagers in their lawsuit. Now he said, “If somebody asked me to do it again, I would say forget it, it isn’t worth it.”

Dan Henderson, an expert on Japanese law at the University of Washington, said: “This is not justice. By the time you get recovery, it just buys your tombstone.”

The Toroku region once was prosperous and held a special place in Japanese mythology. A god is said to have descended to these mountains to become the first in an unbroken line of Japanese emperors. Toroku farmers prided themselves on producing prize-winning cattle, horses, honey and shitake mushrooms.

Toroku’s fortunes turned in 1921 when an arsenic mine was built in the middle of the village. The government used arsenic to produce poison gas. Farmers put it in rice balls to poison rats.

Ore containing arsenic was burned in great kilns, the smoke passing through chambers that were then scraped for arsenic crystals. But unfiltered smoke also wafted out and, sandwiched between the mountains, formed a death cloud over the village. Toroku farmers remember days when arsenic fell like snow and dead birds were a common sight.

The village population quadrupled to nearly 1,000 in a few years but the poison began to take its toll. Besides the birds, the first victims in the 1920s were horses and cattle. In 1935, a family of seven living close to the mine died over three years. Trees and shrubbery began to die.

In 1958, the mine reopened after a 15-year hiatus and villagers soon complained that their mushrooms, grown from spores placed in dead logs in the forest, were dying. The mine area grew so barren that villagers called it “bald mountain.”

Japan’s Department of Agriculture investigated and blamed poor farming techniques. “At the time, nobody knew it was an environmental problem,” Sumitomo spokesman Tasuro Kamata said.

The mine’s owners, a Nakajima company, closed the operation when it became unprofitable in 1962. By then, Sumitomo owned about 80% of the company and rights to the mine, and its employees held most of the top spots at Nakajima.

Villagers complained of ailments that doctors dismissed as unrelated to the arsenic kilns.

But in 1971, a schoolteacher noticed that children in his class from Toroku were smaller and thinner than their peers in the region and these results were published at a school gathering. The teacher was soon transferred. Still, coming right after the Minamata mercury poisoning cases, the study received wide publicity.

Sumitomo showed its concern by sending an employee to pass out boxes of seaweed, a delicacy, and gifts of $250 per household. “It was that large kind of seaweed you can only get in Tokyo,” recalled Jitsuo Sato, 80, who has arsenic-caused skin and respiratory problems. The company then donated $50,000 to the village.

The prefecture moved to cover up problems. It sent a doctor who conducted cursory examinations and concluded that only seven of the dozens of ill villagers had symptoms related to arsenic poisoning.

Among those left out was Shinzo Shimizu, now a masseur who had been working at the mine since he was 20. He lost his eyesight and much of his hearing by 37. Today, at 57, he looks closer to 80.

Both the company and the prefecture wanted to settle the issue quickly and outside the courts, so Hiroshi Kuroki, who was governor of Miyazaki prefecture, offered to mediate. “They were country people, they were in no position to negotiate, so I did it for them,” he said.

The villagers were herded to an isolated inn and, in separate rooms, offered $9,000 if they would sign a statement absolving Sumitomo. “Those villagers only made about $600 to $1,200 a year so it was a lot of money for them,” Kuroki said.

Of 144 villagers registered as having arsenic-caused illnesses, 82 accepted the money and signed waivers. A committee from the national lawyers association later called the waivers invalid because villagers had improper counsel.

The feeling of betrayal made some turn to the courts.

“When the governor first agreed to mediate, we saw him as god,” said Jitsuo Sato, who lost his wife and a sister-in-law to cancer and who has respiratory and skin problems himself. “Then he fooled us, he forced us to sign the documents. He betrayed us.”

Sato said each villager was told that others had signed and that nobody would get money until all agreed to the terms.

Among the more aggressive in seeking to litigate the case was Jitsuo Sato’s sister-in-law, Tsurue Sato, who while bedridden spent her days writing poetry about the valley’s sad history. With a group of villagers, she accepted offers of legal help from around Japan and decided to go to court in 1975.

A key obstacle for the villagers was finding the money to cover their court costs, which included fees up to 1% of the damages sought. They were able to pursue their case with financial aid from the small community of Roman Catholics in Japan and from the local teachers’ union.

Money worries frightened off many of those whom the prefecture recognized as having arsenic-related diseases.

“We were afraid of losing our homes” paying legal fees, one farmer said. He was part of a large group that created a “self-negotiation society” and instead sought compensation in the traditional way, by talking with Sumitomo and the prefecture.

Today, those villagers say Sumitomo promised that any damages it was forced to pay plaintiffs also would go to their group. Sumitomo now denies making such a pledge and has no intention of paying the group any sum.

In the trial, Sumitomo held two trump cards: time and money. With 1989 profits of $75 million on $4 billion in sales, and such powerful shareholders as Sumitomo Corp., NEC Corp. and Sumitomo Bank, the company could afford to bring in dozens of experts and prolong the trial indefinitely.

Sumitomo argued that it should not have to pay compensation because it never operated the mine, even if it had become majority owner. It also went to great lengths to question the causal link between the epidemic of Toroku cancer cases and the arsenic mine, even flying in an expert from the University of California San Francisco Medical Center to argue the point.

Prolonging a case, as Sumitomo sought to, is easy in Japan because, unlike in the United States, court hearings customarily are held just once a month or once every other month. Japan has only 2,800 judges, the same number it had 100 years ago and about 5% as many per capita as Germany, which has a similar legal system.

Japan’s highest court contributes to delays by accepting for review roughly 5,000 cases a year, compared with 500 for the U.S. Supreme Court.

Delays also can be more burdensome for Japanese plaintiffs. That’s because their lawyers normally do not work on a contingency basis–an American practice in which attorneys carry a case forward at relatively little cost to plaintiffs with the understanding that they will take a percentage of a significant, final judgment. Instead, the Japanese bar association requires lawyers to demand that plaintiffs pay half of their legal fees in advance.

Further complicating the Japanese plaintiffs’ plight, they must prove their claims according to the most rigorous legal standards, akin to those imposed on U.S. criminal prosecutors, who must establish that their cases are true “beyond a reasonable doubt,” experts say. While plaintiffs in American civil cases are only required to show that the evidence tilts “51%” their way–that a “preponderance of evidence” favors their claim–in Japan “the judges want 110% proof,” the University of Washington’s Henderson said.

