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Monday, Dec. 29, 2003

JAPANESE PERSPECTIVES

Enough monkey biz for year of the sheep


The new year approaches, and according to the Chinese zodiac sign calendar it will be the year of the monkey. Just what kind of monkey business awaits the animal in its namesake year is anybody's guess. The hunch is there will be no lack of such activity.

Indeed, the all but ended 2003, which was the year of the sheep, was not lacking in distinctly dubious, unsheeplike developments.

On the global stage, there was the strange incident of the unfound weapons of mass destruction. Like Sherlock Holmes' dog that did not bark in the night, these WMD remain conspicuous for their absence.

Nor has there been any lack of simian gibberish in Japanese politics and policy throughout the year.

After much pomp, ceremony and acrimony, plans that are supposedly to lead to the privatization of the hitherto semigovernmental expressway-operating companies have been agreed on. Two members of prime minister Junichiro Koizumi's high-profile advisory panel on the scheme handed in their resignations in fury at the outcome.

As well they might, since the approved plan is effectively an arrangement for ensuring that work on the as-yet-unfinished expressways up and down the country will all be completed. If people meant what they said -- and said what they meant -- the whole idea of the privatization initiative was to stop building unprofitable expressways at the public's expense. The scheme was to be a key element in the whole architecture of Koizumi's reforms and deregulation. Yet somewhere down the line, the priorities became totally reversed, and now the program, to all intents and purposes, is one that concentrates all its energies and provisions on the completion of all existing expressway plans.

All 9,342 km of them.

This was certainly not all the monkey business the year of the sheep became entangled in. The Industrial Revitalization Corporation of Japan, which certainly matched the expressway privatization panel in the hype with which it was launched, is now in a state of panic because it has so little business on its hands.

The claim was that the IRCJ would relieve banks of loans to ailing but potentially viable companies, and give those companies a new lease of life with its formidable expertise as resuscitator. The IRCJ would thus resolve in one go the two problems of nonperforming loans and corporate decline. Yet the IRCJ has thus far been able to close deals on no more than nine such cases with lenders.

The situation is a far cry from the high hopes the government attempted to raise in the IRCJ as a redeemer of corporate Japan, fearlessly uncovering inefficiency and sternly but surely nursing lapsed companies back to life.

As the reports have it, the IRCJ has been reduced to going hand in cap to the banks, in the hope that some resurrection business might be thrown its way. But the high-handed manner in which the IRCJ tried to force its revitalization ideas on both banks and companies certainly won it no admirers.

While all of this was going on in economic policy, plans got under way to send the Self-Defense Forces to regions of Iraq where the situation is deemed so safe and stable that no defense is apparently required.

A monkey would find the logical progression somewhat strange.

I have it on good astrological authority that the year of the monkey will be a year of pruning. It will be a year in which some of the many conflicting forces that were allowed to run rampant in the previous year will be allowed to gain even more force, while others are ruthlessly cut away to make room for new developments.

The hope is that the monkey of 2004 is a good gardener.

Noriko Hama is an economist and a professor at Doshisha University School of Management.


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