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.


Abe’s sagging support dims outlook for revising constitution

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cherished goal of revising Japan’s pacifist constitution has become more difficult to achieve after a plunge in his popularity and the erosion of public trust, a ruling party lawmaker said on Wednesday.

Support for Abe has plummeted to its lowest since he surged back to power in 2012 with a conservative agenda of reviving traditional values and loosening constraints on the military that centers on revising the U.S.-drafted post-war constitution.

In May, Abe made a surprise proposal to revise the charter’s war-renouncing Article 9 by 2020 to clarify the ambiguous status of its military, known as the Self-Defense Forces, by 2020.

Meeting that deadline would mean adopting an amendment in parliament next year, since pro-revision forces in the lower house are likely to lose their super-majority in an election that must be held by late 2018.

Amendments need the approval of two-thirds of both chambers and a majority in a referendum.

“There is no change in the goal towards which we are working but greater efforts are needed now to achieve that goal,” Hajime Funada, deputy head of a ruling Liberal Democratic Party task force on constitutional reform, told Reuters in an interview.

“Rather than a matter of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ towards revising Article 9 itself, trust and expectations toward Prime Minister Abe, who is advocating it, have fallen sharply,” Funada said, adding that the LDP’s junior coalition partner, the Komeito party, had also grown more cautious about amending the charter.

Amending Article 9, which renounces the right to wage war as a way to settle international disputes, is a divisive issue in Japan.

Supporters of the article see it as the foundation of post-war democracy but many conservatives see it as a humiliation, imposed after defeat in World War Two.

Amending the article would also raise concern in China and South Korea, where bitter memories of the conflict run deep.


Abe’s proposal would be to retain the two clauses of Article 9 that renounce the right to wage war and ban maintenance of air, land and sea forces, while adding a clause legitimizing the SDF.

The impact of that change is hotly debated. Proponents say it would merely inscribe existing policies in the constitution, while critics worry it would open the door to a bigger role for the military overseas.

Abe’s popularity has been battered by suspicions of scandal over favoritism for a friend’s business and by the perception among many voters that he and his aides have grown arrogant.

The prime minister is set to reshuffle his cabinet next month to try to revive his sagging support, but Funada said the impact of personnel changes would probably be limited.

“Unless he changes his attitude and his mindset, things will not improve,” Funada said.

The appearance that Abe is hurrying to amend the constitution while he himself is in office was making the party task force’s job harder, Funada said.

Abe is keen to achieve his goal in part because it eluded his grandfather, a conservative who had to resign as prime minister in 1960 due to a public furore over a U.S.-Japan security pact.

Until recently, Abe was favored to win a third three-year term as LDP leader, and hence premier, when his current term expires in September 2018, but that has become less certain.

“His feeling of wanting to try to revise the constitution while premier and if possible, succeed, is taking precedence and that has begun to be obvious,” Funada said.

“We’re in a bind.”



Abe to replace defense, justice ministers in shakeup: sources

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to replace his beleaguered defense and justice ministers in a cabinet reshuffle in the first week of August, attempting to revive his fortunes after a stinging defeat in Tokyo metropolitan elections, government and party sources said Friday.

Abe is also tipped to overhaul key posts in the Liberal Democratic Party he leads at the same time, the sources said, adding that Aug 3 is a strong possibility for the cabinet reshuffle. Abe is expected to make a final decision after he returns from his European trip on Wednesday.

He is likely to retain the core members of his cabinet and the LDP.

Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, a conservative ally of Abe, and Justice Minister Katsutoshi Kaneda both faced questions about their competency. Each joined the cabinet in the previous reshuffle on Aug. 3 last year.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga spoke little on the issue at a press conference on Friday, only saying it is a “matter left to the prime minister.”

He was initially expected to conduct a reshuffle in September when the tenures of LDP leadership posts expire, but the party’s historic defeat in the Tokyo metropolitan assembly election last Sunday appears to have forced his hand.

The election loss was the latest bad news for Abe, who has seen a plunge in his cabinet support rate due to the ruling parties’ steamrolling of controversial “conspiracy” legislation to penalize the planning of crimes, as well as allegations of favoritism by Abe in relation to a veterinary school construction project.

Inada’s gaffe in a campaign speech before Sunday’s election, in which she implied the Self-Defense Forces’ support for an LDP candidate, is also believed to have contributed to the party’s defeat. Her comment drew flak for suggesting the SDF is not politically neutral.

