Japan researchers develop what could become world’s 1st wood liquor

Researchers in Japan have developed a technique for making alcohol by fermenting wood, paving the way for the creation of the world’s first wood liquor.

The safety of the product, which carries the distinctive aroma of the type of wood it is made from, as a drink is yet to be confirmed, but the Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute hopes people will be toasting with it in the near future.

While bioethanol, also an alcohol made from wood, has long existed as a fuel, it is made using heat and sulfuric acid, making the product unsuitable for drinking.

The technique developed by the institute does not require the use of such a harmful substance or heating, which takes away the unique scent of the wood used.

Instead, the alcohol is made by adding water to the wood chips, grinding them with a food-processing machine until the content becomes a liquid, and adding enzymes and yeast to ferment it before it is distilled.

The final product of the two-week process is a liquid with an alcoholic content of 20 percent and unique aroma of the ingredient wood.

“We can find a new appeal in trees if we can create a tasty alcoholic drink from them,” said Yuichiro Otsuka, who developed the technique, adding, “It will help promote the forestry industry too.”

Alcohol made from cedar has a refreshing smell, while that made from white birch has a fragrance found in whisky or brandy matured in wooden barrels for a long period. Cherry tree alcohol has a sweet scent.

The institute said it is still analyzing the content of the alcohol and will seek to commercialize the beverages by partnering with businesses.

Japan has one of the highest ratios of forest areas among developed countries, with two-thirds of its land covered by forests, according to the Forestry Agency.

But the forestry industry has long suffered from labor shortages, falling demand and price competition as a result of cheaper imports.

Output by the industry stood at 466.2 billion yen ($4.2 billion) in 2016, roughly 40 percent of its peak at 1.16 trillion yen in 1980.


Abe considering snap election as early as October

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is considering calling a snap election for as early as next month to take advantage of his improved approval ratings and disarray in the main opposition party, government and ruling party sources said on Sunday.

Abe’s ratings have recovered to 50 percent in some polls, helped by public jitters over North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests and chaos in the opposition Democratic Party, which has been struggling with single-digit support and defections.

Abe told executives of his Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner, the Komeito party, that he might dissolve parliament’s lower house for a snap poll after the legislature convenes for an extra session from Sept 28, the sources said.

Top LDP and Komeito officials will meet on Monday to discuss preparations, they added.

“Until now, it appeared the election would be next autumn, but … we must always be ready for battle,” domestic media quoted Komeito party chief Natsuo Yamaguchi as telling reporters on Saturday during a visit to Russia.

One option is to hold a snap election on Oct 22, when three by-elections are scheduled, the sources said. Other possibilities are later in October or after an expected visit by U.S. President Donald Trump in early November.

Abe will probably make a decision after returning from a Sept 18-22 trip to the United States, the sources said.

Abe’s ratings had sunk below 30 percent in some surveys in July, battered by suspected cronyism scandals and a perception that he had grown arrogant after more than four years in office.

His popularity rebounded somewhat after a cabinet reshuffle in early August and has since been helped by worries over a volatile North Korea, which on Friday fired a ballistic missile over Japan, its second such move in less than a month.

“If we have a snap election now, we need to explain it to the public, including how we will cope with the threat from North Korea,” Koichi Hagiuda, a senior LDP executive, told NHK.

Given that there is no need for a general election until late 2018, a snap poll could prompt criticism of Abe for creating a political vacuum at a time of rising tensions over regional security.

However, an early vote would not only take advantage of Democratic Party disarray but could also dilute a challenge from an embryonic party that allies of popular Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, an ex-LDP lawmaker, are trying to form.

Abe’s coalition would be likely to lose its two-thirds”super majority” in the lower house but keep a simple majority, political sources have said.

Loss of the two-thirds grip could dim prospects of Abe achieving his goal of revising Japan’s pacifist constitution to clarify the military’s role, though members of a new conservative party linked to Koike might back the change.

Any constitutional amendment requires approval by two thirds of both chambers and a majority in a public referendum.

That risk could make Abe hesitate.

