Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Local Elections in Japan

"Information is the currency of democracy." Thomas Jefferson

As I write I'm caught in the cross fire of a local election. I've been trying to get my students to talk about this. The majority of them have been reluctant to engage in public political debate. It is a bit like trying to get a discussion going about the pros and cons of incest.

The election is for the local city assembly. There are 21 posts up for grabs and there are 22 candidates running. Already alarm bells are ringing. Only one person doesn't get a job. I like those odds. I'm now considering applying for a Japanese passport so I too can run in such an election.

The campaigns are curious. The candidates don't spend much money on their campaigns. As a result they have three outlets for their electioneering to avoid last spot. The first is a poster which can only be put in designated spots. These spots are billboards with numbers. Each number gets a B4 sized slot.

Every one puts a picture of themselves with their name below and a few words. As is sadly true world-wide image has overtaken content. Spin trumps substance. Psychology prevails over policy. Some candidates have gone for patriotic symbolism – namely Mount Fuji in the background, one has gone for the ‘family-man’ image, and all of them look like business men or women.

The second tool for promotion is the local meeting. The serious candidates set up bases around the city from which to mastermind their election campaigns. People can drop in and meet the star of the show and perhaps get a cup of tea and a nice nibble. I suspect the quality of the nibbles in itself could guarantee avoiding the ignominy of last place.

And the final way to get your message across is to drive around in a car with a PA system attached to the roof. Naturally, the candidates are too busy being lions of commerce or scaling Mount Fuji or sleeping with their nieces to actually do this in person. Instead they hire armies of very irritating women to (wo)man the speakers. And what do these surrogates say?

“Vote for Pol – he promises to subsidize rice prices.” No.
“Vote for Adolf – he will make the streets safe.” No.
“Vote for Vladimir – he will seize the means of production from the autocracy of the corporations.” No.
“Vote for Tony – He doesn’t believe in anything, but he likes the idea of fair play.” No.

They say 2 things and 2 things only. One is “Thank you.” (I suppose the notion of fait accompli has a certain psychological power – or else they are admitting that the election is organized on a Robert Mugabe rubric). The other thing they say is a masterpiece of contradiction: “We are sorry for making so much noise.”

The rules state that the moving tannoy systems can only operate between 8am and 8pm; and that they cannot bring their noise pollution near hospitals and other places where people need quiet. Both rules are broken. I live opposite a big hospital and I hear the wail of thank you's and sorry's quite clearly as I'm sure do the patients on the other side of the road. Furthermore, PA birds cannot help getting a bit of cheeky 8.10pm off-side announcements in.

I've been asking my students about their political choices. Having neither the interest nor the intellectual framework to simply state their positions, I break it down for them. I give my students a list of p’s: policy, personality, previous record and party. Which of these inform your decisions, I ask?

I've questioned half a dozen classes so far and the students have unanimously avoided ‘policy’. Either the political aspirants don't have any policies or the electorate doesn't think policies are important. I feel this could be a chicken and the egg scenario. Which came first the brainwashers or the brainwashing? Several of my old ladies went for personality. When pushed on this, they all respond – I will vote for him because he looks honest. I presume there were those who thought the same thing about Richard Nixon.

The most interesting response has come from my students who are employed by Toyota. They are simply told by their union (unions here don't fight for pay raises or better working conditions) where they should (a ‘should’ is a ‘have to’ in Japan) place their crosses. I study the faces of these students carefully. There appears to be no signs of discomfort or mental coercion. They see nothing wrong in this. I pressed one of my Toyota workers on this point and he stated that he wanted to see more public facilities built. What facilities? I asked. Roads and traffic signals he replied. If they had any more traffic signals in this city it could end up resembling a rave or a near death experience.

What the students failed to realize or care about is that politicians and big business are totally in bed with each other in Japan. The politicians waste tax payers money on big construction projects that are tendered out to a wide range of companies (namely one) and after a glittering political career of avoiding all policy other than the policy of covering Japan in concrete and cars they step gracefully down from heaven into a sweet high paying job in a construction company.

