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    Selling it

    Posted by Sean at 22:40, October 4th, 2007

    There hasn’t been a high-profile story of defective Chinese goods for a little while, but the trend toward quietly pulling them is continuing:

    One by one, convenience stores and supermarkets are making moves toward replacing Chinese food imports with domestic products and non-PRC imports. 99 Plus Corporation, which developed the everything-99-yen convenience store, will phase out frozen foods from the PRC starting this month and replace them with domestic equivalents. Ito Yokado and Inageya have switched from PRC-produced matsutake mushrooms to those from Canada. In each case, the trend towards consumers’ avoiding Chinese products because of concerns over safety is noticeable, and it is possible that other retailers will make similar moves.

    99 Plus Corporation will gradually stop offering frozen foods from China such as pilaf and gyoza dumplings in its 800 Shop 99 stores nationwide. PRC products have made up about half of the frozen food items it offers, but it has investigated which items have ready substitutes and will replace most of them with domestic products. In order to maintain its everything-99-yen pricing, it will decrease per-package quantities in cases where supply costs increase by a wide margin.

    The stores in question move a lot of food.


    One of the tie-ups the new Japan Post conglomerate has already scored is with Nippon Express (Nittsu) for package processing. Yu-Pack has an extensive delivery network for small parcels, and Pelican has its strengths in the corporate market. The brands will remain separate, but the companies hope to combine their logistical advantages to their mutual profit. (Naturally, there may also be mutual shareholding. *sigh*) The post and package arms of Japan Post have the lowest profit potential, so this first large-scale partnership will be important.

    All that glitters

    Posted by Sean at 01:41, October 4th, 2007

    Speaking of ways Japanese consumers get scammed when looking for ways to invest, an operation called the L&G Group has been in the news all week. These companies usually pretend to market the sort of stuff you see hawked on infomercials–health drinks, odd undergarments, wonder pillows, things like that. L&G (the initials appear to stand for “Ladies and Gentlemen“) had its own “research center” that managed to attract some big-name lecturers, giving it the appearance of a reputable going concern. Apparently not, though. Since it’s a tawdry story, let’s look to the Mainichi for the full effect:

    Police on Wednesday raided the home of the chairman of the troubled L&G group and related facilities in Tokyo amid growing suspicion that the group had illegally solicited consumers to invest in its bedding goods sales business.

    The latest move came after the National Consumer Affairs Center of Japan received a growing number of complaints from L&G investors about its failure to pay dividends or refund their invested funds. Investigators suspect that the group violated the Investment Deposit and Interest Rate Law.

    L&G started paying its investors “dividends” in the form of gift certificates to outlets for its own goods–essentially a step up from Monopoly money.

    This is not the first case of this sort of thing. Five years ago, Asia was riveted by the implosion of Genta Ogami’s G.O. Group, which (of course) was supposedly marketing health teas. Time Asia ran an extensive story:

    An estimated 90,000 individuals in Japan, the Philippines and Indonesia became G.O. “members,” investing in the firm’s schemes based on promises they could double or triple their savings. Until his operation unraveled earlier this year, Ogami, 39, had collected a total of $400 million, according to former G.O. Group executives, which he used to finance a lavish lifestyle, expand overseas and buy the offshore bank in the Philippines. He even financed his own action movie, Blades of the Sun, featuring himself in the starring role playing opposite a Filipina starlet.

    What’s fascinating is that Ogami’s phoniness was recognized not by middle-class Japanese investors but by poor Filipino savings account holders. He bought a bank in the Philippines to begin using as his private slush fund, essentially. And then:

    Ogami’s hilarious bumblings over the following months bring to mind Dr. Evil in an Austin Powers sequel–hilarious, that is, if not for the fact that they torpedoed a bank serving 18,000 poor Filipinos. G.O. Group had raised the cash to buy Unitrust by selling unregistered bonds in Japan. He loaned the proceeds to dummy local owners to make the purchase, says Inoue, in order to sidestep Philippine laws prohibiting majority foreign ownership of banks. Ogami announced his September 2001 takeover by posting his face on billboards around Manila and running a two-page newspaper ad offering jobs at three times the going salaries. He ordered Citibank pamphlets photocopied, its logo replaced with that of the new “Bank of Ogami.” He demanded fat personal loans, says Inoue, threw parties on the bank’s dime, and had Genta Ogami figurines created as gifts for customers.

    Instead of inspiring confidence, his behavior caused a bank run. Startled depositors yanked their accounts, and Philippine staffers–not inclined to swallow the weird, cultish rituals Ogami’s officers tried to impose–quit in droves. Unitrust was forced to close its doors this January. With the bank in receivership, thousands of remaining depositors are unable to access their funds.

