Friday, December 31, 2010

Life Goals at the End of 2010: What does a Yale Degree Really Mean in Financial Terms?

With Dec 31st steadily approaching its end, I would like to reflect on my experiences during 2010, a year of undoubtedly major transitions from college to work for me that is bound to have major consequences for my future careers. But in the back of my mind, there always seem to be that thought of "am I really doing the right thing? Am I really moving in the right direction?" as listen to more and more complaints from my fellow coworkers, words of doubts from prospective employees, and most importantly, stories of major responsibilities and progress from my classmates back at Yale.

Well, first, lets see what we, the new employees here in Rakuten, have done for our first three months since entering on Oct. 1st. We have been subject to continuous lectures on the core values and ideologies of the company from Day One, our hopes of being identified as the leaders of English-nization at the company and working at our own favorite departments are mostly dashed for the time-being, and our extra values as non-Japanese workers are increasingly questioned as even necessary to any extent.

And to be honest, we the foreign new hires of Oct. 2010 really do not want anyone else to suffer through this. Yes, we do understand that the new grads do not have enough skills to always do what they want in the company and they do not have th right to be picky about their work, but the lack of skills does not mean that the management of the company can personally decide our future careers by simply putting us in corporate roles for which we are utterly unprepared to pursue as a long-term employment option.

And this sort of "humiliation" at lack of self-control over personal destiny is especially hard to live down for a Yale grad. Yes, I have said, and I stand by the comment that Yale is highly overrated in many aspects including academic, but as a college that represents the highest academic achievement across the world and one that has relentlessly brainwashed its students to think of themselves as future global leaders, to have its students snubbed in a foreign country but a company without much credit in the States would just be ridiculous if it were to be known in the States.

And it is certainly not helpful to think about this positively when so many options are presented to the average Yale grad. For money, they can go to consulting and investment banking; for experience, they can go teaching in foreign countries, work for NGOs, and head straight for prestigious grad schools abroad. Just as a Yae student who recently received an offer from Rakuten remarked, "I need to know that Rakuten is the best option for me available when I have so many other ones."

Indeed, given that the average Japanese company, including Rakuten, does not have a system of putting young employees in grad schools after few years of work, working in one can quickly cause the Yalie to become direction-less and doubtful of his initial decision. Sure, there always is the value of living in a new country, facing new challenges, and doing something that no one before has thought of doing, but when all of that is, really, in name only and do not convey REAL skills, you have to ask yourself when is the time to get off this "side track" for "life experiences."

And then, there are those who showed up as the ultimate profession of love for anything Japanese. They can quickly become disillusioned simply because, as I have experienced so many times before, the sheer gruesomeness of reality in Japan that only makes the cute, cuddly, and friendly facade of Japanese pop culture just so much more chilling and disturbing. The lost opportunities back home probably are not the biggest thing on their minds after they started working; instead, they need to reflect on their ENTIRE (Japan-centric) mentality and way of life up until now, a move that might just well kill their motivation to do anything else, in Japan or elsewhere.

People say they are willing to do anything if they are paid well. Of course, I, being convinced that excess wealth is a sign of danger, would definitely disagree. But, to quote the novel 狼圖騰 I wrote about a while ago, the "whatever" attitude that come with being dismayed of one's work environment will quickly turn a person from a "wolf" to a "sheep." Perhaps, this episode will just be one big disappointment as I, unfortunately, become just another old man discontented with my own life.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Admiration of Japan's Fair View of History

Another weekend, another day trip. Last weekend, I had the fortune of stopping by Kurihama (久里浜), a beautiful little seaside neighborhood in Yokosuka (横須賀) City in Kanagawa (神奈川) Prefecture. Yokosuka, besides being famous as the largest base for the US Navy here in the Far East with aircraft carriers making it their home port, is, somewhat relatedly, the first landing spot of the first US Navy visit to Japan in 1852. The gunboat diplomacy of the Commodore Matthew C. Perry at the time successfully forced a Japan closed to the world to sign a trade treaty with America.

So, why am I sitting in my room at 8pm on the first day of New Year's break reminiscing what I did last weekend? Besides the fact that I am bored (yes, true that), the impact of that sudden visit by a bunch of American ships in 1852 has deep social implications for Japan that particularly resonates in a time like the New Years. To be specific, the behaviors of people during such vacations precisely display that continuous conflict of traditional Japan willing to sacrifice all its foreign relations for cultural purity with a modern one that represents the "Western-ness" of Asia.

How is the conflict obvious during New Year's? (And also, during Christmas?) Well, as an other Asian country, in Japan, New Year's is about getting together with families, as a sign of unity and collectivity, and if put negatively, self-isolation (quite tellingly these days as the streets of Tokyo are so empty as people depart for their respective hometowns). Yet, at the same time, ads for New Year's parties, counting down the last minutes with alcohol and friends, Western style, are ubiquitous, implying their popularity.

To what degree should the Japanese accept, with open-mindedness, completely foreign attitudes toward some event or object all humans share lies at the core of the conflict. And all of that conflict started with that pivotal visit in 1852. But walking through the tiny little museum in the Perry Park in Kurihama has given me, seemingly for the first time since I came to Japan for work, the confidence that the Japanese will inherently accept foreign attitudes at the end.

But the title of Japan as an "honorary Western nation" did come from a series of painful bloody forced openings. Perry led the political and technological, Meiji Emperor the societal and cultural, and MacArthur the economic and psychological. But despite the enormous losses in cultural heritage, economic wealth, and human lives, Japan emerged from each less doubtful of her need to depend on absorbing the best of the foreigners to stay competitive.

And the little museum in Perry Park devoted its entire interpretation of the landing in Kurihama with true gratitude. Perry and the Japanese officials receiving him, in complete contrast with what would have been said at the time, are described as completely noble and worthy of respect as major personalities in history. Nowhere to be seen are the other consequences of Perry's visit, including the loss of traditional Japanese culture and more importantly, the increasing Japanese belief in militaristic force and its unrestricted use on foreign soil as the primary form of strength.

But those very omissions make the Japanese accounts on Perry an extreme yet worthy comparison with the reactions of other Asians during those "first encounters" with the whites. Especially in China, the events leading up to the Opium War is still regarded as national humiliation of tremendous magnitude. The Chinese officials such as Lin Zexiu (whose statue proudly stands in New York Chinatown) who completely resisted any peaceful negotiations by the Brits are still honored as national heroes.

The disdain for the conservatives who refused outside contact is so well implied in Japanese mentality and its history books. In this particular aspect, Japan is much more "mentally mature" than other countries forced open by Western military superiority. And it is that the led Japan, not China or any other Asian country, to become the first developed economy outside the Western world. It is time for Japan to use this unique strength once again to completely change its culture, as displayed in New Year's and in its offices.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Why is there no labor union at Rakuten?

After finishing some company work in the morning, I finally got to sit down, read the news, and relax a bit on this fine Christmas day (well, like I said in the last post, before going off and getting drunk somewhere). But even as I am finally relaxing a bit, I know that some of my colleagues are still working hard at their desks, finishing certain documents for the Monday that seems so close from now. My immediate superior is certainly up to that, making some documents based my work for this morning and calling me a couple of times to clarify my wording in the little note I submitted.

Plastic Surgery as an Effective Method to Increase Social Equality

Living in Japan, one starts to think of Christmas not as a day for family gatherings (thats done on New Years), but as day to get together with your significant other (i.e. a second Valentine's) and if one is unfortunately single, get together with a bunch of friends and get drunk (i.e. the same role as New Years in the West). I, on this joyous day, happen to fall into the latter category, but before I go off getting drunk somewhere, I would like to get some sober writing finished.

So, like I was saying, being single on Christmas is an unfortunate thing here in Japan. So, to help reduce my misfortune, some people have been asking me what kind of girls am I looking for (of course, since it is Japan, the question is generally ethnocentric). So having stayed in Korea for awhile, I tend to say that I have an interest in Korean girls (which I indeed do, not lying) to which the stereotypical response (from anyone, not just the Japanese) would be something about plastic surgery.

Indeed, somehow, plastic surgery has become a part of the Korean Wave, spreading all over Asia along with the posters of pretty Korean celebrities who are rumored to have gotten them (just another case of other Asians thinking Koreans are cool, especially in China). Obviously, not everyone (especially guys) were not happy about the situation, causing them to devalue any sort of beauty created under the knife..."fake" breasts, eyelids, nose, etc. all became something to deny and conceal for the girls...

Personal taste aside (I personally do not give a damn about how much cash spent and pain suffered by the girl as long as she is pretty), but I will try to argue that in terms of social equality, plastic surgery (when not detested by people for their "fake" nature) is the perhaps the most significant contribution of medical advancements. In other words, I think that a more widespread application of plastic surgery can only help to promote the idea of everyone being equal.

To make the argument work, first, a few assumptions. One, social hierarchy is determined by class differences, which is turn displayed by difference in profession and consequently, income. Higher income is displayed by more "sophisticated" and luxurious tastes in arts, leisure, etc. that are traditionally associated with the wealthy. At the same time, there is a greater chance for individuals with connections to the wealthy to become wealthy (pretty obvious).

