Stuff I Say

Progress and Happiness are Inversely Proportional

Posted in Japan, Japanese Language by 51future on September 17, 2008

I went to my small school today and as soon as I got there I was accosted by my vice-principal who pulled me into the little counseling room next to the principals office and told me some grave news. The story starts last week on Friday. I took pictures at the Sport’s Festival which I had printed and brought in to show the staff. My original plan had been to give the students I had taken pictures of their own photos, you know, distribute as many of them as I could, and then throw the rest away. I mean, I didn’t print them out for myself, because I don’t really have any use for the prints when I have the original RAWs and JPEGs on my computer. The point is, I had printed these out for the students. Anyway, on Friday, my vice-principal told me she wanted me to make a poster the next time I came in. I had mixed feelings about the idea (mostly because I’m not very creative in that sense) but agreed to it anyway. However, this week (Wednesday) when I came in, she dropped a bomb and told me that *WE* had a situation on our hands. Why it was “we” and not her, I’m not sure. I still blame her for the whole thing, because it was clearly her fault.

What happened was, in her zeal to show off my pictures, she’d tipped off the student body (about 60 or so students at this school) about the existence of the prints. They came to look at them and loved them. They told her they themselves wanted to make a poster from the shots and she, not really thinking about it, gave them the pictures and her blessing. This is where it gets stupid. They took the shots and made an awesome poster– by cutting all the original pictures up and coming up with something really creative and unique; far more interesting than anything I would have come up with. Of course, when vice-principal realized what they had done, she told them that both she and the students might have to reimburse me for the photos because they’d cut them up without my permission. She told me that they’d be coming by today to prostrate themselves in front of me and apologize for their misdeeds. I, on the other hand, was somewhat perturbed by the whole situation since what they did is exactly what I would have wanted them to do, had I known there was interest. The poster was awesome.

So the first thing I did was to explain to her that it wasn’t their fault, since she gave them permission. She should be the one apologizing to me. But I told her she didn’t have to. No problem. I liked the poster. Put that up and let’s all get on with our lives. God knows these kids need some kind of ray of light in their life.

But no, the comedy of errors continued.

The kids apologized to me and I explained that I liked the poster. Let’s put that sucker up. But no. The vice-principal tells them to come and fix a few things at lunch to get it ready for posting. Whatever. I think she was angry because they had pasted a funny picture of her on the poster and then told her that they were poking fun at her. Well, actually I know this. That and a few other pictures were slated for removal before the poster went up in the hall.

By the time lunch time rolled around I was sweaty and in pain. I had a terrible fucking headache and no classes in the afternoon (both a blessing and a curse). The rest of the day sort of coasted on by while I studied kanji and eventually at around 4PM I started packing up. One of the kids “studies English” for 5 minutes after school so I stayed after to give him a vocabulary test and it was after that that I found out the true fate of the poster. Somehow, through a combination of both teachers who didn’t want the poster to go up because there wasn’t a picture of EVERY student in the school in it, combined with the protests of a few girls who didn’t want THEIR picture on the poster, the whole thing– everything, had collapsed. As far as I know, they’re going to throw the damn thing away so as not to hurt everyone’s feelings.

Progress and happiness are inversely proportional folks.

This same vice-principal wonders why Japan doesn’t have very many top-tier athletes in the Olympics, even when most students in Japan spend more time running and playing soccer than they do in class. Instead of putting up a great collage of shots at the expense of a few modest girls, the whole project was canned after it had been completed, all because the vice-principal decided that a doctrine of mediocrity for the sake of fairness was the way to go. I don’t blame her specifically and I’m not writing this to call anyone out. She was only doing what any other Japanese person would do in that situation. Eliminate individuality for the sake of the group.

So what then, does this have to do with studying Japanese?

Well, this is basically where my argument for the importance of Heisig’s method for studying the kanji begins and ends. See, in a typical Japanese language class at the college level, one learns words– sounds, basically, and then as the course progresses, you apply those sounds to Sino-Japanese characters forthwith known as kanji. The kanji aren’t treated any differently from anything else you learn in Japanese class. They’re just these complicated figures that are typically taught with little or no rhyme or reason, mentioned only in passing with the implication being that you need to memorize them in order to progress in the class.

In my own Japanese classes, no one ever explained the differences between on- and kun-readings, or that there even were such things. Often, kanji were introduced with only a single reading, for instance, 食べる — たべる without any mention that the kanji was functionally different as soon as you started seeing it in compounds. Stroke order was talked about. It’s important, they said. Memorize it. Only through my own personal study did I realize that most modern electronic dictionaries use stroke order to tell what kanji you’re trying to look up on the touch pad. Or that learning proper stroke order improves your handwriting and is absolutely necessary in order to correctly write some of the more complicated radicals. Nobody told me about radicals either, what role they played in the formation of any given character. I learned the SKIP method, probably the easiest way of looking up kanji in a printed dictionary, on my own. I specifically remember one instance in my college career where this lack of knowledge came to a head:

“I’m having some trouble in Japanese, Sensei. I can’t remember kanji very easily and I don’t really understand how I’m supposed to study them or anything. Like, why is it sometimes 新しい and other times 新聞. I don’t get it. How do you know when to use one reading and not the other?”

My professor got up and fished an relatively new Japanese newspaper out of his trash bin; crumpled as it was, he pointed to an advertisement on the front page and said, “You know both these kanji, right?”

“That one is new… and the other one is car.”

“So read it.”

I stared at it for a minute and shook my head. “I don’t have any idea.”

“Aww, come on! Shin… Right? It’s the shin in “shinbun” and this one is…”

“I don’t know? Shinkuruma?”

“No, shinsha. And it means?”


“New car. Easy.”

I remember it so well because it wasn’t easy. And I didn’t understand it. In retrospect, that compound is so stupidly simple that I feel like an ogre talking about it, but the fact of the matter was, back then, I didn’t understand it. I had no guidance. Kanji were just another thing to learn in the classroom. The weren’t any more important than learning combinations of hiragana that made up kanji compounds that weren’t yet taught with kanji.

Before I get to my final point, I have one more story to talk about. I’ll just summerize this one, as its less important than the others and is really only relevant because it sort of changed the way I thought about Japanese in general and I feel that, in the context of this entry, that sort of revelation might be useful.

