Category Archives: Japan-US Relations

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.

Regarding Sovereignty of the Spratleys, and the threatening neighbor

I have already considered, and rejected, doing some sort of detailed post on this subject (at least for the time being) as there is no shortage of such reporting already, but I did just stumble on one citation that is too good not to post.

From the September, 1941 issue of Pacific Affairs, an article entitled Third Conquest of the Philippines?, begins with a summation of the Japanese threat at that moment, which perhaps sounds a bit hysterical until one recalls that Japan was in fact, at that time, working quite hard to conquer the entire Pacific, and that they would very soon after attack both Hawaii and Manila.

There is a shadow of Japan everywhere you turn your eyes in the Philippines. Stories of Japanese fishing depradations, for instance, are almost a daily routine in the papers. When you hear Philippines independence discussed, Japan and her imperial conquests are mentioned in the same breath. The fact is that Japan’s adventures in Manchuria and China have sent chills down the spines of nationalist Filipinos.[...]

For it is being made apparent in the most realistic fashion that such a political freedom-soon to be realized- may yet expose the Philippines as ripe for spoilation by a powerful militaristic neighbor. This is no chimera or idle preoccupation; it is born of facts which are tell-tale evidence of a Japanese plan of conquest of the entire Asiatic Continent including all the rich island tributaries along the coastline. Japan has methodically followed a very logical course of action. The seizure of Hainan Island at the gateway to French Indo-China gave Japan tactical control of the French and British sea-lane to the East Indies.


And after that introduction, we get to what was to the author of this piece (S.P. Vak, Jr. – a name that could almost be out of Star Wars) probably considered to be an idle aside, but in light of current events I found to be the most fascinating lines.
The seizure of the Spratley Islands has tactically brought Japan near to a complete encirclement of the Philippines. The Spratley Islands are barely 200 miles west of the Palawan group. (It is of interest to cite in this connection a farseeing move on the part of Hon. Elpidio Quirino, who as Secretary of the Interior of the Philippine Government memorialized the State Department at Washington in 1937 for a formal declaration of claims to the Spratleys for national defense purposes. Unhappily, the State Department did not see fit to act ion the question. The islands apparently had no official owners, though geographically the Philippines should have been their rightful claimant.)

While we know from both looking at a map and from the current controversy that “geographically,” claims on the islands by Okinawa or Taiwan (which were both Japanese territory at the time), and China via a more convoluted legal route, also seem quite feasible, but it is interesting to see that this author did not even so much as consider those options.

Let us also take a moment to remember that Japan was also considered somewhat of a trade threat at the time, although hardly on the scale that it was in the 80s, or China is now.

Japanese industrialists employ every possible device to flood the market [note: the Philippine market] with cheap imitations of popular American articles. In 1937, for instance, Japan sold 32 million pesos’ worth of commodities in spite of the high tariff barrier, reaching as high as 65 per cent ad valorem on some articles.

[...]

Japan, fighting tooth and nail for markets, has resorted to all sorts of weapons. She has unscrupulously copied patents and designs which are purportedly American in Origin. Peculiarly Filipino textiles of the Ilocos and Visaya regions, copied on Japanese looms, sell for less than the originals because of the advantages obtained in organization, technology and cheaper cost of labor.

Why Nausicaa is awesome

Via Roger Ebert, here is Filipino reviewer Michael Mirasol’s take on what’s so great about Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind:

My favorite part (emphasis added):

The film is considered to be the first of Miyazaki’s works to showcase his strong environmental inclinations. In every film since he has made his case for man to grow closer to nature as a return to the olden days. He does so with positive reinforcement, hardly ever resorting to demonizing, moralizing, or sermonizing. Here, the toxic jungle isn’t so much an inhospitable realm as it is a fearsome marvel of nature. It’s huge arthropod denizens never come off as oozing grotesques, but wondrous (though scary) creatures. The film’s largest creations, the ohmus, are wholly original, and are almost proof that the eyes are the window to the soul.

Miyazaki’s refusal to narrow down conflict to two or even three sides is refreshing, and quite admirable considering its target audience. The film’s story does concern good versus evil, but they aren’t manifested in simplistic ways. Each populace has its own motivations. Each conflict has its reason. Wars exist among man and against nature. Several stakes exist. Even death is hardly out of bounds. For much of the film, there is no one problem/solution. But despite this moral complexity for an animated film, it all fits Miyazaki’s big picture, and in the end we see it.


