Best J-E financial glossary ever, available for free by the FSA thanks to the magic of XBRL

Thanks to some technological advances in the area of financial reporting, I am happy to pass along this very handy Japanese<>English financial glossary (3MB, Excel format). This treasure trove contains an extensive bilingual list of the terms used in Japanese financial statements, spanning all sectors and including terminology for investment business and mutual funds.
The file is a list of terms to used in XBRL. Ever heard of it? If you don’t work in investment or the finance department of a corporation, don’t feel bad if you haven’t. It’s a markup language, similar to XML or HTML, customized for the production of financial statements. (watch this awesome Japanese-language Flash animation to learn more).
The point is to standardize all aspects of producing the statements. Completely standardized and easily processed statements have all sorts  of advantages, from highly efficient analysis to potentially spotting massive frauds. And the advantages extend beyond mere numbers because the the format standardizes terminology across languages.  I have no clue how they came up with the translations (the FSA site mentions something about the terms being “extracted from past materials”), but from what I have reviewed they are all pretty solid. reports (perhaps with some slight overhyping of XBRL’s advantages by the SEC and others) that the system is set to be introduced to 500 of the largest US companies starting in April:

Adding XBRL tags to financial disclosures makes them searchable and much easier to compare. What used to be available only to financial professionals now will be easily accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. Investors, and regulators, in theory, will be able to analyze data faster and more easily, and possibly finding anomalies in corporate financial statements and investments.

The new rule, while not necessarily helping SEC and investors uncover problems that led to the collapse of the financial industry or discover investment fraud such as that allegedly perpetuated by Bernard Madoff, will improve financial analysis. To do so, XBRL would have to be applied to filings on all types of securities, including asset-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations.

The move will bring the United States into alignment with worldwide practices, said Diane Mueller, a member of the XBRL international steering committee and vice president of XBRL development at software vendor JustSystems.

Currently, financial disclosure records that public companies and mutual funds file are large, unwieldy documents often thousands of pages long. Only large financial institutions have been able to devote the time and staff necessary to parse through the documents and glean the most pertinent information and figures for analysis.

The adoption of XBRL, however, is likely to significantly change the way companies are analyzed. The addition of data tags will allow software to instantly comb through reports and identify the most critical information and figures. XBRL “makes for much easier and timely comparisons between companies,” Moyer said. “Today it’s extraordinarily difficult for investors to compare between balance sheets of two banks. They have different reporting styles, etc. [XBRL] starts to conform balance sheets and give you more comparability.”

Another advantage of XBRL for the commission is regulators will know instantly if a company’s filing is missing any key information because the software will automatically identify what data is missing when corporations electronically file documents and then notify the company and SEC. Previously, regulators had to manually check files to find missing information, Mueller said.

Speaking of worldwide practice, Japan’s Financial Services Agency, the financial regulator, was a step ahead, becoming one of the first major financial centers to mandate XBRL filing starting in April last year. Thanks in part to the Japanese authorities’ desire to be a leader in this area, they have provided an official FSA “XBRL taxonomy,” current as of March 2008, which is the file linked above.  
While this isn’t exactly news, it’s the first time I actually bothered to look. I had heard that the transition to XBRL could completely eliminate the need to translate financial statements manually, but wasn’t quite sure what it meant until now. Dig in, and mourn the coming loss of one source of translation work!

Aso adopts a courageous pro-guide dog stance

When you’re the prime minister of Japan,  those in your own party think you’re a joke AND your finance minister resigns in disgrace after makign a drunken ass of himself on the world stage, what should you do to reassure the citizenry that you’re doing a good job?

Simple – change the subject to cute puppies. Here’s a clip from his latest e-mail magazine:

The Prime Minister’s Office usually has only human visitors,
but last week I received a visit from service dogs accompanied by
their users, including this woman.

Service dogs are a type of assistance dog, just like guide dogs for
visually disabled people and hearing dogs for people with hearing
disabilities. The role of service dogs is to help their physically
challenged users with tasks such as opening doors or getting

I heard that Sherry is able to open the refrigerator downstairs,
take out a plastic drink bottle, close the refrigerator door,
and then bring the bottle upstairs. Also, I saw for myself
how a service dog called Elmo was able to pick up a business card
holder dropped on the floor when his wheelchair-bound user gave
the command, “Take!”

I myself have lived with dogs for as long as I can remember. Shiro
and Lucky were the names of my two mongrel dogs — one had been
picked up by the local healthcare center and the other was about to
be used for animal experiments.

When I was a child, it was my daily job to feed them and take them
out for walks. When Shiro died, I could not stop crying as
I recalled how he was when he was healthy, and the way he would
always come rushing out happily to greet me each time I returned
home. This was the time when the importance and preciousness of
life were instilled in my young mind.

Given my own experience, I believe that coming into contact with
animals is highly beneficial in many ways for the development of

Assistance dogs are partners for physically challenged people,
acting as extensions of their bodies. The government will step up
its efforts to make assistance dogs more common, through measures
such as putting its weight behind assistance dog training.

