Irony of ironies

A brief update on women’s equality in the Japanese workplace. We have a friend whose wife worked in a woman’s center, providing support for people such as victims of domestic violence. She was fired for becoming pregnant.

I propose that she sue them, at which point they would of course be forced to volunteer to represent her as this is a women’s rights issue.

Planet Joe

In a post on the Somalian piracy issue, the folks at NPR’s Planet Money point out how odd it is that some ships fly the flag of landlocked Mongolia (it comes down to tax/regulatory incentives), photo courtesy our own Joe Jones!

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He’s got a bunch of other great photos on his Flickr site.

Though it may be an online-only podcast, Planet Money is fast becoming my favorite NPR program after This American Life and On The Media. They slow everything down and give context to the news, avoid shorthand and jargon, and generally make the day’s developments imminently accessible and understandable. Too often the news seems out of context and complicated, and no doubt turns away a lot of people before they can really even try and get a handle on things. Their approach is refreshing and sorely needed in other areas of the news!

The show originated as a spinoff of the amazing work they did for TAL, which is a must-listen to get a decent idea of what’s happening with the financial crisis:

The Giant Pool of Money (step-by-step, player-by-player breakdown of the subprime crisis)

Bad Bank (A follow-up made in February that similarly explains the developments of the financial crisis and what should be done with the banks)

Scenes from a Recession (This is a more traditional This American Life episode that takes a man-on-the-street approach to see how the recession is affecting people)

I’ve said it before, but I really can’t recommend these enough for anyone who’s not a “finance expert” but still wants to know what the hell is going on. In essence this stuff is really simple but made intentionally complicated by industry insiders.

SMAP’s Kusanagi arrested for drunken nudity outside Tokyo Midtown park

WOW! (English story here)

Tsuyoshi Kusanagi was arrested by Akasaka police for drunken nudity!

 

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At 3am in Hinokicho Park just outside Tokyo Midtown in Roppongi, police found a naked Kusanagi dancing wildly making a scene (apparently not “dancing” exactly). When they told him to calm down he refused saying “What’s wrong with being naked?!” So they had no choice but to arrest him. He resisted and had to be “wrapped in a sheet” to be taken to the station. He is so ubiquitous on Japanese TV that the stations have been thrown into chaos today, in danger of having to cancel a good portion of their programming schedule and commercials (why? for some reason it is standard operating procedure to systematically blacklist a talent who runs afoul of authorities or even is caught cheating on a spouse).

Kusanagi is (was?) a member of SMAP, the pop group that gained popularity through wide-ranging appearances in variety shows, survived through the 90s into today despite numerous scandals, rumors, and accusations. Their popularity also engendered no small amount of sour grapes and cries of unfairness who felt their talent agency Johnny’s Entertainment abused their market power to set inconceivably favorable terms for their acts. But they got away with it thanks largely to their bottomless capacity to bring out their fanbase to generate ratings/sales. With this incident all those who hated on SMAP over the years have something to hang their hats on.

The SMAP members are well-known to have their lives fairly closely monitored and managed by talent agency Johnny’s Entertainment. Perhaps Kusanagi just couldn’t take it anymore as the group entered their mid-30s and industry observers wondered how they could adapt even as middle aged “ossan.”

If anything Kusanagi chose a nice park to stage his downfall in. Hinokicho is clean and boasts a “Japanese but modern and artistic” feel. Mrs. Adamu and I have enjoyed its tranquil (though crowded) lightup around Christmastime.

A little more from Bloomberg:

Japan’s government may halt advertisements promoting digital TV after the incident, as the campaign features Kusanagi, said Hideo Harada, an official in the terrestrial broadcasting section at the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications.

A person who answered a call to Kusanagi’s management agency, Johnny’s and Associates Inc., said there were no officials available to comment on the case. She declined to give her name or position at the company.

SMAP’s music is sold by a label under the control of JVC Kenwood Holdings. JVC Kenwood shares fell as much as 8.3 percent in Tokyo trading today, and finished the morning session 6.7 percent lower at 56 yen. The Nikkei fell 0.5 percent.

Why “PB” store brand products are cheap and getting cheaper

Over the past few years, supermarkets like Aeon and Ito-Yokado (and convenience stores like 7-11) have placed ever greater numbers of “private-branded” products on their shelves. Americans will be more familiar with the term “store brand” as symbolized by the suspiciously labeled cereals often with off-putting imitations of the Trix rabbit. In Japan they are simply known as “PB” (ピービー or プライベートブランド another example of marketing lingo making its way into everyday Japanese). According to Wikipedia, reforms of the supply chain behind private brands (moving production from smaller manufacturers to more sophisticated larger firms) in the middle of this decade has led to a “boom” of higher quality private-branded items starting around 2006. In this recession, the PB goods are reportedly boosting their market shares as Japanese people give up on traditional brands.

