The Cocaine Crisis: How the Drug Trade Is Ruining West Africa
Monday, Oct. 22, 2012
By Alex Perry / Bissau and Bamako

The first indication that the men cutting down cashew trees and filling in the ditch outside Quinta's house in central Guinea-Bissau were not, as they told her, evangelicals making a clearing for a Christmas Day parade came at 9 p.m. on Dec. 18, when they returned in several cars accompanied by four white men and with a truck loaded with drums of aviation fuel. At 11 p.m., 20 soldiers arrived on a second truck and divided themselves into two groups. After setting up two checkpoints 2 km apart in Quinta's village, Amedalae, the soldiers began unloading hundreds of large aluminum cooking bowls and placing them between the roadblocks, down both sides of the road. Then they filled the bowls with paraffin and lit them. "The light was amazing," says Quinta, 62, who asked that her last name be withheld for her safety. "You'd have thought you were in Europe."

At midnight Quinta heard a plane approaching. The twin prop touched down on the road, taxied up to Quinta's house, then turned side-on, its nose and tail just fitting inside the clearing. The pilot cut the engines and threw open the cargo door. Pulling up in the two trucks, the civilians pumped fuel into the plane's tanks while the soldiers formed a human chain to unload the plane. "The plane was full of big, white sacks — the kind you take to sell secondhand clothes at market," says Quinta. "They filled one truck, then the other, then covered both trucks with tarpaulins." The entire operation — landing, refueling and off-loading perhaps two tons of cocaine — took 30 minutes. As soon as it was done, the pilot started his engines, took off and banked away. The soldiers and civilians left immediately afterward.

The tiny nation of Guinea-Bissau today is the most brazen example of what happens when Latin America's cocaine traffickers notice that halfway to Europe and just a four-hour flight across the Atlantic are a series of small, corruptible West African countries with scant airport security and no air forces or navies to speak of. In the time since smugglers moved in eight years ago, cocaine shipments to Europe have quintupled, to 350 tons a year — and the effect on West Africa has been disastrous. Since 2008, even as much of the continent has exploded economically, West Africa has seen five coups (Guinea-Bissau, Guinea-Conakry, Mali, Mauritania and Niger), two attempted coups (Gambia and Guinea-Conakry), two civil wars (Ivory Coast and Mali) and several assassinations. "Because many of these countries are emerging from serious civil wars and conflicts, they have no capacity to protect themselves against illicit drug traffic," says Yuri Fedotov, executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). "[Then cocaine becomes] another factor for destabilization [and an] impediment to their development."

The impact is felt far beyond Africa, however. While the harm to Europe's health from drugs is obvious, the real danger may be to global security. In early 2011 the U.S. Treasury accused the Lebanese Shi'ite militants Hizballah — a U.S.-designated terrorist group — of financing itself via West African cocaine smuggling. This year cocaine cash helped Mali's Islamist militants, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the group's North African franchise, buy up large parts of Muammar Gaddafi's arsenal after the former Libyan dictator was deposed. They then seized the entire north of Mali, establishing a de facto al-Qaeda state just a three-hour flight south of Europe. The Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in the Libyan city of Benghazi — in which local militants with ideological and personal links to Mali's Islamists killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens — underscored just how unstable the region has become and highlighted the threat posed by North Africa's suddenly well-armed and well-financed Islamists.

In our globalized world, the idea of a part of the map so off the grid as to allow cocaine, Islamists and Gaddafi's weapons to meet and fuse may come as a shock. But this is the surreal reality now confronting the West. "This is not a small game," says a Western diplomat in Guinea-Bissau who requested anonymity because he is concerned for his own safety. "This is about financing terrorism on Europe's southern border, about drug money from Guinea-Bissau and Mali being used for a bomb in London." Adds another diplomat based in Mali's capital of Bamako: "The mission for the international community is to keep this from moving from where it is now, a really bad dream, to a total nightmare."

