Archive for the ‘Japan’ Category

If I was the mayor of Tokyo

Posted 09 Dec 2010 — by Andy in Tokyo
Category Japan, Tokyo

If I was the mayor of Tokyo the following people would be thrown to starving lions:

  • Rush-hour commuters who stand directly in front of ticket barriers while they look for their train pass
  • Cyclists who cycle through, rather than wait for, groups of pedestrians at crossings
  • Housewives who walk four abreast – and at a snail’s pace – along narrow pavements
  • Kids who are so busy playing with their phones that they can’t walk in a straight line
  • Old men who think out loud, loudly. Eg, “Souu KA”, “Sore wa giri-giri KaNAAA”
  • People who run for empty train seats as if sitting down was the Most Important Thing in the World, only to get off the train ten minutes later
  • People who don’t hold doors open for others
  • Middle-aged men who spit anywhere and everywhere
  • Customers who fail to use common niceties, like “Please” and “Thank you”, when talking to waitresses and staff
  • Salarymen who clip their fingernails at their desks
  • Middle-aged women who talk in high-pitched voices because they think it’s “cute”

King of the Hills

Posted 20 Nov 2010 — by Andy in Tokyo
Category Japan, Photography, Tokyo

Did you know that you can go to the top of Mori Tower (that’s the biggest building in the Roppongi Hills complex)? Well, you can, and here are the photos to prove it:

Although going on the roof is okay, standing on the helipad is a no-no. Spoilsports.

There are a number of security guards posted around the edge of the roof, just in case you should try anything terroristy.

The view from the roof is pretty tasty. Shame that my phone’s camera isn’t good enough to take a really decent photo of it.

Blaming the translators

Posted 17 Sep 2010 — by Andy in Tokyo
Category Japan, Japanese Language, Work

My job is not something that I usually write about, partly because it’s not all that interesting, and partly because doing so brings up a lot of frustrating incidents that I’d rather forget. Besides, there are plenty of other people, such as Mr Salaryman, who already do a very good job of writing about Japanese office life. Today, however, I feel like whinging about work. So if you don’t like whinging, you should stop reading now.

Recently my company began using professional translators to translate Japanese materials into English. This sounds like a good idea in practice, as it should remove the possibility of misunderstandings between Japanese and English speaking staff. However, translating and understanding are two very different things.

If you’ve ever studied a foreign language you’ve probably come across phrases or expressions for which there really isn’t an English equivalent. Japanese, for example, contains a variety of set phrases, such as 「お世話になっております」(“Osewa ni natte orimasu” or “Thank you for your help”), that are frequently used at the beginning of Japanese emails but sound odd in English. Usually these phrases are not a barrier to understanding: it’s simply a matter of either leaving them out or replacing them with something simple, such as “I hope you are well”. The major problem with work I’ve seen translated recently is not with the translation itself, but with the original Japanese text. In a lot of cases, the author doesn’t seem to have had a clue who he/she was writing for.

For me, brevity is a virtue; for many of my colleagues, it is a sin. They love to use obscure technical terminology and company jargon. Rather than explain something in a simple way, like “This software will reduce the amount of time users spend on data entry”, they will write “This software aims to boost the productivity of users by recalibrating their workflow practises from data entry to other activities” instead. This may be fine for a Japanese audience that understands newspeak, but it is incomprehensible to the intended English-speaking audience. And rather than consult someone in the office who knows how much of the translations English speakers will understand, “them upstairs” choose to send them directly to satellite offices abroad, unedited and un-localised.

As you can imagine, this lack of audience awareness and consultation causes an enormous amount of trouble. When misunderstandings arise – and they often do – a “poor” translation is blamed. This implies that the original Japanese text is perfectly fine, though often the writers cannot rephrase their ideas in plain Japanese, never mind plain English. It also leads to a bizarre situation where the writers think they are “too clever” for mere mortals to understand, and the mere mortals are made to feel stupid because they can’t make head nor tail of the gobbledegook presented to them.

