Category Archives: Hackery

Idiot Wind: Thomas Pascoe

Idiot wind, blowing every time your move your mouth,
Blowing down the backroads heading south,
Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth,
You’re an idiot babe,
It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.

Idiot Wind, Bob Dylan

Sometimes I get tired of doing all the heavy lifting. So welcome to an occasional feature in which you get to do it for me! Here’s an “article” from The Telegraph, which I believe once used to be a semi-serious, if comically Conservative, newspaper (remember them) in the UK. Tell me what’s wrong, after the bio, with the following (link to the full article at the headline). Or you could tell Mr Pascoe directly at his contact details below:

Thomas Pascoe worked in both the Lloyd’s of London insurance market and in corporate finance before joining the Telegraph. He writes about the financial markets. His email is thomas.pascoe@telegraph.co.uk and his Twitter address is @PascoeTelegraph

At last, Japan may be about to abandon its disastrous Keynesian consensus

The world’s third largest economy is in crisis. That, in itself is not news. The world’s largest economy is also in crisis, as is its second, as is…

What is newsworthy is that, having tried and failed with every other option, the Japanese government may be taking a remarkably novel approach. It appears as though they are going to try to spend close to what they receive in taxation. The Keynesian consensus is coming to an end in Japan, although not before it has wrought enormous damage to one of the world’s great economies.

“The government running out of money is not a story made up. It’s a real threat,” said Japan’s finance minister Jun Azumi on Friday. Opposition parties in Japan are blocking a deficit financing bill which would allow the government to continue to drive its debt levels above 200pc of GDP. If the opposition holds firm, the government has threatened the unthinkable – it will spend less. Tax rises are also on the table, although the doubling of sales tax to 10pc will not come fully into force until 2015.

(abridged)

However, Japan’s horizons have been blighted by cloud for much of the past two decades. If anything, those clouds are now blackening. The long-term impact of the Fukushima explosion, in terms of public health, is anyone’s guess. The clean-up work undertaken in and around the plant since the explosion has been exceptional. However, there is every chance that the generation coming to maturity in the next two decades may be blighted by significant levels of incapacity, hampering the economy and requiring even greater state spending.

The Japanese may have arrived at the idea of moving towards a balanced budget both 20 years late and by accident, but it offers them a chance to consolidate and restore order to the public finances. At a time when public appetite for government debt has fallen to a seven-year low, reducing borrowing is not just the sensible option, it’s the only one left.

Spiked: Eamonn Fingleton

The inability to change one’s mind in light of new evidence is perhaps the greatest obstacle—bar stupidity—to attaining the wisdom with which our evolved psychologies burden us.

Alphatuosity blog

When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?

J. M. Keynes (attributed)

The Myth of Japan’s Failure
The New York Times, January 6, 2012

DESPITE some small signs of optimism about the United States economy, unemployment is still high, and the country seems stalled.

Time and again, Americans are told to look to Japan as a warning of what the country might become if the right path is not followed, although there is intense disagreement about what that path might be. Here, for instance, is how the CNN analyst David Gergen has described Japan: “It’s now a very demoralized country and it has really been set back.”

But that presentation of Japan is a myth. By many measures, the Japanese economy has done very well during the so-called lost decades, which started with a stock market crash in January 1990. By some of the most important measures, it has done a lot better than the United States.

Japan has succeeded in delivering an increasingly affluent lifestyle to its people despite the financial crash. In the fullness of time, it is likely that this era will be viewed as an outstanding success story.

How can the reality and the image be so different? And can the United States learn from Japan’s experience?

It is true that Japanese housing prices have never returned to the ludicrous highs they briefly touched in the wild final stage of the boom. Neither has the Tokyo stock market.

But the strength of Japan’s economy and its people is evident in many ways. There are a number of facts and figures that don’t quite square with Japan’s image as the laughingstock of the business pages:

• Japan’s average life expectancy at birth grew by 4.2 years — to 83 years from 78.8 years — between 1989 and 2009. This means the Japanese now typically live 4.8 years longer than Americans. The progress, moreover, was achieved in spite of, rather than because of, diet. The Japanese people are eating more Western food than ever. The key driver has been better health care.

I only really have one word to say to this: Cuba, which according to the WHO had an average life expectancy at birth of 74 in 1990 and 78 in 2009, despite being an “economic basket-case”. Manifestly, the strength or otherwise of a developed country economy only has the scantiest of bearings on longevity or life expectancy gains. Indeed, hampered by a high initial starting point for life expectancy, Japan’s gain over the last two decades looks distinctly mediocre on an international comparison.

                            1990    2009      Gain

Japan                  79          83            4

Australia             77          82          5

Brazil                   67          73           6

Canada                77          81           4

China                  68          74          6

France                 77          81          4

Germany             75          80          5

Italy                      77         82          5

Korea                   72          80         8

New Zealand      75         81         6

Spain                   77         82          5

UK                       76          80          4

US                       75          79          4

I particularly relish Fingleton’s breezy explanation, unsubstantiated by any evidence (of course), for the cause of the gain in life expectancy over the last two decades, even though isolating the factors at work in changes in life expectancy is widely regarded to be notoriously difficult. The Japanese may well be “eating more Western food than ever”, but they are doing so in moderation; given the startlingly low levels of obesity, which have next to nothing to do with “better health care”, it is surprising that Japan has just a one-year lead in life expectancy over, say, Italy or Spain.

For a bias-free and more disturbing interpretation of the recent Japanese longevity picture, I recommend turning to an expert. Here’s Christopher J. L. Murray, Professor of Global Health at the University of Washington, writing in The Lancet in an article titled Why is Japanese life expectancy so high? 

The third and more troubling phase for Japan begins in the mid to late 1990s. Since that time, the pace of decline in mortality for adult men and, to a lesser extent, adult women (aged 15—59 years) has been slower than other nations. Japan has fallen behind Sweden, Italy, and Australia for men and behind Sweden for women. If recent trends continue, other nations are likely to achieve lower rates of adult mortality than Japan. Given the previous two decades during which Japan remained in the top rank, this recent change is dramatic. Many explanations for this worsening relative performance are offered by Ikeda and colleagues, including high tobacco consumption compared with other high-income countries, a modest rise in body-mass index, and high and rising rates of suicide. Unstated is the hypothesis that although Japan has a universal health-care system, the quality of the care delivered might be low. Treatment coverage for high cholesterol, for example, is much lower than in other high-income countries. Given poor measures on quality of care, further reduction in mortality may require that Japan revamp its health-care system. Economic stagnation and rising income inequality could also be part of the explanation of recent trends. 

• Japan has made remarkable strides in Internet infrastructure. Although as late as the mid-1990s it was ridiculed as lagging, it has now turned the tables. In a recent survey by Akamai Technologies, of the 50 cities in the world with the fastest Internet service, 38 were in Japan, compared to only 3 in the United States. 

You can access Akamai Technologies’ State of the Internet Report by registering here. The most recent one that seems to be freely available is for 2011 Q2. Our first lesson is on the use and abuse of statistics. That the Japanese city with the fastest average Mbps, Shimotsuma, ranked 3rd in the world, is a small Tokyo dormitory community to which very few Japanese could point on a map, and that one of the Japanese “cities” in the top 50, Marunouchi, is not a city, nor even a ward of Tokyo, but a few blocks of office buildings clustered around Tokyo station, make it readily apparent that if you are a largish country for which Akamai has a lot of data collection points and you have a highish average connection speed, then of course you are going to dominate the city rankings. For a more truthful picture of Internet infrastructure, we need to turn to a country-level analysis.

In 2011 Q2, Japan ranked third for average connection speeds, at 8.9Mbps, behind South Korea at 13.8Mbps and Hong Kong at 10.3Mbps. Impressive, to be sure, but not quite the picture of global leadership that Fingleton insinuates it has. Indeed, the broader the metric becomes, the worse the picture looks for Japan: for high broadband connectivity (above 5Mbps), the Netherlands ranks first at 68% of all connections, Japan ranks 6th, at 55%, and the US 13th at 42%, while for good old-fashioned broadband connectivity (above 2Mbps), 10 mostly European countries have penetration rates over 90%, the US ranks 35th at 80%, and Japan is actually behind the US, coming in 39th place at 76%. What’s more, Japan’s high broadband connectivity actually fell 8.9% YoY and its broadband connectivity fell 12% YoY, while the rates of almost all other countries surged. Not all that stellar a performance at the broadest end of the spectrum, especially given how suited relatively small, very densely populated Japan is to the build-out of broadband.

This Akamai saga, I should add, is a textbook example of Fingletonian deceitfulness, whereby he cherry-picks a data set that severely distorts the truth and ignores the evidence that is inconvenient to his case. 

• Measured from the end of 1989, the yen has risen 87 percent against the U.S. dollar and 94 percent against the British pound. It has even risen against that traditional icon of monetary rectitude, the Swiss franc. 

The strength of the yen has absolutely no relationship with “the strength of Japan’s economy and its people”. All that yen strength is doing, on the liability side of the ledger, is to hollow out those domestic “hard industry” jobs beloved of Fingleton—an astounding 550,000 manufacturing jobs were lost in just the three months to end-November 2011, according to the latest Labor Force Survey (Japanese only)—while on the positive side of the ledger, yen strength makes agricultural and energy imports cheaper and Mr. and Mrs. Watanabe can take that retirement cruise for which they have been saving for so long a year or two earlier. I challenge Fingleton to explain the mechanisms whereby yen strength works to the sustained net benefit of the Japanese economy.

• The unemployment rate is 4.2 percent, about half of that in the United States.

Japan’s Hidden Jobless Hits 4.69mn, Worse Than After Lehman Shock
Nikkei, November 16, 2011
TOKYO (Nikkei)—The number of Japanese that want to work but are not actively seeking employment has surpassed levels from after the global financial crisis erupted, according to government data released on Tuesday. …
The hidden jobless in Japan jumped by 190,000 from a year earlier to 4.69mn in the July-September quarter, excluding the three prefectures hit hardest by the March 11 disaster, the Internal Affairs Ministry said.
The figure is nearly 70% larger than the number of officially unemployed people. It is also higher than the 4.61mn in the July-September quarter of 2009, when the employment market deteriorated sharply after the financial crisis. 

Adding the 2.80mn officially unemployed and the 4.69mn hidden unemployed together and dividing by the number of employed (62.60mn) yields a “real” unemployment rate of very close to 12%. Of course, all countries have their hidden unemployed, to a greater or lesser extent; my intention here is merely to highlight how the Japanese employment paradise that Fingleton would have his poor readers conjure up from a single statistic is not by any means as rosy as he claims. Japan’s artificially low jobless rate, kept down by a tacit agreement among players in “Japan, Inc.” (for which there is ample indirect evidence), may look attractive from the US, the UK, or any other unemployment blackspot, but paradoxically it gravely weakens the competitiveness of exporters, impedes productivity growth in the service sector in particular and economy as a whole, and serves as a massive barrier to wealth creation.

