The only rule of commuting that matters – just blend in

Reuters has a list of Japanese commuters’ common pet peeves:

1. Noisy conversation, horsing around

2. Music from headphones

3. The way passengers sit

4. Cellphone ringtones and talking on phones

5. Manners when getting on and off trains

6. Applying make-up

7. Littering

8. Sitting on the floor of the train

9. Riding the train drunk

10. Riding a crowded train with a child stroller

Most Mutant Frog readers will probably not find anything new on the list. Even the train companies are aware of them – most are covered in Tokyo Metro’s awesome “Please do it at Home” poster series (above, and read the Sandra Japandra blog if you want to laugh your ass off). Some seem more reasonable than others – can a mother really avoid bringing her kid on the train?

Pet peeves about daily life are simply a part of the human condition – American motorists all get pissed off at people who don’t use their blinkers, and on and on. However, in Japan these complaints seem to take on an extra sense of urgency because commuting on a packed train (often for more than an hour each way) is often so intimate and potentially dangerous. The pressure on your chest as that last person piles on. The feeling of being shoved as people stampede out at a major transfer station. The anxiety women must feel that the hand behind them could start getting too familiar.

With trains as crowded as Tokyo’s, everyone has an interest in maintaining some semblance of order and control. That’s maybe the one thing that keeps people in a tightly packed train from suffering a breakdown (and allows people to concentrate on a newspaper or Nintendo DS).

To deal with this, I think the people of Tokyo (and possibly all Japanese cities) have come up with one unwritten, overarching meta-rule that unites them all – do not stand out. People who stand out violate this order and thus subject themselves to the furtive glance of doom, that momentary registering of disapproval.

Even those who violate a few of the pet peeves themselves will feel annoyed at others who do the same. That’s because this rule is enforced by a million individual pet peeves manifesting themselves passive-aggressively. For example, I sometimes eat chocolate on the train but hate it when someone eats a sandwich or something I can smell. In my head, I feel like my eating is cleaner and therefore less rude.

This might be a stretch, but as a foreigner I feel like I automatically violate the rule just by being different. Once people see a white man they can never be sure if I’ll follow all the rules. Hence, just about every time I enter a reasonably packed train car I am greeted with half a dozen glances. I don’t necessarily think it’s racist–for most people it’s based on experience and it’s no more hostile than the automatic glances that would be directed toward other potential scofflaws – construction workers, thuggishly dressed kids, gyaru, etc etc.

Day in and day out, I share the train with the people who glare at me, and I start to glare back. I get territorial about my comfort zone – the handrail in front of the bench seats gives you enough room to read – and resent anyone who would violate it. I start to understand why people go out of their way to avoid talking to strangers. And I definitely get why people don’t bother giving up their seats to old people and pregnant ladies. Those people are breaking the rule!

This is why I think alleviating the insanely crowded train situation is vital to improving the national mood. I ridiculed Roger Cohen for talking about the gloomy attitude in Japan, but on that point he was right. People look like hateful, unhappy zombies during their commutes. The train companies are doing their best, but I feel like the media and politicians avoid really focusing on it because it’s one of those tough, intractable problems with no good solution. Better to let the plebes focus on how awful it is that some celebrities use drugs. But why not try some bolder solutions, like a second, identical Yamanote line, or double-decker train cars?

As a man with a short commute, I should be the last to complain about this. But I can’t help but thinking about it. It’s a national obsession, and in almost three years of living here it’s become mine as well.

“Uni Muki” — How to prepare a sea urchin

I’ve previously posted on ComingAnarchy about how to prepare a squid, at MFT on the morality of ikizukuri sashimi preparation, and now I thought it might be fun to repost a ComingAnarchy post on preparing a sea urchin for consumption. The following pictures were taken during a trip last summer to Rebun Island, the northernmost island in Japan after Hokkaido, where I had a chance to break open and prepare a sea urchin at a local fishery.

Sea urchins are a delicacy in Japan. Here is a tub of the spiny creatures waiting to be shipped across the country or otherwise served up for food.


The only edible part of the creature are its orange gonads. This requires completely destroying the creature, breaking through its spines and hard crusty shell. To split the creature open, three tools are required — a chisel with a lever, a dull scalpel, and twezers.


