TIME Japan

In Japan, New Okinawa Governor Pledges to Shut Controversial U.S. Air Base

JAPAN-US-POLITICS-MILITARY-POLLS
Jiji Press—AFP/Getty Images Former Naha mayor Takeshi Onaga speaks to reporters after winning the Okinawa gubernatorial election on Nov. 16, 2014, in Naha, the capital of Japan's Okinawa prefecture

Defeated governor Hirokazu Nakaima was elected on a promise to get rid of the Futenma air base but then changed his mind

The controversial proposal to relocate a U.S. military base on Japan’s Okinawa prefecture was dealt a blow Monday when an outspoken opponent of the plan was elected as the island chain’s new governor.

Takeshi Onaga won Sunday’s gubernatorial polls in a landslide and wants to get rid of Futenma air base altogether. Defeated incumbent Hirokazu Nakaima had agreed for it to move to a new location in the island’s north despite widespread public opposition.

“The governor’s decision in December of last year to endorse [the current government relocation plan] was proven wrong when I won this election,” said Onaga, reports the BBC.

The election result may prove a setback for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who has pushed for stronger military ties with the U.S.

The U.S. military has been present in Japan since the end of World War II and currently boasts around 26,000 troops and several bases around the East Asian nation. But the 1995 gang rape of a 12-year-old girl by U.S. troops largely turned public opinion against the ongoing presence of American soldiers.

TIME Japan

Japan Sinks Into Recession (Again)

A man holding a shopping bag walks on a street at Tokyo's Ginza shopping district
Yuya Shino—Reuters A man holding a shopping bag walks on a street at Tokyo's Ginza shopping district on Nov. 16, 2014

An unexpected contraction in quarterly GDP shows that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s radical economic program is badly broken

If anyone is still holding out hope that Abenomics — the unorthodox slate of economic policies named after their inspiration, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — could rescue Japan from its two-decade slump, the news on Monday should dash it. The troubled economy surprised analysts by (once again) tumbling into recession. GDP in the quarter ended September shrank by an annualized 1.6% — far, far worse than the consensus forecasts. That followed a disastrous 7.3% contraction in the previous quarter. Speculation in Japan is that the bad results will push Abe to call a snap election only two years after taking office.

What’s going on in Japan is important for all of us. Since the economy is still the world’s third largest (after the U.S. and China), a healthy Japan could provide a much needed pillar to growth in a struggling global economy.

The current downturn is being blamed on a hike in the consumption tax, implemented in April to try to stabilize the government’s feeble finances, which slammed consumer spending. It is now expected that Abe will delay a further increase in that tax scheduled for next October. But the real causes lie much deeper — in the failings of Abe’s economic agenda.

The idea behind Abenomics was to boost the economy with massive stimulus from the Bank of Japan (BOJ) and the government combined with structural reform of the economy, or what has been called the third arrow. The problem is that we got the first two arrows, but not the third. While the BOJ kept its printing presses rolling, dramatically weakening the value of the yen, badly needed deregulation and market-opening has come extremely slowly. Some critical changes, like a loosening of labor laws, seem to be off the menu entirely. The result is that the actual potential of the economy has not been enhanced. Meanwhile, the welfare of the average Japanese family hasn’t improved either. Wages haven’t advanced much, while prices have increased.

If Japan’s situation proves anything, it is the limits of central bank policy to fix economies. Despite a torrent of cash infused into the economy through the BOJ’s “quantitative easing” or QE, Japan’s economy remains mired in slow growth and stagnant household welfare. That’s why it is hard to imagine that the BOJ’s October decision to increase its QE program will make a major difference. So that’s the takeaway for policymakers in the U.S. and especially a stumbling Europe: If you’re going to rely too much on central bankers to revive growth, you’re going to fail.

The question facing Abe is whether he can press ahead more quickly with important reforms, either in his current administration or after a fresh election, which his party will still mostly likely win. Based on his recent track record, we don’t have reason to be confident. But maybe one day Japan will give us a surprise — in a good way.

