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 Showdown in Singapore, commotion in Canada and cover-ups in Tokyo

Attending the 24th JMEC Award Ceremony last week was like a blow of fresh wind from the stale smell of recent politics, global as well as domestic. There was plenty of young spirit, fresh faces and excitement which business plan for Japan market entry - or market expansion - from the 13 teams of young business people would win the first prize - trip to any destination in Europe to all members from Finnair.

Details on winners and subjects will be published on FCCJ home page later, just take a note here that another 61 young men and women, Japanese and foreign alike, "graduated" from this course to join the ranks of over 1000 other business executives from the 23 earlier ones of this highly practical "mini-MBA" organized jointly by 18 national chambers of commerce. Many of them hold now key positions at successful international companies in Japan or in Japanese companies carving out business in their home countries.

It's nice to think that there's new, better trained young business executives to take over from us old as much as it's a good feeling to be involved in giving back to them something from our own experience. Thanks to Finnair and other sponsors and thanks to 28 lecturers and 36 mentors and consultants, who gave their time again for this special joint effort.

As already catalogued in previous columns, the recent news in Japan and around the world have really not been something to lift up your spirits. In the domestic moral front, we now got another big national company, Ube Industries, telling us that an internal probe found it "might have been" conducting improper quality checks ever since the 70's. Outside inspectors showed lax quality checks on 24 separate products at six of the group's many subsidiaries including polyethylene and concrete shipped to 113 client companies. In already familiar pattern, the top management will take some small pay cuts "to show responsibility" and set up "a quality control monitoring committee" to prevent similar problems in future. That's it. Consider it all done.

Following up an earlier, even bigger case with Kobe Steel, whose sub-standard products were used for cars, airplanes and many other things in more than 500 client companies raising serious safety concerns, yet all involved claiming "no problem", the public prosecutors last week finally raided the company Head Office. The move came six months late making it sure that all evidence had been destroyed and it was not initiated by court or complaints from customers or consumers in Japan, but from US consumers who raised a joint challenge against Toyota using Kobe products in its cars on sale there. Shows again that the measures to counter companies, who don't follow rules and standards, are rather different elsewhere.

In politics, prosecutors decided they had "no evidence" to indict the Finance Ministry official who organized the destruction and doctoring of official documents as well as gave false statement on the two Abe school cases in the Parliament. After long consideration Finance Minister Aso himself agreed to punish the main culprit and other officials involved with small cuts to salary and pension. As well, Aso admitted his own responsibility as leader by "voluntarily" cancelling his own salary for one year. We all know that JPY 30 million (USD 300,000) is just "taxi money" for the millionaire Aso, yet it is supposed to pay the way for his buddy Abe to claim his scandals have now been dealt with and it's time to move on. Next target: Abe's re-election to continue lead LDP supported by Aso faction votes in addition to his own. Just like that. All clear now. The other LDP leader candidates are unlikely publicly criticize their colleagues. Yet, don't expect opposition parties to give up on their rare opportunity to bounce on PM on the two cases. It gives their feeble voices much bigger pondus than they would get on other, truly policy related merits.

As many observers have pointed out, it's sad that Japan's politics have sunken this low: all debate in Diet on real policy issues is overwhelmed by such personal issues. That's what you get when you have a weak opposition, who has no well formulated alternatives to offer against government policies and when you give parliament sessions overly central stage in the policy making process. Live broadcasts of the daily debates on national television give every little provincial MP a golden moment to shine and challenge Prime Minister himself face-to-face in front of nationwide audience. It gives a feeling of power to their own voters, especially the old retired people, who have time to watch day-time TV and who vote most actively. If only it would be about real policy issues.

When you look at it and think of it, it's so out-of-proportion to have PM and his ministers sitting there hours on looking bored and giving back snappy answers written by their underlings all the time knowing well that all the fiery speeches have little effect on actual policymaking which is based on LDP's overwhelming majority. PM and his ministers could use their time more efficiently doing something else – as they do in other countries. Comparisons show that Japan PM attends parliamentary sessions 100 hours in a season while his British counterpart attends 40, German 10 and US president hardly ever. As foreign embassies know too well: it's almost impossible to make any advance appointment for their visiting leaders with Japanese ministers when the Diet is in session as the ministers must get there anytime an issue relating to their ministry comes up on daily agenda.

The US model might be the other extreme: never attending the parliamentary proceedings the latest president there stands up rather as a warning example for not listening to people's representants from all sides and instead using excessively his executive power that is surprisingly wide in foreign politics including trade and war. For all the damage that Trump has already done on that front, we would have been better off if he had been compelled to sit at Capitol Hill and listen to all kinds of personal attacks like Japan PM.

Trump actually seem to cherish his new role as The Chief Destroyer, breaker of international treaties, old alliances and the entire post-war liberal global system that US itself founded and has greatly benefitted from – in the beginning it was enough for him to destroy all unity among his own people. Following last week's G7 meeting in Canada it looks like things will only get worse for the Western democracies including Japan, the traditional US allies, while Trump is doubling up his weird affection to powerful leaders of undemocratic forces like Putin and Xi – now even Kim. Trump's defiant behavior in Canada was reminiscent of a stubborn child refusing to listen to reason from his elders. The photo showing him facing defiantly at Merkel became an instant hit in social media and immediately created many more made-up versions.

The whole world is now excitedly waiting to watch tomorrow's global television spectacle from Singapore where Trump will perform The Shining Knight against his Darth Vader. Dubbed in advance "World Peace" by US – a more grandious choice than, "Thrilla in Manilla", "Chore in S'pore" or Road to Nobel – it looks instead "Dream Come True" or "Our Man Kim" for the North Korean audience. Before his last-minute return to old threats to walk out if Kim does not fall on his knees and ask for mercy, the US president seemed to have given up his previously clamored demands for "immediate "complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization" or CVID from North and instead accept reality that if there will be any agreement on that front, it will be a long process. (Experts say it could take upto 15 years to have North's nuclear industry complex fully and verifiably stripped.) Earlier talk of "maximum pressure" until all weapons have been cleared was also gone in return for Kim just accepting to meet him. Other big boasts and promises to achieve surrender of ALL missiles and North's huge cache of poison gases – even ensuring return of Japanese abductees "for my friend Abe" – look unlikely to weigh on Trump's agenda either. Instead, Trump has been talking about "long process to build up a good personal relation" with Kim, which "will make North rich and prosperous". Where the money for that would come, is the role of South Korea, China and Japan in Trump's plans.

Then again who knows what will happen? Making a full 180 degree turn from his earlier boasts is nothing new from this man and neither is it when he turns back again. He says himself it all depends on his gut feeling at the moment of first handshake. As always, he will claim afterwards he never said any of the things we heard. For Trump, the important thing is to always look a winner and if the reality does not fit into that, he will create his own "alternative reality" where he always is the winner.

When this unpredictable, self-conscious man and the other calculating, but equally self-conscious man meet tomorrow, anything might happen. Somehow I believe that Kim will prove the better actor of the two and control the talks at the end. After all, he wrote the script for the series of the events that have led to this final showdown between the main characters. On the way, Kim has staged an incredible shift into his own global image from a madman terrorizing the whole world with nuclear bomb to socially pleasant young statesman and family man, probably the most striking transformation in modern diplomatic history. Moreover, he has already achieved his main target: to have a meeting with US president as equal country leaders. As well, unless Trump really walks out on him, North Korea is highly likely to get relief from the sanctions that stand on way to Kim's promises for better life to his people after first reaching the first stage, the glory of invincible power with nuclear weapons.

Trump might be saying he can go back to "maximum pressure" if he does not get what he wants, but it looks unlikely that China, who stands for 90% of that action, would continue to support it any more. China helped to arrange this opportunity for Trump to strike a deal and get his name to world history, but the entire Northeast China is burning for the opportunity to resume the lucrative trade and economic co-operation with North across the river. As powerful as he is, Xi probably cannot hold them back any more. Moreover, China would be more than happy if the talks lead to US troops withdrawal from its neighborhood. Success in removing North's military threat on South with long lost peace treaty but without unification with South could mean that. Unification with possibility of US troops at its own border is the nightmare of Beijing.

