Japan from the inside out

Letter bombs (6): Ignorance goes viral

Posted by ampontan on Monday, June 21, 2010

For people whose job it is to describe the world, journalists often seem to have remarkable difficulty imagining life in other people’s shoes.
– Michael Kinsley

The buzzing of the flies does not turn them into bees.
– Georgian proverb

JOURNALISTS and their employers have always been dependable for providing an undependable view of events that is more agenda-driven entertainment than information. Former American President Harry Truman once sighed that he felt sorry for his fellow citizens who woke up in the morning and read the newspaper, thereby thinking they knew something of what was happening in the world.

Isesaki flag

The revolution in information technology that has occurred since Truman’s time has given us much more tech than info. Though more pixels are hurled onto more screens, and more talk is belched into the ether, its accuracy and value are in indirect proportion to its quantity. The new technology also allows anyone to participate, but as the Georgians had it, the buzzing of those flies does not turn them into bees. The cacophony they create resembles nothing so much as a conductorless orchestra of vuvuzelas on a radio with a missing volume knob. Ignorance has gone viral.

They’re even more dependably undependable regarding Japan, a subject they almost never get right. A Japanese friend still keeps a clipping from an American newspaper he saw while on a trip to that country with a map of Japan showing Yokohama where Osaka is. (Osaka is 241 miles almost due west.) But as this post will show, they really don’t want to get it right.

This edition of Letter Bombs contains three items sent in by readers, one of which has an embedded fourth item. To these I’ve added a discovery of my own. All of them demonstrate that neither the bees nor the flies care a whit about the facts. They’d rather feed on the offal of a narrative of Weird Japan, the Goofball Kingdom of East Asia, populated by losers and perverts.

The Bogus #1

Mac sent in the first article by The Guardian’s man in Japan, Justin McCurry, whose body of work suggests his ambition is to become the thinking man’s WaiWai. McCurry slid forward on his stool at the FCCJ bar and pulled out another one. There are too many fascinating stories in this country of 127 million to cover them all, but the one McCurry selected for his Guardian readers was about the municipal government of Isesaki, Gunma, a city of 209,000 people, ordering its employees to shave their facial hair.

His manner of presenting information about Japan has become so predictable it deserves to be recognized as the McCurry Method ™. This consists of blending dollops of mythomania into meaningless generalizations applied to the entire population and to entire eras with the journalistic equivalent of an industrial paint sprayer, propelled by a condescending sense of superiority.

He starts with a line straight out of the Ryan Connell WaiWai stylebook:

(B)ureaucrats in one town could find themselves sent to the bathroom, razor in hand, for sporting even the suggestion of a five o’clock shadow.

There’s a reason they don’t issue artistic licenses to the people writing for a daily paper. None of this works even as hyperbole, least of all the idea that the average Japanese man is capable of producing a five o’clock shadow. Well, some are—by five o’clock the next day.

Authorities in Isesaki, Gunma prefecture, have ordered all male employees to shave off their facial hair, and banish all thoughts of growing any, following complaints from members of the public who said they found dealing with bearded bureaucrats “unpleasant”.

Might as well use that counterfeit artistic license until it expires from overheating. Imagine an Isesaki municipal bureaucracy capable of mind control, banishing thoughts of banned beards from all those who dare enter its precincts. You can’t even look out the window and daydream of a tidy Van Dyke.

Here’s a textbook application of the McCurry Method ™:

The Isesaki ban is reminiscent of the strict rules on physical appearance enforced by conservative companies in the postwar period in the belief that Japan’s rise to economic superpower required absolute conformity.

That’s in contrast to the wild and crazy guys with beards to their sternums, ponytails to their shoulder blades, and rings in their ears, lips, and noses to the grindstones at the hip, tolerant, a-go-go American and British industrial corporations of the 50s and 60s.

Shall we hold a pool to speculate where McCurry got the idea that the Japanese corporate establishment “believed” that “absolute” conformity was the key to becoming an economic superpower? Here’s where I put my money: He pulled it out of his backside.

What’s he going to write next? The robotic Japanese are automatons and economic animals who live in rabbit hutches, dream of conquering the world economically because they couldn’t militarily, and are so xenophobic they think Wogs begin at Calais?

Whoops, sorry about that last one. That comes from McCurry’s neck of the woods.

For an illustration of the strict ban on facial hair in Japan during the postwar period, here’s a photo of the man at the top of the social ziggurat in those days:

But this was the first time that an absence of whiskers had been enforced among civil servants, the internal affairs and communications ministry said.

But this was probably not the first time McCurry rewrote something to enhance the narrative. What the ministry really said was that they had “never heard of” any municipality in the country introducing such a rule, not that it had never happened.

The ban, the first of its kind among Japanese public officials, applies to any manifestation of facial hair, from lovingly cultivated full beards to trendy goatees and designer stubble.

And we all know that the range of facial hair from lovingly cultivated full beards to trendy goatees and designer stubble constitutes the A to Z of masculine hirsuteness.

A more realistic view was offered by Nakata Hiroshi, now running for an upper house Diet seat. When he was the mayor of Yokohama, he would have been in a position to institute such a ban.

Some beards are stylish, and some are unsightly, and it’s not possible to clearly define what would or would not make other people uncomfortable. This is a service industry whose employees should be aware that they interact with the public, and that everyone is checking out everyone else’s appearance.

