Monthly Archives: September 2007

Ruins of Shinbashi [Photos]

When meeting Adam and I on my last trip to Tokyo before I came home, for some reason Aceface had suggested we meet at Shinbashi Station. Having never been to that district I went about two hours early and wandered around the backstreets, in which I came upon one of the combination demolition/construction sites that frequent the developing regions of a city. I prepared the photos and meant to post this several weeks ago, but got distracted and left it half done, until the current thread of discussion going on here inspired me to finish it. All 25 photos are after the jump.

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No more Nova?

First I hear a rumor that Nova is going belly up, and then I hear more specific but still pretty dramatic details that they’re closing a high percentage of stores while being behind on salary payments. Are they really done for? Are the years of labor code violations and shady business practices finally paying off? What will thousands of unemployed and untrained foreign teachers do?

[Update] Asahi is reporting some specific information, and since it’s in Japanese I’ll provide the gist of it here:

  • The General Union, largely composed of foreign teachers in Japan, has sent a letter of warning to the Nova CEO.

  • They demand Nova to end their practice of late pay to their employees.

  • They also demand that Nova return the deposits of students who have properly cancelled their contracts.

  • Nova is “studying” a plan to close 200 of their 900 schools; the union wants this the closings to be arranged with adequate time for both staff and students to make proper arrangements.

More information is available at the General Union web page, but for the time being most of it is in Japanese, and since I’ve got several hour of paid translation work to do tonight, I won’t be doing any more here today. Anyone with information they would like to share is welcome to comment below.

Oh, and this is the letter the union sent to Nova CEO Sahashi.

              2007年9月20日
株式会社 ノ ヴ ァ
取締役社長 猿橋 望 様
ゼネラルユニオン
委員長 山原克二

警  告  書

1-遅配の賃金を即刻、完全に支給すること。二度と、遅配を繰り返さないこと。

2-解約手続きが終了しているレッスン料を、即刻、生徒さんに返金すること。
「解約済であるが、返金ができていない」場合、貴社はそのむね、クレジット会社に通報し、生徒さんへの不当な返済請求を、直ちに停止させる事」

3-全国各地で、突然の一斉閉校の動きが拡大しているが、これについては、慎重に対処するとともに、十分な予告期間を設け、生徒さん、及び、教職員に被害が及ばぬよう、納得できるコンセンサスをはかること。

以上


And to clarify my initial snide comment, while I do enjoy seeing a despicably shady and exploitative company go under (hence the Shadenfreude tag on the post), I don’t actually enjoy seeing hundreds or thousands of innocent employees and students being screwed over.

Abe leaving

To expand just a little on my “screw that guy” analysis:

I hope he gets well soon. August 2007 was probably the hardest month in Abe’s life – his government fell apart, the economy tanked, and his precious close US-Japan ties were placed in jeopardy. After all that, I would want to spend a few days recovering with an IV drip myself. Still, he was a conservative wannabe authoritarian hack and I hope this paves the way for a quick general election.

A comment on why he is quitting:

1. First, health reasons – it had been clear for a couple weeks that Abe started looking pale in his public appearances (though it’s kinda hard to tell)... I don’t think that it was JUST health problems that made him quit. But the timing may have been affected by his health (and he may have just figured it was time to go before intense Diet questioning began on issues like I am about to mention)
2. Anti-terrorism bill - Basically, I think Abe was sort of telling the truth and this was the main reason for his departure. He had made a big promise to Bush about continuing the activities and had counted on some kind of compromise from the DPJ (they had made some indications that a compromise could be reached), and failing that the tedious business of going through the entire Diet deliberation process to force passage of a new more restricted law by a 2/3 vote in the Lower House. However, the morning that he quit the Asahi front page article was the revelation that the SDF’s “Indian Ocean” refueling activities are used by the US for Afghanistan AND Iraq, despite the claim that they are used only for the more-palatable Afghanistan mission (pointed out by GlobalTalk21 a little while ago). I think Abe wanted to meet with Ozawa to work on some compromise without having to go through all the painful explanations of what exactly the SDF is doing and how exactly the government hasn’t been basically lying about it. But Ozawa, much like Phil Leotardo in the Sopranos, knows he’s in a strong position and is willing to say screw you at any moment. Ozawa is confident in his election strength and that a general election is the only thing he wants and he wants it now (I mean his health isn’t so great either).
3. Abe-bashing in the media – In August, especially after the cabinet reshuffle, the media never let up on Abe, in part because they never ran out of ammo. It has come out (via pro-Koizumi author and Tokyo Deputy Governor Naoki Inose’s mailing list, and I also saw it in Gendai which is maybe where Inose saw it) that the information that brought down MAFF Minister Takehiko Endo was based on a three-year-old Board of Audit report that was never talked about the the kantei despite the fact that “Kasumigaseki” knew about it. I think another big reason he quit was that he realized that in his weakened state there was no way he could withstand any more such attacks.

