Random gaijin mail magazine dude nails it on Japan’s media-fueled swine flu panic

(Updated below)

I don’t remember when, but at some point I became subscribed to this guy’s mail magazine “Glimpses of Japan.” I can’t remember and can’t find the full name of the author (maybe he’ll come forward!) but his name is Mike, from a picture I saw once he looks like he’s in his late 40s, and he works at NEC Learning which is a provider of what appears to be classroom technology. He’s been in the country for what seems like forever and has an interesting sort of grizzled veteran’s take on developments here, though this seems to be written with an ESL audience in mind.

More often than not, he’s griping about the traffic in Tokyo, but this week’s post was so spot-on I want to share it with you in full. Enjoy:

Media Malady


Once again I’m bemused by the pathetic state of the mass media here, particularly the TV news. The phrase “media circus” is often used to describe the antics of (especially) broadcast media when they get into frenzied over-reporting mode, but I don’t think that’s appropriate for the Japanese media’s latest hysterical outpouring of pseudo-news: if it were a circus it would at least be entertaining.

It’s bad enough that the Japanese government has decided to regard the “Novel Influenza A (H1N1)”, previously called the “swine flu”, as if it were much more serious than the rather mild, easily treatable influenza virus infection that it is. The media have been treating the “outbreak” as if it were the Black Death.

Breathless, serious-looking reporters stand in front of hospitals saying, in worried tones, things like, “this is the hospital where the 16-year-old high school student flu patient is staying”. I understand that TV news is a visual medium, and that they want to be able to show something, but a guy standing in front of a building just isn’t newsworthy, particularly when they are avoiding giving the names of the patients and the hospitals, for privacy reasons. It’s just not *news*, and serves only to make people more anxious about something barely worth worrying about.

With companies and local governments over-reacting by closing down schools, postponing events, and canceling business trips, an aura of panicked fear is being encouraged and expanded by the media’s relentless and largely content-free approach to reporting what little actual news there is. Huge signs on news sets show the number of people who have contracted the flu nationwide (not very many, actually, as a percentage of population, roughly comparable to the number of traffic accident *deaths* in Tokyo in a year), many of whom are already nearly recovered.

It can’t be making people feel more confident to see that, even with the science-fiction-like biohazard suited crews going aboard aircraft before passengers disembark, the flu still managed to spread, either.

There’s also more than a little xenophobia involved in the reporting, and in people’s responses to the influenza news.

I understand that there have been clueless, panicked, ignorant people asking local governments whether it’s safe to hang laundry out to dry and whether their pets are in danger. In the true spirit of TANSTAAFL, I also understand that many of the high school and junior high school kids who have been prevented from attending school in order to stop the spread of the flu…are taking advantage of the time off to gather in Karaoke rooms. That’s bound to be counter-productive.

Speaking of counter-productive, having the prime minister appear on TV in a kind of public service announcement, looking worried as he tells people not to be anxious and not to over-react or to believe spurious rumors…*that’s* a great way to cause people to worry *more*, not less.

I have a large capacity for being amused at the bizarre and the stunningly ridiculous, but the current exaggerated media handling of what should be a very minor issue
exceeds my ability to laugh.

I was, it’s true, cynically amused by a friend’s suggestion that the whole government/media pseudo-news frenzy/circus is a conspiracy to take the Japanese public’s mind off the terrible economic conditions and the administration’s inability to deal with them. I don’t seriously think that’s the case, but it would at least be more logical than what the truth seems to be.
Glimpses of Japan vol.240

On the surface, the overall media reaction to what could have been a serious outbreak seems fact-based and rational (with notable exceptions!). They followed every government move and reported on the infections. And basically the government did what it should have – maybe there was an over-emphasis on masks and they were a little slow to switch tactics when the virus turned out to be relatively harmless. But I have to agree with Mike and Takashi Uesugi who argue that the media completely freaked out over the swine flu. The breathlessness, the dead-serious tone, and the constant “breaking news” of every miniscule detail of the story all have combine to create an fearful atmosphere that’s truly numbing when you realize how comparatively non-threatening this flu virus really is.

