Tanabata, Temper Tantrums, and the Prime Minister ‘s Woes

The Colonel is ready for Tanabata...

Colonel Sanders is decked out in different seasonal costumes several times a year here in Hadano City, and this past week he’s been celebrating the Star Festival, or “Tanabata”.  The Tanabata Festival comes from China, and is a more romantic version of Groundhog’s Day. Two lovers in the sky (the constellations Vega and Altair, or  Orihime and Hikoboshi in Japanese) are separated by the milky way, and are only allowed to see each other once a year: on the seventh day of the seventh month. If July 7th is rainy or cloudy, it is said that the lovers cannot meet. Whatever the weather, children across the country sing a special song in their Nursery Schools (I think my kids still remember it), and write their heart’s wish on a “fuda”, or vertical strip of paper. Their parents make a small tree of bamboo branches, and children tie their wish onto a branch, along with paper chains, origami ornaments, and anything shiny and festive. These Tanabata trees are seen about town as well, and towns that host yearly festivals with fireworks go all out with more large-scale and elaborate decorations that attract tourists from far and wide.

I love peeking at the childrens’ wishes (this is allowed) whenever I pass a Tanabata display; many are like short letters to Santa, but some are also quite touching. Children pray for the health of their pets, for good grades at school, and this year, for the recovery of the disaster victims of the Tohoku region in Northern Japan. Meanwhile, in Tohoku….NHK News reported that parents at Ishinomaki Elementary School (which lost 68 students, and count 6 still missing) held a Tanabata gathering to pray for the safe return of the missing children.  In Fukushima Prefecture, children made decorations together, many writing on their ofuda that they wished “to play outside again”. Who can blame them? Across the nation, children, their teachers, and their parents, wrote encouraging messages to the people of Tohoku for Tanabata, urging them to “Ganbaru!” (Do your very best) in the face of hardship. This is a good thing, right?

Steve Yamaguchi hard at work (photo by Masaru Komiyaji)

Well, it depends on who you ask.  Steve Yamaguchi, a naturalized Japanese citizen living in Yamagata Prefecture (just North of the worst-hit areas in Tohoku), claims to hate the phrase “Ganbaru” , because of what it implies.  In a recent interview with Mamiko Takahashi of the Asahi Shinbun, Yamaguchi (who arranges tours of the disaster areas for volunteer workers), speaks his mind. “The word oozes with a sense of despair because it implies bearing with an issue that has been forced upon oneself……everyone thinks,’there is nothing I can do, and since I cannot change it, all I can do is do my best.` That also leads to resigning oneself to not always achieving the desired results. ”  Yamaguchi also expressed his frustration with what he sees as “passivity” in the people of Tohoku. “I think everyone should be much more angry at politicians and local government officials….As someone from the Tohoku region, what I am concerned about is the feeling that people are becoming passive and holding the feeling that `someone else will do it for me.`…..A strong leader will not be born unless there are strong followers.”

Yamaguchi’s thoughts echo those of the blogger from Chiba Prefecture who I wrote about in my last post; the guy known as “Our Man in Abiko”.  Our Man was concerned at the number of people still in shelters, speculating that their “patience” was really closer to passivity and lack of courage. My own thought on the matter is that it takes a foreigner living in Japan ( Yamaguchi is a Japanese citizen, but raised and schooled in California) to say what needs to be said, and to do so respectfully as well.  Protests are happening, and people are raising their voices and organizing themselves, but hardly in proportion to the extent of the suffering and indignity that disaster victims are continuing to experience.  Too many people seem to be too quiet, having resigned themselves to waiting rather than taking action. And, as both the blogger from Chiba and Steve Yamaguchi point out, waiting in itself cannot effect change or serve a positive  purpose.

Having said that, let me now introduce a cautionary tale. Saying what you think will never be effective if you do not mind your

Ryu Matsumoto. "Don't blame me, I'm Type B !"

manners. And a big part of manners is simply having empathy: the ability to imagine the feelings and reactions of another. The biggest and most surprising news of the week was the three-day career of the newly-elected Minister of Reconstruction, Ryu Matsumoto. Matsumoto had something to say about passivity as well, but said it badly…. want to hear what happened?  Okay, sit tight. Immediately after his appointment, Matsumoto travelled to Tohoku to meet with local government officials for the first time. In Miyagi Prefecture, he was kept waiting in a reception room, which so offended his pride that he refused to even shake hands with the Miyagi governor when he arrived. “When a guest comes, you have to be present. I will shake your hand after the meeting.” he said, not bothering to hide his irritation.  He then continued on to Iwate Prefecture, where he professed his ignorance of the geography of Northern Japan ( this met with understandable dismay ), and stated, “We (the central government) will help those places that come up with ideas to help themselves, but not those who don’t.”  Finally, Matsumoto, sensing that he might have been out of line, ordered reporters present not to publish those remarks. Well, of course they not only published them, but promptly put a video of the interview up on you tube for all to see.

I happened to be listening to the news as the video clip was aired on NHK, and was aghast. I sometimes have trouble with technical terminology in Japanese, but Matsumoto’s rough language and lack of “keigo” (polite terminology) were perfectly understandable to me. My face burned for the governor of Miyagi as he was left  with his outstretched hand untaken, and my jaw dropped when I heard Matsumoto confess his ignorance of Tohoku geography (“because I’m from Kyushuu”, he explained). The only thing I could not understand was how on earth this man had been chosen for such a crucial appointment, requiring delicacy and diplomatic skill as well as brain power and energy.  Surely the first words from his mouth should have been, “I am so sorry for your loss.”  And as for the issue of passivity, or dependance on central government, surely an encouraging, rather than bullying, approach was in order. And finally….the icing on the cake…..Matsumoto attempted to excuse his behavior. Howso?  By blaming it on his blood type.  “I’m  a Type B .” he explained, noting the Japanese belief that B types can be irritable and quick-tempered.  That finished off any last remnants of sympathy I might have felt for the now-former Reconstruction Minister, who resigned two days later. Whew. Maybe its no wonder that folks in Tohoku have given up hope if that’s the best the central government has to offer.

So the central government is a mess, with the Prime Minister determined to have his way despite the protests of the opposition party and lack of support within his own party as well.  He still promises to step down (“in the future”), but not until three important bills have been passed. The third of these bills, a measure to promote renewable energy sources, is the one that could change Japan for the better. It’s what could shape a new future for the country and turn a disaster into a positive prototype for other nations. I am absolutely in favor of the bill, as are other outspoken anti-nuclear people in the news. Unfortunately, Prime Minister Kan seems to be angering everyone and achieving nothing in his determination to rein in the nuclear power companies. This is not entirely his own fault, but he ultimately absorbs the blame.

For instance (this is a long story, with twists and turns, but it ends up back with the Prime Minister looking bad, I promise), late last week, Kan announced that local officials would be responsible for deciding whether or not off-line reactors would be re-started after their scheduled safety checks (35 of Japan’s 54 reactors are currently closed). The governor of Saga Prefecture in the southern island of Kyuushuu was the first to be requested to decide. Suddenly, a previously unknown political figure from a little-known southern prefecture was big news. Knowing that his decision was a bellwether, as other governors in other Prefectures would be influenced by his decision, Governor Yasushi Furukawa took his responsibility seriously, appearing on TV several times and weighing the pros and cons carefully. “It is easy,” he stated, “to see the business groups who favor restarting the reactors, but the public unease that opposes it is shapeless.” In order to give voice to the “shapeless public unease”, a public hearing,  broadcast on live television, was held. During the meeting, e-mails and faxes from viewers were read on the air; four of the letters read were in favor of re-starting the plant, and Governor Furukawa subsequently decided to do so. I heard the news, was disappointed, and went off to work….only to wake up the next day to a totally different situation.

It seems that many of the e-mails that were sent in to the public hearing were actually faked–written by employees of a subsidiary of Kyushuu Electric Company (these big companies let the little ones do their dirty work) in order to prejudice TV listeners and the Governor of Saga in favor of re-starting. Well!!  Of all the dirty tricks!!  The Governor of Saga was furious, and the Mayor of Genkai (the town in which the plant in question is located) withdrew his support immediately. Still open-mouthed from the Matsumoto scandal, people across the country were yet again disgusted (though there is hardly even an  element of surprise by now. One almost expects the bizarre these days). Plans to re-start the Genkai plant were on hold again, and things were back to where they started, until……the next chapter began.

On Wednesday, July 6th, Prime Minister Kan announced that all off-line reactors would be

Prime Minister Kan is a lonely guy (photo by Kim Kyung-Hoon, Reuters)

subject to “stress tests” before being allowed to re-start, thus negating his previous edict that local officials would be allowed to decide whether to re-start or remain off-line.  The stress tests would take time, and would keep the reactors off-line until sometime in 2012. Well!  The timing was certainly unfortunate. Kan, who had also shouldered the blame for the disastrous appointment of Matsumoto as Reconstruction Minister, was now reviled for backtracking and causing confusion.  Friday’s Asahi Shinbun reported, “Prime Minister Kan’s recent decision to conduct stress tests at all nuclear power plants stunned not only industry ministry officials but also the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency”.  The Governor of Saga and Mayor of Genkai were yet again indignant (all that soul-searching, and going on-line again would not now be possible until 2012 after all!), and Kan’s already tarnished image became blacker still.

Well, thank goodness my husband is an International Political Economist, and news addict. He’s a Professor at the University of Tokyo (I rarely mention this fact, as most Japanese then immediately forget that I exist at all, and wonder if he has a blog or is available for public speaking.  Hopefully you will not leave this blog immediately and try to Google him, but in case you are tempted to try, I refuse to provide his first name ) , and of course, stays on top of what’s happening in the world.  Anyway, he’s the one who informed me, while industriously ironing his own white shirts (so I may use my time to write this entry) that the decision to impose stress tests was not Kan’s decision at all, but an edict from the International Atomic Energy Agency.  “Oh, really?” I thought, and went back through the weeks’ newspaper articles to read more closely. The Asahi Shinbun clearly stated it was Kan’s decision, but the Japan Times (based on an article from Bloomberg news) claimed the order came from the European Commission. Both newspapers agreed that the stress tests would be conducted not just in Japan, but across Europe and in China as well.  So, although the country desperately wants to pin the blame on Kan, it looks like he was simply responding to the dictates of an international committee of experts. It IS a shame that Kan’s proposal for local officials to decide their own fate came before the stress test order, which effectively cancelled it out. Unfortunate timing, a big muddle, and–in the end–a Prime Minister who cannot win the love or trust of his own people. He is a science nerd, and has a vision to change the future of the country, but his own enthusiasm and nerdiness work against him. Such a shame that more people hate him now than ever.

The bottom line is that so far–and we are officially past the rainy season now and into the full heat of summer-the country is managing just fine, even with the majority of nuclear reactors closed down for inspections and upcoming stress tests. Folks across the country, still in shock from the devastation of an entire region, are stubbornly refusing to use air conditioners ( or setting the thermostat almost uncomfortably high), keeping lights dim or off, and finding clever and inventive ways to stay cool without using electricity. I write this seated by an open window to catch the breeze, cooled by a rotating fan, and wearing a plastic pack of water wrapped in a stylish handkerchief around my neck. These little neck-packs

A small-scale "green curtain"...

cost only five dollars at the local drugstore, and are wildly popular with my small students, who have them in a variety of patterns.  Cities and towns are turning off lights, shutting down drink machines, and planting “green curtains” along the sides of public buildings. These are vine-like vegetables and flowers trained to grow up along the building’s side, providing a natural shady curtain and keeping the inner rooms cooler.  Businesses and industries, of course, are a different story, and there are dire predictions for Japan’s economy with the limited supply of energy that will be available in the coming months….or years? But this is my husband’s territory, and it is too soon to say how well companies will manage with the resources available.

The stress tests are a good thing. The fates are working against Prime Minister Kan, but he is committed to reforming a corrupt and undeniably dangerous system that has already crippled a good portion of Japan’s main island, and reverberated through the rest of the country, if not the world. In closing, let me quote from another outsider with an opinion on the situation: the German sociologist Ulrich Beck, who was interviewed in Munich by reporter Hirohito Ohno. Speaking of the advanced age and vulnerability the majority of Japan’s nuclear reactors, Beck made a chilling comparison. “It’s like people are on board an airplane for which there is no landing strip, or they are actally using the brake of a bicycle in an airplane.”…..  Good heavens–let me off the plane at once.  And I will continue to hang my hopes on the Prime Minister, for lack of a more confidence-inspiring and capable leader at present. Hang in there, Kan-san….or should I say, “Ganbatte”?

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