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 AOYAMA VIEW

 Political spectacle approaches grand finale
- people's trust sinking ever lower

There's been no end in constant row of mismanagement scandals at various ministries over the past few weeks. Documents have been lost and found again miraculously, some from way past years. Following several scandals in corporate sector with quality control earlier and all of us knowing a thing or two about Japanese politicians, the evident exposure of moral collapse among the venerable government officials completes the triumvirate of power in Japan.

Some cases have touches of tragicomedy. In corporate sector, one was a subsidiary of Mitsubishi Materials that was found out to have supplied out-of-spec products to over 500 industrial customers – including famous ones like Toyota cars and Mitsubishi Heavy airplanes – for more than 20 years under willful orders of local management. Following corporate CEO's profound apologies, exposure of all details and assurances that the factory and its process were back in top management's control, it was found few months later that the local boss was still in charge and continued the same abusive practice. We Finns could enjoy even more laughs when we learned that the irremediable factory was located in a place called Moka ("mishap" or "muck up" in Finnish).

Defense Ministry has now provided us with equally hilarious story of complete mismanagement of its documents relating to SDF mission sent to build roads and other infrastructure in South Sudan some years back. Two years ago documents that could have proved the unit had been exposed to some firing – a complete No-No situation for pacifistic Japan's military! – were miraculously lost and this caused that time Defense Minister to be exchanged to new one who promised to put things under better control. He ordered his staff to keep searching for the papers and some weeks ago he proudly announced they had been finally found. However, his glory turned into embarrassment when it was revealed that the doc's had been actually found already last year – the ministry officials just did not bother to tell about it to their boss despite his explicit order. A man in charge indeed!

It's been much the same story with notes and documents covering Moritomo Gakuen and Kake College - sale of public land at heavily rebated price to a new primary school and allowing license to a new veterinary college despite general ban against any new one - both projects related to people close to Prime Minister. Papers have been claimed lost, then found, some in original, some in heavily doctored form, some at ministries, some in local town halls and prefectural governments. Officials called to testify in Parliament didn't recall meetings mentioned in documents "as far as they remember" and a Finance Ministry top guy resigned to avoid further questioning, yet looks likely to be prosecuted.

Topping the government officials' disgrace, we got resignation of second Finance Ministry high official for his sexual harassment of female reporters. To make things worse, well known politicians belittled the case with Aso, the minister in charge, saying the resignation was "regrettable as nothing had been proved" and another LDP old wig telling us that "complaining of such small things is almost criminal".

Officialdom running wild and political leaders, who should control them, making only excuses, Abe government's popularity keeps sinking. PM's second trip to Trump's lair in Florida last week did not look successful enough to stop the decline. Sure, he got US president's promise he will take up Japanese abductees issue with Kim – most important for Abe! - as well as promise that North's short and medium range missiles will be banished, too, not only ICBM's that threaten USA. Afterwards we heard that in his magnanimity Trump will also ban North's big stocks of poison gases and germs that pose bigger threat to Japan and Korea than nuclear weapons. So it's a complete list of all WMD's on The Peacemaker's agenda – still remember that word from Iraq times? The difference is that back then Hussein didn't have them, but this time Kim really has.

Problem for Abe is that few people here believe all this theatrical play.

In fact, Japanese people's trust on government, business and media has never been very high and keeps declining. Global PR agency Edelman's worldwide "trust barometer", a survey of public opinion in major countries - taken BEFORE the latest events - show that Japanese public's trust in government had declined 6 points to 37%, trust in business 3 points down to 42% and trust on media 8 points down to 32%. It's a sign of changing times, too, that people's trust on NGO's beats all institutions at 46%. Among major countries only USA show worse decline in trust on public institutions and we all know why: trust on government fell there 30 points down to 33%! Despite similar big decline, Americans still trust more than Japanese on their media (42% down 22) and on business (54% down 20).

Not surprisingly, news of problems in Japan have been noted elsewhere, too, and traditionally high esteem for "Brand Japan" has declined in majority of 28 countries surveyed by Edelman. Yet trust on Japanese companies has stayed high and even improved in major markets like USA (54%), China (48%) and South Korea (44%). Maybe positive personal experience in practice still beats all negative news.

Japan's precarious situation is further challenged by world politics that move these days much faster than what Japan's political leaders - and this bi-weekly column - can keep up with. Partly it is the mercurial US president who changes tack day by day in just about every issue - and ventilates loud even when not doing anything - partly it is the steady flow of surprises that keep coming from North Korea's Young Leader. In contrast, to Trump's bumbling back and forth, Kim's moves appear to meticulously follow his own plan to get North Korea seen as a world player equal to USA and other major powers – with nuclear weapons or not. That's a tremendous upgrade from a hitherto rogue state and economic pariah and it looks like he's already half realized it.

