Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Curry udon and green tea

When you return home after living abroad, there are things that you miss right away. Then there are the things that you may not realize that you miss; the sentiment has to sink in, like silt eventually forming little salty, tear-flavored deposits of emotional residue after journeying long enough through your veins. Where this residue ultimately comes to rest I have not yet worked out in the metaphor.

One thing I've been especially missing recently (only two or three years after leaving Japan) is an udon fast food chain that's quite widespread in Kansai (or at least Hyogo) - Nakau (なか卯) - a venue I've chronicled about before.

I'm jonesing for two items in particular - cheap curry udon, which if memory serves you can get for about 500 yen, or ~$5, and the complimentary cold green tea that would come with it. Try getting free green tea around here. Heck, try getting unsweetened cold green tea around here.

Thank you, Wikimedia Commons, for the eerily specific image of curry udon and green tea at Nakau.

There's also the matter of the song. Lots of stores have catchy little jingles that play at regular intervals inside so that customers will never forget. Yodobashi Camera has a good one. Nakau likewise has one that will be forever seared into my mind. And every time I think of curry udon, it plays.

いいね indeed, sir.

Tis even worthy of idolsong.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Kinda 和製英語:Freeter

During a recent playthrough of Pocket Academy I noticed some things. Things that hadn't latched on the first time around. That is the general purpose of subsequent playthroughs, so huzzah. One particular word leapt out at me. "Spectacular! Another 和製英語 for the scrolls," thought I. But it was a little more complicated than that.

There is an ever-expanding trove of katakana words attached to the Japanese language. Many are obvious enough.  I imagine that「ハンバーガー」has befuddled relatively few who have toiled to learn the runes. But then there are others; they are words which, for we natives of the English tongue at least, straddle the boundaries of "Whathewhat?" and "This...could be of English origin...?" They often claim cloudy or error-laden origins. There are so many English-derived katakana words, you see, that specimens of other inspiration can be somewhat distressing

And so it was with 「フリーター」. At first I thought it was clearly 和製英語. I know enough English to know that "free" is definitely a word we use. A quick dictionary look-up revealed that a フリーター is someone who is a permanent part-time worker. I suppose they drift from part-time job to part-time job. But how does "free" relate to this? There must be something else at work here. 

I condemned this digital child to a life of retail vagrancy, for you.

As much as I love the new age of Google search, a part of me still appreciates the simplicity of my good old electronic dictionary. So that was where I first turned for answers.

"Does this qualify as 'old school' yet?" I pondered.

Ah-ha! So it's ドイツ語 (German), then. Well played, Japanese. But hold on moment - the entry says 和製 free + Arbeiter ドイツ)の略. So it's 'Japanese' use of "free" + some German (that is the origin of アルバイト, by the way - another troubling katakana denizen). 

So it's....Engerman? And so we do ultimately turn to Google for help.

Wikipedia has the story. It's a bit of a read, so we'll just skip to the bottom line of what we're interested in:


英語のフリー free(「時間の自由な」という意味の略)
ドイツ語で労働を意味し、日本語では非正規雇用を意味するアルバイト Arbeit
「~する人」という意味の英語 er、または同じ意味のドイツ語 er


1. English's "free" + 
2. German's "arbeit" + 
3. Engish's "er" (someone who does something) 

= フリー・アルバイター. Then we shorten, which almost completely removes the German part but leaves a sewn together incomprehensible English result. フリーター. Freeter. That's 和製英語-y enough for me.


Thursday, October 16, 2014

Japan's right to be forgotten

I am still trying to come up with a good answer for when people ask me about my job. More often than not, eyes start to glaze over before I even finish saying "I work for a Japanese telecom policy research organization." Nevermind explaining what that entails.

So it does my heart good when I get to write about topics that come up at my job, which doesn't happen exceedingly frequently. Typically we monitor telecommunications policy and industry trends that are developing in the US. Sometimes it will involve the US government or private sector interacting with other countries or regions, but that research part of my job usually doesn't relate to Japan. So it gets no JADJ space.

I was thus pleasantly surprised the other day to see the Hill headline "'Right to be forgotten' spreads to Japan."

What is the right to be forgotten?

In recent years, the Internet has ushered in a number of fresh social issues and given new life some old ones. The 'right to be forgotten' is the concept that an individual has the right to control (to an extent) information about oneself in order to protect one's name and reputation. The specifics of this 'right' are still being debated, and I find it to be a somewhat nebulous concept. But it is essentially tied to the right to privacy, I suppose.

