Are we looking at a new political order?

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

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

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

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

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

Here is Inose in December 2013:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2014-01-06 at 12.36.53 AM

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kabuki for lunch alert

You can always spot the undercover restaurant critics by their kabuki masks.

“Ms. Lemos, I presume,” I said with a mock flourish.

“Just call me Gael,” she said with a weary smile.

This weary smile will be familiar to anyone who has dined with a practicing restaurant critic and quizzed him or her on the strange, time-honored Kabuki dance that takes place between chefs and restaurateurs and the people whose job it is to cover them.

Thoughts on a 2014 relaunch

Hello to all, and a happy new year to you. I hope 2013 treated you well and that 2014 is even better.

After a long and only mildly interrupted hiatus, I am finally starting to plan a proper relaunch of the blog, although not ready to predict a date yet.

One reason for deciding to plan a proper relaunch (and please note that we are not yet there, and I do not know when my schedule will allow it) is a gradual and regrettable estrangement over the last couple of years from any sort of academic discussions. By this time I had intended to be back in school, in a Doctoral program, but events have unfolded differently. I still hope to apply next year to start the following year, but that does leave an awfully long gap.

I do miss the discussions of the old blog. And Facebook or Twitter are no substitute. Sure, there are discussions, and I even have many of the old regular commenters on there. But the ephemeral nature of those comment threads grates on me, and the endless timeline of trivia that has become the standard template for Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc. has gone from mildly irritating to somewhat repulsive, and I trust I am not the only one embracing a grumpy nostalgia for the web of the ancient days of the mid-2000s.

Key to this effort, I believe, will be commuting to a regular minimum posting schedule of at least one moderately substantive post per week, ideally at the same approximate time and date. For this to work I intend to bank a significant number of pieces in advance, on the order of a dozen or so, such that temporary schedule changes will not lead to a temporary but seemingly total collapse of the blog as an ongoing project. Should coauthors rejoin me on the effort there may very well be more than one point on the standard post schedule, but I believe that even a very low hertz cadence is drastically preferable to total unpredictability.

But what will those posts be? Some will be long-unfinished drafts, many others will be presentations of fun old documents from my personal collection and public online archives, but what else?

What do you, the former readers, want to see? I must admit a significant lack of interest in covering current events in the general case, although I am sure that specific events will eventually prompt a reaction.

But, again, what did you read Mutantfrog for? What did we do differently from all the others? What gap looms?

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

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

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

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


This person made it to 11,000

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

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

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

Abe pyon high score

My current high score

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

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

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

What would doubling the JET program look like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Unbuttoning the uniform”

Over the years, this blog has had so many posts on the wretched “kabuki play” cliche that we gave them their own category, but we never mentioned a related pet peeve cliche of mine: “opening the kimono“. Well, in yesterday’s New York Times, the acerbic David Carr1 spun a new twist on it.









Let Them Open The Kimono

In his article on the intense secrecy of the Bradley Manning Wikileaks trial, “In Leak Case, State Secrecy in Plain Sight” and the difficulties that has so hindered  journalists and other citizens interested in the case, he has the following paragraph:

Finally, at the end of last month, in response to numerous Freedom of Information requests from news media organizations, the court agreed to release 84 of the roughly 400 documents filed in the case, suggesting it was finally unbuttoning the uniform a bit to make room for some public scrutiny.

As far as I can tell, Carr is the first writer to use this spin on the nasty cliche (although it has certainly been used before in reference to, say, soldiers undressing), which I honestly find pretty amusing. At least, unless it turns into a cliche.

  1. Incidentally, a resident of my home town, although we have never met. []

Corner store

Waiting for a breakfast sandwich at the bodega.

“I can’t get a bag?” asks a woman angrily, as she pays for her can of soda. Thin, probably in her forties, but looking unkempt and sickly enough that it’s hard to tell. The weird kind of too-skinny, where her lips seem shrunken, making her teeth look over large.

“Just get out of here,” says the cashier, in the tone of annoyance at a scene that has been so repeated it’s almost ritual.

“Fuck you!”

“Get the fuck out of here.”

“You won’t give her a bag?” asks one of the pair of slightly younger women still doing their shopping, incredulously.

“Nah. She’ll just drop it right outside. Nut.”

The two woman are skeptical and defensive, as if they know her.