She faced fresh criticism for being away from the Defense Ministry for about an hour on Thursday while around 1,600 SDF members were mobilized for search and rescue efforts in the wake of flooding and mudslides in southwestern Japan. At the time the weather agency was warning of a once-in-decades disaster.

She said she was out attending a “study session” with some people, though it was not an official duty. Three other politicians serving in top posts at the ministry were also away from the complex around the same time, leading some ruling and opposition party members to question the government’s crisis management procedures.

Inada defended her action at a press conference Friday, saying that she remained informed of the disaster situation and was able to return to the ministry in 15 minutes if need be.

As for Kaneda, his handling of deliberations in the previous Diet session on the controversial conspiracy law provided a target for opposition parties at an inopportune time for the administration.

“It would be unfathomable for (Inada and Kaneda) to remain in their roles,” a senior member of the ruling coalition said Friday.

By refreshing the cabinet lineup next month, the prime minister is apparently aiming to allow newly installed ministers sufficient time to familiarize themselves with their portfolios before an extraordinary Diet session expected to convene in September.

The LDP is eager to convene the session at an early date in light of its goal of submitting a proposal to amend the Constitution for the first time. The party hopes to secure enough time to debate the plan in constitutional commissions in both Diet chambers.

Abe’s close aides are likely to remain in their posts to continue supporting the prime minister, now in his fifth year in office. They include Suga, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso, LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai and LDP Vice President Masahiko Komura.

Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Minister Keiichi Ishii, the only minister belonging to the Komeito party, which forms a ruling coalition with the LDP, is also thought likely to stay on.

Abe is currently in Hamburg, Germany, to attend a two-day meeting of the Group of 20 major economies through Saturday.



LDP headed toward big defeat in Tokyo assembly election

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party was on track for a stinging defeat in an election in the Japanese capital on Sunday, exit polls showed, signalling trouble for the Japanese leader, who has suffered from slumping support because of a scandal over suspected favoritism for a friend’s business.

On the surface, the Tokyo Metropolitan assembly election is a referendum on Governor Yuriko Koike’s year in office, but a poor showing for Abe’s party will also be taken as rebuke of his 4-1/2-year-old administration.

Public broadcaster NHK said Koike’s Tokyo Citizens First party and its allies were on track for between 73 to 85 seats in the 127-seat assembly. The LDP was forecast to take between 13 and 39, down from 57 before the poll and possibly its worst showing ever.

“I am very happy that I got everyone’s understanding,” a smiling Koike said in televised remarks after the exit polls were released. NHK said her own new party was set to win 48 to 50 seats.

Past Tokyo elections have been bellwethers for national trends. A 2009 Tokyo poll in which the LDP won just 38 seats was followed by its defeat in a general election that year, although this time no lower house poll need be held until late 2018.

Koike, a media-savvy ex-defense minister and former LDP member pushing a reformist message, was aiming for her Tokyo Citizens First party and allies to win a majority in the assembly, to end the LDP’s domination of the chamber.

Among her allies is the Komeito party, the LDP’s national coalition partner.

The strong showing by Koike’s party will fuel speculation that she will make a bid for the nation’s top job, though that may not be until after the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

It could also widen cracks between the LDP and the Komeito while damaging prospects for the opposition Democratic Party.

Abe’s rivals in his party could be encouraged by the LDP’s dismal performance to challenge him in a leadership race in September 2018, victory in which would set Abe on course to become Japan’s longest-serving leader and bolster his hopes of revising the post-war, pacifist constitution.

Gerry Curtis, professor emeritus at Columbia University, speaking before the results, said Japan’s political landscape could be set for a shake-up if Koike’s party and its allies win big.

“We may discover that Japan is not all that different from Britain, France, and the U.S. in its ability to produce a big political surprise,” he said, referring to recent elections in those countries.

Abe’s troubles centre on concern he may have intervened to help Kake Gakuen (Kake Educational Institution), whose director, Kotaro Kake, is a friend, win approval for a veterinary school in a special economic zone.

The government has not granted such an approval in decades due to a perceived glut of veterinarians. Abe and his aides have denied doing Kake any favours.

Potentially more troublesome is the impression among many voters that Abe and his inner circle have grown arrogant.


