Don’t hate Yoichi Masuzoe for what he said — just look at what he has done

Yoichi Masuzoe has just been elected Governor of Tokyo after being the front runner more or less since the election race began. Predictably, the Western media is already finding the most superficially controversial angle to present him to the world: as far as I can tell, the usual offenders are parroting talking points that started out on the blog of former Socialist leader Mizuho Fukushima—more precisely, this post just over a week ago, where she dug up a 1989 article that quoted him as saying that women are not fit to lead government because they focus on single issues and have menstrual cycles. (She also cited a slightly more recent interview, in which he criticized local NIMBY types who sought to block nuclear plants, as evidence that he is a nuclear supporter.)

I will not defend Masuzoe’s statements about women, which are pretty heinous, but some context is necessary. 1989 was twenty-five years ago and Japan was still stuck in the “Mad Men” era when it came to gender relations. It was ten years before Masuzoe ran for political office and he was not that well known yet. I am pretty sure that he got over whatever strain of foot-in-mouth syndrome he may have had at the time, because Masuzoe’s detractors were hard-pressed to come up with a single damning quote from him since about 1995. Characterizing Masuzoe based on what he said about women back then is unfair—and also unnecessary given that there are more real issues with his governorship.

One concern I have comes from Masuzoe’s official resume. Summarized in one paragraph, Masuzoe started out as an academic studying French politics at Tokyo, Paris and Geneva, gradually gained notoriety as an author and TV commentator, and made a pretty decent showing against Shintaro Ishihara and Kunio Hatoyama in the 1999 Tokyo gubernatorial election. He won an LDP seat in the House of Councillors the next year. Despite his being critical of pretty much everyone else in the Diet, he was put in charge of the LDP’s constitutional reform commission and then became Health and Welfare Minister under Abe, Aso and Fukuda, during which time he came out as a quasi-hero in two major scandals. By 2009, he was the most popular politician in Japan. He bailed from the LDP as it fell from grace under Taro Aso, starting a new “Shinto Kaikaku” party amid hopes from the likes of Tobias Harris (link) that it would be the kind of force that would tank the LDP for good. It proceeded to do absolutely nothing, the LDP returned to power under Abe 2.0, Masuzoe declined to stand for re-election in 2013 and begged the LDP for forgiveness in order to run for governor under their quasi-endorsement. Summarized in one sentence, Masuzoe is a showhorse and not a workhorse, an Obama type of guy who can give a good press conference but who is not likely to actually do anything in a political context without seriously cocking it up, and that is not enough to run one of the largest subnational governments in the world.

Then there is the unofficial resume from the tabloids. Taking all of the tabloid stories I have seen at face value, Masuzoe supposedly met a Japanese woman while in France and they had a lovely wedding, but somehow didn’t actually get married. His first de jure marriage was to a French woman, but they were divorced for undisclosed reasons. (My wife recalls Masuzoe saying on a TV show that this first wife made rice pudding for dessert at one point, and he was enraged at the concept of rice being a sweet dessert.) After returning to Tokyo, he married his second wife, Satsuki Katayama, a promising young Ministry of Finance bureaucrat. The marriage lasted in earnest for only a few months, as Katayama discovered that Masuzoe had a short temper, and kept a collection of about twenty kinds of knives. They separated in short order and were officially divorced in 1989, but before the divorce was final, Masuzoe found a mistress and fathered his first child. He had two more children, at least one of whom was with a different mistress, and at some point married his secretary, who had two more of his children, for a total of five kids with three women. In the nineties he got serious about his horse racing hobby and started buying horses; two of them won the Japan Derby, in 1997 and 1998, but he got out of this business just before going into politics. At some point, he put his wife in charge of his “research institute” shell company, and transferred most of his valuable assets into it, including a 300 million yen house in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward and two vacation houses in Yugawara and Kawaguchiko. He reported a total of 360 million yen in assets when he was in the Aso cabinet, but insiders reckoned he was worth more like 1 billion and hiding most of it under his wife’s shell company. After leaving the Diet in 2013, he petitioned a court to reduce his child support payments to his first child (who is disabled) because his monthly income had fallen to just 100,000 yen; Katayama was quoted in the Mainichi Shimbun as being reluctant to support Masuzoe because of this. One tabloid speculated that he may have lost a ton of money betting on horses and needed to adjust his obligations for that reason.

