Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Yearly Mistake

A reader pointed out that in my final Glimpses of Japan column of 2008 I made a truly silly mistake. I referred to it as the last column of 2009.

Every year for a week or so I have trouble remembering to use the new year when writing dates. This time at least it was a different mistake.

No less careless, though.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Seasoned Greetings

Merry Christmas!

I'd advise readers to try to avoid excess that they'll regret the next day, but that's not behavior that I've exhibited much in my life.

Besides, if you're going to regret, I believe it's better to regret what you've done rather than what you didn't do.

I spent the early hours of this morning speaking with a Finnish guy claiming to be Santa Claus. He certainly looked the part, beard, red suit, and all. There was also a girl in the place done up as a red-nosed reindeer. I hadn't drunk enough that there's any doubt that they were real, either.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Bistro Vin Beaux

It's small and hard to find, but this place is one of those "best kept secrets" you hear about. It's also a good candidate for "that romantic little French place".

The food's great, the couple that runs the place (he cooks in the open kitchen and she waits the three tables and half-dozen counter seats) do a fine job of making you feel at home and welcome, and the wine list, although not extensive, is well-chosen and reasonably priced.

Every time I go, I tell myself that I should arrange my schedule so that I could go more often.

I recommend making reservations, and bring cash because I don't believe they take credit cards.

It might be well to go sooner rather than later, because the couple must be getting close to retirement age.

Bi-partisan Season's Greetings

I got this from a friend today (a Democrat as it happens, but that doesn't matter), and couldn't resist posting it.

To All My
Democrat Friends:

Please accept with no obligation, implied or implicit, my best wishes for an environmentally conscious, socially responsible, low-stress, non-addictive, gender-neutral celebration of the winter solstice holiday, practiced within the most enjoyable traditions of the religious persuasion of your choice, or secular practices of your choice, with respect for the religious/secular persuasion and/or traditions of others; or their choice not to practice religious or secular traditions at all.

I also wish you a fiscally successful, personally fulfilling and medically uncomplicated recognition of the onset of the generally accepted calendar year 2009, but not without due respect for the calendars of choice of other cultures whose contributions to society have helped make America great. Not to imply that America is necessarily greater than any other country nor the only America in the Western Hemisphere. Also, this wish is made without regard to the race, creed, color, age, physical ability, religious faith or sexual preference of the wishee.

To My Republican Friends:

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 18, 2008


I've decided that I want one of these for Christmas.
It's just from the sheer coolness of being able to create sonic booms in your own back yard.
What's not to like about that?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Minor Jolt

I just (15:18 on 8 October '08, JST) experienced a brief, mild earthquake.

It was strong enough to be noticeable, but not to trigger the automatic shutdown of my office building's elevators and its attendant PA announcement to the effect that an earthquake shut the elevators down and if you need to evacuate, you take the stairs. It's a relatively small building, so the announcement is pretty much superfluous: the single flight of stairs is within a few meters of the single elevator hall with its two elevators, so if you see that the elevators aren't running, you don't have far to go or much in the way of options if you want to leave the building.

I'm never in a hurry to leave a building in an earthquake. There's a lot of stuff out there that can be shaken down on passersby including roof tiles, hanging signs, window glass, etc., and in a recent major earthquake the very first victim was a guy who ran out of his shop into the street and was hit by a passing truck. Most of the buildings I spend much time in here in the Kanto Plains area are reasonably robust, and there's usually a desk or sturdy table under which I can take shelter if I really think it's necessary. I'll leave once the shaking's over, if it seems to be indicated (like, say, if the building's collapsing or on fire) but otherwise I figure I'm better off inside.

On the other hand, I believe that the land my office building stands on is landfill from a couple of hundred years ago: old maps show the beach across the (major thoroughfare) street from us, so this used to be tidal flats. It might just temporarily liquefy, in a really big quake. Of course, in a quake that strong, the building will probably collapse around my ears and the problem will become academic.

