Saturday, February 14, 2015

Thoughts about Japan

A few practical suggestions that we found useful:
  • The Commonwealth Bank, and probably others, issues a 'Travel Money Card'. It made life much easier. Load it up with yen, and add more via the internet if necessary. Its widely acceptable, unlike normal credit cards with currency variables and fees.
  • We took our iPhones and rented SIMs at Narita. There are several companies that do this: we used SoftBank with a desk at Narita Airport. Much cheaper than using overseas rates from Australia.
  • Pasmo is a useful card to use when negotiating the public transport system.
  • Direct flight Gold Coast to Narita by Jetstar. People who fly JAL get a Japan Airpass, which must be bought outside the country, but can save quite a bit of money if you plan several internal flights.
  • We skied at Furano in the middle of Hokkaido, the north island. The snow was excellent, the runs were long, and the queues were negligible. A popular alternative is Niseko, which to all accounts is very Aussified. People who came from there to Furano said there was a bit more powder, but that there were 500 people trying to get into restaurants with seating for 50.

We had only been in Shinjuku for about an hour when we were approached by a TV crew for an interview. 'How do you like it here?' 

Thanks for asking. Well, since you asked......

I spent a week in Japan in 1988. Both my kids did home-stays and schooling in Japan for a month or two in their early teens, and we had a number of Japanese visitors associated with that. George had never been to Japan.

We had many positive impressions. Stuff works. Trains and planes are efficient. People are courteous, sometimes obsequious. It wasn't very expensive. The skiing was a lot better than in Australia.

There is a curious mismatch between micro beauty and macro ugliness. The housing and urban spaces are pretty ugly. Wires hang higgledy piggledy down streets. But at a small scale, people take great care to nurture little spots of beauty.

Coloured cabbages


Shinjuku Gyoen park

I sometimes felt as if I had arrived in the land of OCD. One had the feeling of a deeply duty-driven culture, highly valuing punctuality, conformity, obedience, and cleanliness. OCD is associated with anality. Most of the toilets have built-in bidets, with buttons to press that squirt water at your anus. Unfortunately, there is an incomplete solution to drying, so one is left mopping up a wet mess with soggy and flimsy toilet paper!

Other OCD-like signs: 10-20% of people in Tokyo wore surgical face-masks, to keep off germs. A similar number of people on the Metro were playing repetitive games on their smart phones.

There were several examples of things where the parts were great, but they didn't somehow come together as a whole. Sony makes great electronics: I have owned many things made by them over the years. But integration with software is often very clunky, nothing like as good as Apple.

I conceive of Japanese culture as having expanded the left brain (good for linear thinking, logic, and particulars), but shrunk the right brain (manages music, holistic thinking, style, and rebellion). The opposite of the Italians or Brazilians.

The best products from Japan involve Japanese engineers, and Italian designers. My Japanese Nikon D800 was designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro of Italdesign.

Japanese electronic firms are the envy of the world. They make the best hardware for music. But there is a constant prattle of electronic voices, muzak, and ring-chimes wherever you go, all through tinny speakers. Voices in lifts tell you to do this or that, voices in the metro, voices at traffic lights. Things that go ping, or sound like an electronic bird squeaking at you. Everywhere. Seems a waste of all that hitech hardware ability.

Obsessional obedience is, of course, very dangerous. It can be thought of as a necessary building block in creating a totalitarian society, as happened prior to WWII in Germany and Japan, with catastrophic consequences.

What is Japanese for 'Mea Culpa'?

Its a dangerous thing to speculate without having all the facts, but, hey!

World War II

It seems odd to me that seventy years after WWII ended, Japan's neighbours still regard her as being recalcitrant and potentially dangerous. No-one believes that Japan has convincingly expressed remorse for the appalling things they did before and during the war. An article in The Economist, 'Still Fighting' describes the situation well.

People unfamiliar with Japan's history in the 1930s and 40s are likely to underestimate its importance. Perhaps the closest equivalent in our time is Islamic State, but Japanese atrocities were on a much larger scale.

I recently read 'The Second World War', by Antony Beevor, and strongly recommend it. 'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' is a novel about the Burma Railway. Also worth reading.

Japanese soldier beheading an Australian POW, 1943.

Japan's prime ministers continue to visit the Yasukuni Shrine which houses the remains of a thousand war criminals, much to the annoyance of the countries who suffered under Japanese occupation, especially China and Korea.

The contrast with Germany is striking. Germany has effectively rehabilitated itself, whereas Japan has not. I wondered whether the way WWII ended with Hiroshima had left Japanese with a sense of victimhood, rather than guilt and remorse. If you are unfamiliar with the effect of the nuclear bombs, an article in The New Yorker in August 1946 is gripping and illuminating reading. Read the pdf here, or iBook here. It is a remarkable document, with the detailed stories of six survivors of the the Hiroshima atomic bomb.

The casualties from non-nuclear bombing campaigns were also massive. Read more here.

Whatever the reason, Japan has somehow failed to tackle something that remains a burr under the saddle of its relations with its neighbours.

Failing to tackle things looks to me like a national characteristic.


The Japanese asset price bubble collapsed in the early 1990s, and was followed by the Lost Decade(s).

Here is one description of what happened:
  • Trying to deflate speculation and keep inflation in check, the Bank of Japan sharply raised inter-bank lending rates in late 1989. This sharp policy caused the bursting of the bubble and the Japanese stock market crashed. Equity and asset prices fell, leaving overly leveraged Japanese banks and insurance companies with books full of bad debt. The financial institutions were bailed out through capital infusions from the government, loans and cheap credit from the central bank, and the ability to postpone the recognition of losses, ultimately turning them into zombie banks. Yalman Onaran of Bloomberg News writing in Salon stated that the zombie banks were one of the reasons for the following long stagnation. Additionally Michael Schuman of Time magazine noted that these banks kept injecting new funds into unprofitable "zombie firms" to keep them afloat, arguing that they were too big to fail. 
It has some similarity to the GFC. But dragging on for twenty plus years? It looks like another example of failure to tackle things.


Another soluble problem between Japan and the rest of the world, which somehow has dragged on and become chronic. Good overview here. A particular irritant was Japan's transparent claim that their lethal whaling program was 'scientific research', to exploit a loophole.

Nobody in the world believed it, but they persisted with the fiction. The International Court of Justice recently supported Australia's lawsuit against Japan whaling in the southern ocean.

Anti-whaling protest.

Japan has many remarkable qualities. But at least a billion people would love to hear them say something like: 'Sorry, we stuffed up. We get it. We will fix it properly and not do it again.'

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