April 25, 2019

New Twelve Kingdoms novel (publication date)

On 19 April 2019, Shinchosha announced the publication dates for Fuyumi Ono's forthcoming novel. The following press release was posted on the official Twelve Kingdoms website.

The latest installment in the Twelve Kingdoms series goes on sale this October!! Thank you all for being so patient! Having finalized the release date for the long awaited new novel, we wished to fill you in on the details.

The author's epic manuscript of over 2500 pages will be published in four volumes. Volumes I and II go on sale Saturday, October 12. Volumes III and IV go on sale Saturday, November 9. (Please note that these dates differ from Shinchosha's usual release schedule.)

We received the first volume from the author at the end of last year and the final volume in March. The publishing schedule has been set and we are getting everything ready to deliver them to you.

The best way to enjoy this great new saga is to start with the books already in print. Special displays are being installed in bookstores around the country leading up to the October release. Golden Week would be a great time to reread A Shadow of the Moon, A Sea of Shadows!

For those new to the Twelve Kingdoms, or read it so long ago they've lost track of the important details, don't worry! We've created a new website—"The Twelve Kingdoms in Five Minutes!"—to get you started.

Let's all look forward to the October 12, 2019 launch date together!

Shinchosha also launched a Twitter campaign (the post is misdated on the home page) asking readers to share what they love about the Twelve Kingdoms series. Twelve (randomly selected) submissions will receive a clear file folder signed by Fuyumi Ono and illustrator Akihiro Yamada.

In Japan, "Golden Week" refers to four national holidays starting on April 29 that take place within seven days. This year, Golden Week will be extended to ten days in order to accommodate the abdication of Emperor Akihito on April 30 and the enthronement of Crown Prince Naruhito on May 1.

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April 18, 2019

Streaming according to Pareto

Commonly known as the "80/20 rule," the Pareto principle was formulated by Vilfredo Pareto to describe the distribution of wealth. For example, 80 percent of the wealth being held by 20 percent of the population. Or 20 percent of the items in a store accounting for 80 percent of the sales.

To be sure, "80/20" represents an idealized distribution. The real world is bound to differ. But as a power-law probability function, the Pareto principle describes many real-world economic, social, scientific, and actuarial phenomena. It also applies to digital entertainment services.

Back in 2004, Chris Anderson observed that at Netflix, 20 percent (or so) of the titles accounted for 80 percent of rental traffic (the DVD still ruled back then). But he also noted that the other 80 percent, what he termed the "long tail," still added up to a significant amount of business.

As inventory costs have fallen towards zero for digital media, the value of the "backlist" (as it is known in book publishing) has grown substantially.

A flaw in Anderson's original thesis is that few media services are willing to sink the resources into their search and sorting engines that Netflix did. Without discoverability, the safe money is again on the hit productions that generate 80 percent of the revenue.

Cable television has long been in the business of selling the hits and the long tail. But the cable model has increasingly revealed the misleading way the long tail is commonly visualized, as a two-dimensional line that slowly tapers off to zero, rather than spreading out in all directions.

There isn't one long tail but hundreds, often with nothing in common. Imagine that back during the 1990s, if you wanted to subscribe to PC Magazine, you had to subscribe to every periodical Ziff Davis published. And Sports Illustrated. That's how the legacy cable model works.

Streaming, however, creates an economical way to split the long tails into standalone packages. Actually, digital television led the way, with OTA broadcasters carrying digital subchannels like QVC, Comet, Charge, PBS Create, and NHK World that aim specific content at specific audiences.

Curating titles in their own genre silos addresses the discovery issues, and makes it easier for the audience to identify the channel and content they wish to watch. But it's up to the customer to do the heavy lifting.

As opposed to grabbing the remote, turning on the TV, scrolling through the channel guide, and clicking on whatever, streaming customers have to install the apps, sign in, and queue up what they want to watch (though the first two steps should only have to be done once).

Those decision trees forge a closer relationship between spending choices and viewing choices. As Jared Newman puts it, "The easier cord-cutting is, the less money it saves."

Back when the DVD was king, nothing did Netflix's bottom line better than customers who signed up for their "best deal," its unlimited three-DVDs-out-at-a-time plan, but only got around to watching two or three when they could be cycling through a dozen DVDs a month.

As long as the cable companies can sell customers overpriced "fat packages" chock full of channels they rarely if ever watch, they will be loath to offer customized "skinny bundles" at a steeply discounted price.

And for the time being, they have little impetus to. "Traditional cable" remains the default choice in 90 million households. But for how much longer?

