By Arudou Debito/Dave Aldwinckle
Published March-May 2001

By Arudou Debito et al
Column Seven for Japan Today

People settling here permanently eventually consider the purchase of a lifetime: a home mortgage. Japan (unlike some other Asian countries) allows foreigners to buy land, and these past years have been particularly good for homeowners. Notwithstanding the high-priced hoyah that passes for construction, financing is very cheap. Several years of ultra-low interest rate policies have given us mortgage rates of two to three percent--by far the lowest in the OECD.

However, this column comes as a warning: cheap money will not last. I advise readers with or contemplating mortgages to convert to fixed rate now for the full period of the loan.

Why has Japan maintained the lowest interest rates in modern history? Primarily for two reasons.

First, Japan's corporate sector is glaringly inefficient (to name but two industries: food preparation and construction, Japan's biggest employers), and its drag on the Japanese economy became clear last decade. The media prepared the public for the death of lifetime employment and made "risutora" (restructuring) a buzzword. However, as Japan's historically (and artificially) low employment rate is a source of international pride, it was deemed necessary to avoid severe marketplace shocks and widespread bankruptcies. To this end, lowering interest rates (complemented by import barriers and funny accounting practices) provided a buffer of cheap credit and alleviated debt servicing obligations. Unfortunately, during this grace period producers recouped losses through pressure on distribution middlemen and gradual consumer price hikes. Thus a slow interest rate reduction enabled Japan's inefficients to avoid any sudden or major changes.

The second reason lies in central government planning. Following LDP Bubble-Headed Logic, ill-conceived public works projects, such as perpetual construction on countryside roads, bridges, riverbeds, beaches, and empty buildings, have swelled public debt. Politicans and bureaucrats (egged on, to be sure, by a US Government mistakenly thinking this would spur demand for imports) used public monies for one stimulus package after another, confusing the temporary few tenths of a percent rise in GDP with real spin-offable growth. Aside from the nasty externality of environmental destruction, throwing money around further encouraged corruption and financial alcoholism in the construction industry, and "crowded out" much private-sector initiative.

Result: A mighty mess. Now Japan has more debt than ever before--approximately 130% of GDP. However, further lowering the cost of debt servicing is no longer an option. Interest rates cannot go lower. The discount rate is zero again,. Ten-year Japan Government Bonds are 1.35%. The point is that instead of ameliorating the pain of restructuring, these policies of half-measures merely aggravated it into unsustainability.

Events in recent months have shown change is nigh.

For example, Japanese insurance companies (one of the biggest personal investment coffers in Japan) are in serious trouble. A decade of low rates will not sate the guaranteed returns (of three or so percent, fixed at the time of contract) of currently-maturing policies. Making up the shortfall by, say, selling off capital investments (such as land) will not work, since they have dropped in value by as much as half. Consequently, some famous names (Chiyoda Seimei, Tokyo Seimei) have gone bankrupt, showing the market that insurers, unlike banks, cannot rely on government bailout. Hence there is immense pressure to save this industry by raising interest rates.

The bigger reason is gaiatsu, for the world financial community has woken up to the hokum. Japan is now seen as threatening world markets, with The Bank of Japan lambasted for irresponsibility at February's G7 summit. Moody's downgraded Japan's government bond rating *as a nation* to Aa1 (most of the OECD has an "Aaa" rating). The "Japan Premium" for risk on loans to Japanese financial institutions is now an unthinkable full percent. This is no secret: Asahi Shinbun (Feb 26) ran the cover headline, "Japan drops from developed country (senshinkoku) status". So without a course change, Japan will find it difficult or expensive to raise money overseas, further increasing the chances of corporate default.

But I am telling you this now because the flashpoint is imminent. It is March and the end of the financial year. Japan has an annual event of lunacy where it uses public monies to rig the stock market. Building share ramps on the Nikkei not only benefits the insiders and political parties, but also the listed companies, which can close their books with healthier balance sheets. But every April's readjustment means our taxes disappear and national wealth is destroyed. Fortunately, this year's plans by Finance Minister Miyazawa (an octogenarian who won't be around to see the ruins) to use pension funds were aborted. Still, he said last month that to keep revenues in balance, our consumption taxes will "unavoidably" (fukahi) have to rise from five to over ten percent, further stifling any hopes for a demand-side-led recovery.

