Wednesday, February 26, 2014

TPP - Not Going As Well As PM Abe Might Like

Prime Minister Abe has been busy with all kinds of arrows to promote Japan and its economy. One was the Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations, a deal that no one seemed to be able to define, and who would benefit? At least here in Japan, it was never made clear.

The latest round of negotiations that I have been following - in Singapore - ended without a deal.

That is Abe's man in Singapore, with his headphones on, and everyone seems to be having a laugh.

Reuters says: UPDATE 2-No end in sight yet for Trans-Pacific trade pact

Sticking points over intellectual property and the rules for
state-owned enterprises and government procurement are also
proving difficult.     
    "If you ask whether all outstanding issues have been
resolved, it is also a common recognition that they still
remain," Japan's Economics Minister Akira Amari said ahead of
the final part of the talks.
    Malaysia's International Trade and Industry Minister,
Mustapa Mohamed, said participants were all showing flexibility,
but some issues were tough to move on.
    "There are things which can be done, there are others which
cannot be done and we've been telling our partners what is
doable and what is not doable," he said. 

BBC says:

An ambitious 12-nation free trade plan, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), has hit a new roadblock after four days of negotiations in Singapore. Sticking points over market access and differences over tariffs on imported goods were the main reasons cited. TPP members were also aiming to set a common trading standard on a range of issues, including labour regulation and environmental protection.

NHK World says:

Japan's minister in charge of negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement says his country and the United States will continue working-level meetings to reach a broad agreement.

Akira Amari made the remark in Singapore on Monday after he failed to come closer to an agreement with US Trade Representative Michael Froman. The 2 met on the sidelines of the TPP ministerial talks.

Amari used the meeting to ask the US to remove its tariff on Japanese auto exports. Froman urged Japan to open its agricultural market to US products.

Amari told reporters he cannot say he sees the 2 sides coming closer to an agreement even after 2 meetings with Froman. But Amari says he and his US counterpart are engaged in an active discussion.

Amari reported the negotiators have not yet reached a consensus in the ministerial meeting, but they are finding more common ground regarding some issues.

He says the negotiators plan to discus the topics they have not yet agreed on when they meet for their final conference on Tuesday. He adds that he will do his best to work toward a favorable outcome.

Feb. 24, 2014

Australian Trade and Investment Minister Andrew Robb said a Japan-US agreement is vital to a final TPP deal, as the 2 countries together account for 70 percent of the 12 nations' gross domestic product.

New Zealand's Trade Minister Tim Groser stressed that market access is the heart and soul of any trade agreement. He said unless the issue is resolved, the 12 nations will have no agreement.

Japan and the US remain at odds over access to Japan's farm market and the US auto market. 

Feb. 25, 2014

TPP talks status by category
Overview of the status of the TPP talks that ended on Tuesday in Singapore:

The ministers made some concessions on intellectual property, one of the most difficult areas of negotiation.

The United States reportedly showed consideration for Vietnam and Malaysia, which have been seeking easier access to cheaper generic medicines.

But no agreement was reached on how long drug development data should be protected.

On conditions for competition between state-owned and private businesses, the ministers are now ready to discuss what kind of firms should be treated as state-owned. But they're still at odds over tax breaks for state businesses.
The ministers were not able to bridge differences over how to promote both trade and environmental protection, or close their gap over the conditions for foreign businesses to join public works projects.

In Japan-US talks on tariffs, Japan offered tariff cuts and abolishment on 5 agricultural items, but the US demanded zero tariffs on all items in principle.

The ministers reached agreement on some of the 21 categories being negotiated.

These include foreign business access to telecommunication infrastructure, cooperation on personnel training and technological support in emerging economies, simplification of export and import procedures, food safety and methods for animal and plant quarantine.

Feb. 25, 2014

We ought to be celebrating, but the state of things is, we haven't got a clue what may be a better deal.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Tale of Iya

Was planning to watch Gravity today in Shinjuku and met up with Andreas, Swedish high school teacher who is on a very cool Ministry of Education scholarship in Fuchu, which has gone very well (do check your local Japanese embassy in your country to see if you apply!). But Gravity was not showing anymore, in spite of its 10 or so Oscar nominations. Or so I'm told.

