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 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. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

For the Record: Is Japan Hi-Tech? (Part 2)

Good evening, Internet! If it's not evening where you are, kindly close your browser and come back later.

Paul was a gentleman and allowed me to choose which side each of us would be supporting, which was great for me because I was then able to choose the correct side. Japan is indeed high tech. Would a low tech country have Gundam robots to protect book stores?

Reading is fundamental. Also compulsory.
No, they wouldn't.

I might as well try to counter some of what Paul said specifically though.

1. Plumbing
Clearly Paul got the short end of the quarter inch copper tubing when it came to plumbing in his old apartment, but that's just life. It's a roll of the dice and sometimes you end up with an electrocution prone jury-rigged laundry water pump for a shower. You're going to blame a nation for that?
Let me introduce you to my shower. Or at least, its control panel:

It can do a couple of neat things. Let's look at those four square buttons at the bottom. From left to right we have dry, cool air, warm air, and ventilation. Yes, I have a built in air conditioner and heater in my shower. And of course you can set a timer for each one of those, because why not? It also has a low power ventilator that runs 24 hours a day. I don't know what kind of wizard magic is in this thing, but I have never had to put so little effort into keeping my shower mildew free. I mentioned this to my wife once and she said "that's because I clean it" but I still think it's mostly wizard magic.
I haven't even told you about my bath! If for some reason you spend a really long time in there and the water gets cold, no problem! Just push the button and the water gets hot again. It doesn't add new hot water, mind you, it just makes the water hot again. But don't touch the little port where the heat comes out of because according to the instructions, and my Japanese isn't perfect so I could be misreading this but, you will catch fire underwater.

What else can I say about Japanese plumbing? Well, I would be remiss to not make good on Paul's foreshadowing that I would talk about their amazing future toilets. I'll make this brief, because everyone has already heard all about these things. "Oh those weird Japanese with their weird toilets that shoot water weirdly," people laugh as they grab their toilet paper. NO! You people are weird! Toilet paper is just paper and paper is dead trees. What are we, a people of hobos living in the woods? This isn't about Japan being high tech here, this is the rest of the world sitting on devices no more sophisticated than what a pre-Renaissance serf would sit on on his little serf farm in the year of our Lord 1352. Yeah, the plumbing has improved, but the device itself is still the humble seat it has always been. Cold in winter and incapable of giving massages.

Massage is the green button. I haven't pushed it yet. I am Willy Wonka and this is my Wonkavator.
Moving on.

2. Fax
If it ain't broke, don't fix it. There's a pun in there that I just barely dodged. Phew! Anyway yeah, still using the fax is a little weird. But it's not like they don't have email. They do! In fact, their mobile phones since forever ago have all used email instead of text messages. You can do some fancy stuff without being stuck with text messaging limitations. Like Emoji!

Yeah, I know American phones have emoji now, but they're from Japan! Every time I'm in the states, and go to text with my trusty American Verizon phone, I feel like I'm sending a telegram back in 19-dickety-3. "HI JIM. STOP. WANT 2 MEET UP? STOP. K, CU THEN. STOP." The last stop was sincere because I only have 160 characters to work with in this wasteland. Might as well fax.

3. Media Formats

I yield to Paul on this one. I rented DVDs at my local video rental shop today. Yes, video rental shops still exist here. And they're popular.

4. NFC Cards
I'm going to diverge from Paul now and talk about the easy to use NFC cards. NFC stands for Near Field Communication and it's used in Japanese mobile phones and train cards. It basically just allows you to transfer information by touching your phone or card to a receiver. I don't have a phone that can do that, but I do have a Pasmo card which is one of what feels like 100 different varieties of similar cards in Japan. They started simply as train passes. You put cash on the card at the station, and you can beep your way through the ticket gate so you don't have to actually buy a ticket. A great time saver of course, but how could it be better? If you can use the cards to buy anything! And now you can, for the most part. 
Pasmo: takes you anywhere you want to be
When I first arrived in Japan in 2008 the cards were pretty limited. I could use my Icoca card (another variety) only around Osaka. I couldn't use it in Tokyo, or down south in Hakata or wherever. You can now though! All the cards are on the same system now (or something, I don't know how it works) so you can use one card anywhere in Japan. Also, there are tons and tons of stores outside of train stations that you can use them in too. Convenience stores and vending machines are a given, but these cards can be used in supermarkets, and plenty of other crazy places. In fact you can even use them to buy games on your Wii U! Which I guess would be convenient if anyone owned a Wii U.

5. Internet Speed
Google has done an excellent job of bringing gigabit internet to the American masses. According to Google, their Google Fiber is "100 times faster" than their competitor's broadband internet solutions. As they roll it out in different cities in the US, people are getting a glimpse of the speed of the future. Or present day Japan. Well, half the speed of present day Japan. And Google Fiber is about $20 more expensive. Though, admittedly Japan doesn't have the fastest internet in the world. That honor belongs to Hong Kong, followed by South Korea, with Japan next in line. America is unluckily thirteenth. 
Japan is also pushing to have the world's fastest wifi blanketing the country before the 2020 Olympic games in Tokyo. The goal is download speeds of 100 gigabytes a second, which is fast enough to download the HD version of the Back to the Future trilogy, or the HD version of the Godfather trilogy, or the HD version of the Lord of the Rings trilogy (minus one or two of the endings) in one second. That's faster than using a Bluray as a Frisbee!

Japan is clearly a high tech country, though admittedly sometimes that's difficult to see. Maybe the best way to sum up Japan and technology is that they like their technology like they like their coffee: fast, conveniently everywhere, and slightly weird when viewed by the outside world.