Things must change. This is why I stress to readers out there, fellow people just trying to make an honest crust, that the only way for interest rates to move is to go up. And they must go up, eventually if not sooner. It is a mathematical certainty.

While things are still cheap, I encourage you to get all of your housing loans on a fixed rate basis for the duration. This may mean a hike of a percent or so, but when rates jump soon enough to five percent or more, you will save in the long run.

I will end this column with a caveat. I am not a professional economist. I am a researcher whose comments and opinions are his own and are not necessarily representative of those at Japan Today. However, much of this report's information and conclusions comes a highly-successful financial analyst, for whom I am ghost-writing. My advice of course is to be taken at your own risk.

Arudou Debito
March 19, 2001

By Arudou Debito
Column Eight for Japan Today

On Thursday nights is the fourth season of a groundbreaking and controversial Japanese TV show. You know what I mean--the one with screaming gaijin pontificating on points political and cultural: "Koko Ga Hen Da Yo, Nihonjin" ("This is strange, you Japanese"). You either love it or hate it, but you can't forget it, even if you've tuned in for only one debate and watched it crash and burn.

As an avid viewer and onetime guest on the show (February 28, 2001, teletext here [LINK: http://www.debito.org/KokoGaHen1.html ] ), I would like to comment on its merits and demerits, and suggest a possible improvement.


I acknowledge the show's weak points. One is its circus atmosphere. Particularly in its early days, the foreigners would get riled up, the debate degenerate into a random shouting match, and a buzzer would sound with a "gaikokujin ga funsouchuu" (fighting foreigners' interlude) on the screen. One factor in this is perennial panelist Terry Itou playing agent provocateur, bellowing "shut up and go home" in the heat of battle (he is one of the show's producers, so pulling chains might be part of the plan).

There has been some format tweaking over the years (such as avoiding the word "gaijin" in the subtitles, as most broadcasters now rate it a discriminatory word). But irritations remain: the constant subtitling of foreigners only, the inconclusiveness of some debates, the glaring ignorance of some of the panelists on both sides, and just the general "us-and-them" unruliness that generates more heat than light.

And truly discoloring things is a Japanese attitude towards social science--seeing people as flags rather than individuals, thus conflating nationality with personality.

Fortunately, there has been some development of panelists as individuals (even if they are the blithering Mr Zomahoun), and some of the episodes (such as the end-year specials) have been just good clean fun. Hence, the show's circusness has mellowed into a carnival, and therein lies its strengths.


I watch the show because of its energy. It is a rare debate which does not take off, and sentiments I would love to raise in public do get said. Even if points get blunted by overpluralism or the caveat of "those thoughts are unJapanese, therefore ignorable", the mere mention of the unmentionable does get people thinking.

Also, Koko Ga Hen raises topics few will touch.

One episode talked about bullying in school, and somehow got on the show two very brave parents whose children committed suicide. After one parent read his son's suicide note, a foreign panelist said, "Not once in the note did he write, 'I love you, Daddy'. So maybe part of the problem was you as a father." Once the shock of that statement subsided, I realized that it was an unignorable possibility--one that only this show would air.

Other episodes, such as bloated public works, teacher treatment of students, obesity, and ugliness, unhinged the Japanese panelists more than the foreign, showing just well the producers can touch anyone's sensitive spots.

Some episodes even investigated situational approaches in different cultures. My favorite is where a daughter brought home her boyfriend and started being affectionate in front of her father--enacted in France, Brazil, and Kenya. The reactions were priceless (I would have brought out a baseball bat), and for once there was redolence of decent social science.

Yes, the show has its overargumentative grumps, taking things overseriously and becoming deadweight. But they are counterbalanced by many others equipped with a quip or a snipe. Most, even Terry Itou, have the constructive attitude of "we're all friends in the end".

Finally, only host Beat Takashi could keep it all under control--with an intelligent comment here, a "let's drop it, already" there, and the appropriate foil to deflate tension when necessary.


