More unintended consequences… or were they?

Several weeks ago I wrote a brief post about how the famous destruction of Korea Air Lines flight 007 by the Soviets led rather directly to the development of commercial GPS technology. I just happened across another surprising result of the same incident, in this Vanity Fair article on, of all people, Larry Flynt.

In 1976, Mr. Flynt, publisher of Hustler and several other pornographic magazines, put out a $1 million bounty for “documentary evidence of illicit sexual relations with a Congressman, Senator or other prominent officeholder.” As the article says, “A few years later, Flynt published pictures of Representative Larry McDonald, a Georgia Republican, in bed with a mistress,” but Rep. McDonald was on the ill-fated KAL007 when it was shot down by the Soviets.

Naturally, the presence of Congressman Larry McDonald on a jet which was shot out of the sky by the USSR was taken by some to be more than a coincidence. While McDonald was, and still is, the only member of Congress killed by the Soviets, there were in fact three other Congresspersons schedule to fly along-side him on KAL007; Republicans Jesse Helms, Senator of North Carolina and Steve Symms, Senator of Idaho and Congressman Carroll Hubbard, a Democrat of Kentucky. All four-McDonald and the three who whose flights were rescheduled-were known for their strident anti-Soviet views, and there were naturally conspiratorial accusations made against the USSR. For example, Wikipedia cites the following quotation of the (despicable) Reverend Jerry Falwell from the September 2, 1983 Washington Post:

There is a real question in my mind that the Soviets may have actually murdered 269 passengers and crew on the Korean Air Lines Flight 007 in order to kill Larry McDonald

Natural responses to this may include the thought that the assassination of either one or four members of the US Congress by the Soviet Union might provoke a rather harsh reaction, or perhaps the thought that there was in fact nothing to gain from the murder of these four relatively minor congresspersons- McDonald was himself not known for legislative accomplishment, and although Jesse Helms might have been a tempting target when he was head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he did not ascend to that post until a decade later, in 1993.

McDonald was himself a well-known conspiracy theorist, who had made the following statement:

The drive of the Rockefellers and their allies is to create a one-world government combining supercapitalism and communism under the same tent, all under their control…Do I mean conspiracy? Yes I do. I am convinced there is such a plot, international in scope, generations old in planning, and incredibly evil in intent.

While more rational thinkers may question the wisdom of this statement, and perhaps of the voters who elected a paranoiac to Congress, it does seem likely that Representative McDonald would have agreed with the Reverend Falwell about the circumstances surrounding his own death.

For the truly sophisticated conspiracy buff, however, we have a more complex, and utterly contradictory theory, brought to us by-of all places- Hustler Magazine. Now, while Playboy is well known for its mix of dull soft-core pornography and oddly serious articles, I had no idea that Hustler printed in-depth political conspiracy articles (much less articles at all) mixed with its rather harder-core pornography. However, if this piece is indicative of the quality of Hustler’s political “reporting” I think I’ll stick with publications more along the lines of The Economist for my real news- although, a paranoid and elaborate conspiracy theory can provide some entertaining flavor to more staid coverage. I will not try and summarize this inane theory, which involves such things as a “$100,000 computer” full of illegal spying data-in a garage, the Moonies, and Reagan’s decision to make a martyr of “the leading anti-Communist in the American government,” I will provide what I thought were a few of the highlights.

  • “So let’s assume that the CIA, FBI and all federal agencies that worked with McDonald – particularly the Pentagon – wanted him silenced immediately.”
  • “A more likely possibility is that the crew had been the victim of hypnosis and mind control – receiving instructions in advance, before they left Anchorage, that could not be picked up on any messages recorded later.”
  • “His response to what was going to happen, given his years of experience and expertise, was that of a programmed zombie instructed to fly continuously – disregarding any external sights or sounds on the flight equipment.:
  • “The upshot of these reports is that the Pentagon had the capability, if it so desired, to link mind control with satellite defense systems. And a logical use of mind control, of course, would be to program a pilot – perhaps even turning a normal flight into a kamikaze mission.”
  • “After McCarthy died in 1957, it is reasonable to assume that Larry McDonaid – through Louise Bees – took over the massive computerized files [known as Odessa, which was formed (by the Nazis) between 1943 and 1945 when it became obvious the Third Reich could not win the war against the Soviet Union]that now contain millions of names worldwide.”

As implausible as all of this is, the fact most destructive to the theory that President Reagan ordered the plane led off-course into Soviet airspace so that the plane would be shot down, killing Congressman Larry McDonald, is perhaps Reagan’s action described in my previous post on KAL007: namely the opening of the formerly military-exclusive GPS network to civilian use. While I might not put it past the Reagan administration to commit assassination, if murder-by-Soviet-airspace-intrusion-disguised-as-navigation-error was such an effective and untraceable method of assassination, why then immediately turn around and introduce protocols that would make further use of the tactic implausible? Naturally, the conspiracy fan will turn around and say “that’s just what they want you to think; it’s the ultimate cover-up!” But credulity has its limits, and Occam’s Razor is powerful.

McDonald may have had a powerful hate for the USSR, but he was certainly was not important enough to deserve such elaborate machinations, the blood-enmity of a Soviet Premiere or an American President, and secret mind control rays from space itself. Like the other 268 passengers on KAL007, he was simply a victim of bad luck and incompetence, like so many others.