While waiting for said Andreas (who is always late) outside the Kinokuniya bookstore, I noticed a guy in a bright red samurai or maybe even shogun daimyo costume, with a flag attached to his back, handing out leaflets.

An unusual sight in central Tokyo, so I got curious.

Turns out there is a low-budget film called The Tale of Iya (祖谷物語) released in 2013 that has gotten a lot of attention abroad, and is now airing in Shinjuku.

I have been to Iya Valley several times. It claims history back to a thousand years ago, when Heike clan members managed to escape to this desolate place in Shikoku, running away from sure death in Kyoto.

There is even a Biwa Waterfall where it is said that the highly cultured Heike guys and gals gathered, perhaps to regain some of their strength, both mentally and physically. Sorry to say, there is a small restaurant next to it that covers most of the scenery, which seems to have been built a long time ago. But noone ever manages to capture that sorry sight in a photograph...

Iya Valley today is a major tourist location. That is difficult to explain, but stay with me. Sure, it is worth going to, and there are local trains and if you go further, it is absolutely beautiful; rugged mountains and a canyon deep down to the river that is just amazing. Not a building and no humans and nothing but "valley" as I imagine it. Yes, there are small and large onsen, and you can stay and eat well. But what they have done to Iya Valley itself is horrendous. And this is what The Tale of Iya touches on: big part of the story.

It was summer when a stranger from Tokyo arrived at “Iya”, where the riches of nature still abound. This young man, named Kudo, was willing to live his new, self-sufficient life. He was exhausted by city life, and believed this beautiful land would give him some rest. On the contrary, the reality was not as easy as he thought. There was a confliction between a local construction company and a group of nature conservationists. Farmers are trying to save their harvests from harmful animals such as deer and monkeys. People are fighting for their own purposes: to get their job, to save the environment, or to survive.

One day, Kudo met Grandpa and a girl Haruna lives in the heart of the mountains. It was far away from any human habitations. No electricity, no gas, there was nothing but the nature. Their modest and humble life went by slow, and seemed eternal as if time stops.
Every morning, Grandpa climbs up the mountain to go to the little shrine to offer Omiki (sake) to the mountain god. Haruna goes to high school an hour away from home, and after that, helps Grandpa to plow his field. Feeling his heart gradually gets healed, Kudo thought that he finally found what he was looking for in their calm life. Soon Kudo started trying to transform a piece of wasteland into his own field.

But major tourist location in Japan means: lots and lots of concrete poured and large parking lots for the tour buses. And that more-often-than-not means protests....

The Tourist Center itself isn't terrible, it is just too big, and too tacky. There is a "vine rope bridge" that you get charged 500 yen for walking across, cleverly taking advantage of the fact that there is nothing else to do. Apparently the Heike clan survivors built such rope bridge to get further away from its enemies in the capital. You end up wishing the good people of Iya Valley had managed to pull off something similar, in the 21st century.

Great Iya Valley adventure tourism blogging by Michelle's Time in Japan!

And if you stayed with me until here, that is what The Tale of Iya is about.

Central Shikoku is absolutely beautiful, and the people living there are great. Do visit Iya Valley and do go beyond the Tourist Center. There are great walking paths - and did I mention hot springs? And the wonderful people?

More about the film here (E) and blog with lots of photos here (J).

I really liked the idea to promote this unique film with guys not ashamed of dressing up in a bit of red for a bit of fun in the middle of the city of Tokyo!

Showing at K's Cinema in Shinjuku until March 14, 2014.