< Outgunned in Guinea-Bissau >
In his sweltering office on a Bissau city backstreet, Joao Biague contemplates his career as the country's lead anti-narcotics officer. "I am so tired," says the 44-year-old national director of the judicial police — the equivalent of the FBI. "I studied law in Italy, and when I came back I was so confident about changing the country. But we've achieved nothing."

Biague's despair stems from a realization made a decade ago by smugglers from Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil. They had saturated the North American cocaine market, so like any business seeking growth, they began targeting an alternative: Europe. The usual transatlantic smuggling route was via the Caribbean and the Azores. But because the price of failure for traffickers is so much higher than for legitimate entrepreneurs, drug smugglers try to spread risk by constantly changing routes and methods. Opening a new passage from Venezuela or Suriname or Brazil to West Africa, less than 3,000 km away, offered the diversification they sought. "A few years ago, the European cocaine market was four times less than the American one," says Fedotov. "Now they're almost equal."

After arriving in Africa through gateways like Guinea-Bissau, cocaine can make its way to Europe via many routes. The smugglers may be Latin American, African, European or Middle Eastern. They can contract local partners to smooth the way: ministers, diplomats, customs officials, soldiers, policemen, baggage handlers, aircrews, fishermen, even rebels or Saharan tribesmen. Accordingly, cocaine violence and narco-corruption has spread to all 14 countries in West Africa while Kenya, Mozambique and South Africa have also emerged as trafficking hubs.

The first Guinea-Bissau heard of cocaine was in 2005, when farmers on the coast outside Bissau telephoned a radio show to warn about sacks of a white fertilizer-like substance they had found washed up on the beach, which were killing their crops. Today the U.S. estimates that 30 tons of cocaine passes through Guinea-Bissau every year — a tenth of annual European consumption and, with a street value of $3 billion, more than three times the country's GDP. The transit of such wealth across a small, poor country is difficult to hide, and Guinea-Bissau now hosts what may be the most open narco-trafficking industry in the world. Biague says several cocaine planes land a year; a week after the drop at Amedalae, there was a second on the same road. Other giveaways include an abandoned smugglers' jet at Bissau airport, the new Bentleys and BMW SUVs plying the country's dirt tracks and the menacing foreign men in sunglasses crowding Bissau's paella restaurants. "Cocaine," says a European resident, "is the only business in town."

Just how big a business, Biague can't even say. To fight smuggling in a territory that boasts 88 islands and endless mangrove swamps, Biague has but a few dozen agents, a handful of mobile phones for informers (though no budget for rewards) and five cars (but no cash for gas). "[All I know is] when the Hummers move, something's happening," he says. This year his men have seized just 2 kg of cocaine.

Just as problematic, Biague works — albeit indirectly — for the man accused of being Guinea-Bissau's biggest cocaine smuggler. On April 12, Guinea-Bissau's army chief, General Antonio Indjai, overthrew the government. While Indjai installed a replacement, there is little doubt where the power lies. Biague acknowledges the military plays a central role in trafficking but declines to name names, not least because he already receives death threats. Westerners are less coy. With the coup, says the Western diplomat in Guinea-Bissau, Indjai established himself not just as "chief of staff but also chief of drug trafficking." "Guinea-Bissau is a narcostate, and the links between the military and cocaine are manifest," he says. "Nothing can happen without Antonio Indjai." But asked about accusations that he is involved in cocaine trafficking, Indjai tells TIME, "Show me the proof. All the people who are providing this information are crooks."

