10 years on: Coming to Japan

This year marks the tenth anniversary of my first journey to Japan, as a Rotary Youth Exchange student going to school and generally getting in trouble in Osaka.

Since then, I have flown a hundred thousand miles, earned three diplomas, and have seen my Japanese high school closed down and stupidly renamed while my American high school gets shuttered due to the swine flu.

I still have many memories of that first year, and for the next eleven months, will be sharing some of those memories here on the blog. (Those of you who don’t care can simply avoid the jump, and Adamu will still regale you with tales of the Adachi-ku ballot). Continue reading 10 years on: Coming to Japan

Off for home

Quick update here, I’m heading off for home (Montclair, New Jersey) in a few hours, by way of San Francisco. I’ll be in the NJ/NYC area until September 10 and then in San Francisco until the 15th, before I head back to Kansai. While at home I’ll probably also make a brief visit to DC for a couple of days. I’m going to try to stay mostly off-line and read more books while I’m at home, but anyone in those areas feel free to drop me a line and I’ll see if I have room in my schedule to meet up.

Just for fun, here’s a (hopefully) complete list of electronics on my person and baggage as I travel.

iPhone (SIM-locked for Softbank, Japan)

External extra battery for iPhone.

Creative Zen Vision:M 60GB (Just in case I run out of iPhone juice entirely.)

Samsung Blackjack (my old phone from last time I lived in US, intend to use with prepaid SIM card while at home.)

Some junky generic Motorola phone (my travel phone when going around Asia. Just in case.)

Asus eeePC 1000

Canon 50D w/ two 8-GB memory cards, 3 batteries and a charger

^ Canon 50mm 1.8F lens

^ Canon 17-85 EF-S lens

^ Tokina 11-16 lens

Sharp electronic dictionary

External USB hard drive (backup of my important files, to leave at home as ultimate emergency off-site backup and swap for a fresh backup drive.)

Howard Dean: Health care debate in the Senate “kabuki” as the Japanese would say

Note Howard Dean’s statement toward the end of this video:

BTW, the Talking Points Memo blog’s “Day in 100 Seconds” and “Sunday Show Roundup” are great. This way I don’t have to actually watch those painful news shows.

Japan Lower House election – Meet the candidates Part 0 – What voting means and how it works

On Tuesday, parts of Japan’s political net-osphere will go dark as the official campaigning period begins for the August 30 general election to select members of the nation’s lower house of parliament. Considering that this election has the potential to take government control away from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party for the first time in 13 years, national and international attention on this race is high.

So what can I add to the conversation? My interest in Japanese politics and other current events is fairly intense, so I plan to follow this story with the same rigor I apply to my other favorite topics.

Mainly,  I plan to profile the candidates up for election in my district (Tokyo’s 13th) to give a worm’s-eye-view of the election from my perch in Adachi-ku, Tokyo. Some readers will recall my series of candidate profiles leading up to last month’s Tokyo prefectural assembly elections.

But first, some opening remarks:

What will this election decide?

On Sunday, August 30, Japanese voters will go to the polls to elect all 480 members of the House of Representatives, the more powerful house of the country’s bicameral legislative branch of government. After the election, the Diet (Japan’s word for its parliament) will be convened to choose a prime minister, who will then form a cabinet. The upper and lower house will each conduct a vote, but if the upper house vote differs from the lower house’s, the lower house’s choice will prevail. If one party has won an outright majority of seats in the lower house, it can elect a prime minister without the aid of any other party, but if not various parties will have to negotiate and form a coalition government.

The lower house is where most substantive legislative business is done. It controls the passage of the national budget, can override an upper house veto with a two-thirds vote, and most importantly decides the appointment of the prime minister. The DPJ currently controls the upper house, which is a less powerful but still significant part of the legislative process.

The party (or coalition of parties) that wins this election will ostensibly gain control over essentially the entire country — if the DPJ gains control it will preside over the executive branch, dominate both houses of the legislature, and possess the power to appoint Supreme Court and lower court justices.

In practice, however, the prime minister and cabinet’s power has been limited – to give a very broad outline, powerful ministries set the agenda on most important national issues, the legislature exists mainly to ratify that agenda and distract the public with loud but ineffectual drama and scandal (in exchange for funneling money back to their districts), and the judicial nominees are almost never decided by the elected officials themselves.