Still, the show is still about what most TV shows anywhere are about: entertainment. It begs you to keep watching, but also resorts to cheap tactics to keep it interesting.

When I first contacted the show about taking up the exclusionary onsen issue in 1999, producers said, "Not enough people would take the onsen's side. We need more polarity or it won't be watchable."

Then in 2001, when we took the onsens to court [LINK: http://www.debito.org/otarulawsuit.html ], the show called us because a lawsuit riles the nonlitigious. However, when neither the onsen owners nor Otaru City would appear in Tokyo for the studio debate, producers raised the possibility of cancellation. Fortunately, that didn't happen because foreign panelists were found in advance as counterfoils. It predictably led to a heated studio argument.

All of this I can accept, since I do not feel threatened by pluralism. However, when the debate was finally edited for broadcast, the bits of the debate getting significant airtime were the disingenuous critics ("What--is your bath broken at home?" etc.) --and our counterarguments to them were almost all cut, leaving the debate in inconclusive limbo.

I advise the show to realize just how important it is to Japan's future, and avoid sacrificing potential balance merely for the sake of entertainment.


I encourage anyone with time on Thursday nights to watch the show. Koko Ga Hen is, like it or not, interesting and highly watchable. I will go so far as to say it is revolutionary. It shows pluralism from people of radically different cultures and views, speaking Japanese in their own words, expressions, and accents--not bleached by interlocutors or translators.

Even with its shortcomings, I believe that in the long run, Koko Ga Hen will help soften Japan up for greater multiculturalism and tolerance in future.

Arudou Debito
April 19, 2001

By Arudou Debito
Column Nine for Japan Today

I have been asked for an update on the exclusionary bathhouse situation, so here goes:

As you know, I am one plaintiff in a lawsuit (LINK "lawsuit" TO http://www.debito.org/otarulawsuit.html) against Yunohana Onsen (for racial discrimination), and Otaru City (for letting it happen). However, the problem is neither confined to Otaru, nor to onsens.

Thanks to the efforts of human rights organizations and the mass media (LINK "mass media" TO http://www.debito.org/photosubstantiation.html#WAKKANAI), it is well-known that other Hokkaido port towns are restricting foreigners' entry.

Wakkanai, Japan's northernmost city with a huge Russian presence (even the road signs are in Cyrillic!), has a public bath, "Yuransen", with a "gaijin buro". Separate facilities, separate entrances, even separate water for foreigners. Separate but not equal: the Japanese side costs 360 yen while the much smaller foreign side costs 2500 yen.

Further down the Okhotsk Sea coast is Monbetsu City, where for several years signs (in Cyrillic only) proclaiming "JAPANESE ONLY STORE" have graced bars, restaurants, and even the onsen annex at the Monbetsu Prince Hotel. Despite demands from the Ministry of Justice, the local Restaurateurs' Association (which marketed, mass-produced, and sold the signs to half its 200 members) refuses to force clients to take them down.

This is why during Golden Week, I took another road trip north with fellow plaintiffs Olaf Karthaus and Ken Sutherland to see if things have changed. Would my newfound Japanese citizenship make any difference?


It would. It took all of three seconds for the lady at the counter to recognize us. "Ah, it's Arudou-san. Go in." Blinking at suddenly how easy it was, I asked why. Manager Mr Ohshima remembered me from last year's three-hour chat and our appearance on Koko Ga Hen. (LINK "Koko Ga Hen" TO http://www.debito.org/KokoGaHen1.html) He said:

"I see you're a Japanese. Fine. Now you can explain the rules to your friends."

I said that we were all essentially the same in terms of Japan tenure and acculturation, and I didn't see how my passport made me any more qualified as a guide.

"Doesn't matter. You're a Japanese. All of you can go in."

This was a surprise. Yuransen had always barring all foreigners even if accompanied by Japanese. Maybe the presence of a Hokkaido Shinbun reporter and two TV camera crews tilted the balance in our favor a bit.

Next, I checked out other Wakkanai excluders, such as a sports shop and a barber. Both indicated that their policies had changed. Foreigners would not be excluded unless they individually bulled their china shop. Progress.


