Monday, March 17, 2014

A Friend in Tehran

The nationalist Japanese novelist Naoki Hayakuta may be controversial in his own country, but he is a hero in Iran. During a nine-day visit in February, he was treated like a VIP everywhere he went. The trip included a meeting with officials close to Supreme Leader Ali Khanenei.

“Japan-Iran relations have always been friendly – despite pressures from some Western powers,” greeted Ali Majedi, Iran’s deputy petroleum minister for international affairs and trading, and a former Iranian ambassador to Japan. He praised Hayakuta’s work in clarifying Japan –Iranian ties going back to the 1950s.
Hayakuta’s most recent best-seller, The Man Who Was Called a Pirate, published in 2012, recounts an episode shortly after the end of World War II known as the Nissho Maru Incident. In 1953 the Japanese petroleum trading company Idemitsu chartered a tanker, the Nissho Maru, to bring a shipment of diesel oil and gasoline to Japan, one of the first, if not the first case of Japan importing fuel from the Middle East.

Iran had just nationalized British petroleum assets in Iran, and Britain was seeking to punish Iran through a world-wide boycott of Iranian petroleum. The British took Idemitsu, still today one of Japan’s main petroleum companies, to court for breaking the boycott but were unsuccessful following several years of litigation.
The captain of the Nissho Maru, and the “pirate” of the novel, received a hero’s welcome when the ship docked in Japan. The incident was seen in Japan as a morale boosting episode for a country that was just emerging from, the “fires of war”. For the Iranians it was a small but inspiring victory against the Anglo-Americans who would soon overthrow the nationalist leader Mossaddegh.

The Man Who Was Called a Pirate became a best-seller in 2013, selling about 2 million copies and winning the Honya Taisho, or Bookstore prize.
Hayakuta’s most recent novel, Eien no Zero (The Eternal Zero) is also a best seller and was made into a successful movie. It tells the story of a young man who investigates the life of his grandfather who died on a kamikaze suicide mission during World War II.

But the author probably would have stayed out of the limelight enjoying his gadfly role as a novelist except for his recent appointment to the Board of Governors of NHK, Japan’s equivalent of the state-owner BBC, along with two other ultra-conservative figures appointed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe earlier this year.

Hayakuta subscribes to most of the extreme Japanese-nationalist tropes: The Nanjing Massacre was a Chinese fabrication, the “comfort women (forced prostitution) a rude South Korean libel, that Japan was tricked into going to war with the U.S. while liberating Asia from colonial domination. He is not shy about of espousing them.

Though an NHK governor is supposed to be non-political, he campaigned openly for the most extreme right wing candidate in the recent by-election for governor of Tokyo, the former air force chief of staff Toshio Tomogawa, who was fired in 2009 for distributing similar opinions among the troops. Hayakuta was unapologetic about his overt partisanship.
His arguments are standard boiler-plate from right-wing agitators who patrol the streets of Tokyo and other Japanese cities every day, haranguing people through loudspeakers mounted on trucks. Critics of the appointment fear Abe has handed the extremists a much bigger mouthpiece, Japan’s national broadcaster.

It wasn’t so much that he and similarly minded governors would turn the NHK into a propaganda organ for extreme conservative-nationalist views (though there is some concern about that). It is that under the Abe regime their views do not disqualify them from serving on prestigious boards. Not long ago people with these reactionary views would be reluctant to enter the public arena or quickly be forced to resign. That is no longer the case.
The conservative Abe is known to admire Hayakuta’s books, and the two have developed a close association. The two collaborated on a book published last December that included a long essay by Hayakuta denouncing the Nanjing Massacre as a fairy tale and several speeches by Abe, who doesn’t dispute any of the questionable assertions of Hayakuta.

The Iranians may not know or care much about such issues as the Nanjing Massacre, but they can appreciate America-bashing when they hear it. And there is the long-term solidarity with Japan dating back to in Nissho Maru Incident in 1953. During the visit, the novelist appealed to anti-American sentiments with comments that America “has always used dirty politics” or that Americans are “not normal.”
Tokyo has always been a reluctant participant in the American-led international system of sanctions aimed at persuading Iran to forego developing nuclear weapons. Though progressively diminishing in importance, Iran is still a major supplier of petroleum to Japan. With no fossil fuel assets of its own Japan is dependent on imports from the Middle East.

