Archive | Eclectic Musings RSS for this section

Stay At Home Generation – why are young Japanese inward-looking?

Click here for article in Tokyo Weekender

Japan’s next generation is increasingly saying no to study opportunities abroad, with latest government figures showing the number of Japanese international students now at a 15-year low after six continuous years of decline. As China, Korea and India continue to lead global figures in cosmopolitan education, the latest figures in Japan raise concerns of a revival of its age-old reputation as an inward nation.

So, what has caused it?

There is correlation, without necessarily proving causation, between when the first year the so-called “yutori generation” reached university (2005) and when the numbers of Japanese international students started to decline. That generation was schooled under the policy of Yutori education, or “pressure-free education” – a system introduced in the 90s (and discontinued since) that cut school hours by 10% and the curriculum by 30% in order, it was hoped, to produce more well-rounded children, unsullied by academic rigour and competition. It even changed the value of pi in primary school textbooks to “about 3”! Some commentators have blamed it for a drop in academic standards, as well as for its having produced unambitious and unmotivated students who, among other things, are less willing to test themselves in foreign environments.

Recent trends in employment could also be a factor. With companies turning increasingly away from more expensive, highly-protected, life-time employment (seishain) and towards cheaper, less-protected, contractual employment (keiyakushain), the stakes have been raised for Japanese students entering domestic job markets to secure more scarcely available life-time work. This has arguably had the effect of turning studying abroad into something of an unwelcome distraction, especially when there is a lack of career support available to Japanese international students, and when “studying in an overseas university offers no benefit to job-hunting in Japan”, as a survey by Genron NPO, a policy think tank, found to be the second most common reason (46.2%) for a disinterest in studying abroad.

It is true that studying abroad has not traditionally been considered an employable attribute in Japan, since Japanese companies have long preferred a “blank canvas” of new recruits, easily moldable and trainable into the image of a particular company. Unlike, the “ready-made labour force” that Americans, for example, present themselves as, Japanese students are, to borrow from author and anthropologist, Chie Nakane, “potential labour” who rely on companies for tutelage but whose lack of experience is by no means a disadvantage. The rich experience of studying abroad then, appears to offer little practical gain in Japan and thus sometimes struggles to warrant its lavish price tag.

Daiki Kumano, a business student at Rikkyo University, thinks conversely that there is plenty to be gained from studying abroad and enough appetite in the job market for students with such experience. He says, though, that the “traditional” character of his university actively discourages wander-lusting students like himself from studying abroad. “Senior professors said we should prioritize job-hunting … and take part in an internship program instead,” Daiki says. He has opted alternatively to go to Seattle to study.

The path to work in Japan is indeed very narrow and one-dimensional – precisely why study abroad students cannot get the support they need. Nanami Fukuda, for example, who came back to Japan after studying for four years at a university in England, says she “felt left out of the system”.

“The job-hunting madness hit me when I came back” she continues. “It was like a culture shock. I was completely removed from the job-hunting process that everybody goes through at Japanese universities, and had to find a job on my own. And the longer I spent looking for a job, the more it looked to interviewers like I was doing nothing”.

Other paths to work may conceivably be forged when employers take heed of initiatives such as participation in Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and step up efforts to recruit young Japanese with international skills. Then, labour markets will liberalise, become a more fluid, and job-seekers, in the long run, will be forced to pit themselves more as self-reliant ‘ready-made labour’, less as moldable ‘potential labour’.

Efforts to globalize however – such as those undertaken recently by Rakuten and Uniqlo, speaking English in the boardroom, for example – will seem rather cosmetic unless educational institutions overturn the kind of structural bias and marginalization that Daiki, Nanami and others like her have faced.

Aside from the obvious need for more access to information, more scholarships and more careers support for students, universities might also consider more forcefully bringing their academic calenders in line with most other countries and changing enrolment to autumn, as Tokyo University has half-achieved.  Japanese universities could really use above all, however, a more robust liberal tradition – one that can break the inertia of the last several years and promote the rewards of study abroad as goods in themselves. For a country is only as good as its young, and if they are inward then so too are the institutions that helped shape them.


