Sunday, September 28, 2008

Open Mouth, Insert Foot, Repeat

Newly elected Prime Minister Taro Aso is notorious for getting himself in trouble with ill-considered remarks that manage to irritate or insult large segments of the Japanese population and neighboring countries' citizens as well. In a classic example of the "birds of a feather" adage, and in what may be a record for speed, one of the ministers he selected when he formed his cabinet last Tuesday--Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Minister Nariaki Nakayama--has had to resign from his post after making a series of gaffes, including one in which he called the nation’s biggest schoolteachers’ union "a cancer".

Opposition party leaders are of course delighted, saying the resignation is a ‘‘natural outcome’’ and promising to demand that Aso take responsibility for appointing Nakayama to his cabinet.

Amazingly, the series of controversial remarks Nakayama made in the few days since his appointment have drawn intense criticism not only from opposition parties but even from the ruling parties.

The (opposition) DPJ’s Ozawa said Saturday that Nakayama’s remarks ‘‘lack insight and are imprudent and unfair’’, and questioned--quite rightly in my opinion-- his qualification to be a state minister.

A senior member of the New Komeito party, junior coalition partner of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, called for Nakayama’s early resignation, saying the issue should be resolved before Aso makes a policy speech at the Diet on Monday.

Nakayama did indeed resign early Sunday, having told reporters after arriving at Tokyo’s Haneda airport from Miyazaki on Saturday evening that he would ‘‘decide on my own whether to resign’', but also having said ‘‘I’ll consult with my wife tonight’’. Nakayama’s wife Kyoko is a member of the House of Councillors and served as state minister in charge of declining birthrate and abduction issues in former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda's cabinet.

So, what did he say? a meeting in Miyazaki Saturday, this former education minister and longtime critic of the schoolteachers’ union, said, ‘‘I’ve been thinking Nikkyoso (the Japan Teacher's Union, largest union of teachers and education staff) should be disbanded.’’ He added, ‘‘I have things to say about Nikkyoso. The biggest problem is that it opposes ethics education. Some of the people in Nikkyoso have taken actions that are unthinkable to me,’’ apparently refering to the union members' demonstration around the Diet buildings in Tokyo in 2006.

At the time, the Diet was deliberating revisions to the Fundamental Law of Education in an extraordinary session of parliament, and later passed and enforced the law, aimed at instilling patriotism in classrooms and nurturing respect for the public spirit. It was widely regarded as uncomfortably reminiscent of the government's militaristic indoctrination before and during the wars in the 20th century, termnating in the disastrous defeat in WW2.

Nakayama also told reporters, ‘‘I will stand at the forefront to destroy Nikkyoso, which is a cancer for Japanese education’’.

In media interviews this week, Nakayama also said the union is to blame for the bribery scandal involving the Oita prefectural board of education, saying, ‘‘The woeful state of Oita Prefecture’s board of education comes down to Nikkyoso. Nikkyoso (members’) children can become teachers even if their grades are bad. That’s why the aptitude levels in Oita Prefecture are low'’.

Keep in mind that he's no longer the education minister.

In the media interview remarks actually related to his new ministerial post, Nakayama also referred to the government’s policy to attract foreign tourists to Japan. He indicated that many Japanese don't really like foreigners, and called Japan ‘‘ethnically homogenous'’. That description drew protests in 1986 from the indigenous Ainu people when then Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone made a similar remark.

Nakayama also managed to fit in another shot against education related to transport, when he said that those who have engaged in years of struggle against the construction of Narita airport near Tokyo are ‘‘more or less squeaky wheels, or I believe they are (the result) of bad postwar education’’.

Nakayama had retracted some of the series of remarks made in the media interviews and apologized (with very dubious sincerity), and seems to have tried to exercise damage control by making the remarkably dim observation that some of his statements, not having been made in the ministry building, should not be considered to have been made in his role as a cabinet minister.

Prime Minister Aso has made some pretty foolish statements in recent years, too, but this time he's in trouble for his evident lack of judgment in choosing Nakayama. I can hardly wait for the next series of moronic remarks or, maybe, financial scandals to play further havoc with this cabinet. It's pretty funny, really, in a darkly humorous sort of way, as long as I try not to think about the fact that these guys aren't running a circus, they're running the country I live and work in.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Grains of Untruth

The latest false labeling food scandal involves a company selling rice intended for non-food, industrial applications as edible rice to a number of food producers. The rice, tainted with illegally high levels of pesticide, or irremediably water damaged, or containing toxins from mold, was purchased from the Japanese government.

The government had bought it from various sources including China and Vietnam, in a crafty use of loopholes enabling it to simultaneously fulfill its World Trade Organization accord "minimum access" obligations and continue to support/subsidize/protect domestic rice farmers.

Unfortunately for all of the executives and bureaucrats involved in this cozy setup, Mikasa Foods got greedy, and started selling the rice, after relabeling or rebagging it, and apparently sometimes mixing it, as edible rice to several manufacturers of shochu and other products, and to some trading houses, too. And they were found out.

Astonishingly, many Japanese don't seem to understand the situation and have jumped to the conclusion that this is another case of importing tainted food from China, such as flooded the media some months ago with the infamous gyoza case.

Most recently, after the government demanded that Mikasa retrieve the tainted rice they'd sold, it's being shown to be largely impossible; it's too late. They've purchased 1,779 tons of the tainted rice since 2003, Of that, about 809 tons of rice contained methamidophos, a pesticide, or aflatoxin, a toxin from mold. The company has sold 354 tons of such tainted rice to other firms for edible use and stored the rest, or so they say. They've managed so far to recover only four or five tons of what they sold. Most has already gone into beverages, rice crackers, and so on.

The agriculture ministry revealed Monday it found another pesticide—acetamiprid—in rice sold by Mikasa Foods to some of the five beverage makers who agreed to have their names released.

Media attention is currently focused on Mikasa's shady dealings--double sets of books and all--and on the efforts of manufacturers, who may have been sold and already used the tainted rice, to managed recalls or take other disaster recovery measures. Some attention is going to the lack of effective oversight on how the tainted rice is bought, stored, resold, and distributed.

Insufficient attention, in my opinion, is being given to how and why the Japanese government has for years now gone out of its way to buy specifically inedible rice as a cynical means of fulfilling the letter, but not the spirit, of its WTO accord responsibilities.