Is this thing on?
I will wait three more weeks before complaining about Japan’s entry restrictions on students
From November 30 to December 31, 2021, as emergency precautionary measure from a preventive perspective, new entry of foreign nationals is suspended.
As tersely stated above, the Kishida government has reimposed entry restrictions out of fear of the spreading Omicron variant of covid. The strong response has led to an uptick in his public approval, and in a Diet speech last week the prime minister doubled down on his cautious approach: “[W]e have taken the decision to suspend the entry of foreign nationals, applicable to the entire world. I am prepared to bear all the criticism that, although the situation is still not well understood, this is excessively cautious.”
The news has been cause of concern for many, but my Twitter feed has directed my attention to students and their advocates complaining that they’ve been made to wait too long already to begin degree programs or field work in Japan. At least one has said she is withdrawing from the prestigious Japan Foundation fellowship because of the new restrictions.
As an observer, I have to point out that Japan is taking actions not all that different from other major countries, and is right to be cautious about a potentially deadly variant. In that context, letting in foreign students is simply not the top priority now – limiting the spread of COVID is, to first save lives and secondly work to getting society and economic activity back on track for the general public.
At the same time, as the evidence starts to mount that Omicron is NOT a super-variant Captain Trips virus that requires a radical change in approach, once this period is over officials should work as quickly as practical to start reopening again.
I can’t agree with the sentiment voiced by some that Japan’s delays in letting in workers and students are hurting Japan’s national interest. If some students decide to go elsewhere I think it’s a price the country’s policymakers are willing to pay. I’m confident that there will be more applicants to Japan Foundation and other programs.
Is this #crueljapan? I don’t think so, it’s more like indifference in the face of a potentially disastrous result. People stuck with less-than-flexible bureaucracies and other problems have to make the decision that’s right for them, but I can’t help but think it’s a bad idea to call out your former benefactors publicly without a good reason.
Like the students and other would-be entrants to Japan, I too want to visit the country again soon, so I feel like I understand the challenges. When arguing Japan should work to start letting students in, former foreign minister (and as current LDP PR officer holds no real political power at this moment) Kono Taro said recently that the country was not even close to filling its 3,500 people a day quota before 11/30, so as long as it’s safe the government should be able to safely process students.
So I am willing to give the policymakers three more weeks, and encourage everyone else to do the same. If there’s no action after that, I’ll use a slightly less inflammatory hashtag but I’ll also complain that the restrictions are too much.
The week in things – my take on Suga, Rahm, and fast trains
To help get me back in the swing of writing and following stories I care about, I am going to try a semi-regular post rounding up some of the thoughts I’ve had over the week, and try when I can to offer some niche topic I’m following that other might not be as aware of. Read on for the pilot issue!
This week’s stories:
- Suga’s job appears safe despite because, well, would YOU want to be prime minister right now?
- Take of the week – Is Rahm Emmanuel the wrong pick as Ambassador to Japan? No, he’s perfect (for me, who looks forward to laughing at him)
- Parting shot – A tragically beautiful documentary on how Japan’s first bullet train was built
Nobody wants Suga’s job – who would?
Japan is approaching 12,000 Covid deaths, and although any death is too much, it’s nonetheless a number that so many major countries would kill to have. By the time this thing is over, the US might have more than 600,000. Yikes!
Yet the public at large has scorned the Suga government’s handling of the pandemic (especially for the slow vaccine rollout) as well as his apparent insistence on holding the Olympics this summer come hell or high water.
It just goes to show that the way a leader is judged is completely relative to expectations. I’m reminded of this tweet from late in the 2020 election:
Despite all this, from my standpoint Suga’s job appears to be safe for now, and he may even end up surviving the fall with the public giving him a second chance. Why would I say that?
First off, even with this slow start, vaccines are eventually going to pick up and will really do so come fall. The government has already set a target of fully vaccinating the 65-plus population by the end of July, which seems doable despite the logistical issues (e.g., requiring physicians to administer the shots, something few other major countries are doing. This is just one example where a major country has not had the political will to upend the status quo even in the face of a devastating pandemic…). As we’ve seen in the U.S.
This Nikkei chart shows how vaccines supply went from minuscule amounts through mid-April to more than 15 million every two weeks through May, and supplies are picking up.
And the number of people getting vaccinated has shot up too, now covering more than 4% who have received at least one dose:
Eventually, vaccination progress will lead to reduced cases and give the vaccinated confidence to go back to living their normal lives. And it should translate into a positive for Suga’s approval rating (absent other factors, of course).