The 2020 Olympic Bids – How will Tokyo fare?

Click here for the article in Tokyo Weekender

On September 7 in Buenos Aires the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will announce the winning candidate city as host for the 2020 Olympic Games from between Madrid, Istanbul or Tokyo, in what will be either a second consecutive failed bid by Tokyo, or a glorious return of the summer Games to Japan for the first time since 1964. Following the IOC inspections in Tokyo this March and a presentation to IOC members in Lausanne, Switzerland in July, the Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC) has now done nearly all the campaigning/ingratiating it can. As clichéd as it sounds, the race is pretty tight. The IOC’s Evaluation Committee has said (albeit predictably) that “each one of the candidate cities could host perfect Games”, with veteran IOC member Dick Pound saying it was genuinely the closest race he could remember – partly because “all the bids had obvious strengths and weaknesses”.


Discover Tomorrow

Public support – 70% in Tokyo and 67% in Japan

Strengths –

The biggest strength of the Tokyo bid is in its apparent ability to deliver a well-funded, safe and secure Games without any of the instability saddling the other two bids. In a technical IOC report released in June, Tokyo was noted for its capital reserves as well as for being “a modern, dynamic city” with “one of the most modern and efficient” transport systems in the world. And the IOC can be pretty sure there will not be any protesting in Tokyo.

Referring to the failed 2016 bid, the Tokyo campaign team has said it aims to “keep the best and improve the rest“. Thus it has continued to boast about its ability to hold “an environmentally cleaner event in a compact area”, as well as being ”a world leader in anti-doping” that can offer a model of “clean sport”. The latter will hold particular sway for IOC members given recent revelations, with sprinters Tyson Gay, Asafa Powell and Veronica Campbell-Brown failing tests for banned substances.

The bid also addresses IOC concerns from 2007 about whether there would be enough space by planning to build the Olympic Village – in Harumi, Chuo ward – about 13 hectares bigger than that proposed for 2016. The Village has been praised also for its proximity to the sporting venues; it is within 8 km of 28 of the 35 proposed venues. Public support for the Games has also risen from only 56 percent in 2007 – a big issue for the bid then – to 70 percent this year.

Weaknesses –

While public support has increased in more recent polls, there does seem to be a lack of any deep enthusiasm to host the Games. When the IOC polled Tokyoites in May, the support rate was only 47 percent, versus 78 percent in Madrid and 73 percent in Istanbul. One reason for this might be because, as one commentator at the Lausanne presentations said, the bid “lacks a compelling back-story and is, to put it bluntly, a bit dull”.

At the presentations in Lausanne, Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso spoke of how the Olympics was a chance for Japan to show the world it has stood up and recovered from the disaster that afflicted it in 2011. While this is no doubt true, appealing to the misfortunes of those in Tohoku and Fukushima to bring the glitz of the Olympics to Tokyo is, to say the least, a little cheap. It is, nonetheless, very much a feature of the Olympic Movement and commercial sports more generally to affix messages of worth and virtue to the actions of athletes, and thus, it might not be enough for Tokyo simply to be ready and well-organised for the Olympics.



Illuminate The Future

Public support –  76% in Madrid and 81% in Spain

Strengths –

Largely counted out in the early stages of the campaign on account of its crisis-hit economy, Madrid is now a serious contender following an impressive performance at the presentations in Lausanne last month, in which Crown Prince Felipe – a former Olympic sailor – gave an apparently illustrious speech. Dick Pound of the IOC weighed in again: ”if you’re grading performance, Madrid did the best in terms of the message and delivery of it”, he said. “The star of the day was the prince. It was his content, his delivery, his genuineness”.

The glamour the Spanish heir brought to the presentations contrasts with the low-cost, no-risk message his team’s bid represents – “a realistic bid for realistic times“, they say, in what looks like an Olympics for austerity and the economic zeitgeist. A relatively low budget is feasible in the main because 80% of the facilities are already built.

