Thursday, January 31, 2008

Gyoza update: 415 people sick, NGO reactions

NHK and other Japanese media are reporting tonight that 415 people may have gotten sick from the Chinese dumplings imported by JT Foods. Also, an early warning a month ago was ignored by the authorities here, which led to a delay in the product recall until yesterday. List of the so far recalled 67 products from 10 different companies: 商品回収情報 (in Japanese).

Update Feb 1: Food Safety Citizens' Watch, a NGO established by Consumers Union of Japan and other consumer groups, is questioning the responsibility of the government. Read more here (in English). Quote:

This kind of problem arises as a result of insufficient import controls and quarantine systems. At the same time, we must seriously question the responsibility of the government, which did not rapidly make all information known to the public. Now, consumers cannot feel assured about the safety of the food we eat. As this case is now under investigation, efforts should also be made to prevent that such incidents reoccur. Under these circumstances, Food Safety Citizens’ Watch strongly and seriously questions the responsibility of the government.

Also, Japan Offspring Fund has published a report on Chinese use of agro-chemicals here (in Japanese).

Price increases

Akahata today publishes a list of planned price increases for foods and other commodities. Many companies are raising prices due to higher crude oil prices. Another reason is that international hedge funds are investing in grains as these may be becoming scarce, and the short-term profits are of course very tempting for financial brokers. Akahata, the Japanese Communist Party's newspaper, notes that incomes remain low, and price increases will have a serious impact on households.

Here are some of the announced price hikes listed in the article:

Gasoline 1.7 to 2.0 yen/liter increase
Beer 3 to 5 % increase
Food 5.6 to 20 % increase
Cheese, margarin 6-25 % increase
Coffee 20-30 yen increase
Domestic Pasta 15-20 % increase
Soy sauce 11 % increase
Milk 4.7 % increase

Gasoline, electricity and gas prices are also increasing this spring, and air fare hikes at 9 % have been announced by several Japanese airlines. My gas company just told me to expect a rate increase from February, due in part to the US subprime financial problems and sustained high crude oil prices.

Akahata: 値上げ止まらず

Meanwhile, over at Financial Times, Gideon Rachman writes about The global battle for food, oil and water:

The costs of food and energy are rising fast. The availability of water is also becoming an issue, from Australia to Africa. The struggle for these three basic commodities – food, energy and water – came up repeatedly in Davos.

Globalisation – in particular the rise of China and India – is driving a lot of these changes. The world oil price has risen by 80 per cent over the past 12 months and – since 2001 – China alone has accounted for about 40 per cent of the increase in oil demand. Global food prices have gone up by about 50 per cent this year. There are short-term reasons for this, such as a drought in Australia and pig disease in China. But the biggest long-term driver of increased prices is growing wealth in China and India.

Time for lunch.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Massive recall of Chinese-made dumplings

Japan Tobacco Foods Co. has announced this evening that some 10 people got sick from eating the company's Chinese dumplings, while a 5 year old girl was in coma, according to news reports.

A survey by the Ichikawa public health center in Chiba detected the insecticide methamidophos in frozen dumplings (gyoza) in levels that far exceeded normal standards. While many other Japanese food companies that import from China have strict in-house rules and programs to test the ingredients, the company seems to forget that food is different from other harmful products they sell to the public. Their 2007 Environmental Report claims that JT Foods has traceability systems, "with JT representatives selecting varieties and supervising cultivation. In addition, the soil and water quality are inspected on site [in China] and pesticide residues are regularly checked at both the factory and in Japan to prevent products from being contaminated by illegal pesticides."

Methamidophos is made by Bayer, who in the early 1980s pushed it through the Codex approval system based on mostly unpublished data and animal studies at Industrial Bio-Test Laboratories (IBT). More details here. IBT Laboratories was involved in one of the biggest scandals ever, but this has been conveniently forgotten. More about the IBT scandal from the The Amicus Journal, spring 1983 edition, published by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC): Faking It.