The rest of this gets messy… don’t continue to read if you have a thin skin (no pun intended). Continue reading “Uni Muki” — How to prepare a sea urchin

Ichihashi’s very dubious version of events

The latest news on the Lindsey Ann Hawker murder case: alleged perpetrator Tatsuya Ichihashi has confessed. Unfortunately, his story sounds bogus and calculated to avoid a death sentence:

According to the indictment, Ichihashi assaulted Hawker at his apartment in Ichikawa between March 25 and 26, 2007, tied her wrists with adhesive tape and raped her before strangling her to death. Sources close to the investigation said Ichihashi had remained silent over the incident ever since his arrest in Osaka on Nov. 10 this year.

Meanwhile, an attorney for Ichihashi said he started explaining about the events leading up to Hawker’s death after he was first charged with murder on Dec. 2.

“Because she yelled, I strangled her from behind, and she became motionless. After that, I gave her CPR. I didn’t mean to kill her,” Ichihashi was quoted as telling his attorney.

Hawker was alive until dawn on March 26, Ichihashi was quoted as telling his lawyer. The pair reportedly spent some time listening to a Martin Luther King speech via the Internet.

Investigative sources said DNA from body fluid found on Hawker’s body matched that of Ichihashi’s, and that in addition to heavy beating to her face and body, her neck was broken.

The case is slated to be put on a lay judge trial.

I really wish I could know why Ichihashi made her listen to Martin Luther King…

Japanese exchange students skipping over US

According to the Asahi Shimbun, OECD data shows Japanese university students are increasingly skipping over the US in favor other other destinations. The US captured a whopping 75% of the “market share” for Japanese students in 1997 with 47,000 America-bound that year. However, by 2007 that number had fallen under 50% with around 37,000 students. China has been on the rise as a destination – 19,000 students in 2005 (up 100% from 10 years ago). The total number of students was around 80,000 in 2005, up 30% from 1995. US diplomats in the country are concerned and have noticed a drop-of in attendance at their annual study abroad fairs in Tokyo.

Reasons for the shift include:

  • The erosion of America’s image as a vibrant, exciting country. (Note: My mistake. See comments) Students see America as a highly competitive place to study and may choose Canada or Australia instead for the more laid-back image. The article claims that some even choose Scandinavia, thinking that learning English among non-natives will be easier because they speak slower.
  • A growing interest in the broader world among Japanese students (and more universities forming exchange relationships with a more diverse set of schools)
  • A university source claims more students are asking whether Japanese-language service is available in the host university, though that’s almost never the case.

The tone of the article is that kids these days are more “inwardly oriented” and less willing to challenge themselves. However, more and more Japanese students are studying abroad. I find it much more plausible that Japanese kids are simply more interested in Asia and the wider world, partly because those countries are a lot more developed and accessible now than they were even a decade ago.

The article does not get into another major hurdle for Japanese students who want to study in the US – the draconian visa process and the image that the US has become harder to get into. Since 9/11 the US has made the visa process progressively more restrictive and annoying. As a result, even though the number of foreign students to the US from all countries rose from 475,169 in 2000 to 595,874 in 2007, the US saw its market share fall from 25% to 19.7% in the same period.

More detailed data in English on all countries can be found at the OECD website.

Equal Alliance? Sure! A US perspective on the Japan-US relationship imbalance

For years we’ve heard opposition Japanese politicians vaguely bemoan the unequal alliance between the US and Japan. Japan should speak up! many have said. Now that the DPJ has won the government and Yukio Hatoyama is the PM, this assertion has been repeated by the government, without explaining what this means. Richard Halloran agrees, and recently laid out ten ways how Japan could achieve an equal alliance with US with some honesty that I expect would make most Japanese policymakers nauseous. Summarized, these ten ways are:

1. Japan should take full responsibility for its own defense and abolish Article 9.

2. Emphasize naval forces to project power into the ocean and defend vital shipping routes, which are largely defended by the US navy.

3. Revise the Japan-US security treaty to oblige Japan to come to the defense of the US just as the US is obliged to help defend Japan.

4. Quadruple defense spending to $200 billion a year from its present $50 billion a year, to bring it up from 1% to 4% of GNP, the ratio in the US.

5. Enlarge the Self-Defense Force to 880,000 men and women from the present 240,000, commensurate with the US’s population-to-soldier ratio. Perhaps resort to conscription to achieve this.

6. Expel most, if not all, US forces from Japan, including Okinawa, and convert the bases to SDF use.

7. Remove the US nuclear umbrella, or extended deterrence, from Japan, and follow what one Hatoyama advisor calls for, relying on a world without nuclear weapons.