Even the headline unemployment number, while low, has more than doubled, to 4.5% in the latest Labor Force Survey, from 2.1% in 1990. And Fingleton would rather not let you in on some of the other features of the Japanese labor market in the “outstanding success story” of the last two decades: the rapid growth in the number of poorly paid non-regular workers (now approximately a third of the workforce), the evisceration of the middle class, stagnant or falling real wages, and rising inequality, all extensively, indeed exhaustively, documented in the vernacular press and readily apparent in the data. 

• According to skyscraperpage.com, a Web site that tracks major buildings around the world, 81 high-rise buildings taller than 500 feet have been constructed in Tokyo since the “lost decades” began. That compares with 64 in New York, 48 in Chicago, and 7 in Los Angeles.

Now we enter the realm of the surreal. No one of sound mind would take skyscraper construction as anything other than the loosest conceivable proxy for economic vitality. Take Rome: no skyscrapers at all by the 40-storey/150m/500ft definition, with the tallest building being the 22-storey Palazzo Eni, constructed way back in 1962. Yet who would dispute “il miracolo economico”, Italy’s equivalent of France’s long Les Trente Glorieuses post-war boom. The pace of skyscraper construction is dictated by a myriad of factors, among them cultural predilections, population densities, technical considerations, the already installed skyscraper base, and the availability of land, to name a few, with the state of the economy—as long as it is not in a state of utter collapse—at best a bit part player in the drama.

And of course Japan was busily building skyscrapers in the 1990s and beyond: the Earthquake Nation was very much a latecomer to the skyscraper party. There was no skyscraper by the above definition in Japan until arrival of the Tokyo World Trade Center Building (1970), and it was not until the 1980s that quake-resistance technologies advanced to the extent that Tokyo skyscraper designers pushed past the 150m mark with confidence. Even by 1990, neither Osaka nor Nagoya had a single skyscraper, and Tokyo a mere handful.

Fortunately I have some numbers to hand that gives a more nuanced view of the Tokyo office market than Fingleton cares to concern himself with. They slice the data a different way: here we are dealing with office buildings with gross floor areas of over 10,000 meters squared. As the Bubble inflated, the number of these buildings going up rocketed, and remained in the 40-50 annual new build range between 1989 and 1994, before collapsing to around 15 annually in 1999-2001. There was a spike up to 42 in 2003, which was the consequence of large tracts of former Japan Railways marshalling yards becoming available at Shiodome and Shinagawa in the late 1990s, coupled with the colossal Roppongi Hills complex, but the 1994 Bubble high of 47 buildings (I count 1994 as part of the Bubble era for these purposes because of the three to five years it takes to build a large Tokyo office block) was never regained. Mori Building, a major property developer, expects the supply of office buildings of this size to collapse over the next few years, falling to just five in 2015.

There’s another way of slicing the data, too: total office space in Tokyo’s 23 wards. Let’s compare 1980-1994 (the end of the Bubble for real estate) and 1994-2009. For the former period, office space rose from 33.2mn meters squared to 65.7mn, effectively doubling. For the latter period, it rose from 65.7mn meters squared to 89.6mn, up by just over a third, a marked slowdown in growth indeed, with the annual percentage gain between 1999 and 2009 exceeding 2.0% in only one year, very much what you would expect in an economy with nominal GDP growth closing in on zero.

Skyscraper demand has been driven by the shift to service industries (another belated phenomenon in Japan that helps to explain why the skyscraper boom came late), more office space per worker (a trend that has gone into sharp reversal if my experience is anything to go by), and of course population growth (up by a quarter in Tokyo and its three key surrounding prefectures between 1980 and 2010). But the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, in its Tokyo Worker Projections, expects the number of office workers in Tokyo’s five central wards, which had been rising last decade, to flat-line between 2010 (1.88mn) and 2020 (1.86mn), which does not bode well for asking rents, which are now at a post-1990 low, vacancy rates, which are now at a post-1990 high, nor the future of skyscraper construction, apart from the odd replacement one, in Tokyo. 

• Japan’s current account surplus — the widest measure of its trade — totaled $196 billion in 2010, up more than threefold since 1989. By comparison, America’s current account deficit ballooned to $471 billion from $99 billion in that time. Although in the 1990s the conventional wisdom was that as a result of China’s rise Japan would be a major loser and the United States a major winner, it has not turned out that way. Japan has increased its exports to China more than 14-fold since 1989 and Chinese-Japanese bilateral trade remains in broad balance.

Though some may say current account surpluses and deficits don’t matter, I’m tempted to give Fingleton the benefit of the doubt on this one—the only quarter he will get from me—as the surplus plays a critical role in funding chronic government indebtedness. But those current account surpluses will not be with us forever. 

Current Account Surplus Down 85.5% in Nov
Nikkei, January 12, 2012
TOKYO (Dow Jones)—Japan’s current account surplus contracted for the ninth straight month in November, falling 85.5% from a year earlier, the Ministry of Finance said Thursday.
The surplus in the current account, the broadest measure of Japan’s trade with the rest of the world, stood at Y138.5bn in November before seasonal adjustment, the data showed. 

As longtime Japan watchers like Ivan P. Hall and Clyde V. Prestowitz Jr. point out, the fallacy of the “lost decades” story is apparent to American visitors the moment they set foot in the country. Typically starting their journeys at such potent symbols of American infrastructural decay as Kennedy or Dulles airports, they land at Japanese airports that have been extensively expanded and modernized in recent years.

As these opinions are wholly subjective and not open to analysis, I will only add a couple of subjective comments of my own. A US informant tells me that both Kennedy and Dulles are still perfectly serviceable airports. Not having had the pleasure of their acquaintance—I don’t get out much—I couldn’t say. But I do know that compared to the sterile, deserted concentration camp that is Narita (Tokyo’s principal international airport), with its scant retail pleasures, I much prefer the teeming souk of my own London Heathrow, for all its shabbiness, as a future vision of the world.

William J. Holstein, a prominent Japan watcher since the early 1980s, recently visited the country for the first time in some years. “There’s a dramatic gap between what one reads in the United States and what one sees on the ground in Japan,” he said. “The Japanese are dressed better than Americans. They have the latest cars, including Porsches, Audis, Mercedes-Benzes and all the finest models. I have never seen so many spoiled pets. And the physical infrastructure of the country keeps improving and evolving.”

We should be grateful to Fingleton, really, for so many belly-laughs in a single piece, but in particular perhaps for this gem of a paragraph, which had me RoFL, as I believe young people say these days. William J. Holstein is not, by any measure, “a prominent Japan watcher”—he is a minor-league journalist and business consultant who doesn’t have his own Wikipage, has never written a book about Japan, almost certainly doesn’t speak more than a word or two of the language, and as far as his career profile reveals, has never spent more than a couple of months in the country at most.

But Fingleton needs Holstein, because there are precious few people left on the planet who will subscribe to his bizarre worldview. Fingleton’s sheer desperation for comrades-in-arms is nowhere better revealed than in his willingness to quote this sentence: “They [the Japanese] have the latest cars, including Porsches, Audis, Mercedes-Benzes and all the finest models.” This is a pitch-perfect instance of what I have come to call the Grand Hyatt School of Journalism, or what we might label “Roppongi Class Syndrome”, a severe deep-vein thrombosis of the mind that results from never leaving a cosseted, gilded circle of central Tokyo, where yes—surprise, surprise—there are lots of expensive German cars on the road, as there are indeed in every single world capital of a country with a per capita GDP of over $25,000 (and in many poorer ones, too). Here’s a modest little challenge to Fingleton and Holstein, though: go and stand in summer clothing on a mid-February afternoon on a street-corner in Wakkanai, Hokkaido, about 200km from any German car dealer, even a VW one, and count me out half a dozen Porsches, Audis, or Mercedes-Benzes before you cry uncle for fear of hypothermia. German cars account for a paltry 3%-5% of the total Japanese passenger vehicle market. 

Why, then, is Japan seen as a loser? On the official gross domestic product numbers, the United States has ostensibly outperformed Japan for many years. But even taking America’s official numbers at face value, the difference has been far narrower than people realize. Adjusted to a per-capita basis (which is the proper way to do this) and measured since 1989, America’s G.D.P. grew by an average of just 1.4 percent a year. Japan’s figure meanwhile was even more anemic—just 1 percent—implying that it underperformed the United States by 0.4 percent a year.

A look at the underlying accounting, however, suggests that, far from underperforming, Japan may have outperformed. For a start, in a little noticed change, United States statisticians in the 1980s embarked on an increasingly aggressive use of the so-called hedonic method of adjusting for inflation, an approach that in the view of many experts artificially boosts a nation’s apparent growth rate.

On the calculations of John Williams of Shadowstats.com, a Web site that tracks flaws in United States economic data, America’s growth in recent decades has been overstated by as much as 2 percentage points a year. If he is even close to the truth, this factor alone may put the United States behind Japan in per-capita performance.

 If “he is even close to the truth”, then the US has been in what must have been an almost relentless recession for the last couple of decades (simply deduct 2ppt from 1.4ppt). It must have been a very strange recession, though, for most of that time, what with employers vigorously hiring rather than firing, inflation-adjusted wages rising (slowly, admittedly) rather than falling, and corporate profits and the stock market soaring (the S&P 500 rose from 360 on January 1, 1990, to 1,277 on January 1, 2012).

Perhaps, then—I just suggest this as an alternative interpretation—he is nowhere close to the truth, and neither is Fingleton. I would also suggest that Fingleton knows nothing at all about hedonic regression, hedonic price indices, hedonic quality indices, and the like, and that his “many experts” are nowhere to be found. Attentive readers and those familiar with Fingleton’s oeuvre will by now be beginning to glimpse the two vast and mirror-image conspiracy theories that motivate the Fingletonian world-view: that there has been a long-enduring conspiracy, at the highest levels of the US government, to manipulate the data to present a falsely positive picture of the economy, so as to blind the US people to their growing immiseration, while in Japan, nebulous elites have been furiously massaging the data to present a falsely negative picture of the economy, so as to “blindside” those dull-witted Americans and secretly overtake the US as the world’s preeminent economy. Those nefarious Orientals!

It only takes a moment’s investigation, though, to unearth a 1999 Federal Reserve Board of Chicago working paper, Measurement Errors in Japanese Consumer Price Index, by economist Shigenori Shiratsuka, who is currently Associate Director-General at the Institute for Monetary and Economic Studies of the Bank of Japan and who is an expert on hedonic regression, in which the author tentatively concludes that the Japan CPI has an upward bias of around 0.9%, a very similar level to the 1.1% upward bias to the US CPI found in the Boskin Commission report of 1996, from which Fingleton would presumably be forced to conclude that Japan’s growth has been overstated by a very similar degree to that which US growth has. I challenge Fingleton to explain why the Japanese CPI data must be accurate and the US data not. 