And then, here is the most important part: beautiful women tend to move much further ahead than their plain counterparts in two ways: (1) directly marry into wealth (generally pretty rare unless the girl is either very good looking, or is somewhat famous as a minor celebrity) and more commonly, (2) get better jobs and faster promotion at jobs than the plainer ones. Of course, this is based on the assumption that most high-level guys in any company are guys, which, unfortunately, is still largely the case, especially here in East Asia.

And better yet, Asian guys are much more sexually perverted and deviated than their Western counterparts (as shown by popularity of under-aged female idol groups), and the fact that personal and professional lives are not completely separate (even from a mental standpoint), gives much more likelihood for the top manager to give that completely unqualified but stunningly beautiful girl a chance at the company.

And given that the top's decision is not questioned at any circumstances here, just give the girl plenty of incentive to get those eyelids slit and jawbones shaved down before her job interviews. And as practitioners of the art become more plentiful, more skillful, and less expensive to visit, perhaps we are really entering an age of "egalitarianism in physical beauty?"

Thursday, December 23, 2010

"Your People" vs "My People": the Asian mentality on ethnocentric group unity

Sometimes even I myself wonders exactly why some many thoughts about racial divisions race through my mind when I live and work in a country known the lack of it (almost everyone walking down the street dress the same way, talks the same language, sports the same behavior, and racist enough, really does look very similar to each other underneath the same makeups...) And I, with my salary-man outlook and behavior, does not exactly stick out like a sore thumb as most other foreigners seem to experience.

So I thought, until someone at work opens his/her mouth and start going off on their knowledge or willingness to learn more about...those foreign people. Oh, do they just love saying that word, especially in these days of globalization. "We the Japanese need to learn English (or any other non-Japanese language, for that matter) so we can better communicate with those foreign people." Indeed, they certainly do need to speak better English, but that kind of attitude really makes me think that they are thinking as if they forced to communicate with the enemy.

And here is the gem I got last week during work. Talking about a Chinese employee at another department, my superior simply advised, "you should hang out with this guy more, then you can become really friendly with him, because he is part of your people." Oh, thank you, boss! Finally, the friendliness of "my people" will make me not feel lonely being surrounded by "your people" all the time! Oh, should I just jump in joy or what?

OK, lets be fair here. The problem here is not just a Japanese one, it is pan-Asian (and to a lesser extent, existing for anyone in any country has not really been outside the home country for extended period of time). The Chinese (and Koreans, Taiwanese, etc) are just as likely to tripartite their world view from Tokyo in a classic Sino-centric fashion: the lonely misunderstood "real Chinese," the deliberately misunderstanding "Japanese," and the culturally barbaric "foreigners" (included corrupted degenerates like myself) needing a thorough upholding education.

And conveniently enough, "language barrier" became a nice excuse to diverge into groups by nationality (or ethnicity...well, the every Japanese do not know the difference between the two anyways, as is the case for other Asians) when they have the misfortune of being shoved into a small crowded space together for more than ten hours a day. Right, I was informed the other day that the unwritten rule of "foreigners' tables" do seem to exist in the company canteen.

But when that language barrier do not really exist, people still try their best to erect other barriers and rationalize them as much as possible. The "your people" comment from the superior is a clear symbolic manifestation of that effort. His underlying message can be interpreted as saying "since I KNOW you do not understand us the Japanese, therefore you should try to be friendly with people of your ethnicity so that you can make your work go smoother and do not feel lonely in this company."

Please do note that "my people" and "his people" cannot really understand each other is not only an automatic assumption but the necessary premise to make his whole statement logical. The fact that his statement came out so naturally at the time just goes to show how matter-of-fact he thinks the lack of understanding is and should be. To him, that "understanding barrier" is not something to be overcome or reduced but it simply exists like the wall between my one-room apartment and my neighbor's.

And this is just said plainly...now imagine the parts that not said...thankfully, English (even half-assed imitations of it) is still considered "cool" here (and in other parts of Asia as well), and perhaps because of that, I have been able to get together with some Japanese colleagues in a regular basis and do some stupid things together, but imagine a Swahili-speaking African walking down the street in Tokyo...hmmmm....

Sunday, December 19, 2010

"Public Disturbances" in Japan Continued: "Crazy" People Going Nuts

My story from the last post was not quite finished and I will continue my thoughts in this post...So, as I was reflecting on the indifference of Japanese people toward their helpless compatriots throwing themselves into the train tracks with horrifying frequency, the train arrived to take me home (fortunately, no one jumped the tracks here).

As with my usual behavior, I look up at the little TV screen above the door after I got in the train. The news of the day was on. And surprisingly enough, it was about a guy who randomly stabbed 17 people amidst the weekend crowd of Shinjuku shopping area, turning the happily commercial country into another self-inflected bloodbath. The headline of the news quoted the arrested stabber: "I don't want to live anymore."

The train full of people, in the same way as they reacted to the 「人身事故」announcement, just went about their business as usual, playing games on their PSPs or having quiet conversations. "Well, another one just snapped," a few others looking at the TV screen possibly thought in their minds, but no one lingered on why the person snapped and took his revenge on the world. The stabber is locked up, and the injured are treated in he hospital, end of the story.

Sure, random stabbing in crowded areas is not first time or even a new concept in Japan, but neither is a lone gunman shooting up a school/shopping center/religious institution in the States. But comparing how the medias of the two countries react to innocent people sacrificed to the "crazies" just shows how much Japan is behind in terms of sensitivity toward publicly known misfortunes.

For one, the American media, after each shooting, try their best to publicly analyze the past history and the profile of the shooter, and invite experts on psychology to debate on the potential motives of the shooter and the reasons s/he selected the particular victims. The schools/towns that unfortunately played host to the bloodbaths hold vigils for the victims AS WELL AS the instigator of the tragedy.

And as I briefly mentioned in the last post, that is exactly where Japan is behind. Th American media, through efforts to understand their motives, has treated the shooters with respect. Humans are rational animals, and as conscious adults, every action executed has a reason for the execution. And someone with the ability to hurt others with such specific intention and sophistication is definitely not mentally ill and lacking self-control.

Mental illness, when not genetic, only occurs with excess accumulation of stress. And stress comes from not being able to release negative emotions. In a Japan where even drinking is a part of work and dissent on younger ranks are quickly suppressed without compromise, the sources of stress, at least related to work, are just too numerous to count.

Let me close by reporting a figure: about 1.65% of employees at Rakuten are currently taking "mental leave." Assuming that only the most needy one of out every ten employees takes a mental leave (not surprising in Japan considering taking holidays is considered an absolute taboo), at least a quarter of all employees are having some sort of mental problems at the moment. To which, the COO simply remarked, "it is much lower than the Japanese average" (a big lie, by the way, Rakuten about 3 times higher). It is just as my favorite quote from Stalin (a bit modified), "having one victim is a tragedy, but having a thousand is just statistics."

Saturday, December 18, 2010

"Public Disturbances" in Japan: 「人身事故」 as a Weapon of Mass Delay (WMD)

Ok, sounds like this is gonna be another one of those cynical posts criticizing Japanese society....so let me start on a "high note" for this topic. One of my favorite horror movies of all time is a Japanese classic called "Suicide Club" (or 「自殺サークル」 in Japanese). It portrays a modern-day Japan in which large segment of people simply lost the will to continue living. Suicides, in the forms of jumping off buildings, cutting themselves, and what not become so common in everyday life that people, especially the young, started to take life as a joke and suicide as a game.

I recommended the movie to people in the States and got absolutely horrified responses. In a Western culture were the continuation of life is probably the most basic human right there is (well, guess thats true everywhere, but the outer manifestation of that willingness to protect life is just so powerful in the West), the idea that people can possibly take the voluntary destruction of it as a laughing matter is simply insane by any psychological theory.

So as this whole thought randomly flowed into my mind as I waited for my train to go home after hanging out with my colleagues, I was suddenly stopped by a routine-sounding announcement over the station loudspeakers. The train that was going the opposite direction was stopped for the night after a case of 「人身事故」 somewhere up north. The hundreds of people filed through the station with a little grumble, but everyone went along the businesses as usual.

Now, this situation would be unimaginable outside of Japan. 「人身事故」, roughly translated as "physical accident," is an euphemism for people committing suicide by throwing themselves in the train tracks as speeding trains approach station platforms. And yes, in Japan, this is practically an every day event: one Sunday I actually encountered an announcement that three train lines all went down due to 「人身事故」(of course, three separate incidents).

And by the looks for the people reacting to these horrifyingly monotonous announcements, we can easily see that they tend to care just as little about their fellow citizens as "foreign" affairs couple hours away by plane. Listening to the crowds, all I heard were a bit dismayed but otherwise highly indifferent comments about how people should not make themselves source of inconveniences for others with their "public disturbances."

Right, thats exactly what these pesky self-killers are, "public disturbances"? So, while these people are shooting SOS flares for years as their problems in life become more and more unbearable over time, they were simply ignored. And as they send out their last lonely messages to the entire country of Japan by taking that final plunge before the speeding train, no one at the station even considered the personal issues behind these "public disturbances."

I hate to say it but these 「人身事故」 is in essence not any different from a terrorist blowing himself up in a large crowd. These two different WMDs uses the same painful format to let the surroundings know that there is a problem in society. But as people continue to label these "dangerous elements" as motivated by simple "craziness," they will continue to miss opportunities to review and reflect on the social structures that is causing the insuppressible appearances of these WMDs.

At the end, we should realize that the value of human life is universal. And because some people are willing to give theirs up voluntarily to warn us of problems that we really need to take their underlying messages seriously. Yeah, it may be true that a life is worth less somewhere, but issues that prompt people to commit suicide are just as strong everywhere. If we do not examine these issues, perhaps the day we laugh off suicides (like in "Suicide Club") really is not that far away....

Sunday, December 12, 2010

On Self-Censorship and Independent Identity

As both my blog content and readership expand in size, some negative feedbacks are bound to arise. To be fair, I have been a writer of controversy, and I fully admit this point (and am quite proud of it, despite the "unfriendliness" I sometimes receive). But as a paid full-time white-collar worker that I have now become, the trigger-happiness and the joy of lashing out at anything and anyone I feel like, inherited from my college days, may become a serious liability to my future directions in life, career, and plainly said, amount of cash I will receive.

Yes, I am talking about the many job-related posts I have been writing on this blog. All of them have been shared on Facebook, on which I already have many "friends" who are from Rakuten, not to mention some who happen to be in very high places and can easily derail my long-term plans in the company by putting in some light complaints. Right, an easily replaceable new graduate with a big mouth, certainly an uncontrollable commodity when some skills are obtained and a few ladders climbed.

But, what they should realize I do have a message for them beyond my constant ridicule of their obscenely inadequate English skills, not to mention their complete lack of understanding when it comes to cultures of English-speaking countries. It is a message that says, right now, I actually care enough about the company to honestly point out her problems. And more importantly, I actually want to stay have for a LONG time if they do make amends and work to resolve these issues.

"They," the top-tier leaders, should listen. Yes, the way they deal with new graduates does have problems; Yes, there are interesting business ideas they have not considered; Yes, sometimes they, as a collective, behave like the leaders of a certain unmentionable East Asian political entity. I am still able to express these opinions because I have yet to be brainwashed to simply follow commands and wait for promotions.

But of course, for some, that "robot-nization" will come just as surely as "English-nization." After the hopes and high expectations of placements are blown away for most people, the only way to escape the "sad" reality is to shut up and do what you are told, perfectly. Just make to "think for yourself" and "do it yourself" enough so that your honorable superiors and bosses do not get overly offended from answering all your stupid questions.

With or without these borderline (or outright, depending on how you see it) inappropriate commentaries, this blog is, and will always be, my personal diary, one that just happened to be published online for everyone to examine as closely or sparsely as they feel. Inscribing my personal thoughts is the whole reason for its existence, so there is absolutely o reason for me to compromise on that point as long as the blog continues its existence.

René Descartes said it well, "I think, therefore I am." A person without fully independent thoughts cannot be considered to have a fully independent individual identity. Without individual opinions, a mature adult can only be labelled sub-human. And as I taught my students in English, true writing, done as enjoyment and not purely as a task and a chore, need to display the logic and the character of the writer, pulling the reader straight into the writer's world, no matter how discomforting that situation is to the reader.

And discomforting is exactly what certain readers of this blog should feel. I am making an all-out assault on their established positions, and I am shooting signal flairs into the sky as I do so. Those entrenched in the established positions have to choices: (1) to fight back from their positions and become my enemies, or (2) sit down at the negotiation table to compromise on our respective positions.

And lastly, a comment for all those sitting on the top of corporate hierarchy. In business, rebellion based on logic is inherently equal to innovation. Just as uprisings led to political reforms, dissidence in a business organization represents forces of change. If the leaders of the status quo insist on suppressing rather than learning from the dissidence, perhaps (and I say this very reluctantly out of respect) that the company itself does not deserve us to be gracing her with our efforts and even presences.

First Post in Chinese: 政府可利用自然災害加強國力

In my original motivation to begin, I did mention that I will write at least "a few" posts in foreign languages (i.e. other than English)...It took me literally took me more than 5 months before I actually go back to fulfill that promise. So 76 posts (more than 45000 English words later), I give you my first post in Chinese.

The article was originally written with an intent to publish in Taiwan (where I was actually mentioned once in a negative fashion), Hong Kong, or North America. So the article was written in Traditional Chinese, which is used most often outside mainland China. Of course, the decision to put the article on here is also a little SEO strategy to draw more traffic from these areas (Blogger is blocked in mainland China anyways, so no point doing SEO for that market...)

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Actual Job Assignment and Globalization at Rakuten Revisited

So last week, I finally get my job assignment at Rakuten after two months of "training" that involved brainwashing us with Rakuten ideology. After weeks of anticipation and should I say, annoyance and anxiety, we the new guys were finally given our assigned places at a rather formal-looking ceremony on Tuesday morning. On the surface, everything appeared calm, but below the tranquility some jumped for joy while others quietly shed tears in their hearts.

All the poetic stuff aside, I have to say that most of the assignments are, really honestly, quite puzzling in many aspects. Yes, I did mention how the company have absolutely no idea where to place us, but the randomness of the end result goes much beyond just "let's put this guy there and see what happens." Not to mention the language ability and communication problems, the type of work and the field of studies for each individual just see little connection if any.

But all in all, it somehow feels that the whole "global perspective" and "language abilities" for which us the non-Japanese new graduates are hired have all the sudden became non-commodities not worth considerations. Similarly, our job experiences and majors in college are thrown aside completely. A sales professional goes to creative web design, a politics major goes to accounting, a study abroad grad student becomes just another tool in the Japanese call center...the list goes on and on...

So there goes my entire logic on how the company may end up placing us. I mean, if the "potential" of a young new employee simply means "you tried hard at what you do for the last 20-some years of your life," then what is the point for us to even study anything related to a profession that we desire? We can all just go for easy humanities majors and show them "we tried EVEN HARDER" by getting straight A's...

Oh yeah, forgot to mention that for some unknown reason, I ended up in the CEO Office, the direct subordinate of the Big Boss. But underneath an unsaid shower of awe, congrats, and most importantly, jealousy, it is a me that is completely scared of what it means to be not just a random tool downstairs, but a direct tool of the Boss being evaluated constantly for even the slightest carelessness.

Listen to this "mission statement" of the CEO Office: "our mission is to make the work environment of the CEO completely perfect so that there is no way he can make any mistakes in decision-making." This simple statement suggests two things: (1) The CEO is incapable of faulting as long as he has a "perfect work environment" and (2) if he indeed makes a mistake, it is completely the CEO Office's fault.

And as if that is not bad enough already, here is the answer I got for questioning whether the CEO Office has any advisory role for the Boss: "we should only advise him when he specifically asks us to do so." Wow, talk when you are told to talk, and shut up otherwise. Well, there goes my hopes of making direct suggestions and proposals to the Boss because I happen to be, eh, physically close to him in the office.

So, unfortunately, I always thought globalization meant a "flatter" company structure, where those with global experiences may able themselves to have an independent voice. Instead, the so-called "globalization" at least in Rakuten headquarters is just a creation of an English-speaking North Korea. Hmmm, wonder if it is just me who is trying to import "polite and humble phrases" of the Japanese language into English....

Sunday, November 28, 2010

North Korean Violence and Japanese Indifference

Recently, a deadly volley of North Korean artillery shells killed 4 people on a South Korean-held island near the disputed maritime border near the DMZ...South Korean government vowed revenge, American government launched immediate condemnations and sent in an aircraft carrier, while the Chinese called for calm while sending high ranking officials to meet both the North and South Koreans.

Amidst all the scrambles for reactions by each government in the aftermath of the bombing, Japanese government seemed to be completely aloof...the only thing it did was agreeing with the Americans on calling for the Chinese to help more and condemning the bombings as inhumane. The all-talk-and-no-action stance of the Japanese government is an obvious contrast to the scheming actions of the Chinese, the North Koreans, and the Americans.

Part of the blame is of course the same lack of leadership that plagues the short-lived Japanese administrations, which have largely been ridiculed by all functional democracies. As each prime minister fears for the stability of his position, there cannot be any energy left to opine about any foreign policy issues that does not have any immediate negative effects on the Japanese population. It is hard enough to maintain political support as it is without increased risks from being active outside the country.

But if a democratic government feels risk from taking open actions against something as potentially threatening as North Korea, then the primary responsibility should lie with the people. The Japanese people, being risk-averse (fearing some North Korean missile potentially flying across Sea of Japan) unintentionally have been pushing the Japanese government to be as low-key as possible after making the correct diplomatic response to back the South Koreans and the Americans.

Perhaps a view at the current situation in Tokyo amidst this tense standoff not that far away would be a good way to figure out why the Japanese are so unwilling to do anything beyond a bare minimum with regard to North Korea. As Christmas shopping season approaches, the great engine of Japanese consumerism is in full strength, driven by sale after sale in hollow promises of economic improvements in the near future.

The sensationalizing media and the ultra-right groups continue their usual tough rhetoric against China, portraying the Chinese government as the real culprit behind every North Korean act of craziness. Both the Chinese and the Korean community (pro-South and pro-North) have been keeping complete silence throughout this whole fiasco. Korean pop culture has not seen any decline in popularity both in China and here in Japan...

...really, the sense of political seclusion the average Japanese citizen seems to feel absolutely amazes me at times. Considering that North Korean ballistic missiles (potentially nuclear-tipped) can easily reach every single major city in Honshu from Sendai to Tokyo to Osaka, it is just incomprehensible how much the Japanese does not show any curiosity about the developments merely an hour and half away by commercial jetliner.

Surely, while the major newspapers topped their headlines with predictions of World War III, the only inquiries the average person here poses is "whats wrong with Korea?" done usually as a polite formality to Koreans to show a sense of neighborly care. And as genuinely indifferent as the question comes, the response by the average (South) Korean is just as nonchalant, "North Korea is just stupid, everything will be fine." Right, let's just not waste energy explaining the whole complex background to people don't really care.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

China vs America: the National Image in Japan

The fact that China and the US is competing on everything from currency to coal mines throughout every corner of the world is no longer a matter of speculation in many ways. The battles of words and speculative skirmishes in the cyberspace is only a sure sign of what will become the biggest national rivalry in the world since the Cold War. But while the Cold War remained largely "with us or against us" for both sides throughout, the current "frenemy" (friend + enemy) relations between the two involves much interdependence and overlap of interest.

And in that overlap of interest emerges a group of players largely torn between the two giants, forced to play a balancing game between the two for political, military, and most importantly, economic reasons. Probably the most important of these middling powers is Japan, who sees China as the biggest trading partner (imports and exports) and the US as the biggest political one. To please but not over-pleasing either one has been conscious in the Japanese government agendas.

As the recent bouts of political trouble has shown, political clash with China has triggered major upheaval in the national sentiments, but at the same time, the continuing American military presence is not without protests. On one side is an emerging China threatening Japanese interests, and on the other, a continuously dominant America determined to keep the lid on independent Japanese political voice in the international arena.

While the uncertainty of Japanese government is very clear, perhaps what matters much more for the future stability of Japanese balancing act, the attitude of her people should be more clearly examined. A few things are clear and does not need deep analyses. First, the image of China in Japan, just like it is anywhere else, is extremely negative. The Tibet issue, the blockage of media, and even the harsh reaction of Liu Xiaobo winning the Nobel Prize have all cemented the image of China as a dangerous backward country without freedoms.

Yet, the behavior of US government is not much better (surprisingly). Although the general Japanese audience is very sensitive about expressing their opinions of the US government, when squeezed enough, they tend to lash out against it as well. American unilateralism in the Middle East has surely justified Japanese view of the US as an arrogant tyrant dictating the world order. So in terms of governments, its pretty much a choice between two evils.

What about the peoples? Personal experiences for the individual Japanese and the words of the Japanese media heavily influence the Japanese views of foreigners in general and especially for these two countries. In all honesty, even though there are millions of Chinese living in Japan, there is very little exposure by the common Japanese people to ordinary Chinese. The primary reason is the ability of Chinese people to mold into Japanese society, especially in second generations as they take up Japanese citizenships, names, and cultures.

In contrast, Americans generally stand out hugely throughout Japanese society. Japanese who have lived in the States tend to play up the American-ness in the entertainment industry, while, as it is everywhere else, the Hollywood movies have gave largely positive stereotypes of Americans, which somehow passed along to the average American living in Japan. The willingness of people to learn English (see Rakuten) has only increased the status of the Americans (even more than people from other English-speaking countries).

But as a forecast for the future, perhaps it will be more and more important for the Japanese to recognize the Chinese person outside of his or her government. There is already strong understanding of the Chinese businessperson as the economic relations of the two countries grow despite political issues, and slowly and surely Japanese are taking themselves to China not just for business and in much greater numbers. Along with increased Chinese tourism and immigration to Japan, there will be a day when the average Chinese will have to surpass the distant and mystic American as the most accepted foreigner simply in order for Japan to survive as a nation, economically and demographically.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Hassles of Everyday Banking in Japan

I just came back from a tiring day trip to the city of Mito in Ibaraki Prefecture. The round trip from my home in Kamata took more than five hours; I was totally surprised by how far the place is...but the fall leaves are coming in really nicely in Kairaku Garden, one of the Big Three historical gardens in Japan (with today's trip to Mito, I have now been to all three). But, as is the case for Japan, the transportation fee ate up a huge chunk of the budget, forcing me to withdraw more money to support myself for the near future.

I take my passbook (通帳, or the record book that can be used for ATM instead of a cash card) to the local ATM to get some cash...but I show forget my password (a totally random 4 digit number I wrote on a piece of paper in my room) during the use of the ATM. So unsuccessful tries later, I was told that my passbook has been locked and I now need to go to the local bank branch during business hours to get it unlocked and withdraw cash.

Now, this whole fiasco is occurring while I am constantly reminded that my cash card (much easier to carry around than the passbook) has not arrived after opening the bank account for more than three weeks, and that I have absolutely no time to visit a bank during its business hours (outside of my measly one hour lunch break) since the banks in this country all seem to close at 3 or 4pm (even the bank ATMs are done by 9pm...which totally defeats the purpose of having ATMs)

This sort of irritation I have right now is rather ironic since I have been complaining how bad services are in China and the US are only a few months ago. Back then I was using Japan as the "good example," describing the services here as fast, efficient, and attentive to details largely due to some elusive cultural reason. Looks like I kind of have to take back my words after this particular situation with the banks.

My little problem with getting cards and using passbook here is overshadowed by much more perplexing state of everyday financial services in Japan. For one thing, it is interesting to see that people tend to pay in cash for almost anything below around 200 USD. The concept of using credit or even debit cards to save the hassle of carrying and counting cash does not seem to be accepted widely by the people.

Furthermore, the saving system also seem to stay in a much more backward period inconsistent with the high rate of monetary transactions for an economically developed country like Japan. Interests on savings can only be generated for fixed date savings of more than half a year and the interests are only payable when the full time commitment for fixed savings is fulfilled before the total saved amount is withdrawn or placed in another savings plan or bank account.

To me, all these little hassles regarding money seem to come together to act as a sizable barrier preventing the Japanese public from spending more money. Of course, the economic problems the country is going through and the lack of consumer confidence serve as the primary reasons for lack of consumption, but if, as Rakuten always says, shopping can become more of an entertainment, in this case, through the simplification of monetary transactions for purchases, wouldn't the people be lured to spend more because it is more convenient to do so?

Some would argue that the convenience of spending money is already existent with the myriad choices of contactless cards like Suica and Edy that can be used in most convenience stores, shopping centers, and public transport. But with the need of constantly charging the cards (the upper limit is only around 200 USD) with cash and absolutely no guarantee of getting back the charged money when stolen, how are these cards even helpful in anyway? (especially for a guy short on cash and has no way to withdraw more, like me)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Tolerating the “Intolerant”

So speaking of traveling as I did in toward the end of the last post, I remembered another classic travel story that may shock the normal person. Witnessing poverty and inequality is perhaps one of the most important reasons that I travel by myself to places not particularly considered touristy in anyways (kind of like what Che Guevara did in his Motorcycle Diaries). But it is these kinds of situations that really makes trip memorable, beyond any exotic cultures or natural wonders.

Boarding a Greyhound long-distance bus from New Orleans to Atlanta, I was joined by a young white lad who sat next to me in a usual crowded bus. He was quick to open up. A coal miner from rural Wyoming, he told me about the accidents that took away a few of his fingers and shaky relations he has with his family.“Oh, once I caught two black guys trying to steal my truck, so I killed them with a shovel.”

His loud yet nonchalant statement coming out of nowhere instantly sent my eyes wide-open and a chill down my back. “I didn’t get charged because it was self-defense,” he followed it up in a rather matter-of-fact way. Yet, everything stayed normal. The blacks continued their chatters while the young miner continued with other stories with his characteristic smile, not at all seemed to be bothered by what he had just stated.

My fear for violence turned into surprise at the “illogical” outcome. I entirely expected the young miner was supposed to be labeled a “racist” and become a target for attacks from blacks around us. But a second thought on the whole affair exposed the naiveté of my surprise. Looking back at my train of thought, from the moment I stepped onto the bus, there perhaps was only one topic on my mind: race.

Yet as I concentrated on who is black and who is white, I neglected the much greater similarities that tied together passengers of different colors. I neglected to notice that these were the people who were barely scratching out a living in a wealth-dominated society, a group banded together by their firm grip on the harsh economic reality. Making solid progress on moving forward in life is of much greater concerns than empty words, however hostile-sounding from their neighbors.

