N95 masks could help prevent you from spreading H1N1, but won’t prevent it

Again, masks are just about unnecessary for average people during this outbreak:

They think wearing a mask protects them from swine flu. The mainstream media perpetuates the myth, broadcasting images of people wearing the masks, all while talking about people “protecting themselves” from swine flu. If it wasn’t a potentially life-and-death situation, it would all be quite hilarious.

But let me ask you a question: Have you ever had surgery or visited a surgery room? Did you ever notice that the surgeons and medical staff are all wearing surgical masks that are very similar to the N95 face masks being used by people afraid of swine flu?

Did you ever wonder WHY they are wearing those masks? Here’s the question: Are they wearing those masks to protect themselves from the patient’s germs? Of course not! They’re wearing those masks to prevent their own germs from infecting the patient!

N95 masks, you see, have but one purpose: To prevent the wearer from infecting others. To use blunt medical terminology, they work by preventing snot, spit or other virus-carrying particles from becoming airborne. Thus, if the wearer sneezes, coughs, drools, spits or talks excitedly, his or her infected fluids will be trapped in the mask and will not infect others.

The writer goes on to try and sell you an audio seminar and seriously suggest people invest in gas masks, but hey, at least the first half of the article made sense.

(via @Matt_Alt)

iPhone その2 (and some ranting about eMobile)

Photo by Diego SepulvedaI am now the second MFT contributor to buy an iPhone. Roy took the plunge a few months ago.

I generally agree with all of Roy’s comments about the device itself. It has a few drawbacks, but it’s a great machine overall, and probably the best solution for someone who wants a multilingual smartphone that doesn’t suck.

There was one point which grated on me, though:

Softbank hates foreigners

If you read Debito’s blog, you already know this. Back in 2007, he reported that Softbank was requiring passports and gaijin cards from all foreigners entering new phone contracts or requesting special services, despite the fact that Japanese nationals could choose from several other forms of ID. Then, last year, he reported that foreigners with less than 16 months left on their entry permit could no longer pay on the installment plan.

I first tried ordering my phone directly from Softbank, in order to take advantage of a corporate discount which my employer has through its relationship with Softbank. The contact at Softbank corporate replied that he would send over the documents, with one caveat:

I apologize for asking, but do you have Japanese nationality and a Japanese [driver’s] license? If you have a nationality other than Japan, an alien registration card and passport (within its term of validity) are required. They must be within their term of validity and you must have a duration of residence of more than 27 months. There must be a photo, address, name and date of birth, and they must match the address, name and date of birth on your application. If your status of residence is “Temporary Visitor” or “No Status,” you cannot apply. You must also pay by credit card.

Those rules sounded silly to me, so I decided to look them up myself. Here’s what Softbank officially says:

If applying by using an alien registration card and passport as personal identification, please be aware of the following.
(1) If your duration of residence is less than 90 days, you cannot apply.
(2) If your duration of residence is 15 months or less from the date of your application, you may not enter a discounted purchase contract. (You may pay by lump sum at the store.)
(3) If your duration of residence is more than 15 months but 27 months or less from the date of your application, you may only enter a discounted purchase contract divided into twelve payments. (You may also pay by lump sum at the store.)
(4) If your duration of residence is more than 27 months from the date of your application, you may enter a discounted purchase contract.

Note that, by the language of those requirements, they only apply if you are using a gaijin card as ID. Softbank has not publicized any documents which say that a foreigner has to use their gaijin card, or that they have to pay with a credit card.

I would recommend a couple of strategic points for others who want an iPhone, don’t have enough time left on their permit and don’t want to lose a lot of money:

  1. Don’t go directly through Softbank or a Softbank store. Go through a third party, like an electronics store. They are less likely to care about Softbank rules and more likely to care about getting you out the door with a new phone.
  2. Don’t use a gaijin card as ID if you don’t have the necessary period of residence left. Use another form of ID, and be sure to point out that the 27-month rule only applies if you are using your gaijin card as ID.
  3. If you still can’t get the right deal, go to another store. If you ask to talk to a manager, they will probably waste your time calling Softbank corporate and getting a stone-wall answer.