If the Japanese have really been hurting, the most obvious place this would show would be in slow adoption of expensive new high-tech items. Yet the Japanese are consistently among the world’s earliest adopters. If anything, it is Americans who have been lagging. In cellphones, for instance, Japan leapfrogged the United States in the space of a few years in the late 1990s and it has stayed ahead ever since, with consumers moving exceptionally rapidly to ever more advanced devices.

No, no, Fingleton, stop it, please, I implore you! My sides are splitting, the laughter is too painful now! While it is true that for a brief spell in the early years of the last decade, Japan’s mobile internet and its advanced feature phones were at the cutting edge, the world has long moved on and left Japan trailing in its wake. Here’s wired.com in December 2011, courtesy TomiAhonen Consulting, ranking 42 countries by smartphone penetration rates. Japan, whose consumers are “consistently among the world’s earliest adopters”, Fingleton would have you believe, could well be number one, no? No. Top ten, though, surely? No. In fact, Japan is tied for 33rd place with Romania and Brazil, at 14%, just behind Thailand in 32nd place. The survey sensibly notes a proviso that both Japan and South Korea have advanced feature phones—but then South Korea’s smartphone penetration rate is already 34%, fully 20ppt ahead of Japan. No doubt Japan will play catch-up rapidly over the next couple of years, but catch-up is not exactly what “leapfrogging” Fingleton has in mind.

There are hosts of other fascinating metrics that show how tentative the Japanese embrace of the Internet has really been: online sales as a percentage of retail sales are far lower in Japan than the developed country average, due to credit-card security concerns (which interestingly are not shared by the South Koreans), online media time consumption is lower than it is in South Korea, China, the US, or the UK, online advertising spending as a percentage of total advertising spending is likewise lower, the money that is spent on advertising is more focused on display than on (more sophisticated) search than elsewhere, usage rates of social networking services such as Facebook are far below those of peer countries, and the Internet is used overwhelmingly for its old-school features—news, search, and e-mail—rather than more up-to-the-minute features such as online music, online gaming, and online banking.

Much of the story is qualitative rather than quantitative. An example is Japan’s eating-out culture. Tokyo, according to the Michelin Guide, boasts 16 of the world’s top-ranked restaurants, versus a mere 10 for the runner-up, Paris. Similarly Japan as a whole beats France in the Michelin ratings. But how do you express this in G.D.P. terms?

I think I will retch if I hear once more the “argument from Michelin” from Japan’s professional boosters—and there are dozens of them, in a Baskin-Robbins array of flavors, out there, however much Fingleton would like the world to think he is a lonely, embattled crusader. We could choose, should we wish, to demolish this comparison on demographic grounds—the Tokyo Michelin guide also includes Yokohama and Kamakura, giving us very roughly one three-starred restaurant per million people, while the city of Paris has only a couple of million folk, and likewise Japan has more twice the population of France—or on pedantic grounds—France has 558 starred restaurants, Japan only 509, but I’d prefer to hone in on the complete and utter irrelevance to the culinary habits of 99% of the population of three-starred Michelin restaurants. All that Tokyo’s 16 three-starred restaurants show is that—surprise, surprise—there is a well-heeled elite in a huge and quite prosperous city that takes its food very seriously indeed. For those of us not privileged to be one of the 1%, our dining-out options are necessarily more limited. For every Michelin-starred restaurant, there are countless thousands of hole-in-the-wall purveyors of affordable eats. The real Japanese food experience, for many a harassed salariman or office lady, is to be found in the cheap solace of a convenience-store bento lunchbox. 

Similar problems arise in measuring improvements in the Japanese health care system. And how does one accurately convey the vast improvement in the general environment in Japan in the last two decades?

How does one begin to know what “the vast improvement in the general environment in Japan in the last two decades” could possibly mean?

 Luckily there is a yardstick that finesses many of these problems: electricity output, which is mainly a measure of consumer affluence and industrial activity. In the 1990s, while Japan was being widely portrayed as an outright “basket case,” its rate of increase in per-capita electricity output was twice that of America, and it continued to outperform into the new century.

Forgive my unparalled ignorance, but I have never encountered anyone other than Fingleton attempting to use electricity output and its rate of change as a(nother) proxy for economic vitality. But let’s have a look at the data, anyway, from the US Energy Information Administration. What follows is electricity consumption in billion kilowatt/hours per million people and the rate of change over the decade, 1990-1999. 

                              1990                    1999                   Pct. chg.

Australia              7.82                     9.08                    16.1%

Canada                15.49                   15.79                   1.9%

France                  5.70                     6.83                    19.8%

Germany             6.14                     6.05                     -1.5%

Japan                  6.25                     7.48                     19.7%

UK                       4.97                     5.57                     12.1%

US                       11.41                   12.38                     8.5%

The first thing to note, obviously, is that the rates of change are all over the place: if we were to apply Fingletonian logic, then France must have been truly flourishing in the 1990s, while consumers and industry in Germany and Canada must have really been suffering. No more than a moment’s reflection is needed to show this up for the arrant nonsense it is. What the high-growth countries—Australia, France, and Japan—have in common is that they are all (mostly) hot in their summers, and I will wager (although for now I lack any hard evidence) that much of the growth in electricity consumption was driven by the—late, compared to the US—spread of air-conditioning. And Japan’s power consumption between 2000 and 2008, years which even Fingleton, I think, could be persuaded to admit were much better for the Japanese economy than the original “lost decade” was, completely stagnated, further undermining his case. 

Part of what is going on here is Western psychology. Anyone who has followed the story long-term cannot help but notice that many Westerners actively seek to belittle Japan. Thus every policy success is automatically discounted. It is a mind-set that is much in evidence even among Tokyo-based Western diplomats and scholars.

Take, for instance, how Western observers have viewed Japan’s demographics. The population is getting older because of a low birthrate, a characteristic Japan shares with many of the world’s richest nations. Yet this is presented not only as a critical problem but as a policy failure. It never seems to occur to Western commentators that the Japanese both individually and collectively have chosen their demographic fate—and have good reasons for doing so.

The story begins in the terrible winter of 1945-6, when, newly bereft of their empire, the Japanese nearly starved to death. With overseas expansion no longer an option, Japanese leaders determined as a top priority to cut the birthrate. Thereafter a culture of small families set in that has continued to the present day.

Japan’s motivation is clear: food security. With only about one-third as much arable land per capita as China, Japan has long been the world’s largest net food importer. While the birth control policy is the primary cause of Japan’s aging demographics, the phenomenon also reflects improved health care and an increase of more than 20 years in life expectancy since 1950.

Fingleton here is referring to the Eugenics Protection Act of 1948, which essentially legalized abortion on demand and felled the post-war baby boom just as it was getting into its stride. But to infer from a single piece of legislation passed at a single point in historical time, now 64 years ago, that—perhaps by some heroic act of the Jungian unconscious unavailable to other, lesser nations—“the Japanese both individually and collectively have chosen their demographic fate” is preposterous. The drafters of that act—politicians and bureaucrats, two species not widely known for their deep foresight—could not possibly have known with any precision what the consequences of their legislation would be five years into the future, let alone a century. They were not by any means burning their midnight candles calculating the ratio of workers to retirees in Japan in 2050.

Two other points, both of them vital: yes, a low birthrate is “a characteristic Japan shares with many of the world’s richest nations”, but this emphatically does not mean it shares a demographic profile with them. Largely as a consequence of the Eugenics Protection Act, Japan is aging far faster than any other developed country and its population will decline far faster. Second, Fingleton insinuates that it is only ignoramus Western commentators who regard Japan’s demographic profile as a “critical problem” (which it is) and a “policy failure” (which it is, and a far too late to rectify one). This does a gross, gross travesty to the depth and breadth of the debate in Japan: presumably Fingleton must believe that the 1.3mn search-engine hits that “shoshika mondai” (roughly, “low-birthrate problem”) generates must be misguided foreigners writing in Japanese in a forlorn attempt to persuade a people that have “chosen their demographic fate” to repent and see the error of their ways. For a real understanding of the Japanese demographic situation, I recommend—as I have done before on these pages—Shrinking-population Economics: Lessons from Japan, by National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies professor Akihiko Matsutani, from which for now I offer the following passage (de-italics mine):

The wrenching demographic change in store for Japan will do worse than slow the pace of economic growth; it will shrink the nation’s economy. Negative economic growth will become the norm in the nation that until recently set the pace for the industrialized world. This is because of the all-too-rapid pace of Japan’s aging and of its population decline. The aging of society at a more moderate pace, as in France, would not push the economy into negative growth. Even Germany, whose demographic profile is more similar to Japan’s, appears likely to enjoy positive economic growth for another 20 years or so.

Technological progress raises labor productivity. Japan’s continuing advances in technology would offset the economic effects of a moderate decline in the workforce and support continuing GDP growth. The problem is that Japan’s working-age population will shrink far too fast for the decline to be offset through technological advances and resultant gains in labor productivity.

The all-too-rapid pace of Japan’s aging is also the villain in the nation’s pension system drama. Everything would be a lot more manageable if the aging of Japanese society was proceeding a little more slowly. As things stand, the number of people who pay into the system will decline rapidly even as the number of people who receive benefits increases rapidly. Something has got to give soon and in a big way. Japan will need to increase premiums, reduce benefits, or devise some combination of the two. The outlook for pension systems is also a concern in the European nations, but the problem there is nowhere near as severe as in Japan. That is because the pace of change in the populations of payers and beneficiaries is far more moderate

Back to Fingleton. 

Psychology aside, a major factor in the West’s comprehension problem is that virtually everyone in Tokyo benefits from the doom and gloom story. For foreign sales representatives, for instance, it has been the perfect get-out-of-jail card when they don’t reach their quotas. For Japanese foundations it is the perfect excuse in politely waving away solicitations from American universities and other needy nonprofits. Ditto for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in tempering expectations of foreign aid recipients. Even American investment bankers have reasons to emphasize bad news. Most notably they profit from the so-called yen-carry trade, an arcane but powerful investment strategy in which the well informed benefit from periodic bouts of weakness in the Japanese yen.

To which I only ask: if the beneficiaries of “the doom and gloom story” are so numerous and the losers so thin on the ground, why does the predominant economic narrative in all countries and at all times not accentuate the negative? (We’ll leave the ludicrous misdescription of the yen carry-trade for another time…)

Economic ideology has also played an unfortunate role. Many economists, particularly right-wing think-tank types, are such staunch advocates of laissez-faire that they reflexively scorn Japan’s very different economic system, with its socialist medicine and ubiquitous government regulation. During the stock market bubble of the late 1980s, this mind-set abated but it came back after the crash.

