WITNESS the seedy underbelly of the Visual Kei scene

Everyone, stop what you’re doing and read Tokyo Damage Report’s epic piece on the visual kei music scene. The way it’s written makes it hard to quote, but here are some relevant facts. The interview is long but well worth your time. Read to find out:

  • The coming together of of shojo manga and glam rock that created Visual Kei in the 80s.
  • How Japanese recording acts are formed and popularized.
  • How popular bands find ways to maximize revenue from fans (selling photos, lots of “limited edition” merchandise, and special izakaya parties for the most gullible/hardcore fans)
  • Where the labels go to find talent (it’s mostly ex-thugs).
  • Why Japanese record producers — think Yasushi Akimoto of AKB48, Tsunku of Morning Musume, etc. — are so heavily relied upon to produce every aspect of the final product that they become drug-addled auteurs.
  • The typical salary for a visual kei band member (lots of in-kind perks, very little cash)… and why they put up with it
  • The willingness of label bosses to forego short-term financial gain in favor of long-term connections (perhaps an ubiquitous aspect of Japanese business relations)

For some reason he’s been sitting on this gem since 2008! Shame on you, man.

It’s hard to tell the credibility of some parts, but I think it’s easier to swallow as a true-to-life mockumentary than as a faithfully transcripted interview.

To close out, here’s the video for one of my favorite viz-k songs, Luna Sea’s “Tonight”:

Japan Times vs. Japan Times

February 4:

Men miss out on Valentine’s chocolate as women treat themselves

Japan’s unique Valentine’s Day tradition of women giving chocolate to men is melting away as more women show a preference for pampering each other instead of their boyfriends and spouses.

The practice of giving tomo choco (friendship chocolate) has been highlighted as a new trend in a recent survey that found 74 percent of women plan to give a Valentine’s gift to a female friend but only 32 percent intended to buy something for a boyfriend.

And the trend is well established. Ninety-two percent of respondents said they had received tomo choco from a friend last year. Just 11.2 percent said they plan to give chocolates to confess their love to someone, according to the survey by chocolate-maker Ezaki Glico, Ltd., which questioned 500 women aged between 10 and 30 over the Internet.

February 5:

Valentine’s chocolate defies recession
Cheap, expensive or made at home — Cupid says it’s all good

As many businesses continue to shake their heads over how tough it is to make sales in these financially difficult times, “cheaper is better” is the strategy of the day, with shops slicing prices for everything from “gyudon” (beef on rice) to jeans.

But one thing consumers — especially female ones — will loosen their purse strings for are those little drops of heaven that are sure to melt their darlings’ hearts come Feb. 14, say chocolate retailers, whose customer-oriented strategies have seen both luxury brands and affordable sweets fly off the shelves at equal speed.

…According to [an Isetan spokeswoman], the recession has done nothing to spoil consumers’ appetite for high-quality chocolate, with the buzz extending beyond hardcore fans this year. This follows the recent consumer trend where couples and families prefer to stay at home rather than go out, and so were interested in buying luxury chocolates to enjoy together, she said.

So is the Japanese race doomed to extinction, or isn’t it?!

AKB48 fan arrested for taking their business model to its logical conclusion

Today we have news of a fan of girl pop group AKB48 who just had to keep the fantasy going, no matter the cost:

Police on Friday re-arrested an overzealous fan of idol group AKB48, adding to previous charges of theft for which he is already on trial. Masayuki Fujioka, 35, is suspected of committing 151 robberies in four prefectures. He was quoted by police as saying, “I needed money for train fare and concerts so I could chase AKB48.”

According to police, Fujioka illegally trespassed in a construction site in Tochigi City on the night of Oct 6, breaking into a vending machine and stealing 4,700 yen. Authorities say that, since around December 2002, Fujioka committed 151 robberies in Tochigi, Saitama, Ibaraki and Gunma prefectures, stealing a total of 4.1 million yen.

While we have no way of knowing whether this guy really was spending it all on AKB48, it certainly rings true. AKB48 has been a phenomenal success story in what is otherwise a shrinking and lackluster music scene in Japan. The concept is “idols you can actually meet.” While the music and dancing are nothing special, they are very able at appealing to an audience of young “otaku” men. In 2009, AKB48 became more popular than ever, moving from the “fringe” status as an otaku group to more mainstream exposure on TV and magazines.