The link has a transcript, so it might be easier to read that instead.

I think it’s a testament to Miyazaki’s subtle storytelling power (or maybe just my own lack of insight) that this point never explicitly dawned on me after watching the movie. It’s just a natural part of the landscape. And it’s surprisingly rare for movies to take this approach, though it seems to be a major feature of Miyazaki films.

At the risk of overgeneralizing, I sense a broader point here. One of the refreshing things about living in Japan is that people seem much less dogmatic than in the US. That is, issues are seldom as black and white as they seem in the States, and there seems to be less pressure to adopt the “correct” set of opinions based on political leanings. Could this have something to do with a generation raised on Miyazaki’s pluralistic stories as opposed to Americans growing up with Disney tales of good and evil?

Hiroshima bombing anniversary

Today, August 6, 2010, is the 65th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, significant for being the first visited by a delegation from the US, as well as by the UN Secretary General himself. There is no shortage of commentary out there, such as this short essay by Nobel-novelist Oe Kenzaburo, or the statement issued by the mayor of Hiroshima, but there are a couple of specific items I want to highlight.

Despite being one of the most famous incidents in all of human history, there is still a surprising amount of speculation, doubt, and conspiracy theorizing regarding the dropping of the atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Foremost among these is Truman’s real motivation for ordering the bombing; did he really believe that it was the only way to end the war without hundreds of thousands, or millions more deaths, or did he believe that Japan was ready to surrender, but could not give up the chance to show off the awesome destructive power of the atom to the Soviets? I could of course investigate that question all day, but instead I want to briefly look at two other issues related to the morality of the bombing.

First of these is a fascinating, some might say disturbing, questionnaire given to over 250 Manhattan Project scientists in July, 1945, which was first published as “A Poll of Scientists at Chicago, July 1945,” in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, February 1948, 44, p63. (Link thanks to i09.com)

The single question poll has been posted online as an interactive web-poll, but since it isn’t working properly for me I will post the actual text here.

Which of the following five procedures comes closest to your choice as to the way in which any new weapons that may develop should be used in the Japanese war:

  1. Use them in the manner that is from the military point of view most effective in bringing about prompt Japanese surrender at minimum human cost to our armed forces.

  2. Give a military demonstration in Japan to be followed by renewed opportunity for surrender before full use of the weapon is employed.

  3. Give an experimental demonstration in this country, with representatives of Japan present; followed by a new opportunity for surrender before full use of the weapon is employed.

  4. Withhold military use of the weapons, but make public experimental demonstration of their effectiveness.

  5. Maintain as secret as possible all developments of our new weapons and refrain from using them in this war.


Please read the full post at Ptak Science Books for far more details, including the results of the original poll, the online poll, and links to their long series of posts on the history of atomic weaponry.

Next we have the following article from the Asahi, one month ago.

Nara honors its Chinese scholar savior

A Chinese intellectual credited with saving historic Nara from annihilation in World War II is to be immortalized in bronze in the ancient Japanese capital.

Liang Sicheng (1901-1972), a renowned Chinese architectural historian who was born and spent his early childhood in Japan, is believed to have interceded with the U.S. military to protect the historic former capitals of Nara and Kyoto from the air raids that flattened many of Japan’s urban centers.

The statue was unveiled in Beijing in mid-June in the presence of representatives from Japan and China and is expected to be installed at the Nara Prefectural Cultural Hall by late October.

Liang was known for his efforts to protect China’s cultural treasures in areas occupied by Japan during the Japan-China war, producing a map, at the request of the U.S. authorities, of key sites in the country.

But he is also believed to have used his connections with U.S. officers to plead on behalf of Japan’s ancient capitals.

“He strived to protect cultural properties from war damage, not just those of his own country but those of an enemy,” said Luo Zhewen, a former senior official of the State Bureau of Cultural Relics.

Luo, 86, who worked with Liang on the China map, is an adviser to the China Social-Cultural Development Foundation, which has helped promote the statue idea.

He said the statue would have “great significance for China and Japan’s friendship.”

There are no written records to confirm Liang’s role in preventing the bombing of Kyoto and Nara. The story of his contribution appears to have originated with Su Bai, 87, a professor of archaeology at Peking University.

