Thursday, February 28, 2013

Toward A Wide World

Japanese music, a lot of tunes that always seem to strike a chord. Here is one, that you may not have heard, unless you live in these parts of the wood.

Toward A Wide Word, a tune that many junior high schools have performed, and now, Maestro Ozawa conducted the Kawazaki elementary school...

Hiroi Sekai e-

Japan Times -- Feb 28
Conductor Seiji Ozawa performed Wednesday in public for the first time since ill health forced him to suspend his musical activities last March, conducting a choir of 340 elementary school pupils in Kawasaki.
The 77-year-old maestro conducted the singing of a song titled "Hiroi Sekai e" ("Toward a Wide World") by fifth- and sixth-graders at Minami-Ikuta Elementary School. The song will be sung at a graduation ceremony for the sixth-graders next month.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Food Labels: OK, Nobody Is Perfect, Hilariously Misleading

Time to lighten up a little. It is cold and tomorrow, it may rain. Hope you are all enjoying the last days of winter, hopefully with some nice food. I thought I'd share a couple of fun food labels (vocational habit) that I collected. Here is my list of top five hilarious misleading Japanese foods (drum roll):

No. 5 Butter Pea

Peanuts from rural China, add some salt and - hydrogenated oils. That could be anything, but not butter. My guess is cotton seed oil, mixed with genetically modified corn oil, maybe some soybean oil. But the point is, when they make hydrogenated food oils, that is a factory you don't want to go near. All kinds of chemicals and heavy metals are used to process those molecules. No butter. Zilch. PS, Seven-Eleven should not use the term "kodawari" for such a bland product. こだわり is not something I associate with cheap peanuts. "Seeking perfection" or obsession...

No. 4 Beer Taste

So clever, yet so wrong. Plus it tastes so bad. Orion gets a special mention for not having anyone around in the office who may have suggested that, no "Zero Life" was not such a great idea. Not beer. What really annoys me is that many of the advertisements are signed off by the company proper, using the full name, such as "Kirin Beer Co. Ltd" even though the product is not a beer.

No. 3 Choco Truffles

Did you get this for Valentine's Day? Lucky you. But trust me, there was no truffle near this chocolate. Truffles is a special mushroom, very expensive, and highly regarded by top chefs in France. Bad choice of a label for a rather delicious product, that Japan does fairly nicely. Incidentally, I'm surprised Starbucks did not know better. But then again, anything goes, when you are a multinational corporation, with more lawyers than sense.

No. 2 Salmon

This is a fish that has been severely over-fished, to extinction, and then they found ways to produce them in aquafarms, with all kinds of environmental problems. Lots of antibiotics in the feed... ahem. I was not going to mention that, but rather the fact that most salmon you get is actually trout. Mislabels, mistakes, oh my, mystery fish? Avoid.

No. 1 Sea Chicken

My personal favourite, and it goes way back, probably a 100 years or so, not only in this country. This is tuna in a can, and they for some reason thought it would sell better if it was called sea chicken. Tired of drum rolls? Do enjoy this special Star Wars commercial that aired in Japan back in the late 1970s, paid for by Hagoromo, a company that is still fighting the Dark Side, with all kinds of calorie-reduced cans, for your special Light Saber parties. Aren't you glad you read Kurashi.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Meat Trade, Not So Easy To Know What You Are Eating/Paying For

I had not planned to blog about this huge scandal with horse meat found in hamburgers and all kinds of frozen foods, but now it hit Swedish company Ikea as well. Their famous meatballs are sold all around the world, but they also were found to contain horse meat. It is illegal of course to include horse meat in products that should be beef from cattle, or pork from pigs. Also, it is unclear if horses treated with illegal chemicals have been used. It is a nasty mess.

I'm a vegetarian *) and it is quite easy to avoid beef or pork in Japan. Horse meat, properly labelled, is considered a delicacy in Japan. Minced meat products however are difficult to make sense of - after this latest scandal, who would want to eat such stuff? There is a lot less meat eating here than in Europe or in North America. I hope Ikea in Japan didn't sell those meatballs. Sigh.

The Local: Ikea stops meatball sales after horsemeat report

Findus, another Swedish company, formerly part of the multinational Nestle group (or EQT or some other private equity firm or holding company like Lion Capital LLP), has also been implicated. Their frozen "Beef Lasagne" turned out to contain - mystery meat.

If you remember the food safety scandals we had here in Japan a few years ago, you understand what European consumers are now going through. And in the United States, you had the pink slime scandal.

