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 AOYAMA VIEW

SPRING EVENTS: ODAIBA ROCK, SHIBUYA SEX, CAPITOL HILL, WHITE HALL AND RED SQUARE
What a wonderful Golden Week it was! Especially if you had possibility to take off two work days last week and/or this week to make it extra-long. The spring in Japan is so pleasant. It will only start getting hotter from now.

It seems pretty hot under Owakudani hill in Hakone already. The ground has been shaking daily for two weeks now and the specular sulphur steams that 20 million people go to see every year, are now an impediment for the big tour business there. As the local mayor said: "Hakone is forever connected to its volcanic activity. It was born out of that, it lives off it and it suffers of it." Same can be said of Japan at large.

It was red hot and rocking also on April 24 at the first ever Slush Asia in Odaiba - according those who managed to get a ticket to the sold-out event. As the format for promoting young entrepreneurs and presenting their start-ups as a rock concert originated in Finland and was brought here by Rovio and Supercell and their Japanese partners, you can say it was the biggest ever Finnish business event here. Or was it rather the biggest selling Finnish rock event since Mike Monroe played Tokyo Dome some 20 years ago? Highly popular Sonata Arctica plays clearly smaller venue here this month.

Slush could not land to better ground in better time: whole Japan is right now looking for new ways to get back its free spirit, shake the old establishment and untie the multiple rules and regulations which hold back new business development. Hence the enthusiastic reception from the young business and big support even from big old "stale" corporate names: in just 3 months the arrangers managed to collect EUR 7 million sponsorship money. With Softbank and Gung Ho in the front and DeNa, Line, Rakuten, other recent successes behind, even "oldies" like Toyota, NTT and KDDI would listen, so the result was guaranteed.

In fact, a wide start-up movement is already well on its way, according to Taizo Son, Gung Ho chairman and owner of countless other new venture support companies, who presided a press event to international media together with Antti Sonninen, ex-Rovio Japan, now Slush Asia CEO. He is also younger brother of Masayoshi Son, the Softbank chairman, Japan's richest man, who has vowed to change Japan, the business and the society. According to Mr. Son, Japan is now ripe for new wave of young venture capitalism with plenty of innovative products, good business understanding and sufficient private investment support, all separate from the old establishment. In fact, he said, the "New Japan" wave is already so big that during January-March new company IPO's reached to same level as USA (25) and are expected to reach record level 130 this year. His own "seed accelerator" company has groomed as many as 200 new companies under its wings. His old university, University of Tokyo, Japan's No.1 and the foremost fortress of traditional establishment, has today a high number of new start-ups and venture funds on its main campus "with amazing technologies", Son-san told us.

That the ongoing change from "old" to "new" is supported from the very top, was evident in Prime Minister concluding his US visit by calling in at Silicon Valley and asking for its citizens' support for Japan on its way to better, younger and more innovative future. While co-operation with the world's brightest innovators is naturally welcome and recommended for young Japanese start-ups, the most essential support, however, must come from the government and the bureaucracy in wiping away old rules that prevent innovations to spread to the society. A good example of this was given by Mr. Son: a new easy-operated motorized wheelchair prototype cannot proceed to the market as Health Ministry rules say a wheelchair must have handles in its wheels to push it on!

If the Silicon Valley visit was PR exercise, the Washington part of the Prime Minister's US itinerary was serious business with good results. While an accord on the TPP trade deal is still a few steps off, the new US-Japan defense co-operation rules were confirmed and Abe's speech in the Congress was warmly received with several standing ovations. No wonder as, if you read through the speech, it was well written to please the Americans and so were most of the other things that Abe-san said. President Obama, too, seemed pretty happy with his guest, who could even quote US pop songs from their youth to describe the close relation between the two countries. Or was it comparing drones landing recently on their official residences that made them smile? In that case, if I was Mr. Abe, I would not laugh it off that easily: while the US intruder was caught in a matter of minutes, it took two weeks from Japan PM security staff to even find that there was a drone on the residence roof with a small radioactive capsule carrying it to protest nuclear restarts on top of it all.

As often, some of Abe's promises were "too good to be perfectly true yet" as the defense legislation has not yet been finalized in the Diet and Okinawans stand against the US base relocation plan. In other words, it was a bit like his famous "Fukushima is fully under control" in Buenos Aires IOC meeting two years ago. This time, however, the Diet is fully under government parties' control so, at the end, it will be a simple count of votes and there is no technological complexities involved nor obstinate TEPCO to run its own show as in Fukushima.

That Abe's US visit was a success did not go unnoticed by the neighbors. There was no precise criticism from China this time for his missing out the traditional key words of apology in his speech, a delicate sign that the relation is starting getting better as economic concerns in China start to overrule the pompous nationalistic politics. In contrast, Koreans tried their best to ruin the Abe visit with their usual highlight on "comfort women" issue, but overwhelmed by the positive US reception that Abe received, the Park government, highly unpopular at home with continuous scandals and already into its fifth (!) prime minister in just 2,5 years, is said to already reconsider if not there are other important things to talk with Japan than the one and same issue. Like many other foreign observers, I am disturbed by Abe-san's efforts to avoid and deny the issue, but equally fed up with the same scratching record playing the same old Korean melody.

Japan's conservatives faced their own controversy of men and women and sex, albeit much smaller, in the second round of community elections that included new mayors for half of Tokyo's 23 wards. As the outgoing mayor of Shibuya had pulled through the Ward Assembly that same-sex "married" couples would be treated equally with "normal" married couples in community services like public housing etc, the conservative opposition vowed to overturn this in the election for new mayor. The usual right wing NGO's told us that this move in little Shibuya would "undermine the family system and long-time practice in human history" as well as destroy the national economy by making Japan's falling birth rate even worse. No less than the party secretary of LDP, the always reliable Mr. Tanigaki, was brought to Shibuya to tell how concerned he was that "changing the current family model" would affect "the very foundation of our society's system and order".

