Archive for the ‘Focus on Japan 2007’ Category

Free Information Society?

December 14th, 2007 Comments off

NomoreidiocyIn America, you hear of lawsuits by the RIAA to sue for “damages” by 70-year-old grannies downloading gangsta rap at 2:00 am, so as to recover the “lost revenues” due to piracy. You don’t really hear that in Japan so much. Yes, movie theaters always play the “Save Our Movies” anti-piracy movies, but they’re a joke. The image at right is from the latest campaign. The first had a girl crying black tears which became a pirate’s skull; the second had a comically stupid series of images of a dastardly movie pirate stealing films to the terror of those around him. You’d think that the RIAA was making inroads into Japan.

The fact is, in Japan, you’d have a hard time suing anyone. The court system here is very different from the U.S. People who are clearly the victims of wrongdoing might spend decades in court, and if they win, instead of getting millions of dollars, they might–if they’re lucky–walk away with a few thousand. So the idea of mass lawsuits here is rather unlikely.

Now, Japan is no pirate’s haven like China. When I was in Shanghai, I saw pirates selling $1 movie DVDs on every other street corner. Were the police to care, they could easily catch these guys, but obviously, government policy is to turn a blind eye.

Japan is not nearly so brazen. I have never seen pirate software or DVDs on sale here. Private piracy, however, is almost condoned. Unlike the U.S., music CD rentals are allowed. And when you go to the music/movie rental store, you will see blank CDs and DVDs on sale right at the register, like an impulse buy. The message is clear: you wanna copy that disc? Go ahead. Nobody’s stopping you. Often, when my students have music they want to include in a presentation, they use a blank CD-R that has something from the rental store on it.

Which leaves me wondering about Japan’s future as a “free information society.” In truth, Japan seems quite ready to adopt all the DRM technology that’s becoming ubiquitous in the U.S. Already, I am having trouble buying video games available only in Japan for my nephews, because the games are increasingly region-encoded. Which makes no sense, as these are games that never make it to the U.S.–region encoding just denies the content maker more sales.

But in Japan, that’s how it sometimes is: you follow the stream and flow, whether it makes sense to you or not. It seems that in Japan, there’s no big bugaboo or hullabaloo about private, individual piracy in the home–but they are just fine with adopting DRM that makes it very difficult.

It’s kind of like the laws against explicit pornography; while they now allow for pubic hair, genitalia are still strictly forbidden, carefully pixelated out–despite the fact that explicit images are easily found via the Internet, with not any thought given to censoring them.

Like so many things in Japan, it’s all about form, and little to do with substance.

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Dog of a Movie

December 13th, 2007 4 comments

The other night, Sachi and I went to see a film she’s been waiting for: “Mari to Koinu no Monogatari” (“The Tale of Mari and the Puppies”). The reason Sachi wanted to see it was that Mari and the puppies are Shiba Inus, and Sachi loves Shibas. Through Sachi’s influence, I have grown to like them a lot too, and the puppies, you’ll have to admit, are basically just little furry teddy bears that are cute as hell.

The story is based on a real family that was caught in the 2004 Niigata earthquake. The basic plot involves a family consisting of a father, grandfather, and a son and daughter; the mother died some years before. They live in a rural town. On their way home one day, the kids stumble upon an abandoned puppy, and the little girl falls in love with it. At first, they avoid taking care of it and keep it far from home because their father hates dogs. Eventually, things work out and the dog is accepted into their home. Some time later, the pup, Mari, has grown into an adult and has three puppies of her own.

The the quake hits; the son is safe at school, the father survives the quake in town, but the daughter and grandfather are trapped under their collapsed home. Mari eventually runs off and finds some Jietai (Self-Defense Force, or Japanese military) rescue workers, who rescue the girl and her grandfather, but the dogs have to stay behind in the abandoned village.

The rest of the movie is the little girl trying to get back so she can rescue the dogs. If this were a romance film, someone would die at the end, but this instead being a heartwarming kids’ story, you can guess what the conclusion is.

The main reason we went to see the movie was to enjoy a few hours of cute dogs, and we got enough of that. The rest of the movie was pretty lackluster. Quite frankly, there should have been more dog stuff; despite the title suggesting that it’s a story about Mari and her three puppies, probably 90% of the movie was centered on the family; there wasn’t as much cute dog pron as there should have been.

Also, according to this account, most of the story was fabricated; there is no mention of two kids, just the old man and his son (he’s called “grandfather,” but in Japan, that’s often a name people will attach to an old man). Apparently, the puppies were born on the day of the quake, and were not bigger and fluffy when it happened. Nor was the old man dug out by Jietai; rather, he was inspired by the dog to dig himself out. And since there were no cute kids involved, about 60% of the rest of the movie is pure fabrication, in addition to what else was fudged. But I guess that’s not too unusual for “true story” movies.

