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. []

Passport blues

I have procrastinated for months in getting a new passport, even after my old one expired at the end of June, because the cover came off and it therefore counts as too damaged for a postal renewal. So, I finally found my birth certificate and biked over from my nice new (as of just over a week ago) residence in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn down to the very lovely main Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza in Prospect Park, where the most convenient all-day-long passport application center is located.

Upon arrival, I realize I forgot my printout of the application form at home, but no matter; I can easily fill it out again. After all, it would be silly to go all the way back home for my neatly printed printout of the filled-out-online PDF version of the form. And so I fill out all the forms again, whereupon the agent checks my documentation, She is at first suspicious that my birth certificate is merely a photocopy, and therefore invalid, but I show her—no ma’am, you can see that there is a faint, but genuine raised seal upon the surface—and she acquiesces.

But then a curveball. I am told that because my state ID ((Non-driver’s license state ID. Yes, that is something I never did at all.)) is less than 6 months old, the State Department does not have the updated records and it is therefore not a complete and valid form of identification, necessitating an alternate and more comprehensive approach to the application process. My options are laid out: I need to either go home and find the expired ID card or make an affidavit application.

What is an affidavit passport application you ask? I have heard of affidavit voting, you may think. All you have to do is fill out one extra form attesting that you are not a lying scoundrel, and they will put your vote in the pile that they will look at if they get bored. Surely an affidavit passport application is no more of a burden? In fact, it is.For you see, it is not the applicant who completes the affidavit, but the witness attesting to the applicant’s identity. That is, I would need to bring a relative or long-standing acquaintance with me to the application office, this person would need to present his or her identification, and sign an affidavit swearing to be a relative or long-standing acquaintance of mine, whereupon my application would be accepted.

Having no desire to subject another individual to such a dreary procedure, I cycle back home, stopping only shop at the Duane Reade for sundries I have been delinquent in purchasing, and being a frantic search for the expired card. Having just moved over a week ago I expected the search to be fruitless, but luckily I discovered the card in a matter of minutes, on a table, unexpectedly laying underneath a hat.

And so, the story ends with far more annoyance than drama, yet another example of the seemingly endless procedures to which all we citizens are subjected by the splendiferously tentacled bureaucratic state, and an anecdote which I hope will prove to be of some small amount of education to the reader.

Japan air travel update

I am flying out of Tokyo tonight to spend the holiday weekend in Hawaii and try to decompress from all the nonsense surrounding the disaster situation here.

Narita Airport is operating fairly normally—it has its own generators which will keep it online through the surrounding blackouts—but most European airlines have dramatically altered their flying patterns, adding stops in Seoul, Beijing or Hong Kong. Lufthansa has stopped serving Tokyo entirely. The reason is that foreign flight crews do not want to spend a night in Narita when there is a nuclear meltdown raging just up the road, so they are instead overnighting elsewhere in Asia and operating day trips in and out of Tokyo from there.

From online fora, I have also discovered that American flight crews are agitating. They are not only concerned about radiation, but are also protesting that aftershocks disturb their sleep (posing safety concerns), and that the periodic blackouts and runs on toilet paper are making their layovers unnecessarily rough. The big problem here is that unlike the European airlines, Delta, American and United-Continental really need to keep operating direct flights to Narita, as they route almost all US-to-Asia passengers through Narita (Delta to its own connecting flights, other airlines to local JV partners’ connecting flights) and would be forced to accommodate connecting passengers on non-affiliated airlines at considerable expense if their own flights were diverted to other Asian airports.

Most governments are currently advising against non-essential travel to Japan, and I second this recommendation; there are too many variables that could combine to make Japan travel a living hell. If you really need to come here for whatever reason, plan to fly into Nagoya or Kansai.

Who can and can not donate blood in Japan

[Correction: Accidentally typed Australia at first below, should have been Austria all along.]

There has been a lot of confusion over who exactly is allowed to donate blood according to Japanese regulations, especially foreigners. To try and clarify the situation I have translated the entire list of categories of persons who are NOT allowed to donate blood in Japan, from the Japanese Red Cross official web page.

