Monthly Archives: April 2011

A few more notes on energy conservation

During the very early stages of last month’s disaster I wrote A Note on Energy Conservation, in which I explained why, energy conservation in western Japan would have no immediate effect in relieving the shortage in eastern Japan. This is because Japan’s electrical grid is, for historical reasons, separated into a 60hz grid (same as North America) in the western half of Japan and a 50hz grid (same as Europe) in the eastern half.

I have been collecting links related to the energy situation and several other aspects of the ongoing crisis and recovery efforts and will probably be blogging quite a bit on such topics, but for now I want to just post translations of a series of brief comments on energy conservation in Kanto from Tokyo Vice-mayor Inose Naoki (who I believe will remain in his job allegedly doing most of the real work serving under Ishihara following his unfortunate reelection) that he tweeted a week ago.

#1: The pachinko industry said in a protest message to Governor Ishihara that “the maximum power usage of their 4000 game parlors in the Tepco region” is no more than 840,000 kilowatts” and this is where I learned precise numbers. Before this the only data I had was regarding a sort of “peak velocity” of 320,000 kilowatts. Since Toei and Metro [Tokyo’s subway systems] together are a maximum of 360,000 kilowatts, this is pretty big.

#2: Pachinko parlor electricity consumption is 40% air conditioning, 30% pachinko machines, 20% lighting. To reduce the gap in power supply during summer peak demand time, [we] must reevaluate [our] lifestyles. To speak half-jokingly and half-seriously, the pachinko industry must themselves come forward with plans such as operating only at night, or running without their coolers on during the day.

#3: Drink vending machines use 190,000 kilowatts. The real number may be even higher. Vending machines are refrigerators. The industry is voluntarily engaging in self restraint to halt the cooling function between the hours of 1 and 4 but do we really even need it during the day time? At the very least we do not need them next to a convenience store. Conserving energy at night has no relation with saving energy during peak hours.

#4: Energy Conservation Minister Renho says “vending machines are a large proportion of the drinks industry’s sales” and expressed a “contradictory point of view” regarding industry self restraint, saying “the industry is working to lower energy consumption” (Kyodo). She does not understand the meaning of revising our lifestyles to overcome summer. There is no need to put refrigerators on the street in order to raise the sale price to ¥150 from the ¥90 it is in a supermarket.

#5: The DPJ administration has finally decided to issue government directives, and although there are regulations for both industry specific controls and total volume controls [on energy consumption], they have only issued total volume controls. By issuing only total volume controls,  it will only target electricity contracts of 500 kilowatts and up (large offices), which is only 1/3 of the total. The other 70% is voluntary restraint, and cigarette vending machines fall into that category. This is because they are not using industry specific controls.

#6: Tokyo is a commuter city. Toei and Metro together use a maximum of 360,000 kilowatts during rush hour. Outside of morning and evening rush, they are saving power by reducing service, reducing lighting/AC in stations and cars, stopping one set of escalators where there are two, etc. And compare this with how the pachinko or drinks vending machine industries – which add up to 100,000 kilowatts, are reacting.

#7: Cigarette vending machines are not refrigerators. Beverage vending machines are refrigerators, and guzzle 190,000 kilowatts. It may even be higher in reality. I previously had a number for the pachinko industry of 320,000 kilowatts, but their assertion that it is “no more than 840,000 kilowatts” gave me the real figure. The output of Reactor #1 at Fukushima Daiichi was 460,000 kilowatts. More or less.

#8: The concern is what to do about power use at peak hours. Late at night is not a problem. I have set the hot water heater on the bath in my working area to use electricity at night. I also installed solar panels one year ago. Even though Tokyo has been trying to encourage them the installation rate is low and I put them in myself. Personal experiences are in my book on working as Vice-governor.

#9: Roppongi Hills produces all of their own power. They have a contract with Tepco for backup. This is opposite the usual pattern. In the future, power generation will no longer be monopolized by Tepco. Factories had already begun installing their own power generation but it was expensive and efforts did not move forward. With the nuclear accident, people will start to question the real costs of power generation.

