Archive for the ‘Work’ Category

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.

Cool Biz and clothing for the modern Japanese gent

Posted 25 May 2010 — by Andy in Tokyo
Category Entertainment, Only in Japan, Shopping in Japan, Style, Tokyo, Work

I received an email from the HR department this morning to announce the beginning of Cool Biz. This means that male employees can forego neckties for the next three months, while office air conditioners are turned up to 28°C to reduce running costs (and ultimately help the environment).

Cool Biz is a fantastic idea: it means fewer sweaty old men on the streets and a considerable reduction in the amount of CO2 that power stations pump out. It also has the knock-on effect of producing more than a few comedy moments as bamboozled salarymen adjust to the brave new world of dressing in a smart-casual manner. Their plight is worsened by the prime minister, who is legally obliged to dress like an extra from Magnum, P.I. all summer long:

Of course, not all salarymen dress like aliens trying to blend into a middle-class American family circa 1985. A quick peruse of magazine racks in local bookshops reveals a bewildering variety of style-related magazines for the modern gent.


Middle-aged chaps who are looking to add a bit of edge to their look should turn to Leon. The key phrase here is choiwaru oyaji, which (sort of) translates as “bad-but-cool old guy”. Put simply, Leon is for forty- and fifty-something lady-killing dandies who want to look like they’ve just stepped out of a Milanese cafe. Check out those white jeans! Gaze in dumbstruck awe at those medallions!

Men's Ex

Slightly younger fellows should take a gander at Men’s Ex, which has considerably fewer photos of George Clooney wannabies with twenty-something women. It’s fairly conservative in its recommendations, leaning more towards classic business attire and the preppy look than its Italian-inspired rival.

Men's Ex Maintenance Guide

There is also a phenomenal number of one-off magazines – called mooks (magazine+book=mook) – which cover all kinds of style-related issues. Men’s Ex recently produced a guide to looking after and tailoring clothes which is proving very popular in this current economic climate of belt-tightening. Its article on how to properly clean leather shoes came in very handy after I got caught in a nasty downpour:

Cleaning shoes

The Shirt and Tie

Another big-selling mook is this one on shirts. It contains all you need to know about the humble dress shirt and tie, including a dizzying array of ways to tie neckties…

How to tie your tie

… and a handy guide for coordinating shirts with ties and suits:

Coordinating, for t' men, like

If you’re expecting well-written, thought provoking articles on a par with GQ or Esquire in these magazines then you’re in for a shock. The line between advertising and editorial is virtually nonexistent. In fact they are, pretty much, 200-page advertorials. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, per se: they do have some very interesting content, and some sections – especially those on maintenance – go into absolutely staggering detail.

Infiltrating Insurers

Posted 14 Apr 2010 — by Andy in Tokyo
Category Only in Japan, Tokyo, Work

Every day during lunchtime my office is infiltrated by the dreaded life insurance saleswomen. Their job is to hang around the entrance saying “Konnichiwa” as the hordes scuttle out to pick over their slimy katsudons and fetid bentos. These saleswomen also leave flyers on all the desks, together with a little packet of tissues (you can never have enough tissues). The flyers are usually of the innocuous “Oi! You got life insurance, punk?” variety, but today’s was something special.

This life insurer was new to the game. For some reason she was compelled to fill her flyers with information about herself, including her date of birth, hometown, hobbies (snowboarding!) and – I shit you not – blood type.

Bizarrely, most Japanese people know what their blood type is: they employ it in a creepy Nazi eugenics kind of way to determine a person’s personality. It’s a bit like star signs, only more ‘scientific’, you see? In other words, it’s total and utter bollocks. But just you try telling someone that. Go on, try it.

Anyway, the point I’m trying to make here is why on earth would I want to know her personal details? Is she looking for a husband as well as a big commission? I was both disturbed and confused in equal measure.

Healthcare in Japan

Posted 10 Feb 2010 — by Andy in Tokyo
Category Only in Japan, Tokyo, Work

Japanese healthcare is a difficult subject that I’ve been meaning to write about for some time. For those of you living in countries without a national health service the idea of paying for hospital stays and operations may be nothing new, but until I moved to Japan I had never really thought about it. You break an arm, you go into hospital, have an operation, and come out the next day. That’s it: no bills, no nasty fees, nothing.

