The decline of democracy

Worldwide, democracy and global freedom have been declining since 2006. The COVID-19 pandemic made things worse, with many leaders choosing to use authoritarian measures to contain the virus. It was difficult for the opposition to protest the measures because they weren't allowed to gather in groups.

But the trend towards dictatorship began long before the pandemic. The decline is not just happening in nations with authoritarian governments, but even long-standing democracies have suffered. In 2020, nearly 75% of the world’s population lived in a country where democracy deteriorated. The United States, which has long stood as an icon of democratic values, is becoming so divided that the government can barely function. The 2020 election results were challenged, ending up in an attack on the Capitol building itself.

Look at this graph from Freedom House showing the democracy gap since 2005. Interpret and discuss it with your teacher.

The idea of Universal Basic Income

According to Vox Media, the idea of a basic income was, for decades, something of a policy fantasy. However, the last few years have seen it become less fringe and more mainstream. In fact, we now have many limited basic income programs running around the world.

The general idea—that the government should give every citizen a regular infusion of money with no strings attached—has been around since the 16th century. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has given the idea fresh momentum, with the crisis generating significant financial loss and uncertainty.

Critics worry that UBI will disincentivize work and hurt the economy. They also say that it is unaffordable for the government to pay every citizen enough to live on, regardless of whether they work. So far, the evidence has not supported these critiques.

Kowloon Walled City

For nearly a century, Kowloon Walled City stood out as a rare modern example of an ungoverned territory. When Great Britain took Hong Kong from the Chinese, they left a Chinese enclave in Kowloon, near Hong Kong island. As the 20th century unfolded, consecutive Chinese governments neglected the governance of the enclave, the British refused to get involved, and it took on a life of its own.

By the 1980s, nearly 50,000 people lived in 300 illegally built structures connected together by an interconnecting maze of passageways and staircases. Drugs and prostitution were common in the walled city, and people from nearby neighborhoods would come to visit cheap unlicensed doctors and dentists. Residents cooked and baked goods that they sold to vendors outside the enclave.

No foie gras in California

California has been trying to ban the delicacy foie gras for quite some time. The French dish is well-known in fine dining, but it is made from the liver of a duck or goose that has been force-fed to increase the fat content. Many have said the process constitutes animal cruelty.

The ban was passed into law back in 2004, but it was phased in gradually. It finally went into full effect in 2012, at which time foie gras producers promptly sued the state government. Fast forward to 2015, and a federal judge overturned the ban, stating that it was unconstitutional and went against federal poultry law.

Two years after that, the higher Ninth Circuit court ruled 3-0 that the federal judge had made an error, and allowed California to keep the ban. Again, foie gras producers appealed, this time to the U.S. Supreme Court. But the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, making the previous Ninth Circuit ruling final. 

The issue of universal basic income

The idea of universal basic income (UBI) has been gaining steam around the world. A Japanese billionaire and an American presidential candidate, among others, have both thrown their weight behind it.

The concept is simple: the government provides unconditional money to their citizens. The theory is that in order to provide basic services for all citizens and to stimulate the economy, a small amount of money can be given to each person, equally. 

In the United States, presidential candidate Andrew Yang has even given away $12,000 to a random Twitter follower. In his plan, each adult would receive that amount of money every year. Yang argues people will continue working, even with UBI. $12,000 a year is barely enough to live on in many places and certainly not enough to afford much in the way of experiences or advancement. To get ahead meaningfully, people will still need to get out there and work.

Preventing gun crime in Japan

In 2014, there were just six gun deaths in Japan (≈0.00000004% of the population), compared to 33,599 (≈1.0% of the population) in the US.

Buying a gun in Japan takes patience and perseverance. First, you need to attend an all-day class, then sit a written exam and pass a shooting-range test with a mark of at least 95%. There are also mental health and drugs tests to pass.

Afterwards, your criminal record is checked and police look for links to extremist groups. They even check your relatives and co-workers. Police have the power to deny gun licences and sweeping powers to search and seize weapons. In addition, handguns are banned outright. Only shotguns and air rifles are allowed.

