JAL’s Middle East Adventures

Japan Airlines (JAL) is in the hotel business, and not surprisingly, it wants to get out. As the company seeks to restructure itself into a viable business, one of its plans is to sell its hotel arm, possibly to Hotel Okura. JAL currently owns 41 hotels in Japan and 17 overseas, and those overseas hotels are overwhelmingly in large cities — Beijing, London, Mexico City, Hanoi, Hong Kong, and on and on. Others are in tropical resorts popular with Japanese tourists, such as Bali, Palao, and Guam. There is also one JAL hotel in the Middle East, in a somewhat unusual location.

One of these things is not like the other…

The only JAL Hotel in the Middle East is not in a major city such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha or Beirut. It’s in the tiny emirate of Fujairah, one of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates, situated not on the Persian Gulf but on the Gulf of Oman. (Don’t rely on the JAL map above for the accurate location — click here for a map that explains where Fujairah is in the context of the other UAE emirates).

The hotel was announced in October 2005 to much fanfare and at that time was scheduled to open in December 2006, with another hotel in Dubai to open in 2007. The JAL Fujairah actually opened in May 2007 — not a bad time lag, actually. The hotel itself is owned by a Kuwaiti company called ACICO — which stands for Aerated Concrete Industries Co., a more old-school construction company that is not a typical player in the luxury hotel business. JAL is the manager of the hotel, and its truly distinguishing characteristic is the cuisine, which is genuinely Japanese and said by some to have some of the best sushi in the entire Middle East. I have heard of more than a few people driving the 2 hours from Dubai to Fujairah just to have a sushi lunch, and then drive home.

Objectively, to international standards, the JAL Fujairah is a beautiful beachside hotel located near a number of other luxury hotels along the Fujairah coast. But locally, I have heard it referred to as a “motel”, and substandard when compared to the other modern luxury coastal resorts in Fujairah such as the Rotana and Le Meridien.

JAL had bigger plans for the Middle East, and was one of countless companies that got caught up in the Dubai property boom and the hotel boom. But they ran into problems. The Dubai hotel originally announced for 2007 was pushed ahead, and when construction was underway on the JAL Tower, built on prominent real estate along Sheikh Zayed Road, across from the iconic Emirates Towers in early 2007, it was at that time scheduled to be opened in 2008. It was also to be followed by the JAL Hotel and Spa Resort Bahrain in 2009. The later project has since been cancelled, and the former has yet to open as of this writing in early 2010.

At this point, the cause of the delay is not clear. The tower had just about been completed when I arrived in Dubai last autumn — check out these photos of the building that were taken shortly thereafter — and as of December 2009 it was scheduled to open in April 2010. But it remains closed, and it has yet to open or announce an opening date, only stating on its web page that it will open sometime in 2010. Something must be planned — last month they hired a new director of finance, and last week they hired a new manager, and their web page says they are hiring. But I would be surprised if they opened anytime during the summer months or during Ramadan in August, which means an opening in September at the earliest.

By that time, JAL Hotels may not be JAL Hotels anymore. With a possible sale of JAL Hotel’s assets to Hotel Okura, the first Japanese-managed hotel in the Middle East could be run by a relatively domestic Japanese hotel business. Dubai’s Japanese are hopeful that they can maintain the best sushi in the region.

Japan and Oman

Over at ComingAnarchy, I have a post on the unique foreign policy of Oman. In reading about Oman, I read with fascination about the unique relationship that developed between Oman and Japan in the years before World War II.

The story begins when a traveler called Shigetaka Shiga visited Oman during the late winter of 1924. He visited the Sultan’s palace without any appointment, said he was from Japan and wanted to take the opportunity to visit the Sultan, to propose closer friendship between the two countries. After palace servants checked with Sultan Taimur, he welcomed Shiga, and the two had a good conversation about promoting bilateral relations. In this conversation, Shiga later remarked that Sultan Taimur said that Oman, due to its unique history with trading with the Far East, and sitting closer to the Indus River than to Mecca, belonged more in Asia than in Arabia.

Shiga visited as Sultan Feisal was enjoying the last years of comfortable rule in Oman. Born in 1886, he ascended to the throne in 1913, and faced widespread rebellion in the countryside. He was aided by the British, who ultimately brokered a peace that ultimately limited the Sultan’s power to the city of Muscat and the coastal region of the country, and took on great financial obligations to the British personally, which ruined him. He abdicated for financial reasons in 1932 and passed the throne to his son.

After his abdication, perhaps prompted by this chance meeting with Shiga, the former Sultan traveled across Asia to Japan, where he arrived in Kobe. He traveled under a pseudonym and hid his identity to all but top Japanese government bureaucrats. In Kobe, he became acquainted with a young Japanese lady and ended up marrying her in 1936. They settled down in Kobe, and the two had a daughter, Princess Buthaima, who was born in 1937.

During this time, the new Sultan of Oman Sultan Said visited Kobe together with his younger brother, Sayyid Tareq. They visited their father and it was there agreed that, should the new young Sultan die without issue (he did not yet have a son), his younger brother should become Sultan — an understanding that became known as the “Kobe Agreement.”

Taimur lived in Kobe for four years, but he left with his daughter when his wife died, and from there he moved to India. He died 1965 in Bombay, India, but ended his days by commending Japan for providing the highest standards of civilized living.

Sultan Said played an important role in modernizing his country but was unable to end the civil unrest that swept through the interior regions for decades. He was finally ousted and replaced with his son in a palace coup, who became the current Sultan Qaboos. Qaboos served in the British Army as a young man, and he visited Japan in 1964 on his way back to Oman after finishing his service in the English Army. This makes Oman the only country in the Middle East where three generations of leaders have visited Japan.

Such it is that Oman and Japan have a certain special relationship that exists, to a limited degree, to this day. Oman was critical in brokering non-military financial support for Kuwait during the Gulf War. Japan was Oman’s biggest trading partner in the early 1990s. And today Japanese investment forms a critical part of Oman’s oil production infrastructure.

Chinese Tourists Need Housetraining

Also posted at ComingAnarchy — please weigh in with comments there.

On the summit of Jebel Hafeet, on the border of the UAE and Oman, I found this graffiti — the characters for “China” spray painted on the rock.

jebel hafeet graffiti

I saw similar graffiti in a natural valley in Sapa, Vietnam, back in 2005. As China grows richer, and its citizens find more opportunities for overseas tourism, I guess we should expect more of this kind of vulgar graffiti to pop up in the natural tourist sites of the world.

I’m happy that China’s economic development has created an upwardly mobile middle class that has the opportunity to travel overseas. I just wish they wouldn’t take out their lack-of-modern-empire-penis-envy frustrations on the natural environment of the world. And Japan, perhaps China’s biggest buggaboo, is possibly the biggest target for this graffiti as more and more Chinese tourists flood in to visit its temples, shrines and other monuments.

(It could be worse — at least the Chinese government doesn’t have management over tourist sites outside China, which would be a real disaster for human civilization).

ドバイ巻き and an Overview of Dubai’s Japanese Restaurants

Sushi outside Japan has take on a number of different mutations. From the California Roll developed in Los Angeles in 1963, a number of “special rolls” have become popular in the Japanese restaurants of the world. Some are just ordinarily special, like the Dragon Roll (California Roll plus unagi eel), to the exciting Bronco Roll (California roll with salmon and tuna on top) and the amusing Disco Shrimp Roll (California roll with spicy sauce and baked shrimp on top).

Not surprisingly, an innovative Japanese restaurant in Dubai called 弁当屋 (Bentoya) has come up with the “Dubai Roll” — tuna, salmon and cucumber (with “spicy sauce” added to give it some bite).

Sorry for the poor resolution and lighting — this photo was taken with my phone.

Why the contents of tuna, salmon and cucumber? The joke among my Japanese colleagues at the restaurant was that, since Dubai is constantly pushing to be number 1 at everything, the Dubai Roll has to have all the top sushi ingredients in one bite.

