Archive for the ‘Focus on Japan 2014’ Category

The Gaijin Tax?

April 19th, 2015 4 comments

A few years ago, I went to Akihabara and tried to buy some cables at a shop there. The four cables I got were in boxes with prices clearly marked; the total was ¥500 ($4.20). The guy at the counter tried to charge me ¥1380 ($11.60). I later realized that my dress was different—I probably looked more like a tourist, so they probably figured that I would pay without question.

At the time, I was pretty shocked; this really had not happened to me much in Japan. It happened in Europe when I visited, like the bakery counter lady in Athens who crassly gave me way too little in change, and when I complained, she took it back and gave me even less. I never imagined that happening in Japan.

However, I have noticed that recently, clerks “accidentally” make “mistakes” with me quite often.

Just the other day, Sachi and I went to a local burger joint, and got a standard lunch set each. There was nothing on the menu more than a thousand yen (less than ten bucks). Even the beer I ordered only cost a few dollars when swapped out for the drink that came with the lunch set. So, for two people, the total should never be more than, say, ¥3000. Even that’s a bit high.

So when I went to pay, I was rather shocked that the total was more than ¥5500 (about $50). The restaurant guy, who had served us and knew that there was only the two of us and we had not ordered anything special, had rung up the total, announced it to me, and then stood there waiting for me to pay.

The thing is, the amount was so far off it stood out like a sore thumb—like going to McDonald’s, ordering two Big Macs, and getting asked to pay $25.

This guy was not a newbie, we’ve seen him since last year; he maybe even owns the place. The total should have immediately stood out to him as incorrect, more than it did to me. But it took me to give him a puzzled expression—for several seconds, no less—before he caught the “mistake.” I put that in quotes because, frankly, I don’t think it was a mistake.

The thing is, after this happened, I began to recall other similar incidents over the past few years. I always just discounted them as errors, and maybe in fact they were—but the thing is, they are happening with increasing frequency, and are typically not minor overcharges. Several times, mostly at restaurants but also at other shops, I have had to check the tally carefully when I am given a total that seems suspiciously high. So much so that I now almost reflexively check my receipts, even when the total doesn’t seem unusually high.

Generally, I am beginning to get the feeling that this is a “gaijin” thing—something that’s happening because I’m a foreigner here. If so, it is relatively new; this never happened with such frequency before. (Although I would be interested to hear if Japanese people get the same thing as often as I do.)

I’m not counting the trivial stuff, like the conbini that gave me a 100-won coin instead of a 100-yen coin in my change (the Korean coin is worth 1/10th the Japanese currency), or whoever it was at McDonald’s giving me a single patty in a double burger. Just the times when the amount I am asked for is significantly over the total I am supposed to pay.

In Japan, when they give you change, it is (or at least used to be) customary for them to politely ask you to check the change to make sure it is accurate. I never really used to do that because it was always right. Now, I don’t hear them saying that as much—and I’m checking the change a lot more now.

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March 11th, 2015 Comments off

It has been four years now.

Carrier Nonsense

November 2nd, 2014 3 comments

Usually I get new iPhones as soon as they come out, but my carrier kinda screwed me on that; somehow, over time, they added a few months to my contracts, and I couldn’t get out of it until November 1st. That, and a bunch of other stuff has me good and tired of SoftBank. For example, they offer “points” with your service, but after three years (after which the points expire) I had a grand total of ¥1090 (about $10) after about $5000 worth of bills for myself and Sachi over that time. To add insult to injury, you can’t buy squat with that at their store, which means you can only do so at the online store. And their online store is so convoluted that after 20 minutes, the staff member there couldn’t figure it out either, and started to give me a phone number which I am sure would have inevitably been staffed by a teineigo operator who would use such obscure vocabulary that they would only confuse me more.

I changed to a new carrier, Au, for a couple of different reasons. First, switching carriers means you get a discount in the first two years just for that. Au’s prices in general were already a bit lower than Softbank’s, and that was further sweetened by an additional $15 a month discount (each) because our home Internet connection is with KDDI, which is the same company as Au. Au was also much more accessible and open about the terms; for example, I had never known that the “unlimited” data plans get severely throttled after 5 or 7 GB of use in one month; Softbank’s people never mentioned that over the years, but Au was very upfront about it.

In addition, Au did me a solid on timing. While some orders can take a month, and commonly two weeks to fulfill—a problem with me because I had a short window in which to switch carriers else suffer a $100 penalty—Au happened to have an extra iPhone 6 the color and capacity I wanted, and decided kindly to hang onto it for me for 10 days after I signed up, so I could pick it up immediately as soon as my shackles to Softbank evaporated.

On top of that, KDDI (and, it seems, Au) have English support—if not total, they do try their best, and it’s appreciated.

Long story short, instead of paying about $75 apiece per month to Softbank, our contracts are now for about $55 for each of us. Over two years, that saves a lot of money (almost a thousand dollars over our first two years). We lose about $10 a month on each contract after that, as the switching discount is not renewed and the home-Internet discount is cut to $10 a month instead of $15—but even then it’s still better.

Not to mention I was getting the Worst Sales Rep Ever at Softbank every time I went, who was royally pissing me off. Glad to be rid of them.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2014, iPhone Tags:

Microsoft Bing: Small Tsu = Porn?

May 3rd, 2014 1 comment

I am on Facebook a lot now, and try to read some Japanese-language posts, especially ones written by my wife. They have the “See Translation” option, provided by Microsoft’s Bing, which supposedly translates the Japanese text into English.

The problem is, it often translates like it was written by a deranged screenwriter specializing in bad porn. Seriously, it’s like one of those Chinese dictionaries that resulted in obscene English labels in Chinese supermarkets.

Now I know that machine translation between European and East Asian languages is spotty at best, but one would think that certain words would simply not be in the translation matrix, or whatever it’s called.

However, it seems to be mostly related to a single Japanese character.

Take this sentence in Japanese:

フィギュア男子素晴らしい演技でしたね。 すごいっ!ステキっ!

A fair translation would be, “It was a wonderful performance in the men’s figure skating. Wow! Great!”

On Facebook, it was translated as:

Figure men’s amazing performance was … wow.! Nice boobs!

I tried going to Bing translation directly, pasted the sentence there—and it was even worse:

It was the figure men’s great acting. Amazing boobs! Nice boobs!

Seriously? “Boobs”?

Turns out that the “boobs” comes whenever a small “tsu” () appears out of place, used often in Japanese to create a sudden stop, acting kind of like an emphasis for the exclamation point. On Google translate, it comes out as “tsu” or (strangely) “LI.”

But “boobs”?

Here is a Bing translation of a single Facebook post:

In less than two hours March! (early!) fliped over my private calendar is out! (did buy a desk calendar “Hoshino Chan” thanks for accepted calendar for a super House by mistake, I have is and & my husband face big boobs a March to forgive.) was indeed warm day, so it was just a happy. Mood shop & cold hardens me you cum Sasha! I’ll do it! (what? for) of switch “chubby!”, I feel that it was. (Lol) weekend winter mode is, but another relapse is also no sense.

Seriously? “Big boobs,” and “cold hardens me you cum”? I’ve been getting questions from my family as to what exactly Sachi is writing in Japanese.

When I put the text into Bing’s official page, again it identified the small “tsu” () as the part translated as “boobs”—but it also translated the exact same character into “cum” in another sentence! What the…?

This is what you get if the exact same message in Japanese is put into Google Translate:

March in less than 2 hours to go! (Ll soon) Tsu was turning a private calendar of my home!
(And me accepted me to buy a desk calendar calendar super home for you’ve had “Hoshi-chan” by mistake and … face Deka-tsuna March excuse of & husband thanks) Today is because it was a warm day, I was happy with it. For me, that hardens and cold moody & was the day that was popular, the feeling that “Pochi” was the switch “Yaruzo pretensions” of (what for) … (laughs) The weekend seems to winter mode, but there is no sense going back.

As you can see, the translation as a whole is better on Google. It’s still mangled, but much more clear, and no porn terminology.

