AOYAMA AWARDS: THE BEST AND THE WORST IN JAPAN 2016
A constant flow of "no-shows" and let downs past two weeks just before closing up the year. The trilateral summit meeting in Tokyo between China, Korea and Japan – four years in making - was cancelled when Korean president became, hmm, incapacitated. Then President Putin, true to his habits, arrived to the summit with Abe in Yamaguchi three hours late. Luckily his "onsen" bath kept warm with its constant flow of natural hot water and the host found time to visit his father's grave as well as got extra time to rehearse his lines to charm the stone faced Russian leader. After talks, Putin got what he wanted - promises for generous economic help breaking the Western sanction lines – while Abe was left empty handed. Just as expected.
Bob Dylan finally didn't show up in Stockholm to receive his Nobel award. Maybe better so – Patti Smith that he sent for substitute was confused enough in her head. Better mannered Japanese and Finnish recipients naturally were there and ceremonies were well televised in both countries, probably less in USA. With Japan's many awards over the recent years, the Nobel menu, plates and cutlery at the local Town Hall are a big attraction for the Japanese tourists. The total score is 25 over the years and my family keeps reminding me that University of Tokyo alone has got as many as Finland. Meanwhile Chinese celebrated their Nobel miss again by another year by keeping their first ever recipient in prison for sixth year.
Now that Swedish Academy is through with its famous awards that celebrate the good deeds, it's time for Aoyama View Awards that celebrate less scientific, yet remarkable deeds in Japan this year, both in positive and negative meaning. Call them the best and the boldest, the worst and the dummiest.
BOLDEST BUSINESS: Masayoshi Son, Softbank
He sold Finland's Supercell to China at triple the price he bought it just two years ago together with a bunch of Ali Baba shares valued probably 30 times the original purchase price, secured another USD 10 billion bank loan despite his debts running already over USD 100 billion and rushed to a sea side restaurant in Turkey to hand USD 30 billion to holidaying British owners of special chip maker ARM for their company. All this because he believed their advanced chips will be the key to future IT business, AI and IoT. Son always think big and far ahead.
Two weeks ago he flew right into Trump Tower and came out to meet the press with the smiling president-elect, who declared to the media his new friend "Masa" had just promised to invest USD 50 billion into USA and create 50,000 jobs there. No mention was made that it was on condition that, once elected president, Trump would change the Obama government's refusal for Son to buy another US mobile carrier to add to his Sprint or that the money would come largely from Saudi Arabia, not exactly Trump's favorite country.
Maybe that was not all they talked in the Tower: it is rumored that Son also promised Trump that he would persuade Terry Gou of Foxconn
to set up a factory in USA to make Apple phones there, just what Trump demanded during his campaign.
With such theatrics in New York, it was not unexpected to see Son appear buddy-buddying last week in Tokyo with Putin, who responded with a rare smile saying he would love to have him invest another USD 50 billion in Russia, too.
BOLDEST POLITICIAN: Yuriko Koike
Elected Tokyo Governor with overwhelming majority despite strong LDP resistance, she got to work immediately to clean up the mess from earlier City leaders all the way back to Old Man Ishihara. To start with, she exposed the city officials' unbelievable safety neglect in building the new Toyosu fish market and called off the scheduled move there despite pressure from The Old Guard, who claimed staying in old Tsukiji will cause big losses for the fish traders and endanger the building schedule of the essential Olympic Road through the site.
As if that was not enough, Koike-san tackled The Establishment head on challenging IOC and Olympic Organizing Committee led by heavyweight ex-PM Mori to rethink the costs of building so many new facilities and whether they were needed or not in the first place. At the end, new venues will be built for swimming, rowing and volleyball, but at JPY 40 billion (USD 350 million) lower cost. Through the process, media-savvy Koike-san's voter support rose to new heights and she established her own political "school" – not yet party - that will set up its own candidates for the Tokyo City Council election next summer. If she will manage to grab 20-30 seats as experts say, that will break the LDP old guard stronghold against her reforms and her exposure of their wasteful, utter incompetence. Such change could even have some impact on the national political field; that LDP's old ally Komeito is now lining up on her side on the local level could spread, a concern at LDP headquarters.
