Yen For Living, May 24, 2015

Exif_JPEG_PICTURE

It’s probably obvious that most of the posts for our Yen For Living blog, which since April has morphed into a twice monthly column in the Japan Times, originated with our own experiences as consumers. This week’s piece, about mobile phone plans, is really an attempt to understand the ridiculously Byzantine process of setting up such a plan, and I’m not entirely sure the article is that successful. For sure, it doesn’t come close to conveying the frustration many people must feel when trying to get straight answers from salespeople and other representatives of the various carriers who want your business. For one thing, there isn’t enough space to discuss the problems involved, so it might be helpful if I relate how our own search went.

At the end of the article I mentioned how we asked Y!Mobile about switching our Docomo keitai plan to one of their smart phone plans without mentioning that they have more than a few options. When we went directly to Docomo with the same idea there was only one smartphone plan given to us, and since it involved data services we weren’t going to use we didn’t see the point in paying for it. Later, after we had filed the article and checked out a few more companies we went back to Y!Mobile to look at their cheaper plans because we already subscribe to their pocket WiFi plan and thought maybe we could get a special deal if we added a smart phone. As it turned out, they were in the middle of a campaign to boost their smartphone sales. They have three plans with different monthly data limits, and each plan would be about ¥500 less a month if we signed a two-year contract before a certain date, though the fee would go up ¥1,000 after the contract expired and we didn’t expressly inform them we didn’t want it renewed. This re-up strategy is used by all the carriers and is notorious. Continue reading

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Media Mix, May 17, 2015

JCP chairman Kazuo Shii

JCP chairman Kazuo Shii

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the improved fortunes of the Japan Communist Party in recent elections. As stated in the article, the media generally doesn’t take the party seriously, even though they are paying closer attention. Maybe that sounds contradictory, but there is an important distinction. As far as elections go, since the 1970s the JCP’s role has been seen as nothing more than that of a spoiler, a party that siphons votes away from other, more “deserving” opposition forces. What its success in the general election last December and the local elections last month seem to indicate is that the JCP is now drawing not only liberal-minded voters away from other nominally liberal parties, but also attracting people who might not have voted otherwise.

The press has picked up on this, but it still can’t quite get past its queasiness regarding the JCP. In the Tokyo Shimbun article I cited, the writer refers to the “allergy” that many people have towards Komeito, the LDP’s coalition partner, which traditionally has been aligned with peace-themed issues and thus would seem to be more liberal or maybe progressive in outlook. However, the electorate’s negative reaction to Komeito has nothing to do with its politics and everything to do with its structure, which derives much of its influence from a close association with the Soka Gakkai, even though party members deny that the religious organization and its charismatic leader, Daisaku Ikeda, have any say in Komeito’s policies or direction. However, everyone assumes, probably correctly, that Soka Gakkai’s members are all Komeito members, as well, and the party can always count on their vote. In much the same way, the public and the press think that the JCP relies for its continued existence on the support of a dedicated base that does anything the party says. And there are some similarities in effect. Over the years, my Japanese partner has had several friends and acquaintances who belong to Soka Gakkai, and while they are not fanatical about it, they always invite her to organizational functions and campaign for Komeito candidates. Recently, when she expressed interest in JCP’s organ, Akahata, because it often covers current affairs with more complexity than the national dailies do (full disclosure: she does much of the research for Media Mix), the paper’s local distributor kept calling and emailing, trying to get a subscription out of her. I wouldn’t call the Komeito or JCP tactics in these regards proselytizing, but they are pushy and focused, and so I think many people, including those in the press, confuse them with each other. As far as the JCP goes, it has less to do with “communism” in the philosophical sense of the term and more to do with “groupism” as a Japanese person would understand it. Shedding that image is half the JCP’s problem if it wants the press to treat it as an equal with the other parties.

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May 2015 albums

Here are the album reviews I wrote for the May issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.

