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 Here’s Mr Tricks’ (outdated) biography from The Economist: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.
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
Sorry that you didn’t think much of the piece. That said, I’m glad
that we could give the issue exposure.
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:
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.
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.”