Monthly Archives: January 2011

Yahoo STILL beats Google for mapping Japan, 4+ years later

Reprising a topic which I brought up in 2006, it seems that Google’s mapping team still needs to get its act together when it comes to covering Japan. Their map data is nearly a year out of date, while Yahoo seems to update its maps almost in real time.

I’ll focus on Tokyo area airports in this post, since they are one of my primary target areas of geekery. Here is Google’s map of the area surrounding Narita Airport rapid access line, which opened last summer:

View Larger Map

Note that the line doesn’t show up at all (though its timetable data is loaded into the transit directions engine, and the route will be vaguely highlighted if you search for it). On the other hand, Yahoo is completely up to date:

Now here is Google’s map of Haneda Airport, where a new international terminal opened back in October. Of course, they haven’t gotten around to updating yet, though they at least managed to include an icon showing one (but not both) of the new international terminal’s railway stations.

View Larger Map

Yahoo again is totally up to date, showing the full terminal building, the surrounding tarmac AND both stations (zoom in to see them).

So what gives? Both services are apparently getting map data from the same company (Zenrin) so you would think their maps would have almost identical content. One possibility, corroborated by the copyright legends at the bottom of the maps, is that Google is relying totally on Zenrin while Yahoo makes its own updates pending full updates from Zenrin. Another possibility is that Google simply doesn’t demand updates from Zenrin as often because their Maps team is based outside Japan and has no clue how much construction goes on here.

Ethnic cliches in a smile

The Christian Science Monitor has a feature running where you can take some sample questions from the US State Department Foreign Service Exam. Among them is the following question:

16. A smile or laughter from a Japanese person may not be an expression of happiness. What other emotion could it signify?

  1. anger or distrust

  2. shame

  3. depression

  4. nervousness or discomfort

The correct answer is, of course, D-nervousness or discomfort. I saw this question yesterday and was somewhat taken aback that the Foreign Service subscribes to the view that the cross-cultural human behavior of a fake smile as a defense mechanism against nervousness is intrinsically and uniquely Japanese, with the implication that it does not exist in other cultures.

Coincidentally, I am right now – the day after seeing the above question – translating answers to an employee survey from a fast food chain that I will not name. One response was as follows:

Convey the cheerfulness of the entire staff by never having them stop smiling while in the store.

One can easily imagine the grim rictus of the fast-food worker forced into a fake smile; we have seen it all innumerable times. One particularly good description was the final anecdote in Johann Hari’s widely read 2009 article on the Dark Side of Dubai.
On my final night in the Dubai Disneyland, I stop off on my way to the airport, at a Pizza Hut that sits at the side of one of the city’s endless, wide, gaping roads. It is identical to the one near my apartment in London in every respect, even the vomit-coloured decor. My mind is whirring and distracted. Perhaps Dubai disturbed me so much, I am thinking, because here, the entire global supply chain is condensed. Many of my goods are made by semi-enslaved populations desperate for a chance 2,000 miles away; is the only difference that here, they are merely two miles away, and you sometimes get to glimpse their faces? Dubai is Market Fundamentalist Globalisation in One City.

I ask the Filipino girl behind the counter if she likes it here. “It’s OK,” she says cautiously. Really? I say. I can’t stand it. She sighs with relief and says: “This is the most terrible place! I hate it! I was here for months before I realised – everything in Dubai is fake. Everything you see. The trees are fake, the workers’ contracts are fake, the islands are fake, the smiles are fake – even the water is fake!” But she is trapped, she says. She got into debt to come here, and she is stuck for three years: an old story now. “I think Dubai is like an oasis. It is an illusion, not real. You think you have seen water in the distance, but you get close and you only get a mouthful of sand.”

As she says this, another customer enters. She forces her face into the broad, empty Dubai smile and says: “And how may I help you tonight, sir?”

17. A smile or laughter from a Dubai Pizza Hut worker may not be an expression of happiness. What other emotion could it signify?

  1. anger or distrust

  2. shame

  3. depression

  4. nervousness or discomfort

You don’t know them

When you see someone on TV, or read what they write on a blog or YouTube comment, you don’t know them. This sounds obvious, but judging from the volumes and volumes of discussions on the Internet, no one seems to take this to heart.

