Media Mix, April 26, 2015

Still from "Akahama Rock'n Roll"

Still from “Akahama Rock’n Roll”

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about a town in Iwate Prefecture that is struggling with the central government over a proposed seawall. Yesterday, several media reported that the government will definitely ask Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima Prefectures to take on part of the burden for reconstruction after the initial five-year budget is up in 2016. Apparently, the government was going to implement another tax increase to pay for further reconstruction but has decided not to. In reality, the portion that local governments will bear isn’t much–only 2.5 percent. Under normal circumstances, as with highway construction, the local burden is usually about a third. But the total budget in this case is ¥5.8 trillion, which is bound to increase in the future, and even a fraction of that could prove to be too expensive for prefectures and municipalities, which are already spending their own meager funds on reconstruction.

Some media speculate that faced with the extra burden, local governments will invariably cut back on their respective reconstruction projects, especially with the ongoing shortage of construction materials and labor, which is being exacerbated by the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The thing is, many of the bigger projects were initiated by the central government, like the seawall discussed in the documentary Akahama Rock’n Roll, and it isn’t clear if localities are expected to assume part of those costs as well. As shown in the movie, certain localities don’t like some of the projects in the first place, so making them pay for them doesn’t make sense. Of course, prefectural and municipal governments depend a great deal on money from Tokyo to keep their operations running and the proper wheels greased, and there isn’t always a great deal of thought given to whether or not certain projects are actually necessary. But in this case, whole communities need to be rebuilt, so it’s doubly important that the money be spent wisely and in line with residents’ needs. As it stands, it sounds as if the central government offered the regions affected by the disaster lots of help without fully figuring out each area’s specific requirements, and now they are going to stick them with a bill.

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Media Mix, April 19, 2015

Build it and they will come

Build it and they will come

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about changing attitudes toward school athletics. If there’s a central theme to the piece, it’s probably the idea that sports is all about appearances. It’s not a novel or original idea, but it is one that runs counter to our ideal of what sports represents. “Performance” is a malleable word, but what school sports has become in Japan–maybe even the world–is a kind of contract between athlete and observer. As sports fans we evaluate the performances of players both as individuals and as members of teams, and those evaluations eventually have meaning. At the end of the column I cite survey results that say many adults didn’t really enjoy playing sports until after they leave school, which implies that the pressure to “perform” diminished the essence of sport, i.e., competing physically with others as well as with one’s own capacity. Take away the observer, the fan, and sports comes closer to this essence. Many athletes, especially those who make a living from sports, will say there’s no difference, that they would “perform” the same way whether there was an audience or not. If you’re going to play a sport, you should play it well. But that reasoning only makes sense in a world where sports is viewed primarily as entertainment. Sure, when you play you want to do your best for your team, if not for your own self-regard, but without a critical gaze it has no social value.

Thus the cultivation of “spirit,” though ostensibly an endeavor that benefits the individual and the team, is really a means of enhancing performance in the entertainment sense of the word. The athlete must be seen to be suffering, to be working beyond his or her innate capabilities. So high school pitchers keep throwing the full nine innings, even if their arms are giving out. In one of the Asahi articles, Prof. Sakaue says that sports in other countries is treated “as a kind of culture,” implying that it isn’t thought of that way in Japan. I’m not really sure what he’s trying to say, though I think he means that sports in Japan is a function of social engineering, which seems to me an over-simplification. One of the hoariest cliches attached to athletics is the dynamic between enjoyment and winning, as if the relationship between the two were inviolable. In Japan, the dynamic is broader: it’s not between enjoyment and winning, it’s between pain and performance. You will perform better if you go through a lot of pain beforehand. This is, of course, a stereotype, which is probably why people are starting to question the significance of athletics in the educational process.

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April 2015 albums

Here are the album reviews I wrote for the April issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.