Over the years, Japan has been forced to dispose of its Iranian petroleum concessions one-by-one. In 2010 Tokyo withdrew entirely from ownership of the Azadegan oil field near the Iraqi border under steady pressure from Washington. Japanese companies were worried that they would be sanctioned and excluded from the American market for continuing the deal with Iran.
Recognizing Japan’s total dependence on imported fuel and need to have diverse supplies, Washington has granted exemptions to Japan to buy a limited supplies of oil from Iran. In early March Japan announced the purchase of $450 million of crude oil. It was the first such deal under the arrangements of the interim nuclear deal.

During his fifteen months in office, Prime Minister Abe has visited more than two-dozen countries, including twice to Turkey but not yet Iran. During a short visit to Tokyo Iran’s foreign minister said he hoped Abe should add Iran to his busy itinerary and held out the lure of buying Japan’s nuclear power plants. He was talking Abe’s language.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

The Empire Strikes Back

Two months ago several members of municipal assemblies in Japan journeyed to the southern California city of Glendale. They were not bent on forming some kind of sister-city relation with Glendale, which, in fact, already has one with a suburb of Osaka.

No, they were on another mission – a mission impossible? – to persuade the Glendale city fathers to remove a statue to Korean “comfort women” ( the euphemism for prostitute) that the city placed in a public park last July. It is part of a blowback in Japan to a new trend of American cities and states to insert themselves long-standing historical issues between Korea and Japan.
Yoshiko Matsuura, a member of the Suginami Ward (kind of borough) assembly in Tokyo, led the Japanese delegation to California. “It was shocking to see the statue and the inscription, ‘I was a sex slave for the Japanese military’ on it.” She and a colleague, Tomoko Tsujimura, a Komae city councilor, said they were worried it would lead to bullying of Japanese children in the town.

Last month the state of Virginia waded into unfamiliar foreign policy waters when the state legislature passed a law requiring that publishers of textbooks used in Virginia schools add six-little words to any references to the Sea of Japan: “also known as the East Sea”. New York state and New Jersey are contemplating adopted similar laws.
The East Sea is what Koreans call the body of water that separates them from Japan. The Koreans claim that the term “Sea of Japan” is a relic of colonialism a reminder of the time when Korea was annexed to the Japanese empire from 1910 to 1945. Japan says it is a longstanding term and recognized by international agencies that keep track of such things.

The interesting thing about these recent controversies is how they pit local governments against each other. Both Japan and South Korea have generally tried to stay aloof from these battles at the national level to keep bilateral relations on an even keel. The South Korean embassy in Washington did not enter the naming controversy.
However, the Japanese Embassy did lobby heavily against the Virginia bill. Ambassador to the U.S. Kenichiro Sasae met with the governor urging that he veto the legislative bill and hinting of some kind of Japanese trade retaliation that might discourage investments in the state.

Japan is at a disadvantage in these controversies in that Korean emigration to America has far distanced Japanese immigration in recent years. Nationally, neither has the numbers to constitute a powerful national constituency, but Korean immigrants are more closely concentrated in pockets where they have the numbers to exert influence on local decision makers. For example, 16 percent of Glendale’s population is Asian, but Koreans outnumber Japanese by 8-1.

The Japanese councilors, mostly members of the more conservative Liberal Democratic Party has been emboldened by election more than a year ago of a new government led by conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who makes no secret he doubts that Korean or other Asians were conscripted to serve the army as prostitutes. During his first term as premier in 2007 his cabinet issued a statement that the government could not prove that there was coercive recruitment of comfort women. That led directly to a unanimous Congressional resolution condemning Japan.
The official position of the Japanese government on comfort women is contained in the 1993 Kono statement. In it the then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono admitted and apologized for at least indirect Japanese government involvement in the forced recruitment of Asian women to work in army brothels. The statement seems to satisfy nobody. Koreans dismiss it as a vague whitewash; hardline nationalists in Japan want to repudiate it entirely.

