Good things about 2016, Part 2 – Best J-drama, Hibana

My list of the best stuff of 2016 continues with my favorite Japanese drama  – actually it’s the only one I watched this year:

At some point in my time here I had given up on Japanese dramas – they always felt so cookie-cutter, constantly covering the same themes and using wooden acting and stage direction.

But here comes Hibana, Netflix’s first original series for the Japan market, to set the bar very high. The mini-series, an adaptation of a book with the same title by well-known comedian Naoki Matayoshi, tells the story of a struggling comedy duo who must decide whether to sacrifice their art’s authenticity for a shot at mainstream success.

Until seeing this series, I might have claimed that the Japanese entertainment industry, with its salaried talent, collusive management agencies, and reliance on rehashing the same content and stars year after year,  was fundamentally incapable of producing a series on par with The Sopranos or True Detective. But in my view this series reaches those heights on all fronts, in terms of a compelling story, realistic and interesting acting and dialogue, and character arcs that make sense.

And the biggest surprise to me was the theme – after years of watching Yoshimoto comedians (like Matayoshi) deliver same-y content for years, never in my life did I think that Japanese comedians considered the artist’s struggle for authenticity to be so critical! (of course that probably says more about my shallow knowledge of the Japanese entertainment industry).

If you have a Netflix account, I highly recommend giving it a chance, especially if you have ever had an interest in the world of manzai. It’s a funny but touching story of friendship and careerism that also has its fair share of wacky surprises. I will be watching the team who made this to see if they have a good follow-up.

 

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Good things about 2016, Part 1 – Best podcast, No More Whoppers

2016 is getting a really bad reputation as the worst year ever. I can understand why, but I have good reasons why this doesn’t sit well with me (mostly because this year I added a Little Miss Adamu to the family).

To try and show why 2016 wasn’t all bad, I have decided to run down a few of the good things that either happened or that I read/saw/listened to, starting with my favorite podcast discovery of the year:

No More Whoppers

No More Whoppers might just be my favorite podcast of all time. It’s not perfect by any means, but with podcasts personality is everything, and their special mix of silliness and seriousness is just right for me. 

The hosts are two early 30s white-dude American friends who met more than a decade ago as young video game journalists and have kept in touch. 

Alex moved to Japan, first to teach English and now to run his own retro game themed bar in Nagoya, while Ray has continued writing about games and just recently began trying to make his own. 

They crack silly in-jokes (making surprisingly effective use of an audio soundboard), tell stories about their day-to-day lives, and do various segments modeled after their favorite podcasts. 

As podcasts go, the production is aggressively middling. They release whenever they can schedule an episode, so a lot of the time one is very hung over and half asleep. They get irritated with each other on air and it can get uncomfortable.  The talk is often aimless – literal recapping of the mundane details of their day. At one point one of the hosts  ran out of ideas and started commenting on what he saw out his window.

So having said all that, why do I like it so much? First, when it works, the laughter between two good friends is really infectious. But more importantly, binge listening to the show helped shed some light on transitioning to my mid 30s just at just the right time in my life.

To listen to Alex and Ray is to observe two tortured souls struggling to make sense of and make the best of this world

Much of the lighter talk on the show is about video games, but the juicy stuff is when they vent their frustrations.

As an English teacher, Alex was endlessly tormented by the absurd Kafkaesque bureaucracy of a Japanese school, and the powerlessness of being an outsider (students grab his crotch for a laugh, every seemingly nonsensical rule is justified with “it can’t be helped!”). Now as the owner of his own bar he ostensibly has more freedom but can’t afford to turn away the business of customers he finds loathsome and spends all his profits drinking after hours with other local bar owners, seemingly because he needs to keep up with “the scene”. Is he better off? Where is this heading?

Ray’s journey on the other hand starts out bleak – the podcast starts with him  unemployed and with no real prospects smack dab in the middle of the Great Recession, and one of the best episodes is when he rages at not being able to find work even after asking his friends for help. But he ends up finding a place for himself as an editor at an established game company to the point that he feels comfortable branching out into other projects. 

Along the way both get serious girlfriends and at least Alex is moving toward getting  married. 

It has been fascinating to see how the two hosts’ relationship has evolved over the years. 

In the course of conversations over many episodes since early 2012, they gradually renegotiate the parameters of their relationship. Here and there, you hear, for example, Ray drop hints that Alex should pay more deference to his skills and experience as a copy editor. Or Alex lavish praise on a hyper-masculine, ex-military drinking buddy in what comes off as a subtle dig at Ray’s more introverted (and alcohol free) lifestyle. 

These are the kinds of statements that end friendships. How many times have I had to concede that “he’s gone hardcore christian” or “she is all about her kids now” or even “I need to keep bad influences away for the sake of my family”?

