Follow Adamu on Twitter

After following Neojaponisme’s experiment with Twitter for a while, I’ve decided to get in the game myself to respond to others’ tweets and post my own brief comments and linkage.You can see my page here and sign up for the RSS feed or join Twitter yourself to follow me! Here’s a sampling:

  1. Adam RichardsAdamukunWhy support Hatoyama for DPJ? These insane flash animations of course…

  2. Adam RichardsAdamukunMatsumoto Kiyoshi record sales/profit. 3 cheers for garish yellow signs

  3. Adam RichardsAdamukunRighteous old-school Sesame St. crayon-making video!

ENOUGH with the masks already! インフル予防効果のビミョーなマスク着用は不要

(Updated below)


In Japanese for clarity:





English translation:

People of Japan:  Sanitary masks have little effect in preventing swine flu. This is clear from  WHO reports and indicates that the Japanese media’s recommendations to wear masks do not have sufficient basis in fact.

Both the WHO and American CDC have released guidelines for the use of masks, and they have both taken the position that on balance masks are not recommended. The main reason is that they could actually be dangerous if not used correctly. According to the CDC, masks are recommended for people who have flu symptoms if they are not alone or if they go in public, but for all other cases they specifically state “masks and respirators are not recommended.” As President Obama and others have stated, it is likely enough to gargle, wash your hands often, and be sure to cough into your sleeve.

To quote from the WHO website, meanwhile, “If you are not sick you do not have to wear a mask. If you are caring for a sick person, you can wear a mask when you are in close contact with the ill person and dispose of it immediately after contact, and cleanse your hands thoroughly afterwards. If you are sick and must travel or be around others, cover your mouth and nose. Using a mask correctly in all situations is essential. Incorrect use actually increases the chance of spreading infection.”

In other words, the practice of wearing the same mask all day long as seen in Japan is actually counterproductive. They may have some effect in fighting hay fever, but there are social costs such as not being able to see people’s faces around you. Setting aside the swine flu issue, I cannot help but be doubtful as to whether the benefits of Japan’s mask culture justify the costs.

Even as concern over swine flu appears to be subsiding, Japan remains on high alert.  The conspiracy theorist inside me wonders if the hysteria has to do with PM Aso’s fight for political survival, as the economic turmoil has apparently whetted his appetite for building public support through fanning crisis. My case in point was a dead-tree op-ed in the Nikkei last week by a member of the editorial board (I think) who openly wondered if the swine flu would open the door to a glorious LDP-DPJ grand coalition (this was before Ozawa stepped down).

Even without a potential pandemic, many people in Japan wear masks when they are sick or stricken with allergies during hay fever season (starting at the end of winter and lasting off and on through May or so), backed by common recommendations by doctors. In fact, a recent Nikkei article noted that while masks used to be limited to hay fever season and when some people were worried about spreading colds to others, the practice has increased in recent years as people have become more used to them and earlier flu epidemics resulted in official campaigns to encourage people to wear masks. Today, they have become so widespread that people now use masks for non-health related reasons, such as to hide their faces. Some even report prefering to use masks in public to guard from germs in general or just as a kind of coping mechanism. It has gotten to the point that masks are a big business, and various innovations have come out to meet the needs of regular users. A recent article in magazine Hansoku Kaigi (Promotional Meeting) featured the success of campaigns to promote more advanced masks that are designed not to fog glasses (glasses-wearers make up a disproportionate share of mask wearers).

While railing against mask use is probably one of the most tired gaijin complaints, my gripe is not categorical – I am willing to accept actual, justified uses for the masks. For instance, on the topic of hay fever, the US-based Mayo Clinic website (itself sponsored by drug companies) only recommends them “when doing outdoor activities such as gardening.” I will accept that for some people  the pollen season in Tokyo can feel like you are constantly working in the garden. Hay fever in Japan is all too common due to the widespread cedar forests planted in the 50s in a failed attempt to develop a homegrown lumber industry. I too have felt as if I might develop hay fever just sitting at my desk. But even still, their widespread use outdoes even this justifiable concern.

Still, my chief gripe with them is only tangentially related to their effectiveness. I simply feel like a society where a third of the people is constantly hiding their faces is kind of depressing and unfriendly. If the masks were saving hundreds of lives a year it would be one thing, but the WHO actually warns against their widespread use!

This revelation really hit home on my way back from the US on a JAL flight direct from New York earlier this week. All the flight attendants wore masks to prevent infection during the height of the alert. While I will not fault them for protecting themselves, the usually sunny customer service came up a little lacking when I couldn’t be sure whether they were even smiling or not.

Worst of all is the uncritical recommendation of masks by the Japanese media (as can be currently seen on the front page), flying in the face of WHO recommendations.  Considering that the pharmaceutical companies (who make the masks) are ubiquitous advertisers in the media conglomerates (this blogger caught a documentary with one drug company executive laughing his ass off at how easy it is to sell masks), it is probably difficult to push back if it’s suggested that masks are the answer.

I realize that this post may in fact trigger a backlash among Japanese readers as I am a foreigner. I have heard it said from both Japanese and foreign commentators that using a mask to prevent the spread of germs is a uniquely Japanese form of politeness and selflessness that is hard for foreigners to understand (this phenomenon is also mentioned in the Wikipedia page on masks as a “decisively different” aspect of mask culture as opposed to other countries).

But I feel like this kind of misses the point. According to that same Wikipedia article, other countries, including the US, have seen widespread use of sanitary masks at various times in the past, such as the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic. But that is no reason to support the situation in Japan today.

Supposed folk beliefs and customs in all modern societies are often manufactured or encouraged by marketers with something to peddle (diamond wedding rings, it’s unlucky to light three cigarettes with one match, etc.), and I feel like this is a case in point. In this case, the marketers are preying on perceived danger as a ploy to develop regular customers of an ultimately unnecessary product with side effects that are, as I mentioned, generally depressing and antisocial.

UPDATE: Reuters points out that masks are far from the only official recommendation to prevent swine flu.

Asahi op-ed: Indonesian nurse program a cruel joke

There is an interesting opinion piece on the Asahi English site (thanks JapanProbe) on the Japan’s program to train Indonesian nurses started last year, under a bilateral economic treaty:

POINT OF VIEW/ Atsushi Takahara: Foreign nursing trainees face unfair hurdles

… Having finished a six-month Japanese-language study program, they started working in January and February. All of them are qualified to work as nurses in their home country and many of them have a lot of nursing experience. But most of those I met expressed anxiety and frustration.

This is because of the system that requires them to pass Japanese state exams within specified periods. If they fail, they must return to their home country. Would-be nurses have three chances to sit for the exams in three years of their stay. Conditions are tougher for aspiring care workers. Since foreign trainees are required to have actual working experience in Japan for at least three years before they can take the exam, they only have a single chance to pass in four years.

The language barrier weighs heavily on them. In particular, learning kanji characters is very difficult. For example, they must struggle with such technical terms as jokuso (bedsores) and senkotsubu (sacral region) that are difficult to read and understand, even for the average Japanese. Holding a Japanese-Indonesian dictionary, one trainee lamented: “I feel as though my head is about to burst.”

Under the comprehensive EPA, Japan accepts the trainees from Indonesia in exchange for the economic benefits, including abolition or reduction of tariffs on its exports of cars and electronic equipment. The government stands by the traditional policy of refusing to accept unskilled foreign laborers. Therefore, the government’s stance is that the acceptance of nursing trainees this time is a form of personnel exchange and is not meant as a measure to address a labor shortage. The government’s cold attitude seems to be a reflection of such a position.

After the government-sponsored six-month language training in Japan, the nurses must either study on their own or receive assistance from their workplaces to get their Japanese levels up to that of a practicing nurse’s. All for an all-or-nothing attempt at Japanese nursing qualification after four years! Sure, that’s what the program has been from the beginning, but I think what Takahara is trying to say is that what started as unfair remains unfair and should be changed.

So let me get this straight –  in order to fulfill the letter of a treaty requirement that benefits Japanese companies with tariff relaxation, the Japanese government has decided to use these already-qualified nurses as pawns and in the process waste years of their lives. A similar fate no doubt awaits the Filipina nurses slated for acceptance under a similar bilateral arrangement with Japan.

