Japan Has a New Emperor and a New Era, but a Dark Future
Japan’s new imperial era officially started on May 1 at a time when 79 percent of the Japanese people no longer believe their own government. Should we?
TOKYO—The name of Japan’s new imperial era, Reiwa, was announced on April Fools’ Day with great fanfare and a great big linguistic lie. The official government party line is that it translates as “Beautiful Harmony,” but what it means literally is more Orwellian: “Commanded Peace.”
Of course, a certain portion of the Japanese population realizes that the explanation given for the new imperial name is not the truth, but they probably were not surprised.
Japan has grown numb to the deceptions and lies of its elected rulers. As of January this year, for instance, 79 percent of the Japanese public no longer believed the Japanese government’s statistics, and you probably shouldn’t either.
Everybody lies, they say, but there’s a problem with lying to yourself and to the public, because reality doesn’t listen.
While the Japanese government relentlessly promotes the image of “Cool Japan” and mega-tourism, the current reality is a country run by sociopathic Hitler-loving plutocrats, with plummeting press freedom, endemic poverty, rising censorship, deliberate destruction of public records, continual death by overwork, a corrupt bureaucracy, and a medieval justice system. Despite the triple meltdown of Fukushima, the government is rushing to start nuclear power plants again with reckless abandon.
The population is aging and shrinking. One out of five citizens is now over 70; in 2017, nearly 400,000 more people died in Japan than were born. Abysmal working conditions, low wages, lack of maternity leave (not to mention paternity leave) a chronic shortage of affordable daycare, and excessively long hours virtually ensure Japanese women and men don’t have time to date, mate, or procreate.
Raising a kid alone? Very difficult. If a woman chooses to be a single mother there is a 50 percent chance she will live in poverty. The failure of anything approaching a baby boom over the decades is already invisible. The shortage of workers is forcing many businesses to close.
Women might take up the slack of a worker shortage, but sexism is rampant and gender inequality is institutionalized: Japan ranks 110 out of 149 countries in the World Economic Forum’s global gender equality rankings for 2018.
The highlight of the Reiwa era will be the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe believes will add luster to his legacy. The 2020 Olympics were secured with bribes, corrupted by yakuza, and will be billions of dollars more expensive than the original forecasts. They are foolishly scheduled around August, assuring that there will be deaths from heat-stroke and crises at hospitals unable to handle the triage that will be necessary.
Japan’s trickle-down economic plan, Abenomics, is faltering. According to Japan’s Tokyo Shoko Research, bankruptcies of smaller companies are rising, and it may be that its much touted success turns out to be based on falsified data. Meanwhile, as a result of the government of Japan trying to prop up the Japanese stock market using public funds, Japan’s aging population faces the danger of having no pension money left for themselves. The Government Pension Investment Fund (GPIF) announced this February a record quarterly loss of over $135 billion, half of it in investments in domestic shares. If the losses continue, it will eventually impact pension payments to the elderly.
The future is bleak.
The announcement of the retirement derailed Abe's push to change the constitution of Japan. The emperor is a divisive but important symbol in Japan’s political landscape and daily lives: there are five national holidays related to emperors past. And the name of the imperial era becomes something of great importance.
Prime Minister Abe and his political base are members of a Shinto cult and political lobby, Nippon Kaigi, which believes that Japan must shed the shackles of a “U.S. imposed” democratic constitution, popular sovereignty, basic human rights, pacifism, and gender equality. Abe and most of his cabinet members believe that the Japanese people are divine descendants of the gods, World War II was justified, and that emperor worship should be restored.
The just-resigned Emperor Akihito posed a problem for them because while they considered him a divine being, his actual words disagree with their political agenda.
Emperor Akihito publicly expressed gratitude to the U.S. for stripping away the fascist regime that brought Japan into the war, and sees the nation as “based on peace and democracy as important values to be upheld.” He is also a defender of Japan’s current pacifist constitution, which Abe wants to dismantle. The new emperor, Akihito's son, Naruhito, who ascends to the throne on May 1, carries the same progressive views. The contrast between what the emperor and the crown prince believe and the beliefs of those that claim to worship them as gods is striking.