That’s what leads people to believe they all need to wear masks to prevent infection, which did in fact cause well-publicized runs on the masks and opportunistic online auctioners. As Durf noted on Twitter, “The media set out to increase media importance to viewers, as usual; breathless reporting on panic-worthy stuff is the way to go!” This was the media trying to make themselves seem important through play-by-play reporting on whatever the scandal of the moment happens to be. A recent example of a how this behavior can get a little overblown was the flap over whether the kanji test guys made too much money from their massively popular product.

I don’t think the media all sat down and decided to incite panic. In fact, maintaining the status quo and helping to keep public order seems to be one of their missions that they take seriously. What’s more likely is every media outlet decided to take this threat very seriously and follow this potentially age-defining story closely, as they always do for the scandal/story de jour. Just in the case of a flu outbreak, the sum of their actions proved incredibly neurosis-inducing. As usual, whenever someone tells you “stay calm” or “don’t panic” that’s usually exactly what makes you start to panic!

On that last line about a government conspiracy to crowd the headlines with flu stories – I personally think there is something to it. The government (meaning the Aso administration, not the health officials) doesn’t have to have orchestrated the entire media response to fuel it to their advantage. And not everyone in the government is necessarily on the same page. Looking at health minister Masuzoe’s press conferences, for example, I get the impression that rather than cheaply exploit the scandal by burying other stories and panicking the public, he seeks to project an air of competence and cool-headedness (Aso’s “nobody panic” TV commercials, on the other hand, are a different story). And from a health standpoint the actions taken don’t seem too insane. I mean, the health checks and monitoring were necessary, and they didn’t do anything drastic like shut down Osaka just to help Aso’s opinion polls.

But it seemed like there was something in the public announcement that could have egged the media on. One especially dubious move was the government announcement that they specifically requested the mask companies to boost production – as if they needed to be told! Truly, it would be tragic and counterproductive if actual sick people couldn’t get their hands on masks because fearful healthy people bought them all.

What the government should be doing but isn’t doing enough of is actively calming people without screaming OK NOBODY PANIC. A good example was what Masuzoe did last week – he explained the facts about the flu without exaggeration or alarm and noted that the current status of the outbreak meant the government could tone down its response and stop in-flight inspections.

Interesting side note!!! On the asahi.com front page is this line advertising their swine flu special full coverage section: 予防にはまず手洗い “For prevention, first wash your hands”

Funny, what happened to listing masks first as the best line of defense just a week ago?! Well, since I posted my anti-mask rant (which itself attracted a decent readership in the Japanese blogosphere thanks to mozu which may inspire me to write some more in Japanese despite mozu’s warning of the “risk”) blogs and several major media outlets (Yomiuri print edition, Asahi (“don’t believe in masks too much”), and J-Cast so far as I can tell) have noted the CDC/WHO recommendations and the practices of other countries. Durf notes that at least one doctor on TV said to “ignore masks.” Unfortunately I don’t have time to document this in detail, but it is interesting to see how the message has evolved from GO GET A MASK NOW to some more rational consideration.

Most of the reaction came as a result of stories from places like the LA Times, so I think whatever impact I had was very small. But I think it was healthy that there was some signficant skepticism and pushback over the recommendations for EVERYONE to go out and get a supply of masks.

As the virus spreads to Tokyo, the call for MASKS MASKS MASKS will not end. The train operators are already campaigning for it in what seems more like a CYA maneuver than anything else. I mean these companies may be sued or publicly shamed if they don’t put forth a forthright and careful response. (Are you for preventing the flu or are you siding with the terrorists?) But at least we can remember to just consistently wash our hands and cough into our sleeves, we don’t need to succumb to this ill-informed misinformation.

Update: Somehow I missed this: the head of the health ministry’s flu response came out on May 21 to declare that it’s not necessary for people to wear masks “in outdoor areas where there is not much crowding.” And went on to explain, “Masks are intended to prevent infected people from spreading the virus. Please wear one if you have a cough.”