The current Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga recently raised a storm in late February when he suggested that the government might re-examine the statement and in some fashion possibly re-interview some of the 16 former comfort women whose testimony formed the basis of it, thus casting doubt on the veracity of the testimony.
That statement raised concerns that the government was about to repudiate the Kono Statement. So far, that hasn’t happened, but while the Abe government has not repudiated the statement (and other official World War II apologies) it hasn’t reaffirmed it either.

Conservatives in Japan make the following basic claims: that no comfort woman was forced into prostitution, that the army was not directly involved, that it was a necessary condition of war and that, anyway, other countries provided official army brothels for their troops.

There is some evidence to support the first view. U.S. Office of War Information in 1944 conducted extensive interviews with Korean comfort women captured in Burma after the fall of Myitkyina. It said that the young women were recruited by Japanese agents offering an opportunity to pay off family debts and other inducements.
Often, the report says, they were deceived into thinking that “comfort service” amounted to work connected with visiting wounded soldiers in army hospitals or rolling bandages. “On the basis of these false representations, many girls enlisted for overseas duty and were rewarded with an advance of a few hundred yen.”

On the other hand, it is hard to understand how these young women were recruited in Korea and then transported to Japanese army camps in central Burma without the direct involvement of the Imperial Army.

It was not reported how many of the 16 women whose testimonies formed the basis of the Kono Statement are still alive. Like other veterans, or victims, of World War II, they are dying off rapidly. The Korean government counts only 55 living ex-comfort women in Korea with an average age of 88. They are all left of numbers that ran into the tens of thousands.



Monday, February 17, 2014

Nomenclature Nationalism

Todd Crowell is author of the forthcoming The Dictionary of the Asian Language.

The Virginia state legislature in the U.S. ventured into unfamiliar foreign policy waters the other day when it passed a law that requires school text book publishers add six little words in reference to the body of water usually known as the Sea of Japan: “also known as the East Sea”.

That would seem to be a rather small bore triumph of South Korean sentiments, even though it is treated as a major victory in Seoul and a defeat for Japan, which unwisely went out of its way to try to forestall the legislation, even hinting that it might jeopardize Japanese investment in the state.

Still, it was a victory of sorts for South Korea, which, for the past twenty years, has been laboring mightily to persuade the rest of the world to use its designation for the body of water separating itself from Japan, or if not that at least to acknowledge that there are alternative designations.

Until recently the efforts have not been met with much success. In 2012 South Korea officially asked the International Hydrographic Organization to use East Sea for the Sea of Japan. It turned the request down after Washington officially advised the organization against it.

The U.S. Board of Geographic Names, which guides the government on nomenclature issues, also uses Sea of Japan alone, while China and Russia, two countries contiguous to the waters, use variations of the words Sea of Japan in their own languages.

The number of “also known as…” constructions are proliferating in Asia clogging up the prose and imposing a kind of political correctness on international publications when writing about Asian issues as journalists and other writers struggle to appear even-handed.

It is, of course, common place now to refer to the uninhabited rocks in the East China Sea, that are bringing China and Japan closer to war as Senkaku, also known as Daioyu. Never mind that the English language publications in China, such as South China Morning Post don’t bother with such even-handedness referring to them simply as the Diaoyu.

Similarly, the disputed islands in the Sea of Japan are usually described as Dokdo, also known as Takeshima, though there is, in this case, a third neutral term. The United States officially calls them the Lioncourt Rocks (named after the French vessel that “discovered” them.)

How far down this road must one take? A half a dozen countries border on the body of water commonly known in English as the South China Sea, each with its own geographic names. So must we, in total neutrality of course, write South China Sea – also known as Nan Hai (Chinese), Bien Dong (Vietnamese) or the West Philippine Sea?

Manila was perfectly content to refer to the waters as the South Sea, until ownership of several atolls became objects of dispute. Beginning in 2012 it decided to call the waters the West Philippine Sea to reinforce its claims to these atolls and islands. The ocean to the east of the Philippines is still known simply as the Philippine Sea.

Many publications now refer to the Southeast Asian country as Myanmar, also known as Burma. Both words approximate what Burmese call their country, but Myanmar has an unsavory pedigree. In 1989 the military junta known as the State Law and Order Council (SLORC) decreed that Burma was a colonial- era name and that henceforth it would like to be called Myanmar.

