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BADEN-BADEN, Germany —

Group of 20 financial chiefs apparently succumbed to the clout of the new U.S. administration of President Donald Trump and dropped their long-held pledge to resist protectionism in their communique released after their two-day gathering through Saturday.

Sources from the G-20 countries downplayed the significance of the disappearance of the phrase resisting “all forms of protectionism,” but some observers say the relevance of the group designed to promote international economic cooperation will still be tested.

As Japan is scheduled to start a bilateral economic dialogue with the United States in April, the country will likely require a delicate balancing act between pursuing its own interests and taking heed of its long-time ally.

“The omission of the part about protectionism clearly reflected the stance of the United States,” said Yuji Kameoka, chief foreign exchange analyst at Daiwa Securities Co.

Kameoka said the United States is unlikely to walk away from free trade but it is gradually tilting toward protectionism to correct its trade imbalances.

“When it comes to bilateral talks, the focus is on how much Japan can resist external pressure from the United States,” he added.

Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed to launch the economic dialogue, a framework under which Tokyo and Washington will discuss topics ranging from the economy, trade and energy.

At the G-20 gathering in the German resort of Baden-Baden, Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso told his peers that free trade has contributed to economic growth over the years. Aso, who will represent Japan at the economic dialogue with the United States, said there were no objections to his view.

A growing protectionist sentiment is seen by economists as a bad omen for economic growth. Trump has pulled the United States out of a Trans-Pacific partnership deal that his predecessor Barack Obama had pushed as part of his Asia pivot policy, and that Abe had hoped would strengthen Japan’s deflation-haunted economy.

Much remains to be seen over how much of what Trump has promised to do, including increased infrastructure spending and tax cuts, will be implemented and translate into economic growth even as some post-election euphoria remains in financial markets.

In the latest communique, the G-20 acknowledged that there are downside risks to the global economy and vowed to use all policy tools—monetary, fiscal and structural—to ensure sustainable and balanced growth.

“We believe in free trade,” U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told reporters after the G-20 meeting. But he stressed the importance of “balanced” trade and that the United States wants to “reexamine” some trade deals.

Following their first one-on-one talks, Aso described Mnuchin as someone he finds “easy to work with,” noting that the former Wall Street banker is well-versed in monetary and financial matters.

The financial chiefs of advanced and emerging economies agreed that existing international agreements on currencies, including a pledge to refrain from competitive devaluations, should be respected. The G-20 finance chiefs also endorsed all of them in their post-meeting communique.

Trump, who has taken issue with U.S. trade deficits with China and Japan, has accused Tokyo of devaluing the yen through its monetary easing, a view dismissed by Aso and other Japanese officials.

Hideo Kumano, chief economist at the Dai-ichi Life Research Institute, said the G-20 agreement to “refrain from competitive devaluations” would make it difficult for the United States to step up criticism of Japan.

“What is important is to negotiate and take action under multilateral rather than bilateral frameworks,” Kumano said. “The G-20 needs to play a role in enabling international coordination.”

For now, the outcome of the G-20 and the Aso-Mnuchin meeting came as what one senior government official described as a relief to Japan.

But Japan may face real challenges when it grapples with the United States in the economic dialogue.

“As seen in the communique, we can see the United States shifting its weight from where it used to be under Trump, who is putting ‘America First.’ It could be China, Germany or Japan that it will demand to change,” Kumano said.

© KYODO

https://www.japantoday.com/category/politics/view/japan-braces-for-dialogue-with-u-s-after-trump-clout-overpowers-g-20

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OGA, Akita —

Sirens blared and loudspeakers broadcast warnings in Japan’s first civilian missile evacuation drill on Friday, conducted in a fishing town by officials wary about the threat of North Korean missiles.

The exercise comes more than a week after North Korea launched four ballistic missiles into the sea off Japan’s northwest coast, with one rocket landing about 200 km from the town of Oga in Akita Prefecture.

Friday’s drill played out a scenario in which North Korea had fired a ballistic missile on the Japanese islands.