    Ogami was sentenced to eighteen years.

    Meet the new Japan Post

    Posted by Sean at 00:50, October 3rd, 2007

    I suppose that, given all I wrote about Japan Post privatization while it was being haggled over, it’s odd that I didn’t post anything about it on Monday, when the privatization plan went into effect. But of course, what’s going to be interesting is what happens in the coming months and years; Monday was an important step, but not much happened that we could draw conclusions from. The single biggest problem is that the government still holds all the stock, with divestment from the financial services companies to be completed by 2017. But there’s a lot else to consider. Here‘s the Nikkei editorial:

    Since the former national rail service became JR twenty years ago, this is the first large-scale privatization. The postal service, which began as a public institution 130 years ago, became a privately held enterprise under the Japan Post holding company on 1 October. The holding company came into the world a behemoth group with four companies (postal processing, post offices, postal savings bank, and life insurance) under its umbrella, total capital of 338 trillion yen, 24000 post offices, and 240000 personnel.

    What cemented the privatization was public opinion, which pressed for postal reform that moved “from public to private.” In the election after the “postal dissolution” Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizumi decided on, the LDP gained an overwhelming majority in the lower house. [Koizumi called a snap election and flatly told voters that he regarded it as a referendum on Japan Post privatization.–SRK] This could be regarded as a vigorous rejection of the public investment [system] that, using trust in the government as a shield, corralled capital from postal savings and life insurance and led to bureaucratic bloat. We must not forget that that was the starting point.

    The postal savings bank will be a sales outlet for housing loans from some regional banks, and also aims to fund its own entry into financing and foreign currency deposits. Financial institutions have cautioned about pressure on the private sector [that Japan Post Holdings could exert by exploiting its still-strong connections with the government], but on the other hand, there have been gestures toward seeking tie-ups with a clear eye on the post office network. What is more important than anything else is that conditions for fair competition between the privatized Japan Post and existing financial institutions be preserved. The Japan Post Privatization Committee, which will review these expansions of operations, has a lot of responsibility. The Finance Agency and the BOJ should also monitor its health unsparingly through inspections and similar measures.

    What both internal and external investors will be paying attention to is where capital is routed by the two financial institutions after privatization. Under the shadow budget system, the postal savings bank had become a dumping ground for mass-issued federal bonds. It will be pressed to diversify deployment of capital into appropriate asset and debt management. The plan is to decrease the postal savings account balance (182 trillion yen at the end of August) moderately but steadily.

    The Asahi editorial focuses more on how privatization will affect customers:

    The most serious is poor legal compliance. Japan Post has been plagued by endless embezzlement and other scandals involving postal workers. Illegal business practices are rampant in postal insurance operations–postal insurance policies are often sold without the legally mandated direct meeting with the purchaser. In fact, compliance has been so poor, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications has given the postal insurance service a record-low quality rating of “D.” Recent evidence has also emerged that employees unlawfully destroyed documents that legally should have been preserved.

    These episodes point to serious corporate ills. The new Japan Post management must ensure it competes with industry rivals in a legal and fair manner. The first test for the postal giant’s compliance will be whether it starts properly explaining to customers the risks involved in its financial products.

    With privatization has also come the end of government guarantees for postal savings and insurance policies–yet Japan Post will still be selling a wide range of risk-carrying financial products, such as investment trusts.

    For many years, people have entrusted their savings to government-guaranteed postal accounts. Many have no understanding about risky financial products and the fact that investors can lose their initial investment principal if the market turns sour.

    That makes it imperative for Japan Post to clearly offer detailed explanations about such risky investments to customers. Should troubles emerge over sales tactics, this would damage consumer trust–its reputation for reliability–and have a serious effect on its bottom line.

    That’s a genuine worry. Japan has a very good educational system, but financial products are complex things, and people’s trust in known brands has enabled a lot of salespeople to put one over on a lot of consumers. It’s people’s responsibility to assess risks as best they can before pouring their money into an insurance policy or what have you; however, I agree that Japan Post’s overseers need to be extra careful to make sure representatives are not using verbal legerdemain to imply that investments are still protected by the government in ways they are not.


    Posted by Sean at 04:47, October 1st, 2007

    While everyone else is debating whether there are gays in Iran, this fag (note unapologetic hegemonic-Western assertion of identity–BUTCH, huh?) is wondering anew at how beyond sexy Hugh Jackman is, even if the hair needs a trim (just the hair on his head, obviously).