The biggest confusion is regulations relating to foreigners, especially because of mad cow disease aka spongiform encephalitis (Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease).

The following categories of people are BANNED from donating blood in Japan.

Please do not clog blood donations centers if there is even a chance you fall into one of the following categories, and instead find some other way to help.

Please also note first of all that ANYBODY who has entered Japan in the last four weeks may NOT give blood.

First, the rules relating to BSE/Mad Cow Disease

To clarify the below rules, please calculate your TOTAL amount of time spent in ANY of the countries in categories 1~4 during the relevant risk period for that country. If your total period of time in a high-risk country during a high-risk period is equal to 6 months or more than you are banned from blood donations for life.

Similarly, if you have spent a total of 5 years total in any of the countries listed in all 6 categories during risk periods, then you are banned from blood donations for life in Japan unless a new medical test in the future causes the regulations to change.

Please note that no countries in North or South America are on this list; despite the worries over Canadian/US beef it was never transmitted to humans.

  1. Anybody who has spent a TOTAL of 30+ days in the UK between the years 1980 and 1996.

  2. Anybody who has spent a TOTAL of 6+months in the UK between 1997 and 2004. (Note: Also include period of stay under category 1,3,4 in this total.)

  3. Anybody who has spent a TOTAL of 6+ months in Ireland, Italy, Holland, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Germany, France, Belgium, Portugal, between the years of 1980 and 2004. (Note: Also include period of stay under category 1,2,4 in this total.)

  4. Anybody who has spent a TOTAL of 6+ months in Switzerland between the years of 1980 and 2004. (Note: Also include period of stay under category 1,2,4 in this total.)

  5. Anybody who has spent a TOTAL of 5+ years in Australia, Austria, Greece, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Luxembourg, between the years 1980 and 2004. (Note: Also include period of stay under category 1,2,3,4,6 in this total.)

  6. Anybody who has spent a TOTAL of 5+ years in Iceland, Albania, Andorra, Croatia, San Marino, Slovakia, Slovenia, Serbia, Czech Republic, Vatican City, Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Macedonia, Malta, Monaco, Montenegro, Norway, Lichtenstein, Romania, between the years of 1980 through the present day.  (Note: Also include period of stay under category 1,2,3,4,5 in this total.)

Next the rules relating to blood parasite diseases.

  • Anybody who has entered the country in the past four weeks.

  • Anybody who has entered Japan after visitinga malaria high-risk area within the last year. This is true even if you were only at a resort area of the country. HOWEVER, if you have been specifically tested for malaria and been found negative you may donate blood.

  • Anybody who has entered Japan after living in a malaria high-risk area within the last three years.

  • Anybody who has ever lived in a region known for Chagas Disease, AKA American trypanosomiasis. (This is a blood parasite like malaria.)

  • Anybody recently returned from Africa or who has lived in Africa and ever tested positive for African trypanosomiasis (African sleeping sickness.)

  • Anybody who has ever tested positive for babesiosis, another blood parasite most commonly found in tropical regions such as Africa or Latin America.

  • Also anybody who has engaged in medical work, research, field work, etc. in any regions known for similar diseases should not donate blood.

Last are other categories of persons who may not donate blood.

  • Anyone who has or has had heart disease, or malignant tumor,

  • Anyone who has rheumatic fever or is on antibiotics due to risk of rheumatic fever

  • Sufferers from any convulsive disorder

  • Sufferers from blood-loss related diseases such as hemophilia or purpora.

  • Asthmatics

  • Stroke victims

  • Anyone with medicine allergies, nephritic syndrome, chronic inflammation disorders.

  • Anyone currently experiencing extreme hunger or sleep deprivation.

  • Anyone currently taking prescription drugs, except for those such at vitamins with no harmful side effects.

  • Pregnant women or breast-feeding mothers.