The group consists of 3 “teams” of around 16 members each (age range: 16-24) who perform semi-independently. With so many to choose from, in addition to dozens of “trainees” aged 15-20, the fans tend to choose one favorite and follow her closely.

The producer, Yasushi Akimoto, exercises total control over the process and has been called a genius for his business model. It combines the J-pop practice of building a long-term, loyal fan base (many old bands long past their prime can still crank out hit singles and fill arenas for this reason), the penchant for fawning over young, innocent girls in the otaku subculture, and the revenue maximization strategy of a hostess bar.

It’s that last part that has led to some illegality and controversy. Here’s a list of some of the group’s money-making practices, some of which I cribbed from a lengthy piece in the Sankei Shimbun:

  • Perhaps the group’s biggest source of revenue is “handshaking events” where fans who bought a limited edition single on the official website receive a ticket that lets them meet and greet a member of their choice. The rarity of these tickets makes them popular items on Yahoo Auctions, Japan’s answer to eBay. The biggest fans find a girl they like and try to attend as many of the events as possible. Of course, the group also releases CDs and holds concert tours just like any other band, though they operate their own proprietary ticketing system.
  • One CD came with a “ballot” that the buyer could use to vote for who will sing on the next AKB48 single. Some of the more avid fans bought hundreds of CDs to vote for their favorites. A journalist in the Sankei explains this is very similar to when a customer at a hostess bar will buy drink after drink for his favorite to help her succeed.
  • Another CD release came with a poster of a random member included. Fans started trading on online auctions to try and collect them all.
  • The group’s home turf is the 8th floor of the Don Quijote discount shop in Akihabara. Members perform just about every day (having a giant roster of 100 members and sub-members helps keep this going).
  • Members also regularly appear in weekly magazine photo spreads in what is very close to softcore porn, not something an earlier, similar group Morning Musume would have done.
  • On their website, there is a link to an address where you are invited to send “fan letters and gifts.”
  • Akimoto is trying to franchise the “48” idea to other countries, envisioning a Paris 48 or Jakarta 48. There was a documentary a couple months ago about his trip to a marketing convention to try and sell the idea, but so far I have not heard whether he succeeded or not.

In addition to the thief mentioned earlier, other criminals have sold counterfeit event tickets, and one fan started stealing a member’s mail. Clearly some kind of fan worship goes on with any popular group, but AKB48 has clearly done a better job than most of exploiting the relationship between performer and fan.

Via CNNgo and Japan Today

Activists stalk English teachers in South Korea – a glimpse at Japan’s future?

The LA Times has a story on how an activist group in South Korea, sinisterly named the “Anti-English Spectrum” has been following foreign English teachers to ferret out suspected wrong-doing:

The volunteer manager of a controversial group known as the Anti-English Spectrum, Yie investigates complaints by South Korean parents, often teaming up with authorities, and turns over information from his efforts for possible prosecution.

Outraged teachers groups call Yie an instigator and a stalker.

Yie waves off the criticism. “It’s not stalking, it’s following,” he said. “There’s no law against that.”

Since its founding in 2005, critics say, Yie’s group has waged an invective-filled nationalistic campaign against the 20,000 foreign-born English teachers in South Korea.

On their website and through fliers, members have spread rumors of a foreign English teacher crime wave. They have alleged that some teachers are knowingly spreading AIDS, speculation that has been reported in the Korean press.

The debate over foreign English teachers is symbolic of a social shift taking place in a nation that has long prided itself on its racial purity and singular culture, South Korean analysts say.

In less than a decade, the number of foreigners living in South Korea, with a population of nearly 49 million, has doubled to 1.2 million, many of them migrant workers from other Asian nations.

Also included are the foreign English teachers, most from the United States, drawn here by compensation packages that may include as much as $2,500 a month plus free rent and a round-trip ticket to teach a Korean population obsessed with learning from native speakers.

While the idea of vigilantes following English teachers around is definitely unnerving, the effort seems much smaller and more reasonable than I expected from the headline. No reports of violence and just one threatening e-mail. If there are troublemakers in the country I think the citizens have a right to their activism. The “activists” seem more like a community of Internet hobbyists going after a group that’s done nothing to them for no reason other than self-satisfaction, very similar to the incidents of “enjo” flaming campaigns in Japan (or scambaiters, “Anonymous” protests against Scientology, etc. in the English-speaking world). I am tempted to write it off, but given what I am reading here and all the reports on English teachers smuggling drugs and getting into other trouble, the relationship between the foreign English teachers and the local Koreans seems genuinely strained.

