Japan As Seen From Italy: Two Beautiful Aging Countries In Decline

Once the marvel of the global economy, Japan has slipped behind China by resisting change in a way Italians know all too well

Tokyo subway (David Dennis)

It may not qualify as the freshest news, but it's worth taking a second look at the formal announcement last summer that China overtook Japan in gross domestic product to become the world's second most powerful economy. The first image conjured up was that of a new giant now weighing on the world's economy, with a real impact on international affairs and our own individual lives. But few have asked what happened to Japan, how this former marvel of the global economy has fallen into its relative decline. It's particularly worth our thought in Italy, because there are aspects of this question that may look familiar to Italians.

Let's start with the politics. Avoiding the stale comparisons between the Japanese Liberal Democratic Party, which ruled for decades with thousands of alliances, and our old Christian Democrats, there is no doubt that politics in Japan today lives more in terms of opposition and personal ties than that of our programmed debate. In broad strokes, we can say the electorate is divided mainly between the center-right Liberal Democratic Party and center-left Democratic Party. After a years in opposition, the Democrats came to power in 2009 with a good majority, but already two prime ministers have come and gone, and the party is divided into various factions and weakened by scandals.

The current Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, has managed to stay in the saddle, but calls for his resignation, and the usual pleas to bring stability and fresh leadership to the country, continue. The opposition does not enjoy much better health — lacking a clear leader and wracked by internal strife. It is increasingly clear that in recent years, real power has been exercised by the bureaucracy and the business community, rather than the democratic institutions.

The Japanese, like the Italians, are living longer. Indeed they are at the top of the world's charts for longevity. This is obviously a good thing although it weighs on pension expenditure and the budget, and in general does not increase turnover and social mobility. Even though the birth rate is low, the shortfall in the number of young workers is not replaced by foreign labor due to Japan's historical resistance to immigrants.

In economic terms, public debt has reached record levels and could reach 250% of GDP in 2015, according to an estimate by the International Monetary Fund. After decades of prodigious growth in the post-war decades, the economy slowed in the 1990s. There was a revival in the early years of this decade but the crisis has weakened the country again — unlike other Asian countries — and in 2008 growth was just 1.1% and the following year just slightly higher.

There is also a growing tendency among many Japanese companies, many of which are export-oriented, to relocate production activities abroad where labor costs are lower and worker flexibility higher. The result has been a sharp rise in unemployment especially among the middle aged.

Add to this a level of domestic taxation in Japan among the highest in the world, and you will have an image of a country that struggles to maintain the comfort levels of the past, where the business classes seems to lack the courage to go down new roads, with a political class stuck on the very same old roads composed of a majority and opposition that look exactly alike.

It would be arbitrary to go further with these comparisons to Italy. These are two very different countries, measured by size, history and culture. But they are also two great nations, two democracies that have reached important goals and can be infinitely pleasant places to live. But what both seem to share most of all is a reluctance to abandon ingrained habits to deal with a rapidly changing world.

Read the original article in Italian

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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