Archive for the ‘Focus on Japan 2009’ Category


August 30th, 2009 1 comment


The LDP, Japan’s dominant political party for most of the past 65 years, has just gotten it’s butt kicked, hard. With 30% of the contests still undecided, the Democratic Party has won 52% of the seats in the all-important Lower House of Parliament (or about 70% of seats decided so far). If they keep this rate up, they could be looking at about 65% of all seats in the house, giving them firm control of government.

This has been pretty clear in coming, but still, it’s quite a pasting.

Party (Japanese Name) Seats Won
Democratic Party (Minshu-to) 251
Liberal Democratic Party (LDP / Jimin-to) 61
Clean Governance Party (Komei-to) 11
Communist Party (Kyosan-to) 2
Social Democratic Party (Shakai Minshu-to) 2
People’s New Party (Kokumin Shin-to 3
Independent / Other 10
Not yet decided 140

For those unfamiliar with the Japan Democrats, they are not analogous with the American Democrats; they are more liberal than the LDP, but I do not get the sense that they are flaming liberals or anything. They campaigned on some points similar to the Obama campaign, such as transparency, fiscal responsibility, and generally overthrowing the corrupt bastards in power. They are also free-market, promise to decentralize government and put a good deal of power back into the hands of the people (local governments, from what I can tell). They ran on human rights, pacifism, and a focus on good international relations.

Whether any of this will translate into actual change… we’ll see.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2009 Tags:

Second Large Earthquake in 3 Days

August 11th, 2009 1 comment

Sachi and I were woken up just after 5am this morning by a quake just as strong as the one two days ago. Not much to report specifically aside from the usual shaking and swaying–and then we went back to sleep. (It was five in the morning!)

According to the news, this one was 6.5–a touch weaker than before–but had an epicenter much closer to the coast, this time just off Izu Peninsula. And unlike before, the magnitude of the quake was felt much more strongly near the center. In Tokyo, the strength felt was 4 on the Japanese scale of 7, but nearer the epicenter, the strength was a “low” 6–enough to throw items off shelves. Several dozen people were hurt, none reported killed so far.

Two large quakes in such a short time are certain to stoke speculation that a third, and much bigger one, is on its way. Wheee. Let’s hope, however, that these largish temblors are serving to release tension in the fault lines, and are doing the reverse of what people may fear.


Categories: Focus on Japan 2009, Ikebukuro Tags:

That Felt Pretty Darn Big

August 9th, 2009 2 comments

Quake in Tokyo, 7:56 pm. Sizable.

Wow, that was probably the strongest earthquake we’ve felt in our Ikebukuro apartment, and the strongest temblor I recall for quite a long time. It may have been magnified by the fact that we’re fairly high up in a tall building, but still, that was sizable.

News reports mark it as being centered in the Pacific, just south of Shizuoka Prefecture, maybe only 30km off the coast–but it was pretty big, at a magnitude of 6.5 to 7.0 on the Richter scale. On the Japanese scale of 1 to 7, Central Tokyo was marked as a “4.” A 2 is barely noticeable, and a 3 is easily felt and relatively common.

But if that was a 4, I don’t want to feel a 6. Even a 5 would be pretty scary. This 4 was bad enough.

Update: The Bosai site is saying that there was a quake at 7:55 200 km south of the 7:56 quake which measured 7.5 on the Richter scale!

Now more sites are identifying the more southern epicenter.

Otherwise, the quake info looks strange–locations close to the quake felt is less strongly than many places 1-200 km more distant. Looking at the strength as felt on the ground, one would think that the quake was centered north-east of Tokyo.


Categories: Focus on Japan 2009, Ikebukuro Tags:

20% Sales Tax

March 22nd, 2009 3 comments

I have heard this idea tossed around for some time in Japan–to increase the national sales tax from 5% to 20% and so do away with some other taxes. To me, this sounds like a foolish idea–it is essentially a way to tax the poor and give the rich a relative break, and could be a huge brake on spending in general. As I recall, the last times they raised the sales tax–from nothing to 3%, and then up to 5%–the economy did very poorly. Of course, other things happened at those times that make it uncertain as to how much of a bad effect the sales tax increases alone had, but it seems almost intuitive.

I do recall that before Japan had the sales tax, there were other taxes, like luxury taxes, that were aimed at the rich–and these taxes disappeared, the sales tax taking their place. To me, the sales tax in Japan has always seemed a way to make taxes in Japan less progressive. And it helps to remember that there are no exceptions for the sales tax–you pay the tax for food, for example, unlike in the United States.

However, my understanding of this issue and how it works is spotty at best. So could somebody explain to me how a 20% national sales tax is not a bad idea?