“The missile is seen to have landed within a 20-km boundary west of the Oga peninsula,” a speaker blared during the evacuation. “The government is currently examining the damage.”

Residents of the largely rural peninsula jutting into the ocean about 450 km north of the capital, Tokyo, made their way to a designated evacuation center equipped with emergency kits and protective gear.

Schoolchildren in another part of town crouched down to the ground before hurrying inside a gymnasium.

“I’ve seen missiles flying between foreign countries on television, but I never imagined this would happen to us,” said Hideo Motokawa, a 73-year-old who participated in the drill.

Officials said the exercise was prompted by growing concern about the regional security situation.

“Anything can happen these days, and it’s even more true when we cannot anticipate the behavior of our neighboring countries,” said Osamu Saito, a security supervisor in the prefecture.

North Korea is also developing nuclear-tipped missiles, in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions and sanctions, and conducting nuclear tests in what U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson described during a visit to Japan as an
“ever-escalating threat.”

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters on Friday the missile drill was worthwhile, to help educate the public.

Some Oga residents worried about how they would react in a real attack.

“It’s a scary thing,” said participant Emiko Shinzoya, 73. “If it did actually happen, I don’t think we can do what we practiced today. We’ll just be panicked.”

(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2017.

https://www.japantoday.com/category/national/view/sirens-blare-as-japan-fearing-n-korea-holds-first-missile-drill

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TOKYO —

Japanese ruling and opposition parties on Friday handed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe a proposal urging his government to write a special one-time law that would allow Emperor Akihito to abdicate.

The proposal now goes to a panel of experts commissioned by Abe that is to compile a final report on the abdication within the next few weeks. The government is then expected to submit legislation to parliament around May so it can be enacted during the current session, which ends in mid-June.

Akihito, 83, expressed last August his apparent wish to abdicate, citing concerns that his age and health may start limiting his ability to fulfil his duties.

He would be the first emperor to abdicate in 200 years. Crown Prince Naruhito, Akihito’s oldest son, is first in line to the Chrysanthemum throne.

Media reports say officials are eying an abdication at the end of 2018, when Akihito turns 85 and his reign is in its 30th year.

In its preliminary report in January, the government panel avoided some more contentious issues, such as whether women should be included in the current male-only succession amid concerns about a shortage of successors to the throne.

The parliamentary proposal touches on the possibility of studying the issue of a female emperor sometime after resolving Akihito’s abdication — a compromise to gain consensus from liberal-leaning party leaders who wanted broader change — but did not specify any timeline.

Akihito has two sons, but only one of his four grandchildren is male.

Some experts say Akihito’s possible abdication is a call to consider the larger issues of aging and a shortage of successors in Japan’s 2,000-year-old monarchy, issues that reflect the country’s aging and declining population.

 

https://www.japantoday.com/category/politics/view/diet-proposes-one-off-abdication-law-for-emperor-2

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https://www.japantoday.com/category/politics/view/parks-downfall-muddles-japans-options-on-comfort-women-n-korea

 

TOKYO —

Park Geun Hye’s historic impeachment as South Korean president, upheld by a constitutional court Friday, has complicated Japan’s path to reconciling bilateral grievances including the “comfort women” issue, and could also impact the countries’ response to the escalating security threat from North Korea.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been in power the whole time since 65-year-old Park became South Korea’s first female president in 2013.

While the two had not seen eye to eye on every issue, together they made progress in one of the sticking points in bilateral relations springing from their countries’ turbulent history.

The December 2015 accord promised to “finally and irreversibly” resolve the issue of caring for women forced into Japanese military brothels before and during World War II.

Abe and Park have also formed a united front in the face of North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapon development through cooperation with their common ally the United States.

Abe has received support from Japanese voters for both initiatives, but may not have such a smooth ride with South Korea’s next leader.

Following Park’s impeachment by South Korea’s Constitutional Court, confirming a vote by the National Assembly over a corruption and abuse-of-power scandal, a presidential by-election must take place in the next 60 days.