Coming only a year after bloody suppression of pro-democracy protests in Rangoon (also known as Yangon), there were grounds to question the legitimacy of the name change. The SLORC has pasted into history and Myanmar has gained acceptance almost everywhere except significantly the U.S. State Department and among some dissident publications based in Thailand.  

A similar situation arose in India when the Shiv Sena, an unsavory, right-wing nationalist party, won control of Maharashita State and declared the name of its capital, Bombay, was also a colonial relic and that henceforth it would be known as Mumbai. The Shiv Sena are long out of power but Mumbai has out-grown its origins and gained international acceptance - along with Chennia (Madras) and Kolkata (Calcutta).

One should probably be grateful that other Asian countries haven’t yet joined the nationalist nomenclature bandwagon to dump “colonial era” names. The Thais don’t insist that we call their capital city Krungthep instead of Bangkok. Beijing doesn’t insist that we exchange historic name China for the tongue twister Zhonggou, and Tokyo doesn’t insist we use Nippon – also known as Japan.



Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Abenomics' Losers

TOKYO - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s new economic policy, dubbed “Abenomics”, has generally been considered a success in the first year in which it was implemented. But, as in other endeavors, there are winners and losers. The winners, so far, are Japan’s big exporters that have benefitted from the weakening yen, which has lost about 20 percent of its value against the dollar in the past year.

Even such trouble-prone electronics companies as Sony have been able to eke out a small profit due to the yen’s devaluation. People who have invested in stocks have also scored. But there are losers, and one of them is conveyor belt sushi, which ironically was one of the few Japanese industries that thrived during Japan’s decades-long period of stagnation and deflation.

So far, relatively little of the economic benefits of Abenomics have trickled down to the average working man, and thus industries, like revolving sushi, that are dependent on consumers are suffering in the wake of flat demand and the soaring costs of imported ingredients due to the weakening yen and increasing global competition for fish.

In a conveyor belt restaurant the customer sits at a brightly lit counter as the sushi glides by, two pieces of fish on rice to a plate. No words are necessary. You see what you like and reach out and grab it. You pay based on the number of plates that you accumulate.

Conveyor belt sushi was actually invented in 1958 by Yoshiake Shiraishi (Ironically the same year that another great Japanese food innovator, Ando Momofuko, invented instant ramen noodles). Supposedly he got the inspiration for moveable belts of sushi by watching beer bottles moving on a conveyor belt at a brewery. It was introduced to the world at the 1970 Osaka World’s Fair.

However, it really got started in the 1990s and beyond. At first it was seen as a kind of gimmick. How could it compete with established sushi restaurants (which often charged $100 or more for a sushi meal?) It was like McDonald’s competing with a Kansas City steakhouse. But before long they were responsible for a third of all sushi sales in Japan.

It fit in with the times. The extravagant years of the Bubble Economy, which ended in a crash in 1989, had given way to the more frugal times. Diners tightened spending, patronage of regular restaurants slumped, bankruptcies in the food trade exploded. The conveyor-belt sushi shops were a good deal in the times. They charged only about 100 yen (about a dollar) per plate.

But the profit margin of about 5 yen (5 cents) per plate is very slim, and the revolving sushi restaurants are being squeezed more and more. All sushi establishments rely heavily on imported ingredients, which makes their business extremely suseptical to the weakening yen and increasing competition for fish abroad. Imported ingredient costs account for about 70 per cent of the cost of running a sushi shop, more than other restaurants, like noodle shops, which can more easily source ingredients at in Japan.

For example, the wholesale price for Norwegian salmon, the most popular, ingredient in the chain restaurants, have risen by nearly 50 percent in recent years; The whitefish shrimp from Southeast Asia also costs about 40 percent more. Increasingly, the chain owners scour the world for fish, even in danger zones as off the Somali coast or new markets such as Myanmar.

Being heavily dependent on consumers and sensitive to state of the economy the conveyor belt sushi business faces another hurdle in a few months when the national sales tax goes from 5 per cent to 8 per cent in April and 10 percent in 2015. Many in Japan worry that the imposition of this consumer tax might thrust Japan back into a recession, even if only of short duration.