Read next: It May Be Too Late for Japan’s PM to Fix the World’s Third Largest Economy

TIME Japan

It May Be Too Late for Japan’s PM to Fix the World’s Third Largest Economy

Shinzo Abe
Luis Hidalgo—AP Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits the Santa Lucia Hill Japanese Gardens in Santiago, Chile, on July 31, 2014

Shinzo Abe is desperate to rescue his failing economic program, but he still hasn't done what's necessary

Tokyo is abuzz with speculation that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is about to dissolve the Diet, as the country’s legislature is known, and call a snap election.

He by no means has to take such action. It has only been two years since his Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP, swept to power in a massive landslide, and the opposition is in such disarray that there is little doubt Abe would be returned to office in a new election. Nevertheless, Abe apparently feels the need for another vote of confidence from the public, likely in part to bolster support for his radical program to revive Japan’s economy, nicknamed Abenomics.

The problem is that it could already be too late. Abenomics is a failure, and Abe isn’t likely to fix it, no matter how many seats his party holds in parliament.

When Abe first introduced Abenomics, many economists — most notably, Nobel laureate Paul Krugman — believed the unconventional program would finally end the economy’s two-decade slump. The plan: the Bank of Japan (BOJ), the country’s central bank, would churn out yen on a biblical scale to smash through the economy’s endemic and destructive cycle of deflation, while Abe’s government would pump up fiscal spending and implement long-overdue reforms to the structure of the economy. Advocates argued that Abenomics was just the sort of bold action to jump-start growth and fix a broken Japan, and we all had reason to hope that it would work. Japan is still the world’s third largest economy, and a revival there would add another much-needed pillar to hold up sagging global economic growth.

However, I had my concerns from the very beginning. In my view, Japan’s economy doesn’t grow because there is a lack of demand. Pumping more cash into the economy, therefore, will not restart growth. Only deep reform to raise the potential of the economy can do that — by improving productivity and unleashing new economic energies. Unless Abe changed the way Japan’s economy works — and I doubted he would — all of the largesse from the BOJ would at best come to nothing. In a worst-case scenario, Abe’s program could turn Japan into an even bigger economic mess than it already is.

So far, Abenomics has disappointed. GDP shrank a hope-dashing annualized 7.1% in the quarter ending June. Inflation, meanwhile, is nowhere near the BOJ target of 2%, and is slowing. Nor has Abenomics brought significant benefits to the general populace. Job creation and wage increases are sluggish and, with prices increases, the welfare of the average salaried worker has suffered. Meanwhile, an increase in consumption tax earlier this year — made necessary by the need to shore up the government’s shaky finances — further burdened Japanese households and led to a drastic decline in consumer spending.

The response of policymakers has been to double down on Abenomics. On Oct. 31, the BOJ surprised markets by greatly expanding its unorthodox stimulus program, known as quantitative easing, or QE. As part of that, the BOJ will increase its annual purchases of Japanese government bonds by 60% to a staggering $700 billion. More of the same, however, will just have the same result: a short-term boost to sentiment with little lasting effect. In fact, the program is only perpetuating Japan’s bad habits. The extra BOJ cash is weakening the yen — the Japanese currency has tumbled by nearly 7% against the dollar just since the bank’s announcement — which hands Japan Inc. companies more competitiveness without forcing them to undertake any actual improvements.

The problem with Abenomics, therefore, remains the same. More yen printed by the BOJ can’t fix Japan on its own, and can’t replace the fundamental changes necessary to raise the economy’s potential growth. If anything, the BOJ’s latest action only buys Abe a bit more time to implement his pledged reform program, known at the “third arrow” of Abenomics.