I’ve heard it a lot since I’ve come here: “This reading has so many meanings. How the hell is anyone supposed to keep track of all of them?” かける for instance. There’s 書ける to be able to write, 描ける to be able to draw pictures, 掛ける to sit down (as in 腰掛け) or lock a door (カギをかける), etc. etc. etc. Now, the last time I heard this, I was somewhere at the 1600 mark in Heisig (able to write and identify the meanings of, but not read that many kanji) working on my reviews at the Board of Education on a non-school workday. Something clicked in my mind then and I realized (well, perhaps hypothesized) that a lot of Japanese learners, like myself, learn the sounds first and the kanji later. So when it comes time to integrate all this information into actual knowledge, learners use sounds as the building blocks for their morphemes in Japanese rather than starting out with the associated kanji. Yes, かける is a phoneme– it has meaning; but at the same time, I postulate here that those phonemes are first derived (in subconscious processes in native speakers) from their respective graphemes (kanji). Have you ever seen Japanese television? A lot of it has subtitles! Have you ever been in a conversation with a native speaker where they write out kanji on their hand to aid in understanding? It happens often enough to not be a fluke.

More importantly though, learning the kanji for any given Japanese homonym strengthens the meaning in my own mind tenfold. I never could quite understand the word 受ける until I learned the meaning of the corresponding kanji. As soon as I dedicated it to memory, I realized that I could use the word 受ける correctly in conversation, because whenever I thought of trying to say, “take a test,” the kanji would pop into my mind and I’d instantly remember the appropriate phoneme to go along with it.

Ultimately, as I said before, happiness and progress are inversely proportional. To tell university professors that every student needs to leave their classes with intimate knowledge of the general-use characters is tantamount to claiming that Japanese is impossible to learn. It is all but impossible to teach the general use characters in a classroom setting to students in 4 years who are also learning grammar and other pure Japanese vocabulary from scratch. But it’s what needs to be done. And yes, if you’re learning Japanese, you need to learn the joyo kanji. Learn them before anything else. Do it with Heisig. Leave the readings for later and just study the meaning and writing. You’ll learn the readings over time as you begin to read and converse in the language– that much is inevitable. Ignoring the Joyo kanji to persue, say, a specific level of the JLPT or grammar or whatever– that’s the biggest mistake you can make, aside from brute-forcing 2000 characters with little or no guidance.

At the end of the whole poster debacle, which may, even now, still be raging, I told my vice-principal that the only way kids grow up is to face a little hardship. Your tired-running-face on a poster full of your peers doing the same thing is not going to ruin your social life at school. The world isn’t going to end if you aren’t on the poster. I mean, at the end of the day, the fact of the matter was that I didn’t even take pictures of every student at the school anyway. Kids had been left out from the beginning and there wasn’t anything anyone could do about it. Instead of embracing that, they decided to toss the baby out with the bath water and start over, resulting in no pictures for anyone and no poster.

With Japanese, it’s the same damn thing. You have to treat kanji with the importance they deserve, despite the fact that they’re confusing and numerous. Single them out and learn them. I suggest Heisig, but I know of at least one person who’s brute-forced it. (Don’t do what he did, because he’s a genius and I doubt you’ll experience the same sort of results.) With Heisig, you learn the grapheme first and later integrate phonemes into that existing framework. You pour in a foundation and then start to work on your house. You can’t treat Japanese like every other language written in the roman alphabet and just brute-force a bunch of sounds and hope that your memory is good enough that synonyms and whatnot can be pulled up quickly and without error. However, when you have a full catalog of 2000 different concepts, applying sounds to those concepts is easy as hell. Trust me, I’m doing it right now.

Everyday that one of my (fellow ALT) co-workers calls me crazy for studying the general-use characters like I do, claiming that its farcical to learn the kanji that every adult Japanese person should have learned in school, acting as though I’m going above and beyond what is necessary, I say, “No. I want to learn Japanese. What, exactly, are you studying?”

Life in Japan is Not a Manga

Posted in Japan, Japanese Language, Stuff by 51future on September 11, 2008

So let me tell you a thing or two about life in Japan: It’s not a manga. First and foremost, that’s the gist of this article. And I guess the second point is that even if it was, you’d find it sorely lacking.

So let’s talk about comics for a second. There’s a movie coming out soon in the states called Watchmen based on a DC comic of the same name. Even if you don’t know much about Watchmen, the point here is that “remains the only graphic novel to win a Hugo Award, and is also the only graphic novel to appear on Time’s 2005 list of “the 100 best English-language novels”, an annual feature of the magazine since it was founded in 1923.” Yes, I realize this is sort of an odd man out as far as comics are concerned, but if Watchmen doesn’t convince you that American comics are both interesting and relevant, then take a look at say, The Dark Knight or 300.

Japanese comics, on the other hand, are not interesting or relevant. Sure, there are cash cows. Evangelion has been around forever, and I still see the damn figurines every day I walk into a convenience store, even out here in the countryside. But there’s nothing particularly relevant about it. I mean, the gist of it is that a bunch of middle school students in big mecha are the only thing standing between a strangely-familiar ultra-futuristic Japan and total annihilation. Now, when the series first came out, the producer basically shit his pants on the last two episodes and put the main character (who had, about 3 episodes earlier gone into the hospital room of a cloned, emotionless sort of human-autopilot and jacked off on her full-body bandages while crying) in a room at school with all the other characters who then proceeded to tell him that he could reshape the world however he wanted. All this was mashed up with random footage shot in different places in modern Japan. Suffice to say, the ending was shit. Trust me, if you haven’t seen it, I’m not spoiling anything. A few years later, they came out with a proper ending, appropriately titled “End of Evangelion” which was good, if only because of the very visceral violence and appropriate suspense. However, at the end of that, the main character (who again, gets to choose how to reshape the world) turns it into a wasteland consisting of him, his love interest, and an ocean of blood. And then he spurns her.

I’m rambling though.

If you had talked to me 5 years ago, you would have found me in a bad way. I was stuck somewhere I didn’t want to be without any friends and a lot of spare time on my hands. I was depressed and near suicidal at some points and generally stupid and emo. You know what I spent a lot of my time doing? I read manga. I read Love Hina, Chobits, all sorts of mass produced shit– all around the time that manga was really taking off in America. I watched my neighborhood bookstore turn a whole wall into a manga section, even. (Shortly thereafter it closed down. +1 Barnes & Noble) It took me all 8 volumes of Chobits (that’s $80 for those following along at home) to come to the 5th grade realization that I had to tell my crush that I was in love with her and willing to do anything for her.

