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 AOYAMA VIEW

 TRUMP UNCHAINED AND ABELYMPICS – CAN PM MAKE THE PARTY?

Sakura was in full bloom on Sunday, sun was shining and big crowds of people were out enjoying. Spring is here and there was good news from Finland, too. Yet cold winds are blowing now from Washington and financial markets took quite a dip end last week.

It's just 2.5 years to go to Tokyo Olympics or "Abelympics" as bad mouths call them based on how much personal effort and political weight Prime Minister put into getting the games and keeps talking up expectations for Japan economy and country's stature from the games. Surely his dream has all along also been hosting all the world leaders in his own VIP box. How ironic then that Abe might not be around to do that if he cannot manage to wriggle his way out of the school scandal that has come back to haunt him. His popularity has sank back to lows where it was last summer when the same heat was on before he managed to stage an amazing comeback and election win.

Abe and his sidekick Aso are trying to get away with old line that selling the government property at 90% rebate and doctoring documents afterwards was all bureaucrats' own work by "sontaku". We learned that magic word last year: it translates roughly "taking action or decision based on what you think your boss would like without specific order or instruction from him". Land Ministry's key man, supposedly in charge and fired for it, is summoned into Diet this week as sworn witness. Another one in Osaka, who did the actual work, is out of investigation's reach by his own hand: a suicide. In Aoyama View, politicians' responsibility for that human life should weigh even more in the debate than whatever Mr. Sagawa will tell to the Parliament on Friday.

Anyway, it's great to see that not only opposition parties, but entire Japanese public still react strongly for hints of dishonesty and favoritism to friends, even wife's friends. In some other countries, leaders can put money in their own pocket or business unhinged and promote family members to positions where they can better forward their business, too.

OLYMPIC PREPARATIONS
Abelympics or not, the preparations on the 2020 Olympics are proceeding fine and the powerful Japan Inc is well on board. The corporate advertising money from local companies is by far the highest ever, contracts to build new 5G mobile networks have been signed – Nokia got the first one! - and tests for self-driving buses and taxis have started. Kuma-san's "wooden wonder" stadium has reached full height already and other venues are being finalized. Official mascots have been selected through vote by school children and collection of old mobile phones is on way to recycle their precious metals into Olympic medals.

All kind of industries plan to shine out for the expected 40 million tourists, world media and global TV audience; it's not just hotels, restaurants and retailers preparing for windfall profits. Japanese condom makers, too, say they plan to impress the visitors with their high quality products to grab back the world top spot they once had. Just 0.1 mm thick, yet stand for 100,000 thrusts(!) should be good enough even for the most energetic athletes. Usain Bolt won't be around anymore as competitor, so he could make a great advertising spokesman. Think it would combine well with his current job for Mumm champagne!

Not everything is hi-tech. While almost every home here has its toilet equipped with all kind of gadgets and these pieces of engineering comfort are common in most hotels and restaurants as well, a recent survey showed that 40% of Tokyo's public toilets are still definitely of old squatting style. Pledges were immediately made by city officials that this would be fixed in time for the games. Another example of the economic value creation by the Olympics that Abe keeps talking about, I guess, and a lasting improvement for us Tokyoites. Don't know about all tourists, though, as many complain they cannot well understand how these hi-tech wonders work. Believe some of them would actually prefer the old squatting style like they have at home.

NEW TAXIS FINALLY
Before self-driving taxis, the 40 year old taxi models are being finally renewed, too. Some time back we got number of Prius hybrids for better economy and emission reduction from old LNG engines, then big spacy wagons with sliding doors to fit in Chinese tourists often travelling in 4-6 person family groups. You see many examples of the latter parked in Ginza while their customers are shopping in the glitzy luxury shops there. The wagons include Nissan N.200 that was selected the new standard Yellow Taxi in New York City some years back. Now we are seeing London taxi types, too, by Toyota. They are normal size cars but sure look like their paragons: same high roof and and black color, yet sliding doors and smaller. Seems they are increasing numbers as quickly as factory can turn them out.

With over 100,000 taxis cruising the streets here you seldom need to pre-order a taxi, so no wonder many of them lack modern communication systems for that. Now they, too, seem to be coming in with the biggest operator NK starting installations and others like Daiwa starting tests. For the same reason Uber hasn't got any foothold here, yet that was expected to change when Softbank became its biggest shareholder. However, it's a shareholder also in Didi, Uber's Chinese competitor, and that looks like Softbank's preferred alternative for Japan. For most of us, though, the most remarkable change has been the deregulatory decision to cut the flag-off fee by 50% - it really makes the usual short taxi trips from closest station to your final address much more economical. It would be nice to see such cut happen also in Helsinki where starting fee is almost astronomical and cars all high-class MB's and BMW's, yet quality of drivers has fallen rapidly.