Yakuza visibility

One of the distinctive characteristics of Japan’s yakuza, as compared with similar mafia type organizations in other countries around the world, is their sometimes incomprehensible blatantness. Where the American Mafia used to officially deny its own existence, Yamaguchi-gumi, the largest Yakuza “family”, has a sign outside their headquarters and a PR officer.

The other weekend Joe and I were in Osaka and happened to pass through the lobby of the Rihga Royal Hotel in Naka no Shima coming out of the subway and noticed that there were signs out advertising meeting places for two parties with rather unusual names:  昭成会 and 朝日会. 昭成会 (Shou-sei-kai) is obviously a reference to 昭和 (Showa) and 平成 (Heisei), the former and current Emperor/historical period of Japan, and 朝日会 (Asahi) just has a nationalistic ring but could mean almost anything. A quick mobile phone Google confirmed that 昭成会 is a known Yakuza group and Yamaguchi-gumi affiliate based in Ishikawa Prefecture. Asahi-kai is far less obvious. A few minutes of poking around just now showed a medical group and an Asahi newspaper distributor, but no obvious gangs of that name.

So basically, one confirmed Yakuza conference at the Righa Royal Hoten on January 24.

Military recruiting efforts

Curzon over at Cominganarchy just posted his impressions of his visit to a new Japanese Self Defense Force recruiting center in hip Shibuya (verdict: fail). Just the other day I happened to run into another rather sad attempt at recruiting in Osaka’s Hankyu Umeda Station.

SDF Recruiters in Umeda Station, Osaka
SDF Recruiters in Umeda Station, Osaka

Instead of the ordinary but silly strategy of letting visitors play dress-up, the attraction here was something a little on the bizarre side – a block of ice from Antarctica.

A block of ice from Antactica
A block of ice from Antactica

Indeed, it was very cold. The message seemed to be something about how joining the Navy lets you travel to faraway and exotic places, but I’m not sure that a block of ice was the best way to convey that, even with the helpful diagrams explaining how striation in Antarctic ice is different from that which you grow in your own freezer.

Smiling SDF recruiter
Smiling SDF recruiter

I’m not actually quite sure who does join the SDF in Japan. Back in the US I had quite a few friends from high school who either joined the military proper or the reserves, or had simply been ROTC members before graduation, and in college I again knew plenty of people who were either paying for school through the reserves or were getting scholarships from previous military service, but I can’t say I actually know a single person in Japan who is either a current or past member of the postwar military.

In fact, practicaly the only Japanese person I’ve ever met who wanted to join the SDF here was a guy I met briefly in a youth hostel in Beijin when I visited back in 2004 with my then-girlfriend. 20 years old, buzzcut dressed entirely in camo, giant thick glasses, scrawny, and big black combat boots, he was the perfect incarnation of the stereotypical military nerd who wants to be Rambo but would be lucky to even pass the basic training and get a desk job. The military was quite literally the only thing he could discuss, and even the briefest attempts at smalltalk were immediately sidelined into military talk.

One real exchange I remember:

Me: I’m from New Jersey.

Him: East coast right?

Me: Yeah, right by New York City.

Him: New York… That’s where West Point is. And it’s only a few hours drive from the big naval bases in Virginia.

Me: Uhh, yeah… that’s right. We’re gonna go check out that famous Beijing duck restaurant now – see you later.

And speaking of military otaku, the government sponsored Taiwan Journal has a rather interesting look at the niche publiching market of military themed magazines in that country, which look to me rather similar to the same type of periodical in Japan. Of course, in a country where all adult males are drafted (until they complete the ongoing transition to an all volunteer force sometime in the future) you would expect that the average level of knowledge and interest in the subject might be a lot higher.

Welcome to the China Maul

Roy and I were walking in the Nippombashi area of Osaka when we stumbled across a suspicious-looking cigarette machine. The first thing we noticed was that it wasn’t wired for Taspo age-verification cards (as it legally should be). Then we noticed it was selling Chinese cigarettes (Chunghwas, to be exact).

