It’s no secret that America has a problem with drugs. 

How to handle that in a way that protects lives from ruin is something the country has grappled with since at least the 1980s.

This week, two courts started down very different paths seeking solutions.

In Cleveland, Ohio – one of many communities ravaged by a national opioid epidemic that claims 150 lives every day – US District Judge Daniel Polster decided he was tired of waiting for the government to come up with a solution. So he called pharmaceutical executives, law enforcement officials, and government lawyers into his courtroom to try to hammer out a settlement.

“This is an unusual case,” Judge Polster told Bloomberg News of what he sees as his duty to take on a “100 percent man-made crisis.” “The problem is urgent, life-threatening, and ongoing. I took this step because I thought it would be the most effective path.”

Also on Wednesday, San Francisco’s district attorney announced that his office was going to dismiss and seal the records of 3,000 people convicted of misdemeanor marijuana possession between 1975 and the legalization of the drug Jan. 1. About 5,000 felony convictions could end up being reduced to misdemeanors, District Attorney George Gascón said, citing racial bias. In 2011, for example, African-Americans made up 6 percent of San Francisco’s population but accounted for half of all marijuana arrests.

“A criminal conviction can be a barrier to employment, housing and other benefits,” he said in a statement, “so instead of waiting for the community to take action, we're taking action for the community.”

Now, here are our five stories of the day, highlighting power shifts, a search for equity, and reckoning with the past.

1. Nunes memo: What will determine its political effect

The question of who polices the police is not a new one. (Roman satirist Juvenal may have been the first to ask, "Who guards the guards?") But whether the Nunes memo remains classified or is released, as House GOP members voted, it raises troubling implications about the politicization of the FBI.


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The Nunes memo is a great burst of wind swirling through Washington, leaving dust and disruption in its wake. Created by the Republican House Intelligence Committee chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes of California, it charges that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Justice abused surveillance powers for partisan purposes to get the Russia investigation going. It’s classified at the moment, but Representative Nunes and fellow committee Republicans want it released. So does President Trump. But the FBI – headed by Trump appointee Christopher Wray – has “grave concerns” about its accuracy. House Democrats say it’s a bunch of hooey. All these sides are pointing and arguing about it with each other – which, for the White House, might be the point. Mr. Trump and his allies have long worked to discredit the Russia probe, and may figure that uproar and confusion help their cause. “He has cover to clean house,” says Julian Sanchez, a national security and intelligence surveillance expert at the Cato Institute, “[so] we may get a much more compliant cohort at those agencies.”


Nunes memo: What will determine its political effect

It’s short, only four pages long. But the “Nunes memo,” which accuses the FBI of abusing surveillance powers to get the Russia investigation rolling, has ripped through Washington with the power of a derecho windstorm, leaving dust, disruption, and conflict in its wake.

Created by aides to Rep. Devin Nunes (R) of California, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, the memo is based on highly classified FBI and intelligence community source material. The FBI says it has “grave concerns” about the document’s accuracy. House Democrats who have read it charge that it is misleading to the point of bad faith, formed from bits cherry-picked from much longer papers.

Will the uproar taint the Russia investigation’s ultimate findings? That may be the point for the administration and its allies. President Trump has long charged that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe is a “witch hunt” full of partisan enemies.

But despite distractions, in the end the actual investigation itself is likely to be the determining factor of its political effect.

“It really depends on the magnitude and certitude of what Mueller discovers,” says Paul Rosenzweig, a senior fellow at the R Street Institute and former senior counsel in the investigation of President Clinton.

A break with the norm

The memo itself is an extraordinary break with the norms of congressional behavior, Mr. Rosenzweig adds. Normally lawmakers with concerns about the behavior of an agency would begin by going to the agency itself, or discussing the issues with a full committee or some larger group.

Instead, Representative Nunes produced a closely held document, which reportedly accuses the FBI of relying on unsupported partisan information to begin electronic surveillance of Carter Page, a former Trump campaign advisor. The theory is that Democratic-funded opposition research was the beginning of the Russia probe, and thus its efforts are bogus.

Nunes then withheld the document for some time from the FBI and the Senate Intelligence Committee, despite requests. After allowing the agency a quick look, the House Intelligence Committee voted to send the document to the White House for presidential review. Mr. Trump declined to halt public dissemination of the memo.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein may be a particular target of the paper. Reportedly it cites his role in signing off on an extension of the surveillance of Mr. Page after Mr. Rosenstein was appointed by Trump last year.

“We’ve gotten to the point where it now seems fair game to politicize the intelligence gathering process, weaponize the legislative process, and call into question the probity of people who have served the country for years,” says Rosenzweig.

Other experts note that Page has been a subject of concern for US counterintelligence officials for years. That means it is unlikely that Democratic-funded opposition research was the main evidence presented to a federal judge for his approval of a secret surveillance warrant.

In 2013 the FBI warned Page, an energy consultant who has lived in Russia, that it had eavesdropped on known Russian agents discussing methods of recruiting Page into their espionage orbit. There is further evidence that US surveillance of Page continued after that time, prior to beginning of the investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 US election. 

Page’s surveillance warrant appears to have been extended at least once. To do so, FBI agents would have needed to show a judge evidence that they were producing useful intelligence, experts note.

