Emerging backlash against “Japocalypse” theme

Taiwanese tabloid news video makers NMA have a way of perfectly capturing the silliest and most over-the-top possible interpretations of events. Case in point, their take on Japanese herbivore-men:

The video reminded me of the emergence of a mini-trend – articles countering the familiar narrative of Japanese decline and decay. Here are a couple examples.

First, we have Foreign Policy blogger Joshua Keating, who has started a “Japocalypse Watch” to point out over-enthusiastic reports of Japan’s decline:

I’m not really sure I buy [the trend of youths wearing skinny jeans] as a response to the Japanese economy unraveling.  First of all, another recent New York Times trend piece informs me that rising economic power China also has kids with tight pants.

Then there is Atlantic correspondent James Fallows, who used to live in Japan:

The broader point is that while there may be a few relatively small countries that can be classified as “failures” across the board, big complex societies are always a mix of strong and weak points, and the prevailing Western view of Japan goes way too far in (self-congratulatingly) dismissing it as an utter “failure.”

And my personal favorite is a column from David Pilling that questions the assumptions that lead people to dismiss Japan as a failure:

If one starts from a different proposition, that the business of a state is to serve its own people, the picture looks rather different, even in the narrowest economic sense. Japan’s real performance has been masked by deflation and a stagnant population. But look at real per capita income – what people in the country actually care about – and things are far less bleak.

After living in Tokyo for a few years I have become quite sympathetic with this side of the argument. It’s clear that a lot needs to be done to ensure Japan’s continued prosperity, including securing the government’s long-term finances and social safety net. But compared to even the US, there’s a lot to admire and enjoy about life in Japan. Of course, my tune could change once the government announces what will no doubt be some significant tax and withholding increases over the next year or so.

Correcting the record

It would certainly be nice if reporters on the Japan beat didn’t approach their work with such a focus on declining vs. rising powers or other overly broad themes. Maybe articles like these will spur some reflection among correspondents, which would be a positive step.

At the same time, it’s hard to get worked up about this kind of stuff anymore. I understand that readers in New York or Washington will lose interest unless the topics stay broad and generally within their realm of familiarity. In my case, when I read about parts of the world that aren’t familiar to me, NYT articles are almost always more digestible than the local English-language news, simply because I am not familiar with the local leaders or various aspects of the culture.

Probably the best course for people with an interest in setting the record straight is to focus on communicating your side of the story and pointing out egregious errors. One\ recent example seemed like a pretty healthy exchange of ideas. The NYT’s Hiroko Tabuchi wrote an article “Japan Keeps a High Wall for Foreign Labor” that took a negative view on the Japanese government’s policy on foreign labor. In response, the Japanese embassy replied with some clarifications and rebuttals.

Merits of each argument aside, I feel like this was a perfectly appropriate and thoughtful response to an article that was basically sound. Of course, it helps when there’s a solid foundation to the article in question. There’s probably nothing you can do to counter the endless stream of Japan Weird stories.

Update on life in Tokyo

A lot has changed for me over the past year and a half. I won’t go into too much detail, but the biggest shift has been my new job. In September 2009 I started translating for an equity research team, which means I spend my days reading and translating reports on publicly listed Japanese companies and the stock market in general.

It’s a fun and deeply interesting job, but it’s had an impact on my commitment to blogging in a big way, for a few reasons. For one thing, I came into the job with a woeful lack of knowledge about stocks and finance. I’ve been spending many nights studying to try and fill in the gaps. Only recently have I felt ready to try and start broadcasting my thoughts again.

Also, all the background research about the Japanese corporate world has had an unexpected side-effect: it more or less satisfies my urge to do the same thing on MFT. I mean, why blog about how Saizeriya serves TV dinners as restaurant food, when I already spent the better part of a day writing the same thing in an analyst report? It feels redundant. Most times, I can’t even be bothered to post something on Twitter.

Recently, I have felt a little more confident in focusing on blogging again. But when I opened the WordPress site, I had a bit of writer’s block. My thinking and interests have changed since the time when I was blogging about pillow-girlfriends and the like. At this point, I don’t know what future posts will look like, but at the very least it now seems kind of pointless to snipe at foreign press coverage of Japan. Working in the investment world with a team of veteran translators has probably skewed my perspective.  I will probably spend more time talking about things like the Gyoza no Ohsho training scandal.

