Japanese Kindle

Having now moved back and forth several times between my home in the US and Kyoto or Taipei, on the other side of the world in East Asia, it has become clear to me that dealing with books is the biggest pain in the ass. This is exacerbated by the fact that I am both a congenital book hoarder and (although not at this exact moment) a graduate student. After the most recent move home, after graduating from my Masters program in March of last year, I decided that purchasing a Kindle would be the best way to reduce the amount of weight that my future self will be sending across the sea when the need arises.

And I do love the Kindle, and Amazon’s service in general. (I should mention here that my father owns some Amazon stock, which has benefited me, but that the investment is based on enthusiasm for the company’s service, rather than shilling in order to promote the company.) I happen to have the 3G keyboard model, and the e-ink screen is a wonderful replacement for paper books, even if not quite as good. I do also use the Kindle app on my phone when the Kindle device is not with me, and it is surprisingly comfortable to read books the large screen of my Galaxy Nexus. And the service has been fantastic; when I accidentally broke my Kindle’s screen, Amazon customer support sent me a new one no questions asked. This clearly because Amazon’s priority is very different from that of a consumer electronic company whose profit comes from the hardware itself, who would be happier persuading you to pay for a new unit, or at least repair costs, for breaking a non-defective unit; rather than even asking if I had broken it, they seemed more concerned in getting me a new Kindle ASAP, so that I could resume paying them for content.

Unfortunately, however, the Kindle Store does not include Japanese books. However, it was reported a couple of weeks ago that Amazon would be launching the Kindle in Japan later this year, with Japanese language e-books from Japanese publishers. Apparently they will be launching with the current generation of e-ink devices, rather than the Kindle Fire Android tablet, but since I personally prefer both the readability and long battery life of the e-ink devices I don’t think this is a problem. Anyway, Amazon already sells the “International” Kindle in Japan, so the key here is that Japanese e-books will be available in the store, which will then be usable on existing hardware, including the Kindle app on iOS, Android, and OSX or Windows computers.

The big question for me, however, is how the different national stores will interact. Will it be possible to purchase Japanese books from my Amazon.com account, using my American credit card? If not, will it be possible to use, say, a Japanese debit card linked to my Shinsei bank account? Or will I have to resort to the more convoluted maneuvers required for some international online media stores, by purchasing Japanese Kindle books through my Amazon.co.jp account, and then switching the currently logged-in account on my Kindle to that when I want to read a Japanese title? I do know that Amazon has already localized the Kindle for Italian, Spanish, with Brazilian Portuguese also launching later this year, so I am wondering if anybody reading this knows how it currently handles juggling purchases from more than one country store?

Now, despite the fact that the rumored Kindle Japan store will (presumably) not be launched for a few months, there is still one major source of Japanese e-books usable for it today. Many readers are probably already familiar with Aozora Bunko, a repository for public domain Japanese literature, roughly similar to the primarily English language Project Gutenberg. Since the Kindle software—that is, the OS on the Kindle device, not just the app for other platforms—has included support for East Asian text for some time, it can display Aozora Bunko text files with no problem. Well, there is ONE problem. You see, while perfectly readable, the current text file viewer only displays text in the same left-to-right horizontal lines that you are reading this blog in. While it certainly no challenge to read Japanese in this format, it just doesn’t feel right for literature, which is still universally printed in horizontal lines, and read from right-to-left.

Luckily there is a solution: an online utility called Aozora Kindoru, which generates PDFs formatted in literature style vertical columns for the Kindle screen (they will also work great on any other device with PDF support and a similarly sized screen), and even properly formats any furigana present in the original file. I was first alerted to this utility via a Twitter user, and here are two English blogs with instructions, although I imagine that anybody who would be reading any of the old stuff on Aozora Bunko can figure out the Japanese directions with no problem. [Link 1] [Link 2]

As a final note, it appears that the Nook, from Barnes and Noble, is also planning to introduce international versions, including Japanese. While looking for jobs, I ran across a posting for an “International Content Manager” for Nook, the duties of which involve:

The Manager, International Content Acquisition will have previous experience working with publishers around the world and should be familiar with each territory’s publishing industry.  Candidates should be familiar with the latest developments in digital publishing.  Ideal candidates must have business level command, speaking and writing, of English and at least one other language.

and the job requirements for include:

Professional, spoken and written fluency in English as well as one of these languages is required:  German, Italian, French, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Russian.