So far, though, the third arrow has remained in his quiver. In June, Abe unveiled the latest elements of the plan, which included everything from lowering the corporate-tax rate to spur investment, to enlisting more women into the male-dominated workforce, and bringing further change to an unproductive and outdated agricultural sector. It would be unfair to say that Abe has made no progress on his promises. The number of working women, for instance, has been on the rise under his administration. But many important reforms remain stalled. Abe had announced the formation of “special economic zones,” which would be crucibles of experimentation with the deep deregulation necessary to spark entrepreneurship and investment, but their implementation has crept along at a glacial pace. Serious reform of the country’s distorted labor market seems to have slipped off the table. Abe is also foot-dragging on opening the economy to more competition by holding up the completion of the U.S.-sponsored Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade pact over an unwillingness to expose Japan’s overly protected farmers to imports.

The big question is whether another election will somehow lead to faster reform. In theory, a fresh mandate could give Abe the added political clout he needs to press ahead more boldly. However, Abe already controls both houses of the Diet, so if he wanted to move more quickly on reform, he could. That has left some analysts wondering what difference an election may make. “A snap election could have the virtue of giving the government a stronger mandate as it struggles to push ahead with structural reform,” commented Mark Williams and Marcel Thieliant of research outfit Capital Economics. But since Abe’s party has already been in a strong position, “an election would not make much practical difference to his ability to get things done.”

Abe continues to insist he is a reformer and will follow through on his grand pronouncements. “Make no mistake, Japan will emerge from economic contraction and advance into new fields and engage in fresh challenges,” Abe recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “There is no reason for alarm.”

Alarm bells should be ringing in Tokyo, however. Even if Abe gets the “third arrow” in the air, it could still miss its target. Many of the reforms Japan needs will take years to implement. Meanwhile, the other two arrows of Abenomics may already be running their course. There was opposition within the BOJ to its latest decision to boost QE — an indication that the bank can’t be counted upon to keep the printing presses rolling forever. Nor can Abe dodge the need to stabilize the government’s debt and deficits indefinitely. The government’s debt is 240% of the country’s GDP — the largest among major advanced economies. He’s right now weighing whether or not to hike the consumption tax yet again. Imposing it could deal another blow to growth; postponing it would undermine what little credibility Abe had as a fixer of the nation’s finances.

In the end, repairing Japan requires more political will than Abe has shown. Maybe a new election will help him find it. But don’t hold your breath.

TIME Autos

Air Bag Manufacturer Behind Recalls Hid Flunked Safety-Test Results: Reports

A security guard stands by child seats, manufactured and displayed by Takata Corp. at a Toyota showroom in Tokyo, Nov. 6, 2014.
Shizuo Kambayashi—AP A security guard stands by child seats, manufactured and displayed by Takata Corp. at a Toyota showroom in Tokyo, Nov. 6, 2014.

The tests showed that Takata air bags could rupture, but the company waited four years to report the problem

Under-fire Japanese air bag manufacturer Takata reportedly hid the results of 2004 tests that revealed their products could rupture and cause injury or death.

Technicians involved in the secret testing of 50 Takata air bags were ordered to delete the data from their computers and dispose of the air bags used, two employees revealed to the New York Times.

The manufacturer reportedly only revealed the problems to regulators four years later.

Faulty air bags produced by the Tokyo-based firm have since led to the recalls of more than 14 million automobiles worldwide.

Read more at the New York Times.

TIME food and drink

5 Things You Need To Know About Japanese Whisky

Food Japanese Whisky
Eric Risberg—AP From left are Hibiki 12-year-old, Yamazaki 18 and 12-year-old Japanese whiskys at the Rickhouse bar in San Francisco, Aug. 6, 2010.

A single-malt from Japan has been named the best whisky in the world for the first time. Here's why you shouldn't be all that surprised

The whisky world was shocked on Tuesday, when it was announced that the 2015 edition of Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible had named Suntory’s Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 the best whisky in the world — the first time the honor has gone to a whisky from Japan. Even more of a shock, particularly to the Scottish who pride themselves on their whisky, for the first time in the 12 years the Whisky Bible has been published, not a single Scotch made the top five.

