Abe Shinzo, a runaway prime minister: His decision to re-start nuclear reactors

Currently 56.7% of Japanese people oppose the restart of nuclear reactors while 34.4% support it (see Tokyo Shimbun dated August 16, 2015). Ignoring this national sentiment, PM Abe decided that nuclear reactors would re-start from the 11th of August. The first reactor which was re-started is located at the Sendai power plant in Kagoshima Prefecture, in the southern main island of Kyushu. The second one there is expected to be put back into operation in September. Normally electricity demand in extremely hot and humid summer months would jump up because of the use of air conditioners. Nevertheless, our electricity supply has been more than sufficient this summer and the last. At least, no incident of blackout has been reported. Moreover, there is an active volcano called Sakurajima within 50km from the Sendai power plant, and the eruption alert of this volcano has been raised, as of the 16th of Aug., from level 3 (climbing the mountain is restricted) to level 4 (ordering of evacuation preparation). There are other active volcanoes nearby, as well. Under these conditions, it is difficult to understand why nuclear reactors had to be re-activated at this time. I would say it is a reckless act of a runaway PM Abe.

There are some elements in relation to the re-operation of nuclear reactors that I consider reckless. One of them is that no sufficient evacuation plans have been drawn out for the residents near the plant in case of an accident. In addition, if reactors are put back into operation, this would only add up to the nuclear waste we have already accumulated thus far without having a clear and reliable policy on its safe disposal or processing. For a small earthquake-prone country like ours with so many active volcanoes throughout the country, we should not leave behind us more than what we have already accumulated the extremely dangerous nuclear waste for our future generations to have to deal with. That is the wish of the majority of people in Japan, but the head of Nippon Keidanren or Japan Business Federation, a powerful business lobbyist group, issued a statement welcoming PM Abe’s decision.

After the massive earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan on March 11, 2011, we experienced an unprecedented disaster as a result of the meltdown in Fukushima. Since then most of the nuclear reactors had been put to rest for maintenance and construction work to install new measures under the new safety standards stipulated by Japan’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Due to the fact that about 30% of Japan’s electricity consumption used to be met by nuclear power until the disaster, however, both the government and the public were concerned about possible power shortage, especially during summer months. The former PM Noda therefore decided to put two reactors back into operation to cope with the situation.

As all reactors must stop after 13 months of operation for inspection and maintenance, these two reactors were of no exception, and Japan managed all right for the last two years without any single nuclear reactor in operation. This did not hinder normal economic activities or did not prevent the public from enjoying life as comfortable as before. The power companies might have faced difficult financial situations due to sharp increases in the import of oil and LNG. However, I wonder if PM Abe or Keidanren would not have imagined what might happen to Japan if another disaster like the one in Fukushima is repeated. How could they have made such a serious decision that might affect the survival of this country merely based on their short-term profit or loss?

Another point I consider reckless is that, as in the past, there is no clear-cut understanding of who is ultimately responsible for the safety of people concerned. PM Abe kept saying that only the reactors judged as safe by “world’s most strict safety standards” stipulated by NRC would be permitted to re-start. Indeed, the reactors at the Sendai nuclear power plant have been declared to be in compliance with the new standards, but the chairman of NRC has repeatedly stated that even if they met the new standards, NRC was not in the position to guarantee the safety of reactors. .

In other words, the NRC chairman is implying that accidents can occur. If so, establishing realistic evacuation plans of people concerned in case of a disaster becomes absolutely essential. PM Abe, on the other hand, says that even if reactors are judged to be in compliance with the new standards, it was up to each power company to ultimately decide whether to re-start reactors or not. This shows that no one of the PM, the NRC and the power company is willing to take the ultimate responsibility in case of a disaster. If another horrific accident like the one in Fukushima is repeated, victims’ health would be ruined due to radiation exposure, their environment destroyed, they be forced to flee their homes and communities and their families disintegrated. On the other hand, tax payers would end up being forced to shoulder increased taxes to cover compensations to victims, no matter how hard they have campaigned against nuclear energy, simply because no power company can afford to pay huge compensation bills.

