Virus and snow in Japan - heavy turbulence outside
It's January: Tokyo is cold but sunny and beautiful while the other side of the island is battered by snow storms as always. Anyplace, you better watch out for the influenza epidemy always spreading around this time of the year. More than 2 million people have already visited clinics for help, weak old people are dying like flies in "rojin homes" and even young people fall on train tracks trying to make it to work in high fever. Hospitals are the worst places for virus and bacteria: One candidate for Finlandfs next prime minister is in long time hospital care after catching up first influenza, then hospital bacteria on his New Year holiday.
In contrast, Japan Prime Minister keeps flying around the world to promote Japan - and himself as by-product. Unexpectedly, it did not work out for peace and islands in Moscow as he advertised ahead, but the settings in Kremlin, all white and gold, looked good in the press conference following three hours (!) of talks. Abe-san's dark blue suit and yellow Ferragamo necktie was a well-planned match. Or was it Chanel? Anyway his popularity ratings went up immediately.
Next day in Davos, Abe-san spoke of Japan's support for "free trade and liberal, rule abiding world order", a line probably well received by the 3000 big business globalists in audience. As well received was the Japan Night party that followed the speech offering chosen delicacies from around Japan and gold medal sake "Yamato no Kokoro" (Heart of Old Japan) made in Fukushima from special rice cultivated by Mrs. Abe in Yamaguchi, husband's purported home area.
Prime Minister was back home just in time to open up Parliament's spring session yesterday so that the Upper House election can be held on July 28, the last possible weekend before deadline end July. There's much speculation that Prime Minister will make it a rare double election declaring vote for the more powerful Lower House on the same day. Political experts say this would make it more difficult for the opposition to organize their attack on the ruling parties.
As well, we already got news of first visitors to Japan. Frau Merkel, Abe's equally liberal friend today, will come to see us next week followed by no less than The Pope himself at end of the year. Wonder what makes him keen to come to Japan that has so few Christians? Maybe he saw Martin Scorsese's recent movie about their persecution in early Tokugawa time when all foreigners were expelled and all contacts with them forbidden. The "hidden Christians" survived 250 years living "underground" until the ban was turned down together with the shogunate and last year their churches in Nagasaki, Shimabara and Amakusa received UNESCO Heritage Award.
Of course, before Pope we will have all world top leaders here for the G-20 conference in Osaka in June. Surely, Abe's activity to meet as many of the coming guests as possible in advance is also targeting to ensure that the conference will go smoothly without unnecessary disturbance. Unfortunately, despite his best efforts, there will be The Chosen One whose behavior will depend on his mood on the day. You never know what the world's "greatest" country leader will blurt out in any meeting or dinner table.
Back in Finland, the media is worrying how the country will manage its forthcoming chairmanship of European Union that's creaking in seams with Brexit mess, revolt in France and uppity leaders in Italy and across East Europe as the power of the German Iron Lady has waned. It's not even clear who will be Finland Prime Minister in July when the country's six-month turn starts – that will be decided in the Parliament election in March. Maybe this time it is better NOT to become the biggest party, whose leader will get the job to first try sew up a functioning government from the gaggling array of multiple parties, three of whom are almost equally strong, then spend 80% of his time trying to smooth out even worse gaggle in Brussels.
Yes, it looks pretty turbulent away from peaceful Tokyo and just about anything might happen this year. To ease our worries columnist Kuni Miyake from Canon Research Institute presented his list of What Will Not Happen in 2019. It reads as follows: 1) North Korea will not denuclearize, 2) China will not give in to USA, 3) South East Asia will not unite, 4) Middle East will not become stable, 5) European Union will not split, 6) Russia will not stop mingling with other countries, 7) Trump will not be impeached and 8) Japan will not change dramatically. These claims seem pretty likely to me and should give us comfort to guide our way through the year.
The global economy is pointing more and more down this year and probably next one, too. China has slowed down to slowest growth in 28 years with consumers and investors equally concerned about the future, something Communist Party probably cannot cover anymore with another wave of debt-financed infrastructure building and this virus is rapidly spreading to other countries around the world. Japan, Korea and South East Asia stand first in the line of fire in addition to always sensitive US stocks, who in turn have powerful impact on global finance around the world. Apple stock value falling USD 300 million down on back of sales slowdown in China is big news, but Foxconn cutting back 100,000 jobs and Japanese suppliers ending up without orders are as serious as serious concrete signs of things to come.
IMF cut its GDP estimate for the world and most major countries already a little bit, but be sure there will be more to follow. In contrast to previous downturn 12 years ago, the central banks are this time not in position to help. Their rates still remain at close to zero; only US Fed has managed to reach a bit higher level. Yet, like a jumbo jet that just got wheels off the ground, it has neither much height yet to turn nose down enough to gain speed.
We'll see what our ever-ingenious Mr. Kuroda can come up with once it becomes clear that Japan, too, has to get more help from the central bank to maintain growth. Despite billions and billions of BOJ money spent on JGB's, the ugly head of deflation has not been cut off and can quickly come back to haunt us. And then there's the tax increase that Prime Minister still claims he will stick with for October. Let's see.
To end up this column on positive note let's revert to Finland events lined up for the anniversary year here – I've been reminded of several omissions despite my long list last time.
One is new Japanese movie called Yuki no Hana (Snow Flower) filmed last year in Finland, a romantic love story that comes to theaters on Friday. Young and romantic is not really my cup of tea, but the film has all the ingredients to become popular: two well-known young idols - one singer, one model-actress – in main roles, director whose earlier credits include assistant director in Okuribito (Departures) that won Oscar in 2008, and sentimental music by popular violinist Taro Hakase. The name comes from its theme song, a massive hit in 2003, and the story line is a real tear jerker about girl, who is told by doctor she has not long time left to live but wants to fulfill her dream to see aurora lights in Finland one time.
Those who have seen the film in advance say that Finnish scenery from summer Helsinki to winter Lapland has never been presented so beautifully, better than any of the countless travel programs weeve seen on TV.
Business Finland assisted in finding the locations and contributed JPY 25 million to shooting costs hoping that the investment will pay off big in boosting Japanese travel to Finland. The previous Finland-based Japanese movie, the small budget Kamome Shokodu (Ruokala Lokki) in 2006 certainly helped in starting the still-ongoing Finland boom, so let's hope this big production will be even more succesful.
Another remarkable step in Finland promotion is Embassy's appointment of six well-known Japanese from six different areas with ties to Finland as Friendship Envoys, who will help to spread the message during the 100th anniversary year. Heard that all, who were approached, accepted the proposal for voluntary work happily - such is the power of Finland for those who have been smitten by it. You might have heard their names already, but repeating the list here: actress Satomi Kobayashi (from Kamome Shokodu), pianist Izumi Tateno (a legend in Finland), ski jumper Noriaki Kasai (same), designer Akira Minagawa ("Minä Perhonen"), light designer Motoko Ishii and idol singer Ayane Fujisaki (Pinky). We all look forward to see them in action.
Finally a surprising piece of Finnish pop music that gets multiple views in Japanese internet called Ievan Polkka. This old piece has been recently covered by several young Japanese idol singers including the famous "virtual idol" Hatsune Miku. I don't rome internet for such things, so I was not aware of the tune's reborn popularity here, but when reminded by a friend who follow trends better, checked it out. It turned out something I had heard in Finland back in 60's and it was hopelessly old fashioned already then against the pop trends of that day, yet with funny, catchy lyrics. Evidently, the song comes originally from Karelia hundreds of years back and its "hidden message" behind the innocent sounding lyrics is reeking healthy sex. As we all know, "rock and roll" did neither refer to dancing originally. Check it out here for yourself.
Why and how it could become popular for today's young Japan is a mystery worth another cultural Master study.
Tokyo, January 28, 2019
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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.