The Osaka 2011 Problem — a historic opportunity?

Osaka has a problem. (Well, OK — it has lots of problems.) But there is one problem out there that is so big it has been called the “Osaka 2011 Problem” — the massive construction of skyscrapers and other major real estate projects across the city. These projects will come online on a rolling basis for years, but 2011 is considered to be the peak year when the market is flooded with too much new real estate. Hence the new buzzword.

Why are new skyscrapers a problem? Osaka’s city economy is a basketcase, effectively two decades behind the times with a tired industrial sector and trading economy that has not evolved into the modern era. It has failed miserably in competing with Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya and Fukuoka, all of which have found an important niche in the 21st century global and Asian market. So all this premier real estate in Osaka will be finished, but there will not be enough tenants to provide the demand for this new supply.

Yet I discussed this with a learned friend who knows Japan’s real estate market inside and out. He says that, as they main developers are all the big boys, so they be able to entice key keiretsu companies to take space in their new projects to get a head start on income. There will be a flight to quality, as major companies relocating into new projects will give everyone an opportunity to upgrade, while rent levels will come down (think Dubai!), and owners of old real estate will come under pressure to sell assets.

This is the story of urban development elsewhere. Larger companies have cheaper capital costs and as one area’s development cycle completes they look at another area to buy up and re-develop. Some projects in the pipeline have as their business plan the buy out of seedy businesses (and second-rate businesses) to aggregate land and build something nice. In other words, gentrification! This does create value.

Some of these projects can be highlighted and looked at under the microscope, such as the Kita Umeda Yard — check-out insight on the project from the blog Osaka Insider. This could well become the new hot spot, as Shin Osaka loses tenants to Kita-Umeda. And as Shin-Osaka declines, developers may well buy out land around Shin Osaka and re-develop Shin Osaka area, at the same time that one of the trains is extended from Umeda to Shin Osaka. Once again, the gentrification strategy.

My learned friend also some some further insight — this procession is fair. Japan is similar to Western Europe in that there is a traditional landed class that lives off of rent, but they never reinvest and sad buildings last for years without repairs. The Osaka redevelopment should make the property market more competitive, and those landowners that can’t survive will be forced to sell out.

Will this be good or bad? Only time will tell. But from a macro view, this so-called problem may well be the kick that Osaka needs to re-build a sad economy.

NYT on American expats renouncing citizenship

NYT has an article noting that a sizable number of people every year give up their US citizenship for tax reasons. It seems like they are focused on Americans living in Europe, but I have met a few people in Japan who have at least considered this option. It does seem odd that the US is one of the few countries that tries to tax income earned abroad.

The Geos bankruptcy – what’s next for eikaiwa?

(Updated to change student data)

Geos, one of Japan’s major “eikaiwa” English conversation chains, has entered the bankruptcy process (see Let’s Japan or any number of news reports for more details). Some reactions are declaring eikaiwa dead and encouraging teachers to look for employment outside Japan. It does seem like the old eikaiwa business model is not poised for a serious comeback barring a significant improvement in the Japanese economy. That said, eikaiwa as a concept and attractive learning option for Japanese people isn’t going away.

From the looks of it, some eikaiwa bankruptcies are all but inevitable. Revenue is down, and according to Nikkei “the number of language schools in operation last year remained mostly unchanged from 2008, but the number of new students enrolling in the schools plunged 35.7%.” That’s down 35% from post-NOVA levels!

Let’s see some of those numbers in graph form:

And some indicators of our own:

As overall revenues have fallen, sales of teaching materials have risen in importance, now accounting for around 10% of the language school business.

The industry overall now employs more part-time teachers than full-time, but now both categories of teacher are in decline. Not exactly a good sign for financial health or the job security of teachers.

Revenue per student has risen slightly as the average number of classes per student is down, which suggests to me a slightly lower value for the lessons.

Going forward

Paradoxically, this sort of downsizing is exactly what the industry needs, but when schools collapse so suddenly and spectacularly it scares people away and hurts business even more. Nevertheless, I would not be so intensely pessimistic as some of the commenters I have read. The initial success of these schools has created the “eikaiwa paradigm” that will live on, I think, even if all the big chain schools fall to the wayside. Just as small-time piano teachers can make good money anywhere in the world, any halfway decent teacher who can reliably provide value for his/her services can do OK. Maybe not “tens of thousands of western immigrants descend on Japan” kind of OK, but OK nonetheless. Japanese people still want to learn English and are willing to pay for it. They just can’t afford it as much anymore and don’t want to hand their money to crooks.