Also, I just want to take this opportunity to mention that my prediction for how Japanese politics will play out is still pretty much intact. The DPJ did use a symbolic bill (anti-terror special measures law) to force Abe out and now the heat is on to call a general election.

With the two houses controlled by different coalitions who cannot cooperate on anything, there is no hope for any meaningful governing from the Diet – the upper house will just delay and investigate every little detail until nothing gets done—it’s the ultimate filibuster power over the lower house. And we are stuck with the upper house for another three years. There are only three real ways it can work: A grand coalition (never gonna happen), revise the constitution to abolish or limit the upper house’s role (also unlikely in this situation), or for there to be a general election that places the DPJ-led coalition in power (it would be a roll of the dice but it would produce the most easily-run Diet). This comes as a by-product of Japan’s long history as a rigged one-party democracy brushing up against modern day political reality. The LDP always had a lock on the upper house and it never did much anyway, so 6 year terms and the right to hold every bill for 60 days sounded good enough.

The only reason this next race for who succeeds Abe matters is for internal LDP reasons… basically there’s not much any successor can do to be successful in the Diet or carry out any meaningful governance, so a general election will be called soon since Ozawa will just not let the issue wait.

The LDP race seems to be shaping up as Aso vs Fukuda… Aso has the PR on his side but apparently most of the factions are lining up against him including the Koizumi children. If he wins it will be more Abe-style bumbleheadedness and will divide the LDP even further, but he probably appeals to some for his media savvy (such as it is) and leadership credentials. Fukuda would be better for party unity as someone unconnected to the Abe bungling, but like I said the LDP needs to just get it over with and call the election already.

Joe’s thoughts after 24 hours in Seoul

I just got back last night from a brief quasi-business trip to Seoul. The most memorable part was getting off the plane, turning on my phone and seeing an e-mail from Adam which read, in full:

Subject: Abe resigning!
Body: YES screw that guy

That’s way better coverage than any Japanese news site, in my opinion.

Anyway, after wandering around Seoul for a day or so like a typical bemused tourist (this was my first time in Korea), here are some conclusions I have reached:

Six things that are better in Korea

  1. Street food. Festivals in Japan are good for this sort of thing, I guess, but don’t come anywhere close to Jongno at night.

  2. Toothbrushes. Japanese toothbrushes have a tiny head that might belong on an electric toothbrush but makes manual toothbrushing twice as laborious. Korea has nice, big, industrial-strength toothbrushes that don’t mess around.

  3. Mobile phone reception. My phone never lost a bar on the subway ride from the airport to downtown. Words cannot express the frustration I have when I’m riding the Tokyo metro, see an interesting item in my Gmail inbox, hear the train doors closing, frantically click to try to load the message before the train goes off into the tunnel, and end up staring at the screen for the next two minutes wondering why the train is suddenly going so damn slow.

  4. StarCraft and Counterstrike on television. Korean cable is awesome even if I can’t understand most of it.

  5. Chopsticks. Those stainless-steel Korean restaurant chopsticks are practically lethal weapons, and I get the feeling that with enough Korean chopstick training I could kill a man with my bare hands. I imagine this is part of the point, actually.

  6. Women. If we’re to use a hotness scale here, Korea has both a higher mean and a narrower standard deviation. Or, in layman’s terms, there are more hotties and the hotness is more consistent. Not to disparage Japanese women, of course—beauty is more than skin-deep, but, well, the skin is where it shows first.

Six things that are better in Japan

  1. Cleanliness. Granted, this is better in Japan than anywhere else in the world (except maybe Singapore), and Seoul is certainly not as bad as Shanghai, but Seoul still has the grubbiness of a major American or European city about it, and the air quality could use some work.

  2. Convenience stores. Korean convenience stores come close in many respects, but they’re missing something. Was it bentos? Maybe softcore porn?

