On language skills in the Tokyo legal market

If you head to Japan to find a legal job, you’ll realize something pretty quickly: What school you went to, what you did there, and what work experience you have, all trumps your Japanese ability. Easily. A person from a top-20 school who speaks no Japanese at all is miles ahead of a person from a second or third-tier school who’s totally fluent.

That’s not to say language doesn’t matter at all. It can save an otherwise crappy resumé (mine comes to mind), and it can qualify a person for a better job. If you have an Ivy League degree and speak Japanese, the town is your oyster. But it’s not nearly as important as the other qualifications that law firms look for back in the US.

I used to think this was just a matter of priorities: firms value nice schools over language ability, since the schools woo clients more easily, there’s no shortage of translators and interpreters to bridge the language gap, and many Japanese clients don’t expect to see a gaijin speaking their language anyway. No doubt all of these factors play a role.

But I was recently talking to a seasoned lawyer from a big American firm in Tokyo, and he said that language skills can actually be a problem for many clients. That made no sense to me, so I prodded him on. “It’s actually pretty simple,” he said. “In many cases, they don’t want you to know everything that’s happened on their side of the case. If you know Japanese, you have a way of independently finding out. So if you don’t know Japanese, they figure they have more control over you.”

So what’s the best solution? Know the language, but don’t make the fact readily apparent?

Saru to Media: Did you even read Bush’s speech?

Bush to China: Grant religious, civic freedoms” That’s the headline from a Yomiuri online story today. A quick glance at google news headlines reveals more of the same:

Bush pushes China over freedoms” (CNN)

Bush rebukes China on freedom” (MSNBC)

Bush tells Beijing to model itself on ‘free Taiwan’” (Independent, UK)

And so on, and so on.

Unquestionably, the President’s speech in Kyoto on the 16th was intended to send a message (several, actually) to China and it no, not all of it was soft. Yes, he cited Taiwan as having “created a free and democratic Chinese society.” Yes, he put China in category 2, those “other Asian societies [that] have taken some steps toward freedom.” And yes, he did mention “worshipping without state control” and to “print Bibles and other sacred texts without fear or punishment.” In short, he did allude to some of China’s shortcomings in the area of freedom and democracy and there is little doubt that Beijing heard this loud and clear.

But, his message could have just as easily been interpreted as one of economic determinism – “if you continue economic liberalization, you will have not choice but to become more democratic.”

In this sense, it was more a statement of facts, not of demands:

“In the late 1970s, China’s leaders took a hard look at their country , and they resolved to change. They opened the door to economic development — and today the Chinese people are better fed, better housed, and enjoy better opportunities than they ever have had in their history.”

“As China reforms its economy, its leaders are finding that once the door to freedom is opened even a crack, it can not be closed. As the people of China grow in prosperity, their demands for political freedom will grow as well.”

“…men and women who are allowed to control their own wealth will eventually insist on controlling their own lives and their own future.”

“X” follows “Y.”

As harsh as it got was this suggestion:

“By meeting the legitimate demands of its citizens for freedom and openness, China’s leaders can help their country grow into a modern, prosperous, and confident nation.”

To describe it as “telling” China to become more free, “rebuking it” about a lack of freedom, or even “pushing” it on freedom seems a bit of a stretch to me and it misses the subtlety (and frankly, we should be thankful to see some from this administration) of the speech. Looking at the text, it’s clear that the only things Bush said China “needs to take action to ensure” are the correction of its current account surplus, greater protection of intellectual property rights, and a move towards a flexible, market-based exchange rate system.

Bush even made some concessions to China. After the Taiwan section of the speech, reaffirmed the one China policy. He recognized the “important role China has assumed as host of the six-party talks.” And finally, he closed the speech with a nod to Chinese history, recognizing that they were around a long time before Jefferson and Lincoln.

It could have been a lot worse.

Two Reasons to Love Washington

(Please forgive the rambling, Schumin-esque post. This is about as exciting as my life gets these days.)

Reason 1: I stop by American University, my alma mater, last weekend to catch up on some research.

Feeling hungry, I decide to stop by the university dining hall to see if it has changed at all. Now, at AU most customers of the dining hall pay using their student IDs, which are connected to their overpriced meal plans. As I stand in line, I remember how annoying it was to be stuck with 30 leftover meals at the end of every semester because I didn’t feel like eating from the same limited menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

When my turn comes at the register, I tell the lady I have to pay with a credit card. She is confused — from the looks of things, this may not have happened yet in her career as a dining hall cashier.

