How to outwit a police investigation, Kyoto-style

I am currently reading Discrimination and Power (差別と権力), Akira Uozumi’s fascinating biography of Hiromu Nonaka, a former LDP heavyweight and cabinet minister known as a member of the burakumin, a minority outcast group who have suffered discrimination due to their historical role in feudal Japan as leather tanners and undertakers, vocations considered unclean. MFT readers will remember him as the man a New York Times article characterized as Japan’s version of Obama, as he too was a minority politician who rose to become a powerful politician.

I will post more on the book later, but for now I just want to share the following episode:

Just four months after Nonaka’s first successful bid* for the Diet’s lower house in 1983, the Kyoto Prefectural Police arrested the head of his koenkai (support association, kind of like a political action committee) for violating election laws. But Nonaka and associates were mostly able to beat the charges. Here is why:

You see, when Nonaka was first elected to the lower house he was already 57, a very late start for an LDP politician. But before that he had already made a very large name for himself in Kyoto prefectural politics as an anti-Communist conservative at a time when Kyoto had a Communist governor for more than two decades.

Part of the secret of Nonaka’s success was a questionable election tactic – when election season came around, construction executives friendly with Nonaka would mobilize housewives associations and other support groups to visit houses and run “get out the vote” campaigns in Nonaka’s home district of Sonobe and surrounding areas of Kyoto. Under Japanese election laws it was (and remains) illegal for politicians or their staff to visit people’s homes to ask for support, as it’s (correctly) assumed bribes will be forthcoming during such visits. However, Nonaka was able to get away with this for years as the construction executives ostensibly acted independently.

Eventually, police found evidence that during Nonaka’s first bid for the Diet, the voter mobilization efforts were in fact illegally run directly by the campaign. That’s when they moved to raid Nonaka’s offices, arrest the head of the koenkai, and question two leaders of the koenkai‘s youth bureau.

However, the charges never stuck due to a lack of evidence or confessions (subordinates were prosecuted for minor offenses but the investigation never spread) thanks to a flurry of expert moves by Nonaka’s people to undermine the investigation before, during, and after the fact. They included:

  • Keep the top guy out of the loop. The ostensible head of the koenkai was in fact a figurehead who was never fully informed of the details.
  • When all else fails, act like you’re too sick/crazy to answer questions. The two leaders of the koenkai‘s youth section (青年部) questioned on suspicion of deep involvement proved uncooperative in answering police questions. They would refuse to attend interrogation sessions by claiming to have diarrhea. If they did attend a session and the cops started to get the upper hand, they would go wild and start banging their heads against the wall to disrupt the proceedings.
  • Destroy evidence. Koenkai membership lists and other relevant documents somehow got destroyed.
  • Stay informed. Nonaka used his contacts inside the police force to get daily updates on the status of the investigation. A closely allied prefectural assemblyman actually stationed himself inside the office of the Kyoto police force’s second in command to hear reports from detectives. Uozumi’s source described the process as “just as if [the police] were teaching [Nonaka] how to respond as they investigated.”
  • Keep them on their toes. At one point, Nonaka himself showed up at the Sonobe precinct and shouted at the lead investigator to release his koenkai youth section chief if he was not yet formally charged.
  • Don’t forget to use some carrots along with your sticks. By keeping careful records of police administrators’ promotion status, Nonaka was able to bribe police bigwigs with cushy post-retirement positions at railroad companies and elsewhere (early in his career Nonaka worked for the national railway in Osaka). According to Uozumi, far from weakening Nonaka, the investigation ended up actually strengthening Nonaka’s political ties to the police.

From the beginning, the top brass in the police were hesitant to rock the boat since the politicians have a hand in deciding the police force’s budget. I can’t help but think they were a little prescient.

*from Kyoto’s 2nd district; he ran with (or more appropriately, against) Sadakazu Tanigaki and they each won a seat in the two-member district.

Renting in Japan vs America – Part 1

Inspired by the news the other day that a Kyoto district court has rules that housing rental contract renewal fees are a violation of consumer rights, I thought I would write a brief introduction to how renting works, based primarily on my own experiences.

I have rented twice in America, three times in Japan, and one time in Taiwan, with an asterisk. As this post was getting quite long, I’ve decided to split it up into three pieces. Since I want to go in chronological order, I’ll first discuss America with a brief mention of Taiwan, then part 2 will discuss how it works in Japan, and finally in the third part I will break down my actual housing contract as specific examples.