Courtney Barnett_Jé  largesexsmithSometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
-Courtney Barnett (Milk!/Traffic)
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-Ron Sexsmith (Cooking Vinyl/Imperial)
Courtney Barnett, a young Australian singer-songwriter whose lack of guile has made her an indie darling among the cognoscenti, is the kind of lyricist who doesn’t sound as if she gets her own jokes. Her songs are all definitely about something, but her free-associative methodology reels in off-kilter references and non sequiturs that have a way of cracking you up even when you can’t quite locate the irony. She’s not as pointedly sarcastic as Loudon Wainwright III or John Prine, but she often ends up with the same results. Like Wainwright, she’s even written a swimming song, though the purpose seems to be to debunk the older musician’s notion that it’s a profound pastime. “I had goggles on,” she sings, “they were getting foggy/I much prefer swimming to jogging.” And she’s not a folkie. Though Barnett rarely works up a head of steam, she bangs her tunes out to jerry-built garage rock arangements that call attention to her non-melodic vocal style, which is delivered in an accent whose natural offhandedness gives the songs more relevance than she probably intends. She’s obviously not someone who means to tell you about herself, but she wants you to know where she’s from, geographically and emotionally. When she does sad, as on the haunting “Depreston” and the quirky “Boxing Day Blues,” you actually want to know more. For some reason, I doubt she even realizes she reveals as much as she does, even in her clever song titles, the best of which is “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party.” I know exactly what she’s talking about. Usually I know what Ron Sexsmith is talking about, too, since he’s one of the most reliably transparent songwriters ever to wield a guitar, and this time the guitar is as often electric as not. His 14th LP is essentially more of the same, meaning it’s never content to pass the time. The melodies are sure, the rhymes natural, the themes comprehensible and compelling. What makes it a little better than usual is the attention to detail. For the first time in a number of years he’s assisted by a host of excellent studio hands, and the production, by Jim Scott, is attentive and on the nail, allowing Sexsmith to vary the tone and style widely from song to song without losing touch with his muse. There’s more buoyant pop in this collection, testifying to a resurgent interest in the creative process and maybe even in life itself. It’s much closer in mood and texture to his early albums, which were made when he was still a blessed discovery his label was willing to spend money on. It didn’t work out the way they hoped it would, but it worked out the way those of us who appreciate Sexsmith’s witty turn-of-phrase and self-deprecating demeanor wanted. He’s still around making great, meaningful music, which is more than you can say for Ryan Adams. Continue reading

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May 2015 movies

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the May issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.

akahamaAkahama Rock’n Roll
Haruko Konishi’s documentary about the town of Otsuchi in Iwate Prefecture has already attracted some controversy even before its release, mainly because it evinced the sympathies of Akie Abe, the prime minister’s wife. Otsuchi was devastated in the tsunami of 2011, in particular the district of Akahama. One-tenth of the residents are dead or missing. Moreover the area’s vital fishing industry has yet to recover. The central government has promised to rebuild the area, but part of the package is a 14.5-meter high seawall that the residents say they can do without. Apparently, it’s too late, since once the relevant ministry gets it into its head to build something, it takes a directive from God to reverse it. The film spends less time on the mechanics of the resistance than on the way the residents of Akahama are getting their lives back together, and Konishi wisely focuses on two fishermen brothers who went back to work days after the quake, an example that did more to encourage their neighbors than any act of charity or commisseration. In Japanese. (photo: So-Net Entertainment Co. Ltd.) Continue reading

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Media Mix, April 26, 2015

Still from "Akahama Rock'n Roll"

Still from “Akahama Rock’n Roll”

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about a town in Iwate Prefecture that is struggling with the central government over a proposed seawall. Yesterday, several media reported that the government will definitely ask Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima Prefectures to take on part of the burden for reconstruction after the initial five-year budget is up in 2016. Apparently, the government was going to implement another tax increase to pay for further reconstruction but has decided not to. In reality, the portion that local governments will bear isn’t much–only 2.5 percent. Under normal circumstances, as with highway construction, the local burden is usually about a third. But the total budget in this case is ¥5.8 trillion, which is bound to increase in the future, and even a fraction of that could prove to be too expensive for prefectures and municipalities, which are already spending their own meager funds on reconstruction.

Some media speculate that faced with the extra burden, local governments will invariably cut back on their respective reconstruction projects, especially with the ongoing shortage of construction materials and labor, which is being exacerbated by the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The thing is, many of the bigger projects were initiated by the central government, like the seawall discussed in the documentary Akahama Rock’n Roll, and it isn’t clear if localities are expected to assume part of those costs as well. As shown in the movie, certain localities don’t like some of the projects in the first place, so making them pay for them doesn’t make sense. Of course, prefectural and municipal governments depend a great deal on money from Tokyo to keep their operations running and the proper wheels greased, and there isn’t always a great deal of thought given to whether or not certain projects are actually necessary. But in this case, whole communities need to be rebuilt, so it’s doubly important that the money be spent wisely and in line with residents’ needs. As it stands, it sounds as if the central government offered the regions affected by the disaster lots of help without fully figuring out each area’s specific requirements, and now they are going to stick them with a bill.

