At some point in my time here I had given up on Japanese dramas – they always felt so cookie-cutter, constantly covering the same themes and using wooden acting and stage direction.
But here comes Hibana, Netflix’s first original series for the Japan market, to set the bar very high. The mini-series, an adaptation of a book with the same title by well-known comedian Naoki Matayoshi, tells the story of a struggling comedy duo who must decide whether to sacrifice their art’s authenticity for a shot at mainstream success.
Until seeing this series, I might have claimed that the Japanese entertainment industry, with its salaried talent, collusive management agencies, and reliance on rehashing the same content and stars year after year, was fundamentally incapable of producing a series on par with The Sopranos or True Detective. But in my view this series reaches those heights on all fronts, in terms of a compelling story, realistic and interesting acting and dialogue, and character arcs that make sense.
And the biggest surprise to me was the theme – after years of watching Yoshimoto comedians (like Matayoshi) deliver same-y content for years, never in my life did I think that Japanese comedians considered the artist’s struggle for authenticity to be so critical! (of course that probably says more about my shallow knowledge of the Japanese entertainment industry).
If you have a Netflix account, I highly recommend giving it a chance, especially if you have ever had an interest in the world of manzai. It’s a funny but touching story of friendship and careerism that also has its fair share of wacky surprises. I will be watching the team who made this to see if they have a good follow-up.
2016 is getting a really bad reputation as the worst year ever. I can understand why, but I have good reasons why this doesn’t sit well with me (mostly because this year I added a Little Miss Adamu to the family).
To try and show why 2016 wasn’t all bad, I have decided to run down a few of the good things that either happened or that I read/saw/listened to, starting with my favorite podcast discovery of the year:
No More Whoppers might just be my favorite podcast of all time. It’s not perfect by any means, but with podcasts personality is everything, and their special mix of silliness and seriousness is just right for me.
The hosts are two early 30s white-dude American friends who met more than a decade ago as young video game journalists and have kept in touch.
Alex moved to Japan, first to teach English and now to run his own retro game themed bar in Nagoya, while Ray has continued writing about games and just recently began trying to make his own.
They crack silly in-jokes (making surprisingly effective use of an audio soundboard), tell stories about their day-to-day lives, and do various segments modeled after their favorite podcasts.
As podcasts go, the production is aggressively middling. They release whenever they can schedule an episode, so a lot of the time one is very hung over and half asleep. They get irritated with each other on air and it can get uncomfortable. The talk is often aimless – literal recapping of the mundane details of their day. At one point one of the hosts ran out of ideas and started commenting on what he saw out his window.
So having said all that, why do I like it so much? First, when it works, the laughter between two good friends is really infectious. But more importantly, binge listening to the show helped shed some light on transitioning to my mid 30s just at just the right time in my life.
To listen to Alex and Ray is to observe two tortured souls struggling to make sense of and make the best of this world
Much of the lighter talk on the show is about video games, but the juicy stuff is when they vent their frustrations.
As an English teacher, Alex was endlessly tormented by the absurd Kafkaesque bureaucracy of a Japanese school, and the powerlessness of being an outsider (students grab his crotch for a laugh, every seemingly nonsensical rule is justified with “it can’t be helped!”). Now as the owner of his own bar he ostensibly has more freedom but can’t afford to turn away the business of customers he finds loathsome and spends all his profits drinking after hours with other local bar owners, seemingly because he needs to keep up with “the scene”. Is he better off? Where is this heading?
Ray’s journey on the other hand starts out bleak – the podcast starts with him unemployed and with no real prospects smack dab in the middle of the Great Recession, and one of the best episodes is when he rages at not being able to find work even after asking his friends for help. But he ends up finding a place for himself as an editor at an established game company to the point that he feels comfortable branching out into other projects.
Along the way both get serious girlfriends and at least Alex is moving toward getting married.
It has been fascinating to see how the two hosts’ relationship has evolved over the years.