And this brings us to the heart, the essential nature of what conspiracy theories are all about: a fear of powerlessness. There is a common misconception that the conspiracy theorist is a cynic of the highest order, but in fact nothing could be further from the truth. The conspiracy theorist is actually a romantic. Unable to accept the reality of a chaotic universe in which all of us humans come from dust only to return to dust, the conspiracy theorist, somewhat like the believer in divine preordination, requires a conscious actor in all things to explain the misery in the world, and to alleviate the crushing fear of oblivion and hopelessness that lies within themselves.

Perhaps the most popular subject for conspiracy theorization in our time is the coordinated hijacking/kamikaze attacks of September 11, 2001. Details vary, including theories that the Pentagon was hit not by a jet but by a military cruise missile, or that the Twin Towers were felled not by steel girders whose tensile strength could not hold up to burning jet fuel but by a controlled demolition triggered by the CIA at the instant of airplane impact, or that the the hijackers were not in fact Islamic fanatics belonging to a shadowy terrorist network with a history of rhetorical and physical attacks against the United States, but Israeli Mossad agents, working in concert with the highest levels of US intelligence. The exact details are not really important, because all of these conspiracies share a common theme and a common purpose. The common theme is the attribution of enormous, almost supernatural, levels of power to the United States and other well understood state actors such as Israel, combined with the discrediting of obscure and occult non-state actors such as Al-Qaeda. The purpose is the reinforcement of their conventional world view to the extent that they can maximize a feeling of safety.

This may seem counterintuitive to some, but I believe that there is a misconception regarding what exactly conspiracy theorists are scared of. One might logically think that bu attributing such nefarious intent and grand power to our government, their primary fear is in fact the government. I would argue that the opposite is true. It is apparent to anyone that a world in which planes are shot out of the sky or crashed into buildings is more dangerous than one in which they do not, but anyone with even the most tenuous grasp on reality will accept that we live in a world in which these things happen; the distinction is over why, and how. If a world of death and pain is taken as a given, then how is fear of that minimized? By reducing the randomness and chaos with which that death is meted out. Conspiracy theorists ascribe nigh-omnipotence to the government not because they are so scared of the government but because they are far more terrified of the alternative- that terrorism, assassination, airplane failure, and so on, are the products of forces unpredictable and uncontrollable.

To a conspiracy theorist there is always a larger cause. Take the assassinations of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, each of which was the premiere subject of conspiracy theorizing for many years, and remain popular subjects to this day. In both cases the official, and most widely accepted, version of the story is that a lone troubled soul, albeit one whose sympathies were shared by many others, shot and killed the President of the United States, the most powerful man in what was, at least during the time of JFK, the most powerful country in the world. If such random tragedy could strike such a man, how can any of us possibly feel safe? In a world in which even presidents are murdered and airplanes are crashed into buildings or explode in the sky due to fuel tank errors (the TWA 800 tragedy, which has its own crop of conspiracy theories) how can any of us feel safe on an airplane, or going to the theatre, or simply riding their car down an open street?

There are a few alternatives. For most people the answer is simply to be realistic; while tragedy can be random, it is also rare and a life lived in perpetual terror is a poor life indeed. Others do live in fear, barely functioning, and living a terrible agoraphobic life of isolation. And others find solace in a false order, of complex constructed narratives in which they either assign enormous power to the relatively powerless actor behind such tragedies, or assign an entirely imaginary actor in cases that truly were due to chance or sloppiness. It is easier to sleep at night when you believe that JFK was killed as a result of a vast and shadowy conspiracy, because by extension that is what it would take. If tragedy requires such incredible effort and resources, then we are all relatively safer, because who would bother with us? By arguing with such venom for the existence of a reality in which all of the world’s random accidents and low-tech terrorism are in fact the result of elaborate conspiracies conducted by the ostensibly powerful, conspiracy theorists are actually choosing order over chaos: a world in which they can sleep at night, because the knife in the shadow never misses its intended target.

I Am The Bar Exam (And So Can You!)

As I head out the door for a winter holiday in southern China (which will be blogged in due course), I am happy to announce to the world that I passed the New York and New Jersey bar exams in July 2007. I spent a lot of time reading about other people’s study methods on the internet, and now, in the interests of propagating science, I will now share my methods. Continue reading I Am The Bar Exam (And So Can You!)

Gang fight in Ayase

Tonight I had the privilege to witness my first major police incident around my home station Ayase, an area somewhat notorious for its gang activity, general slumminess, and proximity to Tokyo Detention Center, where the majority of Japan’s high-profile and death row inmates are held.

The incident tonight occurred as I was returning from a trip in search of imported food (the trip was successful and I’ll be having my highly authentic Xmas dinner (hummus) tomorrow). Just outside the station, Mrs. Adamu and I noticed a convoy of firefighters and police standing at the ready outside the local KFC. Around them a circle of rubberneckers had formed, but we weren’t initially sure what they were witnessing at first. Upon closer inspection, it hit us – the police were sort of referreeing a fight between what was either two yakuza members or one yakuza and one unlucky drunk civilian.