 02_px250A light-hearted economic piece from Tokyo Walker c/o Yahoo News Japan notes that some PB products, specifically those from Aeon’s “Best Price by Top Value” (what a mouthful!), are getting even cheaper than before. For example, they have started to offer “tissue refills” aka tissues without any cardboard boxes or extra packaging.  Other no-frills products include laundry detergent with no plastic spoon and instant ramen with the powder already mixed in instead of coming in separate plastic pouches.

In Japan, the private-branded stuff tends to be of shockingly high quality to the point that there is little reason to pay extra for the fancy packaging of brand names. I haven’t lived in the US for about three years now, but I grew up calling store-brand food the “third world” version (the poor families drank “third world soda” and so on). However, that may be changing – A blog post at FT.com seems to show that the US is moving closer to the Japanese model, or at least Japan-owned 7-Eleven hopes so: 

Interestingly, Jeff Schenck, the head of franchising for 7-Eleven in the US says [consumption of store brand goods] is more driven by distribution patterns. Big consumer goods companies such as Procter and Gamble have a greater influence over supermarket supply chains in the US than in Europe.

They are often allowed to stock the shelves in supermarkets, in return for incentive payments (known as slotting fees) to retailers, and to control the way products are displayed.

Mr Schenk said 7-Eleven’s steady development of its own supply chain was one reason why it was now confident in the potential of 7-Select products, such as its own line of potato crisps. “We call it taking our stores back,” he said.

As well as rolling out more private label goods, 7-Eleven is developing a new franchising model, which involves persuading owners of existng corner stores to convert to the brand in return for giving 7-11 a share of the revenues.

This is a less capital intensive model than its traditional practice of acquiring leases or building stores itself, before getting local franchisees to run them.

(Photo courtesy Nikkei BP)

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Check the Adamukun blog for Adamu’s shared articles and recommended links.

Photo: Bingo in a Philippines Village

Bingo in Philippines
Bingo in Philippines

March 17, 2009

Canon 50D, 17-85 IS lens @ ISO 1600, 85mm, f5.6, 1/25sec. The image is processed with DXO, using the Filmpack plugin to simulate Fuji Astia 100F film.

The “Victory Village” Barangay, the fishing village adjacent to Legazpi Port, Philippines. My travelogue on my visit to this place is here, with photos to be added soon.

Horiemon was Right! The Kanji Kentei Scandal Considered

The Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation (KAT), the English name of the Nihon Kanji Nouryoku Kentei Kyoukai, has been in the news over the past weeks for “improper business practices” and high salary and retirement allowance payments to the officers of the board. Like many such scandals in Japan, the matter is partly one of fraud — but the foundation is also a victim of its own wild success, and is a case study in the perils of ignoring gyousei shidou “advice” from the government, and falling victim to the authorities in Livedoor-esque Takafumi Horie style.

KAT is not a kabushiki kaisha (K.K.) private stock corporation, but a zaidan houjin, the oldest and most basic form of the non-profit incorporated entities in Japan roughly translated as “foundation.” It has no members or shareholders, no distributions of profits, and it has no owners, only officers of the board that operate the foundation’s business. (Due to recent reforms, all foundations must now add a board of trustees to act as quasi-shareholders that elect officers). The foundation is not alone in its governance structure. Other similar types of corporations are the shukyou hojin (religious corporation), gakko hojin (school corporation), iryou hojin (medical corporation), and other entities that are the corporate form of ownership and operation for churches, temples, shrines, schools, universities, trade schools, hospitals, elder care centers, and many more of the ordinary institutions of civil society.

But what are these entities to do when they are well managed? Are they to accumulate large cash reserves? The salaries of the board of directors can be raised to an extent, but the officers cannot share in the profits. And for many years, it has been an accepted practice that “non-core” activities of these non-profit corporations can be outsourced to private companies. Hospitals are supplied and consulted, schools recieve their books and other services, and temples buy their incense, from these outside private corporations. Typically, it’s kabuki-style theater of maintaining nominal non-profit status — the private corporations are tyically owned and operated by the very same directors of the non-profit corporation.

(To see one very public example of how this is accepted as legitimate, check out the Japanese web page of the Aso Group, the conglomerate owned and operated by PM Aso’s younger brother, and click the “healthcare” sector. Several hospitals and care centers in Kyoto and Fukuoka are affiliated with the private Aso Group but are non-profit iryou houjin or shakai fukushi houjin. But these entities are listed as secondary to “K.K. Aso Group – Medical Operations Development Department,” “Aso Care Services K.K.”, “Aso Medical Services K.K.”, and other Aso Group entities that manage all non-medical practice services of the hospitals and which are used to extract profit from the hospitals which are required to be non-profit by law.)

