Canned oxygen was just a fad

This morning, I went to 7-Eleven to pick up some groceries for breakfast, and spotted a few cans of oxygen in the clearance bin. They had already been marked down from 600 yen to 400 yen, and were on clearance for 200 yen. Apparently this was just another wacky Japanese fad, despite all the buzz around it three years ago.

I bought a 200 yen can and tried it. It didn’t do too much for me, despite being coffee-scented. Any positive effect of the stuff probably comes from the fact that you have to deliberately inhale in order to enjoy the burst of stinky O2. Perhaps all the salarymen need to do is take a deep breath once in a while.

Random gaijin mail magazine dude nails it on Japan’s media-fueled swine flu panic

(Updated below)

I don’t remember when, but at some point I became subscribed to this guy’s mail magazine “Glimpses of Japan.” I can’t remember and can’t find the full name of the author (maybe he’ll come forward!) but his name is Mike, from a picture I saw once he looks like he’s in his late 40s, and he works at NEC Learning which is a provider of what appears to be classroom technology. He’s been in the country for what seems like forever and has an interesting sort of grizzled veteran’s take on developments here, though this seems to be written with an ESL audience in mind.

More often than not, he’s griping about the traffic in Tokyo, but this week’s post was so spot-on I want to share it with you in full. Enjoy:

Media Malady


Once again I’m bemused by the pathetic state of the mass media here, particularly the TV news. The phrase “media circus” is often used to describe the antics of (especially) broadcast media when they get into frenzied over-reporting mode, but I don’t think that’s appropriate for the Japanese media’s latest hysterical outpouring of pseudo-news: if it were a circus it would at least be entertaining.

It’s bad enough that the Japanese government has decided to regard the “Novel Influenza A (H1N1)”, previously called the “swine flu”, as if it were much more serious than the rather mild, easily treatable influenza virus infection that it is. The media have been treating the “outbreak” as if it were the Black Death.

Breathless, serious-looking reporters stand in front of hospitals saying, in worried tones, things like, “this is the hospital where the 16-year-old high school student flu patient is staying”. I understand that TV news is a visual medium, and that they want to be able to show something, but a guy standing in front of a building just isn’t newsworthy, particularly when they are avoiding giving the names of the patients and the hospitals, for privacy reasons. It’s just not *news*, and serves only to make people more anxious about something barely worth worrying about.

With companies and local governments over-reacting by closing down schools, postponing events, and canceling business trips, an aura of panicked fear is being encouraged and expanded by the media’s relentless and largely content-free approach to reporting what little actual news there is. Huge signs on news sets show the number of people who have contracted the flu nationwide (not very many, actually, as a percentage of population, roughly comparable to the number of traffic accident *deaths* in Tokyo in a year), many of whom are already nearly recovered.

It can’t be making people feel more confident to see that, even with the science-fiction-like biohazard suited crews going aboard aircraft before passengers disembark, the flu still managed to spread, either.

There’s also more than a little xenophobia involved in the reporting, and in people’s responses to the influenza news.

I understand that there have been clueless, panicked, ignorant people asking local governments whether it’s safe to hang laundry out to dry and whether their pets are in danger. In the true spirit of TANSTAAFL, I also understand that many of the high school and junior high school kids who have been prevented from attending school in order to stop the spread of the flu…are taking advantage of the time off to gather in Karaoke rooms. That’s bound to be counter-productive.

Speaking of counter-productive, having the prime minister appear on TV in a kind of public service announcement, looking worried as he tells people not to be anxious and not to over-react or to believe spurious rumors…*that’s* a great way to cause people to worry *more*, not less.

I have a large capacity for being amused at the bizarre and the stunningly ridiculous, but the current exaggerated media handling of what should be a very minor issue
exceeds my ability to laugh.