Even if you’ve watched someone’s show for years, you are only seeing the tip of the iceberg of what this person is all about. A talk show host might be an avid hunter, or a drinker, or a plastic model kit geek, and we would never, ever know.

But so many of us demand authenticity, or at least a standard of conduct, from people in the public eye, and reserve the harshest score if they don’t measure up.

In Japan, these impulses flare up into the endless stream of ginned-up scandals. Who are we to judge Ebizo for hanging out with the wrong people? None of us knows him. Hell, I had barely heard of him before the scandal.

No one really knows Sarah Palin despite all her exposure and all the journalist profiles and behind the scenes looks. Yet everyone has an opinion about her (I’ll concede it’s somewhat necessary to assess a potential presidential candidate).

The people with influence on what goes on the news and the rest of the media know all about this and exploit our nature ruthlessly for their own ends. Our affinity for an attractive actress gets us in the door of our local Mos Burger; a finely aged oyaji tells us it’s cool to drink a certain kind of beer; and news reports convince you in a matter of seconds that a stranger is a villain who deserves to die.

This concept applies in even the most mundane aspects of showmanship. On those Japanese shows with panels of commentators, the panelists are either competing for airtime or want to keep getting asked back. What that means for you is they stop acting like they would face-to-face and start making comments that will get the most reaction from a mass audience. There are endless ways to keep track of audience reaction these days, including Twitter and 2-channel in Japan. If you can entertain, you’re doing your job.

The same goes for blogs, in a way. I am not just talking to a friend at a bar, I am writing for the “masses” (my many dozens of readers). That means I am putting my best face forward and saying things to get a reaction. Hence, you don’t know me even if you’ve been reading me from the beginning.

I’ve met some readers offline in the past. As a rule they’ve been nothing like I would imagine from their blog comments. Only after putting the two together can I really connect their offline personality to what they write online. While they are connected and an extension of the person, it’s necessarily a cross section.

TV and essentially all media are stages where people put on shows to get a desired reaction from the audience. For better or worse, the Internet has turned everyone into a media personality, so it’s only healthy to keep this in mind when going through life, and especially when reacting to blogs and reader comments.

This post was inspired by a recent conversation with a friend who shall remain anonymous because, well, you don’t know him!

Emerging backlash against “Japocalypse” theme

Taiwanese tabloid news video makers NMA have a way of perfectly capturing the silliest and most over-the-top possible interpretations of events. Case in point, their take on Japanese herbivore-men:

The video reminded me of the emergence of a mini-trend – articles countering the familiar narrative of Japanese decline and decay. Here are a couple examples.

First, we have Foreign Policy blogger Joshua Keating, who has started a “Japocalypse Watch” to point out over-enthusiastic reports of Japan’s decline:

I’m not really sure I buy [the trend of youths wearing skinny jeans] as a response to the Japanese economy unraveling.  First of all, another recent New York Times trend piece informs me that rising economic power China also has kids with tight pants.

Then there is Atlantic correspondent James Fallows, who used to live in Japan:
The broader point is that while there may be a few relatively small countries that can be classified as “failures” across the board, big complex societies are always a mix of strong and weak points, and the prevailing Western view of Japan goes way too far in (self-congratulatingly) dismissing it as an utter “failure.”

And my personal favorite is a column from David Pilling that questions the assumptions that lead people to dismiss Japan as a failure:

If one starts from a different proposition, that the business of a state is to serve its own people, the picture looks rather different, even in the narrowest economic sense. Japan’s real performance has been masked by deflation and a stagnant population. But look at real per capita income – what people in the country actually care about – and things are far less bleak.

After living in Tokyo for a few years I have become quite sympathetic with this side of the argument. It’s clear that a lot needs to be done to ensure Japan’s continued prosperity, including securing the government’s long-term finances and social safety net. But compared to even the US, there’s a lot to admire and enjoy about life in Japan. Of course, my tune could change once the government announces what will no doubt be some significant tax and withholding increases over the next year or so.

Correcting the record

It would certainly be nice if reporters on the Japan beat didn’t approach their work with such a focus on declining vs. rising powers or other overly broad themes. Maybe articles like these will spur some reflection among correspondents, which would be a positive step.

