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SEPTEMBER 25, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 12

  ALSO IN TIME
COVER: Enough Is Enough
After a deadly and mysterious bomb attack at Jakarta's stock exchange, citizens are desperate for President Wahid to take decisive action to restore stability
Sick Man of Asia: Just how ill is Suharto?
Interview: The Defense Minister sees conspiracies
Outside Help: Can the world do anything to bring peace?

SPECIAL SITE
TIME at the Olympics: Sydney 2000
TIMEasia, TIMEeurope, TIMEpacific and TIME.com bring you our take on the first Olympics of the new millennium

SUMMER OLYMPICS: Notebook
Highlights from the first few days

JAPAN: Fighting Back
Despite the appearance of dedicated service, the nation's consumers have long had a raw deal. But a series of product mishaps has prompted activists to challenge the giants
Viewpoint: The consumer movement is working

THE PHILIPPINES: Going In Hard
Fed up with delays and more kidnappings, Manila launches a military assault to free hostages held by Muslim rebels

PAKISTAN: You Can't Go Home Again
Politics blocks the return of Bengali refugees to Bangladesh

INNOVATORS: The Next Wave

Who's Cool In a Hot Medium

ESPIONAGE: Dumb and Dumber

The collapse of the government's case against nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee has authorities looking foolish—and reckless
Asian America: The Lee case highlights discrimination

CINEMA: The First Empress

With a new movie starring Richard Gere, actress Joan Chen takes on a new role as a Hollywood director

TRAVEL WATCH:
Talk Can Be Cheap for Tech-Savvy Travelers

We're Making Progress
A Japanese activist says consumers are gaining ground
By NOBUKO HIWASA

ALSO
Japan: Fighting Back: Despite the appearance of dedicated service, the nation's consumers have long had a raw deal. But a series of product mishaps has prompted activists to challenge the giants
Consumer Countdown: A litany of poisonings, bad products and, now, redress

When I joined the consumers' movement in the 1970s, things were simple. We appealed for an end to the use of artificial food coloring and developed coloring-free food by ourselves. We showed food makers that they could produce ham and sausages just as we did, with no additives or preservatives—and now they do. We came up with ideas and put them into practice. It was very satisfying. But today things are more complicated. Consumer activism focuses less on products and more on services, like better care for the elderly. We now face environmental problems like dioxin pollution. With the internationalization of the consumer movement, we receive messages via the Internet from activists around the world, explaining the issues they are working on. But we aren't very good at English so it's hard for us to communicate with them. We haven't kept pace with the times.

The language barrier isn't the only obstacle slowing the growth of Japan's consumer movement. I met recently with a group of Swedish parliamentarians, who told me about their country's powerful consumer agency. One even joked that the agency has too much clout. In Japan we have the opposite problem. There is no ministry or administrative body that truly supports consumers. And unlike in the U.S., where some companies give donations to activists like Ralph Nader, corporate Japan gives peanuts. Companies try to block anything that will hurt their interests—and they see us just as a group of nagging middle-aged women.

Like other consumer groups in Japan, we are facing serious financial problems. We publish newsletters, but they aren't profitable. In Europe, consumer group magazines help fund the movement. They are popular among ordinary people because they provide solid information about products based on comparative scientific research. There is an inter-European testing center, and most consumer groups have access to its data. In Japan, we envy their organization.

Still, we are slowly heading in the right direction. Recently, we managed to toughen a law, despite protests from corporations, that will protect consumers from unfair contracts. We are trying to persuade the government to adopt a jury system in the courts and are in the process of submitting a proposal from our study group on this issue. And there are many unique and powerful consumer movements forming at the local level. In the city of Kitakyushu, for example, a consumer group succeeded in preventing the closure of the local zoo. Instead of opposing the city government, though, the group formed a partnership with officials. Now the group is supporting the zoo by planning events and new ways to use it.

If only Japan had better politicians! The influential ones are old and have no vision of what sort of society we should create. I sometimes feel frustrated about the prospects for consumer activism in Japan. But there are many younger politicians in the ruling and opposition parties who share our values. They are our hope for the future.

Nobuko Hiwasa represents the National Liasion Committee of Consumers' Organizations, which consists of 43 leading consumer groups in Japan

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