Press competition circa 1969

I was just reading a sweet TIME article from May 1969 entitled “Japanese Air Force.” It’s about the fleets of small aircraft which Japanese newspapers used to move reporters and information around at high speeds, back before they had bullet trains or broadband.

This passage is particularly exciting to read, and does a lot to help restore the credibility of a certain everyday newspaper:

Mainichi’s newsmen still gloat about a photo they got of the Rising Sun replacing the Stars and Stripes over Iwo Jima last summer, even though the ceremony marking the return of Japanese sovereignty ended just 15 minutes before the paper’s evening deadline. As the ceremony ended, a Beechcraft took off from Iwo Jima, 775 miles south of Tokyo, and negatives were processed aboard. Another plane sped toward Iwo, received the photos by radio when the planes were 250 miles apart, then turned toward Hachijo Jima, 175 miles south of Tokyo. While still in the air, the second plane radioed the pictures to a ground station at Hachijo, which then transmitted them to Tokyo by undersea cable. No other evening paper pictured that historic event.

I can’t help but think that as technology continues to advance, logistics will become a lost art. Nowadays we can use e-mail and FedEx to get anything done in short time–what will happen when we have, say, networked matter replicators?

Incidentally, a google image search for “japanese air force” turns up the following picture, which according to a humor blog is some sort of Jieitai training:

“Jenkins cleared for residency”

Of tangential relevance to my previous post, and the highly tangential references to the 1899 Nationality Law in the comments section, is the news that Charles Jenkins was just granted permanent residency. I think it is fair to say that the fact that it was announced personally by Justice Minister Kunio Hatoyama shows that he received special treatment (after all, would a retired man with no education normally meet the standard?) but in his case I think the double standard is acceptable.

Another Western family with old ties to Japan

The Asahi English website has a very interesting article entitled “Family planted Japan roots over a century ago“, on the history of the Apcar family, who first came to Yokohama around a century ago.

The family business, A.M. Apcar & Co., was established by Michael Apcar’s grandfather and run by his grandmother, Diana Agabeg Apcar after her husband’s sudden death in 1906. A.M. Apcar was born in what was then Persia and moved to India, then under British rule, and married Diana Agabeg. They were both from well-off Armenian families and decided to settle in Yokohama after spending part of their honeymoon here.

The entire history presented in the article is quite fascinating, but the following section is the one that really jumped out at me.

Life took a terrible turn as Japan moved toward a war footing.

In hindsight, it is curious the Apcars did not join other Westerners who left Japan before fighting broke out with the United States.

Leonard M. Apcar, Michael’s son, recalls a passage from memoirs written by Michael’s mother, Araxe, about an exchange with her husband about leaving Japan. Araxe asked her husband if Japan would ever go to war with the United States.

Michael Apcar Sr.’s reply was: “No, it would be suicide for the Japanese to go to war with the United States. It’s crazy and wouldn’t happen.”

On Dec. 8, 1941, after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, military police surrounded the Apcar home and hauled Michael Apcar Sr. off to prison.

Among the reasons for the detainment was the fact that the elder Apcar was the highest-ranking member of his Masonic lodge in Yokohama.

He was imprisoned for 14 months, during which time he was often tortured for information about his fellow Masons, according to his son.

During his father’s imprisonment, Michael’s sister, Dorothy, died. Her tombstone was made in the United States and he had never seen it in the cemetery until Tuesday.

Life did not get any better after his father’s release. The Apcars were given the choice of moving to either Hakone in western Kanagawa Prefecture or Karuizawa in Nagano Prefecture. They chose Karuizawa because it was thought there was a better chance of bartering for food with local farmers.

“My father knew the war was on and there was no business to be conducted, so he sold everything in the house,” Apcar said, noting that the family moved to a much smaller cottage in Karuizawa.

“(My father) knew he had to get enough money to live on during the war and he didn’t know how long the war was going to last,” Apcar said.

The Apcars lived in Karuizawa for about two years, raising goats and chickens and growing potatoes after clearing land filled with tree stumps.

“The winters would get terribly cold,” Apcar recalls. “If we spilled water anywhere in the house, it would immediately freeze.”

What turned out to be a lifesaver for the Apcars was a makeshift oven for heating and cooking that was put together from sheet metal saved by Apcar’s father from crates he received as an importer of horse liniment.

As the war situation facing Japan worsened, conditions in Karuizawa grew harsher.

“It got so bad in Karuizawa that my father and I had to keep watch because people were so hungry they would come and dig up the potatoes,” Apcar said.