And you see, it was all that, coupled with the fear of doing real work in college that led me to taking Japanese. (Important for the next entry; take note of it.) I, like you may be now, was that guy/gal who thought that learning Japanese would help me find these wonderful emotional pastures where I could spend my days idling away entangled in the arms of my love. Japan is not that. Japan is not anything like that.

I’m going on my third year here and try as I might, I’ve only ever met one person who I would have been inclined to date. And I was. Twice, actually. And then she left for America. Yes, people do get together here (I mean, hell, they must. Someone is having kids!) but it’s not like the manga. I was reading an article just the other day (how about that for anecdotal evidence?) that referenced a quote by some woman with some clout somewhere saying: “I have never met a Japanese man who did not want me to be his mommy.” This. This is what is happening in mangaland right now. As a 23 year old guy of modest looks and casual demeanor, I spend the majority of time talking to my “e-mail tomo.” That’s Japanese for “We talk about useless, pointless shit, but can never meet in person no matter what.”

And I haven’t even touched on the bad manga dramas yet.

I think that a lot of this probably sounded like a big long rant, but there is something here. I know that a lot of people come to Japan with plans to love the shit out of it. They can’t wait to go to drinking parties afterhours with their co-workers and be involved in crazy karaoke shenanigans. Or maybe they believe that coming here is going to miraculously improve their ability to draw their favorite emo basketball stars that start with nothing and rise to the top through a combination of luck, skill, and Shiseido hair gel. It doesn’t happen like that. Life in Japan is no different from life in America or life in China. Sure, there are school uniforms, perverted old men, shinto shrines and retarded video games, but you don’t need to speak Japanese to indulge in any of it. The only price of entry is to completely ignore any and all good taste and plunge right in.

Once you learn Japanese and all the mystique of waiting for scanlations and subtitles, guessing at stuff that even anonymous won’t translate, and generally just bitching about all the games that don’t make it across the Pacific, is gone, you’ll soon realize that most intellectual property in Japan, beyond a handful of literary writing that you probably won’t have the stomach to get to reading in its native language anyway, is complete and utter shit.

If you want to live inside a manga, I suggest you get a better brain. This is not a good reason to study Japanese.

A Change in Direction

Posted in Japan, Japanese Language, Maintainance by 51future on September 8, 2008

Man, it’s been a long time.

I bought that iPhone, headed home to the ‘States for some R&R and completely forgot about this little blog that had just started to attract a little traffic way back in July. Or so it seemed. No, I got home and I thought about posting and then I didn’t. I came back to Japan and thought about posting, but still abstained.

Weeks and weeks went by and I realized a few things. First, I neither have the time (blah blah blah, I know) nor the expertise to write about technology like I thought I wanted to. If you really go back and look at my past entries, a lot of it was just me complaining about things there were out of my control (Softbank, 10.5.3, etc.). Really useless stuff. Second, I’m not really passionate about that anyway. Sure, I really really like my iPhone and my Mac. I like discussing technology and software. It’s fun. It’s a hobby. But I’m only passionate about it to a point. And there are plenty of sites on the web dedicated to tech– too many to name, really. This blog, as it was yesterday, was redundant.

So today, I’m trying something new.

As you may have guessed, if you a.) know me, or b.) were an avid reader here (hah!)– I am currently learning Japanese. I’m… on an offensive, so to speak. That’s where the new name comes from. I’m on an offensive against the Japanese language. This blog is the new headquarters of the JLO– the Japanese Language Offensive. I want to strike hard and fast, where it hurts, and by writing about my success and my failures here, on this blog, I hope to help people who are currently knee deep in their own version of my theatre– whether it be at college, in class, in Japan, at home wanting to read manga, whatever. Everyday, some idiot sucker like myself decides “Hey, I’ma gonna learn that moonspeak!” Nine times out of ten, like me, the reason is usually something along the lines of “I like manga/anime/Jporn/Jwomen, etc.” Sure, there are other reasons to learn Japanese, but only really rare or boring people decide (from the beginning!) that they want to say, study ancient haiku (which is practically a different language anyway, really) or translate Genji again. Those things take dedication. And if you’re like me, you probably lack dedication. Which is OK. You can still learn Japanese. Yes, the road will be long and hard, but eventually, even a real screw up like myself can make inroads in this god-forsaken language.*

So that’s the reason for the sea change.

If you’re interested in games and technology, go read Engadget or Cnet or something. If you want to know the real story behind learning how to understand that porno you’ve got sitting around (you know the one, where the two adolescent looking girls in sailor outfits are, well, yeah– you know) then keep your eyes peeled. I’ve been studying Japanese for 4 years now (on and off, 3 of those years in higher education) and only now am I finally really coming to terms with all the mistakes I made and all the time I wasted.

Welcome to the JLO, private Nancypants.

(Note: All previous entries will remain for the sake of people linking to them, reading the Brujipedia/DL2 review, etc. That stuff (at least for the moment) remains useful for people randomly searching Google and whatnot.)

* Let’s get one thing straight too, while we’re at it… Yes, you can learn the language. The real question, however, is “Should you?” I’ll cover this in a post sometime this week. The answer might surprise you. (Har, har. Clever, I know.)

Club Activities

Posted in Japan by 51future on July 15, 2008

I was looking around for a story about local governments (here in Japan) pushing for shorter convenience store hours when I came across this story, which I guess is now a dead link to a bunch of comments on a story that has “expired.” (lotwut?) The original story was about the Ministry of Education ushering in longer school hours (again, lolwut– as the comments mention, are they talking about 5AM – 6PM, or 9AM to 10PM?) over the next three years in Japanese elementary and middle schools. The comments, of course, turned to club activities, since club activities are mandatory and often run until 7PM every day after school and usually also run on Saturday and/or Sunday.

I started reading the comments and it made me think about “club activities” here in Japan. I work at a large, Japanese middle school that serves the metropolitan area of a rather large city so we have numerous “clubs” that students are forced to take part in. Yes, unlike American schools, students in Japan are coerced into joining “club activities” and failure to take part in these club activities often carries harsher penalties than say, not attending school itself. At my school, students who skip school or come in at say, 10AM, rather than 8AM, often get a “Good Morning! You’re up early today!” when they do eventually mosey on into the school building and make their way to the nurse’s office; students who skip club activities will find themselves the target of harsh words, significant penalties, parental conferences, and the like. Most students do get some sort of choice as to which club they’re forced into: some choose tennis, others, ‘cleaning club,’ others still, band or track and field. They talk about their club activities in class essays, short sentences, and especially in English class. Their club is often more defining then their name. While we have many 大畑’s, you could more easily determine who is who by their club activity than you could with their names.

