I weep for the future

Most readers will remember Taizo Sugimura, the Koizumi “Orphan” accidentally elected to the lower house as a LDP diet member in the 2005 snap election. After a string of disgraceful incidents in which the party quietly told Sugimura to stay out of the public sphere, he was silently booted from the 2009 LDP ticket after his bull-in-China-shop attempt to run for a seat in Hokkaido’s 1st district against a local favorite.

Sugimura is about to relaunch his political career, this time running for an Upper House proportional representative seat for Hokkaido on the ticket of the “Tachiagare Nippon” (the so-called “Sunrise Party”), the stoggy conservative splinter group that broke away from the LDP. The party’s goal in the selection of Sugimura is apparently to appeal to non-partisan voters through Sugimura’s appearances in media and his name recognition. You can read the Japanese article here.

Meanwhile, I was equally surprised to see that DPJ party leader Ichiro Ozawa has pulled in Ryoko “Yawara” Tani, the female Olympic judo wrestler. In a press conference earlier today she announced that “I want a gold medal in the election too” — in addition to seeking to join the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Then there’s also Mari Okabe, a former model and TV talent, who has been nominated to stand for election on the DPJ ticket as well. Here again, the media clearly outlines the party’s motive in picking these candidates — seeking to bring in votes by picking popular people with a wide name recognition.

How do Japan’s political parties get away with this type of popcorn populism? I find it disheartening that people with no merit whatsoever seeking to run for public office are picked for the blatant purpose of nothing more than appealing to the lowest common denominator of voter. Sadly, my informal surveys leads me to believe that lots of Japanese people feel the same way about this state of affairs, but accept it with bland fatalism and disinterest in the state of Japan’s political affairs.

Japan’s Upper House Election is scheduled for July 11th.

Coverage of Yoshida-ryo piece on CNNGo

Reaction to my recent CNNGo photo/article feature about Kyoto University’s famous Yoshida Dormitory has been very positive. I want to thank whoever it was that submitted it to Boingboing, who kindly linked to it as they have several Mutantfrog posts in past years. I also want to especially thank frequent MF commenter KokuRyu, who posted a link to the piece on MetaFilter, where there have been some pretty interesting comments from people who seem to have experience in other cooperative/squat type housing, making some comparisons between them and Yoshida-ryo.

I am also planning on doing a follow-up piece sometime, discussing a little bit more about the history of Yoshida-ryo and the other self-administered dorms at Kyoto University, as well as some of the  “self run” (自治) student activity areas in the university, and the relationship between Yoshida-ryo and the various squatting protests that have occurred on campus over the years, such as the Ishigaki Cafe and the currently still ongoing Kubikubi Cafe. Since CNNGo would not really be an appropriate venue for this sort of piece, I’m hoping readers can suggest or introduce someplace that might be interested!

Mainichi announces new, Twitter-enhanced dead-tree edition

National news daily Mainichi has announced a new dead-tree version of its newspaper to go on sale June 1. Named Mainichi RT, the daily tabloid will print the most-viewed stories online, along with Tweets about those stories and some other extras. A subscription will cost Y1980 a month, which would come out to around Y100 on newsstands assuming they only print weekdays. It’s somewhat similar in concept to Sankei Express, a concise Y100 edition of Sankei Shimbun released a couple years ago, and the many free newspapers distributed in major metropolitan areas in the US (except of course, those are free).

Could there possibly be a less useful idea? Are people supposed to buy it to see if their tweets made it in? If you know all the stories are already online, why bother picking up a newspaper? Someone please tell me what I am missing.

(found via J-Cast, cross-posted from Google Buzz)

Japan Times on Geos collapse – read Adamu’s UNCUT commentary

Richard Smart writing for the Japan Times has an article looking at the Geos meltdown in detail. I am quoted with my take on how Geos handled its demise and the outlook for eikaiwa employment.

