Update: Japan’s View of Trump-Biden Contest

The following article by Kuni Miyake in the August 25 Japan Times summarizes the recent Japanese media coverage of the Democratic National Convention and Biden’s candidacy.  Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.


Commentary: Japan’s Take on an Unusual Democratic Convention

Last week’s “gathering” was the most unconventional Democratic National Convention I’ve seen since 1976, when Jimmy Carter (“who?”) was nominated and later elected president. Then a student of American politics at the University of Minnesota, I never dreamed that national conventions would be as hollow and “virtual” as the 2020 DNC.
Well, in a sense, the convention was not virtual. Bernie Sanders, Michael Bloomberg, John Kasich, Cindy McCain and Colin Powell, who took part, are all real. That said, many in Tokyo found this year’s DNC as real virtuality, since neither participants nor viewers online seemed to have felt the pulse and passion of a national convention.
Editorials in Japanese newspapers last week were naturally ambivalent. Liberal papers, like the Tokyo Shimbun and the Asahi, sounded rather descriptive and neutral with headlines like “Biden needs to unite his party of various groups” or “U.S. presidential election requires debate to overcome fragmentation.”
The Nikkei, Yomiuri and Sankei, on the other hand, were more normative and even demanding with such headlines as “We welcome Biden’s emphasis on allies,” “Is Biden’s anti-Trump cause enough?” and “U.S. presidential candidates must compete on a strategy to protect the international order,” respectively.
Many in the United States may wonder if Tokyo, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in particular, prefer Trump to Joe Biden because the former is more friendly. My friend Daniel Sneider at Stanford University wrote to me that Tokyo, still hedging its bets, “should not go down with the sinking Titanic of Donald Trump.” Rest assured! Many of us are not that naive.
I find Tokyo’s view of the 2020 U.S. presidential election as essentially fair. Major newspapers and foreign policy pundits, to varying degrees, are more critical of Trump than Biden. While watching from the sidelines, Tokyo seems to be well-informed of what is happening in the 2020 U.S. elections. The following is my take.
The Asahi’s editorial said, “In the past 3½ years under the Trump administration, which prioritizes its own base and pays less attention to other groups, domestic power struggles have intensified” and that “such politics of division led to the America-Firstism that has undermined international confidence in Washington.”
The Nikkei said, “We hope U.S. foreign policy will put more emphasis on alliances even if Trump is re-elected.” Even the most conservative Sankei was critical, saying “the Trump administration often makes light of the allies and friends of the United States” and “should not forget its important role in leading the global democratic camp.”
Despite the liberal media frenzy in the United States, the Japanese media seem to be more sober and cool-eyed. The Tokyo Shimbun said that “as compared to the enthusiasm of the Trump supporters, Biden supporters lack fever and passion. Many of them seem to support Biden simply because they do not wish to vote for Trump.”
The U.S. media almost unanimously praised Biden’s acceptance speech as one of the best speeches in his political career. I agree. However, this is simply because Biden has never been a great communicator. In the world of real virtuality, at the most important moment in his public life, he rose to the occasion.
Moderate papers in Japan were more straight-forward. The Nikkei, for example, said Biden’s position on allies “is a welcoming sign for Japan, whose foreign policy is based on the security alliance with the United States. It will be more effective to deter China’s maritime expansion if Japan, the U.S. and Australia are united.”
The Yomiuri went further and said that “Mr. Biden’s return to alliances and international cooperation is welcome. But if he only returned to the policies of the Obama administration in which Mr. Biden was vice president, the United States would not be able to restore its leadership in the international community.”
The Sankei raised tougher questions. “What we want to ask Mr. Biden as presidential candidate is not only his basic position vis-a-vis China, which seeks to expand its hegemony, but also his determination to confront China in close coordination with the allies and friends of the United States.”
Its editorial went on to say, “While Mr. Biden advocates a tough China policy, he cannot be free from responsibility that the Obama administration allowed China to build artificial islands in the South China Sea. In addition, the Democratic Party has been half-hearted vis-a-vis Taiwan, which fights unification pressures from Beijing.”
In a nutshell, the conservatives in Tokyo want Washington to continue its current China policy regardless of who is elected Nov. 3. For Tokyo, the Trump administration has been a good partner, not because Trump has a grand strategy in East Asia, but because he and his team have always been tough with China.
The late Chinese strongman Deng Xiaoping used to quote the old Sichuan proverb, “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, if it catches mice it is a good cat.” Tokyo’s view is basically the same. This means “it doesn’t matter whether a cat is Republican or Democratic, if it catches mice it is a good president.”
That said, one of the things many Tokyo media often fail to understand is that foreign policy has not been and will never be a major issue in U.S. presidential elections. Any focus on China now is just Trump bashing away in a bid to win more votes, while Biden wants to prove he is 200 percent tougher than Trump on China.
It is still late August. Opinion poll numbers mean nothing. The odds between Biden and Trump will be narrower by October. For Tokyo, no time is more critical than now when it comes to its national security. Japan, unlike China or Russia meddling in U.S. domestic politics, is just holding its breath and keeping its fingers crossed.