But thankfully the “middle class African American college boy” behind me is ready: “I got it,” he says, letting me know “it’s cool” with a cocksure nod of the head.



“Wow, thanks,” I say as the register lady swipes his ID.

Free lunch for Adamu!
Continue reading Two Reasons to Love Washington

Bush’s NHK Interview

If you weren’t convinced that listening to our President speak in public is like watching a drunk make his way across 32 lanes of fast moving traffic frogger-style, while you stand on the other side watching helplessly, unable to do anything about it, then just read this interview he gave to NHK last week.

He’s just a — well — he’s just a bad speaker. He doesn’t speak well. He’s just — inarticulate — I think that’s what it’s called. And when he talks, it just isn’t — I mean, he just can’t say — he doesn’t really know what he’s talking about.


Here are a few of my favorite nuggets:

On Japan’s concern that it might be drawn into U.S. international strategy:

THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, Japan makes the decisions that the government thinks is necessary. Japan is, of course, a sovereign nation.

Glad that’s cleared up, but I’m even more glad no one asked him about Taiwan.

On the SDF redeployment:

Q:And will you be urging Prime Minister Koizumi to prolong its deployment period as the mandate expires next month?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I’m aware the mandate does expire.

Oh, well that’s good that you know and all, ’cause y’know, the reporter just told you five seconds ago.

And finally, on beef imports:

Q: Lastly, it has been two years since Japan has banned imports of beef.

THE PRESIDENT: Yes. (Laughter.)

Q: What do you expect?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I understand this is a very — that the — this is a difficult issue. I’m also pleased to see that the food safety commission — I think that’s what it’s called —

Q: Yes.

THE PRESIDENT: — has ruled that U.S. beef is safe. Of course, our cattlemen here believe the beef is safe. I’m more than willing to eat U.S. beef, and do — eat a lot of it. And my point is, is that I hope that the government follows through with the recommendations of the safety commission — or just decides about opening the market and listens to the safety commission because we feel like not only our beef is safe, but it’s an important part of our cattle industry to be able to sell to the Japanese consumer.

Wait a minute, what was your point again?

I feel sorry for whoever had to translate this into Japanese.

Ghosts in Burma

At precisely 6:37 a.m. last Sunday, according to one account – with a shout of “Let’s go!” – a convoy of trucks began a huge, expensive and baffling transfer of the government of Myanmar from the capital to a secret mountain compound 200 miles to the north.

Diplomats and foreign analysts were left groping a week later for an explanation of the unannounced move. In a country as secretive and eccentric as Myanmar, it is a full-time job to try to tease the truth from the swirl of rumors and guesswork, relying on few facts and many theories. (NYT)

Over 1200 years ago, the Japanese Emperor moved his capital from the unfinished Nagaoka-kyo to the site of present day Kyoto to escape from the vengeful ghost of a falsely accused prince. It would seem that Burma’s military government has just done the same thing.

While many experts consider this move to be a strategic relocation to a seat of government from which they can more easily suppress peasant rebellions, the bizarre secrecy and inexplicable suddenness of the move have given rise to two competing theories about the reasons behind the move.

First, like Japan’s Kanmu Emperor, to secure a location more suitable to the channeling of the beneficient energies derived from Chinese geomantic superstitions known as fung-shui.

“Myanmar leaders might have sought astrologers’ advice and believe the move can improve Myanmar’s feng shui [the Chinese belief in energy flows depending on wind and water] of Myanmar” U King said.

“Myanmar leaders are strong believers in feng shui. When Ne Win ruled Myanmar [from the 1960s to the 1980s], he considered relocating the capital for the sake of feng shui,” U King said. (Taipei Times)

Second, to fortify themselves against an imagined attack by the Americans.

Seen from their perspective, the notion of an American invasion might not seem far-fetched. They are a ruling clique of soldiers whose background is jungle warfare and who know little of the outside world.
In January, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice included Myanmar in a list of “outposts of tyranny,” along with North Korea, Cuba, Iran, Zimbabwe and Belarus.
“The joke going around is, ‘After diamonds, gold,’ ” he said. In the Burmese language, “sein” – as in Saddam Hussein – means diamonds. “Shwe” – as in Gen. Than Shwe, the leader of the military junta – means gold. (NYT)

Burma’s rulers seem to be spooked by things that go bump in the night, but exactly which ghosts are they so scared of?

The symbolism behind Olympic mascots

The five friendlies are an incredible little family carefully chosen by Beijing 2008 to represent all of China to carry a message of friendship to the children of the world.