Lesser friends might interpret these assertions of “things are different now” as signs they need to move on. But remarkably and commendably the two have kept at it and continue to bond over the things they still enjoy together. 

They have not lost their easy rapport that not only lets them improv off each other, it makes for consistently earnest discussions when the time comes to get serious.  That takes courage and I think we are all richer for it. 

Of course this all comes with the caveat that with any podcast, listening to them for hundreds of hours makes me feel like I know them, but I’m really just hearing a version of themselves they choose to present.  Still, real or not or in between their conversations have been enlightening for me. 

So anyway that is my way too serious take on what is really a fun comedy podcast. I hope they keep going for a long time and know that people are rooting for them!

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Foreign Tourists to Japan Love Love Love Japanese Food

Just a quick post of some fun data I came across.

In the tourism agency’s 2014 survey of foreign tourists (see Annex 9 in this spreadsheet), there is a clear pattern that emerges:

Edit

So to recap, eating Japanese food is the thing that foreign tourists most wanted to do before they arrive, it was their best purchase during the trip, AND it’s what they found most satisfying about their stay!

To be sure, as a Tokyo resident it didn’t surprise me to see that foreign tourists like Japanese food, but it was a bit surprising to see it’s their favorite thing about the country.

As you will see in the data, there is some variation between countries. For example, South Korea found going to Japanese hot springs to be the thing that they most wanted to do again if they came back, and mainland Chinese are more interested in shopping than food before they arrive. But overall the numbers speak for themselves.

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If I were making Tokyo Vice with Daniel Radcliffe, here is what the story would look like

The Tokyo Vice movie starring Daniel Radcliffe is apparently moving forward – Mr. Radcliffe has already started studying Japanese for the role of Jake, a young American who studies in japan and eventually lands first job as the first Western reporter for a Japanese newspaper.

I have read the book and am really rooting for this movie to be good. If successful it could inspire a new generation of young Americans to come study or live in Japan.

But I am worried that the story won’t have enough sizzle if the screenwriter (apparently a first timer) skews too closely to the source text.

In that spirit I offer my own version of the story that the film makers can feel free to draw from if they see anything interesting:

The movie opens with Jake hot on the trail of yakuza boss Goto. He is about to blow the lid off Goto’s illicit, FBI-brokered liver transplant, but one day a black Cadillac pulls up and forces Jake inside.

It turns out Jake’s been kidnapped and will be forced to fight in an underground cage fighting tournament. He wants to tell them to just fuck off and kill him now, but he wants to survive long enough to get revenge on Goto for killing his hostess girlfriend Lana all those years ago (we will learn Jake’s background through flashbacks). He would then fight progressively tougher bad guys with various gimmicks (nunchucks, poison-tipped blade fingernails, a dog).

Of course along the way Jake would develop a love interest with Goto’s daughter, the gun moll with a heart of gold who hates her father and wants to escape the mob life. She will be the one who sneaks him food and weapons to help him win.

Finally Jake would reach Goto who has had his brain and heart migrated to an android body after his replacement liver gave out and the FBI wouldnt let him have another one.

Robo-Goto would deliver an extended monologue about how weak and pathetic Americans are and how only the weakest loser Americans move to japan. And how does he know this for sure? Because (here’s the big twist) Goto killed Lana to take her liver and it only took him 7 years for his raging alcoholism to wear it out!

This obviously sends Jake into a blood rage (“Lana was British you ignorant sonofabitch!!!”) and he delivers a perfectly aimed jump kick into the glass casing that houses Robo-Goto’s heart, killing Goto and sending him careening off the top of Yakuza Tower (the robot body explodes in mid air)

A heavily breathing and bloodied Jake is joined by the Goto daughter and the two exchange a desperately passionate kiss followed by some banter (“oh Jake I thought you’d never make it!” “Babe, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from all the hard work it took to become the first Western correspondent for a major Japanese newspaper, it this: never EVER say never”) and he carries her off to a better life as the girlfriend of a freelance reporter, which we learn from a caption that pops up as we fade to black.

***

So there you have it – I realize there are a lot of blanks to fill in, but there is some rich character development potential. There could be scenes of Goto smacking around his subordinates just for the hell of it, Jake in his lowest moment screaming whyyyyyyyy toward the ceiling of his holding cell at a seemingly uncaring God, a flashback of Goto and Jake giving each other the evil eye across the room at a smoke-filled night club, etc.

For a change of pace you could use the flashbacks to show Jake as a fish out of water learning Japanese culture, bungling chopstick use, getting sprayed in the face by the washlet. And there could be tender scenes of Lana and Jake on a date cruelly broken up by the murderous Goto.

