Taormina to Tokyo:
Heavyweights and fashionable ladies
When the G7 top heavyweights last week sat down for debate and dinner by blue Mediterranean in ancient Taormina, Japan's heavyweights clashed in Ryogoku sumo hall across the more brownish Sumida River in Tokyo. The new Japanese Grand Champion Kisenosato was clearly bothered by his earlier injury and had to give up after taking five losses during the first week of the tournament. Instead, the Mongolian Yokozuna Hakuho, the all-time winningnest wrestler but off for long time, came back with vengeance to take the Emperor's Trophy for 38th time with clean 15-0 record. Pity we missed the showdown between the two, usually scheduled for the last day. Can't wait for next time!
The US Grand Champion had culturally demanding schedule behind him before Sicily tackling three world religions, dancing with sword wielding tribesmen and selling shiploads of weapons, yet managed to stay awake to the last gorgonzola, grappa and group statement to everybody's relief. He could not fit any golf into his schedule this time, but at least took a ride on golf cart when others walked on Taormina's cobbled streets from the old Greek theatre photo session.
Overall, Trump's big tournee had gone almost without his usual behavioral blurs. Pushing minions off to get in the front row for group photo must be within his normal norms and it proved untrue that he said to Pope that Bible could be a Chinese hoax, too, when His Holiness pointed out that the Good Book says the meek shall inherit the Earth and we should be kind to Nature as well. However, the trip definitely was not "home run in every place" as he claimed
For the popular press and social media the most important thing of Trump's grand tour seemed to be what dress and head gear his wife and daughter wore in each country. For the rest of us it was his total coat-turn on Islam from terror source, whose believers should be all banned from USA, to a "great world religion" and on Saudi Arabia from a religious dictatorship "where they imprison women and kill gays" to a defender of Western values and a trusted ally. USD 110 billion worth of orders to US arms industry surely helped in this astonishing conversion, but as it comes from the No.1 financial sponsor for IS terror group and all Islamic radicalism that Trump vows to destroy, it begs for logic. Can Saudi really be the cash cow for both sides?
To perform for the whole worth of Saudi money, Trump even had gall to put down Iran, a country who just had free elections, for lack of freedom of speech and freedom of organization while standing in country that lacks even smallest hint of any. While there is much to improve in theocratic Iran, it stands well above Saudi, which is "one of the least free in the world" according to ranking by American freedom watch agency in Trump's own Washington.
From Taormina G7 meeting, the No.1 take for popular media seemed to be what looked like a blooming "bromance" between the French and Canadian leaders, two young good looking guys gazing Mediterranean almost hand in hand among bright red flower bushes.
If it was that, I take it anytime instead of Trump holding Putin's hand as he wants to do. There were the usual topics on the table as well – free trade, climate deal, refugees, terrorists, Russia and North Korea – and advance attention focused on how the US newcomer would react to these. The round table talks were "intensive" according reports, but at the end Trump seemed to fall in line with others on all issues except the climate where he insisted to announce his policy this week. Don't hold your breath on that one nor for the others. What we all could see from this trip again is that this man is not to be trusted with. He can only think of business and money, to his buddies, himself and his family. To counter such ugliness, the media needs stories like the "bromance".
After all the glamor and glitter, it's back to reality at home for the leaders. Trump faces a new enquiry of the Russian involvement in his election – firing the FBI chief only made things worse and now even in his son-in-law has been drawn in the case. In Tokyo, Abe-san faces the music in Parliament for another school finance scandal. This time it's a university branch that his school friend, villa neighbor and golf buddy in Yamanakako got an exceptionally good deal for in Shikoku. Not only the main university that the friend owns won the sought-after license in the Cabinet Office regulated special economic zone, but the local town then inexplicably gave him free of charge a nice plot of land to build the school on. Not much different from the Osaka school project! Was it this time ordered by the Prime Minister or was it all just happenstance again?
Japanese language has a word "sontaku" which means that people act according to what they believe the boss or the customer would like to see happen without receiving any actual request. This might apply to this case, too. If so, does it make the boss responsible for it? Interestingly and, of course, totally unrelated to this particular case, a new law that was passed a few years back which makes yakuza bosses responsible for any mayhem that their underlings do – even without proof of a concrete order - has greatly reduced the organized crime. So much so that the registered gang members have fallen to half and, in a recent case, show their desperation today: two hungry Nagoya members were caught shoplifting for food after having not received any salary for long time. How low can you go? Even homeless in Japan can afford to buy their food by collecting cans and bottles for recycling!
A look back at Abe government's last weeks' achievements in law making front: the controversial conspiracy law was pushed through Lower House, a special committee for the Constitution change was established and Cabinet finally made up its mind about Emperor's retirement. For "conspiracies", Government say the new law is essential for Japan to follow UN Resolution on preventing organized crime and terror threats and being without it would even risk the security of 2020 Olympics. In contrast, opponents claim it is unnecessary and prone for exaggerated government action against individual rights. Its final passage through Upper House will be even more difficult than Lower despite ruling parties' majority and it might be that government has to wait out 60 days that allow UH passage without vote. In such case, the ongoing Diet session would have to be extended until end July, more than a month from its scheduled closure and well beyond the crucial Tokyo Assembly vote.
