Archive for March, 2010

Japanese Cell Phones: From Evolution to Extinction?

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010

Japanese cell phones, called “keitai” by the Japanese, are the savviest line-up of mobile cell-phones you’ll ever set your eyes upon. New models sport features such as a 12-megapixel camera, waterproof casing, GPS navigation, live video feed, e-Money capabilities, and more. While the world continues to embrace their “generation 3.0″ cell phones, the Japanese are texting away on their “generation 3.9″ counterparts.

This might make you want to travel to Japan, buy a cell phone, and use it back at home. What greater trophy can you obtain in Japan than one of these enigmatic technological marvels? You can dazzle your friends with your newfound buddy: the expatriated Japanese cell phone. You might even fancy giving it a Japanese name: like “Mr. Wasabi.”

Unfortunately, for those of you who just opened up a new internet tab to book the next flight to Japan, the abovementioned scenario is just not feasible. Japanese cell phones are compatible only in Japan.

For instance, if you were in Japan, you can use your phone as a train ticket. The “mobile Suica” service, developed by Sony, spares commuters from having to buy a ticket and allows them to use their phones instead, which greatly speeds up the flow of commuters (this helped alleviate congested public rail services, and, I suspect, also breathed new life into Sony, which has been in ailing health for quite some time now). However, the Suica service is provided only in Japan. A Japanese cell phone won’t be able to purchase train tickets for railways in anywhere else in the world.

It’s not just the “mobile Suica” service that’s incompatible abroad. The phone itself literally cannot be used anywhere else in the world (except, perhaps, as a paperweight). While the world uses 3G for cell phone coverage, Japan continues to use its unique W-CDMA and CDMA2000 standards. In other words, unlike other phones, you can’t just take out your SIM card from your old phone and swap it into your new one.

Looks like “Mr.Wasabi” won’t be going West for a while.

Many Japanese engineers, economists, and university professors liken this phenomenon to the animals living on the Galapagos Islands. For those rusty on Charles Darwin, the Galapagos Islands was where Darwin ironed out his theory of evolution in his iconic work The Origin of Species. Through natural selection, the animals of the Galapagos Island became more suited to their environment. The same can be said of Japanese cell phones. They are tailored to meet the needs of the home market, are synchronized with Japanese carrier standards, and are deviating farther and farther away from the global standard.

This would be less of a problem if the Japanese population wasn’t shrinking faster than you could jump ship from a ship taking water. With the inevitable downsizing in the number of domestic consumers, the Japanese cell phone industry will have to start setting its binoculars outside of the Japanese islands.

Some lawmakers have began contemplating mandatory “SIM-free” laws, which would be the first step towards making Japanese cell phones compatible with other carriers. In foreign countries, there are already laws in place which mandate cell phone companies to “unlock” their phones after a certain period of time.

After many years of “natural selection,” Japanese cell phones have become the most advanced in the world. With legal reform and some hardware tweaking, the phones can be sold aggressively abroad.

Otherwise, they’ll just continue to evolve… and become extinct.

//By Ryo TAKAHASHI

Lessons from Iwo Jima: Trilateral Relations Between Japan, China, and the US

Monday, March 29th, 2010

Mix together Clint Eastwood, Ken Watanabe, Ninomiya Kazunari, and add a touch of history to get the Academy Award-winning “Letters from Iwo Jima,” the companion-piece to “Flags of our Fathers.” A recent war-movie on the Pacific War, the two movies received worldwide acclaim for accurately depicting the gruesome realities of war.

65 years has elapsed since the Battle of Iwo Jima, which involved some 22,000 Japanese and 100,000 American combatants. Today, little is spoken of the event, and despite a brief blip from the two movies, the lessons of Iwo Jima have all but faded from the public mind.

Mr.James Bradley, the author of the book Flags of Our Fathers and the man who wrote the story which would later become the groundwork for the two movies, came to Japan and gave a lecture about how he was influenced to write the book.

To be honest, I was absolutely fascinated. Especially when he talked about how he went through over 200 books to research the historical facts behind the little-known battle.
But what I really wanted to know was what kind of lessons we can learn today from a battle where tens of thousands of Japanese and Americans had died.

When it came time to ask Mr.Bradley for questions, I raised my hand without hesitation and cut right down to the chase when my turn came and asked:

“Mr. Bradley, in your presentation you described Japan, China, and the United States, and it seems like today the economic relationships between these countries are warming, but politically, there’s still room to de-thaw. What do you think is the biggest impediment to the trilateral relationship between these countries, and how do you think this can be overcome?”

