Kabuki for lunch alert

You can always spot the undercover restaurant critics by their kabuki masks.

“Ms. Lemos, I presume,” I said with a mock flourish.

“Just call me Gael,” she said with a weary smile.

This weary smile will be familiar to anyone who has dined with a practicing restaurant critic and quizzed him or her on the strange, time-honored Kabuki dance that takes place between chefs and restaurateurs and the people whose job it is to cover them.

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Game review: Abe-pyon is a fun, free, no-nonsense smartphone game; political propaganda at its best

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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).

Abe pyon high score

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!

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“Unbuttoning the uniform”

Over the years, this blog has had so many posts on the wretched “kabuki play” cliche that we gave them their own category, but we never mentioned a related pet peeve cliche of mine: “opening the kimono“. Well, in yesterday’s New York Times, the acerbic David Carr1 spun a new twist on it.

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In his article on the intense secrecy of the Bradley Manning Wikileaks trial, “In Leak Case, State Secrecy in Plain Sight” and the difficulties that has so hindered  journalists and other citizens interested in the case, he has the following paragraph:

Finally, at the end of last month, in response to numerous Freedom of Information requests from news media organizations, the court agreed to release 84 of the roughly 400 documents filed in the case, suggesting it was finally unbuttoning the uniform a bit to make room for some public scrutiny.

As far as I can tell, Carr is the first writer to use this spin on the nasty cliche (although it has certainly been used before in reference to, say, soldiers undressing), which I honestly find pretty amusing. At least, unless it turns into a cliche.

  1. Incidentally, a resident of my home town, although we have never met. []
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LDP presidential candidate Hayashi: “Let’s play kabuki”

This morning’s NHK Sunday political show contained a disturbing reimportation of the term political kabuki.

The candidates for LDP president were debating their stances on US base relocation, and one, Yoshimasa Hayashi, made the comment (if memory serves) that if Japan cannot deliver progress in negotiations then the bilateral talks would be nothing but political theater.

Specifically, he said they would turn into “let’s play kabuki” (レッツプレイカブキ) apparently referring to the tendency for the US media to refer to kabuki theater in this sense.

Ugh. My least favorite media cliche is now being adopted by the highest levels of Japan’s political establishment.

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I don’t even really like this show that much because it tends to be nothing but unsurprising political bromides, and whatever value they have is directed at the politicos in Nagatacho, not a general audience. I always end up watching though because it comes right after one of my favorite shows 小さな旅 (“Little Adventures” is how I prefer to translate it). It’s a fun travel show but I especially like it for its amazing theme music, written by Yuji Ohno of Lupin III fame. Here it is thanks to the magic of YouTube:

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Re-importing kabuki

From a recent NYT article on how globalized Japanese people supposedly have trouble finding jobs in Japan:

“Shukatsu” refers to the system in which Japanese companies typically hire the bulk of their workers straight from college and expect them to stay until retirement. Not getting a job upon graduation is seen as a potential career killer.

So competition is fierce. In the last three years, the percentage of new graduates in Japan who found work was the lowest since the government started collecting comparable data in 1996. As of Feb. 1, with two months left in the recruiting season, a fifth of students in their final year at college had yet to find jobs.

“Shukatsu is like Kabuki theater,” said Takayuki Matsumoto, an Osaka-based career consultant. “It’s difficult when you don’t fit the template.”

His advice to returnees: don’t be too assertive or ask too many questions.

Something tells me that young people who study in the US and then spend most of their job hunt trying to land work with Japanese companies might have unrealistic expectations of potential employers. They might not realize that US employers also have similarly kabuki-like expectations of potential recruits. In a lot of ways, the experience of working at your first company might not be that different.

I feel like I must have read this same article like 5 times over the last decade, whether in the form of a primer in Japanese business practices or a feature like this one. The tone of this piece is at odds with my experience working at a US law firm and two Japanese companies so far. Internationally minded people with the right attitude can find a lot of success in Japan. There is such a limited population of truly proficient English speakers that opportunities abound.

I think there can definitely be a mismatch between employer and employee expectations, but overall I think Japanese firms are desperate for talent that’s proficient both with English and dealing with Western culture. It’s mostly sucked up by the foreign firms operating here, so they are hurting for it. That is to say, there may well be many companies that fit the stereotype outlined in the article, but I think there are plenty of others that will welcome the type of talent they describe. Instead of whining to the New York Times, you guys should have spent that time submitting a few more job applications.

Does your experience jibe with mine? Let me know in the comments.

(Thanks to regular reader Diana for sending this in!)

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Kabuki alert gets married

As soon as Obama made his big announcement about officially endorsing gay marriage, the comparison was inevitable.

On some level everybody already knows that Obama doesn’t object to gay marriage, so why should he continue to pretend he has reservations or his position is “evolving”? It’s the kabuki charade that would have had a greater chance of dragging him down.

But it would be pretty sweet if Obama did his next speech in kabuki makeup.

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Best ways to cope with routine gaijin questions? A reaction to Debito

Debito’s latest creation is a column about “microaggression,” which is his new term for the routine, repetitive questions and lines of conversation that Japanese people commonly have with white Westerners (“You can use chopsticks?” “Can you eat natto?” etc). He says they add up to a form of soft discrimination. It’s one of his better thought-out and organized pieces in a while, so I heartily recommend reading it.

I will admit at first the column touched a nerve because I easily tire of hearing these questions and have many times cut conversations short rather than continue (partly because my Japanese sucks). But while I agree with the basic framework of the idea–that people treat gaijin this way because they are different–I ultimately don’t think it’s worth calling that out and out discrimination and prejudice.

