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

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

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

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

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

Too early to call “yakuza”

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

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

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

  • AIJ is a Yamaguchi-gumi front (Jake)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Actual damage possibly smaller than 183 billion yen

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

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

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

Post-quake nuclear bungling in context, seawater-gate edition

This week, Japan’s political news was dominated by a political fight between the LDP and DPJ over whether Prime Minister Kan, the day after the March 11 earthquake, ordered Tepco to stop flooding the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant with seawater. Something shocking happened that poured cold water on that debate, however. The head of the facility admitted that regardless of orders from corporate headquarters to stop (apparently relaying the PM’s wishes), he continued the flooding operations because it was the right thing to do.

In many ways this conflict is a tempest in a teapot, at best a distraction from dealing with the nuclear accident and post-quake situation right now. But it does offer us a window, however slight, into how information has flowed (or not) among stakeholders and the public.

The Nikkei has an interesting lowdown on the farcical sequence of events:

The controversy began with a document issued Saturday by the government’s joint task force with Tepco, purporting to tell the “facts” of how seawater was injected into the No. 1 reactor March 12, the day after a tsunami crippled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Tepco began pumping ocean water into the hot reactor at 7:04 p.m. without informing the government, according to the document. A company employee at the Prime Minister’s Office later telephoned the power plant and the injections stopped at 7:25, only to restart 55 minutes later, the report stated.

A different picture emerged Thursday.

At the time the pumping began, officials at company headquarters had decided there was next to no chance that the seawater would cause the fuel inside to go critical again, Tepco Vice President Sakae Muto told a news conference.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan had asked about that possibility in discussions with Nuclear Safety Commission Chairman Haruki Madarame and other advisers.

But what headquarters officials heard from the employee stationed at the Prime Minister’s Office was that the “atmosphere” there was that the cooling operation could not go ahead without the prime minister’s approval, according to Muto.

In a video conference with plant manager Masao Yoshida, Tepco officials decided to halt the seawater injections. But Yoshida disregarded that order, and the pumping continued. Although final authority did rest with the plant manager, he never reported his actions to headquarters. Head office officials, for their part, never confirmed with Yoshida that the order had been carried out.

At that stage in the crisis, with reactor coolant going up in steam and the fuel rods melting, every second counted. The plant’s emergency manual prescribes seawater injections in such a situation. Regardless of the “atmosphere” at the Prime Minister’s Office, turning off the pumps would have been the wrong decision, based on the conditions at the plant.

Asked why he decided to reveal that the seawater injections continued nonstop, Yoshida said he “thought it over again carefully after it became a controversy in the newspapers and the Diet.”


Right off the bat, I want to say that getting the “real” situation is basically impossible for the general public, and that’s kind of the point of this post. But assuming this report is basically true, it seems clear to me that this is definitely not a case of Tepco or the government hiding information, per se. Mr. Yoshida (who was apparently quoted indirectly through a Tepco spokesperson) was the only one hiding anything, for reasons he must think make sense, even if they deprive outside observers of an accurate picture of the situation.

Get a load of Tepco headquarters – they never confirmed whether he had actually stopped the water? I guess Yoshida just pretended to “restart” the operation when they said it was OK an hour later?

I have read so many articles saying that “Japan” has not been forthcoming with information about the nuclear accident, but I find that hard to believe. Information has been released by the truckload. The entire scandal got started when Tepco released a detailed breakdown of what happened. But even when important people have the best of intentions and submit a report in good faith, there’s no guarantee they will have all the facts.

The Kan government has recently announced an independent commission to study the accident, and the IAEA has its own people on the ground investigating. Openness isn’t the problem here. The problem is how difficult it is for outsiders to get a clear picture of a rapidly unfolding situation, even when the people in charge are trying to be forthcoming.

Again it’s hard to really feel like I have a sound basis to comment, but from my limited vantage point this incident makes a lot of people look bad, most of all the LDP who so quickly leaped on a potentially damaging decision by the prime minister for political gain, only to learn their entire premise was flawed. No one stopped the seawater because, thankfully enough, someone at Tepco had a cool enough head to not listen to superiors who were more worried about reading the Prime Minister’s “mood” than how to control the reactor.

Yoshida might be punished by Tepco for not reporting his actions, but I think he deserves a lot of credit for taking the necessary action. It also bears mentioning that his actions fly in the face of the common stereotype of Japanese deference to power.