Here are some more things McCurry didn’t see when he wasn’t looking: Facial hair for male employees is also banned at 7-Eleven Japan (full-time employees and student part-timers alike), Oriental Land, the operators of Tokyo Disney Resort, and the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants, the country’s premier sports franchise.

He also missed this site for a business consulting firm in the U.S.:

(E)mployers in the USA have a legal right to ask you to adhere to dress codes:
“A person can be fired because the company doesn’t like your shoes,” explains Robert D. Lipman, who manages the New York employment firm Lipman & Plesur, LLP …“People say ‘This is America. We should be able to do what we want.’ But I tell them that once you walk into a private employer’s workplace, your rights are limited.”

Less than a minute of research turned up this site from solicitors in Britain:

Standards of dress and personal presentation are relevant to most employers and having a policy on dress code can be important.
Where the employees meet customers and are effectively the shop window for the company, the benefits of presentable appearance are obvious. But even where the employee’s work is internal, there are less tangible benefits such as:
•creating a team atmosphere,
•engendering standards of professionalism, and
•creating a corporate image.

McCurry seems to fancy himself a successor to the tradition of British essayists, so it’s fitting to close this chapter with a quote from one of the best, William Hazlitt:

“The true barbarian is he who thinks everything barbarous but his own tastes and prejudices.”

The Bogus #2

Aceface found an article by people who didn’t look very hard either: a group of Internet hucksters calling themselves Business Ideas International, who claim to be based in Japan. A look at their website turns up business ideas resembling the sort of suggestions that used to be advertised on matchbook covers in the United States. (Start a DJ business and rock your way to financial freedom! How to get paid to play video games!) The combination of lackwits producing junior high school prose and preening with the conceit that they know what they’re talking about makes one wonder how they succeed in business even when they really are trying, much less offer advice to others.

The title is: 5 Twisted Business Ideas (That Could Only Have Come From Japan)

Sushi, Geisha, Schoolgirls and Anime are usually among the first things that come to mind when people mention Japan. Business Ideas International is based here in Japan though – and we’ve got the inside scoop. We can tell you from first-hand experience that the quirkiness of the land of the rising sun is not just limited to these usual pop-culture icons.

Give the business mavens credit for thinking outside the box. Who else would consider sushi and geisha “pop-culture icons”?

As someone who has regularly interacted with both Japanese and American schoolgirls, by the way, I’d say the Japanese variety are considerably less quirky.

(H)ere’s just a sampling of five twisted business ideas that could only have come from Japan.
#1 Love Doll Rental
It’s weird enough that some guys settle for a “real life” doll instead of a real girlfriend. But leave it to the Japanese – the place where these dolls-as-partners were invented – to take things a step further.

The earliest recorded instances of love dolls are the “dama de viaje” or “dame de voyage”. Those are Spanish and French terms for female dolls sewn out of old clothes for use as substitutes on sailing ships during long voyages. The Japanese and German navies performed similar experiments in the 1930s, and the Germans called theirs seemannsbraut. The Japanese like the term Dutch wives.

There was a big to-do in Britain in 1982 when a company called Conegate tried to import inflatable sex dolls from West Germany, but customs seized them. They were so anatomically accurate the authorities considered them indecent. The High Court overturned the verdict of an initial hearing on appeal and allowed the sale of seemannsbraut in the UK.

You see, here in Japan, if you’re not a “one-fake-woman” kind of guy, and prefer to “work the scene” you can opt to rent a love doll by the hour.

Thus demonstrating the aptness of Henri Amiel’s epigram that cleverness is serviceable for everything and sufficient for nothing.

But there’s a reason for the rentals.

With $2 million in sales last year, (Matt) McMullen now employs 14 people at his San Marcos, Calif., company (Real Doll) and makes about six or seven dolls a week, each requiring 80 hours of labor.

The linked article says that some dolls sell for as much as $US 6,500. To get an idea of what’s available, here’s a website with immaculate English offering “realistic latex & silicon love”.

Could it be that BII is chagrined they didn’t come up with the rental idea themselves?

Business Ideas International prides itself on being a publication that is SFW, so we won’t go into too many more details. Needless to say, let your imagination wander – what ever pops into your head, yup, that’s what they do.

How would the people of Business Ideas International know what Japanese men do with sex dolls? Unless…

#2 Roadside Alcohol Vending Machines
Nothing takes the edge of (sic) the morning drive to work like an early A.M. beer-buzz right? If you agree, you’ll love Japan. Here there are literally thousands of street-side alcohol vending machines. You can just pull up to one, stick in your ID and a couple hundred yen, and out pops a can of premium beer or potent Japanese sake. Open her up and keep on driving. Gives a new meaning to “one for the road”.

Anyone who thinks the Japanese show up for work with a morning buzz because they bought some beer at a vending machine instead of pulling into a 24/7 convenience store offering a greater selection of the same product is not old enough to work for a living. Incidentally, drunk driving laws in Japan are more stringent than in the US. Any alcohol in your system at all lands you in jail. No malarkey about blood alcohol percentages.

Remember, these people claim to be based in Japan.

The vending machines selling alcohol are for walk up (or pedal up) business, not drivers, but let’s not judge Business Ideas International too harshly. Anything to do with business, ideas, or Japan seems not to be their forté.

#3 Every Invention By Dr. Nakamatsu – Ever
If you don’t live in Japan, chances are you haven’t heard of Dr. Yoshiro Nakamatsu.

Even if you do live in Japan, chances are you haven’t heard of Dr. Nakamatsu.