In 1947 or 1948, Su attended a lecture by Liang, who told him during a break about the map of cultural properties in China and his request to the U.S. forces to refrain from bombing Nara and Kyoto.

Su mentioned Liang’s comment to a Japanese researcher in the 1980s and the story began to spread.

Liang was born in Japan and lived there until age 11. His father was Liang Qichao, a well-known reformer during the late Qing Dynasty. After graduating from what is now Tsinghua University, Liang studied architectural history in the United States from 1924 to 1928.

He worked for wartime culture protection under the Chinese Nationalist government.

Lin Zhu, Liang’s second wife, said he told her about his request to the U.S. forces during the Cultural Revolution, when he became a target of student criticism.

“He loved Japan, where he spent his early childhood. He was so troubled by Japan’s invasion of China,” said Lin, 82.

Lin said her husband had kept his appeal on behalf of Nara and Kyoto secret because he feared his help for the wartime enemy might make him a target of criticism.

There are competing accounts of why the old capitals were avoided by U.S. bombers. Langdon Warner (1881-1955), an art historian at Harvard University and a mentor to Liang while he was at Harvard, is also credited with calling for the cities’ protection. The decision has been attributed by some to U.S. Secretary of War Henry Stimson.

Liang’s grandson, Liang Jian, 56, says, “I believe my grandfather wanted to protect cultural assets regardless of national borders. It is, however, a fact that no written records exist.”


As far as I’m concerned, that last line is the most important one. While I am willing to believe that Liang “wanted to preserve cultural assets” there is absolutely no reason whatsoever to think that he did, or that Doctor Langdon Warner – who is popularly, and falsely credited for having saved Kyoto despite his own denials – did so, rather than military and political considerations. The fact is that there is no real evidence to suggest that cultural asset preservation was a factor in the decision over where to drop the atom bombs, which is a topic that I plan to make a detailed post on some time in the future.

Really, at it’s core the myth that Kyoto, and perhaps Nara and other historical cities, were saved from the atom bomb due to a strong desire to preserve ancient relics is nothing but a feel-good story for both side. Now, it might sound crazy to some that any aspect of the bombings is a “feel-good story,” but I propose that it actually serves such a purpose for both the Americans and the Japanese. By believing the myth that our government and military was persuaded to significantly alter the bombing plan, we can believe that, even in the midst of a bloody and inhuman war, an appeal by a humble art historian led us to transcend immediate concerns of war between nations for the sake of the historical legacy of humanity as a whole. We can pretend that while on the one hand we possess such godlike power, we also have the humility to use it wisely, and by remembering how we spared history for the sake of a greater good, we can conveniently draw attention away from the decisions to kill hundreds of thousands.

Conversely, for the Japanese side to believe in this myth is to somewhat allay the wounds of defeat by appealing to national pride. After all, for an enemy so terrified and desperate to win that they would unleash the power of the sun itself to, in that very instant of apocalyptic destruction, to deliberately avoid incinerating Japan’s largest concentrations of sacred and historically significant sites can be nothing but a reflection of how truly significant those sites, that culture and history, must be. To believe so strongly in the power of Japanese culture to affect the enemy’s actions in such a moment creates a kind of victory in the face of defeat, much as the common (although, I stress, not universal) portrayal of the bombings as an event of passive victimhood similar to a natural disaster, with neither reason nor aggressor, creates a narrative in which all moral complexity is stripped away, the virtuous suffering, martyrdom, and survival of the victims are the only salient facts, allowing for a sort of moral victory in the face of defeat. The perpetuation of this historical myth may seem innocent to some, but it enables the avoidance of the grave moral and strategic issues that actually were in play, issues of both Japan’s war responsibility and American reasons for the use the atomic bomb (as raised in the survey above), and does a disservice to those who suffered and died.

And finally I leave you, without comment, the official North Korean statement on the anniversary of Hiroshima and its special mix of factual record and – let’s say – colorful political commentary, courtesy of their always entertaining KCNA news site.

Korean A-bomb Victims Have Bitter Grudge against US-Japan

Pyongyang, August 5 (KCNA)—Sixty-five years has elapsed since the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945, leaving hundreds of thousands of innocent people dead. The death toll is about 159,000 in Hiroshima and 73,000 in Nagasaki.

Among the victims of the nuclear holocaust, the first of its kind in human history, were foreigners and many of them were Koreans.

