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!!
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.
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:
Right now I am mostly immobile thanks to a herniated disc. I might blog about that later, but for now I want to share what has been keeping me entertained on my days stranded on the couch:
It’s 中国嫁日記 (if I were a publisher I’d translate the title “My Chinese Bride”). It’s a funny and heartwarming read, and very relatable for someone in an international marriage like myself. If you want to skip my review and get started, the entire series is free online. Just start from the first post and work your way backwards. He also sells compilations that I am considering buying for some people as gifts.
It’s the blog of a 40-something Japanese tabletop RPG designer and self-described otaku about his 26-year-old mainland Chinese wife Yue-chan, who he apparently met in an arranged-marriage style introduction from a Chinese friend. She is new to living in Japan but already speaks the language a bit because her sister also married a Japanese man and Yue thought it would be useful to know the language when visiting.
The writer (Yue calls him Jin-san based on the Chinese reading of his real name, Inoue) writes mostly about her various encounters with culture shock, many of which come from her cooking misadventures. She puts coriander in miso soup, serves oshiruko with eggs and toast for breakfast, and marvels that Japanese meat is sold pre-sliced unlike in her native Shenyang. With the story told in real time less than two years after their marriage, we get a window into their relationship as it is developing – we get vignettes about her need to clean every day, learn how she leaves out the small tsu sound in Japanese, and even a series detailing their long-delayed honeymoon to an onsen. They fight kind of a lot, but in a healthy way that seems to actually resolve their problems.
Her cute foreign accent is probably the central joke of the whole manga, and he brings up many wacky anecdotes from their life together. If it weren’t written with such obvious love and care you might be forgiven for thinking he was making fun of her. There are touching moments, too, such as when Yue was scared for her life and just wanted to be with her Jin-san just after the March 2011 quake.
In news articles, Inoue says he started the blog to provide a more personal look at Chinese people in order to help improve bilateral ties and further understanding of the many Chinese living in Japan. That is understandable, especially when many of his fellow otaku harbor strong anti-Chinese sentiment and seem to love making broad generalizations about the culture. And the series contains a lot of interesting trivia about China (Yue-chan could go visit Japan initially because at the time visiting a foreign relative was one of the few ways mainland Chinese could travel abroad). But at the same time I get the feeling this is his way of processing both the joys and frustration of married life.
Sometimes Jin-san writes about his former Chinese teacher, who had an extremely outgoing personality and left a deep impression. The sample above is one story she told him and is a good entry in our list of embarrassing Japanese mistakes. (if someone asks I’ll explain in the comments)
He started the blog without her knowledge, but the quality of the work got the better of him – it became so popular that a friend clued her in eventually. Thankfully she understood and was ok with him continuing. Now that I’m hooked, I hope he’ll keep this up for the foreseeable future!
The similarity to the classic international marriage manga ダーリンは外国人 (My Darling is a Foreigner) is obvious and probably no accident. But there are some key differences that make it more enjoyable for me. First is the real time intimacy of learning about their relationship as it happens. That makes the story feel more genuine. Also, it’s told from the man’s perspective, so I found myself nodding my head when he talked about needing his office to be a “sanctuary” where it’s sometimes ok to leave a mess. And perhaps most importantly, it is not about another American living in Japan. If it were, I wouldn’t be able to help comparing myself to him in terms of language ability and attitude toward Japan.
So if this kind of thing appeals to you (and you read Japanese of course) please please go check it out. I learned about it on a Sunday morning NHK program about successful Internet original manga artists, so I have a feeling we might even see a movie version someday.
Instead, the central government has found itself battling an improbable adversary: Osaka’s mayor, Toru Hashimoto, the young, plain-speaking son of a yakuza gangster who has ridden Japan’s loss of faith in government to become, seemingly overnight, the country’s best-liked politician, according to recent polls.