The main reason I’m bringing this up is because their are two viewpoints on club activities, usually harshly divided straight down the racial-cultural line. Here’s a typical Western viewpoint:

My daughter’s school had their open house yesterday. From what I saw there was only about 2 kids in every class that showed any interest in what the teacher was doing. About half of the kids were just sitting, eyes down, face hidden, not getting a thing. People always ask us how our daughter does so well at Jr. High. “What juku does she go to?” “How many hours of homework does she do every day?” Besides the obvious, that she has had a more diverse upbringing, all I can say is, she doesn’t go to juku and we tell her she doesn’t need to waste her time on most of the homework if she already knows it. Instead she can do what ever she wants in her free time. Oh, and we didn’t allow our daughter to join a school sports club. The only “down side” is that some of the sluttier girls give her the evil eye because she knows all the answers and the kids that spend all their time studying things they already know are in a panic. Less free time will mean the marks will drop even more.

Contrast that with a typical Japanese view:

a child learns a lot about life through sports (building up a high self-esteem, becoming mentally tough, respect, hard work leads to rewards etc), not to mention bonding with friends, where proxy’s kids’ friends are while his daughter is busy doing god-knows-what with all her free time. I can’t believe how negative some people view things here in Japan. Then again, this is where the pessimists hang out, so there u go. Proxy’s daughter will end up like my a few of my students who cry when they lose a game-based activity.

“Pizzaboy” in this case, sounds like a Japanese teacher, who, by default, invests a lot in club activities. I don’t know the ins-and-outs of a typical Japanese teaching contract, but I do know that most teachers spend an inordinate amount of time at school and I’m relatively sure that they don’t get paid for all (or even most) of it. Teachers here are contract workers, so overtime is a no-go. Most teachers I know, especially new teachers with something to prove will often arrive to work at 6 or 7AM (school officially starts at 8:20AM and contracts usually begin at 8AM– this I’m relatively sure of). Some clubs, in addition to afternoon practice, also practice in the morning. I get to school at 8AM and there are always throngs of kids running laps around the school grounds even at that time. (I arrive 30 minutes early to work every day in order to make the morning meeting. I’m not sure why I do this, since the meeting never ever concerns anything I do, nor am I obligated to go, but that’s another entry entirely.)

School officially ends at around 4:05PM. In the afternoon, most kids I talk to say they stay at school until 7PM, fewer still until 8PM. After that, they often head to night school for even more study and get home just in time to eat a quick dinner and tuck in.

When people ask me about club activities and I tell them that we don’t do that in the States, I usually get a sort of exasperated look, followed by a surprised chirp and a sense of awe. When I tell them that I think students should have a choice in the matter, the conversation usually peters off because well, nobody here feels that way, as far as I can tell. And I think some people have a twisted sense of turnabout and fair play: “I did it when I was a kid, so you have to do it, too.” (After all, what would Japanese families spend time doing together if they ever actually were in the same room at the same time anyway? Madness!)

In any case, I promised myself when I started this blog that I’d keep it topical and that I wouldn’t bitch about my job. I have the job I have because I jumped through a lot of hoops (willingly!) to get it and I even signed up for a second year! I cash my paycheck and I spend the money. Clearly, I’m getting something out of it. However, reading those comments made me realize that I have to ignore quite a bit that goes on around me, namely club activities, in order to continue to perform my job. Club activities don’t affect me. I’m not in a club. I don’t run one. Whether they are there or not has ZERO net effect on my contract or on what I do on a daily basis but that doesn’t change the fact that I think the brainwashing and coercion that takes place in relation to club activities is fucking criminal. And I think that the culture that surrounds them is a disservice to every single Japanese citizen who consciously or unconsciously allows their existence to continue.

Don’t worry, I’ll be back to talking about the App store in a day or two, at most.

SoftBank is Bullshit But I’m Paying Them Anyway

Posted in Apple, Japan, Mobile Computing, Mobile Telephony by 51future on July 12, 2008

Foreigners treated like criminals; not surprising

So have you ever heard of those foreigners who buy cell phone contracts and skip out of the country without paying them? No? That’s weird because I hear it happens all the time. Constantly. Japan’s phones are just so fucking amazing that people come to Japan specifically to buy phones and then skip the country. In fact, you’d be surprised to learn that most foreigners are also criminals and/or terrorists.

What makes all this even worse is that the iPhone is only available in Japan! It’s such an awesome phone that anyone who wants one must come to Japan to buy one. That’s why there are so many foreign criminals paying thousands of dollars for a flight over here just to sign up for a phone they don’t plan on paying for.

Whew. Enough sarcasm.

But yeah, SoftBank is a shitty company that treated me like a criminal and I’m not happy. This is the story I posted on iPhone in Japan:

I got my iPhone today and honestly, it was a pain in the ass.

I went down to the store about an hour after they started selling them, since I only had a half-day off work and started the setup then. About 30 minutes later, after working out my new phone number, getting the contract details and everything else, they told me to go home and come back before 8PM to pick it up since the “foreign registration checking system” was “crowded” today.

About an hour later, I get a call saying that there was a problem with my visa and they told me that I’d have to pay 80,000 yen in full if I wanted to get the phone. (This is a visa with 25 months left on it.) I asked them what the problem was and they said they didn’t know. The head office just called and told them that I’d have to pay the full amount if I wanted to walk away with the phone today. So I went back (without my passport and whatall, since I like to keep that in a safe place at home) and realized that what I should have inferred from the “problem” was that we’d have to start everything all over again from square one.

So I went *back* home and got my passport and whatnot, went to the bank, got my wad and then went and sat down for another 45 minutes where I coached them on how to utilize the iPhone keyboard to type in web addresses to help me (haha) change my email address. After that, I had to choose a new number (yep, the other new number I had chosen was now locked out, lawl) and new details, of which I’m not even sure anymore. After that, they told me to confirm I lived in Gunma-ken??? They claimed my passport said I lived in Gunma-ken (even though we could find no mention of a Japanese address anywhere on my passport or visas, whatever) and when they couldn’t really figure out how to read my foreign card (yes, it’s in Japanese, I don’t know what sort of brain rot was spreading at the SB store today) I just gave them my Japanese license and from there things went smoothly.

Eventually, I walked out of there less 80,000 yen with a new iPhone and a contract that I can end for free at any time which will eventually pay back something like 20,000 yen to me over the one year.

The upside to all this is that my monthly bill is going to be something like 5,300 yen a month, which I can’t really complain about. But yeah, today was hell.

Wish you all luck.

There was a point (after I had come and gone three times to the store) that I thought about vocally complaining rather loudly in Japanese about foreign discrimination, but then I watched another guy, a Japanese security guard who looked like he was just coming off his shift fork out the same 80,000 yen to get the phone as I did. After that, I didn’t feel so bad about paying, even though my unhappiness remained.

There’s plenty of comments in the linked story that point to the same sorts of problems. It makes me glad I’m not a Japanese person or a citizen of Japan. And it makes me sad that I’ve spent all this time learning this language.

Meanwhile, there’s this analysis of the iPhone: “It’s like a foreigner who speaks excellent Japanese!”

Everybody’s covered the contract bit, but about the dodgy Nikkei Trendy headline – it’s perhaps based on stuff like this:


Basically it understands the language, but without knowing the culture it screws up here and there, with the example being moji-bake-ing emoji – that will mean it will sell approximately zero to any woman under 35…

Then, to track shares you need to use the four-letter code, these’s no way to search names in Japanese.

Then there’s no One Seg or Osaifu Keitai, no 5MP camera, YouTube is too slow over 3G and there’s the lack of public WiFi here.

The conclusion seems to be picturing the iPhone as an American “Cool Beauty” – do you ditch the reliable Japanese model for a bit of foreign adventure?

Why are phones supposed to be free, anyway?

Posted in Apple, Japan, Mobile Computing, Mobile Telephony by 51future on July 8, 2008

I like the iPhone a lot and as such, I’ve been following all sorts of discussions on the launch. Pretty obvious right? But one thing I don’t understand is this notion a lot of people have that phones should be free. Or at least subsidized.

Why do people think that?

I mean, I don’t go to my cable company and ask them to subsidize my computer when I buy internet service, even though a computer without internet is, in this day and age, a lot like a phone without service. Nor do I ask the 7-11 to subsidize my car, even though my car is nothing more than a heavy metal box without gasoline. So why should our phones be any different?

I was discussing the iPhone with my supervisor here, because my supervisor is 27 years old and I feel that he has a pretty good grasp on the world. I relate to him better than any other co-worker of mine, and I was pretty sure that even though, yes, we’re out in the middle of bumfuck nowhere, he would be at least peripherally aware of the iPhone.

He was.

He sounded somewhat excited and thought that the whole thing sounded like a sound purchase. “It’s an iPod Touch with phone service,” he said. “All for a relatively low monthly cost. I think it’s a good deal.” Something that he understood well, though, was the idea that the iPhone was cheaper than an iPod touch, and in many respects, theoretically free. Most cell contracts here cost more than the 3,500円 per month that I pay. One of my co-workers pays around 12,000円 a month, most of that goes to the packet transmission fee for the e-mails he sends. Now, most phones in Japan are not free. Sure, there are usually 5-10 models per store that are 0円 (or sometimes, 1円), but most phones, especially the nice ones that you hear about when people run their mouth off about how “Japanese phones run circles around supercomputers,” cost anywhere from 10,000円 to 30,000円+. Yes, these phones probably are subsidized to a point, but the fact of the matter is, they still cost money.

Personally, I think the lie that is free phones, is one that the carriers have propagated in order to keep people locked into contracts by convincing them that if they don’t, the price of phones will be far and beyond what people can or are willing to pay. That may be true. Fewer people are willing to spend 80,000円 for an unsubsidized iPhone (the rumored price of such a beast, at least here in Japan) than are willing to take an iPhone home for no charge up front and pay 1,500円 or 2,300円 per month that disappears into a larger, more robust phone bill. But for some inane reason, people are willing to spend 48,800円 on a 16GB iPod Touch. Why?

Because AT&T and Co. have trained us to believe that phones become useless as soon as you disconnect them from the network, in the same way that they tried to convince us of the same thing years ago:

Bell could effectively prohibit its customers from connecting phones not made or sold by Bell companies to the system without leasing fees. For example, if a customer desired a type of phone not leased by the local Bell monopoly, one had to purchase the phone at cost, give it to the phone company, then pay a ‘re-wiring’ charge and a monthly lease fee in order to use it.

Looks Like I’ll Be Switching Carriers in July

Posted in Apple, Gadgetry, Japan by 51future on June 7, 2008

Softbank announces “iPhone”

I can finally ditch this stupid DoCoMo phone and finally get an iPhone. We live in exciting times.

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Stuff That Happened in Japan Recently

Posted in Japan by 51future on May 27, 2008

Cannibis Blunder at Tokyo Airport

An unwitting passenger arriving at Japan’s Narita airport has received 142g of cannabis after a customs test went awry, officials say.

Manpei Tanaka is my hero: “I knew that using passengers’ bags is prohibited, but I did it because I wanted to improve the sniffer dog’s ability.”

If only more people were willing to go so far to succeed.

Japanese Man Stalks Toll-Free Hotline to Hear Woman’s Voice

This guy racked up 3100 hours between 16 months and 600 phone calls– all to listen to the voice on an automated guidance tape.

“He gets excited by the woman’s voice on the guidance tape,” the spokesman said, adding that the voice sounded normal to the detective who was involved in the investigation.

Chris Odate on Facebook

I updated my movies on Facebook to include the excellent Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and clicked it to see if anyone else had that down as one of their favorite movies. This took me to Chris’ profile. He’s in the Japan network, but really the important thing here is the fact that his profile is about as close to MySpace as you can get without actually going there. It’s really terrible.

How to Pack for JET: For Men

Posted in Japan by 51future on April 8, 2008

When you pack for JET, pack for work.

