Category Archives for Stories

Asian Review of Books has some nice things to say

August 1, 2013

I love the fact that my book is being enjoyed by both academics and non-academics. Here’s a nice piece in the Asian Review of Books by Ray Moore, Professor of Japanese History and the founder of Asian Studies at Amherst College:

Yokohama Yankee: My Family’s Five Generations as Outsiders in Japan by Leslie Helm

reviewed by Ray Moore

30 June 2013 — Leslie Helm was born and raised in Yokohama after World War II, attended Yokohama International School from nursery through high school, then earned his B.A. in political science and M.A. in Asian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and studied journalism at Columbia University. He was a business reporter in Seattle before returning to Tokyo as a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times in 1990. He and his wife adopted two Japanese children, and he began research into his family history using memoirs, letters, interviews and personal recollections.

The result is Yokohama Yankee: My Family’s Five Generations as Outsiders in Japan, a fascinating account of his multinational, biracial family in Japan. Reproducing many of these primary sources, this family history provides insight into the many interactions between Japanese and Americans for 140 years.

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Visiting Japan: A tense six talks in five days during which I voyage into the past and. perhaps, into the future.

July 30, 2013

I’ve always had trouble when it comes to speaking in front of people. So I was terrified enough when my high school, YIS, asked me last fall to be the commencement speaker for the class of 2013. That’s a heavy responsibility. But it’s also a long trip. And since my book was coming out a few months before the June graduation, I decided to tack on some book talks.

Before I knew it I had scheduled six talks in five days. Two of the talks where one-and-a-half hour sessions in Japanese! I hadn’t given a speech in Japanese in 30 years. And never for more than 15 minutes. Now they were asked me to give 45-minute talks. I could feel the tension rising as the day approached.

I wasn’t going to wing these talks. I wrote out my commencement speech and my book speech. And I asked a Japanese friend, Kozy Amemiya, to translate my book speech into Japanese. I planned to read it.But I hadn’t read Japanese aloud since I was in grade school. And my Japanese was very rusty. But it was a challenge I wanted to take on. It was about time I did something to improve my Japanese. But I didn’t have enough time to prepare while working full time, so I had another friend, Yoko, read the speech into a digital tape recorder so I could listen to it and get the rhythm of the talk down.

On the 9-hour trip to Japan, I spent almost the entire time listening to the speech on my digital recorder as I followed the text. There were so many kanji characters I couldn’t read so I had to jot down phonetic notes to help me along. The more I practiced, the more I realized how foolish I had been to agree to speak for 45 minutes in Japanese. I’ve never given an English speech that lasted more than 30 minutes, I suddenly realized.

One benefit: My short book speeches in English now seemed easy. When I stood before three hundred or so students and parents at the Yokohama International School graduation on Saturday morning, I was relaxed. Everyone seemed attentive and that added to my confidence.

But it was hot in the room and the ceremony went on and on. It was steaming hot in the auditorium. For some reason the decision was made not to open the windows. Yet there was no air conditioning, so the school had given out Japanese fans to everyone, and the audience were all fanning themselves as I stood up on the podium.

The talk went well, I thought. I had spent 14 or 15 years at that school so it was an emotional experience. But I knew the audience and that helped me get my message across. Most of them, like me, had spent much of their lives in Yokohama. And like me, many were part Japanese. Mixtures of Japanese and South African, Australian and every flavor of European.One of the graduates was the son of a YIS alumni who I knew. Two of my former high school teachers were there. They gave me high marks for the talk.

The following day, Sunday, I gave my book talk at the Yokohama Country & Athletic Club. Here was another place where I had spent much of my youth. As I waited to speak, I looked over at the huge athletic field in the distance. There were two Japanese teams playing soccer. The club was now facing hard times so it was renting the field to any team willing to pay. There was game after game. The field was never idle as it had often been in my day. The lawn bowl green was much as I had remembered it. Everybody in their whites, playing quietly, as if there was all in a silent film. I peeked my head in the bowling alley next door to the room where I was speaking. With just four lanes, the bowling alley seemed tiny. And nobody was playing so it felt empty, almost haunted. In my day it had always been packed, the sounds of bowling pins crashing flooded the room with a constant clatter.And I thought I could hear the distant echo of that sound as I looked down the dark empty alleys.