Japanese trade negotiators noticed an almost magical sweetening in the mood in foreign capitals after the stock market crashed in 1990. Although previously there had been much envy of Japan abroad (and serious talk of protectionist measures), in the new circumstances American and European trade negotiators switched to feeling sorry for the “fallen giant.” Nothing if not fast learners, Japanese trade negotiators have been appealing for sympathy ever since.

The strategy seems to have been particularly effective in Washington. Believing that you shouldn’t kick a man when he is down, chivalrous American officials have largely given up pressing for the opening of Japan’s markets. Yet the great United States trade complaints of the late 1980s—concerning rice, financial services, cars and car components—were never remedied.

The “fallen giant” story has also even been useful to other East Asian nations, particularly in their trade diplomacy with the United States.

A striking instance of how the story has influenced American perceptions appears in “The Next 100 Years,” by the consultant George Friedman. In a chapter headed “China 2020: Paper Tiger,” Mr. Friedman argues that, just as Japan “failed” in the 1990s, China will soon have its comeuppance. Talk of this sort powerfully fosters complacency and confusion in Washington in the face of a United States-China trade relationship that is already arguably the most destructive in world history and certainly the most unbalanced.

I trust that those who came to this unfamiliar with the paranoid machinations of the Fingletonian mind are beginning to see the light. 

Clearly the question of what has really happened to Japan is of first-order geopolitical importance. In a stunning refutation of American conventional wisdom, Japan has not missed a beat in building an ever more sophisticated industrial base. That this is not more obvious is a tribute in part to the fact that Japanese manufacturers have graduated to making so-called producers’ goods. These typically consist of advanced components or materials, or precision production equipment. They may be invisible to the consumer, yet without them the modern world literally would not exist. This sort of manufacturing, which is both highly capital-intensive and highly know-how-intensive, was virtually monopolized by the United States in the 1950s and 1960s and constituted the essence of American economic leadership.

Those sly Orientals! They have only gone and hidden “their ever more sophisticated industrial base” from prying Western eyes! I challenge Fingleton to explain in what way it is a graduation to shift from manufacturing, say, a car to manufacturing components for it. Let’s wholly invert what Fingleton says to give an alternative and more accurate reading of developments over the last few years in particular: having been beaten back by the competition in a slew of end-products from mobile phones to TVs, Japan’s manufacturers find their last redoubts are in capital goods and precision equipment. Good places to be, admittedly, for a nation on the technology frontier—no one is disputing for a nanosecond that there are deep reservoirs of strength in the industrial base—but beats have most assuredly been missed.

Japan’s achievement is all the more impressive for the fact that its major competitors— Germany, South Korea, Taiwan and, of course, China—have hardly been standing still. The world has gone through a rapid industrial revolution in the last two decades thanks to the “targeting” of manufacturing by many East Asian nations. Yet Japan’s trade surpluses have risen.

Unease As Japan Nears 1st Trade Deficit In 31 Years
Nikkei, January 9, 2012
TOKYO (Nikkei)—Japan almost certainly saw its first trade deficit in 31 years in 2011, and experts warn that unless the gap is plugged with interest and dividend income from abroad, Japan will continue to see an outflow of money and have to rely on overseas funds for its fiscal management, such as by issuing government bonds.
Japan booked a deficit of Y2.3trn in its balance of trade—exports minus imports—in the January-November period of 2011, according to government data. The red ink is attributed to a slowdown in exports due to the yen’s record-breaking appreciation and an increase in imports of liquefied natural gas for thermal power generation to make up for the suspended operation of nuclear plants in the wake of the catastrophe last March.
The last time Japan incurred an annual trade deficit was 1980, at Y2.6trn. …
“Japan’s trade deficit will expand unless the world economy achieves a high growth rate, as it did in 2002 to 2007, and the yen continuously weakens,” said Masaaki Kanno, chief economist at JPMorgan Securities Japan Co. …

Japan should be held up as a model, not an admonition. If a nation can summon the will to pull together, it can turn even the most unpromising circumstances to advantage. Here Japan’s constant upgrading of its infrastructure is surely an inspiration. It is a strategy that often requires cooperation across a wide political front, but such cooperation has not been beyond the American political system in the past. The Hoover Dam, that iconic project of the Depression, required negotiations among seven states but somehow it was built—and it provided jobs for 16,000 people in the process. Nothing is stopping similar progress now—nothing, except political bickering.

“Japan’s constant upgrading of its infrastructure”—for which read its insistence on wasting money building roads and bridges and trains to nowhere and airports that no one wants to fly to or from—is no inspiration, merely testament to the last gasps of the Construction State in its death throes.

There are many, many more splendid pearls of ignorance on Fingleton’s website, Sandcastle Empire, one of the top drop-down bars of which proclaims, hilariously, “forty years of foresight” and suggests that Fingleton, to paraphrase Churchill on Clement Attlee, is “an immodest man who has little to be immodest about”. So many pearls of ignorance indeed that I may have to pen a follow-up, but for now I’ll lay my blood-soaked quill aside.

It is a disgrace to the Gray Lady that it should have stooped to printing this gibberish. What’s sad is that Fingleton has half a case—there have been a few rays of sunlight amid the pervasive gloom of the last two decades—a case which he proceeds to ruin through truculence and a remorselessly misdirected focus.

Fingleton was a fool when I first encountered him on the Dead Fukuzawa Society message board in the late 1990s and remains an undiluted fool to this day. I can come up with three explanations, plausible and not so plausible, for his behavior: that he is genuinely, unfortunately stupid; that his mentality is such that once cornered, he can cede no nuance of grey in a debate; or that, to cast a Fingletonian conspiracy theory to work on the man himself, he is in the pay of sinister Fulfordian forces, perhaps the “fascist cabal known as the Bilderbergers”. Readers, what do you think?

Spiked: The mechanics of modern journalism

Rebuilding Japan: Fukushima’s Hawaii girls go on tour to promote safety

Sitting on a hill just 28 miles from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is one of Japan’s most peculiar and popular tourist destinations.

By Malcolm Moore and Julian Ryall 7:52PM BST 18 Apr 2011

When it opened in 1961, Joban Hawaiian Center was the country’s first-ever theme park. It thrilled the hard-working post-war generation with a fantasy of palm trees, hot springs and hula girls dancing in grass skirts.

In the five decades since, it has only grown in popularity, changing its name to Spa Resort Hawaiians and drawing 3.8m hotel guests last year and a further 1.5m day trippers to its giant tropical dome, filled with water slides and a giant pirate ship.

Before the resort opened, Iwaki was a grim coal-mining town and the site of the Sendai No.1 POW camp during the Second World War where 252 British prisoners were sent to work in the mines, and where at least 22 of them died.

In the 1960s, however, as Japan turned away from coal to other forms of energy, including nuclear, Iwaki’s economy found itself on the verge of collapse.

The story of its transformation into a Hawaiian paradise even became the subject of a movie in 2006, called Hula Girls, a Japanese version of Brassed Off in which the local girls in Iwaki start dancing in grass skirts to “save the town” against the wishes of their dour coal-mining parents.

Today, however, the Spa Resort Hawaiians is closed for business, and in the shadow of the nuclear emergency at Daiichi, it is unclear whether it can ever attract hordes of tourists again. Builders are busy working on a new six-storey hotel, but no one knows if it will ever hold any guests.

“No one here is blind to the impact of what has happened at the nuclear plant will have on the local area,” said one security guard outside the gates. “We have reached the lowest of the low. It cannot get any worse. But we cannot think negatively or we would have to give up. We have chosen to be positive,” he said.

A spokesman for the resort simply said that repairing the damage the earthquake did to the pipes that funnel the area’s natural hot springs into the pools would cost “several hundred million yen”, and that he was worried that fearful Japanese may never come back to Fukushima.

Meanwhile, the 30 hula girls at the resort have gone on a nationwide tour, starting in Tokyo, to try to persuade the Japanese public that Iwaki is still safe. “People now associate Fukushima with people exposed to radiation,” said Ayumi Sudo, 45, one of the dancers. “We have felt like dancing naked to show we are not contaminated. I want to see tourists coming back and revive Iwaki as it was before, with delicious fish, vegetables and fruits as well as a beautiful ocean view.”

For Fukushima, however, the future is looking grimmer than ever before. The prefecture’s main industries are tourism, agriculture, fishing and manufacturing. Rice from Fukushima is famous throughout Japan and the area is one of the country’s top producers of peaches, apples, pears, tomatoes and cucumbers, as well as leaf tobacco and raw silk. The haul of fish from the prefecture’s 100 mile-long stretch of Pacific coast is one of the largest in Japan.

In Tokyo, the government is frantically trying to reassure Japanese consumers that produce from Fukushima remains safe to eat and has staged a series of events where prominent cabinet ministers, including Yukio Edano, the chief cabinet secretary, munched their way through tomatoes, strawberries and cucumbers.

But jittery buyers are shunning the markets, and all fishing has been stopped by the problems at Daiichi. “People say they are supporting us, but they choose not to eat Fukushima goods and manufacturers are shifting their lines of production. Superficially they are supporting us, but substantially they are not,” said Professor Toshifumi Tadaka, an economist at Tohoku university whose family lives in Fukushima.

Fukushima is also an ageing prefecture. “Agriculture remains the prefecture’s major industry, but the number of people engaged in full-time farming decreases every year and the rise in the number of elderly farmers presents a serious problem,” said the local government’s international affairs division. With many young people now evacuating the area because of the crisis, there is a worry they may find jobs elsewhere and never return.

In the coming months, as investment pours into Fukushima to rebuild its economy, there is an opportunity to remodel the economy once again and create new industries. But it is unclear if anyone will be able to make the same leap of imagination that led to the creation of the Hawaiian Center in the 1960s.

“We have to be patient,” said Professor Tadaka, arguing against any leap into an unknown industry. “We think we should return to agriculture, fisheries and forestries,” he said. “If young people wish to leave then they can.” And if the local economy declines, he said, it would simply be the responsibility of the people to consume less.

“If you earn two million yen a year (£15,000) then you must learn to live within that.” The professor is pencilling in at least ten years for the North East region to fully recover from the triple calamity of quake, tsunami and nuclear crisis.

Others blame Japan’s stultifying political system for a failure of vision. “Even if someone came up with an excellent idea, such as creating a solar power industry here, it would never get off the ground with all the bickering and back-and-forth,” said Teruhisa Nakamura, the president of the Sendai 89ers basketball team. “The ideas that worked in the 1970s and 80s will not work now the era of growth is over. What we need now is some kind of change,” he added.