  • Anybody with a fever, specifically temperature of 37℃ or higher

  • HIV, hepatitis infected persons (free AIDS testing centers link)

  • Anyone who has ingested marijuana or other psychoactives within the last year

  • Any man who has engaged in homosexual behavior

  • Anyone with a history of sex with anonymous partners

  • Anyone who has been treated for hepatitis A within the past 6 months. Also, since it is often transmitted by shellfish, anybody whose family member has been treated for hepatitis A within the past 1 month. Hepatitis B and C stay in your system, so you are permanently banned.

  • Anybody who has ever RECEIVED a blood transfusion. (Due to the possibility of viruses as yet unknown to medical science.

  • Anybody who has gotten a body piercing (ears included) within the past year.

  • Anybody with a piercing on a mucous membrane such as the lip, tongue, nose, no matter when you got it.

  • Anybody who has gotten a tattoo within the past year.

  • Anyone who has been vaccinated using an inactive vaccine within the past 24 hours for diseases such as influenza, Japanese encephalitis, cholera, hepatitis A, pneumonia, whooping cough (pertussis), tetanus (may not be a complete list)

  • Anyone who was given anti-HBs human immunoglobulin in combination with a hepatitis B vaccine, anyone who was given an emergency rabies vaccine (that is, after being bitten) within the past 1 year.

  • Anyone given a vaccination for mumps, rubella/German measles, Bacille Calmette-Guerin (tuberculosis vaccine), or other mildly active vaccine (live attenuated) vaccine or any hepatitis B vaccine within the past 4 weeks.

  • Anyone vaccinated against smallpox within the past 2 months.

  • Anyone given an antisterum for tetanus, snake bite or other poison, gas gangrene, botulism etc. within the past 3 months.

  • Anyone who has had dental surgery that caused bleeding within the past 3 days.

The Haneda trick

Haneda Airport has been all over the Japanese news lately, so it’s about time that I write some more about it.

The new international terminal opened today, and long-haul flights will commence at the end of this month. The catch is that they will all have to operate between 10 PM and 7 AM, the hours when Narita Airport is closed. Only flights to certain cities in East Asia are allowed to operate during the day. This is commonly interpreted as a compromise to keep Narita traffic up, but there is a more subtle and less reported effect of the schedule: it helps Japanese airlines and screws over foreign airlines. Here’s why.

Within this rule, the most attractive schedule from a passenger’s perspective is to leave Haneda between 10 PM and 1 AM, and to arrive at Haneda as close to 7 AM as possible. If you leave Haneda in the early morning hours, you either have to get there on the last train the evening before (requiring a wait) or take a car or taxi in the wee hours of the night (expensive). If you land at Haneda after 10 PM, you have to hustle to get ground transportation to your final destination in Tokyo.

It’s easy for JAL and ANA to offer such schedules because they have operations at Haneda during the day. If a JAL plane comes in from Europe at 6 AM, it can be cleaned, refueled and sent on a round trip to Seoul, Beijing or Shanghai, and still get back in plenty of time to take people overseas at 10 PM. On the other hand, if a foreign plane flies in at 6 AM, they have to sit at Haneda for fifteen hours until they can fly again. The best compromise that non-Japanese carriers can come up with is to have their flights arrive at Haneda around 10:30 and depart around 6:30—meaning that most Tokyoites will have to get up very early and catch the first train of the morning, then catch the last train home after their trip. A couple have managed to put together flight schedules that leave Haneda around midnight, but this is not always realistic because of time zones and the longer turn-around times for long-haul aircraft.

JAL and ANA will run their first long-haul flights on October 31, but American, Delta, Air Canada and British Airways won’t start flights until next year, and might even decide that Haneda isn’t worth it unless the hours are relaxed further. The only non-Asian carrier that will serve Haneda this year is Hawaiian Airlines, who will bring their daily flight into Haneda right at 10 pm, then turn it around back to Honolulu after midnight. They can get away with this because Honolulu is only a few hours ahead of Tokyo (minus a day), so the midnight departure translates to a lunch arrival, and the 10 pm return arrival translates into an afternoon return departure—both good timings for vacationers. On the other hand, American’s proposed HND-JFK flight is horribly timed, leaving HND around 6 AM and arriving at JFK around the same time, virtually guaranteeing that every passenger on it will be jet-lagged out of their mind for a week. But they don’t have much of a choice.