In the course of conversations over many episodes since early 2012, they gradually renegotiate the parameters of their relationship. Here and there, you hear, for example, Ray drop hints that Alex should pay more deference to his skills and experience as a copy editor. Or Alex lavish praise on a hyper-masculine, ex-military drinking buddy in what comes off as a subtle dig at Ray’s more introverted (and alcohol free) lifestyle.
These are the kinds of statements that end friendships. How many times have I had to concede that “he’s gone hardcore christian” or “she is all about her kids now” or even “I need to keep bad influences away for the sake of my family”?
Lesser friends might interpret these assertions of “things are different now” as signs they need to move on. But remarkably and commendably the two have kept at it and continue to bond over the things they still enjoy together.
They have not lost their easy rapport that not only lets them improv off each other, it makes for consistently earnest discussions when the time comes to get serious. That takes courage and I think we are all richer for it.
Of course this all comes with the caveat that with any podcast, listening to them for hundreds of hours makes me feel like I know them, but I’m really just hearing a version of themselves they choose to present. Still, real or not or in between their conversations have been enlightening for me.
So anyway that is my way too serious take on what is really a fun comedy podcast. I hope they keep going for a long time and know that people are rooting for them!
This year, Google made changes to its Translate service that are aimed at making translations more accurate. They use a “Recurring Neural Network” method that “considers the entire input sentence [instead of just parts of the sentence] as a unit for translation.” I have to admit I gulped at the news – is this what will finally make my role as a Japanese-English translator redundant?
The New York Times fanned my fear with this glowing article that led with the claim that Google Translate is now a better translator than Haruki Murakami (at the very least, he did a great job translating The Giving Tree, in my humble opinion).
That prompted me to test out the site. Here are some examples of Japanese-to-English translation that I pulled:
News articles I would say are unacceptably inaccurate:
This one (about discussions over who should pay for the 2020 Olympics) gets a minister’s name and gender wrong, can’t seem to recognize that 都 means the Tokyo prefectural government and 国 means the Japanese national government, and in general is just incoherent for most of it.
A man is suspected of cutting a police officer in the neck with a knife. But according to Google Translate, he is first “suspected of killing himself” and then “he cut off the police officer ’s neck with a knife… The policeman was injured.”
It seems to do best with press releases - these actually seem to give a pretty accurate and readable translation:
... But not so well when it comes to long-winded technical financial announcements:
The best I can say for it is that, unlike the earlier version, every sentence appears to be grammatically correct and make logical sense. The problem is that it doesn’t seem to be able to translate things in context or keep track of omitted subjects.
All in all, I can say it looks more useful for Japanese-to-English, especially if it is used with “made-to-translate” Japanese. I might even use it myself as a starting point for some documents (and that is definitely not something I would say about the old version!) But for now at least I am happy to report it isn’t yet ready to force me to start a new career, which is good because I have no idea what I would even do…
So to recap, eating Japanese food is the thing that foreign tourists most wanted to do before they arrive, it was their best purchase during the trip, AND it’s what they found most satisfying about their stay!
To be sure, as a Tokyo resident it didn’t surprise me to see that foreign tourists like Japanese food, but it was a bit surprising to see it’s their favorite thing about the country.
As you will see in the data, there is some variation between countries. For example, South Korea found going to Japanese hot springs to be the thing that they most wanted to do again if they came back, and mainland Chinese are more interested in shopping than food before they arrive. But overall the numbers speak for themselves.
The Tokyo Vice movie starring Daniel Radcliffe is apparently moving forward – Mr. Radcliffe has already started studying Japanese for the role of Jake, a young American who studies in japan and eventually lands first job as the first Western reporter for a Japanese newspaper.
I have read the book and am really rooting for this movie to be good. If successful it could inspire a new generation of young Americans to come study or live in Japan.
But I am worried that the story won’t have enough sizzle if the screenwriter (apparently a first timer) skews too closely to the source text.