Indjai's coup made life more difficult for Guinea-Bissau in several ways. Foreign aid to the state was drying up over the previous government's stalled economic and political reforms. Indjai's takeover in April ensured it was suspended altogether. That may be high-minded in principle, but it has been counter-productive in practice. Reducing the state's ability to pay the army is particularly dangerous, says Guinea-Bissau Prime Minister Rui Duarte Barros. "The only thing they know is how to pick up a gun. If they feel they have no alternative, they will revolt again." Similarly crippled is the fight against trafficking. "I don't have a penny for any operation," says Biague. No surprise then that, according to the Western diplomat, the trafficking has doubled to 30 tons in the six months since the coup. Asked about the increase, Indjai requests a UNODC mission to investigate "whether it really has increased or not." A second diplomat in Bissau says the international community shares the blame for any rise in smuggling. "Do I see anybody doing anything to fight drugs? No. People pulled out. And if you isolate Guinea-Bissau, they do what they have to to survive. You create the environment for more failure."

The Narcostate On Nov. 2, 2009, an ancient Boeing 727 was found burned out and lying on its side in the Sahara in northeastern Mali. That December, then UNODC chief Antonio Maria Costa told the U.N. Security Council that the plane showed West African drug trafficking was "taking on a whole new dimension." UNODC investigators discovered that the smugglers had flown the large Bissau-registered jet from Venezuela across the Atlantic to Mali, unloaded several tons of cocaine, then, after finding the landing gear damaged in the rocky touchdown, torched the plane. Even more worrying than this new "larger, faster, more high-tech" smuggling or the revelation that traffickers could afford to burn planes, said Costa, was how "Air Cocaine" was "an example of the links between drugs, crime and terrorism."

The area where the 727 was found, Sinkrebaka, sits in Azawad, the desert Tuareg homeland that includes parts of Mali, Mauritania, Algeria, Libya, Niger and Burkina Faso. Tuaregs are Berber nomads, legends in the Sahara for their ability to survive the desert and to thrive on trans-Sahara caravan trade routes. Tuaregs have staged intermittent separatist rebellions throughout history. A decade ago they were joined in northern Mali by several hundred Algerian Islamist militants fleeing defeat in that country's bloody civil war. The militants ensured their acceptance by paying the Tuaregs to supply food and water. They remade themselves as Sahelian Salafi guerrillas, and in 2007 they took the moniker al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

In January a new Tuareg rebel group, the Mouvement National pour la Libération de l'Azawad, launched a fresh rebellion in Mali. They were aided by two other Islamist groups led by AQIM members: the Tuareg-dominated Ansar Eddine and the more Arab-accented Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa. For two months, the uprising achieved little. But in March a group of Malian army officers staged a mutiny in the capital, Bamako, which a fatigued President Amadou Toumani Touré elevated to a coup by vacating his palace. The rebels pounced. In three days in April, they took northern Mali's three main cities of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal — essentially annexing the entire northern half of the country. The Islamists then turned on their Tuareg allies, pushing them into neighboring Burkina Faso and Mauritania.

How to explain the sudden fall of one of the most outwardly stable governments in West Africa — and the Islamists' equally instant success? The same way you explain most successful revolutions: money and weapons. When cocaine traffickers arrived in West Africa, ethnic Arab traders in northern Mali started to take the drug in 4x4s across the same lawless void that was such a haven for the Islamists. Planes began making airdrops deep in the Sahara, says a 32-year-old driver who worked for a man called Oumar, whom he describes as the biggest trafficker in the city of Gao. Moving in teams as small as two pickups or as large as 45 trucks, the Arabs would drive the drug along old trans-Sahara trade routes through Algeria, Mauritania and Morocco to the Mediterranean. Soon Gao had a small industry of cocaine transporters: scores of young men with souped-up 4x4s. Oumar even built 25 villas in Gao to house them, an enclave city residents nicknamed Cocaine City.