In March 2012, ABC News ran a series of news reports about the product, including claims that approximately 70 percent of ground beef sold in U.S. supermarkets contained the additive at that time. The reports generated significant controversy and led to increased consumer concerns. Due to the controversy some companies and organizations discontinued the provision of ground beef with the additive, while others continued to provide beef with the filler. The U.S. manufacturer Beef Products Inc. has argued that the claims made in the reports were false and launched a lawsuit against ABC. 

Your frozen, mass-produced mystery-meat food comes from factories owned by people who care not much about your health, or the state of the planet. Reduce your meat consumption to help deal with climate change. We can all do a little, and it matters a lot.

No, this is no secret, even Forbes noted it last year:

Forbes: Eating Less Meat Is World's Best Chance For Timely Climate Change, Say Experts

Shifting the world’s reliance on fossil fuels to renewable energy sources is important, certainly. But the world’s best chance for achieving timely, disaster-averting climate change may actually be a vegetarian diet eating less meat, according to a recent report in World Watch Magazine. (While I’d happily nudge the world toward a vegetarian diet, the report authors are more measured and simply suggest diets containing less meat.)

“The entire goal of today’s international climate objectives can be achieved by replacing just one-fourth of today’s least eco-friendly food products with better alternatives,” co-author Robert Goodland, a former World Bank Group environmental advisor wrote in an April 18 blog post on the report. A widely cited 2006 report estimated that 18% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions were attributable to cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, camels, pigs and poultry. However, analysis performed by Goodland, with co-writer Jeff Anhang, an environmental specialist at the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation, found that figure to now more accurately be 51%. Consequently, state the pair, replacing livestock products with meat alternatives would “have far more rapid effects on greenhouse gas emissions and their atmospheric concentrations — and thus on the rate the climate is warming — than actions to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy.”

But, if that didn't catch your attention, how about this latest news - you don't even know what you are paying for, when you think you are getting a hamburger, or a serving of meatballs?

The Japan Times/AFP/Jiji: First legal suits are filed over horse-meat fraud

Britain said earlier in the week that the Findus lasagna and two meals sold by supermarket chain Aldi contained up to 100 percent horse meat, and that products containing horse have subsequently been found in France and Sweden. The consumption of horse meat is particularly taboo in Britain, whose environment minister, Owen Paterson, on Saturday took the reins of a crisis meeting of retailers and officials amid growing public concern. “This is a conspiracy against the public. Selling a product as beef and including a lot of horse in it is fraud,” Paterson said afterward. British authorities have said they are testing to see whether the horse meat contains a veterinary drug that can be dangerous to humans. They have also refused to rule out the possibility that horse meat could be found in school meals.

*) I was fortunate enough that by the time I turned 13 or so, my school, Rosengårdsskolan in Malmö, introduced a daily vegetarian school lunch alternative. I wonder if kids in Japan have the same opportunity? If you are a parent, or a student who would rather not eat meat, I'd be very interested to hear from you.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Strange, Not-So-Brave World Of TPP

The negotiations for a Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) continue to be hidden behind a secrecy veil as the countries already involved try to outdo each other in aggressive moves. The US had to withdraw a controversial proposal for new patent rules for pharmaceuticals, that were flat out rejected by just about everyone else.

Dawson Strategic has more:

As negotiations progress, members are drawing lines in the TPP sand box that will determine the dynamics of future negotiating rounds. When it comes to patent protection for pharmaceuticals, these lines are deep and divisive.. Although patent issues for pharmaceuticals were not discussed in the recently-concluded Auckland round, they are likely to be on the agenda for the next round of negotiations in Singapore in March 2013.

Discussion on patent protections has been delayed since the U.S. withdrew its initial proposal in the face of strong opposition from TPP partners. That proposal included an increase in the scope of products for which patents can be obtained, a decrease in exclusions from patent law so that patents could be applied to diagnostic, therapeutic or surgical treatments, and patent-term restoration, a provision that extends patent life to compensate patent holders for marketing time lost during the approvals process. In some areas, the initial U.S. proposal exceeded the protections of the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, considered to be the United States’ highest level of IP protection to date.

One problem is that so little of the texts that are being negotiated are made public. Once agreed upon, the entire package will then be offered to national assemblies for a vote: yes or no. Elected officials in parliaments or the US Congress cannot reopen negotiations on individual items.