The story of Iwaki, the Joban coal mines, and the inevitable kitsch of Spa Resort Hawaiians is one I’ve been meaning to write about for ages, so I was naturally curious when a friend forwarded me this article from The Telegraph, which beautifully exemplifies the shocking mechanics of contemporary, cut-and-paste “journalism”. Off we go…

When it opened in 1961…

Only five words in and the authors have set off on their carefree venture across the minefield of error. The source for this is undoubtedly the English-language website of Spa Resort Hawaiians, here. But wait a moment—in this chronological history, January 15, 1961 occurs after April 1, 1965. The careful hack should know better than to trust any English-language website in Japan, especially one that proclaims on its homepage, “Hawaiians can be enjoyed in any type of weather!” (I’m sure they can!) All one has to do is go to the Japanese-language site (or to the Wikipage in Japanese or English) to confirm that this is a typo and Spa Resort Hawaiians actually opened on January 15, 1966.

Joban Hawaiian Center was the country’s first-ever theme park

This is also sourced from the Hawaiians History page on the Spa Resort Hawaiians website and may actually be correct!

In the five decades since, it has only grown in popularity

Or not, as the case may be—the Hawaiians History page in both English and Japanese suggest that visitor numbers peaked in 1970 at 1.55mn. According to the financial results of resort operator Joban Kogyo (Japanese only link here, page 4 of 42), the resort attracted 1,487,000 people in the year to March 31, 2010.

changing its name to Spa Resort Hawaiians and drawing 3.8m hotel guests last year and a further 1.5m day trippers

Wow, 3.8mn hotel guests, that’s impressive. That would mean, for instance, that every man, woman, and child in the whole of Fukushima spent two nights a year there. Yet what looks to be the biggest of just four hotels at the resort has only 305 rooms (Japanese only link here). Let’s generously say the other hotels are the same size and all rooms are doubles, giving us 2,400 beds a night—people would have to sleep four to a double bed and the hotels would have to be fully occupied 365 days a year to accommodate 3.8mn guests. The financial results of Joban Kogyo linked to above, however, reveal that the guest tally was a more modest 362,000. Wrong by a factor of 10x.

Before the resort opened, Iwaki was a grim coal-mining town and the site of the Sendai No.1 POW camp during the Second World War where 252 British prisoners were sent to work in the mines, and where at least 22 of them died.

This at least seems to be correct and is sourced from here.

The story of its transformation into a Hawaiian paradise even became the subject of a movie in 2006, called Hula Girls, a Japanese version of Brassed Off in which the local girls in Iwaki start dancing in grass skirts to “save the town” against the wishes of their dour coal-mining parents.

This is well-known and could have been sourced from Wikipedia. By the time I reached this passage, a distinct feeling of déjà-vu was setting in, for this is a classic “me-too” piece of journalism inspired by two earlier articles. The first is from the Asahi, is dated April 10, is available here, and is reproduced in abridged form below.

The 2006 Japanese movie “Hula Girls” is set in a decaying coal mining town in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, in the 1960s. Based on the real-life Joban Hawaiian Center resort that opened in Iwaki in 1966, the town is planning to build a mock-Hawaiian resort, and a young woman (Yu Aoi) is interested in responding to a recruitment ad for hula dancers. She tells her mother (Junko Fuji) so during supper, but the mother admonishes her sternly: “Forget it. Hawaii in these boonies here in the northeast? Ain’t happening.”

But the struggling town sees its only hope of survival in the Joban Hawaiian Center, which will use the region’s natural hot springs. Miners’ daughters get busy practicing hula dancing, but many locals remain hostile to this new project because it only suggests the imminent closure of the coal mines.

The ardor of the project’s supporters gradually turns nonbelievers into believers, and this “Hawaii of the Tohoku Region” blossomed into a successful venture. It has since been renamed Spa Resort Hawaiians, and attracts about 1.5 million visitors a year.

Then the March 11 quake and tsunami struck, followed by the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant disaster 50 kilometers away. Spa Resort Hawaiians has been temporary shut down, and this is said to represent a worse crisis for the locals than when the coal mines closed.

About 30 hula girls, now out of work, will shortly begin performing in the Tokyo area and some parts of the Tohoku region, and later tour the nation.

The second article comes from Agence France Presse (AFP), and was widely picked up by rags around the world, such as The Age, on April 15. Here it is, slightly abridged.

They pulled on their grass skirts to help save their mining town once before, now Japan’s “hula girls” plan to save it again, this time from becoming a nuclear ghost town.

A spa resort on the cusp of the troubled Fukushima nuclear plant exclusion zone might be a difficult sell to tourists but a group of sexy Hawaiian style dancers plan to do just that.

“People now associate Fukushima with people exposed to radiation,” said dancer Ayumi Sudo. “I want to get rid of that image.

“We have felt like dancing naked to show that we are not contaminated.”

Sudo and her hula girls twirled their naked waists outside a Tokyo train station this week to promote safe farm produce from their Pacific Coast hometown of Iwaki, in Fukushima prefecture.

Iwaki was made famous in the 1960s when the declining coal town was revived by an elaborate Hawaii themed spa resort thanks to its hot springs, a story immortalised in the 2006 movie Hula Girls.

The tourist attraction, now called the “Spa Resort Hawaiians”, was largely left unscathed by last month’s giant seismic disaster but has been closed since.

“Our facilities got cracks, and windows were shattered. But the major reason why the spa is still closed is rumours surrounding Fukushima,” said resort marketing official Takashi Wakamatsu.

Veteran dancer Sudo, 45, said she had been told that evacuees from areas near the nuclear plant had faced discrimination elsewhere, and that cars with Iwaki licence plates had trouble buying petrol at filling stations.

Sudo is one of a stream of Iwaki dancers who have kept the spa running since it was established in 1966 to revive the mining town amid the country’s shift from local coal to foreign oil as its main energy source.

As portrayed in the movie based on the real life story, the town was put on the map by a nationwide tour of Iwaki hula girls, which sparked public interest in what seemed like an outlandish, palm-studded theme park 45 years ago.

In the film, which won the 2007 Japan Academy prize, the daughters of hardened coal miners initially drew frowns and indignation from their fellow townspeople when they put on hula dresses and bared their skin.

“We are in the similar situation again,” said Sudo, who runs a hula dance school under her stage name of Linolani. “So we and younger dancers should all gather together to help bring life back to the town.”

“I would like to see tourists come back and help revive Iwaki as it was before — with delicious fish, vegetables and fruits as well as a beautiful ocean view.”

Meanwhile, back to The Telegraph.

“No one here is blind to the impact of what has happened at the nuclear plant will have on the local area,” said one security guard outside the gates. “We have reached the lowest of the low. It cannot get any worse. But we cannot think negatively or we would have to give up. We have chosen to be positive,” he said.

This paragraph strongly suggests that one or other of the authors actually visited the site of Spa Resort Hawaiians. But did they? I only ask because on the same day, April 18, the dynamic duo put out no fewer than four articles, this one on Spa Resort Hawaiians, one on Hitachi, one on Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, and one on Japan’s Long Road Ahead.

Meanwhile, the 30 hula girls at the resort have gone on a nationwide tour, starting in Tokyo, to try to persuade the Japanese public that Iwaki is still safe. “People now associate Fukushima with people exposed to radiation,” said Ayumi Sudo, 45, one of the dancers. “We have felt like dancing naked to show we are not contaminated. I want to see tourists coming back and revive Iwaki as it was before, with delicious fish, vegetables and fruits as well as a beautiful ocean view.”

This paragraph is a composite of the Asahi and AFP articles above, with the central quotation a carbon copy of the AFP article. Plagiarism? Surely not: there must be some identical root source for both, mustn’t there? Mustn’t there?

For Fukushima, however, the future is looking grimmer than ever before. The prefecture’s main industries are tourism, agriculture, fishing and manufacturing. Rice from Fukushima is famous throughout Japan and the area is one of the country’s top producers of peaches, apples, pears, tomatoes and cucumbers, as well as leaf tobacco and raw silk. The haul of fish from the prefecture’s 100 mile-long stretch of Pacific coast is one of the largest in Japan.

This wins the prize for my favorite paragraph! It is largely lifted directly from the English-language Fukushima prefectural website here. Here’s the website:

Because of the favorable climate, many of the agricultural products grown in Japan, including rice, are produced in Fukushima. The prefecture ranks among the top producers of such fruits as peaches, apples and pears and such vegetables as tomatoes and cucumbers, as well as leaf tobacco and raw silk. Livestock farming is also active. Fukushima’s 159 kilometer-long Pacific coastline is the site of the prefecture’s vigorous fishing and seafood processing industries and the area’s haul of fish is among the nation’s largest.

Meanwhile, back to The Telegraph.

In Tokyo, the government is frantically trying to reassure Japanese consumers that produce from Fukushima remains safe to eat and has staged a series of events where prominent cabinet ministers, including Yukio Edano, the chief cabinet secretary, munched their way through tomatoes, strawberries and cucumbers.

Yes, I’ve been watching the nightly news, too.

But jittery buyers are shunning the markets, and all fishing has been stopped by the problems at Daiichi. “People say they are supporting us, but they choose not to eat Fukushima goods and manufacturers are shifting their lines of production. Superficially they are supporting us, but substantially they are not,” said Professor Toshifumi Tadaka, an economist at Tohoku university whose family lives in Fukushima.

Try as I might, I couldn’t track down the good professor. No combination of searches at the Tohoku University website, nor on the Internet as a whole turned him up. Does he really exist, I began to wonder? And then I found him—Professor Toshifumi Takada, an audit specialist in the accounting department. Japanese names are so confusing, aren’t they?

Fukushima is also an ageing prefecture. “Agriculture remains the prefecture’s major industry, but the number of people engaged in full-time farming decreases every year and the rise in the number of elderly farmers presents a serious problem,” said the local government’s international affairs division. With many young people now evacuating the area because of the crisis, there is a worry they may find jobs elsewhere and never return.

Now this paragraph—another absolute gem—is phrased as though our hack heroes actually spoke to someone at the local government’s international affairs division. But they didn’t, as the passage is lifted directly (again!) from the Fukushima prefectural website here. Here’s the website:

Although agriculture remains the prefecture’s major industry, the number of people engaged in full-time farming decreases each year. The rise in the number of elderly farmers presents a serious problem, as does the increasing competition among agricultural producers.

So there you have it—the mechanics of modern journalism, exposed. Piggyback an existing story, do a quick trawl around the Internet for some factoids, stir in a couple of quotes that may have involved a telephone call or two (although I have grave doubts about the veracity of what the professor and basketball manager are reported to have said), and hey presto!—an article is born. In all likelihood, it took me longer to write this exposé than it did Mr. Moore and Mr. Ryall to concoct their farrago.

Spiked Telegraph

Rebuilding Japan: Hitachi’s residents put faith in ‘family’ company

The city of Hitachi, around 90 miles from Tokyo on Japan’s Pacific coast, has a name that roughly translates as “prosperous wealth”.

