Whether at the White House in Washington, No. 10 Downing St. in London or the Elysee Palace in Paris, the political leaders of many nations are expected to occupy an official residence.

In this regard, however, Japan stands out as something of an exception. In Shukan Bunshun (March 4), media savant Akira Ikegami asks why many of Japan’s recent prime ministers — including the present one, Yoshihide Suga — choose not to live in the residence provided for them free of charge.

During a budgetary planning session on Feb. 15, Yoshihiko Noda of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan asked Suga for an explanation.

Noda, himself a former prime minister, posed the question two days after a magnitude 7.3 temblor struck off the Fukushima coast, halting trains, cutting off highways and damaging buildings. Despite minimal traffic at the time the quake hit, it still took Suga 20 minutes to make his way from his home in nearby Akasaka to the prime minister’s office.

“What if a quake were to occur directly beneath Tokyo?” Noda asked Suga. “The traffic would likely be impassable. It would take more than 20 minutes. But to walk from the prime minister’s residence to the office would take zero minutes. … Even though it sits empty, the annual maintenance and upkeep comes to ¥160 million. I can’t understand why you don’t move in.”

The official residence, completed in 2002, is a four-story ferro-concrete structure with about 7,000 square meters of floor space that includes not only the living area but administrative offices and a meeting hall.

Suga might have been following the example of his predecessor, Shinzo Abe. Japan’s longest serving prime minister in the postwar period, Abe chose to commute every morning from his home in Tomigaya, Shibuya Ward.

The official residence has a somewhat dark history: On May 15, 1932, 11 young naval officers forced their way into the residence and assassinated then-Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai. Four years later, in the army uprising of Feb. 26, 1936, five men, including then-Prime Minister Keisuke Okada’s personal secretary, Denzo Matsuo, and several police guards were shot dead there.

Former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori is said to have confided to an acquaintance that one night, while slumbering there, he was awakened by the sounds of marching soldiers. And while former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is said to have brushed off supernatural factors, upon moving in he reportedly arranged for a Shinto priest to come to the residence and perform an exorcism.

“While the building has changed, with this kind of historical background I can understand why Suga might be hesitant about moving in,” Ikegami writes.

Recreational golf has been thriving since the outbreak of COVID-19 last year. | KYODO
Recreational golf has been thriving since the outbreak of COVID-19 last year. | KYODO

When the going gets tough

While most forms of recreation and leisure have suffered under the coronavirus restrictions, Yukan Fuji (Feb. 28) reports that golf has been thriving.

According to data supplied by the Tokyo-based Japan Association of Golf Course Operators, while the number of golfers underwent a 36% year-on-year drop in April 2020, it has since made a recovery, and last October recorded a 7% increase compared to 2019.

“Usage has increased among couples and threesomes,” a spokesperson for the association said, noting that the risk of contracting COVID-19 while engaged in an outdoor activity like golf appears lower than other sports.

Golf Digest Online, a site for reserving visits to country clubs, noted an all-time high for reservation requests.

“In the face of controls on other forms of leisure, the frequency of golf sessions increased,” a spokesperson said.

Demand has also been high at driving ranges in Japan’s three major urban areas, with patronage reported to be up by 10-20%. Likewise for sales of golf club sets, with demand particularly high among people in their 20s and 30s.

According to the Yano Research Institute, an estimated 170,000 newcomers took up golf between March and July last year, despite the obvious obstacles.

“The need to own a car has been a barrier to play,” chief analyst Shigeki Mitsuishi tells Yukan Fuji. “There’s also a deeply rooted culture that discourages new golfers.”

High-flying chickens

Precautions against the spread of bird flu from last November have forced farmers in Japan to cull their flocks, resulting in sharp increases in the prices of both eggs and chicken meat, Shukan Jitsuwa (March 18) reports.

So far, a total of 51 outbreaks in 17 of Japan’s 47 prefectures has been recorded, leading to the slaughter of more than 9 million birds.

“In Chiba Prefecture, 4.56 million chickens were culled, representing more than one-third of the egg-laying population,” notes a foodstuffs industry analyst. “So it’s a certainty that the prices for both eggs and chicken meat will be going up. At the very least, we’re likely to see higher prices at yakitori restaurants and fried chicken specialty shops.”

Prices for eggs, which are considered one benchmark of consumer prices, have risen from ¥102 per kilogram in mid-January to around ¥200 by the end of February, an increase of around 67%.

“Eggs are something people consume on an almost daily basis,” the aforementioned analyst points out. “Based on outlays for medium-sized eggs, we’re looking at a monthly increase to a family’s budget of about ¥1,200.”

Likewise for chicken. One-kilogram cuts of chicken thigh that went for ¥675 last December were already 20% higher than in 2019, and current prices are said to have gone up more than 30%.

Most of the chicken sold here by specialty stores and convenience stores is raised domestically, and the culling of nearly 10 million birds is upsetting the balance of supply and demand.

To add to the headaches, Russian authorities recently reported the first known case of bird-to-human transmission of the H5N8 avian influenza virus. Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told the media that the spread of that virus appeared to be “limited.”

However, if a “double punch” of COVID-19 and a bird flu outbreak were to overlap, that would make for a real disaster, the magazine warns.

At least some people may be moved to abstain from consuming both eggs and chicken after reading Shukan Gendai (March 13), which carried a hard-hitting expose of Japan’s poultry industry titled “The tragedy of Japan’s chickens.”

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.

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