Given the relative similarity of the situation in Japan (homogeneous Asian population, fetish over learning English from natives), it struck me how nothing like this has sprung up yet, especially given the industry’s business/hiring practices and the excesses of some of the teachers. There are stirrings of anti-foreigner sentiment here and there, but what strong feelings there are tend to come from fringe rightist groups railing against Koreans.

It’s possible there is a difference of degree in Korea – the Internet is a more integral part of life, there are proportionally more English teachers there, and foreigners in general are a more visible presence. That said, it could offer a glimpse at where Japan might be headed.

Korea remains one of the most connected nations on the planet, and has become famous for flaming campaigns. There was a recent string of celebrity suicides, some apparently a result of internet harassment.

In Japan, these attacks are quite common, though I have yet to hear about any high-profile suicides. Japanese net users have turned their ire on Westerners before, most notably in the “WaiWai incident” when they became outraged over lewd, liberally translated articles on the Mainichi Daily News site. If a foreign English teacher commits a heinous crime (or the police decide to play it up), it’s possible the 2ch crowd could start something a “Spectrum” of its own. If it comes to that, we will all no doubt back our dismissive comments about Debito and beg him for help (I am guessing there is no Debito equivalent in Korea – prominent Korea blogger Marmot has very little sympathy with his wayward fellow Westerners). Even so, I don’t get the impression that average Japanese people feel uneasy about Western English teachers – quite the contrary, they tend to be treated very well. Maybe we can thank the JET program for bringing in more “high quality” talent with its more rigorous selection process.

Next, there are a lot of English teachers in Korea! If the article’s figure of 20,000 is correct, it’s even more than the roughly 14,000 in Japan (and shrinking) even though Korea’s population is just 40% of Japan’s. If Japan had the same proportion of English teachers there’d be 36,000 of them, and businesses would probably have to lower standards even more to fill all the positions.

According to the article, foreigners make up 2.4% of South Korea’s population. In Japan that number is 1.74% and growing. Also, from all accounts the US military presence is felt a lot more in Korea, be it from soldiers on the street or the daily awareness that the country remains in a state of imminent war.

But with the foreign population on the rise in Japan, its greater visibility means there will definitely be some kind of reaction. Some might feel the kind of anger that’s directed at the government’s proposal to give permanent residence the vote. Those protests have yet to produce any violence or anything worth calling an “incident” but it’s a potential rallying point, and the bill hasn’t come up for debate yet.

The article draws a link between the Anti-English Spectrum and the overall issue of dealing with foreigners in “racially pure” South Korea, noting there have been some recent racially motivated attacks. I think there’s a clue in this for people watching Japan. When the net activists start wielding the hammer of anti-foreigner rage, Western English teachers might start to look more and more like a nail.

Facts on Japanese libraries

(Updated and corrected)

If you’ve never been to one of Japan’s public libraries, I suggest you check one out. While they vary in quality from place to place, in my experience they’ve been great resources of free books and periodicals (especially magazines). The users tend to be surly older men there to get a free newspaper, kids playing with the picture books, and serious students studying for exams. While they have some odd rules (no late fees, you can actually check out periodicals, and there are draconian photocopy limitations), all in all I love them.

So that’s why I was so happy to see that Japan’s ministry of education has some numbers on Japan’s network of public libraries as part of a survey taken every three years of “social education” institutions like libraries, civic centers, and museums.

Some facts:

  • At the time of the survey, taken over 2007 and 2008, there were 3,165 public libraries in Japan, or one for every 40,349 people. In the US, there are an estimated 122,356, one for every 2,485 people. That compares to 42,204 convenience stores and 13,000 pachinko parlors. The number is up from 2,396 in 1995. (Correction: The US number included public school libraries, whereas the Japanese numbers did not. The corresponding US number is 16,604, or one for every 18,312 people.)
  • Japanese people borrowed over 600 million books in 2007.
  • There are a total of 34.03 million cardholders (26.7% of the population), who borrowed an average of 19 books apiece. Elementary school-age cardholders were more avid readers, borrowing 35.9 books each. The cardholder population is actually down from 36.9 million in 1999 but up from a sharp fall to 26.4 million in 1998.
  • However, today’s cardholders visit the library 5 times a year, vs. just 3 times in 1995.
  • Though there are only 14,981 employed librarians or assistant librarians in Japan (including those working at privately run collections), it’s estimated more than 200,000 people have passed the official librarian exam. In the US, there were 150,000 employed librarians in 2008. That’s 4.7 librarians or assistants for each library vs. just 1.2 per library in the US. I am not exactly sure what to make of this difference, but maybe it has something to do with the relatively higher qualifications needed to become a qualified librarian in the US (a masters degree in library science) vs. Japan (an undergrad degree in library science or a degree in any field plus some extra training).
  • By far the biggest library in Japan is the National Diet Library in Tokyo with a collection of 34.7 million books, compared to the US Library of Congress’s 141 million. I guess if the Diet doesn’t actually have to make any decisions, its members don’t need to do as much background research!