What I consider most unforgivable in relation to the re-start of nuclear reactors is how the government is treating the people of Fukushima when the disaster there is still far from being put under control. Not only that more than 100,000 affected residents are still forced to live in uncomfortable, temporary shelters, but also many of them are now being pressured by the government to return home. In addition, despite the number of cases of thyroid cancer discovered among children in Fukushima is much higher than the national average, the government still has not come to admitting officially, as of Aug. 16, a causal relationship with the nuclear meltdown there. Doesn’t it seem like a story that you might hear in a poor developing country somewhere far away? Indeed, this is what is happening in Japan, the third largest economy in the world!

Shinzo Abe and government officials have repeatedly stated that they would stand by the people of Fukushima in their recovery and reconstruction effort, but I would say that they should demonstrate this by action, and not merely by empty words. For example, the government cancelled at the end of Dec. 2014 the evacuation order for the Minamisoma area, pressuring the residents to go home. However, this was done by suddenly raising from 1mSv of the annual radiation exposure dose limit in their communities to 20mSv. It should be mentioned that the value of 20mSv per annum is the same as the restriction standards applicable to those who work in radiation controlled area in nuclear power plant. This sudden raise of the value of radiation exposure dose limit seems like something that we may witness in a dictatorial country where law is bent or reinterpreted to suit the convenience of the dictator. Naturally, the people of Minamisoma are now in a legal battle against the government, demanding that the cancellation of the evacuation order be withdrawn.

A similar case can be reported of the people of Narahamachi, not far from Minamisoma. They had been ordered to go home by mid Aug., but the government has agreed to postpone the cancellation of the evacuation order till Sept. 05 due to the strong opposition by the residents. After decontamination work around the house, the government insists that the radiation level has gone down to the level safe for residents to go home. But the radiation level fluctuates in different weather as fields, woods and forests cannot be decontaminated, and the residents assert that under such conditions, they would not be able to engage safely in agriculture or forestry, the main economic activities. Furthermore, they say that the tap water cannot be used safely as 10,000 Becquerel of cesium has accumulated per 1kg of mud at the bottom of the reservoir, the source of tap water. The government insists, however, that even drinking tap water is safe as no radioactivity has been detected from the surface layer of the reservoir. But who would accept those words with ease, especially after a rainy or windy day? Naturally, the residents would be very reluctant to go home in this situation.

Having been convinced of the myth that nuclear plants were safe and necessary propagated by the government and the power company, the people of Fukushima had accepted the national policy of building nuclear reactors in their hometowns. Yet, the way they are now being treated by the government is totally disgraceful and unacceptable. Under such circumstances, there should have never been a green light given for the re-operation of the Sendai nuclear power plant.

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Crisis of democracy in Japan?

Japan ranked 61st among 180 countries in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RWB), a Paris-based watchdog. It ranked 11th among 173 countries in 2010, but its position deteriorated quickly to 53rd among 178 countries in both 2012 and 2013. Furthermore, it was down to 59th among 180 countries in 2014, meaning that its ranking dropped from 11th to 61st just in five years. In compiling the index, RWB evaluates a range of criteria such as “media pluralism and independence, respect for the safety and freedom of journalists, and the legislative, institutional and infrastructural environment in which the media operate.”(http://index.rsf.org/)

Why such a sharp drop in freedom of the press in Japan in recent years? The deteriorating situation coincided with the re-emergence of Shinzo Abe as prime minister in 2012. He had once held the post just for a year from Sept. 2006, from which he stepped down for health reasons. It is interesting to note that Japan ranked 37th among 161 countries in 2005, but worsened to 51st in 2006, after which it improved to 37th in 2007 and further up to 17th in 2009 and 11th in 2010.

Regarding media pluralism, one of the criteria considered by RWB, I feel our society used to be open enough to allow newspapers, and TV stations affiliated with them, with a range of political views to operate freely. However, the established media with critical views toward the policies being pushed by Shinzo Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) are reported to be under increasing pressure from them. In recent months, for example, it was reported that Shigeaki Koga, a former bureaucrat turned political commentator critical of Abe, had been removed from a TV Asahi news show under the pressure from them. There were other cases involving other broadcasters in which political bullying was rumored to have been behind in the ousting of certain individuals from news programs.

Abe and LDP’s attempt to intimidate and muzzle the media having negative views toward them extends not only to Japanese journalists but also to foreign correspondents (e.g. see “Confessions of a foreign correspondent after a half-decade of reporting from Tokyo to his German readers” by Carsten Germis of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which appeared in Number 1 Shimbun, April 02, 2015, after completing his assignment). Germis wrote in the article that Japan as he had known soon after his arrival in Tokyo and the country he left after five years of assignment had changed considerably.