This right to be forgotten (I'm going to quit using apostrophes here because I think by now you can tell that it's not a firmly established "right") finds its roots in old French law, which recognizes le droit à l’oubli, which is "the right of oblivion." It essentially allowed convicted and rehabilitated criminals the ability to protest the publication of facts about the crimes for which they served time, or the fact that they were even sent to prison. Its aim was to allow them a fresh start.

So it is that Europe has been the first to embrace the right to be forgotten, which has been extended to apply to the Internet. In May, a man in Spain sued to remove a link to a newspaper article from 1998 that reported on his foreclosed home. Long-story-short, the complaint ultimately found Google as its target. The Spanish court and the European Court of Justice ruled that Google must comply with EU data privacy laws and allow for the removal of such links. Under the right to be forgotten.

The ruling was vague, and legal authorities and regulatory bodies within Europe are still working to come up with guidelines for Google and other search engines to follow. Google has thus far received almost 150,000 of these requests, not all of which must be acted upon.


Publishers like BBC, the Guardian, and Wikipedia have been printing lists of links to their articles that have been removed by Google. Some critics say that this violates the spirit of the EU's ruling - that Google should not be informing publishers when links to their content are expunged.

The arguments against the right to be forgotten are twofold.

1. It clashes with the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press. In the US in particular these are very important, and are protected by our 1st Amendment. Of course each country is free to weigh and balance its own freedoms, but on an international level, with a global Internet this is a challenge. Currently the links that Google removes are only gone from European versions of Google. Forcing search engines to apply a controversial local ruling to a global service, however, could be a tricky proposition.

2. If a right to be forgotten were to preempt freedoms of speech and press, to what end? Can one force the removal of links that provide legitimately useful information but may be inconvenient for the individual? What about politicians seeking the removal of embarrassing stories? Right now Google is deciding which requests to comply with, but ultimately who should get to decide? A private company or regulating body? A government entity? This is all yet to be worked out.


That brings us to Japan. According to Kyodo News (via Japan Times):

The Tokyo District Court on Thursday issued an injunction ordering Google Inc. to remove some Internet search results revealing the name of a man who claims his privacy rights have been infringed upon due to articles hinting he may have been involved in a crime in the past, according to a document obtained by Kyodo News.

Nothing I've read thus far indicates exactly how this man's rights have been infringed upon, though the Kyodo articles notes that the judge said the man had suffered "actual harm." I suppose this is akin to defamation, then.  This isn't the first case of Japanese citizens suing search engines to have results removed (or search algorithms modified), but it does seem to be the first case of this right to be forgotten being extended by a Japanese court.

Extra Reading

If you're interested in a little bit of related Japanese language study, here's a July article from the Japanese version of Newsweek about the right to be forgotten (忘れられる権利).

Friday, October 10, 2014

Japanese in League of Legends

League of Legends is a hugely successful MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) and currently the most played online game in the world. I've been at it since I was in Japan, so perhaps about 4 years now. For some people it's serious business, and it has been one of the driving platforms for Esports in recent years. As with games like Starcraft, there are professional teams out there, especially in Korea - that is, people whose literal job it is to train at League of Legends and then compete in tournaments. These individuals play on teams that have some high-profile sponsors like Samsung.

Personally I'm not that great. Increasingly I like to read about what's going on in the pro scene, but I hadn't even really participated in ranked mode (akin to ladder matches in other games) until this year. I did a fair amount of duo queue with a friend of mine this season, but we just didn't seem able to break out of the Silver league. If we could perhaps scrape together a team to fill all 5 positions we might get further. Anecdotally, playing by oneself (solo queue) or with a full team (team queue) seems to be easier than duo. Perhaps that's not it; perhaps we're just not good enough to get out of Silver. Regardless, there's something for players of all skill levels to enjoy.

LoL also boasts over 100 different "champions," unique characters with their own abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. There are some cool affiliates and links between characters - factions, "types," etc. For example there are pirates, ninjas, and yordles (a race of short and sometimes furry humanoids). I've noticed there are also a few characters with Japanese names. Here they are:

Akali - Akali is one of the ninja characters. 明かり (Akari) is Japanese for "light" or "brightness." This may seem odd, as she is seemingly a character of darkness. Two of her abilities are Twilight Shroud, a smoke cloud which grants her invisibility, and Shadow Dance. Her name and nature fit, however. In the game's lore, Akali is a member of the Kinkou Order. In Japanese, 均衡 (Kinkou) means "balance" or "equilibrium." Thus Akali represents both darkness and light.

