Adamu in Tokyo after the earthquake

There have been many many reports about what it’s like on the ground after the earthquake, but I thought I would offer my perspective.

The day of the earthquake, I was working in downtown Tokyo on the 29th floor of a two-year-old office building. At around 2:40pm it started rumbling, then swaying sharply back and forth. The bucho yelled for everyone to take cover, so we put on our emergency helmets and hid under the desk. The swaying continued for what felt like forever. Thinking this might be the end, I tried frantically to get my wife on the phone but it did not work. I got a hold of Mrs. Adamu via the office phones and she was fine.

Not knowing what else to do, some of us kept working on reports that needed to get published that day, even amid the aftershocks. Around 6, we started making plans to go home.

The head translator and I made our way to Ueno, where he wanted to get a hotel room. My plan was to continue all the way home. The streets were packed with people trying to get home, but it felt more like the crowd after a baseball game than a disaster. At a bicycle shop, some people were purchasing bikes to get home faster. I decided that would be a waste of money. The hotel rooms were all packed so I had the head translator stay with me.

At Ueno we decided to stop by Shoryu, a Chinese restaurant known for its big gyoza. This might not have been the safest move, since a fierce aftershock could have trapped us in the basement floor where it was located.

After that, the walk home was just a slog. The throngs of pedestrians thinned to just crowds and then just a small group as we approached Katsushika-ku.  The lines at the payphones died down around Asakusa where I updated Mrs. Adamu on our condition. On the way back, one family was offering passersby to use their toilet if necessary.

We eventually got home, turned on the TV and the first thing we saw was Kesennuma-shi on fire. Made me sick to my stomach. Wanted to shower but the gas had been turned off. We later realized it was an automatic shutdown for safety during the earthquake. The apartment was only lightly damaged. My computer monitor had been pushed forward off the front of the desk and was hanging by its cables. The laundry detergent had spilled behind the machine. For some reason all the sliding windows were open.

Couldn’t sleep because of aftershocks. The next morning Mrs. Adamu got late morning trains back home.

Since then life has been a little surreal. I have not missed a day of work, but I was among the very few in the office on Monday since the rolling power cuts left many train lines out of commission. The news is a constant, numbing stream of tragedy and emergency warnings. I have not really had the heart to do much blogging about it.

All in all, I am thankful that Tokyo was spared and cannot complain much about the situation given the devastation up north. Still, it’s tense and everyone is pretty nervous. Some friends and coworkers have sent their families elsewhere. Food is gone from the supermarket shelves. My mom has been receiving many many calls from friends and relatives asking about me, and she is freaking out about the nuclear situation.

You can follow my regular updates on Twitter at


Where can an international lawyer go adventuring?

As some readers may know, Curzon is a lawyer — qualified in the US, but working first in Japan and now in Dubai. A common question that I’ve heard through my years of practice is, “How do you practice law if you’re a US lawyer in [Tokyo/Dubai]? Are you advising on US law?”

The answer to that is: no, not really. The role of many US and English lawyers working overseas is that of “international counsel.” (Why that role is generally limited to US and English lawyers is a story for a different day.) International counsel will often know or learn local law, but the biggest role for these lawyers is to “manage the deal.” Consequently, it’s not surprising that one of the core skills that international law firm say they are looking for today in lawyers is “project management skills.”

Of course, international lawyers practicing in various countries around the globe must comply with local law — and countries regulate foreign lawyers and their practice of law in a variety of different ways, which I break into four categories:
Continue reading Where can an international lawyer go adventuring?

The endangerered species known as local government assemblymen

The number of local government councilmen in Japan dropped a staggering 39% from 2003 through 2011, according to a recent survey by the Asahi Shinbun. The average compensation for assemblymen also dropped by 8% over the same period.

The drop was most pronounced in the municipalities that merged during the “Great Heisei Merger” of municipalities from about 1999, but it wasn’t limited to just those municipalities and also included prefectures. Municipalities subject to merger over the last ten years or so saw a drop of 58% in the total number of assemblymen — losing more than half the total numbers in just 8 years. The largest single drop was Niigata City, which ten years ago was 13 municipalities, where the merger resulted in a total of 314 local assemblymen to just 56, a drop of 82%. Even in the largest cities of the greater Tokyo area, and large cities mandated by cabinet order (seirei shiteishi), these regions saw a drop of 14% in the number of assemblymen, even though most of these regions were growing.