For example, according to him, foreign journalists had often been invited to the Kantei, the PM’s official residence, where current issues were openly discussed when the Democratic Party of Japan was in power. After Dec. 2012, however, he felt no appreciation for openness on the part of Abe’s administration. Although foreign correspondents had a long list of issues to be clarified and elaborated on by the government, there was no willingness shown by the government to talk with them. Yet, anyone who wrote articles critical of Abe’s policies was identified as a “Japan basher.”

Furthermore, citing his own experience, Germis claims that today even the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is involved in exerting pressure on journalists. After he wrote an article critical of Abe’s historical revisionism, “the paper’s senior foreign policy editor was visited by the Japanese consul general of Frankfurt, who passed on objections from Tokyo.” This diplomat complained that the Chinese had used his article for their anti-Japanese propaganda. Worse, he even insulted him, the editor and the entire paper by insinuating that the journalist must have been paid by Beijing. According to him, this kind of behavior on the part of diplomats was unthinkable five years ago.

Such behavior from Abe’s camp make a mockery out of freedom of the press and people’s right to know, the fundamentals of democracy. Leading to and up till the end of WWII, people had been kept in the dark or silenced by the press controlled and manipulated by the militaristic government of those days and as a result ordinary citizens ended up paying heavy price. That is why journalists and citizens have nurtured over the last 70 years the basics of democracy. However, we witnessed a rollback in this respect in Dec. 2013 when the law on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets, or commonly known as a secrecy law, was enacted. It was aimed at preventing civil servants from “leaking” whatever the government deems to be “national secrets.” However, journalists and many people claim that it curtails their right to know.

The institutional mechanism to secure independence of the media in Japan is also far from being adequate. For example, the head of NHK (the Japan Broadcasting Corporation), the public broadcaster funded by TV reception fees levied on all households possessing a television, is appointed by the prime minister, rather than being chosen by an independent commission.

The current head of NHK, Katsuto Momii, appointed by Shinzo Abe in Jan. 2014 for a three-year term, has been widely criticized for his views considered as not suitable for the post. While having to be independent and impartial, he stated he would not be able to say “left” when the government says “right.” This was his response to a question concerning the territorial issues between Japan with China and South Kores at the very first press conference upon his appointment. In another occasion, he was asked if NHK would broadcast a thoroughly investigative report on the highly controversial issue of “comfort women” from the WWII era. He replied “no” on the ground that the government position on it had not been firmly established. No wonder, lots of people feel that he is not suitable to head the public broadcaster which should be independent of the government.

The latest incident showing Abe administration’s increasing attempt to muzzle the media was exposed in late June. According to a leaked report from a closed “study” meeting involving about 40 junior lawmakers from LDP, close to Abe, held at the party HQs, the attendants apparently discussed how the two newspapers popularly supported in Okinawa, which are highly critical of Abe’s military policies, should be destroyed. Abe first shrugged off the criticism from the opposition parties regarding the behavior of his party members disrespectful of democracy, saying that the comments had been made in a private gathering. However, as media criticism grew wider and louder on this matter, he was eventually forced to apologize to the people of Okinawa, admitting that he was ultimately responsible for the comments made at the LDP HQs.

In view of the above, the sharp drop in Japan’s ranking in World Press Freedom Index in the last five years is understandable. But we should not just sit and allow our situation to deteriorate further. Both journalists and ordinary citizens need to be aware of what is happening and must reclaim our fundamental rights under democracy, guaranteed by our constitution since the end of WWII. Otherwise, we will one day wake up, realizing that our society has gone back to the dark era.

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Worsening child poverty in Japan and women’s predicament

According to Comprehensive Survey of Living Conditions, a report released in 2014 by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare (MHLW) of Japan, the Japanese are economically worse off now than before. The relative poverty rate (the proportion of people with net income below a defined threshold) worsened to 16.1% in 2012 from 15% in 2004. The 2012 threshold calculated by MHLW based on OECD standards was 1.22 million yen, which was half of the median equivalent disposable income. Japan’s poverty rate was the 4th highest among the OECD countries, following Mexico, the country with the highest rate, Turkey and the United States. It also noted that the poverty rate of those under 18 years of age was 16.3%, indicating that one out of six children fall in this category (http://www.nipppon.com/en/features/h00072/). The rate was 11% in 1985, 12.1% in mid-1990s, 14% in mid-2000 and 15.7% in 2009 (OECD Family Database and http://www.oecd.org/els/social/inequality).