According to an overview of potential benefits of the Japan-Indonesia “economic partnership agreement” (EPA) (PDF) released at the time of signing in August 2007, Japan is the largest single export destination for Indonesian products. Japan, for its part, chiefly benefits from Indonesia’s abundant natural resources (a key factor in their decision to invade during WW2). The country is Japan’s second most important supplier of liquid natural gas after Australia. LNG provides 35% of the household gas supply in Japan, according to Wikipedia. As with most trade agreements, the sheer number of line items and flood of statistics makes it tough to get through in a matter of hours let alone minutes, but suffice to say this agreement provides considerable tariff reduction, promises of market access, and non-tariff regulatory reforms that all serve to lower the cost and hurdles to doing business in either country. Also like other bilateral trade agreements, Japan is likely getting the better deal thanks to Japanese companies already superior competitive position.

Though I loved studying kanji and pursued it with a passion, I am a spoiled American and that was when I was in my prime learning years in my late teens and early 20s. These experienced nurses, who are in this country to make a living and previously had little inclination to study a foreign language, must find the task quite daunting (and distracting from the actual practice of care-giving). If my experience with a much simpler examination is any indicator, Japan’s exam culture will be no joke for a tightly regulated profession like nursing.

Could no compromise be found to help actually make this program work? Of course, that would assume that the Japanese government wants the program to work. As the op-ed notes, the acceptance of these nurses was essentially a token gesture to the Indonesian government, not a good faith effort to do right by anyone, either the nurses who want to work in Japan or the hospitals, patients, and other stakeholders in Japan. While I cannot know the intentions of the crafters of this program (it appears to have been hammered out through bilateral negotiations led by the foreign ministry), it’s entirely possible that they’d prefer to see these programs fail so other countries won’t demand their inclusion or expansion in future economic negotiations.

This points to a possible problem with making these decisions within the framework of comprehensive trade agreements rather than Japan unilaterally deliberating on its own future. While I understand the rationale of international “free trade” agreements as a way to circumvent narrow national interests for the greater good of efficient economies, the tight restrictions on these nurses constitute anything but free trade. And as part of a treaty covering billions of dollars in trade and the entire economies of two countries, how can 208 nurses hope to be anything but a footnote?

But once negotiated, this program has in fact benefitted from a relatively high level of scrutiny, since it is a pilot program, the foreign, Muslim nurses stand out, and ironically because they are negotiating tools in high-level bilateral trade ties. As Takahara notes, “If the trainees go home feeling angry with Japan’s ‘cold policy’ and such a reputation spreads, it could cause a deterioration in Indonesian public sentiment toward Japan. ” For that reason and the real need to find solutions to Japan’s aging society, the government and the public have an interest in seeing programs like this succeed, though whether that interest will translate into a fair shake for these nurses or better results down the line is another issue entirely.  

Takahara and I may be proven wrong to conclude that the nursing exam is just too hard for most of these nurses, but I doubt it. As unjust as the Indonesian nurses’ situation sounds, perhaps the experience of these programs can open the issue to more public criticism and maybe some solutions (Takahara seems to be in favor of giving the nurses more time to pass the test and more flexibility and support in general). That way, what began as a farce can be turned into a workable program.

HIV testing for visas

In a blog post earlier Andrew Sullivan wrote that:

the US is the only developed country – and one of only a handful of undeveloped countries – that still tells the world that people with HIV are dangerous pariahs, who need policing at borders and deporting if discovered.

When I went to study abroad in Taiwan 2005-2006 they actually did require an HIV test to get a visa, as did China, who abandoned the policy with much fanfare a year or two ago. However, I never saw an announcement that Taiwan did so, but I also could not find any mention of it in the current visa application procedures. Does anyone know if Taiwan has abandoned the HIV test policy, and if so, when? I suspect that they ditched the policy around the same time China did, but did so quietly to avoid drawing any attention to the fact that they continued a system criticized as backwards and uncivilized when the PRC was doing it.

McDonald’s offering 8,000 yen in savings in exchange for your FREE MONEY

I have already received my FREE MONEY from the government, but it is already spent on my recent trip to the US. But for those who haven’t spent the 12,000 yen handout yet, McDonald’s has an idea – give it to them! In exchange, they will give you a coupon booklet worth 20,000 yen.

According to Sankei, purchasers of the coupons will have until November 14 to eat the equivalent of 69 value meals (or value “sets” as they are called in Japan). Booklets will be available to buy at McDonald’s restaurants throughout Japan from May 15 through July but might sell out at some stores before others.