Weaknesses –

There are two troublesome areas for Madrid. The team has tried hard to present itself as financially capable of hosting the Olympics with a very small budget, but it is hard to understate the crisis the Spanish economy has been in for the last five years; it very nearly joined the gang of damned European economies that needed a bail-out, has seen continuous anti-government protests in response to deep austerity cuts and has unemployment figures at 27%. Given the fragile economy, one could hardly say there was “no-risk” in the IOC investing in Madrid. It just remains to be seen whether members want to give Spain the leg-up it, and the Eurozone, needs, which given the doubts over the Brazil World Cup in 2014 as a result of the widespread protests against bad government priorities, might not be what the IOC wants.

A second consecutive Olympics held in Europe might also be a factor for the IOC. President of the IOC, Jacques Rogge has said he “would love to see the continents that have not yet organized the Games… do that in the future”. London, Europe, held the last games and  Beijing, Asia, before them, meaning if equity between the continents is what the IOC members like, they might be looking at Istanbul.



Bridge Together

Public support – 83% in Istanbul and 76% in Turkey

Strengths –

Turkey presents the IOC’s best opportunity to take the Olympic Movement to previously unchartered territory.

The Istanbul team claim Turkey can “foster global understanding and inclusiveness by being the first secular Muslim country to host the Games”. Though its secularism has been on the wane of late, the more idealistic members of the IOC could well see a chance in Istanbul to use the Games to transcend and perhaps even mitigate percieved clashes of civilizations, with and within the Middle East.

Given that Turkey’s economy is now one of the fastest growing in the world, Istanbul is the most ready it has been out of all five of their previous bids. Transportation infrastructure and sports facilities are still relatively under-developed, but the campaign team have done well to turn show how the Olympic Movement can leave a lasting legacy with these investments, particularly for the region’s young people.

Weaknesses –

Earlier this year, the IOC might just have considered giving Turkey the benefit of the doubt over security concerns. Now, however, security seems very much to be Istanbul’s elephant in the room, as well as, surely, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s ham-fisted attempts to quash nationwide protests.

The force of Erdoğan’s government against what started out as small, peaceful protests has ignited the public and broadened the criticism against him, but the protestors initially demanded only to stop the demolition of Gezi Park for redevelopment, one of Istanbul’s few remaining green spaces – all this before large-scale construction for the Olympics has even begun. The IOC would surely not wish for the Olympics to add to the grievances of the people of Istanbul, as the 2014 World Cup has for many Brazilians. More risk-averse IOC members will therefore opt for Tokyo.

This Might Sound A Little Pious, But…

In a recent conversation I had over beer cans in the park, an Australian friend of mine remarked how “there are no good causes left anymore” – an apathy that was backed up a few days later by what another Australian friend of mine claimed was his motto for life – “if it’s not fun, then it’s not worth doing”.

To the first remark, I replied in such a feeble way that I have been unable to escape the shame ever since – “Well, I’m pro-Pussy Riot.” I muttered since that was apparently the best example of a “good cause” I could come up with on short notice. Retrospectively I can see in my answer that the remark stirred up instinctive disapproval, and I should be glad for that at least, but it’s a pity the cerebrum couldn’t more quickly kick in with the sort of scathing reply the initial remark deserved.

To the second one, I gave no reply. Of course, what good would life be if it were not in some way “fun”? But then our privileged and thrill-seeking ways were only won through the tired and bloody sacrifices of others. I dare say that soldiers managed somehow with their songs of comradeship and nostalgia to eek out a morsel of fun in the trenches, but I bet not one of them would have called the experience “fun”. Their cause certainly was worth it, though – and it was this alone that stopped them from slicing their necks with their own bayonets.

