TIME Japan

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

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

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 Asia

The Cost of Living the Luxe Life Has Fallen — if You Live in Asia

Images Of Thai Economy As GDP Figures Are Released
A man runs past the Gucci logo displayed outside the Central Embassy luxury mall in Bangkok on Aug. 15, 2014 Bloomberg/Getty Images

A dip in the luxury-property market is behind the trend

Asia is already poised to take over from North America as the region of the world with the most multimillionaires. Now Asia’s wealthy are about to see their money go further.

The Wall Street Journal reports that living exceptionally well in Asia cost less this year than it did last year — the first time since 2011 that it has gone down from year to year.

The 2014 Lifestyle Index from Swiss private bank Julius Baer says the cost of living la dolce vita in 11 Asian cities fell 5.3% from 2013 to 2014, the Journal says.

The good news for Asia’s rich owes much to a big dip in top-end property prices, which, for instance, are down about 14% in Hong Kong. The prices of high-end hotel suites, business-class flights and a glass of wine also fell in most of the markets.

What did not fall, though, was the price of getting an education in Asia: going to university in Tokyo is 44% pricier that it was last year. Even in Hong Kong and Shanghai, which saw the lightest increase in tuition, it’s still 22% and 21% more expensive to get a college degree in those cities than it was in 2013.

Meanwhile, in bad news for the truly well-heeled, the price of top-end women’s shoes, including red-soled heels from Christian Louboutin, is still as high as ever.

[WSJ]

TIME North Korea

How North Korea’s Government Wants You To See Kim Jong Un

The image of the Dear Leader is tightly controlled by North Korean government's Korean Central News Agency, which has fashioned a sunny disposition for the country's mysterious leader. Kim has dropped out of view in recent weeks as many speculate about his health.

TIME Terrorism

1,000 Asian Extremists Are Waging Jihad in the Middle East, Says the Pentagon

PHILIPPINES-US-MILITARY-ECONOMY-WEF
Admiral Samuel Locklear, U.S. Pacific Fleet Command commander, speaks during a session of the World Economic Forum on East Asia in Manila on May 23, 2014 Ted Aljibe —AFP/Getty Images

Experts say ISIS is galvanizing existing terrorism networks and lone individuals to join the sectarian slaughter ravaging the Middle East

The U.S. military believes at least 1,000 jihadist fighters have been inspired to leave their homes in Asia to fight with militant groups across the battlefields of Iraq and Syria.

“Our estimations today is there’s probably been about 1,000 potential aspiring fighters that have moved from this region, based on kind of our overall assessment,” Admiral Samuel Locklear, the U.S. Pacific Command commander, told reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday.

“That number could get larger as we go forward, but certainly that’s about the size or the magnitude that we perceive at this point in time.”

The Asia-Pacific is currently home to myriad homegrown jihadist networks, from restive enclaves in the Philippines and Indonesia to the rough tribal highlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Authorities in the region have long grappled with combating Muslim extremists, who travel abroad to participate in Islamist terrorist networks, only to return and wreak havoc on the home front later.

During the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, an estimated 800 fighters from across Southeast Asia and Australia joined the mujahedin’s ranks battling the Red Army.

The militants who survived and returned to their respective countries went on to form the core of several Islamist extremist terrorists groups that orchestrated attacks across the region, including the bombing of nightclubs in Bali in 2002 and the Australian Embassy in Jakarta two years later.

“All these attacks, the masterminds were Afghan veterans,” Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, tells TIME.

Experts fear that the new battlegrounds in the Middle East will provide the latest and larger crop of jihadists from the Asia-Pacific with the operational knowledge and connections to conduct larger attacks at home in the future.

“They will come back with motivation, ideology and skills and operational knowledge,” says Gunaratna. “They will know who should they contact in order to plan and execute an operation.”

