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No. 5 — February 4, 2000

Feature Article

GENE-MODIFIED FOODS GIVING
JAPANESE INDUSTRY AND GOVERNMENT INDIGESTION

Jon Choy

Summary

Advancing knowledge of the genetic blueprint for life has made it possible on a commercial scale to introduce into plants and animals beneficial traits that cannot be conferred by conventional breeding techniques. The benefits of these genetically modified organisms are significant, according to the companies that are commercializing the technology. Because humankind's understanding of genetics, biology and ecosystems remains incomplete, however, some scientists and consumer groups are concerned that the unhindered introduction of GMOs into the food supply and the environment may carry latent risks and costs.

Japanese industry and government remain keen on developing new applications of biotechnology in medicine and in the environmental remediation field as well in agriculture. The Japanese public, however, has developed major doubts about the safety of transgenic foods. The growing public backlash against genetically modified products threatens to upset not only corporate commercialization plans and government research projects but also Japan's trade relations with the United States and the rest of the world. Because Japan imports a large percentage of its food — and American farms are a major source — Tokyo's stance on trade and regulation of gene-altered plant and animal products could have a big impact on how this issue is addressed globally.

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Weekly Review

OPPOSITION BOYCOTTS DIET AFTER SEAT-REDUCTION BILL RAMMED THROUGH
--- by Barbara Wanner

With the lower house's January 27 passage of a controversial Diet reform bill and the upper house's February 2 enactment of the measure, Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi succeeded in holding together his shaky triparty government, composed of the Liberal Democratic Party, the Liberal Party and the New Komeito. The Liberal Party, the smallest member, had threatened to bolt from the coalition if Mr. Obuchi did not make good on his promise to act on legislation to scrap 20 of the 200 proportional representation seats in the 500-member House of Representatives soon after the January 20 start of the 150-day regular Diet session (see JEI Report No. 1B, January 7, 2000).

 

JAPAN'S TRADE SURPLUS SHRANK IN 1999
--- by Douglas Ostrom

The yawning gap between Japan's exports and imports finally is narrowing again. Reversing two years of increases, the country's customs-clearance trade surplus contracted 11.7 percent in 1999. The rate of decline picked up over the course of the year, with the fourth-quarter imbalance plunging 19.3 percent from its position in the same period of 1998 (see Table 1). Regional imbalances and data adjusted for price and currency changes confirmed the pattern of reduction.

 

JAPAN OF LITTLE HELP TO ASIAN TRADE IN 1999
--- by Marc Castellano

On the trade front at least, Japan, Asia's economic powerhouse, has done relatively little to help propel the recovery of its neighbors. In yen terms, the world's second-largest economy imported just 2.7 percent more from Asia (broadly defined) in 1999 than the year before (see Table). More significantly, purchases remained lower than in 1996 and especially in 1997. However, relative to the 4 percent reduction in Japan's overall imports in 1999, the small gain in deliveries from Asia — the only major area besides the Middle East to register an increase — shone through as a bright spot in a generally dark picture. Plus, last year's uptick was a major improvement compared with the 10.4 percent contraction in purchases of Asian goods in 1998.

 

JAPANESE DISCOVER THAT CYBERSPACE IS NOT ALWAYS A NICE PLACE
--- by Jon Choy

To the shock of many Japanese — but absolutely no surprise to computer experts overseas — Japanese government and corporate sites and servers on the World Wide Web have been penetrated and vandalized in a very public fashion by unauthorized Internet users. Although the cyberthugs defaced some Web pages and erased others, they did not — as far as authorities can determine — gain access to sensitive government or corporate information. Computer security specialists know, however, that a skillful intruder can enter and exit a system without leaving a trace. From the moment they were connected to the Internet, Japanese systems have been under the scrutiny of potentially hostile cybernauts. While some government and corporate information technology managers have installed security software, the recent spate of computer break-ins has put the topic in the limelight.

 

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