Evidence is hard to gather, without a procedure comparable to the American “discovery” process in which courts work with plaintiffs and defendants to secure relevant information for a case.

The Japanese also lack a tradition of thinking in legal terms and of lawsuits. Soon after reports of problems in Toroku were published in the local press in 1971, the kiln for burning arsenic ore was destroyed by Sumitomo under orders from the Ministry of International Trade and Industry. That piece of evidence could have helped disprove Sumitomo claims that smoke from the kilns never contained arsenic.

Nine years after filing suit, the villagers managed to win the first trial.

But because judges are transferred every three years, by the trial’s end, not one of three who had heard witnesses testify were involved in writing a final judgment. Especially in the case of plaintiffs’ testimony, this meant that “the tears don’t remain, the only record is of their words,” Kawahara said.

Suffering counts for little or nothing in Japanese court cases. Judges–who are encouraged to keep awards consistently low, in keeping with precedents–determine the damages largely based on plaintiffs’ wages.

“The value of life is only about $80,000,” said Masaatsu Okamura, an attorney for the villagers, 23 of whom collectively won $3.5 million.

The villagers also won on appeal, a process that this time took only four years.

But the judges decided that any medical expenses the government had paid through a pollution victim’s compensation fund should be subtracted from the award, thus reducing it to about $2.3 million. (A limited number of the Toroku villagers had received compensation from the fund, which the government set up after the Minamata case to try to dissuade pollution plaintiffs from litigating.)

By now, the villagers’ three-hour trips to and from the court, month after month, began to take their toll.

When Sumitomo made its last appeal, this time to Japan’s Supreme Court, and villagers discovered that a decision would take four to five more years, they settled.

Families of the dead will receive about $65,000 while other affected villagers will receive as little as $25,000 each. Under the agreement, Sumitomo is absolved of any responsibility.

Shinichi Sato, 37, cannot remember a time when arsenic did not wreck his life in some way. When he was 20, his father died of lung cancer. Two years later, his mother, with a long list of symptoms, committed suicide. His aunt was bedridden for 15 years before dying recently.

Does he feel he got justice? In one way he did:

“Before, we knew we couldn’t grow mushrooms because of poison from the mine, but they (administrators) told us it was because we weren’t good farmers. Through the court, we were able to show others the truth.”


Some ways the legal systems of Japan and the West differ: * Japan has one lawyer per 9,300 people.

* Germany has one per 1,486.

* The United States has one per 360.

* In Japan, only 500 applicants a year may pass the equivalent of the bar examination, but reforms will soon raise that number to 600.

* In Los Angeles County alone, 4,056 passed the bar in July, 1990, the most recent administration of the twice-a-year exam.

* Japan has roughly the same number of judges it had in the early 1890s, about 2,800.

* Germany, with a similar court system and a little more than half the population, has 18,000 judges.

* Experts estimate that the number of lawsuits filed in Japan is only 1/10th, or even 1/20th, the number filed in the United States.

Collaborative Research Leads to Suicide

January 16, 2013

Basis For Apple-Import Restrictions Is Shaken —
Japanese Researcher’s Suicide Leads To Claims Of A
By Leslie Helm, Gale Eisenstodt
Los Angeles Times
JAPANESE BUREAUCRATS have long used the fear of fire blight – a disease that affects apple and pear trees – as a cornerstone of a trade policy that restricted apple imports from the U.S. Now, the discovery of a Japanese strain of fire blight has led to the suicide of the researcher who isolated it and to allegations of a government cover-up.
OONO, Japan – On the afternoon of Oct. 11, 1995, Akio Tanii staggered into his laboratory at the agricultural experiment station outside this small farming village. He was bleary-eyed and distraught.His colleagues were relieved to see him because his family had reported him missing and he had been under great stress. The 53-year-old scientist was sent home to rest.
Once there, he fell seriously ill. He was rushed to the hospital, where he died that night. He left a wife and two grown children. Police determined he had committed suicide by drinking pesticide.
His death passed without public notice. But according to Japanese officials, police, close associates and relatives interviewed here and in Tokyo, Tanii took his life after his research had placed him in the cross-fire of a heated agricultural trade dispute between Japan and the U.S.
Just two months earlier, Tanii had been listed as co-author of a paper presented by a U.S. professor that concluded that a distinct strain of the bacterium Erwinia amylovora – which causes a devastating disease called fire blight in apples and pears – was present in Japan.
In the world of apples, pears and trade diplomacy, that was a damning disclosure. Japan’s bureaucrats long had insisted that the nation was free from the disease. And they had used fear of its spread as a cornerstone of a trade policy that effectively barred apples imported from the United States, where the disease is endemic.
That claim began to crumble with the publication of the paper by Cornell Professor Steven Beer. Tanii’s collaboration with U.S. scientists made him a target for angry Japanese farmers and bureaucrats.Japanese Agriculture Ministry officials insist that the disease identified by Beer with Tanii’s help is not fire blight.Tanii’s tragedy illustrates how Japanese officialdom can bully those who stray from the sanctioned path. His story also suggests a pattern of bureaucratic dissembling among government officials and shows how politics
can pollute science when research becomes handmaiden to national and industry interests.
Friends remember Tanii as a quiet, gentle man and a solid, hard-working scientist. In the late 1970s, a lifelong colleague, Osamu Tamura, was asked by a farmers group to examine some diseased pear trees. He turned to Tanii, a plant pathologist specializing in bacteria, for help. After several years of research, the two concluded, in a paper published in 1981, that the pears were infected by a variant of Erwinia amylovora, the bacterium that causes fire blight.
A cousin of the bacterium that causes such deadly human diseases as the bubonic plague, Erwinia
amylovora is believed to have originated in America’s Hudson Valley two centuries ago. It made its way to Europe and then to the Middle East in the late 1950s and 1960s, causing extensive damage wherever it left its characteristic charred mark on trees. It typically is spread by sales of plant stock from infected areas. its characteristic charred mark on trees. It typically is spread by sales of plant stock from infected areas. As a purely scientific matter, Tanii’s results were significant because Japan at the time was thought to be one of five countries – including Chile, South Africa, China and Australia – free of the disease. As recently as 1974, the government had said published reports of fire blight in Japan decades earlier were inaccurate.But Japan’s Agriculture Ministry scientists told the pair to discontinue their controversial research. As recently as 1974, Japan had denied reports suggesting the nation had experienced fire blight decades earlier.
Although Tanii wanted to identify what he had found as fire blight, associates say, he agreed to call it “shoot blight of pear,” the name Japanese officials now use to identify the disease.
Tanii’s findings, like most Japanese research, were published only in Japanese and did not reach experts in the West. Because it appeared to affect only a few farmers and the research was being discouraged, Tanii and Tamura stopped their work on the disease.
They sent all but two of the strains of bacteria they had isolated to the Yokohama Plant Protection Station, a central laboratory where scientists said they would do follow-up research. Tanii never heard back from the lab.
In 1992, Beer, a leading expert on the disease, was reading an English translation of a Japanese textbook when he came across the description of a disease similar to fire blight. He contacted the author, who introduced him to Tanii.Tanii sent Beer the original strains he had isolated in 1977 and drove four hours to the village of Mashike to collect new samples from trees with signs of the disease.
Beer and his Cornell colleagues tested both the old and new strains Tanii sent him and concluded that while the bacterium was not as virulent as American and European forms, it did cause fire blight. And contrary to Tanii’s earlier findings, it could infect apple trees as well as pear trees.
Last August, Beer presented the findings at a plant pathologists’ conference in Canada. In the audience were several Australian quarantine officials. In response, the Australians quickly moved to bar imports of pears from Japan.
Investigating the matter, Japanese Agriculture Ministry officials sought out the Beer report and immediately focused on Tanii’s role as collaborator. “I asked Tanii-san for an explanation. I told him he should get his boss’ permission next time he does something like this,” said Usao Yoshioka, a section chief in the Hokkaido government.
Meanwhile, the Japanese Agriculture Ministry set out to eradicate the disease, ordering farmers to cut down all pear trees within 40 yards of the infected areas. Farmers were furious at what they and many Japanese pathologists believe was a politically motivated decision, not one based on the actual threat posed by the disease. When farmers asked why such drastic measures were being taken, officials pointed to the Beer report, which had Tanii’s name on it.
Tanii became a scapegoat. Farmers asked why he had taken samples from orchards without the owners’ permission. A farmers group talked of suing him. Associates say the hostility from farmers pained Tanii, who had spent his career helping them. He offered to resign.
On Oct. 10, he called his boss, Fujio Kodama, director of the department of plant pathology at the Hokkaido station, to say he had received a copy of a second article by Beer that was to be submitted to Plant Disease, an academic journal. Kodama said Tanii was afraid the article would add to the tension. Tanii was also concerned about his meeting the next day with a farmers group in which he was expected to apologize for his research. On Oct. 11, he committed suicide. A week after Tanii’s death, the Agriculture Ministry enacted an ordinance requiring that researchers who wanted to take a sample of the disease outside of the affected region get the permission of no less than the agriculture minister. That made it virtually impossible for Japanese researchers to cooperate with overseas scientists. After Tanii’s death, in a tense meeting at the Agriculture Ministry, it was decided that three government affiliated organizations would try to repeat Beer’s experiments. Most recently, Japan has argued that although the bacterium in question appears to be Erwinia amylovora, the disease it causes is not fire blight – a conclusion that experts such as Beer say is untenable.


