Wendy’s Japan to close by end of December!

Suddenly and unceremoniously, Zensho, the operator of Wendy’s Japan, has announced it will discontinue its licensing deal with the Wendy’s parent company and shut down all 71 restaurants under the hamburger chain’s brand by the end of this month.

There is a brief statement on the chain’s website announcing the decision (the URL oddly misspells “Wendies”) thanking everyone for their service and patronage and inviting everyone to visit a Wendy’s before it’s too late. But it doesn’t exactly tell us why this is happening. The Nikkei Shimbun and Wall Street Journal pass on statements from officials at Zensho stating that while Wendy’s had started to turn a profit, they wanted to focus management resources on their mainstay business, the Sukiya beef bowl chain.

The closure means 1900 part time workers will lose their jobs. According to the Nikkei, Zensho is offering to help them find work at neighboring stores, though in this tough environment I am sure many will have trouble finding new work immediately.

Although I rarely ate at Wendy’s, knowing it was there was comforting as an expat American. Also, at various points in my stay here Wendy’s has served as a meeting place and landmark. It will be very sad to see it go! One can only hope Burger King, which has made a recent return to Japan, will take over some of the former Wendy’s locations.

The Tortured Japanese Decision Making Process, Part 1: Dubai and Futenma

UPDATE: When I read the blog on my Etisalat-serviced Blackberry over the weekend, I was horrified to see that the text of this post was substantially abridged to just three paragraphs and slightly edited for flow to remove all references to Dubai (excluding the title). When I finally got to a computer today, I see that it appears unedited, even on my Dubai computer. I remain perplexed as to what would be deemed critical of the UAE in this post that could have been material subject to censorship. –Curzon, 13 December.

I haven’t yet publicly explained to MF readers, but I recently relocated my permanent residence from Tokyo to Dubai. I’ve since been publishing most of my thoughts on my new life in the region at ComingAnarchy.com, a more appropriate forum for the material, and you can read dispatches from the region in recent posts that appeared here, here, here and here. However, I am still remain closely involved in Japan, and will continue to blog here on topics that relate to Japan and Asia. I am also on a flexibly but ultimately fixed term assignment in the Middle East and plan to return to Japan afterwards.

A move between civilizations such as this clearly reveals contrasts between cultures. From the mere provision of services, to the exotic types of food, to the very manner in which human beings interract, many things are different. I could list dozens of example, but it’s primarily the quirky differences that stick in my mind. For example, did you know that the number of bathrooms in apartments and houses in the Middle East is the number of bedrooms, plus one? Apparently Arabs are loathe to share bathrooms, even with family members, so every 2LDK has three bathrooms (the additional bathroom is for guests) and one 3LDK with a maid’s room I saw during my house hunt had five bathrooms! There are also similarities between the two cultures when viewed from the Western perspective — Arabs, like the Japanese, are polite and formal when first meeting, prefer their commercial transactions to be relationship-oriented, and don’t allow their women equal social participation.

One stark contrast with regards to culture that sticks in my mind is the decision-making process. I’ve become accustomed to the concensus-based approach to making decisions in Japan, to the extent that Japan’s norms are natural to me — take time to hear all opinions, discuss pros and cons, think some more, and then eventually wander towards a decision. This works fine in Japan, but it’s completely different in most of the rest of the world, and in the Middle East, I’ve seen some important decisions made at the drop of a hat. What’s more, when I need to decide things that involve other people, I see the Japanese decision-making process reflected in myself, and I would observe that it has the power to drive people crazy. “Make a decision already! Or get back to me when you’re finished!” That’s something I’ve heard several times in both the personal and commercial context over the past few weeks.

The Japanese decision-making process works great in Japan, and is an important part of the culture, but it simply doesn’t work overseas, where decisions are, by comparison, streamlined. This is something that the Japanese must understand if they engage non-Japanese parties in discussions or negotiations, and many major trading companies with global operations and bureaucratic institutions of government have carefully internalized their decision making procedures so as not to send mixed messages. It still takes them a long time to come to a decision, but at least it helps to prevent them appearing indecisive, weak, or send out mixed messages.

I have been thinking about this for the past few days and just this morning read that Obama is avoiding a private chat on the Futenma Base relocation with Hatoyama at the Copenhagan environmental summit. (Regular readers know that I was very critical of the DPJ scattershot approach to foreign policy before they took power, and specifically addressed the absurd and painful procedure used to review the Futenma Base relocation in previous blog posts.) When queried on this, the White House press secretary answered that the two leader met two months ago and nothing has changed since. Therefore…

Therefore what? The Japanese logic concludes that, therefore, all levels of America’s foreign policy and defense apparatus should continue to join in with the decision-making process. The Western logic is just the reverse — the natural conclusion is that there is nothing further to discuss, as what needs to happen now is for Japan to come to a decision and then tell America their decision.

