WIT Life #87: Tokyo Vice – Cultural Icon

WITLife is a periodic series written by professional Writer/Interpreter/Translator Stacy Smith (Kumamoto-ken CIR, 2000-03). She starts her day by watching Fujisankei’s newscast in Japanese, and here she shares some of the interesting tidbits and trends together with her own observations.

The other night I had the pleasure of meeting the author Jake Adelstein (pictured here on the Daily Show) who wrote the sensational book Tokyo Vice, the story of his time as a crime reporter in Japan.  This absorbing memoir traces his path from Sophia University student to full-time reporter at the newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun, a notable feat for a foreigner.  He spent 12 years covering the underbelly of Japan, and as expected the bulk of his talk concentrated on the yakuza.

He discussed how this Japanese mafia is known as a second police force, or a necessary evil (必要な悪 or hitsuyou na aku). As tracked by the police they number 86,000 and have 986 front companies in Tokyo.  In Japan, there were no organized crime laws until 1992, and even now there is limited wiretapping and no witness protection/relocation, quite different from the States in this respect.  Adelstein also highlighted other interesting cultural differences such as the fact that there are even yakuza fan magazines, which have articles profiling members as well as photo essay series with them as subjects!  As a crime reporter an important aspect of his job was reading these publications to keep up-to-date on the yakuza world.

Several questions from the audience focused on the collusion between Japanese corporations and the yakuza, and Adelstein said that it was highly possible that many companies cooperate with one yakuza group to protect them from others.  Also, ex-yakuza are often hired as corporate consultants.   This is a timely topic considering the speculation that Fujitsu’s former President  was ousted because of alleged gangster ties.  According to an article in today’s Wall Street Journal, it has been confirmed that this has been taken to court and is currently being battled over.

WIT Life #90: 感謝の気持ち

WITLife is a periodic series written by professional Writer/Interpreter/Translator Stacy Smith (Kumamoto-ken CIR, 2000-03). She starts her day by watching Fujisankei’s newscast in Japanese, and here she shares some of the interesting tidbits and trends together with her own observations.

Following our time in America’s heartland my group and I have since moved to the Bay Area, where we are continuing our study of food safety here in the States.  One participant requested that we go to eat at a vegan restaurant, as this is not a common concept in Japan.  In fact, one night we had a heated conversation regarding the distinction made between the values of plant/animal lives, as well as the viability of vegetarianism.  Veganism was a whole other extreme for them, but as they say, don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.  So we were off to San Francisco’s Cafe Gratitude.

My participants were surprised at how delicious all the food was despite the limited ingredients.  We had a sampler which included various spreads such as olive and hummus, and the red lentil soup of the day which was heavenly.  We also shared a coconut curry soup as well as a sweet porridge, followed by nut milk based vanilla ice cream for dessert.  None of us had known what to expect going into it, but we all left feeling very satisfied.

Part of Cafe Gratitude’s premise is, as its name indicates, to increase awareness of what we have to be grateful for.   They have a question of the day to stimulate customers, and the one we received was “What inspires you?”  Our answers were varied (animals, new encounters, people who try to improve the world) but it certainly got us all thinking.  In introducing the restaurant to my guests, I had translated it as 「感謝カフェー」 (kansha cafe).  However, they said that if that was the name of the actual cafe in Japan it wouldn’t attract customers as it sounded rather dull.

This spurred a whole conversation about what the meaning of 感謝 is in Japan, and both women said that this sentiment is not one that adults would often express, for this would be seen as going too far.  Of course it is a component of the pre-meal “itadakimasu” and conveyed either verbally or in correspondence when leaving a long-time position, etc., but it not something that would really be thought about on a regular basis.

Here too of course gratitude is something we take for granted, and part of the cafe’s purpose is attempting to remind people of its importance.  The participants didn’t seem to think this idea would fly in Japan though, and it was an interesting concept to discuss with them.  Personally I find Japanese to err on the appreciative side (i.e. on their birthdays I have friends who thank their mothers for giving birth to them), but perhaps that was a wrongful assumption.