So said International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge over the weekend in a statement that was read at a nationally televised gala at a Beijing sports arena to mark the 1,000-day countdown until the Games.

With that usual Chinese flair for combining numeration and words that sound like they should have no plural in English, Beijing announced its mascot(s) for the 2008 Olympics, “The Five Friendlies.”


Reading the story got me curious about past Olympic mascots, so I set out to do a little research on the topic.

The tradition of selecting a mascot for the games began in 1968 with the Winter Olympics held in Grenoble. The first mascot was Schuss, and was a figure with a large round head crouched down on a pair of skis. Schuss was followed four years later by Waldi, the first official mascot, which was a multicolored Dachshund chosen to represent Munich in the 1972 Winter Games.

Since then, every host county has chosen a mascot that more or less symbolized some representative aspect of local culture or that was symbolic of the games themselves. Los Angeles had Sam the Eagle in 1984, Moscow had Misha the Bear in 1980, and Montreal had Amik the Beaver in 1976. At least three of Waldi’s colors were official Olympic colors, and Japan chose four mascots to symbolize the four years between the games. (The one possible exception, which I like to tell myself is no symbolic reflection on U.S. culture, is Izzy, the cosmic nightmare that Atlanta dreamed up for the 1996 Summer Games.)

So now we add to those ranks The Five Friendlies. But what of their symbolism? Apart from the obvious meanings (e.g. Panda, the Tibeten Antelope, etc…), are their names – Bei Bei, Jing Jing, Huan Huan, Ying Ying, and Ni Ni. Perceptive readers with a some knowledge of the Chinese language will recognize that taking the first syllable of each name yields the phrase, 北京欢迎你, or “Beijing welcomes you.”

This is not the first attempt at such punnery. The Japanese chose as their mascots for the 1998 Nagano Olympic Games, the Snowlets, four owls with the names, Lekki, Tsukki, Sukki, and Nokki. Taking the first syllable of each of their names produces the wonderfully Japanese phrase, レッツ・スノー, which rendered into English is, “Let’s Snow,” something that makes sense (even in English) only to Japanese or to gaijin who spent time in country (and even then, the verbal usage of “let’s” as a verb can prove confusing for foreigners.)

These choices reminded me of something an undergraduate history professor of mine once said about the Japanese and Chinese languages. He told our class that the first thing a Chinese teacher does is to give every student a Chinese name in Chinese characters. From then on, that is your name when you are speaking Chinese. The Japanese not only don’t give anyone a Japanese name, but they have an entirely separate phonetic system to express the Japanese version of foreign names.

Those readers who have spent time in either of these countries probably already see what he was getting at, but it has to do with the degree of inclusiveness of each culture. And at the risk of sounding too culturally deterministic, I think there is something similar to be said about the choice of mascots by these two countries. Japan’s Snowlets were clearly meant for a domestic audience, which is fair enough. After all, Japan was hosting the games. But their attempt at linguistically and symbolically reaching out pales in comparison to the Chinese effort. (It also shows one of the things Japan does best these days – cuteness.) While I’m sure China no doubt hopes the Five Friendlies will be a hit domestically, everything from the choice of the word “friendly” to the welcoming pun formed from their name indicates the kind of message Beijing hopes to send to the world.

China’s choice also says something about the degree to which its “peaceful rise” diplomacy has been incorporated in creative and non-traditional ways into popular culture. Whether one buys into the message or not, one can’t accuse the Chinese of not trying.

That said, their efforts proved vain in winning my heart for the best Olympic mascot ever, which hands down goes to the unofficial mascot of the Sydney Games…


…Fatso, the fat-arsed wombat.

Sociopolitical progress goes “moo”

The world explained by cows. A classic. My favorites:

CAPITALISM: You have two cows. You sell one and buy a bull.

HONG KONG CAPITALISM: You have two cows. You sell three of them to your publicly listed company, using letters of credit opened by your brother-in-law at the bank, then execute a debt/equity swap with associated general offer so that you get all four cows back, with a tax deduction for keeping five cows. The milk rights of six cows are transferred via a Panamanian intermediary to a Cayman Islands company secretly owned by the majority shareholder, who sells the right to all seven cows’ milk back to the listed company. The annual report says that the company owns eight cows, with an option on one more. Meanwhile, you kill the two cows because of bad feng shui.

Shorter, and therefore less awesome, versions have floated around the ‘net for a while. What can I say, I’m a late adopter.