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2011: a year of disaster in quotes

by Mark Schilling

This year produced more than its share of memorable quotes, many of which were inspired by the March 11 disaster and its aftermath. But figures from other fields, from sports to entertainment, also said things worth repeating. Here is a sampling, in chronological order:

Bouts of soul-searching

“Professional sumo is not a show or an entertainment, but is rather something for everyone to watch, wringing their hands over a hard-fought bout. I feel as though I’m viewing scenery I really don’t want to see,” commented Justice Minister Satsuki Eda on Feb. 4 in response to a sumo bout-fixing scandal.

The same-day reaction of Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara was more succinct and skeptical: “That’s what sumo is. It’s been that way from a long time back.”

After an investigation by a special committee, 25 wrestlers and coaches were expelled from the sport.

‘Wash away this selfishness’

“The Japanese identity is one of selfishness. We need to use the tsunami to wash away this selfishness. I think it’s God’s punishment,” said Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara shortly after the March 11 disaster. His comment inspired widespread outrage, but in April he handily won re-election to a fourth term.

No, he couldn’t

“Japan needs a strong, independent prime minister willing to wrest power from the entrenched bureaucrats who really run the nation. When we actually get one, the entire political establishment thwarts reform and works to oust that leader,” wrote Bloomberg News columnist William Pesek in an article published on April 26.

On Aug. 10, Prime Minister Naoto Kan, his handling of the March 11 disaster under fire and his approval ratings cratering, announced his intention to resign. His successor and Japan’s third prime minister in three years, Yoshihiko Noda, is already seeing his grip on power slip, as more voters now disapprove than approve of his stewardship.

‘It’s a man-made disaster’

“This crisis at the power plant is not a natural disaster. It is a man-made disaster,” said University of Tokyo professor and seismology expert Robert Geller to the Yomiuri Shimbun for a June 12 article in which he criticized Tepco’s lack of adequate disaster planning prior to the quake-and-tsunami-induced crippling of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. “In 2004, there was the Indian Ocean earthquake. (The government and Tepco) should have been aware that similar earthquakes could occur anywhere,” Geller added.

‘You had better shape up’

“(You) entered (the meeting room) after I did, but when you are receiving guests, you must enter the room first and then call in the guests. Listen to me, that is what they do in the Self-Defense Forces where they understand the respect that should be shown to those who are senior. Do you understand? You had better shape up.”

After delivering this rude dressing-down to the governor of disaster-hit Miyagi Prefecture and threatening the media with retribution if they reported it (which they proceeded to do anyway), Disaster Reconstruction Minister Ryu Matsumoto resigned on July 5 . For the record, Matsumoto arrived for the meeting early; the governor came on time.

“I’m a type B (blood type) and can have the tendency to be simplistic and straightforward at times,” Matsumoto later said by way of explanation. “My intentions don’t always come across perfectly. . . . I think I need to reflect on that.”

The Italian job

“Just like Italy, which has decided against nuclear power, Japan should put the matter of whether or not to use nuclear power to a popular vote,” opined Prime Minister Naoto Kan on July 13. After suggesting that Japan follow Italy down the nonnuclear path, Kan was criticized by opinionators and bloggers who claimed he had been influenced by Italian journalist and longtime friend Pio d’Emilia.

‘The wonder of Japanese women’

“The Nadeshiko Japan, as shown in their name, demonstrated the wonder of Japanese women to the rest of the world, and brought courage in the face of difficulties and fresh hope to the victims of the East Japan earthquake who are pulling their lives back together, as well as to the nation as a whole,” said Prime Minister Naoto Kan in bestowing the National Honor Award on Nadeshiko Japan, the Japanese national women’s soccer team, on Aug. 18, following their victory in the FIFA Women’s World Cup. A team that the local sports press had largely ignored in favor of their male counterparts suddenly became national heroines, widely feted for lifting up the spirits of a disaster-weary nation.

‘I want to live a quiet life’

“From tomorrow I will become just another regular person. I want to live a quiet life,” said TV comedian and presenter Shinsuke Shimada on Aug. 23, when he announced his immediate retirement from showbusiness after admitting to gang ties.

Shimada claimed that his relationship with a gang boss who helped settle a beef with a rightwing group was limited (“We have met in person just four or five times,” Shimada told reporters), but stories in weekly magazines later detailed a far more intimate relationship with the underworld. Meanwhile, Japanese showbusiness, with the encouragement of the police, launched a long-overdue crackdown on gang influence and infiltration.

‘Cities of death’

“In the central areas of the nearby villages and towns there is not a soul around. They are real cities of death,” commented Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Yoshio Hachiro on a Sept. 9 inspection tour of the exclusion zone around the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. When Hachiro made this insensitive remark he had had his job only about a week; he lost it soon after.

Telling it like it is

“I’m glad that (married couples) like us. It’s good that they have the same interests. But if one likes us too much the other must hate it, right? If I were the wife, I know I’d hate it,” chirped Sayaka Akimoto, a member of the all-girl pop group AKB48, after a “Married Couples Day” concert on Nov. 22.

The Svengali of the hit-spinning group, veteran music producer Yasushi Akimoto, had earlier told the Asahi Shimbun, “It’s moving to watch down-to-earth young girls who can’t sing or dance gradually improve over time by diligently rehearsing. There’s nothing like that overseas.”

‘English is the language for business’

“If people cannot speak English in business in the future, it will be tantamount to not having a driver’s license even though they have to drive. English is the language for business not only in the United States and Europe but also in Asia,” said Fast Retailing CEO Tadashi Yanai in a Nov. 25 interview with the Asahi Shimbun.

Yanai practices what he preaches: Fast Retailing, which makes the Uniqlo hit line of functional, affordable clothes, will use English as its language of business from 2012.

Rape, Okinawa, humor don’t mix

“Would you give a warning when you are about to rape someone?” Okinawa Defense Bureau chief Satoshi Tanaka made this off-record response on Nov. 28 to a reporter’s question about why the government had delayed submitting an environmental assessment report on the relocation of the U.S. military’s Futenma Air Station on Okinawa. After it was leaked to the media, Tanaka was sacked.

His boss, Defense Minister Yasuo Ichikawa, later got into hot water for confessing to Diet members that he did not “know the details” of a 1995 rape of a 12-year-old girl committed by three GIs stationed on the island. Both men, it is safe to say, have since absorbed that little history lesson.

‘It won’t happen in their lifetimes’

“I believe it is possible to save Fukushima. But many evacuated residents must accept that it won’t happen in their lifetimes,” predicted Tatsuhiko Kodama, director of the Radioisotope Center at the University of Tokyo, in a Dec. 11 New York Times article on the government’s decontamination efforts in Fukushima’s town and cities.

In Diet committee testimony on July 27 Kodama also said, “We should recognize from the start that just like Chernobyl, the Fukushima Daiichi plant has released radioactive materials equivalent in the amount to tens of nuclear bombs, and the resulting contamination is far worse than the contamination by a nuclear bomb.”

Mounting an assault on Olympus

“We saw a shameful state of the company’s finances yesterday, but not one Japanese shareholder stood up and said publicly ‘Mr. Woodford is right, thank you Mr. Woodford’, anything, a total, an utter silence,” complained former Olympus CEO Michael Woodford on Dec. 15 after the company released a revised balance sheet revealing $1.1 billion in previously undisclosed losses.

Woodford, who was fired after blowing the whistle on a coverup of bubble-era investments gone bad by previous management, was mounting a campaign to depose the current board and replace it with his own slate of directors.

Light Gist offers a humorous take on life in Japan on the last Tuesday of the month. Send all your comments and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp