Saturday, February 26, 2011

English in Japanese Elementary Schools

Starting in April, all elementary schools in Japan will teach English to 5th and 6th graders, for at least one class a week.

It's part of a government initiative to improve English throughout the country, in response to reports that Japan is close to last in a long list of countries in terms of English ability.

There are a number of reasons why introducing these classes is a terrible idea.

For starters, for the most part homeroom teachers will be teaching these classes, using the new "Eigo note", a simple curriculum designed for the purpose.  A recent survey has shown that the majority of homeroom teachers lack the confidence, ability or training to do these classes.  In fact, they would prefer if the classes were taught by EFL professionals.  Nevertheless these homeroom teachers will be forced, many against their will, to teach a language which they cannot, for the most part, actually speak, and which they may not have studied themselves for several decades.

Ministry of Education officials stress that the "Eigo note" will not be teaching comprehensive grammar rules, but instead greetings, games and self-introductions.  I am not convinced.  The title itself is enough to make one wary: 'note' (meaning 'notebook) is a particularly pernicious example of the false translation that goes unchecked in Japan; its inclusion in the title does not inspire confidence in the rest of the material.

The introduction of these classes are sure to undermine the good work that foreign ALTs have been doing in elementary schools up to now.  Unlike in junior high and senior high schools, until now JETs have had most responsibility for and input into elementary English classes.  However, JETs can only visit one school a day, and have several (even up to 10) elementary schools to visit, plus junior and senior high schools.  A typical JET may visit a school twice a month or less.  This means that their teaching will now be undermined by the Japanese homeroom teachers, who will be using 'Eigo note' for their own classes, or even forcing it onto the JETs, who may or may not want to use it.  They certainly should not be forced to, as the typical JET has the enthusiasm, if not the experience, to teach other stuff.  Not to mention their own materials.  However the threat that Eigo note will undercut what good work has been done until now is very real.

The main problem with these classes however is that they are not addressing the real problem.  It doesn't matter if you give the kids 1, 2, or 2,000 classes a week in English.  The system is garbage.  Serving up yet more garbage is not a viable solution.  The answer is to not serve garbage in the first place.  When these kids get into junior high, even if they can use greetings, numbers, days of the week etc naturally, they will have the beating heart of their motivation ripped out of their chests by the jagged rusty machete of the junior high English system.  Soul-destroying grammar drills, months of dry exam preparation, no actual English usage...

Like many Japanese initiatives, it is all form and no substance.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Sumo Reforms - Wrestlers now using public phones to cancel sex club visits

Japan Sumo Association hails the trend as "sign of progress."

Okay, so I made the second bit up.

The sumo match-fixing scandal has caused the March tournament in Osaka to be canceled, plunging the city's red light district into despondency.  A staff member at one particular hostess club in the raunchy district of Kita Shinchi says, "Sumo wrestlers drink a lot with their huge body mass.  Considering that nowadays we have been losing customers, this will have a big impact on sales."

A hostess from another club is shocked by the cancellation. "Since they have massive bodies," she says, "they do not push themselves over the limit.  Plus they are good tippers.   I just have to sit on their laps all night; it's not much work.  They were good customers."

The area is well-known for cheap sex and quick and nasty blow jobs. 'A friend of a friend' tells me that the Chinese lasses at certain clubs can be talked down to 3,000 yen for rub 'n' tug.  I usually have to pay more I wouldn't know about anything like that.

Apparently the wrestlers turn up in groups that includes a number of attendants (tsukibito) and at least one sekitori (a wrestler in one of the top two ranks).  The sekitori goes off to enjoy some 'health' with a young lady, while the attendants stay back and drink.

According to the hostess, when this year wrestlers rang to cancel reservations, they all called from public phones. "They were told not to use mobile phones."

Obviously that makes it okay then.