Second, the decision on the Olympics is inherently no-win – hold them and risk triggering the highest-profile superspreader event of all time, and even if that doesn’t happen the Japanese public will resent the government for allowing the athletes and staff to receive vaccines before the general public.Cancel them, and you incur the wrath of all the industries and interest groups who stand to lose money on the investments they made premised on having the Olympics (some are looking at truly devastating losses), and to boot it will damage Japan’s image on the world stage (if you care about that sort of thing). Suga negotiated pro-Tokyo Olympics statements in both the recent G7 leaders’ and US-Japan summit, but in both cases they’re carefully worded so that the responsibility for holding a safe and secure Games decision remains completely in Japan’s court, so to speak.
All signs point to Japan powering through and holding the Games. But whichever the case, by the time Suga is up for reelection as LDP president in September the Olympics will be in the rear-view mirror, whether they take place or not.
Finally, and most importantly, no one wants the Prime Minister’s job, at least not now. Suga has been dealt a very crappy hand, and he certainly deserves some blame. But precisely because the situation looks so bad, there hasn’t been anyone within the LDP expressing a lack of confidence or (afaik) actively exploring ways to challenge Suga in the fall. Of course that could change if the overall environment improves, but every day people sit on the sidelines is a good day for Suga. Right now none of the people who might gun for it (Shinjiro Koizumi, Taro Kono, Shigeru Ishiba, Fumio Kishida, etc.) are in a position to do so, and the opposition parties still have not managed to capitalize on what seems to be a real weakness in the ruling coalition.
So I would count as slim to none their chances of winning the lower house election that must be called by October (famous last words!).
Quick closing note: The major opposition party has never managed to consistent crack 10 percent public support since Abe came into office in 2012; in NHK’s most recent poll 33.7% supports the LDP and just 5.8% supported the Constitutional Democrats; the largest bloc of voters by far is “do not support any party” at 43% which adds an element of uncertainty to the upcoming Lower House election).
Take of the week – Is Rahm Emmanuel a mistake as Ambassador to Japan?
I’ve been bemused at the idea of appointing Rahm Emmanuel as Ambassador to Japan, as has been widely reported Biden will do.
First off, what an insult to the groups who fought him during his stint as mayor where he covered up after a police shooting. I’m no veteran, but I certainly have never heard of a 20-group coalition forming to vigorously oppose an ambassador appointment. The group’s statement is worth reading in full to see how thoroughly they’re dunking on him. It almost looks like they’re having fun taking turns having a go:
National NAACP President Derrick Johnson said: “As the former mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel has shown us that he is not a principled leader or person. His time in public service proved to be burdened with preventable scandal and abandonment of Chicago’s most vulnerable community.”
Let’s hope Rahm will bring that kind of energy to his time in Japan!
Clearly, I don’t think Rahm should be the ambassador – hell he shouldn’t even be allowed to manage a McDonald’s.
But part of me wants him to get in there… I mean, how funny will it be when the Ambassador tells Taro Aso to shut the fuck up before he even knows who he is, only for the incident to leak via an anonymous Japanese government source?
Rahm is famous for throwing principle out the window to get a deal done (see his willingness to cut social security to secure a “grand bargain” under Obama). Would he go off the reservation and persuade Japan to move Futenma Air Base to the Senkaku Islands? The only way to find out is to send Rahm to Tokyo.
Well, that’s all for now. Until next week?
Parting shot: This documentary makes me weep for all bullet trains the US never built:
Things I’m into now
As I ease into this blogging thing again, I figured I’d give a little update into some of the stuff I’ve been into lately – and if I’m feeling frisky, I might even do a follow-up post with my dislikes!
- Fortnite: This game is unbelievably popular among American kids. I wasn’t into it until I watched people play on stream for a while and got a feel for how it works. And it’s actually a lot of fun! It’s hard to win, but there’s something very satisfying about gathering materials and giving it a shot. If I’m being honest, I really don’t have any business playing the game because I am horrible and will die to any 11 year old boy who has even a little skill. But there are times when the matchmaking system pushes me down to a low enough rank that I can actually outbuild people and even sometimes win a game. And that’s suuuuper satisfying. Reach out if you’d like to join the Mutant Frog squad (Look for “Radamukun”).
- Pokemon Go: A top-10 thing I miss about Japan is the Pokemon Go scene. In central Tokyo there are so many players it made the game much easier to play, especially the higher-level raids. Even so, my interest in the game has held up even here in the States. I live within walking distance of gyms and stops, and the game keeps adding enough new content that I never get tired of it.