“I am sceptical about the consensus that Abe will call a snap election because doing so poses a risk, albeit small, to his agenda of constitutional revision,” said Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University Japan.



Japan on suicide watch as children go back to school

As Japan’s schools reopened Friday after summer holidays, a day when suicides among young people spike, celebrities reached out to at-risk children and one Tokyo zoo offered refuge to nervous pupils in a bid to tackle the mental health crisis.

For some children, the thought of returning to school sends their stress levels soaring, as they battle fears ranging from schoolyard bullies to doing poorly on exams.

“Going back to school creates anxiety,” said Kuniyasu Hiraiwa, representative director of AfterSchool, a non-profit that helps parents detect early warning signs in kids.

Japan — which places huge emphasis on academic success — has the highest suicide rate among the Group of Seven (G7) industrialised nations, with more than 20,000 people taking their own lives annually.

While the overall suicide rate has been falling since it peaked in 2003, that is not the case among young adults starting their first jobs or schoolchildren.

Some 500 Japanese under 20 years of age kill themselves each year. The teen suicide rate on September 1 tends to be around three times higher than any other day of the year.

This week, popular actress Shoko Nakagawa posted the message “Never die. Live” on Twitter, while public broadcaster NHK created the hashtag “On the night of August 31st” to draw attention to the problem.

Singer YuYu Horun, who said he tried to kill himself in primary school, now reaches out to adolescents who feel alienated at home.

“I receive daily emails or letters from teenagers who express the urge to kill themselves or have already made attempts,” he said.

“Many children do not feel love from parents who often do not give it because they did not get it themselves. In many families, communication is insufficient.”

Some libraries are urging frightened children kids to take refuge behind their doors, while Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo said at-risk students should be allowed to skip the first day of school.

Tweeting a picture of its tapirs, the zoo said scared kids can run away without asking for permission — just like the animals when they are confronted with danger.

“If there’s no place to escape, come to the zoo,” it tweeted.

Authorities have ramped up their vigilance, urging schools to be alert for danger signs among students, while the government set up a 24-hour telephone counselling service that children or their parents can call for assistance.

“I urge them to talk to someone — family, school teachers, friends or anyone — about their problems,” education minister Yoshimasa Hayashi said Friday. “If it’s hard to talk to people around them, I want them to consult with the education ministry’s service.”

Experts say much more needs to be done to engage adolescents and pre-teens so they do not fall victim to suicides.

“The proportion is not high, but teen suicide should not be looked at from a statistical point of view, it should be treated as a social issue,” said Yutaka Motohashi, director of the government-affiliated Japan Support Center for Suicide Countermeasures.

“Children need to be taught how to cope with everyday stress… and have a trusted adult to talk to when they have a problem.”

Even recently graduated students are at risk as they enter the workforce for the first time.

There is huge pressure among Japanese graduates to get a job with a top company and do well — failing at your first position is seen as life-changing in the ultra-competitive society.

“In Japan, for social and cultural reasons, it is difficult to give up a job to go and look for another” if the first one is too hard, Motohashi said.

Whatever the age, there are usually warnings signs among suicidal people, especially in the age of social media.

“They do searches with keywords like ‘I want to die’ or ‘a gentle death’, before they attempt suicide,” singer Horun said. “They send various SOS messages which unfortunately often go unnoticed by others. They have trouble asking for help.”



New party of Koike’s ally eyes constitutional revision

Tokyo Gov Yuriko Koike’s ally who plans to set up a new party this year says the party will aim to revise Japan’s Constitution.

Masaru Wakasa, an independent House of Representatives lawmaker, told reporters he has agreed with two lawmakers, who supported Koike’s Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First party) in the Tokyo metropolitan assembly election in July, to seek to amend the supreme law’s Chapter 8 referring to local self-government.

As for the envisaged party, Wakasa said it can be formed as long as it can gather at least five members from parliament.

Wakasa, who belonged to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party but left it to support Koike, now heads a new political group called Nippon First no Kai, literally meaning group that puts Japan first.