In the end, most people feign understanding during meetings and devise their own explanations later; very much in the same way a clever, rational Alabaman kid might deal with “science” lessons on creationism. What frightens me about the whole thing is the amount of time and money that’s wasted because some people are either unwilling or unable to communicate properly.

Kan wins, but Ozawa continues to lurk in the shadows

Posted 15 Sep 2010 — by Andy in Tokyo
Category Japan, Japanese Politics, News

As expected, Japanese prime minister Naoto Kan defeated rival Ichiro Ozawa in yesterday’s DPJ leadership contest. Here are the results in full:

MPs Local Assembly Members Party Members and Supporters Total
Kan 412 60 249 721
Ozawa 400 40 51 491

The results show a significant difference between the way lawmakers (MPs and local assembly members) and rank-and-file party members voted. A large proportion of the former remained loyal to Ozawa, while the latter voted against him by a margin of almost five to one.

Rather than bow out quietly, however, it seems likely that Ozawa will continue to wield at least some degree of power. In post-election interviews Kan hinted that, despite strong anti-Ozawa sentiment among party members, the baggy-eyelidded one might still be appointed to a position of some importance.

Kan may have won the leadership battle, but that doesn’t mean he is particularly popular with the public. His cleaner-than-most, average-boy-turned-good image works in his favour, but many Japanese still at least respect, if not admire, Ozawa’s deal-making skills. Despite only being in office for three months Kan already has a reputation for poor leadership and indecisiveness (although for Japanese prime ministers both of these “qualities” could be part of the job description) – the “will-he-won’t-he raise the consumption tax” debacle being a case in point. He is running a minority government, and many of the smaller parties, including former LDP heavyweight Yoshimi Watanabe’s “Your Party” (“Minna no To”, in Japanese), have already said that they will not cooperate with him.

Over the coming months Kan needs to make a lot of difficult economic decisions; win the support of MPs from both the DPJ and the smaller parties; and build confidence in his government among business leaders and the public. Rather him than me.

Paul Krugman on Japanese demography

Posted 09 Sep 2010 — by Andy in Tokyo
Category Japan, Japanese Politics, News

Paul Krugman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist, has just published an astute article on the reasons behind Japan’s long-term economic slump. In short, it’s largely down to demographics:

When you look at Japan’s declining share of world GDP, and even its relative decline in per capita GDP, the biggest single cause is the declining number of working-age Japanese.

The Japanese government is gradually increasing the retirement age from sixty to sixty five. Germany, whose demographics are similar to Japan’s (a low birth rate and a greying population), has gone one step further: it recently raised the retirement age from sixty five to sixty seven.

Ozawa v Kan – who will be the daddy?

Posted 07 Sep 2010 — by Andy in Tokyo
Category Japan, Japanese Politics, News, Tokyo

Earlier this month it seemed likely that Ichiro Ozawa, backroom wheeler-dealer and master of the political dark arts, would be successful in his bid to become leader of the DPJ, a result that would also make him Japan’s fourth prime minister in four years. However, it now appears that victory is far from certain: DJP MP Banri Kaeda, one of Ozawa’s most prominent backers, now thinks that “the situation is very severe”. In other words, he doesn’t think Ozawa will beat incumbent Naoto Kan.

Although a recent opinion poll showed that less than 20% of the Japanese public think Ozawa should be prime minister, he continues to enjoy the majority of support among the DPJ’s MPs. While this may look like – and indeed probably would be – electoral suicide on the MPs’ part, a large number of them owe Ozawa their political careers. To vote against him would be to make a very powerful enemy – Ozawa isn’t called ‘the destroyer’ for nothing.

It isn’t just MPs who get to vote, though: local assembly members and regional officials are also having their say, albeit with reduced influence (MPs’ votes are worth twice as much as the other two combined). If Kan can sway enough members of these two groups to back him, as well as a large number of the 60 MPs who have yet to decide, he may be able to hold on. Kaeda seems to think that this may very well happen.

