Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Japanese Pension Mess

Japanese Pension Mess

Here in Japan, the ongoing scandal about the many mission pension payment records has become political scandal number one, and dominates the daily news.

This has a direct impact on my own household because my wife is a civil servant who works for one of the twenty-four self-governing wards which make up the metropolitan heartland of Tokyo Prefecture. Her department deals with pension-related matters, so its workload has jumped as anxious citizens seek information.

Consequently, I've been curious about the mess, since my Japanese is too weak to follow what I see on TV. My wife is totally busy, and not the person to ask to explain, so on Tuesday 12 June I set two of my high-level Japanese students of English the challenge. I met them in separate one-one-one lessons.

One of these students translates English-language romance novels into Japanese, and another is just back from England, the purpose of her visit being to receive a degree from the University of Oxford, so they had what they needed to gen me up.

The accounts they gave me, however, differed.

One said there were five million missing tax records whereas the other said the number was five thousand. When I got home and went online to check, I found an English-language page put up by the Japan Times which stated that the number of people whose data had gone astray was fifty million.

That figure seems preposterous, given that the entire population of Japan is only something like a hundred and twenty million people, but that was what I found online.

The Japan Times page is the following:

http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/nn20070609f2.html

The "fifty million" figure is embedded in the following text:

""The Democratic Party of Japan's discovery that the Social Insurance Agency failed to keep track of 50 million pension accounts has deepened public concern over the already crumbling pension system. The problem widened this week after health minister Hakuo Yanagisawa announced Wednesday that the ministry has stumbled across an additional 14.3 million accounts on microfilm that were not put into the computers.""

For me, that text is ambiguous, and I can't figure out whether it's trying to say that the number of pension records totals fifty million or whether it is trying to say that the number of files which have problems associated with them runs to fifty million.

All I can say is that there is a high probability that the correct number for the missing files features a five, maybe five as in five thousand, maybe five as in five million, or maybe five in fifty thousand or five in fifty million.

Take your pick.

As to the mechanics of this disaster, my students differed, though both stated that it happened when paper records were computerized, possibly round about 1990 or thereabouts.

Student X told me that the reason for the foul-up is because back in the bad old days every time you changed jobs you got a new number for keeping track of your insurance premiums. These days, everyone has one and only one unique number, but some records got lost when an attempt was made to transfer money in different accounts into one single account.

Student Y told me that the problem arose because, in the old system, names were recorded using Chinese characters, known in Japanese as kanji. When the records were computerized, the kanji were transliterated into the hiragana syllabic alphabet, and there is more than one way to transliterate most kanji combinations.

To give an example of this, in the northern island of Hokkaido there is a mountainous area which shows up on some maps transliterated as "Taisetsuzan." However, up in Hokkaido, the locals actually say "Daisetsuzan."

I found this out not by looking it up in a book but by going to Hokkaido and hiking my way into the Daisetsuzan area past signs saying WARNING: REALLY BIG BEARS HAND OUT HERE! I survived the experience and returned alive to tell the tale because when the late season wind turned into horizontal snow and the thready little path started to disappear under that snow, I did the sensible thing and turned back.

One of my students told me that all the original paperwork still survives. The government, apparently, has asked everyone to come forward with their own archives to help clarify the situation, but most people don't have all the paper concerning the last ten, twenty or thirty years of their lives.

So, according to one student, the government says that all the original paperwork, which still exists, will be reprocessed, and the government alleges that this task is doable, although the time period for its estimated completion is going to be something in the order of ten years.

If the job ever gets done.

Prime Minister Abe has, apparently, committed himself to resolving the mess, but politicians come and go, and ten years is an eternity in the political world.

The deal with the pension system is that the amount you receive is conditioned by how much the records show you paid in, so if some of your payments have vanished from the records then you take a financial hit.

That's it for the pension system, as far as I know the story.

Moving on to the student just back from Oxford, she finished her coursework quite some time ago, but only recently found the time to attend one of the ten graduation ceremonies that Oxford holds each year.

It took place in the Sheldonian Theater, which I walked past on occasion when I used to stay with my uncle in Oxford, and there were forty students present. She was impressed when the guy who read out her name got the Japanese intonation exactly right, and apparently it's the tradition in Oxford that whoever is going to read out a foreigner's name gets hold of a native speaker of the relevant language and nails the pronunciation down.

She got a bit confused when the language of the ceremony changed abruptly from English to Latin, and, later, when it changed back again from Latin to English, she missed the transition back into English, and thought they were still speaking Latin.

My last lesson of the day was with three high-level students, and we discussed humor and comedy, and I found I could remember enough of the Monty Python dead parrot skit to use it as lesson material. Two questions: what happens in the skit and would this be funny in Japan?

My students followed the material just fine. If you don't know it, the skit deals with a customer who walks into a pet shop with a complaint about a parrot that he has bought. There is a problem with the parrot. It is dead. Totally dead. Has been for some time. The pet owner adamantly refuses to acknowledge that the parrot is dead, though is ultimately forced to concede the point.

My students seemed to be amused by what I could deliver of the skit, hitting some of the highlights reasonably effectively, but they were unanimous in believing that this would not go down well with Japanese audiences, because, in Japan, death is not a laughing matter.

Vocabulary items that arose from the skit included "pushing up the daisies," which took some explaining, including me drawing a little diagram featuring coffin, corpse, grass and daisies.

The question then arose: are daisies flowers that only grow in cemeteries? And I explained that, no, they are like dandelions, which grow all over the place in Japan. In Britain and New Zealand, daisies, like dandelions, grow everywhere you have grass.

They have dandelions in Japan, though I think not quite the same species that we have in New Zealand, but I've never seen a daisy here.

I'm in the process of finishing off my new book of poems, GENGHIS LOTUS POETRY COLLECTION, and, while spellchecking it, I found that "dandelion" was one of the words I'd gotten wrong. I seem to remember often having a spellchecker throw up an error message at that particular word. I don't think of my work as being dandelion-centric, but evidently it is, at some secret level which I, in my conscious life, cannot access.

Here in Japan, summer is coming, the weather is getting hot, and right now I have the fan which sits on the table in my personal room running. A couple of rainy days are on the horizon, and it is entirely possible that soon the rainy season will be upon us.

But that is not inevitable. Sometimes the rainy season never arrives, and for this condition there is a Japanese term which translates as something like "dry rainy season." One year the rainy season arrived so late that the Japanese government deemed it to have been canceled, figuring that people would get confused if the rainy season arrived at such an eccentrically late time of the year.

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