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Japanese journalist killed in Burma (or should that be Myanmar…. hmmm) September 28, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in Politics.

[Update 9/28. see link in Durf’s comment to see what stray fire looks like in Myanmar. The Japanese government will “lodge a protest”. Pathetic, as usual]

So, the Japanese news is running reports that a Japanese cameraman was killed in Rangoon (or should that be Yangon). The official reports from Burmese (Myanmarese?) authorities say that they found some bodies including that of the Japanese cameraman with gunshot wounds. “Stray fire”, allegedly.

I’m thinking it is not likely that the average Buddhist monk protestor is packing a piece.

On the other hand, it isn’t unheard of for authorities to “accidentally” shoot media personnel. By firing a HEAT round from a 120mm smoothbore at a hotel, or using a Galil or Mauser or similar, for example. (Or A-10 Thunderbolt II’s firing AGM-65 Maverick guided air to ground missiles at TV stations) I suspect the Burmese military junta’s thugs police and riot squad are even more liberal with their use of firearms if they think no-one is watching…

Anyway, it is interesting to note the fact that the Japanese press refer to the country as Myanmar, whilst the British and US press prefer to stick with Burma, in apparent protest at the fact that it was the military junta who insituted the name change. Japan was of course one of the first nations to recognise the military junta.

In contrast to the widespread public pressure in Europe and the US targetting companies with activities in Burma, there doesn’t seem to be a similar awareness in Japan. Part of this maybe due to the historically close ties between the two nations but is probably for the most part another indication of the closeness of ties between political and business interests in Japan, aided and abetted by the media, of course….. Japanese companies usually hide behind the excuse that politics is for the government and politicians to deal with and that they defer to government policy regarding foreign relations. Given the Japanese government is less than forceful in its foreign policy, that is a nice cop-out. A representative sample of Japanese companies with a Burmese presence is here(Mitsui, Marubeni, Suzuki, Fujitsu, Tasaki Shinju are named). It is far from a comprehensive list, other major trading companies (Mitubishi Corp, Sojitz) are also there or have found creative ways to make money from Burma related business (eg Mitsubishi Corp selling goods to French oil company Total for its exploration business in Burma but insisting it is working with Total HQ in France), and the big one missing is Nippon Oil Corporation. I do understand the argument against economic sanctions (it hurts the downtrodden innocent general population before it hurts the ruling class…etc), but when was the last time providing non-democratic governments with a financial lifeline made these people turn around and see the light? And no-one seems to have an issue with boycotting corporations. Is there such a fundamental difference?

Kicking Away the Ladder September 15, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in Economy & Business, History.
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(Something I had begun writing more than a month ago and was sitting in my drafts folder)

For people who are interested in the hows and whys of historical successes in economic development, and especially the impact of foreign trade and the conditions thereof (and who isn’t?), this piece in the Independent is a good place to start.

If that piques your interest, Ha-Joon Chang’s “Kicking Away the Ladder” itself is also a good read.

Of course, economic development of entire nations does not rise or fall on just one issue, however given the fairly one-sided debate (discounting the failed economic models which continue to have religious adherents) which conveniently glosses over significant historical facts, it is heartening to see a piece in the mainstream press (albeit in the Indy which many may(!) consider left of centre) which challenges the dogma that a strict form of free market capitalism is the best model for the economic development of a developing nation (especially in a highly assymetric environment with powerful external forces), and might persuade some people to dig into the matter in more detail.

When I first read Kicking Away the Ladder, what struck me most was the (re-)realization that formal history education is sorely lacking. People harp on about how the Japanese education system’s history text books are inaccurate (or gloss over awkward issues), but I certainly saw little evidence of any attempt at tackling the multi-dimensional nature of historical events in any of the other attempts at taught history in any other country either.

British media on Abe and post-Abe September 15, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in Japan, Politics.
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Gen writes:

“This is just embarrassing:
British newspapers call for dynamic PM, slam Abe’s record

British newspapers were united Thursday in their calls for Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party to appoint a reforming and dynamic leader following Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s abrupt resignation on Wednesday.

All agreed Abe’s performance had been poor on the domestic front but commended his rapprochement with China and South Korea.

The Times was particularly strong in its criticism of Abe. It claimed that following his party’s defeat in recent upper house elections, he brought back the Old Guard into the Cabinet. This showed Abe was still tied to the old system of factions and political dynasties which has held Japan back previously. It states the fact that Aso is seen as a favorite to succeed Abe shows that the LDP has not really changed.

Well, if they want someone to continue the apparent thaw with China, Fukuda is the man (although he does look a bit like an orang-utang. I do like his wry sense of humour, and he certainly has more depth than Abe, not that that is a challenge).

Given my recent conjecture regarding Koizumi’s growing influence, it should be mentioned that Koizumi and Fukuda have a long history, and despite the apparent distance between them in recent years, Koizumi did his political apprenticeship under Takeo Fukuda, Yasuo’s father, and it should be no surprise to see Koizumi endorse Fukuda this time around. (Note however, that Koizumi’s sidekick Iijima and Fukuda don’t get along, hence Iijima tendering his resignation to Koizumi apparently in protest at Koizumi’s support of Fukuda)

As for The Times’ insightful commentary regarding Abe’s ties to the old system…. Duh. It would have been surprising to see Abe, from a blueblood political dynasty, do any different, regardless of rhetoric about moving on from the post-war regime. The only thing Abe/LDP and Ozawa/DPJ share is a wish to move to a two party system. That would be great if the two parties reflected genuine choices….

Of course, neither Aso or Fukuda are likely to be any different on this matter, both of them again being hereditary politicians.

Aso and Abe are of course distant relatives (Aso’s aunt married the cousin of Abe’s grandfather and great-uncle). Abe’s grandfather was PM Kishi, whose brother Eisaku Sato was also PM. Aso’s father-in-law was PM Zenko Suzuki, and both ex-PM Kiichi Miyazawa (Aso and Miyazawa’s cousin both married PM Suzuki’s children) and ex-PM Ryutaro Hashimoto (whose wife’s grandfather was the brother of Abe’s paternal grandmother) are also connected. That makes it 6 prime ministers in that (very) extended family.

Lest it be forgotten, Aso’s youngest sister married into the Imperial Household and is now Princess Nobuko. Another interesting fact- Taro Aso is roman catholic, due to the influence of his grandmother (whose influence also led to Shigeru Yoshida converting just prior to his death – Yoshida had a roman catholic funeral as well as a state funeral along more traditional Japanese lines), and his younger sister went to a finishing school in Kent with roman catholic ties….

Anyway, a choice quote from the Guardian piece:

“[…] Japan also needs a leader who can straddle the world stage.

Mr Aso is unlikely to be such a man. His favourite subject is talking about manga comic books.”

Really? Aso, whilst certainly prone to foot in mouth disease, and apparently not a man of tact or subtlety, at least in public, he has been Foreign Minister and has more international exposure than most Japanese politicians. He has a decent command of English (at least good enough for reading speeches).

He spent time at both Stanford and the London School of Economics as a postgraduate. He never did finish his masters degree at either. It is reputed that he was forced by his maternal grandfather to quit Stanford and move to the UK. His grandfather apparently visited him when Taro was at Stanford, and was distraught that he was picking up an American accent Apparently his grandfather told his mother to tell Taro to move to the UK immediately. LOL.

So, having moved on to the LSE, he again was ordered back to Japan before he could finish his studies.

Aso recalls this series of events in a recent speech.

Aso’s maternal grandfather is ex-PM Shigeru Yoshida, of course.

If Koizumi’s tenuous connections to the University of London are such a big deal and qualifies him as some sort of globally minded politician, Aso actually studying at Stanford and LSE as a postgrad certainly qualifies him to at least the same degree.

Anyway, none of this matters, because it seems that Fukuda is a certainty for the top job, unless someone can find some juicy scandal before the 23rd.

How long will the PV venture funding boom continue? September 14, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in Economy & Business, Energy, Japan, Overseas.
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Lots of and lots of money being ploughed into photovoltaics at the moment, especially hot is non-Si thin film solar. Nanosolar, Heliovolt, Miasole, Solyndra, DayStar, the list goes on. Each one has raised tens of millions of $ of VC financing. Most of these non-Si PV companies are doing CIGS (Cu-In-Ga-Se) thin films or variations thereof, but it seems things are not going to plan in the world of thin film solar ventures. Lots of reported management changes, including this latest one, but the money keeps pouring in.

It appears the companies are finding the transition from the lab to factory a bit more difficult than they had imagined.

To be fair, First Solar (NASDAQ:FSLR)seems to be doing great, recently closing a $1B+ deal with EdF. (Current market cap $7.2B) They have a different technology, based on a CdTe thin film process.

Meanwhile, Si-based PVs keep on being cranked out, and the supply side issues for Si are being addressed with PV grade Si production ramping up.

Of course, some people are further along the path to mass production CIGS-type PV cell production. Whilst Japan is recognized as a significant player in Si PV production, the competition to the thin film PV ventures from Japanese interests have not really been convered in much detail (the cleantech community seems aware of these Japanese players, but the investment community seems to prefer to pretend this competition does not exist). You see statements like this from the above CNET article –

“CIGS aren’t in mass manufacturing yet anywhere and cracking that problem is proving tricky. There are several companies trying to bring products out and each has a slightly different manufacturing technique.”

Honda Soltec, a 100% subsidiary of Honda Motor Company, has been selling CIGS modules since June 2007. Soltec’s manufacturing facility is currently just 27.5MW/yr, but it is expected that Honda will ramp up as large scale manufacturing techniques are validated.

Showa Shell also announced that they are building a second factory to produce CIS based modules adding a further 60MW/yr to the current 20MW/yr from their first factory which began operations last year.

Both companies have years/decades of R&D behind them, and they have immense resources in manufacturing at their disposal. I know what kind of company I would bet on to succeed in the lab to mass production transition, all else being equal. (My investment thesis focuses on this qualifier. There are plenty of areas for improvement in the current state of the art in thin film manufacturing)

Interesting to note, both companies have their PV factories in Kyushu. Kyushu, which was already dubbed Silicon Island due to its strength in the semiconductor sector (major players with production facilities include Sony, Toshiba, Mitsubishi Electric, Rohm, Toyoda Gosei, TI Japan,Canon, Kyocera, Renesas, NEC, AKM, Matushita, Yamaha, Pioneer) is rapidly becoming photovoltaic island as well, with Honda Soltec and Showa Shell being joined by players such as Fuji Electric and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (both a-Si manufacturers), and SUMCO recently announcing that they are building a new PV silicon wafer plant in Imari with a n equivalent capacity of 300MW/yr.

Was a financial scandal the reason for Abe’s departure? September 13, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in Japan, Politics.
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Local sources are saying that Shukan Gendai magazine will publish an article in this week’s edition (out on Saturday 15th) regarding financial transactions which are tantamount to tax evasion.

The story goes like this: When Shintaro Abe, also a prominent LDP politician during his time (he served ministereal posts at MAFF and MITI as well as the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, and also served as LDP General Secretary), passed away in 1991, he donated his estate to his own political organization, thereby allowing his son (sons?) to evade paying inheritence tax. The amount of tax which would otherwise have been payable is quoted as being as much as JPY300M.

Whilst the incident happened too long ago for there to be any legal implications, because of the large sum of money involved, and the fact that this method of avoiding tax is only available to people who control their own political organizations, it is forseeable that such facts would lead to criticism of politicians using their special status, taking advantage of mechanisms available to a select few to avoid paying taxes like every other normal person.

Whilst donations are not forbidden per se, if the donation appears to have been made as a method of avoiding tax, it would have been a huge blow to an administration which has had more than its fair share of financial scandals. This may be the biggest (at least in terms of sum) of them all.

The really interesting question which arises from this is, how common a practice is this within political circles? Japanese media is so often just content with focusing on one specific target, even when practices are fairly widespread.

There are so many hereditary politicians in Japanese politics, I hope someone will have a good look at the financial circumstances of all of these political family businesses. (currently about 40% of LDP diet members are 2nd or 3rd generation politicians)

[I personally think this scandal, even if it proves to be true, would not have been, in isolation, enough to tip Abe over the edge. I think that he has been told by people like Koizumi and Mori, and also by GWB that they aren’t going to stand by him any longer. Note the change in GWB’s language at the APEC summit, compared to previous meetings where he was clearly more buddy-buddy with his lapdog Shinzo]

Guess who gets Comsn’s care businesses? September 13, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in crime, Economy & Business, Japan, Society.
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A previous post relating to Comsn’s divestiture of its care businesses.

Comsn has announced their plans for divesting their care businesses.

The residential home business goes to Nichii Gakkan.

The homebound care businesses are to be divested on a prefecture by prefecture basis (PR). Japan Care Service gets 13 prefectures, Nichii gets 5. (Various others make up the balance)

Why do I mention Nichii and JCS? Because they were both also implicated by the Tokyo metropolitan government for illegal practices.

I guess Comsn/GWG’s statement regarding their selection of buyers for the businesses – specifically that part about selecting buyers who can show that they are lawabiding corporate citizens with solid compliance trackrecords – has gone out the window.

As I had predicted, the MHLW seems to be spinning this as a Comsn problem, they announced that the amount Comsn has been billing illegally now stands at nearly JPY1.5B. No mention of other companies in the report, though.

I guess they have managed to do their job and make everyone forget that it isn’t just a Comsn problem. The fact that the mainstream media is willing to let this one go unnoticed seems to be par for the course. It still makes me sick, though.