Dr. Nakamatsu’s most notable invention is one that helped change the world at the time – the floppy disk. IBM made a deal with him in the late 70’s for his floppy-disk related patents that are bound by a non-disclosure agreement, so they may take most of the credit. Although the sum paid to him has never been revealed, he has lived the life of an extremely eccentric multi-millionaire ever since. Besides the floppy disk, Dr. Nakamatsu also holds patents for the core technology behind the CD, the DVD, the digital watch and even the taxi-cab meter.

They missed the patent for the automated pachinko machine, but what the heck. BII thinks that every invention by Dr. Nakamatsu ever is twisted. However, they do note that he also sells:

Pyong-Pyong Flying Shoes, Love Jet 200 Anti-Impotence Perfume, Yummy Nutri Brain Food…

Put “eccentric inventor” into Google and you’ll get almost two million hits. Dr. Nakamatsu actually appears in a few of them, but most of them refer to the tradition of eccentric English inventors.

Either Business Ideas International is jealous that Dr. Nakamatsu has more money than they ever will, or this is some undergrad’s idea of a put-on.

#4 Maid Cafes
Cute Japanese girls dressed in French maid costumes take your order and serve you food. They also occassionally (sic) get up on stage and sing and dance for you. ‘Nuff said.

Nah, not nearly “‘nuff said”.

Let’s talk about the American-based restaurant chain Hooters. The waitresses wear orange shorts cut at crotch level, tanks tops designed to show off their superstructure—hence the name “Hooters”–pantyhose, and bras. This is taken from the company’s website:

Hooters of America, Inc. is the Atlanta-based operator and franchiser of over 455 Hooters locations in 44 states in the US, Argentina, Aruba, Austria, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Columbia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, England, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Korea, Mexico, Paraguay, Panama, Peru, Philippines, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, Taiwan, Venezuela and the Virgin Islands. The privately held corporation owns 120 units.

Now there’s a Business Idea International! Hooters has yet to hit Japan, however. Maybe all that latex & silicon love is squeezing them out of the market.

The element of female sex appeal is prevalent in the restaurants, and the company believes the Hooters Girl is as socially acceptable as a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader, Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, or a Radio City Rockette…Claims that Hooters exploits attractive women are as ridiculous as saying the NFL exploits men who are big and fast. Hooters Girls have the same right to use their natural female sex appeal to earn a living as do super models Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell. To Hooters, the women’s rights movement is important because it guarantees women have the right to choose their own careers, be it a Supreme Court Justice or Hooters Girl…Sex appeal is legal and it sells.

They’re feminists!

Hooters does not market itself to families, but they do patronize the restaurants. Ten percent of the parties we serve have children in them. Hooters is in the hospitality business and provides the best possible service to anyone coming through the door. For this reason, the chain offers a children’s menu.

So to sum up: A children’s menu in a restaurant called Hooters wink wink nudge nudge is normal, but some Japanese men patronizing restaurants with waitresses wearing French maid outfits is twisted.

#5 Live Seafood Restaurants
While many English-speaking countries have caught the Sushi Restaurant buzz, food connoisseurs abroad are still missing out on the REAL seafood dining experience here in Japan.
Apparently for the Japanese, just serving your food raw was not good enough for them. “If we’re not going to cook it”, an enterprising restaurant owner apparently thought, “why should we even bother killing it?”…


…and so the live seafood restaurant was born. That’s right, in Japan, you can go to a restaurant and be served a plateful of food that’s still alive and kicking.

Putting aside the image of kicking seafood, the folks at Business Ideas International apparently have not been to China or South Korea. Not very international of them, is it? Neither do they read Britain’s Telegraph, nor visit YouTube:

Chinese diners eat live fish in YouTube video
Animal rights campaigners have criticised the Chinese over their extreme eating habits after a video of diners eating a live fish became a hit on the internet.

The article is dated November 2009. The BII piece was posted in May 2010.

The Telegraph article contains this passage:

Reports have claimed some restaurants offer monkey’s brains. Other dishes include rats, dogs, snakes, lizards and baby mice.

I’ve also heard the monkey brains story from a Japanese man who operates a small restaurant and likes Chinese food. He visited China on a special tour for people in the industry.

Yesterday, I did a search at Google Videos and YouTube: “China live food” got 2,400 and 1,780 hits respectively. “Japan live food” got 1,800 hits and 1,410 hits, and “Korea live food” got 1,140 and 911. Not all of them were about the actual consumption of live food, however.

Incidentally, unless you’re interested in getting ill, all shellfish must either be eaten live or be cooked while live. The Health Department of the State of New York has issued an official warning. Raw oyster bars have long been popular on the American East Coast and in France. They’re so common in the U.S. the dish is called shooters.

Hey, who’s up for some shooters at Hooters!

At the very least, we hope this post has made you realize that no business idea is too strange or outlandish.

It also made me realize the extent to which ignorance has gone viral.

The Bogus #3

As we saw from the previous example, there exists a type of low intelligence that’s become convinced of its cleverness without seeing through the transparency of its oafdom. An even clearer demonstration is the Adam Frucci post at Gizmodo sent in by Dokushoka. It’s the journalistic equivalent of picking one’s nose in public.

The title is: Elderly Japanese Would Rather be Tended to by Robots than Foreigners

Frucci provides no specific information on what elderly Japanese think. How can he? That’s because he pulled it out of the primary source for people who write about Japan: His own backside.