If you want to see what the current rulers of Japan really want in the Reiwa Era, watch this English subtitled and chilling video taken at a May 10, 2012 meeting of Liberal Democratic Party members during a forum on reinventing Japan. At the meeting, Abe and his former minister of justice declare that for Japan to progress it must have a standing army and rid itself of “popular sovereignty, basic human rights, pacifism…” Those remarks are greeted with wild applause.
Japan uses two calendars—the Western Calendar and the Imperial Calendar. This can be confusing. I was born in the Showa era, created when Emperor Hirohito took the throne; he was one of the architects of Japan’s colonialism and disastrous war. We are now in the Heisei era, which began when Emperor Akihito ascended to the throne, after Emperor Hirohito passed away on January 7, 1989.
According to the Mainichi newspaper, only 34 percent of the population uses the imperial name to describe the year. All government documents have to use the imperial calendar. The conversion from one calendar to the other is a colossal pain and most reporters in Japan usually carry a company memo book that has a handy conversion chart. If you ever need to do it, to convert Showa years into Western years, you add 25 years; for era Heisei, add 1,988 years. This usually works but not always.
Officially, Reiwa began at zero hour (12 a.m.) May 1, the day when Emperor Naruhito is magically made the new emperor during a mystical Shinto ceremony, one that his wife will not be allowed to watch. The date seems to have been picked so that it will overlap with labor day, taking the wind out of a holiday that the anti-labor, pro-business Japanese government despises.
Banri Kaieda, a scholar and parliamentarian, explains in the recently published From Heisei To Reiwa, the Gengo (imperial calendar system) dates back to China. The system indicates that “the Emperor rules over the passage of time itself.” Japan introduced the system in 654, and because it still has an emperor, the system survives. While the system has continued for over 1,000 years, the only child of the crown prince is a daughter and for it to continue, there is a need to consider having female as emperor—something that is anathema to the chauvinists in the Liberal Democratic Party.
The new name REIWA (令和) is composed first of the character REI meaning "Order, Command" as in MeiREI (direct order, command). You can also find it in words like arrest warrant or kankoREI, “a gag order.” You can see why the authoritarian administration loves this kanji. The second character: WA means "peace" but is also a reference to the Japanese race. So you could easily interpret it to read, "If the Japanese people obey there will be order.”
It is not clear how the name REIWA was derived. The Japanese press has reported that the name was chosen by Abe with little consultation. Former LDP kingpin Ichiro Ozawa recently admitted in a weekly magazine that the previous era name HEISEI, was actually decided by the then prime minister at the time—and then rubber stamped by compliant experts.
The full details of the discussions to come up with the current name are classified, and since the Abe administration now routinely destroys all records of meetings, we may never know the truth.
So again, let’s ask: what’s in a name? A lot. Because under the Abe regime, in a nod to George Orwell, the names of proposed laws often hide the fact that they mean exactly the opposite of what they are. Doublespeak Japan style.
For example, the deceptively dubbed “Anti-Terrorism Laws” were originally submitted as the “Criminal Conspiracy” bills, but since they aroused too many protests, they just changed the name of the bill, and finally passed it into law. It stipulates 277 crimes that police can arrest people for planning, or simply discussing. Technically, because social media is covered in the legislation, even liking a related tweet or retweeting it could now be grounds for arrest on conspiracy charges.
But the doublespeak has gotten smoother and better in recent years, much like Japanese whisky. The deceptively name “Work−Style Reform Laws,” actually eliminated overtime pay for thousands of people and capped overtime hours at 100 per month, 20 hours more than what the Ministry of Labor deems a risk for death by overwork. The ballsiest bits of doublespeak legislation were “The Peace Preservation Laws” which allow the Japanese Self-Defense Forces to engage in offensive warfare. (You wil recall the motto in 1984: “War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength.” At this point in time when the Abe government names anything, you might as well assume it means the exact opposite. If the current government says REIWA means “beautify harmony,” you should suspect what it really means is “stark tyranny.”