By Malcolm Moore and Julian Ryall 8:26PM BST 18 Apr 2011

And for the last 100 years, since the Hitachi company was founded as a division of the local copper mine, the city’s workers have been well taken care of.
Today, Hitachi is Japan’s third-largest technology company, an enormous group that makes industrial machinery, consumer electronics and even nuclear power plants.
In the city where it was founded, around 70pc of the 190,000 locals still work for Hitachi and have come to depend on the firm as a “family”.
But like single-industry cities the world over, Hitachi has been left vulnerable, especially in the wake of March’s earthquake. “Some of the Hitachi factories are still closed from the earthquake, others are back to normal,” said Tsuyoshi Kanazawa, 50, a former Hitachi supplier.
At the city’s large port, a vital entry-point for the machine parts being passed to the city’s factories, operations have been destroyed by the earthquake and tsunami, which collapse loading jetties and made the bottom of the harbour unpassable.
“Until last week, we didn’t even have a single berth where we could dock a ship,” said a spokesman for Hitachi Ports. “Everyone is doing their best to get things operational, but it is very difficult,” he added.
The closure of the port, and the mothballing of the factories has left a large slice of the town currently unemployed.
“Now there are worries about being a one-company town. Like the rest of the country, we also have a falling birthrate. We cannot provide as many workers to Hitachi as we could before and it is difficult to attract young people to come and live here,” said Mr Kanazawa.
Neither Mr Kanazawa or other locals could contemplate the idea that Hitachi might decide, in the wake of the damage, to relocate its operations to somewhere more efficient. Japanese companies feel responsibility to the towns where they operate and would never abandon their “children”, they said.
Further up the coast at Iwaki, Nissan has already pledged never to leave its workers, even though their plant sits in the shadow of the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Carlos Ghosn, the chief executive, instead urged his workers to show “fighting spirit”. Observers noted warmly that Mr Ghosn has learned the importance of putting society above corporate profits in Japan.
However, the fragility of single-company towns was underlined two years ago in Toyota City, near Nagoya, where the car company was founded. In the wake of Toyota’s problems after the economic crisis, Toyota City found itself with the highest unemployment rate in Japan.
More than 9,000 contract workers were fired, and the city saw its corporation tax haul fall by 96pc. In response, it changed its name from Toyota back to Koromo.

Oh dear. While The Telegraph, back in the days when it was known as The Daily Telegraph, was famously crusty and a holder of unsound political views, it could have been relied upon to get a simple post-disaster human interest story right. No longer, it seems, as almost every checkable fact in this article of under 500 words is wrong. On with the accounting of dismal error.

The city of Hitachi, around 90 miles from Tokyo on Japan’s Pacific coast, has a name that roughly translates as “prosperous wealth”.

No it doesn’t. The Hitachi of Hitachi City is written like this: 日立. Beautifully simple. The first character means “sun”, the second “stand”, and together they mean “sunrise”, although this is not the usual word for sunrise. In the region, “Hitachi” is also written like this: 常陸, which roughly means “permanent land”. No hint of “prosperous wealth” (as opposed to “prosperous poverty” or “indigent wealth”?) anywhere.  

In the city where it was founded, around 70pc of the 190,000 locals still work for Hitachi and have come to depend on the firm as a “family”.

Remarkable. As back in 2005 the under 15s and over 65s accounted for 70,000 of the (then) close to 200,000 locals, leaving 130,000 people, that must mean, at 70% of 190,000 (133,000), absolutely everyone of working age in Hitachi works for Hitachi, including a few kids yanked from high school and sent down the mines. Cruel place, Hitachi.

Or is it more likely, as the Japanese Wikipedia page on Hitachi says, that:

市の人口のおよそ40%は日立製作所及びグループ会社の社員かその家族である。

Of the city’s population, about 40% are employees of Hitachi group companies or members of their families.

The closure of the port, and the mothballing of the factories has left a large slice of the town currently unemployed.

Unemployed? Really? They’ve been pink-slipped? I don’t think so. And the factories haven’t been mothballed, either, they’re awaiting reconstruction.

However, the fragility of single-company towns was underlined two years ago in Toyota City, near Nagoya, where the car company was founded. In the wake of Toyota’s problems after the economic crisis, Toyota City found itself with the highest unemployment rate in Japan. More than 9,000 contract workers were fired, and the city saw its corporation tax haul fall by 96pc.

Now, I’ve searched and searched for years and years, and I can’t find any data on unemployment rates at the city level. You can see the prefectural unemployment rates for 2007-2009 here, though. The unemployment rate for Aichi, the prefecture in which Toyota lies, spikes to a horrific 4.5% in 2009, versus the rates in Osaka of 6.6%, Aomori of 6.9%, and Okinawa of 7.5%. Are we really supposed to believe that the firing of 9,000 contract workers in Toyota City (if accurate), catapulted the unemployment rate there to the highest of any municipality in the nation in this, the home of Toyota? Or is it more plausible, much as I regret to write, that this is a textbook example of what is known in the hackery trade as “making shit up and hoping no one will notice”?

In response, it [Toyota City] changed its name from Toyota back to Koromo.

Extraordinary. I must have missed this in the deluge of news recently. It seems as though Toyota City has also missed out on the news, too, as it steadfastly clings to its name on its website.

This should be a career-ending article for both hacks involved, but sadly, such is the corrupt state of contemporary journalism, it won’t be. But as I’ve said before, if the great unwashed is no longer prepared to pay for its journalism, this is what it gets.

Spiked redux: A postscript

I mailed the two journalists I directly challenged in Spike Redux, The New York Times’ Martin Fackler and Mark MacKinnon, writing for Toronto’s Globe and Mail, not expecting a response from either—and I wasn’t disappointed. I also mailed The Economist’s Henry Tricks, the Tokyo bureau chief, as I had believed he would have written the article. Here’s Mr Tricks’ (outdated) biography from The Economist:

Henry Tricks joined The Economist as capital markets editor in January 2006, became Finance Editor in September 2006 and will become Tokyo Bureau Chief in August 2009. Before that he wrote for the Financial Times in London, was FT bureau chief in Mexico, and worked for Reuters in America, Mexico and Central America. Henry has been interviewed on CNBC and the BBC World Service amongst others.

 Mr Tricks informed me, however, that “Japan’s judiciary on trial” was written by the Japan business and finance correspondent, Kenneth Neil Cukier. Here’s his biography: 

Kenneth Neil Cukier is the Japan business and finance correspondent. Previously, he covered technology and telecoms from London, with an emphasis on policy issues. Earlier, he worked at the Asian Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong, Red Herring magazine in London and the International Herald Tribune in Paris. He serves on the board of advisors to the Daniel Pearl Foundation.

 I dropped him a line and invited comments. He was gracious enough to respond.

 Dear Richard,

Thanks for your note, which my colleague Henry passed along. The
phrase is quite common—I’m surprised that the people you spoke to
didn’t know it.
As for the rest, in short: I agree “benefits scam” was pale — the
piece was significantly cut from its original length, and had I more
space, that and other things would have been more filled out. (Maeda
rank is chief prosecutor—one of those terrible title “ticks”; akin
to so many “executive directors” that are far from a board of
directors….)
Sorry that you didn’t think much of the piece. That said, I’m glad
that we could give the issue exposure.

Best regards,

Kenneth Cukier

I was tempted to begin a response by congratulating him on his powers of towering condescension, which must have been honed over many years, but then I thought, why bother? I’ll take your towering condescension and raise it to withering superciliousness. 

Dear Mr Cukier,

Many thanks for your e-mail. I do appreciate you taking time out of what must be an arduous schedule to reply.
First, to return to “kan son min pi”. You wrote:
“The phrase is quite common — I’m surprised that the people you spoke to didn’t know it.”
“The phrase is quite common” is of course a considerable climb-down from: 

AMONG the four-character idioms that all Japanese schoolchildren must learn is kan son min pi (“respect officials, despise the people”).

All I had to do to disprove that was find a handful of Japanese people who had never heard the idiom, which of course I did.
To disprove “the phrase is quite common” is a taller task, but anyway I extended my entirely unscientific survey to 12 people, six male and six female. Of the 12, four had heard of the idiom. Of the six women, none had. Of the four who knew it, none claimed to have learned it in school, but rather as an adult. Of the four who knew it, none thought that “min” meant “the people”; they all saw it as meaning “the private sector”.
My survey targets were wholly unrepresentative in that they all bar one have higher educations, with at least one PhD and one Master’s. A more representative survey would have had a 50:50 split between graduates and non-graduates, and naturally the recognition factor would have been far lower, as “kan son min pi” is clearly a phrase found, if anywhere, very occasionally in the likes of the Nikkei. Thank you though, for revealing anew to me how gender-constructed a language Japanese is, although that was far from your intention.
So the conclusion: perhaps you need to get out a bit more, broaden your circle of acquaintances, start rubbing shoulders in bars with construction workers and beauticians and car mechanics, before you start claiming even that “the phrase is quite common”.
What irks me most about:

AMONG the four-character idioms that all Japanese schoolchildren must learn is kan son min pi (“respect officials, despise the people”)

is that it is in danger of becoming a meme. You are already being quoted without accreditation at blogs like the widely read Seeking Alpha.
Let’s hope that it doesn’t become as legendarily ludicrous as “the nail that sticks up”. The likelihood is low, but I would hold you responsible if it does: “Power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot through the ages.”

“As for the rest, in short: I agree “benefits scam” was pale – the piece was significantly cut from its original length, and had I more space, that and other things would have been more filled out.”

Understood, and you have my sympathy.

“Maeda rank is chief prosecutor — one of those terrible title “ticks”; akin to so many “executive directors” that are far from a board of directors….”

Ah, sorry, that’s not correct. This is going to require some explanation. Here’s an excerpt from the more than adequately documented Wikipage on him:

東京地方検察庁検事、広島地方検察庁検事を等経て、大阪地方検察庁特別捜査部検事として、障害者団体向け割引郵便制度悪用事件の主任検事を務めた。

Allow me to translate: “After being a Tokyo district prosecutor and a Hiroshima district prosecutor, he joined the Osaka district prosecutor’s office as a prosecutor in the special investigative unit and was the principal prosecutor in the (abbreviated translation) postal fraud case.”
He wasn’t “the chief prosecutor in Osaka’s special investigative unit”, he was merely the chief/principal prosecutor in this single case. An easy enough mistake to make, though, of course, when you can’t read Japanese.

BTW, I assume you’re responsible for “From Walkmen to hollow men” in the latest issue. If not, please disregard the following.

If the leaders of Japanese firms were able to make just basic improvements—increasing average sales growth from 2% to 5%, lifting earnings from 4.5% to 7% and boosting capital efficiency by 10%—the capitalisation of Japan’s sickly stockmarket could triple from its current level, says Bain, a consultancy, in a recent study.