Interaction between the smugglers and the Tuaregs is limited to purchasing safe passage. The precise relationship between the Arab traffickers and the Arab Islamists is disputed. Speaking by phone from northern Mali, the Islamists' military chief Omar Hamaha says that while he currently has other priorities, "as Muslims, we would be the first to fight cocaine." Few believe him. Journalists, analysts and politicians in Mali say that at the very least, militants escort the traffickers. Many describe some of the Islamists as a mafia in league with corrupt members of the Algerian army, moving drugs, money, weapons and illegal immigrants to Europe. A central figure in this industry, says a Malian military intelligence officer, is Hamaha. "Hamaha was just a poor guy from Timbuktu," he says. "He built a network of traffickers, then turned them into the Islamists. Today they come to the cities, leave their pickups and weapons outside, put on turbans, preach in the mosques, slaughter sheep and invite everyone to eat. That's how they earn support. The whole foundation is drugs." Though the Islamists once earned millions from ransoming foreign hostages, that dried up as tourist numbers plunged, the intelligence officer says. "Today, the traffickers and the Islamists — it's the same people."

There is no contesting the links between drug trafficking and Mali's deposed government. Oumar Mariko, a Malian opposition leader, says former President Touré's government would buy off northern rebel leaders with proceeds from the trade. "The problem of the north became a business," he says. The intelligence officer confirms official complicity. "We never stopped anything or arrested anyone," he says. "When something big was going on, we were told not to go out."

Such corruption ate away at the state. Judges sold verdicts. MPs auctioned legislation. The rot, says Mariko, destroyed the army's command-and-control system. Disgusted with their predatory state, Malians began to express increasing approval for the stringent penalties of Islamist Shari'a. The knockout blow for Touré came when Tuaregs who fought for Gaddafi in Libya fled defeat with their weapons and created one of the world's biggest, cheapest arms bazaars — offering everything from AK-47s to surface-to-air missiles — in Mali and Niger. Flush with drug money, the Islamists splurged. And when they took their new arsenal to war this year, the Malian army — armed with 50-year-old AK-47s and barely paid or fed — ran.

< Drugs, Guns and Militants >
The complexities of West Africa and the fluidity of the global cocaine trade make it impossible to draw a straight line between Latin America and the killings in Benghazi. At the same time, though, there is no doubt cocaine helps create the instability that impoverishes Guinea-Bissau and finances the radicalism that produces a leader like Hamaha.

There is also little chance of improvement, at least in the short term. Asked to predict Guinea-Bissau's future, Biague says he can only predict his own — he's looking to quit — while a West African UNODC officer throws up his hands. "I'm not Superman," the officer says. "I can't save the world." In Mali, when asked about the gathering global consensus for military action against his forces, Hamaha replies, "We are ready. The moment anyone attacks us, we'll go beyond Africa to their capitals. You'll see 9/11 times 10." It's not an idle threat. A French antiterrorism official says now that they have a base, Mali's Islamists will want to go global, just as al-Qaeda groups in Afghanistan and Yemen did before them, possibly through European radicals who have joined them in Mali. Hamaha only partly refutes the accusation aired earlier by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that his group took part in the Benghazi attacks, saying he has relations with militants there and ambitions to mount attacks but is "not yet" involved. U.S. sources now insist that AQIM militants were not involved in the Benghazi attacks, but Rami el-Obeidi, former head of intelligence for the Libyan National Transitional Council, believes the strike was al-Qaeda's revenge for the killing of a Libyan al-Qaeda leader by a U.S. drone in Pakistan in June. "It's not what I think," he says. "It's what I know."

It doesn't help that in both Guinea-Bissau and Mali, the international response to crisis is led by West Africa's notoriously indecisive regional authority, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). In Guinea-Bissau, ECOWAS is crippled by an internal split over whether or not to engage the post-coup regime; in Mali an ECOWAS plan to send 3,000 troops to fight the Islamists is stalled by debates over the detail.

Lost in the disarray is any meaningful effort to tackle the common cause underlying both crises: cocaine. West Africa is hardly alone in its snow blindness, however. Even combining the U.N., the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and Europe's various antinarcotics agencies, there are just a handful of Western drug agents operating in West Africa. As a result, a short skip from Europe, the future seems set for a vast empty space where, as the Bamako-based diplomat says, "nobody knows what the heck is flying over or has any idea of what is coming in or coming out." For a cocaine trafficker, could there be a better place to set up shop?