Then we have the strange case of Japan, that kind of wants to join, but at this stage still has not made up its collective mind on the matter. Keidanren, the Japanese business federation, that represents the large multinational companies, think joining TPP would be a swell idea. Farmers (and consumers) stand to lose - a lot - and are firmly opposed. Note that this is not a "free trade" deal but rather an entire new set of rules that will be imposed on the countries involved. The sweeping patent protection changes that the US wants, for example, would mean more expensive drugs and more monopolies, not less, and the forced introduction of seed patent rules that has given biotech companies like Monsanto almost complete control over the US agricultural sector. What's free about that?

So, the news this weekend is not good. Prime Minister Abe and President Obama have somehow agreed that there are some "sensitive" products, especially rice in Japan's case, but that's also nothing new, and not a particularly brave way to pave the way for Japan's entry into the negotiations. We already knew that the US wants Japan to negotiate on all issues, including its rice tariffs. It makes me concerned that the smokescreen coming from Washington DC this weekend is almost as bad as the 2.5 pollution from Beijing...

Public Citizen has 12 questions for Abe and Obama:

The 12 Questions about the TPP that President Obama and Prime Minister Abe Do Not Want to Hear this Week

Today Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrives in Washington for a Friday meeting with President Obama. A hot item on the agenda is the possibility of Japan joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a U.S. NAFTA-style “free trade” agreement currently under negotiation between 11 Pacific Rim nations. Japan is not now involved in TPP negotiations and Prime Minister Abe’s party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), explicitly campaigned against joining the TPP in the December elections that restored Abe and his party to power.
Recent indications that Abe may contradict those campaign pledges have ignited a torrent of criticism within Japan and prompted the Japanese press to flood the Abe administration with tough questions regarding his TPP intentions. Meanwhile, key Obama constituencies, such as the auto industry and unions, have vocally opposed Japan’s inclusion, while U.S. congressional leaders from both parties have expressed opposition to the entire deal alongside consumer, labor, environmental, public health, Internet freedom and other public interest groups.
Here are 12 questions on the TPP that President Obama and Prime Minister Abe do not want to hear during Abe’s visit this week:
For both Prime Minister Abe and President Obama:

  • The TPP replicates provisions from prior NAFTA-style agreements that empower foreign investors to skirt domestic laws and courts and privately enforce the terms of a public treaty by directly challenging governments’ public interest policies before foreign tribunals to demand unlimited sums of taxpayer compensation. The premise for including such extreme extra-judicial enforcement procedures in past agreements has been that the domestic legal systems of developing country trade partners have not been sufficiently trustworthy. President Obama, do you see Japan’s domestic legal system as not sufficiently trustworthy, or do you plan to exempt U.S. firms operating in Japan from these investor privileges? Prime Minister Abe, I would ask the same question with regard to the U.S. domestic legal system and Japanese firms operating in the United States.

  • The TPP would bar both of your governments from favoring domestic companies with fiscal stimulus, or from requiring that taxpayer dollars be directed toward domestic firms in government procurement. China, meanwhile, remains free to pursue such pro-growth, domestically-focused strategies. If both Japan and the United States intend to compete with China, why would either country benefit from such limiting provisions in the TPP?
For President Obama:

  • In your recent State of the Union, you stated a priority of “making America a magnet for new jobs and manufacturing.” Given that wages in Vietnam are approximately one-third of those in China, how do you see the TPP – a NAFTA-style deal with Vietnam – contributing to your manufacturing growth goals for America?

  • Japan’s powerful rice lobby has successfully pushed Prime Minister Abe’s party to conditionally reject the TPP unless Japan is granted an exemption from tariff cuts on sensitive products like rice. Vietnam, as one of the world’s largest rice exporters and a TPP negotiating party, is unlikely to accept such an exemption unless the United States grants Vietnam greater access to its own sensitive economic sectors, such as the manufacturing sector that you pledged to expand in your State of the Union speech. How do you expect to simultaneously satisfy Japan and Vietnam and grow American manufacturing?  

  • The U.S. auto industry and unions, key supporters of your administration, have rejected Japan’s inclusion in the TPP, citing Japan’s resistance to lowering import barriers on U.S. autos. Have you been able to extract from Japan a commitment to lower these barriers as a precondition to joining the TPP?
For Prime Minister Abe:

  • Your party has stated that it is not interested in joining the TPP unless you are guaranteed that there is no precondition that tariffs must be cut on all products without exception. Given that no such assurance has been given, what do you have to discuss with President Obama regarding the TPP?