And it is at that moment that I realized that the isolated microcosm of the moving Greyhound bus was the peaceful and harmonious world that I am always seeking. A world full of complete strangers, yet no one showed any fear in frankly divulging life stories, however horrid, because of their common bonds in suffering life’s difficulties. In a case of a man living in a rural community in an isolated state like Wyoming, the truck is beyond a transportation vehicle.

It is his only method of transportation to work, to shops, his only connection to the far-away human civilization. To him, that truck is his livelihood. Would he have attacked the carjackers, even if they were not black? Of course! The continuity of his life depended on the safe-keeping of that truck. And here was I, just like a large portion of economically well-off America, so caught up in buzzwords like “black” and “kill” in a single sentence that I was judging a man for simply doing what he needed to do to survive, all in the name of “racial harmony” through “political correctness.”

Our role in a peaceful world should be to listen, comprehend, and respond with our opinions in the most honest manner, no matter how repulsive the replies may sound. Peace cannot simply be achieved by yelling out slogans calling for “racial equality” and labeling as “intolerant” anyone whose statements seem to contradict that “harmonious” spirit. For too long have people avoided discussion of the most divisive issues for fear of turning into violence.

As the necessary discussions for their resolutions are delayed for the sake of “harmony,” the issues will only become more problematic and explosive. While the common people are brainwashed with politically correct slogans and remain ignorant about the true natures of the problems, they are at the same time placed in a role of actively suppressing any meaningful discussions on the problems by misusing their emotional symbols of “racial equality” and “social justice.”

Through such forceful suppressions, people have become the very instigators of violence in efforts to “prevent violence” stemming from “racial tensions.” In an issue as explosive as that of racial relations, people need to see beyond the obvious symbols of color and socio-economic status to examine the underlying causes of the seemingly race-based wealth gap that is truly becoming a flash point for violence.

Only through true understanding of the divisive issues can we defuse their underlying tensions. And to gain that true understanding and bring about true peace, we should not be afraid to candidly point out the divisiveness of the divisive issues. Ridding society’s taboos on talking about the divisive issues must be first steps to their resolution. And finally, let us not fear the attacks from those who remain loyal to the emptily idealistic slogans of racial harmony. After all, how can people who are intolerant of the “intolerant” be considered truly tolerant?

Learning to say "No" amidst Unexplainable Anxiety to be Productive

Nowdays, I simply do not get enough days where I have excess time to do things not work-related in any way. In fact, I do not remember a time like today where I have absolutely no plans with any coworker or assignments that I kind of have to work on for the company. Oh right, I was thinking about where I want to go for work in the company after this month's training is over, but that can be saved for tomorrow when I actually have access to the company organization chart.

I am sitting here daydreaming about what my future will be like...but keeps getting these interruptions from the usually active mind that tells me to move on to something more productive. So far for the day I have checked all the recent news articles and good opinion pieces on the Economist magazine...so moving onto my second post for the day (At least the mind is countering this one, writing is pretty high up on the list of priorities even when I am this busy with work)

So within these even-rougher-than-usual sloppy writing, I would like to discuss the importance of creating more of my own time by saying "no" to things you do not want to do. Of course, as discussed before, coworker relations must be maintained in whatever case that come up, but unlike a regular Japanese employee who does not separate his personal and work lives, I, as someone who hates losing independence in anyway, must be able to things on my own without thinking about how bad my relations with others will get because of my unilateralism.

Considering current situation, I am both lucky and unlucky. Lucky that I am not actually stuck in a dorm-like situation where I have to constantly watch others' every move and be watched in a similar way. But very unlucky in that I still have to deal with coworkers who do happen to live nearby and frequently ask me to go to different things with them. For those who live by themselves, it seems that this arrangement is perfect for developing the right sense of distance among colleagues, but I have to say it is not nearly enough for creating my own personal space.

For one thing, because they are your coworkers and not just random neighbors, much more care and attention are needed to make sure relations are maintained at least at a friendly level. Changing an apartment because of personal feuds may be easy, but changing companies for those tiny personal issues are simply ridiculous. And to make the situation worse, with our apartment on a yearly lease, even moving apartments would be impossible for the time being.

I have to say that I am still largely unable to say "no" to anything from my coworker without feeling quite guilty afterwards. In a work environment where the intra-company connections are the best chances for success, I have to say that I cannot afford to be doing much nay-saying, even toward coworkers who live in the same building. Nay-saying today will and must come back to me as vengeful nay-saying that will potentially hamper my career much later on....

So With this in mind, I would like to add to the previous post about my desired workplace. Right now, I feel like I should request a position in any branch office outside of Tokyo. I do not care where the office or what I do as long as no one else in my group also goes to the same place. Come to think of it, since the local offices are so small (generally less than a hundred and some are in the teens for total number of employees), any success there will reflect big in terms of ability because there are relatively few people who can lay claim to your achievements.

And at the more personal level, the need for nay-saying simply disappears. Guaranteed loneliness in terms of lodging and with no one from my year around, I am free to pursue whatever I want when I have no extra assignments from the company, whether it be playing games (I doubt that will last long though) or more importantly, TRAVEL! With little resources for travel around Tokyo, I am really looking forward to exploring other parts of Japan that I have not been (especially Kyushu and Okinawa)

Rationalizing Where Specifically to Work in Rakuten

So this blog was started AFTER the end of my college years to rationalize where my life will go now that the days of being a student are completely (well, at least temporarily) over...and perhaps now, that months-long exploration of directions may finally come to something useful in the next week or so as we the new graduates of Rakuten are put to the spot of choosing our career paths within the company.

While the choice does not really determine our lives (people get next assignments in a few years at most after getting into one department), a short conversation with the head of HR department does sort of determine which direction each one of us will head toward, as the first choice will certainly throw at least some limitations on where the individual CAN go based on the skills he or she can learn in that very first assignment.

So, gauging the intents of my colleagues, a few trends are already very clear. First, almost everyone is determined to head somewhere where international work is required. This is surprising considering how every non-Japanese (and even some Japanese) people in my group got in the company in the first place. Every person (I suppose myself is included) is simply keen to use what they perceive as their advanced understanding of foreign languages and cultures.

Second, almost no one is keen on heading toward positions where direct verbal contacts with Japanese clients are involved. Merchant consulting, sales that focus on getting new merchants to set up shops in our online shopping mall, and call centers receiving angry complaints from shoppers and merchants seem like hell to practically everybody. The speculation of people in the group being sent there (a prospect we all kind of had to come to face after meeting non-Japanese employees in sales) have repeatedly sent nervous shivers down our backs.

Third, I am sensing quite a bit of dismay coming out of non-Japanese new employee about the lack of clear directions from the company. By that, we all know now that the company, lacking experience in dealing with foreigners not from a Japanese university, have no idea what to do with or make of us as of yet. We do not know if at some point the company will simply quit their experiment with this initial bunch and stick all of us in a hidden corner of the company to conceal the failure of first try at employee globalization.

With this bleak sentiment and lack of thorough understanding of exactly what is out there in terms of actually feasible choices (apparently the International Department requires too much of sophisticated knowledge base for the new employee to enter directly), I would like to think a bit about where I would actually want to go in this monstrous, gigantic, highly ambiguously organized organization with employees highly scared of the prospect of receiving people who are not Japanese in anyway whatsoever.

But if the Big Boss says globalization will happen, then it better happen. While I still do not understand how this whole "English-nization" project will come into a more proper existence, we better be executing them by first getting the personnel necessary to make full-fledged English communication, both verbal and visual, possible. So I believe that my first task should be helping out with recruiting new foreign employees just like me.

Then, after the recruiting and training programs for foreign employees can be comfortably conducted in English, eh, quite a few years down the line, I hope to see an independent department for foreign expansions come into existence. Pushing for my personal desire for foreign placement aside, if the mission of empowering the world really does mean something in a global scale, then obvious class differences abroad must be somehow resolved.

So, basically, after iterating these vague ideas of work, I have to say that I am not quite sure what to expect anywhere I get into. Recruiting, as well as the entire back office in Rakuten feels like any other Japanese company in terms of the environment. And the fact that each department have their own separate, uncoordinated international projects are quite puzzling for a company so determined to make it abroad. I will think these ideas through a bit more as I await that day of judgment not so far from now....

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A Ragtag "Camping" Trip and the Japanese Sense of Humor

As hard as people work here in Japan, there is always a need for holidays and vacations for the average salary-man like me just like white collar workers in any other part of the world. The "getting away from it all" sort of feeling is especially necessary in a city like Tokyo, where the endless concrete jungle simply let her residents feel a complete segregation from nature.

But big words and feelings of adventure aside, people sometimes just need a reason to congregate and socialize, even in an environment where they seem to see each practically everyday for some serious matter. As I stated before, the separation of meeting for work and meeting for fun is so completely possible without a slightest hint of awkwardness.