Chinese cigarette vending machine

Upon further examination, we realized that the cigarette machine was not actually working, which explained why it wasn’t wired for Taspo. Or perhaps not being wired for Taspo explained why it wasn’t working.

Anyway, it turns out that we had not only stumbled across a Chinese cigarette machine–it was guarding the entrance to a seven-story Chinese superstore called the “Shanghai China Maul.”

"China Maul"

This was not the only Engrish on display: there were “flesh vegetables” on sale upstairs. Besides cigarettes and vegetables, the place also has:

  1. A massive karaoke room which was apparently running at night for public singing orgies (free for ladies, ¥1,000 for men)
  2. Right above the main lobby, there’s an immigration lawyer (gyosei shoshi) and Softbank sales agent working next to each other at very similar-looking open counters. I guess this is so you can get your Japanese visa and your mobile phone in one place…
  3. The top floor is a well-stocked Chinese bookstore with a special shelf for Hong Kong news magazines (i.e. Chinese media banned on the mainland), but curiously very little content from Taiwan other than music.
  4. One floor was covered with what I can only describe as “random crap,” among it suitcases, electric fans, wooden tables and an oddly-twisted female mannequin torso.

Inside the China Maul

And here you can see Roy wondering aloud why he didn’t bring his digital SLR from Kyoto:

Inside the China Maul

Another obituary: My Osaka alma mater

My first trip to Japan was to spend a year in the Rotary Youth Exchange program at a high school in Osaka. The school hosting me was Ogimachi Senior High, which closed its old campus earlier this year in order to prepare for a 2010 merger with Konohana Sogo Senior High. (The two schools will share a new campus near Nishi-Kujo for the next two years.)

Ogimachi was founded in 1921 as a girls’ high school in the Ogimachi district of northern Osaka, just east of Umeda. After the school was destroyed by American bombers in 1945, it wandered around nomad-like to temporary facilities in Temma and Horikawa before getting a new dedicated facility in Dojima, west of Umeda, in 1948. It became co-educational at that time by swapping students with Osaka Senior High School.

The school moved to a new campus on Nakanoshima (between the Rihga Royal Hotel and the science museum) in 1957, and was still located there when I was a student. By that time, the place was basically falling apart: we could peel the tiles from the floor. It was miserably hot in the summer, when only the computer room and language learning lab had air conditioning, and miserably cold in the winter, when we had to hurriedly warm our hands over a gas heater between classes just to keep holding our pencils for the next hour.

As the state of repair might indicate, Ogimachi was not a very high-grade school. I was in the “humanities course,” which sort of resembled what Americans would call a magnet program, but even the kids in that course were lower-middle-class at best and didn’t have particularly high academic or career aspirations. This shattered many of my preconceptions about Japanese education, since I had always assumed (in my teenaged intellectual shell) that they had high levels of ambition in order to put up with the rigmarole of crazy exams.

I try to keep in touch with classmates when I can, and had a chance to meet many of them again at a reunion a couple of years ago. (This was the trip during which I photographed Mount Fuji from the plane.) They were all basically shocked to hear that I was working in Japan, and even moreso to hear that I was working at a law firm in Tokyo. Nearly a decade since we went to school together, here’s where they are:

  • Two, who I always considered to be “goofy,” are working as salesmen at a pharmaceutical company in Osaka (I went out drinking with them when they visited Tokyo for a trade show). They were into fishing when we went to school together, but have since switched hobbies to motorcycles.
  • One is a JR conductor. At our reunion people were egging him to recite announcements for various trains (e.g. “Do the Yamatoji Rapid Service!”)
  • One, who I always considered to be the most intelligent (a Chinese kid from Shanghai who spoke perfect English in addition to Japanese and Chinese dialects), sells AU phones in Shinsaibashi.
  • One very otaku-ish girl, who was in the art club and kendo club, is now apparently in the Self-Defense Forces. (I had a crush on her back then and I think the SDF bit has made it stronger.)
  • The Judo Nazi, who I wrote about in my very first post at Mutantfrog, has disappeared and nobody seems to know what happened to him.
  • My two best friends from the school are working as a social worker and a truck driver.

