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Prosecutors finally target campaign finance scandals

The China-U.S. relationship will dominate the APEC agenda this year as Japan takes the reigns. Three top teachers union members are arrested over a political funding scandal. The strength of the tsunami caused by the Chilean earthquake is overestimated, prompting governmental apologies. A record number of refugees are allowed to stay in the country. A record $1 trillion government budget is passed. Average incomes are down, and the number of families living in poverty is up. Nissan, Suzuki and Daihatsu also announce recalls. Newspapers charge for online content. And the Prime Minister enjoys Tweeting.

Top News:  Japan has taken up chairmanship of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) for 2010 – member countries of which now account for half the global economy — as the relationship between China and the U.S. in the forum looks to dominate the year’s agenda.

The political funding scandal surrounding the Democratic Party of Japan continues to deepen as three teachers union senior members are arrested. Japan’s public prosecutors appear to be pursuing these illegal donations cases with a zeal that was conspicuous by its absence during the 55-year tenure of the more conservative Liberal Democratic Party.

The Chilean earthquake was predicted to cause a major tidal wave on the shores of Japan, and over half a million people were told to evacuate.  Highways and train lines were disrupted only for the Meteorological Agency to later apologize for overestimating the strength of the tsunami, which turned out to be mostly a non-event on the Japanese coast. 

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s omission of any criticism of Japan in a speech commemorating his country’s independence movement is taken as a sign of improved relations.

Japan, infamous for its unwelcoming attitude to foreign refugees, allowed 531 – a record high – to stay in 2009, though only 30 were given official refugee status. Most of the 531 are from Burma (Myanmar).

Tokyo Sky Tree, the metropolis’ new digital transmitting facility, has reached 330 meters (984 feet) and will be the world's tallest self-standing tower at 634 meters (2,080 feet) when it’s completed. The current facility, the iconic Tokyo Tower, is working hard to remain a tourist attraction.  

Money: Speculation is increasing both domestically and overseas on the sustainability of the enormous national debt. The record $1 trillion budget, passed on March 2, will do nothing to help in that direction, as around half of it is financed with new government bonds.

Meanwhile, household spending rose for the sixth month on the bounce in January, further easing fears of a double-dip slowdown, although average incomes have continued to slide downwards over the same period, but paid overtime is rising slightly. To add to the mixed economic messages, unemployment took an unexpected dip at the start of the year, while social workers are struggling to cope with their caseload due to an increasing number of families living in poverty.

Toyota’s president, Akio Toyoda, followed his apologies in the U.S. with a stop-off in China on the way back, where the world’s largest automaker is conducting a much smaller recall in what is now the world’s biggest auto market. Back in Japan, Nissan, Suzuki and Daihatsu have all recently announced recalls which would have barely made the news if it hadn’t been for Toyota’s front-page woes.

Japanese firms, particularly trading houses, are on a global quest for copper assets, which are predicted to be in high demand in the future, while Chinese firms are taking over more Japanese firms, not to the delight of everyone.

Japanese newspapers, whose circulation has held up relatively well compared to those of most countries, are beginning to charge for online content. The country’s last “Newspaper Train,” which have delivered evening editions to areas that were hard to reach by road, will make its final run on March 12, when truck deliveries will take over the route.

Elsewhere: Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has apparently been enjoying communicating his message without pesky journalists and opponents asking difficult questions, by tweeting to his hearts content.

The captain of an anti-organized crime unit that was investigating the shooting of a police officer in Yokohama by a member of Japan’s biggest gang, the Yamaguchi-gumi, was unhappy at the lack of a fridge in the task force offices. He must have been relieved then when a member of a rival gang, the Inagawa-kai, took care of his cooler concerns, providing a fridge for the team. The same upstanding lawman has previously been cautioned for sexual harassment and is currently being investigated for sliding off to the gym when he should have been at work.

Former New York Yankees pitcher Maximo Nelson has been suspended from his current team, the Chunichi Dragons, after a live bullet was found in his bag at the airport in Okinawa as he returned from training camp.  No explanation has yet emerged as to why he was carrying the ammunition, and no guns or bullets were found in a police search of his home. Nelson lost his U.S. work permit when he was found to be involved in fraudulently obtaining visas for women from his native Dominican Republic.