I’d just note that you can’t lift “earnings” from a percentage point to another because they are absolute numbers. Perhaps you meant margins?
Bain’s prescriptions are far from “basic”, but I decline to enter the world of argument—save that for the gurus at the “Readers’ comments” at the Economist website. My only mission is to correct outright error.

I look forward to your future columns. 

Best regards, 

Richard Hendy

 Let’s take another look at one paragraph in “From Walkmen to Hollow Men”.

 The leadership deficit translates into poor corporate performance. Japanese firms’ return on equity has long been less than half that of American and European companies. Since 1996 the number of Japanese companies among the world’s leading 50 firms by sales in sectors like manufacturing, retail, banking and health care has fallen by half or more. If the leaders of Japanese firms were able to make just basic improvements—increasing average sales growth from 2% to 5%, lifting earnings from 4.5% to 7% and boosting capital efficiency by 10%—the capitalisation of Japan’s sickly stockmarket could triple from its current level, says Bain, a consultancy, in a recent study.

 Mr Cukier did indeed mean “margins”, as the Bain report is easily accessible

Using a framework for transformation, we estimate that by increasing the current average sales growth rate of 2 percent to 5 percent and earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) margins from 4.5 percent to 7 percent-along with improving the level of capital efficiencies by 10 percent-Japan’s market cap could triple its current level. Japan can attain the peak it reached in the boom years, but without a bubble economy.

 Interestingly, Mr Cukier’s previous sentence was also lifted, unattributed, from the Bain report, rather than based on original research: 

Since 1996, the share of Japanese firms within the global top 50 companies involved in manufacturing, retail, healthcare and financial services industries has been cut in half or even more.

 Not a crime, perhaps, but a sleight-of-hand nonetheless, which has me wondering about the sources, freshness, and accuracy of untraceable quotations elsewhere in the article ascribed to leading entrepreneurs:   

 “The salaryman-shacho is one of the biggest reasons why the Japanese economy went down. They don’t take responsibility,” thunders Tadashi Yanai, the founder and boss of Fast Retailing, Japan’s largest clothing retailer and operator of the Uniqlo chain of stores. Mr Yanai, who is reckoned to be Japan’s richest man, worth around $9 billion, is not alone in his view. Japanese managers lack “assertiveness, vigour, energy and resolve”, says Kazuo Inamori, the 78-year-old founder of Kyocera, one of the country’s biggest producers of electronics parts.

But why am I being driven to this kind of speculation? What really irks me most is having had the wool pulled over my eyes by Mr Cukier and having had my trust shaken in a magazine (sorry, “newspaper”) to which I have devotedly, almost slavishly, subscribed for nigh on two decades. Not that I was ever in uncritical sympathy with the editorial line, but I had perhaps been hoping not to be shamelessly decieved.

The more I investigate Mr Cukier, the more I wonder whether his relationship with reality might not best be described as “estranged”. Here he is writing for Prospect magazine in October 2009 in the wake of the DPJ election victory. He opens with:

Japan has long been called a “democracy within a democracy.” Though it held elections, the country had kept the Liberal Democratic party (and its forbearers, the Liberals and the Democrats) in power virtually uninterrupted since the end of the second world war.

A quick Internet search suggests that the only people that call Japan a “democracy within a democracy” (whatever that may mean, I really can’t say) are Mr Cukier and The Economist, who are presumably one and the same.

The landslide was aided by a massive 70 per cent turnout. Yet on election night no cars honked, and no youths leapt into fountains. Such public stoicism is a sign of uncertainty and unease.

No, it’s nothing of the sort. It’s the way things are done around here.

Workers used to count on lifetime employment.

Oh please, not that old canard!

And the country’s famously low crime rate has been creeping up too, especially among the elderly, who find it harder to get by.

Except that the crime rate hasn’t been creeping up. It peaked in 2002 at about 2,400 crimes per 100,000 people and has fallen quite significantly since, to around 1,450 in 2009, roughly where it was two decades ago, as can be seen at a glance on p12 of the National Police Agency’s Criminal Statistics in 2009, a report it took me approximately three minutes to locate. But why, oh why, let the facts get in the way of a good story?
I await this week’s Economist centerfold special report on Japan with bated breath. Here’s hoping Mr Tricks, Mr Cukier, et al, manage to get through it without major gaffes, without calling in the services of rent-a-quote Temple University professor Jeff Kingston (whose most recent tome, Contemporary Japan, is so abysmal that I’m tempted to break with Spike tradition and do a hatchet-job book review of it), and his pal, Columbia University professor Gerald Curtis, without mentioning that Samsung Electronics now has a market cap greater than the entire Japanese electronics sector, and without using the word “disappoint” or its derivatives.
One thing I can guarantee, though, is that its first paragraph won’t end in the same triumphant vein as Bill Emmott’s survey of five years ago: “Now, however, the time for lectures is over. Japan is back. It is being reformed. It is reviving.”

Spiked redux

(I promised myself I wouldn’t write another one of these, but promises are made to be broken.)

Japan’s judiciary on trial

Prosecutors or persecutors?

A legal scandal may spark reform of the Japanese judicial system

Oct 14th 2010 | TOKYO

AMONG the four-character idioms that all Japanese schoolchildren must learn is kan son min pi (“respect officials, despise the people”). It defines the traditional relationship of individuals as subservient to the state—among whose representatives none is accorded more authority than the public prosecutor. The great privilege this confers on the role, however, can lead to its abuse.

A run of recent legal scandals, including wrongful convictions and brutal incarcerations, has tested respect for Japan’s criminal-justice system. The latest example, alleged evidence-tampering by a high-flying prosecutor and a cover-up by his bosses, has rallied many who want to see more regard for individual rights and greater checks on state power. The prosecutor in question, Tsunehiko Maeda, allegedly changed the date of a file on a computer disk that was being used as evidence against a woman accused of involvement in a massive benefit fraud. When Mr Maeda admitted this to his superiors, they are said to have ordered him to produce a report explaining how it happened “unintentionally”. On October 11th the Supreme Public Prosecutors’ Office dismissed Mr Maeda, the chief prosecutor in Osaka’s special investigative unit, and pressed charges against him. 

The scandal has hit a nerve. Japan takes pride in one of the world’s lowest crime rates. But it also has a fishily high conviction rate, at 99.9%. That matches China’s and is far above rates in the West. In their defence, Japanese lawyers say that the country’s under-resourced state prosecution service is only able to bring the strongest cases to trial. Fear of failure, with which all Japan’s bureaucrats are imbued, reinforces a reticence to test weaker cases in court. According to a former Tokyo district court judge, a single courtroom loss can badly damage a prosecutor’s career. A second can end it.

Yet the recent scandals suggest that miscarriages of justice are all too common. So do several quirks of the justice system, which weigh the scales against the accused. Suspects can be held for up to 23 days without charge, for example. They often have little access to a lawyer and none during questioning. Police interrogations commonly last up to ten hours and are rife with mental and verbal abuse. On October 7th a businessman in Osaka produced a surreptitious recording of his seven-hour “voluntary” questioning, in which the police threaten to hit him and destroy his life.

Part of the problem is that Japan has too few lawyers; one tenth the number per head of Britain. That is largely because the government makes it remarkably difficult to become one. For years it set the bar exam pass-rate at around 3%, though it has recently increased it to 25%. This reflects a fear, in a conflict-shy country, that more lawyers will make society more litigious, not more just.

Recent reforms have improved matters a little. A sort-of jury system, introduced last year, has a panel of six citizens review cases alongside judges, who ultimately pronounce on them. This system produced its first acquittal in June. A more important change, says Kazuko Ito, a lawyer specialising in wrongful-conviction cases, would oblige prosecutors to disclose any mitigating evidence. Former prosecutors also urge judges to be more sceptical about the word of prosecutors and the police.

In Mr Maeda’s shabby case, the court threw out much of the evidence and acquitted the accused. Mr Maeda’s supervisors have also been arrested. Now a titillated Japanese public looks forward to prosecuting the prosecutors.

Let’s revisit the first paragraph.

AMONG the four-character idioms that all Japanese schoolchildren must learn is kan son min pi (“respect officials, despise the people”). It defines the traditional relationship of individuals as subservient to the state—among whose representatives none is accorded more authority than the public prosecutor. The great privilege this confers on the role, however, can lead to its abuse.

“Amazing”, I half-thought to myself as I raced through the article. “How typically erudite of an Economist journalist to have come up with an obscure four-character compound (四字熟語) to illustrate the story, one that even this Old Japan Hand (ahem) has never heard.” Particularly interested in the fourth character, which I couldn’t quite visualize, I made a mental note to search it out at a moment of leisure.

That moment of leisure came one lunchtime this week. A Google search quickly revealed the identity of the fourth character.

官尊民卑

Kan son min pi

Official-respect people-despise

So far, so good. But I couldn’t help noticing that it only garnered 16,500 hits at Google, which struck me as not enough for a “four-character idiom that all Japanese schoolchildren must learn”. Many of the initial hits are for a 2006 book of the same title by a Keio University professor and specialist in urban sociology, Hiro Fujita, who was hardly likely to be taking the expression at face value. So I decided to ask my Japanese colleagues about it.

First up was a highly literate and eagle-eyed editor in her early forties.

“Do you know the four-character compound ‘kan son min pi’?”

“Eh? What are the characters?” Flustered, she scurried for the safety of the mouse and the keyboard. I explained what the characters were.

“I’ve never heard it. See, it doesn’t convert automatically when you type it, the way classic four-character compounds do.”

Then spontaneous and unsolicited came the comment, “It’s not the sort of compound we would’ve learned in school.”

A translator in her fifties, overhearing the conversation, said, “I’ve never heard it either. I wouldn’t say for sure that it’s a very recent coinage, but certainly within the last fifty years or so.”

One remote avenue of possibility remained open, that it had indeed come into popular use in the last couple of decades—I’m no expert on four-character compounds—and that us over-forties were simply ignorant. I approached a colleague who graduated from Sophia University, one of Japan’s best private schools, in 2007, making him about 26 at most.

“Do you know the four-character compound ‘kan son min pi’?”

“Eh? What are the characters?” Flustered, he scurried for the safety of the mouse and the keyboard. I explained what the characters were.

“I’ve never heard it. Why do you ask?” I explained that an English newspaper had asserted that “all Japanese schoolchildren must learn” it and that I now thought this sounded suspicious. He looked relieved.

Our mutual colleague, a 2008 faculty of sciences master’s graduate from Japan’s most prestigious institution of higher learning, the University of Tokyo, had meanwhile returned to his seat.

“Do you know the four-character compound ‘kan son min pi’?”

“Sure. You used to hear it a lot a few years ago. We used it for people who were angling for a career in the bureaucracy rather than the private sector. But now you don’t hear it so much, because everyone wants to work in the private sector.”

