Archive for the ‘Focus on Japan 2007’ Category

Japan and Acceptance

October 13th, 2007 2 comments

Tim mentioned this as a topic recently, so I thought I’d have a go at it. I’m no expert in Anthropology, but I do have some on-the-ground experience here in Japan.

The commonly held belief is that Japan is an exclusive society, and that it does not accept outsiders readily. This is true, and then again it’s not. It’s kind of like the belief that Japanese people are “polite.” Yes, they are, sometimes–and sometimes they are not.

A lot of this has to do with cultural differences not happening all in the same way. To use politeness as an example, it’s not as if Japanese people are “x” number of times more polite than westerners in all situations. Yes, in many social situations, Japanese can be polite to the point of obsequiousness. Where a westerner might just say, “sorry,” or “my apologies,” a Japanese might bow deeply and say, “taihen moushiwake gozaimasen,” or “I have absolutely no excuse for this!” On the other hand, if you have had much experience walking in crowded public places, you will probably have been jostled enough or nearly knocked down in such ways that you would expect an apology–but the Japanese person who just hit you just goes along their way as if nothing happened. Or you might see a middle-aged Japanese man in a business suit loudly hawk and spit–right in the middle of a highly-trafficked train station corridor.

It’s the same with acceptance of outsiders; in some cases, Japanese can be exclusive, but in others, they can be incredibly accepting.

One example of non-acceptance is common in the workplace. Foreign workers often find themselves excluded from all kinds of information and decision-making, even when it is open for even the lowliest worker in the office. On many occasions, I have seen or heard of people who were the last to hear of important news or decisions that involved them deeply. They simply were not consulted or told what was going on, even after having worked for the school for some time. Now, part of that example could be connected to language–office meetings are held in Japanese and foreign staff, who don’t speak the language, don’t attend–but that does not explain exclusion fully. Say, for example, a teacher’s schedule is to be changed; the teacher should be consulted first, or at least informed at the same time a decision is made. But to tell that person only after it is announced to part-time office staff who have no actual relation to the decision nor are affected by it–it is hard to see this as anything else than being excluded.

There are other forms of exclusion that come to mind as well: the great reluctance to allow non-Japanese to take on positions of authority or influence, for example. Foreigners are not allowed to become public school teachers (unassisted, at least) or take on public administrative roles of consequence. Japanese corporations setting up overseas have been known in the past to import leadership positions from Japan instead of allow them to be taken by non-Japanese.

And then there is immigration; Japan has always been stingy about allowing foreigners in; it usually allows in the least number of refugees, or is unwelcoming enough so that slots that are offered are often passed up on. It’s a lot harder to become a naturalized Japanese citizen than it is to become a citizen of many other countries.

This is what I had heard of coming into Japan. However, I have had experiences that have since belied an assumption of universal exclusion. One of the first was my host family experience. On my first trip to Japan, I had a homestay with a family, one of many arranged on that trip. But this one family was very, very accepting. They later invited me to stay again, and I visited several times over the years. But after just the first few stays, they invited me to their daughter’s wedding. In doing so, they did not just invite me to the reception, which is normal, but to the ceremony–which is very unusual. The ceremony is usually only a family thing, more private than the reception. The bride’s family sits along one side, the groom’s along the other, everyone in order of family seniority and closeness to the bride. I was seated as if I were the bride’s brother–not a small statement to make, especially in the presence of the groom’s family. And this was a countryside family, relatively conservative. At another time, when I visited and mentioned my mode of transportation while living in Tokyo, they started talking about that car that their daughter wasn’t using anymore–and I had to shut that line of conversation down as they seemed ready to give the car to me!

Sachi’s family has shown me similar acceptance. Part of this may be a family’s desire to please their daughter, but again, this is a conservative countryside family, and their acceptance upon meeting me was nothing short of full-hearted. It seemed much more than just the desire to please a family member. That kind of acceptance doesn’t come easily, and is not easily explained by a cultural predisposition to distrust outsiders.

Then there are examples of individual acceptance; people who are virtually xenophiles, people who accept you because you’re a foreigner, and not always just because you represent language practice (why are they so eager to practice language in the first place?).

There is a great deal of acceptance of foreign culture, if not the people themselves. Non-Japanese language is accepted almost too much into Japanese, with loanwords and English peppered liberally into Japanese. Foreign and especially American TV shows and movies are extremely popular. Ever since the Meiji period and after WWII, foreign styles have been adopted into Japan in almost every category one can think of, from clothing styles to education to administrative practices and so on. In fact, Japan has a long history of adopting things foreign–even the system of writing is adopted from the outside. China was a main source of cultural importation in the past, America and the West in general in the present. Baseball is now a Japanese national sport on par with Sumo, with Soccer catching up fast.

How can all that be in an exclusionary society?

Looking at the examples of personal decisions to accept or exclude, however, leads to the question: how much is simply the personal predisposition to accept or exclude? What is the difference between exclusion and simple xenophobia, or perhaps racism? There is certainly quite a bit of that in Japan, as I have blogged on a few times before. But that leads to a very uncomfortable question: can the rather common Japanese exclusion all be traced back to racism? Well, one possible answer is simple exposure: what you have become used to, what you know, is easier to accept. And Japanese have not been very much exposed to non-Japanese people.

Some of this is self-reinforcement, not becoming used to something because you’re not used to it. At one of my earlier jobs teaching in Japan, I was approached by my American boss, the teacher supervisor. He sought me out because of my experience in Japan, and asked me about a hiring situation. He had interviewed many teachers, and one stood out as most qualified–but she was African-American, the spouse of a serviceman at Yokota Base. My supervisor asked me if I thought that the students would be put off by her because she was black. My response was twofold: first, you can’t hire on that basis, and second, if the students are nervous about being around black people, it’s because they simply haven’t been around black people. By denying them the experience, you’re reinforcing the discomfort that exists in the first place.