  • Given the LDP campaign pledge to protect the national healthcare system, have you been able to extract from the United States a commitment to exempt Japan from the provisions in the proposed TPP text that would extend medicine patents and challenge national drug formularies?

  • Japan’s legal associations have opposed the TPP’s proposed inclusion of investment provisions that would allow foreign corporations to skirt Japan’s laws and courts and directly challenge Japanese domestic policies in foreign tribunals, demanding taxpayer compensation for public interest laws that they claim to be violations of TPP-granted investor privileges. Have you been able to extract a commitment from the United States to exempt Japan from these provisions?

  • Japanese consumer safety groups have opposed proposed TPP rules that would require Japan to accept meat, poultry and other food from the United States and other TPP countries that are deemed to have roughly “equivalent” food inspection systems, even if Japan’s specific food safety requirements were not met. Have you been able to extract a commitment from the United States to exempt Japan from these rules?

  • Japan’s economy relies heavily on the use of existing technologies to spur innovation and growth. Given that the TPP’s proposed text would significantly expand intellectual property protections so as to inhibit open-source usage of existing technologies, have you been able to extract from the United States a commitment to exempt Japan from these rules?

  • Japan’s farm ministry calculates that the TPP would cause a ¥7.9 trillion downfall in Japan’s gross domestic product and the loss of 3.4 million jobs. How do you see the TPP fitting into the economic growth goal that is one of the three pillars of your reform platform? 

  • Have you been able to extract from the United States commitments to exclude rice, beef, pork, dairy, sugar or other sensitive agricultural sectors from the TPP’s tariff-cutting requirement, given the intense anti-TPP pressure exerted by the farmers in these sectors who helped return the LDP to power in December?  Have you been able to extract such a commitment for construction, postal services, insurance or other sensitive service sectors that have also opposed the TPP? 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Free Trade? Not For Important Things Like Gas, Rice

Interesting to see NHK and others preparing for Prime Minister Abe's trip to Washington, as he is about to meet President Obama. On the agenda - Abe to ask Obama for shale gas. 

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to ask US President Barack Obama to permit shale gas exports to Japan. The two leaders will meet in Washington on Friday for a bilateral summit.
Abe faces an energy demand, with most of Japan's nuclear power plants halted and the nation increasingly dependent on thermal power. He is eager to import US shale gas as a new, cheaper energy source. But the United States limits the export of shale gas to free-trade partners, to avoid raising domestic prices. Non free-trade partners must have their export plan screened by the US government case-by-case.

Feb. 18, 2013

For a long time, the US has been talking about "free trade" while at the same time excluding important sectors such as the military and energy. The US will not allow exports of gas or certain weapon systems. Weird. US food exports are also part of all kinds of regulations.

WTO has rules to prevent countries to ban exports. So called "free trade agreements" are not just about trade. Countries are actually obliged to continue exporting goods and services, even if that means the local population in such country suffers. Remember rare earths? WTO members are not supposed to ban exports, but in the case of food, what will happen?

Of course that is not right, and a lot of us, including many NGOs, have protested. Japan has this to say (pdf)

The world’s food supply is approaching crisis, due to the increasing use of
agricultural produce as an energy source, the increased demand for agricultural
produce accompanying the expansion in populations in China and India, and the
frequency of abnormal climatic conditions in line with global warming.
○ Against this background, there has been a sudden acceleration in the
implementation of export restrictions regarding wheat and other cereals in certain
countries. This has led to raised prices, causing significant impact on food security
for countries importing food, particularly poorer developing countries.

You read that right. Japan is officially concerned about global climate change, and what it might do to food trade.

Free trade or not, some things are more important than others. Japan recently caved in and allowed beef (30 month old, due to mad cow disease) from the US to be imported again; will the US have anything to give in return? Taiwan is still trying to limit US pork imports, since the US pork producers use ractopamine, a chemical not allowed in Asia.

The World Trade Organization was supposed to deal with such issues, but has not lived up to its mandate.

Naoatsu Aoyama at the Asahi Shimbun Globe writes over at AJISS:

Like it or not, Japan could find itself in future with less leeway to pursue a foreign policy divergent from US strategy. This does not necessarily mean, however, that Japan will be subservient to the US. Cooperation in the energy sector has a reciprocal nature. Japan is obliged to derive as many lessons in nuclear power technology as possible from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant accident. Sharing these technical lessons with the US would no doubt be very beneficial for the US as it pursues dependable private-sector nuclear energy at home and non-proliferation of nuclear weapons internationally.

