Daibutsu, Kamakura

Daibutsu, Kamakura
Daibutsu in Kamakura, June 2010. There were thousands of school kids visiting that day. It was still great fun.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Japan: Automation Nation?

Below is an interesting article from Newsweek. It asks the question of why Japan, a nation of robots and automation, has so many people working in what seems to be unnecessary and redundant positions. Positions such as elevator operators or department store greeters. Years ago when I first visited Japan, I also was surprised to see gas station attendants and elevator operators. I just figured that Japanese appreciated this type of special service or that the average Japanese person did not want to pump their own gas.

Japan: Automation Nation?

The world's most efficient economy still employs lots gas station attendants and elevator operators. Why?

Daniel Gross
Newsweek Web Exclusive
Jun 30, 2009 | Updated: 12:01 p.m. ET Jun 30, 2009

More than any other country in the world, Japan is a case study in the triumphs of human engineering. Every Japanese manufacturer prides itself on energy efficiency and zero-landfill waste policies. The train and subway stations are models of precision and the application of information technology. Late last week, I visited Toyota's astonishing Tsutsumi auto plant, near the car company's headquarters in Toyoda City. With a capacity of 400,000 vehicles per year—this is where the Prius is made—it's clean, bright, full of erector-set conveyor belts, and thinly staffed. The welding shop is like a scene from The Terminator—a thicket of robots extend their arms, moving large pieces of metal and blasting them with shots of heat. (The section where robots stamp "Obama '08" and "NPR" bumper stickers on the hybrid vehicles must have been around the corner.) On Monday, I visited a small company in Osaka that hopes its cardboard, female-shaped robot will garner a share of the mannequin market. The engineers also demonstrated a robot that can dance and act and a third that can identify whether people are men or women ("You are a beautiful lady!") and guess their ages (inaccurately, it turns out).

And yet, while traveling around Japan with a group of journalists, I've also continually encountered what seem to be exquisitely engineered inefficiencies. There are a large number of people whose jobs seem to be standing around and calling out greetings and gesturing the way to enter stores, restaurants, hotels, and office buildings. Walk into a midrange hotel, and a swarm of bellmen and desk clerks worthy of a Four Seasons springs into action. At the Takashimiya department stores, two women flank each bank of four elevators, pushing the call button. Parking garages in Tokyo feature a half-dozen uniformed parking attendants who call out greetings and farewells. When we visited the Japan Iron and Steel Federation, we saw three women on their hands and knees working on stains. (What, there's no robot that specializes in stain removal?)

Everywhere you go, there seem to be human redundancies, people spending valuable time doing things that don't need to be done or that could easily be done by a single person. At a luncheon for about 20 at the Nippon Press Center, we were waited on by a half-dozen waiters, as if we were aristocrats. Even rarely visited government agencies have multiple press officers. Visit a company or a government agency in the United States, and you're likely to get key data and presentations on memory sticks or CDs. Here, we've been buried in paper everywhere we've gone—laboriously printed out and handed out with great ceremony. When I went to a police station (a lost passport scare; don't ask), it took 30 minutes to impart a small amount of information, which the officer dutifully wrote down on a sheet of paper. There was no computer in sight.

A lot of the human inefficiencies have to do with Japan's high regard for politesse and manners. Social and business transactions take time because of the need for extensive greetings and farewells. Technology here seems to be for moving people, goods, and information—not for completing human transactions. And with universal health insurance and a national pension program, there's a dignity to low-level service jobs in Japan. It could be that the inefficiencies have something to do with a societal desire for full employment. Japan would prefer to have its citizens in make-work jobs than not working at all. For much of the postwar glory years, Japan's unemployment rate was in the 2 percent range. Even now, amid a deep global recession, it's at about 5 percent.

URL: http://www.newsweek.com/id/204656

Tenchijin: The Honnoji Incident

I just finished watching the Tenchijin Honnoji Incident episode. It was pretty intense. This taiga drama is the most intense and graphic of any I have seen, and that includes Shinsengumi which could have been much more violent but wasn't. I think the battle imagery in Tenchijin is pretty cool. The computer generated overview of the battles are pretty cool.