13 tons of the dumplings were imported to Japan in November, 2007 from the same Chinese manufacturer, Hebei Foodstuffs Import & Export Group Tianyang Food Processing, according to AP/Yahoo. Another subsidiary of Japan Tobacco, Katokichi Co Ltd, said it would recall frozen foods made at the same Chinese factory, but as a protective measure, not because it had found anyone ill.

I expect to see the list of recalled products expand very soon.

NHK had a 20 minutes long report about this topic at its 9 o'clock news, with Kowaka Junichi from the consumer organization Japan Offspring Fund in the studio.

Video on YouTube here: NHK: Chinese dumplings recalled (in Japanese)

Update 31 Jan: Ajinomoto Co. has announced that it is also recalling several frozen foods, including its spicy Korean-style "kalbi" dish, made at the same Chinese factory. Ezaki Glico Co. and Nippon Meat Packers Inc. also recalled food products today, according to Nikkei.
By Thursday evening, Sankei tonight said 312 people have reported symptoms including vomiting and diarrhea, and later NHK reports that over 400 people have gotten sick.

People are strongly advised to not eat any of the frozen products, and return them to the shop or company.

Japanese supermarkets abroad, including Jusco in Hong Kong, are also removing the pork products from their shelves, according to NHK.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

850,000 signatures...

... to stop Rokkasho-Mura.

Groups opposed to the nuclear-fuel reprocessing plant in Aomori Prefecture handed an 850,000-signature petition to the government Monday, demanding it rethink atomic power strategy. The reprocessing facility in Rokkasho, set to begin operations next month, will gather spent nuclear fuel from power plants nationwide and extract uranium and plutonium for reuse. It has been on its final test run since March 2006. Studies show the plant, after it goes into full operation, may release in a single day a year's worth of a regular nuclear plant's radioactivity.

The Japan Times: Fishery, consumer groups say no to nuclear reprocessing in Rokkasho

The National Network to Stop Radioactive Pollution from the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant and Consumers Union of Japan have issued a call for action to stop the nuclear reprocessing plant at Rokkashomura in Aomori prefecture, Japan.

Read more here.

1) We express our views about the actual damage due to radioactive contamination, in order to avoid rumours to spread.

2) We declare that we will independently measure radioactive contamination in order to protect the natural environment and the farming industry from increased levels of pollution.

3) We declare that we will cooperate with farmers and food producers, by connecting consumers to the land.

4) We call for opposition to radioactive pollution from the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant, in order to protect the rich and plentiful natural environment, life and food, as well as the air and water.

(Photo: Greenpeace)

Orion, Taurus and Mars

Monday, January 28, 2008

Electric cars in Israel by 2011

"Zero emission, zero noise," Renault-Nissan Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn said. "It will be the most environmentally friendly mass-produced car on the market."

What is Nissan's charismatic boss talking about? Seems Israel is committed to an ambitious plan to install the world's first electric car network by 2011, with half a million recharging stations to crisscross the tiny nation. AP/MSNBC has more details:

Ghosn said the cars, with a range of up to 100 miles per charge, would have a top speed of 68 miles per hour — the top speed limit in Israel. And Aggasi vowed that, in the long run, the electric car would be cheaper to operate than one based on fuel.

Israeli leaders said they hoped the country would prove to be a trailblazer in the field of alternative energy. "This initiative will revolutionize cars in Israel and throughout the world," National Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said.

AP/MSNBC: Israel vows to introduce electric cars by 2011

Currently, Israel gets its electricity from a number of non-renewable sources, such as nuclear, oil, and coal, but it seems that at least the southern part of the country is setting up its own renewable energy infrastructure, based mainly on solar power.

Treehugger: Solarized in Israel's South

Haaretz: Eilot Region pins energy hopes on solar collectors

Meanwhile, Israel says it would not send emergency shipments of fuel to Gaza, as it had initially promised earlier in the week. The fuel is needed to run Gaza City's power plant, which had shut down after Israel imposed a complete closure on Gaza last week, in response to rocket attacks. The Palestinian Energy Authority said the Gaza plant would have to shut down again by Sunday, unless shipments are renewed. No wonder people are fleeing into Egypt.