Not that I have the right to criticise them for going to brothels or hostess clubs.  After all, sumo wrestlers aren't that attractive to most women, I guess.  So fat, that, according to rumour, the top guys employ their attendants to wipe their arses for them.  And now I find myself trying to get an image out of my mind: Yamamotoyama mixing it up with one of the Kita Shinchi lasses.

Too late.  What I have seen cannot be unseen.  Even if only in the mind.

Yamamotoyama.  A man's needs are a man's needs.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sumo Match Fixing Update - Where are those phones anyway?

Well the farce that is the Japan Sumo Association's investigative probe into match-fixing continues.

As of today 8 of the 14 wrestlers and stablemasters under investigation under match-fixing allegations have still refused to hand in their phones to the investigative panel.  One wrestler said that he "needs his phone because he uses it."

Why these wrestlers have not been immediately banned for life is beyond me.  In addition their stables should be suspended.

In response to this refusal, the JSA agreed to 'more strongly insist that stablemasters persuade wrestlers to comply with the panel's requests'

Yeah, right, that will work!

Honestly, putting the JSA in charge of investigating match-fixing in sumo is like asking the mafia to investigate organized crime in Italy.  You're asking the people who know.  You just won't get any answers.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Japan Quits Whaling - Possibly

Today, finally, the NHK news had a lengthy segment on the South Pacific whaling, saying that this year's whaling activities had been suspended.  The Japan Fisheries Association cited "repeated harassment by the Sea Shepherd organization", a description of which Sea Shepherd would probably be quite proud.  Though they're probably really depressed, as they have nothing to do anymore.

The NHK broadcast made little effort to present both sides of the story, saying that Japan has been conducting "whaling research in line with international agreement, in order to find out facts about whale numbers."


Japan's foreign minister Seiji Maehara was quite open about the whaling season being cut short because of Sea Shepherd, labelling the group's activities "dangerous, illegal and unforgivable."

When asked about next year, he replied "continuing research is quite difficult and the ministry will study what to do."

He also complained that despite repeated requests, foreign governments had done nothing to control or restrict Sea Shepherd's operations, allowing them to continue to "obstruct legitimate research."

Well, looks like there'll be no more whale cutlet in the cafeteria for me.

At least there won't be after they run out of whale meat.  Which may take a while, as currently there are over 6,000 tonnes stockpiled.  In Japan, that is, not in the cafeteria.

Although you never know.  Lot of space out the back there.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Japan Quits Whaling - Or does it?

Reports in Australian media today about the Japanese whaling fleet in the Antartic giving up and heading home.

An official of the Japanese Fisheries Agency is quoted as saying "The Nisshin Maru, which has been chased by the Sea Shepherd, has suspended operations since February 10 so as to ensure the safety of the crew".  The Nisshin Maru is the main Japanese whaling factory ship, the centre of the fleet.

If these reports are true they represent a major victory for conservationists.  For Japanese officials to actually admit that Sea Shepherd played a part in making them stop cannot be viewed as anything but a major admission of defeat.  The tree-huggers at Sea Shepherd will be having a major party, lentil burgers for everyone.

I don't know how this will turn out, but I doubt that Japan would give up whaling so easily.  The Japanese government thrives on adversity, and they don't stop doing something just because it is unpopular and doesn't work.  On the contrary, ineffectiveness and unpopularity seem to be prerequisites for many government initiatives.  Possibly the Japanese government and the JFA will revise their whaling policy in the face of unfavourable reality.  But I would be surprised.

I don't think Japan should continue whaling, but not because the whales they hunt are endangered (they're not) or especially intelligent (they're not) or killed cruelly (they're not, or at least not more cruelly than other animals).  Japan should discontinue whaling for different reasons.  It's unnecessary, as Japanese rarely eat meat, and whale meat is just being stockpiled in warehouses.  It's also unpopular overseas, and Japan, which has enough troubles in international diplomacy, shouldn't make enemies when it has no need to.  In addition, whaling loses money.  It's an expensive business and nobody is really interested in eating the stuff.  Finally, this "cetacean research" excuse reflects very poorly upon the Japanese.  Nobody likes a hypocrite.