    Speaking of body hair, I’m normally pretty persnickety about this sort of thing–don’t get me started on visible clip-on bow ties at black tie parties–but I’m not sure I can fall in line with this post (via Ann Althouse). I can see arguing that grown men shouldn’t wear shorts because it violates adult etiquette. I can see pointing out that shorts flatter well-shaped legs and don’t flatter dumpy ones. Hell, attractiveness isn’t even always the issue. I’ve been fighting with friends who tell me I should show more chest hair when we go out for years. My relatively smooth buddies can have three buttons open, and you don’t even notice. I have three buttons open, and I look as if I should have a sign around my neck that says, “Ask about my low all-night rates!”

    But looking decent and looking comely are two different, if related, considerations that it’s not good to slush together. (Is it proposed that we go the whole way and ask people who lost the genetic lottery on bone structure and complexion to wear paper bags over their heads?) Noisome breath and body odor or noisy chewing–that sort of thing is inescapable to people around you, so it’s flat-out inconsiderate to inflict it on them. I have a hard time equating that with covering up your legs lest someone deem them too hairy.

    Shopping for voters

    Posted by Sean at 01:35, September 28th, 2007

    So the composition of Fukuda’s cabinet is nearly the same as that of Abe’s most recent one. (Two ministers who supported Taro Aso for prime minister were apparently surprised to be retained.) The approval rating for the new cabinet is 53%.

    No, make that 59%.

    Oops! I mean, 58%.

    Whatever. It looks as if a majority-and-change of voters approve of the new Fukuda administration, though that may change once it’s had a chance to start doing things. (And to look at it from another angle, 74% of eligible voters think the lower house should be dissolved at some point within the year.)

    Most of us foreign bloggers who write about Japanese politics pay a lot of attention to foreign policy, for obvious reasons. But domestic policy is a potential cause for worry, too, in ways that could eventually affect the balance of power in East Asia.

    There’s been a lot of talk that the recent economic recovery has disproportionally benefited urban areas and [ominous radio soap opera organ music] “big business.” Fukuda and Aso both made a point of talking about assistance to rural areas, which have traditionally been a crucial part of the LDP voting base. I can’t find the Japanese report I originally saw, but the AP noted one of Fukuda’s statements before the election:

    “I’ll seriously consider the rural problems and will listen to the voices of the residents,” Fukuda, 71, said as he walked through a shopping arcade near a local train station. “I see a lot of shops that had been closed down. We must take care of the problem.”

    Reforms in recent years have allowed the economy’s steady expansion after long years of stagnation, but critics say the benefits are limited to big corporations and are not reaching small business and rural towns.

    Dissatisfaction over the slow economic recovery among rural voters was also considered a major cause for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s loss in the July elections for the upper house of parliament.

    I’m not sure that rural areas can realistically recover without undergoing even more pain in the short term. During the era of economic hypergrowth, Japan did not encourage its workers to expect shocks and be adaptable. Small, depopulating towns have done a terrible job of capitalizing on opportunities for tourism and niche-market manufacturing. (In that sense, they’re following the leads of the major cities, with their ridiculous high-tech “new city” boondoggles, but at least the metro agglomerations have wealth-creating enterprises to counterbalance them.) The laws governing urban planning and large-scale retail stores have morphed over the years, and there’s more regulatory control in the hands of local governments; but the fact remains that the poorest parts of Japan are places where the potential for cheap distribution is least capitalized on. Not that big corporations are benefiting solely because of greater efficiency and quality control; they know how to leverage their longstanding relationships with the bureaucrats that effectively regulate them to their benefit, too.

    Japan is still stuck in the mindset of trying to predict and then micromanage the future. That may provide a comforting sense of stability in the short term, and it enables politicians to unveil grand plans that show they’re “getting things done,” but it’s a recipe for disaster when the world changes in unanticipated ways. Me, what I anticipate is more rhetoric and economy-distorting subsidies.


    Posted by Sean at 22:46, September 24th, 2007

    Gay Patriot West takes Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to task for claiming that there are no homosexuals in Iran. Well, he’s more taking gay and liberal groups to task for not calling BS:

    Yesterday, we had a lesbian claiming she had a little crush on this man who, even she acknowledged, would “probably have [her] killed” because he was so forthright in “calling out the horrors of the Bush Administration.” [Yeah, you know, if there’s anything it’s hard to find on the world stage, it’s a head of state who’s willing to score cheap political points off President Bush.–SRK]

    As bad as those on the gay left claim this Administration to be, it doesn’t execute gay people. Yes, we should fault the president and his team for failing to repeal the pernicious Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell Policy preventing gays from serving openly in the military and should take the president to task for endorsing the Federal Marriage Amendment. But, there is a world of difference between opposing gay marriage and open service of gays in the military and murdering gay citizens as matter of state policy.

