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!

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.

My Chinese Bride (中国嫁日記) – an awesome manga blog I can relate to

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Right now I am mostly immobile thanks to a herniated disc. I might blog about that later, but for now I want to share what has been keeping me entertained on my days stranded on the couch:

It’s 中国嫁日記 (if I were a publisher I’d translate the title “My Chinese Bride”). It’s a funny and heartwarming read, and very relatable for someone in an international marriage like myself. If you want to skip my review and get started, the entire series is free online. Just start from the first post and work your way backwards. He also sells compilations that I am considering buying for some people as gifts.

It’s the blog of a 40-something Japanese tabletop RPG designer and self-described otaku about his 26-year-old mainland Chinese wife Yue-chan, who he apparently met in an arranged-marriage style introduction from a Chinese friend. She is new to living in Japan but already speaks the language a bit because her sister also married a Japanese man and Yue thought it would be useful to know the language when visiting.

The writer (Yue calls him Jin-san based on the Chinese reading of his real name, Inoue) writes mostly about her various encounters with culture shock, many of which come from her cooking misadventures. She puts coriander in miso soup, serves oshiruko with eggs and toast for breakfast, and marvels that Japanese meat is sold pre-sliced unlike in her native Shenyang. With the story told in real time less than two years after their marriage, we get a window into their relationship as it is developing – we get vignettes about her need to clean every day, learn how she leaves out the small tsu sound in Japanese, and even a series detailing their long-delayed honeymoon to an onsen. They fight kind of a lot, but in a healthy way that seems to actually resolve their problems.

Her cute foreign accent is probably the central joke of the whole manga, and he brings up many wacky anecdotes from their life together. If it weren’t written with such obvious love and care you might be forgiven for thinking he was making fun of her. There are touching moments, too, such as when Yue was scared for her life and just wanted to be with her Jin-san just after the March 2011 quake.

In news articles, Inoue says he started the blog to provide a more personal look at Chinese people in order to help improve bilateral ties and further understanding of the many Chinese living in Japan. That is understandable, especially when many of his fellow otaku harbor strong anti-Chinese sentiment and seem to love making broad generalizations about the culture. And the series contains a lot of interesting trivia about China (Yue-chan could go visit Japan initially because at the time visiting a foreign relative was one of the few ways mainland Chinese could travel abroad). But at the same time I get the feeling this is his way of processing both the joys and frustration of married life.

Sometimes Jin-san writes about his former Chinese teacher, who had an extremely outgoing personality and left a deep impression. The sample above is one story she told him and is a good entry in our list of embarrassing Japanese mistakes. (if someone asks I’ll explain in the comments)

He started the blog without her knowledge, but the quality of the work got the better of him – it became so popular that a friend clued her in eventually. Thankfully she understood and was ok with him continuing. Now that I’m hooked, I hope he’ll keep this up for the foreseeable future!

The similarity to the classic international marriage manga ダーリンは外国人 (My Darling is a Foreigner) is obvious and probably no accident. But there are some key differences that make it more enjoyable for me. First is the real time intimacy of learning about their relationship as it happens. That makes the story feel more genuine. Also, it’s told from the man’s perspective, so I found myself nodding my head when he talked about needing his office to be a “sanctuary” where it’s sometimes ok to leave a mess. And perhaps most importantly, it is not about another American living in Japan. If it were, I wouldn’t be able to help comparing myself to him in terms of language ability and attitude toward Japan.

So if this kind of thing appeals to you (and you read Japanese of course) please please go check it out. I learned about it on a Sunday morning NHK program about successful Internet original manga artists, so I have a feeling we might even see a movie version someday.

Local elections in Japan tomorrow – what and who to watch for

Tomorrow Japan will hold many, many local elections. The schedule is set by the central government, which prefers to hold all local elections around this time every four years. It’s sort of like Election Day in the States, except it’s on a holiday because Japanese officials  actually want people to vote.

Gubernatorial and mayoral elections are decided by majority popular vote (first past the post, no runoffs), while prefectural and local assemblies are a mix of single-member and multi-member districts, though I am not sure which is more prevalent.

In the wake of the massive earthquake last month, many elections in the affected areas have been postponed. Even outside the northeast, many local officials want them put off, to the point that Urayasu (located on reclaimed land, partly sank into ground after earthquake) has steadfastly refused to hold the vote as scheduled. Given the somber national mood, an enthusiastic campaign full of upbeat promises could look unseemly, and voters are understandably distracted by post-quake anxieties.

All the same, the decision has been made, and now it’s up to the public to show up and choose their leaders. There is a very wide field, but a few themes have emerged to keep an eye on as the votes are tallied tomorrow night.

Ishihara the indestructible? Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara is running for a fourth term, and is expected to win handily despite challenges from some recognizable faces.

Ishihara was most recently in the news making and then apologizing for a statement that the recent earthquake and tsunami were divine punishment for Japan’s immorality. If you have been following the quake news, you might wonder, Why is his re-election assured despite such an offensive statement? Well, there are two reasons. First, he has a long history of getting away with being outrageous, banking on the admiration he earned as a writer/celebrity and the large number of people who agree with much of what he has to say. Second, he is a skilled politician who has gained the backing of large blocs of reliable voters at a time when support for the rival DPJ is essentially in tatters (they didn’t even field their own candidate this time) and the turnout of unaffiliated voters is expected to be low.

For more on the first reason, I would direct you to David Marx’s profile of the governor over at Neojaponisme. Key line: “He is not a “loose cannon,” accidentally saying things he later regrets. He likely thinks that success of his endeavors requires raising the ire of groups to which he does belong.” Suffice to say, people expect Ishihara to be outrageous. The only surprising thing about his most recent offense is that he apologized. Probably even some supporters told him to watch his words this time.