KAT issues some of the most popular kanji chinese character tests taken by the citizenry in Japan. Test takers would take certain levels of the test to prove their aptitude in understanding, writing and reading the characters. The tests were wildly popular, such that the group developed plump bank accounts such that it began outsourcing services, such as printing of the tests, to K.K. Oak, owned by Mr. Okubo, the chairman of the board of KAT. Oak subsequently gave off benefits to its subsidiares, which included Okubo family members. The other list of grievances are relatively minor — about 9 million yen (US$90k) was given to various politicians, and about 3 million yen to a temple in Kyoto.

I can report to readers from experience, having reviewed the structures and books of a number of non-profit foundations, school corporations, and medical corporations, that this level of minor fraud is standard operating procedure. Of the thousands of private schools and hospitals operated as so-called non-profit entities, many engage in nepotistic, family-favoring practices that make KAT look minor. But KAT made two big mistakes that brought its operations under scrutiny.

* It ignored a decade of gyousei shidou guidance from the Ministry of Education. Thirteen times, between 1999 and 2007, the Ministry instructed KAT to lower its fees for the top-level course by 500 to 1,000 yen. It also instructed that Okubo should resign as representative of printing house Oak and loosen the ties between the two organizations (KAT rented its main building for US$1.8 million a year from Oak, yet another way in which Okubo profited from the structure).
* It was too profitable. KAT was run the same way plenty of trade schools and hospitals are run, and in my own professional experience, I’ve seen far more dodgy schemes of fraternal profiteering from allegedly non-profit corporations. However, KAT’s tests became a national craze. With its popularlity came wild profits. And with profits came scrutiny.

I know Adamu will SLAM me for using the word “kabuki” in this post, and I could take the cliche train another stop and talk about the nail that sticks up gets hammered down. But as loathe as MF is to those types of analogies, we are seeing instances where they are basically true, where the authorities selectively target only the successful rulebreakers. KAT got screwed in the same way as Horiemon back in 2007. (And on that note, I share Horie’s sentiments recently publicly expressed, and noted here, that he was only targeted because he was a successful rebel, or in other words, that he made the two big mistakes itemized above.) It seems unlikely that KAT will survive in its present form as this scandal continues to spread, and this may be a chance for some of the competitor tests to gain a share of the market. But the two lessons for this for every businessman engaging in the soft fraud that is part of tax, accounting, business, and audit in Japan, make sure that you (1) pay attention to any advice given to you by the government, even non-binding advice, and (2) be ready for the increased scrutiny that will come when you’re profitable. Don’t make the mistakes of Horiemon and KAT.

Anti-tax protesters: Yes you CAN borrow your way out of debt!

One placard at the moronic (but apparently well-attended!) anti-tax “tea party” protests reads “You can’t borrow your way out of debt,” and that just floors me, because it just isn’t true and I have the experience to prove it.

After coming back from a high school exchange in Japan and attending a semester of community college, I suddenly decided that I needed to get out of Connecticut and transfer to a four-year univserity as soon as possible. A combination of a lack of preparation, a burning need to get out of my hometown, and plain ignorance of how money works led me to forego cheaper options and attend a private university funded almost entirely on student debt (in a ratio of around 75% variable rate private debt and 25% fixed rate direct federal borrowing). At the end of it I was many tens of thousands of dollars in the hole, but today less than 4 years later I am two months away from being debt-free, all thanks to “borrowing my way out.”

At the end of my education I had a degree in “International Relations” – essentially a liberal arts program.  I left the system without much in the way of skills, but college did give me two things that would come in very handy later on – a bona fide college degree and the time and impetus to dedicate to accumulating knowledge (a good portion of which came through classwork) and compulsively studying Japanese, all without any immediate need to make ends meet.

But without any directly marketable skills and no immediate job prospects, I stayed afloat in Washington DC after graduation through multiple part-time jobs (at one point I was working for four separate companies), occasional parental assistance, and deficit spending with one of those “pre-approved” credit cards they were always sending me back then. I also deferred my student loan repayment to the last possible moment, a decision that added another $10,000 in piled-on interest by the time I started paying.

But I kept at my jobs and eventually landed a gig translating for a law firm. Though I already had some translation skills before starting (documented in early MF posts!), the office experience, from the basic administrative duties of a “legal assistant” to keeping up with the high-paced research activities of my boss, was a very uphill learning curve, and the salary was just barely enough to survive on and pay a $1000 a month minimum payment.

But I somehow managed to stay afloat, and while I left that firm to follow Mrs. Adamu to Thailand, I continued working and improving as a freelance translator. When I eventually made my way to Japan, I easily landed a much better paying job (at a time when the JPY-USD exchange rate was at its most favorable in a decade) that put me on the path out of debt bondage.

So by dint of this experience I know that with a little luck knowing how to learn from people and ask for and accept help, perseverence, development, and talent can end up paying big dividends, as long as you are willing to invest in yourself. My own experience was not ideal as I made some “bad” decisions initially (though I do not regret the path my life took since otherwise there would be no Mrs. Adamu), but then neither is this recession. While many representing the underdeveloped economies argue for sustainable growth free from major-power exploitation, America has been in the grip of the “cult of progress” for more than a century. Our future prosperity is tied to economic growth, so in the bad times we seek to limit the downside through deficit spending and a series of debt rollovers. 

I wonder if any of the protesters have had similar experiences. Perhaps it is tough to relate big, nationwide events to everyday life, but I am shocked that so many are ready to throw common sense to the wind and buy into idiotic catch phrases no doubt orchestrated by Astro Turfers who view them as nothing more than pawns that are useful to serving an end entirely removed from the actual protesters’ interests. There is nothing explicitly liberal or offensive about public works spending, so it doesn’t make sense to oppose in such and ugly and kneejerk way just because it doesn’t come from the right wing’s preferred sectors like the military. And Obama’s budgeting actually improves the tax burden of most families. It is really hard for me to understand people like the “Obama is a fascist BECAUSE HE IS!!!!” guy:

 

But perhaps Matt Taibbi has it right when he calls these people the peasant class, always ready to hate an external enemy rather than face their own lots in life:

The really irritating thing about these morons is that, guaranteed, not one of them has ever taken a serious look at the federal budget. Not one has ever bothered to read an actual detailed study of what their taxes pay for. All they do is listen to one-liners doled out by tawdry Murdoch-hired mouthpieces like Michelle Malkin and then repeat them as if they’re their own opinions five seconds later. That’s what passes for political thought in this country. Teabag on, you fools.

From another article:

After all, the reason the winger crowd can’t find a way to be coherently angry right now is because this country has no healthy avenues for genuine populist outrage. It never has. The setup always goes the other way: when the excesses of business interests and their political proteges in Washington leave the regular guy broke and screwed, the response is always for the lower and middle classes to split down the middle and find reasons to get pissed off not at their greedy bosses but at each other. That’s why even people like Beck’s audience, who I’d wager are mostly lower-income people, can’t imagine themselves protesting against the Wall Street barons who in actuality are the ones who fucked them over. Beck pointedly compared the AIG protesters to Bolsheviks: “[The Communists] basically said ‘Eat the rich, they did this to you, get ‘em, kill ‘em!’” He then said the AIG and G20 protesters were identical: “It’s a different style, but the sentiments are exactly the same: Find ‘em, get ‘em, kill ‘em!’” Beck has an audience that’s been trained that the rich are not appropriate targets for anger, unless of course they’re Hollywood liberals, or George Soros, or in some other way linked to some acceptable class of villain, to liberals, immigrants, atheists, etc. — Ted Turner, say, married to Jane Fonda.

But actual rich people can’t ever be the target. It’s a classic peasant mentality: going into fits of groveling and bowing whenever the master’s carriage rides by, then fuming against the Turks in Crimea or the Jews in the Pale or whoever after spending fifteen hard hours in the fields. You know you’re a peasant when you worship the very people who are right now, this minute, conning you and taking your shit. Whatever the master does, you’re on board. When you get frisky, he sticks a big cross in the middle of your village, and you spend the rest of your life praying to it with big googly eyes. Or he puts out newspapers full of innuendo about this or that faraway group and you immediately salute and rush off to join the hate squad. A good peasant is loyal, simpleminded, and full of misdirected anger. And that’s what we’ve got now, a lot of misdirected anger searching around for a non-target to mis-punish… can’t be mad at AIG, can’t be mad at Citi or Goldman Sachs. The real villains have to be the anti-AIG protesters! After all, those people earned those bonuses! If ever there was a textbook case of peasant thinking, it’s struggling middle-class Americans burned up in defense of taxpayer-funded bonuses to millionaires. It’s really weird stuff. And bound to get weirder, I imagine, as this crisis gets worse and more complicated.

Least relevant front-page headline ever?

As of this morning, this is what I see as the bottom headline of asahi.com’s top stories:

ペイリン氏、娘の元婚約者と応酬 「うそつき」「売名」(03:03)

Palin arguing with daughter’s ex-fiance: “Liar,” “Self-promoter”

 I just don’t see this story as worthy of the Asahi’s status as the 2nd most read newspaper nationwide and the paper of record for the center-left elites. I mean, it’s true that some of Tokyo Governor Ishihara’s more controvertial statements get coverage in Western media, but how in the world does this completely inconsequential Jerry Springer segment matter to any but the readers of Josei Seven, Japan’s equivalent of the National Enquirer?

UPDATE: Well, I guess if the New York Times is sinking to that level, the Asahi was just following suit.