A new angle on Japanese current affairs

Seeing the light of day

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The Japanese government is considering the introduction of daylight saving and flexible working hours to cope with rising energy demand in the summer. And while this would appear to be a temporary measure given the energy shortages stemming from the triple disaster, it may be worth adopting over the long term.

The below article I wrote last summer for the TAC’s iNTOUCH magazine lists some of the arguments for and against daylight saving in times more normal.

The government is committing daylight robbery. At least that’s the opinion of some residents and officials in the northern Japanese city of Sapporo. They believe that the state is depriving them of longer, brighter evenings by failing to put the clocks forward by an hour for the duration of the summer.

In the Hokkaido capital during summer, dawn breaks at around 4 a.m., while night falls after 7 p.m.
Contrast this with Toronto, a city on a similar latitude, where the locals can enjoy the evening light that stretches to at least 9 p.m.
Torontonians adjust their clocks to Eastern Daylight Time between the second Sunday in March and the first Sunday in November.
This practice of daylight saving time (DST) is widely followed in most of North America, Europe and Russia, but has never been, or is no longer used in much of the southern hemisphere, Asia and Africa.
Countries and regions have introduced DST for a variety of reasons, but, in most cases, it has been adopted it to make better use of daylight in the evenings. Its implementation has often been controversial, with studies contradicting one another as to its effects on energy use, local economies, public safety and health.
Japan had a short period of daylight saving time, between 1948 and 1951. The measure was seen by many as a symbol of Allied occupation and criticized for its bungling introduction only three days after being passed into law, leading Japan to drop it after regaining its sovereignty in 1952.
But given Hokkaido’s 15 hours of daylight during the summer months, authorities there see their island as an ideal candidate for DST and have experimented with the concept in recent years. The Sapporo Chamber of Commerce and Industry carried out a “summer time” trial from 2004 through 2006. Although clocks were not actually turned back, working hours in government offices were adjusted so people could start and end their days an hour earlier. Many private firms voluntarily followed suit.
According to the chamber, the trial was aimed at encouraging people to make use of two or three hours of daylight that normally they would sleep through while also making Hokkaido an attractive tourist destination by differentiating it from the rest of Japan. The body calculated that an extra hour of summer evening light would augment the region’s economy by about ¥65 billion a year.
This trial continued on a voluntary basis until last year, but has not been implemented this year. The chamber has no plans to reintroduce it. “In the end, it turned into a flextime system, moving away from our original intention of a legally binding daylight saving time,” explains Hitomi Iwama of the chamber’s planning department. “We decided there was little meaning in adopting it again this year if it wasn’t going to be implemented across the region or whole country.”
Iwama says that Hokkaido citizens were split on the issue. “Many people felt the experiment allowed them to use daylight hours more effectively and that it increased their activity options,” he says. “Others said that if there was [DST] legislation solely for Hokkaido, then it would show off the uniqueness of Hokkaido and raise its profile.” Opponents, he adds, claimed some people became ill at the start and end of the DST period.
The chamber, however, continues to push for the nationwide adoption of DST, and it has an ally in the Japan Productivity Center, a foundation established to promote productivity in Japanese industry and boost living standards.
The center’s Shinji Watanabe believes the government would be prudent to consider DST. “First, it would have the effect of saving energy,” he says. “Calculations show that adopting DST nationwide would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of 1.5 million tons of carbon dioxide a year. Secondly, an extra hour of light in the evening would enable people to commute from work or school and go shopping for dinner in the light. This would reduce traffic accidents and crimes such as bag snatching.”
There are other benefits, too, according to Watanabe. “Britain, which has had summer time for more than 90 years, is able to hold evening operas outside in the daylight,” he says.
Professor Kenichi Honma of Hokkaido University, a member of the Japanese Society of Sleep Research, however, says that DST can have an adverse medical effect on people. “Summer time causes moderate sleep deprivation, especially around the time the clocks are put back and forward,” he explains. “This fatigue can cause traffic accidents. It can also trigger mild depression. One-third of respondents to a survey about summer time in Hokkaido said that they suffered sleeping problems.”
Despite efforts by former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to introduce DST, the idea was rejected and there seems little political will at the moment to return to the debate, which should please Honma, who likes to take advantage of the light mornings to take a stroll before work.

Written by Andy Sharp

March 25, 2011 at 12:22 pm

Posted in Society

Testing the water

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Shipments of spinach and other leafy vegetables grown near the site of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant have been stopped indefinitely after radiation levels in these greens were found to exceed legal radiation limits.

While this has alarmed shoppers (despite health problems only being likely if people eat masses of the stuff over a long period), consumers were more concerned with reports that levels of radioactive iodine in Tokyo’s drinking water were above the permissible level for infants.

Although these levels fell below the safe mark on Thursday, parents are still worried about the possible health effects and are naturally reluctant to make up  their wee ones’ milk formula with tap water, especially as it doesn’t make any difference if the water is boiled.