On a different note, a recent NYT article about Japan’s “poverty problem” is worth checking out if you haven’t already.  It was selected as part of the roundup in the Week in Review section two Sundays ago, and it really speaks to an issue that is receiving significant press coverage as of late.  Also another interesting article from the Japan Times talks about the wall Japan has in regard to bringing in foreign talent and internationalizing its own populace.

WIT Life #89: 空気人形

WITLife is a periodic series written by professional Writer/Interpreter/Translator Stacy Smith (Kumamoto-ken CIR, 2000-03). She starts her day by watching Fujisankei’s newscast in Japanese, and here she shares some of the interesting tidbits and trends together with her own observations.

My current DOS interpreting assignment regarding food safety has kept me busy, but a weekend here in the farm country of Illinois has allowed some time to catch up.  When I was in DC earlier this week, the annual Filmfest featuring a variety of international films was taking place.  While flipping through the program booklet, I was happy to find that the latest release of one of my favorite Japanese directors, Hirokazu Kore-eda, was being screened.  Some of his well-known previous works are After Life (ワンダフルライフ), Nobody Knows (誰も知らない) and Still Walking (歩いても 歩いても), and his newest is Air Doll (空気人形).

This two-hour plus movie came out in Japan last year, and it is based on a 20-page graphic short story published by manga artist Yoshiie Gouda.  It stars South Korean actress Bae Du-na as the blow-up doll companion to a middle-aged man, Hideo, who uses her as a replacement for his former girlfriend, even giving her the same name of Nozomi.  At the beginning of the movie she comes to life, and her adventures begin.  Nozomi hides this fact from Hideo, but she is out and about during the day, even getting a job at the local video store.

She ends up falling for her co-worker, played by the actor Arata who After Life fans will recognize as the main character from that movie (Another awesome star turn is that of Joe Odagiri as the doll maker).  As Nozomi’s relationship with him deepens, so changes the dynamic of her relationship with Hideo.  Due to these shifts, changes emerge that are both emancipating and tragic.  The movie is woven with this dual-natured theme of frivolity and melancholy, as well as the frail interconnectedness that characterizes humanity.  Throughout the movie, Nozomi often expresses that she wishes she hadn’t “found a heart.”

Aside from the main characters, there is a supporting cast formed by the residents of Nozomi’s apartment building, sad souls who all inhabit their own worlds of darkness.  They serve to emphasize the point that like Nozomi we all have our own bit of hollowness, despite how things might appear on the outside.  I came away from this movie with a strong feeling of 寂しさ (sabishisa) or loneliness, perhaps because I was away from home or maybe just because it had that effect on me.  I am not sure if this is what Kore-eda intended for his viewers, but it definitely left me more to mull over than with Still Walking, whose simple, quasi-autobiographical story was slightly disappointing.  You can find Air Doll at Midnight Video and other local Japanese stores (not sure about subtitles), so check it out as well as some of Kore-eda’s other masterpieces!

WIT Life #88: j-cation at Japan Society

WITLife is a periodic series written by professional Writer/Interpreter/Translator Stacy Smith (Kumamoto-ken CIR, 2000-03). She starts her day by watching Fujisankei’s newscast in Japanese, and here she shares some of the interesting tidbits and trends together with her own observations.

This weekend Japan Society hosted the inaugural 12-hour extravaganza known as “j-cation”.  The line-up of events was kicked off by the movie Flavor of Happiness (幸せの香り or Shiawase no kaori), the story of a father-daughter relationship between an aging Chinese chef and his young female apprentice.  A bit long and sappy, but the food images were to die for!  In various corners of Japan Society several workshops were simultaneously taking place, such as furoshiki (wrapping cloth) folding, Japanese tea and sweets and calligraphy classes.  There was also an assortment of stands with Japanese products, such as this outpost of (Kumamoto-born!) Dainobu convenience store selling sweets.

However, the highlight of my afternoon was the “luscious lecture” called Table Talk that featured Takeru “The Tsunami” Kobayashi.  This hot dog eating champ, whose record is 50 in 12 minutes and who won the Coney Island competition for six years straight from 2001-06, revealed some of his secrets and back stories.  The person who happened to be sitting in front of us for the talk was none other than Japan Society President Motoatsu Sakurai!  He chatted with us for a bit, lovely as always, and judging by his frequent laughter he seemed to enjoy Kobayashi’s talk as much as the rest of the audience.