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Media Mix, April 19, 2015

Build it and they will come

Build it and they will come

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about changing attitudes toward school athletics. If there’s a central theme to the piece, it’s probably the idea that sports is all about appearances. It’s not a novel or original idea, but it is one that runs counter to our ideal of what sports represents. “Performance” is a malleable word, but what school sports has become in Japan–maybe even the world–is a kind of contract between athlete and observer. As sports fans we evaluate the performances of players both as individuals and as members of teams, and those evaluations eventually have meaning. At the end of the column I cite survey results that say many adults didn’t really enjoy playing sports until after they leave school, which implies that the pressure to “perform” diminished the essence of sport, i.e., competing physically with others as well as with one’s own capacity. Take away the observer, the fan, and sports comes closer to this essence. Many athletes, especially those who make a living from sports, will say there’s no difference, that they would “perform” the same way whether there was an audience or not. If you’re going to play a sport, you should play it well. But that reasoning only makes sense in a world where sports is viewed primarily as entertainment. Sure, when you play you want to do your best for your team, if not for your own self-regard, but without a critical gaze it has no social value.

Thus the cultivation of “spirit,” though ostensibly an endeavor that benefits the individual and the team, is really a means of enhancing performance in the entertainment sense of the word. The athlete must be seen to be suffering, to be working beyond his or her innate capabilities. So high school pitchers keep throwing the full nine innings, even if their arms are giving out. In one of the Asahi articles, Prof. Sakaue says that sports in other countries is treated “as a kind of culture,” implying that it isn’t thought of that way in Japan. I’m not really sure what he’s trying to say, though I think he means that sports in Japan is a function of social engineering, which seems to me an over-simplification. One of the hoariest cliches attached to athletics is the dynamic between enjoyment and winning, as if the relationship between the two were inviolable. In Japan, the dynamic is broader: it’s not between enjoyment and winning, it’s between pain and performance. You will perform better if you go through a lot of pain beforehand. This is, of course, a stereotype, which is probably why people are starting to question the significance of athletics in the educational process.

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April 2015 albums

Here are the album reviews I wrote for the April issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.

CDR-THEPRIESTSCitizen ZombieWhat Happens Next
-Gang of Four (Victor)
Citizen Zombie
-The Pop Group (Freaks R Us/Victor)
Though not an integrated musical style in the sense that all those who labored under the label followed the same forms, the British post-punk movement united various disparate creative types with the urge to destroy those pop verities that had held sway for so long by the late 70s. Gang of Four was perhaps the most strident, musically and politically, brandishing a razor-sharp funk attack at the service of a jaundiced view of economic exigencies. Almost 40 years after the fact only guitarist Andy Gill remains, and on his latest album under the Go4 banner he makes do with an arsenal of guest vocalists who sound nothing like original bleater Jon King, who quit the band to pursue a career in, of all things, advertising. Gill still knows how to cut a rug, and his guitar work is impressive without making your hair stand on end the way it did back in the day. More to the point, the songs range far and wide in terms of mood and groove, the only constant being the call-and-response dynamic that Go4 was once known for. The Kills’ Alison Mosshart drops in for two tracks that list toward disco, while the German vocalist Herbert Gronemeyer sings a bona fide ballad that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the Top Gun soundtrack. At this late date one can hardly expect any veteran rock band to sound as they did in 1979, but then why stick to the Gang of Four brand except to extend the line? In any case, the lyrics still have some of the old anti-establishment bite, though not as much as the songs on Citizen Zombie, the first album of new material by fellow post-punk provocateurs The Pop Group since 1980. Less musically doctrinaire than Go4 but equally bent on taking on the status quo, the band doesn’t have as much to live up to style-wise, so they’re free to reinvent themselves for a new millennium. Nevertheless, they seem to think they can take up exactly where they left off, and what’s missing is that spirit of spontaneous destruction that accompanies youthful disaffection. Leader Mark Stewart seems content to shout slogans over and over in an attempt to turn them into catch phrases—the title song, “The Immaculate Deception,” etc. And if you miss the anti-consumerist purport of classic Go4, then you’ll get more than you need here. As on What Happens Next the songs are not as lean as they once were, as if the intervening years had taught the members what their amateurism was missing other than a need to show off. Though the production by Paul Epworth is strong, it doesn’t speak to The Pop Group’s special qualities. The thing to remember about post-punk was that minimalism carried the day. It was all they could afford and so they made the best of it. When you’re older you naturally get fatter. Continue reading

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