Adam Richards, a 28-year-old translator and writer on Japan at the Web site and travelogue Mutant Frog, argues that the G.communication takeover has in some ways made the best of a bad situation.

“Geos seems to have done relatively well by students and teachers by finding a backer before announcing the bankruptcy,” he says. “That said, Nova’s messy bankruptcy was such a nightmare Geos can’t help but look better by comparison.”

Japan Economy News’ Worsley agrees that the eikaiwa schools need to change to survive.

“The industry itself will continue to shrink as does the population and number of younger people in Japan. In order to avoid disappearing, language school operators are going to have to embrace new technologies, diversify their products and services, and appeal to new market segments,” he says.

This, argues Richards of Mutant Frog, is likely to lead to worse conditions for newcomers to Japan.

“It really looks like the era of easy employment is over, though it seems like there are still opportunities out there,” he says.

In the interest of context, here is what I commented to Richard in response to his questions:

I obviously don’t know exactly what happened, but a multitude of factors have conspired against the eikaiwa industry – cutbacks in consumer spending, corporate belt-tightening, cuts to government subsidies, and tighter regulation are the big ones. It seems like Geos was unable to shrink down to size fast enough to adapt to the changing environment. Geos adopted a somewhat similar strategy to Nova – grow large and bring in lots of new students. Then, in April 2006 a Supreme Court decision led to a swift change in the regulatory environment – eikaiwa schools suddenly had to set up sensible refund policies (and in Nova’s case front a flood of refund requests), and this made the economics of a large chain less attractive. Geos apparently weathered the change relatively well, but once Nova failed so spectacularly it did serious damage to the reputation of eikaiwa as a service. This, combined with the economic downturn starting in 2007, probably did Geos in as their sources of cash dried up.
It really looks like the era of easy employment is over, though it seems like there are still opportunities out there. Berlitz and ECC seem to be hiring. Generally, I would recommend applying for JET or even teaching English in a different country, but if you have your heart set on working in Japan and don’t mind the salary levels, then why not?
There is a danger the Geos bankruptcy will continue the downward spiral that Nova set in motion. When there is a bankruptcy, you inevitably have students with contracts that are either broken or not satisfactorily fulfilled, and you have teachers who find themselves either out of a job and possibly unpaid or thrust into the arms of new management that may treat them differently. The general dissatisfaction gets reported in the media and spread by word of mouth, fueling the perception that eikaiwa is a scam or otherwise not worth the trouble. However, Geos seems to have done relatively well by students and teachers by finding a backer before announcing the bankruptcy. That said, Nova’s messy bankruptcy was such a nightmare Geos can’t help but look better by comparison.
Japanese people want to learn English as much as they ever did. All are required to study it in school but most never come within a mile of fluency. They spend their childhoods being fed the idea that speaking English is the key to success yet they never get there! So as long as the public education system keeps creating this demand, I think there will always be supplemental learning options like eikaiwa.

My photo gallery of Kyoto University’s famous Yoshida-ryo, with article, on CNNGo

Dammit, I can smell the rooms in your pictures, Roy.

Said my friend Jon after looking at my piece just published at CNNGo.

Little known outside of Kyoto is the fact that Kyoto University has the last remaining truly old style dormitory, constructed in the late Meiji era timber construction style. Opened in 1913, Yoshida-ryo (吉田寮) still exists nearly 100 years later despite decades of attempts by the school to raze it and replace it with a less scummy and earthquake-unsafe bland concrete box. A relic in both architectural and social terms, it exists today in a weird nebulous state somewhere between an official school dormitory and a giant squat-house.

When I took our friend, and current CNNGo editor, David Marx on a tour of the campus during his brief visit to Kyoto some time last year he demanded that I do a piece on Yoshida-ryō for him, and we finally got it done. For my 20 part photo gallery and a brief history of the dorm, check out my article at CNNGo.