I knew the  YC&AC audience would be tougher than any audience in the United States, Japan was nothing knew to them. Many of them had lived in Japan for generations. Many of them were part Japanese. Many of them knew my father. I wasn’t sure how they would react. Soon after I finished my talk, one woman stood up feeling clearly a little irritated. “I don’t know why you are carrying all this baggage,” she said. “I’m half-Japanese and I’m proud of it.”  A man got up to say I had been too hard on my father. He said my father had helped him so much when he had been down and out and that I should know what a good man my father had been. I nodded my head. It was true. He had helped many people out. I felt myself feeling smaller.

Then John Hasegawa stood up. I had know him as Johnny Paul. He had been several grades ahead of me at YIS. A bit of a mischief maker, as I recall. His mother had taught my Japanese class. John told the group that he knew exactly where I was coming from. He had been raised as John Paul because his mother knew he would have trouble growing up part-Japanese and had wanted him to have an identity as a foreigner. He later learned that Paul was a made up name. His real name was Hasegawa. Paul had long felt alienated both in Japan and in the U.S. He said my book touched a deep chord in him. And then there were many others who stood up to agree. Afterward, the box of books we had prepared quickly sold out. I felt I had passed some kind of test in front of the toughest audience.

But the next day, Monday, was yet another challenge. This time I was to speak at the Foreign Correspondence Club of Japan. This had been my home on two assignments as foreign correspondent. On my second assignment I had been vice president in charge of working with the club staff, so I knew many of the people who worked there. Only a few foreign correspondents were still there from my day, but I had also invited many Japanese friends to the talk, so there were close to a hundred in the audience. Many of the Japanese in the audience couldn’t understand my talk, but fortunately, before the talk we had a video in Japanese that had been put together by my translator, Yumiko, which gave the basics of my family story..

this talk when relatively well. The biggest challenge turned out to be trying to spend time afterward with all the different Japanese friends I had invited. Normally we met with people separately. We had never met two sets of friends together let alone several dozen. It was awkward. People pushed envelopes in my hand. When I got home, I was throwing away papers when I came across a blank, unopened envelope. When I opened it, I found 10 crisp $50 bills. When I finally figured out who the gift was from, I asked the friend why the gift. They had helped me, not the other way around. “Just a gift in celebration,” the friend said. .

Now I had a day off. On Tuesday, through contacts with a friend, I had the opportunity to meet a descendant of a Japanese shogun. He had read my book and loved it. He said he would mention it to some friends of his at NHK, Japan’s public television station. He looked at me soberly and said: “You know, there are just a few books that I read so thoroughly I take with me to the bathroom to read. This was one of them,”

Wednesday was my first Japanese talk. A professor who was a friend of Yumiko, the Japanese woman who is translating my book, had asked me to speak to her class at Yokohama City University. I figured that since it was a small class, there would be no problem. Still, I practiced several times again, listing to the tap of the speech any time I was sitting on a train.

But when I stood before that small class of no more than 30 students, I froze. The light wasn’t good, and I realized I had printed out the speech in letters that were too small to read easily. I felt like a third grader being asked to stand before the class and read a passage from a book full of difficult words I couldn’t pronounce. I struggled with many of the kanji characters and read much more slowly than I should have. Afterward, the students had few questions, and I found it awkward filling out the time. One young man who had spent most of his life in Canada, stopped by to talk to me afterward. “Why didn’t you just speak in English,” he asked. I was embarrassed.

I had another talk that afternoon in Tokyo. I took a train and subway to the German Institute for Japanese Studies. It is one of several institutes around the world sponsored by the German government. It supports serious research on a variety of current issues in Japan. Fortunately, I wasn’t expected to speak in German. I was please that John Campbell was there. He is a well known scholar of Japanese studies and I had read his work in college. There were several German scholars and a few foreign residents who had read the review of my book in the Japan Times earlier in the week. This time there were less than 10 people. It was fun talking to the group. One of the German scholars spoke of how many of the students of her generation used the dictionary written by my grandfather, Robert Schinzinger. “We used to say ‘Where’s my Schinzinger,” she recalled. There was much interest in the adoption system in Japan.

Finally, my last talk was at Rikkyo University, another class of Japanese students. But this time there were more than 80 students. I had practiced some more so this time my reading was a little better, although I was still embarrassingly slow. Fortunately, after the talk we had a vigorous question and answer session. While my talk was formal and a little stilted, now I could speak colloquial Japanese and I felt totally comfortable. The professor told me over drinks later that the Q&A session had been the best part. I promised myself that the next time, even if they asked me to speak 45 minutes, I would do only a short written speech and do the rest in a discussion format, which I enjoyed so much more.