At the same time, it’s hard to get worked up about this kind of stuff anymore. I understand that readers in New York or Washington will lose interest unless the topics stay broad and generally within their realm of familiarity. In my case, when I read about parts of the world that aren’t familiar to me, NYT articles are almost always more digestible than the local English-language news, simply because I am not familiar with the local leaders or various aspects of the culture.

Probably the best course for people with an interest in setting the record straight is to focus on communicating your side of the story and pointing out egregious errors. One recent example seemed like a pretty healthy exchange of ideas. The NYT’s Hiroko Tabuchi wrote an article “Japan Keeps a High Wall for Foreign Labor” that took a negative view on the Japanese government’s policy on foreign labor. In response, the Japanese embassy replied with some clarifications and rebuttals.

Merits of each argument aside, I feel like this was a perfectly appropriate and thoughtful response to an article that was basically sound. Of course, it helps when there’s a solid foundation to the article in question. There’s probably nothing you can do to counter the endless stream of Japan Weird stories.

The mass graves of Toyama Park (well, almost)

Suburban Tokyo park may hide a terrible wartime secret, The Australian, January 15, 2011:

IF you knew nothing of its sinister history, you could pass by a thousand times without casting a second glance at Toyama Park.

Situated in Shinjuku ward, in the heart of Tokyo, it is an affluent area of hospitals and universities, a place of trees and tennis courts where old ladies take slow walks with elaborately groomed poodles. A tramp dozes in the winter sun in a deserted children’s playground. A vacant plot, where an old apartment once stood, lies cleared by bulldozers. There is nothing to suggest Toyama Park’s past, and the wartime secret that may soon surface after seven decades of silence.

According to the recollection of elderly witnesses, Toyama Park is the site of mass graves, the improvised burial place of the victims of one of Japan’s most notorious war crimes.

Unsurprisingly, this article is subtly misleading in several ways. Toyama Park is within walking distance of Shinjuku if you have good legs—inside the Yamanote Line, between Waseda University and the Shin-Okubo Korean district, so not really “suburban.” It is split in half by Meiji-dori; the western half wraps around the north and west sides of the engineering campus of Waseda University, while the eastern half is crammed between apartment buildings, schools, and the National Center for Global Health and Medicine, an enormous hospital complex currently in the process of being completely rebuilt. Many of my in-laws live nearby, and the National Center is where my wife was born.

The fact of the graves is also hardly “hidden” or “secret” any more, since the article mentions that bones were unearthed in the area starting in 1989. And a quick reference to a two week old Asahi article in Japanese confirms that the graves are not actually in the park, which is owned by the city of Shinjuku, but rather at various adjacent sites which are owned by the national government.

The National Center sits on the site of what was originally the Army Medical College and Army Hospital, and so it had relations with Unit 731, which used some of the base’s land to dump bodies. The Asahi article describes three sites, the first being underneath what is now a dormitory for the Medical Center. It sticks out into the middle of the park but is technically outside its boundaries. The other two sites are on the east side of the hospital, well outside the park. One of these sites is underneath what is now the quite sinisterly-named Infectious Disease Surveillance Center, and the other is underneath another government employee dormitory.

Since the article and accompanying map will undoubtedly expire, I have made my own (clearer) map in Google Maps, with relevant Japanese quotes regarding each site from the Asahi article.

View Unit 731 gravesite map in a larger map

My own suspicion is that the issue is not swept under the rug out of spite for the Chinese, or out of lack of atonement for World War II; it is swept under the rug because the area is heavily populated (including a number of large public housing buildings) and plays an important role in Tokyo’s and Japan’s public health infrastructure. In Japan, nobody wants to live next to graves, much less mass graves, much less get a checkup or operation there. So it’s one of those things that’s easier not to think about.

How do I say “Stop touching me”…?

Sometimes, when looking for the right grammar for certain Japanese phrases, I’ll google words to see what grammar is used on internet pages. This is also the best way for me to find out if “wa,” “ga” or “wo”, for example, are the suitable grammar joinders in certain phrases. Just now, I wanted to find the right way to say ”私事で申し訳ありませんが” (and the other possible variants when speaking about your own affairs in polite conversation), and I typed in 私事 and 申し訳 into a search engine.