Although it is factually correct that Hashimoto’s father was a gangster, he was apparently no more than a biological parent, out of his son’s life almost immediately, and no longer living just a few years later. The newspaper’s phrasing makes a very strong implication that his “plain-speaking”-ness is derived from his father’s example, but considering that he basically never knew his father, I think the association is just as unfair as the stupid attacks against Obama based on his father being a Muslim, or against both Obama and Romney because they had polygamist grandfathers.
I’m all for making fun of him for his own craziness, of which there is plenty, but don’t bash him for what his absent father may or may not have done.
On May 19, the Yomiuri Shimbun evening edition ran an open letter by House of Councillors President Nishioka Takeo in which he called upon Prime Minister Kan Naoto to resign due to his handling of the Fukushima nuclear crisis. This would be significant enough if Nishioka were a member of the opposition, but he belongs to the same DPJ as Kan himself. The letter, as well as the admission that Kan, based on unfounded concerns that the injection of seawater could induce re-criticality in the reactor, encouraged TEPCO to halt the injection of seawater based coolant into the plant, has spurred a movement towards calling a no-confidence vote, with support from the Ozawa faction of Kan’s own DPJ, as well as from the opposition LDP. Among the harsh critics are LDP leader Tanigaki Sadakazu, who, based on the newly released information, described the decision to suspend the injection of seawater at such a critical stage as a “man-made disaster”.
Although the English Yomiuri website summarizes the key points of Nishioka’s letter in the same article I linked to above, they did not originally post the entire text or even publish it in the English print edition, although they did promise that “The English translation of Nishioka’s open letter to Kan will be carried on The Daily Yomiuri’s Commentary page on Tuesday.” Well, Tuesday has passed and you can now read the entire letter in English, at Yomiuri or below here.
In the annoyingly typical fashion of the Japanese newspaper industry, they haven’t even published the original Japanese text of the full letter online! Luckily it can be easily found on a number of Japanese blogs, and here I will give my own quick and dirty translation.
To Prime Minister Naoto Kan:
I am sure the weight of the world is on your shoulders, with duties that require your attention day and night. I thank you for your hard work.
As a representative of one of the supreme organizations in the nation’s three independent branches of authority, I would like to venture to express my candid opinion in this open letter. Prime Minister Kan, you should immediately resign from your post.
I think many people share my present thoughts about you: among them survivors of the Great East Japan Earthquake, residents forced to evacuate their homes due to the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, members of the general public and Diet members from both opposition and ruling parties.
I also believe that heads of local governments and assembly members distrust and are concerned about you.
There is a reason why, despite this situation, hardly any voices have called, “Prime Minister Kan, you should resign.” It is generally believed it would be unthinkable to change the supreme leader of the nation at a time when serious problems are occurring that are not limited to national politics, and when measures are under way to deal with the situation.
However, you have continued to abandon your duties as prime minister since the March 11 disaster took place.
Tomorrow Japan will hold many, many local elections. The schedule is set by the central government, which prefers to hold all local elections around this time every four years. It’s sort of like Election Day in the States, except it’s on a holiday because Japanese officials actually want people to vote.
Gubernatorial and mayoral elections are decided by majority popular vote (first past the post, no runoffs), while prefectural and local assemblies are a mix of single-member and multi-member districts, though I am not sure which is more prevalent.
In the wake of the massive earthquake last month, many elections in the affected areas have been postponed. Even outside the northeast, many local officials want them put off, to the point that Urayasu (located on reclaimed land, partly sank into ground after earthquake) has steadfastly refused to hold the vote as scheduled. Given the somber national mood, an enthusiastic campaign full of upbeat promises could look unseemly, and voters are understandably distracted by post-quake anxieties.
All the same, the decision has been made, and now it’s up to the public to show up and choose their leaders. There is a very wide field, but a few themes have emerged to keep an eye on as the votes are tallied tomorrow night.
Ishihara the indestructible? Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara is running for a fourth term, and is expected to win handily despite challenges from some recognizable faces.
Ishihara was most recently in the news making and then apologizing for a statement that the recent earthquake and tsunami were divine punishment for Japan’s immorality. If you have been following the quake news, you might wonder, Why is his re-election assured despite such an offensive statement? Well, there are two reasons. First, he has a long history of getting away with being outrageous, banking on the admiration he earned as a writer/celebrity and the large number of people who agree with much of what he has to say. Second, he is a skilled politician who has gained the backing of large blocs of reliable voters at a time when support for the rival DPJ is essentially in tatters (they didn’t even field their own candidate this time) and the turnout of unaffiliated voters is expected to be low.
For more on the first reason, I would direct you to David Marx’s profile of the governor over at Neojaponisme. Key line: “He is not a “loose cannon,” accidentally saying things he later regrets. He likely thinks that success of his endeavors requires raising the ire of groups to which he does belong.” Suffice to say, people expect Ishihara to be outrageous. The only surprising thing about his most recent offense is that he apologized. Probably even some supporters told him to watch his words this time.
As to the second, maybe I can shed some light. You see, the LDP and New Komeito hold influence over a fairly disciplined voting bloc. The Komeito is especially important in this equation because of their numbers and highly reliable turnout.
For example, let’s look back to my coverage of the 2009 Tokyo prefectural assembly election. In Adachi-ku, the LDP and New Komeito delivered around 70,000 votes each of a total turnout of around 250,000. That’s 30% of the vote right there in a high turnout election, and if I remember Adachi-ku was broadly consistent with the overall result. It wasn’t enough to win then because LDP/Komeito support was in the gutter following the financial crisis and subsequent recession, so unaffiliated voters went for the DPJ, handing them control of the Tokyo legislature.
Ishihara’s two major challengers are Hideo Higashikokubaru, the comedian-turned-Miyazaki governor, and Miki Watanabe, founder of discount restaurant chain Watami. Unfortunately for them, now is not a good time for new faces, especially not Higashi with his feel-good enthusiasm, or Watanabe, who just exudes “smarmy corporate big-shot.” These two and other more minor candidates are likely to split the vote, handing another advantage to Ishihara.
According to a recent poll (JP), Ishihara has the support of around 70% of LDP supporters, 60% of New Komeito supporters, and even has the edge in support among DPJ and unaffiliated voters. Unless there’s a major upset, expect to have Ishihara around for another four years.
Regional parties to gain ground. Osaka Governor Toru Hashimoto took to Twitter to join those calling for the elections to be postponed. He may just have been posturing, however, because his party, the Osaka Restoration Association, may well win a majority in the Osaka prefectural legislature tomorrow, with an Asahi poll giving it a lead of several points against the other parties.
Regional political parties, with charismatic leaders and often populist platforms, have gained attention, not to mention power, recently. In Aichi prefecture, elections in February and March gave the upper hand to Genzei Nippon (Tax Cut Japan), a populist party with a platform to slash local taxes.
Hashimoto’s plans for Osaka look even more ambitious. By forming a party loyal to him and gaining control of the legislature, he hopes to push hard for reforms including a plan to unify the administrative functions of Osaka city and prefecture. This, along with infrastructure investment and neoliberal stand-bys like market-testing government functions for possible privatization, he argues will give him the ability to put Osaka on firmer fiscal and economic footing after years in the doldrums.
Japanese speakers can watch this video for an outline set to a Sega Genesis-era synthesizer soundtrack:
Success for Hashimoto could give momentum to ambitious politicians in other regions wishing to open their own “Restoration” franchise. One area where this idea could find traction is in the northeast, where the gargantuan task of reconstruction all but guarantees intense frustration among the locals.
How will the results affect national politics? Until a few days ago, the biggest political news story was the potential for a grand coalition, a sort of unity government to give top priority to quake reconstruction (and maybe throw in tax hikes to pay for social security for good measure). LDP President Tanigaki has thrown cold water on the discussions, reportedly because they want PM Kan to quit as a condition of joining the government. Indeed, LDP Secretary General Nobuteru Ishihara (Shintaro’s son) is now back to openly calling for Kan’s head. Wow, that didn’t take long!
The local elections will likely only give the LDP more reason to keep up pressure on Kan. In a number of key races, the DPJ has opted not to field its own candidates, apparently because it took a hard look at the numbers and decided not to embarrass itself. However, the party has candidates running in gubernatorial races in Hokkaido and Mie—polls show the LDP with a lead in Hokkaido and slightly ahead in a close race in Mie. These will likely be two of the major headlines tomorrow night.
National politics in Japan are stuck in a morass of cautious leaders who end up getting bogged down in petty scandals. Kan’s approval ratings have jumped sharply since the quake, from the 20% range to the 30s. However, setbacks and the usual drumbeat of criticism from the media will likely send it back on a downward trajectory. Since winning big in the 2009 lower house election, the DPJ’s control of the government will likely last another 2.5 years. Even with rock-bottom approval ratings, the DPJ seems more likely to rely on changing the prime minister to gain temporary support from the public rather than calling an early election. Note that the disaster, as well as a recent Supreme Court decision that mandates a lower house redistricting more closely in line with the population, make it next to impossible for Kan to call an election for a while.
Many articles in the foreign press have expressed hope that the earthquake would serve as a wake-up call for Japan’s leaders to enact reforms to put the country on a firmer footing. Count me as skeptical. Constant attention to short-term political momentum, such as the impact of these local elections, ensures rudderless leadership that remains too distracted to form a meaningful political vision. As a friend noted to me over Chinese food the other day, Kan’s post-quake speeches have been long on uplifting rhetoric but very light on anything specific to inspire actual confidence.
Though I am skeptical of Japan’s political system regardless of which party controls it, it’s important to make some distinctions. The government deserves a lot of credit for its post-crisis response, though it bears stressing that no effort will be enough. They have been prudent, fast-acting, transparent, and open to foreign aid where needed. Also, the government is currently debating plans to cut electricity use in the summer in a way that completely avoids rolling blackouts. Given the huge damage to generating capacity, pulling off coordination on that level would be nothing short of heroic.
It’s just that the political system is paralyzed as long as its leaders flail in the face of petty scandals and public perceptions. It’s possible that the central government in Tokyo, itself suffering reputation damage from the blackouts and its perceived proximity to the Fukushima disaster, might start ceding political clout to brash self-proclaimed “restorationists” like Hashimoto who, unlike the past few prime ministers, are adept at shaping public opinion rather than being shaped by it.
Readers may remember that during my most recent trip to the Philippines I quite randomly made friends with many of the core members of the Filipino Freethinkers, a new advocacy group working for freedom from religious pressure in society and blogged in detail about our initial meeting. On Saturday some members of the group picketed the Philippines Catholic Bishop Conference to protest the Church’s opposition to a proposed reproductive health (i.e. birth control) bill that is being supported by the new president Benigno Aquino, and a photograph of them was printed in the Philippine Inquirer, and then picked up by Boingboing. Why you ask? Just take a look at the photo in question, as well as the installment of the geek webcomic xkcd referenced in the sign held by Red Tani, one of the founders of Filipino Freethinkers. The comic’s caption is “Wikipedian Protester.”
The part of the article about the protesters is as follows:
A group of pro-RH (Reproductive Health) advocates trooped to the CBCP office in Intramuros, Manila, to condemn the Church for interfering in government-mandated initiatives for reproductive health.
Rhoda Avila of the Democratic Socialist Women of the Philippines told Figura her group was urging the Church to stop spreading “lies” about birth control and allow the government to do its work in providing Filipinos an affordable and accessible reproductive health program.
A slight tension occurred during the 15-minute dialogue while Figura was explaining that the Church was not interfering but “merely issuing guidelines.”
“Based on what? On your non-sexual experience?” protester Marlon Lacsamana snapped.
Somewhat randomly, the Wall Street Journal has recently started up a Japan blog called Japan Real Time (partly, it seems, to provide content to their new Japanese language site). Great stuff, welcome to the party. But being a mainstream media blog, it can’t seem to shake some conventions, like our pet-peeve (or is that favorite?) synonym for sharply criticizing someone:
Party Heads SLAM Tax Plans
Naoto Kan’s proposal to raise taxes, part of a broad fiscal reform package, has hit his popularity ratings and sparked plenty of discussion.
On Tuesday, several party heads made clear that they oppose the tax increase, accusing Mr. Kan’s Democratic Party of Japan of everything from “hocus-pocus economics” to potentially pushing suicide rates higher.
Here’s what they had to say:
Sadakazu Tanigaki, Liberal Democratic Party: The LDP is more or less on the same page as Mr. Kan’s DPJ — it proposed the tax hike to begin with — but Mr. Tanigaki sought to differentiate the two, criticizing Mr. Kan for not being clear on how the tax money will be used. The LDP, Mr. Tanigaki said, made clear in its policy statement that the money would be used for social security spending.
I like the frowny Tanigaki picture they chose (stolen above).
In other news, campaigning has heated up around my station. The other day I took a pamphlet from the Happiness Realization Party guy, and this morning the freak actually tried to talk to me on my way to work. If it weren’t so freaking humid a chill would have run down my spine. Those people have a few good ideas (bigger houses, more linear trains) mixed in with the crazy (attack North Korea preemptively, retirement age of 75, do everything to make Japan the world’s top economy by GDP), but zero respect for democracy. Funnily enough, part of their platform is to abolish the upper house of parliament, which just happens to be the very body they want the people to elect them to!
In the autumn of last year, Shizuka Kamei pushed through a debt moratorium law, primarily with the provincial goal of backing the small real estate companies in his home town of Hiroshima that were hit hard by the recession. At the time, I called this woefully short-sighted:
Small companies across Japan’s countryside that are having trouble making repayments should either restructure themselves, or fail and be restructured by creditors or new management. Many have antiquated management with regards to accounting, employment rosters, operational efficiency, supply chains, etc. Companies that can’t adapt to changed economic environments are supposed to fail. Yes, some good companies caught in unlucky times are destined to be caught in the current credit crunch as they are unable to repay loans and go bankrupt. But bankruptcy is a good thing! It is the engine of economic development that allows bad companies to fail, stifled talent to move elsewhere, assets to be sold at whatever price the market will bear, and bad management to be replaced. Yes, it sucks that people lose jobs and shareholders forfeit their investments, but that’s life! Letting this happen is a necessity for economic growth.
And on top of this, the poor local banks, only barely functioning after 15 years of treading water with the bad loan crisis, will now inevitably reduce their limited lending activities to nothing. There will be no money to lend, thus no local business growth or economic development, and thus no entrepreneurial activity. A short-term benefit for stabilized employment rates means the countryside gets screwed in the long term.
While my concern about small businesses refusing to restructure remained true, my concern for local banks was addressed when the final bill was passed (which you can read in Japanese here). The Japanese government—in other words, tax dollars—provide a statutory guarantee for these deadbeats. The mechanics of this are, under Article 11 of the Moratorium Law, that the government provides sufficient financial backing to the Credit Guarantee Union, which backs the financial institution undertaking the new obligation to support the small business. The Credit Guarantee Union is a government-backed public interest corporation that provides credit and loans to small businesses.
How many people and “small businesses” (defined as a company with less than US$3 million in capital and less than 300 employees) have applied for the moratorium in the last half year? About half a million:
Japanese banks have received a total of 521,030 applications for the easing of loan repayment terms from small and midsize companies and homeowners under the so-called debt moratorium law, the Financial Services Agency said Friday.
The applications, as of the end of March, since the law took effect in December last year involved 13.64 trillion yen and more than 90 percent of them were approved, the FSA said.
Congratulations, Japanese taxpayer—your tax yen are now financing these deadbeats. When the world is buzzing that Japan could be the next Greece, and could be sparked by one of any number of events (a failed Japanese bond auction, a sharp drop in tax revenue, a failure to implement tough fiscal and budgetary standards, a sharp contraction in Japanese GDP, a downgrade in sovereign debt by the ratings agencies), this is one of the worst policies that could be put in place.