I thought that "meeting for fun" with your coworkers somehow stayed in the vicinity of the local drinking spot to complain about how difficult work is, but the past weekend was a real eye-opener for understanding how intimate a bunch of young professionals can really get outside of the usual environment regarding the usual talks of business.

I decided to go on this trip along with some new graduates who entered the company at April of this year for a trip to a lake near Mt. Fuji. The camping trip was one for working out the details of the upcoming business plan contest at the company and of course, to get to know each other a bit more. But from the beginning, it deviated quickly from my original expectations.

The alcohol started flowing right after we got to the cottage in the middle of the mountains. The initial meeting centered around getting people to propose potential business plans, but the alcohol made the discussion perhaps a bit too lively for a logical progression of ideas. Drinking only made the meeting more awkward as people who talk talked more and people who dont just sat there extremely confused.

So much for thinking about work when drinking. More drinking for the guys as they headed for the hot springs nearby. In classic Japanese style, everyone got in the same bath completely naked and joked around as a bottle of strong sake is passed around. The outgoing commentary here would have flabbergasted any Westerner with any sense of privacy....

Then came the dinner. The alcohol came in full force, and since the conversation is now in Japanese, even those who were quiet during the English meeting exploded into ecstasy (ok, maybe a bit exaggeration there). The conversation started turning lewd at a surprisingly fast speed considering the presence of female members, who are, even at the end, did not show too much drunkenness.

And then the endgame. Guys sleeping next each other, guys making out with each other, and guys exposing and touching each other in completely inappropriate ways. The guys laughed, the girls laughed, everyone seemed to be in complete joy as they headed for bed. The next day, the reference to the night before was frequently heard, but none seemed to be too concerned with what had happened.

So here I am sitting in an Internet cafe on the morning of a random day off on a Wednesday wondering what exactly "holiday" means for the Japanese. Their sense of humor seems to be unbeatable when they are drunk, but also completely devoid of nuance. I hate to say it, but when I look back, these sort of humor and vacation really tires me out from a mental standpoint....

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Drinking, Working on Sunday, and the Philosophies of Japanese Life-Work Management

Another Saturday, another meet up with some coworkers for some English "lessons" and lunch. The topic somehow (and quite logically) came to the issue of how Japanese salary-men and Office Ladies spend their weekends. Not surprisingly, the typical answers were "taking it easy, hanging out with friends, and having a few drinks," but extent to which all of these mix in with work-related stuff is absolutely shocking for a foreigners used to a complete division between work and life.

Sure, being good friends with your similar-aged coworkers and hanging out with them outside of office is of course possible and understandable (same reason why I am there every Saturday). But lets take a closer look at what we were doing: the lunch conversations frequently merged into classified technical fields of the company, interlaced with insider information each departments and their heads.

This was happening all the while anything about the company is off-limits for everyday conversation (as per company regulations). Even more symbolically, we were doing the English "lessons" inside the company building and lunch in a nearby salary-men style canteen...after our little meetup, some of us (myself not included) even went back to their desks in the company.

I think separation of private and work life is not simply a Western concept. Biologically, people should be averse to going to a place of hard labor (not to mention much mental pain) anymore than they are required. Environment change often is the primary vehicle for change in mentality, especially between one of tense readiness and complete joyful relaxation.

In this particular group, as a reflection of Japanese work culture in general, has chosen to see the company simply as a community and platform, where both hard work and playfulness can occur. But even more than college campuses (where the same logic sort of applies), the exact same rooms for work can be converted for other purposes than are not at all serious and related to the company.

Besides the omnipresence of the company building in the salary-man's life, the close integration of work and life can also be seen from another perspective. One of the coworkers mentioned how he goes out drinking everyday after work. Not necessarily with people from work, but the whole idea of showing up with the attire and attitude of work to a drinking environment sort of symbolizes that the drinking itself will not be 100% casual and free from thoughts of work.

And then everything seems to go back into a loop. More work means more opportunities for drinking, and more drinking means more opportunities for work. The cycle connects the two major activities of the Japanese employee and give birth to the image that most foreigners have of the Japanese as workaholics who cannot even get rid of work in drinking parties.

Not that this is all bad. I have repeatedly pointed out the importance of loyalty to their own company displayed by the Japanese. The fact that the company remains in every aspect of their lives gives a strong sense of familial ties among employees and a deep sense of commitment displayed by the individuals toward the company. It is the major strength of Japanese companies that allow them to retain skilled labor over time despite attempts by competitors to steal human resources.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The "Picky" Customers and Japanese Consumerism

There was a particular example often raised when people talk about how picky Japanese people can be regarding, well, everything they buy. The Kit-Kat chocolate bar, started in the US with one original flavor (um, chocolate) somehow morphed into 27+ different varieties over its decades of development in Japan. While the Kit-Kat bar remains the same and popular in the States, in Japan, flavors come and go as consumers magically get tired of them a few months after introduction.

And Kit-Kat bars certainly isn't an exception. Everything from soft drinks to sausages always seemed to carry some extra ingredient that is not thought of even in their countries of origin. Food flavors comes in and goes out faster than fashion trends, leaving companies forced to constantly innovate their products. Now, if food flavors in Japan are like fashion trends elsewhere, you can bet that actual fashion trends have pretty much no comparison.

Well, everyone is a fan of innovation. Better designed products with greater functionality improves people's standard of living, often without the need to raise the product's cost. And for Japan, the cutthroat competition forced by constant innovations probably helps to cement its reputation as a producer of cutting edge technologies and origin of many interesting, unique products first started in Japan and now sold around the world (instant noodles, for one).

But while the sort of innovation for survival in Japan attests to both the maturity and stagnancy of the consumer markets here, it probably speaks greater volumes about the cultural mentality of the Japanese rather than the economic conditions. After all, the competition for basic products in the States are just as intense and wide open for Japanese firms with their innovative products to enter, but the sort of varieties seen in Japan has not taken hold on the other side of the Ocean.

Again, the issue is one perhaps unique to small, densely packed countries. The lack of space in Japan has forced the Japanese to develop a strong attention to intricate, functional details as compensation for lack of greater area. The lack of resources further forced the Japanese to minimize size of most products, compelling them to concentrate even more on the details to make the items just as productive as larger ones.

On the other hand, the open expenses and seemingly endless resources fielded by the States creates a "whatever" attitude among the people. Size and quantity becomes a standard of quality by themselves, and the attention of detail by the Japanese is often seen as absurdity. So, as materialistic as the Americans are, their focus seems to be just getting more "stuff" that do separate individual tasks, a very logical conclusion given the high income and large garages for storage.

The opposite is true for Japan. Rather than buying a new product with a different function, a product with one function will be replaced one that performs multiple functions. The processing speed and convenience of each individual products will be tested to the maximum because small Japanese homes does not allow the simultaneous existence of many products.

Such attention to quality, then, is easily explainable for food. Because the idea of food as filling (for low price) cannot exist given limited resources, they must "taste good" in extraordinary ways to satisfy the appetite. And while price reflect the quality in a large state, in Japan, the high price is an established fact, and the manufacturers have to bring up extraordinary quality even for low-end products to match the cost.

The result, not surprisingly, is the general lack of affinity for everyday goods at their localities displayed by Japanese abroad. Greater choices at home, topped off with greater quality defined by functionality, and plus better service, leads to conclusion that Japanese-designed goods are superior. But, as discussed, the high quality is but a long-winded side effect of Japan as a country lacking resources.

Alcohol in your Mouth, but Work still in your Mind...

Company employees going out to drink after work and on weekends is pretty common phenomenon. (I did last night...and I am still feeling a little, um, unnatural in my stomach as I write this post) Even bosses and senior colleagues would likely to join for a few. The atmosphere is generally pretty rowdy as people's characters start to reshape toward a more spontaneous side after few.

To such a biological certainty, one colleague said it well after a couple of beers, "I may get drunk,but I will not lose my consciousness." To someone from the West, that may just sound like the guy bragging about how much control he has over his alcohol-infused mentality, but the phrase, I realized, sort of takes on a double meaning in the Japanese context.

As with anything else in Japan, the hierarchic power structure of any group environment can clearly be felt and is expected to be maintained even as rowdiness takes over. Even as alcohol renders the body incapable of performing prohibitive bows, the mind seems to retain that clear knowledge of who is ahead and who is behind in terms of status within the company.

Yet, furthermore, what really surprises me is that a drunk Japanese can actually show even greater affinity and willing to concede to such a structure when his ability to make decisions are clearly impaired. The discussions on seniority (age, education, etc) seems to become even more intense when people are drunk, people seem even more sensitive toward who to use honorary language (or what the alcohol-impaired mind can actually piece together) and who not to.

It is a phenomenon that baffles me from a biological standpoint. As I have come to observe over the years (well, at least outside Japan), any sort of social construct, including rules of hierarchical arrangements, weakens with alcohol due to overpowering strength of raw emotions that are usually suppressed to prevent social blundering when sober.

That is precisely the reason why people use alcohol as a social lubricant. Joy and excitement become primary expressive tools of inebriated people, allowing them to overcome sense of embarrassment and fear of negative social consequences from doing/saying otherwise socially "stupid" things. This process is simply biological and should be present in all humans, which is why alcohol is enjoyed in all societies without religious restrictions.