What he does is provide in this “article” is a hot link at the bottom to the BBC, which is presumably his source. The link covers the space of only three letters inside parentheses, meaning most people will miss it or not bother with it. That’s the point.

Those few who do click on the link will be directed to a BBC report by Roland Buerk. It has no text—only about 2:40 worth of video, which means even fewer will bother. That’s also the point.

I watched.

That title is: Japan MAY accept robots over immigrants. (Emphasis mine) It’s about the nursing shortage in Japan. In his own variation on the McCurry Method ™, Buerk provides no specific numbers about a national nurse shortfall, but just expects everyone to take his word for it. He does talk to one woman employed at a hospital who says it’s difficult to find staff.

Back to Frucci:

Many of the potential nurses to tend to said old people happen to be from neighboring Asian countries. Not so fast! What about robots?!

Not so fast indeed! What about reality?! Frucci eliminates a critical part of Buerk’s story, which is that nurses must pass a medical terminology test in Japanese to stay more than three years. The failure rate is 98%. Buerk calls this “an example of Japan’s barriers to immigration”.

I’d call that another example of faux journalism and cultural arrogance. How loathsome of those Japanese to spend 1,500 years developing a difficult written language just to prevent other people from moving there.

The BBC briefly interviews a Filipino nurse complaining that even Japanese people have trouble reading the test vocabulary because they’re specialized kanji.

But of course they’re specialized kanji—they’re medical terms. Most laypeople in English-speaking countries couldn’t pass a medical terminology test in their own language either. How many people do you know who could define nosocomial infection, iatrogenic illness, or lethologica without looking them up? The English-language Internet is filled with advice to students for dealing with medical terminology tests.

Had anyone involved with the story known what they were talking about or cared to discover the truth, they’d know that learning kanji is sometimes a beneficial shortcut. Before I came to Japan, I had no idea what nephritis was. When I came across it in kanji, I understood immediately: inflammation of the kidney.

Back to Frucci:

Japan is a very racially homogenous society, where immigration is frowned upon and genetic purity is seen as a good thing.

Putting aside what Frucci thinks he knows about Japanese attitudes toward “genetic purity”, here’s a link to an article published in the monthly magazine Voice—available at newsstands everywhere—almost seven years ago by six members of the now ruling Democratic Party in Japan calling for the immigration of 10 million people. Two of them are now in the Cabinet.

And with the birthrate slowed, they’re moving towards an era where (sic) a full half of the population will be over 65.

His source, Buerk at the BBC, says only that a quarter of the population is over 65 now. He says nothing about an era “where” a “full half” of the population is over 65.

See what I mean about pulling stuff out of their backsides?

Buerk’s turn:

Compared to the melting pots of London and New York, foreigners really stand out here.

On the contrary, the many Chinese and Korean foreigners here don’t stand out at all, but then some people think they all look alike. As Britain’s Prince Philip had it, they’re all “slitty-eyed”.

In passing, I’ll note this belief that the term “foreigner” belongs exclusively to them is endemic among Caucasians in Northeast Asia.

The possibility of allowing mass immigration is barely even discussed.

Buerk doesn’t seem to be big on reading Japanese either. He’s also not the first European to look the other way when the subject is the impact of mass immigration in Europe. After all, Mohammed has been the most popular name for baby boys in London and Yorkshire since 2008. Here’s a headline from a Swedish newspaper a few months ago: “Gothenburg Man Arrested over Somali Terror Plot”.

Eventually they COULD be put to work in restaurants and shops…Accepting a robotic future in Japan COULD be more popular than accepting mass immigration. (Emphasis mine)

Eventually somebody COULD do some real research about this country—it’s easy if you try—but that’s not bloody likely, is it?

The Beeb and Buerk knew enough to use the weasel word to give them plausible deniability against the charge of overt statements without a basis in fact, but that flew over Frucci’s head. He writes:

That means they’ll need one of two things to take care of that aging population: foreign nurses or robot nurses. Guess which option seems more reasonable to them?

Frucci is also a masterful prose stylist…

Yes, robotic fucking nurses.

…whose primary source after Buerk is his buttocks:

(H)ospitals are going to be shut down because of a lack of staff and people are going to be left without vital medical care.

Not even Buerk claimed people were going to be left without vital medical care.

Here’s some more glittering prose:

Sooner or later, they’re going to need to allow immigrants from neighboring Asian countries to enter the country and work in much greater numbers in order to make up from (sic) the soon-to-be greatly diminished Japanese workforce.

Soon according to Buerk was 40 years, if current demographic trends hold.

And not just to build goddamned robots.

But perhaps I misunderstand. Frucci may be deliberately adjusting the level of his writing and intellectual content for his audience. From the comments:

I just wrote a research paper on this same subject. The Japanese are very xenophobic and homogeneity is important to them. So to except about a million (yes I said a millions about 15 million to be exact) immigrants is a tough thing for them.

Here’s another:

Japan is such an odd place that I am willing to believe that they think robots are better than humans of a different ethnicity. Stay classy Japan.

Recall what President Truman said about the effects of newspaper journalism? Here’s one more:

Foreigners also prefer that robots take care of old Japanese people.

How much do you want to bet that guy fancies himself a master of wit and repartee?

The Bogus Bonus!

I ran across this article in Britain’s Telegraph by Danielle Demetriou. That it was the only article about Japan on an American site with political and social commentary demonstrates the poisonous effect journalists have on the views of their product’s consumers in the Anglosphere.

It’s a perfect fit for this post. It now contains links to an aggressively ignorant business promotion site and an aggressively ignorant tech blog sandwiched by poorly researched articles from British broadsheets of the left and the right.

Here’s the headline:

Tokyo sees rise in ‘divorce ceremonies’
As Japan’s divorce rate soars, couples in Tokyo are ending their marriages with as much care as they began them. (Emphasis mine)

It includes this sentence:

Their introduction is timely: more than 251,000 divorces took place in Japan in 2008, a figure blamed partly on the poor economic climate and the end of the salaryman-led family units which used to be the bedrock of much of Japanese life.

Comparing that with this section of the English-language website of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications brings up some intriguing questions.

In Japan, divorces were on a generally upward trend from the 1960s until 2002 when they hit a peak of 290,000. Since then, both the number of divorces and the divorce rate have declined for six years straight. In 2008, the number of divorces totaled 251,000, and the divorce rate was 1.99 (per 1,000 population).

Did Demetriou access this herself, get the accurate divorce statistic, and pull the rest out of her backside to juice up the story? Or did someone access it for her first and fail to provide the full context, forcing her to pull the rest out of her backside to juice up the story?

And just what is “soaring divorces blamed on the poor economic climate and the end of salaryman-led family units” supposed to mean?

Japan’s divorce rate per 1,000 population is one of the lowest in the world and is declining. The unexplained and inexplicable reference to the “end of salaryman-led family units” is a borrowing of the McCurry Method ™. Now I’ll borrow the pretentious phrase of those thin-skinned scribes caught with their pants down pulling stuff out of their backsides: I stand by my claim that the journos are making stuff up to ridicule the Japanese and thereby sell product.

Saori Teshima had long dreamt of the moment.

How would Demetriou know?

So goes another divorce ceremony – a bizarre, but increasingly popular ritual among Japanese couples, who choose to end their marriages with the same pomp and ceremony with which they began them.

Who is Demetriou to use “bizarre”, the contemporary teenager’s default term of derision, to describe a preference for ceremonies to mark the milestones of one’s life? I was graduated from school twice in my life—once from high school and once from university. Japanese also have graduation ceremonies for those finishing kindergarten, primary school, and junior high school. They also have entrance ceremonies and ceremonies to mark the start of the school year.

Saturday night, I attended a party for a man’s kanreki—his 60th birthday. The Japanese have observed customs associated with kanreki for several hundred years.

But it’s understandable why some British would consider a divorce ceremony bizarre. Their divorce rate is roughly six times that of Japan. From the Office of National Statistics, UK:

The rate of divorce in the United Kingdom has been dropping in recent years. In 2007 the divorce rate in England and Wales was recorded at 11.9 people per every 1000 of the married population. This is the lowest divorce rate recorded since 1981.

If they started conducting divorce ceremonies, when would they ever sober up enough to go to a pub for the binge drinking required to properly enjoy a soccer match?

Britain also has the highest number of unmarried mothers in Europe. Ceremonies and commitments? Screw that for a lark.

Pioneering the trend for divorce ceremonies is Hiroki Terai, 29, an entrepreneurial former sales man from Japan’s Chiba district…

Chiba is a city and a prefecture (i.e., province or state) right next to Tokyo. Odd that The Telegraph’s Japan correspondent wouldn’t know that it isn’t a “district”.

…who dreamt up the idea after friends of his decided to separate last year. Since setting up a company devoted to divorce ceremonies in March, he has been contacted by more than 700 people and conducted 21 divorce ceremonies – costing from £44 to £700 – with a further nine booked.

In other words, this “increasingly popular ritual” is performed for 0.01% of all divorces.

Roland Kelts, a Japan culture expert and lecturer at the University of Tokyo, described how divorce ceremonies were a welcome tool for Japanese to deal with shifting family structures.
“Today’s Japanese women are well-educated and worldly,” he says. “They watch Sex and the City and wonder why their husbands are not more dynamic. And their husbands, having lost the security of lifetime employment and its perks, are wondering why their wives are so impatient. No wonder divorce has risen to a third of Japanese marriages.”

Only an academic could achieve the hat trick of pulling something from his backside, applying the McCurry Method ™, and beclowning himself in a few meaningless sentences. My favorite was the non sequitur of men losing their lifetime employment perks and then wondering why their wives were impatient.

Kelts’s “discipline” is pop culture in general and manga in particular, which might explain why he’s hit an intellectual glass ceiling here. Yes, an entire nation of Japanese women, just recently backwards and uneducated, knew nothing about sex before they married and even less afterwards, but turned on the cable to Sex and the City and found it so believable they got impatient with their limp, uninterested husbands.

And so the divorce rate has fallen for six years straight.

The Bona Fide!

It’s time for a palate cleanser after swallowing all that inedible fare. Fortunately, Mac also sent in a Youtube video of a live performance by the Shibusashirazu Orchestra, whom he says played at his local rice festival. The music is a heady blend of modern jazz and pop played with straight-ahead gusto on both Western and traditional Japanese instruments. To this they add free-form stage performers and modern and traditional Japanese dance. Their name literally translates to “not knowing tasteful sobriety”, and that’s no joke.

If they were from America or Europe, you’d know about them already. But after you watch the clip to the end, you’ll know something McCurry, BII, Frucci, Buerke, Demetriou, and their readers don’t.


* Any municipality with a flag such as the one used by Isesaki has to be a cool place no matter what happens there.

* Haruyama Fumio, the chair of the human rights committee of the Gunma Bar Association, says the Isesaki facial hair ban restricts the freedom of individuals.

Count on a human rights lawyer to know nothing about human rights.

Part of the transaction between the employer and the employed is that the employed voluntarily gives up certain rights at the employer’s request. That’s why none of the staff at the elegant hotels in London’s Mayfair district wear Hawaiian shirts and beach sandals to work, for example.

If Justin McCurry wants to work out of his rabbit hutch, he has every right to wear a French maid costume, paint his face to look like Hello Kitty, and identify himself as Justine on the telephone if he chose to do so. No one would care. But his employer would surely object if he were to dress and behave that way on the rare occasions he sallies forth to interact with the Japanese public as part of his job.

Of course, if people found dress and facial hair codes to be an infringement of their rights, they’re free to refuse a job offer.

All of this should be elementary.

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27 Responses to “Letter bombs (6): Ignorance goes viral”

  1. M-Bone said

    Great job (could have used a few fewer backside references, however).

    You shouldn’t blame the Roland Kelts quote on academia, however. He has a Masters in Fine Arts (creative writing, ie. creative non-fiction) which is not a research degree. He’s never published any academic research on Japan, either.

    He is a lecturer at Tokyo University, but this is not a regular faculty position and the only references that I was able to see online (search him on the University of Tokyo website) were to English and “International Communication” classes. In effect, he is a sessional English instructor and I think that it is a bit dishonest that this is being used to imply credentials as a social commentator.

    He has published a widely read book, “Japanamerica” and can be said to be an expert on Japanese popular culture in America. This is an extremely-well written piece, but it is a piece of journalistic non-fiction, not academic and not terribly analytical. This seems to be a case of a journalist with no expertise in an area asking another journalist with no expertise in an area for an expert opinion to pad out a rather poor article. I’m not at all sure why Kelts should be asked about Japanese social issues by a major newspaper.

  2. M-Bone said

    Incidentally, Oxford and Tokyo University joint publish a social science journal (Social Science Japan Journal) that has run (in English) a dozen excellent articles about Japanese women’s issues and divorce in the last 5 or 6 years by scholars (many of whom are Japanese women) at leading UK and Japanese sociology departments. Why not ask them?

  3. Joe Jones said

    This is a great post.

    I take issue with some of your comments on employment, though. This last line for instance: “If people found dress and facial hair codes to be an infringement of their rights, they’re free to refuse a job offer.” This is true, but in the case of Isesaki, people who are already working there are having their working conditions changed; in other words, they are not getting what they signed up for. In Japan, this is especially a big deal because there is limited opportunity for lateral movement between employers, particularly for bureaucrats and other lifetime employees, in contrast to the US where workers in almost any industry can walk out and have a new job within that industry a few months later (assuming ordinary economic conditions).

    The view of employment as an equal legal relationship is almost peculiar to the United States. Most other developed countries (including Japan) assume that employers have a very dominant bargaining position over employees, and severely constrain how employers can alter the employment relationship once it has begun. This is why most Japanese companies have very detailed rules of employment which don’t change very often. Lifetime employment was legally sanctioned in Japan for decades because judges deemed that firing people was a form of “abuse of rights” (though this is no longer the case as lifetime employment was codified a few years ago). In Japan, you absolutely cannot fire someone because you don’t like their shoes; you have to show just cause to do so, and you have to demonstrate that you did everything within your power to remedy whatever deficiencies you are citing as your just cause.

    Personally, I don’t like lifetime employment: it chills the market for talent and makes many people lazy (both employers and employees), which reduces the productivity and competitiveness of Japan as a whole. I think greater freedom of contract is better for both parties, provided that there is a strong enough safety net to keep people from starving if they are fired without much notice. But it’ll be a while before freelancers and contractors outnumber legacy employees sufficiently enough to force a change in the system.

  4. Andrew in Ezo said

    Once again, your observations of western media portrayals of Japan are spot on.

    “In passing, I’ll note this belief that the term “foreigner” belongs exclusively to them is endemic among Caucasians in Northeast Asia.”

    Noted this tendency since I started living in Japan 10+ years ago. Let me indulge in an anecdote: Back in the mid-nineties, I attended a conference full of young teachers on the JET program. We were listening to a lecturer discussing the complaint many (caucasian) foreigners have about “being stared at” on the train and whatnot. The lecturer, basically said it was good medicine for those teachers, because it gave them an idea of what racial minorities face (or at least have a fear of) everyday in their lives in Western countries. Of course most participants didn’t want to hear that, and his comment was met with silence, though there were knowing glances from me and other Asian and biracial people in the audience.

  5. M-Bone said

    Reminds me of that piece a year or so ago that reported that you could drive from Narita to Tokyo and not see a single foreign car on the road. Foreign obviously doesn’t include Europe. (When I read that originally, I looked out my window and saw at least a half dozen BMWs, Mercedes, Volvo, etc. in the parking lot).

  6. Andrew in Ezo said

    M-Bone, I hear you. Recently US carmakers were complaining that Japanese government regulations were keeping US autos from being eligible for the “Eco-car” rebate scheme. When your lineup consists of gas guzzling SUV’s and V8 sportscars your arguments will be tenuous, to say the least. VW, on the other hand, was already advertising their (eco rebate eligible)fuel sipping 1.3 liter cars in ubiquitous TV commercials. Never complaints from them, and they have been the top selling foreign brand for years (decades?).

  7. RMilner said

    Although it is an unlikely situation, hypothetically what would happen if a Sikh worked for the Isesaki local government?
    RM: I don’t know, and that’s a good question.

    So good, in fact, that none of the journalists covering Japan seem to have picked up the phone and asked them.

    – A.

  8. bender said

    Joe, I took labor economics class in college and learned that life-time employment is enjoyed only by those working for big companies, which is far from being the majority of working Japanese. Also, life-time employment is a recent event that developed during the 60s. Another example of what is thought to be a cultural phenomenon actually being not.

  9. Guns said

    It really angers me to see such laziness and irrisponsibility in forign reporting on Japanese cultural topics. The disservice they do is huge and inexcusable. Your public censure is appriciated and hopefully will provide a much needed wakeup to reporters who think nobody is paying attention.

    It would seem the reporters you’ve spotlighted are taking advantage and hiding behind the language they report in. In the process, they are essentially hoodwinking their overseas audience and insulting their host contry. There are much more lucrative ways to be dishonest than reporting.

  10. toadold said

    In the West, “You become a journalism major because you can’t pass college algebra.”
    Reporting that requires actual work just isn’t done much. A story about something happening in a foreign country far enough away can be written up quickly and will probably not be checked by anyone. These clowns are like their college instructors, they prefer to lounge around and re-enforce each others world views.
    Have you ever run into one of those clowns that don’t speak the language but will lecture a native of a country about something??

  11. Andrew in Ezo said

    Uh-oh, here we go again. From the LA Times:,0,1709082.htmlstory

    Note the inclusion of “bizarre”, which is de rigeur for these “reports”. Problem is, there is no explanation of the video, nor does the video itself have any narration (either in English or Japanese). So we don’t know the context (once again, the Western media has a big “fail” in reporting 101). Here is what I found about the project (5 second google search) that built this robot:

    For all I know from reading this, it’s part of a project to help understand human intelligence better through interaction with androids. On a practical level, the robot can be used as a training device/demo for novice child care workers (much like dummies used in CPR courses). Nothing “bizarre” about that.

  12. Aceface said

    “Although it is an unlikely situation, hypothetically what would happen if a Sikh worked for the Isesaki local government?”

    Not at all,RMilner,You’re thinking exactly I was thinking.

    I stayed for 6 days in Isezaki,Gunma in the spring of 2001 for an assigenment on one of those “take a short walk in the neighborhood” type of reportage.

    Isezaki at the time had nearly about 10% of it’s population being foreign residents,which is not that unusual for Southern Gunma where there are many Brazilians and Peruvians living and working.But Isezaki at the time had resident coming from more than 70 countries.I was surprised to find a man from Equatorial Guinea registered as resident foreigner there.The portion and the variety of the resident matches only to one place in Japan,which is Minato ward in Tokyo,the ground zero of foreign diplomatic enboy.
    As I checked internet it seems the number has been reduced a bit to 12296people from 63 countries and ration to the entire population is around 5.90%.

    City of Isezaki does hire many foreigners as temporary workers,such as substitute teachers at school and translator in city hall etc.And while I’ve never run into Sikh,I’ve met lots of foreigners with facial hair.
    Cities along the Tobu Isezaki line are known to have significant amount of muslim population.The first shop you see after you get off from Isezaki station is a haral food shop and there are at least three moscques when I was there back in 2001.One of them of which I was told by one of the muslim residents I met in the city as “a bit fundamentalistic”.
    Can’t exactly tell how true it was,but one thing for sure is this guy was working in Isezaki and recruiting comrads for his cause from 2002 to 2003.,9171,644220,00.html

    With that information in mind,the ban of facial hair among the public servant in Isezaki has whole different meaning.

  13. mac said

    A flattered aside from a backside that was quoted above, as I have not read the article in full.

    Down where we are, despite the oft noted lack of Shinkansia etc, they have a taste for old British cars, especially Issigonis Minis and, a short jitensha ride across the river, finds a Morris specialist (Minors, A30s etc) in the middle of some rice paddies. If you start talking motorcycle, the taste become even more diverse and authentic, featuring Triumphs and Harleys even amongst women riders. I would say most of the supra-250cc motorcycles are done up to either look like old British cafe racers or hard core choppers.

    I suppose this is “bizarre” too … but actually Japan had it own tradition of same styled Rockers in the 60s too called Kaminari-zoku.

    On stuff that many might actually find “bizarre”, e.g. male transvestites dressing like school girls, office ladies or Mama-sans in the street, I find there is a far greater tolerance of and acceptance of than one would find in the West. No one paying the slightest interest or bother …

    One should remember that most newspapers pay their oversea stringers peanuts … perhaps they just do not have the time or incentive to do any better. In his defense, Justin has done some reasonable reportage on the whole whale war scene which is now going into hyper-drive with right wing groups shouting down intimidating any cinemas from showing The Cove.

  14. M-Bone said

    “One should remember that most newspapers pay their oversea stringers peanuts … perhaps they just do not have the time or incentive to do any better.”

    We can’t really expect them to know Japanese before they go.

    We can’t really expect them to have any expert knowledge on Japan.

    But what about taking 5 minutes to google some divorce stats?
    Really! Or look at a map and find out that Chiba isn’t a district. It isn’t as if she hasn’t been there. Narita Airport is in Chiba.

    – A.

  15. mac said

    That’s funny … I thought Chiba was in Yokohama, Japan now … following his cameo in ‘Kill Bill’ and retirement.

    Yes, you are right …

    surely there are enough Japanese language graduates who want to be journalists so that they did not have to employ “Daddy’s Boys” like Roland Buerk. Take one of his examples like, “Ring tone therapy’ sweeping mobile phone-mad Japan” … what really stands out is the “Mad Japan” construction into which ‘fad’ and ‘craze’ are chucked. Yes, really, this is considered internationally newsworthy (

    That most Japanese folk think the ring tone therapy is stupid just does not make it into the story.

  16. M-Bone said

    Awful –

    Turns out that the kids copied an episode of “Detective Conan” – which is a halfass, more or less bloodless title for kids, something like the “The Hardy Boys”. Doesn’t stop the author from dragging in rape, bloody murder, and Lindsay Hawker.

  17. mac said

    Scans of Detective Conan are here …

    Metro is an idiot English tabloid, right of center. I suspect the entire staff know even less about Korean culture than they do Japan. Which would be … less than nothing.

  18. M-Bone said

    Check this out –

    They somehow manage to rig the figures so that a washing machine costs $879 in Tokyo and $470 in Kobe! Don’t even want to think about what kind of halfass methodology produces a figure like that. This kind of silliness is one of the reasons why students that I talk to in North America often think that you can’t live in Japan on less than $5000 a month.

  19. bender said

    If you’re talking about places in Tokyo where Western business expats live, yes, definitely ultra-expensive. An apartment of 900 sq feet costs like 2-3 million yen per month. Another hefty amount for parking space for the Mercedes they drive. Maybe the interviews were based on these kinds of guys. They sure would have big laundry machines, although I doubt they ever use them.

    I’m sure they didn’t ask people living in 90 sq feet apartments in Nakano (but still costs like 120 thousand yen/month, if close to train stations).

    BTW, M-Bone, what kind of students are you talking to? $5,000 a month, $60,000 a year far exceeds Japan’s per capital GDP. Gotta be pretty dumb-*ssed to come out with that kinda figure.

  20. M-Bone said

    Not disputing that Tokyo expat living is super expensive. However, that doesn’t seem to be what they are measuring overall (rice, movie tickets, washing machine?). Rent and whatnot is not included in the survey.

    Are you sure about 200-300 man a month for apartments? You can get a fully furnished, fully serviced 900 square foot place in Roppongi Hills for less than 100 man. Still more than I can afford….

    Anyway, because of these kinds of articles, a lot of ordinary people in North America think that Japan is unbelievably ultra super expensive. This is made worse by stories from friends about $300 melons and things like that. Lots of students who are thinking about going to Japan seriously think that going to McDonalds is going to set them back $30. They don’t know anything about Japan. I guess that puts them in the same boat as the person who thinks that a washing machine costs twice as much in Tokyo as it does in Kobe.

    The problem is that the survey authors likely priced their washing machine at a department store near Shinjuku station and at “Yamada Denki” in Kobe. The survey also has the usual biases – movie tickets are twice as expensive in Japan as in the USA but mass market paperbacks are half the price.

  21. bender said

    You can get a fully furnished, fully serviced 900 square foot place in Roppongi Hills for less than 100 man

    Really? Kindly show me the link.

  22. M-Bone said

    The 900+ square foot “design” two bedroom here is listed for 130man, but that is a monthly rate – at a yearly lease, I’ve heard that the same places go for less than 100.

    The more vanilla two bedrooms start at 95. If you go down into the 500-700 square foot range you can get something for 37 (which I still couldn’t afford….)

  23. ampontan said

    My wife and I were in Tokyo for three or four days last October. We went to Tsukishima to eat monjayaki. Walking around the neighborhood, we saw a signboard advertising apartments for rent in the neighborhood. The proverbial 90 square foot apartments were priced at 130,000 – 170,000 month.

    The monthly payments for my house in Kyushu were 160,000 a month, and that’s to own, not to rent. The house has a second floor, where my at-home office is. Driveway and parking space next to the house. The yard’s not so big, but it’s big enough for a tree, a hedge, plenty of plants, and even some vegetables.

    Tokyo must be nice for the fabulously well-to-do.

  24. M-Bone said

    Forgot to mention that those Hills rooms actually include breakfast service!

  25. Joe Jones said

    @Bender, comment 8: If you go to Japan’s official census statistics, you can see a breakdown of the country’s labor force by contract type. Non-permanent employees have risen in recent years but are still pretty far from outnumbering lifers. And the 60’s were fifty years ago: the majority of Japanese today cannot remember a time when this employment system was not pervasive, so it might as well be considered cultural at this point.

    (Sorry for the late reply; I forgot about this thread until Ampontan raised the topic again in part 7)

  26. bender said

    Joe Jones,
    You don’t understand. “Permanent” only means that the employment has no term- people working for small to medium businesses are “permanent” in that sense, but not “permanent” in the sense of Toyota “formal” workers.

  27. bender said

    The unfortunate thing is that most jobs are in the big cities. If people can have a decent job in the rural parts of Japan, I’m sure everyone will live there. The Liberal Democrats were trying to rectify this by funneling tax money collected from Tokyo to rural Japan- and the Democrats are doing the same, too. But the flow out of rural Japan isn’t stopping. I don’t know how this is felt in northern Kyushu, but if you go to places like Hokkaido, it’s pretty disheartening to see small towns whither away. Maybe this is a world-wide trend.

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