According to a non-governmental organization of south Korea, the total number of the Korean victims is about 70,000 and the death toll about 40,000. A civic organization of Japan made public that the Korean victims in Nagasaki alone total 21,384, 10,278 of them dead.

The figures show that the Koreans account for more than ten percent of all the victims.

Many Korean people, forcibly brought to Japan for slave labor, lost their lives due to the atomic bombs. Even survivors died later or are still suffering from their aftermath.

Some of the survivors have come back to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

They have been harassed by mental sufferings as they have adversely affected their descendants in the second and third generations from the genetic point of view. They are closing their days with a deep-rooted rancor against the United States and Japan.

Nevertheless, Japan has refused to make any apology and compensation or render humanitarian assistance to them allegedly because it has no diplomatic ties with the DPRK. On the contrary, it is seeking nuclear armament with the backing of the United States.

Meanwhile, the United States, far from feeling guilty of having inflicted the unheard-of nuclear holocaust on humans, has stepped up nuclear war preparations near the Korean peninsula and in other regions of the world.

The Korean army and people are determined to decisively smash the nuclear war preparations of the U.S. imperialists, their sworn enemy, and foil the nuclear ambition of the Japanese reactionaries, who are going for reinvasion of Korea, servile with the United States.


I also have another blog post related to the Hiroshima bombing I plan to put up later, whereupon I will replace this note at the bottom with a link.

The JET Program is an abject failure; therefore, Japan needs the JET Program more than ever

I realize I am somewhat late to this, but there’s been a flare-up of interest in “saving the JET Program” ever since the new government’s budget review panel apparently requested the internal affairs ministry to reform the program.

It’s been hard for me to figure out exactly what is going on, but judging from reading through the review results (PDF) and conclusions of the panel (helpfully posted by a commenter on the jetprogramme.org forum), my understanding is this:

As part of the review of the nationally subsidized “internationalization” operations of local governments, some argued for the JET Program to be eliminated. In the end, the panel concluded that the program deserves closer scrutiny in terms of how much of the costs local governments are responsible for, the status of overseas offices with questionable usefulness, and whether the 23-year-old program is meeting the needs of Japanese people today. The “conclusions” take the form of a formal request to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication. Interestingly, I didn’t know that some revenue from the Japanese national lottery goes to fund the JET Program, which was also something at least one panel member objected to.

Ultimately, I would agree with Washington-based Sankei senior writer Yoshihisa Komori who sees the JET Program as necessary to spread understanding and good will toward Japan, even while admitting the need for some reforms and re-focusing of its mission. He cites the example of his acquaintance Irwin, an African-American who as a JET learned the way of bushido through judo lessons on the side.

Why Japan really needs the JET Program

As Komori emphasized, JET alumni are some of the best friends overseas Japan could hope for. They often go to work in government and industry, and their familiarity with Japan produces both good will and a smooth working relationship in many cases. That’s a point I noted when JET turned 20 back in 2006.

But I would add a perhaps more important reason for continuing JET - a reliable supply of Japanese-speaking native English speakers. While JET has proven successful in some ways, it has failed miserably in one crucial other – by and large, Japanese people still can’t speak English! Obviously, this isn’t JET’s fault. Intentionally or not, Japan’s education system produces people with a large English vocabulary that they cannot put to practical use, creating a “Berlin Wall” separating the majority of Japanese from meaningful contact with the English-speaking world.

The JET Program has brought tens of thousands of native English speakers to Japan. Some of them get very good at Japanese. These people can then make careers for themselves as translators, interpreters, or “gaijin gophers” wherever they work, filling the gaps created by a paucity of English ability among the general workforce. I am not sure what Japan was like 20 years ago, but this need remains vital today.

There is a large population of private-sector ESL teachers as well. However, the advantages of the JET Program include a rigorous admissions process and a generous compensation package, which help guarantee a positive experience and make the program look better on resumes. Private-sector English jobs have turned out to be potentially very unstable, so keeping this “public option” might be a good idea.

Hopefully, the budget reviewers and the internal affairs ministry will understand this message. Komori-san, head back to Tokyo and make your case!

English necessary for today’s Japanese workers?


There has been some debate recently over the state of English in Japan.

Most notably, Rakuten President Hiroshi Mikitani has announced that all his employees must be able to conduct daily business in English by 2012… or else. Rakuten has made several international deals lately, including the purchase of major Ebay seller Buy.com and the deal to set up a Chinese online retailing site with Chinese search engine Baidu. Also, Fast Retailing, operator of Uniqlo discount clothing stores, has mandated that all meetings with at least one native English speaker be conducted in English.

