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Questions Unanswered, Unasked – Lifestyle and Surveys Bring Light
Always happy when Finnish business is actively making progress to engage with Japan, not just Finnish culture and Japanese friendship. This week we have third Slush Japan event for start-up ventures, even bigger and better than before. Two weeks ago a mission of Finnish bio-business start-ups gained much interest from Japanese contacts, not just here but in third countries. Similar Finnish initiatives will follow in car electronics, maritime, nuclear, bioenergy and wood construction sectors in coming months. New companies are also establishing operations here and new Japanese companies are investing in Finland. Meanwhile, Finnair will this summer become the biggest European airline in number of flights to Japan!

In Japan politics, Prime Minister is facing probably his biggest challenge during the four year rule. It's Osaka school master's word against Prime Minister's wife's word: did she give him money or not? Did she push Finance Ministry to the radical price cut for the new school's land deal? We'll see how the stories will sort out this week. What's clear is that PM's popularity has already taken quite a blow.

The officials say they cut the price by 90% to "avoid any government responsibility for the polluted waste in the soil". If so, you can ask how could they sell – and local government accept – such a waste dump to a buyer who planned to build an elementary school for children there? You can also ask what kind of parents were paying big money to have their children in same operator's kindergarten, who was teaching them superiority of ancient Japan, hate for "slimy lowlife" Chinese and Koreans and disciplined 3-5 year olds by not letting them to go toilet when nature called, shaming them to stand in front of class if "accident" then happened?

In Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly, questions to ex-Governor Ishihara of similar polluted land deal for the new fish market, went unanswered as well. The 83 year old "rojin", who was in charge of city budget as big as state budgets of Finland and Sweden put together, claimed he did not know anything of money matters as he left all negotiations to his underlings, who never reported him of any details. Instead he blamed the new Governor for all trouble and costs because she made too big fuss of the pollution findings and postponed the move to the new site. Few people bought that story: surveys show Governor Koike has 78% support from the voters and looks surefire bet to twist the Assembly majority from the old rulers to her own "school" in the forthcoming July election.

Back to cash: for many of us JPY 1 million (EUR 8300) sounds like plenty of it to walk around with, but I can tell you it fits in a rather small envelope. It also sounds strange that PM's wife would hand it out without any receipt or track of bank withdrawal and for government officials to take orders from PM's wife. Then again, she's known to have her own mind, often different from her husband's and, so far, many have liked her for that. It would be ironic if this would lead to demise of the popular PM, who was already getting close to clearing his rule all the way to 2020.

In Finland, it's very rare to carry much cash in wallet – "plastic burns" to pay even a cup of coffee. In USA, you are almost suspected for counterfeiting or money laundering for offering cash at shop counter. Yet, in Japan cash remains common. According latest data, the amount of cash in circulation in Japan is 19% of GDP in comparison to 5-10% in most other developed countries and just 1,7% in advanced Sweden. Not all people here have a credit card, bank withdrawals can still be made at counter and many prefer to use cash for daily shopping afraid they would spend too much with a card. Like me, you must have been held back long time at a supermarket counter when the old lady in front of you wish to dig up from her wallet exact coins for the JPY 4789 bill.

Japanese are also the biggest savers in the world: the latest data on private savings amounts to JPY 936 trillion (EUR 7,8 trillion), only a little less than the value of private homes and other assets. Total value of households' holdings at JPY 1,800 trillion (EUR 15 trillion) is almost double to government's outstanding bonds JPY 1,076 trillion (over 200% of GDP) that so many worry about. On top of the bank savings, many Japanese people keep cash at home "under futon" with total value probably up in trillions as well. This is even more likely today than before as you get practically no interest for depositing your money in bank. It is not rare to read that robbers got JPY 10 million cash breaking into some old couple's home or that a small shop owner was robbed carrying big cash to near-by bank's locker at the end of the day.