Or as I’ve heard a few times since coming to Dubai: “Make a decision already! Or get back to me when you’re finished!” That Hatoyama is trying to involve Obama in the nemawashi process in the Futenma Base relocation is yet another example of how the DPJ are rank amateurs. During the LDP years, administrations were at least good at holding off American officials while the internal decision making process went forward, and thus avoided public disagreements, sending mixed messages, or appear not to have a clue. The DPJ needs to realize that the consensus-based decision making process is unique to Japan and does not work internationally. Taking such a long time to come to a conclusion is painful enough for most non-Japanese to tolerate, and becoming pulled into the decision making process is bound to end badly. When will Hatoyama realize this, and what damage will be done to the US-Japan alliance in the interim?

Graffiti “artist” B.N.E in the NYT


The NYT just published an article on “BNE,” the man responsible for pasting the stickers bearing his moniker  all over Tokyo. It’s apparently his first interview with a reporter.

Interestingly, the reason BNE has granted this rare interview appears to be because he is in the middle of a promotional campaign for his work. That’s right, promotional campaign. A graffiti artist who you’re only familiar with because he obnoxiously plasters adhesives all over the mailboxes and utility posts of Tokyo has teamed up with an advertising agency to promote his “brand.”

<blockquote>”This weekend, B.N.E. was not spray-painting surreptitiously, but creating a sanctioned mural on a concrete wall in a temporarily vacant building at 595 11th Avenue, near 44th Street. It is part of an exhibition of his work that opens Thursday, sponsored by Mother, a Manhattan advertising agency.

“B.N.E. has single-handedly created a globally recognized and valued brand in the new social economy,” Mother officials said in a news release. “His presence in Flickr photo galleries and YouTube pages dwarfs that of many multinationals.””</blockquote>

Valued brand? Excuse me? That must be why the mayor of San Francisco issued a warrant for his arrest and put $2,500 on his head. I’m generally one to find viral/guerrilla marketing campaigns innovative and funny (even the ones which create a public nuisance) but this development is ridiculous. Municipalities spend money cleaning up after BNE vandalism, he shouldn’t be able to profit off of it.

I think I’d feel differently if his work was a little bit more innovative. He pastes the same damn sticker (or slight variation) everywhere he goes–that’s it. C’mon, even the Andre the Giant sticker has more quality than that!

Plus, the letters in BNE can be rearranged into my nickname, something all my friends never let me forget.

The JLPT goes otaku

I finally got around to taking Level 1 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (日本語能力試験) last weekend. Roy, Adamu and Curzon all took it while they were in diapers, but I never saw much need to do so myself. It’s hardly a good benchmark of ability; one can pass Level 1 with poor Japanese skills, or fail it with good Japanese skills, depending solely on how one’s skills match the material covered on the test. Level 1 essentially tests for the following:

  1. Basic conversational and reading comprehension ability
  2. Correct pronunciation of words written in kanji
  3. Ability to distinguish between similar kanji
  4. Ability to distinguish between grammatical forms that nobody uses
  5. Ability to understand science fiction anime

Point 5 is apparently a new addition to the December 2009 examination, and showed up in the last question on the listening section, helpfully uploaded to YouTube so I can prove to everyone that it is real. (Hat tip to these guys, and to Roy for tipping me off through Facebook.)

Another question on the listening test was based on a role-playing video game similar to Final Fantasy; the recording played an explanation of the various steps required to beat the game (with an accompanying 8-bit-style map in the test booklet), and the test taker was asked to give the correct order of places to visit. It’s nice to know that Level 1 has some practical uses.

A Swiss Enigma

On Tuesday, December 8th, Temple University’s International Center of Japan Studies is hosting a talk by Hamish McDonald, an Australian journalist, who is writing a book on the life of Charles Bavier. Who was this fellow? I found the summary of the event to be fascinating.

Sometimes the most vivid insights into momentous events can come not from the great and famous people involved,but the participants in the retinues. Few individuals can have been involved in so many important episodes of Japan’s road to war and defeat mid-last century as Charles Bavier (1888-1977).

Swiss-born but left by his Yokohama merchant father to be raised by a Japanese mistress, Bavier grew to adulthood as Japan went to war with Russia, then joined the Japanese “China Ronin” fighting with Sun Yat-sen’s revolutionaries in 1911-12. After war service at Gallipoli with the Australian army, he returned to Japan in 1920 and stayed until forced out by rising militarism in 1936. He went to work for British intelligence in Singapore. Before it fell, he was withdrawn to Australia to devise Allied propaganda directed at Japan. He saw one son enlisted by the Kempetai in Singapore, and another fight with the Australians against Japan in New Guinea.