In fact, while Trump will be demanding his CVID, Kim will be demanding from Trump his own CVIG, a "complete, verifiable and irreversible guarantee" for North Korea's security. Removal or reduction of US armed forces in South Korea in order to "create friendly atmosphere" will definitely be one demand. Some commentators worry Trump could give away even US military presence in Japan and the nuclear umbrella for the entire region, if only Kim will be bold enough to demand that. After all, "bringing the boys home" from anywhere overseas has long been one of Trump's populist claims to raise popularity with voters at home. What looks clear is that North Korea will become an acknowledged nuclear power, who will discuss disarmament with US and other members of the nuclear club from equal position on mutual terms.

The final proof of the cake is in the eating, they say, and with the two main actors both clamoring to win the PR battle we will not know for sure until the show is over. Yet, it's likely that the regional geopolitics around Japan will look different after June 12. No wonder, worries are high here and so is the media interest: NHK alone has reportedly sent 100 staff to Singapore to cover every word and every move of the spectacle. Maybe some of Dennis Rodman's, too

Timo Varhama  
Tokyo, May 28, 2018  

Previous Columns

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 "

20 December 2017
"Look back at 2017: commotion around Japan, but steady and safe here"

11 December 2017
"Missiles, footballers and fishermen from North - Big spending on child care to get more mothers working"

28 November 2017
"Foolish things sell in retail, but sports are to be serious"

20 November 2017
"Making China Great - with Gaffes, Platitudes and Bullying"

10 November 2017
"Good news week: Finland business grows, EU trade deal gets cleared, Nikkei hits new heights and Trump visit goes smoothly"

20 November 2017
"Making China Great - with Gaffes, Platitudes and Bullying"

1 November 2017
"Japan: Endless Discovery"

21 October 2017
"Power play in Japan and elsewhere - some potentially serious, some not"

10 October 2017
"Abe's useless snap election sparks big changes he did not count on"

26 September 2017
"North Korea boost Abe popularity - opportunity to extend his rule"

7 September 2017
"Kims'allah, Japan is OK and doing well"

28 August 2017
"From North Korea's missiles to Turku Terror and US Navy Mishaps"

17 August 2017
"Raining cats and dogs, missiles and threats, but strong sunshine in economy"

27 July 2017
"Forests, floods, fish and consumer prices - stories too good and data too bad to be true"

21 July 2017
"From Cool Finland to Hot Tokyo: A Round-Up of Recent Happenings"

26 June 2017
"Anniversaries and Memories: Finland, Japan, USA."

19 June 2017
"Rainy Season in Japan, Political Storms in Europe"

8 June 2017
"Trump impact spreads - Japan struggles with workforce issues"

30 May 2017
"Taormina to Tokyo: Heavyweights and fashionable ladies"

"New Missiles, Diet Debates, Yet Big Business in Big Profits - Down on Ground Challenges Remain Basic and Simple"

9 May 2017
"Golden Week, Special Trains, Luxury Spending, Even North Worries Makes for Good Business"

20 April 2017
"North Korea, USA both worry Japan - Koike worry Abe and LDP even more"

5 April 2017
"Spring, Sakura and New Year Start in Japan - Commotion, Tensions Rise Around the World"

27 March 2017
"Questions Unanswered, Unasked – Lifestyle and Surveys Bring Light"

21 March 2017
"Finland in Focus: Friendship, Dictionary, Music, Food - Even Elevators?"

13 March 2017
"Uncertainty Increases Around Japan - At Home Rebuilding Uncompleted in 6 Years - Abe Popularity Takes a Hit."

3 March 2017
"Book Readers, Police Jokes, Nerdy Napoleon and Poison Scare"

24 February 2017
"Populism, Ignorance and Isolationism Leads to Mayhem and Mess"

16 February 2017
"Golf Diplomacy, Chocolate Festa and Hokkaido Deams-Come-True"

9 February 2017
"Tokyo overcoming winter, business changes, political battle and Trump threats "

2 February 2017
"Warm Feelings in Japan, Wild Winds from USA"

20 January 2017
"Ready for Rooster? It will be a wild ride!"

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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