“The presidential election will take place in an advantageous environment for the opposition parties,” said Masao Okonogi, professor emeritus at Keio University in Tokyo.

Moon Jae In, the leading presidential hopeful from the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, has recently been polling at more than 30 percent support from voters. He has called for a renegotiation of the comfort women accord.

Aside from Moon, Ahn Cheol Soo, leader of the minor opposition People’s Party, and other contenders have said they want the deal reviewed.

While Park promoted the agreement, the last few months of her term have seen bilateral tensions spike over the issue.

Japanese Ambassador to South Korea Yasumasa Nagamine has yet to return to Seoul after being recalled Jan. 9 in to protest the installation by civic groups in December of a statue commemorating comfort women in front of Japan’s Consulate in Busan.

The statue is of the same design as one in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul and in several locations overseas. The latest statue went up in Germany this week.

The Japanese government has repeatedly called for South Korea to “steadily implement” the 2015 agreement, including by “resolving” the issue of the statues—which to Tokyo means removing them.

This is likely to be a hard sell for any prospective South Korean leader, particularly in light of the need to unite a public stirred up by the Park debacle. Two people died and dozens were injured in demonstrations in streets of Seoul near the court Friday.

A show of resilience toward Japan over historical and territorial grievances may be a safe issue to unite a divided voting base.

But over time, the need to keep relations with Japan intact for strategic reasons could see Moon or another successor change his tune on the issue, Okonogi said.

“Right now, those expected to be put up as candidates from the opposition parties are expressing negativity about the (comfort women agreement), but if elected, they must persuade the public to keep the promise made with Japan,” he said.

A source close to Moon said it will not be easy to overturn the agreement between governments, hinting that Moon may alter his stance to take a more pragmatic path on the agreement if he becomes president.

For Japan’s part, Nagamne “had better return to his post soon in anticipation of dialogue with the new administration,” Okonogi said.

After news of the impeachment Friday, Japanese government officials stuck to their line that the government will “consider the various factors” before making a decision on when to return Nagamine to Seoul.

Abe and Park’s successor will also have to tackle the shared threat from North Korea, which this week fired four ballistic missiles nearly simultaneously into waters near Japan.

Moon has expressed reservations about the planned deployment of an advanced U.S. missile defense system known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, or THAAD, a decision made by Park.

He has also questioned the Park administration’s signing with Japan in November of a military intelligence-sharing pact called the General Security of Military Information Agreement or GSOMIA.

Fukushiro Nukaga, head of a cross-party Japan-South Korea parliamentarians’ league in the Japanese Diet, expressed concern about the potential for an “excessive reaction” by the next government in its stance toward Japan.

U.S. President Donald Trump could end up uniting the leaders in certain respects. He has vowed to take firm action on Pyongyang, certain to require the coordination of allies Japan and South Korea.

With such a range of issues at play, the Abe administration’s success in reaching out to the next South Korean leader may be measured by how soon Japan can set up the next trilateral leaders’ meeting with China.

It was Japan’s turn to host the summit before the end of last year, but planning was derailed by Park’s turmoil.

© KYODO

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YOKOHAMA —

A Japanese court Wednesday nullified a ban on “mannequin flash mobs” issued by a city in Kanagawa Prefecture near Tokyo, without assessing whether the order violated the constitutional right to freedom of expression.

The Yokohama District Court sided with plaintiffs including Minako Yoshida, an Ebina city assembly member, who staged a mannequin flash mob in an Ebina city walkway. The plaintiffs claimed the ban was an excessive restriction on freedom of expression.

According to the ruling, around 10 people including Yoshida gathered as a flash mob at the walkway over Ebina Station in February last year and stood still for several minutes while holding a board which said “we do not tolerate (Prime Minister Shinzo) Abe’s politics.”

The following month, the city banned Yoshida from engaging in the practice known as a mannequin flash mob.

Presiding Judge Masamichi Okubo said that the court did not believe the action “would have significantly affected the safe and undisturbed flow of pedestrians,” adding the performance did not fall under the purview of an ordinance prohibiting demonstrations or assembly in a walkway.