The problem is that these major players set up large-scale businesses that profited by essentially gouging customers – promising stellar results and pressuring them into long-term contracts only to give sub-standard lessons to people who may not have really been able to benefit from them in the first place. Now, a combination of factors – tighter laws, the bad economy, rise of the Internet as a study tool, people generally getting wise to the con – has come crashing down on Geos.What the numbers don’t show is that the major operators seem to be offering more or less the same product as before – if anything, they are diluting the product with less value and more part-time teachers – and customers just aren’t as interested anymore.

(The stats above can be had at the METI website (bilingual Excel file))

Are the Japanese crazy like us? (And by “us”, I mean “Americans”)

Ethan Watters is the author of “Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche,” and recently appeared for a six minute interview on the US comedy show The Daily Show. Curiously, much of what he talked about focused on Japan:

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The author raises this question: Is the American focus and treatment on understanding mental health (depression, schizophrenia) a “cultural” export? His answer is yes, and describes how, in treating symptoms that are believed in American culture to be “mental sickness,” we replace some symptoms that are in fact cultural characteristics in other societies. He ends up spending much of his six minutes on the Daily Show interview talking about Japan and criticizing the American “export” of mental health treatment to Japan. He says:

“Japan is actually a very sad culture. They think of sadness… almost as a religious state, as a way to get moral guidance…”

I read more about Watters book, and found some of the numbers that he uses to back his book. One is that GlaxoSmithKline and other drug makers funded favorable medical studies to sell treatments for depression in the Japanese market, with huge success — GlaxoSmithKline’s sales in Paxil went from nothing in 2000 to topping $1 billion in 2008. 27 books were published on depression from 1990 to 1995, but 177 were published from 2000 to 2005. Meanwhile, the Crown Princess is reported to be suffering from depression. So “depression” as a disease and syndrome, as opposed to a result of Japanese cultural characteristics, is now widely recognized in Japan, although I would argue that there is still much more stigma attached to it than in America.

Yet he goes on to say that Japan is perhaps the biggest copier of the American model. This seems to be absolute lunacy to me. Yes, Japan is a sad culture. The Japanese people are much more pessimistic and cynical about their future and their country’s future than any other Western developed nation. (I’ve seen stats to this effect but nothing that I can link to — feel free to weigh in on this point.) But first of all, they are still no where close to institutionalizing mental health on the educational, social, corporate, and government level. And second of all, is this the “Americanization” or “modernization” of mental health? While I think there is an excessive and too broad a focus on mental health in the United States, where everything is deemed to be an issue of mental health, I think that Japanese culture and society still has far too little emphasis on psychology, counseling and mental health.

“Adam Richards” to appear on Japanese TV

According to Yahoo, Adam “Swamp Donkey” Richards, the cruiserweight boxer, will appear on Japanese pay channel Wowow tonight at 8pm, when they will show highlights from his March 13 attempt to take the WBO cruiserweight title away from current champion Marco Huck in Germany, Huck’s home turf:

アンドレ・ディレル vs アルツール・アブラハム マルコ・フック vs アダム・リチャーズ アレクサンデル・ポベトキン vs ファビエル・モーラ
[初][HV][W] エキサイトマッチ~世界プロボクシング #3 激戦の”スーパー・シックス”、ディレルvsアブラハム! ・S・ミドル級12回戦  アンドレ・ディレル vs アルツール・アブラハム ~3月27日/アメリカ・ミシガン州 ・WBO世界クルーザー級タイトルマッチ  マルコ・フック vs アダム・リチャーズ ・ヘビー級10回戦  アレクサンデル・ポベトキン vs ファビエル・モーラ ~3月13日/ドイツ
解説:ジョー小泉、浜田剛史 実況:高柳謙一 進行:中島そよか

I won’t ruin the match for anyone planning to watch, but suffice to say Huck is still the champion. The Wowow synopsis of the fight notes that while Richards won several titles as an amateur and boasts a fairly impressive professional career, he has so far not gone up against many powerful fighters.

I am happy someone with my name is having some success, but if he ever wins and gets famous it could complicate my life a little bit. From this video he seems like a pretty down to earth guy who can remember every detail of his fights. Also watch for how much exercise he can do without breaking a sweat (it’s a lot more than me):

Kabuki backlash?

After what feels like a very long time, some prominent publications are starting to notice that “kabuki” is being overused when talking about American politics:

First we have Slate, which has triggered our Kabuki Alert before:

Pundits use Kabuki as a synonym for “posturing.” The New Republic’s Michael Crowley, for example, has defined it as a “performance, in which nothing substantive is done.” But there’s nothing “kabuki” about the real Kabuki.

Of course, pundits don’t care about the real thing. They use Kabuki precisely because they and everyone else have only a hazy idea of the word’s true meaning, and they can use it purely on the level of insinuation. They deploy Kabuki because:

1) It sounds funny.
2) It sounds childish.
3) It sounds foreign.
4) It sounds incomprehensible.

Kabuki succeeds chiefly because it makes your opponent sound silly and un-American. And finally kabuki works because:

5) It sounds Japanese.

Needless to say, it sounds Japanese because it is Japanese. Point is, the word can conjure certain stereotypes about Japanese politics. As the scholar Gerald Curtis has noted, we have “an image of Japanese politics in which bureaucrats dominate … and policy making is little more than a process of collusion.” For Rush Limbaugh, what better image with which to tar health care reform?

Then there’s NPR radio show/podcast On The Media, reporting on the Slate article. They are guilty too — listen at the end for an entertaining retrospective of their (many) transgressions.

Many thanks to author Jon Lackman for bringing it up! Good luck on that “doctoral dissertation on the use of invective in art criticism.” Funnily enough, your piece is about something different – the use of art in political invective.

At Mutant Frog, we have long been aware of this painfully cliched metaphor. But maybe we won’t have to worry about it so much anymore. That’s at least two publications that will probably become more self-conscious about trotting out the kabuki cliche from now on. Will others follow?

(Thanks to the reader who sent this in!)

The toilet god

Here is an interesting song from singer Kana Uemura called “The Toilet God.”

The video (hosted by her record company) is apparently popular, currently checking in with just under a million views. Her album Pieces of Me has hit #10 on the Oricon charts but has since slipped to 17th place. I think part of the buzz comes from the juxtaposition of the silly sounding title and the somber content.

The song tell the story of the singer’s bittersweet relationship with her grandmother and runs about 10 minutes long. The title comes from the grandmother’s original way to get her to clean the toilets. Basically, there’s a goddess in the toilet who will make you grow up to be a beautiful woman only if you make the toilet spotless.

The story, based on Uemura’s real-life experiences growing up and then leaving Kawanishi, Hyogo Prefecture (incidentally, where I spent a year as an exchange student) is nothing short of heart-breaking: the girl moves in with her grandmother and the two get along until she reaches her rebellious teenage years. They fight and eventually she leaves the house for Tokyo. Two years later, the grandmother falls ill. The singer visits but is soon turned away. The grandmother dies the next day, leaving the singer with no chance to make amends for all the trouble she caused.

This song has a lot of elements that often help spell pop success:

– An attractive singer-songwriter with a guitar
– Tear-jerking lyrics
– Shout-outs to local dialects (she sings in Kansai-ben)

And to that she has added a twist, the off-color song title.

It’s tempting to call this the pop song equivalent of a keitai novel, but I liked it because it while it is heavy on the pathos, it still rings true because the story is so common and familiar. This song doesn’t offer a voyeuristic look at a dysfunctional family so much as a raw reminder of our own private dysfunctions.

See below for my quick and dirty translation of the lyrics:
Continue reading The toilet god

The Jones hitch-up post-game show: notes on getting married in Japan

I will be traveling over the next few weeks to Austria, Hungary, Italy, Greece and France on a mega-honeymoon with the newly-rechristened Mrs. Jones. Special thanks go out to Roy, the Adamus, Curzon, Younghusband, Peter and his wife, Aceface, Ben, the Gaijin Biker gang, and the many other members of our brilliant cast of characters friends who came to the wedding.

We am getting on a plane to Europe as this goes to press, and I will hopefully be back before long with some good travelogue fodder from this multi-modal, multi-destination itinerary. With that, some topical rambling on the marriage process follows: Continue reading The Jones hitch-up post-game show: notes on getting married in Japan

Naturalization in Japan: KEY FACTS

I am amazed at how the myth of Japan’s difficult naturalization process persists to be widely believed by well-educated Japanese and non-nationals alike. In a lengthy discussion of this last night, I researched some key facts on this and thought the results of my review worth sharing with MF readers.