I'm reminded that I need to replenish my office emergency supplies. I used to keep a couple of days' worth of food and water, and some extra clothes and heavy boots, and some basic tools and utensils to use if I have to get along for a couple of days in a really devastated Tokyo before emergency services--if any--kick in. I've still got most of the stuff, but the food and water were used up and not replaced as they got close to their use by dates. It's time to go shopping for more.

I was impressed by the speed with which the Japan Meteorological Agency got the news on their website; within just a couple of minutes the updated map and numbers were there. Of course, if you visit them, it's very likely that the latest earthquake will be another one, since they're pretty frequent here.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Consider the Source

A little skepticism is a good thing.

The Japan Today news site ran a Kyodo News story about a 57-year-old Japanese businessman who had been abducted in Johannesburg, South Africa but was then rescued safely. The story struck me as odd because it indicated he was kidnapped immediately after arriving, then reported that fact to his company, and the company's president received an e-mail message demanding a ransom. Police were said to have found him two days later and arrested six men and a woman of whom six are Nigerians and one a South African.

Fair enough, but I thought the timing of the kidnapping, and the involvement of Nigerians, sounded a lot more like a 419 scam than the simple ransom abduction it was portrayed as by Kyodo.

Checking with a South African newspaper's website proved it: the Japanese had been lured with promises of a lucrative business deal, and captured virtually upon arrival. They were waiting for him, and he's lucky he escaped with his life and no more than 100,000 yen loss.

From innocent victim to greedy gullible fool at the click of a mouse...it's not a bad idea to check the source of news. Or of too-good-to-be-true get-rich-quick offers.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Open Mouth, Insert Foot, Repeat

Newly elected Prime Minister Taro Aso is notorious for getting himself in trouble with ill-considered remarks that manage to irritate or insult large segments of the Japanese population and neighboring countries' citizens as well. In a classic example of the "birds of a feather" adage, and in what may be a record for speed, one of the ministers he selected when he formed his cabinet last Tuesday--Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Minister Nariaki Nakayama--has had to resign from his post after making a series of gaffes, including one in which he called the nation’s biggest schoolteachers’ union "a cancer".

Opposition party leaders are of course delighted, saying the resignation is a ‘‘natural outcome’’ and promising to demand that Aso take responsibility for appointing Nakayama to his cabinet.

Amazingly, the series of controversial remarks Nakayama made in the few days since his appointment have drawn intense criticism not only from opposition parties but even from the ruling parties.

The (opposition) DPJ’s Ozawa said Saturday that Nakayama’s remarks ‘‘lack insight and are imprudent and unfair’’, and questioned--quite rightly in my opinion-- his qualification to be a state minister.

A senior member of the New Komeito party, junior coalition partner of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, called for Nakayama’s early resignation, saying the issue should be resolved before Aso makes a policy speech at the Diet on Monday.

Nakayama did indeed resign early Sunday, having told reporters after arriving at Tokyo’s Haneda airport from Miyazaki on Saturday evening that he would ‘‘decide on my own whether to resign’', but also having said ‘‘I’ll consult with my wife tonight’’. Nakayama’s wife Kyoko is a member of the House of Councillors and served as state minister in charge of declining birthrate and abduction issues in former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda's cabinet.

So, what did he say? Well...at a meeting in Miyazaki Saturday, this former education minister and longtime critic of the schoolteachers’ union, said, ‘‘I’ve been thinking Nikkyoso (the Japan Teacher's Union, largest union of teachers and education staff) should be disbanded.’’ He added, ‘‘I have things to say about Nikkyoso. The biggest problem is that it opposes ethics education. Some of the people in Nikkyoso have taken actions that are unthinkable to me,’’ apparently refering to the union members' demonstration around the Diet buildings in Tokyo in 2006.

At the time, the Diet was deliberating revisions to the Fundamental Law of Education in an extraordinary session of parliament, and later passed and enforced the law, aimed at instilling patriotism in classrooms and nurturing respect for the public spirit. It was widely regarded as uncomfortably reminiscent of the government's militaristic indoctrination before and during the wars in the 20th century, termnating in the disastrous defeat in WW2.

