The World Today for February 13, 2017


Hello Angry

Japanese girls have striven to attain the kawaii, or cute, aura of Hello Kitty since the cartoonish feline character was invented in the 1970s.

But on Sunday the BBC reported that a new character has become a more representative figure of Japan today: Aggretsuko, a 25-year-old red panda who works a boring office job.

The cute panda transforms into an enraged demon version of herself when angry.

Aggretsuko came to life after the company that produced Hello Kitty, Sanrio, held a contest for new characters based on the theme “salaryman,” (office worker). A designer named Yeti won.

“I observed office workers who are at the center of Japan’s corporate culture and I could hear their heartfelt screams,” he told the BBC.

Aggretsuko symbolizes the trouble in Japan’s economy.

Japan’s gross domestic product grew 1 percent on an annualized basis for the last quarter of 2016. The positive numbers were part of the longest economic expansion in Japan since 2013.

The Financial Times applauded the numbers. Since Japan’s growth potential in the long run is estimated at around 0.5 percent, the third-biggest economy in the world was doing pretty well, the British newspaper concluded.

But the Wall Street Journal was more critical. Experts forecast growth of 1.1 percent. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wanted 2 percent growth.

At issue is “Abenomics,” the prime minister’s plan to slay deflation and rev up Japan’s once-vaunted economy. The Council on Foreign Relations describes that plan as “fiscal expansion, monetary easing, and structural reform.” In other words, the government is spending, the Bank of Japan is lending and politicians are cutting rules that might restrain hiring and investing.

Based on the GDP statistics, Abenomics is yielding some dividends. But the Associated Press identified why growth hasn’t been better. “Manufacturers have been slow to invest or raise wages, and the consumer demand that drives most business activity has remained tepid,” the AP wrote.

The expansion that occurred late last year owed a lot to exports stemming from the weak Yen, which has fallen in value since President Donald Trump won office on promises to create American jobs and reduce the trade deficit with countries like Japan.

While Abe’s meeting with Trump over the weekend suggested Washington won’t engage in a trade war with Tokyo, it’s still not clear if or how the president’s “America first” policies might strain the relationship. The situation is hardly stable.

Cue Aggretsuko.

Cute Hello Kitty might be ok. But, like Abenomics, it’s not enough. People want more. In the coming months, the world is likely to find out whether Abe can please the demon and whether the US will make his job more or less difficult.


Rolling Out the Mat

Swiss voters dealt a blow to right-wing nationalists Sunday, choosing to make it easier for third-generation immigrants to become citizens despite efforts to stoke fears about Islamist extremism.

Under the measure, the grandchildren of immigrants will be able to skip several steps formerly required to acquire a Swiss passport, though citizenship will still not be automatic.

The move was approved by referendum, winning 60 percent of the popular vote and passing in 19 out of Switzerland’s 26 cantons, meeting the two criteria needed for it to pass, Agence France-Presse reported.

The government and most Swiss political parties supported the proposal. However, the right-wing Swiss Peoples Party (SVP), the largest party in Switzerland’s parliament, tried to block the measure by raising the specter of Islamist extremism.

“The problem of Islam, I’m afraid, it will catch up with us in a few years,” AFP quoted an SVP lawmaker as saying.

A Simmering Brew

India’s security forces fought a fierce gun battle with militants in Kashmir, and then clashed with civilians who turned out to mourn the militants who were killed.

The intense, 12-hour firefight ended late Sunday morning, leaving two soldiers and one civilian dead along with the four militants. Another civilian died following the protest, the New York Times reported.

Such skirmishes and protests have become relatively routine in Kashmir, where insurgents have been fighting for independence from India for nearly three decades – allegedly with the support of Pakistan. However, violence spiked over the past summer after Indian forces killed Burhan Wani – then a commander in a group called the Hizbul Mujahedeen.

The four militants killed Sunday were allegedly members of the same group. Authorities claimed they had faced outstanding criminal charges, including murder and stealing arms from security forces, and the gun battle ensued when the militants fired on police searching a village where they were hiding.

Shot Across the Bow

North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile Sunday, the Hermit Kingdom’s first such test this year.

The missile reportedly flew about 300 miles before falling into the ocean, and demonstrated “the reliability and security” of a new mobile launching system, guidance and control features and its solid fuel – which gives such missiles longer range and allows for faster launches.

The test launch came amid Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the United States. Abe said the test was “intolerable,” while President Donald Trump said “the United States of America stands behind Japan, its great ally, 100 percent” in what his chief policy adviser called “an important show of solidarity.”

The test is a clear violation of past United Nations Security Council resolutions and a recent warning from Washington, the Associated Press reported. Now, many are wondering how the new US president will respond.


Just a Little Off the Top, Please

Customers at Ramadan Odwan’s barbershop in the Gaza Strip can forget about using a blow drier to straighten their hair.

Odwan prefers using something more extreme to crank up the heat – a blowtorch.

For 20 shekels, or a little over $5, customers can get a haircut and fire-straightening at Odwan’s salon in the southern Gaza town of Rafah – the only one of its kind in Gaza, wrote Reuters.

It’s completely safe, said Odwan. After applying a protective liquid coating – whose formula Odwan keeps secret – to his customers’ hair, Odwan aims a blowtorch at their head and fires on and off for up to 15 seconds.

For Odwan, the method’s success is proof of Palestinians’ zeal for new experiences.

“People have gone crazy about it. Many people are curious to go through the experience and they are not afraid,” he told Reuters. “People here love adventures.”

Check out some pictures of Odwan and his blowtorch in action here.

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