Ten things you may not have known about Japan’s newest and, um, peachiest airline

  1. Its name is Peach. Seriously.
  2. It is a joint venture between All Nippon Airways and First Eastern Investment Group, a Hong Kong private equity firm.
  3. Its livery designers apparently got their inspiration from the Barbie Jet.
  4. “Peach” allegedly stands for Pan-Asian, Energetic, Affordable, Cute & Cool and Happy.
  5. As many native English speakers instantly noticed, “Peach” is an anagram for “cheap.”
  6. Peach claims to be Japan’s first low-cost carrier. Obviously, this is a blatant lie since Skymark and Air Do both preceded them and are both still flying.
  7. They will be based at Kansai Airport in Osaka, where only the cheap survive.
  8. Peach’s corporate parent, A&F Aviation, was recruiting operations personnel on LinkedIn’s job board a few months ago and didn’t seem to care that much about language ability. Their staff roster must look pretty interesting by now.
  9. Peach is not the first fruit-themed airline. There is an airline in South Africa called Mango, and the US has both Berry and Lime. That said, Peach is probably the fruitiest of them all.
  10. Peach is so cheap that they didn’t even have chairs at their first presser.

As an aviation geek, I am morbidly fascinated…

What the media invading the Fukushima evacuation zone says about our media consumption


Source: WSJ

There have been many many reports of what it’s like at the earthquake-affected areas, and now there is a growing number of reports coming from inside the nuclear evacuation zone. According to Google News, the Global Post, the Telegraph, and CNN have reports, and a Japanese team recently posted a video of their trip. Here is what the Wall Street Journal had to offer:

Eerie Hush Descends on Japan’s Nuclear Zone

FUTABA, Japan—In the Coin Laundry, a dryer is still loaded with clothes: an orange hooded sweatshirt, a green worker’s vest and two pairs of jeans, damp and smelling of mildew.

At Joe’s Man restaurant near the train station, a menu lists the lunch specials, starting with bacon-and-eggplant pasta in a tomato-cream sauce. A flyer on the open doors of the Nishio clothes shop promotes a five-day “inventory clearance” sale. Over the road that runs through the town center, a white-and-blue sign proclaims: “Understanding Nuclear Power Correctly Will Lead to an Abundant Life.”

But life, by and large, is what is absent in this town, just a few miles away from the troubled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.


A little further down the reporters describe an interesting exchange after explaining that the zone isn’t illegal to enter but strongly discouraged:
“What are you doing here?” a fireman asked a reporter walking in the street. From the passenger seat, another firefighter held up a radiation monitor. “You are not supposed to be here. It’s dangerous,” he said. “Please leave soon.”

To me, if there are enough reporters on the ground that they are running into each other in an evacuation zone, something is very wrong here. Whatever value there is to tell the story of the evacuees has been eclipsed by the reporters’ attraction to a sexy location with post-apocalyptic trappings. These people are not looking to provide useful information for a discerning public. They are just entertainers hoping to sell an interesting story to the folks back home.

Most of the time media as entertainment is fine and more or less harmless. The tradition of Westerners reporting back on exotic travels goes back at least to Marco Polo, and it’s only natural for people to have a voyeuristic interest in world events. I’ll even allow that there may simply be no other good way to get digestible information about other countries. It’s just that from the perspective of someone living in Japan with a stake in the quake’s aftermath, seeing these kinds of reports is frustrating and makes me think they’re exploiting a tragedy.

After the earthquake, a lot of foreign residents of Japan received panicked messages from their relatives and friends back home, myself included. In my case, I had to tell my mom to stop watching CNN and turn to more reliable sources like NHK World. Since she didn’t have that on cable, she ended up turning to CCTV9, the international version of China’s state-run TV, because it had much more straightforward, facts-based reports. Other relatives also contacted me, some telling me to consider leaving. One conspiracy theorist relative told me to check the Drudge Report to get “the real story.”

Normally, average people are served well enough by whatever media they choose to access because it never affects their daily lives. People can read well-written articles in The Economist that might be wildly inaccurate because hey, who’s going to know the difference unless you’re actually from the country they’re writing about? It’s all just entertainment for the commute. Sadly, there’s no separation between the entertainment media and where you should turn when there’s real news.