CDR-THEPRIESTSCitizen ZombieWhat Happens Next
-Gang of Four (Victor)
Citizen Zombie
-The Pop Group (Freaks R Us/Victor)
Though not an integrated musical style in the sense that all those who labored under the label followed the same forms, the British post-punk movement united various disparate creative types with the urge to destroy those pop verities that had held sway for so long by the late 70s. Gang of Four was perhaps the most strident, musically and politically, brandishing a razor-sharp funk attack at the service of a jaundiced view of economic exigencies. Almost 40 years after the fact only guitarist Andy Gill remains, and on his latest album under the Go4 banner he makes do with an arsenal of guest vocalists who sound nothing like original bleater Jon King, who quit the band to pursue a career in, of all things, advertising. Gill still knows how to cut a rug, and his guitar work is impressive without making your hair stand on end the way it did back in the day. More to the point, the songs range far and wide in terms of mood and groove, the only constant being the call-and-response dynamic that Go4 was once known for. The Kills’ Alison Mosshart drops in for two tracks that list toward disco, while the German vocalist Herbert Gronemeyer sings a bona fide ballad that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the Top Gun soundtrack. At this late date one can hardly expect any veteran rock band to sound as they did in 1979, but then why stick to the Gang of Four brand except to extend the line? In any case, the lyrics still have some of the old anti-establishment bite, though not as much as the songs on Citizen Zombie, the first album of new material by fellow post-punk provocateurs The Pop Group since 1980. Less musically doctrinaire than Go4 but equally bent on taking on the status quo, the band doesn’t have as much to live up to style-wise, so they’re free to reinvent themselves for a new millennium. Nevertheless, they seem to think they can take up exactly where they left off, and what’s missing is that spirit of spontaneous destruction that accompanies youthful disaffection. Leader Mark Stewart seems content to shout slogans over and over in an attempt to turn them into catch phrases—the title song, “The Immaculate Deception,” etc. And if you miss the anti-consumerist purport of classic Go4, then you’ll get more than you need here. As on What Happens Next the songs are not as lean as they once were, as if the intervening years had taught the members what their amateurism was missing other than a need to show off. Though the production by Paul Epworth is strong, it doesn’t speak to The Pop Group’s special qualities. The thing to remember about post-punk was that minimalism carried the day. It was all they could afford and so they made the best of it. When you’re older you naturally get fatter. Continue reading

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Media Mix, March 29, 2015

Anti-nuclear protest in Mongolia

Anti-nuclear protest in Mongolia

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about the government’s change of heart with regard to promoting renewable energy. The column does not discuss nuclear energy as much as it does energy autonomy, something that is difficult to achieve when national energy policies are controlled by large profit-making organizations. As mentioned near the end of the article, the Japanese government, through METI, had been thinking of deregulating the energy market since the mid-90s, but the regional power companies resisted. Eventually, METI prevailed, and starting next April consumers will have the chance to choose which companies they want to buy their electricity from. Ironically, while it is the government that has pushed deregulation, it is also now dialing down its support for renewables, ostensibly because the current grid can’t handle all the extra input, though many people believe it’s due to pressure from the energy industry, which wants to get nuclear power back on line as soon as possible. One reason for the haste is that households faced with a choice of energy providers will most likely choose the cheapest, and having nuclear reactors up and running will reduce the major providers’ costs. Continue reading

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April 2015 movies

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the April issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.

_MG_0817.CR2Birdman
The karmic nature of Birdman‘s Best Picture Oscar win is inescapable. Ever since his breakout Mexican epic, Amores Perros, brought him to America, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu has been making earnest movies with large casts of Hollywood A-listers in bummer roles that have invariably garnered lots of nominations along the way without actually winning anything. His latest curiosity jettisons the existential suffering that made movies like Babel and Biutiful so trying to sit through, and those who have championed Inarritu’s ambitions finally have something to get behind, but in fact Birdman is just as wonky as the earlier films, which were problematic not so much because of their depressive themes, but due to their formalist cliches. Michael Keaton gets what used to be called “the role of a lifetime” as Riggan Thomson, a Hollywood actor best known for playing the titular superhero in a series of blockbusters, and now, years later, is trying to redeem himself as a serious artist by staging an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” on Broadway, starring himself. The movie’s time frame takes in the hours prior to the opening, and Inarritu devises a production design that incorporates long, moblie takes that all blend into one. As far as cliches go, the backstage comedy has been done to death, and all of the tropes are here: the technical gaffes, the snooty actor who refuses to take direction (Edward Norton), the last minute changes in strategy, the insufferable critic (Lindsay Duncan) overstepping her boundary. In the midst of all this calculated chaos, Riggan has to deal with a flighty, resentful daughter (Emma Stone), a calm, sensible lover (Andrea Riseborough), and a surprisingly sympathetic ex-wife (Amy Ryan). The mood is constant confusion, but the dialogue is so pointed and precise that no one really comes across as harried as they’re trying to let on. The only character who breaks through in that regard is Naomi Watts, playing an inexperienced actor who sees the play as her big break and is afraid of blowing it. Otherwise, the performances are all showcases in the Inarritu style, especially Stone’s and Norton’s, which isn’t to say they aren’t entertaining, but every dramatic element in the film sticks out like a rusty nail, every gesture designed to deliver more meaning that it has the capacity to contain. Inarritu is incapable of getting through a scene without finding something to make it monumental, and the result is exhaustion without the payback of meaning. Had Birdman simply been a comedy about a washed up Hollywood star trying to put on a serious play that was beyond his capabilities, it might have been funny and poignant, but that’s not enough for Inarritu. He wants epiphanies. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox) Continue reading