When we arrived on the scene, there were two men – one, a late-30s chimpira in a dragon-decaled letterman jacket, was stomping around screaming at the row of police, while another, a drunk, small man, was being held back by other yakuza in plain clothes. At some point before we showed up, the two had gotten into a scuffle. The scene was very confusing because the police were doing nothing to intervene save for standing and watching. After a while, the situation became clear – the drunk and the dragon-jacket guy had gotten into a fight, and some other yakuza were holding the smaller man back to keep the fight from escalating. The dragon-jacket guy was shrieking “don’t you fucking touch me” to the cops, who seemed only happy to reply. After about 10 minutes, dragon-jacket calmed down and walked away with his wife at his side. The drunken smaller man was similarly allowed to walk away with the men who had been keeping him away from dragon-jacket. The situation apparently ended without arrest (surprising considering the considerable public disturbance and mobilization of public law enforcement manpower) Let me repeat that about 10 firefighters and about half as many police did nothing to stand in the way of the fight as it played out (though when we showed up no blows were drawn and it consisted more of dragon-jacket shouting epithets at everyone).

I am no expert on law enforcement here, but through my experience with Aum Shinrikyo (reading books and seeing movies) I am aware that the police are basically not supposed to touch you unless they are ready to take you away on suspicion of a crime. They might be able to get away with pushing average citizens around, but anti-social groups like the yakuza and Aum know their rights and can basically mouth off to police as long as the cops have no actual proof of a crime and there is someone there to record the proceedings (a younger trainee on the scene tonight seemed to be taking video on his camera-phone).

The scene served as a reminder of one of the main reasons the streets of Ayase are peppered with petty criminals – ineffectual police. I have noticed young (non-tattooed) thugs mouthing off to unsuspecting convenience store customers and seen more traditional gangster types threatening people who failed to stay out of their walking trajectory. The strangest incident occurred one night when I was walking with Mrs. Adamu to check out the restaurants in the area. A man on a bicycle careened very awkwardly toward us and then crashed into the nearby bushes. The too-convenient path of his fall convinced us that he was attempting to score in an atariya (fake accident) scheme. This behavior thrives due to the hands-off police stance that I witnessed tonight. Perhaps a less intrusive police presence is what allows for the peaceful Japan that most foreign residents are used to, but areas such as this one the increased gang presence certainly dent the image of Japan as a safe country and personally make me worry what powers the police actually have.

In America, it would have been a far different story. Leave aside the fact that both sides would likely face assault charges in an incident that warranted the amount of manpower I saw tonight. The most significant difference is that anyone mouthing off to the police would be on his or her face in handcuffs immediately and no complaints would be filed. The police essentially are granted the power to immobilize people they deem a disturbance.  For better or worse, even gangsters in the US know they are playing with fire if they decide to talk disrespectfully to the police (and pacing around, as the dragon-jacket guy was doing, would certainly get you shot).

Of course, it may be (as it so often is even on COPS) that the police heard what happened and concluded it was too minor to be worth the paperwork. And as usual I will leave grand conclusions of the two cultures  aside and hopefully let my 10 minutes of voyeurism stand as a casual witness to Japan’s uneasy relationship with its easily identifiable and halfway tolerated underworld.

Second Life in Japan ‘Depopulating’ – J-Cast

J-Cast news (which, as I may have mentioned, I love for its critical reporting that goes well beyond any of the major newspapers, at least in terms of editorial perspective if not in access or resources) has a report on the “depopulated status” of the Japanese version of Second Life, the massive multiplayer experience popular in the US. A brief translation/abstract:

Nice streets, but where is everybody? Second Life “Depopulating”
J-Cast News

More and more Japanese companies are opening so-called “virtual worlds.” Yet Linden Labs’ “Second Life,” which generated a major buzz in Japan earlier this year, has been in a notable state of depopulation, such that it is difficult to find users actually operating the service. What’s going to happen to these virtual worlds?

New Japanese entries to the market are close to overheating. On December 13, (journal/bookmark site) Hatena opened a members-only beta version of its “Hatena World” to 100 users. Meanwhile, Itochu Co. (trading house), Fuji TV, the Sankei Shimbun, Aeon (Supermarket chain) have invested in a “CoCore” a company set up to run another virtual world called “meet-me.” An alpha version is planned for this month.

But Second Life, which caused a stir when dozens of companies announced that they would set up virtual shops there, has become noticeably depopulated. A J-Cast reporter, sent on assignment to “visit” some of the famous virtual shops, noted many cases in which the buildings existed but no other avatars were around.

“Nagaya,” a sort of virtual Kyoto, was once considered a popular area for Japanese users. Back then, variously attired avatars could be seen chatting, but now there is no one. Softbank Mobile and Mitsukoshi, which opened for business in April and July, respectively, were similarly empty. Even “SIM (Island),” opened on December 3 by Kanagawa Shimbun, was deserted.

In a March 7 article (before the official release of the Japanese version in July) titled “Seven Reasons why Second Life Isn’t Popular,” IT Media (which is itself a great source for original Japanese Internet reporting) cited high system requirements, a lack of purpose, and “having to spend money to do anything,” “the most popular areas are porn and gambling” among others, noting:

“Second Life is still in the early development stage. Before reporting on it with excessive expectations and pumping it with corporate advertisements, the developers should concentrate first on bringing up creators that can make the virtual world interesting and building a healthy community.”

In response to this article, one blogger posted a defense arguing that Second Life is no fun unless you initiate conversations yourself, and that there have been successful examples of several avatars getting together. He was hit with massive criticism in his comment section.

Nomura Research Institute released a study called “Second Life Usage in the US and Japan” on November 9, which revealed how usage of Second Life was hardly widespread. In a survey of 100,000 Internet users in Japan, 53.6% replied that they were aware of Second Life, but only 2.4% actually said they used it. Of a further survey of 1,000 professed SL users randomly selected from that 2.4%, only 27.1% replied that they thought “it was interesting and I want to continue using it.”