Ahem. But I disgress. Back to the topic at hand. Sunpower and electric cars. We live in interesting times: I really like that Israel's leaders pledged to provide tax incentives to customers to make Israel's cars fuel-free. I also like the philosophy of the people involved:

The initiative is the brainchild of Shai Agassi, a 39-year-old Israeli-American entrepreneur and high-tech star, who raised $200 million to get the project off the ground.

"Our planet's battery got charged over hundreds of millions of years, and yet we have consumed half the world's oil in one century. In the process, we got addicted to oil, polluted our cities and altered our planet's climate," Agassi said. "Finally, we are running out of out most precious commodity of all — we are running out of time."

Most of all, I love the "zero noise" pledge!

(Very interesting map from The Globe and Mail Aug 22, 2005, click to enlarge)

Sunday, January 27, 2008

World Social Forum Arakawa, Tokyo

Activists from some 40 Japanese NGOs held events yesterday on January 26 aimed to "further the cause of proposing sustainable alternatives to the neo-liberal worldview". The World Social Forum was held in the Arakawa district of Tokyo, as part of a global day of action.

A series of workshops were held on social justice and greater economic equality. Below is the translated version of their call for action, as well as a list of the workshops. Japanese WSF website here, international WSF website here (English).

Our Call for Action - "Why Does It Have to Be in Arakawa?"
At multiple venues in the Arakawa district, we will be hosting a forum centered on a series of workshops pertinent to the topic of "neo-liberalism" and its alternatives. In every January since 2001, the "World Social Forum" in which social movements from literally around the world come together to demand globalization of hope and solidarity, and reject the globalization based on war and exploitation, have been held. The WSF meetings have been held in regions of the "South" in the sense of position in the relationship of political and economic power, to counteract the worldview based on neo-liberal globalization spearheaded by the economically and militarily powerful countries. This also means that regions of the South can be a base of operation for powerful people's movements that demand a new kind of world order that is free of war and oppression. The significance of holding the WSF Arakawa 1/26 Global Action that will be held in the Arakawa district is also along this line - to remember the memories of war, deepen international understanding, strive for a society that is free of discrimination and oppression, and to cooperate with activists firmly rooted in the community to face the various challenges stemming from globalization in spite of the fact that we are located in Tokyo, one of the centers of the global economy. Our ambition is that whether they have been aware of the WSF until now, people from all walks of life would come to experience the significance of the WSF and of the Global Action Day on 1/26, and make them a springboard for activism as well as an organizing principle of their lives.

Workshops (Organizer/NGO)

1. Palestinian Refugees, and Their Art Education Class (Yasuko Nakamura and Friends)
2. An Investigative Tour against the Rip-Off Company - the Case of Goodwill, Inc. (Union of the Free Arbeiters)
3. Action against Poverty (No-Vox International Solidarity Movement)
4. Illegitimate Debts, and the Write-Off Campaign (St. Columbine Group)
5. GMOs and Life Patent (St. Columbine Group)
6. Population Policy: The South and the North (SOSHIREN)
7. Neo-Liberalism and the Sexual-Reproductive Rights - On Fundamentalism, Morality, Human Rights, and Finance and Commerce: Whose Freedom and Safety Are Being Protected? (Space Allies and collaborators)
8. What Is Happening to the Privatized Postal Service? (People's Network for Watching Privatization of Postal Service)
9. Get Back Public Services!: Kick-Off Rally for Yubari People's Forum for No G8 (Study Group on Public Services of ATTAC)
10. What Will Become of Non-Regular Workers?/What Are The Roles of Union? (Section on Construction Work of the All-Japan Solidarity Union for the Transportation Sector, Kansai)
11. No! To the East Asian Community Plan Led by Capitalists and the State, and Its Alternative (People's Plan Study Group/No to WTO/FTA Coalition)
12. Rice in Asia and Food Sovereignty (Consumer's Union of Japan/Campaign for No to GMOs)
13. The G8 and the Mass Media (No-G8 Media Network)
14. Talking about Le Monde Diplomatique (Friends of Le Monde Diplomatique in Japan)
15. Climate Change - The Planet Is Ours (No to WTA/FTO Coalition)
16. Here All Attacies on 9 AM (ATTAC)
17. No to G8 (No to G8 Action)

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Japan ranks 21st on global environmental index

Japan ranks 21st among 149 countries, according to the 2008 Environmental Performance Index. Not too bad for the world's second largest economy, but Japan should at least rank among the top 10. Remember Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda just said that "we need to earnestly address the issue of the global environment in order to sustain our future livelihood on a global scale." Hear, hear.