In a very humble way, Mr.Bradley first responded by saying that he’s a historian and his field of expertise is about events 100 years into the past. He was quick, however, to offer a very lucid response:

“Very recently I talked in front of 4th graders. I asked them, ‘tell me about a friend you haven’t met.’ They all looked stumped, but this is really what’s at the core of establishing relationships between countries. It’s much easier to go to war with someone you don’t know than someone you do know. If it was up to me, I’d kidnap half of the children in America and FedEx them across the world so we can have true, human relationships between countries.”

The audience laughed at the FedEx joke and cheered.
Bravo Mr.Bradley, Bravo.

Establishing peace between countries is really as simple as that. It’s all about getting to really know each other. Once you get to know your “enemy,” then you can realize that he sleeps just like you do, eats three meals just like you do, and even has a mom and dad just like you do.

We have so many more similarities than we do differences, and that’s what this world really needs to realize.

After all, we’re all human, and that should be reason enough for mutual understanding.

//By Ryo TAKAHASHI

Japan: From Egalitarianism to Plutocracy

Friday, March 26th, 2010

“ichiokusouchuuryuu(一億総中流)” or “100 million middle class [citizenry]” was the pride and glory of Japan following its mesmerizing growth which lasted a solid two decades from roughly 1955~1975. Over 87% of respondents during the late 1980′s identified themselves as middle class, and Japan became the first and remains the only country that achieved compatibility between high economic growth without exacerbating wage-differentials for an extended period of time.

As Harvard sociologist professor Ezra Vogel states in his book Japan as Number One, Japan’s “ichiokusouchuuryuu” was made possible by “the success in income distribution […] from a booming economy with full employment […] in national polls about ninety percent of the Japanese public consider themselves to be middle class.” (Vogel, 1979)

The key words that Vogel uses here are “success in income distribution” and “booming economy with full employment.” In other words, Japan’s export-driven GDP growth was climbing so rapidly that those in primary sectors (the agricultural sector) were siphoned into secondary (industrial) and tertiary (service) sectors in large numbers. With exports booming, demand for labor was consistently high, allowing what we now identify as characteristic of Japan’s management style: a seniority-based wage system, lifetime employment, company-based labor unions, and lavish corporate welfare/benefits.

These four proved critical in maintaining full employment and keeping wage-differentials down. I’ll examine each one in detail below:

A seniority-based wage system: Wages were initially low upon entering a company, but everyone’s wages rose in direct correlation to their years of service. Any differences in wage between coworkers on the same “wage rung” was purely a a sign from the company to the employee to get his act together.
Miniscule wage-differentials was made possible by a corporate mentality of a “family” or “clan.” For example, Mitsubishi employees were said to have characteristics of a “Mitsubishi person” and Matsushita employees were said to have characteristics of a “Matsushita person.” Corporate flags, banners, and slogans strengthened the unity between employees and their employers.

Lifetime employment: Played a critical role in maintaining full employment. Needless to say, lifetime employment was made possible by consistent growth, atypical of a “normal” economy. Japan was priviledged to benefit from its geopolitical location as the bastion of democracy in the Far East; if America didn’t consider Japan an ally, America would not have provided the necessary groundworks (i.e. continued demand for Japanese goods and services) for re-industrialization.

Company-based labor unions: The name itself is rather misleading; company-based labor unions are characterized by amicable relationships between employees and employers. This is why many identify Japanese corporations as socialist in nature. Without company-based labor unions, there would have been the possibility of industry-wide strikes, which would have choked Japan’s export-driven economy.

Lavish corporate welfare/benefits: Provided the means for an egalitarian society. The Japanese government was never a “big government” to begin with, and corporations provided the bulk of social welfare in the form of corporate housing and corporate health insurance.
The lack of government intervention can be measured by Gini coefficient terms-Japan is the second most egalitarian country of the OECD nations before government redistribution, but the third most unequal nation after the US and Great Britain after income distribution has taken place. (Miura, Karyuu Shakai, 2005)

Today, the landscape has changed. Japan’s economy has “normalized” and experiences peaks and troughs, making the abovementioned Japanese management style infeasible. We now see a more meritocratic wage-system, no guarantees of lifetime employment for part-time workers, a lack of interest in unions by employees, and a shrinking of corporate welfare/benefits.