But perhaps the surprise is unwarranted. After all, Japanese whisky has been a rising star in the spirits world for some time now. So, in honor of the big win, here are five things you should know about Japanese whisky.

It’s The New Kid on the Block — Japanese whisky has been commercially produced since since the early 1920s, when the Yamazaki distillery was first built near Kyoto. Throughout the 20th century, Japanese whiskies were primarily sold and consumed within Japan, yet they’ve become increasingly popular in Europe and North American in recent years.

Production — Japanese whiskies were first modelled on Scottish whiskies — Suntory’s first master distiller Masataka Taketsuru studied in Scotland and wanted to bring the drink home — so they are produced in much the same way, distilled twice using pot stills. Many distilleries even use malted and sometimes peated barley imported from Scotland.

About That Missing “E” — As Japanese whisky has much in common with Scottish whiskies, rather than the Irish or American varieties, its name follows the Scotch tradition and is spelled without an “e.”

Pop Culture Moment — Japanese whisky makes a prominent appearance in 2003’s Lost in Translation. In the film, Bill Murrary’s character Bob Harris is a washed-up actor who heads to Japan to shill for Suntory whisky. Tag line: “For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.”

In real life, it was actually actor Sean Connery who appeared in Suntory commericals in the 1990s.

It’s a Winner – The World Whisky Bible coup isn’t the first time Japanese whisky has been recognized with an international award. In 2001, Nikka’s Yoichi whisky was named the “Best of the Best” in an international tasting by Whisky Magazine. Then, in 2003, Suntory’s 30-year-old Hibiki won the top award at the International Spirits Challenge and Suntory went on to earn awards at the competition for the next 11 years.

TIME Food & Drink

The World’s Best Whisky Has Been Named and Scotland is Displeased

Scotland doesn't even have a whisky in the world's top five

The best whisky in the world is “near indescribable genius.” It scores 97.5 marks out of 100. It is also not Scottish.

That’s according to Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2015, a highly regarded ranking of fine global whisky. Specifically, reports the Telegraph, the top title belongs to Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013, from Japan’s oldest whiskey distillery, Suntory, founded in 1923.

What’s more, for the first time in the 12 years the Whisky Bible has been published, not a single Scottish whisky makes the bible’s top five. If that wasn’t bad enough for Scotland, which along with Ireland is the spiritual home of the drink, the best European whisky in the latest edition is English.

The Whisky Bible describes the winning Yamazaki whisky as “rich and fruity,” with a nose of “exquisite boldness” and finish of “light, teasing spice.” Just 18,000 bottles were made — it is sold out on the bible’s online shop, and it is available in just a few specialist shops in the U.K. for about $160.

American whiskies take second and third prize, including repeat second-place winner William Larue Weller, a Kentucky bourbon.

So what about auld Scotland? A Scottish whisky — the 19-year-old single malt Glenmorangie Ealanta — took the top spot just last year, also getting 97.5 marks.

But the book’s author, Jim Murray, writes that though hundreds of Scottish whiskies were among the more than 1,000 samples he tried from all around the world this year, they fell flat.

“Where were the complex whiskies in the prime of their lives?,” he wonders, calling this year’s rankings a “wake up call” for Scottish brands.

Ron Taylor, an independent wine and spirit judge and educator, tells TIME it’s no surprise that a Japanese whiskey took first place in Murray’s list, since Japanese whiskies regularly win prestigious competitions, even in Scotland.

Still, Taylor also said that rankings often reflect the taster’s personal preferences. Indeed, Taylor describes Japanese single malts as like a Lexus —“beautifully crafted, no vibration, smooth, consistent and always pleasing” — while their Scottish counterparts are more akin to a Maserati.