  3. Manners. This is another area where Korea seems to be in a zone smack between Japan and China. In Japan, nobody bothers anybody most of the time. In China, everybody bothers everybody all the time. In Korea, shopkeepers are often pushy and homeless people occasionally rattle their coin mug in your face, but for someone used to the Japanese way of doing things, that seems like a lot. (Which just goes to show how Japan can spoil someone.)

  4. Walking. Seoul is walkable here and there, but much more spread out than Tokyo, and in the north-central area, being unable to cross the street seems more like the norm than the exception.

  5. Money. The new won notes look just like euros. The yen at least looks unique. Even if the phoenix on the back of the 10,000 yen note looks rather nightmarish, you at least have the comfort of Fukuzawa Yukichi staring down your trading partner as if thinking “I am not amused.”

  6. Trains. If you compare a map of the Seoul subway system to a map of the Tokyo subway system, the two look like equals, but that ignores the fact that (a) Tokyo’s subway lines cover a much smaller geographic area, so the stations are far more densely crammed in together, and (b) Tokyo also has scores of train lines that aren’t subways, while Seoul doesn’t have much more than the lines on the subway map. I really wanted more excuses to ride the subway around, but it always ended up being much easier to walk or hail a cab.

Anyway, those are my completely uneducated opinions at first immersion. A public “thank you” to Brendon Carr of Korea Law Blog for showing me where to get good curry, and to United Airlines for making intra-Asia mileage award tickets so darn cheap. I’ll be back one of these days…

Abe down, otaku up?

So, it turns out that Abe Shinzo had supporters the way the fictional band Flight of the Conchords had fans (or rather, “fan”), and yet after managing to survive longer than some expected, still gave up the ghost suddenly and with no clear immediate reason. While most people are probably concerned about such things as when the next lower house election will be called, what this means for Japanese constitutional revision or the future of overseas troop deployment, or whether the grandson of “The Bismarck of Japan” will be the next prime minister, others are speculating on it. That is to say, the prospect of famously geeky Aso Taro assuming the prime minster-ship has sent shares of manga and otaku related stocks soaring.

On Wednesday, shares of manga publisher Broccoli shot up 71 percent, while those of second-hand comic store chain Mandarake climbed 13 percent. Shares of We’ve, which produces a Japanese version of Sesame Street, rose 14 percent.

Although Olympic sharpshooter and manga aficionado Aso Taro would probably be a more entertaining premier than Abe was (although certainly no Koizumi), he would likely still be a disaster and a half. To remind everyone why, I would like to briefly revisit some things we’ve posted about the man in the past.

First of all, here are some items from what Joe described as his “colorful past.”

  • Aso’s father, Takakichi Aso, was a big businessman: he owned a large cement company, Aso Cement. He later entered the Diet and was buddies with Kakuei Tanaka, the Nixonian prime minister of Japan who spent half of his life amassing political capital in Niigata and the other half split between running the LDP from the shadows and fending off prosecution for corruption. (Tanaka’s daughter Makiko is the short-lived foreign minister who called Bush an asshole.)

  • Takakichi’s wife (Taro’s mother) was Shigeru Yoshida’s daughter—Yoshida being the postwar prime minister who set up Japan’s foreign and domestic policy for much of the Cold War era.

  • Yoshida’s wife’s father was Nobuaki Makino, a Meiji-era diplomat and politician; Makino’s father was the famous samurai Okubo Toshimichi.

  • Back to Taro Aso himself: he represented Japan in the shooting events at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, while still president of the cement company he inherited from his father (he gave it up to run for office in 1978, and now his brother runs the company).

  • He was appointed Minister of Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications in 2003, and Koizumi apparently likes him, because he’s survived two subsequent cabinet reshuffles.

Then there were these statements:

  • “Japan is one nation, one civilization, one language, one culture, one race, none of which can be found in any other country.” (Direct quote)

  • Claimed Koreans wished to change their names to Japanese names during colonial rule (an attempt to justify the Aso Zaibatsu’s colonial-era actions). Also claimed Japan helped spread the use of Hangul writing.

  • When inaugurated as MIC Minister in 2003, made the bold prediction that office paperwork would disappear with the development of information technology and that everything would be done by magical new floppy disks in the future.

  • “Japan is treated like a nouveau-riche child because it has no military power but does have economic power. All the G8 countries are White, and Japan is the only Yellow Race country there. So we teamed up with the best fighter, America. This should be obvious!” (Originally posted here.)