The thing is, it’s not just the two strange “tsu” related hiccups I found—strange words find their way into the text fairly commonly. Here’s a collection of sentences that I have strung together from various sources, to give you an idea of what I’m talking about:

Gaping! I always do you have weed… Hand fetish with me! Will drink your father who ate and I’m sure. Walk to him cum ♪ suffice in the exercise of said. I was the time you pack. Also to go out, when combined in the dog ultra-most fortunately I’m a boobs. Requests off my husband cum!

So, was Microsoft’s software intentionally sabotaged, and after months or years nobody at Microsoft noticed? What the hell is going on there?

Not Impressed by Tsukuba

April 10th, 2014 1 comment

We’re on an overnight stay in Tsukuba, visiting friends in a nearby town. We booked a room in the only accommodation we could find in the region which accepts pets. We got here early yesterday evening.

Tsukuba is in Ibaraki Prefecture, about 60km northeast of Tokyo; it is a planned city based on the theme of scientific research, first conceived in the 1960’s, and really built up in the boom years of the late 70’s and 80’s. However, walking through its streets now, I get a strong vibe along the lines I got in Shanghai: a city where a lot of initial investment was made, but was then neglected. The streets are wide with huge, impressively tree-lined sidewalks–but look closely enough and you’ll see creeping neglect. Playgrounds overgrown with weeds, buildings clearly not tended to for years, plots of real estate which should be prime left empty.

The accommodations have been bad as well. We may have just stumbled into the worst of the services, however. The izakaya we went to last night was horrible—half the things we ordered did not come until we pestered them about it, and one plate of sashimi never did come—we left after it had been waiting an hour or so. One of the dishes had a hair in it. We were just as happy not to have eaten their raw fish.

Our hotel is similarly awful. It’s one of those places that both allows smoking and has an interconnected ventilation system, so our room smelled like a chain smoker was in there with us most of the time. The refrigerator still had half-consumed drinks left by the previous guests, and the shoji screens were full of holes. The bathroom is big enough—if you happen to be a slender four-foot-ten. They forgot the towels, and we almost went without, believing they simply were not included. I found a common toilet on the first floor which had a warmed seat and bidet; I used it, but discovered that the bidet’s “off” switch was broken. When the water started to run cold, I finally risked getting off, and discovered that the weight sensor would turn off the water stream. They could have posted a sign to tell users about that, but they didn’t.

What’s stranger is that the hotel claims that only one room in the whole place can accept pets. However, once we got to the room, we found it has zero amenities for pets. Nothing that sets it apart from any other room we’ve stayed in. So, why is this room okay and others not? I have a feeling it’s just a marketing thing, or perhaps some way of avoiding city ordinances.

We probably have just had the worst luck here… but nothing about this town makes me feel like I want to come back.

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The Risk of Using Amazon Third-Party Sellers (Or, “Beauty GardenSG” Sucks)

March 1st, 2014 4 comments

At the beginning of February, I decided that I wanted to get some sunflower seeds. Not the kind where it’s just kernels, but the kind roasted and salted in the shell. Yum. However, you can’t get those in Japan. Even the kernels are rare to find (though they can be ordered). But seeds in the shell? That’s considered bird food here. You have to order the roasted & salted in the shell type from overseas.

Normally, I would use the Foreign Buyer’s Club. They offer a box of twenty-four 1.75 oz. bags for ¥2,485. Unfortunately, they charge ¥990 for shipping and customs, and if I haven’t ordered from them for a while, add another ¥1,000 for the membership fee. Even without the membership cost, the total for a box is ¥3,475, or ¥145 per bag. If I order three boxes, that’s cheaper—the shipping is the same, so the total would be ¥8,445, or ¥117 per bag.

The problem: they take more than a month to deliver. FBC quotes a delivery time frame of 39-43 days (if you place the order on the right day). I didn’t want to wait that long.

So I went to Amazon, where I had ordered successfully before. The problem was that the seller I had used before, something called “LA Celeb Style” (um, okay) no longer offered the item. Instead, it was only available through “Beauty GardenSG.” I didn’t care about the name, really. But they offered a 60-pack bucket for a total of ¥8,000. Not a great price point—133 per bag—but they promised a delivery within 17-25 days. That, to me, was worth the extra ¥16 per bag. So I ordered.