In that spirit I offer my own version of the story that the film makers can feel free to draw from if they see anything interesting:
The movie opens with Jake hot on the trail of yakuza boss Goto. He is about to blow the lid off Goto’s illicit, FBI-brokered liver transplant, but one day a black Cadillac pulls up and forces Jake inside.
It turns out Jake’s been kidnapped and will be forced to fight in an underground cage fighting tournament. He wants to tell them to just fuck off and kill him now, but he wants to survive long enough to get revenge on Goto for killing his hostess girlfriend Lana all those years ago (we will learn Jake’s background through flashbacks). He would then fight progressively tougher bad guys with various gimmicks (nunchucks, poison-tipped blade fingernails, a dog).
Of course along the way Jake would develop a love interest with Goto’s daughter, the gun moll with a heart of gold who hates her father and wants to escape the mob life. She will be the one who sneaks him food and weapons to help him win.
Finally Jake would reach Goto who has had his brain and heart migrated to an android body after his replacement liver gave out and the FBI wouldnt let him have another one.
Robo-Goto would deliver an extended monologue about how weak and pathetic Americans are and how only the weakest loser Americans move to japan. And how does he know this for sure? Because (here’s the big twist) Goto killed Lana to take her liver and it only took him 7 years for his raging alcoholism to wear it out!
This obviously sends Jake into a blood rage (“Lana was British you ignorant sonofabitch“) and he delivers a perfectly aimed jump kick into the glass casing that houses Robo-Goto’s heart, killing Goto and sending him careening off the top of Yakuza Tower (the robot body explodes in mid air)
A heavily breathing and bloodied Jake is joined by the Goto daughter and the two exchange a desperately passionate kiss followed by some banter (“oh Jake I thought you’d never make it!” “Babe, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from all the hard work it took to become the first Western correspondent for a major Japanese newspaper, it this: never EVER say never”) and he carries her off to a better life as the girlfriend of a freelance reporter, which we learn from a caption that pops up as we fade to black.
So there you have it – I realize there are a lot of blanks to fill in, but there is some rich character development potential. There could be scenes of Goto smacking around his subordinates just for the hell of it, Jake in his lowest moment screaming whyyyyyyyy toward the ceiling of his holding cell at a seemingly uncaring God, a flashback of Goto and Jake giving each other the evil eye across the room at a smoke-filled night club, etc.
For a change of pace you could use the flashbacks to show Jake as a fish out of water learning Japanese culture, bungling chopstick use, getting sprayed in the face by the washlet. And there could be tender scenes of Lana and Jake on a date cruelly broken up by the murderous Goto.
Anyway, I hope you are as excited for this movie as I am!
Please let us know your story ideas in the comments section or who you would cast. For Goto and daughter, I would use the father daughter team from Transporter, Ric Young and Qi Shu.
This ended up being my most popular tweet in a while with 14 retweets (the last time that happened might have been not long after the tsunami). Given that a couple people asked for a translation of the original post I figured I would take a stab at a rough translation of the relevant portions. Note that I am not super familiar with the idol world (apparently the idol in question is Rina Ikoma, a member of Nogizaka 46 not AKB48) so please forgive me if I am missing something.
I just wanted to be loved my the one person I held most dear!
.... Ohh I’m not sure what I should write… Well, here is some good news for the people who hate me: Ikoma-chan rejected me! Lol ＼()／
Honestly I was floored – her unexpected reply stabbed me straight through the heart. She could have been a little nicer about it! Yesterday there was something cold-hearted about her.
But really it’s my fault. I just wanted to make sure… I am so sorry
Ikoma-chan, I hope you will read this blog like you promised… It was all a big misunderstanding. I think I was unconsciously aware of it all along, but you shouldn’t have told me you liked me best! (;_;) That would make anyone misunderstand lol
I feel as if everything I have ever built in my life has now crumbled instantly into nothing.
But all in all this might be for the best. (ー) I don’t know what I’ll do when the next single comes out, but I don’t think I’ll be as into it as much as I have been.