“The Scottish whiskeys, they’ll knock you around and slap you around the face a little bit,” says Taylor, who is from Scotland, but calls himself “a non partisan” drinker.

He also notes that Suntory, which makes the winning Japanese whiskey, also produces whiskey brands around the world — including, in fact, multiple Scottish whiskies.

[The Telegraph]

Read next: The Best Whiskey Bars in America

TIME Bizarre

Spice Up Your Morning Routine with Wasabi Toothpaste

When Crest just doesn't cut it.

Crest, the American standard of toothpaste brands, has started to get a little wacky lately. Its Be Adventurous line offers brushers the chance to swap out basic mint flavored paste for “Chocolate Mint Trek,” “Lime Spearmint Zest” or “Vanilla Mint Spark.” Not included in Crest’s lineup? Wasabi-flavored toothpaste.

Luckily, for spice loving fans who crave the idea of adding some sushi flavoring into their daily oral hygiene routine, wasabi toothpaste is coming to Japan thanks to the Village Vanguard shop.

While Seattle retailer Archie McPhee has sold a gag (and probably gag-inducing) wasabi toothpaste for years, Japan is getting the real deal. According to Kotaku, “The toothpaste smells like wasabi, it has a wasabi-like texture, and most importantly, it tastes like wasabi.”

So if you’re looking to put a little hair on your chest while keeping your teeth squeaky clean, be really adventurous and step away from the mint.

TIME Culture

How Japan’s Culture of Apologies Is Teaching Me to Stop Saying ‘I’m Sorry’ All the Time

Crumpled red paper heart with pen
Getty Images

I've caught myself apologizing to a table I jammed my toe on. The table and I are still friends

xojane

This story originally appeared on xoJane.com.

I’ve always been the one who feels a knee-jerk need to apologize for everything.

Very often I mean it. When you’ve had a bad day, when something sad or terrible happens to you, when I’ve done something stupid and my actions warrant an apology, you can count on me.

When an actual “I’m sorry” is necessary, you’ll never find a person more willing to gnaw on a piece of your frustration, anger, or sorrow with you. These past few years, I’ve been making a concerted effort to divvy out my “I’m sorries” much more judiciously so that they actually MEAN something. Most people deserve something more than a breathless attempt at smoothing things over.

However, when I’m nervous, unsure, or feeling guilty (whether it’s necessary or not), “I’m sorry” can become my version of “Oops” or worse, “Don’t you think you should say the same?” Ugh, passive-aggressive BS.

Lately, through all the struggles and victories of living in Japan, I’ve found “I’m sorry” popping up more and more in my English vocabulary. Some of it is an attempt at cultural acclimation, some of it is just plain old Default Louise trying to absorb some sort of real or perceived faux pas.

I could spend thousands of words talking about how I got this way — upbringing, social anxiety, people pleaser, self preservation, fear of judgement, blah blah blah — but whatever all of that amounts to, and while I begrudgingly accept this part of myself, it’s a part of me that is at times wholly useless.

For crapsake, I’ve caught myself apologizing to a table I jammed my toe on. The table didn’t care, and neither did all the people who weren’t there to witness it. The table and I are still friends.

I’m fully aware that an onslaught of apologies when I have no reason to be sorry is not only annoying but can be vaguely offensive. No Lou, you’re not sorry when the words just tumble out. What I’m actually saying is, “Don’t blame me” or “I feel dumb.”

I really started paying attention to how I handed out apologies when a dear friend and professional mentor finally snapped at me.

“Louise, cut out the ‘I’m sorries.’ You’re better than that. You don’t mean it, and you don’t have to. Don’t waste your words. Mean what you say.”

And all I wanted to do was say, “I’m sorry.”

It’s an ongoing battle. “I’m sorry” is not a prefix, a suffix, a qualifier, or a “Get Out of Jail Free” card for when I’m uncomfortable. But in Japan, I’m having to negotiate the “I’m sorries” in a whole new way.

