October 31, 2013

Phone cards

Found in the same cabinet from last week, pretty phone cards! Phone cards? Who doesn't have a cell phone these days? But back in the day, NTT (Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation), the Ma Bell of Japan, charged many hundreds of dollars to install a land line.

Not to physically string the actual copper. Just to give you a number and a dial tone.

More photos of Hasagi (はさ木) in Niigata Prefecture.

So for the college student, the short-term resident, or anybody without $600 (!) to spare, phone cards (or a pocket full of change) and public payphones were the only alternative.

Back in the late 1970s, every room in the BYU dorms had a landline. The only telephone landline you're likely to find in a Japanese dorm is a payphone, still using those phone cards or even coins. They are conveniently color-coded.

Photo by Gabriel Pliska.

Old school dial payphones that accept 10 yen coins are pink.

Photo by Tom & Lily.

In 1999, NTT (the largest telecommunications company in the world) was split into three regional carriers and had to lease unused fiber to third parties. So now a dial tone will only cost you $350! The last time I got a landline here in Utah, it cost me about twenty bucks.

Wireless telephony took off in Japan before the bureaucrats could get around to monopolizing it, so the cell phone (keitai) market is truly competitive and quite reasonably priced.

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October 28, 2013


Gravity is garnering a lot of kudos as the most realistic space movie made to date, though the script still has our heroic pair violating several fundamental laws of physics to make the plot work. As real astronaut Garrett Reisman graciously concedes,

The inaccuracies were done to help advance the plot or to add drama to the film which is exactly the artistic license we should be willing to grant the filmmakers. This is entertainment, not a documentary.

The same can be said about Planetes (2003), one of best ever "near-future" hard-SF anime series. It also involves space debris, in this case a crew of astronaut janitors responsible for cleaning up the dangerous junk zipping around in low Earth orbit.

The first half of the series follows rookie Ai Tanabe as she joins Debris Section, under the tutelage of the young and brash "Hachi" Hoshino. These procedural episodes are some of the best, made all the better by interesting characters and attention to accuracy.

In a way, Planetes, is scientifically honest enough to argue against the idealism of its own premise: showing a child raised in a low-gravity environment to frail to ever return to Earth, and the debilitating effects of long-term exposure to radiation.

The series then gets taken over by Hachi's efforts to qualify for a 2001-style exploratory mission to Jupiter, and a bunch of economic terrorists determined to sabotage the project.

The latter of these two storylines is the weakest. The litanies of zero-sum, socialist complaints about poverty quickly become tiresome, though in the same way that activists of this sort always wear out their rhetorical welcome. So maybe it's on purpose.

In the end, the political arm of the movement sells out the militant arm in exchange for a legislative pat on the head. I did find that totally believable.

The former storyline, about Hachi joining the crew of the Von Braun, is also punishing, except here the writers are taking seriously Kurt Vonnegut's advice for creating compelling dramatic fiction:

Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them, in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

In the process, Hachi becomes a monomaniacal astronaut jerk, and inevitably ends up in a life-or-death struggle with a monomaniacal terrorist jerk. That these are realistic depictions of human nature doesn't make them any more pleasant to watch.

But stick with it. In the final episodes, Hachi's and Ai's character arcs fully develop, intersect, and pay off big time, giving Planetes one of the most rewarding endings--while not losing anything in terms of authenticity--of any anime series.

Hachi's eventual change of heart and reformed outlook on life is real and earned.

In purely scientific terms, Planetes suffers from some of the same technical quibbles as Gravity: the orbital changes required to complete their missions would be impossible with the technology on hand. Orbiting a planet is not like flying a plane.

The more glaring anachronisms include the chain-smoking Fee Carmichael (her nicotine addiction does make for funny comic relief). And a large lunar base would be completely buried to shield it against cosmic rays, solar flares, and micrometeoroids.

But when it comes to science fiction on the big screen and small, making a good-faith effort to get things right counts for a lot. The producers of Planetes paid attention to their JAXA advisors. In that light, the science in this science fiction gets an "A" for effort.

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October 24, 2013

Ticket to ride

Cleaning out a filing cabinet, I found a bunch of old train passes from two-plus decades ago: Nakamozu (中百舌鳥) in Suminoe to Nakafuto (中ふ頭) in Port Town, with allowed transfers as far as Tennouji (天王寺) and West Umeda (西梅田).

This particular pass was for the month of June. The "1" means Heisei 1, according to the nengou system. The Showa emperor (Emperor Hirohito) died on January 7, making 1989 the last year of Showa and the first year of Heisei (Emperor Akihito).