Packing for JET is difficult because the program literature sort of fails at providing any useful information about what I would label as the “fashion environment” in the Japanese workplace. Pack a suit, first and foremost. You’ll be wearing the suit almost constantly for 2 or 3 weeks as soon as you arrive in Japan to all the orientation functions. Some people don’t, but those people are probably as stupid as they look. There was one guy who bummed around in a t-shirt and shorts during all the formal orientation functions and while I don’t think he got into any serious trouble, he did manage to piss off everyone stuck up enough to care– it looked bad. Furthermore, the suit is a no-brainer because its the ultimate fallback. BoE (Board of Education) day? Wear the suit. Not sure what to wear to the graduation ceremony? Yeah, the suit again. Random work day? Yes, the suit works. The third year JET here wears a suit everyday to work. It’s a little ragged, but it keeps him looking sharp and important. Unless you’re shorter than average and slim-proportioned, don’t wait. My mother convinced me to go to Japan and have a suit tailored-to-fit, but that’s way more trouble than its worth, especially considering I have trouble finding sleeves my length even in America.

Don’t pack jeans. You can’t wear them at work. Take all the jeans you thought were nice enough to teach in and replace them with “athletic pants.” Where jeans fail, Puma and Adidas pants work. There are exactly two types of acceptable work fashions in Japan, athletic and formal. One of the first things I was told when I first arrived at school was that “a lot of teachers come to work in their suit and change after the morning meeting.” Now, I don’t do this because I think its dumb to wear a suit to a ten minute meeting I’m not even obligated to go to just to change out of it later, but the fact remains that people do do it. The point is this: pack at most one pair of jeans– replace the rest with gym togs.

Now, you’ll hear a lot of dissenting opinions (maybe) about what is and isn’t acceptable at work and for the most part, the biggest factor in determining what is and isn’t acceptable is determining your own threshold for pain. Where I am, we have a wide range of rulemakers. The senior JET here, an upstanding British guy who should have, for all intents and purposes, already expired due to excessive consumption, wears a suit every day at work. After 3 years of this, I imagine his routine is as refined as it gets and he’s never underdressed. In opposition to that, one of our JETs here typically wears a baseball cap and non-collared shirts to work everyday. It’s unlikely anyone will call you out unless your clothing is disruptive, but people will secretly hate you for wearing jeans to school and completely ignoring the fact that every other male teacher wears a suit to work every day. It may also bite you in the ass on your performance review and influence whether or not you get that “special work-related” vacation day for a day trip to get your drivers license or re-entrance pass. I’d also recommend ditching body jewelry and covering up tattoos, but I imagine most people into that sort of stuff were probably weeded out during the interview process. (Note: I don’t care about the ring/stud/fishhook in your eye/nose/lip, but I imagine JET does discriminate based on these sort of factors during the face-to-face.)

The rest of us wear an amalgamation of machine-washable fabrics and semi-formal elements. Personally, in the winter I tend to run with a pair of machine-washable cotton “slacks” that I don’t need to iron and a collar shirt. Over that, I typically wear wool sweaters that I picked up after I got here. These are the only aspect of my typical work outfit that requires dry-cleaning and I typically rotate them in and out, getting them cleaned three or four times a month. For the winter, bring long underwear to round out your under-layers. In the States, I didn’t bother, but then again, I never really lived in any particularly cold places and as I college student I’d usually just throw on another sweater if I was cold. I ended up investing in some Marmot stuff this winter and getting it sent to me and it has served me pretty well. With plain white undershirts you can buy here, this should keep you relatively warm at work.

In the summer, you’ll be wearing “Cool Biz.” Japanese “Cool Biz” is a fashion trend characterized by thin short-sleeve collar shirts and slacks. I wouldn’t bother with real slacks, keeping them cleaned and ironed is a pain and most people with any sense here save those for weddings and funerals. I wore the slacks I brought with me for about 2 weeks for orientations and then closeted them. Three times to the cleaners and they’re already developing small holes. They aren’t worth the time or money it takes to maintain them. So come to Japan and buy cotton slacks here or just bring your own. Assuming your city is big enough to sustain a Uniqlo, you won’t have to worry too much about finding your size. I wear 32/34, which is a picky size even in the US, and I don’t have any trouble finding slacks that fit me well enough at Uniqlo. Conversely, I can’t buy shirts in my size here in Japan. They just don’t exist. The size that fits my torso, Japanese Large (American Medium) is about 4 inches too short on the arms. Although summer ends quicker than you might imagine (but not as quick as you’d like) come August, I still personally had trouble finding any “Cool Biz” that didn’t make me gag. Buy your collar shirts in the US and bring them over. I recommend 5 or 6 of each, short- and long-sleeved. Under these, you’ll be wearing plain white undershirts to absorb the fallout from the salinization plant that is your skin in the summer.

I haven’t really talked about shoes yet, mostly because the JET materials are pretty spot on as far as shoes are concerned. Men who wear sizes 10 and above should really consider overpacking shoes. I wear a size 13. Its impossible for me to buy shoes here, as far as I can tell. There’s not a single shop in my area that stocks anything over a 10 and even in Nagoya (a city of about 2 million and one of Japan’s largest metropolitan areas) finding sizes over 11 or 12 is all but impossible. Bring multiple pairs of shoes. On a typical day at school you’ll change shoes at least once (when entering and leaving the school). Having another pair of shoes for the gym is recommended. When I leave in the morning, I put on a pair of New Balance sneakers, drive to work, take off my sneakers and put on my indoor sandals. I keep a pair of clean white Pumas in my car for functions in the gymnasium and/or elementary school visits. Because I primarily visit two middle schools, it would be convenient to keep a pair of shoes at both but to do that would be stretching my shoes a little too thin and leave me without alternative choices in the case of shoe emergencies. So as it stands I have two pairs of tennis/running sneakers in the entrance to my apartment that I wear to work and after work, a pair of black formal shoes that hang out in my closet for the rare CLAIR or prefectural function, one pair of indoor sandals that I keep at my main school, and a pair of puma sneakers in my car for less frequently visited schools. I plan to pick up another pair of waterproof sandals for outdoor/water use and am looking to upgrade this pair of tennis shoes next time I head home. Having one more pair of indoor shoes would probably best round-out my holdings, but coming from a one-pair home, already my collection of shoes seems excessive.