Analyzing the behavior

It would have required a conspiracy of FBI agents, Justice officials, and a federal judge to push through the warrant on a purely partisan basis, notes Julian Sanchez, a national security and intelligence surveillance expert at the Cato Institute, in an interview. In addition, the GOP lawmakers on the Intelligence Committee who voted to make the Nunes memo public also recently voted to extend National Security Agency surveillance powers under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Would they have done that if they were concerned about political abuse of electronic eavesdropping?

“Nunes and his allies haven’t in any respect behaved as you might expect from members of Congress who have uncovered serious intelligence abuses,” writes Mr. Sanchez in an analysis on the Just Security web site.

His worry, Sanchez says, is that Trump keeps talking about his frustration about being unable to control the “Trump Justice Department.” He seems to believe that federal law enforcement should be under his direct control, to investigate those he wants investigated, and leave alone those he wants unbothered.

Rosenstein, who appointed Mr. Mueller as special counsel in the first place, has been a particular target in this regard. Reportedly, Trump refers to him as that “Democrat from Baltimore,” though Rosenstein is a Republican who was appointed US Attorney in Maryland by President George W. Bush in 2005 – and was appointed to his current Justice Department post by Trump himself.

Trump may see the Nunes memo as an excuse to fire Rosenstein and perhaps replace him with someone who will rein in Mueller.

“He has cover to clean house, [so] we may get a much more compliant cohort at those agencies,” says Sanchez.

The public may get a chance to see what all the fuss over the memo is about as early as Friday. Trump is expected to tell Congress he has no objection to its publication, according to news reports. The House Intelligence Committee will then be able to vote again and release the memo.

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2. Macron takes up challenge: to smooth Franco-African relations

French President Emmanuel Macron came into office promising to undo the status quo. Can he bring that mentality of overhaul to France's relationship with Africa, which is so fraught with emotion and history that a term was coined to describe it?

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French President Emmanuel Macron (c.) hosts a meeting with, from the left, Burkina Faso's President Roch Marc Christian Kabore, Chadian President Idriss Deby, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, Mauritania's President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, and Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou, in December in La Celle-Saint-Cloud, near Paris. Presidents, princes, and diplomats were meeting to breathe life into a young African military force that aims to counter the growing jihadi threat in the Sahel region but needs a huge boost to fulfill its mission.

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The term “Françafrique” was first coined in 1955 as a way to tout African countries’ positive economic and political gains thanks to their ties with France. But in recent years the term has turned sour, coming to describe the unequal and neocolonial relationship France upholds with its former African colonies and a pattern of French-supported dictators offering French companies lucrative contracts. Many a French president has promised to end Françafrique before the pressures of office led them to renege. But Emmanuel Macron may be positioned to finally break the pattern. Young, a political outsider, and with no business or political history with Africa, has taken a different tone from his predecessors. His willingness to acknowledge France’s responsibility for torture and massacres during Algeria’s eight-year civil war, as well as his insistence on creating a sense of equality between himself and his fellow African leaders, sometimes to his detriment, could point to a new way forward. Even changing the rhetoric surrounding the delicate subject would be more than any past president has succeeded in doing.


Macron takes up challenge: to smooth Franco-African relations

As French President Emmanuel Macron approaches the end of his first year in office, he, like many presidents before him, has the ominous job of navigating France’s complicated relationship with Africa. “Françafrique” – the special and often murky business and political relationship that France shares with its former African colonies – is a political sticking point that has plagued former French leaders for decades.

Mr. Macron heads to Senegal Thursday on his fourth presidential visit to sub-Saharan Africa. Co-hosting the Global Partnership for Education Financing Conference with Senegalese President Macky Sall, he’ll be looking to show France’s commitment to an equal relationship with its African neighbors.

Can Macron modernize Françafrique once and for all, and what is at stake if he succeeds?

What is Françafrique?

The term “Françafrique” was first coined in 1955 by President Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Côte d’Ivoire, as a way to tout the country’s positive economic and political gains thanks to its alliance with France. But in recent years the term has turned sour, coming to describe the unequal and neocolonial relationship France upholds with its former African colonies and a pattern of French-supported dictators offering French companies lucrative contracts.

France continues to exert control over French-speaking Africa through diverse means. The West African CFA franc – guaranteed by the French treasury and pegged to the euro – is still the official currency in 12 former French colonies, despite their independence from France nearly 60 years ago. And French remains the official language in around 20 African countries.

France also maintains powerful ties with Africa through its business operations in sectors such as telecommunications, gas and electricity, and infrastructure. And since the 1980s, France has been involved in a series of military interventions in Africa, most recently in Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, and the Central African Republic during former Presidents Nicolas Sarkozy’s and François Hollande’s terms.

Why is Françafrique considered a problem?

While Africa has benefited economically from its special relationship with France, especially in terms of its business and trade operations, France has undeniably benefited more and the alliance has hindered the continent from becoming fully independent.

“The relationship between France and its former African colonies is complex and has caused major hang-ups,” says Philippe Hugon, an Africa researcher at the Paris-based think tank IRIS. “Despite the decolonization and globalization of Africa, there are few domains where France is not involved.”

The political coziness between French and African leaders has also been heavily criticized over the years. France has been seen as complicit in allowing African dictators like Chadian President Idriss Déby and Togo’s former President Gnassingbé Eyadéma to remain in power, by providing support both privately and publicly. Ex-French President Jacques Chirac once described Eyadéma as “a close personal friend of mine and of France.” In return, it has been widely alleged, a number of African dictators funded Mr. Chirac’s presidential campaigns.