The trend of relative child poverty in Japan is worrying. The situation affects negatively the healthy growth, both physical and mental, of our future generations as well as their outlook on life. A study carried out among high school students regarding their future plans showed a close correlation between their aspiration to go on to university and the level of their family income (http://3keys.jp/state/).

Children should be allowed to hold aspiration for the future, irrespective of their economic condition at birth or during their childhood, and should be given the opportunity to strive for their dreams. So, unless we look at the hard reality of worsening child poverty and tackle the problem today, we may wake up one day with huge inequalities and little social mobility. This must be avoided in our society, the population of which is now declining. Securing a dynamic population is of utmost importance for our society to continue thriving in the 21st century.

Following WWII, the whole of Japan struggled to make ends meet, to rebuild the country destroyed in the war and to escape from the hardships experienced during and after the war. And, lo and behold, Japan became the second largest economy in the world by 1968, though surpassed by China in 2009 (The World Bank database). For a long time, the Japanese had little class consciousness. Most people used to consider themselves as part of the large middle class in an egalitarian society.

This changed around 1990, however, when Japan experienced a sharp economic downturn. Its net worth (national wealth), including land and stock prices, reached the peak of 3,531 trillion yen in 1990, which was eight times the GDP, but was down to 3,000 trillion yen at the end of 2012 (Statistics Bureau, Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication: Statistical Handbook of Japan 2014).

After 1990, a growing number of workers faced an uncertain future. They suddenly found themselves unemployed or were forced to accept “non-regular” status, giving up the job security and accompanying fringe benefits they had enjoyed before. Many new entrants to the labor market were able to find only non-regular jobs without being able to accumulate seniority or being able to claim benefits, such as bonuses, which were offered only to regular employees. Here, “non-regular workers” include part-time, temporary, seasonal and contract workers who do not enjoy company-provided social protection and other benefits that regular workers usually enjoy.

The figures below illustrate the changing employment structure in Japan. Although the total number of workers grew from 39.99 million in 1985 to 51.11 million in 2010, the rise was largely among non-regular workers — from 6.55 million to 17.56 million. The proportion of non-regular workers among all employees climbed from 16.4% in 1985 to 35.2% in 2012 (MHLW: Rohdohkeizai no bunseki (Analysis of labor economics), 2013). By 2013, non-regular workers increased to 19.06 million, 68% of which were women (http://www.stat.go.jp/data/roudou/sokuhou/4hanki/dt/).

This has led to lower average net income, but more importantly, to widening household income gaps. Among male regular workers in 2013, 39.6% earned 5 million yen or more, 37.7% between 3 to 4.99 million yen and 22.7% less than 3 million yen. Among male non-regular workers, only 4.4% earned 5 million yen or more, 15.3% between 3 to 4.99 million yen and 80.3% less than 3 million yen. On the other hand, only 13.7% of female regular workers earned 5 million yen or more, while 33% earned between 3 to 4.99 million yen and the rest (53.3 %) less than 3 million yen. In fact, 19.2% of them earned only between 1 to 1.99 million yen and 5.9% less than 1 million yen. Female non-regular workers fared far worse. Very few of them (0.4%) earned 5 million yen or more, while 3.1% earned between 3 to 4.99 million yen. Most of them were in the brackets below 3 million yen —10.9% between 2 and 2.99 million yen, 38.5% between 1 to 1.99 million yen and 47.1% below  1 million yen (Ibid.). Clearly, many women are below the poverty level.

True, there are women who work fewer hours than regular workers just to supplement household incomes. The income gap between regular and non-regular workers may be partly due to the number of hours of work, but that does not explain all cases. For example, a large proportion of contract workers put in as many hours as regular workers for much less income. While more than half of part-time workers put in fewer than 40 hours a week, a considerable proportion of them work more than 40 hours for grossly reduced income in relation to regular workers with comparable hours of work. (http://www5.cao.go.jp/j-j/wp/wp-je09/09b03010.html).