32-year old Kobayashi shared that he got his start as a college student, when his friends noticed that he could put away an insane amount of food and contacted the local media.  Now competitive eating is his full-time career, and he participates in about 12 events a year.  His favorite contest foods are soft, easily digestible ones such as tofu and curry rice (the latter was the food at his very first competition!).  During the off season, his favorite foods to eat non-competitively are bagels, tofu and yogurt.

As pictured, Kobayashi was outfitted in a sleek black jacket and scarf, and this osshare image was quite different from the typical one of the Coney Island champion with blond hair and bandana.  In response to the question of what he would like to challenge archrival Joey Chestnut with should they ever meet at a contest in Japan, his answer was sushi or onigiri.  When asked about his weight fluctuation, he said he was currently 130 pounds but could go as high as 200!

But enough with the table talk, the audience wanted to see Kobayashi in action, demonstrating his famous hot dog halving and bun soaking technique (Fun fact: If he eats 60 hot dogs during a competition, they will be accompanied by two gallons of water!).  He took on the two hosts (on left) who never stood a chance.  He finished his hot dogs with time to spare and then helped them out with theirs.

In sports news, 18-year old Japanese female knuckleball pitcher Eri Yoshida has joined the Chico Outlaws of the Golden Baseball League.  According to Salon, “the 5-foot, 114-pound Yoshida became Japan’s first female pro baseball player last year when she pitched for the Kobe Cruise 9 in the Kansai Independent League.”  Best of luck to her here in the States!

WIT Life #86: 日本の企業家精神

WITLife is a periodic series written by professional Writer/Interpreter/Translator Stacy Smith (Kumamoto-ken CIR, 2000-03). She starts her day by watching Fujisankei’s newscast in Japanese, and here she shares some of the interesting tidbits and trends together with her own observations.

Last night I attended a symposium on Entrepreneurship in Japan (日本の企業家精神; nihon no kigyouka seishin) hosted by the Columbia Business School’s Center on Japanese Economy and Business.  The three panelists (two present, one via video from Tokyo) represented a variety of generations and backgrounds.  In 1985, American-born Ernest Matsuo Higa revolutionized Japanese home pizza delivery after obtaining the exclusive license to Domino’s Pizza.  Atsushi Imuta (participating from Tokyo) quit his job at a Japanese bank to found RISA Partners, an invesment banking firm.  Kohei Nishiyama, the youngest of the group who was raised in Columbia and went to university in Japan, invented the Design To Order system which allows manufacturers to reduce risk by carrying out product development based on customers’ requests.

An article on Japanese entrepreneurship in last month’s Eurobiz Japan highlights how within the Japan’s educational system there is the idea of entrepreneurship and risk-taking being undesirable, and that in order for things to change education needs to be used as tool advocating entrepreneurship.   Higa expressed that the climate for entrepreneurs was improving, perhaps as a side effect of the economic recession.  Before the best and brightest would have automatically entered the top companies, but now that this option is not always available, many have no choice but to become entrepreneurs.  But rather than a default option, the next generation needs to hear the message that starting something new is cool and making money as an entrepreneur, something often criticized in Japan, is not a bad thing.

According to Higa, all entrepreneurs in Japan are mavericks as they are pursuing something uncertain that is high risk and low return.  One reason is the government’s pro-establishment stance, which includes high personal income and inheritance taxes which are a disincentive for entrepreneurs. Also in terms of social status, even someone who is a successful entrepreneur receives less acclaim than someone who took the traditional path and entered a large company.  Whereas in the U.S. we might support the underdog, in Japan they tend to side with stability.  Also, whereas here failure can be seen as a badge of honor before you dust yourself off and try again, in Japan it has more negative associations.

Risk aversion also factors into the financing of entrepreneurs.  In Japan there is lack of a venture capitalist network, hindering access to sophisticated investors.  You can get loans from banks if you have collateral, but they tend to shy away from taking a chance on something different.  Nishiyama (pictured above, courtesy of John Ellis-Guardiola) detailed how he had to get his start-up money came from angel investors based in the U.S. or those who had spent a significant amount of time in the U.S.