Some Japanese argue that Japan has a tradition and history of whaling.  Well, so does Australia, so does the U.S.  The U.S. also has a history of slavery, and nobody is suggesting they bring that back.

Whaling Research - Pretty Tasty

Monday, February 14, 2011

Valentine's Day in Japan

It's well-known that on Valentine's Day in Japan, girls give chocolate to boys.  I'm not sure why this is, but a cynic might suggest it's part of a general pattern of exploitation and submission of women in Japan.

On the other hand, I would never complain about beautiful women giving me chocolate.

Too bad Japanese chocolate is pretty ordinary.  Overpriced and tasteless, give me Cadbury any day.

I can't help picturing the thousands of stressed women lining up in crowded department store confectionary stores to get their 1200 yen box of chocolate wrapped and packed, only to take it home to hubby or bring it to the office and get it largely ignored - Japanese men don't like chocolate much.

Most Japanese men casually accept and forget the 'giri' (obligatory) chocolate given to them by female coworkers, students, daughters-in-law, only being interested in the 'honmei' (genuine) product handed over by women who are serious about them. 

Of course the favour is supposed to be returned one month later, on White Day, when guys give chocolate to girls. 

Recently the trend is for women to cut out men altogether, buying chocolate for themselves and each other.  According to the Japan Times, this year 74% of women plan on giving chcolate to a female friend, called 'tomo' (friend) chocolate, but only 32% plan on buying something for a boyfriend.

I was very tempted, I confess, to twist that report and say that 74% of Japanese women indulged in wild lesbian encounters on Valentine's Day, using chocolate as an erotic stimulant.

Luckily I managed to restrain myself.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Snow in Tokyo

Some have tried to claim that it doesn't snow in Tokyo but it does every year.  Right now there is five centimeters outside on the street.  It snows every year.  I've seen it snow in April twice.

Tokyo.  Uninhabitable 4 months of the year.  6 months are just about bearable.  It is only pleasant for a few short weeks in July and August.

It even snows in Kagoshima, it's like Tokyo above, but the ratios are different, only two months are unfit for human habitation.  The first year I had no idea what to expect: extreme cold in Sydney is 10 degrees celsius, where people die freezing in the street and news broadcasts warn people to stay indoors unless they have run out of food and are in danger of eating each other.  So in Kagoshima with the first snowfall I suffered terribly.  My office told me to turn on the gasoline heater but I only had the vaguest idea of what such a thing might be and no idea how to use it.  When I eventually figured it out I closed all the doors and windows to my bedroom and turned it on full bore.  My goal was survival.  Boy, I had strange dreams that night.  Only months later did I hear that the fumes could cause brain damage.  Funny, I learned a lot of Japanese that winter.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The Japan Sumo Association must go

It was announced yesterday by the JSA that the March bashyo in Osaka has been cancelled as investigations into match-rigging continue.  This is the first time that a sumo bashyo has been cancelled since 1946.

As for the investigations themselves, the JSA has established 'an investigative panel' whose job it is to thoroughly cover up probe the match-fixing.

The only concrete action performed by the investigative panel so far?  They sent out a survey to active rikishi and stable masters asking if they were involved in match-rigging.  Well, that's bound to work!  Talk about a no-prisoners attitude!  Match-riggers will be quivering in their boots, wondering how on Earth they can continue to elude the JSA's iron-willed determination to pursue justice at all costs!

Meanwhile the sad degrading affair of the mobile phones continues.  Police are attempting to get mobiles from the 14 wrestlers involved in this affair, and say that retrieval of deleted messages will take 1-2 months.  However, so far, none of wrestlers have complied with requests to turn over their phones.  Apparently, some wrestlers have bought new phones and destroyed their old ones.  Can you believe it?  One said that he had dropped his in water so he bought another one.  Another claimed that "My wife stepped on it."