The reason for all the shoes here in Japan has to do with their crazy ideas about what is inside and outside, and clean and dirty. Outside shoes don’t tread inside and vice versa. Furthermore, there’s a progressive hierarchy to take into account. Gym > Inside > Outside, etc. At one point in the past I tried boxing at a local gym and I need a separate pair of shoes for that gym, too. The important lessons here are: you’ll be wearing tennis shoes most of the time (yes, even with your suit), but you’ll need a different pair every time the floor stratum changes. Plan accordingly.

If you have long arms or a unique shape, I say again, bring your own shirts/jackets/etc. Fleece jackets, sweaters, etc. are a pain to buy here because where Uniqlo succeeds in providing for my long legs, they fail completely in clothing my upper-body. Large and Extra Large articles of clothing have the same sleeve-lengths– too short. Sure, they have fleece jackets in 15 different colors, but not a single one will fit and the too short sleeves will constantly annoy you. You also won’t be able to wear the cheap Uniqlo collar shirts, even though you’ll likely find something you like among the myriad shelves.

The major mistakes I made involved bringing lots of casual clothing. I packed with a college mindset and ended up with a lot of useless clothing that just sits in my closet. Bring 4 or 5 t-shirts at most. You’re not going to prove your individuality to anyone here and the only time I ever wear t-shirts is when I’m asleep (in the winter) or bumming around on the weekend. Consider: the weekend is only two days a week and you’ll probably work on weekends more often than you might expect. While sweatshirts and hoodies are convenient casual clothing in the winter, you’ll probably need at most one, possibly two if you’re anal about cleanliness. On the other hand, having two or three long-sleeve shirts that you can wear casually will keep you sane. I picked up what I refer to as “board shirts” at Quicksilver in Fukuoka during the winter break that I find make great pajamas and/or Saturday shirts. That the sleeves happen to be long enough is a mere anomaly. As is probably obvious, I made the mistake of packing three pairs of jeans, thinking I’d be able to wear them to work. No dice. They sit in my closet. They’re hot in the summer and cold in the winter, so I rarely wear them. During my downtime, I instead wear shorts in the summer and fleece-lined space-bullshit pants from Uniqlo in the colder months.

Most of this advice applies to working at a middle school, though I imagine that working at a high school is no different, as far as acceptable fashion is concerned. I do visit elementary schools pretty frequently and I find the rules are slightly different at those schools. I don’t bother with collar shirts on elementary school days. Instead I opt for athletic wear and/or a rough combination of casual-athletic. Sadly though, while I probably could wear jeans to my elementary schools (and I may eventually do so, just to change it up), they unfortunately don’t get much use there either. If my primary schools were elementary schools, I imagine I’d settle into a more casual-formal routine and leave it at that. The way I do it now is primarily the way it is because those visits are bi-weekly.

In short, this is what you should pack for JET:


    5 Long-Sleeve Collar Shirts
    5 Short-Sleeve Collar Shirts
    1 Suit
    2-3 Ties
    3-5 Pair Long Underwear Top/Bottoms
    1 Heavy Coat
    1 Light Jacket
    1-2 Fleeces/Hoodies/Sweaters. (Note: clean fleece jackets work for work; hoodies don’t.)
    2-3 Casual Long Sleeve Shirts
    3-4 Pair Tennis Shoes/Sneakers
    1-2 Pair Sandals
    1 Pair Formal Shoes (Feature-less black shoes that aren’t formal shoes but could pass for them can work for the first week of post-landing functions if you’re good enough to swing it. Ultimately, formal shoes are all-but-useless otherwise.)

After that:

If you have trouble finding the following in America due to your unique body-mass, then by all means, pack these too. However, if you’re running low on space, think about picking up the following after you get to Japan.

    3-4 Thin Wool/Cashmere Sweaters
    5 Machine-Washable Slacks
    5-7 Plain White Undershirts
    2 Pair Running Shorts
    1-2 Pair Casual Shorts

I’m probably forgetting something major, so feel free to bookmark this page so that you can refer to it later if it changes. Also, feel free to ask further questions about JET-related packing questions if there’s anything you’re worried about. Not sure if I can help the girls out there with questions (I don’t know the first thing about women’s clothing/fashion/etc.) but I do see women at work and can probably tell you a little bit about what they wear if you’re lacking critical information yourself.

DoCoMo, the iPhone, and the so-called Japanese Cell Phone Wonderland

Posted in Apple, Gadgetry, Japan by 51future on March 7, 2008

Before I came to Japan I had a T-Mobile MDA smartphone that ran Windows Mobile. While I was excited to have “the internet in my pocket” as Steve likes to go on about in reference to the iPhone, I did have a love-hate relationship with the phone and when it came time to leave the country I was more than happy to ditch it. Mobile Internet Explorer is a travesty and my little Wizard didn’t have enough battery life or memory to really do anything interesting. Finding and installing applications on it was a pain (.cab files, you won’t be missed) but I did enjoy being able to check my email from anywhere, even though it was slow and usually painful. At one point I installed Google Maps too, but it wasn’t supported on my phone and it didn’t play nice with the EDGE connection at the time. Moreover, I wasn’t able to pinpoint my location and scrolling was, because of both memory and bandwidth constraints, sluggish.

All in all, my use of my phone’s features was limited because the implementation was clunky, and because it wasn’t an integrated device. I wanted my MDA to be my Mp3 player, a camera, and my phone all at once. However, the HTC couldn’t cut it for a lot of reasons. As far as the camera was concerned, the resolution was poor and the camera components were nothing special– this, combined with an exceptionally clunky interface and very little flash memory (32mb) meant that I didn’t use it much. When I did, ActiveSync made sure to make extracting photos from the device as difficult as possible. I still carried my iPod around when I wanted to listen to music. Google maps proved useful in the few instances it worked correctly, but honestly, users shouldn’t be praying for software to function on a phone. It’s a phone. I mean, they could just, you know, call someone for help instead.

I spent hours searching forums in the dark corners of the internet looking for applications that actually ran on my phone; more time than the average user, I imagine, and still, I never found an alternative browser that would install on my device. Mobile WMP drained my battery in the time it took to listen to a CD and it had an interface that looked like something that required a mouse for navigation. It was like the engineers just scaled the default interface down to the lower resolution of the device and called it a day.

