The only rule of commuting that matters – just blend in

Reuters has a list of Japanese commuters’ common pet peeves:

1. Noisy conversation, horsing around

2. Music from headphones

3. The way passengers sit

4. Cellphone ringtones and talking on phones

5. Manners when getting on and off trains

6. Applying make-up

7. Littering

8. Sitting on the floor of the train

9. Riding the train drunk

10. Riding a crowded train with a child stroller

Most Mutant Frog readers will probably not find anything new on the list. Even the train companies are aware of them – most are covered in Tokyo Metro’s awesome “Please do it at Home” poster series (above, and read the Sandra Japandra blog if you want to laugh your ass off). Some seem more reasonable than others – can a mother really avoid bringing her kid on the train?

Pet peeves about daily life are simply a part of the human condition – American motorists all get pissed off at people who don’t use their blinkers, and on and on. However, in Japan these complaints seem to take on an extra sense of urgency because commuting on a packed train (often for more than an hour each way) is often so intimate and potentially dangerous. The pressure on your chest as that last person piles on. The feeling of being shoved as people stampede out at a major transfer station. The anxiety women must feel that the hand behind them could start getting too familiar.

With trains as crowded as Tokyo’s, everyone has an interest in maintaining some semblance of order and control. That’s maybe the one thing that keeps people in a tightly packed train from suffering a breakdown (and allows people to concentrate on a newspaper or Nintendo DS).

To deal with this, I think the people of Tokyo (and possibly all Japanese cities) have come up with one unwritten, overarching meta-rule that unites them all – do not stand out. People who stand out violate this order and thus subject themselves to the furtive glance of doom, that momentary registering of disapproval.

Even those who violate a few of the pet peeves themselves will feel annoyed at others who do the same. That’s because this rule is enforced by a million individual pet peeves manifesting themselves passive-aggressively. For example, I sometimes eat chocolate on the train but hate it when someone eats a sandwich or something I can smell. In my head, I feel like my eating is cleaner and therefore less rude.

This might be a stretch, but as a foreigner I feel like I automatically violate the rule just by being different. Once people see a white man they can never be sure if I’ll follow all the rules. Hence, just about every time I enter a reasonably packed train car I am greeted with half a dozen glances. I don’t necessarily think it’s racist—for most people it’s based on experience and it’s no more hostile than the automatic glances that would be directed toward other potential scofflaws – construction workers, thuggishly dressed kids, gyaru, etc etc.

Day in and day out, I share the train with the people who glare at me, and I start to glare back. I get territorial about my comfort zone – the handrail in front of the bench seats gives you enough room to read – and resent anyone who would violate it. I start to understand why people go out of their way to avoid talking to strangers. And I definitely get why people don’t bother giving up their seats to old people and pregnant ladies. Those people are breaking the rule!

This is why I think alleviating the insanely crowded train situation is vital to improving the national mood. I ridiculed Roger Cohen for talking about the gloomy attitude in Japan, but on that point he was right. People look like hateful, unhappy zombies during their commutes. The train companies are doing their best, but I feel like the media and politicians avoid really focusing on it because it’s one of those tough, intractable problems with no good solution. Better to let the plebes focus on how awful it is that some celebrities use drugs. But why not try some bolder solutions, like a second, identical Yamanote line, or double-decker train cars?

As a man with a short commute, I should be the last to complain about this. But I can’t help but thinking about it. It’s a national obsession, and in almost three years of living here it’s become mine as well.

“Uni Muki” — How to prepare a sea urchin

I’ve previously posted on ComingAnarchy about how to prepare a squid, at MFT on the morality of ikizukuri sashimi preparation, and now I thought it might be fun to repost a ComingAnarchy post on preparing a sea urchin for consumption. The following pictures were taken during a trip last summer to Rebun Island, the northernmost island in Japan after Hokkaido, where I had a chance to break open and prepare a sea urchin at a local fishery.

Sea urchins are a delicacy in Japan. Here is a tub of the spiny creatures waiting to be shipped across the country or otherwise served up for food.


The only edible part of the creature are its orange gonads. This requires completely destroying the creature, breaking through its spines and hard crusty shell. To split the creature open, three tools are required—a chisel with a lever, a dull scalpel, and twezers.