I am not making this up.

This is a real danger here, a real probability that sumo may be allowed to escape with as little loss of faith as possible.  The Machiavellian beauracrats of the JSA may be prepared to sacrifice the long-term future of the sport for the protection of their short-term vested interests.  Many suspect that officials may merely make cosmetic attempts at cleaning up the sport, such as firing some of those 14 wrestlers and not probing into the deeply dark desperate and disturbing underbelly of sumo.

The truth is that the inaction of the JSA demonstrates that the sport is rotten from the top down.  What needs to be done is that every mobile phone and bank book belonging to every sumo rikishi be confiscated and investigated.  Management and organisation of sumo should be turned over to an outside agency.

The real tragedy of this scandal is that it reflects poorly on Japan and the damage is almost impossible to undo.

Sumo: In for a rough landing

Monday, February 07, 2011

Do Japanese have longer intestines?

The short answer is no.

But a surprising number of otherwise well-educated Japanese people believe this.  The argument is usually presented as something along the lines of "The Japanese were traditionally agricultural people.  Our ancestors didn't eat much meat, so we evolved a longer intestine to digest grains and vegetables."  The idea is usually presented as a contrast to Westerners, especially Americans, who are said to eat much more meat.  It is also sometimes used as part of an argument that Japanese should eat less meat.  In general, the Japanese intestine is said to be one metre longer than other intestines, or even 1.5 times longer.

Well, where to begin with such a claim?  There seems to be little definitive information available on racial differences in intestinal length on the net, though plenty of people have been asking the question.  There used to be a wikipedia article, but it was deleted, seemingly because of lack of evidence.  The belief is certainly a prime example of nihonjinron, the theory that Japanese are in some way unique, and by implication superior, in various cultural, physical and mental characteristics. 

It seems (to me anyway) to imply that people in other countries are more carnivorous, and by extension more aggressive or violent.  It was famously presented as a given fact by the Japanese minister for agriculture in Tsutomu Hata in 1987 when arguing against American beef imports.  Although in the resulting furore he lost his job, he was possibly only repeating what most Japanese perceive as common wisdom.  Around the same time it was claimed that Japanese snow was different, which was used to justify slapping a tariff on imported French skiis.

The theory that Japanse intestines are longer as an adaption to eating more grain and less meat seems superficially plausible.  Westerners do, in fact, eat more meat than Japanese, who even today tend to have a diet rich in seafood and vegetables.  However,  the theory is actually specious and pretty easily dismissed.

For one thing, the adaption aspect of this is decidedly dodgy.  Although human evolution has continued since the invention of agriculture (for example the spread of lactose tolerance through European populations), the lengthening of the human gut by a metre or more seems to be quite a stretch (as it were).  Gut tissue is metabolically expensive. An extra meter of it would require considerable resources, and some other body organ would suffer to provide the space.  Even if this were possible, it would imply massive selection pressure.  Actually it is theorized by some evolutionary scientists that reduction of the gut associated with increased meat consumption may have allowed early evolving humans to devote greater metabolic energy to brain growth and maintenance, thus preciptating 'a great mental leap forward'.  This is known as the "expensive tissue hypothesis".  Funnily enough, no Japanese person has ever suggested to me that their intestinal lengthening may have been accompanied by brain size reduction.  You probably won't find many references to brain shrinking in popular Nihonjinron books and articles. 

Secondly, it is not as if the Japanese diet was really that peculiar.  Sure, recently American or European populations have been eating more meat, but go back a few hundred years and common people in agricultural societies all over the world were subsisting on grains, vegetables, and much smaller amounts of protein.  Meat, in Japan and elsewhere, was reserved for the nobility.  This idea of Japanese 'uniqueness' just doesn't stand up to close scrutiny.