As to the second, maybe I can shed some light. You see, the LDP and New Komeito hold influence over a fairly disciplined voting bloc. The Komeito is especially important in this equation because of their numbers and highly reliable turnout.

For example, let’s look back to my coverage of the 2009 Tokyo prefectural assembly election. In Adachi-ku, the LDP and New Komeito delivered around 70,000 votes each of a total turnout of around 250,000. That’s 30% of the vote right there in a high turnout election, and if I remember Adachi-ku was broadly consistent with the overall result. It wasn’t enough to win then because LDP/Komeito support was in the gutter following the financial crisis and subsequent recession, so unaffiliated voters went for the DPJ, handing them control of the Tokyo legislature.

Ishihara’s two major challengers are Hideo Higashikokubaru, the comedian-turned-Miyazaki governor, and Miki Watanabe, founder of discount restaurant chain Watami. Unfortunately for them, now is not a good time for new faces, especially not Higashi with his feel-good enthusiasm, or Watanabe, who just exudes “smarmy corporate big-shot.” These two and other more minor candidates are likely to split the vote, handing another advantage to Ishihara.

According to a recent poll (JP), Ishihara has the support of around 70% of LDP supporters, 60% of New Komeito supporters, and even has the edge in support among DPJ and unaffiliated voters. Unless there’s a major upset, expect to have Ishihara around for another four years.

Regional parties to gain ground. Osaka Governor Toru Hashimoto took to Twitter to join those calling for the elections to be postponed. He may just have been posturing, however, because his party, the Osaka Restoration Association, may well win a majority in the Osaka prefectural legislature tomorrow, with an Asahi poll giving it a lead of several points against the other parties.

Regional political parties, with charismatic leaders and often populist platforms, have gained attention, not to mention power, recently. In Aichi prefecture, elections in February and March gave the upper hand to Genzei Nippon (Tax Cut Japan), a populist party with a platform to slash local taxes.

Hashimoto’s plans for Osaka look even more ambitious. By forming a party loyal to him and gaining control of the legislature, he hopes to push hard for reforms including a plan to unify the administrative functions of Osaka city and prefecture. This, along with infrastructure investment and neoliberal stand-bys like market-testing government functions for possible privatization, he argues will give him the ability to put Osaka on firmer fiscal and economic footing after years in the doldrums.

Japanese speakers can watch this video for an outline set to a Sega Genesis-era synthesizer soundtrack:

Success for Hashimoto could give momentum to ambitious politicians in other regions wishing to open their own “Restoration” franchise. One area where this idea could find traction is in the northeast, where the gargantuan task of reconstruction all but guarantees intense frustration among the locals.

How will the results affect national politics? Until a few days ago, the biggest political news story was the potential for a grand coalition, a sort of unity government to give top priority to quake reconstruction (and maybe throw in tax hikes to pay for social security for good measure). LDP President Tanigaki has thrown cold water on the discussions, reportedly because they want PM Kan to quit as a condition of joining the government. Indeed, LDP Secretary General Nobuteru Ishihara (Shintaro’s son) is now back to openly calling for Kan’s head. Wow, that didn’t take long!

The local elections will likely only give the LDP more reason to keep up pressure on Kan. In a number of key races, the DPJ has opted not to field its own candidates, apparently because it took a hard look at the numbers and decided not to embarrass itself. However, the party has candidates running in gubernatorial races in Hokkaido and Mie—polls show the LDP with a lead in Hokkaido and slightly ahead in a close race in Mie. These will likely be two of the major headlines tomorrow night.

National politics in Japan are stuck in a morass of cautious leaders who end up getting bogged down in petty scandals. Kan’s approval ratings have jumped sharply since the quake, from the 20% range to the 30s. However, setbacks and the usual drumbeat of criticism from the media will likely send it back on a downward trajectory. Since winning big in the 2009 lower house election, the DPJ’s control of the government will likely last another 2.5 years. Even with rock-bottom approval ratings, the DPJ seems more likely to rely on changing the prime minister to gain temporary support from the public rather than calling an early election. Note that the disaster, as well as a recent Supreme Court decision that mandates a lower house redistricting more closely in line with the population, make it next to impossible for Kan to call an election for a while.

Many articles in the foreign press have expressed hope that the earthquake would serve as a wake-up call for Japan’s leaders to enact reforms to put the country on a firmer footing. Count me as skeptical. Constant attention to short-term political momentum, such as the impact of these local elections, ensures rudderless leadership that remains too distracted to form a meaningful political vision. As a friend noted to me over Chinese food the other day, Kan’s post-quake speeches have been long on uplifting rhetoric but very light on anything specific to inspire actual confidence.

Though I am skeptical of Japan’s political system regardless of which party controls it, it’s important to make some distinctions. The government deserves a lot of credit for its post-crisis response, though it bears stressing that no effort will be enough. They have been prudent, fast-acting, transparent, and open to foreign aid where needed. Also, the government is currently debating plans to cut electricity use in the summer in a way that completely avoids rolling blackouts. Given the huge damage to generating capacity, pulling off coordination on that level would be nothing short of heroic.

It’s just that the political system is paralyzed as long as its leaders flail in the face of petty scandals and public perceptions. It’s possible that the central government in Tokyo, itself suffering reputation damage from the blackouts and its perceived proximity to the Fukushima disaster, might start ceding political clout to brash self-proclaimed “restorationists” like Hashimoto who, unlike the past few prime ministers, are adept at shaping public opinion rather than being shaped by it.

 

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.