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PM Abe's Diet responses lead to Wikipedia article 'editing war'

As long as certain rules are obeyed, anyone can edit Wikipedia entries. However, editing can be frozen. One for the Engel's coefficient -- a standard of living metric based on the ratio of one's income spent on food -- was blocked at one point.

    Engel's coefficient is a basic economic marker that Japanese children learn about in junior high school: The higher the ratio of income spent by a household on food, the lower the standard of living.

    So why was the page locked? When one browses the Japanese-language entry's change history, it is clear that an "editing war" erupted after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attempted to explain the rise in the coefficient for those living in Japan in a Jan. 31 House of Councillors Budget Committee meeting. While one side sought to alter the entry to reflect the prime minister's explanation, the other side tried to block their efforts. The battle went for a total of 19 rounds, according to the editing history log.

    According to a survey on household finances conducted by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, the Engel's coefficient for households comprising of two or more persons had fallen to 22.9 percent in 2005, and continued at that level until the second Abe Cabinet, when it grew to 23.6 percent in 2013. In 2016, it had risen for four consecutive years to 25.8 percent. Projections for 2017 have the upward trend continuing.

    "This doesn't just reflect changes in consumer prices, but also includes dietary and lifestyle changes," the prime minister stated during a question-and-answer session, in response to an opposition party lawmaker saying that people were now "having difficulty getting by."

    The morning of Feb. 1, the day after Abe's statements, the Wikipedia entry editing war began.

    Up until then, there had just been a concise explanation of the coefficient on the website. However, "The importance of this figure is currently waning," and other descriptions based on Prime Minister Abe's statements during deliberations in the upper house were added to the page contents. A business novel was cited as the source for the new information.

    Another user complained that a novel was not an adequate source for citation, and deleted the content soon after. A third person then added, "Recently, due to the increasing number of nuclear families and single-person households, the number of ready-made meals (such as 'bento' lunchboxes and deli items) has also increased, so it cannot be said definitively that the higher proportion of income spent on food means a lower standard of living," and other rebuttals. Even false statements such as "eating out is counted as entertainment and recreational spending, so it doesn't fall under food costs," were posted, but was also deleted by other users.

    "The rise in the coefficient over the last few years is heavily influenced by the rise in food product prices while wages stagnate, and can be seen as signifying worsening living conditions," said Koichi Haji, an executive research fellow in the Economic Research Department of the NLI Research Institute. "Elderly households and those where both spouses are in the workforce are increasing, and eating out or buying prepared meals is the long-term root of the rise in sums spent on food."

    "Aside from meals, households need to shoulder the costs of utilities or health care, but it is clear that if wages were increased, Engel's coefficient would fall. It still has a great deal of significance as a living conditions indicator," he continued, throwing out the notion in the Wikipedia article war that the figure was obsolete.

    "If the reality forming the base of the debate is rewritten, then that does not foster dialogue, and society's understanding suffers as a whole," argued Kobe College emeritus professor Tatsuru Uchida. "Indispensable policy debate cannot begin without taking time and putting effort into checking facts. Rather than an ethical problem, this comes down to a lack of economic rationality."

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