Meanwhile, Japan is trying to make sure that important things like agriculture, and rice in particular will not be part of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, should Japan decide to join. Rural Japan is not going to just quit farming, it is such an important part of daily life (kurashi) here.

What about the Satoyama Initiative and lots of other great proposals, like Food Action Nippon?

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has vowed that he will not sacrifice Japan's agriculture to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade talks.
Abe was speaking at a debate on this fiscal year's supplementary budget bill in the Upper House Budget Committee on Tuesday.

Upper House member Toshio Yamada told the session that Japan's automobile industry has a wide range of related industries and could offer many jobs.
He said, however, that in exchange for protecting the car industry by joining the multinational free trade agreement, farming industry should not be sacrificed. Abe agreed with Yamada's view, saying he believes farming is a fundamental industry for Japan and he will consider how to handle the TPP negotiations with this in mind. The prime minster added that he will do his best to protect Japan's national interest at his meeting with US President Barack Obama scheduled for later this week.
Meanwhile, lawmakers of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party opposed to joining the TPP talks have submitted to the government a resolution that includes items that should be exempted from the abolition of tariffs. About 100 lawmakers attended a meeting to compile the resolution Tuesday. The resolution cited rice, wheat, beef, dairy products and sugar as items that should be made exempt from the tariffs abolition. It also said that the participation of for-profit businesses in the management of medical institutions should not be allowed.

The resolution added it strongly hopes that the Japan-US summit later this week will reflect Japan's national interest.

Feb. 19, 2013
gas ring
Britain is also worried about its energy future (as should anyone else) and hoping to tap into possible new gas. Alistair Buchanan is chief executive of Ofgem writes for The Telegraph: Keeping Britain's lights on will come at a price

Anyone who doubts that the Government’s energy reforms are necessary should take note of the events of a few weeks ago.

Britain (...) will have to compete for its gas on a worldwide market. Today, Asian LNG prices, which drive long-term contract prices, are about 60pc higher than UK gas prices. But what about shale gas – will that not save the day? It is true that the US has transformed its energy market thanks to shale, but in our time-frame, when Britain will rely on gas for its power stations, this is not going to happen on any significant scale either here or elsewhere in Europe.

Even if the US allows exports (and assuming they come to Europe), it will still cost about the same as we are paying for our winter gas now. No one doubts that there is plenty of gas out there, but what is critical to Britain is how much will be available over the next five years and how much we will have to pay for it to ensure that it comes here. 

Rice plant image from

Monday, February 18, 2013

Komatsuna Surprise

Over at my garten, today, I was working on another project, mostly involving flowers, but then I noticed that the komatsuna that I had given up on a few weeks ago looked rather genki. A closer look revealed that these sturdy brassica plants were thriving in late winter, with a lot of new leaf growth happening inside the outer, larger leafs. I had removed the net that was supposed to protect against birds, and not watered them at all lately.

This is a very happy surprise as there is not much else to harvest in mid February (negi, daikon). These fresh leafy greens are a great source of calcium, and a joy with a sesame dressing. The smallest leaves were delicious, raw.

Risa and Kirk over at Savory Japan Vegetable Recipes, has more.

Komatsuna no ohitashi (stir fried mustard spinach)
As I describe in the ingredients section on the vegetable page, komatsuna is even healthier than spinach. The slightly bitter flavor and crunchy stalks hold up well to stir frying. Use minimal oil to quickly stir fry washed and roughly chopped komatsuna with 1 clove of garlic, salt, and red pepper to taste. As the komastuna gets hot, splash with sake and cover the skillet. This serves to quickly steam it, and to finish cooking without adding more oil. At the very end, add a few drops of sesame oil for flavor and a nice aroma. In the photo, it is served on antique imari.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Japan Supermarket Trade Show, Foodopoly

I get invited to all kinds of events, and I try to stay abreast of it all, but one of the annual trade shows I like to attend is the Tokyo Big Sight Supermarket Trade Show. All kinds of countries participate with huge displays, like Brazil, or Denmark. Others are more subtle, promoting products rather than their national brand, like Chimay or the stalls where kimchi is lauded as the next health food.

Then there is a huge area where Japanese regions get to promote their original products. From Hokkaido, to Okinawa, you name it. Small islands, huge banners and a lot of sale people. Nagano, Niigata, or Shikoku, and many other places. Fukushima also had a large booth with stuff from Aizu Wakamatsu, mainly.

