The Ideal Japan

Lexus' slogan is "The Pursuit of Perfection". Shouldn't Japan's motto be the same?

“If you could become the Prime Minister of Japan, what would you like to see accomplished during your tenure?” Fully aware of my ambitions of eventually joining the Japanese political sphere, a friend of mine posed this question while we travelled home after a long day’s work. Although his inquiry itself was an honest and legitimate one, I quickly realized that I never really (seriously) thought about this question.

If I had the power to reform Japan, what would it look like? Which issues would I focus on in office, and how would I address these issues? How would I put Japan back on track? What would my platform look like?

(Do keep in mind that I am still quite young. There are several things that I have yet to understand, and I would rather not have blog posts I wrote based on a kid’s understanding of the world to be used against me in a gubernatorial race in twenty years’ time. These are my positions at present.)

Economic Policy

Emulate Singapore. In many ways, Singapore is very similar to Japan. Singapore is powered by American-style capitalism run under the guise of democracy, when really everyone knows it’s a technocratic wonderland controlled by Lee Kuan Yew and friends a la Ichiro Ozawa. Yet somehow, it manages to be a mini, more efficient version of Japan. Like Japan, Singapore’s economy is driven by exports. Their workforces are highly educated. Both invest a ton of money into R&D, and geographically both are resource-poor countries with high population densities.

And that’s where the similarities come to an end. For the most part, Singapore remains corruption-free. The Ministry of Finance effects quasi-free market policies. Its corporate tax rate is half Japan’s; consumption tax sits at 3 percent; its business environment remains open and transparent; its infrastructure up to date; and unknown to many, Singapore is one of the top three refineries of crude oil in the world. Unlike Japan, it’s actually growing at a rapid clip and manages its finances very, very well.

Granted, each country has its quirks; certainly, a solution in one case may not necessarily transition well to resolving another problem. In terms of economic policy, however, Singapore serves as a powerful model to which Japan can look up to in restructuring what many consider to be a rather inefficient form of economic governance.

Social Policy

Although mainstream media both inside and outside Japan have remained mum on the issue, pushing forward with the newest initiative to implement a Canada-esque, points based immigration system seems like the right way forward.

Gay marriage and the like will likely not be key issues in the near to immediate future, as individuals in Japan tend to keep that sort of thing to themselves and in the warm embraces of love hotels.

Healthcare is a tricky one. I won’t claim to know enough about the Japanese healthcare system to make any assertions, but last I checked, healthcare and pensions are becoming the biggest public expenses as the population ages. Will it be unpopular to cut it down? Certainly. But when one side of the balance sheet is outpacing the other, at some point something is going to give. Ensuring that the basics are covered while tying the extras of healthcare benefits and pensions to the country’s economic performance may be an unpopular move, but it will be an ideal one in moving towards a more sustainable Japan.

A Nordic-style education, rather than the traditional, rote memorization model used for so many years, may be the way forward in making Japan a more innovative society. You can find more information about this an article I wrote earlier wherein I used the Finnish education system as a model for Japan’s future:

“Though its education system is paradoxical to Japan’s in every conceivable way, Finland beat the East Asian nation in ranking third overall in the OECD’s test of junior high school students. It would be difficult for the average Japanese (or average East Asian, for that matter) to understand why. According to the OECD, the Finnish spend the least amount of time in school and begin their schooling a full two years later than their peers in the rest of the world. Mention cram schools to the average Finn and he will look at you in utter bewilderment. There is only one (yes, one) mandatory exam, taken at the end of one’s secondary schooling. In contrast to many of the equally high ranking countries in East Asia (Japan included), Finland’s education system seems to be too relaxed and too unorthodox to perform well on any standardized test – yet it does.”

A Japan that is less focused on the “guilty until proven innocent” notion would certainly be an ideal one, particularly when you take the country’s 99 percent conviction rate into account.

Environmental Policy

Cut down electricity usage not only to keep Japan’s carbon footprint steady, but to minimize Japan’s dependence on imported energy and mitigate the necessity of restarting its highly unpopular nuclear power plants. The growing popularity of electric cars are likely to put increased strain on the power grid; cutting away at the fat, such as blasting the aircon with the door open to attract customers, will negate the powerful drain of electric cars. Hopefully.

Military Policy

Status quo. Japan is getting a great deal: the best military of its strongest ally protecting the country with a relatively low cost. Development of its own, in-house weaponry could certainly be encouraged. Joint development alongside South Korea would serve both countries’ interests in deterring China and North Korea as well.

Dedicated to Tetsuya (pseudonym)

[Video Gallery] 10 Months Later: The Cleanup Effort

I wonder how effective dumping radioactive soil under soil is.