The supervisor decided to hire the teacher, and she became quite popular with the students. But the question from my supervisor highlighted for me the entire question of acceptance, exclusion, and its causes.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2007 Tags:

Union Probe

October 6th, 2007 Comments off

David Markle over at Japan Probe has a pretty good rundown on how the General Union is not doing much in the Nova crisis, plus an analysis of the union itself. It gets deeper into the nature of the union than I have seen in my two experiences observing the NUGW (once at a workplace in the 90’s, and recently at a school associated with my workplace), but generally confirms what I have seen.

In a previous article on the Nova situation, I left a long comment on the union and its worth, in response to a mention of the union in the article. In short, the NUGW can be an albatross for a workplace, doing far more bad than good. They immediately turn the negotiating situation into an acrimonious one, make ludicrous demands, and grandstand as much if not more for their own high profile than for the good of the teachers. In the end, they leave the workplace more tense, restricted, and distrustful–and usually accomplish little or nothing at all for the teachers. In short, the union is good for little unless you’re really at the end of your rope with your employer.

If you’re interested in getting a better idea of what the union does and what it’s like, read both linked articles and their comments.

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Probably Not a Breakthrough

October 6th, 2007 2 comments

From the Chosun Ilbo, via Japan Probe:

A Kyoto court ruled partially in favor of a Korean woman who sued a Japanese landlord for refusing to rent a room to her. A Kyoto district court ruled that refusing to rent a room to a person due to her nationality is illegal and ordered the landlord to pay the woman W8.65 million (US$1=W916) in compensation.

Courts have taken a dim view of refusal to let rooms to foreigners since an Osaka court in 1993 ruled this went against the constitutional stipulation of equality before the law. But in reality, Japanese homeowners often reject foreign tenants citing differences in the lifestyle and customs. Counsel for the plaintiff said the ruling was a “head-on attack on discrimination based on nationality” and predicted it would help eradicate unfair discrimination against foreigners.

In case you’re wondering, the award comes out to ¥1.1 million, or about $9,500.

Now, seeing this, I kinda wish that option had been open to me in the past. Maybe it was, and I just never tried, but somehow I don’t believe it would have been so easy or assured; this woman may have simply gotten lucky with her judge, who clearly seems to want to make an example.

Also, the 1993 ruling mentioned may have something to do with things; the first four times I went apartment hunting were before that time, and I recall anti-foreigner sentiment, even in printed form, was rampant. Some fudosan-joho (apartment fliers, or the sheets of paper that each describe an apartment, giving all the info on it) would actually have written on then, “ペット、水商売、外人不可”–“No pets, bargirls, or foreigners allowed.” Rental magazines like “Apaman” would have a notation for which apartments accepted foreigners. I recall in my first few forays into apartment hunting, better than 95% of the apartments I asked about replied, “gaijin wa damé,” or “foreigners are no good.”

In later years, I heard less of this, and have not seen anything written that refuses foreigners–but even just this year, when Sachi and I were looking for a place, we still got refused because of my nationality fairly often–though rental agents would be a bit more circumspect in terms of that kind of thing, calling the landlord out of our hearing, and not saying “foreigners are no good” directly. I thought this was simply because of Sachi’s presence, but perhaps legal decisions since 1993 had some influence on that.

Also, if you read the last paragraph of the Chosun Ilbo story, it shed a bit of light on what may have allowed the woman to sue in the first place:

The woman signed a contract to rent a room through a real estate agency in January 2005. But after she paid the deposit to the landlord and commissions to the realtor, the landlord changed his mind since she was a foreigner.

I am fairly confident that the contract having been signed was a pretty significant element of the decision. I rather doubt that if someone simply refuses to even consider me for the stated reason that I am a foreigner, it would be pretty hard to make any claims; probably the landlord/rental agent filter could be used as an excuse, that there was a “miscommunication” or something.

Which also makes me pretty sure that housing discrimination will continue more or less unabated–they’ll just be sure not to leave any conclusive evidence of it, like they do in the U.S.

Which leads to the question: if they’re going to discriminate anyway, would you rather they be upfront about it, or that they hide it behind excuses? I would think the former manner is at least more honest and less problematic for the victims: one of the biggest problems with masked racism is that you have to wonder if every bad thing that happens to you is because of racism, as you are no longer able to discern between racism and simple bad luck.

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Bye bye, McNova

September 20th, 2007 4 comments

The infamous Nova language school, the most well-known of all the McSchools in Japan, looks like it’s on the verge of collapse.Nova-Usagi

Nova has been looked down upon in the teaching community in Japan for quite some time. It has been seen as a school that skimps on quality, mistreats its instructors, and short-changes its students. It is best know for its slogan, “Ekimae Ryugaku” (“Study Abroad Right Near the Train Station”), and its rather bizarre, pink, parrot-billed rabbit mascot.

Nova seems to have been a lightning rod for bad news stories over the years. In 1994, when two Nova teachers were caught possessing drugs, Nova demanded that all of its foreign teachers submit to drug testing (Japanese employees were not included in the testing). This set off a firestorm of protest, and boosted Nova’s teacher union to new heights. It was universally seen as a bad move–not only discriminatory, but also a public statement of lack of faith in their employees.