Post earthquake initial impressions by Adamu

It is still very early into this tragedy, and a lot could change in the coming days/weeks/months. But I wanted to give some initial impressions. I have been going to the office as usual and basically heading directly home to keep updated and try and calm down my mother via Google Talk. Here are some of my observations so far based on my experiences and the reports I have been reading and watching in English and Japanese. To save time, I have not included links to some stories I did not feel like digging up:

  • Japan rocks – The reaction to the earthquake has been impressive, though sadly even the best response is unequal to adequately deal with the massive destruction in northeast Japan. The buildings were strong enough to stay standing through the quake, the streets were safe enough to walk home when no trains ran, and a full court press came to the rescue the next day. As far as planning and citizen preparedness goes, Japan has the whole world beat, hands down. It seems like in many ways the authorities learned from the failings of the Kobe earthquake. I feel very proud of my adopted home. Note that the emperor agrees with me. In his recent national address, he noted with admiration that foreign observers praised the Japanese people for their calm, helpful reaction to the quake.
    Unfortunately, even the best plans cannot protect against one of the biggest earthquakes/tsunamis ever known. The damage is immense, and it will take a long time to recover. But I am confident that Japan has what it takes to get through the disaster and emerge as strong as ever.
    As the days unfold, I notice that one advantage Japan seems to have on its side is a very adversarial media. From the outset, I think the Kan administration has done its best given the circumstances, and I don’t really agree with the assessment of some media outlets that it was too slow to set up shop inside Tepco. However, on top of that the mainstream media covering this story have (admirably) shown very little deference to the prime minister and Tepco. I think this has put the fear of God into these officials to disclose as much information as possible and be as cooperative as possible. Also, the US (among other countries) is offering very generous support and has been among the most supportive governments in backing up Japan’s response. It has issued statements saying they are “in agreement” with the Japanese assessment of the nuclear situation. Betraying US confidence at this point would not go down well. With all that pressure, attempting to hide things could easily turn Tepco into the next BP (and then some) and the Kan administration into the villain that Murayama is remembered as being during the 1995 Kobe earthquake.
    Twitter has also been a big positive, in my opinion. It helps average people exchange trusted information (and lies to a much lesser extent), and there is a kind of wisdom-of-crowds quality in which certain proposals are retweeted by enough alpha-users that they grab the attention of the authorities. For instance, I saw some prominent Japanese Twitterers retweet a request to have sign language interpreters at press conferences, and a day later sure enough there they were. On the other end of the spectrum, there have been some chain letters spreading untrue rumors. I received one about “poison rain” due to the Chiba oil tanker fire, and I have heard about others. It is worth noting that the person who sent that one emailed me after she learned it was false.

  • Supply shortages in Tokyo should be resolved soon - At this point, it is hard to tell what is more to blame for the empty shelves – the hoarders or the reduced shipments? All the same, manufacturers are reporting sufficient capacity to supply the area, and any disruptions in deliveries should be relieved by next week’s release of emergency oil reserves. The reserves should alleviate the supply shortages and give time for availability even in Tokyo to get back to normal as early as next week. One big reason for the delay is that the worst affected regions got priority, which is only natural.
    Unfortunately, this is one area where average people and the government were kind of a letdown. For one thing, people seemed to start panic buying very quickly. I took a trip to Tochigi on Sunday and already the gas station lines were long. At the same time, the government only started telling people to stop panic buying today! The media seemed to be doing its job, noting the activity and noting how problematic it was, at least as far as I read.

  • People are overreacting to the nuclear crisis, big time – The risk of radiation is, by all credible accounts, very small for almost everyone in the country. I am as glued to updates as anyone, but I am not panicking. In fact, I think focusing too much on the nuclear crisis runs the risk of de-emphasizing the massive toll the tsunami took on the region. The French chartering flights to evacuate expats and warnings based on nuclear fears are overdoing it, I think. I mean, I would understand some people without a deep connection to the country leaving, or at least moving or sending loved ones to stay somewhere safer. I have my wife and in-laws in the area, so I don’t want to leave unless it is truly necessary. In addition to the nuclear concerns, there are the transit problems and hoarding/logistics problems with daily necessities, not to mention the risk of aftershocks. This is scary for everyone, but people who don’t know the language or don’t have people to rely on have that added layer of difficulty. And if you can’t follow the mainstream Japanese media (and sensible Internet sources like Mutant Frog!), you are liable to read sensationalized reports from the overseas media.
    This last bit is a sore point for me. Thanks to all the scary US media reports, my mother has been absolutely terrified. My relatives and family friends have been calling her nonstop to know if I’m OK. I know the media are in the misery business, but more than that it seems like the reporters are far too detached from the story. They focus so much on broader implications and potential scenarios that it ends up providing no practical information to people who actually want to have an even-handed idea of what’s going on.