The revolving sushi market is also nearing saturation. The big five companies now have about 4,000 outlets in Japan, mostly in the suburbs. But patronage has been declining at all of them, including the onetime market leader, Akindo Sushiro and the third-ranked Kura.

The industry is fighting back through many tried and true methods, such as cutting prices to lure customers back into the restaurants. One of the larger chains, Kappa Create has experimented with lowering prices to 88 yen per plate on week days. While it may have attracted customers, it didn’t do much for the bottom line. Kappa reported losing Y2.2 billion in 2012.

Another sign of shakeup in a troubled industry is a trend toward mergers and consolidation among the handful of Japanese companies that own sushi restaurants. Recently, Kappa Create, operator of the Kappa Sushi chain and the second largest player in the market, acquired the fifth-ranked Genki Sushi, aiming for economies of scale. A European investor group also bought into industry leader Akindo Sushiro.

The chains are also innovating, experimenting with new ways to gauge consumer preferences and using touch panels for ordering in a continuing quest to reduce the number of hands involved. Of course, no waiters are needed for conveyor belt sushi but Kura has gone father by eliminating the need even for the restaurant manager, running the restaurant remotely. Robots cook and mold the rice.

They are also taking fast food technology to new heights. Unlike other fast-foot restaurants, which eliminate crockery, the revolving sushi shops still have to collect plates, count and wash them. Some new Kura restaurants have customers place the plates in a kind of side picket that automatically tabulates and washes the dishes.

But what the industry needs more than anything is for Abenomics to succeed. More than many other industries in Japan the revolving sushi industry is betting that the fruits of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s experiment ultimately trickle down to ordinary Japanese in the form of higher wages and that they will spend more money on going out to eat.


Wednesday, January 08, 2014

The Real Shinzo Abe

Last year in June Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave an  important speech at Guildhall in heart of London’s financial district during which he bragged several times about the “political capital” that he had accrued through his party’s landslide election victory in December, 2012, and the popularity of his economic program dubbed “Abenomics.”

The reference to “political capital” was made in the context of pending economic reforms. He tried to reassure foreign investors that he had the clout to overcome resistance by vested interests in Japan that might stand in the way of his “third arrow” reforms to make Japan’s economy more responsive to the free market and improve its competitiveness.

Instead, near the end of his first full year in office, he chose to expend a good chuck of his political capital not on opening free market reforms but on pushing through parliament a highly controversial and probably unneeded “state secrets act” raising the penalties for leaking rather vaguely defined classified information.

Then he followed this up with a surprising Dec. 26 (one year anniversary of his election as prime minister), official visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in downtown Tokyo. He went, he said, to pay his respects to the shades of 2.5 million Japanese soldiers and sailors killed in wars stretching back to the Meiji era. But the shrine also includes the souls of 14 former officials convicted in the Tokyo Trials of waging aggressive wars in Asia.

It would be fair to say that the only people happy about the state secrets act passage were the Americans, who reportedly pushed Tokyo to enact the law as part of closer military cooperation. The only ones who were pleased with the Yasukuni caper were the die-hard, conservative nationalists who see Abe as a soul-mate.

The Abe government’s public approval ratings, which had stayed remarkable high throughout the first year in office, took a hit. By some accounts the approval rate fell into the low 50s (other polls put the figure higher). That is still a high approval rating in anybody’s game and much better than his predecessors, who by this time in their tenure were on track for resignation.

Most of the public opinion polls immediately after the Yasukuni visit showed little change. The Japanese do not see the Yasukuni shrine visits with the same sense of outrage demonstrated by the Chinese and the Koreans. Nonetheless, they are uneasy about it since they know that it damages relations with neighbors. They breathed easier when the anticipated anti-Japanese riots and boycotts failed to materialize.

Ironically, it was Abe, during his first term as premier (2006-2007), who repaired Japan’s deteriorating relations with China by refraining to visit the shrine after his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi had damaged relations by making regular pilgrimages. Until last month no subsequent Japanese premier had visited the shrine in his official capacity.

The fact that he made no visits during his first year of his second term especially around August, which is the traditional time for visits marking the surrender in 1945, led some to believe that he would continue to let Cabinet members attend but stay away himself. But Abe made no secret of the fact that he regretted not having paid his respects during his first term.

