No.5 - Discuss Japan

Archives : No.5

Feb–Mar 2011

Economy, No.5  Mar. 31, 2011


February brought a shocking piece of news to Japanese people. They learned that their country has become a net importer of consumer electronics–the very goods it had once exported to every corner of the globe. It had already become clear previously that Japan had become an importer of large household appliances, such as washing machines and refrigerators, but statistics for 2010 show that Japan has also become a net importer of digital consumer goods, such as flat-screen TVs. This is not due simply to an increase in imports of goods from overseas. A major underlying factor is that Japanese consumer electronics makers have shifted their production offshore. One manifestation of this can be seen in the electronics megastores in Tokyo’s Akihabara district. Many among the increasing number of Chinese tourists to Japan look forward to shopping at stores in this district. But since last ... ... [Read more]

Culture, No.5
Mar. 30, 2011


The superflat landscape of Shibuya ©Igarashi Tarō A new type of twenty-first-century cityscape stretches out in front of Tokyo’s Shibuya station. When the lights change on the “scramble crossing” in front of the station, waves of pedestrians surge across the street from all directions. It is a space where things never stand still; where movement never ceases. Unlike the plazas and open squares of the West, people here never stop moving. The area is dominated on all sides by the huge video screens on buildings like Q-Front, which arrived in the area in 1999, and the 109-2 building. It is a landscape of vast advertising signs and high-rise structures full of the machines and automated application centers belonging to consumer loan companies. The city overflows with a stream of... [Read more]

Culture, No.5
Mar. 29, 2011


The HAL (Hybrid Assistive Limb) robot suit that I developed at a university research center can amplify, extend, and supplement the bodily movements of the wearer. The suit, in the form of a robotic exoskeleton, is equipped with sensors that pick up on the weak bioelectrical signals that are detectable when a person is about to move an arm or leg, and a mechanism allows the suit to assist whatever movement a person intends to make. The robot suit can assist walking and rehabilitation of those whose bodies are too weak to move about freely or those with physical disabilities. There are high expectations for this device, which has been the focus of attention as the world’s first cyborg robot. In the years to come, with the aging of Japan’s population, the role played by technology will become even more important. Recognizing this, I ... ... [Read more]

Politics, No.5
Mar. 28, 2011


Ever since the Social Democratic Party withdrew from the ruling coalition in May 2010, Japan’s National Diet has been split, with the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and People’s New Party holding a majority in the House of Representatives but not in the upper house, the House of Councillors. And the July 2010 election for the upper house further reduced the DPJ’s strength in the chamber. So securing passage of legislation through the House of Councillors has become a major issue, and attention has come to focus on this house’s role. Nishioka Takeo, who was elected president of the House of Councillors following the July 2010 election, has been commenting more openly than previous holders of this post about current political affairs. We asked him to be interviewed for Japan Echo Web, and he agreed. In this interview, I asked President Nishioka for his ... ... [Read more]

Economy, No.5
Feb. 7, 2011


Change may finally have begun. In the third quarter of 2010, capital investment grew above the level a year earlier for the first time in three and a half years. Shipments of machine tools expanded strongly during the second half of 2010. Early in 2011 Hitachi, Ltd., which has been one of the slowest of Japan’s major corporations to shake up its management, announced that it was reorganizing its operations and reforming its research setup. And even Japan Airlines (JAL), which appeared to be having a hard time restructuring to head off bankruptcy, now seems poised to fly into clear skies. Signs of a business revival are turning up here and there. To be sure, it is still too early to determine whether these scattered developments are indications of a broad-based recovery from the corporate malaise that appears to be the root cause of ... ... [Read more]

Culture, No.5
Feb. 6, 2011


INTERVIEWER On June 13 last year the asteroid explorer Hayabusa returned to Earth seven years after its launch. The spacecraft itself was consumed in flames as it made its reentry, but it delivered its precious capsule safely to the ground. Many Japanese were deeply moved by this accomplishment. I am sure there were many difficulties involved in the project, but could I ask you each to cite the three most difficult points you experienced? KAWAGUCHI JUN’ICHIRŌ The first was the touchdown on and takeoff from the asteroid Itokawa. The second was late in 2005, as Hayabusa headed away from Itokawa and back toward Earth, when we lost communications with the spacecraft and didn’t know where it was. The third was when its ion-propulsion engines died while the mission was still in progress. The pressure was especially great at the time of the... [Read more]