I went to college at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, in the small city of New Brunswick. After two years in various dorms I decided to move out, and went looking for a house or apartment to share with a friend or three. The Rutgers campus is surrounded by a zone of houses (with a very few apartment buildings) which are occupied almost entirely by students renting from year to year, formed as if the city were insulating itself from the campus in much the manner of an oyster generating a pearl to protect its soft, fragile body from a piece of grit. Since houses in the area are almost entirely for students, landlords can advertise directly to them quite easily through the housing office bulletin board etc, so there is no need for anyone to involve real estate agents. In most cases, the owner of the house rents directly to students, and are usually very amateurish about arranging repairs etc. The security deposit is equal to 1.5 months rent, as specified by city ordnance, and must be kept in a special bank account which may be used only to store the security deposit. When first moving in, the only thing you pay are first month rent, last month rent, and the security deposit. There is no “renewal fee” or anything similar, and in ordinary circumstances, most of the security deposit is returned.

This is pretty much the procedure throughout the US. While houses may be rented directly by the owner or through a real estate agent (who I presume earns some sort of fee), one often has contact with the landlord (i.e. the actual owner) after moving in, but owners of multiple properties may hire a company to deal with residents for them. Large apartment buildings generally have a superintendent who manages building, particularly construction, although I am somewhat vague about how small apartment buildings generally work. Security deposit is usually legally restricted to an amount of 1.5 or 2 months rent, and contract renewal fees are illegal. There is one big exception in the case of ‘key money’, which I will discuss later.

I should also add that exclusion by race or nationality is highly illegal, to the point where realtors are legally prohibited from even discussing the racial makeup of the neighborhood, should the renter be trying to, for example, avoid living near black people. This is very strictly enforced (at least in some states.) My mother had a good friend who worked as a realtor, who told me that the New Jersey state board of real estate (or whatever the official name is) actually sends undercover inspectors to do random checks of real estate agents and make sure they are following the discrimination guidelines. Realtors who break the rules lose their license.

I lived in one such house for a year (actually the first story of a two family house, as many houses are in the area), went to Japan for two years, where I lived in school dorms, and then returned for my final year at Rutgers, where I shared a second-story apartment of a different two-family house, which had been arranged while I was away by the girlfriend of a good friend (the girl being Jess Rees and the friend being Brian Cervino, both members of the band Huma whose music I recommend), and another guy that she knew. I’m afraid I forget now exactly what the rent was, but it came out to somewhere between $300 and $400 per person, plus some more for utilities. The security deposit in New Brunswick is set by law at 1.5 months, and in both cases most of it was returned, although well after the 30 day window required by law. As a student with no independent source of income, the landlords also required parents to co-sign as a guarantee. This is common in the US in such situations, but is not usual for renters who actually have a stable job. In both cases, everyone living in the apartment signed the lease, but the room and rent allocation was not explicitly spelled out, which in retrospect might have been a good idea, as there were some minor arguments in that area in the first house (although none at all in the second.)

I next went to study in Taiwan for a few months, where had arranged no housing in advance aside from a one-week reservation in a youth hostel, but almost immediately found a promising room advertised on a bulletin board at school. This experience gets an asterisk because as a subleter I never signed, or even examined, a contract and know relatively little about the local procedures and laws. My general impression, however, is that it works more or less the same as in most of the US, with no ‘key money’ or renewal fees, and only moderate security deposits. It seemed to me that rentals often go through agents (at least in apartment building-dominated Taipei) but perhaps in smaller cities/towns there are more landlords renting directly.

Stay tuned for part 2 tomorrow.

Kyoto’s 縁切り神社 (The Shrine of Cutting Bonds)

Shinto Shrines (Jinja:神社 or sometimes Jingu:神宮 in Japanese) tend to be full of wooden prayer tablets (ema:絵馬), which can generally be bought for a few hundred yen, allowing the patron to write a prayer to the kami (神god, spirit) of that particular shrine, hang it on the ema rack, and hope for the best. Although some shrines are known for having specialties, such as education (specifically, passing exams), romance, health, etc. most shrines tend to have a pretty repetitive mixture of prayers based on these commonplace themes. There are exceptions though, with the best I have run across being Kyoto’s Yasui Engiri Jinja (安井の縁切り神社, official name is Yasui Konpiragu:安井金比羅宮).