I was, it’s true, cynically amused by a friend’s suggestion that the whole government/media pseudo-news frenzy/circus is a conspiracy to take the Japanese public’s mind off the terrible economic conditions and the administration’s inability to deal with them. I don’t seriously think that’s the case, but it would at least be more logical than what the truth seems to be.
Glimpses of Japan vol.240

On the surface, the overall media reaction to what could have been a serious outbreak seems fact-based and rational (with notable exceptions!). They followed every government move and reported on the infections. And basically the government did what it should have – maybe there was an over-emphasis on masks and they were a little slow to switch tactics when the virus turned out to be relatively harmless. But I have to agree with Mike and Takashi Uesugi who argue that the media completely freaked out over the swine flu. The breathlessness, the dead-serious tone, and the constant “breaking news” of every miniscule detail of the story all have combine to create an fearful atmosphere that’s truly numbing when you realize how comparatively non-threatening this flu virus really is.

That’s what leads people to believe they all need to wear masks to prevent infection, which did in fact cause well-publicized runs on the masks and opportunistic online auctioners. As Durf noted on Twitter, “The media set out to increase media importance to viewers, as usual; breathless reporting on panic-worthy stuff is the way to go!” This was the media trying to make themselves seem important through play-by-play reporting on whatever the scandal of the moment happens to be. A recent example of a how this behavior can get a little overblown was the flap over whether the kanji test guys made too much money from their massively popular product.

I don’t think the media all sat down and decided to incite panic. In fact, maintaining the status quo and helping to keep public order seems to be one of their missions that they take seriously. What’s more likely is every media outlet decided to take this threat very seriously and follow this potentially age-defining story closely, as they always do for the scandal/story de jour. Just in the case of a flu outbreak, the sum of their actions proved incredibly neurosis-inducing. As usual, whenever someone tells you “stay calm” or “don’t panic” that’s usually exactly what makes you start to panic!

On that last line about a government conspiracy to crowd the headlines with flu stories – I personally think there is something to it. The government (meaning the Aso administration, not the health officials) doesn’t have to have orchestrated the entire media response to fuel it to their advantage. And not everyone in the government is necessarily on the same page. Looking at health minister Masuzoe’s press conferences, for example, I get the impression that rather than cheaply exploit the scandal by burying other stories and panicking the public, he seeks to project an air of competence and cool-headedness (Aso’s “nobody panic” TV commercials, on the other hand, are a different story). And from a health standpoint the actions taken don’t seem too insane. I mean, the health checks and monitoring were necessary, and they didn’t do anything drastic like shut down Osaka just to help Aso’s opinion polls.

But it seemed like there was something in the public announcement that could have egged the media on. One especially dubious move was the government announcement that they specifically requested the mask companies to boost production – as if they needed to be told! Truly, it would be tragic and counterproductive if actual sick people couldn’t get their hands on masks because fearful healthy people bought them all.

What the government should be doing but isn’t doing enough of is actively calming people without screaming OK NOBODY PANIC. A good example was what Masuzoe did last week – he explained the facts about the flu without exaggeration or alarm and noted that the current status of the outbreak meant the government could tone down its response and stop in-flight inspections.

Interesting side note!!! On the front page is this line advertising their swine flu special full coverage section: 予防にはまず手洗い “For prevention, first wash your hands”

Funny, what happened to listing masks first as the best line of defense just a week ago?! Well, since I posted my anti-mask rant (which itself attracted a decent readership in the Japanese blogosphere thanks to mozu which may inspire me to write some more in Japanese despite mozu’s warning of the “risk”) blogs and several major media outlets (Yomiuri print edition, Asahi (“don’t believe in masks too much”), and J-Cast so far as I can tell) have noted the CDC/WHO recommendations and the practices of other countries. Durf notes that at least one doctor on TV said to “ignore masks.” Unfortunately I don’t have time to document this in detail, but it is interesting to see how the message has evolved from GO GET A MASK NOW to some more rational consideration.

Most of the reaction came as a result of stories from places like the LA Times, so I think whatever impact I had was very small. But I think it was healthy that there was some signficant skepticism and pushback over the recommendations for EVERYONE to go out and get a supply of masks.