According to a December announcement by Linden Labs, while there are 1.14 million SL users, only 40,000 are online at any given time. The lack of continuous users is contributing to the depopulation effect.

Why do I mention this? Because this project was picked up and promoted completely by advertising giant Dentsu. Often, the well-connected company that controls some 90% of the TV advertising market by some measures, has the power to make a “hit” out of thin air. But they are not invincible, and it can look pretty embarrassing in cases such as this where a massive publicity campaign is met with a collective shrug by the Japanese public. As J-Wikipedia explains, “As of 2007, Japan’s domestic media have aggressively covered Second Life, but many are suspicious of the vast gap between [this coverage and] average people’s recognition. Voices on the Internet are critical of the feeling that ‘Dentsu is leading an effort to start a trend by force.’ Dentsu itself has issued a statement that ‘the boom has died down a notch’ causing some to view this mass media-led commercial [campaign] as a failure.”

But as a Nomura source notes, this is only the 5th month since the release of the Japanese version, so things might pick up. But since the American SL itself seems more geared to attract media attention than an actual user base, I wouldn’t count on it.

Video: Obsolete songs, part 2 – Sayuri Ishikawa “Tsugaru Straits Winter Scene.”

Much to the annoyance of Mrs. Adamu, I have a soft spot for enka, Japanese-style country music that sings of tragic loves, unhappy marriages, and the sheer beauty of Japan’s natural landscape. One aspect of this music that I like is that, perhaps thanks to Japanese colonialism, this style of music is found all over Asia with the requisite local twists. Wikipedia’s article is a great summary:

Modern enka (演歌 — from 演 en performance, entertainment, and 歌 ka song) came into being in the postwar years of the Shōwa period. It was the first style to synthesize the Japanese pentatonic scale with Western harmonies. Enka lyrics, as in Portuguese Fado, usually are about the themes of love and loss, loneliness, enduring hardships, and persevering in the face of difficulties, even suicide or death. Enka suggests a more traditional, idealized, or romanticized aspect of Japanese culture and attitudes, comparable to American country and western music.

This video features a recent NHK performance of Sayuri Ishikawa’s 1977 hit song “Tsugaru Straits Winter Scene.” The singer’s haunting wail and that swank, sleazy saxophone pay tribute to the utter sadness of taking the four-hour ferry connecting Honshu and Hokkaido. Specifically, the woman in the song takes the (then 13-hour) trip from Tokyo to Aomori before getting on the boat. According to pre-song banter, the ride was a good way for women leaving their lovers in Tokyo to come home to Hokkaido to “get their thoughts together.” Here is a quick, fairly unpoetic translation of the lyrics:

Since the time I stepped off the train originating in Ueno
Aomori Station is surrounded by snow
The masses heading back to their homes back north are silent
Listening only to the sea
I get on the ferry, alone
I stare at the gulls in the cold
I am crying
O, Tsugaru Straits winter scene

“Look! that’s the Tappi Headlands, far to the north!”
Says a stranger, pointing
I wipe the the window, which has steamed with breath
All I can see is mist in the distance
Farewell, my love! I am going home
The sound of the wind sways my heart
As if commanding me to cry
O, Tsugaru Straits winter scene

Farewell, my love! I am going home
The sound of the wind sways my heart
As if commanding me to cry
O, Tsugaru Straits winter scene

So what makes this song obsolete? The opening of a highway tunnel in the 80s meant that the main ferry (the Hakodate Ferry) closed and this melancholy feeling, perhaps experienced by thousands of women hailing from Hokkaido, is now a thing of the past. It’s worth noting that since this song was such a huge hit and Ishikawa has stuck around as an enka veteran, its obsolescence hasn’t affected its status as a classic.

Word of the year – English edition

Following Adam’s post on the word of the year awards in Japan, I thought I would give a quick rundown on the English version of the list, as determined by the New Oxford American Dictionary. I’ll present the various runners-up in list form, with the word of the year at the end, with each entry followed by my own comments in italics.