From what I’ve observed so far, Japan is a culture of apologies. I’m not saying that Japanese people are insincere or pushovers. Far from it. Rush hour in a busy subway station or negotiating with the friendly but unwavering cell phone salesman over the up front, one year service payment due in CASH, will teach a person that right-quick.

What I am saying is that as a culture that is incredibly polite, sensitive, and gracious, apologizing is part of formal interaction. “Apologize first” is just the way things are done here. Often times when I’m out and about with fluent Japanese speakers, I’ll hear the nugget of a request or question imbedded deep within profuse apologies and slight bows. Yet despite the social requirement, people really seem to mean it when they apologize.

“I’m sorry I’m interrupting you…”

“I’m sorry that I don’t speak English/Japanese…”

“Excuse me, I’m sorry that I don’t know what this purple thing on your menu is. I’m sorry. Thank you!”

You’d think my compulsively apologizing little heart would rejoice! Well, it did at first. Every accident, every mistake, could be cleared with a “sumimasen” (I’m sorry). It was expected, it was welcomed, it was glorious.

But you can imagine the slippery slope this started. The apologies started seeping into my non-Japanese interactions.

My husband would step on MY foot and I’d apologize. A friend from America would call me on Skype two hours late, and I’d apologize. An expat friend would show up unannounced at my apartment, catching me in my full “Today Was Not Human Interaction Day” glory, and I’d apologize.

Since I’ve noticed my compulsion rearing its head again, I’ve been sorting through a duality I’ve never encountered before.

No, there isn’t some feral Louise roaming the streets of Yokohama maniacally apologizing to vending machines and gurgling infants, but this is my first experience immersing myself in a foreign culture and finding the balance between Japan Louise and American Louise is something that requires much more self awareness than I thought I was capable of.

I need to play by Japan’s rules to some extent. There is some pleasure in losing myself in the foreignness of it all, and just doing as I’m expected to do. It’s not always easy, but in the middle of it there’s a lesson in unclenching my ego. Japan doesn’t care if I find their customs “unusual” or “compromising” to my “individuality.” Their definitions of such are different, work just fine for most Japanese people, and have been around a lot longer than me.

When I find myself getting my kittens in a twist, I just remind myself that I don’t have to drink the Kool-Aid but I do have to respect it.

Look at me making discoveries all over the place!

But while I’m discovering all this in the context of my Japan life, I’m realizing that this is not an all-or-nothing situation. I can pass a lot of my Japanese cultural experience through my American filter.

I’m learning that ideally, the basic intent is the same anywhere: Be considerate of other people, and if you’re going to say, something say it with conviction. In other words, mean what you say.

When the Japanese people I’ve met here apologize, it appears as if they are genuinely sorry for having bothered me, that they appreciate that my time is valuable. They say it because it’s expected, but the intent is also expected. It’s not just empty words. There’s an unspoken willingness to start from a place of respect and go from there. I’m making a generalization — I’m new here and probably a little naive, but there is still something to be learned in that kind of interaction.

So while I don’t want to adopt the cultural norm of constantly apologizing, my constant apologizing within the context of my western culture can be quelled by taking a few lessons from the intentions of the people here.

I’m still working at it. There are still times I have to clamp my mouth shut to stop myself from apologizing to my American friends for the sound my nose makes when I breathe, but I’m making an honest effort to live by the mantra, “Mean what you say.”

During this time of trying to learn a foreign language, being keenly aware of every word that comes out of my mouth, I find that it’s worth applying that logic to my mother tongue. English may be easy for me, but it does not have to be thoughtless.

Louise Hung is a writer and theater director.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Japan

The Resignation of Two Ministers Spells Trouble for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

Japan minister resigns
Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images Japanese Trade and Industry Minister Yuko Obuchi resigned on Oct. 20 amid allegations of misusing election funds

More ministers could fall as Japan faces political instability at the worst time

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appointed five women to his Cabinet last month in a major shakeup designed to show support for female empowerment and help smooth the way for an unpopular political agenda. But all that unraveled Monday with the abrupt resignation of two of those appointees—Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yuko Obuchi and Justice Minister Midori Matsushima—for campaign spending violations.