One of the few advantages to living in Karuizawa was the fact it was not a target for Allied bombing raids.

The same could not be said for Yokohama. After Japan surrendered, Apcar found work as a guide and interpreter for Swiss officials who were seeking permission from the U.S. Army to move the Swiss Embassy from Karuizawa back to Tokyo.

He went to his place of birth.

“Yokohama was flat,” Apcar said. “I couldn’t find my way in Yokohama because the house where I was born was gone. All I saw was a bathtub. Everything was burned up, gone.”

Apcar eventually sailed with one of his sisters in September 1946 to San Francisco, where they had relatives.

This particular episode is in stark contrast to another long term expat family who remained in Yokohama during World War 2, which some readers here may remember. Almost two years ago I made a long post on William R. Gorham, an American engineer who moved to Japan for business, helped to found the predecessor to the Nissan Motor Corporation, and eventually became, along with his wife, a Japanese citizen in May of 1941-about 5 months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Gorham children returned to the US around this time, having been raised and educated in Japan but never naturalizing there. William R. Gorham survived the war with no particular hardship, was treated well by the occupation authorities-who he worked for as an advisor-and had a successful consulting firm in the postwar period, which helped such companies as Canon. His son Don Cyril Gorham, who was perhaps the first (or at least among the first) Westerner to receive an undergraduate degree from Tokyo University, served as a translator for the US both during and after the war, and visited Japan as recently as last October, at the age of 90.

The question looms of why one Western family, who as Americans were citizens of the very country Japan was going to war with and had been in Japan only for a couple of decades, was given the royal treatment, while the other, who had lived in Japan far longer and had no ties to the US (although they did move there postwar) were imprisoned like POWs. It seems likely that family connections were key.

While the Apcar family presumably had strong connections to the Yokohama business community, the many overseas contacts needed to run a successful trading company may have alarmed security officials. And as the article points out, membership in the Masons was also a key factor. Foreign-based quasi-mystical secret brotherhoods would not have been well regarded by the militaristic government of 1941 Japan.

By contrast, William R. Gorham’s business interests were pretty much Japan based. He was an inventor and engineer more than a businessman, and seems to have been little involved in any sort of international dealings. The Gorhams moved in high society. His wife studied traditional arts such as ceramics and ikebana with masters of the crafts, and even tutored a princess in English. Mr. Gorham’s close friend and business partner was Yoshisuke Ayukawa, famous for expanding Nissan (which Gorham himself contributed greatly to) into a zaibatsu, and helping develop Japanese industry in Manchuria. In fact, Don Cyril-his son-speculated in an email to me (actually transcribed by his daughter) that Ayukawa used his personal influence to fast-track the Gorham’s unusual eve-of-war application for citizenship.

Welcome to the China Maul

Roy and I were walking in the Nippombashi area of Osaka when we stumbled across a suspicious-looking cigarette machine. The first thing we noticed was that it wasn’t wired for Taspo age-verification cards (as it legally should be). Then we noticed it was selling Chinese cigarettes (Chunghwas, to be exact).

Chinese cigarette vending machine

Upon further examination, we realized that the cigarette machine was not actually working, which explained why it wasn’t wired for Taspo. Or perhaps not being wired for Taspo explained why it wasn’t working.

Anyway, it turns out that we had not only stumbled across a Chinese cigarette machine–it was guarding the entrance to a seven-story Chinese superstore called the “Shanghai China Maul.”

"China Maul"

This was not the only Engrish on display: there were “flesh vegetables” on sale upstairs. Besides cigarettes and vegetables, the place also has:

  1. A massive karaoke room which was apparently running at night for public singing orgies (free for ladies, ¥1,000 for men)
  2. Right above the main lobby, there’s an immigration lawyer (gyosei shoshi) and Softbank sales agent working next to each other at very similar-looking open counters. I guess this is so you can get your Japanese visa and your mobile phone in one place…
  3. The top floor is a well-stocked Chinese bookstore with a special shelf for Hong Kong news magazines (i.e. Chinese media banned on the mainland), but curiously very little content from Taiwan other than music.
  4. One floor was covered with what I can only describe as “random crap,” among it suitcases, electric fans, wooden tables and an oddly-twisted female mannequin torso.

Inside the China Maul

And here you can see Roy wondering aloud why he didn’t bring his digital SLR from Kyoto:

Inside the China Maul

Temp workers

Yesterday it was reported that Japan is considering a revision of the regulations governing temp workers, including the following section that might be rather difficult for most people to really understand.

The revised law will also tighten regulations on the industry practice of sending workers exclusively to certain clients or setting up a company for that purpose.

The practice allows client companies to use workers as nonpermanent employees because they are dispatched from a temp staff agency, thus cutting labor expenses.

To explain what this means, let me briefly discuss the labor situation at the private university in Japan where I worked for one year, from 2006-2007. In general, workers were divided into three categories: regular employees, contract employees, and part timers.

Regular employees were for the most part those hired through Japan’s so-called “shushoku” system of formalized job hunting that allocates the majority of good corporate jobs to fresh university graduates. In this university, almost every regular employee was hired through the shushoku system, and every regular employee I knew under the age of perhaps 30 or 35 was also a graduate of the same university. Some of the elder employees, such as the middle aged manager of my office, had been mid-career hires, but only after a couple of decades of work elsewhere. Regular employees are, in typical Japanese office style, expected to work long and pointless hours of overtime, and while they are contractually allowed to request overtime pay and use vacation days freely, unwritten social expectations prevent most from doing so. Many of these regular employees will spend their entire career in the same job, being gradually promoted based on a combination of seniority and merit. Merit probably factors in more than in the past but still less than would be desirable, and far more of them will also leave for another job at some point than in decades past. I would estimate that regular employees constituted about 25% of the office staff.

Contract employees are hired on what is effectively a three year contract, but is actually a one year contract with two renewal options. The contract stipulates a modest raise in the second and third year, but after the third year it is over and it is impossible for the employee to continue working there, no matter how much they want to or how good they are at their job. Since contract employeed were approximately half of the staff (at least in my office) this leads to an enormous waste of know-how and causes great inefficiency, as staff turnover is kept artificially high, and forces a lot of wasteful training. I am told that the reason for this system is that the labor regulations would require those modest annual raises to continue year after year, and so the university has taken the route of hiring employees with an expiration date, and then replacing them with fresh employees at the base salary. Contract employees leave exactly when the official shift is over, and if they actually have to due overtime due to excess work, will always request overtime pay for it. They have no long-term prospects, and it is impossible to move from being a contract worker to being a regular worker, no matter how competent or essential the person is. It is in fact possible for a former contract worker to start again on a fresh three year contract-at base salary level-but only after an insulting 6 month cooling off period, during which one is presumably and collecting unemployment insurance (which in Japan covers 3 months of payments after a contract concludes).

Part timers, who are almost all married woman who have young children in school and would have been housewives a generation ago, do essentially the same work as contract employees, but at significantly less pay and without benefits. I have no idea if they are theoretically limited in their employment duration, but without even the contract employee’s meager raises, why would they want to?

Now here is where the above quote comes in. There was a woman working in a different office from mine whose three year contract had expired. She liked her job and her co-workers, and her boss very much wanted her to stay, but under the rigid and bizarre employment system they had, it seemed that there was no way for her to stay. But she was offered an alternative, which involves a bizarre legal three card monty trick.

The university is a private, non profit, educational corporation. But they also “outsource” certain functions to a “joint stock company” (K.K. in Japanese terms) of which all shares are in fact held by the university. Various services such as cleaning, stocking, and certain other things I am not specifically clear about are sub-contracted to this company which is separate on paper, but has an office within the university, and whose board members are in fact staff of the university.

This woman, whose contract was expiring, was told that she could keep her same job, same desk, same duties, continue to work with her friends-but she would in fact be technically hired on a fresh contract by this shady subsidiary corporation and then dispatched as a temp to the university. Of course, being hired as a temp through a “third party” she would be taking a pay cut. Intelligently interpreting this as an insulting and demeaning offer, she declined the “new” position.

This, in short, is one of the types of hiring practice that the proposed new regulations are hoping to address.

PLA’s performance in earthquake good sign for Taiwan?

With enough time having passed since the massive earthquake disaster in China to being to look at it analytically, a number of military experts are saying that the People’s Liberation Army response was, for the most part, enthusiastic but not very competent.

Mr. Blasko and other experts said that because the military did not have heavy-lift helicopters, vital equipment like excavators and cranes had to be brought in on roads obstructed by landslides, slowing the pace of the rescue operations.

Shen Dingli, a leading security expert at Fudan University in Shanghai, said the military’s response did not reflect well on the military’s preparedness for a potential war with, say, Taiwan, the independently governed island that China claims as its sovereign territory. China’s air force deployed 6,500 paratroopers to Sichuan, but only 15 ended up dropping into the disaster zone, military officials said, because of bad weather and forbidding mountain terrain. Mr. Shen called the effort too little and too late.