While I won’t get into it now, Wikipedia has some info on the history of libraries in Japan if you’re interested.

(link thanks to J-Cast)

On CNN’s Factchecking

Our post on the Savoie case opened up a pretty fierce discussion about the facts of the case and the background, with many of us taking issue with the liberal reporting of “facts” by CNN’s correspondents. I was even further perplexed by CNN’s story on a US father caring for his disabled child in Okazaki, Japan, as asking the most rudimentary questions about the story result in a pretty clear conclusion that the facts are just wrong (which I wrote about here).

It turns out that the mistakes on the Savoie story are not a result (or at least not the sole result) of institutional Orientalism. CNN apparently has a problem at the core of its information management when it comes to checking facts, and has a habit of reporting anything heard as fact without double checking anything. This was the subject of a brutal evisceration of the network by the Daily Show that I thought was worth sharing with readers — I think it helps understand why the Savoie case turned into such a media circus and a scapegoat for Japan’s antiquated family laws. The relevant section starts at 1:05.

CNN Leaves It There

Even more kabuki on Capitol Hill

This month’s American Bar Association Journal features a cover story on the Supreme Court nomination process called “No More Kabuki Confirmations,” complete with a backdrop of paper lanterns, cherry blossoms and ukiyo-e figures.

It’s a “Kabuki dance,” said Joe Biden when he was a senator on the Judiciary Committee. U.S. Supreme Court nominees give the illusion of responding to senators’ questions, but say little of importance.

… Biden’s successor, Sen. Ted Kaufman, told the National Law Journal that the process resembled the Super Bowl—with press coverage all around.

It’s “a subtle minuet,” said Sen. Arlen Specter during the hearing for Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., “with the nominee answering as many questions as he thinks are necessary in order to be confirmed.”

For his part, Justice Felix Frankfurter, plagued during his confirmation hearing with suggestions that he was partial to communists, favored the athletic comparison. “I thought that it would just be a little room where we would sit around,” he said of the Judiciary Commit­tee hearing. “I found that this was Madison Square Garden.”

Whether likened to theater, dance or a sporting event, the confirmation process for the Supreme Court has become a set piece of punch and counterpunch, with enough irritation left from one process to undermine the next.

A kabuki minuet in Madison Square Garden would be pretty awesome, but probably not all that similar to the Sotomayor hearings.

Sympathizing with Noriko Savoie

The US and Japanese media are focusing much attention on the arrest of Christopher Savoie in Fukuoka. The English language press deems this as yet another case of a victim of Japan’s pre-modern family law. Undeniably, there is a history of Japanese mothers suddenly fleeing to Japan where they are beyond the reach of the law, resulting in more than a hundred abduction cases involving Japan and the US alone, and this needs revision. But sympathetic press articles notwithstanding, Christopher is the wrong martyr to rally behind in this fight — an objective view of the facts makes Christopher’s ex-wife Noriko the figure of sympathy in this story.

Christopher and Noriko met and married in Japan. Christopher had a PhD and was a successful entrepreneur who founded a pharmaceutical business that he took public on the Tokyo stock exchange. He is also a naturalized Japanese citizen. They were married for thirteen years and have two children, currently ages 8 and 6.

While living in Japan, the marriage was breaking down and Noriko asked Christopher for a divorce, which he refused. Instead he convinced Noriko to move with him to the US and they did so in June 2008. No sooner had they moved than Christopher took up with another woman and served Noriko with divorce papers. Noriko was dependent on her husband and had no income for herself and had just been relocated to his home town in a country that she did not know, although she may have been relieved that she was getting the divorce she wanted a year earlier and probably also happy to receive custody of the kids and a generous financial settlement and monthly support. But the arrangements required that she stay in Tennessee and not even visit Japan without court permission. Although we cannot be sure, all the facts make it likely that Christopher was motivated to relocate to his home town to get divorced in a US court.