Nakayama also told reporters, ‘‘I will stand at the forefront to destroy Nikkyoso, which is a cancer for Japanese education’’.

In media interviews this week, Nakayama also said the union is to blame for the bribery scandal involving the Oita prefectural board of education, saying, ‘‘The woeful state of Oita Prefecture’s board of education comes down to Nikkyoso. Nikkyoso (members’) children can become teachers even if their grades are bad. That’s why the aptitude levels in Oita Prefecture are low'’.

Keep in mind that he's no longer the education minister.

In the media interview remarks actually related to his new ministerial post, Nakayama also referred to the government’s policy to attract foreign tourists to Japan. He indicated that many Japanese don't really like foreigners, and called Japan ‘‘ethnically homogenous'’. That description drew protests in 1986 from the indigenous Ainu people when then Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone made a similar remark.

Nakayama also managed to fit in another shot against education related to transport, when he said that those who have engaged in years of struggle against the construction of Narita airport near Tokyo are ‘‘more or less squeaky wheels, or I believe they are (the result) of bad postwar education’’.

Nakayama had retracted some of the series of remarks made in the media interviews and apologized (with very dubious sincerity), and seems to have tried to exercise damage control by making the remarkably dim observation that some of his statements, not having been made in the ministry building, should not be considered to have been made in his role as a cabinet minister.

Prime Minister Aso has made some pretty foolish statements in recent years, too, but this time he's in trouble for his evident lack of judgment in choosing Nakayama. I can hardly wait for the next series of moronic remarks or, maybe, financial scandals to play further havoc with this cabinet. It's pretty funny, really, in a darkly humorous sort of way, as long as I try not to think about the fact that these guys aren't running a circus, they're running the country I live and work in.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Grains of Untruth

The latest false labeling food scandal involves a company selling rice intended for non-food, industrial applications as edible rice to a number of food producers. The rice, tainted with illegally high levels of pesticide, or irremediably water damaged, or containing toxins from mold, was purchased from the Japanese government.

The government had bought it from various sources including China and Vietnam, in a crafty use of loopholes enabling it to simultaneously fulfill its World Trade Organization accord "minimum access" obligations and continue to support/subsidize/protect domestic rice farmers.

Unfortunately for all of the executives and bureaucrats involved in this cozy setup, Mikasa Foods got greedy, and started selling the rice, after relabeling or rebagging it, and apparently sometimes mixing it, as edible rice to several manufacturers of shochu and other products, and to some trading houses, too. And they were found out.

Astonishingly, many Japanese don't seem to understand the situation and have jumped to the conclusion that this is another case of importing tainted food from China, such as flooded the media some months ago with the infamous gyoza case.

Most recently, after the government demanded that Mikasa retrieve the tainted rice they'd sold, it's being shown to be largely impossible; it's too late. They've purchased 1,779 tons of the tainted rice since 2003, Of that, about 809 tons of rice contained methamidophos, a pesticide, or aflatoxin, a toxin from mold. The company has sold 354 tons of such tainted rice to other firms for edible use and stored the rest, or so they say. They've managed so far to recover only four or five tons of what they sold. Most has already gone into beverages, rice crackers, and so on.

The agriculture ministry revealed Monday it found another pesticide—acetamiprid—in rice sold by Mikasa Foods to some of the five beverage makers who agreed to have their names released.

Media attention is currently focused on Mikasa's shady dealings--double sets of books and all--and on the efforts of manufacturers, who may have been sold and already used the tainted rice, to managed recalls or take other disaster recovery measures. Some attention is going to the lack of effective oversight on how the tainted rice is bought, stored, resold, and distributed.