A Tokyo Summer Concert

It is the height of an extremely hot and humid Japanese summer. The pandemic has caused much human and economic misery, postponed the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, and led to the wholesale cancellation of summer festivals, concerts and the elaborate fireworks displays.

Covid, however, has not been able to forestall a distinctive feature of Japan signifying the end of the rainy season and beginning of summer –– nature’s daylong noisy cicada orchestral concert!

The appearance and many distinctive sounds of the short lifespan cicadas have a special place in Japanese culture.

Japanese Cicada

As a new resident of Japan, I was not certain about the huge number of cicadas all making this noise at the same time. However, Shuhei Nomura, senior curator for the zoology department with the National Museum of Nature and Science, set the Japanese context in a recent Japan Times article saying that “There are lots of them and they’re noisy. But if they weren’t there, it would feel kind of lonely. Japanese people think of cicadas as a symbol of the summer.”

Cicadas — known as semi in Japanese — are a superfamily of insects with around 2,000 known species worldwide. Cicadas live for several years underground as nymphs before emerging in summer. Once above ground, they shed their exoskeletons to complete their transition into adulthood.

While adult cicadas live for only about a month before they die, they certainly make their presence felt during their short lifetimes. Males produce a call seeking to attract mates that borders on deafening.

There are 35 species of cicada in Japan, but each one is completely different. Each species varies in terms of shape, size, color, habitat, behavior, and the call noises they make. Different species of cicada call at different times of the day and are known to evoke certain emotions in humans.

According to experts, the species that people like best is the one that calls when the sun is going down and the day has cooled off. They are called higurashi. I admit it is pleasant when I take Toma for an early evening walk; it is a comforting sound and a nice feeling; the heat has gone down and it’s a little more comfortable.

Another observation I have made about cicadas is the apparent fascination of Japanese children have for them.

While adults may not be so keen to get a close-up look at cicadas, children are much more enthusiastic. Catching the full-grown insects in nets as well as collecting the discarded shells of cicada larvae is a popular summer pastime.

Visit any park and you will find kids out with parents and grandparents, seeking the capture and containment of prized insects. Standard equipment, a net in hand along with a magnifying glass and a cage or jar to keep the insect in.

I subsequently learned that the activity and writing insect diaries was also a summer school project.

Although the cicadas are too common to be considered rare treasure, the Japanese children competitively hunt for other summer insects, particularly the wildly popular rhinoceros beetles or stag beetles.

A Very Happy Anniversary!

On August 19, 2020 Keiko and I celebrated on 16th wedding anniversary with a wonderful dinner at our favorite Tokyo French bistro, Le Comptoir des Régions. The five course meal did not disappoint. Visible in the photo is a three dessert treat prepared especially for each of us by the chef. Mine included a Sicilian ice, a Sumbuca crème brûlée and a chocolate tiramisu!

The Tokyo Toilet Project!

I have previously commented about life in Japan about how often one experiences, sees, hears, tastes or smells something interesting, at times unexpected, unique or unusual.

Today’s illustration is a subject that makes this point –– Tokyo’s “transparent” public toilets! The see-through restrooms, located in parks near the popular Shibuya district’s famous pedestrian crossing, are part of an innovative project.

The Tokyo Toilet Project, founded by the Nippon Foundation, a private, non-profit charity that focuses on social innovation, has partnered with some of the biggest names in the architecture and creative industries.  The recently installed toilets were Initially planned for the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics to change people’s perceptions of public toilets.

According to the projects official website, ”There are two things we worry about when entering a public restroom, especially those located at a park.  The first is cleanliness, and the second is whether anyone is inside. The new toilets aim to break the stereotypes of public toilets — that they are dark, dirty, smelly and scary — and to be accessible for everyone regardless of gender, age or disability, to demonstrate the possibilities of an inclusive society.”