#10: Beverage vending machines. The Tokyo Prefectural Assembly DPJ proposed halting the coolers not from 13:00-26:00 but from 10:00-21:00. Energy Conservation Minister Renho is arguing for something different. In this proposal the Tokyo Assembly DPJ mistakenly wrote that vending machines use 110,000 kilowatts and the cool beverage industry corrected them saying it is actually 260,000 kilowatts. Thanks to that, I now know the real figure.

#11: Changed in electricity consumption. Proper mastery of a proposition is a precondition for linguistic skill. If we look back, the 1990s are not so long ago. Since the 1990s, GDP has not risen, but electricity usage has increased. Therefore, we need to reassess our lifestyles over the last 10-15 years. Why has GDP not risen even though we use more electricity?

How Matt Taibbi reads (or rather, doesn’t read) the news

Someone wrote to gonzo journalist Matt Taibbi about how he stays sane in a sea of crazy news. Here is how he responded:

See, what I’ve done, and you all can try this yourselves, is to simply avoid reading the news as much as possible. I read old books and the only periodicals I even look at lately are NFL draft guides. I’ve read Nolan Nawrocki’s draft booklet like 400 times already. To me he’s the greatest novelist since Waugh. That does wonders for my general sanity, but then I’ll have something happen like last Friday, when I went into 30 Rock to do a hit on Cenk Uygur’s show and saw him talking about a poll that had Donald Trump leading the field of prospective Republican candidates. Donald Trump has 26% of the Republican vote right now? What the fuck?

If it weren’t for the fact that my job requires me to be on top of world events, I’d be very tempted to follow his lead.

“Expensive Fools,” then and now

Many billions of dollars have been spent by Japan’s top companies in the last decade to develop the next generation of robots—famous for such technical marvels as expressing human emotions on a silicon face, bipedal walking, roller-skating, playing musical instruments, and cooking meals. Japanese companies such as Hitachi, Toyota, and Toshiba are broadcasting ads and posting billboards across the globe that show-off their latest robotic achievements. These products aren’t for sale. You cannot buy they for industrial or commercial use. But their existence suggests a fantastic future where robots will be serving us in all sorts of tasks, both menial and complex.

Too bad this is so utterly removed from reality. For all of Japan’s collective effort in developing its robotics industry, TEPCO has had to turn to iRobot,—a Massachusetts-based company—for the Packbot, a simple yet practical robot equipped with simple claws and cameras, to enter the Fukushima plants. The robot first entered the plants on Sunday (a month after the disaster, after it became clear that no Japanese robots were up for the task) taking measurements and photographs of areas where it was unsafe for humans to venture. (Interestingly, but not surprisingly, Japan has refused robots provided by the Chinese military.)

On that note, iRobot is also the company that brought us the Roomba, a robot that vacuums the floor and which is probably the most popular robot among Japanese consumers—showing that Japan Inc.’s investment in robot technology cannot save it, even in its home market. For all the fanfare in recent years, in truth, Japan’s robots are so advanced that they have skipped a generation of usefulness. The robotics on display by Japan Inc. may be useful in ten years, but they are nothing more than gimmicks today.

Coincidentally, just hours after I read the above article on TEPCO having to go to iRobot for robots to use in Fukushima, I was browsing through Michael E. Porter’s tome, The Competitive Advantage of Nations (which is just as heavy a book as it sounds). Published in 1990, one case study in the book addresses Japan’s robot industry, and I found this section prophetic:

The first robots used in Japan were imported from the United States in 1967. The Japanese robotics industry had its beginning in 1968, when Kawasaki Heavy Industries signed a licensing agreement with Unimation. Kawasaki was both a major potential user of robots as well as a producer of related products and services. It produced a broad range of machinery and parts, including engines, motorcycles, aircraft, machinery, complete plants, and ships. In 1969, Kawasaki began to sell Unimate robots, the first robots produced in Japan. Kobe Steel was also an early licensee of American robot designs.

The early Japanese robots produced results that were somewhat less than expected. They were often referred to as “expensive fools” and many were relegated to the corners of factories to collect dust. However, Japanese firms began to improve upon the robots they imported. Kawasaki redesigned some of the parts of the Unimation machines and upgraded its quality. In the late 1960s, the mean time between failures (MTBF) of an imported robot was less than 300 hours. By 1974, Kawasaki had achieved an MTBF of 800 hours. By 1975, this figure was 1,000 hours.