    It’s amazing that some people on the gay left are so caught up with their hatred of Bush, that they refuse (or, are otherwise slow) to condemn the leader of a nation whose government does just that — murder its own gay and lesbian citizens.

    A good rule of thumb is that anyone from anywhere at all who says his country doesn’t have homosexuals doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Since I’ve been living in Tokyo, I’ve met guys from Bhutan, Kyrgyzstan, and Nigeria out at the bars–all just as up on Britney’s new single and this season’s Prada as any fag in the Castro. One of the most annoying skeeves my friends and I currently run into is from–I’m not making this up–Papua freakin’ New Guinea. And as for Iran…ha! I can’t count the number of Iranian guys who’ve hit on me since I’ve been living in Tokyo.

    Now, yes, we can get into the usual tiresome identity-politics discussion of what exactly constitutes a homosexual. (And I might note that when I first arrived in Japan, people told me they didn’t have gays here, either, which has to be just about the most clueless thing I’ve ever heard.) But the men I’ve met from developing countries have mostly said something on the order of, “Well, sure, I’m married and have children. I have to be. My country is not America. Don’t get me wrong–I respect my wife, and I love my kids–but you don’t know how lucky you are to be able to have a partner.”

    BTW, I know it’s pointless to get exercised over this sort of thing, but why do people insist on being so idiotic?

    Protesters also assembled at Columbia. Dozens stood near the lecture hall where Ahmadinejad was scheduled to speak, linking arms and singing traditional Jewish folk songs about peace and brotherhood, while nearby a two-person band played “You Are My Sunshine.”

    “You Are My Sunshine”? An allusion to Silverlake Life , maybe? But surely that would be way to esoteric for even a gay-friendly lefty audience to pick up on, especially when most of them were probably in second grade back then? Odd.

    Added later: I should have known Eric would have posted about this already:

    I’m not holding my breath either. Feminists who once condemned the veil now allow that it might be “liberating,” and gay activists in Berkeley dismissivly compared the systematic murder and torture of Palestinian gays to what “happens in every western society, including in San Francisco.” And what about the treatment of the murdered Pim Fortuyn?

    Maybe because I’m friends with a lot of Brits and Europeans, I still hear Fortuyn referred to pretty frequently. But Eric’s right that the gay left sure as hell hasn’t seized on the opportunity to hold him up as an example of how tragically gays can be persecuted.

    Added on 26 September: Naturally, one of Columbia’s gay groups has gotten into the act (via Eric). Andrew Sullivan reports:

    “We stand in solidarity with our peers in Iran, but we do not presume to speak for them. We cannot possibly claim to understand the multiple and diverse experiences of living with same-sex desires in Iran. Our cultural values and experiences are distinct, but the stakes are one and the same: the essential human right to express our desires freely. Moreover, we would like to strongly caution media and campus organizations against the use of such words as “gay”, “lesbian”, or “homosexual” to describe people in Iran who engage in same-sex practices and feel same-sex desire. The construction of sexual orientation as a social and political identity and all of the vocabulary therein is a Western cultural idiom. As such, scholars of sexuality in the Middle East generally use the terms “same-sex practices” and “same-sex desire” in recognition of the inadequacy of Western terminology. President Ahmadinejad’s presence on campus has provided an impetus for us all to examine a number of issues, but most relevant to our concerns are the complexities of how sexual identity is constructed and understood in different parts of the world.”

    Ahmadinejad was right, you see? There are no gays in Iran. Just ask the Queer Studies Department.

    Having spent my entire adult life toggling (not always successfully) back and forth between American English and Japanese, I’ll certainly agree that you have to be exceedingly careful when using words from one language and culture to describe abstractions in another.

    It’s the tone that’s grating: We Westerners, with our inadequate terminology and our resistance to examining deep “issues” unless a thugocrat shows up to give a lecture, just can’t understand how complex all those people from other cultures are. But if that’s the case, where does the CQA get off calling anyone in Iran its “peer”? The relationship between their sexual identity and their “same-sex practices” isn’t like ours, after all.

    Added on 1 October: Eric has still more reaction to the subject-changing debate that’s resulted from Ahmadinejad’s remarks:

    I’m sure that a good defense of the author’s thesis could be made too. In theory, I might be willing to venture such a defense, but I’m not about to take my cue from a murdering tyrant who believes in executing homosexuals — whether “homosexuals like in your country” or homosexuals like in his country.

    It’s a legitimate topic, but I think it’s rather unsettling to have to parse a murderer’s words and judge their theoretical meaning according to the trends of the latest Post Modernist jargon.

