Friday, November 16, 2007


Prime Minister Fukuda is visiting Washington today – but you’d hardly know it if you didn’t read the paper. Actually, that won’t help much – The Washington Post had nothing to say. The Financial Times had an article on the visit and some of the issues they may discuss, but they must think Fukuda is a bit cuckoo – their photo subtitle labeled him as “Kukuda.” (Really, the FT can do better than that…)

Perhaps Bush will serve some American beef at their working lunch, just like he did for Fukuda’s predecessor, but there is certainly no casual time planned at Camp David (as with Abe), at the Crawford Ranch (as with Germany’s Merkel), and most certainly no state dinner as Sarkozy recently received.

It seems that the era of unimpressive Japanese Prime Ministers has returned. Remember Takeshita, Uno, Kaifu, Miyazawa, Hosokawa, Hata, Murayama, Hashimoto, Obuchi, or Mori? Those were the men between an unforgettable Nakasone and the memorable and long-serving Koizumi. Remember Bush and his trip down to Memphis, sunglasses and Koizumi’s air guitar act to boot?

However, despite claims that US-Japan relations “are critically important,” the current visit by Prime Minister Fukuda, when compared to recent visits by other heads of state, does not seem to match the rhetoric that is being used to describe the state of the relationship, and is most certainly not being afforded the same symbolism extended to Russia, Germany, or France.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Shark attack

Reuters had a report today that caught my attention - but it was a comment buried in the article that made me raise my eyebrows:

NASSIRIYA, Iraq (Reuters) - A two-meter shark has been caught in a river in southern Iraq more than 200 km (160 miles) from the sea.


Locals blamed the U.S. military for the shark's presence.

Tahseen Ali, a teacher, said there was a "75 percent chance" Americans had put the shark in the water.

"This is very frightening for us. Our children always swim in the river and I believe that there are more sharks. I believe that America is behind this matter," said fisherman Hatim Karim.

That's right - the locals blame the US for a shark that swam up the Euphrates.

So much for winning their hearts and minds.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

NOVA - don't cry for me

I must say, when I began to read about the NOVA scandal, I was not surprised. I had long heard the advice: "if you want to teach English in Japan, avoid NOVA at all costs. If you must teach there, get your visa, and move on as quickly as possible."

Those who took that advice were the smart ones. Those who were recruited this summer and arrived in Japan to learn for the first time that the company was imploding were unlucky I suppose, but I also have little sympathy for someone who could have easily googled NOVA and found dozens of articles in the English press describing the early stages of the implosion.

But this raises some more important questions about the state of the industry, and English language education in Japan itself. Why do the Japanese spend so much money on "learning English," and have so little to show for it? If you add up all the money spent on English language education (schools, books, study guides, conversation school, etc.) you would have the GDP of a medium sized country.

Japan has the second lowest TOEFL scores in Asia - only North Korea does worse.

What is the obsession with "eikaiwa?" I propose that for many, studying English or sending your kids off to Nova is a status symbol - right up there with the coach bag where they stash their electronic dictionary." Others believe that they need to study English to "career up." You can also see the salary-men, who slacked off in their high school and college English classes, being told that they're going to spend a few years at the overseas subsidiary...

There are many reasons for Japanese to study English - but should we be surprised to see the largest private school in the country implode? I don't think so. Thus, while I feel sorry for those caught up in this mess, I must also say that they should have seen the writing on the wall.

Friday, October 26, 2007

History, in reverse

History in Japan and the United States is taught in the same order - from the beginning to the present day. Obviously, "the beginning" is different in each of the two places. For the U.S., the beginning is found in Jamestown, VA or Plymouth, MA. We must stretch to imagine that for some of us, there was actually another beginning in Nova Scotia (the early viking explorers) or in the Bahamas (Columbus' first landing). It takes an even further stretch to also recognize that the Bering Sea is yet another beginning. However, for most "U.S. History" classes, it started when the white guys got here.