≪ 麻薬密売で崩壊する西アフリカ ≫




しかし影響はアフリカをはるかに越えたものだ。麻薬がヨーロッパの健康を蝕んでいるのは明らかだが、真の危険は世界の安全を脅かしていることかも知れない。2011年初頭、米国財務省はレバノン・シーア派武闘組織ヒズボラ(米国はテロリストグループに指定)を、西アフリカのコカイン密輸を通して資金調達していると非難した。今年、コカインマネーは、アルカイダ系北アフリカ組織であるイスラム・マグレブ諸国アルカイダ (AQIM)などマリのイスラム過激派が、ムアンマル・ガダフィの政権放棄後に、リビア元独裁者の武器の大部分を買収する資金になった。その後マリの北部全域を掌握し、南ヨーロッパへ空路でたった3時間の所に、事実上のアルカイダ国家を作り上げた。9月11日のリビア・ベンガジ市で起きた米国領事館襲撃事件では、マリ・イスラム過激派とイデオロギー的にも個人的にも繋がりがある地元の過激派が、クリストファー・スティーブンス大使を含む4人の米国人を殺害したのだが、この事件は、中東がいかに不穏になっているかを際立たせ、突如として完全武装し、資金を蓄えた北アフリカのイスラム派が、脅威となったことを見せつけた。


< ギニアビサウでは武器がすべてだ >






< 麻薬国家 >
2009年11月2日、旧式ボーイング727の焼け焦げた機体が、マリ北東部のサハラ砂漠に放置されていた。同12月にUNODC事務局長アントニオ・マリア・コスタは国連安保理で、その機体は西アフリカの密輸が「全く新しい局面に入った」ことを示す、と語った。UNODC捜査員が調べた結果、ビサウ登録の大型航空機で密売人がベネズエラから大西洋を渡ってマリに来て、数トンのコカインを降ろした後、荒地への着地で着陸装置が壊れたので火をつけたことがわかった。この「規模も速度もハイテク技術も向上した」密輸よりもさらに懸念されること、つまり密売人たちが飛行機を焼き捨てるだけの余裕ができた事実は、「コカイン航空(Air Cocaine)が、麻薬と犯罪とテロが一つになったことをよく示している」とコスタは言う。


1月に、新トゥアレグ叛乱グループ・アザワド解放国民運動(the Mouvement National pour la Lib'eration de l’Azawad)は、マリで新たな闘いを開始した。彼等はAQIMメンバー率いる2つのイスラム系グループから支援を受けていた。トゥアレグ支配下のアンサール・エディン(Ansar Eddine)と、よりアラブ色が強い西アフリカ統一聖戦運動(the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa)だ。2ヶ月間、蜂起の成果はほとんどなかった。しかし3月にマリ軍の将校グループが首都バマコで叛乱を起こし、消耗したアマドウ・トウマニ・トウレ大統領が宮廷を明け渡したので、反乱はクーデターへと発展した。叛乱軍は勢いづいた。4月の3日間、ガオ、ティンブクツ、キダルの3主要都市を制圧し、実質的に国土の北半分を全面的に統合した。次にイスラム派は友軍のトゥアレグに反旗を向け、隣接するブルキナ・ファソとマウリタニアへと追いやった。





< 麻薬、銃、武装グループ >




Monday, Oct. 22, 2012
Doing It Their Way
By Michael Schuman / Osaka

Frustrated by Japan's stagnation, a restless new generation is learning to get ahead by working outside the system.
The conference room in Osaka's town hall is cramped and stuffy.

Toru Hashimoto, the mayor of Japan's third largest city (after Tokyo and Yokohama), rants on for more than 90 minutes in the sharp sentences that are his trademark. Everyone — not only in the room but also throughout the nation — hangs on to each syllable uttered by this youthful former TV personality. Inevitably, most of those syllables are vitriol hurled at the politicians running the country in Tokyo. They have become so beholden to special interests, Hashimoto charges, that they have turned deaf to the needs of the nation. The current electoral process "is against the principle of democracy," Hashimoto blasts. The Diet, Japan's legislature, "is moving further and further away from the will of Japanese citizens." He has proposed slashing in half the number of lawmakers in the Diet's lower house and eliminating the upper one altogether. "The nation's system of government is crap," he says.