Discussions, No.5
Feb. 5, 2011


KŌNO MICHIKAZU I understand this office is a converted rice warehouse that you had moved here from Shimane Prefecture back when you first opened your own design studio in 2000, and furthermore that you were personally responsible for everything from the architectural and interior design to the hiring and supervising of contractors. YOSHIOKA TOKUJIN I wanted to do something completely new but within my resources, which were limited. Since many of my clients are from overseas, I wanted to build a studio that would appeal to them and to present something uniquely Japanese to the world. My idea was to incorporate both Japanese tradition and futuristic elements. So I decided to create contemporary architecture out of a 150-year-old structure. Traditional Japanese houses typically use local materials, like timber and clay. I wanted to use the local materials of contemporary Tokyo,... [Read more]

Economy, No.5
Feb. 4, 2011


In the wake of the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008 and the financial crisis that ensued, the traditional forms of macroeconomic policy lost their effectiveness as tools for managing the US economy. This has compelled the United States to change the direction of its economic policy. The Obama administration, recognizing that its fiscal and monetary policy mix was not expanding effective demand, has launched an effort to create jobs, using exports as the bridgehead. This policy is aimed at doubling exports within five years, based on the idea that the employment situation is unlikely to improve without an export-driven expansion of the economy. Doubling exports within five years will require an average annual increase of 15%. The participation of the United States in the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership (TPP) emerged in this context. Originally, the TPP was conceived as a... [Read more]

Culture, No.5
Feb. 3, 2011


Hagio Moto is today a leading figure in Japan’s manga industry–indeed, in the country’s cultural sphere as a whole. Her oeuvre is broad and deep, with representative works including Pō no ichizoku (The Poe Clan), a depiction of beautiful vampires; Tōma no shinzō (The Heart of Thomas), about life in a boys’ boarding school in Germany; 11 nin iru! (trans. They Were Eleven), a science-fiction masterpiece; and the psychological thriller Zankoku na kami ga shihai suru (A Savage God Reigns) (all published by Shōgakukan). These have earned her many devoted readers, particularly women, who eagerly look forward to immersing themselves in the next weekly or monthly installment of her work and experiencing her delicate artistic touch, captivating characters, and thrilling dialogue. In 2009 Hagio celebrated the fortieth anniversary of her debut as a manga artist. Her creative spark shows no... [Read more]

Economy, No.5
Feb. 2, 2011


The employment prospects for graduates entering the job market this year are reportedly the worst on record. This is not because companies are performing especially badly–at least not yet. Results at Japan’s big corporations in particular are not markedly worse than they have been for several years. But recruitment indicators at the big firms are dire. Though small and medium-sized enterprises are much more positive about hiring new employees, new graduates have their sights set on finding a job with a big company–preferably a major blue-chip firm offering maximum security. I am a father myself, with children in college and high school. My work as chief operating officer at the Industrial Revitalization Corporation of Japan also gave me an opportunity to study the structural problems inherent in Japanese corporate culture at close range. The impression I have of young people today based on my ... ... [Read more]

Economy, No.5
Feb. 1, 2011


What is to blame for the tough employment situation facing new graduates in recent years? One popular argument that appears plausible at first glance points to the Japanese system of lifetime employment as the root of the problem. Basically, the argument goes as follows. Lifelong employment means that Japanese companies are unable to dismiss full-fledged “regular” company employees, protecting the vested interests of older employees and making it difficult for the poor young things leaving university to find permanent positions. As a result, they are forced to take jobs as irregular hired labor. The remedy normally put forward by proponents of this argument is to make the employment system more flexible. In plain terms, this usually means making it easier to offload the useless old codgers and hiring young people to take their place. Let me start with my conclusion: This argument is nonsense. ... ... [Read more]