And according to Gunaratna, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) appears to be winning the hearts and minds of aspiring jihadists across the continent, thanks to their slick propaganda films and robust social-media campaigns, as “opposed to the boring lectures delivered by al-Qaeda and Taliban ideologues.”

“It’s a new level of strategic communication that is being started by ISIS,” says Gunaratna.

However, experts admit the difficulty in tracking whom fighters align themselves with once they’ve made it to the Middle East.

“Once they cross the border it’s hard to tell who is with who,” says Rodger Shanahan, a nonresident fellow at Australia’s Lowy Institute for International Policy, by email.

But outside of just convincing fighters to move abroad, ISIS’s message appears to be motivating extremists to take action locally as well.

Earlier this week in the Philippines, terrorist group Abu Sayyaf, which pledged allegiance to ISIS this summer, threatened to kill two German hostages unless Berlin backs out of a U.S.-led coalition that began striking militant positions in Syria this week.

“The participation with support from Germany to America must stop, in the killing of our Muslims brothers in Iraq and Sham [Greater Syria] in general, and the mujahedeen of the Islamic State in particular,” read a translation provided by SITE Intelligence Group published by the Long War Journal.

TIME India

Why the World’s Most Powerful Leaders Really Love India

Xi Jinping, Narendra Modi
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping walk for a meeting in New Delhi, India, Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014. Manish Swarup—AP

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to India highlights the geopolitical contest reshaping Asia

Some of the world’s most important people are wooing India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi like teenage boys drooling over the homecoming queen. Less than a month ago, Modi was feted in Japan on his five-day official visit, during which he even received an unexpected hug from usually stiff Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. This week, Modi is hosting China’s President Xi Jinping, who upon his arrival in the country on Wednesday, proclaimed that Beijing wishes “to forge a closer development partnership and jointly realize our great dreams of building strong and prosperous nations.”

Why has Modi become so popular? The reason can be found in how Asia is changing, politically and economically. Ever since China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping launched his country’s remarkable economic miracle in the early 1980s, the old Cold War divisions in the region melted away amid increasing economic integration. According to the Asian Development Bank, trade between Asian countries accounted for 50% of their total trade in 2013, up from 30% in 1985. But with China flexing the political and military muscles it has acquired from growing wealth, Asia is becoming split into two camps once again – one centered on China, the other on the U.S. and its allies, including Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. Each side is looking to bolster its support in the region in order to gain leverage on the other. Tokyo, embroiled in a tense stand-off with Beijing over disputed islands in the East China Sea, is looking to build a network of allies to “contain” a rising China. Meanwhile, Beijing is aiming to create a power bloc of its own in the region to counteract U.S. influence.

India has become a key wild card in this new geopolitical power game. As a rising power in its own right, and a huge potential source of new business in everything from espressos to expressways, whichever side manages to lure New Delhi into its orbit will tilt the scales in its favor.

Both camps are making their best pitch. Japan’s Abe took the unusual step of traveling from Tokyo to the historic city of Kyoto to personally welcome Modi to the country. Xi ventured all the way to Modi’s home state of Gujarat on this visit, even donning an Indian-style vest. Abe sent off Modi with a promise of $33 billion of new investment. Xi is reportedly planning to top that during his India visit, dangling an even bigger package of $100 billion.

On purely economic grounds, you’d think Xi has an advantage in his quest for Modi’s favor. Trade between the two has exploded, to nearly $66 billion in 2013 from a mere $1.2 billion in 1996. Their economic links will likely continue to strengthen as Chinese companies become more and more important global investors and Chinese consumers more and more important customers. The world’s two most-populous nations would appear to have many economic interests in common as well. Their companies, accustomed to operating in an emerging economy and selling to emerging consumers, are attracted to the potential of each other’s markets. China’s Xiaomi, for instance, has successfully lured Indian customers to its cut-rate smartphones as it has in China. Wouldn’t Modi be wise to hitch his country to the world’s rising power, rather than Japan, a declining one? That would bring to life the economic power of what’s been termed “Chindia.”

