Monthly Archives: February 2012

My Japanese sucks and always will

Not as good as this guy’s

Just want to get something off my chest. I’ve been studying Japanese for almost 15 years, spent two of them studying abroad, lived in Tokyo for five years now, passed the JLPT 1 and the Securities Representative exam in Japanese, worked as a Japanese-English translator for around 7 years, and on and on. I’ve done a lot of stuff that would seemingly require near-native fluency, and yet…

My Japanese still sucks. I feel like no matter how much I study or live in the country I am always going to have a rough accent, a low working vocabulary, and generally limited fluency. My reading will always be much much slower than a native, and I will forever be looking up kanji on my iPhone even to write my own address half the time. My wife will be afraid to let me go to the doctor alone lest I misunderstand some important detail. I’ll never feel comfortable speaking in public or leading a group conversation among natives. If someone doesn’t feel like being patient with me there’s not a whole lot I can do to take control of the situation.

I feel like I have improved a lot and developed a pretty good working use of the language, but on an objective level it’s just terrible. I’d like to go around thinking I have really achieved something by learning another language and making a career of it, but I need to be honest.

In the US there is a very simple standard for English fluency – either native or foreign. You don’t get any prizes for having 50% fluent English or even 90%. But of course here, Japanese people tend to be overflowing with praise for a Westerner who speaks the language. They make it sound like it’s such an amazing achievement. But anyone who grows up here will learn Japanese – it’s just a way for people to communicate. I don’t think knowing it means you deserve any special credit. I guess I should be grateful that the bar is so low and so many people are willing to be patient with me.

I can only speak for myself, but I get the feeling that a good deal of the long-term Western residents are like me. They’ve developed a good working fluency but will probably never really reach native level. I think that’s great and worthy in its way, but for me I don’t want to lose sight of reality.

There are ways that I could improve, maybe, and I do want to get better. I want to just live a normal life without worrying about the language barrier. It’s demoralizing to stutter and fumble words at my job or even just trying to ask a store clerk something. Having better Japanese and the social skills to use it (a big one here) would make it much easier to disarm situations where people are uneasy about dealing with a foreigner. I have definitely not been in the habit of actively trying to improve my Japanese for quite a while now – at this point in my life (almost 30) my priorities are work and spending time with Mrs. Adamu. Spending extra free time writing kanji is not my idea of fun anymore.

People laughed Debito’s column about not having male Japanese friends, but I actually kind of identified with it to an extent. I don’t hang out with many Japanese people, and next to zero men. Unlike Debito, however, I don’t really blame Japanese people for not being sophisticated enough to understand me. I instead put most of it down to the language/cultural barrier and my own social awkwardness. There are lots and lots of people with similar backgrounds who have successfully integrated, either going native or on some other terms, and they can just make it work in a way that I haven’t been able to.

Maybe what’s made things worse is that my Japanese has improved to a level where I know what it means to speak at a native level and the difference when someone falls short. At the risk of comparing myself to people with real problems, it’s like a disabled person who knows what it’s like to walk but just can’t make his body do what his brain is telling it.

Anyway that’s something I have been wanting to post on Mutant Frog for a while now because I don’t want to put out this image like my Japanese is so amazingly awesome when it’s not. That’s definitely not how I used to feel (I think I have written that I “get” Japan better than other people on more than one occasion) but I am way overdue for some humility.

AIJ – mini-Madoff or yakuza slush fund? It’s too early to tell

(Update: Jake Adelstein has left a response in our comments section)

Friday morning the news broke that Japanese regulators shut down AIJ Investment Advisors, a small investment management firm, because its 183 billion yen in funds under management had mostly gone missing. The company specialized in managing pensions for smaller companies. It seems likely that a massive fraud has taken place.

Scandals like these are not obscure, victimless crimes – they directly affect people’s lives. For instance, semiconductor equipment maker Advantest apparently had 8% of its pension assets invested with the firm. These funds are very unlikely to be recovered at this point. That’s 8% less the firm has to pay its workers post-retirement, which it will have to make up for somewhere. The unwitting employees of AIJ will no doubt lose their jobs as well. A company the size of Advantest might be big enough to weather a loss like that but 100+ other clients that were wooed by the attractive returns might not be so fortunate. Layoffs, bankruptcies, ruined lives, misery all around.