I am doubtful that Masuzoe will last for four years. He has what appears to be a fairly weak electoral mandate, with less than 50% of the vote in an election that appears to have had relatively low turnout (the snowstorm in Tokyo yesterday likely kept many undecided voters from going to the polls today). Like his predecessor Inose, Masuzoe does not have a record of coalition or consensus building, but rather a record of being outspoken and confrontational, which will not serve him well given that the Tokyo legislature is not the single-party paradise that the National Diet has become. I also suspect that, given all that the tabloids have already dug up, Masuzoe must have some more skeletons in his closet that could take him down if a political foe were willing to utilize them. So don’t worry, reporters, this guy has plenty of potential to be interesting without sticking his foot in his mouth.

Idol superfan asks out his favorite, gets rejected, decides it is time to grow out of fandom

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This morning I tweeted this story:


This ended up being my most popular tweet in a while with 14 retweets (the last time that happened might have been not long after the tsunami). Given that a couple people asked for a translation of the original post I figured I would take a stab at a rough translation of the relevant portions. Note that I am not super familiar with the idol world (apparently the idol in question is Rina Ikoma, a member of Nogizaka 46 not AKB48) so please forgive me if I am missing something.
I just wanted to be loved my the one person I held most dear!

.... Ohh I’m not sure what I should write… Well, here is some good news for the people who hate me: Ikoma-chan rejected me! Lol \()/

Honestly I was floored – her unexpected reply stabbed me straight through the heart. She could have been a little nicer about it! Yesterday there was something cold-hearted about her.

But really it’s my fault. I just wanted to make sure… I am so sorry

Ikoma-chan, I hope you will read this blog like you promised… It was all a big misunderstanding. I think I was unconsciously aware of it all along, but you shouldn’t have told me you liked me best! (;_;) That would make anyone misunderstand lol

I feel as if everything I have ever built in my life has now crumbled instantly into nothing.

But all in all this might be for the best. () I don’t know what I’ll do when the next single comes out, but I don’t think I’ll be as into it as much as I have been.

Frankly, my psyche isn’t strong enough. I might quit being an otaku lol

To close out, I’ll just say one more time, thank you Ikoma-chan for letting me dream!

Thank you for making it possible for me to enjoy my life. I had nothing before you.

 

You were the first person I ever fell seriously in love with.


It is worth noting how costly it was for this fan to learn that his favorite idol isn’t interested in seeing him outside of paid fan events. The picture above is the 3,000 copies of a CD he bought to show his support (and maybe gain access to a handshake event). He also apparently went into around 3.5 million yen in debt in the process. That could be crippling financially depending on his income level.

9a011327 ikoma

 

Rina Ikoma

Are we looking at a new political order?

We are less than a month away from the gubernatorial election in Tokyo, with the campaign officially starting a week from today, and it seems like it may be a key part of yet another massive political realignment.

Until last week, Yoichi Masuzoe was looking like a shoo-in, with the support of the Abe government and very strong results in both LDP and DPJ polls. Then former prime minister Morihiro Hosokawa, who led a coalition that briefly broke the LDP’s uncontested decades of power in 1993, came out of nowhere and announced his candidacy a couple of days ago on a platform strongly opposing the restart of nuclear power. He has the backing of none other than former LDP prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, who stood beside him for the announcement. According to some reports, perennial back room fixer and band destroyer Ichiro Ozawa is also behind the Hosokawa campaign. Meanwhile, Koizumi’s son Shinjiro, who has quietly become the most popular active politician within the LDP, is criticizing Abe for supporting Masuzoe, who ditched the party in 2009 to start his own third party that went nowhere—this despite the fact that there are no other potential candidates within the LDP who poll nearly as highly as Masuzoe.

Hosokawa and the alliance supporting him seem to be getting a groundswell of momentum, despite an obvious defect in his candidacy: he resigned as prime minister in 1994 because of a scandal that was essentially exactly the same as the scandal that just took down Governor Inose. Here is Hosokawa in April 1994:

Hosokawa has been fending off allegations that he accepted an improper donation of 100 million yen ($970,000) from a trucking company previously accused of bribery and links to organized crime. He has admitted receiving the money, but says it was a loan. His opponents say it was a bribe.