Categories: Economics, Focus on Japan 2009 Tags:

Mini Castella

March 19th, 2009 2 comments

These are a great little snack: Mini Castella. “Castella” are a kind of pound cake, and sometimes you will see stalls along the street which make small balls, slightly smaller than golf-ball size versions of these, called mini castella.


In the basement of the Ikebukuro Mitsukoshi Department Store, they have a mini castella stand which produces a variety–cheese pudding filled, chocolate filled, maple flavored, and a few more, but the all-around favorite is the Caramel Flake, which is a castella filled with a good dollop of caramel cream with crunchy flakes. Yum. And not too expensive–each one is two bites, and you get 32 for about $10. (Well, not expensive for Japan, at least.)

I got these when Sachi’s friends came to visit, and they quickly disappeared.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2009, Ikebukuro Tags:

One at a Time, Please

March 18th, 2009 1 comment

New Rule: if you use an ATM, especially if there is only one terminal and a line of people waiting, you don’t get to do more than ten transactions.

I see this a lot in Japan: people who come to ATM machines with a fat envelope, and it turns out they have about 20 passbooks. They then monopolize the machine for a good 15 minutes, sometimes even longer, doing transaction after transaction after transaction. I don’t know if these people simply have a ton of accounts, or if they are deputized to carry out the banking business for a large group of people. (Does this happen in the U.S. as well? I never saw it.)

I got caught behind one of these people today. Just a few hours before I have to leave for a flight, and I have to waste a quarter of an hour for this guy to do his business. Meanwhile, a long line of people are forming behind me. After we reached the 15-minute mark, I asked him–extremely politely, though my irritation might not make that sound likely–when he might be finished. He completely ignored me.

Whatever the case, these people should not be allowed in ATM lines. If they have that much business to do, they should either go to a proper bank or at least find an ATM kiosk which has multiple machines.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2009 Tags:

Birthday Dinner

March 10th, 2009 2 comments

Every year for her birthday, I take Sachi to a fancy restaurant (Sachi reciprocates on my birthday exactly three months later). This time I chose a place in Ebisu, where Sachi used to work (she worked in Ebisu, not at the restaurant). It’s called the Cardenas Charcoal Grill, and is really, really good.

The place is about 4 or 5 minute’s walk from JR Ebisu Station. You go down to the basement level, but the ceilings are so high you figure that it reaches up to the 1st floor that way. Fearing cigarette smoke, I had asked for a private room, but when we got there, the room was just a cramped side room kept way too hot by an air conditioner in the ceiling. We opted for the main dining area and did not regret it–it was virtually smoke-free (the smokers were in another area, I gathered) and far more pleasant.

We started off with two beers and a nice Caesar Salad, which was tasty though not phenomenal. Around this time they brought the bread, which also was not fantastic–but they served it with a whipped butter with maple flavoring, which was fantastic. Then we got a small plate of fois gras with pita bread, which was very tasty if you can get past the animal-cruelty part.

Alas, the lighting was very low and our iPhones not all that great at low-light photography–but you can get the idea from these snapshots.


Then we got a less politically-incorrect plate, a chicken-and-avocado tortilla roll with fresh salsa. It was dominated with vegetables to the point that I didn’t really taste or even see the chicken or avocado, but we didn’t mind, it had a very rich yet light flavor and was very good.


About this time we got a decanter of a Chilean Pinot Noir (Pinot is my personal favorite) which was excellent, and I had a nice Sangria on the side (which had a wonderful flavor accented surprisingly well by a bit of mint).


But then came the main course: I had a U.S. sirloin steak, Sachi the “Platinum Pork,” and both were, as I often put such things, “pure evil.” Both came with a serving of bacon-and-something mashed potatoes. Mine was topped by a slab of butter, Sachi’s pork was accompanied by a sole spare rib (Sachi passed on it and I devoured it). Both were as good as they sound.



Finally, it being Sachi’s birthday, we finished it off with a plate of small cakes lit with a candle and two sparklers. There were maybe eight small cake pieces and two medium daubs of ice cream (vanilla and strawberry ice). The best cakes were a rich chocolate almost-brownie and a very soft cheesecake.


The total damage came to about ¥16,000 (about $160), which was not bad considering that the decanter of wine alone cost about ¥3400 and the dessert plate was about ¥2000. For the rest to cost only about $50 a person was pretty impressive; I would have expected it to cost more. If you’re willing to spend that amount but not be bled dry for a very nice dinner, try this place out.


Categories: Focus on Japan 2009 Tags:

Smoking Room

February 23rd, 2009 3 comments


The local Subway Sandwich shop had a renovation recently, and when they re-opened, they still didn’t have a toasting oven. But they did have what is pictured above: they walled off one side of the restaurant and made it the smoking area. Completely sealed it off, glass walls and door.