Opposition demands defense minister quit over SDF remark in stumping

Japan’s main opposition Democratic Party demanded Wednesday that Defense Minister Tomomi Inada resign over a remark it says amounts to making political use of the Self-Defense Forces to attract support for a candidate in the upcoming Tokyo metropolitan assembly election.

“Her comment, which conflicts with the SDF law, was out of line and she should resign immediately,” Democratic Party leader Renho told reporters in Tokyo. “Prime Minister Shinzo Abe bears responsibility for having appointed her.”

Inada had asked voters to back a candidate of her Liberal Democratic Party in a stump speech on Tuesday, saying the request came from “the Defense Ministry, the SDF, the defense minister and the LDP.” Hours later, she told reporters she will “withdraw” the comment because it could be “misunderstood.”

The minister has said she does not intend to resign over the remark.

Under the law governing the country’s defense apparatus, the SDF is meant to remain politically neutral and its personnel are restricted in their ability to engage in political activities.

The LDP is hoping to remain the largest party in the metropolitan assembly when Tokyo voters go to the polls this Sunday, but faces an uphill battle against a new party formed by popular Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike. The ruling party is also under fire over recent favoritism allegations against Abe in connection with a university project involving a close friend.

Koike told reporters Tuesday the minister’s remark was “inconceivable,” adding Inada should not have been confused about the SDF’s position.

Abe has cautioned Inada over the remark but asked her to stay on, the government’s top spokesman said Wednesday.

“The prime minister gave her the same instruction that I did…(We) want her to fulfill her responsibility to explain herself as a minister, and continue to perform her role,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a press conference.

Suga insisted Inada’s conduct will have no impact on the Tokyo assembly election or on the timing of Abe’s next Cabinet reshuffle. The prime minister is thought to be considering a change in the Cabinet lineup at some point later this year.

Renho, meanwhile, said Inada has no choice but to step down on her own or be sacked by Abe.

The Democratic Party and three smaller opposition parties are expected to agree later Wednesday to make a joint call for Inada’s resignation.

But a senior government official told reporters on Wednesday there is no need for Inada to quit, because she “took back her remark and apologized. That’s the end of it.”

A fellow Cabinet minister denied Inada needs to resign, but said she “should have noticed and corrected her comment immediately afterward.” Suga said he instructed her to swiftly retract the remark when she reported the matter to him over the phone Tuesday night.

A former defense minister slammed Inada as “not understanding the basics.”

“It’s a taboo among taboos to involve the SDF in elections or politics,” the former minister said.

A source close to the prime minister’s office, meanwhile, suggested that Inada is not likely to be swapped out prior to an envisioned Cabinet overhaul.

Abe made Inada defense minister in a reshuffle in August last year.

She is set to take part in ministerial security talks in Washington next month with Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.


LDP eyes submitting Constitution proposals to Diet in fall: Abe

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Saturday he wants his Liberal Democratic Party to submit proposals for discussions on changing Japan’s Constitution during an extraordinary Diet session likely to be convened in the fall.

“I expect LDP proposals to be submitted at the Constitution commissions of the upper and lower houses before the extra Diet session ends,” Abe said in a speech in the city of Kobe, indicating his eagerness to step up discussion within the ruling party to realize the first-ever amendment of the country’s postwar Constitution.

Abe has set a year-end deadline for the LDP to devise its amendment proposals and it had been widely believed the party would seek to present them to the Constitution commissions in the next regular Diet session to be convened early next year.

The LDP has already started discussions among its members over the possible amendment of the war-renouncing Article 9, after Abe raised the issue of mentioning the Self-Defense Forces in the article to give the organization a legitimate position in the supreme law.

The LDP also sees the expansion of educational opportunities through cost-free education as another area of consideration for a constitutional change.

Abe said in the speech that discussing the future of education is “an extremely important topic” that should be dealt with in connection with constitutional amendments.

Abe has a golden opportunity to push for his cherished goal of rewriting the Constitution, drafted under the strong influence of the United States after World War II, as Abe’s LDP and other pro-amendment forces have secured the required two-thirds of seats in each of the two Diet chambers.

A majority of the Japanese people must also approve any proposed amendment to the constitution in a referendum.

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 has said he hopes the revised supreme law will be put into force in 2020, when Japan will host the Olympics and Paralympics in Tokyo.