Last Winter, however, seven Nova teachers were arrested on drug charges–unrelated, of course, but still it did not look all that great. One has to wonder if the school’s eagerness to hire untrained teachers with the barest college degrees and working-holiday visas (the easiest to arrange for working in Japan) may have had some part in this–you hire whomever comes off the boat, you can’t be too surprised if you get some bad apples.

To add insult to injury, in March this year, a 22-year old female Nova teacher was found murdered, likely by one of her students, who remains at large.

But Nova’s real business troubles came about early this year. Nova had apparently been cutting the number of teachers it made available, creating teacher shortages during peak hours, and was investigated by the Ministry of Trade, Economy and Industry as well as other government and consumer organizations. Apparently, Nova was making fraudulent promises to students, and failing to honor cancellations students were entitled to, in violation of Japanese commercial transaction law.

After failing to make their case in the courts, in June Nova was banned from selling long-term contracts for six months. And since then, the company seems to have been spiraling down the drain. It is closing down 100-200 of its 900 schools.

But that’s not the part that seems to signal a collapse of the entire business. If the school were simply restructuring, that might be a sign of survival. But many of the branches that are shutting down may be doing so because landlords are complaining of non-payment of rent. Japanese employees are leaving the school in droves, according to the same story. And to top it off, many teachers are complaining that their pay is late in coming this month, after 2000 of its Japanese staff were not paid on time the previous month.

All of these are signs of a business in the process of self-destructing. Maybe I’m wrong, but I have seen these signs before.

Except for the impact on the thousands of employees who would lose their jobs, Nova’s disappearance from the language-school scene would not be a great disaster in itself; it’s not as if it was a model of great instruction or peerless business administration. It would be missed probably only a bit more than the long-defunct Bi-Lingual school, the one that advertised using ink ribbons and photos of foreign male teachers and young Japanese female students almost kissing. The education community can do with fewer schools like that.

The problem, however, is one of consumer confidence in the industry in general, especially if Nova closes its doors suddenly and leaves countless students hanging with paid-for lessons that will never be delivered. That has happened before.

In fact, it happened a long time ago to the side of the education industry I work in–American colleges in Japan. Back in the 1980’s, when Japan was flush with cash and seemed poised to rule the world, a few dozen American colleges and universities decided that it would be a great idea to set up branch campuses in Japan. Many schools did this without due consideration of all the factors involved, and that wound up hurting everyone later on.

First of all, most American schools had to partner up with a Japanese organization to handle the administrative and financial side to running a college in Japan, and many of them chose poorly. That, and the timing was bad–when the Japanese economy went south in the early 90’s, many of the partner companies went under, leaving the American colleges high and dry. Many closed their doors suddenly, leading to a collapse in consumer confidence, which led to the demise of most of the remaining schools (along with grade inflation and other problems).

Only a few schools survived, my own being one of them (primarily thanks to a serious partner organization and a doggedly committed home campus), but the mid-90’s were tough years. When I first arrived at my school in the late 90’s, we were at the nadir, with only several dozen students in the academic program. The first graduation ceremony I presided over, in fact, had all of two students receiving their diplomas. Things got much better over the following three years as we nearly tripled our student body, and graduating classes swelled to dozens of students per semester. (I’d love to claim cause-and-effect from my taking over the school, but that would be succumbing to the “post hoc ergo propter hoc” fallacy we teach our students to avoid.) Yes, enrollment hit a snag in 2002 after 9/11 scared students, but the school has done surprisingly well since then, especially in the face of a quickly-diminishing youth population in Japan.

However, for a while there, our school, like so many of the others, hit upon hard times–not because the school was deficient in any way, but rather because of the poor image that collapsing businesses left in their wake; we suffered by association. When there is a notable default and sudden closing-of-doors in the industry, it hurts everybody in that industry. Of course, my school is far distant enough from the Nova-class conversation schools that it won’t affect us (who knows, we might even benefit as people seek out more dependable schools), but the English Conversation industry is fairly certain to take a major blow over this–and that industry has already seen bad times in recent years.

When I came to teach in Japan at that level in the mid-80’s, it was not too hard to find a fairly well-paying job, and managerial jobs paid very well indeed. Today, pay for such jobs is depressingly low, and many jobs require teachers to take on classes with small children, something relatively rare back in the 80’s.

Nova is a disaster waiting to happen. The only question that remains, it seems, is how many others they’re going to take with them when they implode.

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The Squeaky Wheel and All That

September 8th, 2007 2 comments

Something I just realized about my cell phone: those ninnies over at Willcom seem to have slipped me a new battery. The old one was rated at 60% efficiency–it wouldn’t hold a charge for too long, but was enough to last the day on stand-by, which was good enough for me. I only asked that they repair the contacts to the charger, and when I originally went in, they claimed that a battery replacement would cost more than the “point” credits I had built up could pay for.

I’m also pretty sure that they did this in response to my getting upset at having been jerked around. I had never looked at it and noticed, but the battery is incorporated into the back panel of the phone. My phone previously had a lot of scoring and wear on the back before. Now when I look at it, it’s clean and new–on the battery part only.


The thing is, I happened by chance to see that the old battery was still in place after the main repairs had been completed. When I came in to pick up the phone, I checked out the repairs (you can see in the image above that the battery contacts–the gold insets at the bottom–were changed), and happened to note that there was all that wear and tear on the back. Later, when I got upset and let them know it because they made me come back again and again and again, they must have said, “This gaijin is pretty pissed off–let’s give him a new battery for free.”

The weird thing is, they didn’t tell me. Not a word. They didn’t point it out, though they had every chance to. When I picked it up for the last time, I did notice it looked nice on the back, but figured that this was just a change in the casing only. It was only later, when I noticed that the phone held more of a charge than usual, that I figured out what they had done.