France’s dominance over the French language is also seen by some as a type of “cultural imperialism” that helps maintain France’s influence in Africa and ultimately doesn’t allow Africa to advance on its own two feet.

Why is it so hard to put an end to Françafrique?

France extricating itself from Africa would mean a prolonged, Brexit-style dismantling of treaties in the military, financial, economic, security, and trade sectors. Macron couldn’t realistically disassemble all that France has in place without great immediate peril for its economy – and Africa’s.

In addition, France benefits greatly from the relationship at a time when it desperately needs to boost its image around the world.

“France wants to pretend that it is still a world superpower but that simply is no longer the case,” says Patrick Farbiaz, director of Sortir du Colonialisme, a nongovernmental organization that fights against colonization. “The reality is that economically and politically, France is falling behind China, India, and the United States.

“In order to show its strength, it needs to maintain its influence in Africa and show that it has their support.”

The France-Africa relationship has also served to puff up the status of individual French presidents – aided in part by the fact that France’s African relations were long run directly out of the presidential palace, not out of the Foreign Ministry.

“Africa always gives a place for French presidents to be a big man,” says Douglas Yates, a professor of political science at the American Graduate School in Paris and an expert on African politics. “They arrive in a country, everyone is clapping, and they’re made to feel important. They don’t get that anywhere else.”

French presidents may begin their mandate pledging to end Françafrique, but as soon as they experience their warm African welcome, they often get more involved. Both Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Hollande promised to end Françafrique, for example, but well into his mandate, Sarkozy enjoyed close relationships with several African dictators, while Hollande sent French troops into Mali within one year of his election.

Why is there hope that Macron might be able to address Françafrique?

Young, a political outsider, and with no business or political history with Africa, Macron could be the president to finally shift the power balance between France and Africa. From the start of his presidency, he has taken a different tone from his predecessors.

His willingness to acknowledge France’s responsibility for torture and massacres during Algeria’s eight-year civil war, as well as his insistence on creating a sense of equality between himself and his fellow African leaders, sometimes to his detriment, could point to a new way forward. Even changing the rhetoric surrounding the delicate subject would be more than any past president has succeeded in doing.

“This is the era of celebrity and image, and in a PR capacity, Macron has the ability to make a change,” says Mr. Yates. “If Macron can change France’s image in Africa but maintain the existing policies, that would be a success.”

But ultimately, Macron will have to take concrete steps to quiet his skeptics, who say his current treatment of Françafrique amounts to mere lip service. His partnership with Senegal in the Global Partnership for Education initiative, where leaders will work to convince developing countries to earmark 20 percent of their budgets towards education, is a positive step, as is a promise he made in November, during a trip to Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, and Ghana, when he pledged to offer more scholarships for Africans to study in France.

“Education is a good investment and getting more Africans to come to French universities would have positive consequences for Africa,” says Yates. “It’s the best way to create ambassadors for French business and transmitters of French culture.”

How has Macron handled Françafrique so far?

It’s been primarily a diplomatic challenge so far, with some bumps.

A recent trip to Burkina Faso showed the fine line French presidents must tread when dealing with the issue of Françafrique. During a question and answer session at Ouagadougou University in November, a student asked Macron what he would do about the country’s constant power cuts. The French president replied, “You speak to me like I’m a colonial power, but I don’t want to look after electricity in Burkina Faso. That’s the job of your president.”

When Burkina Faso’s President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré later left the room, Macron joked, “You see, he’s gone. He’s left to fix the air-conditioning.” Macron’s comments set off a social media frenzy, with some criticizing him for paternalistic overtones, and others arguing that it was merely lighthearted humor. For his part, Macron said that his ability to joke with the African president showed their inherent equality.

What doors would open if Françafrique were resolved?

In the short term, France would likely suffer. With so many business, trade, and cultural influences in Africa, France’s economic and international influence would take a hit if it pulled its operations out of Africa. Africa, too, would find the cutting-off of existing ties with France hard economically.

But like the end of Spain’s colonial ties with Latin America, a breaking free from France would ultimately be a good thing for Africa, allowing it to truly become independent and rely on its own goods and services for economic, political, military, and cultural gain. Ideally, the two could become true partners without a sense of one dominating the other.


3. Why the 5G race goes much deeper than technology

On the surface, our next story is about technology and the rush toward the next breakthrough. But what's going on underneath is part of a larger geopolitical question about security and competing ideals.


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A kind of tech-world tizzy erupted early this week when a leaked memo from within the White House National Security Council considered whether the federal government, rather than the private sector, should build America's next-generation (so-called 5G) wireless network. The rationale: to avoid the potential security challenge of Chinese technology handling US wireless communications. The idea drew wide criticism – as unrealistic or unnecessary – and avowals from White House sources that it is not official policy. Yet it pointed to what many technology experts say is a high-stakes race between China and Western nations to dominate in advanced technologies, for both economic and military reasons. Meanwhile, a Western ideal of open markets is squaring off against China’s single-minded drive to become the leader in key areas. The 5G arena will generate plenty of money for many companies and countries to share in – and a trade war is something all parties want to avoid. Still, says technology expert Doug Brake, “these are big, long-term competitive concerns.”


Why the 5G race goes much deeper than technology

The US, South Korea, and China are all racing to develop the next wireless communications technology, known as 5G.