Anyway, it saddens me to know that one of the key institutions which introduced me to Japan will soon be no more. It saddens me even more to know that the post-merger school will have one of the most obnoxious names ever conceived for a school: “Saku Ya Kono Hana Senior High” (咲くやこの花高等学校).

Oh well, there goes what little alumni pride I had. At least I can still say I went to Carnage Middle School (albeit for about six months).

Man arrested for indecent exposure in a familiar place

Mainichi has the report:

JR West employee busted for flashing private parts on train

NISHINOMIYA, Hyogo — An employee of West Japan Railway Co. (JR West) has been arrested for flashing his private parts on a Hankyu Corp. train, police said.

Norio Imasaka, 50, who works for JR West’s Osaka construction office, undid his pants and exposed his private parts on a Hankyu Takarazuka Line train running between Juso and Toyonaka stations on late Saturday night.

Officers arrested Imasaka at Hibarigaoka-Hanayashiki Station in Takarazuka.

Imasaka was apparently drunk at that time and said he didn’t remember what he did on the train. (Mainichi)

This looks like your typical exposure case (sorry no insights into the exotic world of Japanese perversion, this seems more like what a healthy dose of alcohol will do to an already weakened mind), but what makes it stand out to this blogger is that he was arrested right where I used to go to school.

Address: “Cardboard Box 7, Nishinari Park”

The following is true.

The Osaka High Court on Tuesday overturned a lower court ruling that a park can be registered as an address of a homeless man.

Yuji Yamauchi, 56, has lived in a pegged tent in Ogimachi Park in Osaka City’s Kita Ward since around 1998 and received his mail there.

The ward office refused to register the park as his address in March 2004, prompting him to file the lawsuit with the Osaka District Court to demand the local government rescind the decision.

This is interesting on a number of levels.

In many parts of the US, you can register to vote without a proper street address. Usually, you do this by drawing a map showing the location of your home; this is not available on some state voter registration forms, but the federal Motor Voter Act form (which works in all states) has a space on it for map-drawing. This was intended to be used by people in really rural areas that lack house numbering, but it can also be used by homeless people. Indeed, homeless advocacy groups even help the homeless register to vote, using their shelter, park or refrigerator carton as their address.

The Osaka High Court proposes a remarkably different test for what can constitute a “residence.” The Japanese Asahi‘s treatment sheds some more light on it:

In Osaka City, which as of 2003 contained the largest homeless population in Japan (about 6,600), it has been revealed that many day-laborers had registered addresses in office buildings in Nishinari Ward. Work is also ongoing to forcibly evict the tents pitched in Nagai Park in Higashi-Sumiyoshi Ward. The High Court ruling seems likely to affect the city’s homeless policy.

…Like the decision below, handed down last January, this decision indicated that a “residence,” as provided in the Residential Basic Registration Act, “designates the center of [one’s] life, with the deepest relationship to [one’s] life.”

That said, to be recognized as a residence, a place will not suffice if it is merely where daily life takes place: rather, the court decided that “it is necessary for its form to meet the standards of a residence, as provided by sound conventional wisdom.”

The court then determined that Yamauchi’s tent “is simply constructed from square timbers and plastic sheeting, and can be easily removed or moved to a different place; it is not connected to the land.”

Some background on the Japanese law at play here:

The residential registration system, or juminhyo, is one of Japan’s three big people-counting systems (the others being the koseki and alien registration systems).

All three are remarkably byzantine in a number of ways. They don’t work together very well, for one thing. A person’s koseki can be in Okinawa (or Dokdo) while they’re living in Hokkaido. More importantly (for us), resident aliens are practically invisible in the other two systems, which leads to all sorts of problems for international families living in Japan (Japanese people married to aliens appear to be single, and their children appear to be bastards). The existence of registration is also Japan’s excuse for not subscribing to child abduction treaties (a fact you should be aware of if starting a family with a Japanese spouse).

As much as I dislike these systems, they are vital in the government’s current way of doing things. They are used to track inheritance, tax liability and property rights, among other things. The systems also allow the government to conduct a proper census every year without hiring additional census takers.