MOST MEANINGLESS MOVE: TPP ratification
Embarrassed by Trump's confirmation he will kill TPP just hours after meeting with him, Abe continued to push it through the Diet against strong opposition and managed to get it confirmed. For what? Wish the government would have instead put more effort to finalize the almost ready EPA deal with EU.
BIGGEST TRICK: Agricultural reform and farm support
With TPP's reduced import tariffs expected to impact Japan's own expensive farm production, Abe government pledged big compensations to farmers for production losses as well as financial support to make their high quality products Japan's next export ace by reforming the expensive bureaucratic JA co-operative system that prohibits innovation and individual initiative.
With TPP gone, the JA reform ideas were watered down, but the support money to farmers, already ratified in law and budgeted, will remain. Why to cancel? It will surely help buy countless votes.
DUMMIEST STORIES: Casino law motivations
After TPP collapse, the old casino initiative, rejected in Parliament earlier two times, was dusted up and presented as Government's new vehicle to promote economic growth in billions and creating jobs in thousands. With such crucial importance for the national economy (!), the new law managed to clear the hearings in record time before closing of the autumn session. Actually, the original study from 2009 says the ei windfall tax revenue will be limited as there will be only a few casinos. Moreover, the casinos target same big spending Chinese tourists that are today here already while during the 7 years Japan has wasted debating the case, uncountable new casinos have been established around the region, not just in Macau but in Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Philippines, Australia, you name it. Same time, at the income source in China, President Xi's government is putting breaks on corruption that created such lose money and the means to take the big rewards out of the country. In other words, having casinos in Japan, as reasonable idea as it is generally speaking, is a total folly what comes to its potential success and the impact on economic growth.
Mind you, the opponents' stories of new casinos creating crime, prostitution and social catastrophe with millions of game addicts did not sound clever either. The fact is Japan already has millions of addicts with plenty opportunities to bet off their money with all the pachinko parlors, horse racing, boat racing, bicycle racing etc. In fact, social studies show Japan has twice as many addicts as any other nation proportionately.
BIGGEST BUSINESS SCANDAL: Takata airbags
The global recall kept expanding over the year and it came clear that the family-controlled company from Nagoya was headed for bankruptcy as it could never pay back to car makers the huge costs in replacing the defective air bags. Especially the US safety officials were pushing for quicker replace, yet the task is huge with more than 100 million cars or one in five in the world waiting for their turn.
As it became clear Takata's 20% global market share could not be substituted by competitors, candidates started to lineup to buy the company after its expected Chapter Eleven. Not surprisingly, a number of US "vulture funds" were among the leading candidates, yet it is said Swedish competitor Autoliv could be the takeover winner. Through all this, Takata continued to have its head office in posh Roppongi and only this month announced it will move to more down-to-earth Tennozu for cost saving.
MOST SURPRISING SHOW: Abe as Super Mario
There seems no limit to what Japan Prime Minister is prepared to do to promote Japan.
Even if we knew he was in Rio Stadium and watched the video showing him rushing through Tokyo, who could have expected he would suddenly rise from the green tube on the stage dressed as Super Mario, the most well-known of Japan's many anime and game characters.
That was this year's high moment for Abe on global stage. Since then, things have gone awry one after one: Abenomics in decay, economy refusing to take off and inflation turning back to deflation, Trump dumping TPP, Putin Abe's island request, Korean crisis ruining the planned Tokyo Summit, you name it. Yet, the Prime Minister has fought through it all bravely and remains more popular than ever with over 60% popularity rating. No wonder, they call him "Teflon Abe" and, for all his travails, he deserves a special "Otsukaresama" Award.
SPECIAL AWARD FOR SAVING ABENOMICS AND FIGHTING DEFLATION: Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin
Just when Abenomics seemed all lost, deflation taking over despite BOJ's gigantic monetary easing, JPY rising and Nikkei falling, we got The Donald Surprise and the tide was turned overnight. USD has risen over 15% since then and Nikkei index looks to surpass 20,000 point record level soon. With US Fed joining in with its long awaited interest rate rise this week, the surge is bound to continue and Japan's Big Business bosses are smiling again with profit prospects boosted by billions from their overseas business.
Add to that the long sought consensus between Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran joining to cut their oil production to raise global prices and you can be sure that we will see some inflation here soon again in form of higher prices for gasoline, energy and electricity. Whether that will push consumers to spend more, as theory says, is another question.