This was the first link that came up, a yahoo community help page. A distraught Japanese girl wondering what the best English phrase was tell an Australian male friend, who tended to hug and kiss her as a greeting, to stop all the physical touching, as she had a boyfriend and wasn’t interested in him. The full Japanese text of her situation:

私事で申し訳ありませんが英語訳お願いしたいです。知り合った外国人(オーストラリア)さんがいるのですが、 私は過度なボディタッチが嫌なのでハグならあいさつなのでともかく、後ろから抱きしめてきたり、横に座ると腰に手を回したり、×ホッペにキスを無理矢理してきたり×と、向こうが私を好きな気持ちはわかりますが、私は彼を友達と思ってるから止めてと言っても隙あらばという感じで、触らないでと怒ってもあまり恐くないみたいでなめられています。冗談でも面白くないです。日本語ではあまり伝わらないみたいで、どうして?とよく言われます。ハグすると心が温かくなるとか…

I found the responses by the eagerly helpful yahoo help community to be quite amusing:

I’m not very comfortable with you touching me too much. I don’t want you to touch me. You have to respect that. I want to stay friends with you, but if you keep doing that, I don’t want to see you anymore. DON’T TOUCH ME!!

“There is no way I’ll like you in any kind of ways so don’t waste your time trying to be too friendly”

“Everytime you come near me, I feel sick to my stomach. If you ever touch me again, I’m gonna throw up right in your face!”

“I see you just a friend, and I’m sure we are never going to be more than that. So, I need you to start treating me like your friend”

For me, as a native English speaker, all of these phrases seem too blunt and cruel. And it reflects to me a key problem that I think the Japanese have when speaking another language. The Japanese tend to believe that Japanese is a polite language, where people don’t say what they mean, whereas other langauges lack this subtley and you have to be more blunt when speaking your mind. Many Japanese also, in my experience, seem to think that politeness—such as demonstrated by the dozens of ways to say “I” and “you,” and the countless variants of many verbs depending on the level of politeness—is unique to Japanese.

The result of this misunderstanding (or linguistic prejudice) is that the Japanese tend to be very good at coming across as rude when speaking another language, despite the politeness the same people would have if they were saying the same thing in Japanese. To me, the above English sentences are examples of this.

Update on life in Tokyo

A lot has changed for me over the past year and a half. I won’t go into too much detail, but the biggest shift has been my new job. In September 2009 I started translating for an equity research team, which means I spend my days reading and translating reports on publicly listed Japanese companies and the stock market in general.

It’s a fun and deeply interesting job, but it’s had an impact on my commitment to blogging in a big way, for a few reasons. For one thing, I came into the job with a woeful lack of knowledge about stocks and finance. I’ve been spending many nights studying to try and fill in the gaps. Only recently have I felt ready to try and start broadcasting my thoughts again.

Also, all the background research about the Japanese corporate world has had an unexpected side-effect: it more or less satisfies my urge to do the same thing on MFT. I mean, why blog about how Saizeriya serves TV dinners as restaurant food, when I already spent the better part of a day writing the same thing in an analyst report? It feels redundant. Most times, I can’t even be bothered to post something on Twitter.

Recently, I have felt a little more confident in focusing on blogging again. But when I opened the WordPress site, I had a bit of writer’s block. My thinking and interests have changed since the time when I was blogging about pillow-girlfriends and the like. At this point, I don’t know what future posts will look like, but at the very least it now seems kind of pointless to snipe at foreign press coverage of Japan. Working in the investment world with a team of veteran translators has probably skewed my perspective.  I will probably spend more time talking about things like the Gyoza no Ohsho training scandal.

Life in Tokyo in 2011

It’s been almost four years since Mrs. Adamu and I moved to Tokyo, and this September will mark the 12th anniversary of my first landing in Japan at Kansai International Airport. The me of 12 years ago probably couldn’t imagine how I’d be living today. Of course my life has taken many unexpected twists and turns, but more generally, the life of a gaijin in Japan seems much more comfortable and less alienating than it used to be, at least from my perspective.

When I was a high school exchange student, my contacts with the home country were basically limited to monthly visits with other exchange students and the occasional rented movie or episode of Full House on Japanese TV. It didn’t matter much because I was concentrating on learning Japanese to fulfill my newfound dream of one day appearing on one of those shows where Japanese-speaking foreigners argue about politics.