Life in Tokyo in 2011

It’s been almost four years since Mrs. Adamu and I moved to Tokyo, and this September will mark the 12th anniversary of my first landing in Japan at Kansai International Airport. The me of 12 years ago probably couldn’t imagine how I’d be living today. Of course my life has taken many unexpected twists and turns, but more generally, the life of a gaijin in Japan seems much more comfortable and less alienating than it used to be, at least from my perspective.

When I was a high school exchange student, my contacts with the home country were basically limited to monthly visits with other exchange students and the occasional rented movie or episode of Full House on Japanese TV. It didn’t matter much because I was concentrating on learning Japanese to fulfill my newfound dream of one day appearing on one of those shows where Japanese-speaking foreigners argue about politics.

But on the flight home something odd happened. Chip N Dale Rescue Rangers was showing on the in-flight entertainment, and for some reason I couldn’t stop laughing at all the cheesy jokes. I had been away from American humor for so long that even a little taste of it made me crack up. It happened again during my Kyoto study abroad days, when about six months in I watched Ace Ventura Pet Detective.

I don’t have those moments anymore.

I am typing this post on a laptop connected to my home WiFi connection, a few minutes after catching up with The Daily Show and Colbert Report. I can download/stream any movie or music I want using one of the world’s fastest Internet connections, while my cable TV opens up even more possibilities. The Net has all the world’s news. Skype lets me video-chat with my parents at holidays. There are two Costcos within a reasonable driving distance, and a decent amount of import stores that allow me to easily and cheaply cook American food if I so desire. I bought a queen-size bed at Ikea. Hyogo and Kyoto in 1999 and 2002 offered none of these, for both financial and technological reasons.

In so many ways, living in Tokyo in 2011 lets me keep my feet in both Japanese and American cultures. Obviously, I would not trade these comforts, but in a lot of ways it muddies the idea of assimilating into Japanese culture and fundamentally feeling like I live in a foreign country. If it mattered to me, I guess I could tilt the balance of my media/entertainment more toward the Japanese side, but it doesn’t. When I was younger I was all about learning to understand Japanese TV and movies and reading manga. But these days I know most Japanese TV is utterly stupid, and it’s rare for me to encounter a manga title that really grabs me (the last one was Ishi No Hana). Who knows, this might be another reason some of my old go-to blog topics seem less interesting now.

First impressions of Katsushika-ku

Gaudy bunnyman laundromat near my place

It’s been about two months since I moved from Ayase to Shibamata, an area of Katsushika-ku about a 20-minute drive away. My life since then has been a mix of busy and overwhelming, but as a way to ease myself back into blogging I’ll offer some first impressions of the new neighborhood.

Shibamata is well-known as the setting for the Otoko Wa Tsurai Yo film series. It’s about a guy named Tora-san who works as a traveling salesman whose cantankerous attitude and pratfalls cause mayhem and drama for his family in Tokyo who sells rice dumplings outside Taishakuten, a big temple in the area. He is considered something of a hero to Japanese men who grew up a generation or three ago.

My apartment is maybe 15 minutes on foot from Taishakuten. The main attractions are the exquisite temple and a run-up of shops selling souvenirs and dango rice dumplings. If you had no clue about the movies, the general atmosphere would seem like a scaled-back version of Asakusa except for all the trinkets featuring a guy in a cheap suit and fedora.

Away from the touristy spots, my new place is in many ways not that different from Ayase. Katsushika-ku and Adachi-ku are both considered “shitamachi” (lower-class outlying Tokyo neighborhoods), and my neighborhood does not disappoint on this front. In fact, I live amidst a surprisingly thriving shotengai business district which offers competitive and attractive alternative grocery options to the Ito Yokado by the station, provided you’re willing to visit multiple stores.

You can see the Sky Tree from my apartment. When completed it will be the world’s tallest… something

Another related similarity is the general slumminess (for Japanese standards). I feel bad saying that though because even though both places feel kind of run down, the people and atmosphere in my new neighborhood are much sunnier. The police say Katsushika-ku has less crime than Adachi-ku (PDF), but by population the smaller Katsushika is pulling its weight just fine (2/3 the population with 3/4 the number of crimes).  At the anecdotal level, I have witnessed:

  • A crippled old guy escaped from a nursing home, sitting on his butt and pushing himself along on his hands trying to get somewhere (long story short, he had his facility name on his slippers, so I called to make sure they got him).
  • Obvious yakuza held a boisterous mikoshi parade around my station.
  • Something (probably human) left an enormous crap on the sidewalk one night.
  • A local dentist I visited was like something out of the Addams Family or the Saw movies – it was just in this guy’s house, and the office was dank, dark, and cluttered with unused equipment. Half the counter space was taken up by a bonsai tree and a fountain that he must have set up in the 80s.
  • Some drunk guy puked in my building’s lobby (oh wait, that was one of my guests…)

To offer a positive spin, these elements add lots of character and should keep our lives interesting. For the most part, it’s a great place to live so far. It’s a quieter neighborhood, many of the local people are friendly, and there’s a really nice public pool and a state-of-the-art central library nearby. And the best part is I am living in a much bigger place, for about the same rent. Having room to swing your arms around is extremely comfortable!