The really odd thing about these requirement is that other acceptable forms of ID do not prove Japanese citizenship or lack thereof (e.g. health insurance card or chipped driver’s license), so if you say you are a citizen, Softbank really has no way to prove you wrong (unless they can bribe their way into government databases).

But that’s enough about Softbank. Let me complain a bit about eMobile before signing off.

Why I switched from eMobile

Readers may recall that I adopted an eMobile phone about a year ago, mainly because I was moving to a new apartment with no existing internet connection. I didn’t want to wait a month to wire the place for high-speed internet, so I decided to get an eMobile phone that would tether to my PC for free.

This turned out to be pretty good for most purposes–fast enough for web browsing and even for BitTorrent. The biggest drawback was ping time. Since the connection had to go through my phone, through the air and through a bunch of 3G routing equipment, it often had crappy latency, which made it hard to use Skype, online games and other connection-intensive software. Even YouTube gave me problems at times.

After a few months of that, I had optical fiber installed, and then the drawbacks of my eMobile phone became more and more apparent. The Windows Mobile OS was buggy and often locked up, requiring a restart in order to use the phone. Some third-party software kept activating my 3G connection even when I didn’t want it activated, which severely ran up my phone bill on a trip to Taiwan.

Then came the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. One night last week, my phone just stopped working. Internet use gave me a “modem connection error,” and calling out gave me a message saying my phone wasn’t activated.

I emailed customer service, and got a reply the next day which said that my phone had, indeed, been deactivated. This was because the contact phone number I gave at sign-up was no longer active. This, in turn, was because it was my old deactivated Docomo phone, which the eMobile store said I could use as my conact number.

Rather than help fix the problem, the online customer service agent told me I had to call eMobile. I called, got an annoying voice prompt, and eventually found my way to an agent, who took down all my personal information and then immediately told me I had to call someone else (at a local Tokyo number, no less). I called the new number, was placed on hold again, and got another agent, who told me that the one person who could help was assisting someone else and would call me back “in a few minutes.” A few hours passed without a call-back, and that was enough for me to put in my MNP application online. My new iPhone was up and running on the same number just a couple of hours later.

Tokyo assembly election: Meet the candidates (Part 7 of 10) – Naoki Takashima (LDP)

In our next installment we turn our attention to the other LDP incumbent running for re-election, third-term assemblyman Naoki Takashima (59).

From Tokyo Prefectural Assembly Election

Takashima is your typical career politician, with one kick-ass difference – he is the president of his own anko (red bean paste) factory. Born and raised in Adachi-ku, after graduating from nearby Dokkyo University Takashima became a staffer for a prefectural assemblyperson. After that, he spent two years working at the bean paste factory before running and winning a seat at the Adachi-ku assembly in 1983, where he would stay until attempting to move to the next step in his career. He  lost his first attempt at the prefectural assembly in 1993 but won on his second try in 1997 and has been there ever since. Since August 2008 he has been the secretary general for the assembly’s LDP caucus.

Policy: As a loyal LDP man, Takashima supports all of Ishihara’s controversial policies, including the bailout of Shinginko Tokyo, moving Tsukiji Market to Toyosu, and bringing the Olympics to Tokyo in 2016. He also promotes a series of building plans and, of course, juicier welfare options for Adachi residents.

Chances of winning: Takashima’s position appears to be solid, barring a complete collapse in support for the LDP. Unlike fellow LDP incumbent Masatsugu Mihara, he’s never been voted out of office (though he lost his first attempt at the prefectural assembly) and thus is less likely to get drawn into the strategy of some of the minor candidates to split the conservative vote, which I’ll get to in a later installment.

Something interesting: Like a true playa, Takashima’s campaign office doubles as a bean paste factory. And since he is a powerful local politician, he’s been able to keep the decrepit building standing in the shadow of several enormous apartment complexes. Here’s the Street View image of the building:

Takashima Red Bean Paste

He considers himself to be computer savvy, bragging in his profile that he communicates with prefectural bureaucrats via e-mail. But since he is used to the keyboards on older Japanese PCs – he mentions the If-800 model from Oki Electric – he claims to have trouble typing Japanese characters using romanized spelling. Older keyboards in Japan used a unique keyboard layout that assigned a key to each kana character (the relics of that system remain on the current keyboards).


(Wow, there’s a printer inside the keyboard…).