The opposition Democratic Party of Japan are on track to make significant gains in this election, though it will be a tall order to increase their current standings (110) to exceed the LDP’s total of 303. The DPJ are campaigning on many issues, but perhaps first and foremost on a revolutionary vision of administrative reform. They believe that the bureaucrats in the country maintain power based on, in Secretary General Acting President Naoto Kan’s words, a “mistaken interpretation of the Constitution” that bureaucracy has the inherent right to control government administration, while it’s the job of the cabinet and legislature concentrate on passing laws. The DPJ would like to wrest control away from the “iron triangle” of unelected bureaucrats, powerful business interests, and their cronies in the Diet and place power squarely in the politicians’ hands. But more on that later.

How are members selected?

Since the law was changed in 1993 following a major LDP electoral defeat, members of Japan’s lower house have been chosen using two parallel systems – 300 are selected through single-member districts nationwide similar to the US House of Representatives, while the remaining 180 seats are allotted through a proportional representation system (or PR for short).

Under Japan’s PR system, the parties running in the election field candidates in each of 11 regions. On election day, voters write down two votes for the lower house – one for their preferred individual in their district, and the other to choose a party they’d like to receive the PR seats in their region. In the interest of counting as many votes as possible, votes will still count if a voter writes in the name of an individual running in the region or the party leader’s name instead of the party name.

For example of how this works, in 2005 the Tokyo PR district had 17 available seats. To win a seat, a party would have had to earn at least 5.88% of the vote, or 389,682 votes. Only one party that ran (Shinto Nippon with 290,027 votes) failed to gain a seat in this district.

The fact that relatively fewer votes are needed to win a PR seat has convinced smaller parties to try their luck. Most recently, the Happiness Realization Party, a newly formed political wing of new religion Happy Science, has decided to field more than 300 candidates in all single-member and PR districts (though as of this writing it is unclear whether they will actually go through with it). The religion’s leader Ryuho Okawa has announced his intention to run in the Kinki PR district with the top position. To do so he will need 3.45% of the vote, which would have been around 375,000 votes in 2005. His party would have to seriously improve its performance after winning a dismal 0.682% (13,401 votes in 10 districts) of votes in the Tokyo prefectural elections. Okawa had originally planned to run in Tokyo, but Tokyo has a higher 5.88% hurdle to overcome.

How does voting work in practice?

After entering the polling station, voters will be handed a paper ballot and a pencil (yes, a pencil, not a pen). They will be directed to a table with a list of candidates and instructions on how to vote. There they will write in the name of their preferred candidate along with their PR vote. To make it easier for voters to remember, many candidates spell their names using phonetic hiragana instead of kanji, which can be harder to write and have many different readings.

Since this election will also include a people’s review of nine of Japan’s 15 Supreme Court justices, voters will be required to mark an X next to the names of justices they would like to see dismissed. Blank votes will be counted as in favor of keeping them on.

In my next post, I’ll talk about the issues and outlook for this specific election before getting into the more provincial task of profiling my local candidates.


Last night was the Gozan Okuribi (五山送り火) in Kyoto, the culmination of the O-bon Japanese festival of the dead, in which giant symbols of fire are ignited on the mountains surrounding the city to help spirits find their way. Watching the fire ignite at 8pm (as with many festivals in Japan, often while drinking) is an ancient tradition in Kyoto, with modern hotels even holding special events on their upper floors. While I was feeling too lazy to actually go out and find a spot where I could see multiple daimonji, as the giant characters are called, go up in flames, the dai character on the east mountains is visible from my house, so I tried to get some photos of it.

All photos taken with Canon 50D. The first photo used the Canon 50mm/1.8f lens and the others used the Canon 100-300 4.5-5.6, a poor quality but extremely cheap telephoto lens. The photos could have been better, and I was reminded that I should pick up a tripod some time for such situations, but the low light capabilities of my new camera continue to impress, and there were a few respectable shots. In the fourth one, notice that you can actually see people hanging around the bonfires.

50 1.8F lens @ 3200ISO, 2.5f, 1/60 sec

100-300mm lens @ 3200ISO, 110mm, f4.5, 1/25 sec

100-300mm lens @ 1600ISO, 300mm, f5.6, 1/13 sec

100-300mm lens @ 3200ISO, 300mm, f5.6, 1/100 sec

In conjunction with general election, Japan’s supreme court justices are up for “re-election” August 30

(Updated with correction, thanks to Curzon)


Everyone knows that Japan’s lower house of parliament is up for re-election on Sunday, August 30.

But what you may not have heard is that some Supreme Court justices are also up for a “people’s review” (国民審査) at the same time.