Stock markets bet on Aso as the next PM September 12, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in Economy & Business, Japan.
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From the Yomiuri

With ex-foreign minister Taro Aso seen as the odds on favorite to become the next PM, manga/anime stocks were up today. Aso is a self-proclaimed manga otaku. Stocks which rose today include Mandarake – the manga and related goods retailer, Production I.G, the anime production company (who was the 2003 Entrepreneur of the Year Japan – quick plug for the EOY JAPAN programme…), and other related stocks such as Sotsu, the animation licensing company, Toei Animation, and Bandai Visual.

Also up was Aso Foamcrete, the only company within the Aso Group which is traded on the markets. (Taro Aso was the President of Aso Cement (now Aso Lafarge Cement), the keystone company within the Aso Group. The Aso Group was/is a regional zaibatsu based out of Fukuoka.

A possible reason for Abe’s sudden departure September 12, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in Politics.
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[Short version – One word: Koizumi]

Long version….

Abe stated that he will put his job on the line and fight for an extension of the anti-terrorism law which expires November 1st, giving reassurances to this effect to Japanese allies during the APEC summit in Australia.

Whilst the opposition has a majority in the upper house of the diet, the lower house is able to push through legislation which is rejected by the upper house if a 2/3 majority vote is attained. Given the LDP/Komeito alliance has a 2/3 majority in the lower house (331 seats out of a total 480), it would have been technically possible for Abe to push the legislation through.

If LDP and Komeito members could be counted on to toe the cabinet line.

And therein lies the potential explanation for Abe’s departure.

Whilst Abe was chosen as successor to Koizumi in a resounding endorsement last year, this was due to Abe’s popularity with the electorate and Koizumi’s endorsement of his chosen successor, and not because Abe holds political power within the LDP machine. There are a large number of novice politicians within the LDP’s 305 members of the lower house, due to the landslide victory in the September 2005 elections. Many of these first time politicans belong to the so-called Group of 83 (which actually comprises of 85 members now), a group also dubbed “Koizumi’s Children”. It is no secret that the loyalty of this significant block rests with Koizumi (and by extension, Mori), nor that most of them were voted in because of the immense popularity of Koizumi, and that a significant majority of them are likely to face an up-hill battle to retain their seats without the ability to ride the coattails of a popular leader.

The recent election defeat has resulted in Koizumi strengthening his influence, as any major defection from the LDP will make it difficult to pass legislation, particularly anything which requires a 2/3 majority. Koizumi has kept his head low, and his “children” have toed the party line thus far, but that 80something block cannot be counted on if there was a fundamental disagreement between the PM and Koizumi.

Koizumi has been rumoured to be extremely displeased at the recent reports that Hirao Takenuma, kicked out of the LDP for opposing Koizumi’s pet postal reform proposal, was being considered for rehabilitation. That on top of the make-up of the newly announced cabinet which took on a more traditionalist and inclusive hue, and maybe Koizumi has just had enough of Abe (and the old school factions of the LDP, who have begun reimposing themselves).

If Abe has indeed lost the support of Koizumi, he would not have been able to command the required 2/3 majority in the lower house, and going through the legislative process would have been a waste of time, and just delayed any recommencement of the MSDF refueling operations. By resigning now, he may have been able to secure, for his successor, the assurance that the LDP machine will vote as a block to push through the required legislation.

Perhaps this is a prelude to Koizumi becoming more active in politics again. He still retains significant power in the background because of his “children”, but once those seats are up for reelection (and most of the novices will likely lose their seats), he will again become a marginal figure within the LDP. Therefore, if he is thinking about reimposing himself on the Japanese political landscape, the clock is ticking.

Breaking – Abe to resign September 12, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in Japan, Politics.

This is totally unheard of. A PM resigning right after opening a new diet session, two days ago. If he performs true to form, he will sulk away without giving adequate explanation.
No doubt he should have gone, but the timing, as with so much about Abe, is woeful. I’m sure the LDP are livid. I suspect the DPJ would also have prefered to have kept on beating on Abe, rather than a new PM.

More after Abe’s press conference….

Different headlines for different audiences September 11, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in crime, Media.
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via Japan Probe

The Yomiuri reports the significant decline in burglaries in the Tokyo area after a couple of groups of thieves were arrested.

The English headline reads: “Tokyo burglaries down 30% after arrest of 2 theft rings

The Japanese headline reads: “荒稼ぎ「悪知恵」中国人窃盗団、摘発後は都内の被害3割減” (“Crafty Chinese theft group made a killing, burglaries drop 30% after their arrest”, is the Japan Probe translation – too lazy to attempt my own)

Whilst the content of the articles is pretty much the same, one does wonder why they made a point of editing the headlines in significantly different fashions. It isn’t the first time newspapers have been found to be channeling different messages to their domestic and english language audiences.

Maybe this can become a series.