Nobunaga met his fate at the Honnoji temple. Too bad, I like Nobunaga. It would have been great to see him crush all his opponents and unify the country. I also like the actor that played the part of Oda Nobunaga. Interesting that the show implied that Nobunaga had a chance to ecape but chose to stay. My guess is that in reality, Mitsuhide would have had Honnoji completely surrounded preventing any chance of escape.

I liked the dream sequence where Uesugi Kenchin visits Nobunaga as Nobunaga is about to die where he tells him he does not have what it takes to be a good leader. Nobunaga does not have "tenchijin". I don't recall what tenchijin means. Can someone tell me again what is meant by "tenchijin?"

I especially liked how Nobunaga visited Mitsuhide as Mitsuhide was dying and told him the same. I guess it means that both Hideyoshi and Ieyasu do have tenchijin. The show was accurate in regards to how Mitsuhide died. They showed Mitsuhide being killed by a group of peasants. According the book Japonius Tyrannus, after Hideyoshi's army crushed Mitsuhide's army after the Honnoji Incident, Mitsuhide tried to escape but was attacked and killed by local peasants. Later, Hideyoshi collected Mitsuhide's head and presented it to Nobunaga at his grave.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Japanese wary of new jury system

According to a recent Los Angeles Times article, many Japanese are nervous about the new jury system, saibanin, being implemented in Japan.

Some are worried about giving regular citizens equal say with experienced judges. Many just don't want to participate. But unless you are over 70, a student, or caring for someone who his ill, you will probably have to serve.

The system is similar to those in Germany and France. Six jurors will join three judges on each panel. They will deliberate in the same room with the judges and their vote will carry the same weight as the judges. What surprises me is that they will also be able to cross-examine witnesses.

I wonder how the judges feel about now having to share their position with regular citizens who will have the same vote as the judges? What gives the non-judge jurors even more influence is that the verdicts will be based not on a unanimous vote but solely on a majority vote to determine sentences.

Since the majority of citizens do not want to participate and in order to help educate the public, the courts have been running hundreds of mock trials and other public events.

In spite of the publics trepidation in serving on juries, interest has been high according to the article. T.V. networks have been airing dramas that involve such trials.

They apparently have also been running Hollywood movies such as "A Few Good Men," "Runaway Jury" and "A Time to Kill."

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Please be careful when handling a wet unbrella

Do not use your umbrella like a piston.

It actually looks like he is attacking those people. It's a special umbrella that shoots out little pellets like a shotgun.

Or maybe he is defending himself. He is rapidly opening and closing the umbrella like a piston as he forces those would-be attackers back.

Or maybe his automatic umbrella is malfunctioning and it opened accidentally by itself.

What do you think?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Is this even possible?

In the Los Angeles Times today: "Japan exports fall 40.9 percent in May". Holy crap. I understand a corporations sales falling a massive 41% such as General Motors sales, or home purchases falling a huge 41%. How is it possible for an entrie nations exports to fall this much?

Below is the article:

From the Los Angeles Times

Japan exports fall 40.9 percent in May

Associated Press

7:10 AM PDT, June 24, 2009

TOKYO -- The slump in Japan's exports showed little sign of relenting in May, with auto exports to the U.S. down more than half, adding to doubts about a quick recovery from the global recession.

Exports from the world's second-largest economy plunged 40.9 percent from a year earlier, accelerating from a 39.1 percent fall in April, the government said today, as consumers overseas bought fewer of the country's cars, electronics and other mainstay exports.

Japan's monthly trade surplus reached 299.8 billion yen ($3.1 billion), the biggest in a year, but due to a sharp fall in imports that further underscores weakness in the economy.

"Overall exports remained depressed, which squarely reflected the ongoing economic downturn," said Yu Ooki, a finance ministry official.

Japan's economy shrank at a 14.2 percent annual pace in the first quarter -- better than first thought, but still its worst quarterly contraction ever as trade wilted amid the worst global recession in decades.

Economy Minister Kaoru Yosano said last week the slump had hit bottom but warned a recovery will depend on the world economy.

Exports to the United States, the world's largest economy, fell 45.4 percent in May, marking the 21st straight monthly decline, the finance ministry said.

U.S.-bound auto exports nose-dived 54.8 percent -- grim news for major Japanese automakers like Toyota Motor Corp. and the raft of autoparts suppliers that depend heavily on the American market. Japanese shipments of autoparts to the U.S. were down 47.8 percent.