The sense of irony here is palpable. The coalition that Hosokawa heads came to power last August promising an end to the so-called money politics of the Liberal Democratic Party, which the coalition displaced. Now LDP members – whose 38-year grip on power was broken after a slew of bribery and influence-peddling scandals – fax each other copies of a receipt Hosokawa has released in an attempt to show that he paid back the money, because they believe it to be an obvious and sloppy fake. ``If you show this receipt to the tax authorities,’’ says Motoo Shiina, an independent member of Japan’s upper house who left the LDP six years ago, ``they will laugh.’‘

Here is Inose in December 2013:

Inose acknowledged in November he had received 50 million yen ($500,000) from the political family behind the huge Tokushukai medical group before last year’s gubernatorial election. The money, handed to him in cash, was kept in a safety deposit box and Inose said it was a personal loan that had nothing to do with his campaign for the city’s top job.

He has been grilled by a hostile assembly on several occasions, with the media picking apart his appearance and stuttering performance, focusing on beads of sweat that dripped down his neck. At hearings and in press conferences he has waved around a piece of paper he insists amounted to a loan agreement, although observers noted that it bore no date for repayment and showed no terms and conditions.

There is another obvious defect in both Masuzoe and Hosokawa, in that like Inose, they both made careers out of being outspoken and pissing off the establishment, but never managed to show much for it other than ignominious defeats.

So who else is out there? Besides the two media-anointed leading contenders, we have our good buddy General Tamogami running on the far right, and socialist/communist-supported lawyer Kenji Utsunomiya (who came in a distant second to Inose in the last election) running on the far left. Of the four candidates, three (Masuzoe, Hosokawa and Utsunomiya) are anti-nuclear in one form or another, while Tamogami’s energy policy, in line with his other stated policies, presumably relies on the Japanese air force.

Neither I nor most Japanese commentators are entirely sure what to make of all this, but it certainly incites a lot of speculation as to what will happen next. Will the retired DPJ insiders like Kan and Hatoyama manage to squeeze Utsunomiya out of the race and consolidate the anti-LDP vote under Hosokawa, or will Utsunomiya split that segment and let Masuzoe win? Will Tamogami leverage Shintaro Ishihara’s support and his own possession of actual administrative experience to eke out a victory while the others shout over each other about the nuclear issue? Will Antonio Inoki parachute in from North Korea at the last minute? Will everyone in Tokyo just stay in bed on the 9th and let Doctor NakaMats realize the fruits of decades of campaigning? Perhaps most importantly, what will all of this mean for the Abe government? It’s fascinating, and I for one can’t get enough of it.

Tamogami, former ASDF “chife of stuff”, Running for Governor

Toshio Tamogami, rightwing blowhard and former Japan Air Force General, is officially running for Governor of Tokyo in February 9th’s election.

As you can see below, his official website profile is touting his strong credentials as “the former chife of stuff,ASDF”, in order to appeal to the Tokyo electorate’s strong appreciation for what is presumably intended to be some sort of executive experience.

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Anyone reading this right now, as the blog is only just barely stirring from a long hibernation, will certainly remember my feature-length November 4, 2008 post on the fraudulent essay contest scandal that led to Tamogami’s resignation from the military, and his connections to the world of right-wing politics.

These connections, which were rather obscure when I analyzed them, have become common knowledge since, as Tamogami has moved into a career as a professional rightist blowhard and – now – political hopeful.

For the hilarious website text, I must tip my hat to Curzon, (once and?) future contributor to this blog.

And speaking of hilarity, there are rumors being reported that professional wrestler turned politician, Antonio Inoki, will also be entering the race. This would certainly make Adam’s day.

But Masuzoe Yōichi, who ran and lost to former governor Ishihara Shintaro in 1999, seems to be the favorite. At least, that is, should he actually decide to run.

And for pointing that out, a hat tip to Joe, just so I have everyone covered.

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

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A couple weeks ago the Japanese ruling Liberal Democratic Party released Abe-pyon (Abe Jump; iOS link / Android), its first official smartphone game. The release was timed ahead of the upcoming Upper House election to try and reach voters that might otherwise not be interested in politics.

You control a cartoon version of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as he jumps higher and higher. Hitting springs gives you an extra boost, and as you go higher you reach more elite government/party titles (LDP Youth Division Director, Minister, Secretary General, etc. all the way up to Prime MInister).