Without heavy corporate intervention in the provision of a social safety net, Japan will continue to lose its egalitarian nature. Unlike the welfare nation-states of Nothern Europe, the Japanese government continues to provide very little to its citizens. This is a recipe for disaster: Japan’s social fabric is being worn away, which, in the long term, will cause the Japanese economy to tank.

Japan’s relative povery levels (relative poverty: those who earn less than 1/2 the average income of a particular country) has been steadily rising ever since there has been an increase in liquidity in the labor market.

The cause? An Increase in the number of part-time workers.

Part-time workers are hired contractually; they are given no guarantees of lifetime employment. They are also excluded from corporate welfare and earn about half as much as their full-time counterparts. As of 2009, part-time workers exceeded over 40% of Japan’s labor force.

This wouldn’t be problematic if the Japanese government took an active role in retraining part-time workers (most of whom have no specialized skills) and provided unemployment benefits. Without a “bigger government,” Japan’s social capital will continue to erode.

CitiBank recently wrote an article about how Japan was becoming a plutocracy, a system in which power is vested in those with the fattest wallets. The etymology of the word plutocracy can be traced to the Greek words ploutos for wealth, and kratia for power.

We are seeing the setting of Japan’s egalitarian sun, and the dawn of a society where the few with money are the few that rule.

//By Ryo TAKAHASHI

A Succinct, Scathing Critique of “Zangyou” and “Karoshi” From the Standpoint of Karl Marx

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

Capital, a 3 volume piece jointly published by the late Karl Marx and Friedrick Engels, has won notoriety for both its length and its application in communist states. An interesting thing to note is that Capital Volume 1 is posterior to the original and incomplete drafts of Volumes 2 and 3. The last two volumes were later edited, finalized, and published by Marx’s lifetime friend, Friedrick Engels. This makes Volume 1 the most “up-to-date” with the ideas of Marx in his later years.

It also provides a wonderful excuse for not reading Volumes 2 and 3.

Contrary to public misconception, Marx strove to analyze capitalism in an objective and strictly scientific way. This makes Capital a meaningful book to read, since the entire world has been brought to its heels by the Capitalist-world-order.

Of course, capitalism provides a plethora of commodities and encourages innovation. On the surface, it seems like our Quality of Life is rising.

But is it really? Are you truly happy? Do you enjoy being surrounded by things things things?

Let’s begin by thinking about the value of an object. The value of an object has long been contemplated by man’s greatest thinkers – including Aristotle. In Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that the value of an object lies relative to another object. For example, 1 house = 5 beds. However, he fails to see that the value of an object, atleast insofar as society is concerned, lies in the amount of expended human labor. The notion that the value of an object lies in labor was advanced by William Petty, who wrote “labor is the father of material wealth, the earth is its mother” in his work A Treatise of Taxes and Contributions.

Now we can see that any object that holds monetary worth does so because socially recognized human labor has been expended upon it. This, however, doesn’t explain how surplus value is created. In other words, why is corn flakes so much more expensive than a bushel of corn?

Marx enlightens us through his observation, “the formation of surplus value by surplus labor is no secret” Capital Vol. 1, p.352. Ahh, this makes sense, corn flakes is more expensive than a bushel of corn because surplus labor has been expended to create the surplus value.

Let me explain, in brief, what surplus labor and surplus value is. Say the amount of money to make a box of corn flakes costs the capitalist $2.00, but he can sell it on the market for $4.00. Well then, where is extra $2.00 coming from? According to vulgar economists, it is “magical” – the magic of capitalism!

A closer observation reveals that this isn’t magic at all- but the work of exploitation. After all, “nil posse creari de nihilo” (out of nothing, nothing can be created), De rerum Natura, Bk I, verses 156-157, Lucretius.

In summation: Profit is created through surplus labor, which is basically exploitation.

Now that we’ve covered Marx, let me say something downright baffling: Japanese salarymen love being exploited. They do. They absolutely, undeniably do.

The French wrote woefully in their Economic White Paper in 1981 that they can’t possibly compete against Japanese imports, because the Japanese are obsessed with working. The Japanese live in rabbit holes, do “zangyou” – work extra hours, and even die from “karoshi” – death from overwork. Holy smokes. That’s too much competition for a Frenchman – he wants to stay alive!

Little has changed since 1981. The interesting thing, though, is how long exploitation has been continuing.

Take, for instance, this newspaper headline: “Death from simple over-work”
When do you think this newspaper was published? 1970? 1960? You’re off by a century.