The cast was so-so, except for one outstandingly bad actor–Yasuda (Masanobu Takashima), the Jietai soldier who comes to care deeply about the little girl getting her dog back. When he rescues the girl and her grandfather, they are flying back on a helicopter full of injured and desperate people who have seen their village destroyed–but when he sees the little girl crying because she sees her dog chasing the helicopter, he dramatically punches the wall of the helicopter in outrageous frustration. The rest of his acting was similarly hammish and forced.

Even the dog playing Mari was pretty unexpressive, or more likely, the filmmakers did a bad job of getting any expression from the dog.

In any case, here is the trailer for the movie on YouTube:

After the movie, Sachi and I went out for yakitori. By chance a piece of chicken on the grill looked like this:


That looks suspiciously like a Shiba Inu head! And it was tasty, too.

See’s in Japan

December 12th, 2007 4 comments

As Sachi and I get ready for the trip to the United States, something we’re planning to buy in the U.S. is See’s candies. If you don’t know about See’s, then I pity you–they sell, in my opinion, the best chocolates in the Universe. I taste a Godiva’s or any other chocolate, and it pales in comparison. See’s is the ultimate chocolate, bar none.

Which is probably why I am so fortunate that they are not readily available in Japan, or I might be tempted more often. Even in my trips back to the U.S., I have to control myself. I have it down to a ritual: bring back a few pounds of candies, and ration them out to one piece a week, enjoyed slowly and thoroughly. Back in my skinny I-can-eat-anything days, I would easily down a whole pound of the stuff in a week, maybe three different purchases in the week on my way back from working at Green Library at Stanford. A bag full of a dozen or more pieces, and I would chomp through them in minutes, and then get ready for dinner.

As I said, they are not readily available in Japan–but they can be gotten. If you are completely insane, or desperate. Or obscenely wealthy. They have a See’s Candy shop in Harajuku, on a side road on the north side of Omote-Sando Boulevard, nearer to the Omote-Sando Station end of the street.


It’s not just the location that makes it less accessible: it’s the price. See’s in the U.S. is currently $14.50 (¥1620) per pound. In Japan:


Yes, you’re reading that correctly: ¥6090 per pound, or nearly $55 per pound in U.S. dollars. Nearly four times the price in the U.S. Sachi and I had, between us, a Butterscotch Square, a Scotch Kiss, and a Vanilla Caramel Nut square. Each candy averages less than a cubic inch. Theoretically bite-sized, we made them last a bit longer. And for good reason–we paid about ¥930, or almost eight and a half dollars, for those three little pieces. Nearly three bucks for one candy.

One last comparison: in the U.S., See’s traditionally gives out a free sample to each customer. You can even request a specific candy to try. Here in Japan, for their exorbitant prices, you’d think they could afford to give you at least that much. But not really. They give out samples, but each is a piece cut into quarters–every customer gets a quarter of a piece of candy.


In reflection, one can understand the logic. For example, in Sachi’s and my case, we bought three pieces; were they to give us each a full candy as a sample, that would have equalled two-thirds of our purchase, or supposedly $6 worth of candy.

Not that they can’t afford it; my brother and his wife had some See’s air mailed to them recently, and it cost less than half of what it would have from the Harajuku store; surely See’s can cut that cost even further. They are profiting from the position as a luxury product.

Just as well; I would likely lose more than a few years of my life were I to buy the stuff and eat it more often.

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Asukayama Park

December 1st, 2007 5 comments

Sachi and I took another of our weekend walks to nearby neighborhoods today. It’s becoming a bit of a new habit of ours; we started with an evening walk to nearby Otsuka Station, and got more ambitious with a walk back from Rikugien, then a walk around Meiji Jingu and Harajuku. Today we followed up by going to Oji, mostly walking around Asukayama Park before walking back home via Meiji Boulevard. Using the Google Maps Distance Calculator, I figure that we walked 4.5 miles (7.2 km) all told. Not bad. As usual, I have photos.

We started by taking the train in–we figure that it’s best to leave the long walk for the return, so we can avoid getting too tired too soon. This time, we used the Toden Arakawa Line, a light rail line that goes from Waseda, through Ikebukuro, all the way over to Arakawa near Minami Senju. The light rail is run like a bus line, with a single price no matter how far you go, paid at the door. Even the interior looks like a bus, from the money box to the stop buzzers.







Asukayama Park, along the west side of Oji Station, is a very nice, largish park with tons of trees (including lots of Cherry Blossom trees, should be pretty in Spring). There’s a historical residence and garden, a large playground for kids, and some nice paths through green-filled areas. They make very good use of what space the park has. And we are still enjoying the Autumn colors, of course.



We spotted some grandpa leading his granddaughter around on a leash.