For a low-budget simple game, Abe-pyon has been very well received, but I am not surprised—the game is actually quite fun and addictive, it’s free, and unlike virtually all other high-profile smartphone games (that I have played at least), it is a pure and complete game with no in-game purchasing whatsoever. To control Abe you tilt the phone from side to side, and this is the first smartphone game I have played where that was actually fun and even doable on the train. It is a lot of fun to try and slip Abe between two platforms to get at one of the red super-bonus springs.


This person made it to 11,000

You might complain that you are being propagandized by a political party, but if this is what it takes to bring an actually enjoyable and no-nonsense game to my iPhone, then that part doesn’t bother me a bit.

The game’s simple but well-done mechanics remind me of some earlier endless runner type games I have played, most notably Nanaca Crash, a Flash game (and Mutant Frog favorite) where you control a bouncing boy who was sent flying by a girl who was apparently stalking him. That was back in a the good old days before Facebook games taught every game maker of the potential to get rich through microtransactions.

The sound in the game is also pretty great. You get to hear comical boioioioing! sound effects whenever you hit a bonus spring, and Abe lets out a panicked squeal when he dies (sadly that isn’t his real voice). There is a rollicking Blues Brothers-style rock song which is also pretty fun (though I keep it off if I am listening to podcasts).

Abe pyon high score

My current high score

That being said, there are a few drawbacks, most of which have to do with the nature of the game. For one thing, you have to start from the beginning every time, so it takes a while to get back near a high score. You can pause the game and come back, but my iPhone 4S has so little memory it often loses my progress if I open a few more apps. I find that my hand tires out a little after getting to 800 or so, so I tend to mess up after that. If the LDP decides to sell the game to an actual business, offering continues might be a good way to monetize.

All in all however, I have shocked myself at how long I have been willing to stare at Abe’s face (albeit in cartoon form) to play this game. That speaks to how enjoyable the game is, so I definitely recommend trying it out if it’s on your local app store and hope more political parties will get the idea to curry favor with the populace by making great video games.

Update: It has come to my attention that this game is very similar to a popular game Doodle Jump. I haven’t played that one but the screen shots seem very close. Thanks Dan and Emily!

What would doubling the JET program look like?

Recent news reports suggest that the LDP is planning to propose doubling the JET Program in three years and placing JET language assistants in all elementary, middle, and high schools within a decade. There are around 38,000 such schools in Japan, so that’s a LOT of ALTs!

According to internal affairs ministry statistics, in fiscal 2012 there were around 4,300 JETs in the country, so the plan is apparently to increase that by a whopping factor of nine. According to the statistics that METI keeps on language schools, there are 10,000 or so full- and part-time language teachers working for regulated schools. I believe that does not count the large number of contractors like the teachers working for ALT placement agencies or the poor devils at Gaba, university instructors, and certainly not the many student teachers or anyone operating their own eikaiwa that does not fall under METI’s purview. But even generously allowing for a teacher population of say 30,000 total (around 3 for every train station), in ten years this number will be more than doubled.

The program is designed to place youthful foreigners, generally native English speakers, in Japanese schools (and to a smaller extent, local governments) for up to five years with two explicit goals: supplement English-language education and promote international interaction at the local level. Another key benefit is that the participants often go on to take influential Japan-related jobs, be it in foreign governments, Japanese companies, or companies that do business in or with Japan. Having a stable of Japan hands around seems pretty necessary at this point, given the relatively poor state of English language ability among the Japanese population. Unlike normal employment situations, JET offers a high level of support in the form of a reasonable salary, free housing, and a network of fellow JETs and regional coordinators to help with problems.

I get the feeling that a ninefold increase in the JET Program isn’t realistic—could they even recruit that many people to come and live in Japan, or would they maybe just cannibalize the entire existing eikaiwa-for-kids market? Still, some increase in the program along these line seems like a fairly simple way for the Abe administration to make a bold move in the direction of “internationalization” that won’t run into much political resistance.

Regardless of your views on the merits of the JET Program or the Japanese education system in general, you must admit that even just doubling the size of JET would have a pretty profound impact.

For one thing, that is double the amount of people coming in each year. That means more foreign faces on the street and more non-Asian foreign exposure for the Japanese public at large.