As many readers may know, once you’re hanging out with Japanese overseas, there’s an overwhelming trend to going to Japanese restaurants, and I’ve now been to them all in my 10 weeks in Dubai. Bentoya is the oldest Japanese restaurant in the city, but it’s pretty disappointing cuisine. The other notable Japanese restaurants are:

* 喜作 Kisaku: Kisaku is the most authentic Japanese restaurant outside Japan you could conceive. It was founded and is managed by Chitoshi Takahashi, a Japanese chef who started in the Middle East twenty years ago working in-house for the Iran branch of a major trading company, and who is such a fixture of Japanese cuisine in the Middle East that he was recently featured as the first person profiled in the book 中東のクールジャパニーズ. This restaurant serves everything — real sushi and sashimi, yakitori, and basically anything else you’d find in a standard izakaya fare such as shiokarashi, ika natto, and daikon sarada. Not only are all the chefs Japanese, so are most of the waitresses, and more bizarrely, at least two Filipino waitresses working in the restaurant also speak Japanese fluently (I spoke with one, and she apparently worked in Nagoya for five years before moving to Dubai).
* 菊 Kiku: Kiku is the leading competitor to Kisaku for authenticity, with possibly better sake but certainly inferior food (note: some Japanese friends disagree with me). The biggest letdown to this place is that the menu is in Japanese, the food is real, yet the Filipino waitresses don’t speak a word of Japanese. That may sound silly, but coming from Kisaku, it feels incomplete. Speaking with Japanese friends, eating Japanese food, the illusion of being back in Japan by the real Japanese food is ruined when I have to say, “A plate of hamachi sashimi, please… yes, that’s yellowtail.”
* 都 Miyako: Miyako is a lifeline for many of the Japanese who are in Dubai neither by choice nor desire. It is situated in the Hyatt Regency, which has an entire residence wing of hotel apartments that is full of Japanese people. It has a sushi bar, but is more of a standard teishokuya You can read a Japanese review here. There are a number of Japanese people who, given the option, won’t even leave the Hyatt Regency complex on weekends, part of the phenomenon I mentioned previously on MFT here.
* Nobu: The Dubai branch of the signature restaurant by world-famous L.A. Japanese chef Mitsuhisa Nobu is situated in the lowest floor of The Atlantis. Some might say that Nobu is not genuine Japanese food, it’s designed for the Western, not Japanese, pallet, and it’s absurdly overpriced, but I could never say such a thing publicly.
* Zuma: Zuma is apparently conceived by a Japanese chef but the cooking and wait staff are all non-Japanese international, from Filipino to Kenyan to Chinese to Belarussian. The food here is pretty close to being authentically Japanese but it’s missing a certain zest. Or said otherwise, Nobu is Japanese food made for Western people, where as Zuma is Japanese food conceived by a Japanese chef but made by non-Japanese. A comparison between the two can be read here.

Panasonic in Mecca

Panasonic has quietly been a top topic in Japanese news stories concerning the Middle East this month by winning a contract to put up the first corporate billboard in the holy city of Mecca. The billboard will be near the airport and will be for consumer goods aimed at pilgrims.

I note that this has been published in a few media outlets in Japan, where the press release was issued in Japanese, but I cannot find news stories that report this in English and see no evidence that the story was published in Arabic.

A thread at 2ch brings up some interesting points that should have given Panasonic pause: “Isn’t this like breaking the prohibition on tall buildings in Kyoto?” and “I’m sure this is fine because they were speaking with Muslims on the deal, but I wonder what the extremists will think.” On the one hand it’s great that Japanese companies are breaking ground and leading the way as they push into new markets, but I hope they’ve done their cultural due diligence.

The Tragedy of the Overseas Japanese

I’ve been in Dubai for almost two months now, and despite leaving Japan, everyday involves speaking, reading and writing Japanese in my personal and professional life. Since arriving I’ve probably met more than a hundred Japanese nationals here, such as company employees, government bureaucrats, waitresses and cooks at Japanese restaurants, and the wives and school-aged children that have accompanied many of them. That’s several percentage points of the whole Japanese population here — according to the local Japanese Consulate General, there are approximately 3,000 Japanese nationals living in Dubai.

The reaction to a Japanese-speaking non-Japanese person is overwhelmingly positive, and I have found it very easy to befriend Japanese nationals on that basis. I think one reason for this is the underwhelming penetration of English language proficiency in the Japanese community here, and the consequent loneliness and insular community that arises thereto.

It’s one thing when I meet Americans and Brits living in Japan who never exert even a cursory effort to learn the Japanese language. I’m disappointed by these types of people, but I understand that English is the lingua franca of the world, the lowest common denominator of language, that people can expect to use for communication in most cities of the world. I know people who have lived in Japan for years, knowing only English, and who have still been able to live a full life in Japan and enjoy all the major tourist locations such as Kyoto, Hakone, Nikko, and elsewhere.

Here in Dubai, I witness the same phenomenon — I meet Japanese people who have lived in Dubai for years and who can barely order food from a menu or instruct a cab driver. This is a city that follows the 21st century lingua franca — 90% of the metropolitan population is foreign, and the common language between Lebanese, Indians, Brits, Egyptians, Iranians, Chinese, Kenyans, South Africans, Pakistanis, Greeks, Afghanis, and every other type of person you can imagine is English.

It’s one thing if a 30 year-old Japanese housewife can’t learn basic English communication after a few year in Dubai. That’s disappointing but understandable. But I’m truly shocked when I meet kids of the ages of 7 or 10, who have lived in Dubai for a year or two, and who have the potential to truly learn English like a native, and yet who can barely muster a sentence in English.

The blame lies squarely with the community and the education. The kids live in a Japanese community, attend Japanese schools that follow an ordinary Japanese curriculum, and basically have to study English in their spare time if they want to learn. And the general lack of English ability by many here has created a highly insular community. The Japanese tend to live in or around the Hyatt Regency, which offers serviced apartments for individuals and families, a supermarket with a small Japanese corner, and a genuine Japanese restaurant. Many other people live in the nearby neighborhood, and most of the authentic Japanese restaurants are in that area. With most Japanese socially cut-off from the rest of Dubai’s expat community, the result is a gossip network akin to a small inaka community. I met a bureucrat working at JETRO who had heard of me from his neighbor before we met — which we forensically determined was derivative to at least the fourth degree, with the information genesis beginning in a meeting that happened merely days earlier.

On the one hand, from a selfish perspective, this is great for me and has created all sorts of opportuities. But it’s also tragic that the Japanese, despite being very well educated and comfortably middle class for several generations, are so culturally isolated in a city where people gather from across the world.

The Tortured Japanese Decision Making Process, Part 1: Dubai and Futenma

UPDATE: When I read the blog on my Etisalat-serviced Blackberry over the weekend, I was horrified to see that the text of this post was substantially abridged to just three paragraphs and slightly edited for flow to remove all references to Dubai (excluding the title). When I finally got to a computer today, I see that it appears unedited, even on my Dubai computer. I remain perplexed as to what would be deemed critical of the UAE in this post that could have been material subject to censorship. –Curzon, 13 December.

I haven’t yet publicly explained to MF readers, but I recently relocated my permanent residence from Tokyo to Dubai. I’ve since been publishing most of my thoughts on my new life in the region at ComingAnarchy.com, a more appropriate forum for the material, and you can read dispatches from the region in recent posts that appeared here, here, here and here. However, I am still remain closely involved in Japan, and will continue to blog here on topics that relate to Japan and Asia. I am also on a flexibly but ultimately fixed term assignment in the Middle East and plan to return to Japan afterwards.

A move between civilizations such as this clearly reveals contrasts between cultures. From the mere provision of services, to the exotic types of food, to the very manner in which human beings interract, many things are different. I could list dozens of example, but it’s primarily the quirky differences that stick in my mind. For example, did you know that the number of bathrooms in apartments and houses in the Middle East is the number of bedrooms, plus one? Apparently Arabs are loathe to share bathrooms, even with family members, so every 2LDK has three bathrooms (the additional bathroom is for guests) and one 3LDK with a maid’s room I saw during my house hunt had five bathrooms! There are also similarities between the two cultures when viewed from the Western perspective — Arabs, like the Japanese, are polite and formal when first meeting, prefer their commercial transactions to be relationship-oriented, and don’t allow their women equal social participation.

One stark contrast with regards to culture that sticks in my mind is the decision-making process. I’ve become accustomed to the concensus-based approach to making decisions in Japan, to the extent that Japan’s norms are natural to me — take time to hear all opinions, discuss pros and cons, think some more, and then eventually wander towards a decision. This works fine in Japan, but it’s completely different in most of the rest of the world, and in the Middle East, I’ve seen some important decisions made at the drop of a hat. What’s more, when I need to decide things that involve other people, I see the Japanese decision-making process reflected in myself, and I would observe that it has the power to drive people crazy. “Make a decision already! Or get back to me when you’re finished!” That’s something I’ve heard several times in both the personal and commercial context over the past few weeks.

The Japanese decision-making process works great in Japan, and is an important part of the culture, but it simply doesn’t work overseas, where decisions are, by comparison, streamlined. This is something that the Japanese must understand if they engage non-Japanese parties in discussions or negotiations, and many major trading companies with global operations and bureaucratic institutions of government have carefully internalized their decision making procedures so as not to send mixed messages. It still takes them a long time to come to a decision, but at least it helps to prevent them appearing indecisive, weak, or send out mixed messages.

I have been thinking about this for the past few days and just this morning read that Obama is avoiding a private chat on the Futenma Base relocation with Hatoyama at the Copenhagan environmental summit. (Regular readers know that I was very critical of the DPJ scattershot approach to foreign policy before they took power, and specifically addressed the absurd and painful procedure used to review the Futenma Base relocation in previous blog posts.) When queried on this, the White House press secretary answered that the two leader met two months ago and nothing has changed since. Therefore…

Therefore what? The Japanese logic concludes that, therefore, all levels of America’s foreign policy and defense apparatus should continue to join in with the decision-making process. The Western logic is just the reverse — the natural conclusion is that there is nothing further to discuss, as what needs to happen now is for Japan to come to a decision and then tell America their decision.

Or as I’ve heard a few times since coming to Dubai: “Make a decision already! Or get back to me when you’re finished!” That Hatoyama is trying to involve Obama in the nemawashi process in the Futenma Base relocation is yet another example of how the DPJ are rank amateurs. During the LDP years, administrations were at least good at holding off American officials while the internal decision making process went forward, and thus avoided public disagreements, sending mixed messages, or appear not to have a clue. The DPJ needs to realize that the consensus-based decision making process is unique to Japan and does not work internationally. Taking such a long time to come to a conclusion is painful enough for most non-Japanese to tolerate, and becoming pulled into the decision making process is bound to end badly. When will Hatoyama realize this, and what damage will be done to the US-Japan alliance in the interim?

News on the unfolding revolution in Iran

[Accidentally hit publish before I was done.]

I’ve been following events closely all week, and although I have no deep insight or analysis on the situation, I thought I would share my list of recommended sources for breaking news, in order of importance.

Tehran Bureau: An Iranian-American cultural magazine that has been providing some of the best analysis of and historical context for ongoing events. Also see their Twitter feed, updated almost minutely with quotes being forwarded from inside Iran. As I write this, they have just updated

from trusted FB source: Mousavi is reported to be speaking to protesters on Jeyhoon street. He said a few minutes ago:

I am prepared for martyrdom, Shame on you and your tricks the coup government. end quote

Here is their latest full dispatch.

Andrew Sullivan’s blog: Andrew has been following this story closely since it began in earnest a week ago, and is working all day long to make his site a constantly updated stream of links to and quotes of every single breaking development and rumor. Although Iran is not remotely his field of expertise and he has little deep commentary to add, his blog is currently the best centralized location for links related to the ongoing story.