The rest of this gets messy… don’t continue to read if you have a thin skin (no pun intended). Continue reading

Ichihashi’s very dubious version of events

The latest news on the Lindsey Ann Hawker murder case: alleged perpetrator Tatsuya Ichihashi has confessed. Unfortunately, his story sounds bogus and calculated to avoid a death sentence:

According to the indictment, Ichihashi assaulted Hawker at his apartment in Ichikawa between March 25 and 26, 2007, tied her wrists with adhesive tape and raped her before strangling her to death. Sources close to the investigation said Ichihashi had remained silent over the incident ever since his arrest in Osaka on Nov. 10 this year.

Meanwhile, an attorney for Ichihashi said he started explaining about the events leading up to Hawker’s death after he was first charged with murder on Dec. 2.

“Because she yelled, I strangled her from behind, and she became motionless. After that, I gave her CPR. I didn’t mean to kill her,” Ichihashi was quoted as telling his attorney.

Hawker was alive until dawn on March 26, Ichihashi was quoted as telling his lawyer. The pair reportedly spent some time listening to a Martin Luther King speech via the Internet.

Investigative sources said DNA from body fluid found on Hawker’s body matched that of Ichihashi’s, and that in addition to heavy beating to her face and body, her neck was broken.

The case is slated to be put on a lay judge trial.

I really wish I could know why Ichihashi made her listen to Martin Luther King…

Japanese exchange students skipping over US

According to the Asahi Shimbun, OECD data shows Japanese university students are increasingly skipping over the US in favor other other destinations. The US captured a whopping 75% of the “market share” for Japanese students in 1997 with 47,000 America-bound that year. However, by 2007 that number had fallen under 50% with around 37,000 students. China has been on the rise as a destination – 19,000 students in 2005 (up 100% from 10 years ago). The total number of students was around 80,000 in 2005, up 30% from 1995. US diplomats in the country are concerned and have noticed a drop-of in attendance at their annual study abroad fairs in Tokyo.

Reasons for the shift include:

  • The erosion of America’s image as a vibrant, exciting country. (Note: My mistake. See comments) Students see America as a highly competitive place to study and may choose Canada or Australia instead for the more laid-back image. The article claims that some even choose Scandinavia, thinking that learning English among non-natives will be easier because they speak slower.

  • A growing interest in the broader world among Japanese students (and more universities forming exchange relationships with a more diverse set of schools)

  • A university source claims more students are asking whether Japanese-language service is available in the host university, though that’s almost never the case.

The tone of the article is that kids these days are more “inwardly oriented” and less willing to challenge themselves. However, more and more Japanese students are studying abroad. I find it much more plausible that Japanese kids are simply more interested in Asia and the wider world, partly because those countries are a lot more developed and accessible now than they were even a decade ago.

The article does not get into another major hurdle for Japanese students who want to study in the US - the draconian visa process and the image that the US has become harder to get into. Since 9/11 the US has made the visa process progressively more restrictive and annoying. As a result, even though the number of foreign students to the US from all countries rose from 475,169 in 2000 to 595,874 in 2007, the US saw its market share fall from 25% to 19.7% in the same period.

More detailed data in English on all countries can be found at the OECD website.

Equal Alliance? Sure! A US perspective on the Japan-US relationship imbalance

For years we’ve heard opposition Japanese politicians vaguely bemoan the unequal alliance between the US and Japan. Japan should speak up! many have said. Now that the DPJ has won the government and Yukio Hatoyama is the PM, this assertion has been repeated by the government, without explaining what this means. Richard Halloran agrees, and recently laid out ten ways how Japan could achieve an equal alliance with US with some honesty that I expect would make most Japanese policymakers nauseous. Summarized, these ten ways are:

1. Japan should take full responsibility for its own defense and abolish Article 9.

2. Emphasize naval forces to project power into the ocean and defend vital shipping routes, which are largely defended by the US navy.

3. Revise the Japan-US security treaty to oblige Japan to come to the defense of the US just as the US is obliged to help defend Japan.

4. Quadruple defense spending to $200 billion a year from its present $50 billion a year, to bring it up from 1% to 4% of GNP, the ratio in the US.

5. Enlarge the Self-Defense Force to 880,000 men and women from the present 240,000, commensurate with the US’s population-to-soldier ratio. Perhaps resort to conscription to achieve this.

6. Expel most, if not all, US forces from Japan, including Okinawa, and convert the bases to SDF use.

7. Remove the US nuclear umbrella, or extended deterrence, from Japan, and follow what one Hatoyama advisor calls for, relying on a world without nuclear weapons.

8. Take over development of missile defense from the US.

9. Establish a department like the CIA or MI-6 to collect and analyze political, economic and military intelligence.

10. Take the initiative in international negotiations.