Most of what is written in this post is based largely on my own personal experiences. If anybody has any further information they would like to share on this subject, please do!

Oi! I thought Japan had a national healthcare system. Doesn’t that mean healthcare in Japan is free?
Yes yes, I know, no healthcare system is free: somebody has to pay for it somewhere along the line. The big difference between Japan and the UK, for example, is how far along that line healthcare is paid for. By and large, in Britain patients don’t pay up front – in part or in whole – for hospital stays or operations. Japan’s healthcare system is not so straightforward. The main Wikipedia article on Japanese healthcare says:

“Japan provides healthcare services, including screening examinations for particular diseases at no direct cost to the patient, prenatal care, and infectious disease control, are provided by national and local governments.”

Some services are “at no direct cost to the patient”, others will cost you. Generally speaking, in their various guises the national healthcare systems pay for 70% of drugs and healthcare costs. The remaining 30% is paid for by the patient.

I’ve just moved to Japan. Do I have to enrol in a healthcare programme?
No, you don’t. Broadly speaking, there are two categories of healthcare scheme: employee health insurance (健康保険 or Kenkō-Hoken) and national health insurance (国民健康保険 or Kokumin-Kenkō-Hoken). In theory all residents of Japan are required to be enrolled in one of these schemes, but for reasons of cost (either personally or to their employer) many are not. Foreigners are recommended – but not forced – to join one of them.

How do I know if I’m already enrolled in either of these healthcare programmes?
Have you got a credit-card sized piece of plastic with either 健康保険 or 国民健康保険 written on the top? If you haven’t, then you’re probably not enrolled. Also, check your pay slip for deductions under 健康保険科.

My company says I have private health insurance, and that it isn’t really worth enrolling on one of the national schemes.
If you’re coming to Japan as an English (eikaiwa) teacher then your company might have a private scheme that you automatically become part of. What this means is that every time you visit a doctor or dentist you might have to pay for the full cost of everything by yourself, rather than the 30% you would be pay under one of the national healthcare schemes. You will need to send all the medical receipts off to your insurer, who will then reimburse the cost – often several months later.

Example: You have private healthcare, but no national healthcare. You catch the flu and visit your doctor. He checks you out and prescribes some medicine. The doctor’s fee comes to ¥6,000, and the medicine costs ¥2,000. If you had national healthcare, this would have cost you ¥1,800 and ¥600, respectively.

If you’re coming to Japan for a year or two. and are fairly confident that you won’t fall seriously ill or have a nasty injury, then a private scheme might be all right for you. They are usually much cheaper (around ¥7-8,000 a month compared with ¥14,000 for national healthcare), and some paranoid twits relish the idea of not being locked into the ‘government system’. However, if you’re going to be here long-term, I strongly recommend you enrol yourself on a national healthcare scheme.

Whoa there, Silver. Let’s go back a step: I thought all companies had to enrol their students on a national healthcare scheme anyway…
All full-time workers should, in theory, be provided with employee health insurance. To get around this many of the shadier companies keep working hours at just below the full-time level. This saves them loads of money, but benefits neither their employees nor the healthcare system in general. The number of part-time workers has sky-rocketed in recent years, starving the healthcare system of much-needed funding.

What about dentists?
As long as you’re not having anything cosmetic done, the same 30% fee applies. If you’ve got national healthcare, that is.

A word of warning: enamel fillings seem to be classed as ‘cosmetic’ in Japan. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to end up looking like Jaws from James Bond, though: resin fillings are pretty decent these days.

Office Life in Tokyo

Posted 03 Feb 2010 — by Andy in Tokyo
Category Only in Japan, Tokyo, Work

I’ve spent three years working in the same office, sat at the same desk, seeing the same salarymen day-in, day-out. I still don’t know who everyone is (four hundred people = a lot of names), but I have managed to come up with plenty of nicknames for the most peculiar individuals:

Man Child
This fellow has the head and voice of a man, but the body of a child. His head is absolutely massive: the fact that his neck can support it defies all the laws of physics. He also spends far too long in the toilet, rustling the tissue paper a little bit too vigorously.

The Womble
A sixty-something mumbler with all the speed and grace of a sloth. He has no internal monologue and spends considerable time saying ‘unnnn, sou ka’ (‘ahh, I see’) to inanimate objects. His job is to… well, to be quite honest, I have no idea what his job is. He spends much of the day wandering between floors with a small bag, occasionally picking bits of dust of the floor.