The fund reported consistent returns regardless of market conditions, achieved with exotic financial instruments—classic signs of financial fraud that corporate pension managers should have seen coming a mile away. It’s too early to know exactly what happened, though. According to the WSJ, the ratings agency R&I called attention to the suspiciously favorable returns in 2009.

Too early to call “yakuza”

Even though the facts have yet to come out, that hasn’t stopped Jake Adelstein, among others, from promoting a possible yakuza connection. That’s understandable since he bases his media career around being the West’s yakuza expert. However, I take issue with him coming out so early in favor of an organized crime angle. He doesn’t know any better than the rest of us, at least judging from the justifications he has trotted out so far.

He argued in favor of a yakuza connection in the Olympus scandal not too long ago, and the New York Times ran a report that the police were looking into yakuza involvement. However, the independent investigative committee found no evidence of yakuza and I have not seen any major refutation on that point.

Despite seemingly getting it wrong on Olympus, Jake has again taken to Twitter to play up a connection in the AIJ scandal. As with Olympus, the New York Times has run an article that echoes and bolsters his claims. The feed and the article make lots of claims that I will paraphrase here:

  • AIJ is a Yamaguchi-gumi front (Jake)

  • This is true because one of the board members (not the head) was convicted of paying protection money to a corporate extortionist (sokaiya). And once someone has paid millions in protection money and gotten caught, that means they will turn around and steal billions (I am assuming because the yakuza tells them to). (Jake)

  • The head of the firm is also ex-Nomura (NYT)

  • The DPJ-led government turns a blind eye to financial fraud because the former FSA minister may have accepted yakuza donations at some point. (Jake)

  • The Nomura connection and the dates when AIJ and another firm received approval to offer financial services means the AIJ scandal “shares many characteristics with the Olympus scheme” (NYT)

  • Jake sent an email to a friend explaining his suspicions about AIJ in 2008. He says that his sources told him AIJ manages the Yamaguchi-gumi’s pensions.

I am ready to be wrong, but at this point I am not convinced. These unconfirmed claims, appeals to authority, and guilt-by-association tactics do not amount to actual evidence to justify labeling this a yakuza crime. Yet, anyway.

It may well be that the Yamaguchi-gumi raided AIJ and took all the money, or demanded favorable treatment as a customer. But a serious and contemptuous crime has apparently taken place even without a yakuza connection, so there’s no need to rush to apply a label, in my opinion. Jake and Hiroko Tabuchi of the New York Times, I beg you to please rein in your speculation until we have more facts.

Actual damage possibly smaller than 183 billion yen

It’s also worth noting that the 183 billion yen number includes potentially phony returns, so if the entire cumulative return of 245% is phony but the cash remained, that would leave AIJ with 53 billion in cash. That would leave “most of” the money missing even with most of the principal intact. That’s still a lot it’s indeed gone, but we don’t even know that much right now. And if the company has only been lying about returns that means they have likely been fraudulently collecting return-based fees.

It’s my understanding that investment managers are required to keep funds in segregated accounts at trust banks, to avoid the easy temptation of embezzlement. For example, if I buy a mutual fund, the fund manager doesn’t get to touch my money at all (unless I am totally naive). It goes into a trust, and the manager simply gives instructions on which securities to purchase based on the contract. AIJ was a “discretionary” manager, meaning that the managers had free rein over (but not direct access to) the funds as long as the action fit a pre-determined investment policy. Of course that assumes AIJ was following procedures when collecting funds. If AIJ was somehow just accepting cash and managing without a trust arrangement, that is a dreadful problem and could warrant prosecution even without any theft. The regulators’ statement (PDF) orders AIJ to “immediately confirm” the status of funds, including fund segregation. Ick.

Update: According to a story over this weekend, the firm apparently invested most of the cash in a single Cayman-registered investment trust of its own creation, which it then outsourced management of to a British-affiliated bank in Bermuda. This would suggest they may have used the funds as a way to get around fund segregation and gain access to the funds.