Free samples as much as you can handle, and, do ask questions, they all know a lot and want to tell you more than you may want to know!

I'm glad I went, I met a lot of wonderful people.

All kinds of large companies from abroad, like Tyson, use these events to make "friends" and create inroads to the Japanese food market. Smithfield is another huge company, with pork production all over the US, trying to export to Japan. They are just like Ford or General Motors: Not that popular.

Genetically modified foods? The only booth I could find was a weird outfit promoting GMO papaya from Hawaii, and when asked, they said it was not yet for sale in Japan... They said the same thing last year.

Consumers Union of Japan noted:

A study by the No! GMO Campaign has revealed that Japan’s supermarket chains are refusing to sell genetically modified papaya.

The No! GMO Campaign was set up in 1996 to stop genetically modified foods. 16 years later, there is no commercial GM farming in Japan. Consumers and civic groups are continuing the battle against imported GM foods. In December, 2011 the government approved GM papaya and soon, the American producers in Hawaii were promoting the expensive fruit at a trade fair near Tokyo, giving out slices as free samples. The No! GMO Campaign started an effort to investigate if the GM papaya from Hawaii was actually sold in Japan or not.
Citizen and activists all around the country approached their local supermarket chains and the result was revealing. Not a single supermarket chain has decided to introduce the controversial virus-resistant papaya from Hawaii. Could it be that the Americans are hoping that people will simply forget about GM papaya, before they start the marketing introduction?

Do explore, more. I also want to take this opportunity to introduce a new book, Foodopoly, by an old colleague (we did a campaign against food irradiation together ages ago):

Wenonah Hauter owns an organic family farm that provides healthy vegetables to hundreds of families as part of the growing nationwide Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) movement. Yet, as one of the nation’s leading healthy-food advocates, Hauter believes that the local food movement is not enough to solve America’s food crisis and the public health debacle it has created. In Foodopoly, she takes aim at the real culprit: the control of food production by a handful of large corporations—backed by political clout—that prevents farmers from raising healthy crops and limits the choices that people can make in the grocery store.

Foodopoly blogs about "too big to eat" which is a kind of take on the way the banks or the car industry have been treated (too big to fail) but this is about our own day-to-day survival:

A big chunk of what they're feeding on is the feeding of the rest of us.  This is the topic of Wenonah Hauter's new book, Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America And she argues against simply cutting off the subsidies to agribusiness.  The problem, Hauter explains, is that we do need to eat something, and if we're going to have a chance of eating something grown democratically, sustainably, and healthfully, we're going to have to take into account the fewer than a million small and medium farms left standing.  Most of them barely survive each year.  Lots of them don't survive each year.  And most of them survive only with the help of public subsidies, subsidies they didn't need prior to an onslaught of federal legislation aimed intentionally at destroying farmers' livelihood. Midsize family farmers have an average income of $19,277 including subsidies. If we turn them into corporate serfs or their land into McMansions and shopping malls and fracking areas, we'll have nothing to eat but what we can grow in the front yard or the flower box and what already makes up 90% of what we eat: processed corporate junk.
Geoge Naylor, an Iowa farmer and former president of the National Family Farm Coalition who pushed back against President Ronald Reagan's assault on antitrust powers, remarked in 2012:

"No betrayal was more galling, or the effects more devastating for farmers and eaters, than Bill Clinton's single-minded pursuit of free trade and his support for the 1996 'Freedom to Farm' bill."
Among the lies pushed since the 1940s to tear apart family farms has been the lie that exporting grain would be the way of the future.  In 1980 the United States exported 45% of its corn, wheat, and soybeans.  By 2009 that was down to 25%.  Production has soared.  Prices have plummeted.  And the mega-farms that created the mess, just like the mega banks (and in fact the two share a lot of interchangable human parts at the highest levels), have been bailed out, and bailed out, and bailed out, every year, just like the war machine only not so expensive and specializing more in sickness than in death.  In fact, processed food has been linked convincingly to cancer.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Energy Efficiency, Revisited

Last July, an interesting report was published by the US energy efficiency watchdog called the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE). I had never heard of them before, and mostly they have done stuff on individual states in the US. But the report that came out was a novel attempt to rank 12 major countries in terms of energy efficiency.