Going back further, none of the various human populations in the world are especially suited to to eating a large percentage of their diet in grain form.  Hunter gatherers didn't.  Indeed, if you follow the Japanese reasoning to its conclusion, the Egyptians and Sumerians (now Iraqis) should have the longest intestines in the world, since they live where grain domestication started.  Indeed, farming didn't come to Japan until substantially later, in about 300 BC with the Yayoi people, several centuries after the Golden Age of Ancient Greece and some 5000 years or so after domestication of the first grains in the Fertile Crescent.

All this is not to say, strangely enough, that many individual Japanese do not actually have longer intestines than Westerners.  There seems to be some evidence that intestinal length may depend on an individual's diet in their lifetime, with longer intestines associated with less meat consumption.  However this would be a cultural phenomenon, not a racial.

The issue is kind of frustrating because it seems like the kind of thing which should be easily testable.  However it could be quite difficult research to do.  Living or dead people?  How do you exclude cultural factors such as diet and body size?  Who do you include or exclude?  Do you exclude Chinese or Koreans from the long intestine sample? If so, why?  What is the standard variation in normal intestine length?  How many individual guts do you need to measure to arrive at a statistically valid conclusion?

In the absence of definitive medical evidence, I would hesitate to say that the Japanese are definitely wrong about this.  But it seems very likely to me that they are, and certainly a case where an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary evidence.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Sumo will never be the same - I hope.

After the 'retirement' of Asashoryu, I thought I had finished caring about sumo completely.  So I was surprised to find that I still have a reservoir of outrage and disappointment to be directed at this match-fixing scandal.  It produces so much ill-will.  The insult to the meritocracy of the sport, the debasement of past victories, the gut-wrenching feeling of betrayal.  It is the simplest of angers: why should you support someone if you know they're not even trying?

Today it was revealed that the incriminating test messages that have ruined the careers of 14 wrestlers were obtained from two mobile phones - mobile phones confiscated from two wrestlers back in July as part of an investigation into illegal gambling.  Police have announced that they will seek to obtain mobile phones from those fourteen for further investigation.  And If the proportion of seven further guilty names turning up from each phone stays true, these phones could potentially implicate around 100 more wrestlers. An extraordinary number.  If something like this actually happened, sumo as we know it would be over.

We can only hope.  In Japan, scandals are always the tip of the iceberg, and the Japanese response is to cut off the tip and ignore the unseen ice.  As for the tip itself, by the way, the traditional Japanese remedy is seppuku, ritual suicide. 

Those days are over.  Mostly.

It is worth noting that the baseball betting scandal only started because one rikishi, having got lucky with a number of baseball games, had the temerity to ask the yakuza for his money, because he'd made the bets through them.  Funnily enough the gangsters weren't keen to pay up, instead hitting the wrestler for more dough instead.  His response was to go to the police for help.  So it's safe to assume that those two guys weren't the swiftest steeds in the stable, so to speak.  Maybe their behaviour with bout-rigging was similiarly extreme and idiotic, and little further information will be obtained from the other 14 phones.

Maybe.  Or maybe it's the tip of the iceberg.

In which case there is a chance for real reform from the Japan Sumo Assocation.  Well actually, real reform will come from outside the JSA, because the JSA has known about match-rigging forever, and if the truth really comes a new organization will have to emerge.

But a chance exists.  A chance to drag the sport, kicking and screaming, into the twentieth - first century.  Hell, most people would settle for the nineteenth.  An opportunity to reconcile the contradictions in the sport: A morally pure ascetism riven by money and drug scandals; professional athletes set up to be avatars of ancient culture and ritual; a money-making organization with tax-free status.  Why does sumo pretend to be something it isn't?  The sport itself has enough to offer.  The excitement of the bout, the clash of the behemoths, the attraction of the ever-chaning banzuke.  These things are enough.  Seriously, setting yourself up as some kind of ethically infallible, quasi-religious cultural asset is always going to cause strife.