Defeat for Ozawa may be good for the DPJ’s electoral chances – and for Japanese politics in general – but it could spell disaster for Ozawa himself: he is currently under investigation for funding irregularities. Holders of high offices in government are immune from prosecution, but as Ozawa’s chances of becoming PM slip away he may very well be indicted, just like three of his aides were this February.

The neck stretcher: Tokyo’s latest must-have accessory

Posted 28 Aug 2010 — by Andy in Tokyo
Category Japan, Only in Japan, Shopping in Japan, Technology, Tokyo

Worried that your neck is too short? Have no fear, the neck stretcher is here:

Try using it for a few weeks. The results are astounding:

Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building

Posted 31 Jul 2010 — by Andy in Tokyo
Category Japan, Photography, Tokyo

Love it or hate it, Tokyo’s Metropolitan Government Building is hard to miss:

The joys of ordering food and drink in Japanese

Posted 29 Jul 2010 — by Andy in Tokyo
Category Japan, Japanese Language, Only in Japan

A chain café in Japan. Lunchtime:

“Welcome! Customer, will you be eating in?”
“Very good. What would you like?”
“I’d like a medium-sized café latte, please.”
“A… sorry, what was that?”
“A café late, please. Medium size.”
“One café latte! What size?”
“Medium – ’Em’ size – please.”
“Okay! That’ll be ¥360. Please wait by the counter for your drink.”

Two minutes later, by the counter:

“Here you are. One small ice coffee.”

Japanese super-monkeys catapult to freedom

Posted 11 Jul 2010 — by Andy in Tokyo
Category Japan, News, Only in Japan

Last weekend saw me in Inuyama, Aichi prefecture, for my sister-in-law’s wedding. It also mysteriously coincided with the daring escape of a number of monkeys from Nagoya University’s research institute, which is just a few minutes’ drive from my parents-in-law’s house.

Although I can’t say that I was directly responsible for the simian breakout, I like to think that my presence spurred them into devising a plan that MacGyver would have been proud of, namely the use of tree branches to catapult themselves over an electrified fence. Unfortunately, none of the monkeys had given much thought as to what to do after that: they moped about immediate area like bored kids at a christening until researchers lured them back with peanuts.

It is believed that the recaptured monkeys are watching The Great Escape every day for tips. They also wish to make contact with some underworld types who can provide them with false identities, Swiss passports and tickets to Rio.

Read more:

If anyone can, Kan can!

Posted 08 Jun 2010 — by Andy in Tokyo
Category Japan, Japanese Politics, News, Only in Japan, Tokyo

My, doesn’t time fly in the world of Japanese politics? It seems like only yesterday that Yukio Hatoyama and the DPJ finally managed to chuck the pork-barrellers of the LDP out of power, and yet here we are, just months later, with yet another unelected Japanese leader on our hands.

Putting questions of legitimacy to one side for the time being, it’s good to see that Naoto Kan, the new prime minister, isn’t from one of the grotesque political dynasties that dominate the Diet. The grandfathers of the last four prime ministers – Hatoyama, Aso, Fukuda and Abe – were also prime ministers themselves. Tellingly, none of these political darlings lasted longer than a year in office. It comes as no surprise that their ‘superior’ breeding and first-rate education failed to prepare them for the real world, and for the demands that come with governing the world’s second largest economy.

While Hatoyama doggedly dug his own grave over the US military base on Okinawa, Naoto Kan kept mum. By neither agreeing nor disagreeing with the idea of moving the base off the island he may very well be able to dodge the issue entirely, or at least kick it into the long grass for the time being. Hatoyama’s dithering seriously damaged the US administration’s trust in Japan. Kan needs to repair that trust, and also begin to enact the policies that the LDP fought last year’s election on, most notably reform of the institutionally corrupt bureaucracy.

The political elite have been in a malaise for so long that, like the chained prisoners in Plato’s allegory of the cave, they have little or no understanding of how the real world functions. Hopefully, Kan will be able to drag some of them towards the blinding reality of the outside world. Unfortunately, content with their world of shadows, most of them will probably try to get rid of him as swiftly as possible.

Page 1 of 212