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Hatoyama's Okinawa flip-flop

Okinawa Marine base reversal hurts the PM. A foot-and-mouth outbreak hits a prized beef region. A spaceship attempts the first interplanetary solar-powered flight. GDP grows, but so does debt. Plus, more Sumo trouble, and beards are out in Isezaki.

Top News: Japan is considering fresh sanctions against North Korea, after the impoverished communist state’s sinking of a South Korean naval vessel, killing 46, has raised tensions across the region.

Hilary Clinton’s hastily-arranged four-hour stop in Tokyo may have been designed to show solidarity with Japan, but left nobody in any doubts as to U.S. priorities, with the rest of her week-long trip being spent in South Korea and China. Talks on May 21 with Japan’s Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada covered the response to North Korea and the relocation of the U.S. Marine base in Okinawa.

Two days later Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama finally decided on moving the base to another location within Okinawa, in what is being seen as an embarrassing backpedal after months of prevarication. During last years election campaign, Hatoyama had promised the base would be moved off the island, and possibly outside Japan. His actions have drawn fire from the media and opposition, but praise from the U.S. Secretary of State. The issue may be the final straw for his troubled premiership.

One of the reasons for opposition to the bases has been crimes by military personnel. A Marine who robbed and injured a taxi driver is the first U.S. serviceman to stand trial under Japan’s jury-like lay judge system. Anyone thinking the introduction of the system last year might have reduced the 99 percent-plus conviction rate in criminal trials was sorely mistaken. In the 500 or so trials conducted so far under the new system, every verdict has been guilty. 

In other news, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the Miyazaki area that produces some of the country’s most prized beef is seeing thousands of livestock slaughtered, including 49 prized seed bulls. 

A Tokyo civic group ran an electric car for 27.5 hours for a world record distance of 1,003 kilometers (623 miles) on one charge of a Sanyo lithium-ion battery. 

Meanwhile, the 11th consecutive successful launch using the H-IIA rocket, developed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, took off from the southern island of Tanegashima. It carried into space the AKATSUKI Venus climate observer satellite and five smaller vessels as well as the seminal IKAROS solar-powered craft which will also make its way towards Venus, the first attempt at interplanetary travel using only power from the sun.

Money: The economy continues to improve, with GDP showing strong growthalbeit after some sharp contraction during the recession. The outlook is still far from all rosy, and deflationary worries continuing with average wages having fallen a record 3.3 percent last year, the third consecutive annual drop.

Despite the uptick, public finances continue to deteriorate to mind-bogglingly bad levels unseen anywhere outside Zimbabwe. Finance Minister Naoto Kan's apparently modest goal of preventing the issuance of new government bonds in fiscal 2011 from exceeding this year’s record 44.3 trillion yen ($477.78 billion) is seen by many as an impossibility.  

Japan Post, the nationalized savings institution which is effectively the world’s largest bank, with assets of 190 trillion yen ($2.1 trillion), has been sharply increasing its holdings of foreign government bonds, including U.S. Treasury bills. Still, eighty percent of its holdings are still low-yielding Japanese Government Bonds. U.S. and E.U. officials are unhappy that plans for Japan Post’s privatization have been reversed by the new government. However, the government can’t afford to forgo the deposits through the huge quantities of bonds Japan Post purchases. 

Growth in the ASEAN block of Southeast Asian countries continues to be a key factor in economic recovery for Japan, while growing numbers of increasingly rich Chinese tourists are boosting regional economies. The government plans to relax visa rules to allow Chinese tourists with lower incomes to visit Japan.

Although all eight of Japan’s largest carmakers returned to the black in fiscal 2009 (which ended in March 2010), Toyota’s woes aren’t over as it was forced to announce another domestic recall, this time for its luxury Lexus brand.

Elsewhere: The (official) national sport of Sumo, with its ancient traditions and strict etiquette, is taking more hits to its image with allegations that a top wrestler has been involved in illegal mob-run gambling on baseball (the unofficial national sport — baseball, that is, not illegal mob-run gambling.) Kotomitsuki, holder of the second-highest rank, Ozeki, denies allegations that he is being blackmailed by organized crime elements over heavy gambling debts.

That’s not the only news besmirching the Sumo world. Asashoryu, the former Yokozuna grand champion, was questioned by police over allegations that he assaulted a man while on a drunken rampage in January. The incident is said to have occurred during the Tokyo winter tournament, which Asashoryu won. He retired soon afterwards as a result of the latest allegations in his troubled, though hugely successful, career.

The government of Isesaki City in central Japan has decreed that beards will not be tolerated on municipal workers. ‘‘Some citizens find bearded men unpleasant, so beards are banned,’’ according to an internal notice.

Even though average spending increased on weddings last year, despite the brutal recession, new “smash the rings” divorce ceremonies have also found themselves a market niche.