So the basic conditions are there for plenty cash around and JPY 1 million is not that much for an affluent lady or a politician, even a school master. It's not many years ago when Democratic Party power king Ichiro Ozawa had problems to explain where he had got the JPY 400 million in his office cash box that he had used to buy the neighboring parcel of land. As well, the Osaka school master probably has to explain now where he got the money to pay for his school building and land as "cheap" as it was. The alleged contribution from PM's wife was peanuts for his total cost.

Just when I claimed Japan usually does well in all kinds of international comparisons, new negative ones show up. Take the new World Happiness Index: top placings are again taken by small Nordic countries Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Finland plus Switzerland followed by Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Sweden. Japan comes in way behind at No.51, just a little bit ahead of Korea and China. Even USA, who's been in complete misery, economically raped and massacred by gangs and terrorists according to its new president, ranks at No.14, close to same as Germany and UK. Most of all, however, Japan's poor rating rating stands out when you think about afore mentioned private assets, well-functioning society, general standard of living, public safety and high employment in comparison to others. Are Japanese just more prone to complain than others? Maybe yes, but those of us who live here also know that when others worry of deteriorating sense of community, it is in many ways even too tight in Japan leaving little social space for individuality. Despite smiling faces, many are unhappy with work place and social pressures. Same for home: Japan divorce rate is traditionally low, but that does not mean that people are happy with their marriage. School kids are put under heavy pressure, too, for both studies and social relations. Bullying is so commonplace and violent that news of young children's suicides come at regular pace. Old people taking their lives make the news regularly, too.

Happily, the total number of suicides is down: "only" 21,897 took their lives last year, clearly less than over 30,000 each year during Japan's economic regression 1998-2011. In relation to total population this means 17 cases per 100,000 citizens, still very high in comparison to, for instance, USA at 13 and UK below 10. Finland, another suicide-prone country in the past, has now about same rate as USA with 731 cases last year. Data could be even worse in Japan: according to another survey 1 in 4 Japanese has considered committing suicide, a terrifying number. I shiver to think about it.

Government says it will put more effort to preventive work. It has plenty to do: only 7% people had ever heard there is a nationwide help phone service and only 5% of past such campaigns. Most overcame their bad thoughts by talking with family and friends or focusing on their hobbies. The human social network operated well in this case.

A young female advertising company worker's suicide last year led to much publicized campaign to limit overwork, yet at the end, there was no drastic change to overwork limits. Keidanren and Rengo, the biggest employer and employee unions, agreed that while "normally" work week is limited to 45 hours, companies can order staff "in specially busy times" to work 100 hours per month overtime in six months of the year. With 5 day work week, that means 5 hours per day constantly for one month, possibly for six months in row - about the same as led to the suicide of the young lady just out of top university. Ironically, it might be it was Dentsu, the company that caused her "karoshi" or death by overwork, who gained most, possibly billions of yen, of government's publicity campaign against excessive work.

Dentsu, who controls 60% of Japan's big advertising market, was probably the main beneficial also from the equally much publicized public campaign for "Premium Friday", another Abe daydream that companies would let staff out of door at 3 pm last Friday of each month so they could go out spending money for shopping and entertainment. TV was full of newscasts and chic adverts and trains were plastered with "Premium Friday" posters, but only a few companies ever followed it and economic data for last month showed no bump in spending.

Indeed, consumer spending continued to drag in February, yet happily exports took a big 11% step up thanks to China demand waking up. It was mainly crucial parts for China's big car production and its mobile phones, but it was plenty enough to give Japan its first monthly surplus with China since 2012 anti-Japan riots there as well as to lift Japan's total trade balance to its biggest surplus since 2010. This shows again how important Japan-China business relations are and how smooth political relations are needed to back them up. Last week, China state TV's malicious "name-and-shame" program wrongly claimed that Japanese companies were selling contaminated food products from Fukushima causing consumer panic that probably will show in future trade data. Japan Embassy's questions to the TV company went unanswered, of course, and any answers would not anyway correct the damage already done. Luckily food exports are miniscule in comparison to automotive and electronic parts.

China remains important for Japan exports and global business: while export volume to USA was again a bit bigger, it showed no growth as US car sales are now winding down following 3-4 good years. EU comes clearly as No.3 for Japan some 40% behind the two giants, but we can always hope the new FTA, once confirmed, will bring positive change to that.

Putting brakes on future exports is JPY's rise past two weeks despite US Fed interest hike that stretches the US-Japan interest difference further. It seems markets had consumed that move in advance as usual, however Fed is increasingly confident on further hikes this year, so USD should resume its rising curve. Share markets look more unstable: Nikkei has been in decline, as always, from rising yen and last week even Dow turned down with growing confusion in "Trumpolitics". For US stocks, however, a basic positive spin remains, while in Tokyo foreigners, who make most of the buying and selling here, seem to be all on way out now, so likelihood of any new rise in Nikkei looks distant.

The higher yen propelled Tokyo back up the ranks in another annual global survey: The Most Expensive City to Live. After topping the list for years, Tokyo dropped out of Top 10 with lower yen in 2013, but now rose back to No.4 behind Hong Kong, Singapore and Zurich with Osaka following just behind at No.5. Like Japan, Switzerland managed to have another city Geneve in Top 10 while Paris and Copenhagen added to Europe's 4/10 share in world's highest living costs against 5/10 for Asia, who add Seoul at No.6. New York was the only US city in Top 10 while declining currencies pushed London and Shanghai down the ranks.

All this according to The Economist with focus on expat life, something that do not necessarily apply to local people's life. In my experience, if you avoid expensive shops, restaurants and luxury apartments, you can live at reasonable cost in Tokyo. I certainly eat better and cheaper as well as travel cheaper by public transport here than in Helsinki. For travelers, even hotels are cheaper here once you move outside of the capital and Kyoto.

A fresh survey where Japan happily accepts to fall down the ranks comes from Korea: Japan is not any more Koreans' most hated country! Suddenly, the worst country in the world for the fiery Koreans is China, an earlier favorite for sharing historical grudge against Japan, but now despised for attacking Korea's missile defense arrangements, Korean business and Korean pop idols. Wonder which one was the worst crime?

To finish off, as always, sports and culture.

Spring sumo tournament had a fairy tale ending that pleased millions of Japanese: after perfect score until 12th day, then losing and hurting himself, the new Japanese Grand Champion Kisenosato collected himself and beat the rising young Mongolian star on the last day, not once but twice. The audience, biggest in long time, went wild and so did the whole nation: the old traditional sport, dominated by foreigners for past 20 years, is back now in a big way. You could see it well in television: not just big, enthusiastic crowd, but the amount of money spent on ring side advertising and thick wads of congratulatory envelopes full of cash. Bet the new "yokuzuna" received more "win" money every night than PM's wife allegedly gave away. None of the old three Mongolian champions did well – Hakuho even retired after first three rounds. We'll see if they can make come back when the tournament returns to Tokyo in May, but one thing is sure: the tickets will be hard to get!

As said last time, Sibelius has big following here. A concert at suburban Suginami Kokaido Hall on April 9 is a good example: it's all Japanese "Ainola Symphony Orchestra" conducted by Yuri Nitta playing seldom heard, rare pieces by Sibelius including two first time in Japan. Nitta-san has right credentials for this: after studying and working 10 years in Finland, she also doubles as the chairman of Japan Sibelius Society. It's important that support for Finnish classical music is not only based on star conductors and best orchestras from Finland visiting here, but nationwide grass roots activity like this.

Another kind of roots are displayed by Micke Bjorklof and Blue Strip, who play two gigs in Blue Mood Club in Hamarikyu on April 13-14, namely American blues that has wide following in Finland. Awarded in Finland as Best Blues Band in 2015 and for Best Blues Song in 2016, this band is a good exponent and world top level of the genre, tightly welded with 20 years together and now gigging around the world and recording with top producers in New Orleans, London etc. As an old blues fan from 50 years ago, I was well impressed listening to their latest CD recorded in Wales in same studio where Queen and Oasis did some of their best stuff. The songs are good, the band is incredibly tight and Micke's soulful vocals convincing, but the real star is guitarist Ville "Lefty" Leppanen, whose slide playing is simply overwhelming.

Come along to "Suomiblues Ilta" to cheer Micke, Lefty and the boys!

Timo Varhama  
Tokyo, March 27, 2017   

Previous Columns

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!"


17 December 2016

9 December 2016
"Finland independent with free word, good education - Japan and USA: Abe to Pearl, Son in Trump Tower"

4 December 2016
"Statistics, politics and plain bad management - difficulties to plough through it all "

24 November 2016
"TPP is dead – or is it? What comes next?"

14 November 2016
"US uproar shakes up the old world order, Korea in turmoil"

2 November 2016
"Showdown in U.S., Japan battles on"

25 October 2016
"Nobels, Narita and Niigata - Olympics and popularity politics"

26 September 2016
"In autumn downpours, Japan's wheels are slipping"

16 September 2016
"Moomins, Metsä, Mitsubishi and missiles - business, politics and sports"

6 September 2016
"Uunivited Guest Crashes the G20 Party"

31 August 2016
"It's not Super Mario, It's Super Abe! -- And Super Japan! "

8 August 2016
"Summer holidays, heat, rush and relax, while the world keeps turning"

12 July 2016
"Fog of uncertainties ahead: Japan, Britain, China and USA, each in their own way"

24 June 2016
"UK Splits, shakes EU, even Japan"

13 June 2016
"Rainy season: it's pouring on Prime Minister "

30 May 2016
"Obama is a Class Act, G7 Meeting Was for Japanese Audience "

8 May 2016
"With More Headaches at Home, Abe Takes Golden Week Europe Tour "

23 April 2016
"Dramatic Giant Quake, Business Slowdown, Election Mode in Politics"

7 April 2016
"Tokyo Great City, Japan hmmm...Colorful People "

22 March 2016
"Spring energy, child care and train travel "

11 March 2016
"Five Years from Japan "3-11" - Making Best Out of Gigantic Recovery Task "

28 February 2016
"A Dig Deeper into Politics: Ignorance, Camouflage, Chicanery "

15 February 2016
"Markets in turmoil, economy in decline, challenges grow for Abe"

5 February 2016
"Minister scandal distract, economy slow down, Kuroda rides for rescue "

28 January 2016

20 January 2016
"Bear Outlook for Monkey Year Grows, Taiwan Votes to Keep Distance from China, but Pop Group is More Important for Many "

12 January 2016


17 December 2015
"Global Environment, Food Tax, National Stadium: Historical Decisions or Political Parading? "

8 December 2015
"Challenges in Paris Conference, Challenges Back Home in Japan "

27 November 2015
"Refugees, bombs, business and global warming - can we control them all? "

3 November 2015
"Japan, USA, UK or Germany - China Impacts Us All Today "

22 October 2015
"New Ministers, New Trade Deals, All Political Play"

7 October 2015
"Power games, ball games, trade deals and refugee misery"

25 September 2015
"Big Problems, Big Talk and Big Figures - Each in Their Own Way".

9 September 2015
"Challenges in Japan, Tougher in USA and Europe ".

1 September 2015
"Looking at Neighbors, Japan Seems Stable and Safe ".

19 August 2015
"End Summer, Ceremonies and Holidays Over, Back to Work for All".

6 August 2015
"Hot Weather, Hot Air in Politics - From War Anniversary to Whisky in Space".

23 July 2015
Greece, China, EU, Japan: looking for the lost reality

23 June 2015
World No.1 City? The Difficulty of Passing New Laws, the Easiness of Spending a Lot

16 June 2015
"Only in Japan?" - Somethings, Yes, But Others Are Same All Over

4 June 2015
Security and Finances: Pensions, Companies, Banks, Olympics, FIFA

21 May 2015
Economy Back on Track, Record Profits at Big Companies

11 May 2015
Spring Events: Odaiba Rock, Shibuya Sex, Capitol Hill, White Hall and Red Square

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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