Thus Noriko was stuck in a country where she was culturally and personally isolated, abandoned by her husband but still expected to raise kids in a new country so her husband could get visitation. So in August, Noriko absconded to Japan with the two kids. Christopher then petitioned the court and was granted custodial rights. He then went to Japan and physically snatched his kids from his wife as they walked to school by force in a car — the very definition of “abduction.” He then raced to the US Consulate in Fukuoka, where the guards refused him entry and he was arrested outside by police. He is being held by police for 10 days and has not yet been charged.

What a US-Japanese citizen hoped to gain in a US consulate is questionable. And the action was clearly pre-meditated. But much of this narrative is lost in the US media reports, which are overwhelmingly sympathetic to Christopher and speak in implied terms of a vast, cultural conspiracy in Japan to favor mothers. The Huffington Post says “Divorced fathers in Japan typically don’t get much access to their children because of widespread cultural beliefs that small children should be with their mothers,” and Forbes writes that the case “underscores long-standing disputes over Japan’s traditional favoritism toward mothers in custody battles.” That’s utter nonsense. The statistics imply that mothers win custody in Japan at approximately the same proportion as the US — and as for Japanese “culture,” fathers were more likely to receive custody until the 1960s. On the contrary, the bias towards mothers is far more ingrained in US culture — for more than a century US courts followed the Tender Years doctrine, under which mothers get prima facie rights to child custody disputes. (Although many state courts have abandoned this on the basis of the 14th amendment equal protection clause, it still exists in many US states.)

There are also lots of factual mistakes in the reporting, such as reporting by CNN that “Japanese law… recognizes Noriko Savoie as the primary custodian.” Actually, Japanese law says that two Japanese citizens are still married, as they are both Japanese nationals and bust be divorced in Japan for the divorce to be valid, in which case there is no way that Noriko is the primary custodian. And while Japan does not have joint custody of children, there are visitation rights. (It is also reported that Noriko has dual US and Japanese citizenship, although the how and why of that is unclear.)

Terrie’s Take of Japan Inc. fame was cited by Debito as being “the best, most thorough, most balanced opinion yet on the case.” (Actually, like much of what Terrie writes, it’s a sloppy newsletter with numerous factual errors.) But beyond that, the most amusing part of that article is that it states,

What is surprising is that [Christopher] chose to get his kids back in a way that exposed him to many untested theories. One of these theories has been that it is OK to abduct your kids back. Indeed the police often do turn a blind eye to home disputes and will allow “mini-abductions” to happen.

Kidnapping as an untested theories? Yes, the cops and courts do try to keep out of family disputes whenever possible — but what Christopher did was kidnapping pure and simple, and even his lawyer has basically already admitted that he was wrong to use force. We can’t guess how this is going to be sorted out, but my guess is that Noriko is about to get some justice in court, and Christopher’s nutty stunts will prejudice him in getting visitation rights. That’s a good thing — and you can think that and still want Japan to modernize its family law to meet international standards.

Ayase crime update: Possible foreigner robs sushi restaurant… across the street from my apartment

While making breakfast this morning, I noticed a couple of news trucks around the sushi restaurant across the street, which is the first thing I see when leaving my apartment in the morning. I figured that Gal Sone was probably eating a metric ton of kohada or something, but the truth was far darker. Kyodo reports:

Robbery at Choshimaru kaitenzushi: 720,000 yen seized

Around 6:30 AM on the 13th, a man entered from the back door of the Ayase Sushi Choshimaru kaitenzushi restaurant in Yanaka 1-chome, Adachi-ku, Tokyo, held a knife to the clerk (26) opening the restaurant, said “Give me your money,” seized 720,000 yen in sale receipts from the safe and fled. The clerk was unharmed.

The Metropolitan Police Ayase Station are searching for the man as a robbery suspect.

According to the Ayase Station, the man is around 30 and about 160-170 cm tall. He was wearing sunglasses, a black short-sleeved shirt and jeans. The clerk claims that “he threatened me in broken Japanese.” (Kyodo)

The Jiji report uses a fascinating phrase to describe the perp: “アジア系外国人風,” which means something like “looks Asian, seems foreign.” Fortunately, I only fit half of those criteria.