For Abe such a pilgrimage is very personal. After all, his beloved grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, could easily have become the 15th Class-A war criminal enshrined in the Yasukuni. Kishi managed the war time economy of Japan and was detained by the Occupation but never tried. He later went on to become the prime minister who negotiated the U.S. Japan Security Agreement.

The larger question for most Japanese was what this visit plus some other recent actions portend for the coming year. The overriding question concerning Abe has always been whether he can suppress his deeply conservative instincts, which are not shared by a majority of Japan’s people, to concentrate on the economy, which polls show is the public’s main concern.

For most of his first year, however, Abe managed to suppress his conservative/nationalist id and stay on message. As the new year opened, he smoothly pivoted back to his main message of economic revival. In his first press conference of the year, he urged Japan’s companies to raise wages for its workers, especially as an increase in the national sales tax looms in April.

One is likely to hear more of this kind of jaw-boning in the coming months, as the premier seeks to ensure that more of the benefits from Abenomics trickle down into the pocket books of ordinary people. In its first year Abenomics made some impressive gains. The stock market ended the year at its highest level since 1972. A 20 per cent fall in the yen versus the dollar was a boon to export industries.

But if the premier is to maintain his popularity, and thus his political capital. He has to demonstrate pretty soon that Abenomics doesn’t just benefit hedge fund managers. That means persuading parliament to approve some potentially controversial measures such as lowering the corporate income tax (at a time when the government is raising the sales tax).

At his year opening press conference, Abe also alluded to a subject that he hasn’t mentioned very much in recent months –amending the constitution. Rewriting the America-written document is a cherished dream not only of Abe himself but of virtually all-right wing politicians in Japan, but it would take an enormous amount of political capital to enact changes any time soon.

But Abe has the benefit of time. He has more than two years remaining on his first term as president of the Liberal Democratic Party, a prerequisite for being prime minister. He can run for another three year-term. So he has the luxury of postponing any action for a long time. He may delay action for tactical reasons but he won’t give up. As he told NHK national television, “constitutional reform is my life’s work.”


Friday, December 27, 2013

The Year in Asia, 2013

The Philippines is famous for typhoons, but there had never been anything so deadly as Typhoon Haiyan, one of the largest and most destructive storms in history, that swept into Leyte in November leaving an enormous swath of death and destruction. The storm virtually demolished the sizable city of Tacloban and killed at least 6,000 people. It is the latest in a string of deadly natural disasters to hit Asia in the past decade. They included such the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in 2011 and precipitated one of the world’s worst nuclear power plant disasters, and the 2005 tsunami that devastated western Indonesia. Bad as it was, Haiyan did not come near the death toll of Cyclone Nargis that hit the Irrawaddy river delta in Myanmar in 2008, killing an estimated 150,000 people. Other notable events in Asia in 2013:

2. Tensions in East China Sea

3. Terror in North Korea

4. Abenomics

5. 969 Movement in Myanmar

6. Mobs return to Bangkok streets

7. China lands rover on Moon

8. Bo Xilai given life sentence

9. Tokyo wins 2020 Olympics

10. Snowden Flees to Hong Kong

The East China Sea was the location of almost daily confrontations between Japan and China over some uninhabited and essentially useless disputed islands. Chinese fisheries protection vessels entered Japanese-claimed waters around the Senkaku (Daioyu) islands almost daily. In November China announced an air defense identification zone that covered the Senkaku, while the new conservative Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe increased military spending. During his year in office, Abe visited some two dozen countries. But it is a sign of souring relations with neighbors that he did not meet any high-level Chinese or South Koreans.

One might say North Korea opened and closed the year with a bang. Early in 2013 Pyongyang set off its third nuclear bomb test, the first under new leader Kim Jong-un, who threatened rain ICBMs on enemies including the U.S. Then things settled down for several months until the shocking news in late November that Kim had executed his supposedly powerful uncle Jang Song-thaek and some of his associates. That  sent North Korea watchers off on frenzy of speculation as to what is really going on in that most secretive country.