Having observed politics in the US and in Japan very closely for the past decade, what this shows to me is a surprisingly positive side of reform in Japan. The US would never be able to achieve this type of reduction of publicly elected officials, not even during the “Reagan Revolution.” In Japan it took place through a relatively silent, technocrat revision of government. It was a relatively top-down reform, implemented by incentivizing (or bribing) local municipalities to cooperate with money benefits and guarantees on various financial obligations, and while there are criticisms on both sides about the scope of the reforms, to me, this is a promising sign for Japan’s ability to change in the future.

Zen Training at Engakuji


**BUMP–Registration will close in the next couple of days**

Engakuji (円覚寺), one of the major temples in Kamakura and training site of D.T. Suzuki, is holding its Spring Student Zazen Training Session from March 4-6. Application is open to anyone (including non-students).

I attending the Fall training session last year with almost no prior experience and found the weekend intense but very rewarding.

More details on the website (Japanese) here.

If any readers in Japan are interested in attending, please fill out this application form and send it to the temple via fax or mail. The sessions tend to be popular so I suggest applying as soon as possible. Neither prior experience with meditation nor advanced Japanese skills are necessary but having one of these is helpful.

I’m happy to answer any questions/concerns in the comments section.

No flag burning please, we’re Japanese

Russia calls for probe into provocative actions of Japanese extremists

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called on the Japanese authorities on Tuesday to prosecute Japanese radicals for desecrating a Russian flag during protests over a territorial dispute between the two countries.

Japanese ultra-right campaigners dragged the Russian flag along the ground outside the Russian Embassy in Tokyo on Monday amid the heating up of a diplomatic row between Russia and Japan over four islands off Russia’s Far Eastern coast, called the Northern Territories in Japan and the Kuril Islands in Russia.

“Not only did we protest, but we also asked the Japanese authorities to launch a criminal case over the desecration of the Russian flag,” Lavrov said. “We were told that in Japanese law there is an article that forbids the mockery of foreign state symbols.”

Correct, FM Lavrov! Article 92 of Japan’s Criminal Code is referred to as 外国国章損壊罪 (gaikoku kokusho sonkaizai), or “Foreign National Symbol Damage Crime”). Clause 1 reads: “A person who damages, destroys or sullies a country’s flag or other national symbol, with the intention of insulting that foreign country, shall be punished with up to two years imprisonment and a fine of up to JPY200,000.”

Importantly, this crime is a 親告罪 (shinkokuzai), and requires the formal request of the victim for the prosecutor to proceed. Clause 2 reads: “The crime in the previous clause shall require the request of the foreign government to be prosecuted.” So Russia’s statement is required for the prosecutors to act.

How many such cases have there been? Not surpringsly, very few.

* In July 1956, the Qing Imperial flag was destroyed at an Osaka demonstration. The Osaka Prosecutors ruled that as the flag was private property, the act was not subject to prosecution.
* In May 1958 in Nagasaki, a man desecrated a PRC flag and was fined JPY500 by the police. Both the ROC (the government of which Japan recognized as the government of China at that time) and the PRC (which Japan did not recognize) made formal complaints, and resulted in some commercial contracts between the two countries being terminated.
* After an October 1993 soccer game in Qatar when the opposing Iraqi team tied with a final goal that disqualified Japan from the final rounds (known as the “Doha Tragedy“), Japanese supporters tore down the Iraqi flag at the Iraqi Embassy in Tokyo. The Iraqi embassy response was that the reaction was a “natural expression of patriotism” and they asked that the flag be returned by mail.

Japan is unique in that it only prosecutes desecration of foreign national symbols. There has never been a law prohibiting or punishing the desecration of the Japanese national flag. One reason is that, when the Criminal Code was drafted in Meiji Japan, the Emperor was soveign, and crimes against the emperor were the crimes against the state. These provisions of the law were cancelled after World War II.

How do I say “Stop touching me”…?

Sometimes, when looking for the right grammar for certain Japanese phrases, I’ll google words to see what grammar is used on internet pages. This is also the best way for me to find out if “wa,” “ga” or “wo”, for example, are the suitable grammar joinders in certain phrases. Just now, I wanted to find the right way to say ”私事で申し訳ありませんが” (and the other possible variants when speaking about your own affairs in polite conversation), and I typed in 私事 and 申し訳 into a search engine.