As it stands now, the features that I personally look for in a phone– the ones that make or break the purchase are:

  • Simple, Intuitive User Interface
  • Beautifu, Functional Form Factor
  • Strong Phone Functions/Hardware (Battery Life, etc.)
  • Elegant PC/Device Syncing

In a fully integrated device like the iPhone, I append the following requirements:

  • Intuitive Mobile Web
  • Robust music player
  • Rich Application support

I want to replace the camera/iPod/cell phone paradigm with one elegant device that I can work and play on without getting frustrated. Windows Mobile (and possible Android, maybe) are strong in that they are supported on hundreds of devices. There is a lot of choice. Choice of hardware, vendors, mobile providers, etc. However, there is no choice, in my opinion, that compares to the iPhone; ultimately this renders other choices moot.

With that said, I’d like to talk about the misconceptions people have about Japanese cell phones.

There was a post a few weeks back on The Unofficial Apple Weblog talking about the potential carrier for the iPhone in Japan (DoCoMo). (I’m already a DoCoMo customer, and not at all unhappy about the news, but I do have a few concerns which I may write about at a later date.) People always seem to have a lot to say when anyone mentions Japanese cell phones. Usually, the first thing you hear is that Japanese cell phones are “pretty awesome personal communication devices.” Hora, you can buy a coke by holding your phone up to the machine, or pay for a cup of coffee instantly at the convenience store, even when you don’t have cash on you! You can scan bits of the newspaper into your phone and read them on the go, or take pictures of bar codes and be transported directly to a specific web page to download new content! Amazing!

What you don’t hear very often is that these features are often gimmicky, expensive or non-existant, and/or pointless for American consumers. Who doesn’t carry their wallet and a credit card around? Do you really think paying wirelessly with your phone is going to be more secure and/or convenient than paying with a credit card? Paying via your cell phone is a big thing in Japan because Japan is a cash society where credit cards are relatively rare. Bar code reading and the like is mostly just a gimmick unless you’re interested in paying for whatever it is that barcode links to. Scanning text into your phone via the camera is a nifty idea, but (on my phone, at least) it’s slow, clunky and not necessary. Sure, it might be neat to show off at a party, but is it something you’re going to be using everyday? No. If you have time to scan the newspaper into your phone, but don’t have time to carry it, I propose that you live in a bizarro world.

There is a lot of bad writing floating around the web that deifies Japanese technology and shits all over everything else like this piece of tripe in the San Francisco Gate.

There’s a tremendous divide between the average Japanese consumer and his Stateside counterpart. Call it the gadget gap or the device deficit — call it what you will, as long as you recognize that, where cool high-tech stuff is concerned, America is light-years behind its counterparts in the Far East.

Having lived in both rural and metropolitan areas in Japan, I offer the following perspective:

I won’t argue that many newer homes don’t have pretty spiffy electronic toilets, but the vast majority of Japanese people are still kneeling over these. As far as consumer electronics are concerned, even the worst Japanese brands are more expensive than the best American counterparts and on average I pay a hefty premium on even the most basic consumer electronics here. (Some recent premiums: $60 extra on Time Capsule, $200+ on my MBP, $60 on a 500GB hard drive, etc. etc. etc.) There aren’t rows and rows of gigapixel cameras at firesale prices on store shelves here, and really, right now in Japan you’d be lucky to find bargains even on commodity hardware. I wasted $60 on a basic 10/100Mb router (without reliable port forwarding) recently and right now pay $5 a month on top of my ADSL service fee to rent a “modem/router” that has no wireless and only a single ethernet port.

With all the misinformation floating around the internet, it doesn’t surprise me that people, more frequently than not, often echo the same misled ideas about the Japanese cellular market.

This Newsweek article, which talks about how the failure of NTT DoCoMo to dominate the international market the same way they dominated their national markets is an example of the current failings of Japanese innovation and a result of the (Japanese) corporate struggle to innovate, seems to sharply contrast this MSNBC fluff piece that claims that Japan is a “wireless vision of the future for [the] U.S.” Digging into the articles itself, you find that only one lends credibility to the other.

From Newsweek:

The would-be worldbeater proved tone-deaf. DoCoMo was so enraptured with its state-of-the-art Internet service that it failed to notice that the long, intricate menus favored by Japanese consumers didn’t impress foreign customers who were looking for more-intuitive interfaces. One reason for the failure to communicate: not a single person in senior management was non-Japanese. “With the right approach they could have become a Google,” says Gerhard Fasol of the Tokyo consultancy Eurotechnology Japan. “They had the chance—but they blew it.”

Read that and then move on to the MSNBC story. The closing quote is telling:

Takeshi Natsuno, considered the father of I-mode — the landmark service of communications giant NTT DoCoMo that granted Japanese easy access to the Internet via cell phones in 1999 — argues that U.S. cellular phone companies have simply mishandled the concept by employing different signal “standards,” or cellular languages, which made it difficult for cell phones to communicate with the Internet.

“Everyone wants to say, ‘Oh, the Japanese are strange. They love tiny and miniature things and that’s why cell phone services have taken off here,’ ” Natsuno said. “But the truth is that we are normal, and it’s the other guys who are something odd. It’s not about being Japanese. It’s about knowing what people want and how to sell it the right way.”

The conclusion I’m getting to is simple. Apple (and the iPhone) could be a major force in the Japanese cellular market in the days ahead. The market here is fiercely competitive. Everyone already has a cell phone, so companies like DoCoMo and Softbank are trying to appeal to the rapidly diminishing younger generation and the capricious consumers interested in flair over form and function. True, there are some really slim phones here (mine is a little thinner than a cd case when closed) however there’s no device out right now in Japan that could compete with the iPhone as far as features and performance are concerned. If Steve is willing to jump on the gimmick train and make sure it interacts with all the newly upgraded Coca-Cola machines and the Tokyo Suica system, he could have another huge hit on his hands. Remember what the iPod did to the Walkman?

The only remaining unknown is whether the notoriously brand-loyal Japanese will accept what could be a new dimension of cell phone usage in a country where cell phones sales are overtaking the PC business. In the iPhone’s case, I’d argue that there is no clear answer. With the push towards phones replacing traditional PCs combined with the mindshare Apple has here, I think that they’d have no problem making it happen.  Eight hours after Macworld 2008 I had teachers coming up to me and asking if I’d heard about the MacBook Air. Not all that incredible until you consider that my BoE got their first computer only 7 years ago.

While the cold, logical part of me knows for a fact that there’s no Japanese iPhone because there’s no 3G iPhone yet, I often wonder if DoCoMo might purposely be beating around the bush with Apple in order to give Japanese manufacturers a chance to catch up.