Though they took a hit with the late-year passage of a controversial state secrets act, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s approval ratings stayed remarkable high during his first full year in office. At a time when previous prime ministers’ ratings had fallen into the teens and the principals were pondering resignation, Abe continued to maintain ratings in the 60s. The main reason was his loose-money economic policies that were dubbed “Abenomics”, which were showing some positive improvements to the country’s lengthy economic doldrums.


Myanmar won international applause for moves to free political prisoners and restore democracy in 2012, but its reputation was tarnished in 2013 by a rapidly expanding mass movement led by Buddhist extremists determined to purge the country of Muslims. The number 969 has special meaning for Buddhists, who make up the vast majority of people of Myanmar, and is increasingly seen on decals attached to entrances of shops and on motorbikes denoting that the bearer is a proper Buddhist. Things took an ominous turn in March with vicious attacks on Muslims and Muslim businesses in the central town of Meikhtila near Mandalay.

On a lighter note, the Chinese landed a rover with the cutesy name of Yutu, or Jade Rabbit, on the moon in December as part of the Chang’e-3 lunar probe. According to Chinese mythology, Chang-e took some magic pills and then was lofted to the moon and became a goddess. She took her pet rabbit Yutu along to keep her company. The Change-3 was the first Chinese attempt to make a soft landing on the moon and the first by anyone in more than 30 years. It demonstrated the seriousness and effectiveness of China’s space program, which has already put six people in orbit on his own space vehicles.

For two years after the deadly demonstrations of 2010, Bangkok was peaceful. That all came to an end late in the year as tens of thousands of demonstrators again took to the streets, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.  What sparked the mobs was an ill-considered amnesty bill, which cleared the lower house of parliament, controlled by Shinawatra’s party, but was killed in the senate. In an effort to defuse the situation Shinawatra dissolved parliament and called for a general election in early 2014.

The saga of Bo Xilai, the biggest political story out of China in decades, ended (presumably) in September with his being sentenced to life in prison for bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power. Bo was riding high as the popular governor of Chongqing and a member of the Politburo, when his aide sought asylum in the U.S. consulate, setting off cascading allegations and trials. His wife was convicted of the murder of a British businessman over a financial dealing.  

Tokyo surprised doubters by winning the right to host the 2020 Olympics, becoming the first Asian city to host the games twice. Tokyo was the first Asian city to host the games in 1964. Unlike its previous lackluster effort to win the 2016 Games, Tokyo and the national government went all out this year to win the nod. In his personal presentation, Abe downplayed the potential dangers of the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster saying “the situation is under control.”

Ever since Hong Kong reverted to China in 1997, not much of what happens there has made much of an impact internationally. But the territory got its week in the limelight, when NSA whistle blower Edward Snowden fled there after turning over a host of secrets to the media. After hiding for about a week, the government, no doubt with quiet help from Beijing, managed to hustle him out of the territory making him Russia’s hot potato. During his brief stay, he attracted considerable local support, which was probably one reason why the two governments were happy to see him go.









Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Vietnam Diary

I confess that I was initially a little unenthusiastic when our Vietnamese friends first proposed a trip to Vietnam. Vietnam? I donno. Isn’t it just Thailand without the Grand Palace? Our friends had planned a pretty elaborate tip, flying to Hue near the center of the country and then working our way down south to Nha Trang and then back to Ho Chi Minh City. In the end I decided to go along, and I’m glad I did. Vietnam has more than a few attractions, and it was fascinating to see the new Vietnam after leaving it 40 years ago.

The first thing one encounters in Ho Chi Minh City is the swarms of motorbikes. I’d seen pictures of this, but nothing quite prepares you to spectacle of thousands of the little scooters flowing along the streets and even sidewalks like an endless river of traffic. By some estimates there are five million motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh, a city of about 8 million, which works out to one for practically every able-bodied adult in the city. I used to ride motorbikes in Thailand but it was nothing like this

You take your life in hand – literally – just crossing the street. According to a magazine I picked up in the hotel, nearly 200 people have died in the past two years after being run over by a motorbike. Cross walks are painted but ignored by riders, as are regulations that driver’s must yield to pedestrians. The basic technique seems to be to wait for a small break in the traffic flow and then boldly step out, trusting that the highly mobile bikers will drive around you. Prayer is advised.