When my wife went out Wednesday to pick up water supplies, she visited four stores and only came back with three 500 ml bottles of water.

Store shelves are bare with people hoarding large volumes of mineral water, the Tokyo water board’s website crashed, ward governments are handing out ‘safe’ water to parents, and mineral water makers have cranked up production. Stores are also now rightly starting to ration purchases.

Radioactive iodine levels can be  removed through primitive distilling processes that involve gas rings, tubes, Pyrex containers, plastic bottles and tubing. But this is quite laborious.

Many  supermarkets and large pharmacies in Japan have tanks of water that customers can use to fill up carry-home containers. Such water is often imported, and seems to be a better alternative to queuing up for bottles of Evian. It’s often free as well.

With other food and drink scares likely to emerge over the coming days, people should be exercising restraint from making excessive purchases that leave others short.

Written by Andy Sharp

March 25, 2011 at 9:57 am

Posted in Disaster

Not such a beautiful game

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Futsal is a game of two halves, well usually, except I don’t normally make it past half time.

I played for the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in tournament in Yokohama recently and wrote it up for the club magazine

 Here’s a link to the story.

Written by Andy Sharp

March 24, 2011 at 8:53 pm

Posted in Sport

Where’s Kan?

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Be it an arm around a bereaved family member or some supportive words to a hospitalized victim, it’s the ultimate photo opportunity. Genuinely concerned or not, national leaders are never usually shy of portraying compassion during disasters.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, however, seems to be to be steering clear of the limelight.

The death toll has mounted (nearly 22,000 dead or missing as

of noon Monday, according to the national police agency), a new plume of smoke has poured out of a reactor building at the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant, and food such as spinach has been found to contain higher than normal (not dangerous) levels of radiation. Yet Kan stayed in the capital having canceled a trip to the disaster zone.

On Monday morning, Kan was due to fly by helicopter to Ishinomaki, one of the worst hit cities in the worst hit prefecture of Miyagi, and then on to a football training camp being used by firefighters close to the radiation-seeping nuclear plant, but government officials said he postponed the trip due to bad weather that would make taking off and landing treacherous.

While it has been bitterly cold in the north (where the displaced are calling for more blankets), a friend in Sendai told me that the weather was simply overcast and far from dangerous. And if conditions were as bad early morning as the government said, why didn’t Kan just wait until the weather improved and make a shorter trip to one of the two locations? And why didn’t he make a trip earlier?

The face of the government has been its top spokesman Yukio Edano. His weary eyes have made him a bit of a cult hero on social media sites, with thousands of Japanese tweeters urging him to get some shuteye. A joke doing the rounds is that when U.S. President Barack Obama calls Kan about the disaster he asks to be put through to Edano.

While Edano, in his emergency worker’s jumpsuit, is a constant fixture on television, it is unclear how Kan is demonstrating leadership behind the scenes. It seems that Kan has decided to stay in the background and let Edano take the brunt of questions from Japan’s once-meek reporters. But shouldn’t leaders be capable of organizing their own troops while also rallying the public?

Kan has rightly berated TEPCO, operator of the Fukushima plants and a company with a shady past, for its lack of transparency, reportedly asking its officials: ‘What the hell is going on?’ But that statement was made in a private meeting, and if the prime minister is so incensed by TEPCO (as the public is), he should make his feelings clear to the nation.

The constant bickering of day-to-day Japanese politics seems inconsequential now given the magnitude of the disaster, but it has reared its ugly head once more. Much talk has been made in recent years of a ‘grand coalition’ between Kan’s disjointed Democratic Party of Japan and the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party, and in a time of need, Kan stretched out an olive branch to build a unity government to deal with the crisis.

He offered places in the Cabinet to prominent opposition lawmakers. He asked Sadakazu Tanigaki, the Liberal Democratic Party leader, to step in as deputy prime minister with a task of overseeing the response to the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and radiation threat.

Tanigaki, a smooth (read greasy) operator slapped Kan’s request back in his face, saying in a tweet: ‘We will continue to support the government from outside.’

According to the Yomiuri Shimbun, the government also askedLDP Vice President Tadamori Oshima to join the Cabinet, but Oshima reportedly growled back: ‘You leave the Cabinet! I’ve been telling you since last year that I won’t join.’

With the government facing an unprecedented situation with greater consequences than the 1995 Kobe quake, lawmakers should put petty squabbling aside, put hands on deck and bring moralpolitik to the fore.

Questions are being asked about Kan’s leadership and rightly so. He could help himself (and lend a little support to those in need) by getting out there a bit more with the suffering many. While he’s no Popeye, it wouldn’t hurt if he shared a little spinach with them – he might even absorb a little more iron.

Written by Andy Sharp

March 24, 2011 at 6:49 pm

Posted in Politics