Such blunt talk — an anomaly in the rarefied world of Japanese politics — has Hashimoto's critics screaming that he is a dangerous demagogue. But voters frustrated with their do-nothing national leadership instead hear a can-do, 43-year-old voice in an establishment dominated by stodgy old-timers. A recent poll shows that Hashimoto's Japan Restoration Party has become the third most popular in the country, in place to challenge the ruling Democratic Party of Japan. That support comes even though Hashimoto announced only in mid-September that his fledgling movement would contest parliamentary seats nationwide. With general elections expected in coming months, Hashimoto could become a powerful new force in national politics. "He's had a great impact by making people realize there could be a popular groundswell" against mainstream parties, says Jeffrey Kingston, an Asian-studies professor at Temple University's program in Tokyo.

Such public discontent comes as no surprise. The recent news out of Japan has been almost all bad. The government has appeared weak and aimless in an escalating dispute with China over the ownership of remote islands, with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda waffling between recalcitrance and appeasement. Like his predecessors, Noda has also struggled to implement his policy agenda at home. Though he scored a rare victory by gaining Diet approval for a consumption-tax hike to help close the government's perennially large deficit, he failed to win the support of his own Cabinet for a plan to eliminate nuclear power in the country by 2040. That measure would be widely popular in the wake of the terrifying meltdown at the Fukushima reactors after northern Japan was hit by a devastating earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. Japan's recent economic performance is no more encouraging. In August, the country posted a $9.6 billion trade deficit as exports — the economy's lifeblood — fell by 5.8%, while GDP in the quarter ending in June inched up by an annualized 0.7%.

What Japan needs to do is no secret. The country has to overcome its protectionist predilections to integrate more with a roaring Asia. Meddlesome bureaucrats have to liberalize the domestic economy to spur competition, efficiency and entrepreneurship. The government must build a better social safety net to persuade Japanese to switch from being savers to spenders. Consensus-oriented CEOs have to take more risks and boldly invest in up-and-coming businesses.

Without such reforms, Japan can only wither. Much of the country, particularly Tokyo, appears prosperous, yet Japan's GDP is roughly the same size as it was 20 years ago. An aging population leaves fewer productive workers to spark a revival. Some 35% of the remaining able-bodied are stuck in unstable short-term jobs. Japanese companies in industries they once dominated, like consumer electronics, are being outmaneuvered by more nimble competitors. The International Monetary Fund expects Japan's national debt (though mostly financed locally) to swell to 235% of GDP this year, the highest level in the industrialized world. Small wonder that many Japanese worry the future will bring only further decline. "Both Japanese companies and the people of Japan have this wrong perception that we are still rich, but we are not anymore," says Tadashi Yanai, CEO of Tokyo-based Fast Retailing, which operates the Uniqlo chain of clothing shops. "I'm beginning to fear we are on the verge of collapse."

There are signs, however, that some Japanese won't accept the status quo. Last year's nuclear disaster achieved something unusual in often apathetic Japan: getting people out on the streets. Tens of thousands demonstrated to pressure the government to eliminate nuclear power entirely. Shota Mizukoshi, a 20-year-old college student at a protest in Tokyo in August, hopes more will join them. "A new atmosphere has come, that we are showing strong political opinions, that they are nothing to be ashamed of," he says. Another protester, cleric Mamoru Yamamoto, feels that the Japanese are finally standing up for their own future. "Some change is really going on," he says.