It also means more “Japan hands,” maybe even double, and this can cut in different ways. I feel like Japan is sorely in need of talented Japanese-to-English translators, so an influx of native English talent that could eventually progress to ace-translator status is a good thing. At the same time, the increased supply in the market could put pressure on prices, and who knows maybe some whipper snapper could come after my job some day.

I think it would also revive the option of teaching English in Japan for graduates of US universities that (from my admittedly limited perspective) seems to have died down a bit in the wake of troubles in the eikaiwa market and competition from China, a bigger and perhaps more intriguing destination. I can envision a near future in which young men see the Tokyo Vice movie and become inspired to chase thrills and excitement in Japan.

And it would necessarily boost the number of international marriages and the resulting children, bringing Japan that much closer to becoming the Grey Race.

On the negative side, the JET Program might have to loosen standards to attract talent. Even if they don’t, the sheer number of additional people will likely result in an increase in the problems that occasionally befall foreigners in Japan – crime, drugs, suspicious visa activity, ill-advised YouTube rants, you name it.

JET is a net good, but not for Japanese people’s English ability 

I say bring it on, mainly to bolster Japan-related talent. Unfortunately, my support of the program is not for its value as an English teaching tool (disclosure: my application for the JET Program was in fact rejected. I am not bitter about it because I handed in a terrible application, but nevertheless I feel like I should own up about it).

I have spoken with/read about perhaps dozens of JET teachers and students over the years. The teachers by and large do not have a particularly high opinion of the job’s value in terms of English teaching, but they almost unanimously credit the program for giving them a great experience. And while the students might not master English thanks to their JET, in many cases they remember them being a friendly adult who helped make school more enjoyable.

From what I gather, the job of an ALT is generally to supplement a Japanese teacher of English by helping with pronunciation and various other tasks. Maybe I just don’t get around enough, but I cannot recall ever hearing someone even try to argue that they are an essential part of the learning process or that what they do has an appreciable benefit to the level of English ability in Japan. I don’t think that is really a problem though because of the program’s other upsides.

On the other hand, what I have heard and experienced is that ALTs can help inspire students to discover the joys and rewards of learning English or encourage them to keep going. I think the value of that should not be underestimated because it is life-changing and the ALTs deserve huge credit for it.

This is kind of an aside, but basically I do not share the government’s fascination with trying to make the entire country proficient in English because for most people that is just not necessary. The way things stand, the biggest result of the current system seems to be the long list of Japanized English loan words that are often such a headache-inducing component of the Japanese language.

To have a more realistic and beneficial impact, I would rather them focus on establishing separate programs for the kids who excel at languages and giving them a place to shine on their own (and while they’re at it they should devote resources to helping returnees re-integrate when they come back while maintaining their language skills). That would hold out the hope of producing a larger population of Japanese adults with near-native English skills.

I feel like there is negative feedback loop whereby most Japanese people are in an environment where the norm is to not be good at English and therefore most people choose the path of least resistance. Separating out the kids that have a real talent and placing them in a more encouraging environment might keep them from missing out just because they have to go along with the crowd.

All in all, JET seems like a worthy program for giving kids a glimpse at a world outside of Japan and the teachers an interesting start to their post-college lives in a way that usually ends up benefiting Japan in some way.

PS: This independent video guide to the JET Program is very well done. If you are reading this and considering doing the program yourself, it is definitely worth a look:

Japanese people can’t speak English because they live among tainted, Japan-savvy foreigners

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.

  • Lip my stocking!

And so on.

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.

Adamu will be on Livestream helping break down the election this Sunday starting at 8pm!!

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!!

Always-on Internet during a temporary visit home to the US from Japan

As it happens, I am visiting my hometown in Connecticut at the same time Roy is taking his trip to Japan. Before I went, I had the same problem – what to do about Internet/cell phone connectivity while I’m home? My solution to keep my Softbank iPhone 4S connected was to use WiFi at home and at friends’ houses, plus a no-contract MiFi for when I’m on the go. Overall, it worked out really well with a few unexpected bumps in the road.

Life before MiFi

I have lived abroad since 2006, but until now I have been pretty disappointed with my solutions for connectivity during visits home. Until this trip, I had opted to reactivate an old flip phone that I owned before I left. Each time I seemed to need to pay a reactivation fee plus minutes and texting fees. The whole package usually cost around $50-60 each time. It worked as well as an old cell phone usually does.