It’s a total cliche about Japanese business from the late 20th century: “Japan doesn’t invent things well, but they are great at improving things.” It’s a cliche so tired that it’s rarely rolled out much anymore. Yet as I read this, I realized that the observation from 1990 is still true, and is being echoed in real life events more than twenty years later.

Japan must get back to doing what it does best—improving, not inventing. If Japan’s researchers were tasked with improving the Roomba or the Packbot, I bet they’d do an amazing job. But left to their own devices, with the task of making something new, Japanese researchers, for whatever reason—dedicate themselves to creating a robot that can cook okonomiyaki and play the violin—and for what? Another generation of “expensive fools” destined to collect dust, due to the minor value the products provide in industrial and consumer markets.

What the media invading the Fukushima evacuation zone says about our media consumption


Source: WSJ

There have been many many reports of what it’s like at the earthquake-affected areas, and now there is a growing number of reports coming from inside the nuclear evacuation zone. According to Google News, the Global Post, the Telegraph, and CNN have reports, and a Japanese team recently posted a video of their trip. Here is what the Wall Street Journal had to offer:

Eerie Hush Descends on Japan’s Nuclear Zone

FUTABA, Japan—In the Coin Laundry, a dryer is still loaded with clothes: an orange hooded sweatshirt, a green worker’s vest and two pairs of jeans, damp and smelling of mildew.

At Joe’s Man restaurant near the train station, a menu lists the lunch specials, starting with bacon-and-eggplant pasta in a tomato-cream sauce. A flyer on the open doors of the Nishio clothes shop promotes a five-day “inventory clearance” sale. Over the road that runs through the town center, a white-and-blue sign proclaims: “Understanding Nuclear Power Correctly Will Lead to an Abundant Life.”

But life, by and large, is what is absent in this town, just a few miles away from the troubled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.


A little further down the reporters describe an interesting exchange after explaining that the zone isn’t illegal to enter but strongly discouraged:
“What are you doing here?” a fireman asked a reporter walking in the street. From the passenger seat, another firefighter held up a radiation monitor. “You are not supposed to be here. It’s dangerous,” he said. “Please leave soon.”

To me, if there are enough reporters on the ground that they are running into each other in an evacuation zone, something is very wrong here. Whatever value there is to tell the story of the evacuees has been eclipsed by the reporters’ attraction to a sexy location with post-apocalyptic trappings. These people are not looking to provide useful information for a discerning public. They are just entertainers hoping to sell an interesting story to the folks back home.

Most of the time media as entertainment is fine and more or less harmless. The tradition of Westerners reporting back on exotic travels goes back at least to Marco Polo, and it’s only natural for people to have a voyeuristic interest in world events. I’ll even allow that there may simply be no other good way to get digestible information about other countries. It’s just that from the perspective of someone living in Japan with a stake in the quake’s aftermath, seeing these kinds of reports is frustrating and makes me think they’re exploiting a tragedy.

After the earthquake, a lot of foreign residents of Japan received panicked messages from their relatives and friends back home, myself included. In my case, I had to tell my mom to stop watching CNN and turn to more reliable sources like NHK World. Since she didn’t have that on cable, she ended up turning to CCTV9, the international version of China’s state-run TV, because it had much more straightforward, facts-based reports. Other relatives also contacted me, some telling me to consider leaving. One conspiracy theorist relative told me to check the Drudge Report to get “the real story.”

Normally, average people are served well enough by whatever media they choose to access because it never affects their daily lives. People can read well-written articles in The Economist that might be wildly inaccurate because hey, who’s going to know the difference unless you’re actually from the country they’re writing about? It’s all just entertainment for the commute. Sadly, there’s no separation between the entertainment media and where you should turn when there’s real news.

Open thread for local elections

Thanks to the power of exit polls, we already know the results of some of tonight’s polls. For instance, Ishihara will remain governor of Tokyo for another four years (!). For updates on developments in the election, keep an eye on my Twitter feed. No live blogging tonight. Biking around my old stomping grounds in Adachi-ku has sapped my energy.