Despite a council which nominally participated in deriving the name of the new era, the real architects are the two people running the Abe administration: Prime Minister Shinzo “Bon Bon” Abe and Cabinet Spokesman Yoshide “Bar-code” Suga. Abe is the ne'er do well, wealthy, and not very bright grandson of former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, who was also a war criminal. The man behind the scenes is Abe’s political mentor, right-hand man, and back-door power broker, the savvy and cruel Yoshihide Suga. In American terms, Abe is George W. Bush and Suga is Dick Cheney aka VICE. However, in Japan, Suga unlike Cheney may become the next national leader instead of a reviled architect of disaster.
Abe is a short-tempered, vain, habitual liar with political savvy who is extremely ruthless. Early in his career he allegedly hired a local yakuza in his district to destroy a political rival. When he didn’t pay the yakuza what he had promised, a group of yakuza firebombed his office in retaliation. All of this was documented in a book written by Yu Terasawa and Shunsuke Yamaoka, published last year. It’s not hard to see how he turned out the way he did. His father was a busy absentee dad and career politician, so Abe was raised by his overbearing mother and grandfather, both of whom harbored deep resentment of Japan’s loss in the war and fantasized of a day when Japan would become an imperial power again. If you read the letters of his mother, you quickly understand that she is the brains behind the boy.
Abe screwed the pooch during his first stint as prime minister in 2006-2007, due to a never ending series of political scandals and his inability to stomach the job. A right-wing Shinto cult, Nippon Kaigi, helped foist him back on the country and Abe has been in their debt ever since. Most of his cabinet members belong to the organization. Abe’s signature campaign slogan was “Take Japan Back” (Nihon O Torimodose) although it’s never clear who “stole” Japan in the first place.
Suga has distinguished himself by working behind the scenes to do Abe’s dirty work, allegedly playing an active part in the squashing of a rape investigation involving Prime MInister Abe’s biographer. Recently, he has been gaining a bad reputation even in Japan’s timid press corps for his relentless harassment of a female journalist, Isoko Mochizuki, of the newspaper Tokyo. She has the temerity to ask hardball questions and such insolence offends Suga, who seems to believe women (and reporters) should listen but not speak.
Seventy-nine percent of the Japanese no longer trust statistics released by Abe’s government, according to a poll released by the Nikkei newspaper in January. You should probably join them in your disbelief. The Mainichi newspaper reports nearly the same results.
The Japanese government has spent months embroiled in an under-reported (in the West) scandal over falsified data that calls into question everything we’ve been told about Japan’s GDP, labor policy, recent scandals and Abenomics.
Here’s a brief history of false data put forward in the last two years alone, in cases where the government was actually caught red-handed.
In February of 2018, Abe tried to push forward labor law reforms under the “Work Style Reform” name. The legislation stressed the benefits of “discretionary work” in which employees have a predetermined number of hours no matter how many they actually work. Abe claimed in the parliament that under this system corporate employees worked fewer hours, giving them more leisure time. That sounds great.
The problem? The data was false–under discretionary labor practices employees worked longer hours. The prime minister had to apologize and retract his statement on Feb. 14, 2018. Key data used to justify the labor law changes were found to have 233 errors, but the bills were rammed into law on June 29 anyway.
Last November, as the parliament deliberated on new visa systems for foreign workers, the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) lied about Japan’s foreign technical intern trainee program, which has been compared to human trafficking by the U.S. State Department. The ministry said they conducted interviews with 2,870 trainees and claimed 86.9 percent left their jobs in search of higher wages. In reality, that question was never asked.
Instead, the trainees were asked if they quit because of low wages; 67.2 percent said yes. The MOJ said only one in 20 fled their jobs because of harsh conditions. The actual number, more than 1 in 10 (12.6 percent). Shiori Yamao of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan said, it “was an unforgivable fabrication of data.”