  • aging in place: the process of growing older while living in one’s own residence, instead of having to move to a new home or community
    We’re not off to a very good start here. First of all, this is not a word but a phrase, and not to me a particularly descriptive one at that.
  • bacn: email notifications, such as news alerts and social networking updates, that are considered more desirable than unwanted “spam” (coined at PodCamp Pittsburgh in Aug. 2007 and popularized in the blogging community)
    Total gibberish. While I agree that we could use a term for this semi-junkmail, a tier below spam, this word just plain sucks. What is this, an acronym? Wikipedia claims that it’s pronounced “bacon,” to imply that it is something better than spam, but still unwanted. Except that bacon is delicious, and I don’t see any reason to spell it wrong. In short- I like the definition, but we need a new word. Maybe 2008.
  • cloudware: online applications, such as webmail, powered by massive data storage facilities, also called “cloud servers”
    “Cloud computing” is a term I’ve seen for at least a couple of years now, and I agree that “cloudware” is the appropriate word for applications that represent the paradigm of cloud computing.
  • colony collapse disorder: a still-unexplained phenomenon resulting in the widespread disappearance of honeybees from beehives, first observed in late 2006
    The first one I’ve actually seen before! Both timely and important, and a great example of a term that rose to prominence during 2007. Unfortunately, once again we have a phrase. Try translating it into a nice agglutanive like German, Greek or Chinese and get back to me.
  • cougar: an older woman who romantically pursues younger men
    Another word I’m familiar with (and yes, I mean the word and not the thing itself.) A good slang term that has clearly cemented itself in the language, but I have no idea how long the term “cougar” has been around or if it rose to particular prominence this year for some reason. Has there been a rash of “cougar attacks” in 2007 that I was unaware of?
  • MRAP vehicle: Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, designed to protect troops from improvised explosive devices (IEDs)
    I’ve probably seen this term before, but I can’t swear. While the MRAP has probably existed for a good while, I do see a logic for its rise to prominence this year. On the other hand, has IED been a word of the year before? If not, then clearly that should have taken this slot.
  • mumblecore: an independent film movement featuring low-budget production, non-professional actors, and largely improvised dialogue
    I think I first saw this term only a couple of months ago. I don’t believe I have actually seen a mumblecore film, but it sounds like the sort of indy film that gives indy film a bad name. Does it deserve to be on the list? Well, whether or not the word existed before 2007, this was certainly the year it made it big, so I’ll give it a pass.
  • previvor: a person who has not been diagnosed with a form of cancer but has survived a genetic predisposition for cancer
    A word I have certainly seen before, although it bugs me slightly for some reason. While the etymology of “previvor” is clearly based on “survivor,” with an added implication of something not having happened yet- but it still feels slightly muddled to me. For a word created from a simple combination of two highly generic roots (pre- as in before, and vivor- as in “to live”) I feel that it should have a scope of applicability larger than just cancer, but I suppose a word has to start somewhere.
  • social graph: the network of one’s friends and connections on social websites such as Facebook and Myspace
    Definitely another sign of the times here. I would like this more if a literal, social graph, as in a nice web-form chart, of one’s social network were actually a core feature of these sites. God I hate Myspace.
  • tase (or taze): to stun with a Taser (popularized by a Sep. 2007 incident in which a University of Florida student was filmed being stunned by a Taser at a public forum)
    Not even a remotely new word-I personally have probably used it for years-and an obvious back-formation of “taser” (lit. “that which tases.”) Despite the lack of newness, the extremely high visibility of tasing incidents this year does give “tase” some extra cachet as a word of the year candidate.
  • upcycling: the transformation of waste materials into something more useful or valuable
    Not a word I have heard before, but it makes sense and doesn’t particularly bother me.

And the word of the year-

  • “Locavore” was coined two years ago by a group of four women in San Francisco who proposed that local residents should try to eat only food grown or produced within a 100-mile radius. Other regional movements have emerged since then, though some groups refer to themselves as “localvores” rather than “locavores.” However it’s spelled, it’s a word to watch.
    I have two problems with this one. First of all, I feel that there is something just wrong about a word of the year that I had never heard of previously. This might be ok for a runner-up, but shouldn’t the word of the year be something widespread enough so that a media addict like myself would have at least seen it before? Secondly, a word clearly identified as having been created by a particular group of persons to promote an ideology just feels too manufactured, and not grass-roots authentic enough, to deserve word of the year status. On the plus side, it is etymologically sounds, although “localvore” is a lousy variant.

Comparing this list with the list of Japanese words Adam just showed us, a few things occur to me. First of all, you see a complete lack of words that are associated with, or hyping, any celebrity. Where the Japanese list gives us three celeb catch-phrases “そんなの関係ねぇ,” “どんだけぇ~” and the co-winner “(宮崎を)どげんかせんといかん” as well as one word famous for being the title of what is most likely a shitty self-help book “鈍感力,” and a phrase that describes a particular person, which Adam lovingly translated as “prince of the cheese-eating grin.”

By contrast, Oxford’s list has nothing of the kind. In fact, if you look at the two lists a bit closer you see a fundamentally different, and even oppositional, concept of what “word of the year” represents to Oxford and Jiyukokuminsha (the Japanese publishing company who issued this word of the year list.) The most apparent different between them is that where Oxford’s words were chosen by the professional dictionairians (yes, dictionarian is a real word. Check the 1913 Websters if you don’t believe me.) the Jikokuminsha list was chosen from reader submissions, by an entirely unidentified panel. While the solicitation of reader submitted words is a critical tool of the lexicologist, Oxford has chosen to weed out items that are in fact references to specific people or current events, and most likely not sustainable lexical items.

The second major difference is that while Oxford’s list consists entirely of neologisms (even if not all of them are 100% verified new in 2007), Jikokuminsha also includes the word “pension,” which certainly isn’t a new word. Now, the word “pension” is prefaced by the word “vanished,” but this is still just an ordinary phrase, not a novel formation of any kind, and even worse is a reference to a particular news event and not some ongoing phenomenon.