- Cooking: I taught myself to cook in Japan because I was sick of not being able to eat American staples like lasagna, cookies, and roast chicken. Now that I have an oven those things are easier to come by, and I’ve been able to broaden my horizons a bit too. Now I make roasts and baked ham in the oven, burgers and hot dogs on the grill, spaghetti sauce and Cuban rice and beans on the stovetop, and Indian-style curry in the slow cooker. Mrs. Shoko has continued making Japanese food, so with a few glaring exceptions (we almost never have sushi now) we are enjoying a wider variety of foods here in the States.
- Hip-hop, especially Soundcloud rap: Despite their reputation for being drugged-out and lazy, there is a lot of talent among today’s big rappers – it’s too bad they all seem to die at 21… I love Lil Peep, Juicewrld, Yung Lean, Yung Pinch, NBA Youngboy, and so many more. I started getting more into newer rap in Japan after discovering Riff Raff, and since moving here my obsession has only grown. It might be one of those things that I’m way too old for, but I don’t care.
You’ll see that “blogging about Japan stuff” isn’t on the list, partly because the fire inside me to do that has largely gone out. As I mentioned in the last post, I do a lot of that sort of thinking for work, which kind of ruins it when I want to do something that takes me my mind *off* of work.
These are all things I do with what little free time I have – most of my waking hours are spent working, taking care of kids, or dealing with house-related issues. But everyone needs a hobby or two! These have helped me get through the various difficulties of real life, particularly during quarantine. What has everyone else been up to? Sound off in the comments!
Good to be back
I can’t tell you how happy I am to see Mutant Frog Travelogue back online.
I have fond memories of when MFT was at its most active — it was so fun to pull together an argument or report on some development in Japan and see people sounding off in the comments section. It was even fascinating to get negative reactions like having our blog posted in an Asian identity forum as an example of toxic white men who like Asia too much.
I don’t know if I mentioned it here but blogging here even helped me professionally – it was a place for me to hone translation and skills, and at one job, a key person in the hiring process found my blog on Google and apparently liked what he saw. So as ephemeral and meaningless as Internet discourse can seem, this blog has been an incredibly fruitful place for me to invest my creative energy.
Sadly, creative energy is something I am in short supply of these days. In fact, ever since taking that job over ten years ago I’ve found that a lot of the work I do uses the same part of my brain that blogging does. So when work is done the last thing I want to do is try and pull together a coherent essay. And with kids, getting distracted by social media, and all the other crap going on in my life there hasn’t really been room for blogging.
But with the pandemic going on, and Roy finally getting around to getting the site back up, now might be a good time to give it a go again. We’ll see! I hope all our regular readers have been well and will return once we start posting again.
Good things about 2016, Part 2 – Best J-drama, Hibana
My list of the best stuff of 2016 continues with my favorite Japanese drama – actually it’s the only one I watched this year:
At some point in my time here I had given up on Japanese dramas – they always felt so cookie-cutter, constantly covering the same themes and using wooden acting and stage direction.
But here comes Hibana, Netflix’s first original series for the Japan market, to set the bar very high. The mini-series, an adaptation of a book with the same title by well-known comedian Naoki Matayoshi, tells the story of a struggling comedy duo who must decide whether to sacrifice their art’s authenticity for a shot at mainstream success.
Until seeing this series, I might have claimed that the Japanese entertainment industry, with its salaried talent, collusive management agencies, and reliance on rehashing the same content and stars year after year, was fundamentally incapable of producing a series on par with The Sopranos or True Detective. But in my view this series reaches those heights on all fronts, in terms of a compelling story, realistic and interesting acting and dialogue, and character arcs that make sense.
And the biggest surprise to me was the theme – after years of watching Yoshimoto comedians (like Matayoshi) deliver same-y content for years, never in my life did I think that Japanese comedians considered the artist’s struggle for authenticity to be so critical! (of course that probably says more about my shallow knowledge of the Japanese entertainment industry).
If you have a Netflix account, I highly recommend giving it a chance, especially if you have ever had an interest in the world of manzai. It’s a funny but touching story of friendship and careerism that also has its fair share of wacky surprises. I will be watching the team who made this to see if they have a good follow-up.
Good things about 2016, Part 1 – Best podcast, No More Whoppers
2016 is getting a really bad reputation as the worst year ever. I can understand why, but I have good reasons why this doesn’t sit well with me (mostly because this year I added a Little Miss Adamu to the family).