Named after Family Guy’s evil toddler, pint-sized Stewie seems far too small to be at work; he should still be at infant school! He sits at his big boys’ desk all day, his little legs dangling off the chair, issuing commands down the phone like Napoleon’s younger brother.

Bill Gates
Nothing much to say about this chap, apart from that he is the spitting image of Bill Gates (if Bill Gates was Japanese).

The Fifth Beatle
Long straggly hair, enormous Bose headphones and a ‘God you’re so unfair, I hate you!’ teenage pout. He also seems to be something of a hypochondriac, and spends a good portion of his day gargling antiseptic mouthwash in front of the bathroom mirror.

The Weasel
A fifty-year-old silver-haired weasel who is terrified of his computer. Every time he sits in front of it his face contorts into a picture of abject horror, as if he’s watching a streaming video of an Al-Qaida hostage being beheaded. Perhaps someone told him that if you click the mouse buttons too hard the whole internet breaks, so he’s being extra careful.

Do you remember Danger Mouse? (If you don’t, go here.) This guy is the spitting image of Penfold, right down to the glasses and hair (or lack of). The only thing missing is the occasional ‘Cripes, DM!’.

Tokyo’s Rush-Hour Rudeness

Posted 15 May 2009 — by Andy in Tokyo
Category Tokyo, Travel, Work

Thank you for your f***ing kindness!

It’s been a couple of years since my last Tokyo rush-hour post, but something happened recently that I have to moan about:

I was on a fairly busy train to work yesterday morning. As usual the seats were all taken so I stood towards the middle of the carriage. At one stop a woman boarded the train and stood next to me. Despite the fact that she was obviously heavily pregnant not a single person offered to give up their seat for her. It was only when a few people got off the train at Shinjuku that I was able to offer her the now-vacated seat in front of me, which she gladly accepted.

This kind of behaviour absolutely infuriates me. Surely any physically fit adult with a smidgeon of human decency would give up their seat for a pregnant woman?

Universe for Rent

Posted 30 Nov 2008 — by Andy in Tokyo
Category Entertainment, Photography, Tokyo, Travel, Work

While the image above may typify the tourist image of Japanese homes, the reality for most Japanese is very different. Writer, editor and photographer Tsuzuki Kyoichi’s two-volume title Universe for Rent (賃貸宇宙 in Japanese) provides a voyeuristic peek into the living spaces of ordinary folk living in and around Tokyo:

Photo: Tsuzuki Kyoichi

Photo: Tsuzuki Kyoichi

Photo: Tsuzuki Yoichi

Photo: Tsuzuki Kyoichi

Photo: Tsuzuki Yoichi

Photo: Tsuzuki Kyoichi

Unfortunately this title isn’t readily available outside Japan. Luckily, do deliver overseas. Volumes one and two are available for JPY1,785 each (here and here). Both come highly recommended by yours truly.

New Japanese Language Proficiency Test to be introduced in 2010

Posted 03 Aug 2008 — by Andy in Tokyo
Category Japanese Language, News, Work

Japan Educational Exchanges and Services (JEES) and The Japan Foundation, who are jointly responsible for the administration of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) , have announced that the current testing system is to revised by June 2010.

At present there are four tests to choose from, with level 1 being the most difficult. There have been many complaints from examinees that the gap – in terms of difficulty – between levels 3 and 2 is too large: to pass level 3 examinees need to know about 300 kanji, compared to 1000 for level 2.

The current plan is to revise the JLPT into 5 levels. Level 4 will become N5, level 3 becomes N4, while a new level – between the current levels 3 and 4 – is to be named N3. N2 will remain the essentially the same as the current level 2, while N1 will be a slightly more advanced version of the current level 1.

In addition, tests for levels 1 and 2 will be held biannually – in June and December – from 2009.

The revision, and especially the option of taking the exam twice a year, should come as a great relief to many students of Japanese. Many people come unstuck at level 2, and the fact that you can only take it once a year makes failure a very bitter pill to swallow.

I, for one, have been thinking about directing my attention away from the JLPT and towards the Business Japanese Proficiency Test (BJT) instead. My teacher thought it might be more useful for me seeing as everything that happens in my office, if not directly related to my area of expertise, requires me to use business Japanese. However, now that the JLPT is changing I may try both next year, just for the sheer hell of it.