This actually surprises me a bit, as one of the reasons I decided to go with Kindle rather than Nook in the first place (aside from my history with the company) was that I expected from that beginning that Amazon, a country with a strong presence in Japan, would eventually introduce a Japanese language store, while I was doubtful that Barnes and Noble, a company with no history that I am aware of operating in foreign language markets, would do likewise. I am happy to be proven wrong. Incidentally, I have yet to see this move by B&N reported anywhere, but I think the job posting is pretty clear evidence, although if they are currently recruiting for these positions it would seem likely that they are not as close as Amazon to opening their Japanese store.

Corporate Japan’s Feudal Public Relations

The months of August began with a breaking story from the Nikkei: Hitachi Corporation and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) were in discussions to merge. The stories were not clear if the merger would be of some of their business (not that uncommon—see, for example, TMEIC), or their entire business. If it was a true merger of both companies, it would create Japan’s largest company after Toyota.

The reasons for such a merger are obvious, as they are one of many types of Japanese companies facing two problems: a shrinking domestic market, and competition overseas from companies from places that they previously did not have to fight against (namely companies from Korea and China). A merger such as between Hitach and MHI would be a great way for Japan’s top-tier construction/technology/heavy industries companies to collaborate and compete not just again GE and Seimens (their historic rivals) but also Samsung and the growing horde of Chinese companies, when it comes to bidding and seeking overseas projects.

Yet the reaction by both companies to the release was a sharp denial. Hitach put out a one line press release: “The article is not based on a fact.” (When I read this, I was struck by the peculiar English—they surely did not mean to deny the singular fact but not deny the plural “facts,” but that was my first impressiony.) Then we had the MHI press release that reflected an ever worse command of the English language:

Even after a denial of the report this morning related to possible integration of business operations of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd. (“MHI”) and Hitachi, Ltd., there have been a continuing flow of inaccurate information and reports pertaining to this matter. We feel uncomfortable that this inaccurate report continues. We hereby reiterate that the series of information is not based upon MHI’s own corporate decision or disclosure, and MHI has no plan to enter into any of the arrangement reported, while we resister strong objections to those inappropriate conducts.

My reaction reading that is to cringe. Why can’t these companies—which have hundreds of foreign employees—use native English speakers to check their English language public statements? You would think this is especially true for such statements that are picked up and read by the international press? This story is almost a month old, but I mention it because a person in Japan’s PR industry (which is basically dominated by two companies, Dentsu and Hakuhodo) just shared with me his insight that, while both these companies used Japan’s PR firms to handle their new product promotion and advertising, they take on this type of “crisis management” by themselves. For all the criticism that this blog has lobbed at Dentsu over the years, my feeling is—it shows! And hearing this, it reminded me of this section from a recent issue of “Terry’s Take”:

Traditional bedrock companies in Japan are proud and feudalistic. This used to be their strength—commonality of purpose, self-sacrificing employees, and no arguments about decisions from the top. However, with the advent of the information age, quality of response and reaction has become more important than unwavering commitment and persistence, and Hitachi in particular has suffered as a result. Perhaps ironic given that the company is so deeply involved in the IT industry.

The Tale of INPEX and the Golden Share

A “Golden share” is a Anglo-European legal concept by which one nominal share carries special veto rights and is able to outvote all other shares in certain specific circumstances. The term arose in the 1980s when the British government retained golden shares in companies it privatized, and later the concept emerged in Russia, Germany, Spain, and Portugal. They are typically held by a government organization, and the shares are over a government company undergoing the privatization. The share gives the government organization the right of decisive vote, thus to veto all other shares, in a shareholders-meeting. In Europe, this share is often retained only for some defined period of time to allow a newly privatised company to become accustomed to operating in a public environment. Wikipedia has more on the concept here.