In 2002 his koenkai (support association) held a dance party, resulting in some precious moments of seniors having fun:



David “Lizard People” Icke in Kitasenju

Now, don’t get me wrong – Takashima has nothing to do with infamous conspiracy theorist David Icke. But thanks to the magic of Google Maps, I now know that in 2008 Icke gave a talk just a few blocks from Takashima’s bean paste factory. Let’s watch:

Personally, I want to know where I can get a sweet gig interpreting speeches for David Icke. I bet he pays pretty well. Icke’s Japanese page is here. You can read his theories of how humanity is controlled by lizard people here in the original English.

Endorsement: TripIt for planning long-distance travel online

I am flying to the US next Friday for a two-week trip around the East Coast, stopping in New York, Philadelphia, Washington and Myrtle Beach. One of my biggest helpers in planning this trip has been a website called TripIt.

I generally use Google Calendar for planning my schedule, and as long as I stay in Japan, it works just fine. My Windows Mobile phone automatically syncs to Google and displays upcoming Google Calendar events on its Today screen. But there is a serious drawback to Google Calendar: its assumption that the user will always stay in the same time zone.

Let’s take my flight from Narita to JFK, ANA flight 10. It leaves Narita at 11:00 AM JST, and arrives at JFK at 10:45 AM EST on the same day (thanks to the International Date Line). If I stick to local time on my calendar, it’s impossible to input this flight unless I create two separate events for arrival and departure. Even if I do that, my calendar will still assume that I am on Japan time no matter where I go, so it will assume that I have already arrived even when I am hours away from arriving.

Enter TripIt. It was designed as a socially-networked travel tool; you put your upcoming trips online and it tells you who else will be in your destination with you. I find this particular function to be pretty worthless, but the real beauty of TripIt is in calendaring trips that go across multiple time zones. Here’s why:

  1. The TripIt web page always shows the itinerary in local time. You can specify departure and arrival time zones for each mode of transportation you take. This is perfect for planning each step of the itinerary.
  2. Each account has an iCal feed which you can use to automatically reflect your travel plans in Google Calendar, iCal or any other modern calendar app.
  3. The feed shows up in whichever time zone your calendar reader is set to. While I am planning my trip in Tokyo, all the times show up in Google Calendar in Tokyo time, which comes in handy for figuring out when to sleep so I can minimize jet lag. Once I am on the plane to the US, I can switch my phone to Eastern Time and all the events will convert to Eastern Time.
  4. Automated input keeps this from being a pain in the butt to set up. All you have to do is forward your airline, Amtrak and hotel confirmations to a special e-mail address, and TripIt parses your travel plans into your calendar automatically.

Thanks to the authors of this web site for solving my problems–now I’m ready to enjoy sweltering weather, greasy food and panhandlers again!

Pepsi Shiso: Great Soft Drink, or GREATEST Soft Drink?

pepsi shisoI bought and enjoyed Pepsi Shiso for the first time today (it went on sale on Tuesday). I’m a big fan of the shiso leaf flavor and have enjoyed shiso juice that I’ve bought in the inaka wilderness of both Hokkaido and Kyushu. I LOVE the new soft drink, and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys the general adventures that can be enjoyed in Japanese nutty snack cuisine.

Unfortunately, it’s a kisetsu gentei drink and will only be sold through the summer. And for those of you who think that Pepsi is some amazing cross-cultural mastermind of Japanese tastebuds, this is actually the brainchild of Suntory Foods, which has wholly owned Pepsi Japan since 1998.

All this being said, you’re going to have to like the taste of shiso to enjoy the drink. But if you love shiso, you’ll love Pepsi Shiso. Want to see a comparison of the color of Pepsi regular and Pepsi Shiso? Check out this photo.

Japan’s newest SNS: keireki.jp

I recently joined keireki.jp, a Japanese social networking service (SNS) launched earlier this month. It’s a neat concept which may interest many in the English blogosphere.

(Disclosure: In a past life I helped the site’s coder-in-chief, Kristopher Tate, get set up in Japan, but I currently have no business relations with his company.)

Keireki is essentially a Japanese version of LinkedIn–a service aimed at professionals who want to expand their network. Unlike the big Japanese SNSs, GREE and Mixi, it is designed to be non-anonymous and (more or less) entirely public. Users are expected to use their real names and employers, although some choose to redact their employers’ names.