Insufficient attention, in my opinion, is being given to how and why the Japanese government has for years now gone out of its way to buy specifically inedible rice as a cynical means of fulfilling the letter, but not the spirit, of its WTO accord responsibilities.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Whole Lotta Shaking Going On

Another earthquake in Tohoku, this one resulting in over 130 injuries but luckily no deaths and rather limited damage compared with the previous one, has reminded me that I should review the contents of my earthquake kit and other post-quake survival gear.

One of the reasons that I had a deep well dug on my property in Kumagaya, and the main reason that I had a manual pump installed in addition to an electric one, is to ensure the availability of water in the event of a really serious earthquake. I'm told that the local fire department uses well water for their fire hydrants, which suggests that they don't want to rely on the city-supplied water mains any more than I do.

If you're going to live in an earthquake-prone place like Japan, it's certainly a good idea to prepare for a really big one that will probably result in a week or more without reliable supplies of water, food, gas, or electricity.

I've got lots of camping gear and plenty of stuff to keep me pretty comfortable and healthy for quite a while roughing it until the authorities get their act together. Assuming I survive the quake itself, I should be OK afterward, and could probably offer a fair bit of hospitality to my less well prepared neighbors.

I really should ensure more often that the canned and freeze-dried food has been rotated so that I'm not forced to live on stuff that's too far past its "best by" date, though.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

It's a Hassle

I subscribe to an e-mail newsletter called This is True, the owner/author of which also runs some other interesting sites. One of them is devoted to "Bonzer Web Sites of the Week".

The site featured this week is called "HassleMe", and it provides a simple and clever solution to everyone's occasional need to be nagged...ah...reminded to do some things. I particularly like the fact that the reminders come at rough--not regular--intervals, making them just unpredictable enough to be effective.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Grumbling at Straw

This article in Japan Today provokes some interesting thoughts, as do some of the comments.

Certainly it's not easy to do any serious paperwork in most inn-type tatami rooms, and sleeping on the floor is an acquired taste.

Nevertheless, in comparison with the plight of some of the starving folks whose fates are supposed to be decided by the decisions and plans that come out of this conference, sleeping on tatami in an inn is luxurious.

I'm most amused by the fact that this reaction wasn't expected and planned for in advance. For such good logistics planners, the Japanese can certainly fail spectacularly in predicting human behavior...even behavior among Japanese, but especially that of foreigners.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Planting Weed

In a follow up to a story I discussed elsewhere, it has become clear that what was first portrayed as one-time aberrant behavior by one customs agent has in fact been common practice by several of them, multiple times.

Three of them have planted "cannabis resin" (I assume hashish) in the luggage of unsuspecting travelers through Narita airport 160 times since last September. At least, three that they know about and/or choose to make public. I'd bet that it has been going on much longer and much more frequently.

One of them (who had done it 90 times) got a three-month suspension; two others (10 times for one and 60 for the other) got 10% pay cuts; and the head of Tokyo Customs was among nine senior customs people who got pay cuts and/or warnings.

They should all have been fired, it seems to me.

I'd rather that my taxes not be spent to support stupid and irresponsible officials, and perhaps serious penalties would at least somewhat deter others from similar idiocy.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

RIP Disappointed Idealist

I'm sorry to hear that George Carlin has died. His irreverent, iconoclastic, thought-provoking wit often both amused and impressed me. He was at one time probably most famous for his "Seven Dirty Words" routine, that triggered a US Supreme Court case.

I always sort of half-hoped that one day I'd be lucky enough to meet the man; he seemed like a great guy to talk to in a bar over a couple of beers or some tequila. Or wine, of which he seems to have claimed to be an abuser. This is the fellow who was the first guest host of Saturday Night Live and apparently did the job high on cocaine.

You just about have to like a guy who has a section on his website called "2,443 Dirty Words", not to mention a guy whose last in a list of "guidelines to pass along to your children" is "Finally, enjoy yourself all the time, and do whatever you want. Don't be seduced by that mindless chatter going around about 'responsibility.' That's exactly the sort of thing that can ruin your life."

I'm going to miss him.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

More Once-familiar Places

The Iwate-Miyagi Earthquake has caused some astonishing damage to the area, although much less loss of life than it would have done had it been in a less sparsely settled area.

Once again, the scenes of devastation disturb me by more than their intrinsic shock value. Many years ago, when I had more vacation time per year, and more free time generally, I spent quite a lot of time driving and camping around Iwate and Miyagi, including the areas where the recent quake struck. I don't remember exactly, but I believe it's very likely that I stayed in the hot spring inn that's been shown on the news, crushed from two floors into one, and half pushed/washed away. Pictures on the news of what it used to look like certainly seemed familiar.

I almost certainly drove on most of the roads that are shown broken into fragments among the crumbled mountains.

It's a very strange feeling, seeing what was once familiar turned nearly instantly into utterly strange, broken present reality.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Lowering the Bar

I can't really comment on the wisdom of Britain's decision to lower the language requirements for foreign nationals going there to work. I'm not British and have never lived there, and neither my taxes nor my livelihood are really threatened by the decision. I suspect that they will regret it, but it's not my problem.

I do think that if the information shown here is accurate, the Japanese government is doing its citizens and companies a disservice in the long run.

They have, through their embassy, apparently persuaded (pressured?) the British to exempt people going to Britain as ICTs (intra-corporate transfers) from the English language requirement if they are going to Britain for under three years, and to reduce the language ability required for skilled worker visas--including ICTs--for over three years, from being able to ‘‘understand the main ideas of a complex text on both concrete and abstract topics" and ‘‘interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party’’, to ‘‘ability to understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases, to introduce themselves and others and ask and answer questions about basic personal details’’.

So the Japanese sarariman who's sent to work in London, instead of being able to discuss, say, the stock market, OPEC policies, global warming, terrorism, or even football, will now only need the typical result of six years of Japanese English education: "This is a pen", "I'm fine, thank you, how are you?", "Can you use chopsticks?", "Are you married?", and so on.

To be fair, "other missions" are mentioned in the article, so it's apparently not only the Japanese Embassy that was lobbying for reduced standards. I live here, though, and pay taxes here, and meet many people who are going to be sent abroad to work. Many of them could use much more preparation if they are expected to do a creditable job overseas.

It would be much better for the Japanese government to be spending time and money on raising the quality of their citizens' English than to be lobbying for foreign countries' working visa language requirements to be lowered.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Blast from the Past

After having received an unexpected but very welcome e-mail message yesterday from an old friend from my Navy days, I was astounded to get a phone call from him this morning.

It was great speaking with John and his wife Machiko, both of whom were witnesses (and sometimes participants) in some of the wilder escapades of those early days in the Yokosuka/Hayama area.

He's tracking down some of the other likely suspects, and he's already found two of my former roommates.

A reunion would be cool, but I'm not sure that Japan's ready for it.

Monday, June 9, 2008

More Ministries, More "Gifts"

There's an update on the story mentioned below about bureaucrats receiving cash and gifts (including beer and snacks during the ride) from taxi drivers--whom they paid with taxpayer-funded ministry-issued taxi tickets--for long, late-night rides home.

It turns out to have been at least 13 ministries and over 500 bureaucrats.

Arrogant unethical bastards ought to be fired, if they can't be executed.

Real-life Killing in Akihabara

The news of the murders in Akihabara yesterday came as a shock.

I visit that area pretty frequently, as do many friends and relatives. On any given Sunday, the odds are pretty good that someone I know is shopping in Aki.

For a guy to rent a truck in Shizuoka and drive it all the way up to Tokyo for the purpose of mowing down pedestrians whom he then proceeds to slash and stab with a survival knife, is mind-boggling.

An update here shows what seem to have been cell phone e-mail posts the murderer made just prior to the crime, and indicates that police say the knife was a dagger rather than a survival knife...not that the type of knife really matters much.

He claims that he did it because he was tired of life and wanted to kill people; anyone would do.