The problem is that this competition is not shaping up as a race where the best technology wins but a clash of visions on how nations should develop. The long-held Western ideal of companies competing on a level playing field is squaring off against China’s single-minded drive to become the leader in key areas.

The immediate flashpoints are traditional industries – aluminum and steel – where China has threatened to retaliate if President Trump carries through with his threat to slap tariffs on those imports. The more difficult challenge will be reconciling Western economic ideals with China’s development strategy in cutting-edge technologies.

At stake are trillions of dollars of business in industries that entrepreneurs are just beginning to dream up using artificial intelligence, robotics, and other technologies. The consulting firm McKinsey estimates 5G alone will add anywhere from $2.7 trillion to $6.2 trillion to the global economy by 2025 as those next-generation wireless networks create the communications grid for self-driving cars, smart homes, and intelligent factories.

That’s plenty of money for many companies and countries to share in – if China and the West can reconcile their differences. What's keeping the two sides talking is the knowledge that everyone loses in a trade war.

“These are big, long-term competitive concerns,” says Doug Brake, director of telecommunications policy at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a Washington think tank. And they’re not just economic.

What if China is so successful in a key 5G technology that the US military becomes reliant on it as a supplier? he asks. “What sort of position does it put us in?”

It’s those same military concerns that are behind China’s “military-civilian fusion” strategy, which aims to create a strong modern military on key high-tech technologies made domestically. And China is using a full array of tactics – from massive subsidies to state-owned and private companies to the appropriation of foreign technology – to achieve its goals.


Jason Lee/Reuters
Beijing Opera performers use their mobile phones ahead of a new-year event in Beijing on Dec. 31, 2017. China's large consumer market makes it a big player in electronics, and has drawn American into partnerships with Chinese ones. By 2025, China is expected to be the world's largest market for next-generation wireless networking technology.

“The potential is certainly there and the determination of the Chinese is certainly there,” says Thomas Duesterberg, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute and coeditor of “U.S. Manufacturing: The Engine for Growth in a Global Economy.” “They’re putting a great deal of money and intellectual resources and mercantilist tools in the world trading order to try to achieve dominance.”

Mr. Trump campaigned on the idea of getting tougher with China on trade issues, and his administration has made some early moves aimed at confronting the Chinese challenge. In August, the president followed up on a campaign promise of “a zero tolerance policy on intellectual property theft and forced technology transfer” by asking United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to consider launching an investigation into China’s practices.

A memo stirs the pot

Discussion about US-China rivalry over wireless networks flared early this week when a leaked memo and slide presentation from within the White House National Security Council suggested that the federal government, rather than the private sector, should possibly build America’s 5G network. The rationale: to avoid the potential security challenge of Chinese technology handling US wireless communications. The idea drew wide criticism as unrealistic or unnecessary and prompted avowals from White House sources that it is not official policy.

On Tuesday, in his State of the Union address, President Trump reiterated his get-tough policy without mentioning China: “We will protect American workers and American intellectual property, through strong enforcement of our trade rules.”

While various Asian nations – not just China – have used industrial policies and low-cost labor to take big chunks of market share in manufacturing industries, such as steel, autos, and memory chips, China’s 5G drive also includes a determined effort to appropriate Western intellectual property (IP). According to government officials and private experts, this effort involves everything from outright theft of trade secrets through industrial espionage to a policy of forcing companies wanting to sell in China to transfer their technology to Chinese joint-venture partners.

China poised to be largest 5G market

The pressure on companies is enormous because China is such a huge market to sell to. The pressure will be especially intense on companies with 5G-related technology if, as expected, China becomes the biggest market for 5G by 2025. China’s Huawei and ZTE Corp., racing to build a 5G network in China, are providing increasing competition for Europe’s Ericsson and Nokia and South Korea’s Samsung with key telecommunications equipment at extremely low prices.

On Wednesday, ZTE said it planned to sell $2.1 billion worth of stock privately to help fund development of its 5G mobile network technology.

More subtly, Beijing is pushing for a greater role in setting technical standards in the next-generation wireless arena. The more 5G patents Chinese companies hold, the more they can pressure Western patent holders to license their technology to Chinese companies at a cheap price.

“It is here – in its potential reshaping of norms for standards-essential IP – that China’s ascent poses a real challenge to American firms’ practices,” concluded a 2013 report for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. “The Chinese approach emphasizes IP as another factor of production, not as a source of profit or unique competitive advantage. Accordingly, the aim is to lower its price to the minimum, which would (hopefully) increase the profit margin of equipment producers” at the expense of patent holders.

Few observers believe that Chinese President Xi Jinping will back down anytime soon.

President “Xi has really staked his future on the high-tech sectors in China,” says Mary Lovely, an economics professor at Syracuse University in New York. 

At an October hearing by the office of the US Trade Representative, examining China’s intellectual-property practices, Chen Zhou of the China Chamber of International Commerce warned that any US penalties could “trigger a trade war.”

Outcome still uncertain

From China’s point of view, many Western norms of trade and IP are rules of the game that keep Western companies on top and China and other developing nations from catching up. 

It’s not clear China will win the 5G competition. Its attempts to introduce a rival 4G standard failed to catch on. And 5G encompasses a big collection of technologies, only some of which China has proven good at, says Mr. Brake of ITIF. 

“Technology … is being integrated within the existing network and changing very quickly,” he says. “It’s very easy to imagine the innovations that such a network could engender.” What's not clear is which specific technologies or products will succeed in the marketplace.