And there was a little kid running around shooting pigeons and passers-by with his two guns.


Wearing his gang colors, I presume:



There was also a group practicing Taiko drumming:


And we spotted what has to be the nicest-looking public restroom ever:


Then there were the birds. Pigeons all over the place, but we spotted one doing something bizarre in a pond:


The bird was wading in the pond, its belly fully in the water, and was constantly taking one wing and extending it fully over its head, until it rested over its other side. It was like some kind of pigeon yoga. At first we thought it was injured, but it showed no other signs of injury, and alternated between left and right wings. It was really weird to watch.



When we got to the small pond set against the eastern slope of the park, we saw dozens of Mejiro (Japanese White-eyes) and Shijugara (Great Tits) bathing and drinking.





To close out, a snapshot of Sachi and me at the park.


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Meiji Jingu, Part 3

November 25th, 2007 Comments off

OK, the remains of the images from our walk through Meiji Jingu and Harajuku.

This guy was very much into his dance routine. He had attracted a crowd of onlookers, and either he didn’t care or he was too into his routine to notice. It did not seem to be a performance for the crowd, as he was facing his vehicle the whole time. Kinda creepy, actually.

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The “Free Hugs” people were also there, as they often are. Don’t know what their total deal is–whether they’re religious, lonely, or just feel that more hugs will make a better world.

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This is Takeshita Street. Many visitors to Harajuku only walk the main street, Omote-Sando; this street is a few blocks to the north, parallel to Omote-Sando. And crowded as hell. Lots of hip designer shops and everything.

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One of the shops on a back street near Takeshita. No way of telling whether they intended to describe a piece of furniture, a sexy body part, a double entendre, or if this is just another case of Engrish.

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Here’s some definite Engrish from a menu at Lion’s Beer Hall:

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I’ve heard people say that the Chef’s Special is great!

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The sauce, apparently, did not achieve total saucehood. I opted for the “quasi-sauce” under the “peckish” section of the menu.

During our walk back from Rikugien yesterday, we spotted a blimp and had trouble identifying it. We saw the same blimp today several times. Apparently it makes daily runs over Tokyo; if you live in the area, you may have seen it.

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Sachi and I were curious as to how much it would cost to ride the thing. I went to their web site and checked it out. There are nine seats on board, and cruises run from 90 minutes to two hours. The cost, per person, is ¥126,000 to ¥147,000 (about $1150 to $1400). Flying round trip between Japan and the U.S. is cheaper. So, we’ll likely pass on that one.

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Meiji Jingu, Part 2

November 25th, 2007 Comments off

Apparently, this weekend’s holiday stretch served for some as the year’s Shichi-Go-San (“7-5-3,” literally) celebrations, where 3- and 7-year-old girls and 5-year-old boys are dressed in kimono (the boys’ are called hakama), given special candies, and brought to shrines to pray for their long life and success. Officially on November 15th, it is possible to celebrate the tradition a bit early or late; there was a lot of evidence of families getting it done a bit late.

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We also saw some weddings in progress. The bride and groom would follow the priests and shrine maidens leading a procession of family across the center of the shrine every so often–a very public kind of wedding. This is a common thing at the shrine; you see them all the time. It led me to wonder how much it costs to get married there; there are no reports on cost that I can find on the ‘net.

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That’s mom holding the bride’s hand.

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Here are other miscellaneous images from the shrine:

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When you enter a shrine in Japan, you’re supposed to wash your hands in a little purification ritual. Wash one hand with the other, then reverse, then take a sip of the water (usually people pour into their hands first, then sip).

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Chrysanthemums on display; there were a lot there, in kind of a show or something. The Chrysanthemum represents the imperial family in Japan.

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There was also some kind of produce festival going on, with giant heaps of vegetables and various farm produce from different prefectures around Japan.

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Beautiful woodwork on the shrine doors, caught just right in the late afternoon sunlight.

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The deepest area of the shrine visitors come to always have the money boxes; you throw in your coins, clap your hands twice, then pray. For the three days at New Year’s, Meiji Shrine is swamped. A special train platform that leads directly into the park is opened, and the crowds are dense for the whole time. It is so hard to get past the crushing throngs at the very front where the money boxes are, many people simply give up trying, and instead toss their coins from several meters back. The shrine lays out tarps around the money boxes to catch the excess, but you have to assume that a lot of people near the front get pelted with coins on the backs of their heads.

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The south gardens, requiring a ¥500 yen fee to enter.

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Carp in the south garden lake. These things grow to huge sizes. Conditioned to receive food from humans, they cluster when they sense anyone walking up, their gaping maws shoved out above the water in the hopes that some morsel-tossing human has good enough aim.

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That’s more than enough for one post. I’ll post Part 3 soon, with some images from after the shrine visit.