Usually, I would expect them to announce such a thing, by way of reiterating an apology and saying, “look, we gave you a new battery.” Maybe they just figured that I’d notice it and appreciate it anyway. Not that I don’t–but I would have just as soon kept the old battery and not dealt with all that hassle. It’s not like I’m keeping this phone for one minute longer than the new iPhone is released in Japan.

One extra note here: did I get the new battery because I’m a foreigner? I hear this a lot from Japanese people I know who are familiar with foreigners in Japan. I hear it a lot: “Oh, you got that service because you’re a gaijin. They would never do that for a Japanese.”

Is this really true? Somehow I have the feeling that it’s not true as often as I hear–that instead, foreigners get these things more often because we ask for them, or complain more loudly. Anyone out there have more experience with this, and an opinion?

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September 7th, 2007 1 comment

We slept right through it, but that must have been one heck of a typhoon. I had tied down the cover on the exercise machines, and I mean tight. Polyethylene twine, tied off in multiple knots, up and down the machine in four or five different places. I did not imagine that it was possible for it to come off; the wind itself tended to flatten the cover against the side of the machine.

But when we woke up just now, the cover was completely off, hanging on to the machines by just a string.

I hope those things don’t rust….

Categories: Focus on Japan 2007, Ikebukuro Tags:

Typhoon #9

September 6th, 2007 3 comments

We’re really getting pummeled by this typhoon. Not disastrously, not right here, but sure as hell noticeably hit. The wind is something else out there, crashing and breaking over the north side of our building, spraying rain horizontally over our balcony windows. Sometimes we feel the walls shake and shudder under the pressure of the wind. The region is reportedly getting 400 ml of rain tonight, as the eye of the storm passes just west of our location, or it will over the next eight hours.

And this is just the edge of the storm.

They’re saying that this is the strongest storm to hit Japan in three years, and it’s heading pretty much straight for Tokyo. To give you an idea:


We’re the red “X” here in Tokyo. The red arrow shows the predicted path of the typhoon.


EDIT: I just got back in from tying down a few things on the balcony. My exercise machines are out there, and I had covered them–securely, I thought–with a tarp cover made for motorcycles, fits the elliptical trainer just about right. When I came out to look at it an hour later, I saw that the cover was half blown off, when I thought that would be impossible. So I went out again, with gales of wind billowing the cover tarp almost ridiculously, and tied the cover onto the machines with polyethylene twine. That stopped the billowing and should hold.

But standing out there was pretty impressive–sheets and sheets of rain moving horizontally at high speed in the wind.

I have to wonder what the heart of the storm is going to look like.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2007, Ikebukuro Tags:


September 2nd, 2007 3 comments

As you might already know, “public television” in Japan is expressed as NHK (“Nippon Hosou Kyokai,” or “Japan Broadcasting Corporation”). NHK has two basic channels, general and educational, as well as satellite versions. It is controlled by the state.

One of the big controversies around NHK is how to fund it. It is funded by viewer fees, collected by agents of NHK who come to your door (though many give via automatic bank payments). However, a lot of people don’t pay those fees, for whatever reason. The law as currently written requires payment, but does not allow for any punishment for non-payment. Because a lot of people don’t pay, it’s causing a stir in government; some are suggesting that penalties for non-payment be assigned, and that fees be cut by 20% to make it more palatable.

All of this comes across to me as exceedingly stupid. If you’re going to make it mandatory, then why not simply add the money to the national budget and collect via taxes? A lot cheaper, a lot simpler, and far easier to enforce.

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September 1st, 2007 Comments off

There’s an American who lives on my floor that I met for the first time several weeks ago. Very friendly, very outgoing; seems like a really gregarious, sociable guy. I’ve seen him around on a few more occasions; once walking into the building with another guy, and a few other times I’ve seen foreign men leaving his apartment. I didn’t know if it was the same guy or if each one was a different person. I assumed that he did business out of his apartment.

Well, it turns out I was right, sort of. I met him on the elevator again today. Again, just as friendly as ever. On the way down, I asked him about his work. He said that he ran several businesses. “One of them is a male escort business,” he said matter-of-factly. “I’m on my way to Starbucks right now to meet a guy about that. If I find him acceptable, I take him back to the apartment,” where, I assumed, they would work out the details of the work. I did not ask further.

Interesting who you meet in the hallways.

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One of Those Days

September 1st, 2007 3 comments

Warning: this is another post where I moan and whine about something minor that ticked me off. Feel free to skip over it.

For quite some time, my PHS cell phone had trouble charging, mostly because the contacts on the bottom where you rest it on the charger got worn through. I blogged on it before. I finally got it repaired… but didn’t know the hassle it would produce. First it was one of those runaround things, where the shop I bought it from said it was the service provider’s (“Willcom”s) responsibility; Willcom said it was the phone maker’s responsibility; and then the maker said it was Willcom’s responsibility.

The big trouble for me was the hassle of having to go to the Willcom shop. The closest one is located on the West side of Ikebukuro. If you know Ikebukuro, then you know that it’s not easy at all to get from one side to the other. Add to that the fact that the parking enforcement mercenaries seem to be out in full force in West Ikebukuro; I nearly got ticketed a few weeks ago when I went by scooter. Which means going by bicycle is necessary–but going by bike involves getting on and off the bike repeatedly to walk it up and down stairs and crap like that. So it’s no fun making the trip.