Breaking the Monotony of Life and the Spectator Mentality

More often than not, people get too caught up with daily life to do anything else. Wake up. Go to school or work. Argue with friends or officemates for a bit, do some work, check Facebook, eat, crack a joke, go home. Eat again. Watch a new Korean or Japanese drama on TV. Drink. Go to bed. And the cycle repeats the next day, and the next, with only minor interruptions like holidays to break the monotony of things.

I am certainly not exempt from this rule; in fact, I’ve been so caught up with university applications over the last two weeks I have relegated blogging to somewhat of a secondary priority. This should not be the case; if you blog regularly like Mike Rogers, writing a long piece comes very, very easily.

Nevertheless, life becomes so self-encased for many. Everyone is so preoccupied with their little world, we oftentimes fail to realize there is a larger existence influencing our daily lives. And though we have become so connected through online media, the emergence of social networking sites and the like have allowed us to take on more of a spectator role than to participate in influencing these events themselves.

Just look at the Japanese political world as it stands. The incumbent Prime Minister, Yoshihiko Noda, has put forth a motion to raise the consumption tax in order to contain Japan’s astronomical level of debt. People will complain, his ratings will probably drop (as they have already) and he’ll probably be put out of power. But have they found a solution to the problem? No! Instead, someone from the old guard will be ushered in to take his place, only to make new, false promises that he won’t be able to live up to and offering the same, tired “solutions” to the same problem to little avail. The Japanese public are more than willing to remain as spectators rather than as participants.

It honestly takes two to tango. You have an apathetic public and a public sector concentrated on its own survival in an increasingly difficult world. The public sector takes care of itself, yet the apathetic public complains but does nothing about it. It’s akin to going to the hospital because of heart disease, chastising and replacing the doctor for not taking care of you, then going to MacDonald’s to get a Double Big Mac combo for lunch.

Granted, much of the blame can be placed on the Japanese government, and I doubt Ron Paul’s libertarian dreams would fly in a country which has, since its inception, been controlled by a large bureaucracy. But a corrupt, big government does not necessarily mean that it is permanent. The Arab Spring. The dissolution of the Soviet Union. Most events that led to major political shifts were led in the interests of the people and by the people. Active political participation, rather than playing the role of a common spectator, will be necessary in changing the Japan of today into a more efficient, better Japan of tomorrow.

We are at the point where we can no longer remain spectators in the grand scheme of things. We can’t just comment on how horrible something is actually without doing something about it. We can’t just keep pulling people down (particularly unwarranted criticisms) when we have nothing to offer ourselves. There is life outside our little bubbles. It will all come crashing down if we personally do nothing to act. To change. To form a better future for ourselves and for our children.

And that change will require a hell of a lot more than a family remarking “最悪だな” while watching TBS News at the dinner table.

Republicans and Japan: The Significance of the 2012 GOP Race to the Land of the Rising Sun

Back in 2008, many had faith in Obama’s promise of change. “Change has come to America!” he openly declared. Americans cheered as the first black president promised to increase American energy independence, decrease lobbyist influence, provide universal healthcare and withdraw troops from Iraq. It seemed like the Harvard Law School graduate could (and would) live up to his word.

It has been three years since the President rose to power. The Keystone Pipeline, a project intended to increase energy independence, has been delayed and faces potential cancellation. The Obama campaign has taken donations from quasi-lobbyists. And though he has kept his promise of withdrawing troops from Iraq, the United States continues to maintain a significant presence in the region with 16 000 diplomatic personnel and over 5000 private security contractors still in the Middle Eastern country. Coupled with high unemployment, low consumer confidence, rising national debt levels, Obama leaves a track record of broken promises and weak leadership going into the federal elections of 2012.

As remote as it may seem, domestic affairs of the United States and the competence of its president are, in fact, crucial to the economic health of Japan. The United States is Japan’s second largest import/export partner, from whom Japan sources much of its supply of wheat and soybeans. Japan is also home to 35 000 American troops, strategically positioned to assert American influence in the Asia-Pacific region. Any indication of socioeconomic instability in the United States may strain its relationship with Japan.

With Obama floundering on both social and economic issues, the United States may well get the socioeconomic instability it has tried so hard to avoid. We are already seeing the effects of his failed fiscal policy: just three days ago, Obama signed a bill that would effectively cut funding from transferring military personnel from Okinawa to Guam in an effort to cut “wasteful spending” notwithstanding an existing agreement to relocate the base (never mind the fact that maintaining an overseas base costs billions of dollars).

Are there any better alternatives than Obama? If they do exist, what would these alternatives mean in the context of US-Japanese relations?

Rick Santorum, the runner up in the Iowa caucus, is not the way to go. Listen to what he says at 4:00 in the following clip when asked about pulling troops out of Okinawa and in bases elsewhere around the world:

“I’m not too sure it’s a wise idea that we should remilitarize Germany and Japan. If there’s something we learned from history it’s that we’re not sure we should go down that road again.”

