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  Celebrity Cheers Boost Sales,
   Olympic Fever Gets a "Dent" and Government Data Doubted

"Talk about Devil" they say. As soon as I had warned readers of the record level influenza virus caught by millions, I got it myself. It took one whole week and plenty pills to recover, very unpleasant. So once again, please wash your hands and keep your mask on when you move about town and mingle with masses. We gaijins might think it looks funny, but better beware.

Legendary Matti Nykanen suddenly passing away at young age of 55 made news in Japan, too. The local legend Noriaki Kasai called Matti "my hero" and recalled how the great Finnish jumper gave him his own jump suit with autograph when he was still a high school boy. Other old jumping greats joined in praises for the Finnish legend, same as their colleagues aroud the world. Kazuyoshi Funaki, another Olympic and World Cup winner, said Matti was the example that made him start jumping.

Earlier last month, Naomi Osaka's second consecutive Grand Slam tennis win in Australia was big headlines, of course. So was pop band Arashi's announcement to "retire". In economy and politics, finding that parts of government data can be wrong – at least marginally – makes you think whether Abenomics is only a statistical error. NG for Japan reputation. Olympic cheer took a blow, too, with French court claim that a USD 2 million consulting fee to a dubious Singapore company signed off by JOC Chairman Takeda probably went to well-known African fraudster at IOC to buy votes for Tokyo.

In business, big companies are telling us one after another that declining demand in China is eating into their hitherto fine results, ruining another record year in making. This is as expected and growing worries about future don't spell good for annual salary "base-up" negotiations that just started.

"Boy band" hardly is a proper conception for five guys approaching middle-age, but like their predecessors SMAP, Arashi not only sold countless hit records, but for over 20 years dominated TV in all kinds of programs as well as in commercials selling just about anything from cars and toothpaste to credit cards and life insurance. Not an hour in TV nor a ride on train or walk around town without seeing their face. They must have made billions and Japan just loved them, so the announcement, even if due only at end 2020, "shocked the nation". Chief Cabinet Secretary himself, hardly a fan at age of 70, felt he had to publicly wish them well.


You probably join me in thinking that Osaka-san's sports triumph in Melbourne heat was something bigger – Prime Minister himself sent his congratulations to her – but it was also big business win for her sponsors Adidas, Yonex, Citizen, Nissan and Nissin. "Naomi model" rackets, watches, wristbands and visors have been all selling out and so has "Naomi model" Nissan GTR that the carmaker delivered to her in Florida after the win in New York. No record of Naomi cup noodles sales yet, but Nissin manga ad where her deep tan had suddenly turned white sure made news. Artistic freedom finds strange ways...Tennis experts say that Osaka might become "new Serena", who can win all four Big Ones this year and, as barely 21 year old now, can dominate world tennis years ahead.

So is she Japanese? She is born here and has Japanese passport, yet has lived from 3 year old in USA, speaks very little Japanese and does not look typical Japanese. Many old people think only those with "pure blood" can be called Japanese. Yet, for many others the conception of who or what is Japanese has changed and keeps changing with people themselves becoming more international, with more multinationals visible in media and on street and more foreigners settling in here, marrying and having children, just like in any other country. As one commentator put it: "Japaneseness is not something you can artificially define. It is a transformational concept that is permanently defined again and again by the Japanese in the years to come."

What is clear is that both Osaka and Arashi will figure big in publicity for Tokyo Olympics 2020, in PR campaigns and probably in the opening ceremony. Naturally the nation also expects that Naomi will do well in her sport.


Olympic fever is building up. 260,000 people, triple amount what organizers sought, volunteered for helping out with the arrangements and expected visitors. NHK started year-long drama series that covers the history of Olympic sports from Japan's first wake up for Stockholm 1912 to getting the games in Tokyo 1964 - with my friend contributed as actors for Finnish IOC members in the crucial vote. Moreover, you can put your bid for ticket lottery already in April, even if you must wait for outcome until next year. Like in Soccer World Cup 2002, demand is sure to exceed supply many fold and the organizing committee will try ensure that everybody has equal opportunity to get his own ticket and nobody will be able to book more and try sell them on black market.

