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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.”
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.
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.
Todd Crowell is author of the
Dictionary of the Asian Language.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
The Real Shinzo Abe
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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).
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.
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.”
The Year in Asia, 2013
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:
in East China Sea
Movement in Myanmar
return to Bangkok streets
lands rover on Moon
8. Bo Xilai
given life sentence
wins 2020 Olympics
Flees to Hong Kong
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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.