8. Take over development of missile defense from the US.

9. Establish a department like the CIA or MI-6 to collect and analyze political, economic and military intelligence.

10. Take the initiative in international negotiations.

Roger Cohen does Japan

After working out with Yoko Ono’s lawyer and crossing the street outside the Imperial Palace, Roger Cohen is ready to tell us what he thinks of Japan: a sad place where the only way to have fun is develop unhealthy obsession with cartoons:

My sense is that four factors have contributed to [over-the-top hobbyism and high-tech obsession in Japan]: wealth, postmodernism, conformism and despair. Japan is rich enough, bored enough with national ambition, strait-jacketed enough and gloomy enough to find immense attraction in playful escapism and quirky obsession.

As Tokyo Reporter noted in comments in my last post, Cohen uses some ridiculous examples to make what is ultimately a pretty valid point. There is a definite “ennui” here that, like much of the world, leads people to pursue escapism. Where I differ with Cohen the most is that I don’t think Japan is any more advanced in its escapism than America, just different. Here was my comment to the site that focused mainly on the silly parts of his column:

In common usage, “otaku” usually refers not to “geek-like obsession” but to actual obsessed geeks, which make up a pretty small proportion of Japan’s population (probably not much higher than the ratio of Americans who obsess over their hobbies). I would agree that “we’re all going a little otaku” as you defined it but that statement applies equally to most Japanese as it does to Americans.

I would also like to point out that Yoko Ono’s lawyer gave you some bad information. Unless you were using some new model of treadmill I am unaware of, those pictures tell you how many calories you are burning, as you suspected. It’s a neat feature I think American runners would like as well.

Sure, Japanese attention to detail, cuteness, and what have you are obvious to any outside visitor, but what does that have to do with Japan’s international standing? Does a lack of cute images on American treadmills signify the decline of the American superpower?

One bonus nitpick that I didn’t tell the Times: that area in front of the Imperial Palace is closed to traffic so they can open it up to bicycles. The traffic guards are there to make sure no one is run over by an out of control tourist. All the same, I think anyone who has been there will agree the old men directing traffic (who work for a travel agency) are extremely power-drunk and over-earnest in making sure no one jaywalks.

Lightening up

Lisa Katayama has a piece up at BoingBoing about how people like us should keep our sense of humor when she writes about weird stuff in Japan:

…writing about my own country’s quirks has its downside. I strive to tell each story objectively without condescension or sensationalism, but every time I write an article about, say, the engineer who has a body pillow girlfriend or the grad student who married a Nintendo DS character, I get hundreds of racially-charged comments from readers, long ranting responses from defenders of Japanese culture (ed: Hey, is that a dig at me?) , and dozens of emails from people at big media outlets who want to find out more about these “strange” phenomena.

Why do so many love to gawk at this mysterious, foreign “other” that is Japanese culture? There are plenty of strange things going on in the US too, but when it happens in Japan, it’s suddenly incomprehensible, despicable, awesome, and crazy. This fascination doesn’t just end with angry commenters, either. Over the last couple of decades, it has spawned a huge industry of magazines, blogs, and products themed around Japanese culture marketed to Westerners by Westerners who are also obsessed with Japanese culture.

My friend Joi Ito and I talk about this a lot. He, like me, is Japanese and was brought up with both American and Japanese influences. This question resonates not only with the work that we do, but with our personal identities. While we do our fair share of sitting around analyzing Japanese culture, it’s also deeply personal to us when someone criticizes our country or our opinions of it.

Overriding all this Japanalysis, though, is the fact that none of this is meant to be taken seriously. One important premise of Japanese popular culture is the commitment to have fun and not take offense. Japanese humor works on many different levels and its nuances can be hard to explain to people who didn’t grow up with it.

…you just don’t get it. You’re not in on the joke. You’re the one taking it too seriously, and you might be imposing your own biases and hang-ups on someone else’s situation.Being majime (too serious) is not cool in Japan; likewise it is important for voyeurs of Japanese culture to recognize that most everything pop-culture-y that is exported to the West comes at us with a wink. If you’re all up in arms about it, then maybe the joke is on you.

On the outside, guys like Sal9000 (the guy who married his DS girlfriend) and Nisan (the guy with the body pillow girlfriend) may seem “weird” or “crazy.” But they’ve really just found creative ways to toy with amorphous concepts like love and romance that complement their own unique lives.

I wholeheartedly agree that light-hearted content about Japan should be allowed some breathing room. In fact, I agree with that even for those who sell junk and run for-profit blogs focused on Japan Weird stuff.