A 40% discount is significant and a better deal than some of the other campaigns out there, but consuming 69 value meals in six months could be a challenge. A single person who buys one of the booklets on May 15 and never shares it would have to eat a value meal once every 64 hours or two or three times a week to use up all the coupons. I know I’d get sick of the food after a while, and surely just about anyone will have tried everything on the menu and then some after a few visits. The coupons might make more sense for large families who could space out their visits more and still use all the coupons. While some savvy shoppers might figure out ways to profit from the deals, I am not that sophisticated (sell them for a 20% markup and pocket the difference?).

Like most gift card programs, McD’s must be counting on a) lazy customers never bothering to use up the coupons’ full value, and b) those who do use them to generate additional sales by bringing friends or picking up side dishes. It could also have a PR element designed to deflect some of the negative publicity of its labor practices or even its own recent runaway success thanks to 100 yen burgers’ popularity in the recession.

My verdict – keep your money and spend it on what you really need/want, and save by skipping McDonald’s and making delicious home-cooked meals. They are cheaper AND better for you.

How many people live in Tokyo?

So I’m back in the United States, and friends and family ask me over coffee and drinks: how many people live in Tokyo? The answer requires explanation — some sources say 8 million, others say 12.5 million, others 34.5 million. It’s not that the Japanese census is that unreliable. Instead, distinctions must be carefully made between the 23 wards of Tokyo, Tokyo Metropolis/Prefecture, and the Greater Tokyo Area.

Tokyo, Japan

Tokyo is the de facto capital of Japan, but there’s nothing in law that defines this as such. Tokyo is also the only prefecture called a “metropolis,” but there is no legal difference between Tokyo and other prefectures. The prefecture is made up of villages and cities, the same as any other prefecture, except that in the east the municipalities are called ku, or “wards.”

These 23 wards are just ordinary municipalities that are functionally the same as a city, but exist under a different name as a holdover from the pre-war local government regime. There is no unifying body or collective unit that binds these 23 wards together apart from the rest of Tokyo prefecture, but these 23 wards are collectively considered to be the heart of urban Tokyo. The population of Tokyo prefecture is about 12.5 million; the 23 wards have a collective population of about 8.5 million.

The capital of Japan; the green dot in the center of the map is the Imperial Palace.

But as the above map shows, the borders don’t mean the city stops. In many ways, nearby cities Chiba, Kawasaki, and Yokohama share more in common with the 23 wards than the mountains in western Tokyo Prefecture. And the three neighboring prefectures of Saitama, Kanagawa, and Chiba are therefore often included in the definition of Greater Tokyo, or Shuto Ken.

Tokyo’s 12.5 million people, Kanagawa’s 9 million, Saitama’s 7 million, and Chiba’s 6 million make for a combined total of 34.5 million people in this greater block, which is about 25% of Japan’s entire population concentrated in one area.

The four prefectures of Greater Tokyo

So that’s the short answer to the question that makes up this post title.

History of Book-Off

I happened to run across this neat little history of the Japanese used bookstore chain Book-Off from a 2003 brand profile. Perhaps surprisingly to many readers, I was actually familiar with Book-Off long before I first came to Japan due to their Manhattan outlet at 41st Street, just east of the main NYC Library building and Bryant Park. I cannot actually recall if I had ever visited before I started taking Japanese classes in the summer of 2001, but once I started learning Japanese I started making occasional trips to the NYC Book-Off, located a very short distance from either the Port Authority or Penn Station, which were the terminals by which I would enter the city from either my home town of Montclair or my college town of New Brunswick, respectively, at which I would buy things like childrens books of folktales or very easy manga, with which to work on my reading. Mirroring the Japanese chain’s pricing, it was divided into sections of variable but far less than cover price, and $1 books. Naturally, I have been to plenty of Book-Off’s in Japan over the years. Book-Off in NYC looked even more attractive when compared with the Kinokuniya outlet, which sells imported Japanese books at a significant markup from cover price. Interestingly, the Book-Off manages to acquire their used books from the local Japanese population. For example, a Japanese girl I knew in NYC who devoured stacks of $1 novels, which she would then sell back to Book-Off for a nominal fee (I believe slightly higher in store credit).

The profile paints Book-Off as a major revolution in used book-selling.