But China-India relations are more complicated than that. After India’s independence in 1947, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru thought his new nation would find a friend in newly communist China. The spirit of the times was captured in the phrase Hindi Chini bhai-bhai, or “Indians and Chinese are brothers.” That hope was dashed, however. India has incensed China by allowing Tibet’s Dalai Lama, who Beijing considers a dangerous separatist, to reside in exile in India. Modi, in fact, invited Tibet’s prime minister-in-exile to his inauguration in May. Relations are also continually roiled by border disputes. In 1962, the two fought a nasty border war, and the causes of that conflict linger to this day. The two countries contest land along their border in India’s far north in Ladakh, while China claims India’s eastern province of Arunachal Pradesh. China perennially irritates India over these unresolved issues. Just last week, only days before Xi’s much-heralded visit, India charged that Chinese troops are building a road in the contested territory in Ladakh. In talks with Xi on Thursday, Modi urged the Chinese President to finally resolve their border disagreements.

Such tensions are clearly weighing on Modi’s mind. He has apparently embarked on a mission to upgrade India’s military capabilities and relationships. Abe and Modi during their recent summit agreed to strengthen military ties, and in August, New Delhi and Washington pledged to do the same during U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s visit to India. One of the first economic reforms Modi announced after becoming Prime Minister was easing restrictions on foreign investment into India’s defense sector, a move aimed at bolstering its technology and production capacities. It is an open secret who is the target of all these military moves. While in Japan, Modi took a swipe at an assertive China when he told business leaders in Tokyo that “everywhere around us, we see an 18th century expansionist mind-set: encroaching on another country, intruding in others’ waters, invading other countries and capturing territory.”

Modi, then, is attempting to have his halwa and eat it, too — playing off both sides to win as many goodies as he can. In his quest to restart India’s economic miracle by building much-needed infrastructure and boosting manufacturing, Modi will need all the money he can get — from China, the U.S., Japan and anyone else who is offering. India has always been wary of trying itself too tightly into any one political camp — during the Cold War Nehru was the leading figure behind what was known as the “nonaligned movement.” The question is how long Modi can play one side off the other. We may find out soon enough. Later this month, Modi will travel to Washington to meet with President Barack Obama. Let’s see what goodies he picks up there.

TIME Sri Lanka

How an Extremist Buddhist Network Is Sowing Hatred Across Asia

Nafeesathiek Thahira Sahabdeen
Nafeesathiek Thahira Sahabdeen, 68, at her ransacked home in Dharga Town, Sri Lanka. TIME

Saffron-clad monks have been instrumental in anti-Muslim riots in Burma and Sri Lanka, and have their eyes on sowing discord farther afield

During her long career as a teacher, Nafeesathiek Thahira Sahabdeen prided herself on treating children of all backgrounds the same. That didn’t help her on June 15, though, when a radical Buddhist mob ransacked her home in Dharga Town, a thriving trading hub in southwest Sri Lanka. The 68-year-old Muslim was left “penniless, homeless and heartbroken,” she says. “I thought I would die. I was so afraid.”

The anti-Muslim violence that ravaged Dharga Town, along with the nearby tourist enclave of Aluthgama, peppered with five-star resorts, has been attributed to a burgeoning Buddhist supremacy movement that has embarked on an organized campaign of religious hate.

Sahabdeen speaks to TIME in the ransacked living room of her gutted home. The ceiling fan lies in splinters, the sink ripped from the wall, a portrait of her long-deceased father torn in two. She was alone at prayer when around 200 young men “armed with knives, iron bars, chains” arrived at her home just after dusk. “I could hear them smashing, smashing, smashing,” she says, eyes welling up and fingers clasped together in supplication. “All around were flames.”