Then I had a look, and they managed to rank the United Kingdom as No. 1, followed by Germany, Italy and Japan in that order. I thought it is was a bit odd, and forgot about the whole thing (also because the entire point of their exercise seemed to be to shame the United States, that ranked really low compared to others, at No. 9).

I also thought it was great that Japan was up tops in a number of categories, if not always No. 1. There are certainly stuff that Japan can and should do better, like building insulation, but why is its super-efficient public train system not more highly appreciated?

ACEEE: United Kingdom Tops in Energy Efficiency, U.S. Lags in 9th Place

On a scale of 100 possible points in 27 categories, the nations were ranked by ACEEE as follows: (1) the United Kingdom; (2) Germany; (3) Italy; (4) Japan; (5) France; (6) the European Union, Australia, and China (3-way tie); (9) the U.S.; (10) Brazil; (11) Canada; and (12) Russia.

ACEEE divided the 27 metrics across four groupings: those that track cross-cutting aspects of energy use at the national level, as well as the three sectors primarily responsible for energy consumption in an economically developed country—buildings, industry, and transportation. The top-scoring countries in each grouping are: Germany (national efforts); China (buildings); the United Kingdom (industry); and a tie among Italy, China, Germany, and the United Kingdom (transportation).

ACEEE Executive Director Steven Nadel said: “The UK and the leading economies of Europe are now well ahead of the United States when it comes to energy efficiency. This is significant because countries that use energy more efficiently require fewer resources to achieve the same goals, thus reducing costs, preserving valuable natural resources, and creating jobs. Unfortunately, our results show that nowhere is the vast potential for improvements in energy efficiency being completely realized. While many countries achieved notable success, none received a perfect score in any category – proving that there is much that all countries can still learn from each other. For example, the United States scored relatively high in buildings, but was at the bottom of the list in transportation.”

Then Andrew DeWit at Rikkyu University mentioned the study in a recent paper over at Japan Focus, Abenomics and Energy Efficiency in Japan. He is particularly gloomy when it comes to Prime Minister Abe's attempts to revive the economy, but should all blame be put on Abe (rather than, say, on LDP's best friends at Keidanren), I wonder? My mantra remains the same - Japan needs to lead the way in reducing energy consumption, and other countries need to follow. Reducing use, wasteful or not, is more important than efficiency, if investment in efficiency aims at increasing or maintaining current energy consumption levels. Building more cars and pouring more concrete will no longer be possible, no matter how "energy efficient" the increase in the economic effect is supposed to be.

Then, I thought, it is as if the shock of March 11, 2011 is still a wound that has not healed, in many ways. As De Wit points out: " is all the more urgent to put robust goals on energy efficiency at the core of increased infrastructure spending, lest the coming deluge be as wasteful as past practice. Yet virtually all of the domestic and overseas commentary on the content of the Abenomics stimulus neglects the potential for smart, targeted investments in energy efficiency to provide immediate economic demand as well as foster innovation, reduce future energy costs, and provide a range of other benefits down the road..."

Do read DeWit's assessment, he makes a number of good points:

Japan’s failure to make rapid strides in efficiency is also something to be greatly lamented. Efficiency is always and everywhere a difficult area to get more than a 1 to 2 percent increase per year. As we have seen, this is not because technical potentials are rapidly exhausted, nor that economic practicalities are limited by high costs. In fact, there is vast potential for gains in efficiency using technology and policy approaches that are already, as it were, on the shelf. Disinterest and informational barriers are among the major factors that hinder countries from making progress on efficiency. Thus the Japanese public’s post-Fukushima support for efficiency and conservation is incredibly fertile soil. Japanese policymakers had (and continue to have) an unrivalled opportunity to work with.

Still facing constraints on electric power supplies and now in a recession, Japan is in a good position for a smart efficiency drive. On power policy, the newly elected Abe Administration is in a twilight zone wherein restarting any of the theoretically usable 48 nuclear reactors, out of a total of 50, is not at present possible. Nor is a sufficiently rapid diffusion of renewable energy in the cards to overcome the shortfalls resulting from the 3.11 nuclear disaster and subsequent plant closures. The Abe regime stresses a grab bag of stimulus spending ostensibly aimed at helping to ignite a sustainable recovery and build a stronger economy. Clearly the package is actually more carefully targeted at maximizing the LDP’s electoral prospects in the Upper House elections this summer than at solving Japan’s energy and environmental problems. That, of course, is politics. But it is in fact possible, as well as essential, that pork barrel politicking be superseded by a massive energy-efficiency campaign. Investment in efficiency would not only provide plenty of “shovel ready” work in the short run, but unlike roads and bridges would also increase Japan’s global competitiveness, reduce its roughly YEN 24 trillion bill for fuel imports, and make a powerful contribution to showing rapidly growing Asia and the rest of the world a means towards sustainable growth. Indeed, an efficiency drive would help Japan find its feet, on a truly smart alternative path, two years after Fukushima.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Three Days Of Cold, Four Days Of Warmth

We again had some snow today but the past few days were very warm, so... I learnt that this is called 三寒四温 (san-kan-shi-on) season. Just get used to it.