The venue is TUJ’s Mita Hall, Room 502. If anyone gets a chance to attend I’d love to hear about it.

Gambling and the Yakuza: An Interview with Jake Adelstein

Tokyo Vice
Tokyo Vice

Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan came out this past Fall. A tale of sex, scandal, and gangsters, it was written by Jake Adelstein, a former vice reporter for the Yomiuri and the only American to have been admitted into the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department press club. If you’re interested in hearing more about the seedy side of Tokyo, I recommend picking up a copy. It’s a great read, at least as interesting as Robert Whiting’s Tokyo Underworld.

Some of you may have heard of Adelstein when his name popped up a year or so ago as the author of a Washington Post article about the yakuza (Japanese mafia). He is an interesting fellow; besides his unique former press credentials he also was instrumental in the 2006 TIP report that embarrassed Japan into adopting stricter anti-trafficking measures. Additionally, he runs the “Japan Subculture Research Center,” a blog devoted to the Japanese underground. He is currently running around the world promoting his new book. This isn’t just to generate sales. The publicity he generates keeps him alive.

Continue reading Gambling and the Yakuza: An Interview with Jake Adelstein

A Victory for Accountability

In December 2005, a “fat fingered” Mizuho Securities trader (unnamed, and now presumably unemployed) sold 610,000 shares at 1 yen instead of selling 1 share at 610,000 yen. The error resulted in Mizuho losing 27 billion yen (about US$225 million at the time), perhaps the most expensive single trading error in history.

Mizuho decided to sue the Tokyo Stock Exchange for not having a safety system in place to prevent these types of errors, and almost four years later, the court has ruled that the TSE is liable to the tune of 10.7 billion yen, or about 40% of the original damages. The presiding judge called the lack of safety measures “absurd” and that the exchange failed to exercise the suitably duty of care. In addition to a lack of failsafes preventing such a trade, the TSE’s computer system was unable to process the cancellation order after Mizuho tried to withdraw the trade.

On the one hand, I am frustrated by the ruling because of the vague formula used to calculate the award, which I think is just an arbitrary number that the judge felt was right, rather than a careful calculation. Mizuho was deemed to be partially at fault, and the judge came to the conclusion (perhaps using some type of metric that the TSE bore 70 percent of the blame. The damages to Mizuho are pretty easy to calculate: 27 billion yen — plus three years of interest! How 70% responsibility for the loss results in an award of 40% of the amount of damages makes no sense to me. Such is the problem with judges in Japan, or as some Japanese critics would call it, 裁判できない裁判官 — judges who cannot judge.

I see the ruling as a victory for accountability, which is sorely lacking in Japan. The very word means responsibility what happens, yet in Japan it is regularly translated as 説明責任, or the mere “responsibility to explain.” That has often been the approach to accountability in Japan — as long as someone can explain what happened, there is no blameworthiness or real liability. Hopefully we’ll look back at the TSE “Fat Finger” ruling as the first major move by courts to introduce a -Western- modern style of accountability.

Bloomberg on mechanical tomb operator Nichiryoku


Bloomberg has an interesting article on Nichiryoku, a business offering “mechanical tombs” in Japan (and possibly Hong Kong in the near future):

Secretary for Food and Health York Chow was in Japan last week to visit Tokyo-based Nichiryoku Co.’s mechanized columbarium, as facilities used to store urns are known. Families swipe a smart card and the ashes of the deceased are lifted mechanically within 60 seconds from an underground vault, with 8,545 tomb spaces, to one of 10 viewing areas.

The seven-story building in central Yokohama, a port city 16 kilometers (10 miles) from Tokyo, uses less space per urn than a facility where all are on permanent display. Each tomb can hold as many as three urns and 95 percent are taken.

The Yokohama columbarium, built by Shimizu Corp., Mitsubishi Corp. and Murata Machinery Ltd., was the first of its kind, according to Nichiryoku. Since then, the company has built three more in Japan, and rival companies are doing the same, according to employees who guided York’s tour.

“Usually these things are handled by local priests and temples, and in our case we also cooperated with a local temple to open this facility,” said Hisayoshi Teramura, the company’s president. “It’s been a very successful venture for us and we’re getting interest from other cities.” A delegation from Shanghai visited last year and this year, he said.

Nichiryoku’s shares have gained 17 percent this year, against a 3.4 percent rise in the benchmark Topix index. Shares in the only Hong Kong-listed provider of funeral services, Sino- Life Group Ltd., have more than doubled since their debut Sept. 9. The company operates in Taiwan and is expanding into China, where growing wealth is fueling demand for traditional funerals.