The Jikokuminsha list does, however, contain several quality words that I think are worthy of inclusion on a list more in the vein of the Oxford one:

  • Deceptive food (labeling) 食品偽装 : This is both a major item of concern for 2007, and a new word that will probably be with us for years to come, as food safety and accurate labeling is becoming a matter of increasing concern around the world, both in international trade and domestic markets.
  • Internet cafe refugees ネットカフェ難民 : I think the phenomenon was actually reported on several months before the term was coined, but it is an apt and catchy term that will likely stick. The phenomenon has been reported on at least twice on this blog including personal anecdotes, first by Adam just over one year ago and then far more negatively by myself, just a few months ago.
  • Mega eater 大食い : I believe this word is actually used as both a noun AND a verb (i.e. a “mega eater” and “to mega-eat.” In general, this term refers to mass food consumption in the contest of competitive eating contests, the most famous of which is the Coney Island hot dog eating contest won year after year by Kobayashi Takeru. According to the Wikipedia article on competitive eating, an appropriate English translation of the term might be “gurgitator” (with the verb form then naturally being “to gurgitate,” but this word lacks the necessary prefix to imply the “mega”ness of the Japanese word.
  • Very hot days 猛暑日 : At first I thought that this word lacked the necessary novelty, but on inspection I was wrong. In fact, it turns out this is a technical term used by the Japan Meteorological Agency to describe a day in which the maximum temperature exceeds 35℃. It appears that the word was officially coined in 2006, due to the fact that the number of such days had seen a precipitous rise over the previous decade, and they decided that they needed a word to specifically label days hotter than “truly hot days” (真夏日 – days over 30℃.)

While both lists are naturally attempts to choose words which are iconic of the year 2007 in some way, the Oxford panel attempted to select words that, while they
were newly relevant in 2007, at least have the potential to survive in the future. While there may be a couple of entries that I find questionable in quality (come on, “bacn?” For real?) at least I do not feel like Oxford is trying to make me feel like I need to buy more tabloid magazines or watch the E! channel. But then, both companies are basically trying to stoke interest in their respective dictionaries, and while Jiyikokuminsha’s “Basic Knowledge of Modern Terms” may be pretty good, Oxford publishes the Oxford English Dictionary, which I believe is inarguably the greatest dictionary that exists on the planet, for any language.

Great. Now I just went and reminded myself that not being an active member of a university I don’t have institutional access to the OED Online, and their personal accounts are ludicrously overpriced. Your dictionary may be awesome and all, but for $295/year I think I’ll make do.

The Internet vs. the Media in Japan – now it’s personal

Last week, awards were handed out for the “word of the year,” one of the biggest year-end wrap-up media events in Japan. The recent prizes have been split between the most trivial “ippatsuya” (one trick ponies) and Koizumi-related political drama. This year the top prize was shared between comedian/Miyazaki Prefecture Governor Sonomanma Higashi for his “something’s got to be done about Miyazaki”, and “prince of the cheese-eating grin” (usually translated as “bashful prince” but just look at him). Higashi’s questionably popular declaration indicates his ingenious plan to promote his prefecture by completely and utterly over-exposing himself in the media until his welcome wears out. The Prince, meanwhile, is a talented young golfer who was unwittingly dragged into intense media spotlight after winning a few tournaments. Here’s a quick listing of the runners up:

◆ Disappearing pension records (消えた)年金
◆ “That doesn’t matter” そんなの関係ねぇ a one-liner uttered by a half-naked one-trick-pony that’s not even funny the first time.
◆ Dondake- どんだけぇ~ (The beginning of a line intended to tease someone who’s over-enthusiastic)… see above, except it’s said by a cross-dresser and originated in Shinjuku-nichome gay slang.
◆”The power of insensitivity” 鈍感力 – the title of a best-selling book advising readers not to be “too sensitive”
◆ Fraudulent food (labeling) 食品偽装 Food companies got raked over the coals by regulators late this year for fudging on expiration dates that they knew were too short to begin with. This could also refer to the Made in China food scandals that (mostly) hit the US but were well-reported in Japan.
◆ Internet cafe refugees ネットカフェ難民 – the term for the semi-homeless who spend nights in Internet cafes
◆ Big eater 大食い – Not sure if this is in reference to the recently dethroned hot dog king Shigeru Kobayashi or those TV shows where the young woman eats plate after plate of sushi
◆ Very hot days 猛暑日 – after the hot summer

The list, arbitrarily selected by a committee from a list of reader submissions, seems to only have a memory going back around 6 months, and a highly selective one at that.

But though I understand that this award pays tribute to the spectacles that best gloss over the sadness, cruelty, and frustration of everyday life in this country, I must say the selections this year (save for the “disappearing pension records”) seem to almost willfully ignore the really big developments of this year, even in the realm of media events.

Even in terms of political sideshows, there was no mention of the stupendous problems in the government (Matsuoka’s suicide, the sudden and shocking resignation of Abe, the massive corruption in the Defense Ministry, for starters), nor even the Asashoryu or Kameda scandals despite reams of coverage and massive condemnation (and public interest) in both cases. Judging from the fragile state of all three institutions, one can understand why judges might have wanted to focus attention away from them and more toward fun or at least less testy topics.

In the same vein, the judges decided not to force the media-consuming audience to think back to January, when another vulnerable group was subjected to a major scandal. If we were to truly wrap up the year’s events, it would go without saying that the “Aru Aru Daijiten II” natto scandal would rank way higher than even “that doesn’t matter” in people’s memories… When people learned that the TV lied to them about the health benefits of natto (sticky beans), it may not have convinced them to drop all their food-related superstition-based health consciousness, but for a large group of people it marked a major loss of faith in the media.

Aru Aru, which was gratuitously dishonest and sloppy, may have been the most flagrant single example of media wrongdoing, but it was preceded and has been followed other incidents – more fakery, a misleading statement by morning show host Mino Monta during the Fujiya food scandal, and even reporters’ notoriously bad attitudes (caught on camera screaming at marathon fans, parking illegally, talking trash to commoners).

