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Gordon Campbell on the view from Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo

Gordon Campbell on the view from Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo

Sorry for being out of radio contact overseas for much of this week, even as the Cunliffe/Mahuta duo were being deep-sixed by that feisty Labour leader Andrew Little. (Actually, I’ll believe “feisty” when Little says “goodnight and goodbye” to Annette King, as good as she may be in her role as Queen Mother of the Labour caucus.) A small step of utu for Cunliffe is not exactly a giant step for mankind, or for Labour’s prospects in 2017, when it will need all the talent it can muster.

For the next two fortnight or so, this will be a combined travel & politics column, since I happen to be in Tokyo right now, as a first time traveller to Japan. Some things don’t change, though. After dining last night at a restaurant called Gonpachi in the Rippongi area of the city, I glanced up at the array of pictures of the restaurant owner in various poses with a raft of his celebrity guest diners down the years – Sylvester Stallone, Steven Tyler etc- Right under the Stevie Wonder photo was the familiar smiling face of….’John Key, Prime Minister of New Zealand.’ There is no escape. The Gonpachi dining area BTW, served as the film set for Uma Thurman’s epic final battle scenes in the Tarantino film Kill Bill – and hey, if anyone’s listening in, that’s not a coded reference to our Finance Minister.

Enough already about the wondrous public transport rail system, the neon brilliance of night-time, the lamp-posts that randomly blare out the Star Wars main theme…and the patience and courtesy that’s coded right into the language. Entering and leaving a dining place can leave you feeling as if you’ve just won the Thank You lottery, and – amazingly – a “thank you” in Japanese signifies both hierarchies and tenses. ‘Arigatou’ is good to go for an informal ‘thanks, “arigatou gozaimasu’ seems to be the version for more formal settings, and – if I’ve got the spelling right- ‘arigatou gozaimashita’ is ‘thanks for what you did beforehand, like that thing you did yesterday.’ And supposedly, there’s a version of ‘thanks’ specially reserved for the person holding the buttons so that you can get into/out of an elevator. So anyway… “arigatou’ for bearing with my wonder at a language where the forms of gratitude convey a notion of time, and a sense of occasion.

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But down to business. The media here in Tokyo faces the usual pressures, both economic and political. Yet there are two excellent English language compilations of original news and stuff gleaned from the likes of Yomiuri Shimbun – of sufficient depth to show that really good journalism is still happening every day here. Among the highlights that may, or may not have made the news back home, and in no particular order :

1. The China Syndrome. Like New York and Paris, Tokyo is struggling to come to terms with the influx of foreign visitors, and the transformation of parts of the city into tourism theme parks. The process involves the repackaging of history and culture once held dear – and certainly not because they can now be monetised. For obvious reasons, the influx of Chinese tourists and capital has been especially difficult for some Tokyo residents.

As a mirror reflection of this disquiet, the term’ bakugai’ has just topped the list of buzzwords for the year at this week’s U-Can award ceremonies for Top New Words and Buzzwords, run by a local publishing house. The term ‘bakugai’ means : “explosive shopping spree” carried out by Chinese tourists, and it refers to practices such as the hiring of local mega-department stores for one hour by Chinese tour groups for their own exclusive use. (And its not only Japanese nationalists who resent the growing hegemony of Chinese spending power.) A runner up phrase in the same competition was “Abe seiji wo yurusanai” which means “We will not tolerate Abe’s policies” – and refers in particular, to the security legislation promoted by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

2. Women & Paid Work : Policy Not Working. Enhancing the labour market participation by women is one of Abe’s ‘five arrows’ of reform for the stagnant Japanese economy. Unfortunately…on Wednesday, a Jiji Press headline : “Women Hold A Record 3.5% of Government Managerial Posts” shows just how far that campaign has to go, in order to get anywhere near its supposed target of 30% by 2020.

A day later, an 82 page Abe government report on gender employment barriers in Japan pinpointed the usual substantive reasons : such as an ‘ out-dated family model in which men work long hours while women take care of the home.” This ‘out-dated’ corporate culture has reportedly ‘ made it difficult for women to fully execute their abilities, or for men to participate in home-making, domestic duties and child-rearing.” Undaunted, the Abe government is about to release its fourth basic plan on the issue. The suggested solutions include placing caps on overtime hours, and encouraging people to take all their paid holidays, including parental leave – which is nominally available but rarely uptaken in today’s competitive work environment. Abe, of course, cannot take the lead and actually advocate for women to be spared or helped in their domestic/childrearing duties – the old guys in Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) would think he’d lost his cojones if he tried.

3. TPP Again ! The TPP is not old news here. On Tuesday, a Japan Times editorial analysed the package of measures proposed by the Abe government to help ease the transition for businesses – small and large – once the TPP takes effect. In New Zealand of course, we’ve been more inclined to allow the law of the free market jungle to weed out the frail from the fit – and the more brutal the transition, the more bracingly healthy we’ve tend to regard the winnowing out to be. In that respect, free market /free trade policies have been pretty much our own version of the Hunger Games…

That’s not quite how they do it in Japan. Or in the US for that matter, which – from the Kennedy era onwards – has regularly required by law an evaluation (and in many cases, a level of compensation) of the impact that new trade pacts will have on jobs and business.

Abe is proposing just such a package – though as yet, as the Japan Times says, its hard as yet to distinguish the rhetoric of assistance, from the actual, workable provisions of care. While government assistance is supposedly on the way for small and medium scale business harmed by the TPP, the Times notes that much of the package is aimed at handsomely compensating farmers and fisheries industries:

The outline contains fairly concrete steps to support domestic producers likely to face stiff competition amid the increased imports, and possibly suffer income losses. The steps include government purchases of the same amount of rice from domestic farmers as Japan will be obliged to import under the TPP deal, and raising the rate for covering the losses incurred by beef and pork producers from the current 80 percent to 90 percent.

Obviously, as the editorial suggests, this can be too much of a good thing. In the wake of the WTO Uruguay Round of the 1990s, the government compensation package was apparently so generous, re-adjustment to market realities never really happened. Clearly a Goldilocks balance has to be struck – somewhere between the cold turkey approach favoured by New Zealand, and the warm comfy cushion model favoured by Japan.

4. King Coal. Finally, a scary subtext to the Paris climate change talks. Amusingly, Obama called for binding rules – not binding targets, but binding reviews of those non-binding targets. That would be funny, if it wasn’t so pathetic.

Meanwhile, there’s this:

The shine is coming off once bright prospects for natural gas as the future fossil fuel of choice in Asia as power companies in India and Southeast Asia tap abundant and cheap domestic coal resources to generate electricity.

Asian loyalty to coal is shrinking the space available for natural gas just as supplies are ramping up after massive investments in U.S. and Australian output. Demand growth for natural gas is also slowing in top energy consumer China, further dampening the fuel's prospects.

While much attention has been given to a potential peak in China's coal demand and worries about emissions, in Asia alone this year power companies are building more than 500 coal-fired plants, with at least a thousand more on planning boards. Coal is not only cheaper than natural gas, it is often available locally and has no heavy import costs.

Meaning : there may be some hope for Solid Energy, but not so much for the planet.

Culture shocku :

I’ve linked to Harajuku-based J-pop star Kyary Pamyu Pamyu before, but since she’s playing gigs in Tokyo next week, its a good time to see this astounding video for “PonPonPon” again :

And since Exile, the 19-member Japanese boy band, is also playing a big arena gig here in Tokyo this week, here’s one of their videos. This one for “24 Carats” begins with some dance routines that you should not try at home.

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