Imuta emphasized the importance of spreading the culture of entrepreneurship in Japan, namely the fact that it’s fun to start something new and manage a company and its risks.  He recalled that when he quit his job at the bank, 10% of the people admired him but 70% were suspicious of why he did, thinking he was involved with embezzlement or other illegal activity.

Clearly, in order to further cultivate Japan’s budding entrepreneurs societal and regulatory changes are necessary.  This is occurring on an incremental basis, as evidenced by the appearance last fall of the Japan Times column The Wisdom of Entrepreneurs, which profiles up and coming entrepreneurs .   At Columbia Business School, entrepreneurship is the most popular track for students, and getting the Japanese as passionate about this concept could go a long way in exploiting the country’s latent entrepreneur culture.

WIT Life #85: New start

WITLife is a periodic series written by professional Writer/Interpreter/Translator Stacy Smith (Kumamoto-ken CIR, 2000-03). She starts her day by watching Fujisankei’s newscast in Japanese, and here she shares some of the interesting tidbits and trends together with her own observations.

Whereas here in the States today we celebrate April Fool’s Day, April 1st in Japan is a beginning.  It is the start of the new fiscal and school years, and the blooming and subsequent falling of the cherry blossoms serves as a way to mark this transition.  This morning’s news outlined several changes that will be taking place in accordance with the new year, but whether they will make life in Japan easier or harder remains to be seen.

  • The child allowance law giving parents 13,000 yen per child per month goes into effect today, fulfilling one of the DPJ’s key campaign pledges.  It differs from the previous student allowance in that the amount is higher and it lasts until the child finishes junior high, whereas before it was elementary school.  In addition, foreign residents who have lived in Japan for more than a year are entitled to the money regardless of where their children live.  The party believes this allowance will help families raise their children so much that they hope to double the amount to 26,000 yen per child next fiscal year, though where this money will come from is still undetermined.  Will this help remedy Japan’s decreasing birth rate?
  • The DPJ will also follow through on its promise to make education free through high school, whereas before the government only covered through the mandatory education age of junior high.  This is the case for public high schools, and families with children at private schools will be able to receive a subsidy of 120,000 yen as long as the curriculum is equivalent to that at public schools.  Another incentive for families on the fence about having children.
  • Kanagawa Prefecture introduced Japan’s first ordinance banning smoking in public facilities such as hospitals, schools and government offices.  Facilities that are found to be in violation of this will be charged 20,000 yen, and individuals 2000 yen.  Governors of seven other prefectures are also considering mapping out their own measures to prevent secondhand smoking, but others have said they expect the central government to enact laws with penalties to prevent passive smoking.  Looks like Japan is losing its reign as a smoker’s paradise.

And in a look at the past as opposed to the present, an article in Salon yesterday highlighted a documentary made by a Japanese activist exposing the actions of Japanese soliders in Nanking in 1937.  This retired teacher seems to be the Iris Chang of Japan in regard to this issue.  This doc had its first screening outside Japan in Hong Kong, and I wonder when it will make its way over here.

WIT Life #84: 国勢調査

WITLife is a periodic series written by professional Writer/Interpreter/Translator Stacy Smith (Kumamoto-ken CIR, 2000-03). She starts her day by watching Fujisankei’s newscast in Japanese, and here she shares some of the interesting tidbits and trends together with her own observations.

We are rapidly coming up on the deadline for the 国勢調査 (kokusei chousa) or national census, so I hope everyone has already filled in and returned their forms.  Every morning during the Japanese news there are advertisements running in Japanese advocating participation in the census as one’s civic duty.  Also, I have come across some interesting Japanese language print ads that I would like to share.

The one on the right shows a young girl holding an origami crane, and the accompanying text reads: “You can help improve our community in the time it takes to fold one paper crane.”  The one on the left shows someone of an unidentified gender tying おみくじ (omikuji).  These are the ubiquitous fortunes of various degrees of luck found at Japanese shrines.  It is said that if you are happy with your fortune you can take it home with you, but if not that it is better to tie it to a tree or rope at the shrine in order to avoid having it come true.  This poster’s slogan translates as: “Hope for the improvement of our community.”