Where I would draw the line is when an influential publication like the New York Times trots out this stuff in the service of their tired narrative of an inscrutable, backwards, and weak Japan. Call me a “defender of Japanese culture” if you want, but it’s a line of thought that does more to obscure than enlighten (See the recent silliness from Roger Cohen). The NYT would benefit just as much as the rest of us from “lightening up” as Katayama suggests.

I would have a much easier time accepting this premise from someone who isn’t in the business of producing Weird Japan content that’s intended to be taken seriously. If this piece signals a change of heart, that’s great. But if it’s true that most of the stuff is tongue-in-cheek, shouldn’t she be telling the readers instead of writing an essay about it afterward?

As writers, shouldn’t we be trying to help people understand, instead of chiding them for not getting it?

Adam J. Richards disappointed in court decision in favor of Borat

From Bloomberg:

News Corp.’s Twentieth Century Fox Film won an appeals-court ruling affirming the dismissal of three lawsuits filed by people who claimed they were emotionally harmed by appearing in the “Borat” movie.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in New York upheld the dismissals from last year in an order today. People who appeared in the film, including those in a dinner-party scene in which the protagonist presents a bag of feces, also sued for fraud and unjust enrichment, according to the ruling. They argued the ambiguity of “documentary-style film” in signed releases meant the lower court couldn’t rely on them to dismiss the litigation.

“While the character ‘Borat’ is fictional, the film unmistakably tells the story of his travels in the style of a traditional, fact-based documentary,” the appeals court wrote. “Indeed, the film’s stylistic similarity to the straight documentary form is among its central comedic conceits, employed to set the protagonist’s antics in high relief.”

“It’s disappointing,” Adam J. Richards, a lawyer for six of the seven plaintiffs, said of the ruling in a phone interview. “It allows well-financed parties such as Twentieth Century Fox to outright lie to people and rely on, in my opinion, an ambiguously worded document to get by the lies.”

The appeals court found the plaintiffs couldn’t claim the filmmakers fraudulently induced them into signing the releases because they didn’t try to verify what they were told by, for example, asking to meet the “reporter” or learn his name.

“They would have lied to him,” Levine said of his client Psenicska. “To use clear language like ‘mock documentary’ or ‘mockumentary’ would have given the game away. They were clearly trying to use obsfucation.”

While I agree that the plaintiffs should have maybe had a little common sense before jumping in front of the camera, I really hope Sasha Baron Cohen remains the only one making these obviously subversive movies. They work, but only because the makers are doing things everyone knows are completely wrong.

Gambling and the Yakuza: An Interview with Jake Adelstein, Part 2

Welcome to part 2 of the Jake Adelstein Interview. For those of you who missed it, here’s part 1. Don’t forget to check out his book. Remember, by spreading his story around you are helping to keep him alive.

I enjoyed your article on yakuza fan magazines. Actually, I met a publisher of one of those once. He mentioned an interesting ritual–if an editor ever printed something wrong about the group or otherwise needed to apologize, he would go to the office with a special set of two sake bottles that were bound together. The bindings, he explained, symbolized a reaffirmation of the relationship and would be drank together after the apology. Ever heard of this?

I’ve heard of carrying big expensive bottles of sake to the offices with a set of two sake cups–probably symbolizing the same thing.  I’ve never heard of the two sake bottles being bound together but it sounds plausible.

This is the publisher of ***, by the way. Does this mean that he’s got a connection to a particular group? I find this idea surprising, as the guy is known in the mahjong world mainly for being very defensive (and cowardly, depending on who you ask). He also has a licensing deal with a video game company, which would probably drop the deal if they thought their own product was tainted.

Every yakuza magazine tends to lean a little towards one organized crime group over another. *** was once said to be really tight with the Yamaguchi-gumi, if memory serves me right.

By the way, did I mention that my specialty is mahjong? Ever see any mahjong games at the press club in the police building? I’ve heard the games there used to be pretty popular, but this is hard to verify.

When I was in the Saitama Police Department Headquarters press club–there were still reporters who would gather together, regardless of newspaper/television affiliation and play Mah Jong. But never for money. At least not in the Police Headquarters.

How can you be sure they didn’t play for money? Were there no records kept?

Nobody would be that stupid I assume. You don’t want to taunt the police. (Ed–I know people this stupid)

You mentioned in your book that you discussed Mahjong with police detectives. Did you play the game much and did you ever play with them?

I haven’t played in years. There was one cop in the Organized Crime Control Division who was a Mah Jong fanatic who taught me how to play and sometimes we’d play with another cop pal of his. They were nice enough not to play for money too often because I would have gone broke.  I never got the knack of it. I did have one night where I kicked both their asses but it was a total fluke.  I remember supplementing my lessons on Mah Jong by reading a comic book introduction to the game.