Abenomics, the economic policy of the government, is often faulted for increasing inflation but without increasing wages. Recent Ministry of Labor data seemed to indicate Abenomics was working—that indeed wages were rising—until the truth came out. It turns out that in January 2018, the ministry secretly changed the way they collected their workplace data so that it appeared salaries had been going up.
The ministry also was forced to admit this year that faulty survey data deprived 19 million people of 53 billion yen ($490 million) in unpaid welfare benefits. A series of emails unveiled in the parliament showed the Abe government directly pressured the Labor Ministry to alter data in a way that would make wages appear to have risen. The government is refusing to create an independent third-party commission to investigate properly.
Why are government officials lying and falsifying data so proactively? Professor Jeff Kingston of Temple University and Professor Koichi Nakano of Sophia University both agree that it can be traced back to 2014, when the Abe administration introduced the Cabinet Personnel Bureau. This new office gave them control over the promotions and demotions of hundreds of government officials, and they gained a stranglehold on the bureaucracy.
Not only did Abe put political appointees in almost every ministry, he muzzled Japan’s formerly respected public broadcaster, NHK (the PBS of Japan), by stacking the board with ideological flunkies.
There’s another reason the bureaucrats running the government are making up statistics and lying: because they are rewarded for doing so and are not punished when they do get caught.
In February 2017, Asahi broke the news of the Moritomo Gakuen land scandal, a $7 million discount given on government land sold to a right-wing school owner. The school owner was a close friend of Prime Minister Abe and Abe’s wife. The majority of the Ministry of Finance bureaucrats that helped cover up the shady deal were promoted. They reportedly altered documents linking Prime Minister Abe’s wife to the scandal as well as mentions of Nippon Kaigi.
The bureaucrat who allegedly orchestrated the cover up, Nobuhisa Sagawa, was made head of Japan’s National Tax Agency—where he distinguished himself by never having a press conference. There was however one Ministry of Finance bureaucrat, Toshio Akagi, who had a crisis of conscience and killed himself.
He shouldn’t have worried.
Machiko Yamamoto, in charge of Osaka’s Special Prosecutor Office, announced on May 31 that none of the 38 suspects accused of falsifying government documents would be indicted (including Sagawa). She refused to explain why. A few months later she was promoted.
It would seem no cover-up or data window-dressing for Abe goes unrewarded; the honest bureaucrats end up dead or demoted.
Thus, there’s no need any more to ask the bureaucrats to alter data so it’s favorable to the government—they do it on their own.
William Pesek, author of Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan's Lost Decades, notes, “Whether the wage data was ordered to be falsified, no one knows yet. However, the Ministry only began tampering with the data after heavy criticism of Abe regarding stagnated salaries. In reality, real wages didn't rise in 2018 and if you adjust for inflation, they actually went down. Trickle-down economics never works. Tampering with statistics… that works until you get caught.”
However, the Abe administration has taken extraordinary measures to make sure this problem is corrected—by instituting rules that almost guarantee any embarrassing document is destroyed. In April, a request by the newspaper Mainichi under Japan’s Freedom of Information Act revealed that all records of Abe's meetings with top ministry and agency officials between December 2017 and January of this year were destroyed, and now routinely briefing materials for such meetings are shredded within a year.
It’s a mind-boggling step back in time. Imagine in the U.S. if every record of a meeting with the president or his cabinet members and members of the government were destroyed within days, or within a year after they happened.
Mainichi was lucky to get as much as it did. The Abe administration has made the Freedom of Information Act almost useless. All you can find out is the documents you want have probably already been shredded–or at least that is what you are told.
Is there any hope at all for a brighter future for Japan? Well, more than anything, what Japan needs in the new era is truth. To have that truth, Japan needs freedom of the press and elimination of the Cabinet Personal Bureau, so that bureaucrats can do their job without fear or favor—and promulgate statistics that aren’t lies. Japan’s Potemkin economy and social problems can’t be fixed by just hiding them.
If Japan can’t face the truth about its own past, its present, and the future, this will be the era in which the land of the rising sun becomes the land of the setting sun, and Japan could sink into a darkness that will last longer than the Reiwa era itself.