In reaction, the Nikkei has printed an editorial about the role it thinks English plays in the development of corporate Japan. Relevant excerpts follow:

Japanese have no choice but to adopt English to take advantage their overseas employees’ knowledge and personal connections.

While companies must enhance their employees English-language training, lawmakers and educators should understand that English has become more important than ever for Japan Inc.

English education in Japan has been criticized for being skewed toward reading comprehension. Although teaching methods have gradually improved, due in part to the increased use of native English speakers as teachers, but other countries show how far Japan still has to go.

It is also important to provide support for people who study English while working.

People’s basic skills English should be improved, but of course that doesn’t mean all Japanese must be fluent in the language.

Japan needs a national strategy that defines who needs English and how fluent they should be.


Personally, I feel bad for the Rakuten employees who are going to be forced to uncomfortably and unnecessarily speak English to each other in daily activities, even though I see the point Mikitani is trying to make. If doing business overseas requires English, then why not demand that all your employees speak that language? All the same, I am sure he will realize eventually that Japanese education has dismally failed most of his workers. As a practical matter, most Japanese people cannot speak English at an acceptable business level. Unless the Japanese education system can deliver, it won’t be practical to simply command Japanese employees to speak the language.

Ghost to be remade as Japanese film starring Nanako Matsushima

The title says it all. From Nikkei (sub reqd), we learn that Paramount is doing a co-production with Shochiku to remake Ghost, the 1990 the Patrick Swayze/Demi Moore romance. It will star Japan’s tallest movie star Matsushima Nanako opposite Korean actor Song Seung-heon. NTV is apparently also involved. The US studios are apparently broadening their cultural horizons because their native, English-language content isn’t as popular with Japanese audiences as it used to be. Japan is no doubt a lucrative market for Hollywood since movie tickets cost significantly more here than they do in the US.

Ghost was a pretty sweet movie, so a remake might make for some good viewing. More to the point, I love the idea of remaking classic American films for Japan.

Personally, I want to see a Japanese version of Be Kind Rewind. “Sweded” versions of Seven Samurai, Godzilla, and Audition would be intense.

Or maybe Mr. Baseball, only in reverse? Given how times have changed, the story of an aging Japanese ballplayer getting sent to a small team in the US is probably more common now than the scenario in the original.

Hello Kitty owner turns things around by licensing anything and everything


Source: Pop Crunch

I’ve long been a detractor of Sanrio’s policy of licensing Hello Kitty’s image to appear on just about anything (and some offerings have been downright questionable [NSFW]). But apparently, if you throw hundreds of darts at the board over ten years, you’re eventually going to hit a few bulls-eyes:

Sanrio Co., the Japanese owner of the Hello Kitty character brand, may boost profit after arresting a 10-year slide in sales by slapping its logo on wine, wallpaper and minicars.

The popularity of Hello Kitty, a white cat with a red bow and no mouth, with celebrities including Lady Gaga and Paris Hilton, has led the company to focus on licensing and to pare its retail and restaurant businesses (Sanrio intends to shut 40 of its 260 gift shops in Japan over the next three years).

Sanrio almost doubled overseas licenses last year and counts clothing chains Hennes & Mauritz AB and Inditex SA as customers. President Shintaro Tsuji, 82, plans to set up an office in Dubai this month to grow in the Middle East.
...
An appearance by Hilton, a reality TV player, at Sanrio’s 35th birthday party for Hello Kitty, and by Gaga, a pop singer, on Japanese television holding a stuffed toy, helped the company boost fiscal 2009 sales 0.8 percent from the previous year, the first annual gain since 1999.

“Hello Kitty’s Zen-like calmness and faceless expression are the major reasons for its appeal across age groups and markets,” said Martin Roll, chief executive officer of Singapore-based consulting firm VentureRepublic.


Note that a major part of the strategy is to “expand beyond Europe, North America, and Japan”—in other words, the developed world might have had enough of Hello Kitty, so now it’s time to endear her to the rest of the world. Click through to see Lady Gaga in a Japanese TV appearance, decked out in Hello Kitty everything:

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White American pop singers marketed in Japan

Update: They are apparently not managed by Johnny’s.


Every girl’s fantasy English teachers?