“The air force should have been able to get troops into Wenchuan in two hours,” he said, referring to a county near the quake’s epicenter. “It took 44 hours. If it took them 10 hours, that’s understandable. But 44 hours is shameful.”


I’m certainly no military expert, but if the Chinese air force achieved a nearly 100% failure rate on air drops in domestic territory with no enemy fire, and took 20 times as long as they should have to actually get their people in, I would think that Taiwan’s chances of fending off an attack might be a lot better than had been assumed over the past few years. I am actually rather surprised to read about how poorly equipped the PLA is, considering how much ink has been spilled recently on China’s rapid military investment. Is all of the money going into Navy, missiles, and attack aircraft or something? While the 1000 or so missiles pointed at Taiwan might cause some damage to the island, I would also imagine that a “lack of heavy-lift helicopters and transport aircraft” would make an actual invasion more than a little impractical.

With the unrealstic promise by the KMT to reinvade China long abandoned, Taiwan can be perfectly secure without the ability to send ground forces into China, as long as they have the ability to fend off air and sea attacks-particulary if their medium/long range missiles that could allegedly blow the Three Gorges Dam are as effective as they claim. But China isn’t worried about attacks from Taiwan-their military planning is largely aimed at preparing for an invasion of the island-and if they can’t even bring a few thousand rescue workers into a domestic disaster area faster than 44 hours, they would have very little hope indeed of delivering the numbers of troops needed to occupy Taiwan before US aircraft carriers arrived.

Another obituary: My Osaka alma mater

My first trip to Japan was to spend a year in the Rotary Youth Exchange program at a high school in Osaka. The school hosting me was Ogimachi Senior High, which closed its old campus earlier this year in order to prepare for a 2010 merger with Konohana Sogo Senior High. (The two schools will share a new campus near Nishi-Kujo for the next two years.)

Ogimachi was founded in 1921 as a girls’ high school in the Ogimachi district of northern Osaka, just east of Umeda. After the school was destroyed by American bombers in 1945, it wandered around nomad-like to temporary facilities in Temma and Horikawa before getting a new dedicated facility in Dojima, west of Umeda, in 1948. It became co-educational at that time by swapping students with Osaka Senior High School.

The school moved to a new campus on Nakanoshima (between the Rihga Royal Hotel and the science museum) in 1957, and was still located there when I was a student. By that time, the place was basically falling apart: we could peel the tiles from the floor. It was miserably hot in the summer, when only the computer room and language learning lab had air conditioning, and miserably cold in the winter, when we had to hurriedly warm our hands over a gas heater between classes just to keep holding our pencils for the next hour.

As the state of repair might indicate, Ogimachi was not a very high-grade school. I was in the “humanities course,” which sort of resembled what Americans would call a magnet program, but even the kids in that course were lower-middle-class at best and didn’t have particularly high academic or career aspirations. This shattered many of my preconceptions about Japanese education, since I had always assumed (in my teenaged intellectual shell) that they had high levels of ambition in order to put up with the rigmarole of crazy exams.

I try to keep in touch with classmates when I can, and had a chance to meet many of them again at a reunion a couple of years ago. (This was the trip during which I photographed Mount Fuji from the plane.) They were all basically shocked to hear that I was working in Japan, and even moreso to hear that I was working at a law firm in Tokyo. Nearly a decade since we went to school together, here’s where they are:

  • Two, who I always considered to be “goofy,” are working as salesmen at a pharmaceutical company in Osaka (I went out drinking with them when they visited Tokyo for a trade show). They were into fishing when we went to school together, but have since switched hobbies to motorcycles.
  • One is a JR conductor. At our reunion people were egging him to recite announcements for various trains (e.g. “Do the Yamatoji Rapid Service!”)
  • One, who I always considered to be the most intelligent (a Chinese kid from Shanghai who spoke perfect English in addition to Japanese and Chinese dialects), sells AU phones in Shinsaibashi.
  • One very otaku-ish girl, who was in the art club and kendo club, is now apparently in the Self-Defense Forces. (I had a crush on her back then and I think the SDF bit has made it stronger.)
  • The Judo Nazi, who I wrote about in my very first post at Mutantfrog, has disappeared and nobody seems to know what happened to him.
  • My two best friends from the school are working as a social worker and a truck driver.

Anyway, it saddens me to know that one of the key institutions which introduced me to Japan will soon be no more. It saddens me even more to know that the post-merger school will have one of the most obnoxious names ever conceived for a school: “Saku Ya Kono Hana Senior High” (咲くやこの花高等学校).

Oh well, there goes what little alumni pride I had. At least I can still say I went to Carnage Middle School (albeit for about six months).