Wakasa met with Shigefumi Matsuzawa, a House of Councillors lawmaker, and Akihisa Nagashima, a former vice defense minister who was expelled from the Democratic Party, in Tokyo and agreed they can form a party together if they can coordinate their policies.

Former Environment Minister Goshi Hosono, who recently left the Democratic Party, is also seeking to form a new party and exploring the possibility of forming an alliance with Wakasa. Hosono is also seeking to amend Chapter 8 to expand the authority of local governments.


LDP eyes adding clause to Constitution to ensure equal education

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party is mulling pushing to add a statement to the Constitution to ensure that financial factors do not deprive Japanese citizens of the opportunity to get an education, party sources said Sunday.

In May, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe unveiled a plan to amend the postwar Constitution for the first time ever. More specifically, he proposed discussing making universities and other institutions offering higher education free, and amending the war-renouncing article of the supreme law.

The ruling party’s constitutional reform panel is now seeking to add a statement to Article 26 of the Constitution to ensure an equal opportunity to education, the sources said. An idea has also been floated to add a clause to oblige the state to improve education.

The Article 26 says “all people shall have the right to receive an equal education corresponding to their ability.” It also states that compulsory education at elementary to junior high schools be provided free.

Despite Abe’s call for debate to make higher education free, the LDP panel does not plan to recommend doing so because of budgetary constraints, the sources said.

According to the education ministry, more than 3 trillion yen ($27 billion) is required to make public and private universities tuition free.

Abe, the LDP leader, made the proposal in a video message to a gathering marking the 70th anniversary of the charter’s coming into force.

The Komeito party, the LDP’s junior coalition partner, is also reluctant to expand the scope of free education.

“There are various opinions over the matter given budgetary constraints,” a senior official of the LDP committee said.

The group will instead consider enacting a law aimed at eventually making advanced education free, the official added.

The committee will accelerate its efforts to compile a draft clause as the prime minister wants to present it to the constitutional commissions of the upper and lower houses during an extraordinary Diet session this fall.

The current Constitution has never been revised since it went into effect in 1947, nor has a bid been made to initiate a formal amendment process, partly because of the high hurdle in proposing an amendment in parliament before it can be put to a referendum.



Abe’s support slides again before Diet appearance

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s support slid 10 points to 26% in a poll published on Sunday, a day before he will be grilled in the Diet over a suspected scandal that is cutting his ratings to the lowest since taking office in 2012.

The July 22-23 Mainichi newspaper poll also showed that 56% of respondents did not back Abe’s government, a 12-point rise from a previous survey in June.

The precipitous drop in support does not immediately threaten Abe’s job, but clouds the outlook for the premier. Abe was until recently seen as on track to become Japan’s longest-serving prime minister by winning a third three-year term when his current tenure ends in September 2018.

Abe and his aides have repeatedly denied intervening to help Kake Gakuen (Kake Educational Institution) win approval for a veterinary school in a special economic zone. Its director, Kotaro Kake, is a friend of Abe.

Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, an Abe protege, meanwhile faces calls to resign over media reports, which she has denied, of direct involvement in a ministry cover-up of documents about a sensitive peacekeeping operation.

The scandals and a perception among many voters that Abe’s administration is taking them for granted, are encouraging rivals and casting doubt on Abe’s hopes for a third term as ruling Liberal Democratic Party leader.

Abe is expected to reshuffle his cabinet early next month in an effort to repair his damaged ratings, a step often taken by beleaguered leaders but one that can backfire if novice ministers become embroiled in scandals or commit gaffes.

Abe will appear at an ad hoc committee meeting in the Diet on Monday. Also appearing at the session will be his aide Hiroto Izumi, and Kihei Maekawa, who resigned as the education ministry’s top bureaucrat in January and has accused the government of distorting the approval process.

Opposition lawmakers are also expected to grill Abe about media reports that Inada allowed defense officials to conceal logs about the activities of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) in a U.N.-led peacekeeping operation in South Sudan.

Media reports have said officials had tried to hide the logs because they showed a worsening security situation in the African country. Japan ended its participation in the peacekeeping operation in May but said the withdrawal was not related to security concerns.