It was actually published in the London daily papers in June of 1863, which shocked Britons with the death of a certain Mary Anne Walkley, who worked on average 16.5 hours a day. She died from, as the Japanese call it, “karoshi.”

Ahh! So “karoshi” is death from overwork, and it has been around ever since the industrial revolution! We now see that overworking employees is a characteristic of capitalism.

The Japanese seem to find little wrong with “zangyou,” or putting in extra hours of unpaid concentration. They offer their unwavering loyalty and deference to their “kaisha” or corporation, and many literally work to death.

One cannot help but wonder why.

On the whole, looking at Japan through a historical lens, the Japanese idolize selfless / self-mutilating acts to advance the common good (think suicides during WWII.) In this particular case, Japanese salarymen (the foot-soldiers of the Japanese economy) risk their health to advance the interests of their companys’ corporate agenda.

Does he not realize that his health deteriorates? Does he not realize that the company is not what life should be all about in the first place? Does he not realize that he must also be a loving father and a loving husband?

I mean, here’s some stunning statistics. Of the OECD countries, men spend an average of 2 hours a day child-rearing. Japanese men spend an average of just 36 minutes a day looking after their children. Japanese women spend 8.6 times as much per day than their male counterparts in child-rearing. No wonder so many Japanese women hesitate getting married.

“Zangyou,” apart from the risk it harbors of leading to “karoshi,” also prevents the creating of a cultured man and a warm household.

Luckily, things are beginning to change. In Japan, being self-employed is finally taking hold as an alternative to working for a company. This is, as Marx envisioned, “an association of free men,” Capital, Vol. 1. An example of said association would be “sasaeai awayama,” a community-based association that provides jobs, goods and services for its community.

The number of those in an “association” has risen to 60,000 in Japan.
Let’s hope this brings a healthy alternative to toiling for a Japanese company.

//By Ryo TAKAHASHI

The Japanese media and its Orwellian nature

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

The year was 1948- and Mr.George Orwell had just finished writing his magnum opus, a distopian fiction novel depicting a society where Big Brother rules the people with an iron fist. Published in 1949 (this is why most people overlook the fact that “1984″ was really just a play on 1948- when the book was written), the book has since been a must-read in secondary education.

In “1984,” one of Big Brother’s primary objectives is to minimalize the vocabulary of the people. For instance, you wouldn’t need words like “great” or “excellent” if you could take a rather generic word “good” and simply change it to “doublegood” or “doubleplusgood.” In this manner, the ministry that oversees the shortening of the dictionary (and thus the peoples’ vocabulary), systematically and deliberately impedes the ability for people to express sophisticated ideas. This was instrumental towards achieving a more complete dictatorship, for what better to enslave the mind of man by stripping him of his mode of expression?

So, what does Big Brother in “1984″ and the Japanese media have in common? They are both the culprits in preventing people from attaining higher forms of verbal expression. Japanese television, apart from being unhealthily obsessed with the trivial, sensational, scandalous, and irrelevant, plays part in making certain words and phrases “stick” (using Malcolm Gladwell’s terminology here.)

This is no more evident in how overused the word “kawaii” is today amongst the younger generation of Japanese women. “Kawaii,” a word which means “cute,” is used to describe a dog, a man, an object, you name it. Well, that doesn’t seem very problematic, until one realizes that the ability of the word “kawaii” to describe, say, a dog and a man at the same time is evidence of mental laziness.

Let me clarify. Say a girl sees an adorable, heartwarming little poodle with round, curious eyes. This poodle is “kawaii.” Later on in the day, she sees in a fashion magazine a young, idolized Japanese male star with the whole feminine-unisex-guy thing going on. He too is “kawaii.”

Ahh. Now we see here that “kawaii” is an all-encompassing form of expression. If she likes it, it is “kawaii.” There is little incentive for young women to pick up, say, a classic Japanese novel and delve in its rich forms of expression because all of the people they look up to, who just-so-happen to be idols they see on TV, use the word “kawaii” so rampantly that if a device was created to pick up its use in Japan, it would have quite simply overheated.

Of course, not every woman is glued to the TV. In addition, watching TV is not morally untenable. But whatever happened to picking up a book? Whatever happened to going to a cafe and letting your mind explore the worlds created by the great writers that our society had birthed? Whatever happened to the freedom envisioned by Locke, where men would engage in public discourse and debate the common good?

Japan is, if it hasn’t already, descending into a state of mobocracy, a low-brow union of citizens concerned only with the trivial, sensational, scandalous, and irrelevant. These four that I’ve justed enumerated are all things that the Japanese media spew out and saturate Japan’s citizens with daily.