Today, a growing number of women are sole breadwinners in the family, raising their children as single/divorced mothers. As divorce has become more common (e.g. the number of divorce increased from 157,608 cases in 1990 to 231,000 in 2013, according to MHLW database on population, 2013), the number of such households climbed from 554,000 in 1989 to 821,000 in 2013. Because of women’s low wages, many are feeling the crunch. A survey discovered that among such households, 49.5% found life very difficult and 35.2% somewhat difficult, as opposed to 27.7% and 32.2% of all households expressing the same (http://www.mhlw.go.jp/toukei/saikin/hw/k-tyosa/k-tyosa13/). This helps to explain why child poverty in Japan has been worsening.

Child poverty cannot be reduced without first improving women’s employment situation and reducing gender gap in earnings. The government proposes a number of policies to address the problem. They include, among other things, reviews of employment practices and pay structures, affirmative action to help competent women advance to higher positions, in addition to increased aid to needy families. They are all fine, but I strongly suggest that the principle of “equal pay for the work of equal value”, as enshrined in ILO Convention No. 100 which Japan ratified in 1967, should finally be applied to workers in Japan.

Too many women in Japan have been pushed to low-pay jobs simply because they are women. Too many jobs women have are given a low value simply because they are done by women, even if they require skills and decision-making. The review of pay structure should therefore be made from the principle of “equal pay for the work of equal value” and not just “equal pay for equal work.” Applying this principle without gender bias should bring many women and their children out of poverty.

Posted in Child poverty, Economic development, Japan, Labour issues, Men and Development, National wealth, Women & Development | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Essay: Ageing female prisoners in Japan

According to the 2013 edition of World Population Ageing, a UN report, Japan was most aged society in the world with 32% of its population being 60 years or over. Italy and Germany came second and third, both with nearly 27% of their populations in the same age bracket.

In Japan, however, usually only those who are 65 years or over are considered as “old”. They are then broken down into two groups: (1) between 65 and 74 years old, who are simply labeled as “old”; and (2) 75 years or over, who are referred to as “old people in the advanced age bracket.” The latest White Paper on ageing of population (2012 data), released in 2013 by the Cabinet Office, the Government of Japan, shows the former group comprising 12.2% of the total population and the latter, 11.9%. This means that 24.1% of the Japanese population is made up of those who are 65 or over. As Japan’s fertility rate is one of the lowest in the world, the ageing of the society may no longer be reversed, unless drastic measures are taken.

In relation to the ageing of population, I came across a sad article on female prisoners in Japan (“Hikari-o sagashite (In search of light)” by Miki Morimoto in Asahi Digital, May 23, 2014). Back in 1993, apparently only 26 women of 65 years or older were serving their sentences. By 2012, this figure increased by 11 times to 285. On the other hand, men prisoners in the same age bracket increased five-fold, from 368 to 1,907 in the same period. So the rate of increase was higher among women than men. Eighty percent of “old” women incarcerated are said to be serving for minor offenses, such as shoplifting and theft, while about half of them are recidivists.

Ageing among prisoners is simply a reflection of the society as a whole. Therefore, many inmates are reported to visit prison clinic frequently for their medical problems, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, cataract, knee and leg pains, lumbago, as well as dementia. The scene of prisoners walking slowly from the dining hall to their cells with canes and walkers is said to increasingly appear like that in any home for old people.

The author of the article had interviewed some women prisoners, and I was saddened to read certain situations mentioned as possible reasons behind their committing crimes as well as repeating them. They included stress from not having been well accepted by parents-in-law in the past, the psychological wound from which still remained unresolved for some women to date; increased daily stress from having to deal with the husband alone after children had left home; loneliness from grown-up children drifting away from home; the feeling of not having their own place at home in the backdrop of husband’s violent behavior; and financial difficulties and uncertainties for the future (for both married women as well as those living alone). In effect, many of them seem to commit crime out of the feeling of insecurity and for not having their own place of comfort at home. They become recidivists in search of comradeship among fellow inmates. How sad it is, though, for anyone to feel that peace and comfort can be obtained in prison in the twilight of life.

In order to help such women to feel secure after their release so that they would not return there, some correctional institutions now provide counselling service for them. Many such women are said to have had poor communication skills, which had led them to isolation in community, which, in turn, resulted in their committing crime. So they are helped to build up communication skills through group therapy, where they discuss in detail and openly the problems they had had and the actual crimes they committed. The counselling service also provides information as to how and where they can seek financial help to prevent them from going back to shoplifting again after their release.