Government can streamline the permitting of all the new antennas the network will require, he adds. But the private sector is better placed to figure out what customers want.


4. Baby-at-work fuss points to deeper issue for Japan: few women in politics

Our next story asks: Can a country where the birthrate has dropped below 1 million afford to consider "child care" just a women's issue? It’s the kind of issue that would be prioritized if more Japanese politicians were female, advocates say – a move that would bring widespread economic benefit.

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Yoshitomo Sawada (third from left), chairman of the Kumamoto municipal assembly, and others consult with assembly member Yuka Ogata about the presence of her infant son in the chamber in November 2017 in Kumamoto, Japan. Ms. Ogata was asked to remove the child from the chamber and returned to the session alone after leaving him with a friend.

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Twenty years ago, Miyuki Yusa was a brand-new member of her municipal assembly in northern Japan. She was also a new mother, and needed to take time off. But there was no such thing as maternity leave, she says – so the reason for her absence was marked as an “accident.” Since then, working women’s challenges in Japan have come to the forefront through Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “Womenomics” push. The campaign is meant to boost the number of women in leadership positions across the board, and boost Japan’s economy as its older population soars and its birthrate shrinks. But advocates like Ms. Yusa say the case of Yuka Ogata, a municipal assembly member ejected from a session this fall for bringing her infant along, shows just how much work is left to do. One root remedy, they say, is electing more women to government. Just 10 percent of Japan’s lower house is female, ranking it 157th in the world. Assemblies with more women don’t just prioritize so-called women’s issues, they argue: They also change the perception that they’re just “women’s issues” in the first place. 


Baby-at-work fuss points to deeper issue for Japan: few women in politics

When Yuka Ogata walked into work last November with her 7-month-old in her arms, she wanted to highlight the challenges working women face in Japan – child-care access, in particular.

In a way, she succeeded all too well: The municipal assembly, of which she is a member, kicked them out of the meeting and later gave her a written reprimand, setting off a media firestorm that reached far beyond Japan.

The news about Ms. Ogata and the male-dominated assembly in Kumamoto, a southwestern city of 740,000, made headlines from Washington to Bolivia. Her ejection generated mixed reactions at home, from criticism for disrupting the assembly, to a hashtag of support: translated as “It’s OK to bring your child to meetings.”

The conversation has drawn attention to barriers for working mothers, in a country where their full-time, full-benefits employment is more of an exception than the norm. More quietly, however, it has raised a related dilemma: low female representation in politics. A government with more women’s voices, advocates say, is one that will better address “women’s issues” like childcare – and change the idea that they’re specifically “women’s issues,” at all.

It’s a topic one might expect to be at the top of officials’ priorities, several years into Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s drive for “womenomics” – employment policies meant to better utilize half of Japan’s working-age population, as the aging country’s birth rate shrinks to an unprecedented low. The campaign has vowed to boost more women into leadership across the board. But that effort seems sorely lacking in politics, some advocates say – stalling progress on topics from early-childhood education to work-life balance that affect society as a whole.

“I have listened to the voices of many working mothers struggling to raise children,” says Ogata, who previously earned a master’s degree in conflict resolution from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and worked at the UN Development Program’s Yemen office. Now, she says, it’s her job to bring those voices into policymaking.

Women in the house

Ogata didn’t expect that the council would kick her and her son out of the meeting, citing rules that do not allow non-members – in this case, the infant – to enter during a session. Not that she had examples to go by: She was the first sitting council member to give birth in Kumamoto’s history, and one of only six women in the 48-member assembly. Japan ranks 157th in the world for women’s representation in legislatures, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. (The United States, for comparison, places 99th.) Female lawmakers account for only 10.1 percent of the country’s powerful lower house.

The figure is far from Mr. Abe’s target for Japan as a whole: to boost the share of women in leadership positions to at least 30 percent by 2020. In 2015, however, the government set a series of modified targets: a five-year plan to boost women to 7 percent of public service posts, and 15 percent of local government and private positions.

One consequence of having few women leaders, advocates say, is the lack of attention to child care. More than 26,000 children are on waiting lists for nurseries, and some analysts argue the actual figure is much higher, including children whose mothers have given up looking for full-time work. It’s the kind of issue that would be prioritized if more politicians were female, they argue – a move that would have widespread economic benefit.

During her pregnancy, Ogata asked the assembly office to provide on-site daycare for children of councilors, staff, and visitors. But she was told it was an “individual matter,” she says.

Since being elected in 2015, “I have run up against attitudes that won’t change existing situations, while the issues of child abuse and declining birthrate have become more serious than ever,” she says. In 2016, the number of newborns fell below 1 million – the first time since the government began those records in 1899, according to the Health Ministry.

Like Ogata, Ayumi Miyazato is a city council member in southern Japan – and a new mother. Unlike Ogata, however, she was able to take her 3-month-old baby to the assembly this fall, which provided space for childcare during meetings.

Yoshinori Higa, the head of the assembly’s administrative staff in Ms. Miyazato’s town of Chatan, on the island of Okinawa, says the move did not surprise him because it is a close-knit community of about 29,000. Child-rearing is often viewed as a community responsibility, rather than an individual one, but less so in “rigid” institutions like assemblies, according to Nozomi Odagawa, the leader of a Kumamoto civic group that is pushing for reform.