I had already made the trip once (I had to wait in line for ten minutes to get served) to find the shop and be told that it was the maker’s responsibility. Now, with the maker telling me to go back to Willcom, I fully expected them to deny responsibility again. What happened instead (after another wait in line) was almost worse: they accepted the responsibility to have it repaired. Which means I wasted a trip and time calling the maker; they essentially lied to me the first time. They accepted the phone for repair and gave me a loaner… but told me it would take an hour to have it fixed. So I had to waste an hour sitting there waiting for them to get around to doing a switch (which later they admitted could be done in 10 minutes). I couldn’t go back home, despite how close it was, because by the time I got back, I would have to turn around and leave again immediately.

After a week’s time, they called me back to say the phone was ready. So I went back… and was told to wait for another hour for the number to be switched back (this after waiting in line for fifteen minutes). Why didn’t they do that before I acme in preparation? Maybe they couldn’t have two phones like that at the same time, I don’t know. But I needed to get back home faster than that, so in frustration, I told them I’d pick it up later; they said, no problem, come and pick it up anytime.

So I just went back to pick it up. Guess what?

That’s right. It wasn’t ready. The server was down, they claimed. But they offered me the loaner back until they could get it cleared up. Why hadn’t they called me up when they discovered this, so as not to make me waste another trip? No answer, they just bowed very deeply in apology. Which was more frustrating–I didn’t feel like accepting any apologies, I just wanted not to be forced to waste more time and effort.

I stressed to them that the next time I came back, I just wanted to show up, be handed the phone, and then get out. They offered me the loaner back, but I was having none of that–I knew that they would again make me wait for as much as an hour while they tried to switch yet again. At which point they said they could do it in ten minutes. The hell with promises from these clowns, I thought. I said no, keep the loaner, make sure that my phone is reset and ready to be picked up without the hassle, before you call me and tell me to come over yet again.

Frankly, I can’t wait to get an iPhone and be rid of PHS. The one good thing it has going for it is that it’s cheap–I get a 2000-yen-a-month contract and 10-yen-per-minute calls. But PHS has weak signal strength, not as comprehensive coverage, and (now I have discovered) crappy service.

Rant over. What else is happening in the world today?

Categories: Focus on Japan 2007 Tags:

Back Streets of Akihabara

August 31st, 2007 6 comments

Akihabara is not what it used to be. It used to be the Mecca of electronics, the place where you could bargain and haggle. Well, you might be able to haggle in some places, but not like before.

I remember, years back, wanting to buy a Japanese word processor–back before PCs were commonplace in Japan, when everyone used these electronic type-writer like machines just for typing and printing. A “Wapuro.” I went to several stores in Akihabara, and asked prices. These prices were always listed for an item, but were almost always marked out in red–you had to ask for the price, and could usually talk it down somewhat. Each time I got the price for a store, I wrote down the store’s name and the price in a notepad, so I could remember who had what for how much. After going to four or five places, I noticed something: the prices I was given were lower for each successive store I visited–the first shop had the highest price, the last had the lowest.

I finally figured it out: each time I visited a new store, the salesman was getting a peek at the notepad I was carrying, checking out the lowest price, and then beating it by a little. I had been haggling down the price without ever realizing it. But that’s what Akihabara used to be–not just the little stores, but the big chain stores as well.

That no longer holds true. Akihabara is different today. Maybe you could haggle, but I don’t think you’d get nearly as far as you could have twenty years ago. Instead, you usually don’t even have to go to Akihabara; you can get good and sometimes even better prices by visiting the electronics chains like Yodobashi, Bic, or others like them in Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, or elsewhere. There’s even a new chain, Labi, which just opened up a big store in Ikebukuro. For a straight-out electronics purchase, I would usually go to places like these.

Akihabara has also transformed from an electronics heaven to mostly an anime and gaming heaven. On the main drag, at least, most of the stores seem dedicated to video gaming or some form of anime-related electronics/media. A shop bearing the name “DVD” in big letters likely won’t be selling any DVD players, but instead game DVDs.

But if you want to buy something unusual, Akihabara is the best place for it. For example, I wanted a region-free DVD player, one that could handle Divx files. For that combo, Akihabara was probably the best place; I found a good machine for it. That could be found in the bigger shops, ones that had duty-free sales for non-Japanese.

Similarly, I needed to get a USB keyboard–with an English, not Japanese, layout. I found a shop in Akihabara that specialized in keyboards, and had a few dozen English ones. For that, you have to go to the back streets.


Instead of shopping on the main drag, take a cross street to the streets behind the main drag, on the other side from the Yamanote Line. Here, you’ll find the real electronics heaven. Lots of little stores selling all manner of stuff in all manner of ways. A lot of shops will have these dirty plastic or cardboard bins chock full of cheap stuff, from knock-off products to cheap imports. I bought a 4-button mouse that was identical to a nice one I bought made by Logitech; everything was the exact same, except for the maker’s logo. The Logitech I had bought on sale at Yodobashi for ¥2000; this knock-off was for about ¥600.


It seems that almost anything can be found in those bins, from cables to removable drives to gadgets and toys to, well, whatever.


There was a ¥1000 3-megapixel digital camera with USB port that I was sorely tempted to try out, just for fun. A ¥650 set of wireless headphones. Any number of mice from ¥500 yen up, but the most expensive ones were still cheaper than the cheapest ones at the major retail outlets.


A lot of the shops get way too techy for the ordinary buyer, though–for example, there are lots of shops which sell stuff for people to make their own PCs.

But if you really want elemental electronics, try visiting the place I refer to as The Maze. Very close to JR Akihabara station, it’s a building on a fair-sized plot of land that long ago was converted to stalls in narrow aisles open to the outside.