Readers may be surprised to learn that golden shares were one of the concepts quietly introduced with Japan’s new Company Law of 2006. Under article 108 of the law, “preferred shares with veto rights” (kyohiken tsuki shurui kabushiki) were created, which are referred to as “Golden Shares” (ougon kabu). The shares cannot be transferred, and under guidelines issued by METI and MOJ, they are designed to prevent hostile takeovers. The purpose of golden shares in Japan is therefore somewhat different from the British/European concept, where they are used to transition state companies into the private sector.

The Tokyo Stock Exchange has said that companies with golden shares will not be listed, for the plain reason that they violate the principle of shareholder equality. Following opposition from the business community, on the basis of certain exceptions, such as if a general shareholder meeting approved the listing regardless of the golden shares, and the golden share not violating shareholder profits, this initial policy was changed. Any breach of this principle would result in delisting.

Presently, there is just one listed company in Japan that has golden shares — Kokusai Sekiyu Kaihatsu Teiseki Kabushiki Kaisha, or known in English and Japanese as INPEX. According to Wikipedia, the Minister of METI holds 29.35% of the ordinary shares of INPEX, in addition to just one “A-Class Share (Golden Share).” INPEX is Japan’s largest private company engaged in upstream oil exploration, and METI (and Japan as a whole) probably recognizes that this company is important enough that it shouldn’t be subject to hostile takeovers.

Ten things you may not have known about Japan’s newest and, um, peachiest airline

  1. Its name is Peach. Seriously.
  2. It is a joint venture between All Nippon Airways and First Eastern Investment Group, a Hong Kong private equity firm.
  3. Its livery designers apparently got their inspiration from the Barbie Jet.
  4. “Peach” allegedly stands for Pan-Asian, Energetic, Affordable, Cute & Cool and Happy.
  5. As many native English speakers instantly noticed, “Peach” is an anagram for “cheap.”
  6. Peach claims to be Japan’s first low-cost carrier. Obviously, this is a blatant lie since Skymark and Air Do both preceded them and are both still flying.
  7. They will be based at Kansai Airport in Osaka, where only the cheap survive.
  8. Peach’s corporate parent, A&F Aviation, was recruiting operations personnel on LinkedIn’s job board a few months ago and didn’t seem to care that much about language ability. Their staff roster must look pretty interesting by now.
  9. Peach is not the first fruit-themed airline. There is an airline in South Africa called Mango, and the US has both Berry and Lime. That said, Peach is probably the fruitiest of them all.
  10. Peach is so cheap that they didn’t even have chairs at their first presser.

As an aviation geek, I am morbidly fascinated…

A few more notes on energy conservation

During the very early stages of last month’s disaster I wrote A Note on Energy Conservation, in which I explained why, energy conservation in western Japan would have no immediate effect in relieving the shortage in eastern Japan. This is because Japan’s electrical grid is, for historical reasons, separated into a 60hz grid (same as North America) in the western half of Japan and a 50hz grid (same as Europe) in the eastern half.

I have been collecting links related to the energy situation and several other aspects of the ongoing crisis and recovery efforts and will probably be blogging quite a bit on such topics, but for now I want to just post translations of a series of brief comments on energy conservation in Kanto from Tokyo Vice-mayor Inose Naoki (who I believe will remain in his job allegedly doing most of the real work serving under Ishihara following his unfortunate reelection) that he tweeted a week ago.

#1: The pachinko industry said in a protest message to Governor Ishihara that “the maximum power usage of their 4000 game parlors in the Tepco region” is no more than 840,000 kilowatts” and this is where I learned precise numbers. Before this the only data I had was regarding a sort of “peak velocity” of 320,000 kilowatts. Since Toei and Metro [Tokyo’s subway systems] together are a maximum of 360,000 kilowatts, this is pretty big.

