March 30, 2017


In her New York Post review, Maureen Callahan describes The Vanished: The "Evaporated People" of Japan (by Léna Mauger and Stéphane Remael) as a compilation of "The chilling stories behind Japan's evaporating people." Sounds dramatic. A little more dramatic than reality.

I seriously doubt that proportionally more Japanese go off the grid than Americans. It's just weird when Japanese do it because, well, Japan is weird to start with and the Japanese are so methodical about such things. Even the homeless in Japan are remarkably organized about being homeless.

What makes Japan different is the ease with which one can "evaporate." As Callahan explains,

There is no national database for missing people in Japan. There are no documents or identifiers--such as our Social Security numbers--that can be used to track a person once they begin traveling within the country. It is against the law for police to access ATM transactions or financial records.

It all goes back to the koseki (戸籍) system.

As in the United States, identity in Japan is based on the birth record. But in Japan, a "birth record" is derived from the centuries-old (though revised and modernized) koseki system, according to which the life events of every citizen are recorded in a genealogical account attached to the household.

It is a pragmatic system whose sheer pragmatism has made it ruthlessly resistant to social change. The married surname controversy has become emblematic of the whole matter, with Japanese courts ruling that, under current law, a married couple must share the same surname.

While sexual mores have kept apace with the times, "illegitimacy" in Japan is treated very much the way it was back in the 1950s. Again, a large part of this is the koseki, which requires that a child be registered to legally exist. The koseki "made every Japanese family an open book."

So a "cover up" could come back to haunt you. Somebody would find out eventually. And that makes for a great plot device.

In The Art of Memory by Sakumi Yoshino (no English version that I'm aware of), the protagonist discovers she has a long-lost brother when she gets a copy of her koseki in order to apply for a passport.

The mistaken paternity in From Up on Poppy Hill arises from registering the child of a deceased friend in order to erase his "orphan" status. By doing so, Umi's father could legally give his "son" up for adoption. But that made it look like Umi and Shun were half-siblings.

The identity theft loopholes documented by Miyuki Miyabe in her mystery novel All She Was Worth have largely been addressed (only in 2008). And yet the koseki continues to reflect the idealized structure of Japanese society, which defined the individual's identity in relationship to the household.

Break that relationship and you can legally cease to exist. That's why "evaporating" works so well. And why skipping out on your debts continues to be a realistic plot device in Japanese melodramas.

In Ma're, when the dad hauls his family off to the Noto Penisula (literally on the other side of Japan) to escape a looming bankruptcy, there'd be no way a credit bureau could track him down unless he told it. Because until only the last decade, the koseki was the credit bureau.

Think of the household as a corporation. Injury to any part of it injures the whole. This is why venture capital remains a mostly foreign concept in Japan. Nobody wants to invest in ten companies knowing that nine will go bankrupt, and nobody wants to be the nine either.

Regardless of the potential upside, the social risk is too great.

But at least when it comes to personal identity, a sea change is coming, though it is a rising tide, not a tidal wave. The Japanese government has gotten serious about the "My Number" system, the equivalent of a Social Security number.

(It's an official Japanese government website so of course it sports a cute bunny mascot.)

That's right, up to very recently, the notion of a single number that followed you everywhere simply didn't exist in Japan. Once it is fully implemented, it should make identify fraud more difficult. But then it will also make possible Social Security number fraud. Welcome to our world.

Related posts

The Mormon "koseki" problem
The koseki system in The Twelve Kingdoms

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March 23, 2017

Goldfish scooping

In Japan, the lowly carp is king. Koi (鯉), a subspecies of the common carp, emerged in the early 19th century. Rather the same way kennel clubs became all the rage during the Victorian era, koi ponds stocked with ornamental breeds of domesticated carp became a mark of upper-class refinement, like a well-groomed poodle.

The goldfish, now considered its own species separate from carp, actually has a longer lineage, having arrived in Japan from China three centuries earlier. In the 16th century, goldfish were also introduced to Europe from China via Portugal, but didn't arrive in the U.S. until the mid-1800s.

For the Edo period samurai, breeding goldfish was the aristocratic thing to do. A contemporaneous comparison might be the tulip mania that gripped Holland in the early 1600s (minus the bubble economics). The koi pond in Japanese historical dramas is a bit anachronistic; the fish in those ponds likely would have been goldfish.

As with flowers and dogs and cats, the breeding of exotic goldfish still has its devotees.

But the common goldfish, a direct descendant of the Prussian carp, is thriving as well. And not just those that fend for themselves after being tossed into the nearest river or lake, or survive the gauntlet of the municipal sewer system.

Japan's fondness for fish is not confined to looking at them, but catching and eating them in great quantities. Goldfish don't generally fall into the edible category (your cat might beg to differ), but they can be caught. This brings us to a truly odd carnival "sport": "goldfish scooping" (kingyo sukui).

The definition is pretty much literal. The goal is to scoop a goldfish into a bowl with a tiny paper net before it dissolves. The "sport" goes back at least two centuries (and, yes, there are competitions). Here's an expert at work.

Carnivals often set up shop at shrines as fund-raising activities, and kingyo sukui is associated with the summer festival season. (For those concerned about the welfare of the goldfish, small floating plastic toys can be used instead.)

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March 16, 2017

New Twelve Kingdoms novel (nope, not yet)

Shinchosha's Twelve Kingdoms blog published an update on March 8. The news, again, is that there is no news. But that by itself is news because it means that important news is still forthcoming.

"Spring of 2017 is in the air and we humbly ask you to wait just a little while longer."

Also announced in the post was the official publication of the entire Twelve Kingdoms series in Taiwan and South Korea. And Akihiro Yamada's Twelve Kingdoms art book in South Korea.

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March 09, 2017

Terminal conditions

John Dvorak archly observes that the personal computer was a declaration of freedom from the the mainframe, epitomized in Apple's famous "1984" commercial (directed by Ridley Scott). Except Apple has since turned into the client-server walled garden it once promised to liberate us from.

As early as 1983, IBM had produced a PC more powerful than the doomed Lisa. Sold only to corporate clients, the XT/370 ran DOS locally, could act as 3270 terminal, and, thanks to dual Intel 8088 and Motorola 68000 CPUs, could execute both DOS and S/370 mainframe instructions.

But as the "workstation" paradigm took hold ("A computer on every desk"), it was easy to criticize Digital Equipment CEO Ken Olsen for opining in the 1980s that only a terminal was really needed on every desk. Larry Ellison caught a lot of flack for championing the "Network Computer" back in the 1990s.

They were simply ahead of their time.

The client-server paradigm was waiting in the wings for the Internet and the World Wide Web to standardize the interfaces and APIs. Then all it needed was enough bandwidth and fast enough processors to make all that mainframe horsepower accessible from the desktop. Or a phone.

When I worked in Microsoft support at the turn of the millennium, the CRM software was a VB app that connected with the knowledge base servers back in Redmond. Practically pure client-server, it was fast, even on pokey Pentium III Windows 2000 machines.

These days, software-as-a-service (SAAS) CRM software like Salesforce and Netsuite run in the browser. To be fair, These apps include a kitchen sink of feature sets, capable of handling the entire customer-facing and B2B facets of a business. Add to that an integrated VOIP client like inContact or Five9.

But they demand hardware resources comparable to whole supercomputers a mere decade or two ago. Opening up a couple of tabs in Chrome can soak up half a gigabyte of RAM, and with anything less than a multi-core processor running at several gigahertz, the whole setup runs infuriatingly slow.

There's something wrong with that.

The ExtremeTech website recently resurrected a Windows 98 machine with 128MB of RAM and a 500MHz Pentium III CPU--top-notch specs back in the day--to see how it ran in this brave new world (all of two decades later). It kinda sorta managed to cope, except when it came to the Internet.