Mrs. Adamu and I joined the smartphone crowd in late 2011 by getting the iPhone 4S. We visited home a couple months later and used the old cell phone as usual. It felt kind of weird to use an outdated phone for voice calls when we had such a powerful tool at our disposal, but we went with it anyway.

The Virgin Mobile MiFi 2200 is your friend – if you can set it up right

For my next trip home for Thanksgiving 2012 I came by myself. During the preparations I started to look for some alternative connectivity options and came across what seemed like an amazing deal – a 3G MiFi selling on Amazon for just $30 or so! The Virgin Mobile MiFi 2200 is a small device that connects to Sprint’s network using Virgin’s no-contract MVNO service. I decided to order it for delivery at my destination and purchase 2.5GB of data for another $35 (top-up card pictured under the mug).

The setup went very smoothly in line with the included instructions – except that the last screen in the process said there was an error that I needed to call customer service to resolve. Weirdly, the representative said there was no problem at all, and sure enough the MiFi was already working. So if you go this route, check if the Internet is working properly before waiting on hold for 10 minutes.

All was right with the world and I had a working MiFi for my first day.This was especially useful since I took a trip down to NYC so Roy could show me the best of hipster-fied Brooklyn (see fancy pizza pic below).

The product description advertises just 3 hours of battery life, but in my experience I got around 5. I have a pretty beefy spare battery (white object in picture) that holds around 1.5 iPhone charges and extends the MiFi’s usability by quite a bit (I would estimate an extra 6 hours or so). But since the max battery life is only around 12 hours-ish, you will want to know where your next recharge station is. I ran out of juice halfway through the night and had to rely on Roy’s sweet tethering feature until we got to his place where there was WiFi and free plugs to charge all my devices.

A puzzling error

Unfortunately, the next day the MiFi inexplicably stopped working. I spent another night in NYC and did not have time to call tech support and figure things out. It would turn on and connect, but websites would redirect to the MiFi settings page, which said the device was “Not Activated.” This is apparently a common issue, and I tried many times to redo the “activation process” to no avail. So I spent my remaining two days in NYC surviving on scraps of WiFi from apartments, Apple Stores and Starbuckses.

I returned to CT and finally called to find out the cause of the problem—they deactivated me for the weirdest reason… One of my activation codes began with 00, but apparently I was not supposed to enter the 00 during the activation process. Would have been nice for them to tell me!

After clearing that up with a friendly call to customer service (the Indian-sounding lady was very helpful), the MiFi has worked very well. It is not as reliable as having the Softbank 3G connection, but close enough. I can send/receive messages, load Facebook and Twitter, and see websites with no problem. Low-res YouTube videos even load without complaints.

People forget their WiFi passwords

One thing that has surprised me on this trip is that people often do not know the passwords to their WiFi. In cases like that I have to keep using the MiFi to maintain the coveted always-on connection. Most households have spare mini-USB chargers available (especially if they have Android phones) that can recharge the MiFi, but in one case the battery ran out during a long night that ended with a viewing of Tangled on gorgeously realized Bluray. I had foolishly left behind the spare battery and did not bring my mom’s car charger, leaving me unacceptably disconnected for almost six hours. I did not make such careless mistakes again.

Concluding thoughts

All in all, the MiFi has worked out pretty well at a reasonable price, and I intend to keep using it until something better comes along.

Despite the initial difficulties and disadvantages, I liked the MiFi solution for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it costs no more than activating the old cell phone but allows me to use all my iPhone functions. Also, now that I own the device, future trips to the US will only require me to top up my data, which should be a pretty good savings after a few trips. And by using a MiFi, both me and Mrs. Adamu can connect at the same time. And if we top up before arriving, we can have an Internet connection as soon as we touch down.

Some things would have been easier if I had decided to pay Skype to get a phone number that people could have called. It probably would have made texting possible as well (I am not totally sure about this; Skype texting didn’t work for me, but I don’t know if having a number would change that). But I did not have that many people trying to contact me, so it didn’t make that much sense. And the few people in my social circle that did not have smartphones were reachable in other ways in a pinch, so texting was not exactly essential.