GOOD NEWS FROM FINLAND
Reading Finnish news and listening to my friends' complaints on taxis, metro and many other things that are wrong there, it must have been a surprise to many that an international survey selected Finland as the happiest country in the world. Maybe whining of this and that is just part of Finnish character. Japan came in No.51 just behind Russia and Italy narrowly beating South Korea (56th) and China (79th): we know Japanese people rarely say anything is extra good or extra bad.

One friend pointed out a possible reason for Finland's unexpected triumph: the survey was taken just one month after the new law allowing sales of stronger beer and "lonkero" (chuhai) in the supermarkets took effect. That historical (!) change came after months of heated debate in Finnish parliament - it seemed more difficult than the drive to change the Constitution here! Looking at the wide selection of drinks in my supermarket – including countless brands of beer and chuhai at any strenght betwen 0 and 9% - is a reminder of how we just cannot appreciate the simple freedoms that we have.

Japan ended up even worse in a survey for women's participation in politics at No. 158, the very last among major economies, well beaten by China (71st) and Korea (116th) this time. Looking at male MP's wrangling in television of this and that, then at Japanese ladies, young and old, enjoying sakura around town yesterday, I well understand the ladies' choice. Finland did not win in this survey either as the top spots went to Ruanda, Bolivia and Nicaragua. Good luck to all ladies there!

TRUMP UNCHAINED
The big move in world politics last week was, of course, US president's second shot in his "good and easy" trade wars by threatening China with assorted import tariffs if the country does not stop its IP theft from US companies. The global equity markets took a big dip and USD value declined as investors hankered down for big fight between the two giants.

There's 30 days to clear the issue up, but China seems ready to throw off the gloves. It gave its own warning shot by announcing higher tariffs for selected US agri products to compensate for Trump's new steel tariffs the week before. Their impact on China is miniscule, but the newly "elected" lifetime dictator cannot afford to look weak in front of his domestic audience after all his preaching of new, strong China taking its rightful place as the new world leader.

Meanwhile, the US presidential whim added EU and Korea to those relieved from his steel tariffs leaving Japan alone of all allies to take the rap. It's his way to force Japan to bilateral trade talks that target to somehow eliminate the traditional gap US always had – a bit like the grim SS officer in old American movies, who always says "Vee haff veis to make u talk vizz us". Abe-san must now gather all his imagination to escape that and explain us how his golf buddy dumped him several times in two weeks. Like he didn't have problems enough already.

Aoyama View on Trump's China move is that this time the cause is just and the target is right, but cannot understand why US goes out to fight alone without trying to get the rest of the world to join in. China's technology transfer demands are clearly criminal and companies from all countries suffer of them equally. Surely Japan and EU would have joined in for a well-organized mutual front and that would have diminished China's capability for revenge. Facing only US makes it so much easier for China to fire back and play other countries to its benefit. Guess the answer "why" is clear: it's simply Trump's incapability to think in terms of alliances beyond American borders and his self-loving belief that USA – in his own almighty person - can handle anything alone.

It looks like after one year of being held back from the worst moves by knowledgeable advisors, Trump enters his second year on power high with nothing holding him back anymore – it's "Trump Unchained" now to quote the Tarantino movie. The Big Boy has one by one thrown out the adults, goldmans and generals, who were supposed to watch over the kindergarten that he collected in the White House. The "Committee to Save America" as someone put it, is now disbanded with "Mad Dog" as the last man standing and substituted by new findings from Trump's close supporters, his favorite Fox News, even from internet. I don't make this up: the new economic advisor Peter Navarro was found on Google when Jared Kushner, the newly appointed "Senior Advisor", was looking up for what is "trade" and found his book with appealing title "Death by China". Navarro's old time mercantilist thinking matches perfectly Trump's.

The new security advisor John Bolton, a notorious hawk that looks like Asterix without his winged helmet and was once sacked by the previous government from his UN post for making enemies of most others nations, got Trump's nod by writing in Wall Street Journal how striking North Korea first is perfectly legitimate. Bolton's thinking not only matches Trump's but exceeds him – someone called it "America First on Steroids". In his world, international rules don't apply to USA, who can solve all matters by sheer force – for him attacking Iraq was right and successful move and now it's time to scrap the Iran deal immediately. His advice to Trump for the forthcoming North Korea meeting: make it short and just ask if Kim has already started scrapping his bombs and missiles – if not, say you gotta go back home to kick start the "other alternative". Once again, I wish I was making this up.

Looks like we're in for some turbulent times. Sure hope it will not end like the Tarantino movie: a gory blood bath.

Timo Varhama  
Tokyo, March 26, 2018  


Previous Columns

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

5 March 2018
"WHILE WE WERE WATCHING OLYMPICS..."

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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