Frankly, my psyche isn’t strong enough. I might quit being an otaku lol
To close out, I’ll just say one more time, thank you Ikoma-chan for letting me dream!
Thank you for making it possible for me to enjoy my life. I had nothing before you.
You were the first person I ever fell seriously in love with.
It is worth noting how costly it was for this fan to learn that his favorite idol isn’t interested in seeing him outside of paid fan events. The picture above is the 3,000 copies of a CD he bought to show his support (and maybe gain access to a handshake event). He also apparently went into around 3.5 million yen in debt in the process. That could be crippling financially depending on his income level.
A couple weeks ago the Japanese ruling Liberal Democratic Party released Abe-pyon (Abe Jump; iOS link / Android), its first official smartphone game. The release was timed ahead of the upcoming Upper House election to try and reach voters that might otherwise not be interested in politics.
You control a cartoon version of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as he jumps higher and higher. Hitting springs gives you an extra boost, and as you go higher you reach more elite government/party titles (LDP Youth Division Director, Minister, Secretary General, etc. all the way up to Prime MInister).
For a low-budget simple game, Abe-pyon has been very well received, but I am not surprised—the game is actually quite fun and addictive, it’s free, and unlike virtually all other high-profile smartphone games (that I have played at least), it is a pure and complete game with no in-game purchasing whatsoever. To control Abe you tilt the phone from side to side, and this is the first smartphone game I have played where that was actually fun and even doable on the train. It is a lot of fun to try and slip Abe between two platforms to get at one of the red super-bonus springs.
This person made it to 11,000
You might complain that you are being propagandized by a political party, but if this is what it takes to bring an actually enjoyable and no-nonsense game to my iPhone, then that part doesn’t bother me a bit.
The game’s simple but well-done mechanics remind me of some earlier endless runner type games I have played, most notably Nanaca Crash, a Flash game (and Mutant Frog favorite) where you control a bouncing boy who was sent flying by a girl who was apparently stalking him. That was back in a the good old days before Facebook games taught every game maker of the potential to get rich through microtransactions.
The sound in the game is also pretty great. You get to hear comical boioioioing! sound effects whenever you hit a bonus spring, and Abe lets out a panicked squeal when he dies (sadly that isn’t his real voice). There is a rollicking Blues Brothers-style rock song which is also pretty fun (though I keep it off if I am listening to podcasts).
My current high score
That being said, there are a few drawbacks, most of which have to do with the nature of the game. For one thing, you have to start from the beginning every time, so it takes a while to get back near a high score. You can pause the game and come back, but my iPhone 4S has so little memory it often loses my progress if I open a few more apps. I find that my hand tires out a little after getting to 800 or so, so I tend to mess up after that. If the LDP decides to sell the game to an actual business, offering continues might be a good way to monetize.
All in all however, I have shocked myself at how long I have been willing to stare at Abe’s face (albeit in cartoon form) to play this game. That speaks to how enjoyable the game is, so I definitely recommend trying it out if it’s on your local app store and hope more political parties will get the idea to curry favor with the populace by making great video games.
Update: It has come to my attention that this game is very similar to a popular game Doodle Jump. I haven’t played that one but the screen shots seem very close. Thanks Dan and Emily!
Recent news reports suggest that the LDP is planning to propose doubling the JET Program in three years and placing JET language assistants in all elementary, middle, and high schools within a decade. There are around 38,000 such schools in Japan, so that’s a LOT of ALTs!
According to internal affairs ministry statistics, in fiscal 2012 there were around 4,300 JETs in the country, so the plan is apparently to increase that by a whopping factor of nine. According to the statistics that METI keeps on language schools, there are 10,000 or so full- and part-time language teachers working for regulated schools. I believe that does not count the large number of contractors like the teachers working for ALT placement agencies or the poor devils at Gaba, university instructors, and certainly not the many student teachers or anyone operating their own eikaiwa that does not fall under METI’s purview. But even generously allowing for a teacher population of say 30,000 total (around 3 for every train station), in ten years this number will be more than doubled.
