We Tokyo! Very bad here! Very bad Tokyo!

What is it about Hollywood that it can’t authentically portray Japanese people and the Japanese language to save their lives?

I use Hollywood here to collectively refer to all US film and TV media producers. From the Chinese actors in Memoirs of a Geisha to the Korean actor who plays Ando Masahashi on Heroes, Hollywood rarely bothers about accuracy when casting Japanese people and having actors speak the Japanese language. In defense of the casting in Geisha, Spielberg said that talent was more important than nationality. As for Heroes, the cause is entrepreneurial script writing, where the -Japanese- Korean and Japanese-American actors translate the English lines on set and say whatever Japanese they think sounds right. Time and time again the Japanese script is written badly, spoken poorly by actors who appear to have been casted because they were available and happen to have an Asian face. The end product is rarely checked for accuracy or authenticity. The result: a linguistic clusterfuck that’s excrutiatiny for Japanese speakers to watch.

Why the rant? This came to my mind because I was watching Diary of the Dead, the latest George Romero zombie flick, filmed with mock handheld cameras in the same manner as The Blair House Witch Project and Cloverfield. Check out this excerpt where the characters supposedly see a youtube video of a women from Tokyo who speaks about the situation in Japan.

I know how a Japanese person can speak English well. And I know how a Japanese person can speak English poorly. This is neither — it’s a native English speaker with an Asian face doing a bad job at faking a Japanese person’s bad English accent. (Her accent comes off as Hong Kong English blended with U.S. college campus mockery of Manhattan Chinatown English). And as for cultural accuracy, the woman in the video warns viewers not to bury the dead — laughable when said by a person in Tokyo, as that’s the last thing that ever happens to the dead in Japan, where cremation is the rule because there is no real estate to spare.

A remedy to this casting problem is super-obvious. You could find a Japanese person in any North American city to do a perfectly authentic job for minor roles such as this. And if Hollwood insists on using other actors, you could use the same such person to coach the actor or actress to not sound like such a fraud. It wouldn’t take much for Hollywood to avoid sounding ridiculous in Japan (an enormous market for consuming American film and TV media), and avoid being mocked by bloggers such as myself.

As for zombie attacks, Tokyo would be the absolute worst place to be stuck in the event of a Romero-style zombie attack. The city is crowed, guns are scarce, and there are few isolated areas to which the survivors could escape. It would be intense. And actually… that sounds like a great movie idea! If anyone in Hollywood wants to pursue that, I volunteer my services in screening the cast.


I decided that if I got into the MA program and had a guaranteed two more years in Japan I would go out and get a nice new cell phone on a two year contract. I previously had a fairly mediocre (but very cheap) smart phone when I was living in the US the year before last in the form of the Samsung Blackjack, and although its functionality was very limited compared with these newer models, having the Internet in my pocket was an amazingly useful thing. Weighing my options between Windows Mobile phones (still a disappointing OS overall, despite some impressive hardware), Android (not in Japan yet), Palm Pre (not out yet anywhere) and the iPhone, I ended up going with the iPhone.

This is the first Apple product I’ve never actually bought, but looking at it objectively there was simply no better choice at this time. Although having a music/video player, web browser and phone all in one unit was attractive enough in and of itself (particularly since my 60GB Creative Zen Vision:M is on its last legs, with the case literally cracking apart) there was a single feature that absolutely sold me when I saw it: the ability to switch between input languages just as easily as you do on a PC. Perhaps Android or the most recent version of Windows Mobile also allows this, but I had never before seen a phone that would easily and without hacking allow the installation of more than just English + one other foreign language, but picking up a friend’s iPhone I was able to immediately add a Chinese IME, without having to install any extra software from, to look up a character.

Here are some of my impressions so far, in no particular order.

  • I can’t get over the multi-language features. Yesterday I switched to Korean just to let a Korean girl I know type her name in hangul into the address book.
  • Being able to download new podcasts over the air is amazing.
  • The touch interface is excellent for almost everything, but typing takes a LOT of getting used to, and can never be as good as a decent physical keyboard. This is particularly true for Japanese, which does not have the ability to compensate for your typing mistakes when using the full keypad in the same way the English IME does. While one can also use a telephone style numeric keypad for Japanese entry, without the tactile feedback of a traditional phone. Anyone who uses a mobile phone in Japan knows how easy it is to enter Japanese one-handed and without even looking at either the keys or screen much, and the iPhone really just isn’t as good at Japanese text entry.
  • They have added “emoji” as one of the three keyboards (IMEs) under the Japanese language section, but in fact someone in any other country could install JUST the emoji IME without the actual Japanese language. I think Apple should start encouraging that, perhaps even set it as a default, and get credit for introducing a new feature to the non-Japan market.
  • Battery life is really insufficient. I’m absolutely going to have to get a battery pack and spare wall outlet charging cable to carry around with me. When the same device is phone, web browser, music player, ebook reader, game player, etc. you can really suck through the battery FAST. I would be extremely happy with 50% or 100% more battery life in exchange for a couple more milimeters of thickness.
  • The included headphones are absolutely terrible, but I accidentally destroyed my good old Sony headphones so it looks like a trip to the electronics store soon.
  • I found a great free Chinese dictionary app called Qingwen, and a usable Japanese one called Kotoba! which uses the Jim Breen JDIC file (Qingwen uses a similar file, for Chinese.) There is also a $9 app for sale that uses the Eijiro (ALC.com) dictionary, and some commercial dictionaries, including  大辞林 and 漢字源, as well as Japanese to English ones.
  • The New York Times app isn’t bad. It downloads new articles in text format and allows you to browse them offline, resize the font, etc. The free Sankei app that lets you view the paper as it is in print is cool for like a minute, before you realize that having to slide around a phone screen over an image file of gigantic broadsheet newspaper is a totally retarded way to read it. Nice job making it free, now how about delivering in a usable format?
  • Although integrated email app works fine with gmail over IMAP, I wish it used gmail style threading and its other unique features. The Android mail app offers those native gmail features (since it was written by Google) and their iphone web page is excellent, but unfortunately there is no way to get that interface in a way tied to the new mail notification of the iPhone OS mail application. Hopefully Google will deliver a proper Gmail client once iPhone OS 3.0 arrives, with its notification API.
  • Seriously, still no copy/paste function? How was that not in 1.0? At least it’s coming this summer.
  • The lack of an infrared data port is seriously annoying. This is how EVERYONE exchanges contact information in Japan, and it’s way more convenient than any other method.
  • On a related note, the iPhone address book is fairly weak, offering an annoyingly small number of different data fields. This is in contrast to Japanese phones, which have an insane number of fields on the order of a Facebook profile, even including crap like zodiac signs or blood type. (This is an even bigger problem for gmail itself, which has a truly and surprisingly lousy address book.)

The bullet train from Shinjuku to Odawa and Hakane

This has to be one of the most poorly fact-checked articles on Japan ever.

I am with a group of friends on a short trip to Tokyo. Keen to see some Japanese countryside, and to experience a part of everyday Japanese life, we’ve asked the concierge at the city’s Mandarin Oriental hotel, where we are staying in some style, how we might visit an onsen.

Easily, is the answer. Hakane is one of the country’s most famous onsen resorts (Japan has 2,000 such places, and 20,000 hot springs), and lies just two hours from Tokyo. Better still, it’s reached on a bullet train, meaning we will also get to enjoy another of Japan’s iconic experiences. The concierge will organise tickets and transfers.