It is clear it's Kim who leads building up to the meeting with Trump. After terrorizing the world with his missiles and bombs last years, there's hardly a day now he doesn't parade in world media as magnanimous statesman and generous host. First it was the Beijing visit to pose side by side with the world No.2 leader - together with wives like old family friends! - while setting up a mutual plan how to tackle USA. Just days after Kim hosted IOC chairman in Pyongyang, who came to thank Kim personally for sending his cheering crews to Korean Olympics and getting blessed with "kind" promise that North will do same for Tokyo 2020. Always thought it's a self-clear matter all countries attend Olympics for their sports and if they prefer boycott them for political reasons, one by North would have little importance for Tokyo.

Next in his PR campaign, Kim was the culture loving host for the South's K-pop delegation in Pyongyang's grand Opera House filled to the brim with party officials obediently cheering and waving flags for acts they would have been punished caught up listening just weeks before. To alleviate the cultural shock, the boy band in all white uniforms seemed to wear a bit less make-up than usual and the girl group had covered their usual skimpy outfits with overcoats, yet it was enough for cameras to catch the old geezers in audience gaping at them mouth open.

Last week Kim followed his play plan with well-timed new announcements how he is ready to give up this and that and asking nothing in return from Trump, even forsaking North's oldest basic demands for removal of US troops and nuclear umbrella from South. As he hasn't got Twitter account he relied again on South president Moon as his messenger boy to get his stories published and explained to White House, just like in his original campaign launch.

As a prelude to the much coveted Trump-Kim meet, Moon will meet Kim tomorrow at the famous border house, a scene of shoot out and dramatic escape just months ago. 3000 journalists from all over the world are accredited to report on it and even Pope read his blessings for the peace effort from his Vatican balcony. We'll see if Moon can come up with any initiative of his own or will it be the same "friendship" campaign without concrete steps possibly coupled with a new love letter to Trump. As a friendly gesture to Abe and following the US main actor's example, Moon has promised to take up the issue of Japanese abductees still held in North, something evidently more important for Abe politically than all missiles and bombs. For Korean people's sake, I hope he also takes up return of Korea's own abductees as they number many more than a few Japanese we keep hearing about constantly. Release of three Americans held in North will probably be Kim's "omiage" for the Trump meeting.

While ever smiling and polite towards North, Moon has acted viciously at home: previous president Park was sent to 24 years in prison in a live-tv show for helping her friend get USD 72 million worth donations from mega rich business conglomerates like Samsung and Lotte. In contrast, Samsung CEO who paid the money – just pocket cash for him and surely for something in return - was pardoned from his 5 years term. This hardly looks like the same Moon who got elected president last year with promise to finally put the "chaebols" in order, but let's not forget it was Moon who lost to Park in 2012 president election: revenge is sweet and traditional in Korean politics. Once on that path, Moon has also set up the previous president Lee indicted for his alleged offences. In turn, Lee was the one who indicted and drove the previous one, Roh Tae Woo, into suicide. As it happens, then Moon was close aide to Roh, so there's a whiff of old legend about 47 samurais revenging their master's death years after.

As Japan knows just too well, the old saying "let bygone be bygones" hardly applies in Korea, but this isn't just the usual tribalism that we are used to see there. It looks more like court marshalled executions after a civil war, something we Finns know a thing or two about. Happily, it was already 100 years ago.

There's been lots of speculation as to where the Trump-Kim meeting will take place. Looking for a neutral place, old favorites Stockholm, Helsinki and Switzerland have been proposed, but as one observer pointed out North Korea's old Tuplolevs don't fly that long and it would be demeaning for proud nation's leader to accept somebody else's Boeing or Airbus. As well, Kim's favorite train would take weeks to travel through Siberia. Beijing and Tokyo would be in his plane's reach but each disqualify for neutrality, so it must be another Asian city.

My quoted observer's proposal is Ulan Bator as Mongolia has maintained rather neutral stand to regional politics recently. Why not? Probably Kim's train would take not that long to there either and some traditional wrestling and horse riding could be included as entertainment. Japan could even send Hakuho and Kakuryu to show more style. If the talks would not proceed well, guests would be forced to drink local horse milk until they reach a compromise.

Now that would be real theatre worth of the two Big Negotiators!

Timo Varhama  
Tokyo, April 26, 2018  


Previous Columns

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
"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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