In the past when most people lived in an extended-family set-up, ageing mothers used to be looked after by their grown-up sons. This is no longer so, especially in large cities, throughout Japan. Therefore, women must also learn to grow out of being emotionally dependent on their children. They must nurture to have independent minds with clear wishes and dreams in life of their own, however small they might be. When they find their own purpose or meaning of life, they will be more forward-looking in life. So, I believe that arming them with better communication skills will go a long way for themselves as well as for the society as a whole.

Posted in Economic development, Happiness, Japan, Multicultural, Philosophy, skills training, Women & Development | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Essay: A big “No” to the re-start of nuclear reactors

Before the meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant following the powerful earthquake and the tsunami of March 11, 2011, there were 54 nuclear reactors operating throughout Japan. They used to supply about 30% of the energy in the country. After the disaster, the reactors went offline one by one for maintenance and safety checks, and since September 2013, all reactors have been idle. Japan is now managing without nuclear power, though the cost of oil and gas imported to offset the energy shortage has gone up considerably. But no black outs, due to all nuclear reactors being idle, have been reported so far.

Despite the continued suffering of the victims of the disaster in Fukushima, and despite its not yet being contained, the Japanese government still wants to rely on nuclear energy as an important energy source. That’s why Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of Japan, plans to have reactors back in operation as soon as they pass the new safety stress tests being conducted by Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA). Whenever questioned on this issue in parliamentary sessions, Abe emphasizes the NRA’s bench marks as being “the most stringent standards in the world.” He believes the reactors that meet such tests will be perfectly safe. But what does he mean by the “most stringent nuclear safety standards in the world”?

Until 2011, many Japanese had been made to believe that our nuclear technology was at the highest class in the world and that our nuclear reactors were able to withstand any natural disasters common to Japan. This turned out to be a myth, which easily crumbled and dissipated after a tsunami the kind of which we had never experienced before.

Last September, Abe proudly declared in Buenos Aires, where the IOC awarded the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics games to Tokyo, that the problem of radiation-contaminated water leakage from the Fukushima plant was “under control.” However, not only does that particular leak still torment the workers on the plant as well as the residents in nearby communities, but also leaks in other spots have been detected and reported since then. The reality is that no one knows for sure when and how the problem will really be resolved. Under such circumstances, how trustworthy are the “most stringent nuclear safety health standards in the world” that Abe refers to?

Japan is a small, densely-populated, earthquake-prone island country where active faults run everywhere. So, it is not an exaggeration to say that it is the most risky country in the world to operate nuclear reactors. When Abe stresses our new standards being world’s most stringent, I wonder which countries he is comparing ours to. If our risk is much more serious than that of the second most risky country in the world, whichever that may be, even the “most stringent safety standards” in the world will not give us any assurance of safety.

People around the world are now experiencing the kinds of natural disaster they have never experienced before. Nature’s destructive force is beyond our imagination. Our political and economic leaders still think it’s cheaper to rely on nuclear energy than imported oil and gas when we don’t know yet what the total and eventual cost of the disaster in Fukushima will be. Besides, we still don’t know how and where to dispose of the dangerous nuclear waste materials that we have already accumulated from the 54 reactors. Today, investment in renewable energy is increasing rapidly, too. Considering all these factors, do we still wish to see our nuclear reactors re-starting? I say “NO” clearly and loudly.

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Essay : My thought on Shinzo Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni shrine

As expected, both China and South Korea reacted furiously to Prime Minister Abe’s visit to the controversial Yasukuni shrine in late December 2013.  Diplomatic relations between Japan and these countries, which had already been strained, worsened further with no hope in sight of improvement.  This time, however, Taiwan, Russia, the EU and the United States joined these neighboring countries in expressing their dismay at his insensitivities to the feelings of the peoples of Asia.

Abe and his advisors seemed flustered by this negative reaction from Washington.  The US government had never officially expressed its view on this issue when Juninchiro Koizumi or some of the earlier PMs paid visits to the shrine in the past, each time triggering the anger of neighboring countries.  According to a press report, Abe decided against V.P. Biden’s advice to not visit given during their telephone conversation earlier that month.  Abe went ahead anyway and acted according to his own conviction.  That was why Washington expressed its anger contained in the word “disappointment”, especially when it is trying to bring all the countries into cooperation to effectively cope with the common threat posed by North Korea.  According to reports, Foreign Minister Kishida immediately contacted Ms. Caroline Kennedy, the new US Ambassador to Tokyo, explaining Abe’s position, but the latter responded coolly and said that she would simply convey his message to Washington.

