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A tale of two Abes: PM’s rosy view jars with life of toil seen in poison case

by Michael Hoffman

“Ladies and gentlemen, Japan is back,” declared Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, addressing a Washington think tank in February 2013.

Abe himself had just bounced back. Two months earlier, a resounding electoral victory had returned him and his Liberal Democratic Party to power. He was buoyant.

He still is. “Japan is back” remains the message, at home and abroad. Doubts have crossed other minds but never, apparently, his own. He ranks among the best salesmen-in-chief postwar Japan has ever had.

“Can you hear such voices now?” he demanded rhetorically at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, last month. He meant the voices that for 20 years had mocked a stagnant, mired Japan as “the land of the setting sun.”

Certainly you hear fewer of them. The “three arrows” of “Abenomics” are hitting home or falling short, depending on which expert analysts you read, but “Japan is back” is not Abe’s assessment alone; it was echoed at Davos by, among others, WEF founder Klaus Schwab, who added, “We need bold concepts, and Abenomics is such a bold concept.” Basking in the applause, Abe added a drill bit to his quiver of arrows: “No vested interests will remain immune from my drill.”

The numbers that matter to economists and investors seem to be heading right where they and Abe want them: yen down, stocks and consumer prices up. The doubters essentially raise two questions: 1) Is the recovery sustainable? 2) Supposing it is, will the poor and middle class benefit, or will the rich get richer and the poor poorer?

On Jan. 24 — a day before the Davos forum ended, as it happens — police in the city of Satte, Saitama Prefecture, received a phone call about a “suspicious” man in a parking lot. Officers arrived to find the man making a bonfire. He was from neighboring Gunma Prefecture, he said. He was soon identified as Toshiki Abe, who had been reported missing by his family 10 days earlier. He was 49 years old and seemed harmless. The officers took him home.

He was arrested the next day on suspicion of lacing frozen food products with pesticide. The products — mostly pizza and croquettes — were made by Aqlifoods Co., a subsidiary of Maruha Nichiro Holdings. Abe worked for Aqlifoods at its plant in Oizumi, Gunma Prefecture, on an assembly line producing pizza crusts.

The company received its first of numerous complaints on Nov. 13 — a customer phoning in to say his frozen pizza smelled like machine oil. Subsequent tests found traces of the pesticide malathion. Nationwide, about 3,000 people fell ill, of cramps, vomiting, diarrhea. A recall was set in motion — tardily, say some. It eventually drew in some 6 million frozen food packs.

Abe protests his innocence, claiming loss of memory. The investigation continues.

His personal guilt or innocence aside, the search for an explanation inevitably focuses on the conditions under which those not benefiting from rising corporate earnings and soaring stock prices earn a living — or fail to. Shukan Shincho magazine, in an article published before Abe’s arrest, speculated, on the basis of interviews with several Aqlifoods employees, “It may be that the crime was committed by a worker who just wanted to stop the assembly line and rest for a bit.”

Frustration seems to have run deep at the Oizumi plant. Workers began to notice a change in atmosphere four years ago. The assembly line was speeded up. Supervision tightened. Pay dropped. Overtime stretched.

It wasn’t Aqlifoods alone, of course. Companies small and large were piling on the pressure. They were pressured themselves: Competition was fierce, profits were low. Workers were retired or laid off; hiring was frozen. Anything to cut costs. Remaining workers would pick up the slack — or else, was the implicit threat.

You felt lucky just to have a job, all the luckier if it was a full-time job, offering some, though shrinking, benefits. Part-time workers — roughly one-third of the national workforce — do without benefits. Late last month some of them demonstrated outside the labor ministry in Tokyo, bearing placards reading, “Being a lifelong part-timer is hateful.”

They may have to get used to it. A legislative proposal, if passed in its current form, would make it even easier than it has become lately to hire employees as part-timers, and fire them at will. When Prime Minister Abe states an intention to make Japan “the easiest country in the world in which to do business,” that’s part of what he means.

Aqlifood employees, full- and part-time, describe to Shukan Shincho a working environment that seems scarcely tolerable.

“The line was speeded up. It became frantic,” says one. “Each line had its production figures publicly posted. Every month we’d have to turn in reports of self-criticism: ‘This month I spoiled X number of croquettes,’ and so on. It makes you neurotic. Many quit — over that, or over the 80 hours-a-month overtime you sometimes had to work.”

Management, he said, hovered everywhere, watching everything. “They’d tear you to pieces over the slightest infraction — machine trouble, for instance. They’d chew you out in a voice that resounded all over the plant.”

After Toshiki Abe’s arrest, the weekly Shukan Bunshun profiled him. He’d done various jobs after high school, finally joining Aqlifoods as a full-timer eight years ago. He was popular and praised by superiors for a “positive attitude” — which some work-mates suggest may not have survived a bonus reduction in 2013. His annual salary was reportedly around ¥2 million. He lived with his wife and son in Oizumi. Friends note a fondness for motorcycles and cosplay. One costume in his wardrobe, the magazine hears, was a long coat emblazoned in back with the Chinese characters seigi — justice.

That’s not much to know about a man accused of a crime whose repercussions could have been a good deal worse than they were. Was some obscure notion of “justice” what the culprit had in mind? Might it have been his way of saying to Prime Minister Abe, “Japan is not back; Japan won’t be back until working for a living does not entail the sacrifice of all human dignity”?