Japanese Kindle

Having now moved back and forth several times between my home in the US and Kyoto or Taipei, on the other side of the world in East Asia, it has become clear to me that dealing with books is the biggest pain in the ass. This is exacerbated by the fact that I am both a congenital book hoarder and (although not at this exact moment) a graduate student. After the most recent move home, after graduating from my Masters program in March of last year, I decided that purchasing a Kindle would be the best way to reduce the amount of weight that my future self will be sending across the sea when the need arises.

And I do love the Kindle, and Amazon’s service in general. (I should mention here that my father owns some Amazon stock, which has benefited me, but that the investment is based on enthusiasm for the company’s service, rather than shilling in order to promote the company.) I happen to have the 3G keyboard model, and the e-ink screen is a wonderful replacement for paper books, even if not quite as good. I do also use the Kindle app on my phone when the Kindle device is not with me, and it is surprisingly comfortable to read books the large screen of my Galaxy Nexus. And the service has been fantastic; when I accidentally broke my Kindle’s screen, Amazon customer support sent me a new one no questions asked. This clearly because Amazon’s priority is very different from that of a consumer electronic company whose profit comes from the hardware itself, who would be happier persuading you to pay for a new unit, or at least repair costs, for breaking a non-defective unit; rather than even asking if I had broken it, they seemed more concerned in getting me a new Kindle ASAP, so that I could resume paying them for content.

Unfortunately, however, the Kindle Store does not include Japanese books. However, it was reported a couple of weeks ago that Amazon would be launching the Kindle in Japan later this year, with Japanese language e-books from Japanese publishers. Apparently they will be launching with the current generation of e-ink devices, rather than the Kindle Fire Android tablet, but since I personally prefer both the readability and long battery life of the e-ink devices I don’t think this is a problem. Anyway, Amazon already sells the “International” Kindle in Japan, so the key here is that Japanese e-books will be available in the store, which will then be usable on existing hardware, including the Kindle app on iOS, Android, and OSX or Windows computers.

The big question for me, however, is how the different national stores will interact. Will it be possible to purchase Japanese books from my Amazon.com account, using my American credit card? If not, will it be possible to use, say, a Japanese debit card linked to my Shinsei bank account? Or will I have to resort to the more convoluted maneuvers required for some international online media stores, by purchasing Japanese Kindle books through my Amazon.co.jp account, and then switching the currently logged-in account on my Kindle to that when I want to read a Japanese title? I do know that Amazon has already localized the Kindle for Italian, Spanish, with Brazilian Portuguese also launching later this year, so I am wondering if anybody reading this knows how it currently handles juggling purchases from more than one country store?

Now, despite the fact that the rumored Kindle Japan store will (presumably) not be launched for a few months, there is still one major source of Japanese e-books usable for it today. Many readers are probably already familiar with Aozora Bunko, a repository for public domain Japanese literature, roughly similar to the primarily English language Project Gutenberg. Since the Kindle software—that is, the OS on the Kindle device, not just the app for other platforms—has included support for East Asian text for some time, it can display Aozora Bunko text files with no problem. Well, there is ONE problem. You see, while perfectly readable, the current text file viewer only displays text in the same left-to-right horizontal lines that you are reading this blog in. While it certainly no challenge to read Japanese in this format, it just doesn’t feel right for literature, which is still universally printed in horizontal lines, and read from right-to-left.

Luckily there is a solution: an online utility called Aozora Kindoru, which generates PDFs formatted in literature style vertical columns for the Kindle screen (they will also work great on any other device with PDF support and a similarly sized screen), and even properly formats any furigana present in the original file. I was first alerted to this utility via a Twitter user, and here are two English blogs with instructions, although I imagine that anybody who would be reading any of the old stuff on Aozora Bunko can figure out the Japanese directions with no problem. [Link 1] [Link 2]

As a final note, it appears that the Nook, from Barnes and Noble, is also planning to introduce international versions, including Japanese. While looking for jobs, I ran across a posting for an “International Content Manager” for Nook, the duties of which involve:

The Manager, International Content Acquisition will have previous experience working with publishers around the world and should be familiar with each territory’s publishing industry.  Candidates should be familiar with the latest developments in digital publishing.  Ideal candidates must have business level command, speaking and writing, of English and at least one other language.

and the job requirements for include:
Professional, spoken and written fluency in English as well as one of these languages is required:  German, Italian, French, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Russian.