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Meiji Jingu, Part 1

November 24th, 2007 Comments off

Sachi and I went on another walk-about-town today. This time we chose Meiji Jingu and Harajuku; on the way back home, we stopped at Lion’s Beer Hall and had dinner out.

It was a pretty productive day in several ways. Meiji Jingu turned out to be very good for birdwatching today (especially the open fields at the north end; look for birds along the treeline and the lakeside). I ran into a small flock of colorful Varied Tits in a tree, which often pecked at the tree trunk like woodpeckers and jumped to the ground to forage. There was a Kingfisher in the south gardens, and I spotted a fully-colored male Daurian Redstart, a first for me. At the shrine proper, we saw several marriages in progress, and a lot of people dressed up.

In Harajuku, we looked around for winter stuff for me–gloves, a scarf, and a wool cap–but found too little that was satisfying, and all priced too high. Then we ran across a big Daiso, a shop which is usually 100-yen (like a 99-cent shop), but this one had stuff for more than that, including a wool cap and a pair of gloves for 200 yen each, and a scarf for 300 yen. So, mission accomplished.

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The north side of the park. It was nice to sit down and soak up the sun. The rest of the park is in such shade from the trees that it’s easy to think it’s almost evening. There was a police or security guy here whose job, apparently, was to walk up to couples who were snuggling too much and tell them to knock it off.

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There were at least half a dozen Varied Tits flitting around and under a tree along the field’s treeline. Usually skittish birds, they were unusually easy to photograph. Several seemed to be pecking away at the trunk and the larger branches.

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I was startled to see this Daurian Redstart. I was walking along the edge of the pond and bam, there he was, just sitting there. I’ve spotted females before, but never males in full plumage like this one. And he was very much agreeable to posing for quite some time.

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Kind of reminds you of Dennis Rodman, doesn’t he?

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These Mallards were okay, but I just like the whole photo, especially how the water turned out. Click this for a larger image.

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I caught this Kingfisher at extreme range. He had staked out the lake in the southern gardens (you have to pay ¥500 per person to get in).

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I’ll finish up here for today, and post tomorrow with photos of the shrine proper, and a few other things we spotted as well (including some Engrish).

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November 23rd, 2007 1 comment

Sachi and I visited a nice park a few stations down from where we like. The park, Rikugien, was created in 1695 and donated to Tokyo City in 1938. It costs ¥300 to get in.

A lot of people were taking photos of the trees showing their autumn colors; there were some really beautiful sights in the park. A few of the pictures below have 1000-pixel blow-ups if you click on them.



There were a lot of people at the park today. Probably this was due to the day being the start of a 3-day holiday weekend, along with some sort of evening “light up the park” festival, which Sachi and I did not stick around for.






There were several tea houses in the park; you could buy some tea, and sit and enjoy the view.


I like this one. The sun was setting behind the trees, and made it look like a fire was burning behind them.



This bush is called “Murasaki Shikibu,” in part after the famous author of “The Tale of Genji,” and in part because “murasaki” is Japanese for “purple.”


This single branch stood out, as it alone in the whole area was lit by sunlight.


Birdwatching at the park was not bad, though all the birds were regulars, including tons of Bulbuls and Crows. There were the usual Spot-billeds along with Tufted Ducks and a few Common Pochards like this one.


Sachi and I sat not far from a small water source, and enjoyed this Great Tit coming to drink.




Just as we were leaving, we heard movement in the brush, and I caught this Black-faced Bunting foraging on the ground, as they are apt to do.

All in all, a lovely day. But on our way 2-mile stroll home, we ran across a small local festival, and decided to enjoy the length of it. These are always linear deals, with stalls lining the length of the festival, often repeating. Sachi and I bought a steak shish-kabob (okay but too fatty/gristly), and a small bag of “baby castella,” little bite-sized pound-cake style goodies cooked in a waffle-like grill (tasty!).



Why do those Near Eastern guys always have stands with those huge spits of meat?


Very realistic toy guns are popular with some Japanese; these were sandwiched between video game cartridges.


Umm, okay.


The actual shrine the festival was based upon.
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Eating Well

November 19th, 2007 Comments off

Apparently, the Michelin guidebook people have now crowned Tokyo to be the world’s new “culinary capital.” That may be so, but you know what? If you want really great food, going to a ritzy restaurant in downtown Tokyo may not be the best deal. Instead, think about staying at an inn in a resort town. Not big hotels, but little places with a dozen or so rooms. Sachi and I took two trips–one to Karuizawa last August, another time to Nasu Kogen in March this year. Both times, the food was excellent–just fantastic meals, multi-course dinners better than I’ve seen in expensive Tokyo places. Sachi is able to browse the tourism web sites and find coupon deals for places; the Karuizawa stay, for example, was $375 for two people for a 3-days-2-nights stay. Eating at top restaurants in Tokyo two nights in a row will cost you more than that. Of course, there’s no guarantee that any particular inn will have superb food; two places is nowhere near a representative sample, and maybe Sachi and I just got lucky. But considering that you also get a nice weekend holiday in a resort town out of it, it might not be a bad risk to take sometime.

