VOX POPULI: The BOJ goes from white to black

March 16, 2013

Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a daily column that runs on Page 1 of The Asahi Shimbun.

The Olympic Gold continues to elude the Japanese men's judo team, while its female counterpart shocked the world in January by accusing their coach of physical abuse. But the worth of a black belt seems to remain constant even in this beleaguered sport, and novices attend judo schools faithfully in hopes of turning their white belts into black.

The Diet on March 15 gave the green light to another kind of "white-to-black" transition when it approved the nomination of 63-year-old Haruhiko Kuroda, a former Finance Ministry official, as the new Bank of Japan governor to succeed Masaaki Shirakawa, 68.

The name Kuroda, rendered into kanji characters, means "black field." The kanji characters for Shirakawa stand for "white" and "river."

Kuroda and Shirakawa have many points in common. Both hail from Fukuoka Prefecture, both are graduates of the University of Tokyo, and it is practically impossible to guess the correct pronunciation of their given names just from the kanji characters in which they are written. But despite the similarities, this "white-to-black" transition at the central bank will likely transform the nation's financial landscape drastically.

No, of course I'm not suggesting that a smooth-running "white river" is about to be turned into a field of sticky black mud. It's just that the present sticky financial situation apparently calls for a BOJ boss who can strong-arm the markets into submission to the government's will. We'll have to wait and see if this "black field," in which the government has placed its full trust, will eventually yield golden grains.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expects Kuroda to spearhead the so-called Abenomics economic policy of bold monetary easing and setting a 2 percent inflation target.

Shirakawa gave the impression of doing Abe's bidding reluctantly. But Kuroda is already proving himself to be of one mind with the prime minister. He has promised to do whatever it takes to reach the 2 percent target "in about two years."

The yen's devaluation against the dollar has raised stock prices, and the Abe Cabinet's approval ratings remain high. Abe is invincible now, and nobody within his Liberal Democratic Party is standing up to him. This has enabled the prime minister to announce Japan's participation in controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade talks.

Eighty days into his second premiership, everything is going better than he could ever have expected, and Abe may be feeling like a black belt now.

Jigoro Kano (1860-1938), the founder of modern judo, went by the pen name of Kiissai in his later years. The kanji characters for this name mean that all things revert to one basic principle. Calling himself by this name was probably Kano's way of reminding himself and everyone that no matter how high one rises in rank, one must forever remain a lowly white belt at heart.

When everything is going almost frighteningly well, that is exactly when we must all try to be humble.

--The Asahi Shimbun, March 16

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.

Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a daily column that runs on Page 1 of The Asahi Shimbun.
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The new Bank of Japan governor Haruhiko Kuroda (Teruo Kashiyama)

The new Bank of Japan governor Haruhiko Kuroda (Teruo Kashiyama)

  • The new Bank of Japan governor Haruhiko Kuroda (Teruo Kashiyama)

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