The program is designed to place youthful foreigners, generally native English speakers, in Japanese schools (and to a smaller extent, local governments) for up to five years with two explicit goals: supplement English-language education and promote international interaction at the local level. Another key benefit is that the participants often go on to take influential Japan-related jobs, be it in foreign governments, Japanese companies, or companies that do business in or with Japan. Having a stable of Japan hands around seems pretty necessary at this point, given the relatively poor state of English language ability among the Japanese population. Unlike normal employment situations, JET offers a high level of support in the form of a reasonable salary, free housing, and a network of fellow JETs and regional coordinators to help with problems.
I get the feeling that a ninefold increase in the JET Program isn’t realistic—could they even recruit that many people to come and live in Japan, or would they maybe just cannibalize the entire existing eikaiwa-for-kids market? Still, some increase in the program along these line seems like a fairly simple way for the Abe administration to make a bold move in the direction of “internationalization” that won’t run into much political resistance.
Regardless of your views on the merits of the JET Program or the Japanese education system in general, you must admit that even just doubling the size of JET would have a pretty profound impact.
For one thing, that is double the amount of people coming in each year. That means more foreign faces on the street and more non-Asian foreign exposure for the Japanese public at large.
It also means more “Japan hands,” maybe even double, and this can cut in different ways. I feel like Japan is sorely in need of talented Japanese-to-English translators, so an influx of native English talent that could eventually progress to ace-translator status is a good thing. At the same time, the increased supply in the market could put pressure on prices, and who knows maybe some whipper snapper could come after my job some day.
I think it would also revive the option of teaching English in Japan for graduates of US universities that (from my admittedly limited perspective) seems to have died down a bit in the wake of troubles in the eikaiwa market and competition from China, a bigger and perhaps more intriguing destination. I can envision a near future in which young men see the Tokyo Vice movie and become inspired to chase thrills and excitement in Japan.
And it would necessarily boost the number of international marriages and the resulting children, bringing Japan that much closer to becoming the Grey Race.
On the negative side, the JET Program might have to loosen standards to attract talent. Even if they don’t, the sheer number of additional people will likely result in an increase in the problems that occasionally befall foreigners in Japan – crime, drugs, suspicious visa activity, ill-advised YouTube rants, you name it.
JET is a net good, but not for Japanese people’s English ability
I say bring it on, mainly to bolster Japan-related talent. Unfortunately, my support of the program is not for its value as an English teaching tool (disclosure: my application for the JET Program was in fact rejected. I am not bitter about it because I handed in a terrible application, but nevertheless I feel like I should own up about it).
I have spoken with/read about perhaps dozens of JET teachers and students over the years. The teachers by and large do not have a particularly high opinion of the job’s value in terms of English teaching, but they almost unanimously credit the program for giving them a great experience. And while the students might not master English thanks to their JET, in many cases they remember them being a friendly adult who helped make school more enjoyable.
From what I gather, the job of an ALT is generally to supplement a Japanese teacher of English by helping with pronunciation and various other tasks. Maybe I just don’t get around enough, but I cannot recall ever hearing someone even try to argue that they are an essential part of the learning process or that what they do has an appreciable benefit to the level of English ability in Japan. I don’t think that is really a problem though because of the program’s other upsides.
On the other hand, what I have heard and experienced is that ALTs can help inspire students to discover the joys and rewards of learning English or encourage them to keep going. I think the value of that should not be underestimated because it is life-changing and the ALTs deserve huge credit for it.
This is kind of an aside, but basically I do not share the government’s fascination with trying to make the entire country proficient in English because for most people that is just not necessary. The way things stand, the biggest result of the current system seems to be the long list of Japanized English loan words that are often such a headache-inducing component of the Japanese language.
To have a more realistic and beneficial impact, I would rather them focus on establishing separate programs for the kids who excel at languages and giving them a place to shine on their own (and while they’re at it they should devote resources to helping returnees re-integrate when they come back while maintaining their language skills). That would hold out the hope of producing a larger population of Japanese adults with near-native English skills.
