Category Archives: Econ & Business

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

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 Their map data is nearly a year out of date, while Yahoo seems to update its maps almost in real time.

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


View Larger Map

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

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


View Larger Map

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

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

Emerging backlash against “Japocalypse” theme

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Correcting the record

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

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

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

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

Update on life in Tokyo

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

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

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

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

Life in Tokyo in 2011

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

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

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

I don’t have those moments anymore.

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

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

MTA 1973 contruction report video

This 1973 video produced by New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, courtesy of the NYC Transit Museum Archives, is awesome on several levels. We get to see cool footage of infrastructure construction projects, a period portrait of the City, an optimistic vision of NYC’s transit future JUST on the cusp of their impending bankruptcy, which scuttled most of those plans for a generation. And of course its all in a now amusing retro presentation.

Video originally pointed out to me by the NYC mass transit blog Second Avenue Sagas (named after the LONG delayed, now finally under construction Second Avenue Subway), which is one of my favorite regular blog reads.

In the second video it shows the old elevated line in the Bronx being dismantled, while talking about how the new Second Avenue Subway will run “all the way from the Bronx to the southern tip of Manhattan” but in the meantime “the transportation needs of the community are being met by modern, comfortable bus service.” Guess how that worked out?

Update: There’s also a similar video from the 1950s!

Kyoto City bus in Manila

Curzon’s post on spotting a large number of used Japanese trucks and other vehicles in Lebanon reminded me of how many I’ve seen in my visits to the Philippines. In fact, the very first automobile I entered in the country was a former Kyoto City bus, when, upon leaving the airport, I went across the street and grabbed the very first bus that seemed to be going in the general direction of downtown Manila. It turns out that I actually grabbed a few photos of the signage, so here they are. I didn’t get any photos of the outside of the bus, as I had no idea that it was going to be anything special inside; as far as I can recall the exterior had been painted over completely so that it looked like any other heavily used commuter bus.

These were taken on November 25, 2005.

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At the time of the trip I was living in Taipei, and had not been to Japan – much less Kyoto – for about a year and a half. Needless to say, finding myself in a transplanted Kyoto City bus in Manila, with all of the accouterments intact, was a surreal experience.

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I don’t recall if the stop buttons still functioned.

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This badge clearly labels it as a Kyoto bus, with the bus registration number.

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This plate is the really interesting one. It reads: “Auto reconditioning, July 12, Heisei year 6 (1996), Hankyu Bus.” Hankyu is one of the major transportation/retail conglomerates of the Kansai region, centered in Osaka, which I discussed in some detail in a previous post. They do run ordinary public buses, but not in Kyoto City. At least not currently; I have no idea about the early 90s. A quick glance at their website did not turn up any information on how they deal with used buses, or if they happen to have a division devoted to reconditioning and exporting used vehicles.

The Yamba Dam is back on

Just over a year ago, I visited the Yamba Dam (together with MF blogger Ben) to see with my own eyes the mega-dam project in the mountain valleys of western Gunma. The DPJ immediately halted the project when they came into power in September 2009 due primarily to the project cost. But the dam construction had burned through more than 70% of its US$4 billion budget by mid-2009. The trip was interesting, and it reinforced my view that stopping construction at this late stage was a mistake. Indeed, my exact words on this blog were:

Frankly, no matter how hard Transportation Minister Maehara and the DPJ hold out on refusing to construct the dam, I can’t possibly see how the project cannot be finished. At best the DPJ can delay the plan a year or two.

That prediction is on track to be correct. Minister for Land, Infrastructure, Transport (and Tourism!) Sumio Mabuchi has announced that the government is reexamining the project to see if it is viable. While not an express reversal of policy, the announcement has been widely interpreted in the press (and not denied by the administration) as a soft way of announcing that the DPJ administration is withdrawing the pledge to scrap construction of the dam.

Tokyo Governor Ishihara, who along with many other regional local leaders was outraged by the cancellation of the project, had a somewhat predictable reaction, which can best be translated into English as, “Well, duh!”

The opposition LDP is loudly denouncing the DPJ as irresponsible, pursuing policies without proper thought, and other general incompetence that I’ve long-described as cognitive dissonance that makes the party unfit to govern. Whether it be the reconsideration of the reconsideration of the reconsideration of the Futenma US base in Okinawa, the Justice Minister’s moratorium on the death penalty followed by carrying out executions, and now reversal of the Yamba Dam decision, we see a common theme—the DPJ is a flailing mess when it comes to policymaking and set new standards for flipflopping.

The Haneda trick

Haneda Airport has been all over the Japanese news lately, so it’s about time that I write some more about it.

The new international terminal opened today, and long-haul flights will commence at the end of this month. The catch is that they will all have to operate between 10 PM and 7 AM, the hours when Narita Airport is closed. Only flights to certain cities in East Asia are allowed to operate during the day. This is commonly interpreted as a compromise to keep Narita traffic up, but there is a more subtle and less reported effect of the schedule: it helps Japanese airlines and screws over foreign airlines. Here’s why.

