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 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....