Designed by Shigeru Ban Architects, a Pritzker Prize-winning architecture firm, the design tackles these two concerns by offering a toilet with glass walls that — at first — allows the public to see through from the outside. But once a user enters the toilet and locks the door, the walls turn opaque to provide privacy.

When occupied and locked properly, the tinted glass toilets in Tokyo become frosted and opaque.   The new toilet stalls were designed by the noted architect Shigeru Ban, and use “smart glass” to create a transparent effect when not in use. (Photo Credit…Satoshi Nagare/The Nippon Foundation)

At night, the facility lights up the park like a beautiful lantern.  They have become an immediate tourist attraction!

The project captured the attention of the New York Times.  You can read the very interesting article below.

In case you are interested in other stories about toilets around the world, check out these New York Times articles:

  • Is There a Spy Camera in That Bathroom? In Seoul, 8,000 Workers Will Check | Sept. 3, 2018 
  • Paris Turns to Flower-Growing Toilet to Fight Public Urination | Feb. 2, 2017 
  • Is This New York City’s Nicest Public Bathroom? | Feb. 14, 2020


Tokyo Now Has Transparent Public Toilets. Let Us Explain. 

Using “smart glass,” a Pritzker Prize-winning architect created colorful toilet stalls to allay fears about safety and hygiene. The toilets were set up in two public parks. 

By Tiffany May | NY Times International Edition | Aug. 19, 2020 

Public toilets around the globe have a reputation for being dark, dirty and dangerous. Tokyo recently unveiled new restrooms in two public parks that aim to address those concerns. 

For one thing, they are brightly lit and colorful. 

For another, they are transparent. 

This way, the logic goes, those who need to use them can check out the cleanliness and safety of the stalls without having to walk inside or touch a thing. 

Japan has long experimented with toilets, resulting in lids that open and close automatically and seats that warm up. But the new stalls — designed by Shigeru Ban, the Pritzker Prize-winning architect — are made out of an opacity-changing “smart glass” that is already used in offices and other buildings to provide privacy when needed. 

The toilets were installed in Japan’s capital this month, coinciding with a nationwide campaign to phase out the city’s old-fashioned public toilets ahead of the now-delayed Summer Olympics. Set up in front of a cluster of trees in the Shibuya district, the stalls stand out like a Mondrian painting, bearing tinted walls with colors like mango, watermelon, lime, violet and teal. 

When occupied and locked properly, the tinted glass toilet stalls become frosted and opaque. When the door is unlocked, an electric current realigns the crystals in the glass to allow more light to pass through, creating a transparent effect. The toilets were presented as another futuristic and aesthetically pleasing example of the country’s technological advancements. 

The reviews were mixed. 

“I’m worried it will become transparent due to a malfunction,” a social media user with the Twitter handle @yukio wrote in a widely circulated post. 

“It will take time to get used to the idea,” Ming Cheng, a London-based architect, wrote on Twitter. But he gave it a “thumbs up.” 

Serah Copperwhite, a technology worker based in a district south of Tokyo, said that while she normally avoided public toilets, she would be more inclined to use the new ones because they appeared bright and clean. “I trust the science,” Ms. Copperwhite, 28, said in a phone interview Wednesday, addressing concerns on social media about the reliability of the glass technology. 

Advocates have long called for the Japanese national government to make brick-and-mortar toilets in public spaces more appealing and accessible to residents and tourists. Some public bathrooms in Tokyo, particularly in train stations, lack hand soap. A kindergarten in southern Japan stopped taking children to a city park last year because they were deterred by the flies in the squat stalls. The school opted instead to use a park with Western-style flush toilets. 

More than 300 restrooms were refurbished from 2017 to 2019, according to the Japan Tourism Agency. Before that, 40 percent of the country’s public restrooms consisted of squat stalls rather than Western-style commodes. The government had sought to phase them out before the Olympics, which have been postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

But while some appreciated the new toilets’ advanced technology, some Tokyo residents said they were misplaced in exposed public spaces and were perhaps better suited elsewhere. 

“I am not willing to risk my privacy because someone wants to make a fancy toilet,” Sachiko Ishikawa, a 32-year-old writer and translator, said in a phone interview on Wednesday from Tokyo. 

Ms. Ishikawa said she was concerned that human error would make it too easy for bathroom users to inadvertently expose themselves. The transparent structure could also make them more vulnerable to assailants, she said. 