Miyazato, who became the council’s first member to take maternity leave, says she can now better advocate for policies on such issues as childcare and family support. And Chatan’s assembly office and other councilors have provided a lot of support ever since she shared that she was pregnant, she says, noting that first-hand parenting experience benefits men, too.

“Male councilors tend to prioritize things like development and road work,” she says. Chatan’s assembly allows paternity leave, she notes, and “men’s active involvement in child-rearing makes them carry out more in-depth discussions on childcare issues.”

Calls for deeper change

To boost women’s representation in government, however, some argue legislative reform is needed – including Miyuki Yusa, an assembly member in Japan’s northern Miyagi Prefecture.

Ogata’s episode reminds Ms. Yusa, who was first elected in 1995, of her own experience about 20 years ago, when she tried to bring her baby into the chamber. The request was flatly rejected.

“I was told there was no such system,” recalls Yusa, a former reporter for national public broadcaster NHK. Since there was no maternity leave, the reason for her absence was then defined as an “accident,” she says.

Considering how little progress there has been on women’s representation, “we certainly need a quota system to change what legislature looks like,” says Mieko Takenobu, a sociology professor at Wako University in Tokyo. “If you go to an international conference, you can see a very different look from what Japanese people are used to.”

In Japan, “it is taken for granted that men dominate politics, thus people tend to look for political candidates among men,” says the professor, referencing the so-called critical mass threshold of 30 percent female representation – the point at which women tend to bring about significant policy changes.

Yusuke Kuroki, an official at the gender equality bureau within Japan’s Cabinet Office, says the government has yet to hold concrete discussions on a quota system. He says that raising the number of female lawmakers through party support is a “top priority issue,” however, although critics say effective measures have not been introduced. The national government also stresses that more women have been appointed to its advisory panels in recent years.

That’s not enough, Ms. Takenobu argues. And having more women lawmakers in Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party would help the premier formulate his signature “womenomics” measures more effectively, she says.

Ms. Odagawa says Japanese politics need more fundamental changes to encourage more women to run for office, however. Japanese people are good listeners, but many “are not good at exchanging opinions,” she adds, urging more opportunities to “let dialogue play a more important role.”

Her group is aiming for grassroots change. In early January, they called on the Kumamoto city assembly to create a more flexible, inclusive working environment to support councilors from diverse backgrounds: encompassing disabilities, sexual orientation, parenthood, and people caring for elderly parents. 

“We need diverse representations in a decision-making body,” Ogata stresses, “and I believe that will benefit society as a whole.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the number of council members in the Kumamoto municipal assembly. 


5. In bookstores, immersion, connection – and volumes of refuge

If, like me, you are always looking for the next great read, here are two lists of recommendations for you from the independent booksellers we talked to for our next story: the books their customers flocked to in 2017, and the titles they are most looking forward to in 2018.


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Books and bookstores have always helped people wrestle with life’s complexities. So it’s not surprising that booksellers are today reporting high interest in titles that seek to distill the political sphere. “Resistance” titles – responses to the current administration, discussions of social justice – have surged, just as conservative tomes dominated during the Obama era. But it’s not all fuel for the opposition. For some readers, bookstores serve as places in which to escape. “I hear enough about politics,” says one devotee of historical novels. “I’d rather enjoy a book and not get upset.” Independent bookstores have flourished, and the books they stock now offer more varied “mirrors” that readers can see themselves in as publishers offer a wider representation of people across stories. Women have a greater voice in realms including dystopian fiction. Interest in new poets has risen. Online access to books may provide ease. But for many, bookstores offer a balm. Says Gloria Hui, a student in Boston: “It’s this nice feeling, being surrounded by books.”


In bookstores, immersion, connection – and volumes of refuge

Jan Weismiller has been noticing a lot of new faces in her Iowa City bookstore over the past few weeks.

And they all want one book, says Ms. Weismiller, co-owner of Prairie Lights: "Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House."

That this year's biggest title so far – with 1.7 million copies sold in its first month, and a featured reading at Sunday's Grammy Awards – is political doesn't come as a surprise, bookstore owners say. But underneath a hunger for what some have dubbed "resistance" books, they see something more: Readers seeking to connect and make sense of a tumultuous time.

Weismiller and others say that books – and the stores that sell them – have always served that purpose: to help people wrestle with life's complexities – political or otherwise.

"I've always believed that it’s possible that when you read fiction it's, in some ways, more helpful in understanding politics than reading political books because it’s deeper more fully drawn portraits of people dealing with these kinds of things," she says.

Bookstores across the country are reporting an increased interest in titles seeking to distill the political sphere through the voices of activists, feminists, academics, novelists, and even poets, as mostly liberal readers try to make sense of President Trump's election.

These "resistance" books – responses to the Trump administration and discussions of social justice – include activism guides such as "Keep Marching: How Every Woman Can Take Action and Change Our World" by Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner; treatises on democracy such as "Trumpocracy: The Corruption of The American Republic" by David Frum; reporting on Russian interference in the 2018 election; along with poetry and fiction. 

In the middle of former President Barack Obama's presidency, conservative books were selling better than liberal books, with an August 2012 report from Amazon showing "red" books making up 56 percent of book sales. These "red" books were mostly about Mr. Obama, much like most "resistance" books are about Mr. Trump, suggesting its easier for the opposition to sell books. 

For some readers, however, bookstores are serving as a haven for people to come together, connect with their children, and find books that help them escape.