Hiroshi Watanabe, an economist at Daiwa Institute of Research, said the decline in Japanese exports could deepen later in the year due to lingering uncertainty over a recovery in the U.S. economy.

"Japan's exports heavily depend on U.S. consumer demand. But we have yet to see sighs showing a solid recovery of the U.S. economy," Watanabe said.

"In the face of stagnant wages and worries over job losses, it is unlikely that American consumers will snap up Japanese cars and electronics goods," he said.

Japan's exports to the European Union decreased 45.4 percent in May, the ministry said.

Asia-bound shipments fell 35.5 percent. Japan's exports to China alone declined 29.7 percent marking the eighth consecutive monthly fall.

Overall exports in May stood at 4.02 trillion yen. Imports fell by 42.4 percent to 3.7 trillion yen.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Murder of Oda Nobunaga

Oda Nobunaga, the great Japanese warlord of the late Sengoku period, was assassinated by one of his vassal generals. That traitor was Akechi Mitsuhide. There are many theories as to why Mitsuhide turned on his lord. Some have said it was to eliminate an evil dictator, others say that Nobunaga repeatedly insulted Mitsuhide while others have theorized it was only due to Mitsuhide's own greed for power and his own desire to rule Nobunaga's state, the tenka, himself. My guess it is probably the latter, especially following the assassination, Mitsuhide worked to quickly consolidate his power.

Nobunaga had ordered several generals to lead their armies west to assist Toyotomi Hideyoshi who was fighting the powerful Mori clan. Mitsuhide was one of those generals. However, Mitsuhide defied Nobunaga's order and instead marched his army of 13,000 to Kyoto where Nobunaga was staying at the Buddhist temple Honnoji where he often stayed while visiting Kyoto. Nobunaga was killed by Mitsuhide's army at the temple called Honnoji and the assassination has since then been called the Honnoji incident. Mitsuhide's army then hunted down and killed Nobunaga's heir, his oldest son, Nobutada.

However, Mitsuhide would not have much time to consolidate his power. While other Nobunaga vassals hesitated and Tokugawa Ieyasu retreated to his domain for safety, Toyotomi Hideyoshi quickly and decisively marched his army from the west where he had been fighting the Mori clan. The two armies of Hideyoshi and Mitsuhide met at the Battle of Yamazaki where Hideyoshi crushed Mitsuhide's forces. Hideyoshi collected the head of Mitsuhide and presented it at the grave of Nobunaga.

In episode 17 of the NHK drama Tenchijin, the groundwork is laid for Nobunaga's assassination. At the end of the episode, Nobunaga is shown gravely insulting Mitsuhide in front of his other generals. Clearly the NHK drama is reinforcing the theory that Nobunaga insulted Mitsuhide.

What is very, very interesting is the last scene of episode 17 where Mitsuhide is having tea with Tokugawa Ieyasu following the incident with Nobunaga. Mitsuhide clearly implies that "something" should be done with Nobunaga. What is so interesting is that the drama makes it appear that Ieyasu knows exactly what Mitsuhide is referring to but he says nothing. In the several books I have read about this time period, including Japonius Tyrannus, there is no reference to Ieyasu meeting with Mitsuhide shortly before the assassination nor any evidence that Ieyasu knew anything about Mitsuhide's plans. Just an interesting observation about the show.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Japanese Warlord Plays Kickball

Oda Nobunaga, one of the most feared and powerful warlords in Japanese history, liked a good game of kickball. "Kickball?" you say. "Did it even exist 450 years ago?" Well, apparently it did.

According to the book, Japonius Tyrannus, kickball had been an aristocratic pastime since the late Heian period (794-1185) and surprisingly Nobunaga, a passionate hunter and sumo fan, displayed an interest in this rather static and ceremonial sport.

Nobunaga actively involved himself with the court such as in 1575 when he organised a match between leading nobles at the grounds of the temple Shokokuji. Nobunaga used these matches as well as the Tea Ceremony to establish or strengthen political bonds, or to associate with people from outside the warrior class: with merchants in the case of tea, and with nobles in the case of kickball.