Though the editors of the Word of the Year decided that this fomenting animosity toward the media wasn’t worth mentioning, I expect such criticism of and animosity toward the news media to further intensify in 2008 (as the media will never fail to provide rage-inducing content). And as a reader of both, it will be increasingly harder to pick sides – what is worse, media institutions that lull the population into a stupor while passing off salivating coverage of the triple murder in Kagawa as a valid news story for a solid week, or the righteous masses of angry Internet users who will turn any slight offense into a target for attack?

Joe enrolls in the MOJ Gaijin Hanzai File

Tonight I returned to Japan from a personal/business trip to the US, and got to experience the new fingerprinting system for the first time.

My flight was United 883, one of the later inbound flights from the US (it arrives around 5:30 PM). I was in the mid-section of economy so there were quite a few people getting off the plane ahead of me. I phoned Curzon as I was walking down the concourse to immigration and told him I would give a postgame report in “maybe 30 minutes.”

But when I reached immigration, there was practically no line for anyone. The area was separated into four zones: citizens, special permanent residents, re-entrants and other foreigners. Those using the new “fast track” card (which I did not bother to get before leaving Japan) were lumped in with the random foreigner category. There were two dedicated re-entrant stations open, and only one was in use when I arrived, so I went straight to the waiting officer who took my passport.

The fingerprinting machine is surprisingly simple, consisting of two fingerprinting pads (made of some sort of metal), an LCD screen and a tiny camera not unlike the built-in webcams that come with laptops these days. The machine says INSERT FINGERS and you put your two forefingers in. Then the immigration officer points the little webcam at you and snaps your photo (which, thankfully, is not displayed on the screen: I don’t need to know what I look like after nearly 24 hours of traveling).

So I was done with immigration in about 30 seconds, which I think is close to a personal record. This didn’t keep United from losing my luggage, though…

WP on Japanese blogs: total mischaracterisation, some crucial details left out

Despite efforts to gather expert opinions (such as Joi Ito) and connect with Japanese bloggers, the recent Washington Post article on the Japanese blogosphere “Japan’s Bloggers: Humble Giants of the Web” contains serious mis-characterisations and inaccuracies. It seems the author falls into the trap of starting with a dazzling premise and getting carried away without bothering to step back and wonder if he’s starting from the right premise or back up his statements (or even read the day’s news before submitting his story).

The article aims to give an overview of the Japanese blogosphere, which is supposedly relevant since it is apparently the most active blogging language on earth (more on that later). The overview is essentially a series of variations on the theme “Unlike Americans, who often times blog to stand out, the Japanese blog to fit in.” A quick look at the beginning:

Compared to the English-speaking world, the Japanese have gone blog wild. They write Web logs at per capita rates that are off the global charts.

Although English speakers outnumber Japanese speakers by more than 5-1, slightly more blog postings are written in Japanese than in English, according to Technorati, the Internet search engine that monitors the blogosphere.

By some estimates, as much as 40 percent of Japanese blogging is done on mobile phones, often by commuters staring cross-eyed at tiny screens for hours as they ride the world’s most extensive network of subways and commuter trains.

Blogging in Japan, though, is a far tamer beast than in the United States and the rest of the English-speaking world. Japan’s conformist culture has embraced a technology that Americans often use for abrasive self-promotion and refashioned it as a soothingly nonconfrontational medium for getting along.

Bloggers here shy away from politics and barbed language. They rarely trumpet their expertise. While Americans blog to stand out, the Japanese do it to fit in, blogging about small stuff: cats and flowers, bicycles and breakfast, gadgets and TV stars. Compared with Americans, they write at less length, they write anonymously, and they write a whole lot more often.

First and foremost, it should be self-evident that this dichotomy of Japan as meek navel gazers and Americans as gung-ho self-branding showoffs is totally false. Has he ever heard of something called Livejournal? Case closed! Anyone who thinks about it for two seconds and spends any amount of time on the Internet should realize how strikingly personal and specific US blogs can be.

The next issue that the author simply gets wrong is the characterization of blogging as a “tame beast” – some kind of dainty, “nonconfrontational” extension of summer diaries. I barely know where to begin addressing this, but the author could have at least taken a look at the news on Japan:

1. Some part-timers at Yoshinoya were suspended after posting a video of themselves set to the Megaman music making a phony “terra-donburi” to compete against Sukiya’s “Mega-don.” The reason they were suspended was because the video generated massive negative comments from anonymous commenters, an example of “enjo” or Net bullying that is extremely common here and a phenomenon that I have documented here and there before.

2. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications has announced once again that it plans to submit legislation that will massively change the regulatory foundation of the Internet by treating it as a broadcast medium no different from TV stations. Why the need for such an overhaul? All the malicious, anonymous posting!

Just from those two examples alone, you can see that the bigger picture is nowhere near as clear-cut as the Post would have you believe.

What has been crucially left out of this article is the vast amount of Internet activity in Japan that goes on outside of what can be defined as “blogging” – message boards such as 2-channel are rampant, social networking sites such as Mixi are all the rage, Youtube is huge. And as with any country that has embraced the Internet (it’s got to be just about all of them by now I guess), there’s a diverse array of content. Additionally, there’s little talk of the development of an actual blog culture that’s much different from journaling – alpha bloggers, celebrity bloggers, etc.