"I hear enough about politics through the news and everything online," says Lisa Ruokis, a department assistant at the Berklee School of Music and a frequent visitor to Trident Booksellers in Boston since the 1980s. Recently, she's been drawn to historical novels, and prefers not to read political books. "I'd rather enjoy a book and not get upset."

These trends come amid a resurgence of the country's independent bookstores, which have been seeing growth and rising sales since 2009. The American Booksellers Association membership grew more than 20 percent from the nadir of the economic recession, from 1,651 in 2009 to 2,094 in 2014. This number is projected to grow even more in 2018.

"We've all come to understand that a bookstore is not just a place to sell books – it's a community space," says Prairie Lights' Weismiller. "And we connect with all sorts of different local communities to keep it thriving."

Karen Hayes, managing owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tenn., feels encouraged by the vibrancy of bookstores, noting that in the 1990s she saw dozens of bookstores close their doors while working at Random House.

"You didn’t see anybody young, you didn’t see anybody opening bookstores, and it's completely different now," she says.

Ms. Hayes says she hopes interest in activism books will grow, but is uncertain if it will continue at the same level as 2017, which was "an awakening for a lot of people."

In New York City, Leigh Altshuler, director of marketing and communications for Strand Book Store, confirms an increased interest in books focused on the political climate.

"Everything does come and go in waves. And I think just because of where we are at right now this is the wave we're riding," Ms. Altshuler says.

Inspired by the #MeToo movement and a push for political and social power, women are taking center stage in the literary world. In fact, And Other Stories, an independent boutique British publisher, will only publish books by women in 2018.

There is also a "female voice arising in dystopian fiction," Weismiller says. She points to the resurgence of interest in Margaret Atwood’s work including "The Handmaid's Tale" – which inspired an Emmy-winning series for television – as well as Louise Erdrich’s newly released novel "Future Home of the Living God."

Sales of classic dystopian fiction spiked last year in the week's following Trump's election. Immediately after the inauguration, sales of George Orwell's novel "1984" were up 9,500 percent. Liberal readers trying to make sense of the 2016 election also turned to other classics of the genre like "A Brave New World" and "Fahrenheit 451."

Beyond gender, however, books are increasingly offering more varied "mirrors" for readers to see themselves in, Strand’s Altshuler says.

"We're seeing a wider representation of people across stories, so whether that's gender, race, and sexuality, it's really becoming easier to find yourself in a book, or find an interesting or a different character," says Altshuler.

Books that encourage self-exploration, such as Bréne Brown’s "Braving the Wilderness" (2017), and poetry, especially Rupi Kaur's two volumes of poems, have been other recently popular genres at Parnassus Books.

Strand Book Store, too, notes more interest in poetry, with "fresh, young poets" like Alexandra Elle, Tyler Knott Gregson, and Ms. Kaur – who is consistently on their best-seller list – reaching a younger demographic, the latter two through their internet presence, Altshuler says.

Prairie Lights sold more poetry in 2017 than it has since it opened in 1978. "Resistance" poetry, including "Olio" (2016) by Tyehimba Jess, did very well, as a 2017 Pulitzer led to renewed attention. "Olio" examines the stories of African-American performers directly before and after the Civil War up to World War I. The collection explores the ways these performers resisted, reacted to, co-opted, and sometimes defeated attempts to minstrelize them.

Among Prairie Lights' best-sellers are several books based in historical events. For example, George Saunders's "Lincoln in the Bardo" (2017), the Booker Prize-winning novel on Abraham Lincoln grieving for his son, was the best-selling novel for the Iowa City store. Other top sellers include "All the Light We Cannot See" (2014) by Anthony Doerr and "A Gentleman in Moscow" (2016) by Amor Towles.

Readers at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore in Steamboat Springs, Colo., who are mainly tourists six months out of the year, are not expressing a strong interest in politics, says general manager Christina Erickson.

"I don’t think very many people necessarily come here on vacation and want to read political books," she says. "They are more into … something fun and light."

In Boston, readers navigate the narrow alleys of Trident's two stories, lingering after lunch at the store's café.

Gloria Hui, a college student in Boston says that while she often buys books online because she doesn't always have time to visit a bookstore, she would prefer to browse in a store. 

"It's this nice feeling, being surrounded by books," Ms. Hui says.


The Monitor's View

Who can win the peace in Syria?

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After seven years of fighting and 400,000 killed, Syrians yearn for peace. And a new contest has emerged. All sides to the conflict want to woo civilians by rebuilding homes and reopening schools. One estimate for Syria’s reconstruction is $200 billion to $300 billion, and the terms of any political settlement will probably depend on which outside powers can afford that. The final victory, in other words, could lie with those countries with the economic strength and the humanitarian spirit to help. Iran and Russia, which supported President Bashar al-Assad, either cannot or will not bankroll reconstruction. This leaves the peace advantage to others. The United States and its partners will not provide assistance to any area still under Mr. Assad’s control – helping to deny political legitimacy to the regime. Will this strategy work? Postwar compassion fatigue among Americans and their allies can be as troublesome as war fatigue. Syria could be different. The lesson of war is that victory must be defined far beyond the use of force. Peace takes another kind of strength.


Who can win the peace in Syria?

One lesson from the history of war is that a military victory may be no victory at all. What comes in the wake of war – resettlement of civilians, reconstruction of a nation, and reconciliation – is often the permanent victory. After seven years of fighting and 400,000 killed, Syria may be nearing this point. The war still continues in parts of the country. But the real battle now is over who defines the peace, and pays for it.