Same supply-demand imbalance apply already for the Rugby World Cup this summer. More tickets have come on sale wave by wave, yet my Scottish friend has failed every time to get a ticket for Scotland-Japan match, his favorite target. It does not help that the computer system has been down time and again overwhelmed by the number of buyers trying to access it. Hope Olympic organizers learn from this to prepare well.

Many Japanese people took the French court's naming Takeda-san responsible for Olympic corruption as revenge for Carlos Ghosn's treatment by Japanese court. It is widely taken that Meiji emperor's grand-grandson is just a figurehead for Japan Olympic movement and that all practical matters have been handled by other people. In fact, not the committee at all: it turned out that all campaign action was sourced out to the all-powerful Dentsu, who has long experience in such matters. It controls 60% of all advertising, sales promotion and publicity in this country: nothing happens without Dentsu, they say. With background of handling big sponsors for IOC, it knows money flows, all officials and members in Switzerland well. As IOC's history covering all recent games has been reeking corruption, it seems clear that Dentsu knew well that the money paid to the Singapore "consultant" would go to influence votes. Too bad Takeda-san obediently put his name in the paper. We'll hear more once the court case that covers all IOC wrongdoings widely, proceeds. Same time Dentsu is widely praised by IOC for signing up double amount of sponsorship deals for Tokyo games than any games before.


We always thought that masses of ministry bureaucrats are the steady rock that keeps this country together while politicians just flow on surface and claim fame for their good work. Having just recovered from the shock of product data falsification by several respectable companies last year, we now have learned that data collection of Interior Ministry has not been what it should have been. Instead of collecting salary data from all 1400 big companies in Tokyo, the bureaucrats selected to ease their work load by limiting the collection to just 500 companies. Excluding such big number of companies that pay higher salaries than small companies in provinces resulted into national average salary looking lower than what it really was. As result, social benefits paid out in recent years have been too small and the Ministry has to pay now more for 20 million people. As embarrassingly, the Abe cabinet had to make an addition to its FY2019 draft budget that was ready to go for debate in the Parliament this month.

Naturally, doubts have arisen that all government data has been as sloppily collected. It does not help that the "third party committee", who checked the Interior Ministry's case and concluded it was not deliberate falsification, turned out to have included members from Ministry's own staff. New study is on way, so the case remains open and gives good ammunition to opposition attacks in the newly started Diet spring session. Yet, their calls for the current Interior Minister's resignation are without factual base as the faulty data collection has been going on for more than 10 years.

The finding is a blemish on the whole nation's credibility, but I think the data collection in many other countries is based on even smaller samplings and some have been long suspected for rewriting any result that don't fit the big picture painted by the leaders. No official studies into possibly wrong data have been made elsewhere as far as I know.


On world stage, US president's mercurial moves keep creating confusion. You never know what he is up to next, not even how he will twist and turn tomorrow what he said today. Notwithstanding any new surprises in his speech today (not yet heard and always possible) it looks like he will compensate his weakened position at home - lost the showdown for his beloved Wall and studies into his wrongdoings getting ever closer - with focusing spotlight on foreign politics. First come China, where it seems that he is giving up the quest to stop China's government-led onmarch with wrongful means to global technological dominance, something serious and critical to world order, and turning the feud back into simple game of trade numbers that he might be able show "winning". Trump is evidently highly concerned about the wobble in Dow stock index, his major claim to fame for US economic success, and a quick "win" with China is needed to pacify worried investors. That looks perfectly possible with a little understanding co-operation from wily CCP – small concessions here and there to get US president off their back and the outside pressure is off. Beijing has economic worries enough on its own.

After China, Trump is already burning to set up his next "win" with Part Two of the TV-spectacle with North Korea's Kim. The plot in the sequel of this tragicomedy is much the same as Part One except that this time Trump will sheepishly give some concessions – in return for Kim making the same vague pledges for abandon of nuclear weapons – at least those that reach to USA. Peace (for USA) is won again and Nobel Prize waits in Trump's "alternative reality".