In response to all the negative reactions reported, Abe released a statement that he had had no intention of hurting the feelings of the Chinese and Korean people.  But he knew perfectly well how those countries would react, which was why he did not visit the shrine during his first tenure as PM back in 2006-07.  He defended his visit, asserting that he had prayed the souls of all those who sacrificed themselves for the nation rest in peace, and vowed that never again would people suffer miseries of war.  He also stressed that such a gesture was common for all national leaders and that he would continue to make efforts so that the people of other countries could understand his position.

The Chinese and Korean peoples who suffered at the hands of the Japanese military might understand the PM of Japan praying for the souls of all those who sacrificed themselves in the war, including Japanese foot soldiers who committed atrocities at the order of their superiors.  Hundreds of thousands of such soldiers were civilians forced into fighting by Japan’s reckless military policies of that period, and were also themselves victims who suffered immensely.

The serious problem, however, of Abe or of some of the earlier PMs visiting the Yasukuni shrine is that so-called “A-class war criminals”, or those who were responsible for the Japanese aggression in Asia and the Pacific, have been enshrined along with the ordinary soldiers since 1978.  Although Abe says he has no intention of hurting the feelings of those in neighboring countries, his words sound empty and insincere, even for a Japanese citizen like myself.  Just imagine the German government engraving the names of Hitler and his close associates on war memorials commemorating those who died in the previous war!  How would the people in Europe feel about that even if the government has sought and maintained peaceful relations with its neighbors since 1945?  The difference between the German and Japanese governments regarding their reflections on and apology for WWII is that the former has maintained a firm position, while the latter keeps vacillating, depending on who heads the government.  I am afraid that no matter how hard Abe tries, decent leaders in other countries will not show understanding toward his position.  The sooner he realizes this, the better; swift action would minimize the damage already done to Japan’s national interests in the diplomatic world.

Abe and his supporters claim that the so-called “A-class war criminals” were judged based on trials conducted by the winners of the war.  That was to be expected, as Japan surrendered unconditionally, but if they seriously doubted the outcome of the trials, why didn’t Japan ever officially conduct its own review and thorough investigation of what had gone wrong and who had been responsible for recklessly leading the country to war and the verge of annihilation?  This should have been done when Japan regained its independence with the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1952.

It has already been 69 years since Japan’s defeat in the last war, and if Abe is serious about our country never again engaging in war or subjecting people to those same miseries, he can propose for Japan to, at last, officially conduct comprehensive reviews relating to WWII.  The outcome would surely help Japan to maintain peace with its neighbors and the world.  It is not too late.

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Essay: The Enigma of Gender Gap in Japan

In March this year, I posted on my blog an essay titled “Japan: The worst developed country for women?”  I mentioned in it that Japan came in 101st in the “global gender gap index” in 2012 out of 135 countries examined in the Global Gender Gap Report released by the World Economic Forum (WEF).  The index tries to “capture the magnitude and scope of gender-based disparities”.  It is designed to measure gender-based gaps in access to resources and opportunities in individual countries, rather than the actual levels of the available resources and opportunities in those countries.”  It is calculated in such a way to make it “independent from the countries’ levels of development”.  It “evaluates countries based on outcomes, rather than inputs” and the evaluation is carried out in the areas of (1) economic participation and opportunities, (2) educational attainment, (3) health and survival, and (4) political empowerment.

The WEF published recently the 2013 edition of the Report with the latest global gender gap index.  As it had been the previous year, Iceland came in top, followed, also as last year, by Finland, Norway and Sweden.  This year, however, the Philippines came in fifth.  The highest ranking Asian country, it improved its position from eighth last year.  Seven European countries are in the top ten, but none from the G7 or G20 is in the top ten.  To my great disappointment, Japan’s ranking worsened from 101st last year to 105th among 136 countries this year.  But I was curious why the Japanese women have not been able to narrow the gender gap for decades despite the country making great economic progress after the total destruction in WWII.