So, perhaps, for Japan, a new definition of what is "socially stupid" must be created. If outright expressions of social hierarchy becomes something common when people are drunk, what does it say about the entire social order during normal business hours? It says that social order is never defined verbally (or explicitly in any particular way) but by mutual understanding.

So Japanese social order is like the English "common law." Not much is written but all the judgments can be made by looking at precedents. Do exactly what people of the past did in the same situation. Open challenges to the precedents can screw up the entire premise of the system. This, I suppose, is why Japanese corporate structure, and seniority system in Japanese society as a whole, is so resistant and incapable of change.

Monday, October 11, 2010

the First Week of Work...Experiencing "Salary-manhood"

I knew this day would come, but just not in such a desperate and tiring way...the day when my blog goes from a daily (and sometimes hourly) inquiry into my ever-randomly thought-generating mind to a complete afterthought in the shadow of daily work assignments and the lonesome life of a Japanese salary-man. I did not know that the shadow would be so spacious and chilling.

People says the ever-increasingly non-relevance of Japanese companies is due to lack of innovative ideas in their ranks. Before, I used to find this sort of pointed commentary racist. Brainpower is biologically equally distributed and any society, rich or poor, is capable of generating rebels of some sort. How is it that the Japanese society has been automatically deprived of "innovative power"?

Now I have a clearer understanding. The basic pretext of an innovative thought being generated are two: (1) a societal stimulus passes through the mind, whereupon the mind sees the stimulus' lack of consistency with its version of ideal society, and (2) the society has given the said individual the freedom and the courage for him to inquire and act upon that particular inconsistency.

Modern Japan has neither of these pretexts readily available. Sure, some companies, like mine, have tried their best escaping from the corporate culture here, but it is far from enough. I am getting seriously tired of saying how speaking perfect English does not makes you international or even non-Japanese. Dressing casual as sign of being non-traditional is trivial compared to all the traditions that are not broken and dutifully conformed.

All this in a backdrop where I am repeatedly told that we, the non-Japanese employees, should change the Japanese rather than the other way around. As if that is actually possible! How dare we stand out and be that barbarian who violates the rule? In a place where we are completely at the mercy of Japanese coworkers and bosses, who are we on the lowest ranks tell anyone how to act and think?

Ok, here is a little detail probably none other than me have really though about: in our (Japanese) business manner lessons, we were explicitly instructed that women not having make up on in a workplace is unprofessional and unacceptable. Right, basic rules of etiquette these days do say that women are suggested to have make up on in public, but nowhere else have I ever encountered any written rules that forbids not having make up on.

I am not much of a feminist, and would too prefer women with make up (and shaved legs and armed pits, among other "womanly conduct") but the fact that a blatant piece of gender inequality is a part of a public endorsed code of conduct is just shameful on many levels. And that highest level of shamefulness is the fact that no one, at any level of this particular society, makes a peep about this.

To make a substantial change, one must first be willing to act as a "lone rebel." Thats the kind of aggressiveness the company ideology has been so codified to admire. Yet it seems like if a woman with no make up walks into the office one day, I would be the only one feeling sincerely respect. The social reflex of the vast majority will gladly label the woman as "uncultured" in an instant.

So we the salary-men are supposed to think. Yet we will not say. A forced smile splashing across our faces, we move forward. To us, it seems that the greatest ideal is keeping this beautiful status quo. No one disturbs the peace and all the women dress and look well at anytime...well, all until someone snaps from the stress and the tiredness....

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Two Rakutens

Heading into the grandiose welcoming ceremony for new employees, I was utterly surprised by the scale of Rakuten's ambitions to become global...well, on the surface, at least. Dozens of foreign employees from across the globe (especially a group of Chinese students directly hired from the mainland) and the whole ceremony was conducted in English.

It seems that Rakuten takes its promise to become English-speaking very seriously. But, as the ceremony continues, the Japanese side of the company really began to take over. Even as (heavily-accented) English continues to fly, the ceremony was no different from any other Japanese one.

The big bosses and the little new guys all bowed solemnly, and applause and cheers were not to be heard at any point. Even after the ceremony at a little welcoming snack session, the CEO passing through the room was treated as if homecoming of a celebrity, with us the new guys herded around him for a highly scripted (and highly unnatural and awkward) "conversation."

Of course, there is no denying that Rakuten continues to be an overwhelmingly Japanese company. Most of the clientèle and employees (even the new ones) are Japanese, and even as the 2012 English conversion deadline pass by, the conversations among most employees outside work continue to be Japanese. As I have said before, changing a language is easy, but changing to a culture that fits the language? not so much....

I don't want to repeat my views on Japanese corporate culture, I am tired of talking about those cliches. But those cliches exist because they are real and highly impressionable, or should I say, haunting for the many foreigners who has to put up with Japanese culture in this so-called "global company."

The thing that probably showed in the most obvious way Rakuten's lack of readiness for globalization is its training procedures. Unbelievably, all manuals for software setups (required by all new employees) are completely in Japanese with no English versions anywhere to be found. After hiring HR saying that new year's applicants don't even need to speak Japanese, this is quite shocking.

And whats more surprising is that outside of few people in top management, most Japanese employees (including the new ones coming in) doesn't seem to be living up to the global workplace the big boss is trying so hard to create. Outside of polite conversations, clear gap and distance between foreign and Japanese employees exist. And of course, the higher in the corporate structure, the fewer foreigners are seen (with none on the board of directors).

Perhaps the group in the best position to bridge this foreign Rakuten-Japanese Rakuten schism is the (small) group of Japanese students who have studied abroad. Unfortunately, most of them tend not to escape from Japanese culture in the years abroad, so they tend to remain mostly Japanese (who just happened to be absent from Japan for a few years)...I suppose the foreign-conscious Japanese students would have stayed in whatever foreign countries they studied in rather than come look for a job in Japan.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

the Wild Wild Cyberspace...

It is common logic that laws are only enforceable where individuals can be tracked down when crimes are committed. The ability to identify and track down the criminal is perhaps the most factor preventing more people from harming others for personal benefit. Seriously, if one knows that one is guaranteed that one cannot be found by the law-enforcement agencies, where is the risk for doing something illegal?

In the modern world, this sort of "disappearing criminal" logic still works in two circumstances: international relations and the cyberspace. As for international relations, I don't need to elaborate. A country can easily make up some bullshit reasons to invade another in the name of "justice." And domestic laws can easily be overridden when foreign fishermen are concerned.

The logic is clear, the criminal with more power, as defined by greater technology, greater economic strength, and even greater size becomes good enough reason to replace the boundaries of law. Law indeed have to shut up in front of power.

In any country, this sort of situation would be considered immoral and controversial. But when a country's jurisdiction becomes a mere laughable threat without any teeth, then even the most righteous citizens can only look on with dismay. While in the case of international relations, one can still hope for a superpower acting as an impartial judge in fronts not necessarily tied to her national interest, in the cyberspace, all such hopes are simply unrealistic to the extreme.

I came to such grim realization after discovering that my Yahoo mailbox have been hacked through multiple times, with spam emails constantly generated to all my friends and acquiescences. Of course, as all the spam are directly sent from my email, I have no way of knowing who is the culprit and not way of punishing him/her/it.

In a way, it is another example of technology as a tool for victory. While Internet companies can battle it out offline with their business strategies, individuals on the Internet can easily hide their identities among hundreds of millions of daily users from every corner of the globe.

Even for countries determined to control the flow of information on its domain, as long as it is connected to the Worldwide Web, even in a highly limited fashion, it is vulnerable to unwelcoming intruders. Sure, some countries work on cyber technologies that can identify the origins of these intruders, but what about the commoners like me?

As I see the damages done from my own mailbox and facing accusations from people who've received multiple spam mails from me, the only thing I can do is to passively accept my unluckiness. After all, I am not the only one getting such treatment from cyber criminals; I too had received spam mails from people I know. It is too common a phenomenon that regular netizens like me not longer display any anger toward such petty annoyance.

But is it really OK for us to simply laugh off such sheer intrusion of cyber security without concrete actions? Should we demand the creation of some overarching regulatory commission that watches our every move on the Internet? Careful thinking tells me the answer has to be a no. Just as people go to lawless lands and black markets for adventure and acquire what is impossible in a regulated society, people go to the cyberspace to experience that same thrill.

The Internet, unregulated and lawless, has become the last frontier untouched by the political control of human beings. Any way to reduce freedom and access on the Internet should be condemned as immoral and tyrannical. Heck, who knows, may be one day I will be hacking other people's emails and spamming their friends, haha.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Border Disputes as an Issue of Nationalism

After looking at the ongoing boat row as a financial damage to Japan and as a personal experience of getting negative treatments in Japan, it is perhaps necessary to look at the whole reason why border disputes between nations are so hard to resolve.