Touring her scorched neighborhood, the bevy of gutted buildings and roofless homes indicates Sahabdeen actually fared better than many. Three people died in the violence, all Muslims shot by police shepherding a 7,000-strong mob, claim locals, while another two people had legs amputated after receiving gunshot wounds. At least 80 more were injured.

What sparked this bloodletting between two communities with virtually no historical grievances? Throughout the ashes of Dharga Town, scrawled graffiti reading “BBS Did This” leaves little doubt where the victims lay blame.

BBS, or Bodu Bala Sena, otherwise known as Buddhist Power Force, is a Buddhist supremacist group accused of stirring sectarian hatred in Sri Lanka. Led by a monk, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, BBS accuses Sri Lanka’s Muslims of threatening the nation’s Buddhist identity, and enjoys support at high levels. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the President’s brother who also serves as Secretary of Defense, has been an outspoken supporter of BBS in the past.

“BBS echoes the sympathies and the prejudices of the majority Buddhist population,” says Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council NGO. “So the views have a certain resonance, and the media gives voice to that, and the counter view is toned down or even censored.”

The June 15 violence was sparked by an innocuous traffic dispute between a Muslim man and a Buddhist monk. Immediately afterward, Buddhist extremists descended on the monk and urged him to report the matter to the authorities. When the police declined to take action, a rally was organized. Gnanasara was there, addressing the mob. “If a Muslim or any other foreigner puts so much as a hand on a Sinhala person — let alone a monk — it will be the end of all of them!” he bellowed to raucous cheers. When the mob approached Muslim-majority Dharga Town, some people started throwing stones. This was all the provocation needed for a night of bedlam. In the aftermath of the riots, 135 people were arrested, say officials. To date, no one has been charged.

Gnanasara denies that BBS organized the march and blames the “uncontrolled behavior of some of the extreme Muslim communities in the area” for the ensuing bloodshed during a phone interview with TIME. But even before his firebrand oration, portents of trouble were clear; on the Facebook post to announce the gathering, one of the first comments asked, “Shall I bring a can of gasoline?”

So why is Sri Lanka, a nation of 20 million that for three decades was decimated by a vicious civil war between the Buddhist state and largely Hindu Tamil minority, suddenly gripped by anti-Muslim hatred? Historically, the island’s Muslim community had always been a staunch supporter of the Sinhala-Buddhist political establishment, as it similarly suffered at the hands of the LTTE rebel group, more commonly known as the Tamil Tigers, who expelled all Muslims from northern provinces.

“Prejudices are growing because there is a small but influential group of extremist Buddhists who are having a relatively free run and are able to articulate very national sentiments and highlight the insecurity of the Sinhalese,” says Perera, himself a Sinhalese Christian.

The Sri Lankan experience is far from unique. In Burma, officially known as Myanmar, just 1,000 miles (1,600 km) across the Bay of Bengal, an extremist Buddhist movement called 969 is waging a parallel war, using identical tactics as BBS. (Both groups rose to prominence around 2012. Its leader is also a monk, Wirathu. When anti-Muslim riots erupted in the central Burmese town of Meiktila in April last year, clashes that killed dozens and displaced thousands, he arrived in the middle of the carnage, although later claimed to have tried to halt the bloodshed. Then, during last month’s communal riots in Mandalay, where Wirathu’s monastery is based, he fanned the flames through an incendiary Facebook post warning of Muslims “armed to teeth with swords and spears” preparing a jihad against local Buddhists.

Both he and Gnanasara make virtually identical xenophobic claims about Muslims converting Buddhist women and luring them into unholy polygamous unions, and using their corrupt business acumen to swindle hard-working Buddhists. “[Muslims] are breeding so fast, and they are stealing our women, raping them,” Wirathu told TIME’s Hannah Beech last year. “They would like to occupy our country, but I won’t let them. We must keep Myanmar Buddhist.” (In fact, neither Burma nor Sri Lanka has seen a Muslim population explosion).

