English necessary for today’s Japanese workers?


There has been some debate recently over the state of English in Japan.

Most notably, Rakuten President Hiroshi Mikitani has announced that all his employees must be able to conduct daily business in English by 2012… or else. Rakuten has made several international deals lately, including the purchase of major Ebay seller Buy.com and the deal to set up a Chinese online retailing site with Chinese search engine Baidu. Also, Fast Retailing, operator of Uniqlo discount clothing stores, has mandated that all meetings with at least one native English speaker be conducted in English.

In reaction, the Nikkei has printed an editorial about the role it thinks English plays in the development of corporate Japan. Relevant excerpts follow:

Japanese have no choice but to adopt English to take advantage their overseas employees’ knowledge and personal connections.

While companies must enhance their employees English-language training, lawmakers and educators should understand that English has become more important than ever for Japan Inc.

English education in Japan has been criticized for being skewed toward reading comprehension. Although teaching methods have gradually improved, due in part to the increased use of native English speakers as teachers, but other countries show how far Japan still has to go.

It is also important to provide support for people who study English while working.

People’s basic skills English should be improved, but of course that doesn’t mean all Japanese must be fluent in the language.

Japan needs a national strategy that defines who needs English and how fluent they should be.

Personally, I feel bad for the Rakuten employees who are going to be forced to uncomfortably and unnecessarily speak English to each other in daily activities, even though I see the point Mikitani is trying to make. If doing business overseas requires English, then why not demand that all your employees speak that language? All the same, I am sure he will realize eventually that Japanese education has dismally failed most of his workers. As a practical matter, most Japanese people cannot speak English at an acceptable business level. Unless the Japanese education system can deliver, it won’t be practical to simply command Japanese employees to speak the language.

White people for rent – not as innocent-sounding as it seems

A little while ago a story swept the Internet that “white people are available for rent in China.” Apparently, sometimes companies hire Western actors to pretend they’re either visiting foreign businessmen or high-level employees to make a positive impression.

For the purposes of this post, I am assuming the posts and CNN report are basically accurate, though I couldn’t find any corresponding job listings on a cursory Google search.

What surprised me about this story was the cool reaction of much of the reporting and reaction (I’m looking at you, CNN). The dominant explanation seemed to be that white people lend “face” to a company, a characteristic aspect of Chinese culture. But when does getting “face” cross the line into fraud? Sending a fake company representative might sound like a funny sitcom premise, but misrepresenting your company’s operations can have some serious negative consequences. Not that any of this crossed the minds of the winners in the video. By the way, who wears a wifebeater to their CNN interview?

For a case in point, let me point to this Asahi story about securities fraud among startup companies in Japan:

FOI Corp., a maker of chip production devices in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, pretended to have sold products to overseas companies when the goods were actually gathering dust in a warehouse in Machida, Tokyo.

To sell the story of its overseas business, FOI took CPAs abroad where they met the company’s supposed business partners. The translator hired by FOI lied to the accountants about the sales, sources said.

FOI was listed on the Mothers market in November last year after apparently window-dressing accounts starting in fiscal 2003.

The company reported fiscal 2008 sales of about 11.8 billion yen, but investigators suspect that 98 percent of the amount was fictitious. The company is now undergoing bankruptcy procedures.

FOI’s tactics fooled not only the CPAs, but also Mizuho Investors Securities Co., which advised the company on the listing, and the TSE.

I wonder if these “out of work actors” ever checked to see whether they were fronting for a real company. The overseas trips could easily have been to China, maybe even to a phony shop floor with real live white people.

The Boy Named Demon

Turning Japanese, a new blog on Japanese naturalisation written by several naturalised Japanese citizens (including some regular commenters on this blog) has had a number of informative posts on the topic since launching recently. The latest post tackles the issue: do you have to take a Japanese name when you naturalise? The post ends with question, and a reference that may not be familiar to everyone, which has Curzon, MF’s vice chairman of legal niggling, taking issue:

As a side note, just because a 漢字 {kanji} is legally acceptable for use in a name doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s appropriate. Characters like 悪 {aku} (bad), 闇 {yami} (darkness), 無 {mu} (nothingness), are on the list… but depending on how you use them, a name with a very negative connotation may not be accepted. Remember the parents who tried to name their child 悪魔 {Akuma} (demon)?

The reference to the child “demon” may not be familiar to everyone. It refers to a somewhat famous case that rocked Japan in the early 1990s, when a father (with the apparent approval and support of his wife) submitted a birth certificate to the municipal office that named his son Akuma, using the kanji characters for demon. Most people think the municipal office rejected the name and the parents had to choose a different name. But the case was actually more complex, and dragged on for several months, and the parents actually won a court case they filed against the city–only after this court victory did they chose to initiate a compromise that brought the fiasco to a close.

The story begins on 11 August 1993, when Shigeharu Sato (30), who managed a “snack” bar, went into the Akishima municipal office to submit the legal birth certificate for his son. In Japan, the birth certificate issued at the hospital merely states the technical details of the birth — the child is not legally registered until a legal birth certificate is submitted at the local municipal office, which must be done within two weeks of the birth, and at which time a name is given. The paperpusher at the municipal office’s koseki (family registry) window accepted the forms containing the name Akuma without asking any questions.