By comparison, here's a 250 yen paper ticket to Ryokuchi-kouen (緑地公園). I was probably going to the park on my day off. It's a couple of stops north of Umeda.

These passes are made from flexible plastic with a magnetic strip on the back. You stuck the pass (or paper ticket) in a slot while going through the turnstiles, it zipped through the electronic reader, and would be waiting for you when you exited.

Of course, that technology is so last century. Now it's all RFID. (The paper tickets are still the same.)

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October 21, 2013

Contrary Japan

Daniel Greenfield recently echoed thoughts similar to mine about Japan as a harbinger of things to come: "The future doesn't belong to Japan. It may not, at this rate, belong to anyone. Japan hurled itself into the future, but didn't find anything there."

As I observed earlier this year, "The year 2012 again had Japan boldly going where no man has gone before. Literally, as it turns out. Where it's going, there's nobody there. Because they died."

Greenfield make other contrary points that are pretty spot-on, such as: "Japan isn't really a technocratic wonderland." Well, it is, but in small, highly-concentrated pockets. Compared to the average American, the average Japanese lives a lower-tech life with a lower standard of living.

Except for the toilets. And the trains.

Greenfield observes that "the strain of a feudal society rapidly transitioning to the modern world is still there." I'm not sure about the "strain," though. Those feudal elements are mostly embraced without a second thought, and have only been exacerbated by recent demographic shifts.

A survey conducted on NHK's Cool Japan program, for example, found that the overwhelming majority of teens favored preserving the hierarchical language reflected by senpai-kouhai (senior-junior) relationships, that start in elementary school and continue for the rest of their lives.

That conservatism helped freeze Japan in time, that time being the cusp of the 90s when Japan was at its peak, and crippled its corporations and its culture, but also made the return of the right to power possible. It's far from certain that a conservative revolution can save Japan, but so far it has a better shot at it than we do.

According to Greenfield, one reason Japan survived the consequences of its social implosion was "because of its dislike for immigration." On top of that, "A society of the elderly may be slow to turn around, but it's less likely to drive off a cliff without understanding the consequences."

A country that still waxes nostalgic about the 250-year isolationist reign of the Tokugawa Bakufu is never going to embrace immigration as a solution for anything, nor should it. Or could it. What Michael Blowhard says about the French is equally true of the Japanese:

Hard though it is for an American to believe, the French wake up in the morning and look forward to a full day's-worth of Being French. They go through the day Being French with great relish. They re-charge at night so that they can spend the following day Being French.

The political term for this in Japanese is kokutai, or "national polity." During that Meiji Restoration, kokutai defined "the eternal, and immutable aspects of [the Japanese] polity, derived from history, tradition, and custom, and focused on the Emperor."

In other words, a system, as Colin Jones puts it, "inherently designed to keep order by protecting the old." Even if the old way of doing things isn't any older than 1868.

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October 17, 2013

Asian economics illustrated

Classify this Heritage Foundation report in the "24 pictures worth a thousand data points" category. Worth a scroll through.

A few things stand out. Its bouts of temporarily insanity notwithstanding, the U.S. is still the world's economic powerhouse, requiring a whole separate graph.

And though Japan's economic obituary gets written about once a week, it remains a huge player, its $308 billion in direct investments in the U.S. far outstripping the rest of Asia.

In the face of a shrinking population, the simplest solution is probably the best: expand your economy where the population isn't shrinking.

And despite its own gargantuan debt, Japan continues to hold $1.36 trillion in U.S. Treasuries. The safest place you can store your hard-earned yen is, well, in U.S. dollars.

That's why the bond markets didn't freak out when faced by a possible "default." When world traders get jittery, a little delay cashing in your bonds doesn't justify abandoning the greenback.

And speaking of possible defaults, money must be flowing once again through the arteries of the federal government because Astronomy Picture of the Day and NASA TV are back!

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October 14, 2013

Ryoko Yonekura

To paraphrase Dirty Harry in Magnum Force: "An actor's got to know her limitations."

Ryoko Yonekura has carved out a niche playing tsundere characters: intelligent, competent, and indifferent to her own looks, presenting a brusque exterior to the world. Think Thirteen mindmelded with House.

Recent roles include a tax inspector, a SWAT negotiator, and a surgeon (currently scheduled for a second season), pretty much the same only different.

Though in 2012, she appeared in the Broadway production of Chicago. She's not just a pretty face, but she is picky about her medium of choice. She does a lot of television, some theater, but few feature films.