Thanks to a banner on the sidebar of Yahoo Japan’s politics site, I now know how this works:

On paper, Supreme Court justices are “appointed by the emperor” based on the cabinet’s nomination and thus the Chief Justice serves as a minister of the emperor on the same level as the prime minister. However, the Japanese emperor has no real power, so in fact this means the justices are appointed by cabinet decision.

As a means of providing a democratic check over the judicial process, each justice is subject under the constitution to a people’s review at the general election immediately following their appointment, and then again every decade thereafter. In the upcoming election nine of the fifteen justices are up for review, including Chief Justice Hironobu Takesaki who was appointed by the Aso cabinet in November 2008.

At the polls, voters will be presented with a ballot listing the name of each justice with a box next to each name. The voter must place an X in the box to affirmatively vote to dismiss each judge. Blank votes are counted as votes in favor.

As far as I can tell, this system is all but window-dressing. So far, no judge has ever been dismissed in this manner, and among current justices who have undergone review, the justice with the highest ratio of votes against him is Yuki Furuta at 8.2%.

This appears to be the only way for the electorate (or their representatives) to dismiss Supreme Court justices, though there is The other ways that justices can be dismissed are the age requirement (they must retire by their 70th birthday) and a law that judges can be tried for dereliction of duties or other misconduct in the Court of Impeachment, consisting of 14 lower and upper house  MPs (no Supreme Court justice has ever been impeached).

The Supreme Court‘s English-language page has a very brief mention of this system toward the bottom:

The appointment of Justices of the Supreme Court is reviewed by the people at the first general election of members of the House of Representatives following their appointment. The review continues to be held every ten years at general elections.
A Justice will be dismissed if the majority of the voters favors his/her dismissal. So far, however, no Justice has ever been dismissed by the review.
Justices of the Supreme Court must retire at the age of 70.

The Japan Times had a good Q&A about the Supreme Court back in September 2008.

Japan’s impromptu commuter lines: Kita-Ayase and Hakata-Minami

The mass transit oddity in my backyard

I live almost right next to one of the oddest pieces of the Tokyo subway network: the tail end of the Chiyoda Line between Ayase and Kita-Ayase. On a map, it looks like a normal green line, but in reality, it’s anything but normal.

by dhchen on flickrThe north end of the Chiyoda Line is practically located at Ayase. From Ayase, the trains continue through onto the Joban Line toward Chiba and Ibaraki. To get to the last station on the Chiyoda Line, you have to walk to “Track 0” at the end of the southbound platform, then board a three-car 5000 series train (an older Tokyo Metro model which now populates the railways of Indonesia), which might not come for 20 minutes. When it does come, you’ll be treated to a mind-numbingly slow ride, such that the folks at Chakuwiki say “it’s like a tourist train” and “you might as well have walked.”

As is the case with most public transit oddities in Japan, there are political factors which led to this situation.

Kita-Ayase is located just south of the railway yard which services all the Chiyoda Line trains, as well as Yurakucho and Namboku Line trains (which can access the Chiyoda Line through tunnels near Kasumigaseki and Ichigaya). The yard opened along with the Chiyoda Line in 1969; at that time, the only passenger stops were between Kita-Senju and Otemachi, but the line to Kita-Ayase was being used to shuttle trains back and forth. Ayase opened for business as a passenger station in 1971, but the branch to Kita-Ayase remained for servicing only.

The people living around the rail yard saw all these trains passing right before their eyes, and so they petitioned the Teito Rapid Transit Authority to build a station at Kita-Ayase, which opened for business in 1979. Because of limitations on available space, the station has a very small platform which can only accommodate a three-car train–hence the use of special sets made of otherwise retired rolling stock. Also unlike the rest of the Chiyoda Line, the Kita-Ayase branch has platform doors due to the fact that its trains have only one conductor.

Following precedent

Ten years later, something very similar happened in Fukuoka. The Sanyo Shinkansen “bullet train” route, which began service to Fukuoka in 1975, terminates at a large rail yard in Nakagawa, a town about eight kilometers from Hakata Station (the main station in Fukuoka). The surrounding area was a quiet and bucolic zone when the line was planned, but doubled in population between 1960 and 1970, then doubled again between 1970 and 1980.

At some point in the late seventies or early eighties, the locals got fed up with the shoddy state of public transport to central Fukuoka. Back then, the only option was to take a bus, despite the fact that there was a beautiful high-speed rail line running straight from their backyard. So they petitioned the train company to build a new station, just like the good citizens of Ayase did, and got their wish for commuter trains in 1990.