My 3-month old son expresses his anger at sumo cheats

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Match-fixing Scandal in Sumo

The ancient sport of sumo, already racked by a number of debilitating scandals, was yesterday rocked by a massive body blow as incontrovertible evidence for massive match-fixing came to light.

It has been an open secret for a long time that some level of match-fixing was occurring in sumo, even though the Japan Sumo Association consistently denied all allegations.

But this time the evidence is so strong that the sport may never recover.

Text messages clearly referring to match-fixing were found on the mobile phones of wrestlers which were confiscated in July during the police proble into the last scandal - involving wrestlers making illegal bets on baseball games with yakuza involvement.

The texts, which had been deleted but were restored by police, involve 11 wrestlers and 2 stable masters.  And by the way, considering that the phones were confiscated in July last year, we can be sure of one thing- the Japanese police are either extremely incompetent, or extremely good at keeping secrets.  Can there be any doubt that if it was technologically possible, deleted messages would not have been immediately restored, read and understood by the police? 

I wonder what was happening between July and February in the offices of the National Police Agency.

Well, regardless of what took them so long, the end result is damning.  One message reads, "Have I borrowed any wins from anyone?  I have loaned wins only to grapplers Koryu and Yamamotoyama, right?"

Another says, "I will hit you straight in the initial charge today."  Others quote amounts of money -  20, 30 50, 75, where 20 refers to 20 man, 200,000 yen, about 2300 dollars.

The faux shock displayed by the Japan Sumo Association is a wonder.  Hanaregoma, the head of the JSA, who has certainly known about match-fixing his whole career, kept a straight face when he said that an emergency independent investigation would be launched.  It is this level of hypocricy that is particularly galling- as if this is the first time the JSA has heard of match-fixing and will now unleash its full and pure attention.

The wrestler Koryu, implicated directly, said, "I know nothing.  I have nothing to do with it," a lie so colossal that it may have knocked the Earth slightly out of its orbit and caused volcanos to erupt in Kagoshima.

This one is going to go on for some time.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Kaiten zushi - it just keeps getting better and better

Kaiten zushi.  For me, the most enjoyable dining experience in Japan, possibly the world.

It's cheap, nasty and the purists hate it.  It's been blamed for bringing down the reputation of fine Japanese dining.

But it gets even better.

As deflation continutes its slow inexorable progress in Japan, kaiten zushi chains may be entering a price war.  Currently, three major conveyor-belt sushi chains offer plates for 100 yen: Kappa sushi, Kura sushi and Akindo Sushiro.  Kappa sushi recently broke the 100 yen barrier with a temporary special offering of all plates for 90 yen, Mondays to Fridays.  Will the other chains follow suit?

One thing to take note of is that, even at high volume, these chains lose money on their most popular item: tuna.  They make up for this by bulking out other cheaper seafood with mayonnaise and avocado.  This means that when you eat tuna you are getting excellent value, value indeed that would not be sustainable if everyone just ate ...tuna.

The Japanese have been accused of over-harvesting worldwide blue fin tuna supplies.  I have been told that wild tuna supplies may collapse within a decade or so if drastic cuts are not made in fishing levels.  I don't know what to make of this issue.  If I couldn't eat tuna I would probably leave Japan.  Then again why would the Japanese government and the fishing industry jeopardise such an extraordinarily successful industry? 

I've always thought that we are actually lucky to be able to eat wild fish.  How often do people get to consume protein obtained from wild land sources?  Not very often.  Why should marine resources be any different?  The idea that there is, or should be, this vast mass of wild fish out there for human consumption just seems to be absurd in the face of increasing global human food needs.  In that sense, it would seem inevitable that at some point the bulk of fish consumed by people will be produced in fish farms.  That seems perfectly acceptable and natural to me.  Blue fin tuna has proved notoriously difficult to produce this way;  for example, at one stage in their life cycle they need to chase and eat live fish.  However research is continuing and is said to be promising.  I look forward to the time when wild stocks will be limited and completely protected.