An Interview With a Yakuza Boss

January 16, 2013

COLUMN ONE : Japanese Wise Up to Gangsters : Yakuza have long been tolerated and even romanticized. But with financial scandals and violent tactics, lawmakers and residents are saying enough is enough.


TOKYO — The Boss is decked out in a batik shirt, plaid pants, gold medallion belt buckle, gem-studded Rolex and gold wristband. To his right is a wooden statue of a cobra ready to strike, a gold sake cup resting in its mouth as a charm.

The subject is the driver of The Boss’ white Mercedes, the man’s finger and how the driver sliced it off for having somehow failed his employer.

“As his oya (father), I think it was a stupid thing to do,” said The Boss, head of a family of less than a dozen Japanese yakuza or gangsters. But clearly he was moved by the old-fashioned gesture of loyalty. “He is very dear to me.”

Such gangster tales once touched a chord in tradition-minded Japan. But the stories are wearing thin.

The Japanese are awakening to the frightening reality that the yakuza have vastly expanded their activities. They now commit a majority of Japan’s murders. They chase families from their homes. They push uncooperative businesses into bankruptcy.

In the last few weeks, Japanese have been stunned and embarrassed by revelations that the Inagawakai and the Yamaguchigumi, Japan’s two largest crime syndicates, have borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars from major securities companies and banks in complex land and stock deals. The scandal has reached into the inner sanctums of Japan’s business elite, contributing to the recent resignations of the presidents of Nikko Securities Co. and Nomura Securities Co.

The new, more sober view of the yakuza is a sharp shift for many Japanese. The nation’s gangsters–of which The Boss’ Tokyo family is one of thousands nationwide–long have run gambling, prostitution, drug and extortion rings. The families, organized into crime syndicates, were considered a necessary evil.

Operating under strict, sometimes bizarre, rules and rituals–some of which protected ordinary citizens from their activities–the digit-missing, tattooed yakuza were believed to keep crime and disorder in check. The yakuza absorbed delinquents into well-disciplined organizations, it was said, and thus minimized street crime.

After World War II, police borrowed gangster forces to suppress riots by Koreans and Chinese, and they have continued to stay in close touch.

The yakuza now appear to be replicating the pattern of other organized crime groups, such as the Italian Mafia. “The yakuza are following the same path . . . , ” said Kanehiro Hoshino, a director at the National Research Institute of Police Science. Like the Mafia, the yakuzamoved from store-front protection rackets to illegal “victimless” crimes such as gambling and prostitution and are now setting up legitimate big businesses as fronts.

The financial and political clout of the yakuza emerges from police surveillance of the Inagawakai and Yamaguchigumi.

The Yamaguchigumi, Japan’s largest yakuza group, has grown five-fold in the last six years to 26,000 members. They have done this by swallowing smaller gangs, whose members have told police that the power of belonging to big-name organizations more than compensates for the large monthly payments they must make to their new leaders.

As for the Inagawakai, police investigations recently disclosed that their former leader, Susumi Ishii, had $250 million in such blue-chip holdings as Nomura Securities and Tokyu Corp., a private railway company.

Prescott Bush Helped

Local bosses also were impressed to learn that Hokusho Sangyo, one of Ishii’s investment companies, borrowed more than $250 million from Nikko and Nomura finance subsidiaries and used part of the money to buy two companies and a large piece of land in the United States with the help of Prescott Bush, President Bush’s brother.