I haven’t been paying close attention to census advertising targeting other ethnic groups (or average Americans for that matter), but the cultural specificity of these posters really struck me.  Not only do their images grab your attention, but they tug at your heartstrings as well by providing a cultural touchstone.  Even for me who is non-Japanese but who has spent significant time in Japan, they conveyed a strong message and seem to be a smart way to appeal to Japanese to pick up their pens and be counted.

WIT Life #83: Japan in the news and in film

WITLife is a periodic series written by professional Writer/Interpreter/Translator Stacy Smith (Kumamoto-ken CIR, 2000-03). She starts her day by watching Fujisankei’s newscast in Japanese, and here she shares some of the interesting tidbits and trends together with her own observations.

The Wall Street Journal had some interesting Japan coverage this week.  One article from earlier in the week discusses tactics being employed to get the Japanese populace turned on to fish again, as its popularity has declined due to factors such as smell, price and preparation.  It has gotten to the point where fishery officials have started sending instructors to schools in order to teach children how to eat fish with chopsticks, and fish is being promoted in pop culture by characters such as Sakana-kun (on right saying “Let’s eat delicious fish with Sakana-kun!”). 

Another article focuses on Japanese-Americans who were interned during WWII, and how they got through this ordeal by forming swing bands.  This legacy is being preserved through a tribute band called Minidoka Swing Band, with members who were internees as well as others who have no ties to the camps (check out the video, they’re talented!).

Speaking of the internment, this weekend was the 3rd annual New York Peace Film Festival which featured some works dealing with this topic.  I attended the event’s kick-off party on Friday night where some of the filmmakers spoke.  There we had a chance to preview the second part of a movie called “Twice Bombed, Twice Survived,” which depicts those who lived through the bombings in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The last known double survivor, Tsutomu Yamaguchi, passed away this January at age 93.  However, Hidetaka Inazuka, a producer of the film who was in attendance, said in his comments that another one had emerged just two weeks earlier.  This 91-year old man will finally be able to verbalize the horrors he experienced over six decades ago.  “Twice Bombed, Twice Survived” detailed how due to survivor’s guilt as well as stigma against these double survivors, many have been reluctant to come forth or even discuss their experiences with their families..

Also appearing at the kick-off as a guest speaker was Charles Pellegrino, author of the controversial book Last Train to Hiroshima which featured Yamaguchi.  The allegations against him of falsifying information cannot be proved as the source in question has already passed away, but Pellegrino asserted that he only wrote what he had been told.  Director James Cameron bought the film rights to the story, and when asked if Cameron has any plans to do a movie based on the topic Pellegrino responded by saying, “He’s a busy man and Avatar 2 looks like a very likely possibility, but when the time is right I know he is still interested.”  Cameron was able to meet with Yamaguchi before he passed away, and the double survivor’s dying wish was for Cameron to share what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the world.

WIT Life #82: 春分の日

WITLife is a periodic series written by professional Writer/Interpreter/Translator Stacy Smith (Kumamoto-ken CIR, 2000-03). She starts her day by watching Fujisankei’s newscast in Japanese, and here she shares some of the interesting tidbits and trends together with her own observations.

Happy 春分の日 (shunbun no hi) or Spring Equinox Day!  Like as with the autumnal equinox, on this occasion the day and the night should be of equal length.  The mere mention of spring makes me feel like I should be seeing flowers popping their heads out of the ground.  Unfortunately, here in Michigan where I’m translating at a local law firm there is no sign of greenery, although the snow flurries we had all day yesterday were quite a sight!  I heard we’re getting much better weather back home in NYC, and all I can say is I’m jealous…

In Japan spring seems to have sprung, as I have gotten reports of the sakura beginning to bloom around the Imperial Palace.  I also just received an email from my former co-worker at the Kumamoto International Center who was kind enough to send pictures of the sakura down south (you can see Kumamoto Castle in the background).  Enjoy and happy spring!