For the actual mayor election, LDP and Komeito brought up Mrs.Murakami, one ex-mayor's 59 year old daughter and a Tokyo City Assembly member, hence supposedly well known for the concerned voters. Yet, the 200,000 Shibuya voters overwhelmingly elected Ken Hasebe, 43 year old ex-advertising guy and leader of Greenbird NGO, who promised to hold up the newly adopted social policy in the Ward. Now please check out for signs of end to Japan's civic society every time when you visit Shibuya's sprawling crossing

In comparison to this one exceptional special issue, all other Tokyo ward mayor elections were the usual bland affairs with no issues debated and old men up in their 70's re-elected for umpteenth time. The champion of this "race" was the 81 year old mayor elected for seventh time in Kita Ward.

That old people vote for old people and the overall rates stay low if young people don't bother voting is all natural, but what do you do when there is not even candidates? Half of Japan's over 800 municipalities face such decline in population that in 30 years they will have less than half of today's population left and most of those left will be old. The apathy is already evident in many places with only one candidate for local mayor, so whoever stepped up won by default. One happy exception was a small village in faraway Hokkaido, which had its first multi candidate election in 44 years. As result, the voter interest ran so high that the voting rate turned over 90 pct - among the 100 inhabitants.

The British parliament election ended up with unexpected result even if one part turned out as expected. Scottish National Party took almost all seats in Scotland and as most of them came off Labor, it stopped the opposition ever getting off to challenge the ruling Conservatives as everyone expected from the advance polls. When the UK Independence Party's anti-EU propaganda, so popular in polls, also failed to gain but one MP seat, PM Cameron's party gained so many that it will have the majority in the new Parliament on its own. With no need for coalition with Liberals any more, Conservatives can rule by themselves and Britain is back to its old two-party system with Scottish independence seekers now the third biggest party in the kingdom.

What all this means for Britain's European dilemma, to stay in EU or not, as well as for Scotland's independence plans, remains to be seen. My hunch is that, if Cameron really wants to stay in EU, he can work out with Brussel's bureaucrats some sort of package of imaginary changes that British voters will buy in the promised national poll in 2017. The Scots, meanwhile, can expect Cameron to continue to butter them up to stay in UK, yet there is growing grumbling among the English that they are getting "best of the both worlds" and should be barred from voting in matters relating to England only, just as the English have no say in Scotland's self-rule.

The news from Finland is that the three biggest parties, the big winning Center, the earlier leader Conservatives and the Finns, who held their own, will form the next government leaving SocDems in opposition together with Far Left and Greens. It will be the first time in government for the Finns and it remains to be seen how responsibly they will take their new role. The estimates are that the talks on mutually agreeable agenda and who gets what minister seat will take many more weeks, but already now the media has dubbed the new line-up "SSS" as all party leaders' family name starts with that letter. Luckily there's more than two "S" as otherwise our wily Eastern neighbors could claim in their ever growing propaganda that "Nazis" have taken over also Finland, not just Ukraine. They already sent a submarine to Finnish waters to remind the new government "Hey, whatever you do, keep us in mind". Unlike in Sweden, where similar event similarly soon after local elections last year caused again frantic search for weeks, the intruder to Finland was quickly found out and warned to leave with a few small depth charges.

Missiles and tanks rumbled through the Red Square again on May 9, when Russia celebrated its victory in "Great Patriotic War" while the rest of Europe was celebrating "Europe Day". True to old Soviet line, President Putin told the world how Russia had beaten the Nazis with great sacrifice and "saved the civilized world". He managed to add that also USA, Great Britain and France had participated in the effort. Not unexpectedly, none of the old allies were present in the celebrations nor was any other Western country including Finland and Japan. The only ears present in the podium listening to Putin belonged to Russia's Soviet time friends like China, North Korea, Mongolia, Serbia, India, Cuba and Venezuela. The latter had even sent a company of its own to participate in the "goose step" boot stomping. Maybe that helped to boost the credibility for the Russians, for whom the whole spectacle was targeted in the first place.

The always bored looking Mr. Xi must have been thinking whether his own parade planned for September - "so big that Japan will be shaking" - will be as poorly attended by foreign dignitaries and troops that he has invited to join. Most Western leaders know just too well that there, too, it's mainly propaganda event for the hosts, not genuine memory of war. Even "province" Taiwan has refused to join opting to arrange its own parade where it has invited Japanese veterans to join. After what happened in Hong Kong, the islanders know too well what is waiting for them if they give in too much. In fact, the Taiwan voters seem to think the current Kuomintang rule has been too accommodating and will change the ruling party back to Democrats in next year's president election.

Among the scholars, there is growing recognition for "history politics", ie how history is being misused by political leaders twisting the past to their benefit today. It is sad that this is more evident than ever with all these events that are supposed to be solemn reminiscence of the unfortunate past, suffering and sacrifice 70 years ago.

Timo Varhama  
Tokyo, May 11, 2015   


Previous Columns

22 April 2015
Elections, Elections - Finland, Japan, Around the World

30 March 2015
Sakura: beautiful, but just for a short, fleeting moment

16 March 2015
Better late than never - Japan moves slowly

2 March 2015
Three struck out, three more in doubt - Abe's ministers under attack again

19 February 2015
Spring, Sibelius, Chocolate, Budget and Big, Bad Putin

5 February 2015
Reform Work Starts - Energy, Farming and Food on Wish List

26 January 2015
Terror strikes, plenty work, sad memories wait

15 January 2015
Watching AKB, Eating Mochi, Spending JPY 96 Trillion - Japan Off to Better 2015 After So-So 2014



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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