Right. Now let’s hear from one of Rick Perry’s most ardent supporters, Christian televangelist Charles Peter Wagner:

“Japan, as a nation, is one of the nations of the world which has consciously, openly invited national demonization. The Sun Goddess visits him in person and has sexual intercourse with the Emperor. It’s a very, very powerful thing…that’s an invitation for the Sun Goddess to continue to demonize the whole nation. Since the night that the present emperor slept with the sun goddess, the stock market in Japan has gone down. It’s never gone up since.”

What does that tell you about a person, if his biggest fan believes that the Japanese emperor having sex with a sun goddess is directly correlated to Japan’s economic recession?

Mitt Romney does not have much of a record on Japan, and all we have on Newt Gingrich on Japan-US relations at this point is a minor gaffe made when he compared his failure to make the ballot to Pearl Harbour. Ron Paul has, on many occasions, called for a US withdrawal from Japan; given that 85 percent of all Okinawans oppose the American military presence, that may just be the right thing for the Americans to do.

Economic policy, however, is just as important to the Land of the Rising Sun; if Japan’s second largest trade partner goes down, Japan is going down with it. Having a candidate with sound economic sense, then, is critical to maintaining the economic health of both America and Japan. Nevertheless, deciding the best economic policy platform among the GOP candidates is a difficult choice – all of them have their flaws. Rick Perry wants to introduce the option of a 20 percent flat tax for individuals currently paying more than a 20 percent income tax, a move that favours the wealthy in society. Rick Santorum favours a similar move that lowers taxes only on the rich. Gingrich wants to loosen regulation on the financial industry by repealing Dodd-Frank. Romney’s economic policy is a mixed bag and is oftentimes compared to Obama’s economic record, while Ron Paul wants to do away with the Federal Reserve. At present, their stances on the economy seem kind of sketchy to me.

For the sake of the Japanese economy, better US-Japan relations and global fiscal health as a whole, we can only hope that America picks the right choice in 2012. Ideally, one who doesn’t believe that the emperor has sex with the sun goddess.

[Video Gallery] Tokyo Welcoming in the New Year

My New Year’s Resolutions 2012

There is a distinction to be drawn between a resolution and a desire. One comes with a plan. The other doesn’t.

Having said that, here are my personal resolutions for 2012. With these resolutions and required “game plans” written in electronic ink, I sincerely hope that I will not waver from or forget these commitments going forward into the New Year.

  1. Pass the JLPT N3 this December. I admit that I have had to put off Japanese study over the last two months to pull up my grades in the maths and sciences. Since the holidays began, however, I brushed the dust off the Genki textbooks sitting on the shelf to catch up on what I had missed.  Studying during my daily hour and a half long commute (a three hour round trip) should bring me back up to speed.
  2. Get into a good programme at a good university. So far I’ve applied to four different types of programmes at a slew of universities. In terms of programmes, my first choice will be mathematics/chartered accounting; second choice is computer engineering; third choice is economics; and my fourth is computer science. In terms of university, I’ve applied to the University of Toronto; the University of Waterloo; McGill University; The University of British Columbia, Queen’s University, the University of Western Ontario; the University of Chicago; Cornell University and the University of Michigan Ann Arbor. My top choices at the moment are the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia, both of which are relatively affordable, are world renowned for the programmes I’ve applied to, have an excellent East Asian studies programme (which I’m hoping to minor in or at least participate in a Japanese-language course) and are home to a large population of Japanese international students. I did receive offers from Japanese universities to go abroad and study; unfortunately, financial circumstances at present will not allow that route to be taken. Time to get cracking on those essays.
  3. Continue to write regularly for SavingJapan and JapanToday. It may sound like something rather ordinary, but time management is something that I certainly need to improve. I also need to improve my writing process to avoid the time-consuming pit of thinking of the perfect sentence to end a blog entry over the course of half an hour. Time is valuable; I can’t afford to waste it over something so trivial. Writing on a more regular basis will shorten the time required to finish a blog post.
  4. Become more involved in relation to writing for SavingJapan and JapanToday. Let’s face it: a blog is a place where individuals can sit, write and complain virtually without end. I am not exempt from this. What I will try to do in the near future is gather more opinions from experts in particular fields associated with Japan to gain a greater understanding of the underlying issue. I will also try to contact individuals based abroad; for instance, it would be pretty neat getting a hold of former school alumni and current Fiat-Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne for a couple of questions on the JDM market. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.
  5. Become a better person. I’m not going to air out my dirty laundry on a blog, but I do have a few bad habits and inclinations that I have to address. The Catholic solution would be to go to Penance. I am, however, neither Catholic nor Christian, but will go through the same process of introspection and attempt active self-improvement. Kaizen anybody?

Again, Happy New Year’s to all, and I wish you, your family and your friends all the best in 2012.

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