The following day on 12 August, a different person working in the same division took issue with the name. He referred the matter to his superior in the Legal Affairs office, who responded that there was no problem with the name. However, he changed his mind the following day on 13 August when the papers were to be finalised, and having doubts, the form was completed but the mayor’s seal was not placed on the document. The municipality thus did not complete the family registry procedure. The parents were not informed of this until 28 September — six weeks later — when the mayor of Akishima officially informed the parents that the child’s name of Akuma was unsuitable, and that the child’s name was temporarily noted as “undesignated” on the family registry until they chose an acceptable name.

The father immediately filed a complaint with the Hachioji division of the Tokyo Family Court on 4 October, representing himself and without consulting a lawyer, on the basis that the town’s actions violated his parental rights. He asserted that the name Akuma was fine, as it used characters permitted by article 50 of the Family Registry Law, and that his son was fortunate to have such a unique name. Did he suffer from lack of counsel, or the bizarre nature of his request in the face of courts that many believe are conservative? No — the court quickly came to a ruling that supported the right to reject an unfavorable name, but ruling in favour of the parent plaintiffs less than three months after the complaint was filed. To translate and summarise the ruling:

In the structure of rights in society, the right of naming a child is part of parental rights, and parents may assert this right against other members of society. If there is a clear issue with regard to the suitability of the name chosen by the parent that could affect the child’s welfare, then, as the child has no ability to assert its right to refuse that name that could damage its welfare, the family registry authorities may think they can reject a name on that basis. Indeed, on the face of it, the name “Akuma” is a violation of the parent’s right to name their child.

However, while it may be possible for a municipal office to reject a name such as Akuma on the basis that this is violation of parental rights, in this case, as the municipal office has already accepted the document, it was a violation of its authority to thereafter delete that name, and the name is valid.

This ruling accurately follows an academic concept of administrative law, that an administrative notification is finalised upon “submission” (juri) to the correct administrative organ, and not at the time of “arrival” (toutatsu), meaning that no proactive action by the administrative organ is required.

The mayor immediately petitioned to the Tokyo High Court, and the story became national news. The father went on TV and made bizarre statements like “I want to call my next child “Emperor” (帝王) or “Explosion (爆弾)!” But facing further time and money on an issue, he sought a compromise. He first proposed to use the hiragana (あくま)for “Akuma,” which the municipal office rejected. He then chose different characters for the same name (exact kanji unknown but believed to be 亜区馬, 亜駆 or 阿久真). The mayor withdrew his appeal and the high court never made another decision on the matter.

During this fiasco, Akishima asked for help from the national government to clarify the rules for accepting family registry names, but no proactive action was taken then, nor to this day, to restrict the use of characters available for use on the family registry. The Ministry of Justice maintains a list of characters that can be used on a family registry as required by the implementation regulations of the Family Registry Law, and that database include both “悪” and “魔.” As far as the judiciary and the authorities are concerned, the rule as stated by the family court stands as valid — as long as you can get your birth certificate received by the municipal office, you can use any characters you like. To the best of my knowledge and research, there is no government order or anything legal that officially prevents the use of negative characters.

ENDNOTE: Family values advocates won’t be surprised to hear the unpleasant aftermath. The father’s business went bust in 1994, the parents divorced in 1996, and the father, who obtained custody, was arrested months later for possession of heroin, at which time he had links to the yakuza. Akuma was cared for by his paternal grandparents and then placed in an orphanage. When his father was released after serving four years in jail, he refused to take custody of the child due to his economic circumstances. Akuma will today be in high school, if he is still attending. His mother said in an interview in 2006, “After my ex-husband was arrested I looked after the child, but circumstances were too difficult and we lived apart. After that he was raised by my ex’s parents. I don’t know what happened after that, but when he grows up, one time would be enough so I hope to see him when he’s older.” Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised the parents abandon their children when they wanted to call him “demon.”

Recent comments sort of back

After upgrading to WordPress 3.0 the other day the recent comments display in the sidebar stopped working. Unfortunately, the highly customizable plugin I was using before seems to be abandoned and will probably not be updated for the new version of WordPress, but I did find a code snippet that will hold us over until I can get around to a more substantial solution.

I’ve been meaning to switch to a new theme for a long time, but I think instead of being ambitious I’m just going to switch to the new WordPress 3.0 default theme, with colors and header images changed to reflect the classic Mutantfrog.com look. While it would still be nice to have a really stylish and uniquely designed theme at some point, it’s a higher priority to switch to some modern code that just works properly. As long as it’s mutantfrog yellow, that is.

Japanese insolvency terms for dummies

When I started translating Japanese contracts, one of the most confusing aspects was the array of similar legal terms that commonly pop up in the “termination” section. Here are some common ones, along with what they actually mean.