“This is like Godfather Part III,” said Hiroshi Ishizuka, a chief superintendent in the National Police Agency’s Criminal Investigation Bureau. “They (yakuza) are using money to get into the mergers and acquisitions business.”

Police say Ishii, who retired last fall from the Inagawakai because he was ill, represents a new breed of financially savvy gangster who appears to be taking extortion to new heights by attacking Japan’s largest companies. Although it is unclear what Ishii’s interests were in the United States and in his stock holdings, Ishizuka said, “When it comes to yakuza we assume their intentions are evil.”

The Japanese are taking steps to tackle their organized crime problem. The Japanese legislature passed a new law this spring aimed atboryokudan (violent groups). Considered largely synonymous with yakuza, they are defined by law as groups in which a large proportion of members are ex-convicts.

Under the law, which takes effect next spring, police can, after one warning, arrest gangsters for doing little more than scaring away customers at a coffee shop by talking loudly, a tactic yakuza use to force shop owners to pay protection money. The law also forbids gangs to use their offices for three months after disturbances such as gang shootings. It seeks to bar gangs from recruiting minors and helps to set up centers for citizens to file complaints about yakuza activities.

While the law falls far short of America’s strong anti-racketeering statutes, Japanese officials see it as a way to turn off the yakuzas ‘ money and to crack down on crime syndicates.

“In the past, there was a symbiotic relationship between the police and the yakuza ,” said Kuniko Inoguchi, a Sophia University professor and police advisory committee member. “Many argued that yakuza control over young delinquents contributed to the low crime rate on Japan’s city streets. Now the yakuza are going international by connecting with the Mafia and Asian gangs. The police have decided that unorganized crime is easier to control than organized crime.”

But Yukio Yamanouchi, a lawyer for the Yamaguchigumi who recently spent a short time in jail for extortion, predicts that the main effect of the law will be to drive hard-core gangsters underground. And without yakuza families, he said, juvenile street crime may soar.

Tatsuya Suzuki, a former policeman and a commentator on yakuza , questions how serious the police are about breaking the gangs. “You go to Kabutocho (entertainment district) and you will see policemen saying ‘yes, sir’ to gangsters,” Suzuki said. “The yakuza’s roots in society are too deep to easily pull out.”

Ran Gambling Dens

Historians trace the yakuza to the 17th Century, when disciplined gangs ran gambling dens along highways. Today, police count 88,600 gangsters, all neatly organized in pyramid syndicates with each yakuza tied to a “father figure” through rituals involving ceremonial drinking of sake. While their number had been falling sharply since 1964, when membership in the syndicates peaked at 184,000, it inexplicably has been growing again.

Police regularly visit gang offices and have detailed organization charts of the syndicates. They have conducted surveys on their habits and activities.

Who are the yakuza ? Many come from communities that the Japanese historically have discriminated against, such as the Korean minority and the burakumin, social outcasts whose work–such as butchering and leather-tanning–was considered unclean for religious or cultural reasons. Younger gangsters are often supported by girlfriends or wives who work as prostitutes to launch their lovers’ careers.

Police said that 75% of yakuza have tattoos across their torsos; almost 50% have lost part of their little finger. Most say they were attracted to their work by the “cool” life of gambling and women. Gangsters don’t try to hide their loyalties. Of 453 imprisoned yakuzasurveyed by police last fall, 65% said they planned to rejoin their gang once freed.

The yakuza draw their strength from a society that operates on two levels: a surface level on which form is crucial and most adhere to strict social standards, and a hidden level on which almost anything goes. When conduct from the hidden level is revealed, it can ruin careers. Yakuza take advantage of this social duplicity to extort money.

One gangster tentacle that reveals the power of this kind of extortion are the sokaiya, shady characters who work with yakuza and take payoffs from corporations for controlling shareholder meetings.

Sokaiya pressure companies to hire them by threatening to reveal dirty secrets they have uncovered through their extensive contacts. After Japanese legislators passed a law in 1981 to address the sokaiya problem, the number of these operators fell from 10,000 to less than a tenth of that number. But many have continued to find other ways to extract money from companies with something to hide.

Satoshi Yamamoto–a leader of the Rondan Doyukai, a sokaiya group–said the sokaiya have survived, for example, by publishing magazines that threaten to print negative stories if companies don’t pay up.

In a poll conducted last fall by the national police agency, 40% of 2,000 companies surveyed said they had been contacted by extortion groups; 33% of those contacted said they paid amounts ranging from $1,000 to $724,000.

Although not all sokaiya are also yakuza, Yamamoto said both groups function by “doing the dirty things that companies can’t do themselves.” The groups, for example, may “persuade” a customer not to complain about a product.

Yakuza have also diversified. Many work for real estate developers who want to get rid of tenants who are viewed as obstacles to new building projects.

Many of those activities will be illegal under the new anti-gang law. But The Boss, bejeweled in his Tokyo unit, is unfazed, saying, “I have a lawyer to guide me” on the legality of any new ventures. And, he added, his tactics are now more subtle: He won’t run bulldozers into people’s homes to force them out as gangs once did. “I get friendly with them and persuade them to negotiate.”

Business opportunities remain abundant. The Boss, who asked not to be identified, said many borrowers have been forced into his arms by the current state of tight money. He said that he will lend as much as $1 million with the right introductions. But his men will wait days in front of a borrower’s home to collect, and he warned that there is nowhere in Japan that debtors can flee to escape his gang.

$10 Billion a Year

Police estimate total gangster earnings at $10 billion a year, an average of $115,000 annually per yakuza. Some observers put the total as high as $30 billion. Local gang families send in as much as $4,000 a month to bosses, who, in turn, pass much of that sum up the line.

It is this money, in part, that Ishii of the Inagawakai appears to have used to buy stock in large firms as a wedge for extortion efforts. Police investigations may have halted Ishii’s attempts to use this tactic via his huge investment in Tokyu Corp.–using money borrowed from Nomura and Nikko in 1989, observers believe. (When Nomura was recently accused of lending money to Ishii without following proper procedures, its defense was that Ishii received special consideration because he was an important longtime customer).

Hokusho Sangyo, a company controlled by Ishii, hired Prescott Bush as adviser through its investment arm, West Tsusho. Munenobu Shoji, Hokusho’s president, told the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest daily, that he made the U.S. investments through Bush because the company’s gangster ties limited the company’s expansion potential in Japan. He believed that Bush would make a good adviser because “Bush is a financial consultant and knows many influential people such as the presidents of South Korea and the Philippines,” Shoji said. (Yakuza have extensive business activities in both those countries.)