Switzerland topped the list, followed by the Scandinavian countries -- Sweden, Norway and Finland. The study was released in Davos where the annual World Economic Forum meeting is under way.

Kyodo/AP notes that Japan was behind major Western countries such as France and Britain (14th) but ahead of the United States (39th):

To formulate the 2008 Environmental Performance Index, experts at the two U.S. universities evaluated 25 environmental measures -- including climate change, agricultural policies, sanitation, greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution -- in the 149 countries.

Japan won high marks in air pollution and water quality but ranked low at 84th in the climate change category, including per-capita greenhouse gas emissions.

The environmental cost of soaring economic growth in Asian giants China and India were reflected in their lowly rankings. China placed 105th with Indian even further back in 120th position, according to AFP.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Kisogawa Bridge

While politicians in Tokyo debate the gasoline taxes, which go to building new roads in remote areas of Japan, Kentaro Yamada at Nagoya University worries about aging bridges. He has inspected a number of steel truss bridges around the country. One of them is the Kisogawa Ohashi Bridge in Mie Prefecture, where fractures were found last year. He notes that the government provides generous budgets for constructing new roads, but it neglects to set aside enough funds for road and bridge maintenance and repair.

Deterioration is an issue for all highway bridges in Japan, many of which were built during the nation's rapid economic growth period. The rush to expand infrastructure led to cost-cutting by using minimal materials needed for the bridges' expected performance.

However, traffic density soon increased drastically. For example, nearly 60,000 vehicles cross the Kisogawa Ohashi Bridge each day, 60 percent of which are heavy vehicles. Many of these vehicles are loaded over the legal limit, causing the bridge to experience extremely harsh conditions.

Asahi: Use funds to maintain, repair existing bridges

Japan has the World's longest suspension bridge, between the main island of Honshu and the southern island of Shikoku.

How about replacing the gasoline taxes with an environmental tax? This was discussed by the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren) in 2002. European countries, including Britain, Germany and Sweden, already have introduced environment taxes. While the systems vary from country to country, they basically tax fossil fuels, such as gasoline, to curb the consumption of these fuels. The tax revenues are used for anti-global warming measures and to fund the development of environmentally friendly technologies. Sounds like something Japan should introduce in 2008.

Yomiuri: Environment tax may be needed

The USA is number One!

- at burning gasoline...

US gasoline consumption in billions of liters per day vs. the 20 next largest gasoline consuming countries along with the relative cost of a fill up by country.

Graph from The Economist based on data in this article in Foreign Policy magazine:"Prime Numbers: Pain at the Pump"

All of the nations with cheaper gasoline prices subsidize it. The US also has the lowest total fuel taxes as a percentage of state spending.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

For Clean Pure and Safe food ingredients

How does a Swedish young woman become a model for Chinese food propaganda posters? Case study in how to influence a billion people: Use a blonde, Swedish girl.

The poster says:

For Clean Pure and Safe food ingredients:
Clean non-contaminated land and water
No rubbish on fields
Only registered pesticides and fertilizers
Apply pesticides safely
Written records of chemical applications
No raw animal or human manure in fields
Harvest into clean, non-contaminated containers
Transport in clean, un-contaminated wagons
Crops identified at factory by ID of farmer who grew it

Swedish local media notes that the photos were taken elsewhere by Emma Rodling, Stavre, Bräcke, a photography student in Sundsvall, then added to the field photos. The young Swedish lady has been touring rural China, flying non-stop to at least 17 locations, to educate farmers on how to grow beans and tomatoes. Cosco is a state-owned Chinese enterprise. Wonderful.

Lycka till, Linda Nilsson!