#2: Pachinko parlor electricity consumption is 40% air conditioning, 30% pachinko machines, 20% lighting. To reduce the gap in power supply during summer peak demand time, [we] must reevaluate [our] lifestyles. To speak half-jokingly and half-seriously, the pachinko industry must themselves come forward with plans such as operating only at night, or running without their coolers on during the day.

#3: Drink vending machines use 190,000 kilowatts. The real number may be even higher. Vending machines are refrigerators. The industry is voluntarily engaging in self restraint to halt the cooling function between the hours of 1 and 4 but do we really even need it during the day time? At the very least we do not need them next to a convenience store. Conserving energy at night has no relation with saving energy during peak hours.

#4: Energy Conservation Minister Renho says “vending machines are a large proportion of the drinks industry’s sales” and expressed a “contradictory point of view” regarding industry self restraint, saying “the industry is working to lower energy consumption” (Kyodo). She does not understand the meaning of revising our lifestyles to overcome summer. There is no need to put refrigerators on the street in order to raise the sale price to ¥150 from the ¥90 it is in a supermarket.

#5: The DPJ administration has finally decided to issue government directives, and although there are regulations for both industry specific controls and total volume controls [on energy consumption], they have only issued total volume controls. By issuing only total volume controls,  it will only target electricity contracts of 500 kilowatts and up (large offices), which is only 1/3 of the total. The other 70% is voluntary restraint, and cigarette vending machines fall into that category. This is because they are not using industry specific controls.

#6: Tokyo is a commuter city. Toei and Metro together use a maximum of 360,000 kilowatts during rush hour. Outside of morning and evening rush, they are saving power by reducing service, reducing lighting/AC in stations and cars, stopping one set of escalators where there are two, etc. And compare this with how the pachinko or drinks vending machine industries – which add up to 100,000 kilowatts, are reacting.

#7: Cigarette vending machines are not refrigerators. Beverage vending machines are refrigerators, and guzzle 190,000 kilowatts. It may even be higher in reality. I previously had a number for the pachinko industry of 320,000 kilowatts, but their assertion that it is “no more than 840,000 kilowatts” gave me the real figure. The output of Reactor #1 at Fukushima Daiichi was 460,000 kilowatts. More or less.

#8: The concern is what to do about power use at peak hours. Late at night is not a problem. I have set the hot water heater on the bath in my working area to use electricity at night. I also installed solar panels one year ago. Even though Tokyo has been trying to encourage them the installation rate is low and I put them in myself. Personal experiences are in my book on working as Vice-governor.

#9: Roppongi Hills produces all of their own power. They have a contract with Tepco for backup. This is opposite the usual pattern. In the future, power generation will no longer be monopolized by Tepco. Factories had already begun installing their own power generation but it was expensive and efforts did not move forward. With the nuclear accident, people will start to question the real costs of power generation.

#10: Beverage vending machines. The Tokyo Prefectural Assembly DPJ proposed halting the coolers not from 13:00-26:00 but from 10:00-21:00. Energy Conservation Minister Renho is arguing for something different. In this proposal the Tokyo Assembly DPJ mistakenly wrote that vending machines use 110,000 kilowatts and the cool beverage industry corrected them saying it is actually 260,000 kilowatts. Thanks to that, I now know the real figure.

#11: Changed in electricity consumption. Proper mastery of a proposition is a precondition for linguistic skill. If we look back, the 1990s are not so long ago. Since the 1990s, GDP has not risen, but electricity usage has increased. Therefore, we need to reassess our lifestyles over the last 10-15 years. Why has GDP not risen even though we use more electricity?

What the media invading the Fukushima evacuation zone says about our media consumption

Source: WSJ

There have been many many reports of what it’s like at the earthquake-affected areas, and now there is a growing number of reports coming from inside the nuclear evacuation zone. According to Google News, the Global Post, the Telegraph, and CNN have reports, and a Japanese team recently posted a video of their trip. Here is what the Wall Street Journal had to offer:

Eerie Hush Descends on Japan’s Nuclear Zone

FUTABA, Japan—In the Coin Laundry, a dryer is still loaded with clothes: an orange hooded sweatshirt, a green worker’s vest and two pairs of jeans, damp and smelling of mildew.