By the way, if you’re interested in learning Japanese and don’t know where to start I’ve made a list of books to help you on your way. In fact, you can find it on the right-hand menu bar next to this article.

PS: The official website of the JLPT, where you can find out the latest news regarding the new levels, can be found here.

Earthquake drills

Posted 27 Jun 2008 — by Andy in Tokyo
Category Only in Japan, Tokyo, Video, Work

On Thursday morning we had to take part in an earthquake drill. With Japan being one of the most, if not the most, earthquake-prone country in the world, drills like this are routine. I had expected there to be a grand system set in place in order to swiftly whisk people out of their office and onto the (relative) safety of the street – yellow inflatable slides that pop out from under the windows, for example. The reality was, unfortunately, far plainer: at 12.00 the loudspeaker announced that there had been an earthquake. Five minutes later we were informed that the lifts were out of order and that everyone was to congregate in the basement car park. With all the speed and alertness of sloths everyone left what they were doing and proceeded downstairs.

In the basement a large blue sheet had been strung between the walls; a cardboard sign with the kanji “fire” was stuck in its centre. In front of the sheet stood twenty small fire extinguishers and ten triangular buckets of water; in front of them stood two middle-aged, beige-overalled men with megaphones. They were… The Instructors.

The instruction was far from rigorous. One of the men asked for volunteers to spray the “fire”. People were hastily pushed out from among the crowd by their friends or superiors. Some of the older salarymen, relishing the opportunity to muck about like ten-year-olds, had already scrambled for the fire extinguishers.

The instructors gave one blow of their whistles: the volunteers sprang to life!

The older salarymen took to it with gusto, waddling towards the sheet, shouting “Kaji desu!”, deftly removing the safety clip then, bracing themselves for the expected recoil, aimed the nozzle at the (imaginary) inferno before them and squeezed the trigger. The result? One wet sheet, and several very smug-looking salarymen. Annual earthquake drills appear to be one of the high points of their otherwise routine working life.

Next up for demonstration: the buckets. They were strange, triangular-shaped things with one circular hole in the corner. Was this to help direct the water? Was it stronger? Was somebody having a laugh? Nobody seemed to know, but I’m sure thousands – if not millions – of test buckets had been created, debated, blown up and prodded with weasels in order to reach this final design

At any rate, more volunteers came forward and the buckets were duly put through their paces. Despite the strangeness of their shape they performed admirably, dispensing their moist goodness in a consistent manner, which was the best you can expect from any bucket, really.

With the demonstrations over, one of the instructors concluded by muttering something incomprehensible through his megaphone. Knowing my luck, it was probably the most important part of the training, something along the lines of: “If there’s an earthquake don’t forget to leave through Door X because all the other doors will be closed and you will die a horrible painful death and nobody will come and help you at all, so there.” Nobody else seemed to be listening, but of course they’d heard it a thousand times before and probably knew it by heart.

While the whole experience is difficult to sum up in words, this scene from Big Train sums it up very well indeed:

You’re gonna eat lightnin’ and you’re gonna crap thunder!

Posted 07 Aug 2007 — by Andy in Tokyo
Category Personal, Work

Apollo Creed
If I were Rocky Balboa, this week would be my Apollo Creed.

One Saturday in Kyoto

Posted 21 Jul 2007 — by Andy in Tokyo
Category Travel, Work

8:00 a.m. – Leave home
8:10 a.m. – Take train to Tokyo
9:00 a.m. – Take shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto
11:30 a.m. – Arrive at Kyoto
11:35 a.m. – Take subway to conference centre
12:05 p.m. – Arrive at conference centre
12:30 p.m. – Conference begins
4:30 p.m. – Conference ends
4:40 p.m. – Take subway to Kyoto
5:00 p.m. – Arrive at Kyoto
5:20 p.m. – Take shinkansen from Kyoto to Tokyo
8:00 p.m. – Arrive at Tokyo
8:10 p.m. – Take train to home station
8:50 p.m. – Arrive at home station
9:00 p.m. – Home

Time spent travelling: 8 hours, 25 minutes
Time spent enduring pointless speeches: 4 hours
Time spent admiring Kyoto: 10 minutes

Time wasted: 13 hours

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