Monday, January 21, 2008

Fusion food

Warabe Mura in Gifu prefecture is a vegetarian food mail order company I really like. I searched their website today, and I wanted to introduce their event this weekend with chef Hirata Yutaka. He combines French cooking with macrobiotic food. His class is in Fukushima pref. at Nana Iro no Ku, a restaurant that looks really worth the trip.

There are two classes in 2008: Jan 23-25 (five basic lectures) and Feb. 6-8 (five advanced lectures).

Hirata Yutaka studied in France, and is known in Tokyo for his modern approach to macrobiotic foods. Having worked in top hotels, he understood the need for healthy cooking with a focus on deeper values. Talk about Fusion.

More about Macrobiotic Foods (UK). If you live in Japan, you might have an Anew Shop nearby, with many delishious macrobiotic foods, and staff that can be helpful with advice about a healthy, Japanese diet. List of Anew Shops here (Updated Dec. 2004)

Photos from Tanbo Lodge no Slow na Kurashi, Tara Cafe (in Japanese), and Vegetable Japan (in English).

Nana Iro no Ku Address:
自然食レストラン&カフェ なないろの空
  TEL 0244-42-0337

Warabe Mura (English info)

South Korean Schools to ban Coca Cola, Pepsi

From South Korea, I learn that the Seoul education office issued Sunday a complete ban on the sale of soft drinks at schools, libraries and museums as part of its fight against obesity among teenagers:

According to the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, the ban will eventually affect places teenagers frequently visit such as amusement parks. The move comes as more than one in 10 students are considered obese. In 2005, 11.2 percent of elementary students, 10.6 middle school students and 15.8 percent of high school students in Seoul were found to be overweight.

The World Health Organization has continuously warned that soft drinks might be linked to obesity. In line with the warning and the rise of obesity, students will no longer be able to find these drinks at cafeterias, snack stands and vending machines in schools, amusement parks and museums.

The daily intake of soda drinks by teenagers between 13-19 grew 41 percent to 64.1 gram in 2001 on average, from 35 gram in 1998. The move to ban soda drinks at schools was first introduced in 2006. To help enhance students' health, the Government Youth Commission announced their measures forbidding the sale of soft drinks in middle schools, high schools and at training sites for teenagers. Following the commission's plan, the education ministry also instructed municipal and provincial education offices to get rid of soft drinks at schools in 2007.

Actually, Korea's education ministry already announced last year that it is strengthening plans to restrict other obesity causing food such as ramen and fried food at schools in 2008. And most schools have already stopped selling soft drinks. Well done. It is wonderful to see that local government officials realise that they can do something to help kids be more healthy. Feel the squeeze...

The Korean Times: Schools to Go Soda Free

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Moon and Mars

The sky is very clear tonight, and I could see the Moon and Mars.

Image, slightly enhanced, from Skywatching.

Swedish Air Force 1969

Agneta Fältskog, who later joined ABBA, had a big hit back in 1969 with a love song which curiously features the Swedish Air Force in her video. SAAB J-35 Draken is the name of the plane that were supposed to defend us from all our enemies abroad. It was replaced by the SAAB JA 37 Viggen from 1971. And then, there was the SAAB JAS 39 Gripen (US Air Force Report) from 1996.

I think ABBA did a better job with their message of love.

Wow, many more early pre-ABBA era photos from 1970.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Consumer Agency? "Low-carbon society"? What pensions?

Update: Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda's speech has been posted in English on the Kantei website. I like the way he introduces the consumer issues, with the consumer as "the protagonist". This is very different from the current way of thinking, where ordinary people were to be "protected". He notes that in order to give new vitality to the people and enhance their quality of life, Japan must revise the laws, systems, as well as administration policy and politics, all of which have been created from the standpoint of producers and suppliers, and make these truly centered on the public interest. He even admits that there has been a succession of cases where administrative institutions and public organizations, established for the safety and welfare of the people, have rather acted to the detriment of the people.

Japan cannot exist without amicable relations, including vigorous trade, with foreign countries. The peace and stability of the world is extremely important for Japan. Furthermore, from a broader perspective, we need to earnestly address the issue of the global environment in order to sustain our future livelihood on a global scale. To achieve these objectives, we must:

1) "Shift to administrative and financial policies that put the people first" to realize a society in which the people and the consumers play the leading roles.