At the Nichiryoku’s 24-hour Yokohama columbarium, urns are stored in a “tomb” box that slots into one of the designated viewing areas, decorated with a backdrop of floral designs including cherry blossoms, snowdrops, cosmos and roses. People can bring food and flowers, which must be removed when they leave — in contrast to the tradition of graveyards in China.

If people are supposed to bring offerings back home with them when they leave the columbarium, that’s not just different from the Chinese tradition, it’s a lot different from the typical Japanese graveyard as well.

But I quibble. I’ve never heard of anyone using such a facility, but I did just see an ad for Nichiryoku this morning. It’s a cheaper option than getting a family plot at a graveyard, so I can see why some would go for it.

I am kind of amazed that a tomb operator is listed on the stock market, though. Maybe as Japan gets older the death business will get more and more lucrative.

Super useful web tool – auto convert between modern and traditional kanji

Since both traditional and simplified characters are still in active use in the Chinese world not only IME software, but also software to automatically convert between the two is readily available, for example as a feature in Openoffice (and MS Word?), and as part of the Chinese language edition of Wikipedia. In the case of Japanese, however, traditional characters are for the most part archaic, and almost nobody ever has any reason to input more than a couple of 繁体字 (for example, to input an unusual or old name) at a time. Except of course for academics dealing with old documents that are not readily available in digital form. Well, I just did a quick search and came across such a tool for Japanese. The web form lets you input either modern Japanese into the top field and have it converted to 舊字體, or post old Japanese into the bottom form and click to convert it into modern kanji. Note that it does not change the kana portion, so if you need to enter a bunch of archaic Japanese text you will still have to make those alterations oneself, but for kanji at least this looks like it good save a fair amount of time compared with either searching the dictionaries one by one or even using the Pinyin/繁体字 IME.

For comparison, here’s a random passage I had open, before:


And after:


The page also includes a handy reference chart. Note that it only seems to convert relatively common characters, i.e. those that are simplified forms of the same character. It won’t actually help at all for all those times you have to enter kanji that are either variants (異体字) or just plain archaic.

Did Japan test an atomic bomb in Korea in 1945?

Robert Kneff of the Marmot’s Hole blog has a neat article in the Korea Times re-telling the little known allegation that Japan tested a nuclear bomb in what is now North Korea shortly before the end of WW2. To be fair, I’ll excerpt the same portion as the Marmot’s Hole did.

It is common knowledge that on October 9, 2006 North Korea tested a small nuclear bomb. But there is debate as to whether or not this was the first atomic bomb test done in Korea. Ever since the end of World War II there have been rumors that Japan, just days before its surrender, tested a small atomic bomb off the coast of modern Hamheung.

I came across this story while doing research on one of my Western gold miners in northern Korea.  This gold miner used to take his gold to the smelter at Konan – in the Hamheung area – and the story eventually encompassed other Westerners working at the this Japanese industrial center including one who, after he returned to the United States, was arrested by the FBI following the attack on Pearl Harbor.  This scientist was deemed so valuable that he was allowed to continue to work in a top secret plant and was eventually one of the scientists sent to Korea to investigate the possibility of Japan building and testing an atomic bomb in Korea.

This story always starts the same way – regardless of who publishes it – so why should I be any different?

Allegedly, on the evening of August 11, 1945, a number of ancient ships, junks and fishing boats were anchored near a small inlet by the Japanese. Just before dawn on August 12, a remote controlled launch carrying the atomic bomb known as “genzai bakudan” (greatest fighter), slowly made its way through the assembled fleet and beached itself.

Nearly twenty miles away, observers wearing welders’ glasses were blinded by the bomb’s terrific blast. “The ball of fire was estimated to be 1,000 yards in diameter. A multicolored cloud of vapors boiled towards the heavens then mushroomed in the stratosphere. The churn of water and vapor obscured the vessels directly under the burst. Ships and junks on the fringe burned fiercely at anchor. When the atmosphere cleared slightly the observers could detect several vessels had vanished.”

While this is a good story, there isn’t really any reason to believe it, and no serious evidence aside from this single interview with an anonymous source, which itself may very well have been fabricated in the first place. One detail that jumps out to me as peculiar is the alleged name of the bomb, genzai bakudan, which according to the article means “greatest fighter.” Except of course that translation is total nonsense. In no possible way that I can think of does either genzai or bakudan mean either “greatest” or “fighter.” Bakudan in fact means bomb, which while reasonable as part of a name for a-well- bomb, is completely different from what was claimed. And genzai means either “present time” or “original sin”, neither of which really makes much sense at all.

On another note, this has reminded me that I need to finish the post I started writing on the book “Let’s drop an atomic bomb on Kyoto”, about why Kyoto was not nuked in the war, that I picked up at a used bookshop near Waseda several months ago.