While you may find an occasional prayer for good grades or such by someone who doesn’t quite realize where they are, the majority of ema at Engiri Jinja, appropriately enough, contain prayers related to the theme of engiri, literally meaning “cutting of bonds”-which is commonly used today in reference to the ending of relationships, especially romantic ones. The first part of the word, en (縁) has a few different meanings, including “edge” or “porch-like area in old Japanese buildings”, but most importantly the Buddhist concept of pratyaya which I have not read up on but has something to do with causation, and by extension is taken in reference to such concepts as “fate”, “destiny”, “familial bond”, or “relationship”. The second part, giri or kiri (切り) simply means to cut or sever. This concept of severing “enoriginally meant something more along the lines of cutting away the threads of negative destiny to relieve one’s bad luck, but today has come to refer primarily to the more conceptually simple act of severing personal relationships.
Continue reading Kyoto’s 縁切り神社 (The Shrine of Cutting Bonds)

Two-man union on strike at Kyoto University


According to the Asahi, Kyoto University has issued a final warning demanding the dispersion of two men who have been camping out on the university main campus for a month. The pair formed their own union, called Union Extasy in English, to demand that their employment contracts be extended past their five year maximum. Thirty supporters, presumably members of the regular Kyoto University workers’ unions who have taken a position supporting improved conditions for campus part-timers, stood with them in solidarity.

The crowd scene could be a sign that the moment when the university forcibly removes the two from campus could end up becoming a publicized confrontation, similar to the one seen at the Shinagawa Keihin Hotel earlier this year, when police forced the staff of the bankrupt hotel from keeping the business open against the wishes of the owners. The event was apparently crowded with both protesters and journalists, making for an enormous spectacle, itself something of a replay of the “temporary employee village” set up in Hibiya Park over the new year holiday.

The two men, both in their late 30s, were doing data entry work for the agricultural faculty for monthly wages of around 120,000 yen, according to an earlier report. I find it just amazing that they were both able to live on that much (20,000 yen/month apartments, probably a very meager diet).

A JANJAN citizen reporter who interviewed the strikers  notes that of Kyoto University’s 5,400-strong staff, 2,600 are part-timers, 85% of them female.

The employment rules for university part-timers are on paper intended to promote full-time, indefinite employment. Universities are basically required to prioritize permanent hires and can only hire contract employees on a provisional basis. However, in typical lukewarm fashion, when the Kyoto U and other national universities  were officially branches of the education ministry, Kyoto University signed non-permanent employees to 364-day contracts, theoretically terminated employment on March 31, “re-hired” the same people the next day for another term, and repeated this process for years. Exploiting this loophole had the added benefit that none of the “new employees” needed to be given raises from the previous year.

But when the national universities were corporatized in 2004, the rules changed. The ministry decided to close this loophole and instead, for employees hired on or after fiscal 2005, limited contract employment to a maximum five years, after which universities were barred from hiring the same person as a contract worker. In other words, the schools must now choose to either take them on as a full-time employee (and provide all the job security and regular pay raises that entails) or hire someone else on a contract basis. Kyoto University apparently decided to go with the cheaper option at the time, and now five years later they have this protest on their hands along with all the creative artwork that’s come with it:  


 The decision for these older men to protest may have been in part due to their stated desire to raise the wage levels for this type of work. The assumption for years has been that this so-called “part-time” work is the province of housewives in need of extra cash, so the fact that they are men and not basically dependents of their spouses breaks with this stereotype. And of course, this also implies the question,  what difference does it make whether men or women are expected to fill the position? 

The university Director involved in the labor negotiations has argued that non-permanent employees have no “operational responsibility” — in other words, they are not expected to become Company Men and accept forced transfers or other duties that would come with permanent status. But in an era of decreased job opportunities to the point that men are competing for jobs that were traditionally seen as women’s work, these old divisions seem pretty irrelevant.

Despite the clearly brazen and confrontational tactics taken by the union, asking to change this arbitrary rule seems pretty reasonable. Saga University has apparently already done so. They apparently are not asking to be taken on as full timers, just for a raise and the chance to stay on.

As often happens when observing events in Japan, I get the feeling that viewed from the outside this issue seems simple – just allow indefinite part-time employment, and leave the decision of who to promote to full-time status up to the university managers. I can understand the university’s reluctance to take on indefinite staff – in these uncertain economic times and an era of declining population, I wouldn’t want to promise someone a job for the next 30 years either. But there is strong resistance in Japan to a system of at-will employment, and the US model that I am used to is certainly not an obvious path to prosperity.