Some tend to argue that the issue is largely economic. The whole reason there are disputes over Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands is over the seabed oil fields nearby, and the whole reason why Japan still argues over islets with Russia and Korea is also over fishing fields and trade routes. According to these arguments, somehow Japan's economy/economic security can be greatly boosted through control over a few islands.

But aside from a few decades of cheap fish and oil, the short term benefits are just as hard to establish as long term strategic interests. An essentially Euro-centric Russia sees no reason for war in sparely populated Far East for further expansion, and Japan should not see itself powerful enough to go at it with nuclear Russia (the Americans sure would not like to see that).

South Korea and Japan are both American allies. The only ones benefiting from their conflict can only be China and North Korea. Similarly, overly aggressive Japanese actions over Diaoyu can also trigger negative popular opinions in American-backed Taiwan (although I see such a tendency to decline over time as young Taiwanese are overwhelmingly pro-Japanese).

With the Americans keeping the other disputes under control, the only unstable factor is China. While Chinese government feels itself to be largely unprepared for any sort of open confrontation against the US, the people seem to see the other way. While the government attempt to stop any popular flairs against Japan, the people's anger have not been extinguished (and only made worse as Japan demands reparations).

And that really is the differing factor between a resolvable and non-resolvable border dispute. Nationalists at home makes a conciliatory gesture by the national government impossible. Looking at Sino-Russian border, the resolution was largely done behind closed doors. As the Chinese populace seemed to care a lot more about the borderline than the Russian general public, sensitive areas fought over during Sino-Soviet split are granted to China.

In exchange, Russia received large tracts of land in places where the Chinese public does not seem to know about the disputes. The method of giving up land to calm nationalism has been so highly successful simply because both the Russians and Chinese knew that public opinion, rather than land itself, is the primary obstacle preventing resolution.

If both sides can see land areas as completely exchangeable items given no nationalist sentiment, the issue can be easily resolved. If, as in the case of Diaoyu Island, or to a larger extent, Taiwan and surrounding islands, the whole disputed area is deeply tied to the so-called national psyche, the only sensible way is to maintain status quo through silence.

Border disputes, after all, cannot be resolved unilaterally. That would give the side losing territory the moral high ground of battling "invaders." Any sudden move by one side to change the status quo should be communicated to the other side beforehand to prevent popular mass anger to overtake logical and calm governments, thereby sending even a tiny issue into the international arena.

Entering "Enemy" Territory

So it seems these days when Chinese walks around in the streets of Tokyo. Of course, unless we open our mouths, no one would know, but public opinion is public opinion after all...just seeing the guy next to you on the commuter train reading a newspaper article titled "China's Ambitions to Take Over the East Sea" can't possibly be very pleasing for myself and millions of other Chinese who are in this country.

And then comes the news that Japan rejects Chinese demands for apology and in exchange issues a demand for financial reparations. I really wonder if the government is heeding the call of the people on this particular issue, on both sides. There are few bilateral economic relationships as close and interrelated as the one between Japan and China, with goods and personnel constantly crossing the borders.

As much as citizens on both sides have certain negative images about each other, no one, even on the extreme right, can deny the existing benefits of economic cooperation. Furthermore, the appearance of the Japanese society does not seem like one ready for any open conflict. While the newspapers released its adrenaline-pumped "analyses" of the situation, the people seem to remain wary and nonchalant at most.

China as the bad guy is not new here in Japan or many other parts of the world. Chinese people don't get good treatments around here (Japanese are of course polite to everyone on the surface, but it is evident some foreigners gets better impressions than others). Similarly, Japanese people get occasional verbal abuse when they walk through China.

But dragging public opinion along as an evidence for effectiveness of some government foreign policy made behind some closed door is simply scarring. The public won't notice certain confronting issues if the government keep a lid on it. If the government remains silent, the people on both sides may gradually reduce negative outlooks generated, above everything else, histories from decades ago.

As the ignorant rally to the government cause, its the business elite that suffers. According to my uncle who works in a Japanese company on a collaboration project with a Chinese factory, for China to simply annul an established two-weeks visa free travel policy for Japanese citizens can dramatically slows down business traffic. Negotiations can be bogged down when personnel transits are delayed.

Time is money in business. And business is only possible when the risk of capital loss can be minimized with enough political and legal frameworks. If China and Japan resorts to brinkmanship over an issue that has been kept silent until now, what does the future hold for business? Obviously it cannot possibly be bright. The anxiety cannot be good for future economic expansions.

And come to think of it, business may be the only thing that keeps ethnic and political tensions from boiling over. Business is what brought China and Japan to normalize relations, and maintaining its benefits have been the driving force behind China's unwritten rule of silence on most foreign affairs. For someone who will now enter a profession based on good economic relations between the two, I would not like to see a change in the status quo.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Learning to "Age Gracefully"...

Finally, today, I sent my grandmother back to Nanjing, ending my
pretty much self-imposed three-week house arrest. Watching my
grandmother behave in public for one last time (in a long long while,
at least) as we head our way by train, it still makes me think how
older people behave in China. Maybe a lot of what I say here is
peculiar to my grandmother, but basically, all the social vices we
perceive that Chinese people have are incredibly prevalent among
elders. For instance, cutting in line is normal (quite humiliating
for me to watch when my grandmother does it because I can't follow
her in that particular act).

Also, for her, words like "Excuse me," "Thank you," and "Please" are
never to be used in public toward strangers (even customer service
people)...and, smiling toward others is just not something to be done
logically. Ironically, when foreigners first think of Chinese elders,
bearded wise smiling old men (like Confucius) are probably the first
thing that pops into the mind. Instead, they are hit with insults,
sneers, and hostile looks when they meet Chinese elders in reality.
OK, so this is probably not just in China. Asian elders (especially
in Korea), as far as I've encountered, seems to be always like that.
It really makes me wonder why.

Well, the first thing that comes to the mind is the family-oriented
social structure in traditional Chinese society. But as far as
Confucian values go, the general society is simply an enlarged version
of an individual's core family. Especially considering the importance
of clans and extended families (as well as concepts of special
relationship between those from same occupation, hometown, and social
class that allows for extra reason to bond socially, I don't see why
adherence to Confucianism would prompt individuals to have a default
sense of disrespect for each other that comes out of nowhere.

Furthermore, Confucianism, just like Western values, believe in the
concept of "treating others as you would like to be treated." A basic
understanding of human emotions would tell anyone that a cold shoulder
from one person would like to cold shoulder (and perhaps even anger)
from the other, leading to complete breakdown of interaction. But
what is perhaps more puzzling is the huge discrepancy in the attitudes
Chinese elders have toward familiar people (friends, coworkers, and
family) as compared to complete strangers. It is as if everyone is
bipolar: two completely different personalities for two sets of
people.

But then again, lack of social grace is not a consequence of distant
social relations. Japanese people, like all other Asians) tend not to
interact with strangers either, preferring smaller, more familiar
circles (this explains why solo travel is in vogue in America and
Europe because it is so easy to meet people on the way, while the
concept is often looked upon as strange on this side of the Pacific).
Yet, when the Japanese are asked by strangers (as I occasionally do),
they do like to hold a polite conversion with a bright (even if
forced) smile.

In fact a further observation will find that the so-called "social
grace" among elders (and the entire population) has a correlation with
wealth. People in wealthier countries tend to be more polite when
spoken to. Yet at the same time, contrary to popular belief, "social
grace" seems to have little correlation with education, at least here
in China. My grandmother is a retired chief librarian at one of the
most prestigious universities in Nanjing, but she, like many in
China's elite handling higher education, seemed to show no sign of
grace acquired in a college campus (same can be said of my father, a
medical researcher, in many circumstances).

Of course, as stated in a previous post, distorted distribution of
wealth allows many "low-quality" rich people to emerge, a phenomenon
that can't possibly be good for "social grace." But looking a bit
further down history lane, we can find that memories of intense
struggles for limited resources, whether it be food or jobs, for
survival, have shaped the characters of the elders in developing and
newly developed (like Korea) countries. Since everyone fought for the
same limited resources, politeness, as defined by yielding to others
and placing trust in others, was proved to way to failure.

To put in a social Darwinist view, to survive at the expense of
others, everyone had to see everyone else outside of that small social
cycle as potential enemies to be distrusted. The battles they had to
fight to survive were so scarring that even as limitation of most
resources have become things of the past, they continue to hold on to
such mentality. And for places that continue to see poverty and
scarcity, "social grace" cannot advance. Only with generations after
generations of living under comforting wealth (as Japan has) can the
older population that cannot "age gracefully" die out and be replaced
with the new elders who can.

The fact that I can actually pay attention to whether people have
"social grace" or not means that I am rich. I have already escaped
the bugging thoughts about my next meal and my safety that is
constantly in the minds of the millions of poor that lives in the
world. We are so lucky to be fed and clothed so well that we even
think about how we can behave more "nicely." Yeah, I suppose it is a
sign of advanced civilization, but that animal instinct which we
despise as "lack of social grace," as exhibited by people like my
grandmother, is a constant reminder to the rest of us that poverty is
still out there and it is never too far away for even the wealthiest
person to experience.