In here, you can buy loads of just about anything and everything electronic–not computer-related, necessarily, but electronics-related. There are shops which sell nothing but wiring, or nothing but LED lamps and other lighting bits and pieces. One shop sells nothing but old but functioning radio tubes, some priced in the hundreds of dollars. For the home electronics-engineer hobbyist, this place is a treasure trove. You can also find larger components and systems, especially surveillance cameras/closed-circuit TVs, GPS systems for cars, and stuff like that.

These places are the main reason to go to Akihabara these days… unless some big new anime-based video game is going to be released. But I like the back streets better.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2007 Tags:

It’s a Wonder She Didn’t Die

August 30th, 2007 2 comments

This in the news today:

[A] 38-year-old woman, who was in the sixth month of her pregnancy, was being driven to a hospital near the western city of Osaka after she suffered from stomach cramps and bleeding, according to Kyodo News agency and other local media.

Nine hospitals closer to her home in Nara prefecture (state), over 40 kilometers (25 miles) away, had earlier refused to admit her, saying they were full, the reports said.

Her water broke two hours into the journey. Ten minutes later, the ambulance collided with a minivan.

There is just so much wrong with this story, but it reinforces my apprehension about ever needing an ambulance in Japan. Honestly, unless I feel it’s necessary, I will seriously consider hailing a taxi instead, especially if there is nothing that can be fixed before getting to the hospital in any case. At least taxis drive aggressively. Ambulances here tend to be rather slow and over-cautious.

So, why did the ambulance in question get into the accident? It’s possible that the driver was panicked by the patient being in such dire straits, with so many hospitals refusing service and the only accepting one so far away. But there’s even money on the bet that it wasn’t the ambulance driver’s fault.

Here in Japan, I have noticed an alarming disregard for emergency vehicles by drivers. Every time I see a fire truck or ambulance approach an intersection with sirens blaring and lights blazing, I stop immediately–and am always shocked by how many people don’t stop. Just a few weeks ago, I was at an intersection near Tokyo Dome, and an ambulance was clearly, audibly and visibly, approaching from the cross street. I had stopped early, but most traffic continued until the ambulance came to a stop at the intersection, shouting pleas over their loudspeaker for traffic to clear. Despite this, a car simply ran through the intersection, making the ambulance wait… and then, to my shock, a city bus drove through after the car as if nothing unusual was going on. No way the bus driver did not see the ambulance. This was egregious, even for Tokyo. And yet, I shouldn’t be shocked, as I see this kind of thing all too often.

That’s why I have the feeling that the minivan driver was at least partly at fault: I can so easily imagine the driver simply deciding that where he was going at 5:10 am was more important than some ambulance.

So what happened to the poor woman then?

After the accident occurred, the hospital in Takatsuki refused to admit the woman, with one official telling ambulance workers, “Treatment is difficult as the woman has already had a miscarriage. We also have an emergency operation.”

Another two hospitals refused admission and after another request the initial hospital in Takatsuki decided to admit her.

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Net Cafe Refugees

August 29th, 2007 4 comments

Well, this is interesting. Hadn’t heard of this before. Apparently, there is a growing number of people who are homeless, but still making just enough money to get by–but not enough to get an apartment, apparently, or at least they prefer not to have one. So instead, they spend their nights at Internet cafes, which provide shower facilities and even sell clean underwear. Honest–unless this is a huge hoax that someone put over on the news services. Supposedly, the Japanese government has found 5,400 people who do this, regularly.

The story I found claims that the “refugees” spend ¥3000 for a 5-hour stay (with a meal provided) and get a shower for ¥200 extra. However, I find that pricing to be suspect; 30 days in a month, ¥3000 yen/day, that’s ¥90,000 per month. While an Internet cafe might be nice, one can rent an apartment for much cheaper than that, if you’re willing to settle for less-than-luxurious conditions.

Either the prices most of these people pay are much cheaper (and I’m guessing that you can find much better than ¥3000 for 5 hours if you look hard enough–I found a cafe that was ¥400/hour for a two-person booth, and I am sure that many drop their prices for the late night customers), or the people in question simply prefer things to be taken care of for them, not to mention having a nice space provided–some of the Internet cafes offer good surroundings.

It is also a good alternative to a hotel. I remember staying in a capsule hotel once, and it was horrible; it was essentially a watering hole for drunk businessmen who were either snoring loudly, watching TV loudly, or were congregating in the corridors and chatting all night. Nor was it really that cheap; an Internet cafe would be cheaper, and likely a lot less noisy.

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August 26th, 2007 1 comment

Sometimes, living with Sachi, I pick up a good expression in Japanese, here and there. One that I got a while back was when we were watching the movie Mr. and Mrs. Smith. As they went through that long battle scene through their house, Sachi kept saying, “arienai!” (“有り得ない!”)* Sachi asked me how to say that in English; at the time, the best I could come up with was “That’s impossible!”

Tonight, we watched The Princess Bride, a very nice movie, one of Rob Reiner’s earlier directing jobs (Reiner is a very dependably good director). As we were watching it, I was explaining a lot of the vocabulary to Sachi (the DVD I have didn’t have subtitles, neither Japanese nor English). And one of the oft-repeated words in the film appealed to me as the perfect translation for “arienai”: “inconceivable!

*I tried to write the Japanese for this, but have just discovered that Japanese won’t print here… bug #17 that I have to try to fix…. Fixed it. Configuration file problem.


August 19th, 2007 Comments off

Walking to the station the other day, a brief question-and-answer Sachi and I shared reminded me of an interesting linguistic difference between English and Japanese. Wanting to know which route we should take, I asked, “Do we go straight ahead, or turn left?” Sachi answered, “Yes.” I laughed, but I understood: we turn left.

