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Campaigning begins for the August 30th general election, as the two main parties accuse each other of waste. The Prime Minister apologizes at the annual commemoration of WWII surrender. Quakes spark fears "the big one" is next. An Iranian scientist studied nukes at Tohoku University. Half of Japanese households own a mini-car, and a new Toyota promises over 150 mpg. Japan's GDP finally rises again, after five quarters of bad news. Sake falls from favor, and a college student dies while testing a concrete canoe.
Top News: On Monday, campaigning officially began for the Aug. 30 general election with the 6 party leaders holding a debate. In a previous faceoff between the two main party leaders, Prime Minister Taro Aso and Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) leader Yukio Hatoyama, the incumbent described the DPJ’s policies as ‘pork-barreling’. This drew smiles from commentators who have witnessed some of the previous half-century of wasteful public works projects overseen by Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) governments.
The DPJ proposals, many centered around supporting families, have brought childcare measures to the top of the agenda. Other DPJ election pledges include ending the practice of “amakudari” – literally “descent from heaven” – whereby former bureaucrats join companies and quasi-governmental agencies linked to their previous ministerial work. There has been a rush of retired officials into such positions to beat the potential ban.
Aug. 15 brought remembrance services to commemorate Japan’s surrender and the ending of World War II. Aso and the Emperor attended a memorial event in Tokyo where the PM apologized for pain inflicted by Japan, especially on Asian nations. Some parliamentarians on the same day visited the controversial Yasukuni shrine, where Japan’s war dead, including convicted Class A war criminals, are interred. Hatoyama announced support for a non-religious memorial to war dead, where the Emperor, who doesn’t visit Yasukuni, could also pay his respects.
A series of large earthquakes shook Japan, raising fears that they may be a precursor to the “big one” believed by many to be overdue. Two other quakes off the Okinawa islands sparked tsunami warnings. The typhoon which devastated Taiwan, also killed at least 18 people with more still unaccounted for. The first death in Japan from H1N1 was also confirmed, though the victim was already receiving kidney dialysis.
An Iranian scientist, believed to be part of that country’s nuclear weapons program, studied at Tohoku University, learning how to reprocess spent nuclear fuel and raising questions about vetting procedures.
Money: Japan’s GDP rose for first time in five quarters, albeit after crashing harder and longer than elsewhere. Merger and acquisition activity is down 21% this year, with overseas acquisitions hardest hit. At the beginning of the recession many were predicting Japanese companies would go on spending sprees, using their considerable cash piles to take over foreign firms at bargain prices.
Japan’s demographic woes got an unexpected boost from the financial crisis as the number of citizens returning from overseas — due to companies downsizing and parents unable to support children studying abroad — was so large it actually raised the population figure, despite the trend of deaths outstripping births. One industry that looks to be benefiting from the tough economic times is sea fishing. A job fair for the sector reported far more interest than usual.
In another sign of the times, nearly half of Japanese households now own a mini-vehicle, the cheaper fuel-efficient cars that look more attractive than ever. Tax breaks are also helping sales of eco cars, while Toyota has announced plans for a super efficient hybrid that will get 40 kilometers to the liter (about 150 miles to the gallon), and sell for just 1.5 million yen – less than $16,000. The world’s number-one carmaker has raised its forecast for annual global output by 200,000 units, after slashing production earlier in the year.
Like many Japanese industries facing weak domestic demand, sake brewers are looking abroad to boost business. Sake in Japan faces the additional problem of recently being seen as unfashionable old man’s drink.
Stores in Tokyo’s high-end Ginza district are now rolling out the red carpet for big-spending Chinese, in the way shops around the globe used to do for wealthy Japanese tourists.
Elsewhere: No one, criminals nor colleagues, will be pushing around the latest recruit to the Metropolitan Police Department, Kuniaki Shodai, who retired from professional Sumo last month, and will join his two younger brothers as a policeman. His final tournament was the Nagoya Basho, where the (unrelated) presence of senior members of the Kodokai, the leading faction of Japan’s largest Yakuza gang, in exclusive ringside seats, has raised a few eyebrows.
The testing of a concrete canoe turned out to be as tragically bad an idea as it sounds, resulting in the death of one of the two university students carrying out the experiment.