Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Marking the passing of laissez faire?

I wonder how many people realise just what a fundamental change to society -- and not just to the economy -- will come about because of the collapse in faith in laissez faire currently underway in America and other developed economies.

Granted, I say this as someone who has been describing the irrational belief in the perpetual rise of house prices as the core element of a bubble mentality since, well for years (for over a decade, in fact). But, the problem runs far deeper than that.

The maintenance of bubble mentality requires, demands, a core of supporters and believers to rally the cry, to pressure, browbeat, cajole, bribe and manipulate (or sideline or silence) everyone else into going along for the ride. Some do it consciously, others unconsciously.

But, it has happened time and time again. In fact, in my own lifetime I have lived through more than a few bubbles, to the extent that I now don't doubt, I will live through more. It seems to be the human condition, at least in for our generations.

These are big themes. In many ways, they go to the core of my book, Spinbound. So, obviously, I can't cover them all in a momentary musing on another "black day" in our markets, but on days like this, many people feel the events need to be marked, acknowledged in some way.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Mainichi Daily News -- for real?

I have no idea whether or not Mainichi Daily News (MDN) is serious about redirecting the nature of its online news site. Personally, I find it hard to believe that the entire organisation failed to notice that its English language version had been publishing raunchy, wild and extreme articles translated from the lesser realms of Japanese tabloid journalism (which is pretty wild and off beat most of the time) for years, both in print and online.

However, if I am to judge (from most of) the posts MDN has published to explain its actions since the old version of MDN was taken off line, there appears to be a genuine effort underway to provide a different kind of reporting; one that is more honest, accurate and a more conservative reporting on the news of Japan (although there is a definite "Japanese" tinge to their writing).

But, I have to have serious doubts that they truly understand the nature of the problem when I see who they have appointed as their advisory committee. Given the nature of their problem (a failure to realise sexist behaviour, the repetition of inaccurate information and not checking the "facts" are reported properly, as they acknowledge on the site) I would think having any individual on that committee who was not as "white as driven snow" on these matters, was an extreme failing. From personal experience, I can say that they have failed in this case.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Medieval cooking

Truly in the musings department: this article (here) really caught my attention. A group of academics is planning to digitise a medieval cookbook and upload the contents for anyone to study. The cookbook is written in Middle English, and totally incomprehensible to me, but I love the idea.
Cooking (as long as it is in my own kitchen, set up specifically to match my rhythms!) is something I thoroughly enjoy, so playing around with "brand new" recipes of this calibre could be a whole lot of fun.
But, I can't read the damn thing, check out the recipe for curry to see what I mean. (You can download a full image from the cookbook here.)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants and Immigrants to Japan – A Review

I first visited Japan thirty years ago and have since lived, studied and worked in the country; as well as reported on it extensively, so I can say with absolute certainty that gems like the Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants and Immigrants to Japan by Arudou Debito and Higuchi Akira (Akashi Shoten: 2008) are way too rare.

BI (Before the Internet) I, and anyone with more than a passing interest in Japan, would have to scour bookstores and libraries looking for clues as to how to navigate our way through life in Japan. New publications would elicit [internal] squeals of glee – even if closer examination would, all too often, lead one to suspect the author may have only travelled from Narita Airport to Roppongi [the area of Tokyo where foreigners tend to congregate] -- and gone no further. At least, perhaps, I would silently hope, some glimmer of useful, new fact would find its way through the dross to help inform the daily challenges of life in Japan. And, on those rare occasions, a real jewel revealed itself, the joy was genuine.

Post internet, of course, research into life in Japan is so much easier. But, it is not all that straightforward. The language challenge remains. And while many of the more basic details (how to get a tourist or working holiday visa, how to find a hotel etc.) are fairly well documented; the deeper details are not. The nitty gritty of a life lived in Japan is barely revealed.

So, it was with my [mental] fingers tightly crossed that I first opened Arudou and Higuchi’s book. I have interacted with Arudou off and on over the years as his editor and as someone who paid passing attention to his activities as a Japan-based activist for foreigners’ rights. Arudou had taken the challenging path of adopting Japanese nationality (he was an American citizen) and creating a life for himself in Hokkaido, itself a frontier-esque northern island in Japan. Knowing Arudou knew his subject had raised my hopes. But, he and his writing partner pulled it off?

Indeed they had. The two of them (Higuchi is a Hokkaido-based lawyer) had summarised the nuts and bolts of life for people whose Japan stay is extended. Whether it is maintaining a funeral plot in Japan, buying a car, joining a union or tips on divorcing a troublesome partner -- life’s essential tips and tricks are covered.

Their approach is straightforward. The brass tacks of a life lived anywhere have some pretty common themes -- and they adopt these as the core chapter topics.

· Arriving and establishing a home
· Stabilizing employment and lifestyles
· Starting a business
· What to do if…(life, work, court, family)
· Retirement and planning for the future
· Giving something back

The book is written in English and Japanese, the Japanese text is on the obverse and English on the verso. The English used is not grammatically complicated (a deliberate move by the authors to allow for easier access to readers whose English is a second language) but not so simplistic as to annoy your average English speaker. The Japanese text adopts a similar approach.