That Could Make It a Bit Easier

November 19th, 2007 Comments off

The new Japanese immigration requirement for all non-Japanese passport holders (except for generational foreigners) to be photographed and fingerprinted seems to have a slight amelioration: instead of having to use the crowded “foreign passports” line, there will be a special “re-entry permit holder” for those who live in Japan but don’t qualify for quick pass-through. Via


We’ll still have to go through the photograph/fingerprint nonsense, but–depending on how many booths they open up for us–the lines may not be so insufferably long.

Still, Sachi and I will be separated at the immigration lines, whereas before we could have gone through together.

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Movie and a Dinner

November 17th, 2007 2 comments

Sachi and I just got back from a very nice night out. We saw Stardust, an unexpectedly very well-made fantasy flick, with equal parts of romance, comedy, and adventure, with a magical environment. Very good movie; it’ll make you laugh. And quite a cast: Ian McKellen, Peter O’Toole, Robert DeNiro, Michelle Pfeiffer, and even Ricky Gervais, along with a lot of new and not-so-well-known cast members.

Then we went out to The Hub, a British-style pub with branches all over Tokyo. They serve pretty good Fish & Chips, one of the only places in Tokyo to do so. Their food is great, but as can be expected in any pub in Tokyo, the cigarette smoke is oppressive. Despite catching the best seats, a pair at the farthest end of the “no smoking” section, we came out reeking of cigarette smoke. Next time we’ll have to see if the place does take-out.

Still, it was a nice Saturday night out.

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November 9th, 2007 1 comment

Paul just blogged on painting the walls of your house, and as I read it, I thought about whether or not this would ever apply to me. And then it struck me: I have never seen painted walls in Japan. At least not that I can recall. Every apartment, house, and office where I took notice, wallpaper was used. Usually it’s plain, textured wallpaper. A few times I have seen walls that look like a texture was sprayed on. But I do not recall ever having seen a painted wall. As much to the point, I have never seen much of a house-paint display in any “home center” store in Japan.

Sachi confirms this: painted walls in a house are a special thing in Japan. They exist, but are not common at all.


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It Wasn’t To Keep the Pavement Clean, That’s for Sure

November 6th, 2007 6 comments

Japanese people remove their shoes when entering a home, that much most everybody knows. But this one took even me by surprise, even after all these years in Japan: Japanese people remove their shoes before committing suicide.

This afternoon, less than a mile from where Sachi and I live, a woman committed suicide by jumping off the roof of a department store. Even more unfortunately, she landed on a man on the sidewalk below–not surprising, as it’s a busy sidewalk. The woman died, and the man was knocked unconscious and is in serious condition at a hospital.

They knew fairly quickly it was a suicide, however, because they found the woman’s shoes on the roof from which she fell.

I asked Sachi about that, and she was unsurprised by the shoe thing–it appears to be common knowledge. But Sachi could not explain why it is considered normal or appropriate to take off one’s shoes in a case like that. Is it traditional? Is it ritualistic? Is it representative of something? Or is it plain old fastidiousness? Do only jumpers do this? What about people who suffocate themselves in cars, do they remove their shoes first?

Anyone who knows about this, let me know.

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November 2nd, 2007 6 comments

Paul Tibbets, the man who piloted the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, died at age 92 today. There has always been controversy surrounding this, something that I have covered on this blog before. Extremists on both sides see it in black-and-white. On one side, Tibbets was a man who at the very least killed tens of thousands of people. On the other side, he was a hero who helped stop a murderous dictatorship and made unnecessary the deaths of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and millions of Japanese troops and civilians.

The thing is, as I figure it, the man was a pilot sent on a mission to drop ordnance. I just don’t see Tibbets himself as being that central to the issue. You might as well make a big deal over the man who drove Kennedy’s limo when he was shot, or the captain of the ship that brought missiles to Cuba. These people did not decide anything, they were not vital or irreplaceable. Tibbets was not much more than a lightning rod for a military decision made by the president of the United States.

That said, one thing did cross my mind in all this. Let’s say that Tibbets is buried at Arlington. What would Japan’s reaction be if Bush and several successive U.S. presidents made official visits each year to his grave site? It would be interesting to see what Japanese officials would make of such a spectacle.

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Parade Route

October 30th, 2007 1 comment

I’m beginning to think that Meiji Boulevard, one of the major inner-city traffic arteries, is an official parade route. A few weeks ago, at 7:00 pm–typically a rush time–some major festival occupied half the entire boulevard for at least a two-mile stretch. One would think that a matsuri, which after all depends on foot traffic, could survive on smaller streets instead of completely stopping traffic on major thoroughfares.