France, China, Arizona and Narita all want to see your papers

There are two inspirations for this post. The first is a recent blog post by James Fallows (who is exactly the person I would have become if I became a “real” journalist) at The Atlantic: Essay Question: Is AZ More Like China — or Like France? Amid discussion of the new illegal-immigrant-weeding laws in Arizona, specifically the fact that Americans don’t generally have to carry ID around with them, one Fallows reader in France chimes in:

The French must always have their National ID card on them – for the police can demand to see it at any and all times.

Foreigners, in principle, must always have a piece of ID on them – like a passport. I never carry this with me – in 14 years of living here, I’ve never had my passport on me except when I’ve been on my way to the airport and going abroad. But I’m white and look (sometimes sound) French of Gaullish stock. The police, in the vast majority of cases, stop and demand ID papers from youngish (under 40) males of African or Arab descent, be they French nationals or no.

It is not a well-looked upon practice of the police, but the French aren’t adamant enough against it to seek its abolition. As far as I understand, such identity checks have been a long staple of police work in France going back to the Revolutionary/Napoleonic era wherein the State underwent a reinforcement of its prerogatives over the citizenry.

Japan falls in between the American and French models: Japanese citizens are not required to carry ID, but foreigners in Japan have to carry a passport or alien registration card at all times, and the police have a habit of carding visible foreigners at random. Until last month, this had only happened to me a couple of times when I was bicycling around Tokyo, and one of those times I was able to shake off the cop by simply saying I was in a hurry.

Inspiration number two. Last month, six of my family members flew in from the US for the wedding. I took the train out to Narita to meet them on arrival. Their flight arrived 15 minutes ahead of schedule, so I started hustling quickly out of the station to get upstairs to the arrivals hall. A few seconds out of the station gates, a cop with his partner called out to me in English:

COP: Excuse me–(points at watch) Do you have a minute?
ME: (without stopping or slowing down) Nope, sorry. I have to meet someone upstairs.
COP: Oh, OK!

That was the end of that checkpoint, and I proudly announced my triumph on Twitter.

Fast forward a few days, and my family were headed back home, so again I went to the airport to see them off. They checked in before I arrived at the airport, so I met them in the ticketing hall at Terminal 2, and we sat down to relax for a while together before they left.

Two cops appeared from around the corner and made a beeline for the group of seven white people, saying “Excuse me? Passport check?”

My family all had their passports out already, and haven’t read Debito’s website, so they handed the passports over and the police started copying down their names and passport numbers with pencil and paper. I was about to pop, but tried to keep cool.

ME: Can I ask you guys something? There is no way to get into this airport without showing your ID to someone. Why do you have to check it again?
COP: It’s for security reasons.
ME: So you don’t trust the people checking our ID when we get off the train?
COP: Um, do you know what shokumu shitsumon (“official questioning”) is?
ME: I’ve heard of it.
COP: We just ask these questions. Your cooperation is completely voluntary.
ME: Really? You didn’t make that clear at all to my family.
COP: Errrr…. well, we don’t know how to say that in English.
ME: You work in an international airport and you can’t speak English? OK, whatever. I’m not traveling, I’m just seeing my family off.
COP: OK. Sorry to take up your time.

They didn’t check my passport, so it was a lukewarm victory. The police then hit up a couple of South Asians behind us, and disappeared around another corner without questioning anyone else. My father and sister both laughed and said “I think we were just racially profiled” — a bilingual Japanese lady they were talking to apologetically remarked “I don’t know what their problem is.”

About five minutes passed and another pair of police appeared demanding our passports. At this point I popped.

ME: You dumbf—s just asked them for their passports! Don’t you have anything better to do?!
COP: Oh. Sorry!

Strangely, there was no questioning when my wife and I came back the next day for our flight to Europe, or when we came back a few weeks later — though we passed a couple of white backpackers getting carded before going through the train station gates at the airport. I can only surmise that under Japanese law, an East Asian companion may implicitly substitute for a passport or alien registration card. That said, I would not try any similar stunt with European cops, who all seem to have submachine guns, military experience and serious attitudes, unlike their hapless Japanese counterparts.