There are four components to a Keireki profile:

keireki.jp profile

  1. Keireki (“work history”): Takes up the front page of each user’s profile and lists the user’s current and past jobs and schools in chronological order, just like a Japanese-style CV. Doesn’t have any space for qualifications, hobbies, etc., although those can be included in the “hitokoto” tab (below).
  2. Iitoko (“good points”): The most unique feature of the service. These are short tags added by other users to describe the person’s strong points: “good designer,” “bilingual,” “super hacker,” and the like. Each new iitoko has to be approved by the recipient, and if users agree with an iitoko they can click a link which says “Tashika ni!” (“Certainly!”) to signal their agreement. Clicking on an iitoko produces a list of all users nominated for that particular iitoko. The concept is generally somewhere between a LinkedIn recommendation and a Flickr tag.
  3. Kikkake (“opportunities”/”springboards”): A personal feed very similar to Facebook status updates. Each one-line post can be the basis of a comment thread below it. This appears as a separate tab on each user’s profile, while the main landing page for the site shows the collective kikkake of your connections (again, very similar to Facebook).
  4. Hitokoto (“a word”): The third tab on each profile is a free writing space which the user can fill as they prefer. It supports basic rich text formatting, hyperlinks and images, which puts it several steps ahead of even Facebook and LinkedIn. In practice, users seem to treat this like they treat their “personal introduction” space on Mixi: some write a sentence, while others fill the space with gobs and gobs of personal information, interests and links.

The site is still in alpha and has some minor annoyances: for instance, while it can handle foreign names (in katakana and romaji simultaneously), the order of foreign names often comes out differently in the input field and the final profile, which requires some fiddling. The sign-up process is also unnecessarily clunky and requires a Japanese mobile phone to complete (you have to send yourself an e-mail, then click on a link in your phone to get an access code). Some features are also conspicuously missing: there is no private user-to-user messaging, no RSS, no direct interface to other websites and fairly limited search functionality, but I expect that all of these features will be strengthened in future updates.

With some further development and good marketing, this could make SNS a useful business tool in Japan. I deleted my Mixi and GREE accounts a while ago because both sites seemed to be optimized for frivolity and little else. Keireki has the potential to be a serious platform for businesspeople and creative types to get together.

Keireki is currently invite-only, although several MFT bloggers and commenters have accounts already. It’s also only available in Japanese for the moment.

Canned oxygen was just a fad

This morning, I went to 7-Eleven to pick up some groceries for breakfast, and spotted a few cans of oxygen in the clearance bin. They had already been marked down from 600 yen to 400 yen, and were on clearance for 200 yen. Apparently this was just another wacky Japanese fad, despite all the buzz around it three years ago.

I bought a 200 yen can and tried it. It didn’t do too much for me, despite being coffee-scented. Any positive effect of the stuff probably comes from the fact that you have to deliberately inhale in order to enjoy the burst of stinky O2. Perhaps all the salarymen need to do is take a deep breath once in a while.

ENOUGH with the masks already! インフル予防効果のビミョーなマスク着用は不要

(Updated below)


In Japanese for clarity:





English translation:

People of Japan:  Sanitary masks have little effect in preventing swine flu. This is clear from  WHO reports and indicates that the Japanese media’s recommendations to wear masks do not have sufficient basis in fact.

Both the WHO and American CDC have released guidelines for the use of masks, and they have both taken the position that on balance masks are not recommended. The main reason is that they could actually be dangerous if not used correctly. According to the CDC, masks are recommended for people who have flu symptoms if they are not alone or if they go in public, but for all other cases they specifically state “masks and respirators are not recommended.” As President Obama and others have stated, it is likely enough to gargle, wash your hands often, and be sure to cough into your sleeve.

To quote from the WHO website, meanwhile, “If you are not sick you do not have to wear a mask. If you are caring for a sick person, you can wear a mask when you are in close contact with the ill person and dispose of it immediately after contact, and cleanse your hands thoroughly afterwards. If you are sick and must travel or be around others, cover your mouth and nose. Using a mask correctly in all situations is essential. Incorrect use actually increases the chance of spreading infection.”