The plaintiffs had argued that the city needed to give as much consideration as possible to guaranteeing freedom of expression. The city asserted the prohibition was based on its ordinance and that the restriction was aimed at securing smooth passage of pedestrians.

© KYODO

https://www.japantoday.com/category/national/view/japanese-court-nullifies-ban-on-mannequin-flash-mobs

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https://www.japantoday.com/category/business/view/japans-4th-quarter-gdp-revised-up

TOKYO —

Japan’s economy grew more than earlier estimated in the fourth quarter as capital expenditure grew at its fastest in almost three years, welcome news for policymakers as they begin to discuss how to wind down years of massive stimulus.

The economy grew an annualised 1.2% in October-December, less than the median estimate for 1.6% annualised growth but more than the preliminary reading of a 1.0% annualised expansion.

The figure translates into quarter-on-quarter growth of 0.3%, versus a preliminary reading of 0.2% growth and the median estimate for 0.4% growth.

A stronger pace of growth will be a boon to the government as policymakers have been counting on an increase in business investment to drive future expansion and increase low productivity.

However, growth is still not robust enough to generate sustained inflation that the Bank of Japan wants, and the risk of rising protectionism could discourage Japanese exporters from raising wages, seen as key to boosting consumption and economic activity at home.

“The economy will remain in recovery mode, because we are seeing the benefits of capital expenditure from manufacturers and the construction sector,” said Shuji Tonouchi, senior market economist at Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley Securities.

“I am a little worried about the strength of consumer spending. I am still not sure how protectionism will materialise, but this is also a potential risk.”

Private consumption registered no growth in October-December, the same as preliminary data. Sluggish household spending has kept the country in prolonged deflation and been a key challenge for the BOJ in meeting its 2% price goal via its massive bond buying programme.

Households cut spending for the 11th straight month in January even as the job market tightened further, separate data showed earlier this month. Private consumption accounts for around 60% of GDP.

The capital expenditure component of GDP rose 2.0% from the previous quarter, which was more than the forecast for 1.7% growth, and faster than the preliminary 0.9%.

The revised data showed capital expenditure grew at the fastest since a 2.3% quarterly rise in January-March 2014.

Increased investment from the real estate sector, construction companies, food processing companies and electronics makers drove gains in capex, a Cabinet Office official told Reuters.

Some economists expect capital expenditure to increase further as companies will soon have to start investing in more efficient equipment to deal with a shrinking pool of workers as the population ages.

However, U.S. economic policy poses a risk, because companies could suddenly turn cautious on capex if U.S. President Donald Trump adopts protectionist trade policies.

There are also concerns that protectionism could hurt Japan’s exports.

After capital expenditure, net exports were the second-biggest driver of growth in the fourth quarter, revised data showed.

However, the plus 0.2 percentage point contribution from net exports was unchanged from preliminary figures, which raises questions about the strength of external demand.

(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2017.

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https://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/en/news/20170302_02/

Japan’s Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko have attended a welcome banquet in the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi.

The banquet, hosted by President Tran Dai Quang and his wife, took place at the presidential office on Wednesday.

The president gave an opening address, saying he is convinced that the visit of the Emperor and Empress to his country will lead to a new age of bilateral friendly and cooperative relations.

The Emperor said in his speech that he has been informed of a growing interest in Vietnam to study the Japanese language, and some elementary schools in the country have classes in that subject.

The Emperor also said that exchanges between the peoples of the 2 countries have been expanding and that a sense of familiarity with each other’s culture has been increasing.

He added that many Japanese companies are also developing an interest in operating in Vietnam.

The Emperor noted he deeply hopes that their visit to the country will help to promote understanding between the peoples of the 2 countries, and assist in further strengthening their bonds of friendship.

On Thursday, the Emperor and Empress will meet people who have studied in Japan, and those who want to work as nurses and caregivers in Japan.

The Emperor and Empress are scheduled to leave Vietnam for Thailand on Sunday to pay their respects to the late Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

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