Twelve years ago, Sakamoto was abandoning his career as a piano salesman for a new adventure in sales. His idea, as good ideas so often are, was simple: establish a clean, well-lit used bookstore staffed with friendly, well-trained employees and create a pricing system designed to yield a high margin of profit.

In the service-oriented society of today, setting up shop with these ground rules might seem like a given. But in the Japan of 1990, used bookstores were dark, cramped, dusty affairs. Furthermore, an elite group of publishers, wholesalers, and bookstores had for years been cooperating closely with one another to squeeze their competitors out of the business. One of their main assets was a stipulation of the ironically named Antimonopoly Law, which prohibits the sale of books at prices other than what the publisher has fixed. This provision effectively eliminated competition among wholesalers and bookstores and raised the publisher/wholesaler/bookstore relationship to a level of prime importance.

Fortunately for the entrepreneurial Sakamoto, the Antimonopoly Law has nothing to say about used books. In less prosperous times, he reasoned, people would be forced to change their reading habits. They would be less willing to pay the exorbitant cover prices demanded by the big-title publishers. He came up with a simple but ingenious pricing system whereby his shops purchase books at 10 percent of their original cover price. They are then retailed at half the cover price. If, after three months, the books have not sold, they are then discounted to ¥100 (US .85, € .75).

I had of course never been to Japan before the advent of Book-Off so I am not sure quite how exaggerated or accurate the portrayal of all pre-Book-Off used bookstores as “dark, cramped, dusty affairs”, but it is true that a clear majority of old bookstores do match that description, usually tended by one very old man or woman who barely notices the customers’ presence except at checkout time.

The most interesting thing to me about this profile was the tidbit that “Sakamoto’s used books are cleaned and sanded using special techniques that he developed to make them look near mint.”

More details on getting FREE MONEY in Adachi-ku

And now the latest installment of the FREE MONEY saga, which started with our translations of the MLIT announcement and the system to be employed by Adachi-ku, the city where Adamu and I maintain our abodes.

(For those of you who don’t know, Adachi-ku is a somewhat dumpy residential ward on the northeast side of Tokyo. It is the fifth most populous of the 23 wards, and has the third-highest population of resident aliens after Shinjuku and Edogawa, so you would expect them to be close to the bleeding edge of gaijin affairs.)

Although I had some objections to the size of the reply envelope, the materials to apply for the stimulus payment were very straightforward.

I scanned a copy and uploaded it here. A couple of general comments before opening the floor for discussion:

Gaijin customization

To Adachi-ku’s credit, they prepared the explanatory materials in four languages. Besides the English one-pager I scanned, the application packet contained one-page instructions in Japanese, Chinese and Korean. The guide on filling out the form is also quad-lingual.


Some commenters at Debito’s blog have noted that their city demands a copy of ID and only accepts alien registration cards for foreigners. This is pretty lame.

Adachi-ku sent all of its applications as registered mail. In order to receive the application, you have to either (a) pick it up at your residence, or (b) go to the post office and show them some ID (driver’s license, passport, whatever). For them, that level of identity verification was enough; they don’t require any further showing of ID. They do require a copy of the cash card or passbook for the recipient’s bank account, which I suppose makes slightly more sense, although I don’t see why that verification is needed in order to *receive* money.

One side effect of this is that people who didn’t update their address or other registered information on time are probably screwed. One of my co-workers, for instance, still has his alien registration at an address which he left about two years ago didn’t update his visa renewal on his gaijin card, so city hall assumes he is an overstayer. Poor sap.

Khaotan, the traditional Thai snacks that know all about you

A friend of Mrs. Adamu’s brought us these “Khaotan” puffed rice crackers – “the traditional Thai snack” according to the package. Unlike many Thai snacks, these were actually not too sweet. They had a more subtle flavor that complemented the taste of the crunchy rice without overwhelming it.

We ate all the actual crackers already (Mrs. Adamu was especially fond of them), so here’s a random picture from the Internet to show you what they look like:


Hailing from Lampang in northern Thailand, Khaotan is part of the “One Thambon One Product” (OTOP) program sponsored by JETRO, an organ of the Japanese government. JETRO provides funding and expertise to help local areas develop their products for export to places like Japan or New Zealand.

My favorite part of Khaotan was the extensive personality assessments on each face of the package. On the back is a chart of personalities based on the day of the week you were born (this day of the week system is pervasive among Burmese people as well), and a list of male/female personality types lines each side. The part about female personalities struck me as especially harsh – they have about twice as many different types as the men, but almost every type is just a different shade of dishonesty, vindictiveness, or irresponsibility. Just in case you can’t read the photos I will transcribe them for you:

Thai snack May 2009 003
The prediction according to the day of birth

Sunday: Smart at thinking and live happily until the end of life

Monday: Always cheerful and when death comes, one is supposed to be in heaven

Tuesday: Be brand and no fear of any danger

Wednesday: Clean and clear and can make dream come true

Thursday: Lots of properties and wealthy

Friday: Lots of fun till others envy

Saturday: No sad at all and has many followers

Thai snack May 2009 004
Types of male

One who is a typical male

One who is slug

One who is fed by wife

One who is a gallant

One who is inferior

One who is a sluggard

One who keeps himself from others

One who is indolent

One who is always in bad temper

One who runs away from and comes back home several times

One who cares family and relatives

One who is patient

One who has many wives

One who is praised by others

One who has hospitality and sacrifice

One who works hard for the better life of his family

One who is easy to persuade

Thai snack May 2009 002
Types of female

One who is lady

One who is dirty or lazy

One who is pregnant before marriage

One who appreciates the bandit as a hero

One who tells husband lies

One who has many lovers

One who enjoys the entertainment

One who always sleeps

One who loves complaints

One who loves to order others

One who loves to plead

One who is a liar

One who is of easy virtue

One who is too mentally calm

One who is touchy

One who is hasty

One who helps others but neglects her

One who is diligent

One who is good at words

One who participates the nonsense wander

One who blames others

One who has a big mouth

One who goes against others

One who is extravagant

One who is fierce

We Tokyo! Very bad here! Very bad Tokyo!

What is it about Hollywood that it can’t authentically portray Japanese people and the Japanese language to save their lives?

I use Hollywood here to collectively refer to all US film and TV media producers. From the Chinese actors in Memoirs of a Geisha to the Korean actor who plays Ando Masahashi on Heroes, Hollywood rarely bothers about accuracy when casting Japanese people and having actors speak the Japanese language. In defense of the casting in Geisha, Spielberg said that talent was more important than nationality. As for Heroes, the cause is entrepreneurial script writing, where the -Japanese- Korean and Japanese-American actors translate the English lines on set and say whatever Japanese they think sounds right. Time and time again the Japanese script is written badly, spoken poorly by actors who appear to have been casted because they were available and happen to have an Asian face. The end product is rarely checked for accuracy or authenticity. The result: a linguistic clusterfuck that’s excrutiatiny for Japanese speakers to watch.

Why the rant? This came to my mind because I was watching Diary of the Dead, the latest George Romero zombie flick, filmed with mock handheld cameras in the same manner as The Blair House Witch Project and Cloverfield. Check out this excerpt where the characters supposedly see a youtube video of a women from Tokyo who speaks about the situation in Japan.

I know how a Japanese person can speak English well. And I know how a Japanese person can speak English poorly. This is neither — it’s a native English speaker with an Asian face doing a bad job at faking a Japanese person’s bad English accent. (Her accent comes off as Hong Kong English blended with U.S. college campus mockery of Manhattan Chinatown English). And as for cultural accuracy, the woman in the video warns viewers not to bury the dead — laughable when said by a person in Tokyo, as that’s the last thing that ever happens to the dead in Japan, where cremation is the rule because there is no real estate to spare.

A remedy to this casting problem is super-obvious. You could find a Japanese person in any North American city to do a perfectly authentic job for minor roles such as this. And if Hollwood insists on using other actors, you could use the same such person to coach the actor or actress to not sound like such a fraud. It wouldn’t take much for Hollywood to avoid sounding ridiculous in Japan (an enormous market for consuming American film and TV media), and avoid being mocked by bloggers such as myself.

As for zombie attacks, Tokyo would be the absolute worst place to be stuck in the event of a Romero-style zombie attack. The city is crowed, guns are scarce, and there are few isolated areas to which the survivors could escape. It would be intense. And actually… that sounds like a great movie idea! If anyone in Hollywood wants to pursue that, I volunteer my services in screening the cast.