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Making nice at APEC

APEC confabs. Lay judges choose death. Yakuza gang crackdown. Bird-flu outbreak. Whalers finally depart. Mixed economic signals. Lots of computers but not so many cars. Panasonic playing games. And a heavyweight burglar.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan


Top News: The APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit held in Yokohama, just south of Tokyo, on Nov. 14-15, saw Prime Minister Naoto Kan attempting to defuse regional tensions over territorial disputes, through meetings with the leaders of China and Russia. Meanwhile, President Obama took the opportunity to reiterate U.S. commitment to its security alliance with Japan. The leaders of all 21 member countries agreed to work towards a giant free-trade area across the Pacific Rim, and common strategies for growth. 

The death penalty was handed down by a panel of lay judges and professional judges on Nov. 16 for a double murder-robbery, the first such sentence since the introduction of the jury-like system last year. A week later on Nov. 25 a 19-year-old youth – still classified as a minor in Japan – was sentenced to death, also for a double murder. The defendant was age 18 at the time of the crime; the age of majority in Japan is 20. He cannot be named in the media as he is a minor, and in an unusual turn of events, the presiding judge urged him to appeal the sentence despite his guilty pleas.

A crackdown on the once almost untouchable yakuza gangs is continuing to gather steam. The Number Two in Japan’s largest crime syndicate, the Yamaguchi-gumi, was arrested on Nov. 18 in a dawn raid involving 140 police officers on his Kobe residence. Kiyoshi Takayama has been charged with extorting 40 million yen ($475,000) from a construction business through the boss of a subordinate gang. Takayama, head of the ruling Kodo-kai faction, has been the acting godfather since the 2005 imprisonment on firearms charges of Shinobu Tsukasa, official Number One of the Kodo-kai and Yamaguchi-gumi. Dec. 1 saw the organization’s Number Three arrested for paying money to the family of an imprisoned mob hit-man. That puts the nation’s top three gangsters behind bars, though Tsukasa is due for release April next year. The Yamaguchi-gumi has between 40,000 and 50,000 members under its umbrella.

The Japanese whaling fleet finally left port in December, the latest departure date in recent years for its annual hunt to the Southern Oceans, delayed by difficulties in securing a refueling ship. Following last season’s clashes with Sea Shepherd anti-whaling activists, the ships are to have officers from Japan’s Coast Guard — the de facto navy — stationed on board. Sea Shepherd’s new boat, “Gojira” (Godzilla) is already waiting for the whale-hunting fleet.

More than 21,000 chickens were slaughtered in Japan’s first outbreak of bird-flu this winter; five chickens had tested positive for the deadly H5N1 virus on Nov. 29.

Money: The Nikkei climbed to a five-month high on Dec. 2 as economic data, including a recovery in capex spending, lifted sentiment. However, observers pointed out that the rise in GDP may be deceptive as it is due to exceptional circumstances such as a rush to take advantage of government stimulus measures before they came to an end.

Steelmakers are following carmakers and taking production overseas as their customers move and the yen continues strong against the dollar. Automotive manufacturers are meanwhile looking to shift even more production offshore. Toyota and Honda Motor Corps are targeting India’s burgeoning market for small cars with vehicles priced at under 1 million yen ($13,000), keeping costs down by sourcing local suppliers for parts.

Japan’s three main mobile carriers are ramping up their smartphone offerings for a market that has been so far dominated by the iPhone. All the new handsets are equipped for e-money and ‘one-seg’ free digital TV viewing, two features that Apple’s big-selling device — the first foreign handset to make any impression in Japan — lacks but have been standard on domestic phones for years.  

LCD panel production is also under pressure as Sony ends its tie-up with Sharp to source more units from Taiwan. A rare manufacturing bright spot is computers, where shipments hit record levels in the April-September period, topping 7 million units for the first time, with makers NEC and Fujitsu taking the top two sales spots.

Panasonic is to re-enter the video game market with a portable console — tentatively named “Jungle” — designed for the growing online gaming market. The new foldable game machine will have a keyboard and touch pad controls. The consumer electronics giant made a brief foray into the game sector with its own console in the mid-90s but withdrew after failing to make an impact. The “free” online game business in Japan is now hugely profitable as players buy special items for use in games played predominantly on mobile phones. The two largest providers, Mogabe Town and Gree, have overtaken the automotive and electronics giants as the biggest TV advertisers since the economic crisis.

Products to help people quit smoking have been doing a roaring trade since a tax hike in October that raised cigarettes to 400 yen ($4.75) a pack.

Elsewhere: Could there be any worse candidate for a cat burglar than a sumo wrestler? It seems not. A 17-year-old professional wrestler broke into a cafe at 4 a.m. on Dec. 5, and after searching in vain for valuables — and apparently not food — decided to tiptoe up to the living quarters above, waking the sleeping occupant. The woman recognized the heavyweight intruder as he was a regular customer when on tour in the area. Police arrested the hapless would-be thief who told them he was short of money. Although top-ranking wrestlers do rake in the cash, lesser wrestlers have to get by on minimal wages.

The list of kanji (Chinese characters) that the education ministry decrees is required for everyday life has been expanded by 196 to 2,136 characters. Included in the new list is the 29-stroke character for depression, recognizing its increasing prevalence in Japanese society.

A chain of gun stores went on strike in protest at even stricter control laws. Under the new law, potential gun owners must present the results of a diagnosis by a psychiatrist or other qualified doctor and take a training course at a shooting range when they renew their license every three years.