Actually, this is something I applaud. Actors who fit a particular character type and are comfortable playing it do much better in their roles than those who feel the incessant need to "act."

There are accomplished actors like Hugh Laurie who can so completely become a character that the brain struggles to connect them to previous roles (Bertie Wooster), and even to the real actor himself.

Ever since House, my initial reaction to seeing the Hugh Laurie on a talk show is: What's he speaking in a British accent for?

David Boreanaz isn't a "great actor," but he's more convincing being the latest version of a David Boreanaz character than, say, Meryl Streep, who's never anything but Meryl Streep pretending.

Kate points to Cary Grant as "the only actor I can think of, off the top of my head, who both utterly vanishes into his roles and who one never, ever ever ever ever forgets is Cary Grant."

I'm not a big Brad Pitt fan, but I believe he accomplishes this in Moneyball. Every now and then it occurred to me: Oh, yeah, that's Brad Pitt. And then I completely forgot who he was again.

Anyway, this year, Ryoko Yonekura goes back to high school in a series appropriately titled: The 35-Year-Old High School Student (Nippon Television).

"You gotta problem with that?"

This isn't Never Been Kissed. She's exactly what the title says. Except that, as with the House-like surgeon she plays in Doctor X, nobody knows who she is or what she's doing there.

It's a setup for an "issue" series: every episode deals with a "ripped from the headlines" issue about public education. From the flashbacks, Yonekura's character has (or had) every single one of those "issues" too.

This lends every episode a repetitive, "After School Special" vibe. And, frankly, if the only way you can deal with your mid-life crisis is by going back to high school, boy, are you ever screwed up.

The simmering pot of melodrama boils over in the two-part finale. A borderline sociopathic kid freaks out, the class bully gets his commupance (and repents), and everybody's issue gets resolved big time.

Think of all the angst and moralizing from all four seasons (so far) of Glee (minus the music and the comic relief) compressed into eleven episodes. That kind of thing.

But the writers can get away with it because, you know, it's Ryoko Yonekura. Honestly, I was impressed by how well she pulled it off. It takes real talent to sell such a preposterous premise.

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October 10, 2013

Manhole cover art

When you think of municipal support for the arts, a manhole cover is probably the last thing that would ever spring to mind. But "nearly 95 percent of the 1,780 municipalities in Japan sport their own specially-designed manhole covers." Explore the art of Japanese manhole covers here and here.

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October 07, 2013

Haafu and half

Harry B. Harris Jr. is receiving his fourth star as a Navy admiral and assuming command the U.S. Pacific Fleet. What makes this appointment unique is that Harris is the son of a Navy enlisted man and a Japanese woman, Fumiko Ohno Harris.

Shisaku muses about how the brain trusts in Japan and China might read these particular tea leaves. But I was also struck by how Harris is a kind of mirror image of the Japanese actor Masao Kusakari. I'm not just talking about physiognomy.

Kusakari's father was an American G.I. He was killed in Korea, so Kusakari was raised by his mother in Japan. You can easily imagine one of those "trading places" scenarios.

When a haafu is Japanese/Caucasian, the Japanese genes usually dominate, except for height. Masao Kusakari is six feet tall, way above average for a Japanese born in 1950. Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish (Iranian father) is a towering six feet five.

In reality, the actual genetic mixing and matching is all over the map. Though with enough data it should plot out as a nice Guassian distribution.

Risa Stegmayer, co-host of NHK's Cool Japan (American father, Japanese mother), doesn't look especially Japanese, especially seated next to the very Japanese Shoji Kokami. (She speaks both English and Japanese fluently and without an accent.)

These variations can be found in "Yamato" Japanese too, though long periods of geographical and political isolation trimmed the tails of the distribution curve pretty short.

In the time-travel comedy Thermae Romae, for example, Hiroshi Abe (below) plays a Roman architect and Kazuki Kitamura is cast as Ceionius Commodus. In terms of their physical appearances, I was perfectly able to suspend disbelief.

Just to make sure, however, whenever Abe's character ended up back in Japan, the casting director surrounded him with "Japanese-looking" Japanese so he could observe how different they are (he describes them as having "flat faces").

This is pretty much axiomatic in population studies. Given a large enough cohort, the Guassian distribution of a common trait will reveal bigger differences within the cohort than than the mean differences across similar cohorts.

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October 03, 2013

Unfamiliar Japan

While Danny Choo focuses more on the modern and postmodern side of Japan, Ojisanjake gets off the beaten track and travels back in time with his "Unfamiliar Japan" blog.

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