The Constitution change debate is starting finally for real. Even PM himself has been numb about what changes he wants there. Finally, he announced he would opt for minimum: just add to Article 9 that we do have Self Defense Forces. If you thought this would make it simple and easy, you don't know Japan. Immediately, Abe's main competitor for LDP leadership Ishiba claimed it would be completely illogical to include a paragraph about SDF if the previous paragraph says Japan solemnly swears not to ever engage in war nor to have armed forces for that purpose. I fully agree. This will be a long winding, pedantic debate loaded with party politics more than national interests.
After 9 months of meetings and reports from legal experts and historians, the Government proposal for Emperor's abdication is simple as expected: it's a one-time only law for current emperor and should take place at end year so that it would be easy to change calendars to new Emperor Year. Moreover, the proposal provides the official title for the retired emperor and empress, even his "pension" allowance money. As reverend as Emperor is among all parties – with possible exception of Communist Party – the law should pass without big debate and take effect end 2018, the 30th year of the ongoing Heisei period when Emperor also turns 85. What a relief it is for all of us that this matter is finally on its way to completion!
As you notice, none of these recent endeavors have anything to do with "Abenomics". Can we conclude that Prime Minister has given up dreaming of revolutionary change in Japan economics and is satisfied that it's ticking along now about as good as this mature, aging society can? Maybe watching the noisy blaster from the new White House crew how they will lift US growth to new heights unseen since the tech bubble simply with radical tax cuts for big companies and super rich has helped Abe to tone down his voice.
True, Japan is doing better than in long time. The 1Q. GDP growth was at 2% annual speed as expected and, moreover, the fifth good one in row, the longest expansion since 2006. Sure, the consumer demand remains slow and the much vaunted 2% inflation is still far behind horizon, but exports and overseas investments are bringing in gains. The corporate profits reached new heights again and the overall mood reflected in share market continues high. Japanese cars, electronic components and memory chips are in good demand and JPY rate has remained at reasonable level. The employment situation will tighten even more with time, banks are lending more than before and building industry is doing better than ever. It almost looks like a bubble in Tokyo and other big cities: hotels and restaurants are fully booked, apartment sales are booming and companies are moving to new tower offices in City center, not out of town to cow paddocks as elsewhere.
A newly made billionaire – just 41 year old founder of an online clothing retailer – spent last week USD 110 million for a painting at Sotheby's in New York, a new auction record for modern art and reminder of the end 80's bubble when a paper mill owner spent similar amount for a Van Gogh, all-time record that time. This is all too familiar for those of us who remember those days. Just hope it's handled well this time.
There is the dark side of the picture that did not exist before: the rapidly increased income gap between the haves and have-nots, those with low-paying non-regular jobs that make one in three of the population. It's also asset gap between young and old, those who struggle with low income, boring jobs and poor rental homes far away from city centers and their elders, many comfortably retired with own home and money in the bank. Japan used to be highly egalitarian society where everyone was enough well-to-do and even big company executives were not excessively paid, but now it's rapidly approaching Western norms. This has become a central issue even in Abe government's agenda; social welfare and child care are the main issues for voters also in Tokyo's forthcoming local election. According fresh poll, Governor Koike's new Tomin First ("Tokyo people first") together with its ally Komeito has about same support as the ruling LDP at 16-17 pct. Adding expected votes for JCP (6 pct) and DPJ (3 pct) would give Koike-san upper hand against the Old Regime. But half of voters have not made up their minds yet, so the game is wide open still.
On technology front Japan continues to push forward. Not satisfied with pioneering hybrid and electric cars, Japanese makers, government and gas companies announced a mutual project to speed up sales of FCV fuel cell vehicles by doubling the number of loading stations. For electric cars, Japan already has more loading points than traditional gas stations. In consumer electronics, Sony will start selling next month 4K high-definition televisions with OLED screen that vibrate for sound reproduction; no need for conventional speakers any more. As for investment, it turned out that Softbank has quietly amassed USD 4 billion worth of shares in Nvidia, the latest tech darling in Silicon Valley and the hottest performing US stock.
Foreign companies here are even more bullish than before about their future business as evident in the latest survey by foreign chambers - in practice run by our own FCCJ executive director. New Finnish companies are finding their way to Japan more than before and new business areas start to show up their potential. What I heard from Nagano Wood Fair last week is that the latest could be forestry know-how, where Finland has long-time, wide experience. Japan is finally realizing that its forests are very badly managed, just rottening without care. Renewal of Japan's old fashioned building regulations, too, would help house builders to use the latest Finnish wood designs for better homes to Japanese consumers and this could provide fresh impetus to already big Finnish timber exports to Japan.
Anything related to Finland remains popular. The latest proof I ran across was new magazine called IHANA from my old publisher customer Takarajima. Subtitled "Love! Hokuo" (Nordic) and English "wear yourself, make your life – to be myself" it's actually just a new addition to Japan's unbelievably wide collection of fashion and life style magazines for females. In this one, well-known models pose with cool casual style around Tokyo accented with "Ihana Points" like Lesson No.1, Theory No.8, My Favorite Things, Have a Lunch at Café, Take a Walk with My Dog, Day Trip to The Fields, A Weekend at Beach and Chilling at Home. You got to be "with it" where ever you go!
Even after many years here, I can't help loving the Tokyo life style with fashionably dressed ladies in fashionable places.
Tokyo, May 30, 2017
18 May 2017
"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!"
17 December 2016
"AOYAMA AWARDS: THE BEST AND THE WORST IN JAPAN 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
ABE: THE REALITY BEHIND ALL THAT TALK "
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
"NEW YEAR VIEWS - AND A LOOK BACK AT 2015"
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
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.