Young people demand a better future

On Friday, September 22, millions of young people around the globe walked out of school to protest the lack of action to reverse climate change. Led by 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, teenagers, children, and some adults added their voices to an ever-growing movement to hold governments and corporations accountable for their environmental destruction and demand that they make immediate changes to reverse the damage. A week later, more strikes drew similar crowds, some even larger. In New Zealand, an unprecedented 3.5% of the population took to the streets.

The lack of foster care in Japan

In the United Kingdom, the United States and other developed countries, abused or neglected children are often sent to live with a foster family. But that rarely happens in Japan, one of the world's wealthiest and most progressive societies. 

Close to 90 percent of Japan's troubled children are placed in state institutions. Foster care has not emerged as a viable alternative for abused children in Japan because governments have failed to properly train carers, monitor the placements, or adequately educate the public about its benefits. In addition, Japan strongly values blood ties, so welcoming a stranger’s child into a family seems unnatural to many people. Japan is also a country where speaking out about child abuse causes great shame.

Japan minister in hot water again

The minister in charge of cybersecurity said he doesn't use computers.

Yoshitaka Sakurada, who just last week was criticized for stumbling over basic questions during Diet deliberations, found himself once again in hot water Wednesday after making it known that he doesn't use computers even though he is a deputy head of the government panel on cybersecurity and is tasked with overseeing policies on such matters.

During a Lower House Cabinet Committee meeting, Sakurada, who is also the minister in charge of the Olympics, said: “I don't use computers because since I was 25 I have been in a position of authority where secretaries and employees handle such tasks for me.”

Sakurada was answering questions posed by Masato Imai, an independent Lower House lawmaker. “It's shocking to me that someone who hasn't even touched computers is responsible for dealing with cybersecurity policies,” Imai said.

First woman fighter pilot in Japan

On Friday, August 24, Misa Matsushima realised her lifelong dream and struck a blow for Japan’s women when she started duty as the country’s first female fighter pilot. Matsushima, who holds the rank of first lieutenant in the air self-defence force, completed her training in August 2018, just three years after Japan lifted its ban on women becoming fighter pilots.

“I have admired fighter jet pilots ever since I saw Top Gun when I was in primary school,” she told reporters on the eve of starting her new role. “I want to continue to work hard to carry out my duties, not just for myself but also for women who want to follow this path in the future.” Three other women are currently training to join Japan’s elite group of fighter pilots.

Princess Ayako marries a commoner

Princess Ayako, the third daughter of Princess Hisako and the late Prince Takamado, Emperor Akihito’s cousin, married a 32-year-old worker at shipping firm NYK Line in October 2018. The husband of the 27-year-old princess is Kei Moriya, a commoner and graduate of Keio University in Tokyo. Their wedding ceremony was planned for Oct. 29 at Meiji Jingu Shrine in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo.

Under the Imperial House Law, a princess will lose her Imperial status if she marries a commoner. Princess Mako, 26, the eldest granddaughter of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, is set to become engaged with Kei Komuro, 26, also a commoner, who courted her while she attended university. Their formal wedding will take place in 2020.

Too many tourists in Japan

In 2016 the Japanese government set ambitious targets for foreign visitors as a way to generate economic growth as the population ages and shrinks. The government is on track to reach its goal of 40 million visitors by 2020, when Tokyo will host the Olympics.

But the rapid growth has brought problems, most obviously a shortage of labour. Relatively few Japanese are able to converse smoothly in English or other foreign languages. Most companies rely on point-sheets, translation apps or telephone services to communicate with guests.

There are cultural barriers, too. Shizue Usui, the head of Nikko’s association of okami—female hosts at inns—says they tend to think “tradition should be maintained.” That often boils down to rigid rules about check-in, meal times and other services.

Shinzo Abe wins party vote

Shinzo Abe is on course to become Japan's longest-serving prime minister—and achieve his goal of revising the country's pacifist constitution—after he was comfortably re-elected president of the ruling Liberal Democratic party [LDP] on Thursday, September 20.

Abe's victory—taking 553 votes out of a total of 807—means he is assured of continuing as prime minister and is expected to use his mandate to push ahead with controversial plans to strengthen the legal status of Japan's military, known as the self-defence forces.

Speaking on the eve of the vote among LDP MPs and party members, Abe said he was determined to "Build a new country together", adding: "I promise to take the lead in handing over a proud and hopeful Japan to younger generations."