2) "Establish a social security system and ensure safety" so that the people can live with a sense of security.

3) "Create an economic society with vitality" in which the people can feel affluence.

4) "Make Japan a Peace Fostering Nation" that plays an active role in addressing global issues.

5) "Convert to a low carbon society" which enables prevention of global warming and economic growth at the same time.

Yomiuri is not very happy about the speech, noting that it lacked details, and that Mr. Fukuda "served up nothing more than a list of conventional policies devoid of anything that will inspire the public". Asahi also seems unimpressed, and wants "constructive arguments" to be developed, while warning that Japan could get caught up in a debate about the gasoline taxes.

Time for change.

You can watch the speech (in Japanese) on Yahoo News.

New Years Cards Recycled

According to Japan Post, five leading paper mills producing postcards for the recently privatized company used a significantly lower percentage of recycled paper than what they signed up for. Asahi notes that the content of recycled paper should be 40 percent, but the real ratio was 20 percent at most. The ratio for Nippon Paper Industries was 1 percent for its New Year's cards.

Nippon Paper Industries produced 54 percent of the 2008 New Year's cards sold by Japan Post. The other companies that fabricated the figures are: Hokuetsu Paper Mills Ltd.; Mitsubishi Paper Mills Ltd.; Daio Paper Corp.; and Oji Paper Co.

Let's increase the pressure on these companies, and demand a much higher rate than 40%. The goal is 62%, according to Japan Paper Recycling Promotion Center (in English).

Asahi: Firms faked recycled-paper ratios in postcards

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Sabre Dance

Japan's government has decided that the country's self defence forces should re-join the US-lead war for oil. Except, that is not what they tell voters here. Instead they are going with the "tero" -smokescreen that noone believes in anymore. テロ (Tero) or terrorism is not something most people worry a whole lot about in this markedly safe nation, while high oil prices certainly catch consumers' attention. Of course the two issues are linked. Especially in rural areas, where it is difficult to get by without a car or a truck - and in northern Japan, where kerosen stoves are used to heat houses, schools and offices. Also, Tokyo is now not able to get its electricity from the world's biggest nuclear power plant, Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, which was seriously damaged by the earthquake last year. Instead, TEPCO has to use crude oil and gas.

Most Japanese know next to nothing about the Arab world, or Afghanistan in particular. Neither do most Americans (Some Swedes may remember a time in the late 1960s when people actually drove their cars all the way from the European continent to Kabul!). The photo of US president Bush carelessly swinging an Arab sword on his recent visit to Saudi Arabia, where he failed to get the Saudis to increase oil production, speaks for itself.

So what was Bush doing in Saudi Arabia? On ABC's Nightline, Terry Moran interviewed President Bush in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. When discussing what President Bush might say to the King of Saudi Arabia to lower oil prices, George Bush said: "If they don't have a lot of additional oil to put on the market, it is hard to ask somebody to do something they may not be able to do." Wow. Saudi Arabia does not have a lot of additional oil to put on the market. Crisis. So what was Bush doing in Saudi Arabia?

The US Congress has been notified of six weapons packages to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, including Patriot missiles and Joint Direct Attack Munitions -- or "smart bomb" -- technology and related equipment. The deal envisions the transfer of 900 of the precision-guided bomb kits. The total amount of eventual sales as part of the Gulf Security Dialogue is estimated at US$20 billion, according to China Daily.

Meanwhile, Sweden has bypassed legislation that bans sales of weapons to countries involved in war, and accepted export of Swedish weapons, including Bofors weapons systems, to the US, which is currently used in Iraq and Afghanistan, and my dear old neutral home country is even considering sending military troups to the region.

Japan's leaders should at least do something original and tell its citizens why Japan is involved in this unholy war, and not pretend it has any noble motives.

Asahi, in an unusually harsh editorial, noted that the refueling mission legislation has created serious problems for the future of Japan's diplomacy and the SDF. But, the new law does not require Japan's parliament to approve the SDF's actual activities. Under the principle of civilian control of the military, civilian politicians should (note that Asahi says "must") rigorously oversee how SDF troops are deployed, but this is now neglected.