The new division of duties between the airports won’t be sustainable, and I believe Kasumigaseki will eventually open up HND to flights around the clock—in which case Tokyo’s airport situation will eventually look like London’s. Haneda will be the equivalent of Heathrow: close-in, popular, charging a premium, and a key intercontinental hub. Narita will be the equivalent of Gatwick or Stansted: a haven for cheap flights to holiday destinations, mainly serving Tokyo locals.

George Psalmanazar, the famous fraud of Formosa

One of the more entertaining characters I’ve run across in my studies of Taiwan is has been George Psalmanazar, one of the famous hoaxers of all time. Born around 1680, nothing factual is known about his early life, even his country place of birth, although he later claimed it to be somewhere in southern France, which was allegedly corroborated as likely by those who had heard his French dialect, while doubted by those who were familiar with his ability to impersonate such dialects.

Regardless of where he spent his early years, upon completion of his education Psalmanazar began traveling around Europe, attempting to scam his way to Rome by impersonating an Irish pilgrim. Upon realizing that Ireland was neither exotic enough to elicit much interest from potential marks nor far enough to be entirely unfamiliar, he began instead impersonating a rare pilgrim from the distant land of Japan, and later to the even more exotic and lesser-known island of Formosa, which we now usually call Taiwan.

His wild tales of alien customs and bizarre foreign lands were popular, and after a detour through Rotterdam he arrived in London in 1703, where he became a minor celebrity. Banking on his fame, in 1704  he published a book entitled An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, an Island subject to the Emperor of Japan. “Originally written in Latin by Psalmanazar, An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa was translated into English and quickly went through two editions. A French translation appeared in Amsterdam in 1705 and interest in the book was high enough a decade later to prompt a German version, which was published in Frankfort in 1716. By this time, however, Psalamanazar’s fraud had been revealed in England and he lapsed into relative obscurity.”

This book provided a detailed description of the island of Formosa, including its history, geography, flora and fauna, religious customs, language, and so on. And virtually every single word of it was completely fictional. Psalamanazar knew all of this, he claimed, because he was himself a native of Formosa. Having been named after the great Formosan “Prophet Psalmanaazaar, who delivered the Law to the Formosans” as well as their writing, Psalamanazar was bringing knowledge of his exotic homeland to the credulous and curious people’s of Europe. In fact, not only had he never been to Formosa, or Asia at all, he knew nothing about it.

Although there were a handful of Jesuits who had been to the real Formosa, their denial of Psalamanazar’s fantastic claims were largely ignored due to the anti-Catholicism prevalent in England at that time. While it might seem absurd to us today that people would have believed such outlandish tales, consider how unreliable information on foreign lands was in the days before the photograph, the telegraph, and even regular long-distance trade to many regions. We may find it unbelievable that the English believed that a man with Western European features similar to their own could have been a native of the East Asian land of Formosa, but how many Londoners would have ever seen an Asian face themselves?

He not only created fanciful, entirely invented, accounts of Formosa all the while portraying himself as a native of that exotic island, but also invented a Formosan language, in what must have been one of the very, very few pre-Tolkien attempts at such an endeavor. Psalmanazar’s creation of a fictional Formosa was actually very Tolkien-esque, not merely in the way that it included a fictional language, but in the way that the development of the language was linked to the invented history. Although the fantasy island was named after the real island of Formosa, and the title of the book claimed that it was “an Island subject to”  the very real island of Japan, the descriptions of the customs, geography, history, and language of these real places was very nearly as invented as that of Rivendell or Gondor. Psalmanazar describes the language of Formosa as follows:

The Language of Formosa is the same with that of Japan, but with this difference that the Japannese do not pronounce some Letters gutturally as the Formosans do: And they pronounce the Auxiliary Verbs without that elevation and depression of the Voice which is used in Formosa. Thus, for instance, the Formosans pronounce the present Tense without any elevation or falling of the Voice, as Jerh Chato, ego amo; and the preterperfect they pronounce by raising the Voice, and the future Tense by falling it; but the preterimperfect, the plusquam perfectum, and patio poft futurum, they pronounce by adding the auxiliary Verb: Thus the Verb Jerh Chato, ego amo, in the preterimperfect Tense is Jervieye chato, Ego eram amass, or according to the Letter, Ego eram amo; in the preterperfect Tense it is Jerh Chato, and the Voice is raised in the pronunciation of the first Syllable, but falls in pronouncing the other two; and in the plusquam perfectum the auxiliary Verb viey is added, and the same elevation and falling of the Voice is obsery’d as in the preterit.

[...]

The Japan Language has three Genders; all sorts of Animals are either of the Masculine or Feminine Gender, and all inanimate Creatures are of the Neuter: But the Gender is only known by the Articles, e.g. oi hic, ey hoec, and ay hoc; but in the Plural number all the three Articles are alike.

[...]

TheJapannese wrote formerly in a sort of Characters most like those of the Chineses; but since they have held correspondence with the Formosans, they have generally made use of their way of writing, as more easy and more beautiful; insomuch that there are few now in Japan who understand the Chinese Characters.


Anyone with even the scantest knowledge of Japanese will instantly realize the absurdity of every word quoted above. In fact, the Formosan languages of his time (before it was extensively colonized by China) were the Austronesian languages still spoken by Taiwan’s aboriginal peoples today, which have no relationship with Japanese.

He also provided a more significant sample of his Formosan language, amusingly in the form of a translation of the Lord’s Prayer. Here are the first five lines.

Lord’s Prayer
Koriakia Vomera

OUR Father who in Heaven art, Hallowed be
Amy Pornio dan chin Ornio vicy, Gnayjorhe

thy Name, Come thy Kingdom, Be done thy Will
sai Lory, Eyfodere sai Bagalin, jorhe sai domion

as in Heaven, also in Earth so, Our bread
apo chin Ornio, kay chin Badi eyen, Amy khatsada

daily give us today, and forgive us
nadakchion toye ant nadayi, kay Radonaye ant

our trespasses, as we forgive our trespassers.
amy Sochin, apo ant radonern amy Sochiakhin.


(A longer excerpt of the chapter on language, including the full Lord’s Prayer, can be found online here.)

To get an idea of how famous Psalmanazar actually was in his time, consider that he was referenced very prominently in Jonathan Swift’s famous satirical essay A Modest Proposal, in which Swift uses him (albeit spelled a bit differently, perhaps due to imperfect memory and a lack of handy reference) as part of his case for the encouragement of cannibalism.

But in order to justify my friend, he confessed, that this expedient was put into his head by the famous Salmanaazor, a native of the island Formosa, who came from thence to London, above twenty years ago, and in conversation told my friend, that in his country, when any young person happened to be put to death, the executioner sold the carcass to persons of quality, as a prime dainty; and that, in his time, the body of a plump girl of fifteen, who was crucified for an attempt to poison the Emperor, was sold to his imperial majesty’s prime minister of state, and other great mandarins of the court in joints from the gibbet, at four hundred crowns. Neither indeed can I deny, that if the same use were made of several plump young girls in this town, who without one single groat to their fortunes, cannot stir abroad without a chair, and appear at a play-house and assemblies in foreign fineries which they never will pay for; the kingdom would not be the worse.

The fact that must be remembered here is that not only was George Psalmanazar a famous public figure in Swift’s time, but that by the year in which A Modest Proposal was published, 1729,  Psalmanazar’s account of Formosa was already been widely known as a fraud, the author having had confessed as much in 1707. While Swift’s essay is still widely read, virtually no modern readers will have any clue to what he is referring in this paragraph, and even fewer will realize that much of the basis for the humor in this section is due to the fact that the essayist is attempting to prove his case by referring to a a source that, at the time of publication, would have been recognized by Swift’s audience as not merely fraudulent, but famously and comically so.

Following the end of his career as a hoaxer, Psalmanazar used his celebrity to start a career as a legitimate writer, producing such works as The general history of printing: from its first invention in the city of Mentz, to its first progress and propagation thro’ the most celebrated cities in Europe. Particularly, its introduction, rise and progress here in England. The character of the most celebrated printers, from the first inventors of the art to the years 1520 and 1550: with an account of their works, and of the most considerable improvements which they made to it during that interval, published in 1732. As a now-respectable man of letters, he became friends with such luminaries as Samuel Johnson.

Although he revealed his fraud as early as 1707, details were not revealed until the year after his death. Naturally, this was in the form of a book, which is wonderfully entitled: MEMOIRS OF ****. Commonly known by the Name of George Psalmanazar; A Reputed Native of Formosa. Written by himself, In order to be published after his Death: Containing An Account of his Education, Travels, Adventures, Connections, Literary Productions, and pretended Conversion from Heathenism to Christianity; which last proved the Occasion of his being brought over into this Kingdom, and passing for a Proselyte, and a member of the Church of England.

The one thing that he never revealed, even in his posthumous memoir, was his real name. As far as I know, no details of his early life have ever been verified.

The table of contents, as well as some all too brief excerpts of Psalmanazar’s first book, An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, can be found here, but until earlier this year it was very difficult to get one’s hands on a copy of the English version of the book, at least outside of certain libraries. Although it was published in Taiwan a couple of years ago, that was a Chinese translation, which even if I could read well would hardly be as entertaining. Original copies are very expensive, with the English first edition going for US$1426 on a rare book site, and the French version selling at an even less accessible $1900! Copies of his memoir go for a technically more affordable, yet still entirely unaffordable $600 or so.

Luckily, not only has an affordable reprint edition of both his Description of Formosa and his Memoirs (as well as some others) are available for purchase online. However, even better, just the other day I managed to locate a scanned electronic edition of both books, freely available in an archive of the British Library. As the online version only seems to be accessible from licensed institutions, such as libraries and universities, I am providing both of them for download as PDFs. Since their PDF creator can only generate files up to 250 pages in length, both of them have been split into two files. Scans of 300 year old books, these files are as public domain as they get. Feel free to spread them far and wide.

George Psalmanazar: Description of Formosa: Part I

George Psalmanazar: Description of Formosa: Part II

George Psalmanazar: Memoirs of ****: Part I

George Psalmanazar: Memoirs of ****: Part II

Update [August 5]: I regret that I forgot one very important detail from this when I first published it yesterday. While Jonathan Swift may be the most significant literary reference to Psalmanazar’s imaginary Formosa, it is not the only one. Many readers may be familiar with Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s wonderful comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (and hopefully not the abysmal film based on it), in which they spin a version of our world in which every fantastic story, character, and geography is integrated into a single tapestry. While the story proper is mainly told in the form of comic book panels, Volume Two (for sale here, and highly recommended) contains, in the form of  a lengthy appendix, a sort of gazetteer of this fantastic geography, which contains the following text.

We passed east of Zipang, or of Japan as it is these days called, and went south by way of Formosa, which possesses of its coast another smaller island of the same name, where the women and the men go naked save for plaques of gold and silver.

Zipang is in fact one spelling of the Shanghaiese reading of “Japan,” formerly used by some Europeans and thought to be the origin for the modern spelling. Moore here is obviously referencing Psalmanazar’s Formosa, as we can see from page 225 of the Description (first page of PDF Part II). By describing this Formosa as “another smaller island of the same name”, Moore is cleverly leaving room on the map for both the real and fantasy Formosa.
The great difference between the Japannese and Formosans, consists in this, that the Jappanese wear 2 or 3 Coats, which they tye about with a Girdle; but the Formosans have only one Coat, and use no Girlde. They walk with the Breast open, and cover their Privy parts with a Plate tied about them made of Brass, Gold, or Silver.

Incidentally, Moore’s reference to Formosa is located just above a large illustration of Laputa – which readers may remember from either the eponymous Miyazaki Hayao film, or its original source: Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift. When one considers that Swift was clearly a fan of Psalmanazar’s imaginary geography, it actually seems quite reasonable to wonder if perhaps the Description of Formosa was an influence on Gulliver’s Travels, which as a chronicle of fantastic geography has some undeniable similarities.

JAL’s Middle East Adventures

Japan Airlines (JAL) is in the hotel business, and not surprisingly, it wants to get out. As the company seeks to restructure itself into a viable business, one of its plans is to sell its hotel arm, possibly to Hotel Okura. JAL currently owns 41 hotels in Japan and 17 overseas, and those overseas hotels are overwhelmingly in large cities—Beijing, London, Mexico City, Hanoi, Hong Kong, and on and on. Others are in tropical resorts popular with Japanese tourists, such as Bali, Palao, and Guam. There is also one JAL hotel in the Middle East, in a somewhat unusual location.


One of these things is not like the other…

The only JAL Hotel in the Middle East is not in a major city such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha or Beirut. It’s in the tiny emirate of Fujairah, one of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates, situated not on the Persian Gulf but on the Gulf of Oman. (Don’t rely on the JAL map above for the accurate location—click here for a map that explains where Fujairah is in the context of the other UAE emirates).

The hotel was announced in October 2005 to much fanfare and at that time was scheduled to open in December 2006, with another hotel in Dubai to open in 2007. The JAL Fujairah actually opened in May 2007—not a bad time lag, actually. The hotel itself is owned by a Kuwaiti company called ACICO—which stands for Aerated Concrete Industries Co., a more old-school construction company that is not a typical player in the luxury hotel business. JAL is the manager of the hotel, and its truly distinguishing characteristic is the cuisine, which is genuinely Japanese and said by some to have some of the best sushi in the entire Middle East. I have heard of more than a few people driving the 2 hours from Dubai to Fujairah just to have a sushi lunch, and then drive home.

Objectively, to international standards, the JAL Fujairah is a beautiful beachside hotel located near a number of other luxury hotels along the Fujairah coast. But locally, I have heard it referred to as a “motel”, and substandard when compared to the other modern luxury coastal resorts in Fujairah such as the Rotana and Le Meridien.

JAL had bigger plans for the Middle East, and was one of countless companies that got caught up in the Dubai property boom and the hotel boom. But they ran into problems. The Dubai hotel originally announced for 2007 was pushed ahead, and when construction was underway on the JAL Tower, built on prominent real estate along Sheikh Zayed Road, across from the iconic Emirates Towers in early 2007, it was at that time scheduled to be opened in 2008. It was also to be followed by the JAL Hotel and Spa Resort Bahrain in 2009. The later project has since been cancelled, and the former has yet to open as of this writing in early 2010.

At this point, the cause of the delay is not clear. The tower had just about been completed when I arrived in Dubai last autumn —check out these photos of the building that were taken shortly thereafter—and as of December 2009 it was scheduled to open in April 2010. But it remains closed, and it has yet to open or announce an opening date, only stating on its web page that it will open sometime in 2010. Something must be planned—last month they hired a new director of finance, and last week they hired a new manager, and their web page says they are hiring. But I would be surprised if they opened anytime during the summer months or during Ramadan in August, which means an opening in September at the earliest.

By that time, JAL Hotels may not be JAL Hotels anymore. With a possible sale of JAL Hotel’s assets to Hotel Okura, the first Japanese-managed hotel in the Middle East could be run by a relatively domestic Japanese hotel business. Dubai’s Japanese are hopeful that they can maintain the best sushi in the region.

Sayonara, Yokoso Japan

The Japanese government has announced a new international tourism slogan:

Japan. Endless Discovery.