“They could be waiting for you if you’re getting out of the bathroom,” she said. “So the argument of protection does not hold for me.” 

Predecessors to Tokyo’s transparent toilets appeared in Switzerland in 2002 and 2015, when the designer Olivier Rambert unveiled two glass bathrooms in the city of Lausanne. They had a controversial safety feature that automatically opened the doors and turned the glass transparent if sensors detected no motion for 10 minutes. That could conceivably help users who fall unconscious and need medical attention, he was quoted as saying. 

South Korea has been plagued by a proliferation of tiny cameras placed surreptitiously in public toilet stalls as well as changing rooms in shops and hotels. The problem became so serious that the government in Seoul, the capital, appointed 8,000 workers in 2018 to inspect the city’s public bathrooms. 

Two billion people, or about a quarter of the world’s population, do not have access to toilets or latrines, according to data published by the World Health Organization in 2019. For World Toilet Day in 2015, a nonprofit organization in New York installed a flushable toilet surrounded by one-way mirrors looking out on Washington Square Park to simulate the experience of relieving oneself in public view. 

Organizers said 200 people tried out the stall over the course of the day. Some of them later said they had felt uneasy even though they knew they could not be seen from the outside. 

In Japan, the Nippon Foundation plans to install toilets designed by other prominent architects at 17 locations by next year. But Thalia Harris, a freelance writer who has lived in Tokyo for seven years, said she did not see the project as a practical solution to safety concerns. 

“Personally, I think this will make people feel even more uncomfortable, especially for women,” Ms. Harris, 29, said in a phone interview Tuesday. 

She said she would continue to use the public bathrooms in Tokyo’s train stations, despite the lack of hand soap. She always brings her own, particularly because of the coronavirus outbreak. 

“I would like them to address that before having these particular magic new toilets,” she said.

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The Dog Days of Summer

Here in Tokyo the dog days of the pandemic summer are sweltering hot and extremely humid. Japan’s Meteorological Agency issued both heatstroke and high-temperature warnings Sunday as temperatures reached dangerous levels across the nation. Tokyo has seen average temperatures in the mid 90F/35C with humidity at 70-80% range.

Finding ways to deal with the heat, humidity, isolation and frustration of the pandemic summer has been quite a challenge. 

Toma is dealing with the August weather by lying around, lethargic and sleepy.  For myself and Keiko, our move into our new home corresponded with the beginning of summer has kept us very busy.  Three weeks in, we are nearing completion of various furnishing and decoration projects and dealing with organization and storage realities that required a final round of scaling back personal clothing and goods to reflect available space and our actual needs for a comfortable Tokyo lifestyle.

With Keiko working from home, we have adapted well to the “new normal” and settled into a leisurely routine.  Keiko, Toma and I generally take a short mid-day nap!

I have adopted a daily project work schedule that allowed me some time to relax and avoid potential heat stroke related problems.  Toma and I take long walks at 5:00AM and 8:00PM and one or two other short outdoor visits to avoid the heat and humidity.  I suspended my daily 3-mile health walks until the weather breaks, using alternative indoor exercise.

I look forward to the daily delivery of my newspapers, the English-language Japan Times and New York Times International Edition, and reserve time each day for the on-line offerings of The Atlantic. My Kindle app is a constant idle and bed time companion.

Our cable system gives me access to live CNN, BBC and CNBC news coverage that I’ll access each morning and as events warrant.  NHK provides Japan news and interesting lifestyle and cultural features.  Netflix is a useful occassional diversion; the Golf Channel and DAZN satisfies my sports appetite.

I also reserve early morning time each day for writing.  Before the move, I focused on my “book project” and will need to re-start that activity once we are settled.   More recently, I have tried to make regular contributions to my blog as well as be a more consistent e-mail correspondent with family and friends.

Finally, I decided to spend time reviewing and organizing a lifetime’s worth of recipes stored in my Evernote app, an enjoyable project that is filled with so many reminders of happier times.  

Since we use Oisix, a company that delivers us weekly organic and additive-free meal kits, I now generally only cook on the weekends.  The meal service provides us a varied healthy Japanese diet with portion control and has actually saved us both shopping time and money. The recipe exercise has enabled me to focus on preparing some of our favorite dinners.

Finally, since I will soon finish the conversion of our second bedroom into a combination library-hobby workshop-“man cave” (with a storage loft), I look forward to further adapting my Tokyoite lifestyle routine to spend time with my RC collection.