For Japan, the origins are seemingly clear - all desendants of Amaterasu? Well, perhaps this is no longer acceptable. Finding Japanese roots is much harder. As author and philosopher Jared Diamond said, "Just who are the Japanese? Where did they come from and when? The answers are difficult to come by, though not impossible ― the real problem is that the Japanese themselves may not want to know."[1] Despite this, as someone one once pointed out to me, history seems to be taught through a progression of eras, culminating with the Edo period, followed by the Meiji "Restoration," and then the war post-war era. Like American history, it is taught from a beginning, and time runs out before more recent history can be considered.

I have heard it said that Koreans and Chinese, instead, teach their history "in reverse." They start with the the war (and how bad Japan was), then progress backwards, leaving the question of origin open ended in some early mist of the past.

Is this why, then, that Japan and its neighbors have such a hard time reconciling their histories? Perhaps it is true. However, another vein within these descriptions is the reality that no one likes to talk about their own skeletons, and everyone always talks about others skeletons.

How do we get out of this rut? How can the forward-looking Japanese look over their shoulders a bit more, and how can over-the-shoulder-gazing Koreans and Chinese look a bit more towards the horizon? And more importantly, how can Americans look more at any history - be it their own or someone else's? History matters, but what matters more is an understanding that there is not one history, but many histories. Understanding how others view their own history is important to being able to deal with them. Likewise, understanding that history and the truth are not the same is also important. Keeping these things in mind, the importance of history remains the same.


Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Capital Hill Education

Today I visited two elementary schools on Capital Hill. As part of a wider project, another Rotarian and I delivered dictionaries to each third grade student at the two schools.

The first school was simply depressing. No one was excited to see us, and few people really seemed to know what was going on. We had a hard time finding who to speak to. While the buildings are old, they were clean and freshly painted. However, it was still a tired, depressing place. Old tattered textbooks were stacked in the halls. It was unclear if any student would use them, or if there were enough of them. (DC Public Schools have a terrible history of having textbooks available when classes start.)

We had each of the students come up to get their dictionary. While most mumbled thanks, they seemed about as excited as if we were handing out pencils before a No Child Left Behind mandated test. Sadly, it was obvious that these children were likely to be left behind - by a number of factors.

At the second school, we went to the classroom to deliver our dictionaries. The second teacher was much more engaged, and excited that we were there. She got it - she knew we were there to ultimately play a part in the success of these children, however small providing a dictionary may be. However, there was something about her - some spark that gave the room an energy that is hard to describe - that made me smile. She cared. And the children knew it. Perhaps the only shame is that this petite gray haired teacher had obviously been around the block a few times, and seemed to me that she had considered quitting at many points along the way. However, she was there, doing her best to lead these young children, and despite the many difficulties that face these children, was still trying.

The problems in DC's schools are notorious, and I feel privileged to have had the opportunity simply to enter the schools and read the air myself. I felt despair and exhaustion, but I also sensed a spark of hope. Now, the question is, how can we keep that ember alive, foster it, and allow it to spread like wildfire? What, besides providing dictionaries, can we do to help these children who live in the shadow of the Capital Dome of the most powerful country in the world?

Monday, October 22, 2007

A New Perspective

After a self imposed hiatus, I am back - this time from Washington, DC. In August, I moved to Annapolis, Maryland, just an hour outside of the Capital (and thankfully, outside of the Beltway too).

From November, I'll be working in DC as a staff reporter for a Japanese newspaper. I look forward to following the presidential elections, US-Japan relations, and other topics of interest. It should be a great deal of fun, and offers a very different perspective from the last year in Tokyo. It will be fascinating to see and analyze events from this side of the Pacific.

As for life here in the State Capital - it has been magnificent since my arrival at the beginning of August - Crab Cakes, sail boats, and cooler temperatures are all to be appreciated. No, I don't see too many Midshipmen from the Academy. The superintendent has cracked down on sports and off-campus activity, requiring these federally funded students to study. "We're at war."

You'd never know it walking down "Ego Alley" near city dock, where you regularly see very expensive yachts tied to the dock from around the east coast. Weekenders from DC and Baltimore keep the restaurants busy, and all-in-all, it is a world away from reality. I nice place to come home at night to rest.