Tokyo International Film Festival 2013 『Special Mention』
Tromsø International Film Festival 2014 『Aurora Prize! 』
Göteborg International Film Festival 2014
Glasgow Film Festival 2014 2/20(THU)-3/2(SUN)
6th Pan Asia Film Festival 2014 3/7(FRI) Screening
HELSINKI CINE AASIA Film Festival 2014 2/13(THU)-3/16(SUN)
3rd Ecofalante Environmental Film Festival 2014 3/20(THU)-3/27(THU)
The 38th Hong Kong International Film Festival  3/24(MON)-4/7(MON)

Friday, February 21, 2014

"Japan's Cultural Curtain" Vs. The Heart Of Tokyo

I'm mostly in agreement with Catharina Maracke, writing for The Diplomat, who knows a lot about Japan, and has a keen sense of the pulse of things.

I'll give credit to this idea:

Responsibility as an ethical and social concept has often been researched and reinterpreted. When the environmental movement in Europe spurred critical thinking about our planet and its future, one of the most prominent German-born philosophers at the time, Hans Jonas, suggested expanding the imperative of responsibility beyond the present and with reference to the permanence of genuine human life.
Looking back, Hans Jonas’ arguments seem even more resonant since we learned about the possible side effects of nuclear energy. Chernobyl and other accidents have taught us that Hans Jonas was right when he wrote about “utopian dynamics of technical progress and the excessive magnitude of responsibility” back in 1984.
Long-lived radionuclides and especially the lack of knowledge and data to understand their impact on human life provide sufficient evidence that modern technology has introduced actions of such new scale that requires a new dimension of responsibility.
Learning from Hans Jonas implies that responsibility for the shattered Japanese nuclear power plant has to be defined so that not only everyday troubleshooting but also the long-range effects of the accident are properly tackled. Responsibility for Fukushima clearly requires more than the reactive responses currently demonstrated by the Japanese government; it requires proactive steps and leadership for the future of the country.

What I don't understand is this:

Looking abroad, we can see many historical parallels between Japan and Germany but today’s life in both countries suggests one major difference: The German tendency to publicly complain about everything.  Spend a weekend in Berlin and you will most likely see the streets closed down to allow for a demonstration or protest for or against any random topic. Spend a weekend in Tokyo and you will see the streets closed to allow for a unique shopping experience.

Has the great number of large protests in the center of Tokyo completely been ignored by people at major universities? Author Kenzaburo Oe, who won the Nobel literature prize in 1994 and has campaigned for pacifist and anti-nuclear causes, also addressed the crowd.

How about the people here protesting against Monsanto Corp. in Japan?

Tokyo, Japan – Protestors show placards with the message “No Monsanto” and “No more GMO” during the protest in front of Monsanto’s office in Ginza, September 17, 2013.

The protestors present a letter with their objections to the multinational at their offices in Ginza. Monsanto is the world’s largest producer of genetically engineered food market in the world. (Photo by Rodrigo Reyes Marin/AFLO).

We also had events in the streets of Tokyo to raise awareness about Climate Change, to set binding targets, not just let business decide what they think is best in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, and helping people become aware of what they can do on a daily basis to combat global warming...

More protests in the summer of 2013, with some 60,000 people taking to the streets.

As they marched through the streets, the protestors carried signs and banners that had messages such as “No Nukes! Unevolved Apes Want Nukes!” As of today, the two reactors that were restarted last summer, located in Oi, Fukui Prefecture, are the only ones out the country’s 50 that have returned to operation. While Sunday’s rally was organized between three different groups, Kyodo news reported that the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department had put the number of protesters between 20,000 and 30,000. 

And what about the 2012 Yokohama event that brought together anti-nuclear activists and anti nuclear bomb activists for the first time? Have you not paid visit to the huge anti-nuclear events?

Add to that the many events to support the effort for Okinawa, right here in the capital of Japan.

Plus climate change parades, and events against genetically modified organisms in Nagoya.

Add to that the recent major protests by farmers and consumers against the unfair, and secret Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations.

As this blog may be trying to show, at any weekend you could enjoy a lot of events that has much more to do with the Japanese protest movement than you seem to be aware of.

What I have been a part of, and the events I have experienced first hand, and the huge support in a peaceful way here in Tokyo, is not that the streets are "closed to allow for a unique shopping experience." 