  • The aftershocks are really scary – since the big earthquake it almost feels like there are small rumblings going on constantly. I especially feel this way at the office, where the building’s design makes it kind of easy to feel small tremors. The bigger ones fill me with dread. As they happen, I wonder if this one will build up slowly into a big quake like the one on Friday. Even when there are no quakes, for some reason I feel like the ground is shaking when I am walking down long hallways.

  • Many outside observers have failed a very easy test of decency – When reacting to a tragic event, the rules of etiquette are simple. Express sympathy for the victims and note the tragedy of the affair. This is not the time to make dumb jokes, call a natural disaster retribution for something some people from Japan did that you don’t like, or condescendingly generalize about Japanese culture. Too many people have failed miserably in this regard. If you need to react this way, keep it off the Internet at least!

  • I am a terrible investor – Last and most definitely least, what do you think is the only individual stock I own? Some hints: In the two months since I bought in, it has seen much of its generating capacity wiped out forever and been threatened with government-enforced annihilation for mishandling the disaster response. Oh and it has been limit-down for three days straight.

Maehara should stay

Seiji Maehara is stepping down due to an absolutely ridiculous scandal-of-the-week summarized well by the WSJ Japan blog: “The $2,429 Donation That Brought Down Japan’s Foreign Minister.” Said donation came from a foreigner, which made it illegal.

I say “ridiculous” because the donor in question is a zainichi Korean who has run a yakiniku restaurant in Kyoto for decades; there was likely no way for Maehara’s staff to know whether or not she was a Japanese national. In a sane world, he would simply return her money, apologize and get on with his work. Instead, he succumbed to a peanut gallery of opposition cranks who were simply looking for any line of attack on the Kan government and saw a prime opportunity to imply that Maehara was selling out the country—to a permanent resident, for $2,429. Are you kidding me?

Of course, NHK and most other media outlets are simply reporting that “Maehara accepted donations from foreigners” without mentioning any details of the donations or the foreigners—making it sound like Maehara was getting briefcases full of hundred-dollar bills from Rahm Emmanuel or the evil-looking Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman (at least, those were the first two scenes which I imagined).

Do Charisma Men need defending?

This blog has a general “no mentioning Debito” rule because with the topics we cover here, he is the gaijin/Japanophile equivalent of Godwin’s law – the topic of conversation becomes instantly derailed into what people think of him and his views and actions. And on the occasions when the man himself has chimed in it has never gone well. The Internet can be an inhospitable place, sadly.

But today I am going to make an exception because he uses his most recent Japan Times column to give us a glimpse at his worldview from a different angle and it caught my interest.

To sum up, he has a problem with the old Charisma Man comic strip from the 90s. As many of our readers will remember, it was a funny caricature of the many young white Western men who come to Japan to teach English and find their luck with the ladies and general social status is much higher here than it was back home. So far so good. Where he takes offense is that there is a character “Western Woman” in the comic that can see him for the nerd he was back home and bring him back down to that level. These people he calls Identity Police and scolds for trying to label people and put them back in a social pecking order they are escaping in Japan.

Basically, I can agree with his point. People have a right to live with dignity even if they’re different and it isn’t fair for someone to come along and insult them. And he’s right that the picture painted is overly broad, though that’s kind of why it was funny to begin with.

Unfortunately, dealing with the topic of a label like this is inherently fraught. Merely by mentioning it we are in some small part accepting the premise of its author. For his part, Debito alternates between denying CM is important and addressing the entire column to anyone who thinks the label might apply to them (presumably a broad group of Western white men living in Japan). Oh well, such are the cards we are dealt.

Thing is, I don’t think this group is exactly under constant attack. There are definitely haters out there, but it’s overdoing it to call them “police.” If you let a detractor have that much power over your life decisions, it’s time to develop a thicker skin.

Any group of people that makes a decision outside the range of possibilities for the majority is going to meet with misunderstanding, ridicule, and even outright hostility. It just comes with the territory. “Charisma Men” are sometimes used as a safe target. For example, this entry on satire blog Stuff White People Like summed up many Americans’ attitude on Japan pretty well: “All white people either have/will/or wished they had taught English in Japan.  It is a dream for them to go over seas and actually live in Japan…White people love Japan… but you have to be careful about how much you like Japan.  If you know how to speak Japanese, you kind of ruin it for everyone else.”

On the other hand, the spread of the Internet has given rise to many ways for such outsiders to compartmentalize themselves. Unfortunately, a kind of siege mentality often develops where people pat each other on the back and find camaraderie among their ilk. These same people will then turn around and scorn some other group they see as different or inferior. In the process all hope of mutual understanding is lost. Something Awful’s Weekend Web feature has many, many great examples of this self-justifying, indulgent, and cliquey behavior.