Kennen - This one I am a little unsure of. Kennen is another ninja (also a yordle) and is a member of the Kinkou Order with Akali. League reference sites I have read note that Kennen means "to be familiar with" in German and Dutch. However 懸念 (Kenen) means "worry" or "fear" in Japanese. And Kennen is a ninja, so I think his name could be of Japanese inspiration. 

Nami - Nami, the Tidecaller, is one of League's water denizens. Inspired by the mermaid, she possesses the lower body of a fish, and her abilities are water-based. 波 (Nami) means"wave" in Japanese. You may recognize it as a component of 津波 (tsunami).

Soraka - One of League's healer characters, Soraka's lore states that she was once a celestial being who sacrificed her immortality to enter the world of mortals. That being the case, I suppose it makes sense that the first part of her name, Sora, means "sky" in Japanese. The character for "sky" (sora) is 空.

Yasuo - The quintessential samurai character, Yasuo is a master of the sword and the wind. He searches for the one who killed his master and framed him for it. Yasuo is a Japanese given name, with many different possible kanji expressions. According to League of Legends Wiki, his kani are 康夫. 「康」typically means "health" but can also indicate "peace." 「夫」means "husband" or "man." So perhaps they were going for "peaceful man."

There are a lot of reasons why I have enjoyed League of Legends so much - the solid gameplay, constant updates, amazing focus on the player community, the fact that it's free! Little tidbits of culture-influenced lore and nods to Japan are frosting.

Images Source: League of Legends

Poor Gladiator and apps with J-support

What a productive day - first a blog makeover and now a new post! The Muse visited briefly after I read about a neat little mobile game this afternoon. It's called Poor Gladiator, and it's kind of a sim/tycoon/roguelike? There's a pretty good review of it over at TouchArcade, but it basically boils down to partially controlling a little gladiator who must kill to earn money and dig his way out of debt. That debt grows every 30 seconds, and if he can't make a payment it's the end of the line. You have to decide how to spend his earnings - either leveling up stats or putting money towards his ever-increasing debt. Damn you, compound interest. You can also adjust the number and difficulty of his foes. More slaying = more money, as so often tends to be the case.

Charisma is an integral skill for any bout.
Anyway, I downloaded it during my lunch break and gave it a little spin. Much to my surprise, the intro splash screen was followed up by little story, which greeted me in Japanese!

Translation: "Blah blah blah - you're in debt so kill stuff for money." The story, it is deep.

Ha, even Japanese ads! It still surprises me, how many apps will magically 'turn Japanese' when you switch your phone's language settings. While this may not actually be "study" per se, I maintain that it's a great way to keep your language skills sharp. If you're lucky you may even pick up a few words when you're not rapidfire tapping through text. 

Oh, and surprising passengers with Japanese turn-by-turn guidance a'la Siri or Google Maps is always amusing.


Image Source: Touch Arcade

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Rather Be

Lately for whatever reason I've been feeling especially nostalgic for Japan; perhaps it's the redoubled language study. I've also noticed a resurgence of "Rather Be" on the local radio stations. I remember seeing the music video for this Clean Bandit song around the time it came out and thinking it was pretty cool despite not really loving the song itself. Now the music is growing on me, though - really digging those violins and synth.

Anyway, although this has been around for a while, I just wanted to share the song's music video for anyone who wasn't aware of it's Japanese setting.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Axolotl: Not a Final Fantasy Summons

Ever hear of an axolotl? Honestly I hadn't, and the first thing I pictured was a JRPG monster/summon/weapon.

So quick backstory: this year I've been participating in a program called Kizuna Across Cultures (KAC), which runs an online cultural exchange between pairs of schools in the US and Japan. Using a Facebook-like academic website, KAC volunteers coordinate and act as facilitators of sorts between the schools. I've been volunteering as a "Senpai" (先輩), who are bilingual mentors whose job is to encourage conversation among the students and provide some guidance and support. Not only is it great to stay connected to (language) education post-JET and watch the students learning from one another, but it's also giving me the opportunity to learn some new things.