The trip was rewarding, however, An editor from a Japanese publishing house attended my last talk and told me he was interested in publishing my book in Japanese. I met with a Japanese literary agency, Uni Japan, which is now representing me. They have presented proposals to five publishers and are waiting for a reply. So it was a busy week. But in a short time I had passed through several stages of my early life including the school, the athletic club and the press club. The Japanese talks presented me with a new challenge, one I will face again and again if all goes well and my book finally published in Japanese.




My Commencement Speech to the YIS Class of 2013, My 40th Reunion and the 40th anniversary of YIS as a full high school.

July 21, 2013

Congratulations graduates of the Yokohama International School Class of 2013. Congratulations mothers, fathers, teachers and all the rest of you who have played a role in raising these fine young men and women.

Thank you so much for letting me celebrate this special day with you. What an impressive group you are. You come from Australia, Canada, Denmark, China, Finland, Germany, India, Israel, Italy, the Philippines, New Zealand, South Africa, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. AND, of course, in every one of you, whether by blood or by culture or both, there is much of Japan, of Yokohama and of YIS. That’s a rich legacy, and as you go out into the world, treasure it for it will serve you well.

Never forget that you attended school and shared friendships in a very special city. Yokohama is a place where two great cultures of the West and East first came together in a major way 150 years ago. And all of you educated as you have been in a  multi-national, multi-ethnic, multicultural school. Those cross-cultural  smarts are part of your DNA. The world needs people like you. Don’t hide that talent. Nurture it. One day, when you least expect it you will find those talents a huge asset.

Yokohama is also synonymous with resilience. It has survived and thrived in the face of as much hardship as perhaps any city in the world. In 1866, soon after it was founded as a western settlement, virtually the whole town was wiped out by fire. In 1923, 90 years ago, a massive earthquake ignited a firestorm that killed 140,000 people in Tokyo and Yokohama.

Most foreigners left Yokohama. They believed nothing was left here for them. The rest went to work to rebuild the city. Among those hardy souls who had the gumption, the guts to build, from those ashes, a new school. Yokohama International School was founded just a year after the earthquake.  What greater symbol of hope can there be after a major disaster than to build a new school.

Just two decades later, Yokohama was once again destroyed, this time by firebombs. Yet Yokohama and YIS rose again. So as you go out into the world you face the hardships you will invariably face, remember Yokohama. Remember how it came back again and again and again.  Whatever sorrow, you must have the courage to face it, embrace it and then go on with life.

Look for the silver lining. In Japan, there is an old saying “with fire comes prosperity.” That’s because fires offer an opportunity to start afresh.

Five years ago I got into a fight with my boss and I was fired for the first time in my life. I was at times furious at other times depressed. But I took the time to renew old contacts and soon found another, better job. More importantly, I took the time to finish a book that was recently published. Getting fired turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me.

Like many of you, I spent a lot of time at YIS. In 1959, my first day of school, my father carried me over his shoulder to nursery school while I screamed. I was four years old. I ended up loving it. Nursery and kindergarten were the only grades in which I ever got straight A’s.

I struggle through a lot of school. I remember penmanship class. I was about 8. I sat at an old wooden desk as the teacher explained, yet again, that good penmanship would be key to my future.

I picked up my dip  pen. Seems like the middle ages but we still used a little stick with a steel nib at the end. I dipped the pen into the ink pot on my desk and began to write, watching as bubbles of ink formed on the curls of my ps and qs. After every few sentences, I picked up some blotting paper to soak up the extra ink. As I wrote there was this constant sense of impending disaster. You see, I knew that it was only a matter of time.

I would forget to use the blotting paper and the edge of my sleeve would catch  the bubbles of ink and smear them across the paper If penmanship with the key to the future, I was doomed.

I wish I could whisper in that little kids ear. “Don’t sweat it, in a couple of years they’ll have these really cool new devices called ballpoint pens. Since I also tended to have trouble organizing my thoughts, maybe I would also tell him about the computers that would make it so easy to rewrite things that even someone as scatter brained as I was could actually make a living as a writer. I don’t think I would have believed the future me.