NYT “The Lede” blog: The NYT breaking news blog has been doing much the same thing as Andrew Sullivan, but with a slightly more conservative journalistic approach to posting entirely unverifiable details, and with slightly more analysis.

Iran Tracker.org: The name says it all. I believe this site has historically been focused more on watching Iran with a suspicious eye, as a possible military threat, but they seem to be doing a good job right now providing much-needed statistical analysis.

Juan Cole’s Informed Consent: A well known Middle East scholar’s ongoing commentary.

Fivethirtyeight.com: This one, a blog devoted to statistical analysis of US politics, might be a surprising addition to the list, but in fact Nate Silver has been using his analytic tools to examine the potential validity of fraud claims re: the Iranian election and is well worth a read.

And finally, I urge everyone to read the graphic novel Persepolis, or watch the animated adaptation thereof.

From what I have seen, the legal constitutional basis of The Islamic Republic of Iran is now, as of last week , neither Islamic nor Republican. I truly hope the protesters succeed in what is increasingly looking like a true popular revolution, or perhaps the second stage of the 1979 revolution.

These popular uprisings, even if they succeed in the short term, often still end poorly. It’s worth remembering “EDSA 2”, the popular uprising in The Philippines which overthrew corrupt president Joseph Estrada, putting Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in charge. Well, President Arroyo is now widely regarded as worse than Ferdinand Marcos, responsible for unspeakable amounts of graft, and the extrajudicial killings of an unknown number of journalists and activists. In a sense, this is similar to the aftermath of the original 1979 Iranian Revolution, which began as a wide-ranging popular movement including Islamists, Socialists alike, to overthrow the Shah, but which was soon diverted in a heavily theocratic direction.

Based on the little I know of Mousavi’s pas, though, I hope he will be better. Many have said that Mousavi is “not a true reformer” or “not really that different from Ahmadinejad in policy terms” but I can’t help but believe that if he somehow manages to coast into power on this level of popular support he will find himself far more of a reformer than he imagined. Of course, if the uprising fails, they will kill him.

Haruki Murakami on walls and eggs in the holy land

Great speech to give in front of the Israeli president (via Ikeda Nobuo)!

So I have come to Jerusalem. I have a come as a novelist, that is – a spinner of lies.

Novelists aren’t the only ones who tell lies – politicians do (sorry, Mr. President) – and diplomats, too. But something distinguishes the novelists from the others. We aren’t prosecuted for our lies: we are praised. And the bigger the lie, the more praise we get.

The difference between our lies and their lies is that our lies help bring out the truth. It’s hard to grasp the truth in its entirety – so we transfer it to the fictional realm. But first, we have to clarify where the truth lies within ourselves.

Today, I will tell the truth. There are only a few days a year when I do not engage in telling lies. Today is one of them.

When I was asked to accept this award, I was warned from coming here because of the fighting in Gaza. I asked myself: Is visiting Israel the proper thing to do? Will I be supporting one side?

I gave it some thought. And I decided to come. Like most novelists, I like to do exactly the opposite of what I’m told. It’s in my nature as a novelist. Novelists can’t trust anything they haven’t seen with their own eyes or touched with their own hands. So I chose to see. I chose to speak here rather than say nothing.
So here is what I have come to say.

If there is a hard, high wall and an egg that breaks against it, no matter how right the wall or how wrong the egg, I will stand on the side of the egg.

Why? Because each of us is an egg, a unique soul enclosed in a fragile egg. Each of us is confronting a high wall. The high wall is the system which forces us to do the things we would not ordinarily see fit to do as individuals.

I have only one purpose in writing novels, that is to draw out the unique divinity of the individual. To gratify uniqueness. To keep the system from tangling us. So – I write stories of life, love. Make people laugh and cry.

We are all human beings, individuals, fragile eggs. We have no hope against the wall: it’s too high, too dark, too cold. To fight the wall, we must join our souls together for warmth, strength. We must not let the system control us – create who we are. It is we who created the system.

I am grateful to you, Israelis, for reading my books. I hope we are sharing something meaningful. You are the biggest reason why I am here.