The controversies could not have come at a worse time for Abe. His economic policies are faltering and his Cabinet approval ratings had dropped below 50 percent even before the spending scandal broke last week. Abe faces tough decisions within the next few months on policy issues ranging from restarting nuclear reactors to imposing a second round of tax hikes. He’s also struggling to repair relations with China and South Korea over historical issues and territorial disputes, even as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing next month looms.

“Abe no longer seems the invincible Superman that some had imagined, and that weakens him both domestically and in Japan’s diplomatic dealings,” says Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan. “On all of his signature policies — ranging from nuclear reactor re-starts to arms exports, collective self defense and state secrecy legislation—a majority of the public is opposed.”

Trade Minister Obuchi and Justice Minister Matsushima submitted their resignations Monday. They were the first Cabinet members to step down since Abe took office in December 2012—a remarkable period of stability in Japanese politics, where ministers not infrequently are called upon to fall on their sword. It was also a reminder of Abe’s scandal-plagued and inefficient first term in 2006-7, which ended after barely a year. A pension records scandal and the suicide of his agriculture minister during an expense-spending probe, along with poor health for the Prime Minister himself, helped doom Abe’s first go-around.

Obuchi, 40, was accused of funneling campaign money to her sister and brother-in-law and to improperly subsidizing entertainment junkets for supporters. Matsushima stepped down for improperly distributing more than $100,000 worth of paper fans to constituents. Obuchi’s resignation in particular could be a major loss for Abe and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. A telegenic mother of two, Obuchi had been expected to help Abe with the controversial restart of Japan’s nuclear power plants—a wide majority of the public remains opposed to atomic energy—shut down since the Fukushima disaster in 2011.

Obuchi’s portfolio includes authority over the nation’s nuclear power plants and her softer image—a young mother, after all—was expected to soothe public anxiety over plans to restart the reactors. Obuchi is the daughter of former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, who ran Japan from July 1998 to April 2000, and had even been touted as a possible successor to Abe somewhere down the road. But the close scrutiny that comes with a Cabinet appointment exposed her as a political lightweight and a product of the LDP machine, says Michael Cucek, a researcher and author of a respected political blog in Tokyo. “She represents someone who vaulted into prominence by the death of a sitting prime minister, taking over the family business without ever knowing much about how the whole machine works,” he said.

And that may not be the end of it. The remaining three female appointees have drawn heavy criticism, or worse, for alleged connections to neo-Nazi or right-wing fringe organizations, or for visiting the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine. A 2011 photo of Internal Affairs Minister Sanae Takaichi posing with the leader of the National Socialist Japanese Workers Party was discovered on the group’s website shortly after Takaichi’s appointment last month. Postings on Yamada’s blog seem to profess admiration for Adolf Hitler, and videos posted on the website show Yamada and group members wearing stylized swastikas. Takaichi said she was unaware of Yamada’s affiliation when the photo was taken and that it had been posted to the group’s website without her knowledge. She said she asked for the photo to be removed as soon as she learned of it, and that the group complied.

Similarly, a 2009 photo of National Public Safety Commission chief Eriko Yamatani posing with the members of the far- as Zaitokukai group, which has mounted virulent street demonstrations and hate speeches against ethnic Koreans and other foreigners living in Japan. Yamatani also said she was unaware that her photo had been taken with members of the group or that it had been posted online. She said it was taken down at her request after she learned of it.

