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Nuclear jitters

North Korea’s latest nuke test unnerves Japanese, in part because the US failed to warn the country in advance. The economy shrinks 15.2 percent in the first quarter. Cell phones are increasingly being used as "portable wallets," and Japan expects to start offering wireless electricity by 2015. Plus, deer and a flasher disrupt train service; more drunken police antics; and rooftop beer gardens.

Top News:  North Korea has once again set nerves here on edge with its nuclear test on Monday, sparking fears it may be developing warhead technology. Japan is also concerned with a lack of notice of the test from the United States, which was alerted just beforehand by North Korea.


The Japanese parliament passed a unanimous condemnation after some brief soul-searching by the Japanese Communist Party. Scientists in Japan pronounced the test a success, estimating the explosion was four to five times more powerful than previous detonations.


A subcommittee of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) proposed Japan should have the ability to strike enemy bases in apparent contradiction of its pacifist constitution. Staying with nukes, the government was unhappy that the media reported the arrival of a nuclear fuel ship from France to Japan, calling it, “a bit extreme.” The delivery led to citizen protests from peace activists.


The opposition Democratic Party of Japan recently proposed abolishing the widespread practice of “inheriting” electoral constituencies, although critics question whether the party is taking its own proposal seriously considering that it has elected a fourth-generation politician, Yukio Hatoyama, as its leader. Now, the LDP has announced its own similar policy initiative, though with enough loopholes to ensure the current political dynasties are unlikely to end anytime soon.


The opposition continues to lead the government in opinion polls. With a mandatory election by September, this could lead to the second change of power in more than 50 years.


Recent government data confirmed what most people already knew: the pension system has no chance of paying out at current levels due to Japan’s deteriorating demographic situation. The long-running program of budget cuts has included axing child benefits for single-parent families, saving 16.5 billion yen ($165 million) annually. Commentators have compared that savings with the alleged $800 million administrative charge for a recent stimulus measure that handed out $120 cash for every citizen.


The reality and image of Japan as a relatively egalitarian society continues to disintegrate as the media focuses on increasing poverty in Japan.     


Money: The 15.2 percent annual drop in GDP that hit Japan in the first quarter of this year, described by Prime Minister Aso as “severe,” seems to be the worst anyone can remember, anywhere, ever, and has left analysts searching for something as bad to compare it with.


When Japan does begin to emerge from its economic quagmire, only slow growth is expected. Along with the hardships of depressed electronics sales, Sony finds itself actually losing market share in flat-screen TVs being sold.


The prestigious biennial Tokyo Motor Show promises to be a quieter affair this year as 22 foreign automakers have pulled out, leaving only four overseas manufacturers to keep their Japanese rivals company. Despite the foreign no-show and its own enormous travails, Toyota, rather than sulking, is kindly offering to share its hybrid technology with ailing GM. Its motives may not be entirely altruistic as the Japanese giant is apparently keen for its technology to become the global standard.


With a back-to-basics approach gaining traction during the current crisis, banks are looking at ways of investing in agricultural land, a less than appealing sector in recent decades.


Back at the cutting edge, Fujitsu has created the world’s fastest CPU (central processing unit) that can perform 128 billion calculations a second — the first time a Japanese manufacturer has held the title since Fujitsu last did in 1999.


E-money functions built into cell phones, known as “saifu keitai” (portable wallet), continue to grow in scope and functionality.  Money transfers via mobile phone are the latest addition to the capability of Japan’s high-tech phone network. Staying in the world of wireless, Japanese scientists have been working on technology for delivering electricity without the need for cables for some time, and the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry is aiming at a 2015 start for domestic services.


Elsewhere: An expanding population of deer and other wildlife continues to disrupt the usually hyper-efficient and punctual rail system. (Local governments are said to be recruiting jobless youngsters to become deer hunters to try to bring the population under control.)


Train services on the southern island of Kyushu were disrupted by some human wildness when a flasher attempted to escape along the tracks, delaying 7,000 commuters.


A few law-enforcement officers continue to set a very bad example to the nation’s law-abiding citizenry, particularly on the roads; a police officer was arrested for causing a traffic accident while drunk.


The media continues to speculate on the long-running story of Crown Princess Masako’s psychological troubles which appear to stem from her failure to produce a male heir to the Chrysanthemum throne and restrictive Imperial family lifestyle.


One way that summer announces its arrival in Tokyo is the opening of the rooftop beer-gardens across the city. The tops of various buildings, including a number of department stores, are transformed into lively venues for the after-work crowd. The Kudan-Kaikan is as good a place to sample the delights of rooftop drinking as any. Right above Kudanshita Station, it offers some great views across the city, including the nearby legendary Budokan martial arts and concert venue.