    Yeah, at least when the post-structuralist brigade was lining up to explain away Paul de Man’s pro-Nazi writings, it wasn’t discussing someone who’d actually presided over a murderous government.

    In the red

    Posted by Sean at 04:56, September 23rd, 2007

    Man, no one’s given me a BJ like this for years:

    We had been told that [Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez] would take a couple of questions from us during the show. Quite a rare opportunity.

    We probed him on a deal he struck with London’s mayor.

    [London mayoral candidate Boris Johnson] has questioned why a country with such poverty is giving to one of the world’s richest capitals.

    “This man is stupid,” Mr Chavez told us. “There are poor people in London. I have seen them.”

    He answered a question on his links with Iran by calling President Ahmadinejad “an extraordinary man”.

    He said he could deal with whom he liked and that he did not go round telling the UK prime minister that he could not be friends with the “genocidal George Bush”.

    It was classic Chavez – he has never been one to mince his words.

    There are a few rote sentences observing how staged and lacking in dissent the event being covered was, of course; that’s how you maintain “objectivity.” But just how “probing” could those questions have been if they could be answered with sassy little quips? A close buddy of mine, an Englishman whose politics are pretty close to mine, likes to raise my blood pressure by sending me links to these things. His comment on this one was “Oh, please….”

    The banality of evil

    Posted by Sean at 04:17, September 23rd, 2007

    Oh, great. I hadn’t noticed that someone got the bright idea of remaking Halloween . And, this being 2007, the major change is that we now have way more backstory about Michael Myers. John Carpenter and Debra Hill kept it blessedly simple thirty years ago–the child had some inchoate evil in him that was crystallized by his sister’s sexual experience. He was a just plain wrong’un.

    But that’s not good enough anymore. Now we have to have the over-worked and under-attentive stripper mom, the abusive step-dad, and the bullying meanies at school depicted in exhaustive detail so we Get the Message: What’s scary isn’t primal, unknowable evil. What’s scary is that Child Protective Services doesn’t perform more interventions.

    And yes, I’m trashing a movie I haven’t seen. Perhaps it’s well-executed. That doesn’t make the concept any less tiresome.


    Posted by Sean at 03:31, September 23rd, 2007

    No surprise here: Yasuo Fukuda will be the new LDP president. He’s the same age (71) as his father, Takeo Fukuda, was when he became prime minister. Oddly for such an insider-driven country, he’ll be the first child to succeed a parent to the position. (There are other children of former prime ministers active in politics, of course–Makiko Tanaka springs readily to mind.) My good friend and politics junkie Jun’ichiro commented the other day that Fukuda is a good technocrat but may not be a leader. I can see that. I’d have liked it if we could have had Taro Aso’s foreign policy approach without his power lust and general jerkitude. Unfortunately, you have to take candidates as they are.

    I like confrontation, so Fukuda’s make-nice approach is not one I warm to easily, but I think it may actually work in the LDP’s favor for the next few months. He’s apparently planning to keep most key ministers in the cabinet, so there won’t be another upheaval. And looking outside, the DPJ is open about wanting war (between the ruling and opposition coalitions, I mean), so if Fukuda comes on all friendly, it could make the opposition look petty and mean. Not the best image to have if you want a dissolution of the lower house of the Diet to work in your favor.

    BTW, Will Wilkinson has a long post up about research into the moral dimensions of politics. One of his throwaway examples caught my attention:

    Haidt’s early research on moralized disgust shows that its cultural manifestations vary. The Japanese apparently find it disgusting to fail their station and its duties.

    Well, I don’t know that I would refer to that as a cultural “manifestation” of disgust, exactly. I think it’s more accurate to say that the Japanese are acculturated in such a way as to attach reflexive, visceral disgust to dereliction of duty. Doing what you’re told…being what you’re told…is drilled into people to the point that it becomes second nature, so they tend to flinch with child-like “that’s yucky!” horror when someone harshes the wa. (Many foreigners are driven bonkers by the Japanese tendency, when asked to do something that doesn’t follow the usual rules, to grimace, pull the chin inward, and suck in the breath as if confronted with a slug in the salad.) From that vantage point, it’s interesting to think about how the commentators reacted to Prime Minister Abe’s sudden resignation. Faces registered shock but also revulsion. Of course, that’s just my interpretation based on what I happened to see on television. But I really don’t think I’m projecting.


    Posted by Sean at 04:54, September 21st, 2007

    Virginia Postrel slides into the end of an otherwise-lite post that she has breast cancer and is beginning treatment soon. I wish her the best.