And this may only be worthwhile until I get my next phone. I like the iPhone, but because of my international situation it is tempting to switch to an unlocked Android device. The Nexus 4 starts at just $299 unlocked (compared to $649 for the iPhone 5), so if I get that I could probably do something similar to Roy’s solution when he came to Japan. At any rate, the convenience of always-on Internet has made my trip back home much more enjoyable than it would have been otherwise, so I would recommend anyone heading home to try and work something out like this.

Using a smartphone as a visitor to Japan

I just landed in Narita and came to my friend’s apartment in Koenji, Tokyo last night, coming to Japan for the first time since I finished graduate school last March, and for the very first time as a tourist and not a resident.

I had been looking at the options for having at least some basic mobile phone service, as I have been able to arrange cheaply in every other country I have previously visited, but the solutions in Japan are less straightforward, or at least less obvious. (On a tangent, this article about the state of Internet access in the remote island territory of American Samoa is pretty neat.) I DID find an option that works well, but it took a little bit of poking around and some minor hoops.

For example, in Taiwan I had no trouble getting a prepaid SIM card by showing my passport, here in the US (somewhat surprisingly, with all the Patriot Act and related security in recent years) you can still buy a prepaid phone or SIM, and on my first visit to the Philippines I actually got a SIM card out of a vending machine! While it has always1 been easy for a resident foreigner to sign up for a mobile phone contract, the providers will quite understandably not offer a one or two year contract to somebody who is only legally allowed to remain in the country for 90 days.

While Japan has long had perhaps the best wireless communications infrastructure in the world, it also has some of the least flexible ways to register for service. While prepaid SIM cards for voice and/or data are the norm, or at least commonly available, in most countries, such options are far more limited in Japan, and those that do exist tend to be unavailable to temporary visitors.((Prepaid service is very widely available in the US, for both voice and data, and although still not very popular overall is gaining fast in popularity.)) Options for international data plans do exist, but even the better deals fall between pretty expensive and ruinously expensive. (The NY Times just had a post discussing some other options.)

Prepaid phone service does exist, offered  companies such as au or Softbank, but for some bizarre reason these are still structured as one year contracts, and are therefore also not available to visitors. For example, if you look at Softbank’s page explaining how to register for pre-paid service, it clearly states that one needs either proof of Japanese citizenship or visa that has over 90 days remaining. It is certainly possible for a visitor to have a friend in Japan to arrange service for them, but that is not only kind of a hassle for both parties, but also may not be an option for visitors who do not (yet?) have friends in the country.

Perhaps the most popular option for foreign tourists is Softbank’s Global Rental service, which will rent either a Japanese phone or a SIM card for use with an unlocked 3G phone. The prices for this service are not too egregious for very light use, with a bare SIM costing for ¥105/day, ¥105 per minute for outgoing calls, and ¥15 per domestic SMS. Incoming calls and texts are free, like in basically every country outside of North America. Data, however, is another matter. Although Softbank thankfully caps the data charge for a single day to ¥1500, it takes only slightly more than 1 megabyte to reach that level, which means that any smartphone that sees even minimal use will incur ¥1605/day, plus whatever you spend on phone calls or texts. I don’t know about you, but ¥48,150+ seems like a lot to pay for one month of using my smartphone on a trip to Japan.

But there is a much, much better option.

Enter B-Mobile. B-Mobile is a MVNO, or Mobile Virtual Network Operator, which means that in contrast to wireless service providers such as NTT Docomo, KDDI AU or Softbank, they do not own any infrastructure of their own but instead purchase access to a wireless network at the wholesale level from the physical network providers, in this case from Docomo, and then re-sell it to retail customers in packages that the original network provider does not offer.

As soon as I stepped off the airport bus outside Shinjuku Station I walked across the street to Bic Camera and asked the first staff member I saw in the mobile phone area where the B-Mobile products were. She had no idea what I was talking about, and after running to check told me that they didn’t have any (申し訳ございませんが、当店では取り扱っておりません), but I suspected she was wrong and asked a man in a spiffier uniform. He immediately took me over to the counter and grabbed a box from the shelf behind it. For those looking to purchase these SIM cards in a store, note that they do not seem to be on display; you have to find someone who knows where they are kept in the back. I chose the 1GB/1 month 3G/4G option, for just under ¥3500, and purchased it along with an external battery pack for my phone.