Asahi: Refueling law passes

Seiji Ozawa conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker: Sabre Dance by from the ballet Gayaneh, by Aram Khachaturian.

(Thanks Isis for the music clip, it made my day)

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Gone fishing

On a cold, sunny day in January, wouldn't you love to go fishing? In Sweden it is called "pimpla" and the image says it all. A lonely, quiet time on a frozen lake.

The other photo is from the Hwacheon Sancheoneo Ice Fishing Festival in South Korea.

(From here and here)

But, of course, such images are deceptive. Yes, Asian countries can be very crowded, especially if you come from a part of the world with only 9 million people.

But, in Sweden, we also have sports events with lots of people. Vasaloppet, the annual ski race between Sälen and Mora i Dalarna, attracts thousands of participants.

Living in Asia reminds me that things we take for granted can change very rapidly. The Chinese Vasaloppet has been held in Changchun since 2003, with 6,000 participants in 2004, and more than 10,000 people from 25 countries in 2006. Go figure.

Which photo is from Sweden and which is from China? ;)

And of course, Japan has had its own Vasaloppet in Asahikawa, Hokkaido since 1990. English website here.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

A smile and a promise that the Olympics will have safe food

A Chinese official is reported to have "a smile on his face" as he promise that the food will be safe during the Olympics in Beijing this summer, according to China Daily:

"We're 100 percent confident about and more than capable of providing safe food for the Games," deputy quality watchdog chief Pu Changcheng told a State Council Information Office press conference.

Some foreign media reports have alleged China's food safety and air quality have prompted 20 countries, including Britain, France, Germany and the US, to hold their training camps in Japan instead of China this summer. In response, Pu said such worries were "totally baseless."

"Please rest assured. The Chinese government will do everything necessary to ensure safe food for the Games," said Pu, vice-minister of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ).

He said all food products supplied for the Olympics will be made by accredited companies that have passed stringent scientific and market tests. All such products have to carry a safe quality label.


Pu's demeanor when he made the remarks exhibited his confidence. He had a smile on his face, rarely seen since mid-last year when the quality of China's food products hit the headlines after tainted additive exported from China contaminated pet food in North America. The incident was followed by extensive reports on allegedly unsafe seafood, candies and toys from China.

If only feeding the rest of the population was as easy.

China Daily: Best Quality Food During Olympics Assured

And, man, did they make a big effort during 2007:

By the end of last year, all of the country's 1.32 million restaurants and catering units at or above county level had been able to routinely check its suppliers' hygiene certificates when buying raw materials, according to the ministry. During the campaign, health departments punished almost 150,000 unlicensed catering businesses and uncovered 8,873 violations for illegally using raw materials, such as processing food where the animal had died of disease. China sees decline in food poisoning cases

Monday, January 14, 2008


...was the number of calls regarding food labeling problems during 2007.

Japan's agriculture ministry says a record number of calls were made to its public hotline for food labeling in 2007, amid a series of mislabeling scandals. NHK World reports that a total of 3,757 cases were reported to 65 stations across Japan last year, about 2.7 times more than a year earlier.

Officials say, until June 2007, they used to receive about 100 calls a month. However, the number jumped sharply after it was revealed that Meat Hope had falsely labeled ground beef. Increasingly, it is industry insiders who are calling MAFF's hotline. Officials say whistle-blowers have brought to light many irregularities in recent years.

Phone numbers to MAFF and their local "consumer corner" offices around the country are listed here (Japanese only).

(Graph from NHK of phone calls to the MAFF hotlines)

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Consumer news

Proposals for consumer protection from both the governing party and the opposition are making news lately. It remains to see what will be the actual result in terms of policy change. Mainichi claims that on January 18, Japan's prime minister will announce the creation of a Minister for Consumer Affairs as part of his speech as he opens the regular session of the Parliament. The Democratic Party of Japan has also proposed creating a "consumer ombudsman" to assist consumers with legal issues.

Ombudsman (オンブズマン) is a Swedish term that means "representative man". It implies that an appointed person can act on your behalf. I wonder why Japan cannot find a Japanese word for this concept. If the point is to empower ordinary citizens and make Japan more "consumer-friendly", then using a foreign loan word seems rather silly.