The demonstrators are not alone. Across Japanese society — from corporate boardrooms to start-up incubators to city halls — bold men and women are aiming to shake Japan from its malaise. Admittedly, these change agents often remain on the fringe, but they are also sources of hope emerging from the rubble of a failing nation. Like Hashimoto, they insist Japan is capable of reform. "If the right way of politics and administration is realized," says Hashimoto, "I think Japan can still take a position as a leader in Asia or in the world."

Osaka's Shogun
Hashimoto is typical of those Japanese who want change and are doing something about it. Many politicians hail from patrician backgrounds, but Hashimoto is a self-made man of dodgy pedigree. His father was a yakuza — a Japanese gangster — who committed suicide when Hashimoto was in grammar school. Hashimoto passed the tough exams to gain admission to prestigious Waseda University, then launched a law practice in Osaka in 1998. His regular TV appearances to comment on legal affairs made him a household name. In 2008 he won the governorship of Osaka prefecture with the backing of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). But two years later he broke from the established parties to form his own (originally the Osaka Restoration Association) and in 2011 was elected mayor of Osaka city.

Hashimoto's tough approach to governing Osaka transformed him into a national figure. His outsider status gave him an advantage in confronting powerful interest groups in the city and tackling one of the country's most intractable problems: excessive state expenditure. Hashimoto has taken on public-sector unions and slashed the salaries of civil servants and other state workers like bus drivers. In August, the Diet passed a bill allowing for the merger of Osaka's prefectural and city administrations — a Hashimoto priority, which he estimates will reduce the number of public workers by 20% and expenses by $1.3 billion. His reforms in Osaka, he believes, can set an example for the rest of the country. Breaking the cozy ties between political parties and vested interests, from industry groups to labor unions to farmers' associations, is the only solution for Japan's problems, he contends. "We have to do things that those groups hate," he says.

Yet his strong-arm tactics are also stirring controversy. In February, Hashimoto upset many in Osaka when his administration mandated that teachers sing the national anthem at school ceremonies, a practice many Japanese avoid since they believe it harks back to the country's militaristic past. In August, he sparked a firestorm by insisting that "there is no evidence that people called comfort women" — the sex slaves drafted to serve Japanese soldiers during World War II — "were taken away by violence or threat by the military." Such antics have led his critics to describe his methods as Hashism, a play on fascism. Mikio Araki, a long-serving member of Osaka's city council from the LDP, says Hashimoto acts "like a dictator."

That, however, is exactly why voters like him. "He is the first politician who does things the way it should be done," says Ryosuke Matsui, an Osaka real estate agent. "If Hashimoto is called a dictator, that's fine with me."

The Risk Takers
Reina Otsuka, 32, speaks much more softly than Hashimoto, but her voice is no less powerful. After attending Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo, one of the nation's best, Otsuka, like most top graduates, could have pursued a stable job within the government bureaucracy or a major corporation. But to Otsuka, the "Japanese dream" didn't seem so dreamy. The lifetime employment that was once a given at large companies is now history. Besides, Otsuka wanted a family as well as a career — a lifestyle that Japan's big firms render nearly impossible by demanding long hours and promoting women only rarely. So Otsuka chose a different path: she became an entrepreneur. In 2006 she launched eco+waza, which markets eco-friendly Japanese products to consumers and distributors around the world.

It wasn't easy. Her parents pressed her to join an established company. "My parents thought I was nuts," Otsuka says. And with hardly any Silicon Valley — style venture capital available in Japan, she used more than $30,000 of her own savings to start eco+waza. But the thought of working for corporate Japan was more daunting. "We see that people in their 40s are defeated," she says, her 2-month-old baby sleeping at her side. "A lot of people of my generation see that, and we want to start our own companies."