Note that it is possible to order these SIMs online, using either a credit card or by COD means Cash On Delivery, which is something that used to be possible for mail order products, but now is pretty much restricted to delivery food. Japan is actually safe enough that when I ordered a ¥100,000 digital camera from Amazon some years back they let me pay COD.">COD) The downside of this, for many foreigners, is that the page is only in Japanese, as is the activation directions. If you do not read and speak Japanese, you may need someone else to help with ordering and configuring the setup.

Before I explain the annoying caveats, I will state upfront that it works great once configured, so you know this isn’t a waste of time.

I stepped out of the store and grabbed a coffee and a seat at the Starbucks just below. Popping the SIM card into my phone, an unlocked GSM/HSPA+ Galaxy Nexus and rebooting it did not give me any immediate results, only showing the notification screen message “EMERGENCY CALLS ONLY [NTT DOCOMO]”, which I had even with my American T-Mobile SIM installed.

After looking at the packaging I realized that it needed to be activated by phone, but this presented a minor obstacle. For some reason, the activation can be done one of two ways, either by calling from a Japanese mobile phone, or by calling a help-desk and paying a ¥2,500 handling fee. I nearly considered doing the latter just to get going… but the helpdesk closes at 6pm, an hour earlier.

I then switched tactics slightly and pulled out my laptop, a recently purchased 15” Retina Macbook Pro, to try the Starbucks WiFi. I was under the impression that it was a pay service as it had been years before, and was ready to begrudgingly spend a few hundred yen to get online for an hour, but was pleased to see that they have switched to a free service at some point. I was much less happy to see, however, that in order to use the free Starbucks WiFi, you have to register for a login account, which cannot be done from the login page. Yes, that’s right. To use the free WiFi you have to register in advance while already connected to the Internet. For your reference, the address for doing this is http://starbucks.wi2.co.jp. Do yourself a favor and register right now, even if you don’t expect to be using it anytime soon. Thankfully I was sitting next to a young Japanese fellow in a standard black suit, who was kind enough to lend me his smartphone for a minute to register myself an account and get online.

After I had both my laptop and phone connected to the free WiFi, I found a Japan-resident friend on Gchat and asked her to use her mobile phone to call and register my B-Mobile SIM, providing her with the unique registration code included on a slip of cardboard. Make sure not to lose that! (Incidentally, the SIM itself is a DOCOMO card, with B-Mobile branding used only on the packaging.) I suppose I could have done that call with the phone I borrowed from my Starbucks neighbor, but with the mention of a ¥2500 surcharge for using the helpdesk, I figured it would be rude to risk some unexpected charge on the phone bill going to a total stranger, rather than a friend I can repay in the event that it happens.

After spending another half-hour or so at the Starbucks before I was able to get in touch with the friend whose apartment in Kouenji I am staying at in Tokyo there was still no indication that my SIM card had been activated, even after rebooting again. It was on some pretty solid WiFi, so I was unsurprised to maintain Internet service for a little while after leaving the Starbucks, but when I glanced at my phone to check the time while waiting for the train and noticed that it appeared to still be signed into Gchat I was rather confused.

You see, although the phone appeared to have no mobile network service, it was in fact connected, and may very well have been connected the entire half-hour I spent waiting in the cafe. Very weirdly, it has a constant notification saying “NO SERVICE: Selected network (DOCOMO) unavailable”, while also constantly showing zero bars for my mobile network connection. And this is despite having a perfectly good Internet connection, even good enough for me to make and receive Skype calls.

Presumably this is because the OS, configured as it is for a phone rather than a tablet, is puzzled by an account that has data service, but is not allowed to place or receive calls, and therefore fails to display the proper indicator. This surprised me, as the same Android OS is also running on tablets, such as the Nexus 7, that also support SIM cards and HSPA+ data connections. Presumably on a Nexus 7 or similar device the mobile network indicator properly indicated when it is connected, and doesn’t harass you about not having voice service, so I wonder if there may be a way to tweak the phone version to fix this minor bug. After all, it is a little bit annoying not knowing whether or not you are connected until you try and access the Internet and either succeed or fail.

One final note for now is that this particular card provides 1GB of data or one month of service, which ever comes first. 1GB may not sound like all that much, but Android 4.x has extremely good tools for tracking and limiting your data usage, and if you are sensible enough to streaming media or file downloads while not connected to WiFi, I would not be at all surprised to see 1GB last for an entire month.

  1. At least since the first time I was in Japan, in 2002. []