Why does Gyoza no Ohsho need to brainwash its employees?

Earlier this month, Nippon TV aired this segment about Kyoto-based ramen/Chinese food chain Gyoza no Ohsho’s somewhat, um, intense training program for new recruits. Take a look:

This is part 1. Watch parts 2 and 3 on Youtube.

As you can see in the video, the trainers act like drill sergeants, berating the new employees as they memorize and recite company rules, receive intensive training in Japanese-style customer service basics (scream a lot, always smile), and make sure their uniforms are on right. They even have a specially designed calisthenics routine, to “check whether they can do even simple work with their full effort.” At the end, each trainee must step forward to announce their “ambitions” i.e. what they hope to accomplish as Ohsho employees. If they pass, they all seem to break down crying, at which point the trainer comes up and embrace them.

The scene recalls either a Christian revival meeting, a self-help seminar, or perhaps a Marxist self-criticism session.

It’s kind of shocking to watch, but it’s not the first time I’ve seen this style of training on a Japanese documentary. About a year ago, NHK did a feature on the Tokyo University cheer squad where the senior members broke down the new recruits psychologically just like this.

Going viral

Since then, the segment has gone viral on the Japanese web, with the majority recoiling in horror. A minority (my estimate) took the stance that this sort of thing is normal in grown-up society, while others thought this might be the secret to the company’s recent success. (notably, one of the faces in the studio watching the segment was Miki Watanabe, CEO of Watami, an izakaya chain that’s been a similar success story to Ohsho. He said his company does not do that kind of training because that’s not Watami’s “corporate culture”)

One reason the video caught on may be because this is the time when many university students receive job offers after their year-long search for work post-graduation. Most big Japanese companies and many small ones hire groups of new college graduates all at once, with the intention of treating them as lifetime employees. Though Ohsho seems to hire many from the pool of non-college grads, the theme is no doubt resonant at this time.

It’s an enormously important time in a college student’s life, especially in the current bad job environment, because failure to land a decent job can doom one to a lifetime of “non-regular” employment with fewer pay/benefits and less security, or a full-time job at a “black” company with terrible labor practices.

The job market for students who did not finish a four-year university is even worse, but while beggars can’t be choosers, I am sure many would think twice about signing up with Ohsho after seeing this segment.

Ohsho’s response

Perhaps sensing some potential reputation damage, Ohsho has posted a response on its website. But instead of the usual corporate gobbledygook, someone put the time and thought behind an impassioned defense that starts with a challenging question – a career running a restaurant is not a popular choice among today’s youth, so why on earth would a restaurant chain choose to use such a strict training regime?

First and foremost, they explain, Ohsho’s mission is to open Chinese restaurants nationwide that can become deeply entrenched in the culture of each local area. To that end, they do things a little differently from most chains. As any regular Ohsho customer will know (Roy and I are fans), each store has a slightly different menu, and until a few years ago they even allowed some franchise owners to decorate the stores how they wanted.

So to fulfill that mission, they need employees and potential franchise owners that will hone their cooking skills, use their creativity, host events, and otherwise proactively promote their stores as local destinations. None of this is possible unless the employees “find satisfaction and their own reason for existence” in the job.

The thing is, today’s young people have grown up in an era of personal freedom, the letter says. They’ve never been scolded at school or at home. So the first thing Ohsho needs to teach new recruits is that to succeed at Ohsho, acting self-centered in the name of personal freedom just won’t be tolerated. In order to truly shine as an individual, first one must master the basic rules. The point of memorizing the company rules, they say, is to teach what it means to work as a member of society and the importance of rules, consideration, proper etiquette, and teamwork.

Essentially, they argue, Japanese young people today are missing three things: they don’t sweat, they don’t cry, and they don’t understand gratitude. The Ohsho training is intended to fix that, especially the last one. That’s why they do the boot camp.

Are you convinced?

(Hat-tip – J-Cast News)