At Joe’s Man restaurant near the train station, a menu lists the lunch specials, starting with bacon-and-eggplant pasta in a tomato-cream sauce. A flyer on the open doors of the Nishio clothes shop promotes a five-day “inventory clearance” sale. Over the road that runs through the town center, a white-and-blue sign proclaims: “Understanding Nuclear Power Correctly Will Lead to an Abundant Life.”

But life, by and large, is what is absent in this town, just a few miles away from the troubled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

A little further down the reporters describe an interesting exchange after explaining that the zone isn’t illegal to enter but strongly discouraged:

“What are you doing here?” a fireman asked a reporter walking in the street. From the passenger seat, another firefighter held up a radiation monitor. “You are not supposed to be here. It’s dangerous,” he said. “Please leave soon.”

To me, if there are enough reporters on the ground that they are running into each other in an evacuation zone, something is very wrong here. Whatever value there is to tell the story of the evacuees has been eclipsed by the reporters’ attraction to a sexy location with post-apocalyptic trappings. These people are not looking to provide useful information for a discerning public. They are just entertainers hoping to sell an interesting story to the folks back home.

Most of the time media as entertainment is fine and more or less harmless. The tradition of Westerners reporting back on exotic travels goes back at least to Marco Polo, and it’s only natural for people to have a voyeuristic interest in world events. I’ll even allow that there may simply be no other good way to get digestible information about other countries. It’s just that from the perspective of someone living in Japan with a stake in the quake’s aftermath, seeing these kinds of reports is frustrating and makes me think they’re exploiting a tragedy.

After the earthquake, a lot of foreign residents of Japan received panicked messages from their relatives and friends back home, myself included. In my case, I had to tell my mom to stop watching CNN and turn to more reliable sources like NHK World. Since she didn’t have that on cable, she ended up turning to CCTV9, the international version of China’s state-run TV, because it had much more straightforward, facts-based reports. Other relatives also contacted me, some telling me to consider leaving. One conspiracy theorist relative told me to check the Drudge Report to get “the real story.”

Normally, average people are served well enough by whatever media they choose to access because it never affects their daily lives. People can read well-written articles in The Economist that might be wildly inaccurate because hey, who’s going to know the difference unless you’re actually from the country they’re writing about? It’s all just entertainment for the commute. Sadly, there’s no separation between the entertainment media and where you should turn when there’s real news.

Japan Post, enabler of government debt

The Asia Times has an article arguing that one factor giving Japan some financial leeway is its continued ownership of Japan Post Bank. It’s an interesting read that reviews the history and recent politics of the issue:

[T]he Japanese government has a captive funding source: it owns the world’s largest depository bank. As US vice president Dick Cheney said, “Deficits don’t matter.” They don’t matter, at least, when you own the bank that is your principal creditor. Japan has remained impervious to the speculative attacks that have crippled countries such as Greece and Iceland because it has not fallen into the trap of dependency on foreign financing.

Japan Post Bank is now the largest holder of personal savings in the world, making it the world’s largest credit engine. Most money today originates as bank loans, and deposits are the magic pool from which this credit-money is generated. Japan Post is not only the world’s largest depository bank but its largest publicly owned bank. By 2007, it was also the largest employer in Japan, and the holder of one-fifth of the national debt in the form of government bonds.

Japan Post Bank started diversifying away from low-interest government bonds into more lucrative investments. In December 2010, sources said it was considering opening its first overseas office in London, “aiming to obtain the latest financial information there to help diversify its asset management schemes.”

But that was before the crippling tsunami and the nuclear disaster it triggered. Whether they will finally force Japan Post’s privatization remains to be seen. Other vulnerable countries have sold off their assets only to wind up in debt peonage to outside creditors.