Looks like the agenda of that of  Big Brother and the Japanese media are the same in regards to peoples’ vocabulary:

truncate. truncate. truncate.

What room is left for a better polis, when the media, in all its notorious glory, has eroded any vestiges of a public sphere? How can there be an enriched public discourse when all you see on TV are one-hit-wonder comedians doing some 30-second skit, flailing their arms for a few extra months of prime-time viewing? How can the men and women of Japan be encouraged to open books, when the media encourages them to duplicate the immaculate looks of the people on TV who literally have their own hairdressers, nutritionists, and the works?

I find the Japanese media to be the one to blame for the impoverished public discourse in Japan. This, I believe, is morally reprehensible, for the media has a role to play as the organ that voices how sophisticated and cultured a nation is.

Et tu, Brutus?

//By Ryo TAKAHASHI

A Critique of Japan’s Wealth Distribution Through John Rawls’s “Difference Principle”

Sunday, March 21st, 2010

John Rawls is the man who provided the means for American liberalism to rise above the renewed skepticism of the 1970′s. He amalgamated the theories of libertarianism and egalitarianism and advanced his “difference principle” which basically stated that “only those social and economic inequalities are permitted that work to the benefit of the least advantaged members of society.” (“Justice” by Michael J. Sandel, pp.151-152). This is a value-system with a slight tingue of egalitarianism that allows those with the ability to rise to the top to do so with minimal government slow-down, but at the same time, once they rise to the top, they must be willing to distribute the fruits of their success to society.

This notion would undoubtedly receive strong criticism from the neo-liberal camp (M. Friedman, A. Rand, and R. Nozick come to mind). Rawls identifies two forms of inequality to justify his “difference principle”

1) The randomness of birth–one cannot pick what family he’s born into, and the environment in which he is grown has a huge impact upon his future success/failure.

2) The randomness of the social paradigm–computer programmers and “quants” (risk analysts for Wall Street) are sought today, but 100 years ago there were no employers seeking either of them. The social paradigm in which we are born into seeks very certain traits, and those who have them do so only randomly.

Take, for example, Japanese pop-superstar Utada Hikaru. She’s reputedly “groaned” about having to pay “exorbitant” sums of money in the form of taxes for her CD sales. But is her success in the J-Pop industry merely the product of her hard work?

Admittedly, Utada Hikaru worked hard to get the octaves and stage charisma that define the success of her career. At the same time, her immaculate English pronunciation is due in no small part to her family’s stay in New York, and her success in the J-pop industry cannot be more telling of the “randomness of the social paradigm.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean we ought to slow her down. As a matter of fact, slowing her down by stripping her of the aspects that allow her to achieve stardom (and generate astronomical revenues) would be detrimental towards Japan’s GDP growth. Besides, the blind pursuit of a homogenous egalitarian society seems laughable at best (see “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.)

With all of that said, Japan has imported a somewhat warped version of America’s meritocratic belief-system. This appears most greatly in how both the LDP and DPJ shape their policies to address only “1) The randomness of birth” and not “2) The randomness of the social paradigm.” So much has been done to try and give Japanese citizens equal opportunity, but when, indeed, some lucky select few do achieve success, most of their money is lost in the vortex of secret Swiss / Cayman Island bank accounts. Let me qualify my previous sentence–perhaps the number of secret Swiss Bank acounts is decreasing, as the Swedish government has publicly announced a crackdown on the use of Swedish bank accounts as tax havens following the Lehman Brothers crisis.

This kind of society does not live up to the ideals of the “difference principle.” Successful Japanese should not funnel their wealth to places out-of-reach from society. As a matter of fact, they should follow in the footsteps of Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and even the tycoons of the Gilded Age and learn about donations and charity.

Whatever happened to giving back to society? Looks like that was one American virtue that’s yet to be imported to Japan. Only when successful Japanese nationals become more cultured and realize their success has been aided by Japan’s social infrastructure and social fabric will they begin to see the point in distributing wealth. Let’s hope that occurs very soon, given how absolutely and atrociously weak Japan’s social safety net is.

Luckily, there seems to have been some progress. Some entrepreneurs in Japan have started donation magazines, in which people can donate to the NPO/NGO of their choice. In return for their donation, they receive notifications of how their money is spent. I suppose information symmetry and communication between the donating party and the receiving party is cardinal towards establishing the groundworks for reform.

//By Ryo TAKAHASHI