But not our short trip to the train, sadly. If you were to have a nightmare involving public transport, forget buses, Tube delays or people barking into mobiles. Think, instead, of Shinjuku, Tokyo’s main railway station […] a vast and bewildering maze, made all the more bewildering by the fact that there isn’t a word of English anywhere, or at least none that we can find, as we scour signs and dash from one bemused, monolingual Japanese commuter to another asking for help. […]

All too soon we are disembarking at Odawa to pick up the local service to Hakone-Yumoto. We sit and ride through increasingly pretty countryside while gaggles of Japanese schoolchildren beam at the Western strangers in their midst. We revel – as we have done so often in Tokyo – in the otherness of the whole experience.

Where to begin?

1) The Mandarin Oriental is near Tokyo Station, on the other side of town from Shinjuku. If this guy was taking a “short trip” to the station, he was probably getting the Shinkansen from Tokyo Station.

2) But let’s assume, arguendo, that he really did go to Shinjuku. He wasn’t really riding a “bullet train,” then, since the real bullet trains don’t go to Shinjuku. It was probably an Odakyu Romance Car. Unlike the Shinkansen pictured in the article.

3) Where did he get those numbers? Two thousand is close to the official count of the 全国温泉旅館同盟, but here’s a site that counts fifty thousand onsen in total.

4) Anyone who can’t read the English signage in a Tokyo train station needs new glasses.

5) Anyone who can’t find a single English speaker in a Tokyo train station either isn’t trying hard enough or doesn’t speak comprehensible English. (Perhaps this chap has an unintelligible accent.)

6) Obviously, there is no such place as “Odawa” or “Hakane.”

7) The word “otherness.” What the hell does that mean?

Sean Connery vs. Japan: “Rising Sun” and “You Only Live Twice”

The man himself
The Man Himself

In a rare instance of parallel lives with MF commenters (who were doing the same thing in the replies to this post), I got into a spontaneous fit of impersonating Sean Connery’s Japanese last weekend. When my girlfriend started demanding the original article for comparison purposes, we decided to have a private screening of Rising Sun, where SC speaks a lot of Japanese, and You Only Live Twice, where he actually “becomes” Japanese.

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“War and Japan: The Non-Fiction Manga of Mizuki Shigeru”

The web journal Japan Focus just published a translation of one of Mizuki Shigeru’s short manga pieces, entitled “War and Japan“, with a brief introduction to the man and his work written by Matthew Penney. One of the most famous and important manga authors in Japan, Mizuki Shigeru remains surprisingly obscure abroad, even among ardent manga fans. English translations of his most popular work may exist, but I have never even seen any. As Penney’s profile of Mizuki Shigeru (who, incidentally, is still alive at the age of 86-over 60 years since losing his arm to an explosion on a south Pacific island in WW2) makes a point of saying, “Mizuki, who unlike most prominent revisionists actually experienced the horrors of war firsthand, sees no contradiction between a love for Japan and its traditions, and a willingness to look honestly at the nation’s war history.”

Mizuki is in fact best known for his work involving Japanese folk spirits (or faeries or hobgoblins or monsters- the Japanese term youkai is a bit hard to translate directly), which despite having a generally comic tone do also occasionally deal with the horrors of war, and also received much acclaim for his truly excellent 8 volume Showa-shi (History of the Showa Period), in which he uses pages of pure historical explanation (all in manga form, of course) to frame the primary narative of his own life throughout the entire Showa period, which began around the time of his birth and ended as he was approaching pensioner age. Although covering the entire 62 years of the Showa period, Showa-shi focuses most heavily on his childhood, when he developed his lifelong fascination with youkai and folktales, and on the WW2 period, when he was the sole survivor of a bombing attack in the South Pacific island of Rabaul, lost his arm, and after the war’s end very nearly stayed behind in the native village that had nursed him back to health.

Showa-shi may be considered the capstone of Mizuki’s career. It is not his last work, but does form a synthesis of themes from throughout his entire career. Although it is his youkai manga that he is mainly known for, he had actually spent a chunk of his early career writing WW2 comics for the rental manga market, which at that time was a market publishing original material.

As it so happens, just last week I picked up one volume of a newly published series which reprints Mizuki Shigeru’s war stories for, I believe, the first time. Japanese books can have maddeningly scant publication history, however, so in fact the copyright page says only that this volume was first published in 2008, without specifying in detail the publication history, or even clearly labelling the original year of publication! Despite this annoying flaw, the book is great stuff. Labelled “comics for thinking about war and peace”, this particular volume is his stories of the air war. Much of the art bears little resemblance to Mizuki’s trademark style, instead opting for a sketchy grim style, particularly for the chaotic air combat scenes.

I haven’t yet had a chance to do more then flip through, although i did just read the first story -“Cockroach”, in which a Zero pilot named Yamamoto is shot down, captured by the Allies, kills a guard almost accidentally and then escapes only to discover upon his return that Japan had surrendered. He is arrested as a war criminal, without really understanding why, escapes from the jail in Japan, and then is finally executed-the last to be executed as a war criminal by the Allied military. In the final panel, as his weeping mother is handed a wooden box containing his ashes, she cries “my son’s entire life was just like that of a cockroach running about and hopelessly trying to escape.” Although the story is clearly anti-war, the ambivalence towards the war crime trials and criticism of winner’s justice presents a viewpoint difficult to sum up in the simplistic left/right paradigm that is all too often employed when discussing Japanese views of World War II.

Children of Darkness

On Saturday, I went with a friend of mine to see the “Children of the Dark“(闇の子供たち) , a new film by Japanese director Sakamoto Junji primarily about child prostitution in Thailand. The story is primarily told through the perspective of the two Japanese main characters, a reporter for Bangkok bureau of the fictional Japan Times (no relation to the actual English language Japan times, but more of a pastiche of the Asahi or Mainichi. I believe the Mainichi was thanked in the credits) named Nambu, and a Japanese college student named Keiko, who is volunteering at a tiny Bangkok NGO. Secondary characters include Nambu’s mildly irritating 20-something Japanese backpacker/photographer sidekick, and a wide selection of Thai criminals, NGO workers, and abused children.

Except for a brief trip back to Japan around the middle of the film, it takes place entirely in Bangkok. The dialogue is mixed Thai and Japanese, probably with Thai dominating. Nambu speaks appropriately good Thai, as a foreign correspondent should (even if they don’t all), and Keiko speaks a bit haltingly, but according to the subtitles at least she seems to have no trouble expressing complex thoughts, or understanding what anyone says.

The central plot thread is your fairly typical “newsman uncovers a story and chases it ragged even at the risk of his own life” and makes sure to include a selection of the typical cliches, such as a back-alley gunpoint menacing in which none of the stars are harmed, despite a secondary Thai character having been shot in the head in another scene moments before or the photographer’s constant wavering between going home to safety in Japan or staying in Thailand to fight the good fight. At the beginning of the film, Nambu receives a tip that Thai children are being murdered so their organs can be transplanted into dying Japanese children. This is just one of the ways in which children become disposable in the film, but I felt like the addition of this imaginery (although certainly not impossible) scenario to the array of real horror detracted from the film’s effectiveness.

The primary goal of the film is the depiction of evils inflicted by adults on children, and there are a number of truly unpleasant scenes involving child prostitution by foreigners of both Western (American and European) and Japanese origin, as well horrendous mistreatment of the child slaves by their Thai captors. These sorts of terrible things happen all day long in many parts of the world, and it is understandable that the film makers wanted to depict it on screen, but I found the “deeper” messages to be more muddled than sophisticated.

Incidentally, the Japanese Wikipedia article on the film has a rather odd criticism I’d like to mention briefly. It mentions that Japanese blogs (2ch-kei foremost I imagine) have called it “an anti-Japanese film” since it “puts all of the blame for the selling of children in Thailand on the Japanese.” This claim is patently absurd. Of course a significant part of the film’s purpose IS to blame Japan predatory Japanese, but Western perverts are given at least as much of a spotlight in the brothel vignettes. And the Thai criminals who actually run the victimization business are hardly made out to be innocent bystanders.

For some reason I was mildly irritated by Keiko’s inexplicably competent Thai throughout the film, but it may simply have been the fact that I found the character generally pointless. When she first arrives at the NGO, one of the ladies working there asks her “Why did you come to Bangkok, isn’t there some good you can do in Japan?” While this question lingers throughout the film, and naturally Keiko does come to do some good in Bangkok, her motivations are never explored and her character acquires no depth. Why did she come to Thailand? Why is she even in this movie? She is tabula rasa- a standin for the audience, or rather for the way the film maker wants the audience to think. Her initial appearance suggested that she could have been an aspect of a message that I think the filmmakers were trying to convey-that Thailand (and presumably other countries like it, although no others are mentioned) are playgrounds for Japanese and Western neo-colonialists to act out their fantasies of either depravity or heroism without repercussion. However, despite this theme perhaps being touched on ever so briefly during her first  appearance, Keiko turns out to be nothing but an autonomic cliche of a young NGO volunteer.

I hope my ramblings do not give the impression that I hated the movie- I did not. I would, in fact, say that it was overall decent. But I did find it very disappointing. It starts well, and has a number of powerful scenes of horror and despair, but it is too long, the story is meandering and a bit cliched, and one of the leads is just dull to the point of no longer being annoying. Those with a particular interest in the problems this film addresses should see it, but wait for the DVD.

Switching to eMobile for handheld broadband in the ‘burbs

UPDATE: I ditched eMobile after about a year; this post explains why.

So I switched my mobile phone service to eMobile. This was really part of a much bigger jump over the weekend: I moved from a tiny furnished apartment in central Tokyo to a larger and very Japanese-style apartment on the edge of the metropolis. So far, I can’t say it’s been a bad change. There’s plenty of sunlight out the window, a proper bathroom (unit baths suck!) and enough room to accommodate my [laughable] writing, studying and musical efforts.

One problem I had to solve was staying connected to the outside world. All I wanted was an internet connection: I don’t need a home phone (Skype has me covered there) and I don’t need TV. My building isn’t wired for DSL, so the cheapness of broadband would be outweighed by the cost and hassle of installation.

After some head-scratching, I recalled that eMobile’s basic data plan offers unlimited use of mobile broadband at slow DSL speeds for about 5,000 yen a month. Then I realized that I could get one of their phones and plug it into my laptop’s USB port for unlimited internet access at slower-than-DSL speeds for about 7,500 yen a month, about the same as my average DoCoMo bill (basic plan plus “pake-hodai” and a couple of network services). So I went with eMobile’s basic “smart phone,” the S11HT “eMonster.” I bought it on Friday and have been using it constantly since then.

I am quite pleased so far. I wanted to get a phone with a keyboard for a while. I eyed Softbank’s offerings with interest last year, but was put off by advice from several people that the software sucked (I even heard this from a Softbank sales lady in Roppongi). A friend of mine then bought Softbank’s “Internet Machine,” which is packed with features (including television and GSM roaming) but costs more than my laptop did and, like most Japanese phones, has a unique operating system. Overall, the eMonster does a good job of balancing the sort of things that a fast-paced international digital individual (like yours truly) really needs in life.

The upsides:

  • Internet is very fast, both on the handset and on a connected PC. I’m not sure whether I’m actually getting the full 3.7 mbps on this thing, but it sure feels responsive; faster, at least, than the heavily firewalled LAN connection at work.
  • Can access any email account with a POP or IMAP server. I now get my Gmail messages straight to my phone. There is also third-party software which allows syncing with Google Calendar (which I also sync to my Outlook calendar at work) and Remember the Milk, meaning that I can have the same calendar and task list on my home computer, work computer and phone. Awesome.
  • There are multiple input methods. In addition to the slide-out keyboard, there is a Palm Pilot/Pocket PC-style touchscreen with stylus (which you can use to handwrite characters or tap an on-screen keyboard), a Blackberry-style clicking scroll wheel in the corner, and a directional pad at the base of the phone. Although this encourages a lot of fiddling to find the easiest way to accomplish any given task, it also makes it easy to find a control method that “feels right.”
  • Media integration is quite straightforward; just drag and drop folders of mp3s from the hard drive to the device, then Windows Media will pick up the files on a simple directory scan and catalog them appropriately.
  • There is a lot of third party software available for Windows Mobile, like Pocket Dictionary and Pocket Mille Bornes (I hadn’t played that game since I was eleven, and I had forgotten how good it is). No more paying monthly fees or signing up to newsletters just to play downloaded games (as DoCoMo generally requires).
  • I can run Skype on my phone to call people overseas for next to nothing, although so far I can’t get it to work through the phone’s earpiece–only through speaker or headset.

The downsides:

  • eMobile’s network is not as strong as any of the big three providers. In Tokyo, the main place you notice this is on the subway and in basements, as there is never any signal underground (although you can get a good signal above ground anywhere in the 23 wards).
  • No RFID chip for mobile payments. I was quite fond of the Suica chip in my DoCoMo phone, as I could charge it with my credit card and roam the city at will. Now I’m back to using a Pasmo card which I have to recharge with cash–bummer.
  • The GPS seems more erratic than my Docomo phone’s. Usually it’s off by several blocks.
  • Battery life isn’t great when the phone is on 3G and syncing data all day. It’s just about enough: I charged the phone overnight on Sunday and was down to my last bar of battery when I got home from work on Monday. If you plan on spending the night in an atypical location, you’ll need to bring a charger with you.
  • Contact management is really complicated in comparison to most mobiles, since Windows Mobile uses a slightly simplified version of Outlook.
  • No international roaming. Not a huge deal for me, since my DoCoMo phone could only roam in Europe and certain developed countries in Asia. The WiFi feature largely makes up for this anyway, especially since my family’s house in South Carolina has a good DSL connection and wireless router.

Joe enrolls in the MOJ Gaijin Hanzai File

Tonight I returned to Japan from a personal/business trip to the US, and got to experience the new fingerprinting system for the first time.

My flight was United 883, one of the later inbound flights from the US (it arrives around 5:30 PM). I was in the mid-section of economy so there were quite a few people getting off the plane ahead of me. I phoned Curzon as I was walking down the concourse to immigration and told him I would give a postgame report in “maybe 30 minutes.”

But when I reached immigration, there was practically no line for anyone. The area was separated into four zones: citizens, special permanent residents, re-entrants and other foreigners. Those using the new “fast track” card (which I did not bother to get before leaving Japan) were lumped in with the random foreigner category. There were two dedicated re-entrant stations open, and only one was in use when I arrived, so I went straight to the waiting officer who took my passport.

The fingerprinting machine is surprisingly simple, consisting of two fingerprinting pads (made of some sort of metal), an LCD screen and a tiny camera not unlike the built-in webcams that come with laptops these days. The machine says INSERT FINGERS and you put your two forefingers in. Then the immigration officer points the little webcam at you and snaps your photo (which, thankfully, is not displayed on the screen: I don’t need to know what I look like after nearly 24 hours of traveling).

So I was done with immigration in about 30 seconds, which I think is close to a personal record. This didn’t keep United from losing my luggage, though…

The ultimate sequels aka Asia loves you,哈利波特

To tie in with the world-wide media extravaganza that is the release of the final volume of the megaselling Harry Potter series, today I would like present scans from three lesser known sequels in my collection.

First is the China exclusive 2002 release, Harry Potter and the Filler of Big, a title made only slightly less mysterious when one realizes that the Chinese title translates rather more accurately into Harry Potter and the Big Funnel, although you’ll need someone with better Chinese than mine to describe the plot of this gloriously audacious illegally published novel-length fanfiction.

Continue reading The ultimate sequels aka Asia loves you,哈利波特