But on the flight home something odd happened. Chip N Dale Rescue Rangers was showing on the in-flight entertainment, and for some reason I couldn’t stop laughing at all the cheesy jokes. I had been away from American humor for so long that even a little taste of it made me crack up. It happened again during my Kyoto study abroad days, when about six months in I watched Ace Ventura Pet Detective.

I don’t have those moments anymore.

I am typing this post on a laptop connected to my home WiFi connection, a few minutes after catching up with The Daily Show and Colbert Report. I can download/stream any movie or music I want using one of the world’s fastest Internet connections, while my cable TV opens up even more possibilities. The Net has all the world’s news. Skype lets me video-chat with my parents at holidays. There are two Costcos within a reasonable driving distance, and a decent amount of import stores that allow me to easily and cheaply cook American food if I so desire. I bought a queen-size bed at Ikea. Hyogo and Kyoto in 1999 and 2002 offered none of these, for both financial and technological reasons.

In so many ways, living in Tokyo in 2011 lets me keep my feet in both Japanese and American cultures. Obviously, I would not trade these comforts, but in a lot of ways it muddies the idea of assimilating into Japanese culture and fundamentally feeling like I live in a foreign country. If it mattered to me, I guess I could tilt the balance of my media/entertainment more toward the Japanese side, but it doesn’t. When I was younger I was all about learning to understand Japanese TV and movies and reading manga. But these days I know most Japanese TV is utterly stupid, and it’s rare for me to encounter a manga title that really grabs me (the last one was Ishi No Hana). Who knows, this might be another reason some of my old go-to blog topics seem less interesting now.

Beef Bowl Capitalism and Consequences

A gyudon “beef bowl” is a common fast food in modern Japan, a simple dish of beef and onions over rice. For those of you who need more background, read this.

The gyudon industry has faced a major shake-up over recent years. A decade ago, Yoshinoya was the undisputed champion of the business. It was then victim to a chain of unfortunate events. First, in late 2001, a domestic mad cow incident critically damaged beef bowl sales in Japan, for which Yoshinoya was hurt the hardest. In late 2003, Japan suspended imports of American beef due to a BSE incident, cutting Yoshinoya’s main source of beef. This gave rivals such as Sukiya and Matsuya, which got their beef from places such as Australia and Mexico, a key market advantage which they milked for several years.

A key battlefront in this market competition was not just supply but also prices. Gyudon prices dropped significantly (10-30%) during the time of tight supply from 2001 – 2004/2006, but rose back to normal when supplies returned. (You can see a clear breakdown of the price movements on this Japanese article from Wikipedia.) Now with consumers tightening their belts during the post-financial crisis years, the gyudon industry, which has recent experience (and institutional memory) of price wars are back at the game of trying to bring in customers.

Yoshinoya, despite having the most to lose from a price war, is partially responsible for the situation. A year ago, they dropped gyudon prices from 390 yen to 310 to celebrate their 111th year anniversary. Sukiya responded by offering a gyumeshi “poor man gyudon” for a record-breaking price of 240 yen, and the game of offering alternative cheaper gyudon variants took off. Sukiya achieved its low prices by finding cheaper supplies of beef, onions and rice; offering smaller portions; but also through other cost cutting methods such as cutting down staff. Sukiya in particular has a money-saving option in its franchise manual referred to as “wan-ope” (one operator) to have just one member of staff during nightime operations when the trains aren’t running and when customers are scarce.

And here we see a key externality of the gyudon price wars—a rise in robbery attacks on gyudon chain stores during night hours. In 2010, there were 20 attacks on Gyudon chain stores in three prefectures (Aichi, Gifu and Mie). 18 out of 20 targets were Sukiya stores. It almost looks like the convenience store holdups that became an endemic problem in the US during the 1980s. The primary cause is attributed to the “wan-ope” policy.

In reading articles on these events, I was struck by the correct, yet rather Japanese, closing comment of one article:

“Of course the person to blame for a crime is the person who committed it, but criminal sociologists are sounding the alarm for the responsibility owed by companies to protect the safety of their customers and their employees. In trying to win the price wars, it is understandable to push a rationalization of store management, but it is a fact that there are voices calling on companies to demand an environment that prevents crime such as robbery.”