He goes into lots of details, and if you want to get into the finer points of his column in the comments, I will be there with you. But for now I just want to point out my biggest issue.

Boring, repetitive conversations are had all over the world. It just so happens that when Japanese people see a Western face, it calls up memories of learning English in school, the images on TV, and the experiences they or their friends have had with foreigners in the past.  It’s all completely natural and utterly mundane. A shout-out and a thank-you go to those rare people who can break this mold and have lively and fun conversations.

Rather than a small form of “aggression,” in my experience people who do this are almost always just sticking to the script of safe, polite conversation. Most people are not great conversationalists, so they gravitate to what’s easy. Doctors always hear the same questions about their job, so does that mean they’re being discriminated against?

I am totally on Debito’s team when it comes to being pissed off at ignorant prejudiced people. It’s just that while the ignoramuses do engage in the routine rote questions, doing so isn’t a capital offense, socially speaking. You will screen out a lot of perfectly decent people if you denounce everyone who ever mentioned your chopstick skills.  For one thing, talking about food is probably the best ice-breaker for intercultural encounters, so it’s kind of unfair to try and rule that out!

In the column Debito mentions “coping skills” like it’s a dirty word. But coping skills are absolutely essential for living in Japan, and they don’t need to involve trying to change the whole society. There might be a time and place to discuss with Japanese people the absurd repetitiveness of some of these conversations, but it’s probably not worth “resisting” someone you are meeting for the first time.

What are some go-to ways to cope with these situations? As I said I am not good at this, so my most common method for complete strangers might be to politely answer the questions and then clam up, thinking, Hurry up and finish cutting my hair! But when I am feeling festive, I’ll sometimes turn the question around, or even better– change the subject! People usually move on. Ken on Twitter had a good one: “Best part of being ambidextrous is as soon as I get [the chopstick] compliment I issue the challenge to use them lefty.” Really, this is an area where I’ve fallen into a pretty unfriendly routine, so being better able to deal with it would probably brighten these people’s days, not to mention my own.

Update: While Mr. Arudo’s column was worth our unqualified attention this time, our “no Debito” policy lives on in the comments section – our hope against hope is that you try to avoid talking about the man himself and his approach and blahblahblah

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The “Fly-jin” hype, or: 「フライジン」に該当するページが見つかりませんでした

In English-language news media, everyone is talking about this new word “Fly-jin”, a play on “Gaijin,” i.e. foreigners who have fled Japan in the wake of the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear holocaust [/sarcasm]. Take this article in the Wall Street Journal that everyone is talking about:

The flight of the foreigners—known as gaijin in Japanese—has polarized some offices in Tokyo. Last week, departures from Japan reached a fever pitch after the U.S. Embassy unveiled a voluntary evacuation notice and sent in planes to ferry Americans to safe havens. In the exodus, a new term was coined for foreigners fleeing Japan: flyjin.

The first part of that excerpt is true — foreigners really have fled, and lots of Japanese companies are really pissed about it. I just heard a story of a person fired from a (rather domestic, small-minded) Japanese company for fleeing the country and missing 8 days of work. (I think the biggest problem in this sitaution wast the backward employer and the failure of communication by the fleeing foreign employee.)

But has anyone heard the word “Furai-jin” in actual Japanese conversation? A search of the Japanese version of news.google brought in zero results for “フライジン” and no relevant searches for “フライ人”. A google search for the later brought up lots of pages regarding people who are in love with fly fishing. A targeted google search brought up one thread on a 2ch Japanese chat threat — which is a translation of the Wall Street Journal article! In fact, I find myself in full agreement with a commenter on that 2ch thread:

>”flyjin”(fly + gaijin)
これ絶対この記事書いた奴が考えたろ…

Translation: “‘Flyjin’… I bet the guy who wrote this article came up with that.”

So a challenge to Mariko Sanchanta, author of the above WSJ article: can you show us the word “furai-jin” was used before you put it in your article?

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“Are we Japan?” What Japan are you talking about?

Via Andrew Sullivan, a terrible, terrible example of punditry asking if the US is on the verge of a Japan style “lost generation,” which includes the following particularly wretched paragraph, in which John B. Judis of The New Republic shows he knows nothing about Japan:

If you want to imagine what American politics will be like, think about Japan…. Japan had a remarkably stable leadership from the end of World War II until their bubble burst in the 1990s. As the country has stumbled over the last two decades, unable finally to extricate from its slump, it has suffered through a rapid of succession of leaders, several of whom, like Obama, have stirred hopes of renewal and reform, only to create disillusionment and despair within the electorate…. That kind of political instability is both cause and effect of Japan’s inability to transform its economy and international relations to meet the challenges of a new century.

Judis here is making a fundamental mistake of confusing Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party majority rule, which began in 1955 and was nearly continuous  until last year, with the longevity of Prime Ministers. Needless to say, anybody with even a passing familiarity with post-war Japan is well aware that despite the LDP’s “remarkably stable” monopoly on power, there was far less than “remarkably stable leadership” in the office of the Prime Minister.

Taking a look at the list of PM’s and how many days each of them served, it is obvious that not only were extremely short lived administrations far more common than longer ones throughout the entire postwar period, but that the Junichiro Koizuimi term of 2001-2006 (a total of 1,979 days) was the third longest since WW2, and the longest since Eisaku Satō, who was PM between 1964 and 1972.

Since his factual premise is so obviously false (and I have to run to campus soon) I will not even bother to get into analyzing his equally spurious claim that this “rapid of succession of leaders […] like Obama, have stirred hopes of renewal and reform, only to create disillusionment and despair within the electorate,” much less looking at how crappy his analysis of US politics probably is, but please do fire away in the comments!

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