Within this rule, the most attractive schedule from a passenger’s perspective is to leave Haneda between 10 PM and 1 AM, and to arrive at Haneda as close to 7 AM as possible. If you leave Haneda in the early morning hours, you either have to get there on the last train the evening before (requiring a wait) or take a car or taxi in the wee hours of the night (expensive). If you land at Haneda after 10 PM, you have to hustle to get ground transportation to your final destination in Tokyo.

It’s easy for JAL and ANA to offer such schedules because they have operations at Haneda during the day. If a JAL plane comes in from Europe at 6 AM, it can be cleaned, refueled and sent on a round trip to Seoul, Beijing or Shanghai, and still get back in plenty of time to take people overseas at 10 PM. On the other hand, if a foreign plane flies in at 6 AM, they have to sit at Haneda for fifteen hours until they can fly again. The best compromise that non-Japanese carriers can come up with is to have their flights arrive at Haneda around 10:30 and depart around 6:30—meaning that most Tokyoites will have to get up very early and catch the first train of the morning, then catch the last train home after their trip. A couple have managed to put together flight schedules that leave Haneda around midnight, but this is not always realistic because of time zones and the longer turn-around times for long-haul aircraft.

JAL and ANA will run their first long-haul flights on October 31, but American, Delta, Air Canada and British Airways won’t start flights until next year, and might even decide that Haneda isn’t worth it unless the hours are relaxed further. The only non-Asian carrier that will serve Haneda this year is Hawaiian Airlines, who will bring their daily flight into Haneda right at 10 pm, then turn it around back to Honolulu after midnight. They can get away with this because Honolulu is only a few hours ahead of Tokyo (minus a day), so the midnight departure translates to a lunch arrival, and the 10 pm return arrival translates into an afternoon return departure—both good timings for vacationers. On the other hand, American’s proposed HND-JFK flight is horribly timed, leaving HND around 6 AM and arriving at JFK around the same time, virtually guaranteeing that every passenger on it will be jet-lagged out of their mind for a week. But they don’t have much of a choice.

The new division of duties between the airports won’t be sustainable, and I believe Kasumigaseki will eventually open up HND to flights around the clock—in which case Tokyo’s airport situation will eventually look like London’s. Haneda will be the equivalent of Heathrow: close-in, popular, charging a premium, and a key intercontinental hub. Narita will be the equivalent of Gatwick or Stansted: a haven for cheap flights to holiday destinations, mainly serving Tokyo locals.

Breakin’ Supply: Electric Boogaloo

During the spat between China and Japan this week, China made headlines by temporarily cutting off the supply of rare earth metals to Japan, which were necessary for much of Japan’s high-end industrial production. The ban was reportedly repealed later in the week.

More interesting, and unfortunately much less widely reported: in the middle of all this, a publicly-funded Japanese research institute suddenly announced a cheaper alternative to rare-earth motors for hybrid vehicles, which would allow production to continue even if China kept the ban in place.

I want to say that this was a little victory for Japan, but now it’s pretty unsubstantial. So I would call it more of a warning to China: as any country gets more aggressive about screwing over foreign companies through economic restrictions for self-serving reasons, foreign companies will find ways to avoid that country. This is more true in the 21st century than it has ever been. Another good example of this, coincidentally in the same industry, is the recent Chinese rule requiring electric vehicles to be built in foreign-domestic joint ventures. Nissan bit the bullet and moved forward, but Peugeot decided to stand its ground and threatened to move production out of China.

For the comments (since nobody ever comments on economic pieces): Is “rascal” an acceptable translation for 野郎?

Paying and avoiding NHK

Like in the UK, you are required to pay the government if you have a television. However, there are no real fines if you refuse to pay. Sooner or later you will find an old guy from the Japanese government channel NHK knocking at your door and asking if you have a TV. Say no and he’ll go away for a while. Say yes and he will order you to pay. Over and over again. Even if you say you never watch NHK because it’s made for insomniacs who don’t respond to strong drugs, or never even turn on the tube at all, he’ll demand your money. And having a satellite dish hanging out on your balcony is a dead giveaway. One way around this is to live in a building where the building has the dish, and you just plug in your “broadcast satellite (BS) tuner” from inside your room.

That’s from The Japan FAQ, long one of my favorite English-language resources regarding living in Japan.

NHK reports that nearly 40 million households pay NHK fees. That’s out of about 50 million households in Japan—so non-payers are definitely in the minority.

NHK is getting better at collecting its fees, too. Analog TV has almost become obsolete, and digital TVs have identifying chips which make it possible to link an individual TV with an individual NHK contract. If you use a new TV for more than a month, it will start showing nag messages superimposed over the NHK BS channels, telling you to call NHK and get the TV registered to your NHK account. NHK has also sued some non-payers, which is somewhat intimidating but not an economically effective way to compel payment: 33 households were sued in summary court in 2006, and of those, two viewers’ appeals lodged with the Tokyo High Court were only dismissed this June.