Walk the talk on climate change

New Zealand hasn't been walking the talk on climate risk, finds a sweeping new analysis of hundreds of annual reports and statements.

Climate change threatens hundreds of billions of dollars of property and infrastructure, and will require an economy-wide shift toward lower emissions. However, of more than 380 large organisations analysed, just 40 recognised the risks as of serious concern—suggesting that boards either opted not to publicly disclose the implications, or didn't discuss them at all. "Both are horrific—but the latter is particularly more horrific," said Wendy McGuinness, chief executive of Wellington-based think-tank the McGuinness Institute.

Working mothers in Japan

The Japanese government wants women to work more and have more children, but it lacks concrete plans of how to do so. To begin with, there is a drastic need to increase government-funded care for children of all ages. In Japanese elementary schools, a lot of the activities and meetings fall in the middle of a weekday, and while public afterschool care does exist, in many places it is only for children up through third grade.

To truly support families and encourage people to have kids in the first place, both women and men should be encouraged to leave work earlier and take paid leave. As long as this issue is not properly addressed, then nothing is really going to change.

New minpaku law regulates rentals

A new law will go into effect in June 2018 to regulate minpaku, private residences rented out by their owners as short-term lodgings. The new law will address changes that have occurred in recent years due to the rise of Airbnb, the worldwide online service that allows travelers to book rooms in private homes directly from the owners of those residences.

After June 15, minpaku rentals will be permitted throughout Japan. Under the new law, if owners don’t live in the building where they rent rooms, they will be required to hire a management company to take care of the property. 

Japan promotes 5-day workweek

The government plans to promote a five-day workweek for construction workers involved in public works projects as part of its work-style reform initiative. Construction workers tend to work more than five days a week because many are under pressure to complete projects faster. Less than 10 percent of construction projects in the country see workers take eight days off over a four-week period.

The ministry will pay up to 5 percent more in labor costs for state-managed public works projects in which workers take two days off per week, to prevent a dip in construction incomes due to the shortened workweek.

The construction industry faces an urgent need to improve its working environment to attract younger workers because many older workers are set to retire in the near future. Of all skilled construction workers in the country, those between the ages of 15 and 29 account for only 11 percent, compared with 25 percent for those 65 or older.

U.S. lacks paid maternity leave

In most American families led by couples, both parents are in the workforce. At the same time, nearly 1 in 4 U.S. children are being raised by single moms. Yet child care is generally unaffordable and paid leave is not available to most U.S. parents.

The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act in the U.S. did mandate 12 weeks of unpaid job protected leave for some American workers. Yet most families can’t forgo the income that moms bring home.

In Denmark, moms get almost 18 weeks of paid maternity leave and dads get two weeks of paid paternity leave. On top of that, couples get up to a total 32 weeks of parental leave, which parents can split.

Migratory birds in danger

The Trump administration has announced a position on protecting migratory birds that is a drastic pullback from policies in force for the past 100 years.

In 1916, the U.S.A. and Great Britain signed the Migratory Bird Treaty, which became U.S. law in 1918. The measures protected more than 1,100 migratory bird species by making it illegal to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill or sell live or dead birds, feathers, eggs, and nests, except as allowed by permit or regulated hunting.

Now the Interior Department has issued a legal opinion that excludes “incidental take” – activities that are not intended to harm birds but do so in ways that could have been foreseen, such as filling in wetlands where migrating birds rest and feed. Why? For fear of “unlimited potential for criminal prosecution,” such as charging cat owners whose pets attack migratory birds, or drivers who accidentally strike birds with their cars, with crimes.

Abe to repeal balanced news law

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to repeal a Japanese law requiring broadcasters to show impartiality, a step critics fear will lead to sensational reporting and polarize views, just as a similar move has been blamed for doing in the United States.

Abe’s government has drafted changes to Japan’s broadcast law and plans to include them in reform proposals as early as May, laying the groundwork for future legislation, three government sources told Reuters.

The sources, who asked for anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, said the draft includes repealing the law’s article 4, which requires license holders to show contrasting political views and is considered Japan’s version of the U.S. Fairness Doctrine.