In addition, the various parties have widely divergent agendas. I would imagine the politics of a university employees union must be quite intense indeed, and they along with the bureaucrats have a vested interest in maintaining the seishain system of stable employment and regular pay increases, at the expense of everyone else. In addition, other actors such as the Japan Communist Party have a somewhat extreme vision of maintaining employment, as seen in their platform of forcing companies to use their “internal reserves” to maintain employment.

(Photos courtesy JANJAN)

Video of the “kubikiri” fish head exhibit:

Good morning

I was awoken at around 6 or 7 this morning by a brief earthquake, and then again at about 8:30 as a series of monks, in their straw sandals and wide-brimmed woven-reed conish hats, starting wandering back and forth down the road, chanting at the top of their lungs. I wonder perhaps if there was a causal relationship, some sort of special prayer or spell given in the wake of an earthquake to calm the restless earth dragons. Even some of the Japanese neighbors seemed startled and amused by this curious occurance, and the entire family in the house just across and over from mine got out to watch in mild wonder this anachronistic scene, and one monk stopped to give a personal blessing to their little girl.

Crazy Car Crash

I was biking home when I saw the aftermath of a car accident which had left a small car standing perfectly on its side. I happened to have my brand new Canon 50D digital SLR in my bag and decided to grab a quick night shot to test out exactly how vastly improved the low-light high-ISO performance is compared with my antiquated 300D. The visual quality is not fantastic, with a fair amount of noise and much loss of fine detail due to noise reduction, but keep in mind that these photos were taken at ISO 12,800. Even at such an extreme ISO, the noise levels are approximately the same as what my old camera got at ISO 1600, and with far, far higher resolution, more accurate auto-focus, faster performance, etc.

So, I thought I would just get an amusing photo of the car on its side (note: the occupants didn’t look to be badly hurt, so it’s ok to laugh) but then it got a lot more amusing when the police pushed the car over back onto its wheels, and one got in and drove it away.

[Update: Link to Flickr page so you can find full resolution images.]

[Update 2: Here is an example of a super high ISO file with no noise reduction. Not very usable.]

Continue reading Crazy Car Crash

The original fortune cookie

This may shock you, but fortune cookies are not Chinese food, nor are they really Chinese-American food. They started out as a Japanese product, and were copied by Chinese-Americans in San Francisco decades ago to form the dessert staple of cheap Chinese restaurants across the US. (This was detailed in a New York Times article last year, and linked by Roy in a post which I somehow missed; I learned of it from watching the author of said article, Jennifer Lee, give this fascinating presentation on the evolution of Chinese food outside China.)

The predecessor of the Chinese-American fortune cookie is the tsujiura senbei, a cookie made of flour, sugar and miso which is sold at certain shrines. According to Wikipedia, it comes from the Hokuriku region. But after some Googling, I found out that these are still made and sold at the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, and since I was visiting the city anyway, I decided to track some down. Sure enough, they were being sold in a few shops near the shrine, including one shop where they were being hand-made by an old fellow with a cast iron machine (as per the NYT article, which I didn’t discover until later).

As you can see, it’s larger than a fortune cookie, and the fortune (omikuji, actually) is held by the cookie’s fold rather than inside the cookie itself. In fact, there’s another surprise inside the cookie:

Those are dried soybeans, which serve to give the cookie a pleasant rattle as you shake it around. Hence the alternative name suzu sembei or “bell cookie.” I’m sure this was intended to please a hard-of-hearing Shinto deity, or something like that, but to me it was just an interesting modification on the fortune cookie style I grew up with.

The actual fortune looks like this:

And I’m pretty sure that it’s funny when you add “in bed” to the end. Some things are simply constant across cultures…

[Updated by Roy]

Unfortunately I had forgotten to charge my camera battery that day, but I got a few shots of the cookie making process before it died. They aren’t great, but I think you can get a fair idea of it.

What Joe forgot to mention-and this is critical information-is that they are miso flavored! There was a sign in all the shop windows saying this, and advertising that no eggs are used. Trying for the vegan market?

Rainbow over Hieizan

Yesterday afternoon I happened to glance out my window during a pause in the rain and happened to spot possibly the best rainbow I have ever seen. Luckily, my camera was at hand.

I’m finally moving out of this crummy little apartment next week into a nice house which I just rented. As much as I’m looking forward to it, I will miss the view.