To try and show why 2016 wasn’t all bad, I have decided to run down a few of the good things that either happened or that I read/saw/listened to, starting with my favorite podcast discovery of the year:
No More Whoppers might just be my favorite podcast of all time. It’s not perfect by any means, but with podcasts personality is everything, and their special mix of silliness and seriousness is just right for me.
The hosts are two early 30s white-dude American friends who met more than a decade ago as young video game journalists and have kept in touch.
Alex moved to Japan, first to teach English and now to run his own retro game themed bar in Nagoya, while Ray has continued writing about games and just recently began trying to make his own.
They crack silly in-jokes (making surprisingly effective use of an audio soundboard), tell stories about their day-to-day lives, and do various segments modeled after their favorite podcasts.
As podcasts go, the production is aggressively middling. They release whenever they can schedule an episode, so a lot of the time one is very hung over and half asleep. They get irritated with each other on air and it can get uncomfortable. The talk is often aimless – literal recapping of the mundane details of their day. At one point one of the hosts ran out of ideas and started commenting on what he saw out his window.
So having said all that, why do I like it so much? First, when it works, the laughter between two good friends is really infectious. But more importantly, binge listening to the show helped shed some light on transitioning to my mid 30s just at just the right time in my life.
To listen to Alex and Ray is to observe two tortured souls struggling to make sense of and make the best of this world
Much of the lighter talk on the show is about video games, but the juicy stuff is when they vent their frustrations.
As an English teacher, Alex was endlessly tormented by the absurd Kafkaesque bureaucracy of a Japanese school, and the powerlessness of being an outsider (students grab his crotch for a laugh, every seemingly nonsensical rule is justified with “it can’t be helped!”). Now as the owner of his own bar he ostensibly has more freedom but can’t afford to turn away the business of customers he finds loathsome and spends all his profits drinking after hours with other local bar owners, seemingly because he needs to keep up with “the scene”. Is he better off? Where is this heading?
Ray’s journey on the other hand starts out bleak – the podcast starts with him unemployed and with no real prospects smack dab in the middle of the Great Recession, and one of the best episodes is when he rages at not being able to find work even after asking his friends for help. But he ends up finding a place for himself as an editor at an established game company to the point that he feels comfortable branching out into other projects.
Along the way both get serious girlfriends and at least Alex is moving toward getting married.
It has been fascinating to see how the two hosts’ relationship has evolved over the years.
In the course of conversations over many episodes since early 2012, they gradually renegotiate the parameters of their relationship. Here and there, you hear, for example, Ray drop hints that Alex should pay more deference to his skills and experience as a copy editor. Or Alex lavish praise on a hyper-masculine, ex-military drinking buddy in what comes off as a subtle dig at Ray’s more introverted (and alcohol free) lifestyle.
These are the kinds of statements that end friendships. How many times have I had to concede that “he’s gone hardcore christian” or “she is all about her kids now” or even “I need to keep bad influences away for the sake of my family”?
Lesser friends might interpret these assertions of “things are different now” as signs they need to move on. But remarkably and commendably the two have kept at it and continue to bond over the things they still enjoy together.
They have not lost their easy rapport that not only lets them improv off each other, it makes for consistently earnest discussions when the time comes to get serious. That takes courage and I think we are all richer for it.
Of course this all comes with the caveat that with any podcast, listening to them for hundreds of hours makes me feel like I know them, but I’m really just hearing a version of themselves they choose to present. Still, real or not or in between their conversations have been enlightening for me.
So anyway that is my way too serious take on what is really a fun comedy podcast. I hope they keep going for a long time and know that people are rooting for them!
Foreign Tourists to Japan Love Love Love Japanese Food
Just a quick post of some fun data I came across.
In the tourism agency’s 2014 survey of foreign tourists (see Annex 9 in this spreadsheet), there is a clear pattern that emerges:
So to recap, eating Japanese food is the thing that foreign tourists most wanted to do before they arrive, it was their best purchase during the trip, AND it’s what they found most satisfying about their stay!
To be sure, as a Tokyo resident it didn’t surprise me to see that foreign tourists like Japanese food, but it was a bit surprising to see it’s their favorite thing about the country.
As you will see in the data, there is some variation between countries. For example, South Korea found going to Japanese hot springs to be the thing that they most wanted to do again if they came back, and mainland Chinese are more interested in shopping than food before they arrive. But overall the numbers speak for themselves.