This was the first link that came up, a yahoo community help page. A distraught Japanese girl wondering what the best English phrase was tell an Australian male friend, who tended to hug and kiss her as a greeting, to stop all the physical touching, as she had a boyfriend and wasn’t interested in him. The full Japanese text of her situation:

私事で申し訳ありませんが英語訳お願いしたいです。知り合った外国人(オーストラリア)さんがいるのですが、 私は過度なボディタッチが嫌なのでハグならあいさつなのでともかく、後ろから抱きしめてきたり、横に座ると腰に手を回したり、×ホッペにキスを無理矢理してきたり×と、向こうが私を好きな気持ちはわかりますが、私は彼を友達と思ってるから止めてと言っても隙あらばという感じで、触らないでと怒ってもあまり恐くないみたいでなめられています。冗談でも面白くないです。日本語ではあまり伝わらないみたいで、どうして?とよく言われます。ハグすると心が温かくなるとか…

I found the responses by the eagerly helpful yahoo help community to be quite amusing:

I’m not very comfortable with you touching me too much. I don’t want you to touch me. You have to respect that. I want to stay friends with you, but if you keep doing that, I don’t want to see you anymore. DON’T TOUCH ME!!

“There is no way I’ll like you in any kind of ways so don’t waste your time trying to be too friendly”

“Everytime you come near me, I feel sick to my stomach. If you ever touch me again, I’m gonna throw up right in your face!”

“I see you just a friend, and I’m sure we are never going to be more than that. So, I need you to start treating me like your friend”

For me, as a native English speaker, all of these phrases seem too blunt and cruel. And it reflects to me a key problem that I think the Japanese have when speaking another language. The Japanese tend to believe that Japanese is a polite language, where people don’t say what they mean, whereas other langauges lack this subtley and you have to be more blunt when speaking your mind. Many Japanese also, in my experience, seem to think that politeness — such as demonstrated by the dozens of ways to say “I” and “you,” and the countless variants of many verbs depending on the level of politeness — is unique to Japanese.

The result of this misunderstanding (or linguistic prejudice) is that the Japanese tend to be very good at coming across as rude when speaking another language, despite the politeness the same people would have if they were saying the same thing in Japanese. To me, the above English sentences are examples of this.

Beef Bowl Capitalism and Consequences

A gyudon “beef bowl” is a common fast food in modern Japan, a simple dish of beef and onions over rice. For those of you who need more background, read this.

The gyudon industry has faced a major shake-up over recent years. A decade ago, Yoshinoya was the undisputed champion of the business. It was then victim to a chain of unfortunate events. First, in late 2001, a domestic mad cow incident critically damaged beef bowl sales in Japan, for which Yoshinoya was hurt the hardest. In late 2003, Japan suspended imports of American beef due to a BSE incident, cutting Yoshinoya’s main source of beef. This gave rivals such as Sukiya and Matsuya, which got their beef from places such as Australia and Mexico, a key market advantage which they milked for several years.

A key battlefront in this market competition was not just supply but also prices. Gyudon prices dropped significantly (10-30%) during the time of tight supply from 2001 – 2004/2006, but rose back to normal when supplies returned. (You can see a clear breakdown of the price movements on this Japanese article from Wikipedia.) Now with consumers tightening their belts during the post-financial crisis years, the gyudon industry, which has recent experience (and institutional memory) of price wars are back at the game of trying to bring in customers.

Yoshinoya, despite having the most to lose from a price war, is partially responsible for the situation. A year ago, they dropped gyudon prices from 390 yen to 310 to celebrate their 111th year anniversary. Sukiya responded by offering a gyumeshi “poor man gyudon” for a record-breaking price of 240 yen, and the game of offering alternative cheaper gyudon variants took off. Sukiya achieved its low prices by finding cheaper supplies of beef, onions and rice; offering smaller portions; but also through other cost cutting methods such as cutting down staff. Sukiya in particular has a money-saving option in its franchise manual referred to as “wan-ope” (one operator) to have just one member of staff during nightime operations when the trains aren’t running and when customers are scarce.

And here we see a key externality of the gyudon price wars– a rise in robbery attacks on gyudon chain stores during night hours. In 2010, there were 20 attacks on Gyudon chain stores in three prefectures (Aichi, Gifu and Mie). 18 out of 20 targets were Sukiya stores. It almost looks like the convenience store holdups that became an endemic problem in the US during the 1980s. The primary cause is attributed to the “wan-ope” policy.

In reading articles on these events, I was struck by the correct, yet rather Japanese, closing comment of one article:

“Of course the person to blame for a crime is the person who committed it, but criminal sociologists are sounding the alarm for the responsibility owed by companies to protect the safety of their customers and their employees. In trying to win the price wars, it is understandable to push a rationalization of store management, but it is a fact that there are voices calling on companies to demand an environment that prevents crime such as robbery.”