Helping them do so has become the personal mission of William Saito. U.S.-born Saito, then in his 20s, started a company that developed security software, which he sold to Microsoft in 2004. A year later he relocated to Japan to persuade others to follow in his entrepreneurial footsteps. In April, IMPACT Japan, an organization co-founded by Saito that promotes entrepreneurship, helped open Creative Lounge MOV, a gathering place and funky office space in Tokyo's hip Shibuya area for youngsters looking to start companies. In an attempt to re-create the venture-capital system of the U.S., Saito consults and invests in start-ups through his firm InTecur. In January, he was appointed to a subcommittee of the Prime Minister's new Council on National Strategy and Policy, where he argues for greater entrepreneurial spirit as a means to fix the economy. Since Japan already has top universities and technology, Saito believes the hard part of building a more creative society has already been accomplished. "The intellect and innovation is here," says Saito, 41. "The last mile is not a very difficult thing."

Finishing that mile, though, sounds more like running a marathon. In Saito's view, making Japan more entrepreneurial requires an overhaul of a society that conditions people from a young age to fear risk. The exam-obsessed education system stifles independent thinking while instilling a highly competitive atmosphere. The need to attend cram schools — after-hours classes that drill young Japanese to pass tough college-entrance exams — deprives kids of the time to explore hobbies and communicate with peers. The result, says Saito, is a country that in reality is very different from its self-image. Instead of sustaining a culture based on consensus and cooperation, the cutthroat education process has made it impossible for Japanese to trust one another. "You created a society that can no longer work together," he says. "You are mentally programmed to hate each other."

Most of all, by stigmatizing those who fail — at their exams, in the office — the system has squelched entrepreneurship, stopping people from taking chances. "That has been the biggest problem with Japan," says Saito. "You cannot have innovation without failure." Changing such fundamental aspects of Japan won't come easily, but Saito believes the desperate economic conditions are finally making some Japanese more willing to take risks. "People are looking for avenues and options," he says. "There is a new perfect storm where we have students, entrepreneurs, even people in their middle age that are saying, I realize that there is a better world outside of this rat race."

"Strange People"
It's not only young Japanese who are trying to make a difference. Yanai of Fast Retailing is 63 years old, but he is striving to recapture the swashbuckling spirit that animated the corporate Japan of his youth. While some big Japanese firms are retreating from the global marketplace — Nomura, for one, said in September that two-thirds of its planned $1 billion in cost cuts would come from the investment bank's American and European operations — Yanai is making greater efforts to conquer it. In 2005, he attempted to break into the hotly contested U.S. retail market by opening three Uniqlo stores in New Jersey shopping malls. Failing to get attention for his unfamiliar brand or basic casual wear, he closed them a year later — but refused to give up. Learning from his mistakes, he relaunched his assault on the U.S. in 2011 with higher-profile stores, starting with a flagship shop on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Uniqlo now has five outlets in the U.S. and is targeting 200 by 2020. "Japan has to rechallenge the global market," he says. If it doesn't, "all we would end up with is deterioration."

Encouraged by a strong yen and the slow economy, some Japanese companies are buying up foreign firms at a record pace — trading house Marubeni's $5.6 billion acquisition of U.S. grain merchandiser Gavilon and advertising giant Dentsu's $5 billion purchase of Britain's Aegis are two of the more notable deals. But in other ways, Yanai remains a corporate oddball. Unlike his peers, Yanai recruits year round and doesn't automatically hire grads from a handful of top universities, preferring to cast a broader net. To support his global ambitions, he seeks staffers with skills not normally desired by corporate Japan, such as foreign languages and overseas experience, and he hires non-Japanese on equal terms with local employees. "Japanese companies still would like to remain in the warm water of working with Japanese people," Yanai says. But "if you are truly serious about expanding the business, you have to have diversity." He had hoped that other Japanese CEOs would take his lead, but has been disappointed. "We thought we were going to revolutionize human resources, but other Japanese companies don't seem to be interested," he says. "We are regarded to be a weirdo."

If Japan is to resurrect itself, practices long considered distasteful or odd will have to become the new normal. Saito believes that the process is finally under way. "We have a pretty good community who in the Japanese parlance are 'strange people,' who are willing to shake things up," he says. The goal is "changing one person at a time." Perhaps one day that will add up to an entire nation.

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