Annapolis, Maryland

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

"Japanese Expression"

There is a small debate again over at NBR, this time about English in Japan...

Perhaps the greatest help for me to get over my frustration over "bad English" was actually written by the editor of

You will also find that the vast majority of the English examples on were produced by companies - not individuals and that most of the Engrish found within the site is not an attempt to communicate, but are examples of English being used as a design element." (

While some mistakes are hilarious (with the humor unintended), oftentimes it is because the English is not there for the purpose of communication, but merely graphic design. It just looks cool. In this case, it is certainly not a dialect of English, but simply a random rambling of English words.

But, it still begs the question - if a company is going to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a sign with English, and it is for the purpose of communication, wouldn't you look it up in a dictionary? After all, you might wonder what in the world a "Sabway" is. (As seen in Kyoto Station).

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Japan's Schindler

The Emperor and Empress of Japan recently visited Lithuana, and there they visited a monument to one of the more well known Japanese citizens in that country. He is all but unknown in Japan, his homeland.

A full history and accounting can be found in the article as well as in the Wikipedia article for Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat stationed in Lithuana during World War Two who during that time helped save the lives of thousands of Jews fleeing the Nazis by issuing them transit visas, allowing them to escape Eastern Europe and find safety in third countries (but not Japan proper).

For me it is a small world. After he received some acclaim in the mid 1980s, his hometown of Yaotsu-cho established a small museum in honor of their hometown hero. Interestingly, the only Israeli JET program participant in Japan is posted to the town of Yaotsu where they work in city hall helping with this museum and "internationalization." I just happened to work in the neighboring city, and knew at least two of the Isreali's that worked there. They proudly told me the story of Japan's Schindler.

So, having known about this guy since I first came to Japan nearly a decade ago, I guess I was surprised to learn that he is so obscure in the rest of Japan. Upon reflection, it makes sense for had I not been a JET, I wouldn't have learned of him - even living just a few kilometers from his hometown. Had I not met those colleagues living in rural Japan - trying to explain to the children of this village not only what this man did, but what Israelis, Jews, and Nazis are - I would be none the wiser.

Sugihara died in 1986. Why did it have to be that his neighbors and friends didn't know what he had done until dozens of Isreali officials including Isreal's ambassador to Japan went to his funeral? Why was this act of courage ignored and disparaged for so long?

Another episode in Japan where I realize that as much as I learn and discover, there are things that may remain beyond my understanding.

Thursday, May 17, 2007


I was thinking about the recent Comfort Women resolution before the House of Representatives this morning, considering if Abe would apologize or not.

I don't think that is the point.

I then thought of this scene from "A Few Good Men." A bit longer, but as famous as "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn!"

Abe, and the Japanese government, is highly unlikely to apologize. But that doesn't have to happen for something positive to come out of this. Perhaps it is more like this scene.

By continuing to pound away at this and related issues, it can only be hoped that the curtain can be pulled aside, and the skeletons can be revealed. More importantly, through dialog among Japan, China, Korea, the United States, and others can common understandings be achieved. Only then can real trust be created.

The same holds true for Yasukuni. The more the shrine and Japan's conservatives attempt to define the shrine, the less of an appetite Japan's own people not to mention its allies will have for the beliefs that are not so secret, nor so well known outside Japan.

It is an issue that will not go away. When these dirty little nuggets of knowledge do bubble to the surface, Japan's MOFA and Japan handlers in the US sweep it under the rug in order to preserve the status quo. However, I see them more as a cancer - sometimes it flares up, but usually it is benign, but merely in remission. Cancer, however, can be either treated aggressively (in this case by airing the laundry) or the US-Japan alliance can constantly be put at risk for another flareup.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Oh my....

The Earthtimes had an interesting article today. It seems that some Japanese tourists had trouble getting to Afula, and ended up in Ofra - in the West Bank. Oops! Those tricky Ls and Rs.

I guess they'll have to read the "ass taimzu" to get the humor. I'd recommend some more eikawa...