Many believe that Ishii, besides involving the Inagawakai, also initiated the Yamaguchigumi into the world of high finance, as he helped the current leader of the Yamaguchigumi attain his post and has since worked closely with the rival gang.

While the expanded role of gangsters has alarmed police, it is the yakuza treatment of ordinary Japanese that has the public up in arms–with many turning to local officials and the courts in their campaigns against mobsters.

For centuries, the gangsters’ code forbade them to injure bystanders. But battles between yakuza groups increasingly have ended in casualties. In Okinawa alone, there were 28 incidents of gang shootings last fall. One proved fatal to a high school student repairing the fence at a gang headquarters. In December, the locals banded together and persuaded police to shut that office.

In another neighborhood, where residents used spotlights and video cameras to track visitors at a gang office, the targeted yakuza leader sued residents for infringing on his civil rights.

In Kyoto, the gang boss of the Kawamuragumi set up his office in an apartment only to begin blasting out walls, digging to build a new basement and using neighbors’ parking spaces. When residents complained, they were roughed up; one was taken hostage for days. Angry apartment dwellers finally fought back, filing a lawsuit to force the gangsters to give up ownership of the complex.

“For a long time, residents were too scared to speak up, (but now) we won’t feel safe until they leave,” said Mitsuko Mochizuki, an English literature professor at a nearby university. She owns one of the apartments and helped organize the residents late last year.

To encourage its residents to pursue legal action against gangsters, the town of Tokorosawa in Saitama prefecture recently offered to lend them up to $7,000.

The yakuza have countered with some moves of their own.

The Yamaguchigumi, for example, has sought to improve its image by advertising that its members have no involvement with illegal drugs. This campaign, however, flies in the face of police figures showing that a third of their drug arrests are of Yamaguchigumi members, who authorities insist are progressing from dealing in amphetamines to the business of importing cocaine.

Other gangster groups, meantime, have tried to gain greater public acceptance by making large donations to disaster victims. A Yamaguchigumi branch, for example, donated to relief efforts for a town damaged by the volcanic eruption of Mt. Unzen.

Signs Coming Down

The yakuza also appear to have recognized that they no longer can operate openly by displaying their names at their office entrances or sporting gang pins on their lapels.

“In Japan, the gangs put their mark on their offices as if it were a McDonald’s,” Yamanouchi, the Yamaguchigumi lawyer once said. Now, he said, signs are coming down and police will have a tougher time tracking the gangs.

Senior police insist they will destroy the yakuza. “We won’t get rid of them immediately, but we will gradually cut off their sources of income,” said Ishizuka of the national police. He said the next step is to introduce a money-laundering law much like that in the United States.

As for The Boss in Tokyo, he figures there will always be yakuza as long as people demand their services. He takes his greatest pride, he said, in having “persuaded” an uninsured driver who killed another motorist to support the dead man’s family. “These are things that can’t be handled by law or by the police,” he said.

The Boss added that the yakuza also will remain a part of Japanese society because there are always social misfits looking for a place to belong.

“Isn’t it true?” he called out to his driver with the missing pinkie.

“Yeah, I like it better when I’m with everybody!” the driver responded.

Accompanying the Prime Minister to Washington D.C.

January 16, 2013

Media : All on Board for Miyazawa : An American joined the prime minister on his recent U.S. trip to see a kisha club in action.
ABOARD SPECIAL JAPANESE GOVERNMENT PLANE — As the jet takes off and heads across the Pacific Ocean for America, Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa leaves his spacious cabin at the front to say a few words to the reporters at the back.

The 33 members of the press group await him, holding flute glasses filled with champagne. “I see there are a lot of real veteran reporters on this trip,” says Miyazawa, adding that he wants to “build a relationship of trust (with President Clinton) so we can deal with most problems on the phone.”
Now it’s the turn of the leader of the prime minister’s kisha (press) club to rise and offer a toast. “We pray for your success in seeking to build a relationship of trust with America,” says the group leader as he lifts his glass. ” Kampai !”

” Kampai !” the reporters toast in turn.

Thus begins Miyazawa’s trip to the United States with press coverage handled by a band of respectful, almost loyal reporters.

When Miyazawa flew to Washington this month, he sought to present Japan as an open society ready to take up new responsibilities as an equal partner with America. But the kisha club Miyazawa took with him is an example of the special social institutions that sometimes can make Japan appear impenetrable to outsiders. And the trip provided a rare opportunity for an American reporter allowed to travel with the group to watch one of the more powerful of those institutions in action.

Close ties between reporters and the people they cover is hardly unusual in Japan. There are about 400 kisha clubs throughout Japan. They act as news cartels that grant members special access to the government agencies, political parties and industry groups they cover. In exchange, the reporters abide by an unwritten pact that commits them to avoid embarrassing the officials or ministries they cover.

Membership in the clubs is limited to a core group of mainstream Japanese daily newspapers. Non-members, which include magazine and small-circulation newspaper reporters, are excluded from briefings and press conferences, although foreigners are occasionally allowed in some clubs as observers.

The power of the kisha club is considerable. When Miyazawa gave a rare interview to a group of American correspondents shortly before leaving for Washington, his kisha club demanded that they be briefed about the interview as soon as it was over.

Each Jan. 1, the prime minister gives a special interview to reporters from his constituency in Hiroshima. The kisha club will only allow the interview on the condition that local reporters be forbidden to ask questions of national interest.

On the Washington trip, one thing immediately became obvious: The power of the kisha club does not translate into better or more critical reporting. Rub shoulders with the White House press corps and you are liable to get a stream of the latest irreverent jokes about the Administration. The questions to the President and his spokespersons can be blunt–even obnoxious. The Japanese reporters, however, treat their prime minister with kid gloves. “What demands do you expect from the American side?” Miyazawa is asked during a brief session on the plane. His response: “Clinton is trying to deal with his deficits so I expect there will be some requests.”

American reporters are eager to find an original angle on a story. The Japanese reporters huddle to make sure they not only agree on the important points but have the same quotes. “Sometimes what he says isn’t very clear so we discuss it among ourselves to agree on an interpretation,” one reporter explains.

