Sentaku in The Japan Times
Few would believe that the recent crackdown on the education ministry unlawfully arranging post-retirement employment for its officials has ended the corrupt practice of elite bureaucrats landing lucrative jobs at private-sector businesses and organizations that they once supervised. Officials at government ministries and agencies continue to use clever ways to secure post-retirement positions for themselves. A typical example is the police -- which hold "reserved seats" for their retired ranks in organizations related to the pachinko industry.
The cozy ties between the police and the industry date back roughly 30 years, when the National Police Agency took the initiative of getting operators of pachinko parlors to introduce prepaid cards for their customers. This gave the police access to the vested interests in the industry, which at its peak had annual sales of more than ¥30 trillion.
Following an announcement in Beijing that China's economy scored 6.9 percent growth in the January-March period from a year earlier, some of the Japanese media painted positive pictures with headlines saying that the growth exceeded the government's target and that slowdown of the Chinese economy clearly bottomed out. As if to refute such optimism, however, concerns are mounting in international financial circles that the present status of China's economy is getting ever closer to what had existed in the United States when it was hit by the crisis triggered by the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008.
An American analyst stationed in Beijing points to an extraordinary expansion of personal debt as a major risk to the nation's economy. After the economy started showing signs of a slowdown in 2014, the government took every conceivable step to revitalize the real estate market by easing housing loan regulations. As a result, housing prices in major cities have shot up -- by 78 percent in Beijing and 50 percent in Shanghai compared with 2010 levels. Household debt meanwhile kept expanding to account for more than 30 percent of fresh lending in the latter half of last year, up sharply from around 15 percent previously.
The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry has drafted a set of new measures to stop passive smoking as Tokyo braces for the 2020 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games, calling for a total smoking ban on the premises of public facilities such as schools and hospitals and imposing penalties on violators. However, a bitter feud between opponents and proponents within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is casting thick clouds over the measures' prospects.
The crux of the issue lies in the contradictory policies that the government has pursued by trying to secure tobacco sales as a major source of tax revenue while simultaneously seeking smoking restrictions to protect public health. What the government has been doing is tantamount to hitting the accelerator and the brakes at the same time.
The health ministry's proposed rules would create three types of areas where smoking would be restricted or prohibited, with a proprietor violating the rules subject to a maximum fine of ¥500,000.
There has been much talk lately in Japan about beefing up its missile defense system as North Korea, after conducting five nuclear weapons tests, keeps up its ballistic missile program, including firing four missiles simultaneously into the Sea of Japan in March. Yet given that the missile defense system was introduced in the first place as a deterrent against North Korea, it is doubtful whether the system will be effective now that Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs appear to have made such great strides and the rogue behavior of Kim Jong Un seems as unchecked as ever.
There is no such thing as a foolproof system to strike down incoming missiles. Attempts to pursue that by beefing up the missile defense system will push up defense spending endlessly. The only alternative may be to make the Self-Defense Forces capable of carrying out pre-emptive attacks on North Korean missile bases. But the government is hesitant to take such action, and relies on the offensive capability of the U.S. military. The increased tensions between Washington and Pyongyang since President Donald Trump took office in the United States sheds light on inherent shortcomings of the missile defense system.
The economic plight of South Korea has been exacerbated further by the political turmoil that led to the ouster of President Park Geun-hye from power. However, the key culprit that pushed the South Korean industry into hopeless gloom has been the downfall of Samsung Electronics Co. and the arrest and indictment of Lee Jae-yong, vice chairman and de facto chieftain of the Samsung group, in the corruption scandal involving Park and a confidante.
Samsung expanded by imitating and catching up with the management methods and technologies of its rivals in other industrialized economies while its founding family exerted strong leadership and made timely and bold investments. Today, its sources of strength are being emulated by Chinese manufacturers, which are rapidly catching up. The end of the Samsung era may herald the downfall of a wide range of South Korean manufacturing sectors from shipbuilding to steel and automobiles.
A key focus of U.S. President Donald Trump's inaugural address in January was on bringing manufacturing back to the United States and restoring employment opportunities. A number of American companies, including Ford Motor, have canceled plans to build new plants in Mexico to shift investments back to their homeland. If this constituted the first wave, the second may be transferring production back from China to the U.S., and the third might be a similar changeover from Southeast Asia. These moves could deal a serious unexpected blow to Japanese manufacturers that have been building a tight production network in Asia as a key source of their global competitiveness.
Four years after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned to power, his administration continues to enjoy an unusually high approval ratings of more than 50 percent, and the prime minister's grip on power remains unrivaled. And as if he still isn't satisfied, Abe has begun to take steps to solidify the political foundation of his administration, causing new friction among political circles.
On Dec. 22, Lower House Speaker Tadamori Oshima, who hails from Abe's Liberal Democratic Party, complained about the high-handed manner with which the LDP rammed through the controversial bill to legalize casino resorts. Speaking to his close aides, Abe himself did not hide his displeasure with the way Oshima ran the proceedings during the extraordinary Diet session, notably his decision to delay the vote for ratifying the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact. Such an open spat between the prime minister and the Lower House speaker, who is customarily chosen from among senior lawmakers from the party in power, is unheard of.
Leaders of the Chinese Communist Party must be all smiles with the inauguration of Donald Trump as the new president of the United States.
When Trump was reported to be leaning toward strengthening U.S. ties with Taiwan -- defying warnings from Beijing following his telephone conversation last year with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, major Japanese media outlets reported that dark clouds hung over Sino-American relations, expecting that the Communist Party leaders in Beijing would be rattled by that prospect.
Such an anticipation, however, is off the mark. A source well informed of China's internal affairs says that Trump, who is not too keen on protecting human rights, will soft-pedal Washington's interference in China's human rights issues, which in turn would enable the Communist Party leadership to step up its ruthless suppression of pro-democracy forces and those advocating independence for Uyghurs. According to that scenario, Chinese President Xi Jinping will take advantage of Trump's policies of pursuing nothing but economic benefits, and deprive his nation of 1.3 billion citizens of the freedom of speech and thought.
The Liberal Democratic Party quickly wrapped up its discussions to extend the maximum tenure of its president. However, the ruling party does not seem to be paying much attention to more complicated and serious issues that concern its future.
In just about a month after the party's political reform panel led by Vice President Masahiko Komura began discussions on the matter, the LDP effectively decided in late October to allow its president to run for three consecutive three-year terms, instead of the current maximum of two terms—a decision scheduled to be officially endorsed in a party convention next year. That will pave the way for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the incumbent party chief, to run for yet another term as LDP president when his current term ends in September 2018. Initial calls for caution over the change by the potential post-Abe leaders who stand to see their chances of a near-term ascent to the party presidency dashed, such as Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and former Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba, quickly faded away.
Lord Palmerston, who served as prime minister of Britain in the 19th century, once remarked that "We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow." By quoting these words, a Japanese government insider said recently that Japan is no exception—particularly in an age when a character like Donald Trump gets nominated for president of the United States (and goes on to be elected), noting that Japan would have to map out a new path of its diplomacy should its alliance with the U.S. starts to become adrift.
As if to reflect this view on history in transition, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is bent on seeking a breakthrough on the decades-old territorial dispute with Russia over the group of islands off Hokkaido and move Russo-Japanese relations forward when he meets with President Vladimir Putin on Dec. 15 in Nagato in his home prefecture of Yamaguchi.