BBS speeches are very similar. Halal certification is apparently funding al-Qaeda and Hamas; Islamic blood sacrifices are summoning forth “ghosts and demons”; Muslim perverts are using burqas as disguises to carry out licentious deeds; and, most bizarrely, the Quran requires Muslims to spit three times into any food or beverage served to a person of another faith.

“I think they are learning from each other,” says Hilmy Ahmed, vice president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka. “It started in Myanmar, but Gnanasara has perfected it.”

Certainly, the similarities between these nations are striking. Both Sri Lanka and Burma have large, state-backed Theravada Buddhist majorities making up about 70% to 80% of the population. Both nations have Muslim communities, of about 10% of the population, that historically backed the establishment. Both are going through the aftermath of decades-long civil conflicts against other ethnic minorities — the Hindu Tamils in Sri Lanka; a smattering of mainly Christian rebel groups in Burma. Now both boast extremist Buddhist movements led by rabble-rousing saffron-clad clerics.

Gnanasara is quick to laud his Burmese counterpart and admits the pair met over the summer to “establish an international network of activists stationed in Buddhist countries.”

“We are all in the same boat in terms of attacks on Buddhist communities,” he says. “What is happening in Burma and Thailand, especially the southern part of Thailand, [resembles] what happened recently in Bangladesh.”

BBS and 969 are embarking on a partnership with similar organizations and activists across the region to face off “international threats,” reveals Gnanasara. “It would be better to have some sort of cohesion between us so we can respond collectively.”

Gnanasara maintains he did not “discuss any tactics” during his meeting with Wirathu, yet a shared modus operandi is obvious. The Burmese incidents, just like the Aluthgama clashes and hundreds of others, were sparked by a personal grievance between a Muslim and Buddhist — an argument between shopkeeper and customer over gold rings in Meiktila; an allegation of rape in Mandalay that the accuser eventually admitted was a total fabrication — that quickly spiraled out of control. After the initial complaint, an extremist clique descends on the town to aid the “wronged” Buddhist party. Before long there are lootings, beatings and torched houses.

Now that existentialist threats to Sri Lanka and Burma have disappeared with the end of their respective civil conflicts, the specter of Muslim extremism is convenient means of justifying political control.

“It’s in this government’s narrow political interests of winning elections to foster the divide, to foster Sinhala nationalism,” says Perera. Hilmy agrees: “We feel that it’s likely to be government-orchestrated as the government has lost the confidence of the minorities. The Tamils and Christians are completely alienated.”

Sahabdeen, for one, needs no convincing. When hundreds of young men ripped her home apart, the security services stood idly by, just a block away. Eventually, two rioters escorted her toward these officers before returning, unhindered, to resume their plunder. “They took me out the gate as if I was being walked to the gallows,” she says. “The police just stood there.”

Ironically, while the reality of creeping Islamization is almost certainly bogus, the perceived threat may be instrumental in fomenting its creation. “Muslims don’t have any option but to live here and die here, and so I’m very worried if Muslims are pushed beyond a certain point forces from outside could exploit that,” says Hilmy.

If that happens, Sri Lanka and Burma could head straight back toward a fresh round of civil conflict.

TIME Asia

Have You Ever Wondered Why East Asians Spontaneously Make V-Signs in Photos?

Studio shot of male hand showing peace sign
SuperStock/SuperStock RM/Getty Images

It's all to do with an American figure skater, sports manga and a commercial for Konica cameras

Spend a few minutes browsing social media, or watch groups of travelers posing in front of a popular tourist attraction, and you’re bound to come across it: attractive young Asians flashing smiles and making the V-for-Victory sign (or peace sign). The raised index and middle fingers, with palm facing outward, are as much a part of Asian portraiture as saying cheese is to English speakers. But why?

To non-Asians, the gesture seems so intrinsically woven into the popular culture of Beijing, Osaka or Taipei as to make it seem that it was forever thus — but, in fact, its earliest origins date back no further than the late 1960s, and the gesture didn’t really find widespread acceptance until the late 1980s.

