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Caving in to brinksmanship

Japan and South Korea agree to talk to their belligerent neighbor just as Kim Jong-il launches seven new missiles. An investigation finds widespread government waste; the opposition promises to axe an anime museum. Toyota makes Priuses on weekends to cope with demand. Amazon faces a $150 million back tax bill. And a Japan Airline flight is cancelled after the pilot answered nature's call in a Hawaiian park.


Top News: Prime Minister Aso met with his South Korean counterpart, President Lee Myung-bak, to cement their intention to cooperate with their troublesome North Korean neighbor, and to get Pyongyang’s recent missile shenanigans on the agenda at the G8 meeting. This was before the North Koreans fired another seven ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan on July 4. There has, unsurprisingly, been much talk of bolstering missile defense systems.


Japan is host to the biggest overseas deployment of US forces, most of it concentrated on Okinawa, something the local population is not always enthusiastic about. The search goes on for a permanent site for US planes to practice landing on aircraft carriers; these “dry runs” currently take place on Iwo Jima — site of the infamous WWII battle — now renamed Iwoto.  


Aso backtracked on his plans for a cabinet shuffle in the face of internal party resistance — though it’s doubtful whether anything can save his government now. After regional opposition victories, focus switched to the Tokyo metropolitan assembly election, the last big electoral test ahead of the general election.


An investigation found wasteful government spending in all of the 57 projects it examined, including 11 of which it deemed entirely unnecessary. Opposition leader Hatoyama has promised to axe plans for an ‘anime museum’ if elected — a $112 million project he previously described as “state-run manga (comic) café.”


Hatoyama, elected leader of the Democratic Party of Japan following a donations scandal involving his predecessor, has now found himself embroiled in a funding fight. Although Hatoyama appears to be have been donating money to himself from his own considerable fortune (rather than accepting donations in return for public works contracts) this is hardly the image the opposition wanted to project. Not that shady public works dealings are ever far away in Japan.  


Money: Toyota, a symbol of Japanese global corporate success — and more recent hardships — is to resume weekend work at its Prius factory. New Toyota president, Akio Toyoda, the first member of the founding family in the driver’s seat for 14 years, has called for a back to basics approach at the carmaker. One of his first announcements was that Toyota would stop hosting the Japanese F1 Grand Prix; Formula One politics also appears to be a factor. 


Amazon has been slapped with a 14 billion yen ($150 million) tax bill which authorities say are owed on income at its Japanese subsidiary. The company says the tax has been paid in the US. Another US firm that has considerable success in Japan, Apple, launched the latest iPhone here – to noticeably less fanfare than previous models.


Hefty summer and winter bonuses used to be typical at many Japanese companies until recently, so many people had extra bi-annual payments built into their mortgage agreements. As a result, many workers will be struggling to pay their loans, with some companies paying no bonuses this year.


The public pension system, the world’s largest, is predicted to provide only 34 percent of salaries, despite government assurances of 50 percent. Municipal authorities, also short of cash, are proposing a casino – currently illegal in Japan– in Nagasaki.


Elsewhere: A former TV pundit and economist lost his appeal against a conviction for groping a high-school student on a train. He wasn't the only recent perpetrator to shock norms. A school teacher and his wife were arrested for secretly filming women in a public toilet – police subsequently found 300 hours of video at the couple’s home. And a judge was convicted of groping a college student on a bus. And as far as seediness goes, downloading porn films is apparently straining the nation’s $74 billion high-speed 3G phone network.


For a more constructive use of the net, online auctions are an increasingly important source of income for government bodies, which have sold all manner of items, including an old school.


University students, supposedly embarrassed to be seen eating alone, have taken to munching in toilet stalls. Notices banning the practice have been put up, but seem to be the work of student pranksters, according to authorities.


Someone who should have spent more time on the toilet was the co-pilot of a Japan Airlines flight returning from Hawaii. He was arrested for urinating in a park in Honolulu, causing cancellation of the flight. (Public peeing is not perceived as particularly problematic in Japan.)   


While some Japanese worry about random violent crime, it is actually rare enough that incidents as lacking in heinousness as this can still make the news.