Don't catch a cold, take precautions to avoid the flu. Wash your hands a lot, don't shake hands, and did I mention wash your hands many times each day?

Kodo, the taiko drum band from Sado Island has a tune called Sankanshion from their amazing 1995 Acropolis concert...

I like how this is more of a rural thing. If you live in Tokyo, odds are you have never met anyone who has heard about it. Increasingly, Japan is about city vs. country. Whenever I hear a comment about "Japan" I feel the writer is less in touch with the rural parts, but stuck in the commuting/concrete/highrise/highway/office parts. I wonder if the comment is less about this country, more about the lack of it. Of course people in central Tokyo or Osaka have no idea.

Image by Atsuta Chikayoshi, long-time illustrator at Mainichi Shimbun who works for eliminating iodine deficiency in Nepal. The building in his drawing is the old headquarters of the Asahi Shimbun in Osaka, from 1930.

Update: Speaking of climate, I really recommend The Rational Pessimist (formerly Climate and Risk) for great updates about the debate about our over-heating future.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Bicycle History, Japan

I am not a historian, but I love finding stuff on the Internet that educates and entertains - here is a wonderful site that is dedicated to bicycles in early modern Japan.

History of the ordinary in Japan.
By Yukio Ootsu

Documented information on high wheel bicycles in Japan is extremely scarce. It is quite incomplete and seems quite impossible to prove when the first ordinary appeared in Japan. However it is my life long plan and desire to find out the record. Here are my reports of discoveries at the time being.
Few undated photographs of high wheelers show a proud Japanese participation in the high wheel bicycle era. Actual examples of these bicycles that exist in Japanese museums and a few private collections show a history of both import and domestic blacksmith shop production. The early Ordinaries produced by Japanese blacksmiths locally are apparently at the same step with the world trend of the 1880's.You can tell it form early woodblock prints.
Judging from the information with dates, one can conclude that the high wheel period in Japan had a span of a decade from 1885 to 1895.

I grew up in southern Sweden going to school each day, rain or snow, with a Swedish Monark bike, three speed internal hub gears, supplied by - Shimano.

A company that has roots back to 1921, according to some sources.

Others have more details:

1930: Shimano produce 30,000 single-speed freewheels. To establish reputation for quality they gave two free replacements if a product failed.
1936: Employed 130 employees working 30 machines in a 13,000 square metre factory.
1937: Shimano reduces freewheel production when government forces them to manufacture artillery shell fuses for the Japanese navy.
1947: Shimano Bicycle Co builds complete bicycles, ceasing in 1951. Keirin racing begins in Japan.
1957: Shimano introduces a partially successful three speed internal hub. Production of three speed derailleur / freewheel begins, it does not sell well. 

And here is what I might have had, back around 1987, when I briefly owned a nice second hand mountain bike with too many gears to count:

Shimano first introduced Dura-Ace 600 group sets in the 1983 as an alternative to more expensive recreational bicycle accessories. Components included derailleurs, side pull brakes and gear sets. Affordable pricing resulted in a degree of popularity that eventually attracted competition cycling enthusiasts. As a result, Shimano expanded the Dura-Ace 600 line to include dual shift levers, multi-speed gear sets and bottom bracket hubs. By the early 1990s the original 600 series had been discontinued in favor of the XT and Ultegra lines.


Dura-Ace 600 was Shimano's second attempt to produce a top-of-the-line parts group. The first Dura-Ace AX line was not well received, giving way to the 600 series in the early 1980s. As with many new products, once in regular use, minor problems emerged. In a sense, consumers were guinea pigs and problems had to be addressed if the manufacturer's efforts were to prove out. Improving the reliability of 600 parts soon rectified minor problems. Today, Dura-Ace parts feature the improvements Shimano made after introducing the 600 series.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Edo: Living With Just Enough

Great essay about Edo Era Japan over at Resilience.

Living with just enough