Yet in our couch-ridden, facebook-drooling, First World comforts we fail to identify the good causes that are still being fought and died for in the world, dismissing them as “boring” and therefore “worthless” or opposing them mistakenly as part of a fashionable “anti-establishment” or “skepticism”. They do exist, however, and I have taken care to list some below, lest I ever neglect them again. You may add more if you please:

– Challenging racist nationalism and homophobia whenever encountered
– Bringing religious freedom to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and so on (as well as “building up that wall” (between church and state) in our own countries as was requested to Thomas Jefferson)
– Convicting war criminals at home and abroad – Henry Kissinger, Charles Taylor e.t.c.
– Scrutinising the motives of corporations at all times
– Helping the large liberal-minded young population of Iran to topple their theocracy
– Releasing North Koreans from their starvation and slavery (somehow)
– Protecting freedom of speech (especially for those whose views we find revolting)

I said it was pious…

The Curse Of The Japanese “Idol”

Click here for the article in Tokyo Weekender

Give a pretty teen their sexual freedom, and you ruin a great business opportunity


IT TAKES A VERY tenacious person indeed to ignore the crying calls for attention of ‘idol groups’ in Japan. You’ll be hard pressed to find a billboard or a TV screen that the greasy smiles of these factory-produced pop squirts haven’t covered. Their position in the collective consciousness is so loud and ubiquitous in fact, that even the bad publicity feels part of the grand performance.

Take, for example, the rule that bans members of one of the largest and most successful idol groups in Japan, AKB48, from having romantic relationships. This is a rule that looks like it was made to be broken. One can imagine Japanese PR tycoons converging to discuss how better to increase their media exposure – forbid precisely that which hormonal and adolescent idols will find hard to resist, and voilà, the media hysteria is yours. Indeed every time supposed “sex scandals” emerge, fans go bewilderingly pale with horror and the media re-hashes old debates about the fairness of the rules. But at least everyone is talking about AKB.

The most recent violation of this rule was committed last month by formerly top-ranking AKB member, Minami Minegishi (pictured), who was caught by the gossip rag-mag Shukan Bunshun “staying the night” with Alan Shirahama from the boy band GENERATIONS. Nothing could sound more unremarkable than that.

The aftermath however was appalling. Immediately after the photographic evidence of her romance had come to light, the AKB48 management banished her to the trainee ranks of the group for “re-education”. This was followed by Minegishi herself appearing on-screen dressed as though she had just crawled out of a correctional institute – her hair poorly sheared, her scalp visible and her self-esteem a weeping wreck of agony and shame.

The video was made apparently as penance to those she let down. She claims she shaved her head willingly in a fit of shock at the release of the story. She did break the rules after all, and her comradeship with the more line-towing idols of her company could well have left her ashamed. She may also have been frustrated at having breached a contract that could give her a lifetime’s worth of riches in exchange for a few years of abstinence.

The idea that someone would actually sign such a contract is not inconceivable, until we notice that Minegishi first joined AKB48 at the age of 13. Suddenly the validity of her consent, the questionable role of her parents, and the whole predatory nature of the idol industry comes into focus.

AKB48’s male equivalents – the plastic-looking boys of the Johnny & Associates agency – operate under similar arrangements to their female counterparts and yield equally lavish profits. They try to appear single and available at all times so their fans can more easily picture themselves hanging off their arms, and so fans feel personally addressed when listening to them sing.

Johnny’s Boys, however, are subject only to an unwritten expectation that they not be seen with a “publicly-visible girlfriend”, unlike AKB48 who are contractually bound not to “return the affection” to anyone they might want to. This is true also of AKB48’s numerous lesser affiliates (such as SKE48 and HKT48, the Nagoya and Fukuoka offshoots) as well as Morning Musume.

Meanwhile, the agency representing the male idol involved in the Minegishi affair, Alan Shirahama, released only a short statement about their client’s behaviour saying, We leave his private life up to him”. He could well have been given a stern word behind closed doors, but such treatment is hardly the persecution that the girl idols go through.

If aspiring girls must be more forcefully restrained to become successful idols, it rather reveals how much more demanding and imposing male fans are with their fantasies. This sort of subjection might pay well, but isn’t that precisely what is most alarming about it? Why must such a clause even exist in a contract? Is a submissive and pubescent image of attractiveness really what the Japanese mainstream wishes to project?