Achieving the politically sensitive goal requires careful planning, with two major national elections upcoming — the House of Representatives election by December 2018 at the latest and the House of Councillors election in the summer of 2019.




File implies Abe’s specific instruction given in ‘favoritism’ scandal



The latest document found in connection with favoritism allegations against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe suggests an Abe administration heavyweight passed on the premier’s specific instruction about a university project that would benefit a close friend before a decision was made.

The document released by the education ministry on Tuesday, which dates from October last year, quotes Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Koichi Hagiuda as telling a ministry official Abe wanted a veterinary school to be opened in a specially deregulated economic zone by April 2018.

Kake Educational Institution, which is run by Abe’s close friend Kotaro Kake, was selected in January to open the vet school at one of its universities in a special zone in western Japan’s Ehime Prefecture.

Hagiuda denied on Tuesday having made the remark and said the ministry has already apologized for the explanation it gave, as it was “not accurate.”

Despite releasing the document, the ministry repeatedly denied that the remarks were actually made by Hagiuda.

A senior ministry official said Tuesday the memo was found to contain content other than Hagiuda’s comments, based on questioning of the staff who wrote it.

The latest discovery follows the emergence of 14 other files in an internal probe by the ministry. It could deepen suspicion that the system of special zones, which have looser regulations on certain activities as part of the Abe administration’s growth strategy, was used to benefit the educational operator.

Education minister Hirokazu Matsuno told a press conference on Tuesday that the latest document, found in a shared folder, is a personal memo that a ministry staff member created after hearing the head of the ministry’s higher education bureau discuss a conversation he had with Hagiuda on Oct. 21, 2016.

The government’s advisory council on the special zones did not make a decision on setting up the new vet school until its meeting in November 2016.

But the October memo already mentioned the name of Kake Educational Institution, strengthening suspicion that the plan to benefit Kake was already fixed at that stage.

“It would be out of the question for me to make specific arrangements or give instructions to favor Kake Educational Institution,” he said in a statement.

The memo also contains an apparent request to ministry staff to bring up any problems so they could be resolved at meetings between Kake Educational Institution and the ministry, and includes a remark attributed to an aide of Abe’s that “the prime minister’s office is saying we’ll definitely do it.”

The government’s top spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, stressed Tuesday that all stages of the selection process for the vet school project were carried out in accordance with the law and without bias.

Speaking at a regular press conference, Suga again dismissed suggestions that a third-party investigation is needed in light of the differences in accounts between the ministry and Cabinet Office.

At a press conference on Monday, Abe reiterated his denial of exercising any influence in the project, saying he has only generally made clear that he wants regulatory reform, including through the special zones, to be carried out speedily.

Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party refused Tuesday a request by the main opposition Democratic Party for a special parliamentary session to tackle the claims outside of the Diet sitting schedule.

With the ordinary session that convened in January having ended Sunday, the Democratic Party had proposed holding a session of the budgetary committee of the lower house with the prime minister in attendance.

Kazunori Yamanoi, the Democratic Party’s Diet affairs chief, quoted LDP counterpart Wataru Takeshita as telling him the ruling party “doesn’t feel (the special deliberation) is necessary.”

The Democratic Party now plans to seek other opposition parties’ cooperation in calling for the convening of an extraordinary Diet session. Although there is a provision for this in the Constitution, in practice it is up to the government to decide whether to respond to the request.

“The prime minister has said he will fulfill his responsibility to explain if there is such a request, so by all means, let him fulfill it,” Democratic Party leader Renho said at a party executive meeting on Tuesday.


Abe pledges to regain public trust

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, his ratings battered by suspicion he helped a friend get favored treatment for a business, and criticism that he used strong-arm tactics in parliament, vowed on Monday night to regain the people’s trust.

Speaking at a news conference, Abe also said he would start thinking “carefully” about reshuffling his cabinet and key party posts to get the right people to push ahead with reforms.

But he did not confirm a Nikkei business daily report that he would do so in August or September, and would retain Finance Minister Taro Aso and ally Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshide Suga.

A slew of public opinion polls have showed support for Abe’s cabinet slumping sharply, with the Mainichi newspaper reporting that his ratings had fallen 10 points to 36%, the biggest drop since he took office in December 2012.