Two weeks later, I get a cryptic email from the seller, claiming some sort of unspecified delay. Two days after that, they email me again: they cannot get the item for me, but will ship three of the 24-count boxes at the same price. OK, I think, that brings the price down to even a little under FBC. But then I read on: it will require another 2-3 weeks shipping.

Needless to say, I was kind of pissed. The time frame was the only reason I ordered from them. Had they told me straight off that they could not deliver the item, I would have been fine with that. But wait two weeks and a bit, when the order was supposed to be delivered already, and then say you can’t deliver? Like I said, that pissed me off.

The problem is, these people can more or less abuse you at will. I complained to Amazon, and their policy turns out to be: too bad. They will do nothing at all. You go with third-party sellers at your risk.

So I contact the seller and say that I am very disappointed, but go ahead and ship the item.

Two days after that, they email back: we canceled your order.

Needless to say, I was way more pissed. Hold me back a full three weeks and then cancel my order on me?

Most likely, they did that because they could see I was upset and knew that if they canceled the order, it would cut off any easy way to give them a bad seller review. Fortunately, by doing some research, I was able to find a way to bring up the canceled order and navigate to a page where I could enter a review and a seller rating.

Nevertheless, it was three weeks after my order and I was back to square one.

Fortunately, I found an alternative: The Flying Pig. They’re a firm a little similar to Foreign Buyer’s Club, but are Costco-centric. That is, they will go to a Costco in Japan and buy stuff you want and ship it to you. The cost is higher than going to Costco yourself, and with a Costco not too far from me, I never used them before. Some items, however, they will ship from Hawaii, as “Personal Imports.” I didn’t use that before because the shipping per item is almost ¥2,000.

However, if you order five items or more, the shipping becomes free. In addition, they had a different item I have been longing to get (boneless & skinless flaked salmon, great for a salmon casserole dish I like to make). If I ordered the three boxes of sunflower seeds with the other items, the total for the seeds would be ¥8,694, or about ¥120 per bag.

But their shipping is great: five to eight days. I ordered them last Tuesday, and the takkyubin guy is delivering them in the next hour or so. Excellent.

Had the Amazon seller not canceled, I would still be waiting another week or two for them to deliver.

Needless to say, not all Amazon third-party sellers are such slimeballs. But you take your chances.

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Insane Amounts of Snow

February 15th, 2014 3 comments

Last week, Tokyo was hit by what was described as the biggest snowstorm to hit the metropolis in 45 years. It was crazy—snow piled higher than I have ever seen it in Tokyo (natch), rivaling even what I remember in Toyama, which had tons of snow.

Tonight, there’s an even bigger one. School was canceled, possibly saving me hours of waiting for trains on the way home.

I couldn’t take photos staged well enough to do it justice, but here are a few small examples:


What you see above is the street. Hard to see from this how deep the snow is, but it’s deep. Here is the view from the porch; keep in mind that the bicycle seen here is not resting at street level, but on ground about 10 inches higher than that—and the snow on the street has almost caught up with it.



In the image below, see all that snow on my scooter? I cleared that off earlier in the evening. The street in front of it we spent a half hour clearing maybe six hours earlier, but when I stepped into it, my leg went down enough so the snow was practically up to my knee.



Tomorrow, the temp is predicted to rise to 10° C (50° F) and there’s going to be heavy rain. I have no idea if that will be enough to help clear the snow, or if it will just turn everything to ice.

We’ll have to see.

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This Ain’t 12 Centimeters…

February 8th, 2014 1 comment

According to the newscasts:

As much as 12 centimeters of snow was recorded Saturday afternoon in Tokyo…

I just measured 30 cm (1 foot) on to of our car, and that’s in a shielded area. I am pretty sure that we’re getting a good 18 inches at least, with another 6-8 hours of storm left to go.

Img 0044

This image was of our car at maybe two in the afternoon. This is one hell of a big snowstorm, maybe the biggest I’ve seen in Tokyo.

Ponta, on the other hand, loves it.

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