Meet the EastWest Boys. Assembled by Johnny’s Entertainment Sony Music Japan through an audition process, the group, dubbed a “5 in 300 million miracle,” is being solely marketed and promoted within Japan, where they are competing for the hearts of teenage girls.

For their latest single “Take Me There,” they have entered a promotional tie-up with fashion brand Peach John (whose president was mired in scandal last year over a dead woman in her apartment). They are on the cover of the latest catalog and lucky viewers will be able to catch their song on TV ads.

Here’s a YouTube video of a single that recently got some play on Japanese TV, “This Time”:

Sure, I have seen dozens of cheap, poorly produced Japanese pop acts, and some pretty bad American pop groups as well. But watching Americans run through the exact same half-baked dance routines as SMAP produces a special kind of cognitive dissonance.

Johnny’s has made sure to add a few bells and whistles to maximize appeal – the songs are in simple English, and the melody has enough of a pop-punk/emo feel to seem kind of foreign. This was the tune I saw on a few morning shows promoting the group as a new kind of pop act. Girls attending promotional appearances looked overjoyed to hug their new idols.

The music gets much worse when you watch the videos for songs that people didn’t pay enough attention to. “Yesterday’s Hero” was obviously filmed in the exact same warehouse, and the song is 100% cookie-cutter J-POP – no halfway-redeeming nods to American emo to be found. Are they wearing primary colors to make them look like Power Rangers?

While there’s not much to compare, a much, much more listenable American entrant into the Japanese pop world is Jero, the African American enka singer.

The group’s videos are hosted on an official channel, which is kind of a departure for Johnny’s who until recently had a strictly Internet-phobic PR stance. By offering some of their content for free on the web, they are clearly trying to save some PR money by generating buzz online. The upside of that strategy is it gives us a lot of information on these guys that is usually not available on your typical J-pop group.

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The Geos bankruptcy – what’s next for eikaiwa?

(Updated to change student data)

Geos, one of Japan’s major “eikaiwa” English conversation chains, has entered the bankruptcy process (see Let’s Japan or any number of news reports for more details). Some reactions are declaring eikaiwa dead and encouraging teachers to look for employment outside Japan. It does seem like the old eikaiwa business model is not poised for a serious comeback barring a significant improvement in the Japanese economy. That said, eikaiwa as a concept and attractive learning option for Japanese people isn’t going away.

From the looks of it, some eikaiwa bankruptcies are all but inevitable. Revenue is down, and according to Nikkei “the number of language schools in operation last year remained mostly unchanged from 2008, but the number of new students enrolling in the schools plunged 35.7%.” That’s down 35% from post-NOVA levels!

Let’s see some of those numbers in graph form:

And some indicators of our own:

As overall revenues have fallen, sales of teaching materials have risen in importance, now accounting for around 10% of the language school business.

The industry overall now employs more part-time teachers than full-time, but now both categories of teacher are in decline. Not exactly a good sign for financial health or the job security of teachers.

Revenue per student has risen slightly as the average number of classes per student is down, which suggests to me a slightly lower value for the lessons.

Going forward

Paradoxically, this sort of downsizing is exactly what the industry needs, but when schools collapse so suddenly and spectacularly it scares people away and hurts business even more. Nevertheless, I would not be so intensely pessimistic as some of the commenters I have read. The initial success of these schools has created the “eikaiwa paradigm” that will live on, I think, even if all the big chain schools fall to the wayside. Just as small-time piano teachers can make good money anywhere in the world, any halfway decent teacher who can reliably provide value for his/her services can do OK. Maybe not “tens of thousands of western immigrants descend on Japan” kind of OK, but OK nonetheless. Japanese people still want to learn English and are willing to pay for it. They just can’t afford it as much anymore and don’t want to hand their money to crooks.

The problem is that these major players set up large-scale businesses that profited by essentially gouging customers – promising stellar results and pressuring them into long-term contracts only to give sub-standard lessons to people who may not have really been able to benefit from them in the first place. Now, a combination of factors – tighter laws, the bad economy, rise of the Internet as a study tool, people generally getting wise to the con – has come crashing down on Geos.What the numbers don’t show is that the major operators seem to be offering more or less the same product as before – if anything, they are diluting the product with less value and more part-time teachers – and customers just aren’t as interested anymore.

(The stats above can be had at the METI website (bilingual Excel file))