Blonde Hair and Tall Noses

An interesting string on "othering" was raised this morning on the NBR Japan-US Forum. Specifically, Victor Fic asked:

I wonder if Japanese television or movies have ever had a respectable foreign character, showed a foreinger speaking Japanese for non-entertainment or even a Japanese conversing in English? My sense is that there is no debate in Japan on how the Other is portrayed.
There are two places where I have seen foreigners portrayed in Japan, and thought "this would never fly in other countries." The first is a recent comedy duo: one wears black face, an "afro wig," and a really big fake nose. His partner has a wavy blonde wig, but also the big fake nose. I know that the "tall nose" is something Japanese are fascinated with, but I cannot imagine this in another venue outside Japan. Certainly, black face in America is no longer funny.

The other place where the "other" is portrayed is in the classroom. Especially since the introduction of the "period of integrated studies" in elementary schools in 2002, foreign AETs have been paraded in front of school children. I am of two minds as how to feel about this. On one hand, the JET Program (and now private endeavors of the same stripe) have helped to sensitize many Japanese to foreigners living in Japan. Reading John Nathan's book, Japan Unbound, I was reminded that it wasn't all that long ago that a foreigner outside one of the major port cities or Tokyo was indeed a rare sight indeed. I am sure others have first hand experiences, as I have, of people screeching their bicycles to a halt in order to gawk. Certainly, this is an area where the JET Program has been effective. No longer are foreigners so foreign. However, I also question the model of parading foreigners at "international day." Is it really a way to confirm ones own stereotypes of foreigners, especially when asked "can you use chopsticks" and the like? Note too that Blonde hair and blue eyes have also been used as a job qualification in recent months in Yamanashi.

However, to put the shoe on the other foot... I am often upset when I see American shows about Japan that tend to focus on the strange - be it penis festivals, harajuku girls, or strange food and such. The recent spread of a false news report that a Japanese actress was naive enough to have ordered a poodle, only to discover it was a lamb... which was proven to be false, is an example of this as well. So I must ask - are the Japanese alone in their focus on the weird when portraying the other? Is it done to a different degree than in other places?

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Why those buses?

On the Japan-U.S. Forum hosted by the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR), William Stonehill speculated,

"...killing the JNR has also allowed some entirely non-bus companies to tentatively stick their
toes in the water for local bus routes too. Bunkyo Ku in Tokyo is running a bus called the "B-bus" which only runs in Bunkyo ku and appears to be unaffiliated with Toei buses run by the city. Nobody has rose up and slapped them down, so maybe the next step will be privately operated buses running between stations after the JR shuts down for the night."

I don't think that is the real reason for these buses, and the non-bus companies in this case are the local cities and wards. I believe these B-bus like operations, Community Buses I think they are called, using mini-buses, are something new across Japan to serve the elderly population. In my area, Mitaka, Musashino, and Koganei cities we have several of these small buses. They also operate in Suginami-ku where Toei bus operates. Ours is named the "CoCo bus." They are only 100 yen to ride, senior passes are not valid, and the circular routes originate and end at a single train station after passing through small neighborhood streets. This is the type of bus that also is used to shuttle visitors to the Ghibli museum from Mitaka station.

Koganei City's "CoCo Bus"

Surely, the cities (i.e. ku and shi level governments) must be subsidizing these services. As I noted above, these small buses compliment the service provided by the longer-range, point to point bus service provided by Toei Bus, Odakyu Bus, and Keio Bus, each with a monopoly over specific geographic areas. At 100 yen per person, there are not nearly enough passengers to pay the drivers salary, even if it were at a minimum wage.

The buses are actually managed by Odakyu and Keio bus, the local operators, respectively. That is, the drivers are provided by and the buses maintained by the local bus operator. I see them parked at the local depot at night. It seems to me that local cities are having to provide these handicap accessible services (only running from 9am to 7pm, inconvenient for commuters) to get the elderly out of their homes.

I'm back...

Work has kept me away for too long... but now with more time on my hands, I am ready to blog once again.

I have also been inspired by the blogs of three fellow Tokyoites (some longer than others):
1) Shisaku
2) Globaltalk 21
3) Observing Japan

They are excellent reading, and I don't know if I'll be able to post as regularly as they do, but I'll do my best.