Where I live is car town. A number of big car companies have factories here. A green candidate here is as rare as a true black orchid. Incest must be much more common.

Before I go on to introduce you to some of the star candidates from this year's election I would just like to do the rare thing for me, and that is bring in some balance to my otherwise lopsided invective. There has recently been a groundswell of opposition in Japan to such obvious bullshit politics. Hundreds of thousands of signatures have been gathered in certain areas of Japan protesting against a number of perceived flaws in the current political landscape. The three stand out points being:

1)    A disgust that so many politicians are needed in the first place. This is a very good point. My town has a population of only 50,000 people and yet needs over 20 local representatives to sit in meetings to decide nothing. After all such things as crime and immigration are just not issues. They already have a hospital every square kilometer and a traffic signal every 10 meters. What is there to do?

2)    A profound revulsion at the amount of money these under-worked representatives get for following orders from car companies. Some regions dole out over $8,000 a month to each elected representative. Needless to say nothing is stopping local councilors from having other jobs.

3)    An intense distrust of big public works programs. Many people feel the days when you could just build another bridge or dam or road to nowhere to give people jobs and pump money into the local economy (I mean local concrete corporation) are judged by many clear-sighted Japanese to be in the past. As the population gets  older there is less tax money coming in for environmentally destructive policies. At the same time a growing number of people are calling for a separation of politicians from big business and the ending of the amakudari (descent from heaven) system.

These instances of real democracy – namely democracy truly inspired from the people designed to change what are widely perceived as abuses of power – have met with mixed success. Of course politicians get to vote on the issue of their own pay cuts, and a major can only do so much to address the people's grievances because the major depends on the support of his or her local government. Nevertheless, some areas have managed to cut the number of politicians and the size of their wages.

Those Brahmins who control society in Japan must be very upset at this. They have spent a lot of effort since the end of the war to robotize the electorate. They have already banned ideas from the national curriculum, but I guess just being a democracy carries certain systemic threats to control.

And now that is out the way let's meet this year's hopefuls.
  This man is in pole position and so guaranteed a place. He is clearly saying "I like fisting."
This man has a radioactive glow or is that charisma pouring off him.

I prefer to sneer for the camera.
 Vote for me because I sleep with a foreigner. A very risque political ploy.
 My toupee has slept with over 100 women.

Somebody doesn't like me. Here is real democracy.
 A vote for me is a vote for floppy hair and bushy eyebrows.

The vampire candidate - campaigning for night voting.

I'm against eyebrows but you might sleep with me if you were really drunk.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Pictures of a Cram School in Japan

Japan is proud of its education system. It is a system that has virtually eliminated illiteracy and free thought from the islands.

It is also big business. Really big business. Because competition is fierce for places at the best universities (which have also successfully removed original thought from the syllabus), it is imperative for middle class families to spend a high proportion of their income on extra tuition for their children. What do they get for all this extra money? Well look at the pictures below to see what state of the art facilities are available for those children sent to cram schools to study after regular school.

My wages are as crappy as my surroundings. I try to adjust my effort accordingly, but I feel just turning up on time is giving the shit company who organizes this cram school more than they deserve. This is especially true since I discovered that every month they deduct 500 yen (about $5) from my wages without telling me and for no appreciable reason. (Well I wouldn't appreciate any reason for cheating me out of my slovenly-earned yen).

To read more about the fascinating cultural phenomenon that is juku teaching read:

The Day I Failed To Lose My Job

Cram Schools 


 Teaching resources

State of the art information technology

Hygienic conditions

Always spotlessly clean

Excellent marketing and advertising

In all honesty, when I taught in provincial mainland China in the late 1990s the rooms were cleaner and the equipment was better. And that used to cost students $30 a term.

The only positive in all this, is that it means I can't give a fuck about this job. I have already sworn at my supervisor, not bothered turning up and never do more than 30 seconds in teaching preparation. It is kind of liberating not caring at all. Perhaps this is a modern form of Buddhism in the workplace.