“He’s right. She’s crazy,” says the pale, obese man behind them, short-legged and wheelchair-bound. “Her husband died and she didn’t tell no-one for three days.”

One of the two woman squints and cocks her neck slightly in his direction. “What did you say?” she asks.

Her confusion is understandable. His speech is slurred and hard to understand. Probably a mixture of accent and something else, but it’s hard to tell.

“He was dead, and she was sleeping right there with him for three days,” he repeats and clarifies.

“Seriously?”

“Yeah, I was friends with him. Nice guy, Colombian. Anyway, I was looking for the guy and couldn’t find him. Three days he was dead and she just kept him there in bed. She crazy.”

The two women are now wide-eyed. Formerly aggrieved at the treatment the other woman had been given by one of the ubiquitous Muslim bodega staff, they seems to have switched sides.

“Well. Damn.”

They pay quietly, and leave.

My sandwich is ready. As I am waiting to pay, a young man is trying to negotiate the purchase of a single garbage bag.

“50 cents? I just want one,” he complains.

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

It seems to me that a major factor behind Japan’s vaunted problems with the English language could have to do with the learning environment.

Specifically, some Japanese people are not sufficiently aware that Japanese-accented English is often incomprehensible to listeners who are not familiar with it.

I call it the Heisenberg property of language – simply being among Japanese people causes native English speakers (eikaiwa teachers, friends, coworkers, etc) to get used to how Japanese people speak, and of course alter how they speak to ensure Japanese people understand them.

This concept came to my attention in a big way at an investment conference that I recently attended for work.

The keynote speaker was a well-known American investment manager, and when it came time for the Q&A session, there was a roughly even mix of question-askers who were native English speakers, Japanese who asked their questions through the interpreter, and Japanese who opted to ask in English.

The guest speaker had trouble understanding all of the Japanese people who asked questions in English. One person in particular asked something like, “What is your view on Abenomics?” and it took about three tries before the speaker got that it was something about the new prime minister.  I understood it the first time because I could hear him say the katakana “abenomikkusu” just really fast and with an attempt at English inflection. But to the American guest speaker, the questioner must have sounded like he was mumbling “obb-nom” instead of the properly enunciated “Abe-nomics” that sounds similar to Reaganomics.

This is just one small example, but I encounter cases of this phenomenon all the time:

  • Several English-speaking Japanese people in my life have heavy accents, but I can understand them because my years in the country have gotten me used to how Japanese people tend to speak. 

  • Japanese commercials are flooded with simplified English

  • Eikaiwa teachers tend to use simplified English to make themselves understood in class. I have even known some to incorporate common Japanese phrases like “hora” to get students’ attention.

  • Lip my stocking!

And so on.

If a Japanese person spends all their time in this “Japanese-familiar” bubble, then when it comes time to go face-to-face with a less Japan-savvy foreigner, they are likely to run into trouble.

I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing. For the sake of communication, speaking to make yourself understood (and listening carefully to understand) is only the most natural thing in the world. I just feel like pointing it out because Japanese people who equate speaking English with native speakers in Japan with “immersion” might be in for a rude awakening if they ever step outside that environment.

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

Two major elections are coming up in Japan this Sunday—a general election to choose members of the Diet’s lower house, and a race for the Tokyo governorship. The chances of a change in government are high and of all people, that great buckler former PM Abe Shinzo is the favorite to become Japan’s next prime minister!

To help make sense of it all, I’ll be participating in a Livestream broadcast with Garrett De Orio and Kozo Ota, two of the Tokyo English-language blogosphere’s foremost political (and yakyu) junkies. You can save the URL here. We go on air at 8pm, once the polls close. It promises to be a fun and informative evening, so if you like sarcastic commentary and wading deep into the swampy weeds of the Japanese political system, this one is for you my friend.

During the stream we will be answering Twitter questions live with the hashtag #japanelection. Please drop a line! Given its importance, we will be focusing mostly on the general election.

Before Sunday I will try and do some posts highlighting aspects of the election that might fall through the cracks of what has become a quite robust Japan blogo/Twittersphere of late. Outfits like Japan Real Time, Japan Probe, and Shisaku have all been great.

Otherwise you can follow me at @adamukun on Twitter for regular updates. Please let me know in the comments below what sort of issues you want to hear about, and I hope to see you on the stream! Oh and if you’re a Japanese citizen make sure to get out there and vote!!

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