The Viceroy’s many connections in the Orient

Two of the three bloggers at Cominganarchy, who go by the online handles of, Curzon and Younghusband, were in the same university in Kyoto where Adam and I did our undergraduate study abroad exchange program while we were there. Curzon, like Adam and Joe, had previously participated in a one year high school study abroad exchange in a different part of Kansai (and a different program from the one Adam and Joe were on), and even before that-12 years ago now-had done a summer program in which he stayed for a month with a host family in Otsu, a small city in Shiga Prefecture located just across the mountains to the east of Kyoto.

Although Curzon spent his first few months of undergraduate study abroad living in the same international students dormitory that Adam and I later lived in (Curzon arrived before us), and which Younghusband had lived in a couple of years earlier, he soon moved out and into one of the very cheap and very old fashioned dormitories that lie somewhere on the continuum of housing between hovel and tenement, with facilities so bare that they would never even be considered a legal residence back in the United States. I say dormitory because while each resident has an individual room-which cost a measly 13,000 yen (around $130) per month-for that price you got just a room, with only a shared toilet and no bathing facilities anywhere in the building. This sort of arrangement used to be typical in Japan, where neighborhood bath houses are still common in many areas, but has understandably fallen out of fashion in a period when most people can afford better.

When I returned to Kyoto earlier this year, I spent the entire month of April living in the spare bedroom of a friend’s apartment, down in Kyoto’s far southern ward of Fushimi so that I would have a base from which to look for someplace else to live. Since I have another friend who was in fact studying with Cuzon, Adam and I back in 2002-03 who will be moving back to Kyoto in September to engage in some other study program, we had decided that, so we would be able to live cheaply and yet still have a decent amount of space, we would rent a house to share after he arrived. However, not wanting to be stuck with a double share of rent for the intervening months, I decided that it would be best to find somplace both cheap and temporary, and if at all possible also located close to campus.

The biggest difficulty here has to do with the way rental leases are often structured in Japan. Even when the actual monthly rent is low, is it typical here to pay an outrageous reikin (often translated as “key money” equal to several months rent, in addition to a month or two of rent upfront, and a deposit equal to a couple of months rent. I considered living in one of those foreigner guest houses for a couple of months, but I visited one and it seemed fairly lame, and I thought I could do cheaper. And I did. I managed to get very lucky and find a place which is very cheap, very well located, and has a contract that I can leave with no penalty. The building is, rather oddly, owned by a monk who actually lived inside the temple on Hiezan, the holy mountain on the NE corner of Kyoto, who is so seriously monk-y that he spent twenty years engaged in a special Esoteric Buddhist meditation where, although he could interact with people, he did not leave the mountain at all. Needless to say, his grasp of modern technology is rather weak.

The apartment is, while old, low-class, and rundown, is however, unlike Curzon’s aforementioned former place, actually an apartment. A small one, to be sure, (a single 6-tatami room and a 2.5 tatami kitchen area separated by sliding doors) but with a (very basic) kitchen, a (Japanese style) toilet, and a bath. What it lacks, however, is a shower. And the bath tap only produces cold water, so you have to fill it up, heat it up with the gas bath heater-that very annoyingly must be turned on from the veranda- and then wash yourself by sitting next to the tub and pouring water on yourself in a sort of poor-man’s psuedo-shower. But, at least there is an air conditioner. While far from ideal, the price was right. ¥25,000 a month, with no reikin, and only a one-month deposit that the monk landlord promises I will get back as long as there is no extraordinary damage. But considering the ragged tatami and old paint that was here when I moved in, the bar for that was set low. I believe that this is the lowest price you could possibly get in Kyoto for a room with private bath, and while on the shabby side, is still a solid two or three steps above the ¥13,000 room.

The landlord occasionaly drops off various gifts, senbei, expensive chocolates, fancy tea, etc. which I find hanging on my door handle every few weeks when I get home from somewhere. These are most likely gifts brought to the temple by parishioners, which the monks then redistribute for some reason. Two days ago I returned home to find a new treat, with an envelope containing the following note attached.

Mr. Roy Berman

It is my very pleasure and astonishment that you and Mr. Curzon my acquaintance should be good friends from the same province.As you know, he stays in Tokyo now, and orders me to serve you as possible!


Naturally perplexed, I emailed Curzon to see how this might be, and it turns out that Mr. Koutai (first name) was a friend of Curzon’s host father from his very first stay in Japan, 12 years ago in Otsu. The hostfather had taken the then-teenaged Curzon up Hiezan to meet the monk, and they met again a couple of weeks ago when Curzon visited the old host father in Otsu.