Feel free to leave comments/reactions below!

Photo: Osaka governor voting today in a track suit.

Local elections in Japan tomorrow – what and who to watch for

Tomorrow Japan will hold many, many local elections. The schedule is set by the central government, which prefers to hold all local elections around this time every four years. It’s sort of like Election Day in the States, except it’s on a holiday because Japanese officials  actually want people to vote.

Gubernatorial and mayoral elections are decided by majority popular vote (first past the post, no runoffs), while prefectural and local assemblies are a mix of single-member and multi-member districts, though I am not sure which is more prevalent.

In the wake of the massive earthquake last month, many elections in the affected areas have been postponed. Even outside the northeast, many local officials want them put off, to the point that Urayasu (located on reclaimed land, partly sank into ground after earthquake) has steadfastly refused to hold the vote as scheduled. Given the somber national mood, an enthusiastic campaign full of upbeat promises could look unseemly, and voters are understandably distracted by post-quake anxieties.

All the same, the decision has been made, and now it’s up to the public to show up and choose their leaders. There is a very wide field, but a few themes have emerged to keep an eye on as the votes are tallied tomorrow night.

Ishihara the indestructible? Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara is running for a fourth term, and is expected to win handily despite challenges from some recognizable faces.

Ishihara was most recently in the news making and then apologizing for a statement that the recent earthquake and tsunami were divine punishment for Japan’s immorality. If you have been following the quake news, you might wonder, Why is his re-election assured despite such an offensive statement? Well, there are two reasons. First, he has a long history of getting away with being outrageous, banking on the admiration he earned as a writer/celebrity and the large number of people who agree with much of what he has to say. Second, he is a skilled politician who has gained the backing of large blocs of reliable voters at a time when support for the rival DPJ is essentially in tatters (they didn’t even field their own candidate this time) and the turnout of unaffiliated voters is expected to be low.

For more on the first reason, I would direct you to David Marx’s profile of the governor over at Neojaponisme. Key line: “He is not a “loose cannon,” accidentally saying things he later regrets. He likely thinks that success of his endeavors requires raising the ire of groups to which he does belong.” Suffice to say, people expect Ishihara to be outrageous. The only surprising thing about his most recent offense is that he apologized. Probably even some supporters told him to watch his words this time.

As to the second, maybe I can shed some light. You see, the LDP and New Komeito hold influence over a fairly disciplined voting bloc. The Komeito is especially important in this equation because of their numbers and highly reliable turnout.

For example, let’s look back to my coverage of the 2009 Tokyo prefectural assembly election. In Adachi-ku, the LDP and New Komeito delivered around 70,000 votes each of a total turnout of around 250,000. That’s 30% of the vote right there in a high turnout election, and if I remember Adachi-ku was broadly consistent with the overall result. It wasn’t enough to win then because LDP/Komeito support was in the gutter following the financial crisis and subsequent recession, so unaffiliated voters went for the DPJ, handing them control of the Tokyo legislature.

Ishihara’s two major challengers are Hideo Higashikokubaru, the comedian-turned-Miyazaki governor, and Miki Watanabe, founder of discount restaurant chain Watami. Unfortunately for them, now is not a good time for new faces, especially not Higashi with his feel-good enthusiasm, or Watanabe, who just exudes “smarmy corporate big-shot.” These two and other more minor candidates are likely to split the vote, handing another advantage to Ishihara.

According to a recent poll (JP), Ishihara has the support of around 70% of LDP supporters, 60% of New Komeito supporters, and even has the edge in support among DPJ and unaffiliated voters. Unless there’s a major upset, expect to have Ishihara around for another four years.

Regional parties to gain ground. Osaka Governor Toru Hashimoto took to Twitter to join those calling for the elections to be postponed. He may just have been posturing, however, because his party, the Osaka Restoration Association, may well win a majority in the Osaka prefectural legislature tomorrow, with an Asahi poll giving it a lead of several points against the other parties.

Regional political parties, with charismatic leaders and often populist platforms, have gained attention, not to mention power, recently. In Aichi prefecture, elections in February and March gave the upper hand to Genzei Nippon (Tax Cut Japan), a populist party with a platform to slash local taxes.