Combining the two relieved economic leaders' names, we could call this award "ABEKURO" award, but that word is already taken by the Japanese abbreviation for a popular US casual clothes line.
WORD OF THE YEAR: Gold and God
Oxford Dictionary selected "post-truth" and its US counterpart said "xenophobia" was the most sought after word there as all Americans wanted to know what it means after Obama used it in his speech. Yet, Japan once again proved it is safely isolated from the world trends with "kin" (gold) selected the kanji of the year following record 41 gold medal haul from Rio. The top new expression of the year was "kamitteru" or "god-like performance", something Hiroshima Carps manager used of his pinch hitter's performance. "Toranpu gensho" or Trump phenomena was the only foreign related buzz word in the top selection that included Pokemon Go game, the stupid music video PPAP (Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen), "gesu furin" (sleazy affairs of celebrities), "mainasu kinri' (negative interest rates) and "morido" or layer of clean soil (that was missing in the new fish market building). The most socially critical top expression was "Hoikuen ochita, Nihon shine" (Didn't get daycare slot. Drop dead Japan!), an angry internet posting by a young working mother let down by government's empty promises to have the nationwide daycare problem fixed.
BEST FOOD: Tokyo world gourmet capital
Those not troubled by childcare problems and enjoying good food took delight that Michelin Guide 2016 confirmed Tokyo remains world's top gourmet capital in every measure: the number of restaurants with stars (217), the total number of stars (294) and the number of 3 star places (13). After including Japanese restaurants serving sushi, kaiseki and yakitori through earlier 10 years to all great French and Italian here, this year's edition included first time a place serving ramen noodles. The greasy hot broth with noodles, veggies and meat is almost a religion for many young-to-middle age Japanese, even many Chinese, and ramen shops for Western aficionados have sprung up in New York, London and like, yet it is surprising to see it included Guide Michelin. Then again, just found my own "shotengai" shopping alley has a ramen shop run by a French chef.
BEST MOVIE: Your name
If not best, then at least the most popular. This Japanese anime movie about teenage love and life has been this year's top seller, shown in over 300 theaters around the country and grossing JPY 20 billion (USD 180 million) by December 10-11 weekend. In fact, it is already No.4 all-time seller, only behind last year's big anime hit Frozen, the Miyazaki classic Spirited Away and the all-time biggest block buster Titanic.
Wonder if "your name" can climb cultural barriers and become a global hit next year like many of the Miyazaki anime movies did?
BEST SOCCER: Kashima Antlers
I was not happy when Antlers clinched J-League Champion title with the stupid play-off system passing two other clubs who finished higher in the League table. Yet, they showed admirable winning spirit and that carried them last week through three FIFA Club World Championship matches all the way to final with Real Madrid.
On the way, Antlers beat the regional champions from AU-NZ, Africa and,
finally, South America, who so far always played the European champion at end in this classic tournament that has been played since 1960 under name Toyota Cup and as FIFA Cup since 1960, from 1980 under name Toyota Cup and then FIFA Cup from 2004. This year's South American champion was Nacional from Medellin, Colombia, who had pledged to devote its coming championship to the Brazilian team, who perished in plane crash on way to play against Nacional. So Antlers ruined that romantic story, when they beat Nacional clearly 3-0 in semifinal, but that's sports. Same applies to the final where, in turn, Madrid denied Kashima's dream to become the surprise World Champion. But boy, did they fight again! The world famous Galacticos were kept under pressure to the very end. It was a Japanese performance that made big headlines around the world.
Pity this many year classic football event will be transferred next year to China where new sponsor Ali Baba offers even more money to FIFA than Toyota can.
With sports and politics already on holidays, business focusing on "bonenkai" end-year parties and the most remarkable events all listed now, it is time to close this shop, too.
Warm wishes for Happy Festive Season to all readers and all the best for the New Year of Rooster!
Tokyo December 17, 2016
9 December 2016
"Finland independent with free word, good education - Japan and USA: Abe to Pearl, Son in Trump Tower"
4 December 2016
"Statistics, politics and plain bad management - difficulties to plough through it all "
24 November 2016
"TPP is dead – or is it? What comes next?"