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Media Mix, March 22, 2015

Route of current Hokuriku Shinkansen in red

Route of current Hokuriku Shinkansen in red

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about the hype over the new Hokuriku Shinkansen. Most of the column discusses the way the project prioritizes travelers going to and from Tokyo at the expense of everyone else who lives along the line, or who may want to use it for purposes other than going to and from Tokyo. Some of the articles I read centered on businesses that were using the new train as an excuse for moving their operations out of the greater Tokyo metropolitan area to the Hokuriku region. Almost everyone covered the relocation of two companies, YKK and Yusukin Pharmaceutical. YKK has always had a presence in Toyama, where most of its factories are located, and the company has decided to move more of its administrative functions closer to its production base, saying that Hokuriku is less prone to natural disasters than is Tokyo, where YKK’s headquarters will remain though reduced by some 230 employees. The new shinkansen is presented as making the move possible, since staff can travel quickly between Toyama and Tokyo, but in essence the reason is safety and stability, conditions that more large companies should consider if all their operations are concentrated in Tokyo. If a major earthquake hits the capital, their businesses could be completely wiped out. Yusukin, which mostly makes medicinal ointments, says it is moving to Toyama because the area is “traditionally” Japan’s pharmaceutical capital, so it will be in closer proximity to like-minded companies and suppliers, but a company representative told Tokyo Shimbun, “We thought it wouldn’t hurt to move some of our functions to Toyama…to disperse the risk of disaster.” Nikkiso, which makes dialysis machines, is also going to move its factories from Shizuoka Prefecture to Kanazawa due to concerns about a possible Tokai earthquake. The company’s main office is in Tokyo.

According to one business consultant interviewed by the newspaper, there are two types of companies that are using the shinkansen as a reason for moving at least some of their operations out of the capital: those worried about catastrophe, and companies that originated in the Hokuriku region, moved to the Tokyo area after the war during the great economic growth period, and now think it’s time to move back. In terms of the kind of decentralization that the government wants to facilitate, these are halfway measures: the companies who are moving are only moving part of their functions, and are doing so because the new shinkansen makes it possible. As a strategy for reviving regional capitals, it is probably more sustainable than focusing on tourism, though, as one expert pointed out, there are also disadvantages for local businesses. Now that the shinkansen makes it possible to get to and from the capital in a little over two hours, business trips from Tokyo can be undertaken as day excursions, meaning business travelers can go and return within the day, obviating the need for overnight accommodations and attendant expenses. That happened a long time ago in Nagoya when the Nozomi super express opened, and also happened in Morioka after the Tohoku Shinkansen arrived. Hotels and inns in the center of both cities lost customers and many went out of business. And Gucci, the economist referenced in the column, mentioned another effect of express train service on local businesses. Higer income people in these regional cities can now get to Tokyo quickly, and will do a lot more shopping in the capital than they do in their home towns since Tokyo is so easy to access.

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Media Mix, March 8, 2015

Hirokazu Nakaima

Hirokazu Nakaima

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, about the difference between the Tokyo media and the Okinawan media when it comes to reporting the Henoko base issue. As pointed out by the people who discussed the matter on DemocraTV, the mainland press approaches the matter with a set of assumptions that are patronizing, and which are best represented by a remark that was made by former Okinawa governor Hirokazu Nakaima in December 2013 when the central government approved a larger than expected stimulus package for the prefecture, presumably in exchange for Nakaima’s abandoning his opposition to construction of the new base, which he soon did. At the time, a clearly elated Nakaima said, “I think we will have a good New Year’s Day,” as if speaking for all Okinawans.

That line was often quoted during the election campaign last fall by Nakaima’s opponent, who cited it as proof of the governor’s disregard for his constituents, since it implied that all Okinawans cared about was money, and for sure, the mainland media used the quote often over the past year or so to reinforce its own belief that Okinawans are too dependent on the central government to be in a position to refuse anything the U.S. military asks for. Takeshi Onaga’s clear victory over Nakaima in the election was as strong a rebuke of this belief as anything, and one Onaga supporter reversed the meme by saying to a reporter that the election itself was a great “New Year’s gift” for Okinawa, though, as with all such pronouncements, nobody in Tokyo seemed to be paying attention.

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