He also made a proposal to “de-religicize” Yasukuni to avoid “all this fuss.”

“It’s about expressing our respect and gratitude for those who died for their country and praying for the peace of the souls of those who died…without all this fuss,” Aso told a news conference.

“The tens of thousands of soldiers who died crying ‘Long Life to the Emperor’ filled those words with deep emotion,” Aso said in a statement outlining his idea. “So I strongly pray that the emperor can visit Yasukuni.”


Since the plan made no mention of removing the Class A war criminals who are the cause of “all this fuss,” I fail to see how taking away the shrine’s tax exempt status or whatever would actually change anything. In another speech, Aso had this to say on the Yasukuni issue:
‘From the viewpoint of the spirits of the war dead, they hailed ‘Banzai’ for the emperor—none of them said ‘prime minister Banzai!’

But Aso isn’t all bad. On the plus side, his appointment as Foreign Minister, to replace himself, would apparently be Astroboy.

Macias vs Kerr

The recent opening of Neojaponisme and its ambitious manifesto has my mind swimming with conflict over the role of Western expats in Japan.

So I feel this was the perfect timing for me to have come across Patrick Macias’ 2nd most recent podcast entitled “Akihabara Wars.” (MP3)

Initially I thought the general theme was “Patrick takes a walk around Akihabara and meets with some of the Westerners who consider it a second home.” There’s an interesting (if really unnerving) talk with an Italian bishojo magazine publisher at an event promoting a minor idol and a brief chat with an American college student whose side job is giving tours of Akihabara while wearing a Dragonball Z costume (I remember him from his interview in Cyzo!). Finally Macias talks with someone who insists with complete self-satisfaction that the entertainment in Akihabara is a direct equivalent to Japan’s culture of “ritualized entertainment” as found in the tea ceremony and sees absolutely “nothing to worry about” regarding the mass commercialization of otaku culture and overdevelopment of the Akihabara area because “it will go somewhere else.”

The arguments and attitude sounded somewhat familiar, but it was not until I actually checked Macias’ “Mind of Godzilla” blog for more info (I subscribe to the podcast via a fairly low-tech podcast aggregator) that I found the nerdy voice belonged to none other than longtime Japan commentator Alex Kerr.

As is usual for Macias, he mixes light material with a more serious look at his subject matter. He has turned off comments for this post, which I understand as comments like the one I want to offer would be a major buzzkill to his main audience. But I will offer it anyway because the meeting has insights not just on Kerr’s or Macias’ views or even Akihabara but on the differences among expat commentators on Japan.

I’d love to transcribe what I heard, but it is difficult for me to really get any free time these days. Please please go listen for yourself.

Reactions:

  • He sounds like a completely different person in English – Despite having met Kerr before and listening to him speak in Japanese for more than an hour, I did not even recognize it was Kerr being interviewed until I checked Macias’ site As I wrote before, in Japanese he has the mannerisms of Pvt. Charles Jenkins. But in English he sounds a lot like a nerdy college student (which is who I thought Macias was talking to until I checked).

  • When speaking on the fly and not from his prepared Dogs and Demons speech, Kerr’s views on Japan seem amazingly half-formed, almost as if he can barely be bothered except for the areas of Japan that he is he says he is actually worried about “saving.” When Macias offers up the arguments that otaku culture a) was originally a niche market for Japan’s true outcasts but has now been adopted by the cool people (media aimed at the mainstream and even the Japanese government) for their own ends; and b) The intense passion otaku have for their hobbies can partly be explained as an outlet for dissatisfaction with the status quo, Kerr seems unwilling to really consider them and basically repeats his interpretation of maid cafes and other otaku culture as “ritualized” entertainment. I don’t think he really understands otaku culture and hasn’t really thought about how it fits in with his view of Japan except to dismiss it as part of the unhealthy condition of the Japanese soul.

  • In Kerr’s mind, the fact that the streets of Akihabara do not look all that different from a typical street in Japan seem to disqualify it from any meaningful recognition. If it doesn’t look like a row of machiya then why bother?