As the virus spreads to Tokyo, the call for MASKS MASKS MASKS will not end. The train operators are already campaigning for it in what seems more like a CYA maneuver than anything else. I mean these companies may be sued or publicly shamed if they don’t put forth a forthright and careful response. (Are you for preventing the flu or are you siding with the terrorists?) But at least we can remember to just consistently wash our hands and cough into our sleeves, we don’t need to succumb to this ill-informed misinformation.

Update: Somehow I missed this: the head of the health ministry’s flu response came out on May 21 to declare that it’s not necessary for people to wear masks “in outdoor areas where there is not much crowding.” And went on to explain, “Masks are intended to prevent infected people from spreading the virus. Please wear one if you have a cough.”

Bloomberg on love hotels

(UPDATED final paragraph for accuracy)

“Chris Cooper and Makiko Kitamura” of Bloomberg deliver this suspiciously well-researched report on Japanese love hotels. This comes hot on the heels of a recent Bloomberg article on the pachinko industry, and if you don’t mind me saying so it’s some of the best reporting on Japanese society I’ve seen in a while. I guess it takes a no-BS investor’s perspective to get the proper balance on these topics – none of the all-too-common falling back on superficial cliches, insensitive moralizing, and sensationalism that exaggerates the phenomenon or makes it seem uniquely strange.

Anyway, here are the relevant takeaways:

  •  There are 25,000 love hotels in Japan. (more than double the number of normal hotels counted in govt stats! (PDF from source provided in the report)
  • Stays range from 3,000 yen for several hours at low-end places to 50,000 yen a night for a “romance package” at the Westin (that hotel’s attempt to cash in on demand from the love hotel sector).
  • A London-based company called Japan Leisure operates love hotels in Japan and is traded on AIM, the London Stock Exchange’s deregulated market for startup companies. Other foreign investors are apparently also involved in the love hotel industry.
  • Love hotels are popular for their anonymity and convenience, as Japanese urban-dwellers (60% of the population) have trouble bringing dates home to often tiny apartments. The hotels also often offer a luxurious experience and amenities that would be inconvenient to keep at home. (” As well as the intimation of a Leonardo-Kate liaison, Japan’s love hotels lure customers with lower rates, jacuzzis and even maid-costume rentals.”)

Earlier this year, a mini-scandal erupted as police cracked down on hotels that registered as business hotels or ryokan (traditional Japanese lodges) but in fact operated as love hotels with hourly rates and all the rest. They had to do this in order to operate in zones within 200 meters of schools or libraries, where the construction of love hotels is banned under the law regulating fuzoku (adult entertainment and other restricted entertainment such as video arcades, mahjong parlors, and dance clubs) and local ordinances.

Snubbing Koizumi

I noted in a recent post that the opposition DPJ has just adopted a rule that would prohibit politicians from retiring from politics and letting their relatives run to replace them. This has long been a common practice in Japan, when long-serving members of the Diet retire and have sons or other close relatives run in their place.

Following on the DPJ adopting this rule, the papers are reporting today that the LDP is now discussing a similar prohibition, which could be implemented as early as the next election. Why is this a big deal? Because former PM Junichiro Koizumi is stepping down and is trying to hand off his seat to his son, Shinjiro Koizumi. Shinjiro would be prohibited from running as an LDP candidate if this rule is ultimately passed before the upcoming election. (Another candidate who would be prohibited from running would be Shouichi Usui, son of Hideo Ushi, a former Minister of Justice.)

There are ways for Shinjiro to get around this, of course. One option is for him to just run as an independent, and join the LDP after he’s elected (not an uncommon practice, and a path followed by some such as Makiko Tanaka). But I find it interesting that the LDP is choosing to adopt this policy now. While it’s probably a reactionary move to the DPJ’s platform, the motivation of some pushing this policy must surely be to snub the man who promised to destroy the LDP.

Japan’s secret army of zombie factory workers

For decades American manufacturers watched in horror as their Japanese rivals cannibalized their market shares by making better and cheaper products with none of the setbacks of strong unions. Today’s NYT might include some secret hints as to how those crafty Japanese were able to pull it off.