Ever hear anything about yakuza connections to Mahjong? One Japan Society Paper on Pachinko claims that mahjong is a billion dollar industry. I’ve heard from other sources that the yakuza are involved, but sources within the industry laugh at this, saying that there isn’t nearly enough money going through a parlor to attract yakuza attention.
It does seem that Mah Jong is an older person’s sport and while occasionally it comes back into fashion or is considered trendy again, my impression is that it’s not worth the time of the modern yakuza. But I don’t know. Do you remember the great Kabukicho fire on September 1st, 2001 (right before 911)?  One of the bars that had a lot of deaths was a mah jong parlor where gambling was done and it had a yakuza backer. However, it wasn’t being run by the mob, the owners were just paying large amounts of protection money. Nationwide, perhaps it really is big money.

Popular rumor has it that the legally grey Pachinko industry is heavily influenced by North Korean owners, who launder and repatriate the money, and the yakuza, who are involved with the cash-exchange shops. What your take on this? I’ve heard that both of these claims are exaggerated and the real winner is the NPA and its amakudari.

The yakuza have cleared out of the pachinko industry to a great degree. It is true that there are many pachinko parlors with North Korean ties, mostly familial and some business. What’s interesting about the pachinko industry is that while the customers are declining in number, the amount each remaining customers plugs into the machines seems to be increasing.  Bigger investment, bigger pay-off seems to be the lure.  I don’t think anyone doubts that the NPA wants to keep pachinko around because the industry does provide such nice retirement opportunities for themselves.  Now, in Kansai, you probably still have yakuza groups collecting money from the pachinko parlor owners but in Kanto the police have done a very thorough job of driving the yakuza out of the industry.  Even the North Korean connections are becoming weaker. Here’s how it used to work if you were a North Korean business owner in Japan.  If you stopped making regular contributions to the motherland, a representative of the Chosen Soren would show up at your doorstep with a note from your relatives in North Korea saying something like “Why don’t you support our country? We have eaten nothing but grass for weeks” or something to that effect–and most people would fork over cash.  The North Korean government is one giant criminal enterprise and they hold the relatives of Korean-Japanese as perpetual hostages to extort money from them. In many cases, once the relative in North Korea who they were indirectly feeding passes away, the man or woman contributing funds to North Korea will cut ties.

Thanks for talking with us, Jake!


Jade Mountain, or Yushan (玉山), is the tallest mountain in Taiwan at 3,952 metres (12,966 ft) above sea level. It had previously been known as Mount Morrison in English, after an American sea captain in the mid-19th century, it was given a new name after Taiwan’s annexation by Japan. As Yushan is taller than Japan’s tallest mountain, Mount Fuji at 3,776 m (12,388 ft), it was renamed Niitakayama (新高山), which translates to “New Tall Mountain.”




富士の高根は / 日の本の

国のかためと / あふぎ来ぬ。

新高山も / 高砂の

島のしづめと / あふぐべし。

我が大君の / かしこくも

みこころ深く / えらばして、

おほせたまひし / 山の名は

高くたふとし / 山よりも。

富士にならべる / 新高の

山よりたかき / 大君の、

みいつを仰げ / 国民よ。

みかげを仰げ / 島人よ。

Apologies for the lack of English but I don’t have time to try and translate the little poem right now, but wanted to post it anyway.

Update: Commenter Sublight reminds us that “Climb Mount Niitaka” was the secret codephrase transmitted by the Japanese Navy to signal the attack on Pearl Harbor. I found a Japanese page that has some nice info on the message, including the original text on the Japanese side, and the intercept analysis on the American side.

『新高山登レ一二○八』 was the message, and it was analyzed as follow:

Combined Fleet Serial #10.
Climb NIITAKAYAMA 1208, repeat 1208
Comments; Interpreted freely, above means “Attack on 8 December”
Explanation; This was undoubtedly the prearranged signal for specifying the date for opening hostilities.
However, the significance of the phrase is interesting in that it is so appropriately used in this connection.
NIITAKAYAMA is the highest mountain in the Japanese Empire.
To climb NIITAKAYAMA is to accomplish one of the greatest feats.
In other words undertake the task (of carrying out assigned opertations).
1208 signifies twelfth month, 8th day, Item time.

It is often said that had the intercepted message been decoded before the attack, Pearl Harbor would have managed to defend themselves, but I wonder if anybody would have actually correctly interpreted “Climb Mount Niitaka” as an assault on US forces.