* 15,440 people applied for naturalization in 2008, according to the MOJ. Of these, 13,218 people were naturalized, but that figure is deceivingly low as the application process takes 6-12 months (or longer), and some approvals will show up next year. Only 269 were rejected, which means that the rejection rate was less than 2%. The overall approval rate for first-time applicants for the past decade has been 99%.
* For the past decade, about 60% of applicants were Korean (including North and South Korea, and the generic “Chosen” applied to many Koreans born in Japan) and about 30% were Chinese (including Taiwan and Hong Kong).
* The basic requirement is five years of continuous legal residency in Japan, but this can be shortened to one year if the applicant has been married to a Japanese citizen for three years or more. Read the law in Japanese here.
* Otherwise, the requirements for naturalization are relatively straightforward, and I think most MF readers could naturalize easily. You must: be a competent adult; read kanji to a third-grade level; be an upstanding citizen with no criminal record; have sufficient income or assets to support your family; be prepared to give up other citizenship; and have never been involved in advocating or perpetrating the violent overthrow of the government or constitution.
* Unofficially, the primary cause of a rejection is a “criminal record” — not crimes bad enough for deportation, but crimes such as multiple speeding tickets. Nothing in the law prevents a failed applicant from immediately reapplying.
* The application is done at the local houmukyoku Legal Affairs Bureau. The cost of the application is free. Gyouseishoshi and shihoushoshi professional legal advisors can also handle the paperwork and application, for fees generally ranging from 200,000-400,000 yen.
* A key procedural step to naturalization is assembling the birth certificates and marriage certificates of the applicant and the applicants parents so that the applicant can create a koseki family registry.
* A family registry has two addresses, the ordinary residential address and the “honseki” which people generally keep as their family home, but which can be transferred freely. If a naturalized person changes their honseki to a new municipality, they get a new, clean koseki that only states present, not prior, facts, so the evidence of naturalization disappears from their koseki. (So do other key facts, which is a way that some people hide marriage annulment and divorce history.) This is only surface concealment — the original honseki is held by the municipality as a separate record, by law, for 80 years.
* There are a few examples of Europeans naturalizing as Japanese nationals during the Meiji Era and beyond, when some Europeans kept their names unchanged, in roman letters. After World War II and until 1985, applicants were required by ministry procedures to adopt a Japanese name. This was dropped as an explicit requirement that year, but remained as an inexplicit requirement through the 1990s. Presently, the only requirement is that a person write their name in kanji, hiragana or katakana, with no encouragement to otherwise adopt a “Japanese” name.
* It is rumored that one reason this requirement was dropped was because of the naturalizatio of Masayoshi Son, the president of Softbank born in Japan to Korean parents, and one of Japan’s richest people. When he applied for naturalization, the authorities said that he had to take a Japanese name or prove that Son (or 孫) was a Japanese name. As he was advised by lawyers with more than half a brain cell, his wife petitioned the family court to take his family name, this was accepted by the court, and he had the necessary proof. The flummoxed bureaucrats thus took the view that this now unwritten requirement was outdated and dropped it.

For most young Japanese women, the housewife lifestyle a tempting yet impossible dream

Today’s Asahi evening edition had a great op-ed today by author Tsunehiro Uno (age 32). He argues that with such a wide gap between what most Japanese want out of life and what’s attainable for the majority, it’s high time to start setting more realistic expectations. Here’s a rundown of his points, summarized and embellished upon by yours truly:

  • A recent government white paper found that a large portion of women in their 20s want to be housewives. Not only that, another survey found that around 40% of unmarried women aged 25-35 want a husband who makes at least Y6 million a year. Sadly for them, only 3.5% of unmarried men in that age bracket actually make that much.
  • This desire for a typical middle-class lifestyle — a single-income household with a salaryman husband with lifetime employment and the wife at home raising kids — seems to hark back to the postwar Showa era (1945-1989) when the economy was booming. However, today Japan’s economic stagnation has made the idyllic nuclear family impossible for many families, with more women needing to work to make ends meet.
  • Uno relates this revival of Showa values to the conservatism of his generation, in part a reaction against the Koizumi-era economic reforms. Koizumi, in office from 2001-2006, pushed a neoliberal program of deregulation and privatization as a path to lead Japan out of a prolonged economic malaise. During that era, Uno writes, the Japanese people shared a sense that there was no going back, that the stable post-war society that Japan had grown used to had ceased to function properly.
  • Now, however, attitudes have shifted sharply in favor of trying to revive lifetime employment. Uno doesn’t give examples, but they are everywhere these days – the temp worker tent village in Jan. 2009, postal minister Kamei’s offer of full-time status to all Japan Post part-timers, and so on.
  • People may be critical of the deregulation that spurred the growth of temp workers, but it’s simply not possible to maintain lifetime regular employment for everyone, and many people in today’s society prefer more flexible work arrangements to the more rigid life of a full-time worker.
  • Uno worries that people are planning out their lives with the mistaken assumption that the Showa lifestyle is ideal. The real question, however, should be how to live a decent life even under non-regular employment. However, neither the people in general nor our political leaders seem to have the proper mindset.
  • Where Koizumi went wrong, he argues, is in failing to create a social system for the new era.
  • His proposal for the current DPJ administration – create a new social contract (or in his words 幸福のパッケージ) that can allow a two-income household of non-regular employees to comfortably raise two or more children. How to do this? First, set a bottom line and create safety net policies to help people stay above it. In exchange, create more flexible employment rules that would be more compatible with people’s diverse lifestyles.