Anyway, I hope you are as excited for this movie as I am!
Please let us know your story ideas in the comments section or who you would cast. For Goto and daughter, I would use the father daughter team from Transporter, Ric Young and Qi Shu.

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TEPCO and beyond

Tokyo Denryoku, or the Tokyo Electric Power Company, is abbreviated in English to TEPCO and is one of nine regional monopoly electricity companies. TEPCO also has its own Japanese abbreviation, touden. What about the rest of Japan’s eight regional monopoly electricity companies?

They each have their own abbreviation, which you think you could get confused with “Tokyo” and “Tohoku,” “Hokkaido” and “Hokuriku,” and “Chubu” and “Chugoku”. Read and learn:

Hokkaido Denryoku: Hokuden / HEPCO
Hokuriku Denryoku: Rikuden
Tohoku Denryoku: Tohoku EPCO / TOEPCO / ENEPCO (for “Eastern North” + EPCO)
Chubu Denryoku: Chuden / CEPCO
Kansai Denryoku: KEPCO / Kanden
Chugoku Denryoku: Chugokuden, Energia (an English name adopted to avoid confusion with Chubu Denryoku)
Shikoku Denryoku: Yonden
Kyushu Denryoku: Kyuden
Okinawa Denryoku: Okiden

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Relaxing the Barber and Beautician Laws

As Adamu noted about a year ago, Japan recently deregulated the laws regarding haircuts, opening up the route for discount barbershops. As I noted in comments, Japan treats 理容師 (riyoushi, barbers) and 美容師 (biyoushi, beauticians) with different legal and health and safety regimes. In summary:
* A barber is generally much cheaper because their scope of work is limited—they can give you haircuts, shaves, perms and dyes, but that’s about it. You can work in this industry as long as you’re operating in accordance with the law, with minimal licensing requirements. The Japanese text of the law is here.
* A beautician is authorised to do a lot more, from nails to massages to hair extensions to whatever else (but they cannot shave your face), but this is more expensive because the required training prior to licensing is more expensive, and the scope of expertise is much broader. Notably, a beautician is prohibited from shaving a man’s beard, which is the exclusive work of a barber. The Japanese text of the law is here.

Both are restricted from working at anywhere other than a licensed and designated place of business. The Barber law reads:

第6条の2 理容師は、理容所以外において、その業をしてはならない。但し、政令で定めるところにより、特別の事情がある場合には、理容所以外の場所においてその業を行うことができる。
Article 6-2: A barber must not conduct work outside a barbershop; provided that, in the terms of a ministry order, in special circumstances, they may do work at a place outside a barbershop.

Then, the Beautician Law reads:

第7条 美容師は、美容所以外の場所において、美容の業をしてはならない。ただし、政令で定める特別の事情がある場合には、この限りでない。
Article 7: A beautician must not conduct work outside a salon; provided that, in special circumstances set by ministry order shall not be so restricted.

Yet in the wake of the earthquake that has devastated the Tohoku region of Japan, the government has relaxed laws on haircutting to allow barbers and stylists in areas affected by the earthquake, allowing them to clip and style at evacuation shelters or any other makeshift location, for a period of two years starting this month.

This might seem like trivia — but as Adamu discussed in his previous post noted above, this does something to chip away “guild-based restrictions” that could result in permanent deregulation and thus lower pricing.

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“Expensive Fools,” then and now

Many billions of dollars have been spent by Japan’s top companies in the last decade to develop the next generation of robots — famous for such technical marvels as expressing human emotions on a silicon face, bipedal walking, roller-skating, playing musical instruments, and cooking meals. Japanese companies such as Hitachi, Toyota, and Toshiba are broadcasting ads and posting billboards across the globe that show-off their latest robotic achievements. These products aren’t for sale. You cannot buy they for industrial or commercial use. But their existence suggests a fantastic future where robots will be serving us in all sorts of tasks, both menial and complex.

Too bad this is so utterly removed from reality. For all of Japan’s collective effort in developing its robotics industry, TEPCO has had to turn to iRobot, — a Massachusetts-based company — for the Packbot, a simple yet practical robot equipped with simple claws and cameras, to enter the Fukushima plants. The robot first entered the plants on Sunday (a month after the disaster, after it became clear that no Japanese robots were up for the task) taking measurements and photographs of areas where it was unsafe for humans to venture. (Interestingly, but not surprisingly, Japan has refused robots provided by the Chinese military.)

On that note, iRobot is also the company that brought us the Roomba, a robot that vacuums the floor and which is probably the most popular robot among Japanese consumers — showing that Japan Inc.’s investment in robot technology cannot save it, even in its home market. For all the fanfare in recent years, in truth, Japan’s robots are so advanced that they have skipped a generation of usefulness. The robotics on display by Japan Inc. may be useful in ten years, but they are nothing more than gimmicks today.