Tonight there was another one. At school, we could faintly hear chanting and singing pass by. A half hour later, on my way home, I encountered the cause: a parade, again taking up half of Meiji Boulevard, again at 7:00, causing a major traffic snarl. This parade was complete with a marching band and huge flag banners, and by that time, had traffic snarled up for a good mile behind it. While waiting for a large part of the procession to cross the street at an intersection where traffic lights were diverted for the parade’s passing, another biker told me that it was probably Waseda University celebrating some baseball victory. Swell–thanks Waseda, we are overjoyed with your victory and your decision to celebrate it by causing a major traffic jam.

My question is, why don’t the police–who in both cases were present in large numbers for crowd and traffic control–make these people celebrate in a place that cause far less disruption? And why do revelers want to tie up the only viable route of traffic in an area for thousands of people during rush hour? Especially for the baseball parade, which was not like a normal parade where people expect it and line the sides of the street to enjoy (a planned event for the benefit of the townspeople, with traffic warned and effectively diverted around it); it was instead, essentially, the celebrators by themselves, strutting down Main Street for their own pleasure. No warning, no signs suggesting detour, no reason for drivers to seek out side streets or back roads before they get mired in the traffic jam. Lovely.

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Nova Files for Bankruptcy

October 28th, 2007 11 comments

I was pretty busy editing together the opening video for my college’s Arts Day Festival, so I didn’t catch the news right away: with something like ¥44 billion (about $385 million) of debt, Nova has filed for bankruptcy. It’s stock has plummeted to 12 yen per share, and trading on it has been suspended; the stock is set to be delisted from JASDAQ. Saruhashi failed to show up to an emergency board meeting and was dismissed. The branches are all closed and all employees are effectively out of work.

From Japan Probe:

Nova schools across Japan have closed their doors, and it is not clear when or if they will re-open in the future. Nova’s official website has been taken down and replaced with a notice in Japanese that announces the bankruptcy and includes a Q&A telling students that they cannot get refunds now because all Nova’s assets are now under protection of the courts. Teacher and staff wages have also been delayed indefinitely.

Japan Probe is also the source of this rather black-humoresque depiction of the Nova Bunny:


What is decidedly not funny is the fact that about 4,000 foreign English teachers unlucky enough to have gotten on board with Nova are now up the proverbial creek without a paddle. Some are receiving help from their embassies, but most are getting little more than advice and offers to help contact family members. Qantas is offering the most tangible help, giving Aussie Nova teachers reduced prices on airfares home–but flights are filling up fast, if not already filled.

Of course, few can hope to get another job; the teacher market is likely now ridiculously flooded and way too competitive; it has to be a buyer’s market out there.

Imagine it: you’re not getting paid for the work you’ve done for the past month and a half or so; your landlord is evicting you because Nova pays the rent; there is no job to be found, or if there is, the pay and conditions are likely to be rock-bottom; and you may not even be able to book a flight home very easily. A British couple working for Nova reported to the BBC:

One Nova teacher, Alan Entwistle, 22, originally from the Wirral, told the BBC News website how he and his girlfriend Amy Jenkins were hit by the company’s collapse.

He said: “Neither of us have been paid for October and we’ve been told we’ve got to leave our apartment at the end of the month.

”We’ve ended up pawning some of our clothes. Now we are dependent on Amy’s savings. It’s a heartbreaking situation to be in.“

I am guessing that the rather bombastic union officials are going to be of very little help to the teachers now.

This is kind of like the Hindenburg of the English-teaching community in Japan, and is likely to have a negative impact on the profession for some time. Not a proud time.

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Hospital Sale

October 27th, 2007 4 comments

I went in to the local city hospital today to get an MRI scan ($51) and saw something weird. As I was leaving (via the Emergency Room exit, not many people there), along the hallway there was somebody selling fur coats. Not hawking them on the sly; rather, he was set up with three or four coat racks, along with a desk lined up along the side of the corridor.

I did not stop to ask, but really had to wonder: what the hell? Selling fur coats in a hospital emergency room corridor?? And, of course, the thought comes to mind: where do they get the coats from? But you really don’t want to go there….

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False Alarm

October 24th, 2007 3 comments

That must have been some false alarm. No fewer than nine fire trucks (and two ambulances) just pulled up outside, filling up the street for an entire block, across from my school.

There were no signs of smoke or other emergency, and then a truck made a loudspeaker announcement that there was no fire emergency.

A few of the fire trucks turning around and leaving in various directions:



My question is, what emergency would merit so many vehicles?