Non-support for Abe rose to 44%, the first time it surpassed the percentage of backers since October 2015, after parliament enacted controversial security laws expanding the scope for military activities overseas, the Mainichi said.

Last week, the education ministry unearthed documents that the opposition said suggested Abe wanted a new veterinary school run by a friend to be approved in a state-run special economic zone. The ministry had earlier said it could not find the documents but reopened the investigation under public pressure.

Abe has denied abusing his authority to benefit his friend. On Monday, he repeated that procedures had not been “distorted” but acknowledged the government needed to win back public trust.

“We must calmly explain each policy one by one so we can win the trust of Japanese citizens,” Abe said at the news conference marking the end of the Diet’s latest session on Sunday. “I have renewed my determination to do so.”

Opposition politicians and media have identified Abe’s friend as Kotaro Kake, the director of the Kake Educational Institution, which plans to open a veterinary department. The government has not approved new veterinary schools for decades because of concern about a glut of veterinarians.

Almost three-quarters of voters in the Mainichi survey were not convinced by the government’s insistence there was nothing wrong with the approval process.

The institution has said it had acted appropriately.

Voters were split over parliament’s enactment of a law to penalise conspiracies to commit terrorism and other serious crimes. But many expressed distaste for the ruling coalition’s tactics in rushing the bill through parliament.

The ruling bloc took the rare step of skipping a vote in committee and going directly to a full upper house session.

Abe reiterated the necessity of the law . “Although we feel (the law) is essential for strengthening international coordination in dealing with terrorism, we’re aware that some members of the public remain uneasy and concerned about it,” Abe said, reiterating that “ordinary people” will not be subject to either punishment or investigation under the law.

Abe also revealed a plan to launch a panel this summer to discuss ways to foster human resources that he described as a “driving force.”

“We will turn Japan into a country full of opportunities for anyone,” he said.

Experts said voters were irked at signs Abe was guilty of hubris after more than four years in office with no serious rivals, but for now they were betting he could ride out the storm.

“The public doesn’t like the arrogance, but they don’t like the alternatives even more than they don’t like Abe,” said Columbia University professor emeritus Gerry Curtis.

Ruling Liberal Democratic Party support far outstripped that of the opposition Democratic Party, the polls showed.

© Thomson Reuters/Kyodo

Abe’s support slumps amid doubts about school scandal

Support for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe slumped more than 10 points to 44.9% in a public opinion poll published on Sunday, amid opposition party suspicions he used his influence unfairly to help a friend set up a business.

Abe has repeatedly denied abusing his authority to benefit his friend. His grip on power is not in danger, given his ruling coalition’s huge majority in parliament, but the affair looks unlikely to fade away.

The education ministry unearthed documents last week that the opposition said suggested Abe wanted a new veterinary school run by a friend to be approved in a state-run special economic zone. The ministry had earlier said it could not find the documents but reopened the probe under public pressure.

Opposition politicians and the media have identified Abe’s friend as Kotaro Kake, the director of the Kake Educational Institution, which wants to open a veterinary department. The government has not approved new veterinary schools for decades because of concern about a glut of veterinarians.

Nearly 85% of voters responding to a Kyodo news agency survey said they did not think the government probe had uncovered the truth of the affair and almost 74 percent were not persuaded by the government’s insistence that there was nothing wrong with the approval process.

The institution has said it had acted appropriately.

Voters were split over last week’s enactment by parliament of a controversial law that will penalise conspiracies to commit terrorism and other serious crimes, with 42.1% in favor and 44% against the legislation, Kyodo said.

The government says the new legislation is needed so Japan can ratify a U.N. treaty aimed at global organised crime and prevent terrorism in the run-up to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

Opponents say it will allow police to trample on civil liberties by expanding the scope for surveillance.

The ruling coalition pushed the law through parliament last week, taking the rare step of skipping a vote in committee and going directly to a full session of parliament’s upper house.

Almost 68% of voters expressed dislike of that rarely used tactic, Kyodo said.


Scandal damage control behind tactic to push through ‘conspiracy’ bill

The circumvention of Japan’s normal legislative process to avoid keeping parliament sitting at a time of image problems for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe makes clear the extent to which the administration is willing to go to protect its figurehead.

It also indicates the ruling coalition of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito is confident that opposition parties are too weak to successfully turn the scandals or the parliamentary drama into fuel for a change of government.