Besides the obvious gender bias, the core of the problem is surely in the overly grandiose title of “idol” – a word used to describe representations of gods, and images of perfection, not only élite brands of darling celebrities. AKB48’s particular brand of “idol” is grossly demanding. Its members have to attend handshaking events with enamoured fans, disclose body measurements, blood type, tastes and habits, as well as take vows of chastity.

It is one of the most unpalatable yet cunning social phenomena in Japan. It allows fans to entertain their fantasies as truths, and primes them ready for willing expulsions of cash. The commercial machine knows all too well how much people want to believe that imperfectly evolved primates can achieve perfection.

And a most tyrannical delusion it is too.

The Meaning of the Melody – Just a song?

Click here for the article in Tokyo Weekender

…or paternalistic?

Everyday on the strike of 5 o’clock (in my area) an entrancing melody is played from loudspeakers that look like they were installed for propaganda purposes or doomsday warnings. The melody is majestic. It rings out during the warm tinge of dusk, its soothing notes wafting through the air like the scent of some distant doughnut van. It’s the perfect interval for Tokyo’s infamous hustle – a daily sedative in musical form.

It would be agreeable to leave it at that – to put it down as just a song – but when considering the absence of such a phenomenon in my own country, and in most other countries I feel compelled to query its purpose. According to the Minato ward website, it’s played in order to test the loudspeakers for when a disaster strikes, so the sirens don’t let you down just when you need them. But this isn’t commonly known. In fact, the widely held belief is that it’s played in order to tell children that sunlight is fading and that it’s time to go home.

It seems sensible enough. You could postulate a number of reasons for why the evening would not be a fit place for children. For one thing, decreased visibility and scampering children don’t mix well together. As an urban cyclist, I could vouch for that. But also, the onset of the evening usually brings with it the debauched sighs of tired-out salary men, whom having spent the day in the shackles of their companies might prefer instead to enjoy their evenings without the knowledge that there are impressionable and corruptible children wandering around. The melody therefore acts as a warning to all, including the children themselves.

Then to the question at hand, why is it the case that my countrymen don’t feel the need to issue such a warning? Do the British just care less about the whereabouts of their children in the evenings? Or could it be that their children are more independent and self-reliant? The evenings in London could certainly stand to have a few less kids on the streets, I’d say in my grumpy old-man voice. At risk of stereotyping, the likely reason that no such warning exists in my country is because of “nanny state” fear – parents would probably resent the loudspeakers for their suggestive and disapproving tone. It places the sort of general expectations on parents that make that smug accusation – “well…the loudspeakers told you so” always possible should any child run into any harm in the night.

Women-only train cars in Japan work on the same misguided principle of blame. If you’re a woman molested while riding a standard car at 8am, then the blame is implicitly placed on you. You should’ve gone to your designated women-only car, is the suggestion. Likewise, if you’re the parent of a mugged child, you should’ve known to call your child home earlier.

Of course, this is not to place a mild melodic warning on a par with the oppressive paternalism of gender segregated train cars. The latter is an utterly contemptible misunderstanding of gender equality. But both are different expressions of the same wider paternal tendency in Japan, for better or for worse. It’s the same tendency that dispatches teams of old men to stand in front of minor construction work on streets where nobody goes, waving batons around like children swatting flies. These chaps are, depending on your view, either terribly sweet and devoted, or pitifully redundant.

If it at least means the elderly are cared for, or if it means I’m well supplied with wet napkins and plastic utensils when I buy my bento, I could probably support such a paternalism (And, I’m sure there is some connection between this tendency and my wallet being handed into the police!). However, there should be a very thick line drawn between this sort of paternalism – the one that looks out for me, and the other sort of paternalism – the one that watches over me, that claims to know what’s best for me, and that demands I listen. In other words, a charming but suggestive twilight melody is about my upper limit.


What Are You Looking At, Chump? – Intra-gaijin relations.