For most parties to the conflict, from Iran to pro-democracy Syrians, the common foe – Islamic State (ISIS) – has been all but vanquished. The terrorist group’s stronghold, Raqqa, was liberated in October. Last year, an estimated 715,000 Syrians returned to their homes. More are returning this year. The Bashar al-Assad regime now controls about half the territory and population while its various opponents control the other half.

As war fatigue sets in and Syrians yearn for peace, a new contest has emerged. All sides to the conflict want to woo civilians to their side by rebuilding homes, reopening schools, and trading with the outside world. One estimate for Syria’s reconstruction is $200 billion to $300 billion. The terms of any political settlement in ongoing negotiations will probably depend on which outside powers can afford that price tag.

The final victory, in other words, could lie with those countries with the economic strength and the humanitarian spirit to help stabilize Syria. France has already said it will contribute $12.4 million to revive Raqqa. And in recent weeks, the Trump administration has committed to “stabilization initiatives” in areas liberated by American-backed local forces. In the past year, it has spent about $1.5 billion.

“Consistent with our values, America has the opportunity to help a people which has suffered greatly,” said US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last month. The United States also wants to prevent a resurgence of ISIS, erode Iran’s influence in Syria, and bring democracy to the country. For its part, Europe seeks to stem the flow of Syrian refugees and encourage some to return home.

Iran and Russia, which have provided military support to President Assad, either cannot or will not bankroll the cost of reconstructing Syria. Their own economies are too weak. And Russian President Vladimir Putin, facing an election at home, wants to present an image of a military victory to the Russian people. Assad does not seem to be expecting much aid from his allies.

This leaves the peace advantage to others. The US, along with the European Union and other partners, will not provide assistance to any area under the control of the Assad regime. This helps deny political legitimacy to the regime.

“Our expectation is that the desire for a return to normal life and these tools of pressure will help rally the Syrian people and individuals within the regime to compel Assad to step aside,” said Mr. Tillerson.

Will this postwar strategy work? Recent wars – in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya – would suggest that postwar compassion fatigue among Americans and their allies can be as troublesome as war fatigue. Those countries are still not at peace. Syria could be different. The lesson of war is that victory must be defined far beyond the use of force. Peace takes another kind of strength.


A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Healed of hepatitis

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In today’s column, a woman shares how she and her husband were quickly healed through an understanding of our true nature as God’s creation.


Healed of hepatitis

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Many years ago, when my husband and I were living and working overseas, my husband began to experience a yellowing of his skin and other alarming symptoms over a period of about two weeks. He didn’t feel that bad – just a little “off” – but his colleagues, including some PhD’s in the health-care field, were all convinced he had hepatitis, which can cause many of the symptoms he was experiencing.

Because of the concern of my husband’s colleagues and others, he and I went to a medical facility, as suggested, for testing. When the results came back they showed that we both had hepatitis.

The doctors told us there was no medication to take, but that rest and staying at home were mandatory. There were many projections about the seriousness of this disease and its potential long-term effects. The doctors said it could take anywhere up to six months to recover from. In fact, my husband’s boss had been out of work for six months when he had been diagnosed with this disease.

Our family had already experienced many healings through prayer, and my husband and I were both convinced that this condition also would be quickly and permanently healed. We turned to our understanding of God to get a different view of the situation—a spiritual perspective. We also asked a Christian Science practitioner, a professional who helps people find healing through prayer, to pray with us.

We realized that we were dealing with this question: Is this claim of disease the truth about us, or is it opinion? An opinion is defined in the dictionary as “a belief strong enough to make an impression but not strong enough to be true.” So we had a choice whether to be impressed. Even though we were surrounded by well-meaning people who felt this disease was truly part of us, and the blood tests showed the existence of this disease, we chose not to be impressed.

That’s not to say that the doctor’s diagnosis was medically off. Rather, we saw that this assessment, while materially accurate, didn’t hold up to the spiritual reality. It wasn’t what God knew to be the truth or the fact about us. This larger truth, sustained by divine authority, renders material evidence unfounded.

The facts about God’s man – which includes everyone – are boundless, but there were a few that stood out to me as I prayed. One is, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. . . . And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:27, 31). And as I have learned from Christian Science, as the image of God, divine Spirit, our true identity is spiritual and untarnished. So even in the face of a serious or seemingly irrefutable prognosis, I saw that we could trust in the spiritual fact of our wholeness and safety.

We were confident that God is more than capable of overcoming any illness. And that is just how it all worked out. In three-and-a-half weeks my husband was back at work, looking and feeling healthy, and I was back operating my own business. This healing took place years ago and there have never been any lingering effects.

Have you heard the saying, “One on God’s side is a majority”? We don’t need to fear any opinion if we are part of God’s majority. We are all safe in God’s care.

Adapted from a testimony in the Aug. 20, 2012, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.



Neighbors from the North

A North Korean delegation, including athletes, arrives at the Yangyang International Airport in Yangyang, South Korea, Feb. 1 in advance of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris and Jacob Turcotte. )

In Our Next Issue

( February 2nd, 2018 )

Thanks for spending time with us today. Come back tomorrow. We're working on a story about Afghanistan. Beyond the most recent round of attacks, a more important conflict may be brewing over fundamental facts, with new investigations diverging dramatically from US military reports. 

Monitor Daily Podcast

February 01, 2018
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