If I were making Tokyo Vice with Daniel Radcliffe, here is what the story would look like
The Tokyo Vice movie starring Daniel Radcliffe is apparently moving forward – Mr. Radcliffe has already started studying Japanese for the role of Jake, a young American who studies in japan and eventually lands first job as the first Western reporter for a Japanese newspaper.
I have read the book and am really rooting for this movie to be good. If successful it could inspire a new generation of young Americans to come study or live in Japan.
But I am worried that the story won’t have enough sizzle if the screenwriter (apparently a first timer) skews too closely to the source text.
In that spirit I offer my own version of the story that the film makers can feel free to draw from if they see anything interesting:
The movie opens with Jake hot on the trail of yakuza boss Goto. He is about to blow the lid off Goto’s illicit, FBI-brokered liver transplant, but one day a black Cadillac pulls up and forces Jake inside.
It turns out Jake’s been kidnapped and will be forced to fight in an underground cage fighting tournament. He wants to tell them to just fuck off and kill him now, but he wants to survive long enough to get revenge on Goto for killing his hostess girlfriend Lana all those years ago (we will learn Jake’s background through flashbacks). He would then fight progressively tougher bad guys with various gimmicks (nunchucks, poison-tipped blade fingernails, a dog).
Of course along the way Jake would develop a love interest with Goto’s daughter, the gun moll with a heart of gold who hates her father and wants to escape the mob life. She will be the one who sneaks him food and weapons to help him win.
Finally Jake would reach Goto who has had his brain and heart migrated to an android body after his replacement liver gave out and the FBI wouldnt let him have another one.
Robo-Goto would deliver an extended monologue about how weak and pathetic Americans are and how only the weakest loser Americans move to japan. And how does he know this for sure? Because (here’s the big twist) Goto killed Lana to take her liver and it only took him 7 years for his raging alcoholism to wear it out!
This obviously sends Jake into a blood rage (“Lana was British you ignorant sonofabitch!!!”) and he delivers a perfectly aimed jump kick into the glass casing that houses Robo-Goto’s heart, killing Goto and sending him careening off the top of Yakuza Tower (the robot body explodes in mid air)
A heavily breathing and bloodied Jake is joined by the Goto daughter and the two exchange a desperately passionate kiss followed by some banter (“oh Jake I thought you’d never make it!” “Babe, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from all the hard work it took to become the first Western correspondent for a major Japanese newspaper, it this: never EVER say never”) and he carries her off to a better life as the girlfriend of a freelance reporter, which we learn from a caption that pops up as we fade to black.
So there you have it – I realize there are a lot of blanks to fill in, but there is some rich character development potential. There could be scenes of Goto smacking around his subordinates just for the hell of it, Jake in his lowest moment screaming whyyyyyyyy toward the ceiling of his holding cell at a seemingly uncaring God, a flashback of Goto and Jake giving each other the evil eye across the room at a smoke-filled night club, etc.
For a change of pace you could use the flashbacks to show Jake as a fish out of water learning Japanese culture, bungling chopstick use, getting sprayed in the face by the washlet. And there could be tender scenes of Lana and Jake on a date cruelly broken up by the murderous Goto.
Anyway, I hope you are as excited for this movie as I am!
Please let us know your story ideas in the comments section or who you would cast. For Goto and daughter, I would use the father daughter team from Transporter, Ric Young and Qi Shu.
TEPCO and beyond
Tokyo Denryoku, or the Tokyo Electric Power Company, is abbreviated in English to TEPCO and is one of nine regional monopoly electricity companies. TEPCO also has its own Japanese abbreviation, touden. What about the rest of Japan’s eight regional monopoly electricity companies?
They each have their own abbreviation, which you think you could get confused with “Tokyo” and “Tohoku,” “Hokkaido” and “Hokuriku,” and “Chubu” and “Chugoku”. Read and learn:
Hokkaido Denryoku: Hokuden / HEPCO
Hokuriku Denryoku: Rikuden
Tohoku Denryoku: Tohoku EPCO / TOEPCO / ENEPCO (for “Eastern North” + EPCO）
Chubu Denryoku: Chuden / CEPCO
Kansai Denryoku: KEPCO / Kanden
Chugoku Denryoku: Chugokuden, Energia (an English name adopted to avoid confusion with Chubu Denryoku)
Shikoku Denryoku: Yonden
Kyushu Denryoku: Kyuden
Okinawa Denryoku: Okiden