I have always had an uneasy relationship with television license fees. On one hand, broadcasters supported by license fees, like NHK and the BBC, offer some of the very best programming in the world, almost completely free of commercial content. Terrestrial TV in Japan is largely a cesspool of talentless celebrities, product placement and blatant commercial fluff, but NHK’s channels carry a wide array of useful and sensible programming. Even for fresh-off-the-boat foreigners who don’t speak a word of Japanese, NHK dubs its evening news into English and rebroadcasts news and documentary programs from around the world (and they tell you how to pay for it all in English).

On the other hand, the license fee itself is essentially a regressive tax. Basically every household has to pay the same amount, and it isn’t pocket change—it’s currently around 15,000 yen per year for terrestrial broadcasts and around 25,000 yen if BS channels are included. There are exceptions for disabled people and people on welfare, but able-bodied working people with low incomes are shaken down to a proportionally higher degree than wealthier people. The fee is determined somewhat arbitrarily by NHK and approved by the Internal Affairs Minister. Even though NHK is nominally a viewer-supported private association, it is chartered by the government, its board is chosen by the Diet, and its budget is subject to review in the Diet.

I grew up with PBS in the United States, which is a sort of constellation of private non-profit broadcasters funded by a combination of voluntary viewer donations, corporate sponsorship, foundation grants on behalf of dead rich people, and state and federal subsidies (including a large amount of federal money pushed in through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting). The advantage to this system is that anyone can legally own a TV and watch PBS without paying a dime; the disadvantage is that the programming is dictated by the interests who actually do pay, and the way this works is not always transparent even to viewers paying into the system. There is also a lot of PBS air time devoted to begging for donations, usually through periodic “pledge weeks” which disrupt ordinary programming.

Personally, although I am a free-marketer in other spheres, I believe that if public broadcasting is going to be heavily government-influenced anyway, it might as well be funded by the government, and the costs spread among the public just as they would be for any other government expense. But if given the choice of either NHK or PBS, I would probably take PBS and throw money at it every now and then so long as it’s relevant to me, rather than live with NHK’s mandated entitlement to a fixed chunk of my income even if I don’t care for its programming at all.

If you don’t want to pay NHK, there are a few ways to legally avoid the fee:

  • Don’t own a TV. Note that, legally speaking, any sort of TV tuner which can receive NHK will subject you to the NHK tax. This includes mobile phones and computers that have TV tuners built in.
  • Don’t use your TV for the purpose of receiving broadcast signals. (Or get a TV which is incapable of receiving signals. Many expats get TVs from US military bases, which can be used for watching movies on disc, or as a large-screen computer display, but cannot get Japanese TV signals; therefore no NHK tax is incurred by owning one.)
  • Set up a school or welfare facility of some sort (these are exempt from fees).
  • Become gravely disabled and/or go on government assistance.
  • Leave Japan.

The Japan FAQ is still correct in that illegally avoiding the fee is easy. Unlike the UK, where TV freeloaders can be fined by the government, Japan decided not to impose any penalties for failing to pay the NHK tax. The only practical penalties are BS nag screens, periodic doorbell rings by NHK collectors, and the risk of a lawsuit (which generally has no teeth in Japan, since there is no contempt of court here and appeals are both easy and time-consuming).

Lies, damned lies and the Nikkei

Fewer Than Half Of Young People Support Themselves: Report

TOKYO (Nikkei)—Just 44% of those aged 15-34 subsist on their own income, the Labor Ministry wrote Thursday in a report that reflects young people’s struggle with low wages.

A full 46.8% of the group rely on additional income from some other source, such as their parents.

Of those 15-34 with full-time jobs, 51.6% live on their own income, but only 30.3% engaged in other types of jobs are self-reliant.

I got this article from a co-worker earlier today. He remarked “What’s interesting is that only 51% of people with full-time jobs can (or rather do) support themselves.” But that conclusion falls apart when you see the original statistics in the original Japanese (here):

Note the column headings. The options for the survey were:

Living Expense Situation (Multiple Answer) Combination (生計状況(複数回答)の組み合わせ)
(1) Own income only (自身の収入のみ)
(2) Own income plus other income (自身の収入+他の収入)
(3) Other income only (他の収入のみ)

Now the situation becomes clearer. That 44% figure only includes people who are actually paying for all of their living expenses with their own income. It excludes many people living with their parents or grandparents, all working couples (even where one person is a part-timer), and probably even certain parents with working children. It excludes me and Adamu, both productive employees in the financial industry who just happen to have working spouses.

Of course, that fact doesn’t help push the narrative that young Japanese people are getting poorer and/or lazier—and here we can see that respected Japanese media like the Nikkei can skew facts toward their chosen narrative just as badly as respected foreign media like the New York Times.