So Lesson #1:  What often seem like insurmountable obstacles can suddenly disappear. Don’t be discouraged. If something interests you, if you care enough about it, you will be astonished by the force you have within you to accomplish what you want.

Let’s jump forward to 1969. I was in 8th grade. I didn’t want to change schools but it looked like I would have little choice. We had no high school at the time. A few teachers including Edward Bernard and Ian Kerr, who are here today, and a group of parents decided, why not create a high school. If you think about it, it was a crazy idea: to build a new high school on some of the most expensive land in Japan.

I expect creating a new school today would require years of study and endless meetings. But YIS just started adding one new grade every year. We were a pathetic lot at first. Nine people in my graduating class. I’m not sure how well we were prepared for college. But we survived. And the school just kept getting better and better.

So lesson two. Great things can come from small steps. The trick is to keep at it. That’s how we can make the world a better place. Start small, with something manageable. But keep at it. I know. Some things seem impossible. Climate scientists are telling us today that we are headed toward inevitable disaster. If we continue our current rate of carbon emissions, in less than a decade we could reach the point of no return. Temperatures rise, deserts spread, ocean levels climb and ocean acidification kills off most of the coral in the world. By 2050 something like a million species will disappear from the earth.

I have to admit it’s a scary prospect. But you know, in 1973 when I graduated from YIS, the Soviet Union and the United States were pointing thousands of nuclear weapons at each other. We knew that the world could come to an end at some point. It was just a question of time before some idiot pushed the button.

Miracles do happen. The cold war ended without destroying the planet. Of course, unlike with the cold war, when it comes to climate change every one in the planet needs to get involved. It will require every skill from engineering and biology to computer sciences and diplomacy. It will require empathy toward people on the other side of the planet. It will require understanding other cultures.

You see, for all the talk of globalization, we are still a planet at war with itself. We are divided by wealth, by ethnicity, by religion and yes, by national borders. Yet addressing climate change, by its very nature must involve the whole planet.

What great group of people to start taking this on than you here today. You have important cross cultural skills. Combine that with the power of social networking, and you as individuals have powers and possibilities to create change that previous generations could not have dreamed of.

It’s important to help address those issues. But don’t let the fear of the future cloud the present. Indeed don’t let anything whether its your future education, your future mate or your future  children cloud your experience of the present, because, in the end, that’s all there is.

When you are at work, work with all your heart. When he are with friends and your parents talk with them. Listen to them. laugh with them. When you are in the woods, listen to the wind and the birds.In the end, as you well know, the money you earn make keep you comfortable, but it is the people you love that you will treasure.

What make me hopeful is young people like yourselves. You have an awareness of the many cultures around the world that few others have. Combine that with the power of social networks and the great advances in technology, and you as individuals have the power to create change that previous generations could not have dreamed of.

Never forget that you shared very special friendships in a very special city and at a very special school. Living in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic environment, cross-cultural smarts are part of your DNA.

The world needs people like you. Don’t hide that talent. Nurture it. On day, when you least expect it, you will find they are a huge asset to you and to the world.


Yokohama Yankee Receives Starred Review on Library Journal

June 17, 2013

A starred review in Library Journal is a recommendation. It’s highly valued because this Journal has a readership of 100,000, mostly librarians.

Here’s the review:

Social Sciences Reviews | June 1, 2013


OrangeReviewStar Social Sciences Reviews | June 1, 2013 Helm, Leslie. Yokohama Yankee: My Family’s Five Generations as Outsiders in Japan. Chin Music. 2013. 384p. illus. ISBN 9780984457663. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9780984457694. AUTOBIOG

This marvelous and handsomely produced memoir is something of a detective story investigating the mysteries of both family and Japan. Starting in the 19th century, five generations of Helms lived, did business, and raised their families in Japan. Born in 1955, the author left the country on hard terms with his father and with Japan when he came to the United States for college. His father, Donald Helm, had served in the U.S. Army in World War II and returned to Japan during the occupation. He had hopes of becoming a scholar, but when he took over the family business in Yokohama, he and his marriage turned sour. Leslie eventually returned to Japan as a correspondent for Business Week and the Los Angeles Times, but it was only after his father died, and the younger man adopted two Japanese children, that he delved into his complicated history. He writes frankly and poignantly of coming to terms with his family and with Japan’s confused racial attitudes. VERDICT A lovely, unsettling family story and a vivid traversal of modern Japanese history that will impress the jaded Japan scholar and inspire the curious general reader or memoir fan. Recommended.—Charles Hayford, Evanston, IL