In other words, the practice of wearing the same mask all day long as seen in Japan is actually counterproductive. They may have some effect in fighting hay fever, but there are social costs such as not being able to see people’s faces around you. Setting aside the swine flu issue, I cannot help but be doubtful as to whether the benefits of Japan’s mask culture justify the costs.

Even as concern over swine flu appears to be subsiding, Japan remains on high alert.  The conspiracy theorist inside me wonders if the hysteria has to do with PM Aso’s fight for political survival, as the economic turmoil has apparently whetted his appetite for building public support through fanning crisis. My case in point was a dead-tree op-ed in the Nikkei last week by a member of the editorial board (I think) who openly wondered if the swine flu would open the door to a glorious LDP-DPJ grand coalition (this was before Ozawa stepped down).

Even without a potential pandemic, many people in Japan wear masks when they are sick or stricken with allergies during hay fever season (starting at the end of winter and lasting off and on through May or so), backed by common recommendations by doctors. In fact, a recent Nikkei article noted that while masks used to be limited to hay fever season and when some people were worried about spreading colds to others, the practice has increased in recent years as people have become more used to them and earlier flu epidemics resulted in official campaigns to encourage people to wear masks. Today, they have become so widespread that people now use masks for non-health related reasons, such as to hide their faces. Some even report prefering to use masks in public to guard from germs in general or just as a kind of coping mechanism. It has gotten to the point that masks are a big business, and various innovations have come out to meet the needs of regular users. A recent article in magazine Hansoku Kaigi (Promotional Meeting) featured the success of campaigns to promote more advanced masks that are designed not to fog glasses (glasses-wearers make up a disproportionate share of mask wearers).

While railing against mask use is probably one of the most tired gaijin complaints, my gripe is not categorical – I am willing to accept actual, justified uses for the masks. For instance, on the topic of hay fever, the US-based Mayo Clinic website (itself sponsored by drug companies) only recommends them “when doing outdoor activities such as gardening.” I will accept that for some people  the pollen season in Tokyo can feel like you are constantly working in the garden. Hay fever in Japan is all too common due to the widespread cedar forests planted in the 50s in a failed attempt to develop a homegrown lumber industry. I too have felt as if I might develop hay fever just sitting at my desk. But even still, their widespread use outdoes even this justifiable concern.

Still, my chief gripe with them is only tangentially related to their effectiveness. I simply feel like a society where a third of the people is constantly hiding their faces is kind of depressing and unfriendly. If the masks were saving hundreds of lives a year it would be one thing, but the WHO actually warns against their widespread use!

This revelation really hit home on my way back from the US on a JAL flight direct from New York earlier this week. All the flight attendants wore masks to prevent infection during the height of the alert. While I will not fault them for protecting themselves, the usually sunny customer service came up a little lacking when I couldn’t be sure whether they were even smiling or not.

Worst of all is the uncritical recommendation of masks by the Japanese media (as can be currently seen on the Asahi.com front page), flying in the face of WHO recommendations.  Considering that the pharmaceutical companies (who make the masks) are ubiquitous advertisers in the media conglomerates (this blogger caught a documentary with one drug company executive laughing his ass off at how easy it is to sell masks), it is probably difficult to push back if it’s suggested that masks are the answer.

I realize that this post may in fact trigger a backlash among Japanese readers as I am a foreigner. I have heard it said from both Japanese and foreign commentators that using a mask to prevent the spread of germs is a uniquely Japanese form of politeness and selflessness that is hard for foreigners to understand (this phenomenon is also mentioned in the Wikipedia page on masks as a “decisively different” aspect of mask culture as opposed to other countries).

But I feel like this kind of misses the point. According to that same Wikipedia article, other countries, including the US, have seen widespread use of sanitary masks at various times in the past, such as the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic. But that is no reason to support the situation in Japan today.

Supposed folk beliefs and customs in all modern societies are often manufactured or encouraged by marketers with something to peddle (diamond wedding rings, it’s unlucky to light three cigarettes with one match, etc.), and I feel like this is a case in point. In this case, the marketers are preying on perceived danger as a ploy to develop regular customers of an ultimately unnecessary product with side effects that are, as I mentioned, generally depressing and antisocial.

UPDATE: Reuters points out that masks are far from the only official recommendation to prevent swine flu.