So what do we know so far? First, that “kan son min pi” is unambiguously not “among the four-character idioms that all Japanese schoolchildren must learn”.

As far as I can tell, it is a neologism, coined perhaps in the last 20 or 40 years as an ironic counterpoint to the much more familiar:

男尊女卑

Man-respect woman-despise

Second, that it doesn’t mean “respect officials, despise the people” at all, although superficially it looks as though it might. The “min” (民) refers not to “the people” (国民), but to the “private sector” (民間). This is what the on-line dictionaries state, too. So it means to prefer the public sector over the private, whether in pursuit of employment opportunities or in, say, local governments choosing to keep certain services in-house rather than outsource.

Back to the article. What is the most charitable explanation for this error? The best that I can come up with is that the Economist journalist was talking over the story with a Japanese colleague or contact who mentioned ‘kan son min pi’ without being fully aware of its history or meaning (and yes, strange as it may seem, not all Japanese people are automatically more versed in every aspect of their society than diligent foreigners are in at least some), and the journalist casually asked whether every Japanese knew the expression, to which the answer was affirmative.

Does any of this remotely matter, though, either in the narrow context of the article or the wider context of reporting on Japan? 

I think it does. First, the opening paragraph is a breezily confident assertion of authorial authority, designed to wow or cow the reader into submission. “Look at me,” it says, “I am so well versed in the ways of Japan that I am even on intimately familiar terms with its school curriculum.” Duly browbeaten, the reader is in no position to take issue with the rest of the article. Yet the next paragraph contains an oddity and a straightforward factual error.

The woman, Atsuko Muraki, a high-ranking Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare official “accused of involvement in a massive benefit fraud”, is much better described as having been accused of “involvement in the misuse of reduced postal rates for disabled people”, as the Financial Times accurately and succinctly described it. Is that really benefit fraud?

Tsunehiko Maeda, moreover, was not “the chief prosecutor in Osaka’s special investigative unit”. He was one of 13 rank-and-file prosecutors. His superiors, who allegedly ordered the cover-up, were the chief prosecutor (Hiromichi Otsubo) and deputy chief prosecutor (Motoaki Saga) in the special investigation unit.  

To return to the first paragraph, even if the first sentence were correct, is it not ridiculous to take a single idiom and then to determine that “it defines the traditional relationship of individuals as subservient to the state”? It’s as if a writer from East Asia were to seize upon a random proverb, let’s say “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” as evidence of the innate risk-aversion of the English-speaking peoples.

And is it reasonable to assert that, among the state’s “representatives none is accorded more authority than the public prosecutor”? How about vice ministers from the bureaucracy, who play a large role in drafting the law, not merely enforcing it?

It’s also not a little ironic for the reporter to be opining critically about “the traditional relationship of individuals as subservient” to a higher power when Economist writers are obliged to subsume their writerly identities to the dictates of the Economist style guide to produce prose of almost North Korean conformity and largely forced to remain anonymous by the organ for which they work.

Authorial anonymity, no doubt a policy imposed for good reasons in the mists of antiquity, serves the Economist well in the Internet era, as it prevents all but the most determined reader from coming to an informed conclusion about the expertise or otherwise of the author, hidden behind an incognito cloak. Sometimes, though, the mask slips for a moment, as it does in the article above and also here, to give glimpses of one of the dirty little secrets of the Economist—that their journalists are regularly shunted around the world and often have no deep insider knowledge of the societies on which they report. Indeed, the article, which although it contains some other dubieties on which I won’t dwell is ultimately quite pedestrian, could conceivably have been written in a day by someone with an inherited Rolodex fresh off the boat, based on the nightly news accounts of the case in English on NHK.

Second, what are the implications in the wider context of reporting on Japan? A former colleague of mine asserted—correctly I feel— in 2004 that “it is still possible to make statements about Japan which are factually incorrect without fear of contradiction.” That possibility remains open, in a way that does not generally hold for the rest of the developed world, for two reasons.

There are precious few people capable of challenging such statements: the number of native English speakers sufficiently immersed in the Japanese language to have instinctively smelt a big fat rat in the first sentence of the article above is probably in the low hundreds, and most of them are likely to be found ensconced in ivory towers.

Sadly, too, the level of interest in Japan in polite society in the West has been etiolated to such an extent that the stakes involved in making factually incorrect statements are so small that the gamble is not a risky one. The message for the reader of commentary, journalism, or indeed any kind of commercially produced prose on Japan—to say nothing of the horrors of the blogosphere—is to be, if at all possible, in a constant state of caveat lector alertness.

Most contemporary journalism has been so debased as to be akin to junk food: produced at speed to the mandates of headquarters according to a strict formula, with costs pared to the bone and expensive ingredients skimped on or done away with altogether. Junk-food journalism is designed to be wolfed down on the run by multi-taskers and media junkies, their attention forever at risk of being distracted by TV or text message, poke or twitter, and forgotten about an hour later—which explains the desperation of the author of the above article, on a subject arcane by Economist (and almost any) standards, to ensnare the reader with an arresting opening. Of course, the Economist, even at its worst, ladles out only the classiest junk-food journalism, more Pret a Manger than Jolibee. But junk it nevertheless can be.

When it comes to Japan, junk-food journalism has numerous mutant subspecies. I won’t stray deep into the unabashed awfulness of the pop-culture drivel, save to note that the Wall Street Journal should be mortally embarrassed that it allowed the following paragraph (and the article of which it forms a part) to disgrace its pages on October 26:

For a mere 1,400 yen ($16), tourists can get a taste of the maid cafe experience at @Home Hana, a traditional Japanese-themed establishment. When I ordered an iced coffee, our cute “eternally 17-year old” maid Mizuki poured the cream and stirred it for me until I asked her to stop, using the magic word “moe”, which is used by the otaku to express burning passion.

And to excoriate the Washington Post for the worst sin of modern hackery, the unattributed explanation (“experts say”), for being four years behind the curve on the metrosexual (non-) story, and for absurd typecasting on October 25:

Japan’s young men mystify their girlfriends and their bosses. They confound the advertisers who aim products at them. They’ve been scrutinized and categorized by social commentators, marketing consultants and the government. And they unnerve just about everybody who makes long-term projections about Japan’s flagging birthrate and fading economy. Japan will grow or falter, economists and sociologists say, upon the shoulders of these mild, frugal, sweet-mannered men.

In the realms of politics, society, and economics, there are four particularly pernicious sub-genres of junk-food journalism about Japan. The first is what I call the “Grand Hyatt school”, in which our hero-author never strays outside the confines of central Tokyo, sees the roads crowded with luxury cars from Germany and Japan and the sidewalks bustling with Chanel-clad women toting Vuitton bags, and declares that the naysayers and doom-mongers are all hopelessly misinformed. These specimens also tend to have skipped Economics 101. William J. Holstein is a particularly egregious example:

With the yen at 87 to the dollar, it’s hard for the foreigner to get a sense of any deflation in Japan. A cup of coffee at a hotel in central Tokyo is $10. If there is any deflation in Japan, it is probably a positive thing because it means that real estate prices and the overall cost of living may decline.

The second I call the “let them eat cake school”: armchair journalists that decree that “advanced” economies such as Germany and Japan have solved the economic question, much to the mirth of any serious economist, and no longer need to grow—or even, in the absence of growth, redistribute, it seems. It’s no longer shocking that the Guardian should print such tripe.

Japan’s economy has been and remains successful. So is Germany’s. They have reached an economic steady state in which they don’t need roaring growth rates to provide for their people.

Go tell that to the fifth of Japanese households with annual incomes below Y2mn (about $25,000 at the current exchange rate, less at purchasing power parity).

The third—and this is diametrically opposed to the first two and requires some subtlety of mind to understand why I find it laughable for now—is the “apocalypse now school”, a millenarian cult that is convinced Japan is on the brink of collapse. The New York Times’ Martin Fackler made a lamentably poor fist of this on October 16:

The downsizing of Japan’s ambitions can be seen on the streets of Tokyo, where concrete “microhouses” have become popular among younger Japanese who cannot afford even the famously cramped housing of their parents, or lack the job security to take out a traditional multidecade loan.

These matchbox-size homes stand on plots of land barely large enough to park a sport utility vehicle, yet have three stories of closet-size bedrooms, suitcase-size closets and a tiny kitchen that properly belongs on a submarine.

“This is how to own a house even when you are uneasy about the future,” said Kimiyo Kondo, general manager at Zaus, a Tokyo-based company that builds microhouses.

I challenge the author to come up with a shred of statistical evidence that houses are shrinking to rabbit-hutch proportions. Here’s a sample of Zaus houses: McMansions they are not, but to someone not from a country with vast tracts of land to spare they don’t look too shabby. According to Shukan Jutaku Shimbun (Housing News Weekly), the average overall floor area of a property in Japan was 95m2 in 2005, compared with 87m2 in the UK (2001), 99m2 in Germany (2002), and 99m2 in France (2002).

The fourth sub-genre, and most reprehensible of all, is the “fascist takeover school”. Here’s Mark MacKinnon, a man who clearly knows next to nothing about his subject and is capable of only the broadest-brush cliché, writing in Toronto’s Globe and Mail on October 5 (highlights mine):

As this country staggers through a second decade of economic stagnation, and suffers the indignation of being eclipsed by historic rival China, there’s a common refrain coming from the growing ranks of this country’s young and angry: Japan must stand up for itself – and that foreigners are to blame for the country’s ills.

No one was hurt in any of the incidents. But they highlight a tide of rising nationalism that is just one of the new social ills afflicting a country that 20 years ago was the richest and most stable on the planet.

One issue Mr. Kan didn’t mention is that more and more Japanese are turning away from traditional politics and embracing extremist ideologies laced with chilling hints of the country’s militaristic history.

Again, I challenge the author to produce a single piece of hard evidence for the highlighted assertions. Articles such as this just turn their authors into unwitting tools of Chinese propaganda—“useful idiots”, as Soviet sympathizers in the West were once called.

So what is to be done? Two things, I think: keep needling and keep paying. Journalism has been hit even harder than the music industry by the Internet. After all, Big Music has concert revenues and merchandise to fall back on, whereas no one pays to hear a journalist rap and no one buys T-shirts emblazoned with portraits of their favourite hacks.

One of my least favourite stylistic tics of the Economist is the way articles often close by returning to their openings, creating an often illusory sense of closure. So in mock-tribute I’ll sign off with a rewrite of the paragraph with which we began.

AMONG the four-character idioms that no Japanese schoolchildren must learn is so son ki gi (“respect amateurs, question the press”). It redefines the traditional relationship of readers as subservient to the journalist—among whose representatives none is accorded more authority than the Economist correspondent. The great privilege this confers on the role, however, can lead to its abuse.

[With thanks to R.M., A.I., and H.S., part of my network of media spies.]