This is rare if not unheard-of in Japan. If a restaurant has a no-smoking section, then it is almost always a corner of the room, and if you’re lucky then there is an air conditioning unit in the ceiling which generally blows the smoky air away from your direction. But usually you are simply in a smoking room where the smokers don’t sit right next to you. At best, if the restaurant has more than one room, one might be a no-smoking room–but don’t bet on it. Starbucks really brought something new to Japan with the whole no-smoking-period policy.

For this Subway shop to have a walled-off room like this was really a surprise.

So, naturally, they usually have the door propped open.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2009 Tags:

iPhone Big in Japan

January 17th, 2009 2 comments

In a recent survey, the iPhone was voted the best smartphone in Japan. Because this was not a scientific survey, one has to take it less than faithfully; however, the fact that the iPhone won the survey by such a wide margin says quite a bit.


This despite all the naysaying about how and why the iPhone would fail. It was probably not even related to the iPhone getting emoji, or the add-on One-seg TV viewer, or having phone-strap capability by adding a rubber sleeve/cover. The fact is simply that the phone is way cool. I do not mean that flippantly; I have seen people in my school, for example, using a variety of cell phones and they never get mentioned; however, whenever I am using my iPhone, it always draws attention. Everyone knows about the phone and is curious about it. Not to mention that I’m starting to see it more and more (another tenant in my building, passers-by on the street) which is not too common with the plethora of cell phone models out there.

Probably the main reason why the iPhone has not completely dominated the market is because it is linked to SoftBank; had DoCoMo been the carrier, it would likely be far more popular.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2009, iPhone Tags:

No Lightsaber, Though

January 15th, 2009 2 comments

Today, Sachi finished the training and study she’s been pursuing for a while now, and received her certificate: she is officially a Master of Gendai Reiki Ho. Congratulations, Sachi!

Categories: Focus on Japan 2009, Ikebukuro Tags:

Dum-Dum, DUM DUM, Dum, Dumb

January 6th, 2009 1 comment

Sachi was watching a program recently which involved some celebrities and athletes (including some U.S. Olympians). There was a big buildup to one part of the competition, with dramatic music and jazzy graphics, ending with the title of the competition in big letters spread across the screen:


I never could figure out what the heck they were trying to say, I just had the giggles for a while. While I missed the big reveal, I did get a few images of the title in other graphics:



Is it a typo or an example of strange usage, of borrowed English distorted beyond the original meaning? Maybe it doesn’t matter, and one should simply sit back and enjoy the absurdity.

“Understandable” Only Goes So Far

January 6th, 2009 2 comments

I posted earlier about how everything, including trash collection, shut down for a whole week, and in Japan, it’s hard to find a place to store it for that long. Sachi and I risked keeping it on the balcony, and the crows never found it (they probably were feasting enough from the stuff on the ground), but a lot of people in the building apparently had no patience for such inconveniences.


While I understand the frustration, this is not the answer–you don’t pile up stinking bags of garbage in the corridor outside the locked garbage disposal room. That’s just wrong. The sign says no trash disposal, you don’t just dump in the nearest building hallway. I mean, really, who does that? And the building people were stuck: they couldn’t clear out the bags and clean up the mess without encouraging others to do the same. So, thanks to some less-than-neighborly neighbors, we had a very stinky basement for a week, which left a bad smell afterwards.

There’s always a few in buildings this big, aren’t there?

Categories: Focus on Japan 2009 Tags:


January 2nd, 2009 2 comments

Would you buy discount goods from a kind-of-anatomically-correct naked pig wearing a necktie?


The “DS” is not Nintendo, is stands for “Discount Store.” And don’t ask me what the deal with the pig is. (Photo of a shop awning on Yamanote Blvd. west of Ikebukuro.)

Although the Reasons Are Decadent

January 2nd, 2009 1 comment

Starbucks is a very nice place. Okay, go ahead and make jokes about latte-sipping liberals, or about a $5 cup of coffee. It’s still a great place to indulge. The pastries and sandwiches are excellent, and the cheesecake can’t be beat. The coffee is great as well, of course. But two things that strike me, things which are not usually mentioned: the comfy chairs, if you happen to find them empty, are not to be snubbed;


And the bathrooms are the cleanest, nicest public restrooms you’ll find outside of fancy hotels. Roomy, clean, well-equipped, and private. Here in Japan, they even have the electrically-warmed seats.



Strange points to make? Maybe. But true. And don’t tell me that a really nice public toilet doesn’t make a huge difference sometimes. Yeah, it’s expensive, but it’s indulgence, and done well.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2009 Tags: