‘Japan is back’

Days ago, I visited the Supreme Court of Japan to advise the justices of the construction and full operation of the Philippine Judicial Academy (Philja) Training Center in Tagaytay. I handed to Justice Masaharu Ohashi (Chief Justice Hironubu Takesaki was out of town) an album of photos and brochures showing the completed center and how it provides continuing education for our judges.

A little background. Seven years ago—on Jan. 26, 2006, during my term as chief justice—Japan gave our Supreme Court P300 million to build the Philja Center. The check for the whole sum was handed to me by then Japanese Ambassador Ryuichiro Yamazaki with a short, straightforward letter, without any condition whatsoever, not even a timetable or requirements to hire Japanese architects and contractors, or to use Japanese equipment.

At that time, we had no architectural plans and specifications yet, but the no-strings grant was given on my verbal assurance that the project would be built on the best terms and within the shortest time possible. Under the careful watch of then Philja Chancellor Ameurfina A. Melencio-Herrera, the center was planned, constructed, completed and inaugurated.

This was actually my second trip to Japan, the first being in May 2007 (a few months after I retired) when I gave then Chief Justice Hiro Shimada the architectural plans and perspectives. I went on my second trip last week to advise the Japanese court of the completion and full operation of the center.

Incidentally, neither our Supreme Court nor the Japanese government asked me to undertake the two trips. I traveled on my own initiative, using my personal funds, without any expense on the part of the Philippines or Japan. Precisely because of the absolute trust reposed in me, I felt it my duty, even in retirement, to advise the grantors that their donated funds were used fully and prudently for the purpose intended.

May I, however, thank our Ambassador to Japan Manuel M. Lopez and Consul Kit de Jesus for facilitating my visit to the Japanese court.

Largest donor. Despite its sluggish economy during the last 10 years (China dislodged it as the world’s second biggest economy), Japan is still resilient, helpful and vibrant. In fact, it continued to be our largest aid donor, giving about $700 million annually to fund general infrastructures (like roads and bridges) to generate private investments and grassroots projects like classrooms and clinics.

Though Japan changed prime ministers almost yearly, the efficient permanent civil servants kept the Japanese government humming. Now, newly recycled Prime Minister Shinzo Abe injected, to quote the Financial Times, “a real sense of electricity” in Tokyo.

His battle cry, “Japan is back,” hopes to uplift the Land of the Rising Sun to its rightful place in the world by being “a leading promoter of rules… a guardian of the global commons… united more closely with the US, Korea, Australia and other like-minded democracies…”

His “Abenomics” included a $220-billion stimulus package; depreciated the yen by 15 percent, thereby pushing Japanese exports (the lifeblood of the Japanese economy) and attracting tourists by droves; and named longtime Philippine resident and former president of the Asian Development Bank Haruhiko Kuroda governor of the Central Bank of Japan.

Relevantly, 216,284 Filipinos who live in Japan remitted to our country over $1 billion in 2012. Under the Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement (Jpepa), 25 Filipino nurses and 43 caregivers have passed rigid examinations (which even Japanese nationals must hurdle) and found lucrative jobs there. More are expected to pass the tests and easily find employment.

Sakura season. Fortunately, my visit coincided with the  sakura  season. Along rivers and parks in Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe and Nagoya, cherry blossom (or  sakura) trees were resplendent. They were like acacia trees completely crowned with white, pink and light indigo flowers, instead of leaves.  Sakura, the national flower of Japan, blooms for only one week once a year.

Perhaps the most important Nihon value is  wa, or harmony. Historically bound in tightly knit communities, the Japanese prize group cohesion, teamwork and consensus. They have no exact equivalent of the English “no,” because an extreme negative is anathema to consensus. Neither is there an identical word to “yes.” “Hai” does not necessarily mean “I agree.” Most of the time, it merely signifies “I understand.”

Apart from our judicial visit, my wife Leni and I joined a group of golf buddies led by gourmet couple Larry and Peggie Chan. We sampled the best Japanese cuisine beyond the hotel beaten track. We stayed in  ryokans, slept on  tatami  straw mats, bathed in wooden tubs and enjoyed heated toilet seats. We viewed the iconic Toyota Automobile Museum. We zoomed on the Shinkasen bullet train at 280 kilometers per hour. At that speed, Legazpi is only two hours away.

We relished  wagyu  at Shokudoen and manicured dishes at Kitcho Arashiyama, but in my humble view, nothing beats the delicacies served by Ambassador Toshinao Urabe and his charming wife Ekko who, prior to our departure for their country, hosted a private dinner in my honor at their Forbes Park home, expertly prepared by their chef Ryohei Kawamoto, who trained at the famous Kitcho culinary school in Osaka.

Without doubt, Ambassador Toshi, as close friends fondly call him, serves the best Japanese cuisine in the Philippines and elsewhere. Available strictly by invitation only!

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