Sunday, February 24, 2013

Growing positive over the Japan story, and how Prime Minister Abe is so far getting things right



Today, in Tokyo living a Travelife, I made lunch for the neighbors.

We sat at the dining table for about five hours, eating everything from assorted appetizers and salads to three kinds of pasta. While we ate, we talked about another neighbor of ours: the current Prime Minister of Japan.

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A NEIGHBORHOOD OF PRIME MINISTERS

This is the only neighborhood I've known since I left school to live in Tokyo.

I really like it because I've got a world-class performance venue for ballet, opera and philarmonic orchestra concerts a few minutes' walk away, and a great exhibition space for major art exhibits from abroad.

In recent months alone, they've had retrospectives of works by Vermeer, Renoir and Matisse.

Meanwhile, in terms of residents, it's quite eclectic. To get an understanding of Tokyo neighborhoods, it's important to not think in terms of gated subdivisions like in Manila.

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STRICT ZONING AND AN ECLECTIC CROWD

Although neighborhoods merge into one another here, Tokyo has very distinct zoning and construction laws for the ratio of building homes vs. land. So everyone can tell where one area end and another begins.

In central Tokyo, my neighborhood is among the strictest. No commercial establishments at all within our area, and it's a 50-100 % ration for construction.

It's right smack in the center of things in the western section of Tokyo. So on a nice summer day, I'll often just walk back from dinner in Omotesando, that leafy boulevard that's supposed to be the most beautiful avenue in Japan.

But once you enter the neighborhood, it's so quiet -- in spite of being in the center of the city -- that you can actually hear someone dragging a bag through the streets. That hardly ever happens though.

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AN ECLECTIC CROWD

As a result it attracts all kinds of interesting people.

Aside from policitians and financiers, ambassadors, company owners,  entrepreneurs, and old families in hundred-year-old villas call this home. Dewi Sukarno lives in a house just in front of me as well.

Meanwhile, one time, not too long ago, I'd seen someone walking his pet monkey on a leash. That's the second pet monkey I've seen here by the way.

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THE SECURITY'S GREAT

Actually, our neighborhood hosts several former prime ministers, including two of the most recent ones; and the current prime minister as well.

In case you're wondering, there's not much benefit to having so many prime ministers as neighbors, except for the fact that it's a pretty safe area with a lot of policemen around.

In fact there's a full-scale 24-hour police detail on both sides of my house, and the ones stationed outside my garage are often nice enough to signal me regarding oncoming vehicles, when I drive out of the garage.

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PRIME MINISTER, SO FAR SO GOOD

Today, the reason we were talking about the current Japanese Prime Minister, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is because we're all happy with the changes and directions the government in Japan has been taking.

Everyone has been taking notice and it's put a new mood into the usual gloom-and-doom atmosphere here.

Japan has had almost 20 years of a continuing recession, after all, so you can't blame the population for being pessimistic about the future. But that seems to be all changing suddenly, albeit still cautiously.



CAN THIS BE TRUE?

I'm one of the most cynical people on the Japan story, by the way. I've seen it at its highest glory, and then I witnessed how it literally slid into an unsolvable funk, taking the majority of its population with it.

I've said it out loud at so many dinner parties with Japan hands, where the major topic of conversation has been the general despair in Japan, so I might as well write it here.

But for a long time, I found it completely inexcusable, that the government of the second richest country in the world, composed of such highly educated people, without any major wars to fight or outside problems to solve, and whose only mandate was to find a way to revive its economy, could not seem to do so for decades.

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20 YEARS AND STILL WAITING

20 long years of a depression, with about four or five short-lived bull market runs in between.

Arriving in Japan just a few days ago, I was shocked to actually find this sentiment of gloom changing. This is the first time I've seen about 50% of serious Japan watchers optimistic about the future.

It's not yet the majority, but it's certainly better than 24 months or 18 months ago, when I couldn't even find a handful of happy people here. In relative terms, 50% thinking that Japan may be all right after all, is a big leap of faith.

HAPPILY EVER AFTER?

Will this translate into a happily ever after story, or something that's just the equivalent of a nice two-week holiday? As always, that's the 20 million yen question. And if we could answer that as early as now, so many people in this world will be much wealthier by next week.

But, to give you some idea, let me recount to you some very interesting conversations with some of the sharpest and most intelligent people in Tokyo, over the weekend, while living a never-endingly eventful Travelife.

Stay tuned.




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