It is almost insulting to the thousands of Amazon reviewers and cynical 2channelers for the WP to claim with no basis whatsoever that there is no critical content on Japanese blogs (and by implication the rest of the Japanese Internet). As for the idea that blog posts tend to be shorter, I wish he’d look at Kikko’s blog, probably one of the most popular around (though it’s dropped to the 40s in Technorati rankings). Kikko’s posts are always long and take a while to get to the point, but that hardly deters the readers.

Finally, let’s look at the statistics mentioned. That Technorati figure about Japanese as the dominant blog language got a lot of attention when it was released in April, and it’s clearly gotten the WP writer’s attention. Nevertheless, declaring Japanese the dominant blog language is likely difficuly, and the survey is less than conclusive in its tallying. Someone took a good critical look at the figures, but I can’t find it now. The best I can do is this look at Japanese bloggers’ reactions. Basically, the report counted the number of submissions, so dead blogs don’t count, and since it is Technorati, I am sure lots of spam blogs ended up being counted (seriously, go try a blog search on Technorati Japan right now!).

The PR executive mentioned in the story backs up the claim that Japanese blogs are apolitical and “conformist” by claiming that Japanese bloggers are far less likely to “act” as a result of their blog reading. In the accompanying video, he notes that in the survey his company conducted, Japanese bloggers were “less likely to sign a petition or attend a meeting” as a result of blogging or blog reading. In the Japanese context, those two activities don’t strike me as representative of the nature of Japanese online activism. Without leaving their homes (or their seat in the train), people in Japan can engage in enjo when they’re angered by what they see, and as in the case of Yoshinoya it can provoke a reaction.

Another example in which online protesting resulted in changes in the policy of the target was the PSE Law scandal – when the Ministry of Economy Trade and Industry attempted to ban the sale of most used electronics in a misguided attempt at consumer safety that originated in a bad interpretation of a sloppily written law. Yellow Magic Orchestra legend Ryuichi Sakamoto led an online campaign to stop it, and in the end a series of stopgap measures were put into place to help the ministry save face while keeping the used goods dealers in business and the used electronics on the shelves (though the change did end up hurting sales).

Why does this story get it so wrong? Perhaps it is always troublesome to write about Internet culture as it is constantly changing. I am not even caught up on it myself since I am not interested in a lot of the new technology (Twitter and Digg seem like wastes of time!). Maybe the author fell into the trap of going too far in trying to compare Japan and the US, another common mistake that I am occasionally guilty of myself (I’ve heard the “Japanese children are better behaved” line from more than one visiting Westerner, even though it’s not true at all).

Why the fixation on blogs? To examine the Japanese language version of the Internet, it might have been more insightful to see a treatment of other issues that might provide some better comparison between the US and Japan – why is anonymity so much more prevalent on the Japanese web? What is inspiring the Internet bullying phenomenon? Where are all the Japanese Internet superstars? Who’s getting rich off the growing online ad market? More than blogs, I feel like a good place to start would be 2-channel and the enigmatic Hiroyuki.

I can appreciate that this “Tokyo Stories” feature is an attempt to provide easy-to-understand vignettes about Japanese culture for an American audience. There is a lot of misunderstanding about Japan, so for readers and visitors to the Washington Post to take an interest in what’s going on on the other side of the world is extremely important. Unfortunately, the blanket generalizations and shallow analysis in this piece undermine that mission.

Video: ZEEBRA in the Snickers dimension

I just saw ZEEBRA’s new single “Shining Like a Diamond” on MTV and had to share it. In part of what seems to be a trend of blatant advertising in music videos (which are themselves supposed to be advertisements for a single … my head is spinning).

The narrative: May J fellates a Snickers bar to lure Japanese rapper Zeebra into what I call the “Snickers dimension”, which consists of a multi-racial harem and mountains of Snickers bars. I don’t know how the women keep so trim with nothing but Snickers to eat. Just watch:

Obviously, the other product pushed in the song is diamonds (though Bacardi gets a token mention), which I have seen quite often in Japanese music videos lately. Quite unlikely to be coincidence (just as the sudden Japanese “acceptance” of depression is less a sign of social progress as it is of pharm. companies looking to turn a profit).

One distinction I want to draw – the flashy consumerism that US rappers tout in their songs is more fixated on high-end items like expensive jewelry, Bentleys, and other rewards for making it big against all odds. While there are examples of very crude product placement (Nelly’s “Air Force Ones” comes to mind) in general there’s a process to either (a) select products that are a natural part of the lifestyle (pouring Cristal on strippers fits right in, for example); or (b) at least make the argument that they belong there when there’s some discrepancy (“gangsters don’t dance they… lean back” in promoting the “two-step” dance or 50 Cent bragging about his investment prowess in a line about how Coca Cola purchased his energy drink startup).

This video is totally gratuitous in its pushing of Snickers – the song has nothing to do with it and there’s nothing really indicating how Snickers gained the magic power to transport people to magic multi-racial orgyland. Of course, it’s kind of missing the point to expect US-style product sensibilities from 36-year-old Zeebra. The single father of two is a salaried member of SOLOMON I&I PRODUCTION and as a result could never dream of US-style sky-high record deals, and I’m willing to bet 120 yen (the going rate for a candy bar in Tokyo) that he doesn’t see much in the way of extra cash from the Snickers deal. It sure wasn’t his idea in the first place.

Anyway the sheer artlessness of it all made me laugh my ass off as I finished up the dishes tonight.