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DPJ tastes early defeat

New PM Naoto Kan upsets voters with tax hike talk. Are the National Police violating tradition and waging war on a powerful yakuza gang? China buys record Japanese debt. Nissan imports cars into Japan, a first. And some very smart monkeys escape.


Top News: Just nine months after its historic election victory that ended over half a century of conservative rule by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has managed to lose a leader and an election, after its defeat in the Upper House poll on July 12.

With the less powerful upper chamber now lacking a majority party, and with the lower chamber coalition crumbling over the Okinawan base and the post office privatization, the country faces the prospect of political gridlock. At a time when decisive political action is required on issues such as the ballooning public deficit and demographic time-bomb, a weakened prime minister in a weakened party, will struggle to pass major policy legislation.

The defeat was widely blamed on Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s clumsy handling of the issue of doubling the rate of consumption (sales) tax to 10 percent, even though the policy was almost identical to that of the opposition LDP.

Post-election, support for the Kan cabinet dropped further, to 38 percent, with 54 percent of those polled welcoming the loss of the coalition’s majority. The same survey showed the disapproval rate had surpassed the approval rate for the first time since the cabinet was launched.

The sharp drop in popularity and electoral defeat for a prime minister who at least seemed different to the string of privileged sons of political dynasties who had been in the post, has once again thrown up the question of whether Japan is governable by anyone.

What appeared to many to be just another set of sumo scandals – illegal betting on baseball and VIP tickets for gang bosses – looks now to be something far more significant: an all out bid by the police to take down Japan’s most powerful and dangerous yakuza (mafia) faction. The National Police Agency has formed a special unit dedicated to destroying the Kodo-kai, the current leading faction of the Yamaguchi-gumi, the nation’s largest criminal organization with an estimated 40,000 members.

The exposure of deep ties to the sumo world appears to be a weapon in the battle against the Yamaguchi-gumi. The Kodo-kai group in particular have not been following the unwritten rules on how the yakuza and police coexist in Japanese society, that have allowed the gangs to operate relatively openly providing they cooperate with police when necessary.

Just when the Japan Sumo Association may have thought the worst of the heat was moving onto other targets, a legendary ex-grand champion, and current board member of the governing body, Takanohana, was reported to have been associating with gang bosses while on a recruiting tour.

Money: The IMF meanwhile has recommended Japan could raise its sales tax even higher than the prime minister had suggested, to 15 percent, in order to address the vast budget deficit. Like the US, Japan is now getting help to fund its fiscal deficit, from China. Its giant northern neighbor bought 694.8 billion yen ($7.9 billion) worth of Japanese government bonds in May alone, bringing its total purchases to about 1.28 trillion yen ($14.7 billion) in the first five months of the year. That’s five times more than the previous annual record set for the whole of 2005.

In a sign of the times move, Nissan started selling its new Thai-manufactured March mini-car in Japan, the first domestic automaker to import a mass-produced, foreign-made model of its own into the home market. Nissan is shifting manufacture of the March to Thailand, India, China and Mexico after ceasing production in Japan. Mitsubishi Motors is set to follow suit in a similar move with one of its models.

Elsewhere: The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology is planning to promote sports among young people, who exercise less than older Japanese, and will help them find partners, in a bid to address the low-birth rate at the same time.

A dozen smart monkeys from a research facility at Kyoto University broke out of the center by using tree branches as slingshots to propel themselves over a 17-foot-high electrified fence. Five of the monkeys took the shine off their display of superior intelligence by being lured back into the center with peanuts. The monkeys may have had a sneak peak at a report produced by the university and been attempting to escape the fate of 44 monkeys who have died since 2001 of unknown causes, in captivity around Japan. There are no reports yet whether the remaining fugitive monkeys have managed to locate and learn to operate one of the new banana vending machines

It’s always nice to know what the police are up to when they’re off-duty and not protecting the public from ruthless gangsters. Unfortunately, there seems to be regular stream of them who let off steam by taking pictures up young women’s skirts. The latest miscreant, a head patrol officer, was apprehended by a female bystander as he took video up a customer’s skirt in a Yokohama bookstore.