There is little criticism of the prime minister. A few reporters grumble that Miyazawa’s cabin on this aircraft is bigger than their own living rooms, and that it represents a waste of taxpayer money. The $260-million plane, the largest Boeing produces, was purchased as part of Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone’s effort to cut Japan’s trade surplus. It was delivered in the fall of 1991 but has been used only twice. It contains a large conference room–but one that can’t be used because of the airplane noise. Japanese press reports include none of this detail.

In many ways, the traveling kisha club is no different than the typical Japanese tour group. On arrival, the group is invited by the Japanese Embassy to a steakhouse where a table is set for 40. The dinner is ordered in advance. The Embassy host explains that the restaurant has virtually every beer imaginable. But when one reporter orders Heineken, all the rest choose the same beer to avoid causing trouble.

At the Madison Hotel, the working press room set up for the kisha club reporters is a Japanese sanctuary. There are Japanese box lunches of rice and pickles. There are bags of rice crackers and cartons of sake. A special room has been crammed full of tax-free goods specifically aimed at the Japanese reporters.

The American aboard is ignored by the Japanese reporters until the morning after arriving in Washington, when the group is led into the Oval Office, where Clinton and Miyazawa are posing for photographers and TV cameras. “What did you mean, Mr. President, when you said that Japanese say ‘yes’ when they mean ‘no’?” asks a Japanese reporter, referring to a remark Clinton made to Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin in Vancouver this month.

“I don’t know whether to answer yes or no,” says Clinton. Then Miyazawa pipes up: “It reminds me of the song, ‘Yes, We Have No Bananas.’ ” Back in the bus, the reporters call on the American in their midst to explain the significance of the remarks.

The Japanese reporters, however, become clearly uncomfortable when the American colleague asks about a briefing that he discovers has been scheduled that evening with Miyazawa. They clearly don’t want him there. After negotiations with the group leader and the Foreign Ministry public affairs office, it is eventually agreed that the American may attend. The ground rule: The discussion is to be limited to domestic politics. No questions will be asked about Miyazawa’s historic meeting that morning with Clinton.

The kisha club jealously guards its prerogatives. At one point, the group leader calls a meeting to discuss a serious breach of conduct. A Washington-based Japanese reporter, they have discovered, has used information from a briefing in an evening edition instead of waiting until the next morning’s edition as the club members had agreed. It is decided that the club’s officers will determine what sanctions to impose.

Back on the plane and headed home, the champagne is poured again, and the prime minister is there to give his little talk. “Thank you for all your trouble. You must be very tired,” he says. “I have to say with respect to your reporting that it was not quite accurate in representing the situation,” he adds, suggesting that he and Clinton are not as far apart on trade issues as their press conference may have indicated.

Rather than get the prime minister to clarify his position, the group leader maintains the harmony by apologizing. “We are sorry if we may have oversimplified the issues, but please understand that we were writing under a tight deadline. And as you know, most of us are not well versed on economic issues.”

Evidently peace has been established, because shortly before the plane lands, the crew delivers a bottle of 17-year-old Scotch to each reporter as a personal gift from the prime minister.


My Story on Contempt for America Raised a Storm of Protest

January 16, 2013

Below is the story I published in the Los Angeles Times that caused a fuss and forced me to rethink my attitude towards Japan.

COLUMN ONE : In Japan, Scorn for America : Some see a nation that has fallen from grace. Others express open contempt. Gut-level dislike of the U.S. is now common enough that the Japanese have coined a word for it.


TOKYO — “As a Japanese coming from the Land of the Sun that boasts such works as ‘The Tale of Genji,’ I have nothing but contempt for America,” says Toshiro Ishido, a popular movie script writer.

Akiyuki Nosaka, a famous novelist, calls America a country of “refugees, a nouveau riche country.” Looking at the United States, he says, is like watching “a test run for the decline of the human race.”

“We have to go out of our way to find American products worth buying,” says Takuma Yamamoto, chairman of Fujitsu Ltd. One professor calls America a “vegetating nation,” while another suggests condescendingly that the United States should “become a premier agrarian power–a giant version of Denmark.”

That’s a sampling of the grim views of the United States from a small but influential group of Japanese businessmen and intellectuals. They say America is plagued by crime, poverty and drugs, its families are disintegrating and its children are illiterate. It is a power-hungry country that can destroy Iraq but is incapable of balancing its budget. Its industry is uncompetitive and its executives a bunch of “crybabies” who make no real effort to get into the Japanese market.

“There is something wrong with American society,” says Kazuo Ogura, director general of the cultural affairs department at Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and one of America’s harsher critics. “The United States used to be a model for us to emulate, but now that sense is gone.” Even Japan’s Americanized youngsters, Ogura says, have grown anti-American in their thinking.

In its gentlest forms, this view represents a sad, almost nostalgic sense of loss over America’s fall from grace, a sort of Paradise Lost.

At its worst, the attitude exudes open contempt for America and its people. Japanese have even coined a word for it: kenbei. Literally, it means a gut-level dislike of America, as distinguished from the more commonly used term, hanbei, or anti-American, a term used to describe the Socialist Party’s ideological opposition to Japan’s military alliance with America.

Magazines have trooped out Japanese from all walks of life to comment on such themes as “Why is there kenbei today?” “Can we love Americans now?” and “Why I hate Americans.” Shintaro Ishihara, who once shocked Americans with outspoken comments against the United States in his book “The Japan That Can Say No,” now seems tame by comparison.

“The quality of this contempt is new in writings about Japan,” says Chalmers Johnson, political science professor at UC San Diego. He suggests that the views are widely held by Japanese opinion-makers and that the resulting “emotional friction” may suggest that “Japanese and Americans do not want any longer to be allies.”

The rising feeling of kenbei is really no more than a step in Japan’s process of growing up, counters Seizaburo Sato, a University of Tokyo professor and author of a confidential Foreign Ministry study on the kenbei phenomenon. “The youngster (Japan) is getting stronger while the father (America) is getting older and, like sons so often do, he rebels,” Sato says.

Unlike the hanbei Socialists, those of the kenbei persuasion recognize that Japan must continue to depend on America. As Sato puts it, “The son rebels, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t need his father.” But what is disturbing to some observers is the sense that kenbei has spread beyond intellectuals and reached the young people who, while always ambivalent about Americans, have generally had some warm feelings toward them.

“When I get together with friends to talk, we are all kenbei, ” says Tsumoru Kobayashi, a 24-year-old reporter for Shukan Post, a popular weekly magazine, flushing somewhat in admitting the fact to an American. “We don’t understand why America should be criticizing us when we are economically stronger. Who do Americans think they are?”