“Dictatorial” was how protesters outside the Diet building, gathering in their thousands to object to “the anti-conspiracy bill,” described the way the ruling camp resorted to a rarely used method of bypassing a committee vote to speed the bill’s passage into law.

With the current Diet session set to end Sunday, the enactment early last Thursday of the law criminalizing the planning of serious crimes meant the government and ruling parties could avoid an extension of the session in the middle of smoldering favoritism allegations against Abe.

At the same time, the release on Thursday of the results of a probe into the allegations, as well as an update from an ongoing government-wide inquiry into inappropriate post-retirement job placements for bureaucrats, were carefully planned to distract voters from the Diet drama and limit the damage from the bypass decision.

The law is controversial in its own right, having split public opinion in polls and attracted the concerns of a U.N. special rapporteur. With opposition parties vowing to do all they could to block it, speculation had been rife that the Diet session would be extended for 10 days or so to allow time for its enactment.

But according to parliamentary sources, the prime minister’s office and the upper echelons of the LDP had already hatched a plan by Tuesday to both railroad the conspiracy bill into law and release the results of the probes on Thursday in an effort to deal with all the inconvenient issues at once.

The plan also included a compromise in the form of a special deliberation session on Friday. According to a senior member of the LDP’s Diet affairs committee, the session gives both Komeito, whose supporters take a dim view of railroading, and the main opposition Democratic Party a chance to let off some steam.

The sources said the sense of urgency behind the committee bypass move stemmed from a rumor planted by the prime minister’s office that spread among lawmakers Wednesday night.

It was rumored that the opposition parties were going to submit a no-confidence motion against the Abe cabinet, and a House of Representatives vote to dismiss it would not take place until at least Thursday afternoon.

That delay would have meant that even after the conspiracy bill became law, lawmakers would still have to come into work on the weekend to deliberate a penal code amendment bill before the session ends on Sunday.

The suggestion to hurry up and get the conspiracy law out of the way in the early hours of Thursday worked a treat on lawmakers eager to make it home to their constituencies on the weekend.

The Democratic Party and three other opposition parties did end up submitting a no-confidence motion in the cabinet, as well as a host of other motions. Diet procedures spanned Wednesday night and the conspiracy law was finally enacted early on Thursday morning.

But not all in the ruling coalition are comfortable with this way of doing things, with a mid-ranking LDP lawmaker warning the committee bypass move risked being taken as a denial of democracy.

“There has been quite a bit of objection within the party,” the lawmaker said.

For Abe, the shrewd management of scandals offers potentially massive rewards.

With a change of government looking unlikely in the face of solid support ratings for the Abe Cabinet, he could potentially remain prime minister until late 2021 if he wins a third straight term as LDP president in a party vote in the fall of next year.

Electoral victories have given the LDP, Komeito and likeminded lawmakers the supermajority needed to formally propose an amendment to the post-World War II Japanese Constitution, which will then have to gain a majority in a national referendum.

Abe made clear last month that he aims to bring an amendment into force by 2020, suggesting the retention of the existing clauses of the war-renouncing Article 9.

The conspiracy law’s rocky enactment indicates the Abe administration is prepared to break with convention to keep intact its hopes of achieving that legacy.


Nifco to sell Japan Times to PR firm News2u Holdings

Nifco Inc agreed Monday to sell all shares in its wholly owned English-language newspaper company The Japan Times Ltd to Tokyo-based public relations firm News2u Holdings Inc by the end of June.

Nifco is selling the daily for an undisclosed sum to focus on its core plastic automotive parts business. News2u, which distributes corporate news online, said that through the acquisition it hopes to “utilize our know-how in digital platforms and our group’s customer base to make The Japan Times fitter for the digital age.”

The publication of the newspaper is expected to continue under News2u. A News2u official said the company is not ready to announce any changes in the management of The Japan Times, but that the newspaper’s some 120 employees are expected to stay on.

Established in 1897, The Japan Times is the country’s oldest running English-language daily with a circulation of over 40,000 copies. In addition to publishing news articles in print and online, the daily also publishes books and a magazine.

Sales in recent years have fallen to half of their peak of about 5 billion yen ($45.3 million) due to a shrinking readership as more people get their news online, according to an official of Nifco, which made the newspaper its subsidiary in 1996.