差押 (sashi-osae)
Attachment. This is where a creditor “locks down” certain assets to keep the debtor from selling them or giving them away. Once attachment is completed, the debtor cannot legally transfer their ownership of the assets in question. Attachment usually precedes compulsory execution (below). The term is also used to refer to government seizure of evidence during a criminal investigation.

仮差押 (kari-sashi-osae)
Provisional attachment. This is a form of attachment which takes effect during litigation, where there is a chance that the defendant/debtor will have to eventually pay the plaintiff/creditor. If the defendant wins, the attachment is lifted. Assets can legally be transferred when a provisional attachment is in effect, but the transfer can be rescinded later if the provisional attachment becomes a regular attachment.

強制執行 (kyosei-shikkou)
Compulsory execution. This is a court-ordered process to seize the debtor’s assets and sell them at a public auction (競売 keibai), with proceeds going to pay off the creditor(s) and any surplus going back to the debtor. There are separate procedures for real estate, ships, movable assets and intangible assets.

仮処分 (kari-shobun)
Provisional injunction (or, when translated too literally, provisional disposition). This is a court order of some kind, usually to refrain from doing something like selling an asset or negotiating a transaction; it is given during litigation and requires a showing of necessity by the plaintiff as well as (usually) some sort of collateral to compensate the defendant in case the litigation is dismissed.

破産 (hasan)
Bankruptcy. In Japan, this legal term is only used for liquidation bankruptices, not for reorganization bankruptcies. Bankruptcy can be initiated by either the debtor or their creditor and is supervised by a court, which usually appoints an independent trustee to manage the bankruptcy if there are enough assets to pay the trustee. This is by far the most common legal procedure for adjusting debts, with over 100,000 annual petitions every year for the last ten years.

会社更生 (kaisha kousei)
Corporate reorganization (new type). This is a procedure intended to keep large distressed companies afloat by adjusting the due date (and sometimes the amount) of their financial liabilities. It is supervised by a court but requires the consent of creditors and shareholders in varying proportions depending on how the plan would affect their interests. If nobody can agree, the company goes into bankruptcy (above). Shareholders are generally wiped out, management get fired and replaced by a court-appointed administrator, and new equity investors (often prior creditors) get to choose new management. This is the procedure used by JAL, NOVA, Willcom, Dai-Ichi Hotels, Huis ten Bosch and most other high-profile corporate bankruptcies in the last decade: usage of the procedure peaked at 88 filings in 2002, although statistics are only available through 2008 so there may have been a second peak more recently.

民事再生 (minji saisei)
Civil rehabilitation. This is a smaller-scale version of corporate reorganization. It can be used by individuals, but the most frequent users are small companies, mainly because the procedure allows management to remain in control. The procedure is also conducive to selling a business in order to repay its creditors (Lehman Brothers Japan being a recent prominent example), and can sometimes be more beneficial from a tax perspective.

会社整理 (kaisha seiri)
Corporate reorganization (old type). This is an outdated term for an outdated form of small business corporate reorganization which legally ceased to exist in 2000 (although a few cases lingered in courts for several years after that). It was effectively superseded by the civil rehabilitation procedure.

解散 (kaisan)
Dissolution. This is a voluntary procedure which companies can execute at any time by a resolution of a super-majority of shareholders, whether or not the company is broke. Once shareholders vote to dissolve, the company is liquidated (清算 seisan) by a court-appointed supervisor. Creditors get paid off first (in order of priority), followed by shareholders. If there is not enough money to go around, or if there is some other insurmountable problem with the liquidation procedure, the company sometimes goes into special liquidation (特別清算 tokubetsu seisan), which gives the court more leeway to preserve assets and halt asset seizures.

If you want to read a lot more, there is an online outline of Japanese corporate insolvency law here, courtesy of the massive law firm of Anderson Mori & Tomotsune.

Apply to appear on NHK’s Cool Japan (conditions apply)

Kelvin on Twitter linked to this page on NHK where people can apply to appear on their late night show Cool Japan, about stuff non-Japanese people think is cool about Japan. Here’s an excerpt from introductory spiel and questionnaire for prospective guests:

We are looking for participants who have lived in Japan for less than one year to appear on the television show COOL JAPAN.
Interested parties are requested to fill out the following questionnaire.
Please review the questionnaire carefully and answer each question.

Nationality
Length of Time in Japan
Unique cultural aspects of your home country you are willing to shareMusic, fashion, arts, etc
Interests in Japanese culture
Aspects of Japanese society you find interesting, unique, odd?

So, is Japan suddenly not cool after you’ve lived in the country for one year? As Durf reminds us by way of WestFearNeon, NHK might be looking to talk to people at that tender stage after arriving in Japan when they tend to feel really positive about Japanese culture. Any longer than one year, and some of the same people who were once raving about might start grumbling about paved-over rivers and overly rigid rules. In WestFearNeon terms, NHK only wants wide-eyed wonderers and eager students.

Too bad, really. As a self-proclaimed “recovered” gaijin I would be happy to talk about all the stuff I like about Japan.