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Health Care in Japan

October 19th, 2007 2 comments

There is a new entry in which analyzes an email about Canada’s health care system. The writer claims to be a Canadian, but in the first two sentences s/he mentions both Hillary Clinton and Michael Moore, so you are immediately guaranteed that this is a right-wing screed likely to contain wild exaggerations and outright lies. And that’s pretty much exactly what Snopes finds.

It seems that most claims about socialized health care, from both sides, tends to be idealized. There is both good and bad, and when it comes down to it, far fewer differences between the systems than either side would like to admit. One big difference, however, is that in countries with socialized medicine, you at the very least get universal or near-universal access to health care, with both the good and the bad included. Costs, errors, wait times, etc. tend to be the same, except with socialized insurance more people are covered for essentially the same price to the country as a whole, which is a big reason I support the idea.

Here in Japan, I am on the Kokumin Hoken, or the “National Health Insurance” (NHI) plan. It’s the plan you sign up for yourself. There is another system (Shakai Hoken, or “Social Health Insurance”) which depends on co-payments from your employer. Both pay for 70% of all non-cosmetic medical costs, and those costs are kept low because the government here sets prices for treatment. Most doctors, clinics, and hospitals accept National Insurance; it’s not hard to find a place which has what you need.

Let me give you a recent example. A few weeks back, I started developing a few scotomas (blind spots) in my eyes. Having just moved to Ikebukuro, I went to the closest big hospital, Otsuka Hospital, for the first time. I was signed up with minimal paperwork and saw a doctor within one hour, despite having no appointment. (In fact, I do not recall ever having been made to wait more than three hours in a hospital in all my time in Japan.) The doctor did a preliminary exam to make sure that nothing serious or preventable was going on, and arranged for an appointment two days later for a visual field test and further consultation. I came back for the second appointment, took the tests (again within an hour, including the 30 minutes I had to wait for the pupil-dilation drops to take effect). The doc found nothing wrong, but just in case, scheduled me for appointments with their Internal Medicine department to see if arteriosclerosis was a problem (perhaps limiting blood circulation to my retinas), and a follow-up exam and tests a few days after that. Appointment scheduling was a bit crowded, so I would have to wait two weeks for them.

Total out-of-pocket costs (the unpaid 30%) for the two initial visits: $30.

But within a week after those visits, the scotomas seemed to be getting a bit worse, and I was (a) not content to wait another week and a half or so to get treated again, and (b) would have felt more comfortable with an English-speaking doctor, not to mention a specialist. On the web, I found a clinic about a 45-minute drive from home which had a Harvard Med-educated eye specialist. I called and they said that the doc would be holding a kid’s clinic on a Saturday, but I was welcome to drop by. I did, and the doc saw me within half an hour (and again, I got a clinic member card with minimal paperwork, just two minute’s writing). The doc was great, and spoke English very well. After an initial exam, he handed me off to a retinal specialist (who spoke no English but the first doc came and translated when necessary). They performed a fluorescein angiogram (injected a dye into my blood and then took many images of the retinal bloodflow), and found no blockages, leading them to conclude that the scotomas were likely caused by vascular spasms, and the blind spots would fade with time (so far, they have), with a nominal chance of some blind spots remaining. They prescribed medication to help bloodflow and prevent further spasms, and made an appointment for me to visit again the following Saturday.

Total cost for the visit, consultation by two specialists, pupil dilation, fluorescein angiogram, and one week of medicine: $45.

Keep in mind that these were initial visits without an appointment, I was admitted either on the spot or for the next day, never waited for more than one hour, and received prompt treatment from specialists.

This is not to say that all medical treatment in Japan is so great; what it does mean is that you can shop around and find the doctor and/or clinic/hospital that is right for you. You’re never locked into a specific doctor or location, you can see any doc at any location you want, so long as they accept the National Insurance. In my experience, you can usually find the medical service you want and need.

Did I mention that it includes dental? I found a great, U.S.-trained dentist in central Tokyo, speaks English, does great work, and is similarly cheap, but has up-to-date equipment in a nice, clean office, even with a great view of parkland while you’re worked on. And they do good work, too.

Despite not covering cosmetic work (you’ll have to pay full price to replace upper incisors, for example, even if it’s not literally cosmetic), you can sometimes find ways around it. I had a largish mole under my lower lip that would bleed a lot if cut shaving, and I worried about cancer and so forth; I went to a clinic about it, and though they found nothing wrong with it, they volunteered to give laser treatments to get rid of the mole entirely. This was somehow covered and cost little, with good results.

My biggest gripe: no preventive medicine that I can find. The insurance does not cover regular comprehensive checkups. However, you can get around that by going to the hospital and giving a complaint that would result in specific tests which, combined, could get similar results to a general checkup.

Premiums are in the form of a “tax” (not not rolled into other taxes, it’s paid separately), which is approx. 8.5% of your income, with a cap of ¥530,000 ($4600) per year. Alas, I have just reached that cap, and so pay the maximum amount. There are a lot of other aspects and benefits to the program I haven’t gotten into (or needed personally yet).