McDonald’s offering 8,000 yen in savings in exchange for your FREE MONEY

I have already received my FREE MONEY from the government, but it is already spent on my recent trip to the US. But for those who haven’t spent the 12,000 yen handout yet, McDonald’s has an idea – give it to them! In exchange, they will give you a coupon booklet worth 20,000 yen.

According to Sankei, purchasers of the coupons will have until November 14 to eat the equivalent of 69 value meals (or value “sets” as they are called in Japan). Booklets will be available to buy at McDonald’s restaurants throughout Japan from May 15 through July but might sell out at some stores before others.

A 40% discount is significant and a better deal than some of the other campaigns out there, but consuming 69 value meals in six months could be a challenge. A single person who buys one of the booklets on May 15 and never shares it would have to eat a value meal once every 64 hours or two or three times a week to use up all the coupons. I know I’d get sick of the food after a while, and surely just about anyone will have tried everything on the menu and then some after a few visits. The coupons might make more sense for large families who could space out their visits more and still use all the coupons. While some savvy shoppers might figure out ways to profit from the deals, I am not that sophisticated (sell them for a 20% markup and pocket the difference?).

Like most gift card programs, McD’s must be counting on a) lazy customers never bothering to use up the coupons’ full value, and b) those who do use them to generate additional sales by bringing friends or picking up side dishes. It could also have a PR element designed to deflect some of the negative publicity of its labor practices or even its own recent runaway success thanks to 100 yen burgers’ popularity in the recession.

My verdict – keep your money and spend it on what you really need/want, and save by skipping McDonald’s and making delicious home-cooked meals. They are cheaper AND better for you.

Khaotan, the traditional Thai snacks that know all about you

A friend of Mrs. Adamu’s brought us these “Khaotan” puffed rice crackers – “the traditional Thai snack” according to the package. Unlike many Thai snacks, these were actually not too sweet. They had a more subtle flavor that complemented the taste of the crunchy rice without overwhelming it.

We ate all the actual crackers already (Mrs. Adamu was especially fond of them), so here’s a random picture from the Internet to show you what they look like:


Hailing from Lampang in northern Thailand, Khaotan is part of the “One Thambon One Product” (OTOP) program sponsored by JETRO, an organ of the Japanese government. JETRO provides funding and expertise to help local areas develop their products for export to places like Japan or New Zealand.

My favorite part of Khaotan was the extensive personality assessments on each face of the package. On the back is a chart of personalities based on the day of the week you were born (this day of the week system is pervasive among Burmese people as well), and a list of male/female personality types lines each side. The part about female personalities struck me as especially harsh – they have about twice as many different types as the men, but almost every type is just a different shade of dishonesty, vindictiveness, or irresponsibility. Just in case you can’t read the photos I will transcribe them for you:

Thai snack May 2009 003
The prediction according to the day of birth

Sunday: Smart at thinking and live happily until the end of life

Monday: Always cheerful and when death comes, one is supposed to be in heaven

Tuesday: Be brand and no fear of any danger

Wednesday: Clean and clear and can make dream come true

Thursday: Lots of properties and wealthy

Friday: Lots of fun till others envy

Saturday: No sad at all and has many followers

Thai snack May 2009 004
Types of male

One who is a typical male

One who is slug

One who is fed by wife

One who is a gallant

One who is inferior

One who is a sluggard

One who keeps himself from others

One who is indolent

One who is always in bad temper

One who runs away from and comes back home several times

One who cares family and relatives

One who is patient

One who has many wives

One who is praised by others

One who has hospitality and sacrifice

One who works hard for the better life of his family

One who is easy to persuade

Thai snack May 2009 002
Types of female

One who is lady

One who is dirty or lazy

One who is pregnant before marriage

One who appreciates the bandit as a hero

One who tells husband lies

One who has many lovers

One who enjoys the entertainment

One who always sleeps

One who loves complaints

One who loves to order others

One who loves to plead

One who is a liar

One who is of easy virtue

One who is too mentally calm

One who is touchy

One who is hasty

One who helps others but neglects her

One who is diligent

One who is good at words

One who participates the nonsense wander

One who blames others

One who has a big mouth

One who goes against others

One who is extravagant

One who is fierce