Hashimoto’s plans for Osaka look even more ambitious. By forming a party loyal to him and gaining control of the legislature, he hopes to push hard for reforms including a plan to unify the administrative functions of Osaka city and prefecture. This, along with infrastructure investment and neoliberal stand-bys like market-testing government functions for possible privatization, he argues will give him the ability to put Osaka on firmer fiscal and economic footing after years in the doldrums.

Japanese speakers can watch this video for an outline set to a Sega Genesis-era synthesizer soundtrack:

Success for Hashimoto could give momentum to ambitious politicians in other regions wishing to open their own “Restoration” franchise. One area where this idea could find traction is in the northeast, where the gargantuan task of reconstruction all but guarantees intense frustration among the locals.

How will the results affect national politics? Until a few days ago, the biggest political news story was the potential for a grand coalition, a sort of unity government to give top priority to quake reconstruction (and maybe throw in tax hikes to pay for social security for good measure). LDP President Tanigaki has thrown cold water on the discussions, reportedly because they want PM Kan to quit as a condition of joining the government. Indeed, LDP Secretary General Nobuteru Ishihara (Shintaro’s son) is now back to openly calling for Kan’s head. Wow, that didn’t take long!

The local elections will likely only give the LDP more reason to keep up pressure on Kan. In a number of key races, the DPJ has opted not to field its own candidates, apparently because it took a hard look at the numbers and decided not to embarrass itself. However, the party has candidates running in gubernatorial races in Hokkaido and Mie—polls show the LDP with a lead in Hokkaido and slightly ahead in a close race in Mie. These will likely be two of the major headlines tomorrow night.

National politics in Japan are stuck in a morass of cautious leaders who end up getting bogged down in petty scandals. Kan’s approval ratings have jumped sharply since the quake, from the 20% range to the 30s. However, setbacks and the usual drumbeat of criticism from the media will likely send it back on a downward trajectory. Since winning big in the 2009 lower house election, the DPJ’s control of the government will likely last another 2.5 years. Even with rock-bottom approval ratings, the DPJ seems more likely to rely on changing the prime minister to gain temporary support from the public rather than calling an early election. Note that the disaster, as well as a recent Supreme Court decision that mandates a lower house redistricting more closely in line with the population, make it next to impossible for Kan to call an election for a while.

Many articles in the foreign press have expressed hope that the earthquake would serve as a wake-up call for Japan’s leaders to enact reforms to put the country on a firmer footing. Count me as skeptical. Constant attention to short-term political momentum, such as the impact of these local elections, ensures rudderless leadership that remains too distracted to form a meaningful political vision. As a friend noted to me over Chinese food the other day, Kan’s post-quake speeches have been long on uplifting rhetoric but very light on anything specific to inspire actual confidence.

Though I am skeptical of Japan’s political system regardless of which party controls it, it’s important to make some distinctions. The government deserves a lot of credit for its post-crisis response, though it bears stressing that no effort will be enough. They have been prudent, fast-acting, transparent, and open to foreign aid where needed. Also, the government is currently debating plans to cut electricity use in the summer in a way that completely avoids rolling blackouts. Given the huge damage to generating capacity, pulling off coordination on that level would be nothing short of heroic.

It’s just that the political system is paralyzed as long as its leaders flail in the face of petty scandals and public perceptions. It’s possible that the central government in Tokyo, itself suffering reputation damage from the blackouts and its perceived proximity to the Fukushima disaster, might start ceding political clout to brash self-proclaimed “restorationists” like Hashimoto who, unlike the past few prime ministers, are adept at shaping public opinion rather than being shaped by it.

 

Sustainable Sushi?

Are you concerned about the overfishing of the oceans, but still want to enjoy the delicious sweet raw flesh of fish? The Monterey Bay Aquarium has recently published a guide to what seafood you should and should not eat in specific areas of the United States. There is unfortunately no guide specific for Japan, but there is a US-centric sushi guide that may be of interest to some readers, and may encourage someone to create a version for Japan. (You’ll note that much of it is not useful because it depends on region—uni, for example, appears in all three categories, depending on its origin in the US).

You can download the pdf at the link.