Should you be curious, the first three chapters were written by Higuchi and the others by Arudou.

There is a Japanese-ness to the layout and structure, even to the tone, of the Handbook. Their approach is sparse, grey; a touch bureaucratic. Each topic is broached directly, then broken down into its core elements; explained and ticked off; as the authors rapidly move on to the next huge life issue. This helps to create an easy to read and accessible volume; despite the breadth and depth of their goal.

A typical example of this approach would be their coverage of Japan’s salary system.

Now let’s talk about how people get paid in Japan. As the Labor Standard Law only requires payment of salary (kyuuryou 給料, rendered as kyuuyo 給与 on documents) at least once a month, most companies pay once a month (usually on the 25th); few companies pay fortnightly.

The next paragraph breaks down the contents of a typical pay check, the next discusses the biannual bonus system. After that they examine deductions and taxes and then look at the different insurances covering workers in Japan.

The authors make no commitment to provide an exhaustive fount of information on any one topic. Their goal was to create a concise and affordable reference book to help people find information efficiently. And they do so. Where possible, they provide information on additional sources (including websites). The section on the salary system concludes with links to four useful English language resources.

One key difference between this book and nearly everything else out there is that the authors assume their readers are looking to make a permanent life in Japan.

Most guides to living in Japan, rightly or wrongly, tend to focus on life as a foreigner, as someone who only plans to be living in that country for a set period of time (even if it is ten years).
Arudou and Higuchi write for an audience that views its move to Japan as permanent (even if it is for ten years).

This is a big theme in terms of Japan’s relations with its foreign residents. Personally, I would argue Japan is one of the few developed countries that does not try particularly hard to assimilate foreigners into its society. There are others who would agree.

Arudou has been particular active in this arena; seeking to bring Japan’s attention to some of the more exclusionary practices he has come across. [See Arudou Debito, Japanese Only--The Otaru Onsen Refusals and Racial Discrimination in Japan, Akashi Shoten: 2006.]

The authors’ approach confronts some time-honoured “Japan’s myths” as well. In the coverage on ‘Going to Court’ they write:

Japan is thought of as a “non-litigious” society, where going to court is viewed as “un-Japanese”. We do not agree. In 1998 alone, according to the Prime Minister’s Office, there were 5,454,942 court cases in all levels of Japan’s justice system. … People in Japan do sue. We recommend that readers view the Japanese judiciary system as just one more alternative for conflict resolution. The Japanese courts exist for a reason. Use them.

The authors are also realistic.

…taking things to court is risky. There is no trial by jury in Japan … so one or three judges will decide your case over several years. If you can wait and have patience and money … then go to court.

Intentionally or otherwise, these excerpts sum up life in Japan all too well. Yes, living in Japan is just like living in most other places (pretty much) --- but there is a twist. This Handbook is an excellent guide to set you on the way to learning all those twists (and a few turns).

In brief, Arudou and Higuchi have put together an essential handbook covering the key topics and questions anyone living in Japan (or intending to) needs to address.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

5 contenders for the LDP's "crown"

Talk of a snap election and speculation (for the nth time) of a DPJ victory. Plus ca change, and all that.
Reminds me of the time there was a (semi) real wind of change in Japan and an editor of a regional daily felt it was time to rewrite my 'no news yet' copy and declare the DPJ victors, or more to the point, the LDP done for.
Yet, he was unable to take the "blame" for his own actions when the true results were in, and the LDP were still holding on to power.
Journalists who are willing to lie for personal gain, when they have acted incorrectly, and even if their jobs are at stake are behaving in a manner that continually destroys the credibility of their occupation; or it should.
So, what can be done about it?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

METI Minister has a blog!

Just stumbled on a blog by (written for?) Japan's Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry, Akira Amari. It surprised me, somewhat, although I suspect the surprise was a bit unfair. The contents are much along the lines of what you could expect from a politician. News and photos of visits to various places in the country. There are lots of pictures of food, and of the minister eating said food.
I haven't met Amari personally, but his online profile (see here, in English) suggests he is very much a typical Japanese politician/bureaucrat. Born in 1949, educated in law/pol sci at Keio and then a long career as a LDP party hack.
Even if his blog is really just an online version of the standard political office newsletter, it is nice to see him represented online and actively posting (although I suspect the posting is done by someone other than the minister).
The blog can be viewed here. The text is in Japanese, but photographs of food and people need no translation.

Internet Explorer 8 Beta

I tried IE8 beta for a couple of days this week. Sadly, I had to uninstall the option, it was interfering with my protection package. But, I liked what I saw. Google Chrome is also looking interesting, but I might give it a few days before installing. Dealing with bugs and downtime computerwise is becoming one of my major bugbears. Sure, computers massively increase the potential for productivity, but I still seem to spend too many hours each week maintaining and fixing issues.