Probably the best way to bridge these gaps is to appreciate and respect people who are different and resist the temptation to define yourself by putting down the things that you’re not. It’s an impossible task, but it’s important to at least try.

***

In the column Debito seems to accept the premise that most Westerners who come to live in Japan would be “losers in their home countries.” In effect, he is making the Identity Police’s case for them! He also defends “those derided as Charisma Men” as ”providing valued, profitable service to society,” which again is just playing the same game as the detractors. It seems like he doesn’t have a problem with Identity Policing as long as he gets to wear the badge.

There are probably tens of thousands of Westerners living in Japan for various reasons, with hundreds if not thousands coming and going every year. And almost 30 years since the founding of Nova and more than 20 for the JET Program, many of the original Charisma Men have become Charisma Husbands and Charisma Dads, and maybe even Charisma Grandpas. So many people and such a long history make for an incredible amount of diversity. And that includes the nerds and losers remaking their identities along with jocks, former soldiers, nice people, criminals, weirdos, and completely normal and boring people. In fact, I am willing to bet that more than a few of them actually do “coast on charisma” as Debito insists they don’t.

He closes by asking his audience of self-identified CMs to “unite” in pride as nerds-turned-immigrants. I find the idea hard to comprehend. It’s like asking everyone who ever got cosmetic surgery to unite. Despite the superficial similarity, there’s simply very little to unite around. I don’t mean to sound antisocial or apathetic. Organizing and getting together is important for groups that have a reason to unite, like teachers’ unions or people who actually share cultural traditions. I realize that the question of identity has special resonance for the type that might be drawn in by a “Charisma Men, unite!” message, but these people should have more important things to worry about.

So I have an alternative recommendation for Debito’s readers: rather than worrying about what someone might be saying behind your back, why not work on being a better husband, spending time with your kids, or improving your career? Or maybe go back to coasting on your charisma if that’s your thing?

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.

You don’t know them

When you see someone on TV, or read what they write on a blog or YouTube comment, you don’t know them. This sounds obvious, but judging from the volumes and volumes of discussions on the Internet, no one seems to take this to heart.

Even if you’ve watched someone’s show for years, you are only seeing the tip of the iceberg of what this person is all about. A talk show host might be an avid hunter, or a drinker, or a plastic model kit geek, and we would never, ever know.

But so many of us demand authenticity, or at least a standard of conduct, from people in the public eye, and reserve the harshest score if they don’t measure up.

In Japan, these impulses flare up into the endless stream of ginned-up scandals. Who are we to judge Ebizo for hanging out with the wrong people? None of us knows him. Hell, I had barely heard of him before the scandal.

No one really knows Sarah Palin despite all her exposure and all the journalist profiles and behind the scenes looks. Yet everyone has an opinion about her (I’ll concede it’s somewhat necessary to assess a potential presidential candidate).

The people with influence on what goes on the news and the rest of the media know all about this and exploit our nature ruthlessly for their own ends. Our affinity for an attractive actress gets us in the door of our local Mos Burger; a finely aged oyaji tells us it’s cool to drink a certain kind of beer; and news reports convince you in a matter of seconds that a stranger is a villain who deserves to die.

This concept applies in even the most mundane aspects of showmanship. On those Japanese shows with panels of commentators, the panelists are either competing for airtime or want to keep getting asked back. What that means for you is they stop acting like they would face-to-face and start making comments that will get the most reaction from a mass audience. There are endless ways to keep track of audience reaction these days, including Twitter and 2-channel in Japan. If you can entertain, you’re doing your job.

The same goes for blogs, in a way. I am not just talking to a friend at a bar, I am writing for the “masses” (my many dozens of readers). That means I am putting my best face forward and saying things to get a reaction. Hence, you don’t know me even if you’ve been reading me from the beginning.

I’ve met some readers offline in the past. As a rule they’ve been nothing like I would imagine from their blog comments. Only after putting the two together can I really connect their offline personality to what they write online. While they are connected and an extension of the person, it’s necessarily a cross section.

TV and essentially all media are stages where people put on shows to get a desired reaction from the audience. For better or worse, the Internet has turned everyone into a media personality, so it’s only healthy to keep this in mind when going through life, and especially when reacting to blogs and reader comments.

This post was inspired by a recent conversation with a friend who shall remain anonymous because, well, you don’t know him!

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.