Some say it began with Janet Lynn. The American figure skater was favored to take home gold in the 1972 Olympics in Japan. But the 18-year-old’s dream came crashing down when she fell during her performance. The gold medal was gone. She knew it, and Japan knew it.

But instead of grimacing, the shaggy-haired blonde simply smiled. Lynn’s behavior ran charmingly counter to the Japanese norm of saving face, and in doing so earned her legions of Japanese fans.

“They could not understand how I could smile knowing that I could not win anything,” said Lynn, who eventually went home with a bronze, in a telephone interview. “I couldn’t go anywhere the next day without mobs of people. It was like I was a rock star, people giving me things, trying to shake my hands.”

Lynn became a media sensation in Japan and the recipient of thousands of fan letters. During media tours around Japan in the years following the Olympics, she habitually flashed the V-sign. A cultural phenomenon was born.

Or rather, it was consolidated — because the V-sign was already entering mainstream consciousness through manga. In the 1968 baseball comic Kyojin no Hoshi (Star of the Giants), a protagonist struggling with father issues, and the pressure of competition, gets his dad’s tacit approval when the elder throws him a “V” before a big game. The volleyball manga Sain wa V! (V Is the Sign) was created shortly after and was adapted into a television series with an infectious earworm of a theme that features the chant “V-I-C-T-O-R-Y!”

It was probably advertising that gave the gesture its biggest boost, however. Though Lynn had some influence on the widespread use of the V-sign in photos, Japanese media attribute the biggest role to Jun Inoue, singer with the popular band the Spiders. Inoue happened to be a celebrity spokesperson for Konica cameras, and supposedly flashed a spontaneous V-sign during the filming of a Konica commercial.

“In Japan, I have seen the Inoue Jun theory advanced most often as an explanation for the origin of this practice,” Jason Karlin, an associate professor at the University of Tokyo and an expert on Japanese media culture, tells TIME. “I think the practice is a testament to the power of the media, especially television, in postwar Japan for propagating new tastes and practices.”

With the mass production of cameras, and a sudden surge in women’s and girls’ magazines in the 1980s, the aesthetics of kawaii — a visual culture superficially based on cuteness — took off. Suddenly, more women were posing for more shots, and more shots of women were being shared. V-signs proliferated much like today’s “duck face” pouts on Instagram and Facebook.

“The V-sign was (and still is) often recommended as a technique to make girls’ faces appear smaller and cuter,” says Karlin.

Laura Miller, a professor of Japanese studies and anthropology at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, stresses the role played by women in popularizing the gesture in photos. She recalls hearing girls say piisu, or peace, while making the sign in the early 1970s. “Like so much else in Japanese culture, the creative agents in Japan are often young women, but they are rarely recognized for their cultural innovations,” she wrote in an email to TIME.

When Japanese pop culture began to spread around East Asia in the 1980s (prior to the emergence of K-pop in this century), the fashionable V-sign found itself exported to mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea (where it already enjoyed some recognition because of the decades-long presence of the U.S. military).

These days, the habit is everywhere that Asians are. However, most young Asians who make the gesture in photos do so without thinking and are baffled when asked why they do it. Some say they’re aping celebrities, while others say it’s a mannerism that alleviates awkwardness when posing. “I need something to do with my hands,” says Suhiyuh Seo, a young student from Busan, South Korea. Little children do it without even being taught.

“I don’t know why,” says 4-year-old Imma Liu of Hong Kong — but she says she feels “happy” when she does it. Perhaps that’s all that matters.