Fine. If you're tired of life at 25 (or any age, really) and want to kill someone, and anyone will do...kill yourself. Do society a favor.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Finance Ministrations

Finance Ministry officials have been found to have been accepting what amount to kickbacks from taxi drivers.

Not only are my taxes being wasted on 25,000 taxi rides home for these bureaucrats, I'm having to pay higher taxi fares partly because the cab company operating expenses have to cover cash and other gifts to these so-called public servants.

Years ago I used to spend quite a lot of after-working-hours time in various Japanese government offices, and I saw a lot of people collecting overtime pay while they read newspapers or practiced golf swings with their umbrellas, waiting for the boss and/or their colleagues to go home. Nobody wanted to be the first to leave the office, even if there wasn't really any urgent work to do. Perhaps the Finance Ministry people are different, but I doubt it very much, indeed.

Maybe we'd get a better class of bureaucrat if punishments for corruption were, for example, public whipping. Or execution. We'd probably have many fewer people entering the bureaucracy, but the ones who did would likely be a better, and more honest, class of people.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Smoke from a Machine

I generally buy cigarettes by the carton, having them delivered because in my area of the wilds of the Saitama/Gunma border country Marlboros aren't available within walking distance. If I run out in more metropolitan areas, there are plenty of convenience stores selling cigarettes, so I almost never buy them from vending machines.

Thus, I haven't bothered to go through the trouble of acquiring a "taspo" card, the "smart card" recently required to prove to many cigarette vending machines that you're at least 20 years old. I fully expected the cards to be yet another solution that created its own problems, too, and recent news seems to prove me right.

First I saw the case of a mother loaning her 15-year-old son her card:

Then I saw an even funnier case, in which a vending machine owner attached a card to the machine, utterly defeating the purpose of the card, but perhaps helping him to get back some of the 20% reduced sales the introduction of the card system cost him:

I find the situation hilarious. I'm also amused by the fact that, to the best of my knowledge, nobody has suggested making a similar system for the numerous vending machines that sell alcoholic beverages (including some that even sell full-size whiskey bottles).

I guess they feel that the law passed 20 years or so ago, requiring vending machines of this type to be turned off at 23:00, as a measure to prevent minors from buying booze and cigarettes, actually serves its purpose, rather than just inconveniencing machine owners (often poor senior citizen shop owners) and adult customers who live closer to vending machines than to convenience stores. As far as I can tell, it's inconveniencing minors who want to drink or smoke very little if at all.

I suppose that it gives some bureaucrats and busybodies, somewhere, the mistaken feeling that they've done something useful, for a change.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Bike Parking

This is my current bike, parked in front of the building housing my office.
I took this the same day I took the other shots of the risible bike parking lot in Shinagawa.

I'd just written an article for Metropolis, and I took the photos just in case the editor wanted them.

The article's here, and the conditions described haven't improved noticeably:


Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Literacy and Technology and How They're Used

With admirable timing, an old friend sent this link to me today.

I'll read that book at my first opportunity, even though the only thing I found really surprising in the review is the quoted figure from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, saying that 24% of US 12th graders can compose "organized, coherent prose in clear language with correct spelling and grammar".

I'm surprised that it's that many.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


I'm aware of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, but it's difficult not to see a connection between a news story about misappropriation of funds intended for school library book buying
(http://www.japantoday.com/category/national/view/more-than-20-of-school-library-budget-misappropriated )
and another about Japanese young people recently having trouble reading sub-titles in movies

As for the adequacy of education regarding modern history, or ancient history, for that matter, that's a topic for another time.

Monday, May 12, 2008

For starters

Welcome to the blog.

For starters, here's a link to the most recent of the (almost) weekly articles I write at the behest of my employer:

The navigation stuff is in Japanese, but unless you want to subscribe to it you really only need to know that the box with the list of dates and the arrows at the lower right is where you go to look up previous weeks' articles.

The first one, April 26, 2004, gives a more detailed introduction of my background.