You see, their recent article discussing the Japanese “lifetime employment” system inexplicably contains the word “zombie” in the URL (html file name: 20zombie.html), accompanied by this photo:


The man has clearly been conditioned to channel his thirst for brains into a more productive dedication to just-in-time delivery. That’s right, Japanese workers can never be fired but in exchange they never die and never take days off.

So if you’ve been following along, that means the Jewish lizard people who run the One World Government are now controlling zombie Japanese factory workers to deprive American union workers of their jobs. Someone get Benjamin Fulford on the phone!

Way to go Japan!

Record number of Americans call Japan reliable

Eighty percent of Americans believe Japan is a reliable ally to the United States, the highest figure since the Foreign Ministry began polling in 1960, the ministry said. The latest figure marked a 13 percentage point jump from last year. Meanwhile, 91 percent of U.S. opinion leaders said the United States could depend on Japan, down one point from last year.

The Foreign Ministry commissioned Gallup to conduct the telephone poll in the United States in February and March.

Asked how they would describe the present level of cooperation between Japan and the United States, 73 percent of Americans said the relationship was excellent or good, up 10 points from the previous year. Among opinion leaders, 81 percent described the relationship positively, down four percentage points from 2008.

Asked to choose the Asian country they believe to be the United States’ most important partner, 46 percent of Americans and 44 percent of opinion leaders picked Japan, up three points and down 10 points from the previous year, respectively. Japan still was the top choice in both categories.

However, China is nipping at Japan’s heels, with 39 percent of Americans and 42 percent of U.S. opinion leaders choosing China as the most important partner to the United States. These figures marked increases of five percentage points and four percentage points, respectively, from the previous year.

I was interested to read the story, but have no real comment, except to ask — why?

Warren Buffett Hates Japanese Food

From TNR, concerning Warren Buffett:

He confines himself to the diet of an eight-year-old, refusing to eat anything much beyond spaghetti, hamburgers, and grilled cheese sandwiches. Schroeder describes a bizarre scene in which Katherine Graham escorted Buffett to dinner at the Manhattan apartment of Sony Chairman Akio Morita. Japanese chefs served plate after plate that Buffett left completely untouched. “By the end of fifteen courses, he still had not eaten a bite,” writes Schroeder. “The Moritas could not have been more polite, which added to his humiliation. He was desperate to escape back to Kay’s apartment, where popcorn and peanuts and strawberry ice cream awaited him. ‘It was the worst,’ he says about the meal he did not eat. ‘I’ve had others like it but it was by far the worst. I will never eat Japanese food again.’

Despite that pretty atrocious diet, Buffett appears to be relatively healyh at age 78. Maybe it’s due to his polygamous lifestyle.

My Credit

After reading the recent NYT Magazine Article What does your credit card company know about you? and listening to the Planet Money interview with the author, Adam and I were discussing our personal credit experiences a bit. We begun an exchange over email, but I’m going to move it to the blog. Here is the initial email I sent to him, after he asked what the interest rate on my credit cards is.

I have three credit cards, all from Chase Bank (now JP Morgan, originally Chase Manattan).

Limit          APR             Cash APR
$10,500      9.24%          19.24%
$11,000      7.24%          19.24%
$4,200        13.24%        19.24%
(APR is Annual Percentage Rate, basically just interest rate. Cash APR is the rate they charge when you take a cash advance by using your credit card as an ATM card.)
All 2 cards are from Chase, I had only applied for one originally, which started with an introductory $500 limit back in like 1999 or so, which has been gradually raised over the years and with them, sending me two extra cards, unsolicited, at some point. The original card was MasterCard, the others include a second Mastercard and a Visa. Of course, I also have an ATM debit card, but I only use that to withdraw cash since I got the credit card, which presumably is how I built enough of a record with Chase for them to give me so much unsolicited credit at apparently reasonably rates. BTW, I’m not entirely sure which card is the original one at this point, but I think it may be the one with the highest APR, with the lowest interest rate card being the most recent, granted to me as an apparently responsible customer.
Obviously I should make sure to only use that one in the middle from now on. In fact, that is the one I’ve been using, which currently has a couple of hundred bucks I haven’t payed off yet, but I will as soon as I get paid next into my Chase account. BTW, I hadn’t even noticed my credit limit had been raised again sometime in the past year. Last time I looked my total credit limit was around $20,000 but now it’s up to $25,700.