We've just been wrapping up the students' self introductions, and one Japanese girl shared some information and photo of her pet with us.

This creature, which in JRPG terms would probably be a low level chump you encounter around the same time as green slimes, is called an axolotl. In Japanese, it's commonly called 「ウーパールーパ」, which sounds a little too much like "Oompa loompa" for my liking.

I find it interesting that I had never heard of these things, even though they come from our neighbor, Mexico, but apparently they're a thing in Japan. Is it just me, perhaps, who is woefully ignorant of the Mexican fauna? At any rate I got a nice kick out of this little interaction.

Edit: Good find, Gobbler! Here's the Pokemon that the girl at the bottom of the above post must be referring to:

Wooper (ウーパ), source bulbapedia

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

"Use first, pay later" and the unmanned conbini

A couple weeks ago I was watching TV Japan and caught part of an NHK story about a modern take on an old Japanese business model that's been catching on lately at some companies.

Inspired by the idea of okigusuri (置き薬), which is an old Japanese method of selling medicine, confectionery companies have begun marketing a new service targeting businesses. Okigusuri entails leaving a box of medicine and medical supplies with a family at no charge, hence the practice's name - 置き薬 literally meaning something like "left medicine." At set intervals, a company representative comes by to check the boxes, replacing anything expired at no cost and charging the household for anything that has been used. This business model is called senyokori (先用後利), meaning "use first, pay later." There's a much more detailed explanation at the Japan Times.

Recently some businesses have begun hiring confectionery companies, local farms, and other distributors to stock snacks and cheap meal items for employees. Rather than 置き薬 ("left medicine"), these are called 置き○○ ("left" fill in the blank). For example 置き菓子 ("left snacks"), or more generally 置きビジネス ("leaving business"?).

This doesn't seem to normally be a free service - customers are expected to leave money in a little box (it's difficult to see below, but those frog heads "eat" the payment). But it looks like these refreshments are usually reasonably priced (one IT company in the segment only stocks items that  cost 100 yen each - about $1), and it saves employees from having to leave the office to grab something to eat. Personally I like to get out and stretch my legs every now and then, but if you're trucking through something important and can't spare the time but need your sugar fix, this sounds like a nifty solution.

Source: NHK 
My first thought was to wonder about customer honesty. The Japanese are stereotypically more honest about such things than Americans, at least, but surely some people would cheat the system if unmanned conbinis were set up without security measures. The interviewer actually talked about this, saying that it seems theft isn't an issue because there are always coworkers and superiors around, so I guess no one wants to get caught stealing a dollar candy bar.

This is definitely an interesting marketing strategy, and I imagine it's a lot cheaper than what a distributor would spend to set up a vending machine. Although free snacks would be a much better perk for employees, I could see this lifting morale and perhaps improving productivity within client companies.

Update: A friend of mine brought this article to my attention, which mentions that this service goes back to 2011, and that Glico started selling its ice cream this way in offices after the 2011 Tohoku disaster prompted the Japanese government to enact power conservation measures. Offices were hot, and ice cream is cold!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Piracy, Netflix, and the slow crawl of "Cool Japan"

The Washington Times this week reported on the entertainment industry's wringing of hands over recent data showing that Netflix's "Orange is the New Black" is the second most daily pirated TV show in the world right now after "Game of Thrones":

[...] [T]he fact that Netflix shows are also being voraciously downloaded illegally renews industry worries that there are no clear solutions to piracy. Entertainment industry executives had hoped Internet-based services such as Netflix, Hulu Plus and Amazon Prime would persuade those watching pirated videos online to begin paying or subscribing legally — much the way music lovers embraced iTunes, even if they had grown up illegally downloading files on Napster. But even Netflix, which at $8 to $9 per month for a streaming-only plan costs a fraction of a typical cable bill, may not be able to curb online theft.

Netflix has a different take, however. CEO Reed Hastings pointed out that piracy in Canada has declined since Netflix was introduced 4 years ago. The Post continues:

“I think people do want a great experience and they want access. People are mostly honest,” Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos said in an interview with Stuff.tv in May 2013. “The best way to combat piracy isn’t legislatively or criminally, but by giving good options.”

This reminded me of a recent Tofugu video, which reported on Tokyo's move this summer to crack down on manga and anime pirates. Essentially they're saying "Thanks for supporting our entertainment industry, but please stop!"