I’ve dealt with one court case involving a homeless man in Tokyo, and he kept the registered address of his family outside the city (despite the fact that his family had disowned him). Is that much better? What alternative does a homeless person in Japan have? It’s a pretty big hole in the social welfare net, and I hope the Supreme Court finds a good way to patch it when this case goes up for its final appeal.

Osaka homeless in trouble

Let’s take another look at Google Maps Japan, this time focusing our gaze on Osaka’s Nishinari Park. On the map, it just looks like your average urban park in Osaka:

But look at the satellite photo (click for full size):


What could those be? Why, they’re little shanty houses!

Since the early 1990s, parts of Osaka have become something of a haven for Japan’s homeless people. Colonies of blue-tarped tents and cardboard houses, such as the one in Nishinari Park (located in the Airin area, host to one of Japan’s largest homeless populations) seen above have developed into full-blown communities, complete with electriciy, TV, and corrals of dogs. Residents make ends meet through day labor and collecting recyclables. If you’ve ever visited Osaka Castle, you will likely know what I am talking about.

The colonies have even gained some international attention in recent years (see this excellent BBC pictorial, for example). I suppose they are interesting because while shantytowns are a common sight throughout Asia and the rest of the developing world, they might not be expected from the world’s 2nd largest economy. Plus, it’s pretty neat to see that they’ve made such comfortable lives for themselves considering the circumstances.

One of those homeless colonies, a ten-person, 15-tent compound located in Nagai Park, is in trouble as authorities plan to evict squatters in to begin construction in preparation to hose the 2007 IAAF World Championships in Athletics.

It’s sad to see these generally peaceful groups of resourceful men broken up. The homeless culture is one of the unique aspects of Osaka that gives the city some flavor, and it’s too bad that city officials can’t recognize it as such. Instead, they have brought an expensive sporting event to the city that is likely to plunge it even deeper in debt.

Nevertheless, the order has been issued, and if the homeless do not leave by Jan. 21 they will be forced to remove their tents.

To get a better idea of what’s happening on the ground, MFT plans to send crack Osaka correspondent Roy to attend a festival to be held this weekend by the residents and their non-profit backers. The event will feature stage performances with the homeless residents and young people. Stay tuned for awesome photos!

B-grade News from Nikkan Gendai: Man in Women’s Clothing Whips Out Penis in Train

This type of thing (men in women’s clothing doing weird things) seems to keep happening all the time recently:

B-grade News from Nikkan Gendai: Man in Women’s Clothing Whips Out Penis in Train
56-year-old Amagasaki City Section Chief Arrested

On June 5, the Yodoyagawa Precinct of the Osaka Prefectural Police arrested Hiroshi Ikeuchi (56), Section Chief of the Amagasaki City (Hyogo Pref) Health and Welfare Section on suspicion of red-handed public indecency for exposing his lower body in a train. The man has reportedly admitted to the crime, explaining, “It was a thoughtless act. I will properly make amends for the crime I have committed.”

According to investigations, Ikeuchi boarded a Hankyu train, bound for Hibarigaoka Hanayashiki on the Takarazuka line, at Umeda station. Dressed as a woman, he sat on the bench and exposed his lower body to a female technical school student and others sitting across from him by spreading his legs and so forth.

He ran from the train after the women approached him, but a male rider stopped him at Mikuni station and brought him to the nearby precinct.

Ikeuchi lives with his wife and no children. He has testified that since approximately 13 years ago he cross-dressed by wearing wigs and miniskirts and “felt freedom by wearing women’s clothing.” He reportedly had consumed alcohol at an Osaka transvestite club and was on his way to an apartment he had rented in Toyonaka City in order to drop off his women’s clothes.

According to the city of Amagasaki, Ikeuchi was hired in 1973, and started his current job in April after previously serving as section chief of the Industry and Labor and City Planning Sections. He was, they said, a man who proactively engaged issues.

This is precisely the area where I stayed as a high school exchange student. Always amazing to see what sort of stuff is going on behind closed doors.