April 6, 2013

This is Hachiojiyama in Honmoku, Yokohama. My great grandfather bought the hill in about 1900 and the people in the area came to be call it Herumu-yama, or Helm hill. My grandfather and several of his siblings had summer places on that hill. My great aunts used to row around the bend to Sankeien, where the family there would serve barley tea. (before it became a park) This picture was taken by my father after the war. In pre-war days there used to be a staircase down to the beach. When I was at the LA Times, our research assistant says her mother recalls how one of the Helm mothers would ring a gong to call the kids up for dinner. I walked on that beach as a young child, but all of that coastline was later filled in and is now sadly lined with oil storage tanks and refineries.3-helmhill-web

Addressing the Body Under the Rug

February 10, 2013

In a wonderful piece in the New York Times today, Alexander Stille, author of the family memoir, “The Force of Things: A Marriage in War and Peace,” makes the point that the writer of a family memoir  “is taking events that belong to several people, appropriating them for himself, and turning them into something that feels alien to those who have lived them.” The writer invariably simplifies some of the secondary characters, he says, portraying them in a way that may seem unfamiliar to the characters themselves.

Stille’s story hits home to me as I wait for my memoir “Yokohama Yankee: My Family’s Five Generations as Outsiders in Japan” to hit the book stores in mid-March. Like Stille, a couple of family members are uncomfortable with what I have written. One uncle, in particular, had been insistent that I send him a copy of the manuscript. When I sent him an early version of the book and didn’t hear from him for eight months, I was surprised and followed up with an email asking him for any comments and corrections. He answered emphatically: “I do NOT have any comments and I do NOT have any corrections.”  So I was taken aback when I received a note a month ago, weeks after it was too late to make any corrections. He said he loved the book, but thought my portrayal of my father and grandfather was harsh.Although it was very late, I told him that if there was anything factually inaccurate, I might still be able to make some minor changes. He told me to leave it as it was..

The interaction with my uncle left me feeling a little uncomfortable. In retrospect, I wish I had been as persistent as Stille was in getting an earlier response from his aunt who, like my uncle, had been clearly reluctant to read the manuscript.

But even if I had tried to respond to my uncle’s concerns, I wonder if he would have been satisfied. Brenda Peterson, the author of the wonderful memoir “I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding rapture here on earth,” told me early in the process of writing my book that I should be prepared to have family members upset with what I wrote. If they don’t like what your write, she said, “Tell them to write their own book.”

Peterson’s point, of course, is that the writer, looking at a person or  event from his or her perspective, is invariably going to portray things in a way that seems unfamiliar to other members of the family. We are all different people with different experiences, so it’s hardly surprising that we look at similar situations in different ways. If you have siblings, I’m sure you’ve had the experience where you have completely different memories of the same event.

In my uncle’s case, our perspectives are particularly different because the man who was my difficult father, was his much-respected older brother. And his strongest memories of my father were of him as a young man before he faced life’s toughest challenges. So he found it impossible to believe my father was the difficult man I depicted in my book

There is another reason my uncle may have found my father unfamiliar. What drove me to write the family memoir in the first place was that my decision to adopt Japanese children had raised tough questions about my identity–about the extent to which I had avoided accepting my Japanese heritage. My memoir, therefore, focused on the way the characters in my family, over five generations, addressed the issue of identity. No doubt my grandfather and father were honest and generous, and I do mention those traits. But the incidences I highlight in my memoir are those that shed light on how my family addressed their lives as outsiders in both the United States and Japan. Looking at my family members, and how they experienced life in Japan across two world wars, through that particular lens, revealed a family some of my relatives may not have been familiar with. That’s not surprising, since for generations my relatives had refused to discuss their Japanese heritage. In my father’s case, it was only very late in life that he admitted to me, for example, that his half-Japanese father beat him when he spoke Japanese at home and that his half-Japanese mother suffered discrimination both in Japan and the United States.

I’ve told my relatives that the book reflects my own particular perspective. Even if they don’t share that perspective, I hope they will enjoy my story of the family’s experiences as they survived a particularly fascinating, sometimes heart-wrenching, century-and-a-half of modern Japanese history.




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.

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