I feel like there is negative feedback loop whereby most Japanese people are in an environment where the norm is to not be good at English and therefore most people choose the path of least resistance. Separating out the kids that have a real talent and placing them in a more encouraging environment might keep them from missing out just because they have to go along with the crowd.
All in all, JET seems like a worthy program for giving kids a glimpse at a world outside of Japan and the teachers an interesting start to their post-college lives in a way that usually ends up benefiting Japan in some way.
PS: This independent video guide to the JET Program is very well done. If you are reading this and considering doing the program yourself, it is definitely worth a look:
It seems to me that a major factor behind Japan’s vaunted problems with the English language could have to do with the learning environment.
Specifically, some Japanese people are not sufficiently aware that Japanese-accented English is often incomprehensible to listeners who are not familiar with it.
I call it the Heisenberg property of language – simply being among Japanese people causes native English speakers (eikaiwa teachers, friends, coworkers, etc) to get used to how Japanese people speak, and of course alter how they speak to ensure Japanese people understand them.
This concept came to my attention in a big way at an investment conference that I recently attended for work.
The keynote speaker was a well-known American investment manager, and when it came time for the Q&A session, there was a roughly even mix of question-askers who were native English speakers, Japanese who asked their questions through the interpreter, and Japanese who opted to ask in English.
The guest speaker had trouble understanding all of the Japanese people who asked questions in English. One person in particular asked something like, “What is your view on Abenomics?” and it took about three tries before the speaker got that it was something about the new prime minister. I understood it the first time because I could hear him say the katakana “abenomikkusu” just really fast and with an attempt at English inflection. But to the American guest speaker, the questioner must have sounded like he was mumbling “obb-nom” instead of the properly enunciated “Abe-nomics” that sounds similar to Reaganomics.
This is just one small example, but I encounter cases of this phenomenon all the time:
Several English-speaking Japanese people in my life have heavy accents, but I can understand them because my years in the country have gotten me used to how Japanese people tend to speak.
Japanese commercials are flooded with simplified English
Eikaiwa teachers tend to use simplified English to make themselves understood in class. I have even known some to incorporate common Japanese phrases like “hora” to get students’ attention.
If a Japanese person spends all their time in this “Japanese-familiar” bubble, then when it comes time to go face-to-face with a less Japan-savvy foreigner, they are likely to run into trouble.
I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing. For the sake of communication, speaking to make yourself understood (and listening carefully to understand) is only the most natural thing in the world. I just feel like pointing it out because Japanese people who equate speaking English with native speakers in Japan with “immersion” might be in for a rude awakening if they ever step outside that environment.
Two major elections are coming up in Japan this Sunday—a general election to choose members of the Diet’s lower house, and a race for the Tokyo governorship. The chances of a change in government are high and of all people, that great buckler former PM Abe Shinzo is the favorite to become Japan’s next prime minister!
To help make sense of it all, I’ll be participating in a Livestream broadcast with Garrett De Orio and Kozo Ota, two of the Tokyo English-language blogosphere’s foremost political (and yakyu) junkies. You can save the URL here. We go on air at 8pm, once the polls close. It promises to be a fun and informative evening, so if you like sarcastic commentary and wading deep into the swampy weeds of the Japanese political system, this one is for you my friend.
During the stream we will be answering Twitter questions live with the hashtag #japanelection. Please drop a line! Given its importance, we will be focusing mostly on the general election.
Before Sunday I will try and do some posts highlighting aspects of the election that might fall through the cracks of what has become a quite robust Japan blogo/Twittersphere of late. Outfits like Japan Real Time, Japan Probe, and Shisaku have all been great.
Otherwise you can follow me at @adamukun on Twitter for regular updates. Please let me know in the comments below what sort of issues you want to hear about, and I hope to see you on the stream! Oh and if you’re a Japanese citizen make sure to get out there and vote!!