News2u was founded in 2001 as an online corporate press release provider. In a statement on Monday, the company said that by tapping into The Japan Times’ know-how, it will develop an overseas information dispatch service for its corporate clients.

The Japan Times, which jointly publishes an English-language newspaper with The New York Times Co, is one of more than 50 news organizations that together finance Kyodo News, a nonprofit cooperative, with membership dues.




Japan’s free education plan requires fiscal balancing act

Education is a process that needs both long-term commitment and investment. So, the government’s move toward making preschool education free in Japan must sound attractive to many.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe views stepped-up investment in the Japanese people as key to unlocking the country’s future economic potential. But there is a catch, with debt twice the size of its gross domestic product, an aging Japan needs to find ways to fund the proposed scheme amid ballooning social security costs.

Economists believe shifting the country’s focus from elderly people to children is the right course of action, but some critics say politicians tend to cater to the needs of the elderly who will vote for political parties that promise to maintain social welfare.

It is also hoped that improving support to parents will turn the tide of Japan’s declining birthrate and shrinking population.

“It’s often concern about the future financial burden (of children) that discourages those in their 20s and 30s from having them. So the government contributing to educational expenses would be a good step forward,” said Takuya Hoshino, an economist at the Dai-ichi Life Research Institute.

“That said, what is important is how the money is spent. Is it going to help boost the country’s economic growth over the longer-run?” Hoshino added.

The government approved policy guidelines on Friday, stating that a decision should be made by year-end on how to secure a source of sufficient funding to realize free preschool education.

It came after government officials and lawmakers stressed the need for Japan to address the country’s shrinking population, and the dampening effect the demographic change has on economic activity.

Recent health ministry data show in 2016 the number of babies born in Japan fell below 1 million for the first time.

The country’s fertility rate — the average number of children a woman will bear in her lifetime — stood at 1.44 in 2016 while Japan is said to need a 2.07 rate to maintain its population level.

In the face of a tight labor market, the government is encouraging more women into work, while the goal to bring the number of children on nursery waiting lists to zero, as pledged by Abe, has been delayed.

“We have a national crisis,” said Shinjiro Koizumi, one of the lawmakers from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party that has proposed the creation of a “child insurance” system.

“We have a system that supports the lives of elderly people as a society but what we have yet to build is one that supports children and child-rearing,” he said earlier this month.

Under the proposed scheme, employees and companies pay insurance fees along with their pension premiums, but critics say the plan is unfair as those without children are forced to contribute.

At an insurance rate of 0.1 percent, for instance, Japan could reduce the financial burden on parents for preschool education. The rate would need to be set at 0.5 percent to cover the cost of the education entirely “in principle,” according to calculations by the lawmakers.

Economists believe another option being floated — securing funds through a higher consumption tax rate — may be unrealistic after Japan postponed a planned hike to 10 percent to October 2019.

The latest policy blueprint does not refer to the consumption tax increase, which prompted speculation about another delay.

The issuance of “education bonds,” another option, could complicate Japan’s efforts to improve its tattered finances, with Finance Ministry officials holding reservations about the increased financial burden such a scheme would put on future generations.

Debate is expected to intensify in the coming months about the envisaged program, as the need for increased support for education will inevitably be weighed against the harsh reality of Japan’s cash-strapped financial position.

Japan has pledged to turn its deficit in the primary balance to a surplus by fiscal 2020, while it now aims to lower another barometer to gauge fiscal health — the debt to GDP ratio.

The ratio improves when the economy grows and interest rates are low. Japan’s economy is in the longest run of expansion since 2006, while the Bank of Japan aims to keep long-term interest rates near zero.

“The BOJ would have no choice but to maintain its accommodative policy,” said Toru Suehiro, senior market economist at Mizuho Securities Co., adding that the use of the ratio would make it easier for the government to increase spending.

“After years in office, Abe has a revision to the Constitution in his sights. My impression is that the government is pursuing policies such as free preschool education that can resonate (with voters),” Suehiro added.

Education is one of the topics that the LDP has decided to focus on in its debate about the first-ever constitutional amendment, as Abe envisions making higher education free.

The policy blueprint states that Japan’s nine-year free compulsory education system — from elementary to junior high school — has become a “major driving force” of its postwar economic growth. “We need to make various (forms of) education truly open to all citizens” as society has changed, it said.