At the same time, I would like as many people as possible,
including readers of this e-mail magazine, to know about assistance
dogs. That is my sincere wish.

So, is this some kind of subtle cry for help? Does he want a guide dog of his own? Whatever the case, the image is kind of a step removed from the determination to fix the economy as shown in this attention-grabber:


Dumb Luck: Japanese gamblers love hunches—and throw statistics out the window

[Roy: The following is a short article by my friend Benjamin Boas, which was recently published as the back page “Last Word” column in Tokyo’s free English language paper, Metropolis. Ben and I actually met around 12 years ago when we were both attending Buck’s Rock Summer Camp and then after a decade of no contact, both happened to be studying at Kyoto University at the same time last year. Ben spent one year at Kyoto University on a Fulbright grant, which he used to conduct field work researching the anthropology of Japanese gambling, particularly the social role of mahjong in Japanese office culture.

He has a sporadically updated blog on his mahjong studies, found here.]

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During last year’s All Japan Poker Championship, one of the finalists made a play that seemed strange. Despite only having an unmatched ace, he called an all-in bet by his opponent at the flop, caught nothing on the turn and river, and lost to his opponent’s pair of tens. Since he could have folded his hand and taken a small loss instead of losing the whole championship, making that call was at best very risky and at worst a terrible play. I mentioned this to some of the expert players at the tournament, and they agreed, but one Japanese spectator had a different opinion.

“Did you see that last hand?” he said. “You didn’t know who would win until the end. It was so exciting!”

When I pointed out that that the chances of the losing player winning that hand were very low he was unmoved.

“But you don’t know what card is going to come next!” he maintained. “He could have gotten the ace.”

Assuming my Japanese had been misunderstood, I got my friend, a former champion, to explain that although there was a chance of this happening, it wasn’t high enough to justify not folding. This, too, fell on deaf ears. It was more than just not understanding how poker worked; the guy didn’t seem to understand that there’s a difference between luck and probability.

In my years studying the Japanese gambling world, I’ve run into this a type of thinking quite often, and sometimes I wonder why.

Now, myopic reasoning is definitely not limited to Japanese people. No one besides card counters, poker sharks and casino owners comes away from Las Vegas ahead in the long run, but that doesn’t stop millions of people of every nationality from trying. What makes Japan different from America, however, is that gambling parlors aren’t limited to a couple of cities and Indian reservations; they stand on nearly every street corner of Tokyo and dot practically the entire countryside.

I am speaking, of course, about pachinko parlors, which account for roughly 4 percent of Japan’s GNP and are patronized by nearly a quarter of the population. Although commonly described as “Japanese pinball” and legally defined as something close to an arcade game, pachinko is machine-operated gambling and nothing more. Thanks to the advent of automated shooting and computer controlled payouts, after a player sits down at the machine, skill is practically nonexistent. Despite the fancy CG and byzantine prize-redeeming system, pachinko is probably best described as a slot machine in a kimono.

And that’s not the worst of it. If you factor in all other forms of gambling and take into account differences in population size, Japanese and Americans spend roughly the same amount on gambling-but Japanese people lose twice as much money. What accounts for this difference?
Part of the answer may be found in another Japanese gambling game, mahjong. Although Chinese in origin, mahjong was introduced here over 100 years ago and is currently one of the country’s most popular board games. Several manga dealing with mahjong are released every month, and the stories, written by pros, often touch on the subject of luck. Some of these writers’ ideas about how probability works are pretty suspect, particularly when they recommend “analog” methods over “digital” approaches.

Analog players try to play in accordance to their luck. If they feel lucky, they make risky plays and shoot for big hands; if not, they give up on hands regardless of how promising they may look. Digital players, on the other hand, make plays which are statistically likely to favor them.

Think about that. If this debate were brought to the attention of skilled poker players, it would get laughed out of the room. Yet I have interviewed very senior mahjong pros who insist that the young ‘uns who play only according to the numbers are “idiots.” “If you can successfully take your opponent’s luck,” they say, “you can win in any situation.” Just like with the spectator at the poker tournament, no explanation will get through to them until they recognize the significance behind probability math.

So, in the end, I had to agree that yes, the losing player was very unlucky and yes, poker is interesting because you don’t know who is going to win. What I will always remember about that conversation was seeing the expression on my friend’s face as we gave up. It was the same face I see Japanese people put on when they just can’t get a foreigner to understand the way things work in Japan.

Japan’s richest people, 2009 edition

The new Forbes list is out and this is apparently the 2009 lineup of Japanese plutocrats:

1. Tadashi Yanai (Uniqlo), $6.1 billion
2. Kunio Busujima (Sankyo), $5.2 billion
3. Hiroshi Yamauchi (Nintendo), $4.5 billion
4. Akira Mori (Mori Trust), $4.2 billion
5. Masayoshi Son (Softbank), $3.9 billion
6. Eitaro Itoyama (free agent), $3.7 billion
7. Hiroshi Mikitani (Rakuten), $3.6 billion
8. Nobutada Saji (Suntory), $3.5 billion
9. Hiroko Takei (Takefuji heiress/widow), $2.8 billion
10. Takemitsu Takizaki (Keyence), $2.4 billion

Interesting collection. No really earth-shattering moves on this list, other than the ascendancy of Uniqlo, one of the great inferior goods that’s profiting from this recession. (More on these companies here.)

Adamu had some more commentary on the “usual suspects” back in 2005: Saji, Itoyama and the late Mr. Takei were all on the list back then.

English teaching in Japan by the numbers

(UPDATE – See my follow-up post for more measures of the industry)

To follow up on my earlier take on eikaiwa as the gaijin community’s whipping boy, I want to try and paint a dispassionate, quantitative picture of the eikaiwa industry itself.  

Back in summer 2006, I noted that the number of participants (newcomers plus extended contracts) in the JET program had been falling steadily after peaking in 2002 at 6,273. A quick check of the MIC website shows that this trend has continued through 2008 (click image and scroll down for better resolution).


The 2008 total was 4,682, 25.4% down from the peak. I would expect the pace to slow down a bit, considering they recently extended the maximum contract length from three years to five.

Non-JET ALTs/eikaiwa

In the private sector, METI figures (Excel) show the number of instructors at regulated “foreign language conversations schools” peaked in 2003 at 13,365, but stood at 9,591 as of the end of 2008, down by 28.3% from the peak and 22.4% since the JET Program’s peak.

Figures are less forthcoming about a third segment of the market, non-JET ALTs at schools across the country, but they are available. According to an October 2008 report from the Chunichi Shimbun (thanks Let’s Japan),  the number of non-JET ALTs surpassed JETs in 2006, and by 2007 represented 60% of all ALTs or nearly 8,000 people.

(A quick aside: There is some evidence that the education ministry views the issue of “temporary and contract” ALTs as a considerable problem, as these non-JETs can fall through the cracks in terms of supervision, training, and visa compliance. In February 2005, the ministry issued a letter to boards of education nationwide warning them to ensure that contracts with non-JET ALTs are “appropriate” (apparently in response to unfavorable press coverage) (source).)

Unfortunately, I am having trouble locating the exact figures for non-JET ALTs over time. They can be found by combining the totals of education ministry surveys given to schools asking the status of their English-language education. The only trouble is, the surveys are separated by scholastic level; and they aren’t neatly organized by year.

But I was able to find the total for 2002: 3090. So put together, here is the breakdown of “market share” of instructors in all three segments for 2002 and 2007 (click for full size):



Non-JET ALTs appear to be quickly becoming the dominant employment type in the industry. JETs went from outnumbering non-JET ALTs 2:1 from being outnumbered by them 3:2. Possibly on a related note, this ratio (1/3 of all instructors are temp/contract) is consistent with the overall ratio of non-permanent workers in the overall workforce.

The tables were turned for conversation schools vs. ALTs as well. The end of 2007 was right when NOVA collapsed, and before that several other schools went bankrupt. This no doubt pinched the number of private teachers.

Interestingly, the totals of both years indicate that the pie was still growing as late as the end of 2007: the total number of teachers grew 7%, from 21,729 in 2002 to 23,130 in 2007. This growth rate matches the 7.0% growth in US citizen registered foreigners over the same period, though it underperforms the overall 16% growth in the number of registered foreigners (PDF). Japan’s total workforce (seasonally adjusted (Excel)), meanwhile, declined 10.1% during this period.

(Note that there are some considerable limitations to this data, though I think it at leasts provides a good chunk of the overall picture. First, I have included all JETs in the total, out of the consideration (emphasized by Curzon) that ALTs, CIRs, and those special physical education instructors all serve the purpose of “internationalization.” Also, “conversation schools” cover languages other than English, though I think it is safe to say English continues to be the overwhelmingly most popular language. There may be some overlap in the “conversation school” and “non-JET ALT” category as some businesses classified as conversation schools might also list non-JET ALTs as “instructors” resulting in some double-counting. These numbers also do not cover private lessons and unregistered schools, nor does it cover some of the related markets, such as private-sector study abroad, English teachers at universities, full-time foreign English teachers at schools, English teaching services provided by foreign governments such as the British Council, Internet services/podcasts, broadcast lessons such as those given on NHK, and book and CD publishing, all of which could add up to hundreds more teachers.)

Prospects – private sector

Although the supply of teachers grew backed by the surge in non-JET ALTs, eikaiwa as a business appears to be shrinking very fast (Excel). After falling for three years starting in 2003, sales boomed in 2006, whereafter the bottom appears to have fallen out from under the industry (Y axis unit = 1 million yen. Click for full-size):


This precipitous drop coincides with reports at the time of oversupply in the eikaiwa market as the big schools such as NOVA rushed like mad to open schools in every corner of the country. The following years saw the collapse of several schools including NOVA, the former market leader. (UPDATE: this drop also coincides with legal revisions that made it easier for dissatisfied students to request refunds). Teachers may face some serious difficulty as the excess supply adjusts to match demand. This drop in sales far outpaces that of firms listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange, which are expected to face a year-on-year 6.5% drop for FY2008 (final profits are a different story, but without sales there isn’t much hope of making a profit, is there?).