There was one big administrative issue which held up the planning of the new passenger service. Japan’s national railway company had just been broken up, and the new service was uncomfortably on the edge of two new companies’ jurisdictions. JR Kyushu had been given authority to operate all local JR service in Kyushu, but JR West had been given authority over the Sanyo Shinkansen. The ultimate solution was to keep the station property and the line under JR West control, but subcontract operation of the new station to JR Kyushu.

by kamoda on flickrUntil 2008, the Hakata-Minami Line was operated by old 0-series Shinkansen trains, the same airplane-styled model that plied the Tokaido route in the 60s and 70s. These were retired, and now the line is mainly plied by current-series Shinkansen trains which continue directly to Shinkansen operation after dropping people off at Hakata. The trains are treated as limited expresses, even though the trip is only ten minutes long and costs 290 yen (190 base fare and 100 yen surcharge).

Although the Hakata-Minami Line is much nicer and much more convenient than the Kita-Ayase spur, it shares one common inconvenience: a short platform. Hakata-Minami Station can only handle eight-car trains, whereas Sanyo Shinkansen train sets run up to sixteen cars.

There is one other line on the boundary between Shinkansen and regular lines: the branch line between Echigo-Yuzawa and Gala-Yuzawa in Niigata Prefecture. This line is served by Joetsu Shinkansen trains from Tokyo during the winter ski season, but it is not treated as part of the Shinkansen; rather, it is treated as a limited express, carrying a 100 yen surcharge just like the Hakata-Minami Line. (The Gala-Yuzawa ski resort itself is incidentally owned by JR East, which is why you see ski packages advertised so heavily on JR trains in Tokyo during the winter.)

Must-see video on Youtube and the American quest for authenticity

Thanks to Gen Kanai for passing on this landmark lecture on Youtube culture and how it’s turning all Americans into attention whores who can only find validation through media exposure:

This appears to be on the same page as J Smooth’s observations about how even as the Youtube generation mourns Michael Jackson’s death, now that everyone is a media star they must deal with the same pressures of public exposure that Jackson faced:

Amazing expose on internet “pranksters” from The Smoking Gun

I direct all MFT readers to read this amazing, detailed expose from The Smoking Gun identifying and incriminating the the denizens of “Pranknet” an online community of highly destructive and juvenile practical jokers, whose exploits include the following:

Late on the evening of February 10, a call to Room 306 at the Best Western in Shillington, Pennsylvania roused a sleeping traveler. Jonathan Davis at the front desk was calling with scary news: A ruptured gas line was threatening hotel guests, some of whom were already feeling lightheaded and dizzy.

Noting that he was following a “protocol sheet,” Davis instructed the male guest that he needed to quickly unplug all electrical devices and place wet towels at the base of the room’s door to keep carbon monoxide from entering the space. After the guest took those precautions, Davis then directed him to bust out a 5′ x 5′ section of window. The man, who happened to be a glazier, asked, “Are you serious?” When Davis urgently assured him that the drastic measure was required for his safety, the guest replied that he would put on clothes and “bust this fucker.”

Using a chair, the guest then smashed a window. As broken glass cascaded into the room, Davis then advised that the television screen would need to broken since the tube contained an electrical charge that could spark an explosion. Davis suggested the use of the toilet tank cover to disable the television. But when the guest threw the porcelain lid at the TV, it broke. So Davis directed the man to toss the set out the window. Stepping gingerly around glass shards, the guest complied.

At this point, Davis’s supervisor, Jeff Anderson, joined the call and determined that the guests in 306 had co-workers in the adjoining room. Anderson then called Room 304 and advised the man answering the phone to “remain calm.” He told the guest of the gas leak and advised him of the safety measures that had already been followed next door. The man in 304 also unplugged electrical devices, placed wet towels at the door, smashed a window, and tossed the television to the sidewalk below. Anderson then directed the guest to pull the fire alarm. As a siren wailed, the guest asked Anderson, “Can we get out of this motel? Why can’t we just leave the building?” He had previously remarked, “I hope this ain’t some kind of joke.”

This is a really impressive investigation. The author writes with a well-deserved satisfied tone and seems to almost taunt the Pranknet members with his ability to expose them. Do yourself a favor and spend the next half hour reading through it and listening to some of the calls. You’ll see what a public service it is to hopefully stop these people.