Monday, August 18, 2014

That's some good value for cost

A friend of mine recently posted this on Facebook. Apparently he was strolling through the produce section of a supermarket and was quite surprised to see these guys hanging out. Only 150 yen, though - not bad!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

For the Record: Is Japan Hi-Tech? (Part 1)

It's been a while since Joe and I riffed together about Japan, and I know that I for one have missed his wit around here. Thusly, I've invited him to join m, once again providing the counterpoint for a topic we've both thought and talked a lot about: the dichotomous nature of technology in Japan. Just as a disclaimer, we both recognize that neither "side" is right, and neither of us feel vehemently one way or the other. But rather than lay out overly cautious and qualified articles about the delicate balance of tradition and technology, we present our second installment of For the Record.

So, is Japan the super hi-tech country that popular media make it out to be? The answer is both "yes" and "no;" but moreso "no."

"Whoa whoa whoa," I can almost hear you protesting. "We're talking about Japan, right? The land of dancing robots and holographic pop stars. And I'm pretty sure they are to thank for giant mechs. What are you talking about, Paul?"

Yes, dear reader, you're right. They should be credited those things. And I know that Japan revolutionized the digital pet industry, as well. But that's just part of the picture. There are some things you just don't learn about Japan through mainstream sources, and many of them, while perhaps charming or existent for good reason, run counter to the popular narrative of Japan as the mecca of technology (I was tempted to write "mecca of techa, but I knew that would be kind of lame). Here are just a few of them:

1. Plumbing

Did I ever tell you about the old apartment I lived in during my stint as an ALT in Itami? My impression is that it was built in the 50's and then basically just left alone, aside from being wired for internet (I'll grant Japan that - its broadband penetration rate is legit). Sure, I had an air conditioner/heater, there is that. But the water situation...

Here. I can't be bothered to look for a picture of my old kitchen sink, but this photo is almost identical. Thank you, internet!

You have your faucet, which offers water of one temperature - ground water temperature. Then you have your grimey gas heater for when you want hot water. I don't know much about pipes or gas, but isn't there a simpler way to get hot water? I've never seen a modern home in the US equipped with water-heater-boxes.

Similarly my shower (whoops, I mean "bath," as I had no proper shower) operated only in cold mode. If I wanted to heat it, I had to fill my tub and then light an adjacent gas-fueled heater. Yes, just like how you'd heat water on your stovetop if you wanted to make tea or scald an interloper, this was part of my daily bathing ritual. And because I didn't have any integrated shower head/nozzle, whoever lived there before me had jury-rigged a laundry water pump and attached it to a hose and shower head. I eventually had to replace that pump and discovered that such devices are not intended for bathing. Electrocution was a very real concern at times. All because my old apartment, located about 20 minutes by train from Osaka, did not include modern plumbing.

Then there are the toilets. I'm sure Joe will extol the virtues of the hi-tech Japanese toilet, and I'll grant that they are pretty friggin' awesome. When you can find them. On some occasions your only option will be the exact opposite of that, which is a hole in the ground. My friend Shadow wrote a pretty good piece about this some time ago. Now I've read that the, ahem...posture required for using these things is superior to sitting down. I also had some cheeky student tell me that using these toilets promotes strong knees. Phff.

"Behold the wonders of the Japanese toilet!" - Shadow, probably.

2. Fax

Question for any of you who work or have worked in an office: how often do you use your fax machine? Right. Now tell that to Japan. For all their fancy broadband, some Japanese organizations are awfully slow to realize that scanners and email are things.

3. Media Formats

When I was in Japan, I saw a lot of VHS and mini discs.. My TV had an integrated VHS. Granted, this was a few years ago; maybe by now Japan has advanced to the DVD/DIVX format war. I guess I might be looking at a proverbial mote in this case, considering we have our own hipster-shaped planks trying to resurrect vinyl records. But then again we don't purport to be the society of tomorrow!

4. TV Props

Have you ever watched Japanese talk or variety shows? One thing I've noticed is that instead of using blue screens and super cool graphics, a lot of J-programs use all kinds of arts-and-craftsy looking cutouts and dioramas. They're often attention-grabbing or cute, and they give the people on screen something to hold or do. But I can't help thinking that some poor guy behind the scenes probably spent like an hour creating that elaborate cue card that's only going to be shown for 5 seconds. And then what do they do with it? Same thing they do with the billions of disposable wooden chopsticks they go through, I guess.

Feed them to Matsuko Deluxe (not pictured).
5. Chopsticks

Now don't get me wrong - I love a good pair of chopsticks. And I know this is not just a Japan thing. But hi-tech they are not. I think Jerry Seinfeld said it nicely.

I could go on, but I think it's pretty clear: Japan may have some tricks up its sleeve, but it's just not the hi-tech paradise it's made out to be.

Edited 8/14/2014: I had incorrectly called Matsuko Deluxe "Mariko Deluxe." Whoops.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

和製英語: Black Companies (and Sukiya)

According to (that's 弁護士, "lawyer".com), a reporter recently asked the president of Zensho Holdings, the company that owns popular gyudon chain Sukiya, what he thought of critics labeling it a "black company."


The TV Tokyo reporter essentially asked "Are you just thinking that nothing can really be done about it being called a black company?"

First off, what is a ブラック企業 (or ブラック会社)? It doesn't sound good, does it? For words like this, I often like to do a Wikipedia search and see if there's a link to an English article, which will often provide a direct translation or at least some insight into the term. Literally translated as "black companies," these are workplaces that subject their workers to socially unacceptable conditions. Wikipedia's English page brings us to: "Sweatshop."

In case you're curious, the president basically responded that black and white are subjective determinations. Of course the company may have its problems to be addressed, but he thinks the term "black company" is being unfairly applied, and so do the companies' employees. And he gosh darnit wishes people would quit applying that label. The company cannot effectively defend itself, as detractors will simply disregard its protests, so he asks for everyone's understanding.