Kobayashi says many of his corporate friends even want Japan to break off the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty and get rid of the American bases, although he thinks that is going too far. “If there is more Japan-bashing as a result of the Pearl Harbor anniversary, the kenbei could get much worse,” Kobayashi says. “People are hypersensitive about criticism right now.”

Ivan Hall, professor of political science at Gakushuin University in Tokyo, says the growing belief that America is in decline makes it particularly hard for Japan to swallow criticism from across the Pacific. “The humiliation of having to follow America was made bearable by the idea that America was the model. When that model is slipping, it’s confusing and unpleasant,” says Hall.

It is far from clear how widely this feeling has spread. In a survey last summer conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun, this country’s largest daily newspaper, 24% of those polled cited America as the greatest threat to Japan’s safety compared to 21.8% who cited the Soviet Union. Yomiuri’s pollsters say, however, that a more recent poll is more positive about America and suggests that those earlier fears were a temporary reaction to America’s aggressive role in the Persian Gulf War.

Japanese in surveys have for years consistently rated America the most trustworthy nation, and they continue to do so. Japanese still like the openness of Americans and their willingness to fight for such ideas as the environment and political freedom.

Nevertheless, American officials say the kenbei phenomenon is not something to be ignored. “With the President’s visit coming up, it is obviously something we should look at,” says a U.S. official, referring to President Bush’s trip to Japan in late November.

“Japan’s tendency to draw paranoiac interpretations feeds on itself and can develop quickly,” says Hall, who adds that America needs to act soon if it is to stamp out the sentiment before it leads to “an emotional break” between the two countries.

The United States needs to launch a public relations campaign, suggests Katsumi Samada, a director of the Socialist Party’s policy board. He notes, for example, that consumer groups have linked moral corruption in America to the inappropriate use of chemicals on fruits and have used the argument to fight against imports of fruit.

One wild card in the equation is Kiichi Miyazawa, the veteran politician expected to be Japan’s next prime minister.

“Miyazawa is somewhat anti-American,” says one political observer close to Miyazawa, who notes that unpleasant experiences with Americans after the war gave the politician an “inferiority complex.” Unless Miyazawa’s hard-line statements against Japan-bashers in the United States are balanced by a recognition of what Japan must do to change, the observer adds, “he could be dangerous; he could reinforce the sense of chauvinism and nationalism.”

Observers on both sides of the Pacific fault the Japanese media for overplaying Japan-bashing in the United States. The press focuses on such rhetoric in America to such an extent that it sometimes appears to Japanese as if the U.S. Congress does little else but criticize Japan.

One publication ran a cover expose that cited “confidential sources” in Washington who argued that last summer’s string of Japanese financial scandals were all arranged by the CIA in order to undercut the power of Japan’s Ministry of Finance.

Environmentalists, too, are portrayed as conducting a vendetta against the Japanese. When American environmentalists criticized Japan for overfishing certain types of tuna, Japanese weeklies exploded in outrage.

“What, Don’t Eat Tuna!? Outrageous!!” screamed the headline of an article in Shukan Bunshun, a respected weekly magazine. “Finally they are bashing our food culture,” the article complained, quoting a wholesaler who predicted: “Soon they will ban fishing, and then all Japan will be ruined.”

Glen Fukushima, a former U.S. trade representative now with AT&T in Japan, says Japanese reporters often prod Americans into making outrageous statements. As early as 1989, he recalls, reporters were fishing around for anti-Japanese congressmen to make inflammatory comments regarding the 50th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

But it is not just press reporting on America that is responsible. Japanese cringe at the way Americans have boasted of their victory over Iraq and of the failure of communism.

“Americans are just too arrogant,” says Hirotaka Toyokawa, a young science writer. “What we don’t like is their self-righteousness. They think that justice is always on their side.”

Toyokawa is among the more enlightened of the America critics. He believes that the United States should gradually drift in the direction of less individualism by cutting huge executive salaries, while Japan should gradually shift in the U.S. direction, toward greater emphasis on individualism.

There are also more eccentric explanations for kenbei , suggesting that it has cultural roots that cannot easily be yanked out. Shu Kishida, a professor at Wako University, says that using a Freudian approach to history, he concluded that ever since Commodore Matthew Perry forced Japan to open its gates to trade over a century ago, the spirit of the Japanese people has been split–between an outer self that obeys and follows America for practical reasons and an inner self that responds emotionally to the American invasion of Japanese culture.

“Once in a while, that suppressed feeling of hostility explodes, as in Pearl Harbor,” Kishida says. “Now it is still being suppressed, but it is breaking loose. If something bad happens, it could come out.”

Many of the attitudes toward America grow out of Japan’s own sense of its historical uniqueness and cultural superiority. Europe has music, philosophy and art, Nosaka the novelist says, then adds cheekily, “By the way, my boy America, what do you have?

“Since Poe and Faulkner, all the culture you’ve come up with is McDonald’s hamburgers,” Nosaka says.

Like that of many America-bashers, Nosaka’s resentment is drawn from prewar propaganda and from the days of Japan’s defeat. Since Japan was “abused and brainwashed” by America after the war, he asks, “how can Japan ever love America?”

Nosaka and his allies believe that Japan must maintain friendly ties with America. But his rationale is revealing: “You have to be careful to a wounded lion.”

Many of the criticisms of America strike a responsive chord because they touch on long-held stereotypes of Westerners. Frequent Japanese media reports of Japan-bashing in the United States, for example, grow out of prewar views of Westerners as devils, argues John Dower, a historian at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. That same stereotype surfaces in Japan’s post-Gulf War view of America as war-loving.

Much of the criticism is directed more broadly at the West rather than specifically at the United States. America is the target because “America is the immediate edge of the fist that is hitting them,” says Hall, the political science professor, referring to U.S. efforts to force open Japanese markets.

Another cultural trait that feeds this sentiment is the Japanese tendency to look at relationships in hierarchical terms. With Japanese talking of the American economy as “a big ship which has turned off its engine and is just coasting,” few feel that there is any reason to follow America’s lead.

“We have entered an age when Washington must look to Tokyo for money to fund a war and the U.S. defense industry would face a crisis without Japanese technology,” says the Foreign Ministry’s Ogura, who argues that for the two nations to get along, the United States must accept that mutually dependent relationship.