This is an issue I've discussed with friends before, and as Tofugu's Koichi asserts, it's somewhat gray. Now I'm not advocating for piracy here, but I do very much understand the impulse to seek out and illegally download that which is cannot be obtained by other means. Japan is sitting on a largely untapped goldmine.

For over a decade now, Tokyo has promoted a "Cool Japan" campaign to grow Japanese soft power and exploit the popularity of Japanese culture. Anime, manga, and video games are integral parts of "Cool Japan," yet the respective industries have been slow to adapt.

Outrage, indeed!

Why are there hardly any Japanese films and TV shows available on Netflix? Why are so many popular anime and manga titles unavailable in the US and other countries? Probably the same reason media are so expensive in Japan - the J-entertainment industry is very cautious about how it licenses its content and wants big profits. The fact that shows like Doraemon are now making their way over to the US is encouraging, but then again the blue robo-cat has been around for almost 50 years now. It's about time...

Japanese mobile app blog App Woman voices similar concerns pertaining to Japan's video game industry. "Where is Cool Japan Headed?" asks a recent article.

「COOL JAPAN」の象徴のひとつ、ゲーム。


According to a recent study by market research firm Kantar Japan, more Japanese people play games on mobile platforms than consoles now, 48.7% vs. 41.4%. The report shows that Japan has the lowest rate of mobile game play among the Asian countries studied. In other words, the mobile game market is booming! The article goes on to point out that Japan has no shortage of big name titles and series, including "Dragon Quest," "Mario," and "Pokemon."

And yet Bloomberg ran a piece just this past May in which Nintendo president Iwata basically said that they'll have to fire him before Nintendo starts selling games on mobile platforms.

To be fair, not all Japanese companies are clinging to the well-worn path. Softbank just last year dove head-first into the US mobile carrier market with its acquisition of Sprint, and also bought a majority share in Finnish company Supercell, the maker of the popular mobile game Clash of Clans. Square-Enix has also been steadily porting Final Fantasy and other titles to mobile. And let's not forget about my favorite Japanese mobile developer, Kairosoft, which has been localizing its sim titles for a while now.

There is no clear way to measure the success of  "Cool Japan," but I would argue that the sustained level of international anime and manga piracy is a good indicator that there is a big opportunity for Japanese entertainment companies, if only they would take advantage.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Soroban: The Math Machine

A Japanese friend of mine on Facebook recently made a post that would have been a pretty good bullet point for my and Joe's discussion of Japan's interesting and often seemingly dualistic relationship with technology.

Photo courtesy of Ryoji Maruyama.

A soroban, as you may guess from the photo, is a Japanese abacus. The kanji are 算盤, literally meaning "calculating tray." 

I've got to be honest - my first thought at seeing his post was something along the lines of "whaaaaaa?" You see, here in the U.S., abaci are pretty much relegated to the covers of math and science textbooks, where they might hang out with beakers and protractors and other instruments of that ilk. You might see an abacus in the toy store, because babies and young children love to play with little colorful beads and parents love that these ones are locked onto sticks and thus cannot be swallowed.

Mmmm, abacus.

I hope you'll forgive my incredulity; I am a product of my environment, and we Americans have little use for counting beads. Not when advanced digital devices are readily available, not only to solve all your mathematical needs but in some cases to play Snake or Mario with, as well. Somewhat bewildered, I decided to do some research. Ok, by "do some research" I mean read the relevant Wikipedia entries.

"How quick and difficult can this be?" I wondered. Apparently pretty damn. As you may have guessed from my friend's Facebook post, using a soroban is no mean feat. There are associated books and courses and certifications. I tried to read a webpage explaining how one multiplies and divides with a soroban, and came away with the simple conclusion that it is mystical Eastern sorcery. 

There's a story on the Wikipedia page about how in 1946 the soroban was pitted against an electronic calculator in a contest of speed and accuracy. Now this is a story an American should be able to appreciate, what with our tales of folk heroes like John Henry the Steel Driving Man. The soroban, manned by some guy, was able to beat the calculator 4 to 1.

Given how much calculators and computing have progressed since 1946, I find it difficult to believe the soroban would still triumph today. Still, I had no idea such a rudimentary calculating tool could be so fast in the right hands. And come the zombie/EMP/plague apocalypse, when electricity is no more, the soroban will be undisputed king.