The kickball matches also allowed Nobunaga to famliarize himself with the various court nobles. At the time, one of the players, Asukai Masanori (1520-94), served as Crown Prince Sanehito's special envoy to Nobunaga. The Asukai family had earned a dominant position as 'masters of kickball' in the Muromachi period (1336 to 1573), thanks to the sponsorship of successive emperors and the Ashikaga shoguns. Nobunaga continued this shogunal sponsorship of the Asukai, even calling himself Masanori's 'kickball pupil' on one occasion.

I think it would have been pretty cool to have played kickball with the great warlord Nobunaga. I would be careful to always let him win of course.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Kim Jong who? Japanese TV station has egg on its moon face

It's funny when the media makes a big blunder. This one is especially hilarious. This is from the Los Angeles Times.

TV Asahi claimed to have an exclusive photo of Kim Jong Il's youngest son and heir apparent. Turned out to be a construction worker in South Korea.

The photograph was considered a journalistic coup, a recent image of the elusive 26-year-old son of North Korean strongman Kim Jong Il, who has reportedly been named the next leader of the secretive state.

The Internet snapshot released by a Tokyo television station purportedly showed an adult Kim Jong Un -- whose last known photo was taken at age 12 -- as a spitting image of his notorious father, right down to the moon face, coiffed hair and oversize sunglasses.

Trouble was, it wasn't the younger Kim at all, but a pudgy 40-year-old South Korean construction worker who also operates a website for fortunetellers. He says he is baffled as to how the Japanese got hold of his Internet image.

"I'm speechless," Bae Seok-bum told South Korea's Yonhap news service. "I only uploaded the picture to share with the members of my community how similar my face was to that of Kim Jong Il. I didn't think it would go this far."

The photo has quickly become an Internet sensation in Japan, South Korea and even China, dispersed via e-mail by amateur North Korea watchers.

Kim Jong Un is the youngest and favorite of three sons born to Kim Jong Il, who reportedly intensified his search for a successor after suffering a stroke last year. The youngest Kim was born to his father's third wife, the late Ko Yong Hi, a former dancer.

He reportedly likes to ski and play basketball and is an ardent fan of former NBA star Michael Jordan. He used a pseudonym to attend a boarding school in Switzerland. Since his return to North Korea as a teenager, he has not been photographed publicly, according to press reports.

South Korean news media say Kim favors his youngest son because he is most like him in both looks and personality.

South Korean legislators said this month that they had received classified information that Kim Jong Il had officially named Kim Jong Un as his successor.

Little is known about the young man. But a report by Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Inter-Korean Relations Studies Program at the Sejong Institute near Seoul, says he already suffers from high blood pressure and diabetes and that he speaks English.

Now Bae has been mistakenly linked to the infamous ruling family. He's being hounded by reporters, and in a brief interview with The Times said he is disturbed by all the attention.

"I don't even take lots of calls from reporters," he said.

Bae's day job is in construction. After work, he runs his website. He told reporters that he posted a photo on the site that was taken of him last year in a rural area of South Korea.

The snapshot of him in a white T-shirt earned him a nickname among friends: "General Secretary Kim Jong Il."

During a broadcast Wednesday, Japan's TV Asahi said the station had received information from an unnamed source who had met the younger Kim numerous times. It said the source told it that the authenticity of the photo was "90%."

The station superimposed the eyes of Kim Jong Il over the sunglasses in the photo to enhance the likeness.

"His fleshy face and shape look just like Kim Jong Il," a newsreader commented. "Also, there's a unique hairstyle with full volume that resembles his father's. . . . Aren't big sunglasses the tradition of the North Korean royal family?"

A day after its "scoop," TV Asahi retracted its claim to having an exclusive image of the young man.

"We have come to believe that there is high probability that the picture is of another person," it said.


Park is a news assistant in The Times'
Seoul Bureau.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Anybody watching Tenchijin?

Anybody watching the NHK drama Tenchijin? This is the current drama about the life of a samurai and his young lord of the Uesugi clan who he serves. It takes place at the end of the Warring States Period. I am watching it here in Los Angeles and we are currently on episode 16. I know those watching in Japan are a bit ahead so don't tell me what happens. However, I already am starting to know what is going to happen. That's because I am currently reading the book Japonius Tyrannus.

I am at the point in the book where I am now just passing roughly episode 16 of the TV show where Uesugi Kagekatsu has finally taken control of the Uesugi clan. In the book, I am now at the point where Oda Nobunaga with Tokugawa Ieyasu finally take head on the Takeda clan.