Some of Japan’s criticism represents a natural result of an attitude that once viewed the United States as something of a paradise. Much of the rumination is over the “good old days” when America was strong and its values were still like those found in the TV series “Little House on the Prairie.”

Jiroo Ushio, chairman of Ushio Electric, recalls being impressed by the orderly, religious, peaceful nature of American life when he studied there in the 1960s. Even then, he says, students who were friendly when he plodded along awkwardly in class suddenly became hostile when he received better grades. Jealousy, he suggests, is also the reason America is now turning sour on Japan.

Michiko Hasekawa, professor at Saitama University, waxes nostalgic about the good old days when Glenn Miller could be heard on the Far East Network, the military radio station. Recently, while watching a World War II movie, she felt an instinctive bitterness at the sight of American soldiers raising the flag over Iwo Jima. Since then, she says, “I can relate to America with a kind of distant yearning as it once again becomes an enemy.”

Some of the complaining represents insecurity on the part of Japanese who feel they now must play a world role but don’t feel ready for it, says Ogura. “Japan is not yet ready to take action, and the result is a lot of frustration that is projected onto the United States,” he says.

But these days Japanese are quicker to attack Americans and American culture and complain of the incessant badgering for Japan to open its markets, change its business culture and even change its American-imposed constitution so it can send troops overseas. There are some who now suggest that Japanese should not be spending so much time studying English but should be focusing on Asian languages.

America’s changing portrayal of itself has also had an effect here. American movies are still very popular in Japan, but they present a different picture of life than they did 20 years ago. Where Hollywood once showed an America of middle-class homes in the suburbs and people living happy lives filled with trivial problems, today’s movies portray inner-city war zones, police violence and family strife.

And increasingly, Japanese have begun to talk of differences in values over such fundamental issues as free markets and human rights. Should the United States be preaching free markets when it cannot make its industry competitive? Should America be speaking of human rights when its own citizens are not safe in their streets?

When Americans pushed Japan to liberalize its financial markets more quickly, Ministry of Finance officials quickly responded that America was in no position to give advice, considering the way it handled its savings and loan debacle. When America pushes Japan to develop product liability laws, commentators warn that Japanese courts will be tied up in nonsense lawsuits of the sort that U.S. courts must endure.

Ultimately, much of Japan’s ill will toward the United States grows out of a sense that Americans have never made a sufficient effort to understand this nation’s complex culture. An American visitor sitting at a sushi bar recently was taken aback when the sushi chef thrust a large chunk of blood-red meat in front of his face.

“Take some of this–it’s whale meat,” the chef said in a challenging tone. “You know why the whales have disappeared? It’s because Americans used up all the whales for dog food.”

When the American visitor ordered the whale and downed a plate of it, the chef’s hostility eased somewhat. “We have to get you Americans to eat this sort of thing,” he said patronizingly. “Then you’ll understand.”

What’s the Book About?

January 16, 2013

Over the many years that I worked on Yokohama Yankee, every time someone asked me what the book was about, I struggled to answer. It’s about Japan and my family and adoption I would mumble. It wasn’t until I started receiving endorsements, the blurbs that go on the back of the book, that I began to understand what ought to have been obvious from the start. I was writing a book about race and identity.

I failed to see this because I regarded myself as white. When discussing issues of race, being white rarely seems a matter of interest. Race typically comes up in the United States in the context of diversity or discrimination.. Whites still have many advantages by virtue of being the dominant race, in spite of efforts at affirmative action.

Yet, in the course of writing my book and doing research on my father and my grandfather’s family, I came to understand that the experience of racism can be transmitted even if the skin color is not.

My father, for example, was beaten by his father whenever he spoke Japanese. He was half-Japanese but he was an American citizen. He left Japan with his family to live out the war years in California. There he had to hide his Japanese heritage for his family risked being sent to the internment camps where all people of Japanese blood were being detained. Dad studied Japanese during the war and served in the U.S. Occupation of Japan. There, too, he hid his Japanese.

That experience was a deep part of Dad’s psyche and resulted in a kind of split personality. Dad could be kind and generous to the Japanese, but at the same time he could act in the most racist way toward them. And he was deeply insecure and unsure about his identity. He transmitted that uncertainty to me. Without ever being aware of it, I inherited that split identity. I always thought it had more to do with growing up as an :”outsider” in Japan. And I’m sure that experience exacerbated things. But ultimately, it was more about the absence of a core identity as either  Japanese or American. I’ve learned that, this is not such a terrible thing. There are many people in the world like me. There are the first generation immigrants who are slowly losing the ways of their mother country the longer they stay in America and yet continue to feel like outsiders here. It is a great feature of America that, in spite of instances of racism, this country is more open to people of other cultures than just about any other country in the world. We have had to. Because, if you think about it, that’s who we are as a nation.. . .


The book is finished

January 12, 2013

Yokohama Yankee is finally finished. I’ve made the last changes I can make before the file goes to the printer. I’m happy with the book, but its an odd feeling. I remember a writer who said that she didn’t want to write a memoir because that would set her life in stone. She could no longer change or shape her past. I’m not sure I completely agree with her, but there is a lot of truth to what she says. Writing about yourself and your family is a process of self-revelation. Of course there is the years of research and the countless interviews. But all that information is filtered and transformed into narrative in the process of writing. The writing itself shapes the memory and what you remember of an event. Even if I write another book, I won’t be able to change that.

Even so, it’s good to have the book completed. I remember going through my great- grandfather’s reminiscences and wishing there were more details. I remember opening my grandmother Betty Stucken Helm’s notebook and reading the first few paragraphs of what was supposed to be her life’s story. She ended with  “Oh the stories I could tell.”  My father, too, made an effort to start a family history. He went on for two or three pages before ending. Now I have a book. It’s intensely personal. I look at the five generations of my family in Japan through my own feeling of growing up as an outsider in Japan and adopting two children there. Relatives who grew up in New Zealand, Germany or the United States may have a very different take on  the family. My uncle, for example, was unhappy with my portrayal of his father. But he was a younger child and he had a very different experience of his father than my father Don. I suspect there could be 10 memoirs written of the Helm family’s long presence in Japan and they could all be very different. One might glorify the family. Another might focus on the business. Since I started my exploration from the perspective of being an outsider, I have no doubt that this particular portal into the family color the decisions I made about what to write and how to portray it.

The book is done and I’m nervous. I feel very exposed and vulnerable. But I feel good about what I’ve written.


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