The Japanese government can afford its enormous debt because the interest it pays is extremely low. For the private economy, public debt IS money. A large public debt owed to the Japanese people means Japanese industries have the money to rebuild. But if Japan Post is sold off to private investors, interest rates are liable to rise, plunging the government into the debt trap it has so far largely escaped.

The Japanese people are intensely patriotic, however, and they are not likely to submit quietly to domination by foreigners. They generally like their government because they feel it is serving their interests. Hopefully the Japanese government will have the foresight and the fortitude to hang onto its colossal publicly owned bank and use it to leverage its people’s savings into the credit needed to rebuild its ravaged infrastructure, avoiding a crippling debt burden to foreign interests.

In a sense, having a reliable buyer of government debt is attractive, but this system is not sustainable, nor can it be “leveraged,” as far as I can tell. Japan Post Bank’s deposits have been falling steadily, both because of the aging population and the unattractive interest rates. The whole reason the bank wants an overseas office is because it is interested in chasing yields in riskier investments, a desperate attempt to provide any sort of meaningful return on deposits. Over the short term, keeping the system in place makes sense, but longer term the country needs to wean itself off excessive debt and retool for a declining population, if that’s even possible.

Update: The writer of this piece works for the Public Banking Institute, a think tank organized to promote the concept of government-owned banks in the US.

Power to the people?

After meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy today, PM Naoto Kan commented that Japan needs to debate whether Japan’s current electric utility system should exist in its current form. At present, the government grants monopolies to regional utilities, which are private corporations listed on the stock market.

Admittedly, I had not thought much about this issue until this crisis came along, but now I am trying to learn more. Countries take different approaches to who owns the power utilities. For instance, the US has investor-owned utilities that provide around 38% of generating capacity, with the rest a mix of public and cooperative-owned entities.

I don’t have an opinion one way or the other at this point, but I can see how the different ownership structures can skew incentives. If you are trying to provide returns to shareholders, you might be more inclined to promote more electricity usage, as Tepco has done by offering discounts to people who use “all-electric” homes with electricity-powered stoves and baths, etc. On the other hand, both privately owned and public utilities can cultivate the types of entrenched, bureaucratic management teams that lead to the types of massive cover-ups and bungling incompetence we have seen at Tepco.

(Disclosure: I own a small investment in Tepco. Take nothing I say as investment advice)

Japan air travel update

I am flying out of Tokyo tonight to spend the holiday weekend in Hawaii and try to decompress from all the nonsense surrounding the disaster situation here.

Narita Airport is operating fairly normally — it has its own generators which will keep it online through the surrounding blackouts — but most European airlines have dramatically altered their flying patterns, adding stops in Seoul, Beijing or Hong Kong. Lufthansa has stopped serving Tokyo entirely. The reason is that foreign flight crews do not want to spend a night in Narita when there is a nuclear meltdown raging just up the road, so they are instead overnighting elsewhere in Asia and operating day trips in and out of Tokyo from there.

From online fora, I have also discovered that American flight crews are agitating. They are not only concerned about radiation, but are also protesting that aftershocks disturb their sleep (posing safety concerns), and that the periodic blackouts and runs on toilet paper are making their layovers unnecessarily rough. The big problem here is that unlike the European airlines, Delta, American and United-Continental really need to keep operating direct flights to Narita, as they route almost all US-to-Asia passengers through Narita (Delta to its own connecting flights, other airlines to local JV partners’ connecting flights) and would be forced to accommodate connecting passengers on non-affiliated airlines at considerable expense if their own flights were diverted to other Asian airports.

Most governments are currently advising against non-essential travel to Japan, and I second this recommendation; there are too many variables that could combine to make Japan travel a living hell. If you really need to come here for whatever reason, plan to fly into Nagoya or Kansai.

Grip and grin

USTR Ron Kirk with METI Minister Banri Kaieda

I met Kaieda once at a festival not long after he was elected and before he joined the cabinet. We shook hands just like this, and it lasted just long enough to get awkward. His English was pretty good.

Story: U.S. Trade Chief Wants Japan To Join Trans-Pacific FTA, Kyodo via Nikkei English (sub req’d)