Ironically after peace campaign with Kim, Trump's next Big Game seem to be fresh start in nuclear arms build-up. Two weeks ago, US unveiled new defense missile strategy that cited North Korea as the main threat - never mind the forthcoming meeting nor that already after first one Trump declared that any threat from North had been eliminated. Last week, USA abandoned the 1987 treaty with Russia for Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces, a move that leaves the field open for it to develop new and better missiles, something it says Russia has already done. So has USA, say the Russians, so giving up the treaty seems almost a formality.

What both sides agree, is that the problem with the 1987 treaty was that it did not include China, who was then still a developing country not worth of serious consideration. Now China has 600-700 such intermediate missiles, most of them directed against Japan and US military facilities here. Having been able to build up its military power to formidable level without sufficient attention - not just missiles but drones, air force and navy – and taking control of vast sea area stretching all the way to Singapore with manmade island bases, it must be unpleasant for China to get into global loop in the nuclear issue. As for Japan, you can expect that US will look into deploying its new missiles here, its irreplaceable strategic forefront.

It seems USA's ultimate target is to have a new all-encompassing nuclear weapons deal that would include not only Russia and China, but India, Pakistan, UK, France – and Iran, Israel and North Korea, I guess. Whether its current leadership has political patience to pull such long term strategic plan through, remains to be seen. Certainly we will be long into next president's rule, whoever will it be, before we see any concrete results of this. Hate to think it well can be Trump again.

Needless to say, all plans for more nuclear weapons ring alarm in non-nuclear countries, especially in Japan, the only country that has experienced their power in concrete.

Timo Varhama  
Tokyo, February 6, 2019  

Previous Columns

28 January 2019
"Virus and snow in Japan - heavy turbulence outside"

16 January 2019
"New Year News Review"

19 December 2018
"Japan: The Only Safe Place From Global Turmoil?"

6 December 2018
"Political Theater at World Stage, Media Play in Nissan Case"

21 November 2018
"Different inroads into Japan: Finnish forest knowhow vs French corporate genius"

7 November 2018
"Moomin, Muji, Movies and Mobile Phone Fees"

29 October 2018
"Towards better world? Circular economy, collaboration with China"

15 October 2018
"Circular economy, fish market and construction boom"

2 October 2018
"Abe's "third reich": challenges abound"

17 September 2018
"From Osaka typhoon to Osaka fever - dark side and bright side of Japan"

6 September 2018
"Emperor: love, peace and reverence"

23 August 2018
"Summer heat, new scandals and export worries - but Tokyo is best"

8 August 2018
"Petty politicians, bungling bureaucrats and profitable business"

30 July 2018
"While we were on holiday"

17 June 2018
"From Singapore to soccer - wrapp up for summer"

11 June 2018
"Showdown in Singapore, commotion in Canada and cover-ups in Tokyo"

28 May 2018
"Morals and responsibility, blind loyalty and power harassment"

17 May 2018
"Big Business in record results again, but consumer are not convinced - North Korea spectacle continues under Kim direction"

26 April 2018
"Political spectacle approaches grand finale
- people's trust sinking ever lower"

17 April 2018
"Cruise missiles and cronyism, business boom, old people and sumo"

6 April 2018
"Mystery train and other unpredictable moves in geopolitics around Japan"

26 March 2018
"Trump Unchained and Abelympics – Can PM Make the Party?"

16 March 2018
"Anniversaries, updates, fallacies and deception"

5 March 2018

26 February 2018
"Korean Olympics: sports shine, politics stink"

14 February 2018
"Korea: Murky Politics and Big Business Behind the Sport Spectacle"

4 February 2018
"It's "smile time" in politics, Olympics, economics and business"

23 January 2018
"Moomin crisis, panda frenzy and Olympics turned into political farce"

12 January 2018
"Heisei 30 looks good: share prices soar, PM rides high "

About the Columnist

The columnist is a Japan veteran among Finnish business, our Chamber ex-president and today Member of the Board of Trustees.
After running a major Finnish industry company's Japan business for over 20 years, he is now Senior Associate in a strategic consulting company.

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