I have encountered this before in Japan: when asking a binary “A or B” question, the answer “Yes” means the latter is correct. To an English speaker, however, that sounds like a joke answer–as if both were the correct reply. However, I have yet to probe this deeply; for example, I have never heard “No” to mean the former of the two choices as being correct. Nor am I sure of how strong a linguistic certainty this is; I don’t seem to get much agreement from Japanese speakers that this is the way Japanese people answer such a query, though I have witnessed it many, many times.

In contrast, there is a much more established difference between the two languages, concerning the answering of negative yes/no questions. Positive questions (such as “Do you have a problem?”) are answered the same way in English and Japanese; however, negative questions (e.g., “You don’t have a problem?”) are answered differently.

In English, we answer “yes” or “no” based upon the positive or negative status of the answer; for example, if you do have a problem, you answer “Yes,” because the answer is that you do (positive) have a problem. If you don’t (negative), then you answer “No.” The positive or negative sense of the answer always matches the “Yes” or “No” reply.

In Japanese, however, the answer depends on the truth of the question; in other words, if the assumption of the question is true, then the answer is “Yes,” even if the question is negative. Ergo, the question, “You don’t have a problem?” is answered “Yes, I don’t”–“Yes” because the question was true. If the question is not true, the answer is “no,” as if to say, “no, you’re wrong,” even if the answer is stated in the positive–as in, “no, I do have a problem.” Kind of like the old song, “Yes, we have no bananas today.”

The same structure is used in Chinese, and, I suspect, most far-eastern languages. I remember a story told in a movie a few decades back (“Chan Is Missing“), where a Chinese man is stopped by a traffic cop in San Francisco. The cop holds that the Chinese guy ran a stop sign; the Chinese man insists that he did not. Eventually, the cop asks, “You didn’t stop at the sign, did you?” And the Chinese man answers, “No!” Of course, he meant, “No, I did stop!” but the American cop took that to be an admission that he didn’t stop, and so wrote him the ticket with greater confidence.

I always try to teach this difference to my students. When I ask them if they have any questions, they usually answer “no.” So I add, “Ah, so you have no questions? Then they answer “Yes.” So I come back at them with, “So you do have a question!” To which they answer, “No!”…. and that can go on for as many as three or four cycles until they catch on. By the end of a semester, nobody gets caught by that little trick, and they are all aware of the difference. It’s a funny little instructional gag that everybody enjoys. But it effectively demonstrates the trouble you can get into by making assumptions based upon your own language’s patterns when speaking a different language. In this case, I tell my students that it is safer to give a full answer rather than just a simple “yes” or “no”; to answer “Yes, I have no questions” is more clear than the simple “Yes” if you don’t correct for the language pattern difference.

Another slightly different example of language assumptions is with the Japanese phrase “muzukashii.” That word, literally, means “difficult,” but used in certain circumstances, means “no way in hell can we do that.” It is more polite to covey the idea subtly; instead of refusing a customer’s request, a shopkeeper will instead say it is “difficult” to do it. Japanese people instantly recognize this contextual clue and stop asking for the thing. Westerners, however, think that it is simply a matter of effort, and so keep asking how the task can be accomplished, and are confused and frustrated when the Japanese person keeps talking about how difficult it will be. “Yes, yes, I know it’ll be difficult–you’ve told me three times already! But can you do it??

While this seems entertaining in itself as a quirk of translation, I should at some point do a post about how such mistakes so commonly occur between people speaking the same language, but assume a particular word means something very different. Like “atheist” and “agnostic,” for example–but in situations a lot less clear-cut than even that.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2007 Tags:

Four Years

August 2nd, 2007 2 comments

I almost missed the milestone: today is my fourth anniversary of non-stop blogging. 1,461 days (365 x 4 plus a leap year day) since August 2, 2003. That was a photo post on my college’s graduation day (we’re holding it on the 4th this year, keeping it on a Saturday). I noted the first anniversary, the second, the third, and then today is the fourth. Makes me wonder what’s be happening when I reach year five.

Today, I kept busy with a meeting at work (we’re getting moving on switching our internal email system to GMail, specifically Google Apps for Education), grading tests, and doing shopping outside. Tonight, there seems to be an O-bon Dance festival at Sunshine City–I can hear the music from here (150 KB mp3 audio), and you can see a bit of the setup between the buildings from our balcony.


That’s the Prince Hotel on the left, the NTT Building on the right, the Sunshine 60 Tower behind the NTT Building, and Shinjuku skyscrapers above in the middle. The O-bon festival is below and center. Closer up, it looks like this:


A very standard O-bon setup–you can see similar photos I took a few years back in Inagi. There’s always a square platform in the middle, lanterns and lights strung out from that central area, people dancing around it, a wider circle of spectators beyond that.

Later, Sachi came home and we went to what is now our usual yakitori place–not the mom & pop place, but the bigger restaurant around the corner. The one where there’s an old guy who comes in every night and monopolizes the waitress’ time with idle chat. Before we left, a group of seven or eight older men came in wearing garb that told us they were with the O-bon festival themselves. It seemed like they had gotten an early start on the drinking, and were ready to get soused. So after a few made bombastic and half-drunk attempts to speak English to me, we finished and left, with a friendly “goodbye!” to the O-bon guys.

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July 27th, 2007 12 comments

Just got a flier in the mailbox for a pizza place (the one starting with “D”). Just wanted to make an observation.