Monday, February 17, 2014

Heavy Snow, Climate Change, And The Government Has No Clue Whatsoever

The second deluge we got here on Friday was worse than the previous one. Still on Monday, several thousands of people northwest of Tokyo are isolated or trapped in their homes, with meter-high snow covering roads and roofs. Kofu in Yamansahi prefecture got some 120 cm, more than ever. My town and Chichibu (J) to the northwest was/is cut off from all communication.

The Mainichi (J) noted that some 8000 people at one point had no way to get out and about, from Shizuoka in the south to south-western Gunma.... 19 people dead, so far (J). 9000 plus according to later reports (E).

Imagine sitting in your car for two days without any idea of when you may be able to drive home.

This should of course be considered in terms of global climate change.

We are noticing severe weather patterns in many parts of the world. Japan may be a little slow in officially recognizing this. Such an inconvenient matter...

The Rational Pessimist has been blogging about how re-insurance companies around the world are increasingly worried about severe weather change.

Just as Hurricane Sandy brought climate change back into the political debate in the United States, the floods in southern England have made climate change a topic for public discourse again in the U.K. Indeed, opposition leader Ed Milliband has felt sufficiently emboldened by the floods to put climate change back onto the agenda of any incoming Labour government as witnessed by his interview in The Observer newspaper, In this, he claims that Britain is “sleepwalking into a climate crisis”.

The Association of British Insurers’ (ABI) submission to the U.K. parliament talks of around 200,000 homes (some 1 to 2 percent of the total housing stock) that would now find it difficult to obtain flood insurance if open market conditions solely determined availability (and if they can’t get insurance, they won’t be able to support a mortgage).

For climate change “skeptics” who believe in free markets, the fact that the British insurance industry takes climate change as a given, and has done so for many years, is a difficult fact to face. In a forward to a report called “The Changing Climate for Insurers” back in 2004, The ABI’s then Head of General Insurance John Parker was unequivocal:

Climate change is no longer a marginal issue. We live with its effects every day. And we should prepare ourselves for its full impacts in the years ahead. It is time to bring planning for climate change into the mainstream of business life.
What the ABI is doing through requesting the government to create a new insurance arrangement after the expiry of the Statement of Principles agreement in June 2013 is to “prepare ourselves for (climate change’s) full impacts in the years ahead”.

It applies to Japan too, as Swiss Re noted in a report last year:

Swiss Re: River floods and earthquakes pose highest risk to urban areas says new Swiss Re report

  • New Swiss Re report benchmarks the natural catastrophe risks faced by 1.7 billion city-dwellers in 616 metropolitan centres around the world
  • Flooding endangers more people than any other natural catastrophe
  • Study finds that Asian cities are most at risk in terms of people exposed
  • Impact on countries with one or a few urban centres could come as a surprise with disastrous consequences
  • A combination of physical protection measures and financial security are needed to improve urban resilience
  • When cities are struck by a natural disaster millions of people's lives can be disrupted and the economic impact can be quite considerable. Swiss Re's publication, Mind the Risk: A global ranking of cities under threat from natural disasters, provides a risk index comparing the human and economic exposure of 616 cities around the globe. The study is a basis for decision-makers, as well as the insurance industry and the broader public to promote dialogue on urban resilience.

Japan has a General Insurance Association that traces its history back to 1917. No mention of climate change, more worries about earthquakes... How about they put climate change back on the agenda?

One Japanese climate change related scheme is Sompo, helping farmers in northern Thailand cope when weather variables (like temperature or rainfall) reach certain predetermined levels. These are known as weather derivatives and weather index insurance.

There are two major strategies to combat climate change: mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation refers to efforts aimed at solving fundamental climate change problems such as the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, etc. Adaptation, on the other hand, refers to efforts to reduce the negative impact of climate change.

The goal of the study group was to find financial mechanisms that could help us adapt to climate change. One of the specific proposals made by the study group was the use of financial instruments or insurance products known as weather derivatives or weather index insurance.

But, others are still not so sure that they will be ok, as the planet goes through the motions of change; sometimes slow, sometimes sudden and unexpected? The re-insurance companies are the ones that insure the regular insurance companies, so do not be fooled, they are the ones who are now seriously worried.

Tokio Marine Holdings is clearly concerned about climate change related issues:

Global warming and climate change have caused increased risks of typhoons, droughts, torrential rainfalls and other natural disasters around the world, posing a serious threat to our social lives. As risks of natural disasters are rising, which has been anticipated since the 1990s, insurance companies contribute to society by offering appropriate insurance products and making insurance payments. The insurance business is closely related to climate change and risks of natural disasters. Naturally, response to these two threats is now considered a major management issue that the global insurance industry has to address in the medium-to-long term.

We believe that the mission of Tokio Marine Group is to stably provide insurance products and risk management services against various risks and ensure "safety and security" in society. 

Insurance companies are also expected to provide various climate change and natural disaster risk solutions to society based on expertise accumulated in the insurance business encompassing the payment of insurance claims, risk assessment and asset management. In addition to providing products and services in developed countries, another important task of insurance companies is to encourage the establishment of an insurance mechanism and disaster prevention and risk management practices in developing countries and regions vulnerable to the impact of climate change.
In Tokio Marine Group, Tokio Marine & Nichido, the Tokio Marine Research Institute and Tokio Marine & Nichido Risk Consulting conduct research on climate change and natural disaster risk and develop and provide products and services that are designed to mitigate or adapt to climate change. Through these endeavors, Tokio Marine Group will leverage its total strengths and proactively respond to new risks arising from climate change.

Other people who ponder the issue of climate change, and its effects on everything from island populations to water resources: Back in 2008, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism offered this advice:

Global Warming

  1. The average temperature rose by about 0.74 ℃ during the 20th century globally, and by roughly 1.06 ℃ in Japan. According to IPCC, it is forecast to rise by 1.1~6.4 ℃ from 1990 to 2100.
  2. The amount of precipitation in Japan during the 20th century was on a decreasing trend when viewed in the long term (decrease of around 90 mm over the past 100 years.) There is a growing tendency for the difference in precipitation between high and low rainfall years (The precipitation in the years of low rainfall decreased by approximately 300 mm in the past 100 years).
  3. In view of these tendencies, we should assume the possibility of frequent occurrence of extremely low rainfall, decrease in snowfall, and earlier thaw.

What global climate change will ultimately do to Japan is anyone's guess. More or less snowfall is not the problem, what we may have to deal with is the extreme weather patterns, much like what we have been experiencing here over the past 10 days.

NHK World:

Record snowfall over the weekend continues to paralyze traffic in inland prefectures of central Japan. Thousands of people are trapped in their homes, cars and trains. In the prefecture of Nagano, more than 500 vehicles have been stuck since Saturday morning. Self-Defense Forces personnel are joining the snow removal work. But road authorities say they can't say yet when traffic will start moving again.
In neighboring Yamanashi Prefecture, nearly 50 spots on main roads have been blocked due to heavy snow, stranding more than 1,000 motorists. 18 cities and towns in the prefecture have opened more than 50 evacuation centers, sheltering 1,600 people who were stranded in cars and trains.

The bad weather also affected trains. JR Chuo lines have been halted in the area since Friday. Passengers sheltered at the nearest hotels and public buildings. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the government is dispatching a team to Yamanashi Prefecture on Monday, to assess the situation and see what assistance is needed.

Feb. 17, 2014 

Friday, February 14, 2014

Heavy Snow - Again

Unusual amount of snow again this weekend after last Saturday's weather. I took a couple of photos with my old gara-kei (short for Galapagos keitai, the kind that was popular here 4-5 years ago). Apologies for the lousy quality, thus.

My mailman on his trusted Honda Cub, doing the peace sign as he slowly makes his rounds on un-ploughed roads here in town.

High school girls going home early, with pretty umbrellas...

The neighbours' vegetable field completely snowed over since a week ago. That's hakusai (a kind of cabbage) up front with 25-30 cm tall white "hats" and plum trees in the background.

Seibu Ikebukuru line is still running, with great delays. This is the train bound for Chichibu. Train delays here (J) updated by twitter users in the greater Tokyo Metropolitan area.