During this time, Japanese households’ discretionary income fell 1.9% (though slightly less in real terms). With the reputation of the industry damaged and Japanese households concerned about their basic livelihoods, it seems hard to expect that the workers’ desires to make their skills more competitive will save any but the highest quality businesses in this industry.

Prospects – public sector

Meanwhile, recent economic turmoil (annualized 12% GDP shrinkage for Oct.-Dec. 2008 makes Japan the hardest-hit G-7 economy) could put pressure on the public sector as well, as described in a previous comment by Aceface:

I have to wonder how many eikaiwa community understand gloomy future ahead of them. Many local government are now facing rapid decline of corporation tax income due to the down sizing of production in Toyota factories, ANd under such circumstances we can no longer justify this 21st century version of “Oyatoi-Gaijin” we know as JET/ALT.
Aichi, Shizuoka, Gihu,  Mie and Gunma need as much Portuguese/Japanese bilingual staffs as possible since there are tons of works must be done starting from job education for the unemployed. And since they have no extra budgets,most likely gone will be “international exchange”related posts.

While I am not sure what the rules are for funding non-JET ALTs (I am assuming schools can choose to use local taxes, or private schools their budgets), the JET program is funded by redistributed local taxes (chihou koufuzei), doled out to prefectures and municipalities at a pre-determined ratio, plus extra for local administrations with particular plans to use the money. The funds come from “the five national taxes” – income tax, corporate income tax, consumption tax, alcohol tax, and tobacco tax.   The income taxes have been on a downward growth trend since the 1990s, while consumption tax has emerged to rival those as a revenue generator. The sin taxes have maintained a consistent, relatively low holding pattern. The redistribution amount peaked in 2001 and has been falling roughly in line with the corporate income tax. Though 2008 tax receipts were forecast to be up slightly (possibly due to the tax bills for earlier profits), original finance ministry estimates appear to have fallen far from the mark, failing to anticipate the dismal corporate earnings, rising unemployment, and stagnant consumption. This means the major tax revenue sources are expected to fall significantly.


English teaching in Japan looks like it is in for a very rough patch. While this exercise hasn’t been exactly a happy one, I hope it’s been informative. It certainly has been for me.

UPDATE: I have posted some more data on the industry in a follow-up.

What to expect from the new national gaijin cards

Yomiuri has reported that the Justice Ministry has formally proposed to scrap the locally-administered alien registration system in favor of a national system under the control of (you guessed it) the Justice Ministry. This has been in the works since last year and would have to be approved by the Diet as an amendment to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act, so don’t expect any changes overnight, but these are the changes we can apparently expect from the new system:

Benefits for foreigners

  • Ordinary period of stay on work/study permits will be extended from three to five years, meaning a bit less effort and expense to stay current on registration.
  • The “trainee” system will be renamed to something more reflective of reality, and “trainee”-class workers will get more explicit labor law protection.
  • Special permanent residents (zainichi Koreans) will enjoy much easier re-entry processing. Departures from Japan for up to two years will not require a re-entry permit, and a re-entry permit will allow them to stay outside the country for up to six years (currently the maximum is four). The zainichi apparently won’t be part of the new alien registration system, but will get their own certificate instead. (They still have to carry it around, though.)
  • Centralizing everything at the Justice Ministry will probably cut out some of the processing time lags that exist in updating alien registration information (for instance, Japan still doesn’t know how many foreigners it finished out the year with because immigration and the city halls haven’t finished striking the records of people who left for good at year’s end). It should also spare people the shuffle of having to personally notify city hall every time their immigration status or period of stay changes.

New problems for foreigners

  • Assuming this replaces the existing alien registration system completely, city hall will no longer have information on the city’s foreign residents, which might affect the way municipal services get distributed (hard to tell, though).
  • In the same vein, since everything has to go through the Immigration Bureau, updating registered information like address or employer may not be as convenient as walking into city hall. (Here’s one blogger [in Japanese] who picked up on this drawback right away.)
  • According to NHK, one of the motivations behind this is that the current system does not “make it a duty” to report a change of address to city hall, which makes it harder to track the foreign population in each municipality. The subtext seems to be that there will be harsher penalties for not keeping this information up to date (right now, while foreigners are supposed to keep their address updated, nothing particularly bad happens if they forget to do so).
  • It seems that some personal information will be taken off the face of the card and put on an IC chip inside the card. Some paranoid folks hate the idea of the Gaijin Chip, but I am actually in favor of it if it keeps this information private to a casual observer. (The flip side is that when us foreign lawyers get carded, the cop can’t see that our profession is “attorney.”)

All this said, as David Chart points out, the Justice Ministry hasn’t been too bad to “good foreigners” lately. Although the new fingerprinting system is kind of annoying, the Ministry at least had the decency to give re-entrants a separate line at Narita immigration instead of lumping them with tourists (which was part of the initial proposal, as I recall). So it isn’t too much of a stretch to expect that they will ultimately work this system in a fairly efficient manner, even if certain points raise alarm on paper.

The proposal is now in the hands of the LDP, which will have to make it into a bill for the Diet’s consideration, so theoretically anything can happen from this point.

Photo festival part 2-B: Adjoined slum and cemetary in Taipei: Part B-Cemetary

This is the third installment in my rapid photo gallery posting series to prepare for my new camera, following Part 1 Osaku amateur photographers in Akihabara and Part 2-A: Adjoined slum and cemetary in Taipei: Part 1-Slum.

Last summer when I was in Taipei I stayed for a week and change at my friend Cerise’s house, located in a nice new looking development up the hill a bit from Xinhai Station, on the Muzha MRT elevated train line. The area immediately around the station looks to have been a center of carpentry and similar workshops since well before the station was built in the early 1990s (Muzha was Taipei’s first MRT line, built from 1988 and opening in 1996), and still surround it.

Behind the station are several of the aforementioned workshops, beyond which is a hill, upon which is a traditional Chinese cemetery of the kind popular in Taiwan. This is not particulary weird, but what is kind of weird is that in between the cemetery hill and the immediate vicinity of the station is a small cluster of private homes that I can’t describe in one word any more appropriate than “slum”. These photographs are of the cemetery itself, and Part 2-A: Slum is the gallery of photographs of the area from the station to the area to the cemetery proper.

All photographs here taken with a Canon 300D camera with 17-85mm EFS lens, on August 1, 2008.

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Here are a flash slideshow, recommended for full-screen mode, followed by HTML for the flash challenged.

Here is the view from the path leading up the hill into the cemetery.

Continue reading Photo festival part 2-B: Adjoined slum and cemetary in Taipei: Part B-Cemetary

Let’s stop hurting each other – negative gaijin competition

(Updated below) (Updated again)

When I lived in Washington, DC, one of my part-time jobs was to teach TOEIC strategies mainly to Japanese bureaucrats and businessmen who were stationed in the area for one reason or another. They usually came as invitees of the State Dept. or, in the case of salarymen, sent by their companies to study the US patent system, auto crash test system, or other relevant area depending on their career track.  The school was somewhat unique in that it was specifically set up to cater to Japanese customers, making it effectively an eikaiwa school in the US. 

I was never a particularly good teacher. My experiences studying Japanese (at the time I had two years of study abroad in Kansai and the JLPT Level 1 under my belt) actually got in the way of my being an effective teacher, since I usually became so star-struck and curious about their government roles that it hampered their progress in getting through the TOEIC drills. Despite that (or perhaps because of it), the job was a very instructive experience for me, not least in terms of how adults try and learn second languages.

Students were typically early/mid-career bureaucrats in their late 30s or early 40s with no relevant international experience. Hence, their English levels all tended to hover around a fairly low level (TOEIC of around 500 or so, decent reading skills, next to no speaking and listening skills). This helped create a sense of community among the students, who often congregated for small-talk, safe in the knowledge that they were all in the same boat.

Intermediate students threatened this balance. “Intermediate” in this sense simply means a student who can express himself relatively fluently in some situations and maybe has some cultural fluency as well. Though the lessons were mostly one-on-one, during group lessons with the school’s president the intermediate always gained a reputation as “the fluent one.” As a result, the other students would defer to this more advanced student and consider him the standard for progress. Each time this happened, there was always at least one student who became discouraged and grew reluctant to express himself or really try and move forward on his own terms, especially in the group lessons. At the same time, I could detect a kind of jealousy of the intermediate students for getting ahead of them.

The intermediate students could sense how the others felt about them, and some seemed to even relish their top dog position. They tended to be prideful and resisted my suggestions that they needed help with key concepts. It became pretty frustrating at times because even the intermediate students couldn’t successfully understand our teaching materials, which consisted mainly of old TOEIC tests and NPR archives. Basically, they were riding high on the difference between a 600 TOEIC and a 700 TOEIC, which in reality isn’t all that significant.

In the end, this was a form of negative competition. Even if the people around you are more advanced, that doesn’t mean you have to compare yourself with them (at the school we would try and separate intermediate students if possible). And just as important, if you are ahead of your peers, that is no excuse to sit on your laurels. Since the wider world is much more competitive than your circle of acquaintances, it is important to identify your own strengths and weaknesses, and work from there.

Gaijin Hierarchy

The same thing happens among foreigners in Japan, and I am just as guilty of this behavior as anyone. Typically, even in casual conversation people in the Japanese as a second language community as well as the eikaiwa community will rank each other on their relative prowess in Japanese, and I am sure most readers of this blog have endured the utter awkwardness of the Japanese-language/Japanese culture knowledge “pissing contest.” I noticed this tendency very strongly over the (mostly off-topic) discussion at Japan Probe related to the allegations of fund misuse in the JET Program. Here is a typical example of this need to impose hierarchy (UPDATE: Not really, but it’s a good lead-off for discussion nonetheless. See comments for clarification):

Comment by Darg:

I’m a former JET, although I wasn’t an ALT. I was a CIR (Coordinator of International Relations), and have had this convo many times before. I really think the proper solution should be to put more focus on the international understanding and relations and less on the English teaching, and as a result have more CIRs and less ALTs.

I believe the CIR job is closer to the original intention of the JET program, and that is to promote cultural exchange. The problem is, most people don’t even know what a CIR is and think the JET program is a big waste of money because of the portion of ALTs that come out here and screw things up for the majority who actually try and get something done.

If they required a minimum of teaching experience for ALTs and raised the CIR:ALT ratio, I think a lot more people would appreciate the JET program.

This is objectively false (UPDATE: again, see comments for how I misunderstood what he envisioned CIRs doing). The program is called “Japan Exchange and Teaching Program” for a reason – historically, it was set up to place foreigners inside school classrooms to help with the drive to “internationalize” Japan through better English learning. The job of a CIR, on the other hand, is secondary to that priority – they typically assist with the “international” programs of a local city hall. The only basis for concluding that CIRs are more beneficial to the JET program than the ALTs – and this view appears to be common – seems to be the desire to believe that the advanced Japanese language requirements for CIRs actually mean something, as opposed to those illiterate ALTs who are allowed to come to Japan equipped with nothing but their English skills and the enthusiasm to teach kids.

In fact, while I have heard of a productive role for the Portuguese-speaking CIRs who help facilitate communication in towns with high Brazilian populations, others complain that CIRs are often given the basically pointless jobs of promoting multicultural events and maintaining sister city relationships. That these jobs require some Japanese competency does nothing substantially to improve the objective “worth” of these positions.

It is easy to make Darg’s mistake of dismissing ALTs’ role in supplementing the current, generally poor state of English language teaching and general proficiency, including among Japanese-national English teachers. This won’t go away overnight, and in over 20 years of the JET program not much seems to have changed. Commenter Jake brings this up:

Anyway, my point is that having a warm foreign body in every classroom in the country has become the status quo and nobody seems to be questioning that system itself — just figuring out how to maintain the system while cutting costs (i.e. handing all the contracts over to Interac). Then again, retooling the system to teach English in a manner that enables students to actually speak would also mean retooling the entire test-based educational system, and until that happens, pretty much any new policy implemented is going to be nothing more than a band-aid on a brain tumor.

Suggesting Japan should “retool the system” is MUCH easier said than done. Consider some of the moving parts involved:

  • All schools, from elementary to university level, would have to turn their fundamental principles of education upside down (and have the talent infrastructure to understand and accept this new system); progress in the form of all-English education has been made on this front.
  • Japanese-national teachers would have to become functionally fluent in English.
  • Universities would have to reform their entrance procedures to emphasize English proficiency as it’s understood by most of the world (this is apparently underway).
  • Parents would have to change their expectations for how their children study.

And on and on. Feel free to squabble over the details, but it’s clear enough that in the current environment, parachuting in “warm bodies” seems like a pretty good compromise. So despite all the insults I have dished out in the past, I really don’t think there is anything these ALTs/eikaiwa teachers should be ashamed of. In an imperfect system, they are playing an important role.

Yet I would argue that for the purpose of leading a productive life, it’s necessary to leave the whys and wherefores about eikaiwa aside. To a certain extent, supply and demand are beyond direct human control, and as a result much overarching debate on “the system” ends up being just another extension of the pissing contest.

But this point remains lost on too many with a vested interest in this issue – the teachers and those who look down on them in the milieu of gaijin society. Again and again, jobs that require Japanese in Japan are seen as more worthy than the dreaded English teacher position. Roughly speaking, I see the hierarchy as falling along these lines:

Japanese-speaking corporate executive > Professor > Interpreter > Token gaijin at a large corporation > Translator > Gaijin tarento > JLPT 1 passer > eikaiwa teacher-turned-entrepreneur > Journalist > CIR > Convenience store clerk/electronics salesman > Eikaiwa teacher >  Street performer > Hostess

Relatedly, the group of Western expats who work for foreign companies and generally live in a Little America (think Hiroo in Tokyo or Rokko Island in Kobe) are usually not even included in this universe of possibilities, despite there being substantial overlap in practice.

Could there be anything more arbitrary and meaningless? In every other corner of the word it seems like people understand that people of different skill sets and living situations have different career needs, prospects, priorities, and ways of life, so why do the gaijin need to bitch so much?

The majority of non-soldier Western expats in this country are eikaiwa teachers, so it is an interesting phenomenon to see that many even in the profession see it as pointless and counterproductive to their careers. The people within that group easily end up like my former students — forming a pecking order based on Japanese language ability and overall J-savviness.

Why? For one thing, the gaijin community can be pretty isolated – it is a small subset of wider Japanese society, so if language or cultural barriers have kept you from really assimilating with the mainstream, the only real alternative is to stay with the people with whom you have common ties. A thousand and one Japan bloggers will tell you this can be lonely and frustrating. For another, it cannot be denied that there is some truth to the idea that many people who end up in Japan were either single-mindedly obsessed with Japan from the beginning or simply didn’t give much thought to a career until graduation rolled around. People whose jobs came as an afterthought might welcome a distraction from their own situations.  

But most importantly, placing the eikaiwa teachers or those with poor Japanese on the bottom of the totem pole is a convenient and easy way to make people feel better about themselves. But again, it doesn’t actually help anyone – it’s just another form of negative competition. I hope the people living and working in Japan will step back from these false distinctions.

In terms of careers, eikaiwa teachers should try and think honestly where they are and consider where they would like to be, without worrying about whether their Japanese is up to snuff. Japanese is a lot of work, but it is doable and it will come. Or not. You will have to make the cost/benefit analysis of where your career is headed and whether it is worth it to stay in Japan at all costs or whether you might have better prospects back home, or even in a third country (I had a great time living in Bangkok). The economy isn’t all that great at the moment, but now is a good time to brush up on your strengths or the skills you wish were your strengths, whether they are Japanese language, network engineering, hip-hop dancing, or even English teaching.

Oddly, it’s the people supposedly on the top that might have the most to lose by “winning” this contest.  Even if you have passed JLPT 1 and “escaped” eikaiwa, why not take a look in the mirror and consider your next move? Many of the people who have succeeded somewhat in assimilating did so by going out of their way to avoid contact with other Westerners, out of the fear that overexposure to their native language would hinder the Japanization process. While there is some merit to that, especially at the early stages, at some point you will have to stop seeing other foreigners as competition. You should feel comfortable enough in your position that you’re happy to help others.

Despite all the praise you might get for speaking good Japanese, Japanese language alone does not make a career (and if you want to be a translator/interpreter, it’s harder than it looks). Nor will it make you a very interesting person if that’s all you’ve got. And remember, if you become too self-satisfied with your supposedly lofty achievements you may be in for a rude awakening.

YET MORE UPDATES (No more Chuck Norris…): Here is an updated hierarchy thanks to the comments section (again, this is just a rough estimate based on my assessment of the state of gaijin discourse):

The emperor if he actually has a surfer dude accent > Steven Seagal > all foreign sumo wrestlers except Konishiki and those Russians that got caught with weed > Naturalized Japanese citizen (some overlap here)* Street performer who hooked up with a famous idol > Japanese-speaking corporate executive > other foreign fighter/athlete> Attorney > Professor >  Interpreter > Token gaijin at a large corporation* > Translator >  Konishiki > Mombusho scholar > first-generation JET/BET who was totally not an English teacher > Translator who pisses on people > Professor who only teaches ESL > Jesus in Toyama > Gaijin tarento > JLPT 1 passer  > JLPT 1 passer who speaks in dialect to show off  > Genki English guy* > NGO Worker > eikaiwa teacher-turned-entrepreneur > Foreign Geisha > Journalist > high school exchange student > Akihabara tour guide (with Son Goku costume)* > Portuguese-speaking CIR > CIR > Convenience store clerk/electronics salesman* > Eikaiwa teacher >Bonsai (or other traditional Japanese craft) master > Bonsai (or other traditional Japanese craft) student > Buddhist convert > Shinto convert Headhunter Eikaiwa teachers who are milking the system > Street performer > Hostess > guy handing out event fliers in Roppongi > Foreign psychic > Evangelical Christian

* Position in hierarchy in dispute.

Pinyin in Taiwan

The Taipei Times printed an interview the other day with Yu Bor-chuan of the Taiwan Pinyin League, and head of the team that designed Tongyong Pinyin. He is of course a heavy promoter of Tongyong Pinyin, saying that it is better suited to Taiwan than the internationally accepted but PRC originated Hanyu Pinyin. He has some interesting background on the history of various kinds of phonetic writing in Taiwan, and of course makes his argument for avoiding Hanyu Pinyin.

That the MOE did not cite the source of the Hanyu Pinyin charts constituted an act of plagiarism as the phonetic system was approved by the State Council of the People’s Republic of China [PRC] and ratified by its National People’s Congress in 1958.

This is just a weird statement. He seems to be arguing that any discussion of Hanyu Pinyin MUST be centered on politics and not linguistics, which to me is an utterly absurd position.

As for the false information I mentioned, the MOE said Taiwan’s street and place names are spelled using Hanyu Pinyin on maps and atlases published by most countries and international organizations. This is not true, since the international community generally goes by the guideline of naming a person or a place after its original name.

There are hardly any countries or international organizations that use Hanyu Pinyin to spell places in Taiwan except maps published by China.

This, however, is correct. Of course, with romanization in Taiwan being so unstable, foreigners often have no idea which system they should be using.

TT: The main reason given by the government to adopt Hanyu Pinyin was to bring Taiwan in line with international standards.

Yu: If that was the real reason behind the policy shift, the government should have replaced the traditional characters used exclusively in Taiwan with simplified characters, because more than 95 percent of the [Chinese-speaking] population worldwide uses simplified characters.

He’s really mixing apples and oranges here. While it is kind of true that making all language policy decisions on the basis of international standards would lead to the adoption of simplified Chinese, Yu is being very disingenuous about the logic as it applies here. While traditional written Chinese is used in Taiwan as the national and official language and the medium of instruction for all Taiwanese, Pinyin in any form is used ONLY for the benefit of foreigners. Most Taiwanese simply do not learn Pinyin, whether Tongyong, Hanyu, or Wade-Giles. The argument that a supplemental writing system which is used only to accomodate foreigners should follow international standards should in no way mean that the primary writing system, used for the primary Taiwanese national language by its citizens, should also be changed.

Adopting Tongyong Pinyin will not pose difficulties for foreigners.

For foreigners who do not understand Mandarin, whether a road sign is spelled in Hanyu Pinyin or Tongyong Pinyin makes no difference, not to mention that Tongyong is more friendly to English speakers than Hanyu in terms of pronunciation.

The primary differences between the two systems are that Tongyong uses “s,” “c” and “jh,” which corresponds more to English spelling, instead of “x,” “q” and “zh” as used in Hanyu Pinyin, which English speakers without Mandarin skills do not usually know how to pronounce. There wouldn’t be a problem as long as street signs an maps were spelled consistently everywhere.

This is largely true. Consistency is the most important thing such a writing system, but why is consistency between the spelling of identical place names or syllables in Taiwan and the rest of the Chinese-speaking world a bad thing?

The Hanyu Pinyin system is not entirely suitable for Taiwan given the fact that not every Chinese character is pronounced in Taiwan as it is in China.

Maybe something is lost in translation here, but this sentence simply makes no sense. While some characters do have a different common pronunciation in Beijing-accented Mandarin or Taiwan-accented Mandarin, Taiwanese Mandarin uses exactly 0 sounds that do not exist in Hanyu Pinyin. I have a Chinese dictionary from Taiwan in which it notes-in Hanyu Pinyin-both pronounciatins where they differ.

Immediately after Hanyu Pinyin was adopted by the government in September, the MOE promulgated guidelines for using Hanyu Pinyin to Romanize Hakka, replacing the application of Tongyong Pinyin for teaching Hakka.

As Tongyong has been used for the Romanization of Hakka, even some KMT lawmakers were against the new guidelines. They said that it would make learning Hakka more difficult because Hanyu Pinyin did not accommodate sounds in the language.

This is getting into a more complicated area, but it is easily avoided. Hanyu Pinyin is a romanization system for Mandarin. Hakka, while a related language, is not Mandarin, and should have its own romanization system designed for it with no consideration for the romanization system used for other languages. While I am generally supportive of the move to use Hanyu Pinyin for Mandarin despite it being partly based on a political agenda, extending Hanyu Pinyin to other Chinese languages (or dialects, as they are known by Chinese nationalists) is a purely political choice that makes no sense from a linguistic, educational, or practical perspective.

The most serious problem is how our names are to be Romanized.

Although the Hanyu Pinyin guidelines allow individuals to decide the spelling of their name, it suggested using the format of surname first, followed by given name without a hyphen between the syllables … If my name were that way, my initials would be [Y.] B. instead of [Y.] B.C. in Tongyong Pinyin … How can the government ignore the fact that Taiwanese people have used a hyphen in their given name … for about 20 to 30 years?

No one has the right to arbitrarily decide what other people’s names should be. By the same token, Taiwan has every right to decide its proper names.

We should not give up autonomy over this as it is a representation of our sovereignty.

No real arguments here. People should be free to write personal names as they wish, but that doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be a recommended orthography. One thing that isn’t addressed even here is while for most Taiwanese (aside from ethnic aborigines) primarily write their name in the same Chinese characters, their primary language may be Mandarin, Taiwanese (Hoklo), or Hakka. Shouldn’t they be able to choose to romanize their name for international use in the system of their primary spoken tongue, and not based only on Mandarin?

Japan, where two different Romanization systems have been used since 1954, could serve as an example.

In 1954, Japan’s Cabinet announced a program including the Hepburn and the nippon-shiki [“Japan-style”] systems, under which the Hepburn Romanization system devised by an American is employed in overseas Japanese-language teaching materials, while the nippon-shiki system is used to transliterate local names and for domestic education.

Japan’s experience proves that the adoption of two Romanization systems does not hurt a country’s competitiveness. In addition, [there is] compatibility between the Tongyong and Hanyu Pinyin systems.

This is sort of true, but the nippon-shiki (actually the modernized version is Kunrei-shiki) serves almost no function. It is largely the same as the far more common Hepburn standard, much in the same way that Tongyong and Hanyu are largely the same, but has several minor differences which serve only to confuse. Even in Japan pretty much nobody actually uses anything but Hepburn romanization, and when he says “Japan’s experience proves that the adoption of two Romanization systems does not hurt a country’s competitiveness.” he should really be saying “Japan’s experience proves that the adoption of two Romanization systems is inconvenient, and everybody not legally required to use the less popular system will gravitate over time to the more popular one.”