First they had “extra cheese” on pizzas. Then they escalated to injecting cheese into the edge of the crust. Then they enlarged the crust so they could shove even more cheese into it, essentially creating a cheese-filled danish at the end of each piece. Now, it seems that they are getting even closer to dropping the pretense of there being pizza involved as opposed to finding new “delivery systems” for melted cheese. Hence, the “Quatro Cheese Melt”:


I mean, seriously. Why not just hand people a bucket of melted cheese and be done with it? Who’s being fooled into thinking that this is a food dish rather than just the equivalent to putting a bowl of cheese into the microwave and then eating it by scooping it out with your hand? Anyone?

But they do pay attention to the non-cheese portion:


Interesting flavors. They include “meat,” “ethnic” (which I assume is some form of salsa), “spicy,” and “white sauce.” I presume that the “white sauce” is a clever way of saying “even more cheese.”

But hey. Fake Japanese Elvis Guy gives it the thumbs-up, so what can I say? Better hurry and order now, though–you’ll only be able to gorge on these things for another five weeks.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2007 Tags:

New on the Menu

July 21st, 2007 1 comment

0707-Diet CokeSomething new I noticed: Diet Coke has suddenly appeared on all the menus of fast food places in Japan. For a long time, I wanted to get a diet drink at these places, but none of them had it, except for Subway (Diet Pepsi). Now, I eat at hardly any fast food joints except for Subway, but I have noticed they all seem to sport diet colas now. Last week, when shopping with Sachi in Sunshine City, I needed a fast drink, and noticed it for the first time. Since then, I noticed it at KFC as well. Interesting…

Categories: Focus on Japan 2007 Tags:

New Costco

July 20th, 2007 2 comments

In preparation for our housewarming party tomorrow, I went to Costco early this afternoon. One of the down points about moving away from Inagi was leaving behind easy access to a Costco; the Tama-Sakai store was less than a 20-minute scooter ride away. And since Costco keeps prices low in part by setting up in way-out-of-the-way locales, that means that Ikebukuro is quite a distance away from any one of them. A cost of living centrally.

Now, just last week, a new Costco opened up in Kawasaki. Like other Costcos, it’s in a hard-to-get-to location, but it is the closest one to central Tokyo yet. It’s just across the southern border of Tokyo in Kawasaki City. The address is 3-1-4 Ikegami-Shinmachi, Kawasaki City, Kanagawa. You can Google-Map it here. It’s about a 1-km. walk (perhaps 20 min.) from the closest station, Sangyo Doro Station–and that station is not on a line directly to or from Tokyo. It’s on the Keikyu Daishi Line. The best way to get there from Tokyo is to go to Shinagawa Station and transfer to the Keikyu Main Line; go to Keikyu Kawasaki, and transfer to the Daishi Line.



Now, as the crow flies, the new Costco is just 23 km. from where I am now; the old Tama-Sakai store is 35 km. However, to get to the new Kawasaki store, I have to go through the heart of Tokyo, and that’s never easy. It took me an hour to get there, and an hour to get back, taking different routes each way. By train, it would be almost an hour on the trains alone; add 12 minutes from home to the station, and 20-25 min. from the station to Costco, and we’re talking an easy 90 minutes here.
To get to the old Costco from here would actually be more or less equivalent in terms of travel time. Maybe a bit longer by scooter, but almost identical travel times by train. This despite the Tama Sakai Costco being a lot farther out. Count on Costco to find even more and more inconvenient places to locate…


Now, if you own a car and you don’t mind paying tolls, then you’re in luck; the new Costco is right along an expressway; if I were to take that route, it would likely be a very short trip, certainly less than half an hour door-to-door.

However, if Costco is too far away, and you’re just looking for foodstuffs, you might want to try Niku no Hanamasa. Before now, I liked the shop, but was not too impressed. The reason: I only saw the Shinjuku-Kabukicho store, which does not have all that much great stuff. I simply assumed that they were all like that. But when I checked out the Ikebukuro store this week, I found out that this was not the case.



The Ikebukuro store beats the Kabukicho store all to hell. There is tons more in terms of selection, loads and loads of beef, but also generic but good foods of all types. They have very good wine for very cheap. Good dried fruits. Low-fat yogurt ice cream, which is pretty good. Some imported foods. And so forth and so on.


One surprising thing: their beef is cheaper than Costco’s. I got some Filet steaks from both places; the quality was about the same, but Costco charges ¥600 per 100g for American filets, while Hanamasa charges ¥400 per 100g for Aussie filets. The difference in taste is inconsequential enough to make Hanamasa far more desirable on that count.

Of course, Hanamasa doesn’t have all the great stuff you’ll find at Costco, even as far as food is concerned. But if you’re jonesing for some cheap food, especially meat, Niku no Hanamasa could be a good source for you. Find a store near you.

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Return of the King

July 18th, 2007 5 comments

0707-Bk Sc1-450

0707-Bk Sc2-450

In the wake of Krispy Kreme’s insane success, Burger King has returned to Japan, and their second shop set up business in the basement of Sunshine City last month. A very good location–they are the first shop people see coming in through the underground passage starting at Tokyu Hands. Their success does not seem to come close to rivaling Krispy Kreme’s, but they had pretty long lines; the McDonald’s down the way had nobody in line, despite a steady supply of customers.

The location might explain some of it, but likely it’s the “new thing” effect that Krispy Kreme totally made off with that has helped out Burger King. The chain was previously here in Japan for several years, but lost out to McDonald’s in a price war.

In the meantime, McDonald’s, feeling the heat from places like Starbucks, has decided to start their own brand of McCafe at the end of August, offering low-cost alternatives to Starbucks. What, a McFrappuchino for ¥250?

Categories: Focus on Japan 2007, Ikebukuro Tags: