Japan from the inside out

Japan’s back pages

Posted by ampontan on Friday, May 4, 2012

THE Japan that emerges in stories printed below the fold and in the back pages of newspapers, or on less frequently accessed news websites, is a different place than that presented in the industrial mass media. Here are some stories that demonstrate why.

Water business

The phrase “water business” in Japan is usually a euphemism for the enterprises conducted in entertainment districts at night, particularly drinking establishments.

But most people outside the region are unaware that Japan is a global leader in another sort of water business — that for the technology used in water supply and sewage systems. In fact, a paperback was published a few months ago with the premise that Japan is the global leader in water technology systems. Whether that claim is true or not, several entities in the country have established a reputation for expertise in the sector, and they are working to expand their operations.

For example, the Fukuoka City government recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, for joint research in water supply and treatment.

The Kyushu city developed the technology for reusing waste water from the necessity to deal with its own chronic water shortages. They became so successful that they now want to make a paying business of it. Fukuoka City was also the first municipality in Japan to process waste water for use as water in the toilet, and they also are known for building a network of tunnels that carry off the water from the heavy summer rains to prevent flooding.

Meanwhile, the growth of the economy and the population in Vietnam strained that nation’s water systems infrastructure, and they chose to look to Japan for help. In fact, the city of Haiphong is already working with the city of Kitakyushu, Fukuoka City’s neighbor, to prevent leakage from their water supply systems.

Kitakyushu has been active in this sector in Cambodia for some time. As of last December, they were serving as the technical consultants for water technology in nine Cambodian cities, and last month they began helping two other cities in that country to expand their water supply systems.

Fukuoka City is also involved in the water business in Burma. The Water Department dispatched a technician to Rangoon last month to conduct surveys and provide guidance, and they’ll send a full team later. The Burmese government also sent one of their technicians to Fukuoka City for training.

Apart from altruism, one objective is to increase the opportunities for local businesses to receive contracts from the Southeast Asian countries for infrastructure improvements. The Fukuoka City project in Burma is being conducted in tandem with the UN Habitat Fukuoka office. That organization is particularly interested in water purification and desalinization systems.

Rare Earth

The temporary Chinese suspension of rare earth metal exports during the standoff over the Senkakus in the fall of 2010 certainly got the attention of Japanese industry.  They wasted no time to start looking for new sources for the metals that couldn’t be used as a political weapon. For example, it was announced earlier this week that imports of rare earth metals would soon begin from India. Also, Mitsui Mining and Smelting Co. and Kurume-based Shibata Sangyo have teamed to launch the world’s first business for recovering and recycling the rare earth metal tantalum from discarded electronic products. Tantalum is used primarily as a material for condensers in PCs and Smartphones, but all of it is imported. The Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry estimates that recovering the tantalum from products discarded in Japan in a year would yield about 64 tons, accounting for 14% of the amount used here annually. Fukuoka Prefecture and Mitsui plan to commercialize the recycling technology and to create a structure that enables electronics parts manufacturers to procure the metal without concerns of interrupted supply.

More than a year ago, Japanese researchers announced they had produced the first artificial rare earth metal, an alloy similar to palladium. That metal is essential for making electronic parts, and is also used as a catalyzer to clean exhaust gas. While their method is not feasible for the commercial production of palladium, the researchers intend to apply it to create other alloys as rare earth substitutes. They say they’ve begun joint research projects with automobile manufacturers, but are keeping the details under the hood for now.


A ryokan, or Japanese-style inn, in Yufuin, Oita, will generate electricity from the hot springs on the site using a 70 kW generator that Kobe Steel put on the market last fall. They plan to sell some of the power generated to Kyushu Electric Power through the system for the sale of renewable energy at a fixed cost that will begin in July. Kobe Steel says that if the power is sold at JPY 20 per kW, the spa could recover the costs by 2015.


Japanese astronomers using a Hawaii-based telescope said last month they had discovered a “proto-cluster” of galaxies 12.72 billion light-years away from Earth. They claim that’s the most distant cluster ever discovered, which would also make it one of the first structures formed by the Big Bang.

“This shows a galaxy cluster already existed in the early stages of the universe when it was still less than one billion years into its history of 13.7 billion years,” the team of astronomers said in a press release.

But the discovery may already have been superseded.

Researchers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have previously announced the discovery of a possible cluster of galaxies around 13.1 billion light-years from Earth, but that has not yet been confirmed, the Japanese researchers said.


What Japanese women call with a smirk the “bar code” — the hair style created by follically deficient men, otherwise known as a combover in the English-speaking world — may, along with toupees and implants, be obsolete a decade from now:

Japanese researchers have successfully grown hair on hairless mice by implanting follicles created from stem cells, they announced Wednesday, sparking new hopes of a cure for baldness.

Led by Professor Takashi Tsuji from Tokyo University of Science, the team bioengineered hair follicles and transplanted them into the skin of hairless mice.

The creatures eventually grew hair, which continued regenerating in normal growth cycles after old hairs fell out.

The process has the potential for applications greater than flattering oneself in the mirror, however:

Tsuji and his researchers found hair follicles can be grown with adult stem cells, the study said.

“Our current study thus demonstrates the potential for not only hair regeneration therapy but also the realisation of bioengineered organ replacement using adult somatic stem cells,” it said.

Stop the snickering, ladies — before long another recent discovery in Japan might produce more satisfying answers when you interrogate the mirror about the fairest of them all.

Two different teams of university researchers have found the gene that causes freckling and skin blotches after exposure to the sun. One team was from Osaka University (working with cosmetics manufacturer Kanebo), and the other team, using different methods, combined researchers from Nagasaki and Kumamoto universities.

Both groups focused on ultraviolet hypersensitivity, a rare condition of which only five cases are known in the world. The condition was first identified in 1981 in Japan, but little effort was put into treatment because the only problem it causes is sunburn. The Osaka-Kanebo group inserted mouse chromosomes in the nuclei of cells from two patients with the condition to determine which would provide better protection to ultraviolet rays. Exposure to the rays would prevent multiplication of the cells, which would die after six weeks, but cells with the new chromosome were resistant to ultraviolet rays.

Crab computing

Here’s a story that made a lot more sense after spending the past week trying to make sense of the functions on my new PC:

A team of scientists from Japan and England have built a computer that uses crabs as information carriers, to implement basic circuits of collision-based computing.

The explanation:

Researchers at Japan’s Kobe University and the UK’s University of the West of England, Bristol, found that when two swarms of soldier crabs collide, they merge and continue in a direction that is the sum of their velocities. This behaviour means that swarms of crabs can implement logical gates when placed in a geometrically constrained environment.


The swarms were placed at the entrances of the logic gates and persuaded to move by a shadow that fooled them into thinking a predatory bird was overhead. Results closely matched those of the simulation, suggesting that crab-powered computers are possible.

The experiment builds on a previous model of unconventional computing, based on colliding billiard balls.

That set the author of the article to wondering:

The paper’s authors did not say whether public money was used to fund their experiments.

Regardless, it doesn’t seem as if the experiment would be so expensive that a university couldn’t fund it on its own. The author might be suggesting that futzing around with crab-powered computers is a frivolous enterprise with no apparent application, but there might be some there there.  Explains Josh Rothman:

What’s the point? Increasingly, computer scientists are interested in the ways that natural systems solve computing problems. Often, they do so in surprising (and surprisingly effective) ways. Other researchers have investigated the ways in which honeybees compute the most efficient route through a field of flowers (see a well-reasoned take on that research here); one of the crab-computer researchers, Andrew Adamatzky, has been exploring the possibility of slime-mold computing. Future generations of computers, they argue, may well be inspired by nature.


The Moji Customs Office in Kyushu reports that the value of beer exported through the Port of Hakata in 2011 totaled JPY 1.225 billion, an increase of 6.3 times from the previous year. The volume of exports totaled 10,960 kiloliters, a year-on-year increase of 9.2 times. That set a record, and it was the first new record in 10 years. South Korea accounted for 57% of the exports, and there’s a story behind that. Premium Japanese beer has become popular in that country, which is closer to the Port of Hakata (also in Kyushu) than to Tokyo. Sapporo also established a sales company in South Korea last June. And don’t forget that the Japanese built the first breweries on the Korean Peninsula to begin with when the two countries were merged a century ago.

Does this mean tastes are changing in South Korea? The mass market beer in that country may be even weaker and thinner than the adult soft drink that pretends to be beer in the United States. That’s perhaps due to the robust and hearty nature of Korean food, with its industrial grade spices. It would make sense that people preferred something less intense to wash it all down with.

Hand grenade hotline

To conclude, here’s something I’ll bet nobody expected. The Fukuoka police became the first police department in the country to institute a hot line for tips on hand grenades. They’ll pay JPY 100,000 for each hand grenade found or confiscated as a result of a tip.

Concerns have been growing lately over the use of hand grenades to attack companies or in gang fights. Hand grenades were used in six incidents in the prefecture last year, the most in the country. Rewards will also be given for the discovery of homemade bombs. They’re serious — the police have printed 2,000 posters and 5,000 flyers.

They’d better be serious if gangs are bringing grenades to a gunfight.


This clip of an English-language news report provides further info on the changing Joseon tastes for beer. They mention that 60 brewpubs have been established (by then) in South Korea since laws were relaxed in 2002. Pardon the goofiness with the Youtube link.

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Considering (a) that microbrewing had already taken off in Japan at that time, and (b) the substantial but largely unacknowledged influence that Japan still has on Korean culture, it is quite possible that the Korean laws were changed after the Koreans sampled some of the Japanese beverages.

Not that they’d ever admit it.


Here’s another change: When I arrived in Japan in 1984, most funerals were still conducted in the home of the deceased. Now, however, they’re usually held in funeral parlors.

I attended a funeral in one of those establishments a week ago today for a pleasant man who passed away at the age of 86. I’ve been to enough of them by now to be familiar with the customs, but I was intrigued when I recognized the song the pianist was playing just before the service started: Hana (Flower), by Okinawan roots rocker Kina Shokichi. It is interesting to reflect on which things eventually become accepted as part of the common culture. No English translation can do the lyrics justice, so I won’t even try, but the song works in that context.

Here are three different versions spliced into one video.


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