Also, for some reason my new commute on the Keisei line is so much less crowded than most of the other routes into Tokyo. From where I ride it’s often possible to get a seat, and it’s just about never uncomfortably packed.

Anyway, I will keep my eyes open! I have been meaning to go around with my camera to capture some of the local color.

Slate weighs in on missing old people, can’t manage to stay on topic

Slate has an article on the missing centenarian scandal, and it could have been better. Go read the writer’s take. Unfortunately, the subtitle is wildly inaccurate, “macabre Japanese trend – mummify grandma and collect the pension – what America can learn from these macabre tales of mummified Japanese centenarians.”

I will concede that she is more or less right on most of the facts, taken separately. But ultimately this article leads nowhere and tells very little. It tries to combine many separate issues – the missing old people issue and the “parasite single/aging society” common explanations for the Japanese malaise – without really making the case for why they go together.

What bugs me most, though, is the detached approach. In reviewing her book The China Price, a Bloomberg writer called her style “breezy, almost florid” – spot on, if this article is a guide. I wish more writers would actually try to have some empathy for the situation here rather than looking down on Japan from a distance.

My solution to Twitter performance anxiety

There’s an interesting article in the NYT about what Twitter does to your inner dialogue. Basically, the idea is if you are Tweeting all the time you are “always on” and start thinking your life is a reality show.

Absolutely right! Just about anyone who’s used Twitter for an extended period of time could tell you that. In fact, a Google search for “I Tweet Therefore I am” shows multiple articles with that title on other sites, one on Gawker written eight months ago.  But if that gets tiring or is turning you into an asshole, there is a simple solution:

Take a freakin break every now and again!

Remember when your parents said not to watch too much TV? Same thing.

As someone without an iPhone, Blackberry, or even one of the Japanese mobile web platforms, maybe I am being naive and behind the times. But I don’t think it’s too much to ask to maybe keep the phone in your pocket, temporarily disable the Twitter client on your browser, and concentrate for once. I am told that there are even times when the Internet itself isn’t necessary.

On Twitter (unlike Facebook), there seems to be less incentive to pay close attention to who is on your followed list or who sees your updates. People come and go, and even those who follow you only tune in when they are interested. That’s the beauty of the real-time web.

The JET Program is an abject failure; therefore, Japan needs the JET Program more than ever

I realize I am somewhat late to this, but there’s been a flare-up of interest in “saving the JET Program” ever since the new government’s budget review panel apparently requested the internal affairs ministry to reform the program.

It’s been hard for me to figure out exactly what is going on, but judging from reading through the review results (PDF) and conclusions of the panel (helpfully posted by a commenter on the jetprogramme.org forum), my understanding is this:

As part of the review of the nationally subsidized “internationalization” operations of local governments, some argued for the JET Program to be eliminated. In the end, the panel concluded that the program deserves closer scrutiny in terms of how much of the costs local governments are responsible for, the status of overseas offices with questionable usefulness, and whether the 23-year-old program is meeting the needs of Japanese people today. The “conclusions” take the form of a formal request to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication. Interestingly, I didn’t know that some revenue from the Japanese national lottery goes to fund the JET Program, which was also something at least one panel member objected to.

Ultimately, I would agree with Washington-based Sankei senior writer Yoshihisa Komori who sees the JET Program as necessary to spread understanding and good will toward Japan, even while admitting the need for some reforms and re-focusing of its mission. He cites the example of his acquaintance Irwin, an African-American who as a JET learned the way of bushido through judo lessons on the side.

Why Japan really needs the JET Program

As Komori emphasized, JET alumni are some of the best friends overseas Japan could hope for. They often go to work in government and industry, and their familiarity with Japan produces both good will and a smooth working relationship in many cases. That’s a point I noted when JET turned 20 back in 2006.

