Looking Back in Laughter at Japan's 2001

The country has plenty of all-too-serious woes, but these events also merit remembering -- at least for a few minutes

By Brian Bremner

It is bonenkai season in Tokyo these days. That's a rough translation for the usually big corporate "forget-the-year parties," which give everyone an excuse to get sloshed and try to put the trials and tribulations of the past 12 months behind them. As he nursed his beer at one such gathering with overseas reporters, NEC President Koji Nishigaki, whose company likely will post a $1.17 billion loss in the fiscal year ending Mar. 31, mused he'd especially prefer "to forget this year as soon as possible."

True, it was an awful one, and not just for high-tech colossus NEC. Japan sank into its fourth recession in a decade. Major credit agencies, worried about budget deficits of Italian proportions, slashed their ratings on Japan's sovereign debt. All manner of Japanese executives started to fret about the growing threat of China, whose economic competitiveness gathers strength by the day as it sucks in foreign direct investment from all corners.

But it would be a shame to kiss off 2001 without at least a whimsical look back at some of the big, paradigm-shifting trends. Here is a sampling of what caught my attention:

Killer Product Placement. Nobody builds a better all-terrain vehicle than Toyota. Just ask Osama bin Laden, his fabled al Qaeda brigade, or the Taliban fighters -- that is, if you can find any. Toyota nameplates have been the vehicles of choice for years in the Middle East and Central Asia. But imagine how the carmaker's public relations team squirmed when it turned out its Land Cruiser was the Taliban's favorite, as well as a party favor doled out by OBL to keep his Afghani friends content.

Well, cheer up, Toyota. You should check out the latest New Yorker dispatch by Seymour M. Hersh on the weapons wish list of the opposition Iraqi National Congress. One INC official tells Hersh that he can take down Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein if the U.S. foots the bill for a "mobile assault force of six battalions of armed Toyota four-by-fours, equipped with machine guns, recoilless cannons, and antitank missiles." Talk about extras!

The Great Seaweed Slaughter. Government boondoggles on big, expensive public-works projects seem to go hand-in-hand with your typical Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) pol. But one such project, at the inlet of the Ariake Sea in the central-western part of the Southern island of Kyushu, backfired on the construction-loving types in Japan in the most unexpected way (see BW Online, 2/6/01, "Big Spenders and the Great Seaweed Slaughter"). It appears the Ariake is dying or is in grave shape, thanks to an abnormal amount of a destructive algae.

Earlier this year, it completely annihilated the annual seaweed harvest. (That part of Japan is seaweed country.) Outraged seaweed farmers and environmentalists think the culprit is a big land-reclamation project. Scientists are still debating that, but when seaweed prices shot up earlier this year, it made front-page news. This staple is used to make rice balls, sushi wrap, and all manner of salads and soups. The Japanese will tolerate a lot from officialdom, but this time it seems the bigwigs in Tokyo really crossed the line.

Hissy Fits at the Foreign Ministry. Ah, for the old days at the Foreign Ministry. Time was, the ruling LDP would appoint a somewhat clueless Foreign Minister who would carefully regurgitate the scripts of career-ranking diplomats on the great matters of the day. Then, when the big cheese was looking the other way, they could siphon off millions of taxpayer dollars on overseas junkets, presents for their mistresses, and that sort of thing.

Then came Makiko Tanaka, the popular Foreign Minister appointed by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. She's pretty clueless, too. Tanaka likes to blow off key diplomatic meetings, has been accused of leaking state secrets to the press, and right after September 11, was said not to visit a Pakistani refugee camp because of hygiene concerns. (She did manage to get over there later, after some scorching bad press.)

But Tanaka is a fighter, whether over the Ministry's gold-plated corruption or personal slights, such as not getting invited to a party hosted by the Emperor. Her bureaucratic guerrilla warfare over diplomatic postings has livened up the dailies ever since.

Big Ideas in Small Packages. I've always preferred the Japanese royals to the British ones. No tabloid renderings of Palace romances or overwrought public displays with this crowd. And late this year, Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako instilled a bit of cheer in a dour Japan with the birth of their daughter, little Aiko. Her arrival touched off a debate about whether Japan ought to revise the current law hatched during the Meiji era that disqualified female members of the Royal family from assuming the throne.

Top LDP officials and opposition leaders all jumped on this can't-miss big issue of gender-equality politics. I kind of hope Aiko makes it to the top someday. But I'd be more impressed if the Koizumi government threw more money at child care and supported the promotion of women to the highest ranks of Corporate Japan. Japan has a big, untapped labor female labor market that needs to be leveraged to secure economic growth in the future.

Reality Trumps Art. A Japanese satiric TV series called Let's Go, Nagatcho! grabbed a fair bit of press commentary. It was an obvious poke at the public hysteria over Koizumi, his hothead Foreign Minister, and the dark forces inside the LDP arrayed against real reform. I caught a couple of episodes with my wife, but we both like the real thing better. What could be more entertaining than a real-life Premier who promises tough-love reform and nothing but economic pain for several years -- while his adoring public keeps asking for more and more. Or a Koizumi, who sports Beethoven locks, lending his image and his name to a CD collection of his favorite Elvis songs?

So with all due respect to NEC's Nishigaki (here's to a prosperous 2002, Koji), I'd rather not forget all that transpired this year. It was a memorable one in big ways and small.

Bremner, Tokyo bureau chief for BusinessWeek, offers his views every week in Eye on Japan, only for BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Beth Belton

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