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Japan and America: More Alike Than Different


Japanese Diet Member Renho

I was having lunch the other day in a neighborhood restaurant here in Tokyo when a couple of older women came in and sat down at a table not far away from me. They were speaking loudly, so I could hear every word they were saying. The conversation was not interesting to me in the least, but what struck me was that it was virtually the same as if the women were Americans discussing events in their lives. Of course, they were speaking in Japanese, but ignoring that, the topics they were discussing, the tone of the conversation, the pace of the exchanges between them, everything about it was practically identical to the same kinds of chatting that goes on in the US every day.

What this made me realize is that Japanese and American society have become quite similar. The aspirations of typical citizens, the operation of the political systems, the banking and economic structures, the entertainment industries, and in dozens of other ways, both countries are almost mirror images of the other.

Is this just a reflection of globalization? I do not think so. After all, the conversation of the women that I overheard was in Japanese. The women’s talk was filled with jargon and idiomatic phrasing. It was all about their personal lives, there were no references to global events or esoteric economic matters. The women were just discussing their lives. It was as simple as that.

And yet, as I was eating my meal with my laptop computer on the table in front of me, while I was working on a very complex project, the words seemed to echo in my head. I understand that after many years of interpreting and translating Japanese on a daily basis, my mind can wander and I can just end up translating inside my head, without even thinking about it. And I awoke quickly, probably just seconds after the "trance" started.

When I was younger, such episodes alarmed me. But today I know that this indicates that the mind is working on a new problem. I have determined to completely master Japanese after all these years, and I think that my mind is trying to help me.

What is really disturbing is the situation regarding the Coronavirus. The virus itself is not that serious, but there have been serious missteps in dealing with it. Both Japan and the US have made mistakes in handling the situation.

The international economy has stalled because of that. So the Federal Reserve Board has lowered the prime interest rate and pumped financial stimulus into the banking system by purchasing billions of dollars of commercial bonds.

The Bank of Japan has taken identical measures. At the same time, the Trump administration is urging payroll tax cuts. The Abe administration is promoting a cutting of the consumption tax from 10% to 5%. These two measures might seem to be different, but they are actually almost exactly identical. While seeming to offer relief to taxpayers, the real beneficiaries are commercial and corporate interests. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it brings into sharp relief the way that government stimulus programs are set up. That is, whether as measures to directly help average citizens, or as corporate welfare that only works if "trickle down economics" creates the kind of opportunities for growth in the public sector that its supporters have claimed for years that it does. The idea of "trickle down economics" has been discredited innumerable times in the past, but it still gets trotted out regularly to provide a plausible rationale for corporate giveaways.

Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, all schools in Japan have been closed until sometime in April. That means that kids are outside all day long, riding bicycles or walking in groups all around the countryside. This has given me a good look at these young people as well. Once again, the similarities between these kids and their American counterparts are remarkable.

In the past, poor diets led to many of the Japanese public suffering physical stunting of growth. Even today, many old people retain evidence of that deprivation. In particular, they are short and often bent over. It is sad to see.

No such signs of poor health among young people. They stand up tall and straight, and clearly are in prime physical condition. They engage in all sorts of sporting activity. Soccer is a favorite pastime. Hachioji City, where I live, has an extensive park system, with fields that are used for all kinds of games. Almost all day long, every day of the week, soccer is played there by many teams. Besides that, older people can be seen walking or jogging on service roads that have been built nearby for sake of the public. It is rare to see any kind of vehicle on those roads, including those driven by police or maintenance personnel. In every way, these public spaces are used and enjoyed by private citizens almost exclusively.

Another way in which Japan and the US have become similar is how women are viewed and taking part in society. They are playing a more active role in public affairs. Recently, during one of Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s regular policy addresses in the Diet, he was grilled by Diet Member Renho over various issues. She was quite intense in making her remarks. Abe not only patiently answered all her questions, but when detailed information was required, he had one of his senior cabinet ministers take over at the microphone and explain the situation.

These Diet sessions are broadcast frequently and at great length. Of course, they are shown on a channel operated by NHK, the National Broadcasting Company, similar to the BBC in England. So it is not beholden to sponsors. And ratings are irrelevant. That gives the company great latitude in what it can show on television and for what amount of time.

Speaking of the changing role of women in Japan, this past March 12 the Olympic Torch Lighting Ceremony was held in Olympia, Greece. Olympic Gold Metal shooting champion, Korakaki Anna, was given the torch to carry on the first leg of the relay. She thus became the first woman to be the first Olympic torchbearer in the history of the Games.

Under ordinary conditions, the torch would be taken all over Greece before being sent to the host country of the Games. But because of all the worries caused by the Coronavirus, it was sent directly to Athens on March 19. It will then go to Japan, specifically Fukushima, which suffered the nuclear meltdown nine years ago on March 11. The plan is for it to pass through all of the capitols of the 47 prefectures of Japan before eventually reaching Tokyo’s New National Stadium, the main venue of the 2020 Olympics.

Finally, there is some interesting news in regards to what is happening in the go world. This past week Iyama Yuta, Kisei defeated Cho U 9 dan in the semi-final of the NHK Cup Tournament. Iyama won by resignation playing Black after 199 moves.

The game was shown on television as usual on Sunday afternoon. This lightning go tournament features top players and analysts. Hane Naoki, Gosei gave the commentary. Cho U 9 dan is without a title, but as recently as last year he was Meijin, and over the course of his career he has won 40 titles, putting him seventh on the list of all time titleholders. This shows just how strong the competition is in this tournament.

Iyama, Kisei will face Ichiriki Ryo 8 dan in the final. The 22 year old Ichiriki is one of the new generation of strong young players who are coming to the forefront in the go world. He won entrance into the 39th Kisei League in 2004 earning promotion to 7 dan, at 16 years and 9 months of age he was the youngest player to ever do that, and in 2018 he became challenger for the 42nd Kisei Title, earning promotion to 8 dan. He won the NHK Cup Tournament last year and compiled a record of 37 wins and 11 losses during 2018. (Iyama’s record was 24 wins and 22 losses. But that was against the stiffest competition.) It will be interesting to see how these two deal with each other.

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