This actually surprises me a bit, as one of the reasons I decided to go with Kindle rather than Nook in the first place (aside from my history with the company) was that I expected from that beginning that Amazon, a country with a strong presence in Japan, would eventually introduce a Japanese language store, while I was doubtful that Barnes and Noble, a company with no history that I am aware of operating in foreign language markets, would do likewise. I am happy to be proven wrong. Incidentally, I have yet to see this move by B&N reported anywhere, but I think the job posting is pretty clear evidence, although if they are currently recruiting for these positions it would seem likely that they are not as close as Amazon to opening their Japanese store.

震災 SHINSAI-Theaters for Japan March 11, 2012

Two Japanese actress friends of mine here in NYC (note: this is all of the Japanese actresses I know in NYC) are involved in this theatrical production in honor of the one year anniversary of last year’s massive disaster in Tohoku. I’ll be going.









Join us on Sunday March 11, 2012, the one-year anniversary of the earthquake that devastated Japan’s Tohoku region, as we join theaters nationwide to present works by major American and Japanese theater artists. The Japan Playwrights Association will disperse the proceeds from this one-day-only event to the Japanese theater community affected by the disaster.

Exclusive reading performance of original Japanese scripts of Yoji Sakate, Oriza Hirata, Toshiki Okada and more! SAVE THE DATE and share this one-day only event with us!

Many thanks to the La MaMa Theatre for donating their space for rehearsal and performance of this event.

Sunday, March 11th at 2:30PM
Suggested donation: $10
R.S.V.P Seats are limited. Please make your reservation at
japan311remember@gmail.com

あの未曾有の東日本大震災から1年目を迎える2012年3月11日、多くのシアター関係者によって開催される 「震災:SHINSAI Theaters for Japan」に参加致します。シアターコミュニティーの仲間による、 日本の被災地の仲間たちへのシアターパフォーマンスを通しての支援です。この特別な日のために寄与された日米の劇作家からの プレイを通し、集い、語り、繋がります。

くろたま企画では英語訳プレイの他に坂手洋二氏、岡田利規氏、鈴江俊郎氏などの作品を、特別に日本語の原文による リーディングの会を催します。どうぞふるってご参加下さい。

お席に限りがありますので、メールでご予約ください。
japan311remember@gmail.com

MORE INFOhttp://www.kurotamakikaku.com/shinsai.html

All fixed

After several months of procrastination and dawdling, everything now appears to be working again.

I had originally thought that it would be impossible to restore any comments from after February 8 of last year, which was the last time I made a proper backup of the database. This bothered me somewhat, as it would mean that all of the comments from the earthquake and initial Fukushima disaster period would be gone, which was a major reason for giving in to my procrastinatory tendencies.

However, after not having done anything for a while, I decided last week to finally suck it up and restore what I could, even if we lost a few months of comment activity. But before that, my friend Tryon Eggleston, webmaster at Drew University, took another look at the site, and realized that for some reason it was now possible to extract comments from the damaged database file using the same techniques that both of us had tried, without success, several months ago. Exactly why this should be so is mysterious — perhaps there was an update to the server software that changed how it handles the database — but it was certainly welcome. With that problem solved, all of the blog software was wiped, re-installed from scratch, and the content of the old database was imported into a fresh one. I also took this opportunity to switch from the old, somewhat broken, theme that we had been using to an only very slightly tweaked version of the new default theme. Unfortunately, the old header image does not fit these dimensions, but I will slap something else together at some point.

So, here we are. The blog works, and virtually no content has been lost. I am not going to promise anything specific about future activity, from either myself or other authors, but I will say that I at least keep things more active than the comatose state of the past eight months.