Nobunaga was actually disappointed with how Ieyasu fared against the Takeda. Not because Ieyasu failed but because it was too easy. Nobunaga was extremely disappointed with how easy the Takeda clan fell. Nobunaga wanted to personally crush the Takeda himself but Ieyasu defeated the Takeda too quickly.

On the TV show, Nobunaga is still a major player. But in the book, I am now starting the section that describes Nobunaga's murder in 1582 at the hands of one of his generals. This occurred just prior to Nobunaga beginning another major campaign against the powerful Mori clan of western Honshu. Nobunaga and Ieyasu also were planning to confront the Uesugi as well.

It will be interesting to see what happens after Nobunaga's death, both in the book and on the NHK show. I am interested to see how Hideyoshi assumed power rather than some of the other Nobunaga generals or Nobunaga's sons. I actually already have a biography of Hideyoshi that I will start immediately after finishing Japonius Tyrannus.

The drama Tenchijin is pretty good. But I do think there is a little too much crying and weeping going on among the young Uesugi samurai. Samurai shouldn't cry like they do.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Nobunaga's war against Shin Buddhists

The structure of the Shin Buddhist sect in Japan that we see today are a direct result of the actions of Oda Nobunaga 430 years ago.

Shin Buddhism is the dominate form of Buddhism in Japan today. Did you know that Shin Buddhism in Japan is split into an East or Higashi Honganji branch and a West or Nishi Hongwanji branch? Up until the late 16th century, the Shin sect was unified into one powerful sect of Buddhism. The Shin sect was one of the major power players in Japan at that time along with the powerful warlords. After Tokugawa Ieyasu's victory at the Battle of Segigahara, Ieyasu split the Shin sect in two in order to restrict their power.

What I did not know was that the East and West split actually began to happen in 1580 after Oda Nobunaga finally defeated the Shin Buddhist armies of the Ikko Ikki. Nobunaga's battles with the Ikko Ikki lasted for ten long years. The Ikko Ikki were led by their leader Kennyo who resided in the temple fortress Honganji near present day Osaka.

In 1580, after several years of resisting from their citadel stronghold Honganji, Kennyo finally realized that peace was the only way for their survival. Kennyo agreed to surrender the citadel to Nobunaga's forces. In May of 1580, Kennyo retreated from Honganji with a small party of followers a full three months before Nobunaga's deadline for surrender. During that time, Kennyo entrusted the Honganji to his son Kyonyo.

Kennyo was convinced that his Shin sect would be completely destroyed by Nobunaga if they continued to resist, but a rival group centered around Kyonyo were strongly opposed to vacating the Honganji temple fortress and were determined to make one final stand. Kyonyo and his followers were reluctant to hand over what had been hallowed ground and they distrusted Nobunaga. However, Nobunaga's army slowly squeezed Honganji, isolating it from the outside world, and gradually increased the military pressure on Kyonyo.

Finally, Kyonyo also realized the futility in resisting and surrendered in September of 1580. According to the book, Japonius Tyrannus, Kyonyo was heavily at odds with his father after these events. Kennyo disowned his son Kyonyo and appointed a younger son as his successor instead, causing a family rift that would ultimately lead to the division of the Honganji into a western and an eastern branch under Ieyasu. The eastern branch was led by Kyonyo while the western branch was led by Kennyo's third son Junnyo.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Tokyo Metro Courtesy Posters

These posters are hillarious. Here is the index of the funny and accurate Metro courtesy posters. My favorites are below:

I like how he is oblivious to his foot sticking in the ladies leg.

It should be obvious but there are dumb people like this on the LA subway also.

There are also a lot of idiots like this on the LA trains as well.

I see this on my LA train commutes also but they are always homeless people, never salarymen.

This is also common on LA trains but once again it is usually homeless people with several large and smelly bags.

This is the funniest one. This happens all the time on the Los Angeles subway. I have had to pry open the doors more then once to help someone stuck in the door.

Everyday. There are going to be a lot of deaf people in Los Angeles and Tokyo.

We don't have this problem on the Los Angeles subway. Only because there is not cell service in the tunnels.

This doesn't bother me so much.

Typical LA train rider.