14 November 2016
"US uproar shakes up the old world order, Korea in turmoil"
2 November 2016
"Showdown in U.S., Japan battles on"
25 October 2016
"Nobels, Narita and Niigata -
Olympics and popularity politics"
26 September 2016
"In autumn downpours, Japan's wheels are slipping"
16 September 2016
"Moomins, Metsä, Mitsubishi and missiles - business, politics and sports"
6 September 2016
"Uunivited Guest Crashes the G20 Party"
31 August 2016
"It's not Super Mario, It's Super Abe! -- And Super Japan! "
8 August 2016
"Summer holidays, heat, rush and relax, while the world keeps turning"
12 July 2016
"Fog of uncertainties ahead: Japan, Britain, China and USA, each in their own way"
24 June 2016
"UK Splits, shakes EU, even Japan"
13 June 2016
"Rainy season: it's pouring on Prime Minister
30 May 2016
"Obama is a Class Act, G7 Meeting Was for Japanese Audience
8 May 2016
"With More Headaches at Home, Abe Takes Golden Week Europe Tour
23 April 2016
"Dramatic Giant Quake, Business Slowdown, Election Mode in Politics"
7 April 2016
"Tokyo Great City, Japan hmmm...Colorful People
22 March 2016
"Spring energy, child care and train travel
11 March 2016
"Five Years from Japan "3-11" - Making Best Out of Gigantic Recovery Task
28 February 2016
"A Dig Deeper into Politics: Ignorance, Camouflage, Chicanery
15 February 2016
"Markets in turmoil, economy in decline, challenges grow for Abe"
5 February 2016
"Minister scandal distract, economy slow down, Kuroda rides for rescue
28 January 2016
ABE: THE REALITY BEHIND ALL THAT TALK "
20 January 2016
"Bear Outlook for Monkey Year Grows, Taiwan Votes to Keep Distance
from China, but Pop Group is More Important for Many "
12 January 2016
"NEW YEAR VIEWS - AND A LOOK BACK AT 2015"
17 December 2015
"Global Environment, Food Tax, National Stadium: Historical Decisions or Political Parading? "
8 December 2015
"Challenges in Paris Conference, Challenges Back Home in Japan
27 November 2015
"Refugees, bombs, business and global warming - can we control them all?
3 November 2015
"Japan, USA, UK or Germany - China Impacts Us All Today
22 October 2015
"New Ministers, New Trade Deals, All Political Play"
7 October 2015
"Power games, ball games, trade deals and refugee misery"
25 September 2015
"Big Problems, Big Talk and Big Figures - Each in Their Own Way".
9 September 2015
"Challenges in Japan, Tougher in USA and Europe ".
1 September 2015
"Looking at Neighbors, Japan Seems Stable and Safe ".
19 August 2015
"End Summer, Ceremonies and Holidays Over, Back to Work for All".
6 August 2015
"Hot Weather, Hot Air in Politics - From War Anniversary to Whisky in Space".
23 July 2015
Greece, China, EU, Japan: looking for the lost reality
23 June 2015
World No.1 City? The Difficulty of Passing New Laws, the Easiness of Spending a Lot
16 June 2015
"Only in Japan?" - Somethings, Yes, But Others Are Same All Over
4 June 2015
Security and Finances: Pensions, Companies, Banks, Olympics, FIFA
21 May 2015
Economy Back on Track, Record Profits at Big Companies
11 May 2015
Spring Events: Odaiba Rock, Shibuya Sex, Capitol Hill, White Hall and Red Square
22 April 2015
Elections, Elections - Finland, Japan, Around the World
30 March 2015
Sakura: beautiful, but just for a short, fleeting moment
16 March 2015
Better late than never - Japan moves slowly
2 March 2015
Three struck out, three more in doubt - Abe's ministers under attack again
19 February 2015
Spring, Sibelius, Chocolate, Budget and Big, Bad Putin
5 February 2015
Reform Work Starts - Energy, Farming and Food on Wish List
26 January 2015
Terror strikes, plenty work, sad memories wait
15 January 2015
Watching AKB, Eating Mochi, Spending JPY 96 Trillion
- Japan Off to Better 2015 After So-So 2014
The columnist is a Japan veteran among Finnish business, our Chamber ex-president and today Member of the Board of Trustees.
After running a major Finnish industry company's Japan business for over 20 years, he is now Senior Associate in a strategic consulting company.