TIME Asia

China’s Economy Continues to Defy Gravity. That May Not Be a Good Thing

A container truck drives past the container area at the Yangshan Deep Water Port,  part of the newly announced Shanghai Free Trade Zone, south of Shanghai
A container truck drives past the container area at the Yangshan Deep Water Port, part of the Shanghai Free-Trade Zone, on Sept. 26, 2013 Carlos Barria—Reuters

China announced better-than-expected growth over the second quarter. Despite optimistic official figures, there's plenty to worry about in the world's second largest economy

China announced its GDP figures for the second quarter on Wednesday and — surprise, surprise — they were better than expected. Growth clocked in at 7.5% — which just so happens to be the government’s official target. The statistics will likely give a boost to sentiment globally. Investors have been worried that a slowing China would hit the entire world economy. More buoyant Chinese growth will probably calm those jitters.

Yet China is also something of a puzzle. Somehow the economy continues to power through all sorts of issues that should be slowing it down. The all-important property sector, which accounts for some 16% of its GDP, is undergoing a major downturn. For most of the year, the government has tried to control dangerous levels of debt in the economy and clamp down on “shadow banking,” which encompasses alternative financial networks and lending practices. Tighter credit should translate into slower growth. Beijing is also supposedly on a mission to streamline bloated industries like steel by eliminating excess capacity, which, though healthy for the future prospects of the economy, should also act as a drag on short-term growth. So should President Xi Jinping’s ongoing anticorruption campaign, which in theory should be disrupting policymaking and creating uncertainty.

So how is China defying gravity once again? There is always the perennial suspicion that the numbers are inflated. Capital Economics looks at statistics that aren’t as easily manipulated as GDP, such as freight shipments and electricity output, to gauge the economy’s performance, and figures GDP has probably been expanding more like 6% in recent quarters. But economists are crediting the latest growth rate to government stimulus, carefully targeted at infrastructure and public housing, both investments the economy still needs.

This is a smart move. The Chinese government has ample ability to keep growth humming while it attempts to implement more substantial reforms. However, the reliance on stimulus also raises doubts about what might be ahead. Some economists see growth “bottoming out” and a revival continuing through the rest of the year. Others believe continued headwinds, especially the struggles of the property sector, are too strong for the government to counter — without even greater largesse. That might be on its way. New loans made in June were the highest in five years, according to research from Barclays, which suggests that the government is loosening up credit once again.

That begs the most important question facing China’s economy right now: Will Beijing sacrifice reform for growth? So far, China’s leaders have controlled their usual urge to pump up growth rates, an indication they realize the dangers lurking in the economy. Since the 2008 financial crisis, debt in China has risen to dizzying heights. A recent report from Standard & Poor’s calculated that China’s corporate sector has more debt outstanding than any other in the world. Combined with tremendous excess capacity, a risky increase in shadow banking and signs of a property bubble, the Chinese economy is rampant with problems that threaten its future. Some economists believe Beijing needs to address these ills and resist efforts to use credit and other stimulus to rev up growth — or else face a possible financial crisis.

Yet the reforms necessary to fix these problems are coming very slowly. Beijing has pledged to undertake a bold slate of measures — to liberalize interest rates and other prices, improve the performance of bloated state-owned enterprises, open protected markets to competition, strengthen the financial sector and allow private enterprise greater sway in the economy. All of these steps, if implemented, would make the Chinese economy healthier and more advanced. But so far, only the most minor of experiments have started, such as the approval of a handful of small private banks and the opening of a free-trade zone in Shanghai to tinker with more open capital flows. Even more, once the greater reforms fall into place (if they ever do), it could take years before they have an impact on the economy.

There are two ways of looking at what’s going on. One is that China’s policymakers are wisely going slow on potentially painful reforms while the economy works out some of its messiest problems in an environment of relatively stable growth. The other, less optimistic, view is that the problems rotting away at the Chinese economy are so complex and entrenched that policymakers are prioritizing continuing growth over tough reforms. In that scenario, China’s broken-down growth model will be kept alive with debt and government spending, while the fundamental change necessary to take China to the next level stalls.

I continue to be afraid of the latter. And with China the world’s second largest economy, we all should be too.

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