  • What is it that allows people like Macias to so easily connect with Japanese people and culture on a human level, and what makes that same feat equally difficult for people like Kerr? Ironically, Kerr is fluent in Japanese while Macias is only decent. This problem I suspect is partly generational – much like Steven Segal who railed against uncouth young yakuza in his Into the Sun – Kerr is probably just stuck in his ways and while he might be somewhat hostile to otaku culture he seemed totally at ease and genuinely concerned when I saw him condemn concrete rivers to a crowd of obasan in Bangkok. I’ll probably be like that when I get older too – I already think Pokemon is far inferior to Power Rangers.

As I mentioned, listening to them talk was fascinating not just for the issues they discussed but because of who they are – both of them are making their livings as interpreters of Japanese culture but have gone about it in wildly different ways. Kerr presents himself as someone completely immersed in Japanese culture, a “more Japanese than the Japanese” campaigner for a return to traditional aesthetics. On the other hand, Macias keeps a lot of cultural distance because he works on reaching an American audience. The discussion makes me wonder if the two extremes I see in these people – get to close to the culture and it changes you, keep too much distance and you miss the details – are really mutually exclusive.

Man arrested for indecent exposure in a familiar place

Mainichi has the report:

JR West employee busted for flashing private parts on train

NISHINOMIYA, Hyogo—An employee of West Japan Railway Co. (JR West) has been arrested for flashing his private parts on a Hankyu Corp. train, police said.

Norio Imasaka, 50, who works for JR West’s Osaka construction office, undid his pants and exposed his private parts on a Hankyu Takarazuka Line train running between Juso and Toyonaka stations on late Saturday night.

Officers arrested Imasaka at Hibarigaoka-Hanayashiki Station in Takarazuka.

Imasaka was apparently drunk at that time and said he didn’t remember what he did on the train. (Mainichi)

This looks like your typical exposure case (sorry no insights into the exotic world of Japanese perversion, this seems more like what a healthy dose of alcohol will do to an already weakened mind), but what makes it stand out to this blogger is that he was arrested right where I used to go to school.

Wikiscanner fallout: Imperial Household Agency no longer allowed to edit Wiki

In fallout from what might be the most damning of all Wikiscanner-revealed edits yet, Sankei (via Yahoo News) reports that the Kunaicho (Imperial Household Agency) has officially banned its employees from editing Wikipedia. Someone within the agency was caught by Wikiscanner deleting a passage on Imperial tombs: “Some argue the Imperial Household Agency fears that historical facts that would undermine the basis for the imperial system will be found [if researchers are permitted to enter the tombs to study them].”

The Agency has “taken measures” to keep IHA workers from editing Wiki and Vice Steward (unsure of this title exactly but it’s something royal-sounding) said they will urge people to avoid such edits from their home computers as well as a matter of common sense.

Japanese measures in former colonies

Just about everyone reading this blog is mostly likely familiar with the traditional Japanese measure of floorspace known as the tsubo (written as 坪, equal to 3.305785 m2 in standard measures), often translated as something like “tatami mats,” and many readers will know that it is also used in Taiwan and Korea, where it is respectively pronounced ping and pyeong (평). I had always assumed that this unit, like many other archaic units of measure which one will encounter from time to time, such as the shaku (尺), was based on the classical Chinese imperial weights and measures, but in fact-at least according to the Wikipedia Japan article-the tsubo is a unit of measure indigenous to Japan, and its use in Taiwan and Korea is exclusively due to influence of the colonial period.

While I can confirm from my time in Taiwan, and in particular my week long period of apartment-hunting, that the ping is still the standard unit of housing area used in real estate advertisements and transactions, the Wikipedia article (Japanese and Chinese versions both) state that Taiwanese law has mandated a metric standard since occupation by the Republic of China government after the war.

Interestingly, although there seems to have been little interest in eliminating this colonial unit of area in relatively Japan-friendly Taiwan,  the government of South Korea is apparently still trying. Like Taiwan, the pyeong (keep in mind that all three terms, tsubo, ping, and pyeong are merely different pronunciations of the same term due to linguistic and historical peculiarities of the nature of words shared between the three languages) has remained in common use by the real estate market, despite the passage of a 1961 law proclaiming public use of the metric system. South Korea has reportedly passed a new law, which came into effect July 1 of this year, which will impose fines for the use of pyeong instead of square meters. I would be very curious to know if any readers have some more information on the history and present state of the use of this measure in Korea or other places, as well as confirmation that it has not, in fact, ever been used in China. Incidentally, I imagine that North Korea has had outstanding success in replacing Japanese measures with the metric system.