Musical Chairs

Ichiro Ozawa resigned last week as leader of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) over a fundraising scandal. The opposition democrats had a leadership election on Saturday and were faced with the choice between Yukio Hatoyama and Katsuya Okada, two former DPJ leaders with solic track records as total losers. Hatoyama won by a comfortable margin.


The basic political profiles of the two men are:

* Hatoyama was head of the DPJ from 1999 to 2002, after which he resigned after taking responsibility for the “confusion” over rumors about the merger with the Liberal Party, which was at the time lead be former DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa. The two parties ultimately did merge, and Hatoyama took a role in party leadership. (Hatoyama’s tenure was preceded and followed by Naoto Kan, another regular in the leadership roster of the DPJ).

* Okada became head of the DPJ in 2004 and led the party to one of its largest electoral victories in history during the 2004 upper house election. The winning streak didn’t last — he resigned a year later after his party suffered a dramatic losses in the 2005 general election that saw Koizumi’s ruling party the Liberal Democratic Party take its strongest win in history.

For an opposition party that has been floundering in defeat for more than a decade as it struggles to take power, the candidates for the leadership are a sorry pair. Not only are they both uncharasmatic repeat losers, it shows the party has a poor ability at cultivating new leaders.

Hatoyama’s selection is especially ironic when you consider that weeks ago, the DPJ suddenly made their public pet issue the ending of hereditary elected positions. In many districts in Japan, long-serving members of the Diet retire and have sons run in their place. I don’t have current figures, but I’ve read that at one time, as many as one third of the districts had such hereditary members. The DPJ is trying to end the practice, but this new and sudden moral mission is amusingly ironic now that Hatoyama is the party leader. Hatoyama is the grandson of former Prime Minister Ichiro Hatoyama, the son of former Foreign Minister Iichiro Hatoyama, and his brother is the current ruling party Minister of Justice. Do the rules, or at least the spirit of the rules, not apply to the leaders?

Hatoyama’s impending task is leading the party into an election that is just months away. The DPJ was favored to win for months, but with the new fundraising scandals facing the party and PM Aso finally finding his mojo, the LDP may now manage to win yet another election. And when Hatoyama and Okada are the best possible men to be proposed to lead the nation, perhaps that’s for the best.

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Kyoto’s 縁切り神社 (The Shrine of Cutting Bonds)

Shinto Shrines (Jinja:神社 or sometimes Jingu:神宮 in Japanese) tend to be full of wooden prayer tablets (ema:絵馬), which can generally be bought for a few hundred yen, allowing the patron to write a prayer to the kami (神god, spirit) of that particular shrine, hang it on the ema rack, and hope for the best. Although some shrines are known for having specialties, such as education (specifically, passing exams), romance, health, etc. most shrines tend to have a pretty repetitive mixture of prayers based on these commonplace themes. There are exceptions though, with the best I have run across being Kyoto’s Yasui Engiri Jinja (安井の縁切り神社, official name is Yasui Konpiragu:安井金比羅宮).

While you may find an occasional prayer for good grades or such by someone who doesn’t quite realize where they are, the majority of ema at Engiri Jinja, appropriately enough, contain prayers related to the theme of engiri, literally meaning “cutting of bonds”-which is commonly used today in reference to the ending of relationships, especially romantic ones. The first part of the word, en (縁) has a few different meanings, including “edge” or “porch-like area in old Japanese buildings”, but most importantly the Buddhist concept of pratyaya which I have not read up on but has something to do with causation, and by extension is taken in reference to such concepts as “fate”, “destiny”, “familial bond”, or “relationship”. The second part, giri or kiri (切り) simply means to cut or sever. This concept of severing “enoriginally meant something more along the lines of cutting away the threads of negative destiny to relieve one’s bad luck, but today has come to refer primarily to the more conceptually simple act of severing personal relationships.
Continue reading Kyoto’s 縁切り神社 (The Shrine of Cutting Bonds)