But I would add a perhaps more important reason for continuing JET – a reliable supply of Japanese-speaking native English speakers. While JET has proven successful in some ways, it has failed miserably in one crucial other – by and large, Japanese people still can’t speak English! Obviously, this isn’t JET’s fault. Intentionally or not, Japan’s education system produces people with a large English vocabulary that they cannot put to practical use, creating a “Berlin Wall” separating the majority of Japanese from meaningful contact with the English-speaking world.

The JET Program has brought tens of thousands of native English speakers to Japan. Some of them get very good at Japanese. These people can then make careers for themselves as translators, interpreters, or “gaijin gophers” wherever they work, filling the gaps created by a paucity of English ability among the general workforce. I am not sure what Japan was like 20 years ago, but this need remains vital today.

There is a large population of private-sector ESL teachers as well. However, the advantages of the JET Program include a rigorous admissions process and a generous compensation package, which help guarantee a positive experience and make the program look better on resumes. Private-sector English jobs have turned out to be potentially very unstable, so keeping this “public option” might be a good idea.

Hopefully, the budget reviewers and the internal affairs ministry will understand this message. Komori-san, head back to Tokyo and make your case!

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.

Cheap haircuts in Japan are real, still not enough

Today I will point out a minor error in a pundit’s description of Japan. This is sort of nitpicky, but hey that’s what we do here.

NPR’s Planet Money recently had an interesting interview with an author whose theory is that countries like Japan and Germany that grew rich after WW2 did so by selling exports to countries like the US who were willing to overspend (thanks to cheap credit provided to compensate for failing to provide good educations and hence good jobs to the people). This way, those emerging countries were able to achieve wealth and growth without subjecting their domestic industries to intense competition.

Japan, he says, has top-rate manufactured goods but a hopelessly inefficient domestic service sector. However, the example he gives is somewhat outdated. Basically, he says that haircuts in Japan are very expensive because the existing players banded together to keep out new competition by requiring that all haircuts require a shampoo afterward; to do otherwise would be unhygienic.

That might have been the case maybe a decade ago, but in today’s Japan Y1000 haircut places are everywhere. Just yesterday I got my haircut in Tokyo with no shampoo. I am not too clear on the history, but if memory serves the operator of QB House fought for more than a decade to liberalize the byzantine barber shop regulations.

Here’s the comment I left on their blog:

The interviewee’s example of Japanese barber shops is very outdated. Just today I got a haircut for about $12 with no shampoo. Until recently he would have been right, but there has been considerable deregulation since then. That isn’t to say there aren’t other occupations with ridiculous guild-based restrictions – Japan’s many dubious “qualifications” have recently come up as a subject of debate under the new government. It’s just that the particular case of haircuts doesn’t apply anymore.
Adam in Tokyo

That said, I think he’s got the right idea, even today. Even without special regulatory protection, many Japanese institutions have become massively inefficient thanks to successful attempts to keep out competition – think JAL, all those shuttered shotengai shopping districts, TV broadcasting, the music industry, you name it.

Excited about Chrome OS

Not Japan-related per se, but…

As some already know I am extremely excited about Google’s upcoming Chrome OS. The prospect of a laptop that turns on instantly and “just works” like the iPod Touch give me a warm, tingly feeling. I’ve recently come across some articles that tie together some of my thoughts on the subject, so here goes:

Why Chrome OS Is a Game Changer

Historically, open-source operating systems and applications have had a rough time attracting consumers. For example, Microsoft completely dominated Linux in netbooks. But Android proved that the Google name resonates with consumers and manufacturers looking for something fresh to push. Companies that bet on Android — such as Motorola (MOT) and HTC — are seeing that gamble pay off. Android has basically paved the way for manufacturer adoption of Chrome OS.

The primary criticism against the Chrome concept is that it’s almost entirely Internet-focused and doesn’t have much use when not connected to the Web.

However, I don’t see how that’s a bad thing because, for most consumers, all computers are bricks when they’re not online. Google wants eyeballs on the Web — not on desktop applications — so it has a direct incentive to push Web-centric devices. In the late ’90s, Internet appliances were big jokes, but that’s all computers are these days — a way to get on the Internet.

  • Some more details on how the OS is coming together from TechCrunch, with some good signs that it will include at least one OS essential – mindless video games.
  • One potential drawback – the relatively high specs Google is demanding from PC makers (solid-state hard drives, HD screens) might make Chrome notebooks a bit pricey.

My ideal machine would be a “convertible laptop” with a screen that can swivel into a tablet. If someone can pull that off (so far all the convertible laptops I have seen are atrocious) whatever OS it runs could work.

Is anyone else as interested as I am? I wonder if Chrome OS could take off in Japan. Maybe if they come out with Chrome tablets…