I was also surprised at the Vietnamese currency, known as dong. The exchange rate is 21,000 to the dollar, so even small purchases and run in the hundreds to thousands of dong. These figures are the kind one usually associates with countries undergoing hyperinflation, but I wasn’t aware that Vietnam was suffering from any unusual inflation.

Making a purchase in Danang, I fumble through my dong looking for the right denominations among a dozen or so, while mentally counting the zeros so that I don’t confuse a 20,000 note with a 200,000 note. The sales woman gets impatient and snatches the money out of my hands, deftly extracts the correct amount (I hope) and then returns the wad to me.

To be fair Vietnam isn’t the only country in Asia using currency with large denominations. The dollar exchange rate for Indonesian rupiah is nearly the same as that for the dong. But I can’t help but wonder if it costs a million dong for one night in a three-star hotel, what is the national budget? Anyone know the Vietnamese word for quintillion?

I’m fascinated by the juxtaposition of communism and global capitalism in Ho Chi Minh. Of course, Vietnam has had its own version of China’s market socialism, known as doi moi for many years. And the city scape is lighted up in the evening with plenty of signs for Sony, Samsung, Lucky Goldstar and so on. It has the requisite luxury shops selling expensive watches and hand bags along fashionable Dong Khoi Street.

Yet posters sporting the likeness of Ho Chi Minh are ubiquitous in the city of his name. Bac Ho’s portrait, as he is generally called, is everywhere, usually surrounded by children, as the Vietnamese like to cultivate an image of him being everybody’s avuncular uncle. Of course, no leader could have led his country successfully against first the French and then the Americans if he wasn’t essentially ruthless. Every public building sports two flags. The national flag with its red field and single yellow star is communistic enough but they also have one with a yellow hammer and cycle. I don’t think they do that even in China.

Our hotel in Ho Chi Minh, the Rex is, I understand owned by the Saigon Tourism Authority, which means it is essentially a state-owned enterprise. Yet the quality of service is certainly higher than what one would expect from such an enterprise. The hotel was famous as the location for the American commands’ daily press briefings derisively labeled the “Five-o’clock Follies by the reporters.

You can buy a Cartier watch or a Salvadore Ferragamo handbag in the hotel’s extensive arcade, but you can’t buy a newspaper, in any language. The same was true of the other hotels we stayed in during the trip. The management does provide its foreign guests with a paper called the Viet Nam News, which has all the the earmarks of a state-run media, namely emphasis on development and trade. Front-page lead story: President Encourages Belarus Business ties.

I happen to know from other sources, that Vietnam was adopting a new constitution while we were in the country. Indeed, the National Assembly approved it the day we were leaving Danang. One might think that was rather news worthy, but you wouldn’t know it by reading the Viet Nam News, which, as far as I can remember did not mention the story at all.

I’m not sure whether it was a subject of the national television news. Flicking through the television channels, I linger at televised proceedings of the National Assembly in Hanoi, although I couldn’t understand what the deputies were debating – if in fact they were debating anything and not simply listening to a government minister giving then their marching orders.

I’ve been puzzled by this institution even before coming to Vietnam. This being a communist country, one assumes that the assembly simply rubber-stamps government edicts. Yet, the body showed some amazing independence a couple years ago when it killed as too expensive a high speed train from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City that the Japanese were eager to sell. When was the last time China’s National People’s Congress did something like that?

Speaking of selling, the Japanese and Russians are competing to sell Vietnam its first nuclear power station just south of Nha Trang. Judging from the swarms of Russians in that city, one could easily assume that they already own this part of Vietnam. Often on this trip we have been almost the only people at the early morning hotel breakfast buffet. Here every table is taken by Russians, eager, no doubt to get on sampling the city’s beaches, food stalls and markets and other attractions.

For a couple years after the end of the Vietnam War, the Russians had a naval base at nearby Cam Ran Bay, although they closed it as straining the defense budget and having very little strategic value. I’m not sure, whether Russian sailors “discovered” Nha Trang and brought back tales of the exotic east. Of course, there is no reason why Russians might not choose Vietnam as a winter vacation place, especially as Egypt is getting too dangerous. Nobody has to worry about terrorists here, but look out for motorbikes.