Click here for the article in Metropolis

“What are you looking at, chump?” is not something I’ve ever said, but something I’ve inadvertently conveyed on occasions when on the end of some unwarranted scowling. In recent memory, I’ve only had to call upon the look when confronted by menacing troublemakers on the train, and in the tax office, when a foreigner could apparently do nothing else but gawk at me for the whole time we were waiting. Sure, we were the only foreigners there, and I probably stood out a little, but there is a line, and he had crossed it. Then I started to ponder: Is there actually a “line?” What is the social etiquette amongst foreigners?

If I know the Japanese expat community at all, everyone will have their own burning views on this. I’m envisaging visceral retorts from the nihilistic breeding ground of internet trolling known as Gaijinpot. If you’ve had occasion to visit the site’s forums you’ll have had backroom access into the world of intra-gaijin squabbling, where all manner of dick measuring goes on. “I’ve been in Japan longer than you. You don’t know squat,” is the kind of thing we’re talking about. I suppose it’s to be expected when people feel able to unleash their innermost rage from behind the safety of their computer screen. In fact, far from decrying Gaijinpot (a salient source of info on practical matters), by broadcasting the gripes of foreigners, the forums are actually illuminating. They reveal a competitiveness and egotism among foreigners. In a country with a foreign population of 1.2 percent, you couldn’t blame a foreigner for feeling as though he/she is privy to arcane cultural knowledge on Japan. Living here is the closest many people get to feeling like a celebrity. It just has the unfortunate side effect of making some foreigners rather inhospitable to others—particularly online.

In real life, such competitiveness means that even a passing nod or a smile can cross the line. The more competitive you are, the more likely you are to recoil at the prospect of interaction with a foreign stranger. One simply cannot give the impression of being anything other than resolutely indifferent to the sight of another foreigner, no matter how predisposed one might be to size them up.

Of course, most of us are not nearly as intractable as this. Take for instance those who accept the futility of attempting assimilation and play up to their gaijin status by acting outside the rules and expectations of Japanese society. In the right mood, these guys will cast off the façade and offer a passing nod or a smile, but might feel a tug of guilt for doing so, since acknowledging a stranger on the grounds they are a foreigner suddenly feels rather cliquish. The result of which is a comical display of terribly awkward facial twitching.

This manner of fidgeting occurs not so much on the expat-filled streets of Roppongi or Shibuya/Harajuku, but crops up at moments when one least expects to encounter another foreigner—in a conbini, in an elevator, etc. Nonetheless, foreigners like observing other foreigners. To chance upon a foreigner who has mastered the language, or likewise, one who looks lost, affirms one’s own performance in Japanese society. It’s no terrible thing to identify with those in similar circumstances as your own.

For me, a chance meeting is reminiscent of hikes in the English—or Japanese for that matter—countryside, where encounters with passing strangers are few and far between. The only thing people have in common is being in the same place at the same time, yet most are keen to shoot off a smile, or a “Hello/konnichiwa.” Indeed, it is even customary. Needless to say, the megalopolis is remarkably different. A face-full of sweaty armpits on a sardine-packed train or a lung-full of exhaust on a gridlocked street is enough to squeeze the cordiality out of anyone. But, even so, the sight of a foreigner wandering around and enjoying Tokyo’s enigmatic concrete jungle compels me to tip the hat to them in much the same way as I would to nature-goers during a country ramble.

I won’t stare a hole through your face, but I have no scruples about a gentle nod when our eyes meet. Just as I’d offer a pleasantry to any Japanese passerby who maintained eye contact—so long as it wasn’t that “get out of my country, you dirty foreigner” sort of eye contact. My courteousness stops at nobody except the trolls.

The Blue Man Group

If you haven’t yet noticed neon-blue scalps and piercing white eyes staring at you from the surrounding billboards and train advertisements then you might not be aware of the oddball outfit known as The Blue Man Group. The Blue Man Group has come a long way since their humble beginnings in the tiny salons and […]