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Sunrise, sunset for LDP

Japan’s longtime dominant party splinters, and its ruling party’s approval plummets – is political crisis looming? Ninety thousand people protest the planned U.S. Marine base in Okinawa. A Chinese helicopter buzzes a Japanese destroyer. Economists fret Japan’s massive public debt. And a 73-year-old woman runs an ultra-marathon – across the Sahara.

 Top News: The disintegration of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which ruled nearly uninterrupted for over half a century before its 2009 defeat, appears to be a step closer. A group of senior lawmakers have broken away, after much speculation. The Sunrise Party of Japan has been formed by former LDP heavyweights and has already attracted criticism for policy incoherence, a lack of fresh ideas, and because the average age of its leaders being around 70. The party is also trying to woo the prime minister’s brother, Kunio Hatoyama, into the fold.

With the opposition in disarray, there is the real possibility of a political vacuum after the summer’s Upper House elections as the ruling Democratic Party of Japan continues to lose support. In the latest poll, its approval rate was as low as 24 percent. A “glaring lack of political leadership” was how an editorial in the Asahi described the cause of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s unpopularity. The liberal Asahi, which should be something of a natural ally to the new government, has been relentless in its criticism — primarily of the Okinawan U.S. Marine base relocation issue. Ninety-thousand protested on Japan’s southernmost island against the new base being located anywhere in the prefecture. 

As if to remind Japan why the US has a military presence in the region, a fleet of 10 Chinese navy ships sailed between the main Okinawa Island and Miyako Island: a maneuver, while technically in international waters, that was guaranteed to raise tensions. When Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force ships sailed to the area in response, a Chinese Navy helicopter buzzed one of the destroyers as close as 30 meters (100 feet), according so some reports. Subsequent reports from Japan’s Defense Ministry have suggested the helicopter may have been ignoring orders from its own mother ship.

Money: Japan’s automakers are increasing global output as demand recovers. Domestic demand, up 10 percent, showed its first increase in seven years as government subsidies for energy-efficient vehicles began to make themselves felt in the market and the economic outlook begins to brighten. Exports jumped 43.5 percent in March, compared to last year, helping Japan record a trade surplus of $10.2 billion for the month.

However, the nation’s public finances continue to test the limits of how much debt a country can shoulder, with economists now seriously considering the prospect of default or bankruptcy. The IMF has warned of the dangers of any further deterioration; meanwhile, a respected corporate turnaround specialist who has previously worked on bailouts of Japan Airlines Corp suggests the country needs to go bankrupt to impart a sense of crisis to the population. Tax hikes, never an easy sell, would seem to be all but inevitable.  

As the new government continues to search for the ‘Maizokin’ or ‘buried treasure’ of cash reserves supposedly held by ministries and other bureaucratic agencies, some are pinning their hopes on hidden bounty of another kind. Japan is to push ahead with a program of seabed extraction of minerals and energy. Full-scale exploration in Japanese territorial waters are to be approved by the government in the hope it will deliver substances including methane hydrate which is expected to be commercialized as an energy source by 2020. Exploration in the 340,000 square kilometer of seas around Japan has the potential to cause friction with China, Korea and Russia, all of which have territorial disputes with Tokyo over offshore areas.

The beginning of the new financial year on April 1 saw the mergers of 10 major firms formally completed; an unusually high rate of M&A activity in Japan, prompted to some extent by the economic crisis.  

Elsewhere: An unemployed man was convicted of stealing 2.5 yen’s (3 cents) worth of electricity from a shared outlet in his apartment building, and given a one-year suspended sentence. The prosecution had sought one-year prison term. The cost of the prosecution and trial were not disclosed.

In other major crime news, two police officers waited in a closet for three hours on six consecutive evenings in their relentless pursuit of an underworld mastermind. The two daring detectives eventually nabbed the 16-year-old master thief as he stole 862 yen ($9) from an old man. He had allegedly carried out similar crimes with the same modus operandi on two previous occasions.

Meanwhile, over in Osaka, more heroics, as a young woman is saved from a burglar by her boyfriend. The intruder turned out to be an acquaintance of the boyfriend who had arranged the incident in order to impress his sweetheart, as she was attempting to break-up with him. The two male university students were caught on security camera walking together and have been arrested for trespass and violent behavior.

A 73-year-old woman from Saitama, north of Tokyo, ran the 250 kilometer (155 mile) Marathon des Sables across the Sahara desert, beating the time she set last year in the same race.