On Saturday, all the three of the remaining female Cabinet appointees made formal visits to Yasukuni, where 14 convicted “Class A” war criminals—leaders of wartime Japan—are enshrined. That drew a rebuke from China, which remains deeply skeptical of Abe’s revisionist views of history. That visit will complicate Abe’s efforts to repair relations with Japan’s neighbors—and maybe its citizens, says Kingston. “I think there is a great wave of schadenfreude sweeping across East Asia as Abe’s gathering woes weaken his political standing. The Japanese public, too, are happy to see the Abe juggernaut sputtering as Abenomics fizzles and his culture war to redefine national identity backfires.”

Read next: Japan Court Orders Google to Remove Search Results

TIME On Our Radar

Issei Suda’s Theater of the Everyday

Ordinary people in Japan often inadvertently become actors in a "theater of the everyday" documented by photographer Issei Suda.

Seemingly oblivious to the presence of the camera, a middle-aged woman sits on a bench, shaded by her umbrella, she takes in the surroundings of Hachimantai Mountain in northern Japan. Nearby, steam rises from hot springs, adding a sense of drama. On the opposite side of the bench sits a young man dressed in black, his back turned to the lens. He gives a sideways glance, almost as if he knows he is being watched. The two have inadvertently become actors in a form of theater of the everyday documented by the photographer Issei Suda.

This 1972 image is typical of Suda’s approach to photography: careful observations of the quotidian, acute attention to framing and formal balance in the image, and an emphasis on subtle gestures. Suda’s black-and-white photographs in square format are deliberate in the sense that his subjects often fulfill a symbolic purpose within the frame. His images can be fleetingly looked at and enjoyed for their aesthetic value, but they can also be studied and analyzed like a sociological project on the complexities of human behavior.

Issei Suda—Courtesy Miyako Yoshinaga Gallery, New York

Born in 1940 in Tokyo, Suda’s substantial body of work, which ranges from the 1960s to the present day, provides a fascinating window into a period in Japanese history that witnessed radical social, economic and political change. Suda graduated from the Tokyo College of Photography in 1962, and he began his professional career between the years 1967 and 1970 when he worked as a stage photographer for an independent theatre troupe called Tenjo Sajiki led by the widely acclaimed artist and writer Shuji Terayama. At that time in the late 1960s Tenjo Sajiki was at the very heart of a radical underground movement thus proving Suda with access to numerous artists who have, in the meantime, become household names in the Japanese art scene.

An important shift occurred in 1971 when Suda started to work on self-guided photography projects. In the context of Japanese language, this shift can be best illustrated with the subtle but important difference between the English loanword kameraman and the Japanese term shashinka: the former being a professional photographer such as a studio or a newspaper photographer, whereas the latter signifies an individual who pursues photography as an art form. Suda’s progressive development as a photographer also corresponds to an era in which the opportunities of the medium photography were radically reevaluated by the Japanese avant-garde.

Suda’s most acclaimed project, Fushi Kaden which was first serialized in the magazine Camera Mainichi and then published as a book in 1978, is a photographic homage to Noh — a major form of classical Japanese musical drama: the title of the project references a fifteenth-century book written by a prominent director and actor in the genre. Suda’s contemporary interpretation of traditional Japanese theater is produced by a variety of images that depict performers or musicians at local festivals. Theatricality is also referenced more subtly, with several street scenes in which Suda is capturing a form of theater of the banal unfolding in front of his camera.

The pattern established by Suda’s acclaimed work can be observed in photographic projects produced in subsequent years – the majority of which are based in Tokyo. Even though he seeks to make the ordinary look extraordinary — with his work often appearing utterly surreal — Suda’s photographs promote a heightened awareness of the everyday. Clearly influenced by his formative years working as a stage photographer, for Suda the streets have become the stage, strangers have become actors, objects have become props, and the camera a tool to put order into this world.


Issei Suda: Life In Flower, 1971-1977, showing at the Miyako Yoshinaga Gallery, closes Oct. 18.

Marco Bohr is a photographer and writer based in the United Kingdom. He runs the Visual Culture Blog and can be found on Twitter @MarcoBohr.

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