Coincidentally, just hours after I read the above article on TEPCO having to go to iRobot for robots to use in Fukushima, I was browsing through Michael E. Porter’s tome, The Competitive Advantage of Nations (which is just as heavy a book as it sounds). Published in 1990, one case study in the book addresses Japan’s robot industry, and I found this section prophetic:

The first robots used in Japan were imported from the United States in 1967. The Japanese robotics industry had its beginning in 1968, when Kawasaki Heavy Industries signed a licensing agreement with Unimation. Kawasaki was both a major potential user of robots as well as a producer of related products and services. It produced a broad range of machinery and parts, including engines, motorcycles, aircraft, machinery, complete plants, and ships. In 1969, Kawasaki began to sell Unimate robots, the first robots produced in Japan. Kobe Steel was also an early licensee of American robot designs.

The early Japanese robots produced results that were somewhat less than expected. They were often referred to as “expensive fools” and many were relegated to the corners of factories to collect dust. However, Japanese firms began to improve upon the robots they imported. Kawasaki redesigned some of the parts of the Unimation machines and upgraded its quality. In the late 1960s, the mean time between failures (MTBF) of an imported robot was less than 300 hours. By 1974, Kawasaki had achieved an MTBF of 800 hours. By 1975, this figure was 1,000 hours.

It’s a total cliche about Japanese business from the late 20th century: “Japan doesn’t invent things well, but they are great at improving things.” It’s a cliche so tired that it’s rarely rolled out much anymore. Yet as I read this, I realized that the observation from 1990 is still true, and is being echoed in real life events more than twenty years later.

Japan must get back to doing what it does best — improving, not inventing. If Japan’s researchers were tasked with improving the Roomba or the Packbot, I bet they’d do an amazing job. But left to their own devices, with the task of making something new, Japanese researchers, for whatever reason — dedicate themselves to creating a robot that can cook okonomiyaki and play the violin — and for what? Another generation of “expensive fools” destined to collect dust, due to the minor value the products provide in industrial and consumer markets.

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Adamu in Tokyo after the earthquake

There have been many many reports about what it’s like on the ground after the earthquake, but I thought I would offer my perspective.

The day of the earthquake, I was working in downtown Tokyo on the 29th floor of a two-year-old office building. At around 2:40pm it started rumbling, then swaying sharply back and forth. The bucho yelled for everyone to take cover, so we put on our emergency helmets and hid under the desk. The swaying continued for what felt like forever. Thinking this might be the end, I tried frantically to get my wife on the phone but it did not work. I got a hold of Mrs. Adamu via the office phones and she was fine.

Not knowing what else to do, some of us kept working on reports that needed to get published that day, even amid the aftershocks. Around 6, we started making plans to go home.

The head translator and I made our way to Ueno, where he wanted to get a hotel room. My plan was to continue all the way home. The streets were packed with people trying to get home, but it felt more like the crowd after a baseball game than a disaster. At a bicycle shop, some people were purchasing bikes to get home faster. I decided that would be a waste of money. The hotel rooms were all packed so I had the head translator stay with me.

At Ueno we decided to stop by Shoryu, a Chinese restaurant known for its big gyoza. This might not have been the safest move, since a fierce aftershock could have trapped us in the basement floor where it was located.

After that, the walk home was just a slog. The throngs of pedestrians thinned to just crowds and then just a small group as we approached Katsushika-ku.  The lines at the payphones died down around Asakusa where I updated Mrs. Adamu on our condition. On the way back, one family was offering passersby to use their toilet if necessary.

We eventually got home, turned on the TV and the first thing we saw was Kesennuma-shi on fire. Made me sick to my stomach. Wanted to shower but the gas had been turned off. We later realized it was an automatic shutdown for safety during the earthquake. The apartment was only lightly damaged. My computer monitor had been pushed forward off the front of the desk and was hanging by its cables. The laundry detergent had spilled behind the machine. For some reason all the sliding windows were open.

Couldn’t sleep because of aftershocks. The next morning Mrs. Adamu got late morning trains back home.

Since then life has been a little surreal. I have not missed a day of work, but I was among the very few in the office on Monday since the rolling power cuts left many train lines out of commission. The news is a constant, numbing stream of tragedy and emergency warnings. I have not really had the heart to do much blogging about it.

All in all, I am thankful that Tokyo was spared and cannot complain much about the situation given the devastation up north. Still, it’s tense and everyone is pretty nervous. Some friends and coworkers have sent their families elsewhere. Food is gone from the supermarket shelves. My mom has been receiving many many calls from friends and relatives asking about me, and she is freaking out about the nuclear situation.

You can follow my regular updates on Twitter at www.twitter.com/adamukun

 

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