With Internet Explorer 6, "most web pages don't even load, and those that do are completely broken." After tweaking a seven-year-old version of Opera 11, "most websites will at least work. Some larger sites like Facebook simply use up all the computer's RAM and never finish loading."

Facebook is just a glorified version of AOL, and AOL ran fine on the above configuration.

PC sales have leveled off and even fallen across the board. Everybody has a smartphone, which is, again, simply another smart client. The Chromebook has evolved into an only slightly smarter terminal.

So when the apocalypse comes, the world will end with smartphones raised high in supplication, accompanied by the whimper of "No signal."

Despite holding more computer power in our hands than a football stadium full of IBM PCs, we won't be able to do much more with our not-very-smart phones than what a 16-bit IBM PC with 128K of RAM could accomplish in 1985. Well, besides play the offline version of Angry Birds until the batteries run down.

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March 02, 2017

Back to school

"All the world's a stage," wrote Shakespeare. And in anime, that stage is, more often than not, a high school

The simplest reason why is the target audience. Except most otaku have long left high school. And I suspect that a lot of them, like me, have no desire to go back. So the better reason is that Japan is just one big high school all of the time.

No need for nostalgia when you are still living the life.

Granted, there's a lot of overlap among those in Japan and the U.S. who are always looking forward to the next class reunion. But the nostalgia Japanese feel about high school is of a different sort. It defines the institutional waters in which they will swim for the rest of their lives.

They put the uniform on in junior high and never take it off. News reports involving teenagers often refer to them not by age but by year in school, using the shorthand: 中 (1/2/3) for junior high and 高 (1/2/3) for high school.

For example, I found this question on an education forum: 「15才だと中3、高1どっち?」 "If you are 15 years old, are you a junior high senior or a high school freshman?"

The answer is that if you are 「早生まれ」 (haya'umare, lit. "early birth," meaning born between 1/1 and 4/1) then you're a 「高1」. The school year in Japan begins in April.

Your school becomes your identity, even taking over responsibilities that in the U.S. would fall to law enforcement or social service. As Justin Sevakis explains,

Say, for example, a kid gets in trouble for shoplifting. In Japan, the police might get called, but after that the next call would be to the kid's school. The homeroom teacher would come to apologize on the kid's behalf. And then the school would call in the kid's parents for a conference.

The paternalistic expectations established in high school never end. For Japanese, to paraphrase Faulkner, "Your high school past is not dead. Actually, it's not even past."

All secondary schools, public and private, are essentially open enrollment and most require entrance exams. The fiscal year is the same as the school year. Corporations large and small hold recruiting drives and "matriculation" ceremonies that mirror those of high school.

The nostalgia Japanese feel for high school (reflected in anime) is directed at the first two or so years, before students start sweating blood preparing for their college entrance exams (it's expected that seniors will quit the sports teams after the summer tournaments to cram for the exams).

Up until the last half of the senior year, it's a "maximum structure, (relatively) minimum pressure" environment. And within that structure, Japanese kids often enjoy far more freedom than their American counterparts, for example, in planning their own activities and commuting to school.

This sense of "structure" in the U.S. has come to mean parents running every aspect of their children's lives. In Japan it means, "Here's the framework. You can't change the framework. But you can create whatever you want using it, and you have maximum freedom inside it."

College athletic scholarships do exist, but in far fewer numbers than the U.S. The equivalent of "March Madness" is the high school baseball tournament. As in Ace of the Diamond, high schools offer athletic scholarships too.

In Yawara, Yawara rejects a judo scholarship to a prestigious university because she's sick of judo and wants to be a "normal" teenager. But in Chihayafuru, Chihaya is delighted to learn that some schools offer karuta scholarships because she has little passion for schoolwork.

Interestingly, this nostalgia for high school is not nearly so intense about college, even though once having made it though the entrance exams gauntlet, university life in Japan is "minimum structure, minimum pressure." Until the senior year, that is, when the job hunt begins.

Maybe that 's because "real life" is looming there over the horizon. (Some high schools even ban their students from having part-time jobs.)

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