If you’re healthy and never need work, it can be a hassle to see all that money go to the system. But if you need to see docs relatively often, and you want coverage in case of something catastrophic, I think it’s a fantastic program. Of course, your mileage may vary.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2007 Tags:

Japan and Religion

October 18th, 2007 Comments off

This story about a cult which killed an elderly lady might be catching the eyes of people interested in Japan, and most of us are familiar with the gassing of the Tokyo subway by Aum Shinri-kyo (an attack that my brother and his wife narrowly avoided getting caught in). These kinds of stories tend to be the usual exposure we get to Japanese religion; not much else gets reported on them in the media. Oh, we’ll see the odd movie that shows a Japanese monk with the rounded hat, or a Shinto priest blessing a car, or something like that.

However, Japan is supposed to be a thoroughly religious society. See, it says so, right here on the label. According to the CIA World Factbook, 84% of Japanese “observe” both Shinto and Buddhist religions, and the remaining 16% observe other religions, with 0.7% of those being Christian. I’ve seen other designations that claim Japan is 98% Buddhist and Shinto.

The thing is, none of that is true. In fact, compared to America, Japan is about as non-religious as you can imagine a society being. At my college, we have young people with whom we discuss all manner of subjects, including religion. And few of them have any concept of religion at all. Neither is it only with young people; most Japanese, when asked, will tell you that they are not religious. People I have asked guess that maybe 20% of Japanese people, give or take somewhat, are religious to an extent we would consider being modest or normal in the West.

Oh, yes, everyone visits shrines and temples. However, that’s mostly just social stuff, not really connected to belief. Kind of like celebrating Christmas or having a minister at a wedding, it’s something that people do whether or not they believe. You go to Shinto shrines for weddings, Buddhist temples for funerals. You visit both or either on New Year’s, and each has its festivals and holidays and so forth. Sometimes you just visit because it’s a pretty or interesting place to go to.

Yes, Japanese people will “pray” when they visit; you throw your coin into the offering box, shake the rope with the bell at the top, clap your hands twice, and pray to the kami. But most Japanese seem to treat this the same way that westerners say “god bless you” when you sneeze.

Certainly, there are the fervent believers. Many do take the religions seriously, some make them their calling. But I would say that most Japanese see these religions as either cultural background or an insurance policy, kind of a just-in-case kind of thing. Many Japanese have some kind of belief about the afterlife or the nature of the universe, though that is more of a free-formed personal belief, rather than adherence to a specific religious doctrine.

As for religion itself, most Japanese people seem to treat it far more as a tradition to be upheld, and less like a serious set of doctrines to be followed. Especially Shinto, where there is less focus on morality and philosophy (compared to Buddhism or Christianity). A co-worker said he once met a Shinto priest who, in an unguarded moment, admitted that he didn’t take the whole thing too seriously himself–he did it as much out of familial loyalty than anything else.

Of course, most of the people I am exposed to are younger, and in Japan, that means less focused on religion. As might be expected, when Japanese people reach their senior years, there is more interest in religion, and more probability that the person involved will take it seriously.

Even then, religion in Japan is pretty quiet; aside from the odd Christians, few people will knock on your door and want to tell you about Buddha or Amaterasu. Yes, Soka Gakkai is (unofficially) affiliated with the Komeito political party, but you never hear about religious stuff being pushed in government. No bans on abortion, no mandatory prayer in schools, no abstinence-only programs, no demands for reshaping biology, geology, or history curriculums to allow for the creation of the Japanese islands by Izanagi and Izanami some three thousand years ago or whatever. The worst that happens in that sphere is prime ministers and their cabinets visiting Yasukuni Shrine (where some Class-A war criminals are enshrined), and that’s more of a diplomatic issue than one that actually affects one’s daily life.

All told, religion in Japan is refreshingly distant and hands-off. You’re allowed to indulge all you want; it’s there is that’s your thing, there’s nothing stopping you. But if you’d just as soon keep it at arm’s length and not have it bother you, Japan is much easier a place to live than is the United States, to be certain.

Yes, there are cults, but notwithstanding the extreme cases like Aum Shinri-kyo, they rarely if ever impact your life, unless a close friend or relative drags you into it.

Perhaps a lot of this has to do with there being far less in the way of a dominating holy book; there is nothing on par with the Bible or the Koran when it comes to Shinto or even Buddhism–nothing that dictates the shape of the world. You get the feeling that people in most Japanese religious sects could care less if you’re not interested, and don’t worry all that much about your soul, immortal or otherwise, if you care not to involve yourself. Mostly, it’s a matter of take-it-or-leave-it; there is no public pressure to subscribe to anything at all.

And that’s the way I like it.

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