Japanese women’s ranking in health and survival is among the top in the world.  Their average life expectancy, which was 86.4 years in 2012, has remained the longest since the mid. 1980s, except in 2011 when it was slightly surpassed by that of Hong Kong women due to tsunami.  In the area of educational attainment, too, Japanese women have done as well as their fellow women in Norway and Sweden in attaining secondary education.  The gender parity index (GPI=the ratio of female-to-male values of a given indicator) was 1.00 in these countries.  It was 1.02 in Iceland and 1.01 in Finland (Global Education Digest 2012, UNESCO).

With regard to tertiary education, however, I understand why Scandinavian women are at the top in the global gender gap index.  The GPIs regarding first-degree graduation for Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden were 2.28, 1.83, 1.79 and 2.05 respectively, as opposed to 0.82 for Japan.  Among major Western countries, Germany, ranked 14th, had a GPI of 1.32.  For Britain, no. 18, it was 1.38.  For the USA, no. 23, it was 1.42.  And for France, no. 45, it was 1.27.  No figures were given for the Philippines.

Japanese women being ranked so low in the global gender gap index is mainly due to their low economic and political participation.  For example, it is reported that even today more than half of Japanese people still cling to the traditional values that expect men to go out and work and women to stay home and look after the family.  That is why only 9% of managerial positions in Japan are occupied by women as opposed to 33% in Iceland.  As for politicians, women hold only 8% of the seats in the lower house of the Diet, the Japanese parliament, as opposed to 40% in the unicameral system of the Icelandic national assembly (“Danjo-byoudou” Nippon wa 105i, Nande? Kako saiteini”, digital Asashi., Oct 27, 2013).  I had expected the Republic of Korea to have placed higher in the global gender gap index this year, as the country now has its first woman president.  However, for some reason, its ranking also worsened to 111th this year from 108th last year.

I worked and lived abroad for three decades until I returned to my home country last year, so I sometimes forget how far women in Japan still have to go to attain gender equality.  Recently, when I attended a friend and former colleague’s wedding here in Tokyo, I glimpsed the hard reality of the gender gap here.  The Japanese bride and the non-Japanese groom, who are both based in Geneva, decided to have a traditional Japanese wedding in the Shinto style.  In the reception following the solemn ceremony, all the guests enjoyed a sumptuous dinner where one beautifully presented dish after another was served.  The dinner-reception itself was far from traditional, however, where the bride and the groom danced to the tunes of Latin music while still wearing the traditional Japanese wedding costumes!

During this dinner, some of the prominent invitees were asked to say a few words.  Among them was the bride’s former boss, who is now retired and flew all the way from Malaysia to celebrate the occasion.  Since she and the groom did not speak Japanese, English interpretation was provided for them throughout.  At the end of her short speech, she was about to propose a toast to the couple, but was abruptly stopped doing so by the master of ceremony.

Suddenly, there was a moment of confusion.  I had no idea why she had not been allowed to present her toast.  She also looked bewildered and embarrassed.  So I asked a friend of mine sitting next to me at the table if she understood the situation.  That Japanese woman, who has also worked and lived abroad for many years, had no idea, either.  Some prominent men sitting at our table, having heard my question, said:  “Women are not supposed to propose a toast.”  They did not elaborate on this, but it seemed that at occasions such as that, only the last person to speak –always a man– would formally propose a toast for the occasion.

This called to mind an incident Margaret Thatcher experienced during her official visit to Japan after becoming the first woman prime minister of the UK, which I remember reading about in the paper long ago.  At that time, the Seikan Tunnel, the longest undersea tunnel in the world connecting the two main islands in Japan, was being built.  Meanwhile, France and the UK were considering building the Channel Tunnel connecting their two countries.  Thatcher would have liked to visit the worksite in the tunnel to see the new technology being employed for the construction.  However, the men working there adamantly refused to receive her simply because she was a woman.  Apparently, they believed that having a woman in the tunnel worksite would bring bad luck.  I wondered if they knew that many women, mostly wives of minors, had indeed toiled in Japanese coal mines, often deep under the sea, in the past.

The incident at the wedding reception and the experience of Margaret Thatcher may not be the ideal analogy, but I feel that even today too many men still accept old traditions that restrict women’s roles in society without questioning those traditions’ validity in modern age.  They simply say that “it has always been done so.”  At the same time, too many women also seem to accept old ways without challenging them or questioning why it has to be so.  Unless this situation changes, the gender gap in Japan, I’m afraid, will not narrow too much in the future.

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