Great, at least this time it’s in English! It’s similar to many other simple catch phrases used by other countries: “Malaysia, truly Asia,” “Seoul’s got Soul,” and so on. The Japanese-language slogan is more of more of a mouthful and literally translates as “Japan, a country where you will encounter endless discovery.” There’s also a new logo with a stylish but classy combo of cherry blossoms and the Japanese Rising Sun.

I like “Endless Discovery” because it has a message that happens to be true. As a foreigner living in Japan most days there’s something new to discover. This message could help put new visitors in the right frame of mind to enjoy themselves. Japan’s not a country like Thailand where you can head straight to the resort and not worry about foreign customs. It’s an adventure in many respects – new food, few English speakers, complicated train system, etc. (and the area outside of Tokyo is even harder to navigate), so why not put a positive face on what Japan’s got to offer?

I’d like to give Maehara and his people some credit for picking a slogan that actually makes sense. It’s comforting to think the people in power might actually understand the outside world a little bit. It’s one big, noticeable difference between the parties.

This will replace the old slogan Yokoso! Japan, announced in 2003 to much confusion by most people who had no idea yokoso means “welcome” in Japanese. Well-known Japan commentator Alex Kerr was especially critical, saying it might as well be “blah blah blah Japan.” It’s been a favorite target of mockery among many in the gaijin community and can currently be seen on taxis, buses, posters, and even transport minister Maehara’s lapel pin. You’ll be missed! The “Visit Japan Campaign 2010” site is still up, so you can soak up some of the goodness before it closes. There’s other questionable language on the site, like “Yokoso Bazar” and “Revalue Nippon.”

Perhaps the best promotion in the campaign was this ad by then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi:

“We will welcome you with a hearty Yokoso and smiiiile.”

I’ll never understand why that didn’t work.

So farewell, Yokoso Japan! You will soon be yet another relic of the past, just like those Tokyo Olympic 2016 ads and the wanted posters for Lindsey Ann Hawker’s killer.

**

Just as a bit of speculation, some of you might remember that the DPJ has relied on  American firms for PR (Fleishman-Hillard in 2005 and possibly today), while the LDP and bureaucracy often relied on domestic firms (Prap Japan in 2005, ad giant Dentsu in 2009). Could that have had made a difference?

Time for some travel

Once again, I have made a promise to post all of my backlog of travel photos and narratives before embarking on my next journey, which yet again lies unrealized. Tomorrow – or technically today as I write this at 3.30am – I depart for a primarily research-justified trip to Manila, Philippines and Taiwan. I will be in Manila from the 23rd to the 28th of February, then fly to Taipei on the 1st of March, and back to Manila on the 14th, from whence I return to Japan on the 21st. Following that, I am taking an entirely non-research trip to Seoul from March 24-31.

Taiwan will be mainly in Taipei, but with a few days going down to the south, Kaohsiung, maybe Tainan, maybe Taichung area. Philippines will be almost totally Manila, and Korea will be basically just Seoul.

People in any of those places, feel free to get in touch and see if we can meet up!

Chinese Tourists Need Housetraining

Also posted at ComingAnarchy—please weigh in with comments there.

On the summit of Jebel Hafeet, on the border of the UAE and Oman, I found this graffiti—the characters for “China” spray painted on the rock.

jebel hafeet graffiti

I saw similar graffiti in a natural valley in Sapa, Vietnam, back in 2005. As China grows richer, and its citizens find more opportunities for overseas tourism, I guess we should expect more of this kind of vulgar graffiti to pop up in the natural tourist sites of the world.

I’m happy that China’s economic development has created an upwardly mobile middle class that has the opportunity to travel overseas. I just wish they wouldn’t take out their lack-of-modern-empire-penis-envy frustrations on the natural environment of the world. And Japan, perhaps China’s biggest buggaboo, is possibly the biggest target for this graffiti as more and more Chinese tourists flood in to visit its temples, shrines and other monuments.

(It could be worse—at least the Chinese government doesn’t have management over tourist sites outside China, which would be a real disaster for human civilization).