Our reception down south was more interesting. Ken and Olaf cycled in 6-degree temperatures to the Monbetsu Prince Hotel, where their facility for day-bathers, "Bijin no Yu", offered the only natural onsen in this windswept town. And the only exclusionary bathhouse sign.

The duo, initially refused entry, were let in after speaking Japanese. The management refused, however, to discuss this problematic treatment any further, much to Olaf's consternation.

When I went in separately about an hour later, reporters in tow and cameras waiting outside, "Bijin no Yu" freaked out--saying I could only enter if accompanied by a Japanese. I showed my passport and said I would accompany myself. This was unacceptable to them, so I exited to report to the TV networks.

Suddenly, a Mr Hayashi (who had denied being the manager) revealed himself, apologized, and suggested we talk. After two hours of frank exchanges we reached a stage of enlightenment (Mr Hayashi: "Hmmm, maybe banning all foreigners without seeing if they speak Japanese is kinda rude"), and I was allowed in to warm my bones.

That evening, I went around to a number of bars in the Hamanasu Doori party district. Despite entering signposted stores by myself (i.e.with no visible reporters to discombobulate things), not one place excluded me. They did, however, make it clear that I was acceptable because I speak Japanese.

A three-hour talk over beers with one of the mama-sans was friendly but not all that fruitful. She understood the system wasn't nice, but she didn't want Russians dropping by. She hadn't had any trouble with them herself, but she'd heard the rumors... She had no intention of taking her sign down.


Up to now, this has been more report than column. Let's remedy that with some comment:

In Wakkanai and Monbetsu, one could argue there has been progress. Foreign exclusions are no longer blanket. Individual factors, such as Japanese language level, are being taken into account. We were, after all, refused nowhere.

However, let's acknowledge the caveats. A common problem of sociological surveys is that the very presence of the surveyer influences the sample. Especially in our case. I was soon recognized by name or face. If anything, I am the lawyer's kid their dog should not bite. Even when we were sufficiently undercover, a camera crew or reporter extending meishi soon tipped them off.

Moreover, how indicative is our case? How many palefaced Japanese speakers of Japanese do you know? It is difficult to anticipate how the reception might have been if I were a mum JET or with fur-hatted friends.

Still, this was unavoidable. Sending in our place an unconnected "fall guy" would have been frowned upon, as 1) the respectable press dislikes entrapment, especially if the reporters are local, 2) it would look "insincere", like we were playing a game, which is the kiss of death for any social movement, and 3) the Japanese public has a very ambiguous view of the procedures and merits of Civil Disobedience.

It seems that protests with the Western cachet of the Sixties, such as picketing, sit-ins, and getting arrested (Greenpeace recently learned that lesson) smack in Japan of sound-truck tactics. Awareness-raising or demanding changes cannot ever be seen as threatening or redolent of mob rule. Thus it had to be us--precisely because people know of us in terms of character and demands--investigating. Or else efforts might be ignored or misconstrued.

The point is that the exclusion of foreign-looking peoples here has changed shape like a mutating virus. Not one of the abovementioned signposters said they would take down their signs--and for the same old canard. Even if Japanese language gets you in, shopkeeps are still confusing comprehension with compliance.

Stress it again: The problem here is not one of culture or language. It is of individual intent. Even if raised by wolves, a person may comply if the rules are understood.

Although an improvement on the past, the present situation of exclusionary signs with ambiguous loopholes only further invites confusion.

Clearly it is time for administrations local, regional, and national to get involved. Even in laissez-faire economics, state intervention is justified in cases of market breakdown. Same for communication breakdown. With ghost stories of "Russians running rampant" fueling mass-produced vigilanteism, it is time for the authorities to do the job we pay taxes for: Provide adequate social services and legal protections for all contributors to society.

In other words, make the laws and rules clear (in whatever languages necessary) and enforce them. It really can be that simple.

Arudou Debito
May 11, 2001

(click here to see previous columns)
(click here to see next columns)

Back to the Cover Page

"The Community" Page

Go to the "Residents Page"

Go to the "Activists Page"

Copyright 2001-2002, Arudou Debito/Dave Aldwinckle, Sapporo, Japan