In Europe, there are two Consumer Commissioners that handles public health issues, food safety, and issues like e-commerce, redress, and financial services (There are a total of 28 commissioners in Brussels). On a national level, it helps to have a minister for consumer affairs and Japan could probably benefit from creating such Ministry. However, I wonder if this means they will also make large changes in the current structure, where the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare handles public health issues.

Food safety is currently the responsibility of at least three different ministries, as well as the Food Safety Commission. Mainichi mentions that Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura is not too happy about the proposal. Clearly, Yasuo Fukuda and his cabinet will have to do some deep thinking if they really want to change this massive bureaucracy with its long historical ties to producers and farmers.

In Sweden, we have a consumer ombudsman system where the ombudsman represents consumer interests in relations to private companies, and can pursue legal action in the consumer interest. However, the ombudsman is not a minister but rather the head of the Swedish Consumer Agency. If Japan follows this model, and creates a Consumer Agency, it could simplify things for ordinary citizens. Japan already has a high level of consumer protection, and a better strategy could be to strenghten the current National Consumer Affairs Center and its network of 490 consumer centers run by local governments across the country. I have been invited to give talks and lectures at several such centers, and their level of expertise is very high. If you remember, a catch phrase from the Koizumi era was, "from the centre to the regions". I hope Fukuda remembers that during the days ahead.

The Cabinet Office is currently in charge of general consumer issues and legislation such as consumer contract laws and product liability. With 120 million consumers, better policies can have a great influence on health and the environment not only here in Japan, but also in Asia and around the World.

What Fukuda might want to do with the current Cabinet lineup is anyone's guess, but Shinya Izumi is already minister for food safety. It would be simple to just expand his portfolio to also include "consumer affairs".

(Hat tip to bloggers Observing Japan and Janne in Osaka who first commented on this story last week!)

Yomiuri: Govt eyes consumer agency

Memories, memories...

Photo from what seems like a very long time ago!

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Understanding Eco 2008

(Photos from the Eco Rica blog)

The idea of course is to get people to recycle their old toners and printer cartridges, using the Eco Rica Boxes at electronic shops around Japan, since the components can be reused. These posters encourage people to recycle their old printer cartridges, rather than throwing them in the garbage.

Most electronics shops will now accept old cartridges in Japan. They can be reused, so it makes sense to bring them back to the shop where you bought them. The Eco Rica website has a list of all shops that participate here.

EcoRica is a joint campaign with WWF Japan.

Eco Rica was also featured in the December 2007 issue of the magazine Ecoli, explaining step-by-step what happens as you toss your used electronic parts in the green containers.

Japan Post wants you to reduce CO2

Japan Post is extremely busy today, as 120 million Japanese people send New Years greeting cards to each other. These post cards are usually promptly delivered and from this year, they offer you the option of using a post card that helps offset climate change. According to Nihon Keisai Shimbun, Japan Post is using CDM (Clean Development Mechanism) to offset its emissions, noting that if you buy the slightly more expensive JP postcards that include this option, the total influence is not small. You pay an extra 5 yen, in addition to the normal cost of 50 yen, to send a serious message to family, friends and coworkers.

Japan Post: Carbon Offset Nengajou (in Japanese)

Kyoto Mechanisms Information Platform for Japan (in English)

Gott nytt år (Happy New Year)! Satoko & Peo Ekberg, who participated in a November 23 event at the United Nations University in Tokyo, bring a fresh perspective from Sweden to Japanese kids. You can see their talk on streaming video on the Japan Post website here. Peo makes the excellent point that we adults often tell kids what to do, but as for ourselves, we don't follow what we preach. Time for a change in 2008?

This is a cool joint project between Japan Post, Ministry of the Environment, MITI and Team-6 (Japan's campaign to reduce its emissions of climate change gasses by 6%).

NHK published a book in October 2007, about making your own handmade New Years cards. Many people are using their pc to add photos and make original cards with fun designs. Handmade (手作り) is an old tradition too of course, as people used to write their greetings with ink and brush. A very sustainable way of communicating.