Only a decade ago, Netflix ran Blockbuster out of business. Today, shipping DVDs is a tiny (but still profitable) part of its revenue stream. Netflix was willing to deprecate its original business model in order to adapt to the changing technological times. Blockbuster was not.

Blockbuster CEO John Antioco attempted to pivot the company. The Blockbuster board was on board at first, but couldn't believe the world was changing that fast and refused to accept the substantial hit to the bottom line. Antioco got fired. Six years later, Blockbuster went bankrupt.

Will "traditional cable" turn out to be Netflix or Blockbuster? Well, antenna-only households have grown by 50 percent in less than a decade. One way or another, a tipping point is approaching, probably faster than we expect.

Related links

Why Blockbuster really failed
Japanese media update

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April 11, 2019

Beautiful Bones

Given a title like Beautiful Bones, you might jump to the conclusion that this light novel and anime series shares much in common with Bones, the police procedural starring Emily Deschanel and David Boreanaz.

And you'd be right.

Those obvious assumptions are obviously intended. This a good example of "localizing" an anime or light novel title rather than literally translating the original. The actual title of the light novel series is "A Corpse is Buried Under Sakurako's Feet" (「櫻子さんの足下には死体が埋まっている」).

Long light novel titles have become trendy of late, which can give overseas publishers fits.

Like Deschanel's Temperance "Bones" Brennan, Sakurako Kujo is a socially maladroit osteologist with a penchant for stumbling across dead bodies. She isn't a famous author but comes from old money and lives in the (Gothic) family mansion with an elderly housekeeper and the menagerie of animal skeletons she reconstructs as her hobby.

She's more eccentric than Temperance Brennan, closer in personality to House and Holmes on the brilliant antisocial obsessive detective scale. Her Watson (or Wilson) is Shotaro Tatewaki, a high school student who does his best to keep her more manic proclivities in check.

Being a kid ("shonen"), he can only do so much. I can't help wondering how the series would play out if Sakurako were paired with Boreanaz's Agent Booth, someone with the strong personality and physical presence to root her more firmly in the real world.

But there's nothing wrong with this version either. Shotaro is a competent kid. Well, he has to be, given who he hangs out with. The result is, like House, Sakurako ends up with more room to be her own brilliantly semi-unbalanced self.

As voiced by Shizuka Ito, Sakurako often reminds me of Jolene Blalock's T'Pol on Enterprise, constantly having to put up with humans and their annoying illogical emotions.

Of course, when you create a smart detective, you have to create smart crimes for her to solve. That means the detective has to be smarter than the criminal, and the screenwriter has to be smarter than them both.

Making the smart detective a scientist gives them (the detective and the writer) access to a pool of deductible facts that is both technically complex and accessible through research (or hire a consultant). Shiori Ota, author of the novels, has clearly done one or the other or both.

The result is a well-structured set of mysteries that mostly play fair—we are privy to the same information as Shotaro. Each mystery concludes in one or two episodes. An unresolved arc involving a Moriarty-type figure runs through the series, but never overwhelms the individual episodes.

The anime ran for only one cour, so the unresolved arc remains unresolved, though the villain's identity and motives are revealed in the penultimate episode. But it does not end on a cliffhanger, and the light novels series is still active, with fourteen volumes now in print. So a second cour may be in the offing.

One other unique thing about Beautiful Bones is that the series takes place in Hokkaido, where the author grew up. It makes for a nice change of setting and provides for the kind of wide-open spaces (and much more driving) than you'll experience in Tokyo.

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April 04, 2019

The name of the new era

In Japan, the school year and the fiscal year begin on the first day of April. This year saw another first on the first. Shortly before noon, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga announced the era name that will mark the reign of Emperor Naruhito after he is enthroned on 1 May 2019.

The name of the new era is "Reiwa" (令和), pronounced "lay-wah" in Japanese. In a unique step, instead of referencing the Chinese classics, the usage for the kanji was taken from the Man'yoshu. Dating to the 8th century, it is the oldest extant anthology of Japanese poetry. The Japan Times explains,

The Man'yoshu passage that inspired Reiwa was written by poet Otomo no Tabito as an introduction to 32 plum-themed poems penned by his poet friends, according to officials. In the introduction, rei refers to "reigetsu" or "auspicious month," while wa describes the peaceful manner of an early spring breeze.

In contemporary Japanese, rei (令) means "dictate" or "decree." The more common wa is the same "wa" as in "Showa," the era name of Emperor Hirohito. It means "peace" or "harmony." So a literal reading of Reiwa based on modern meanings might be along the lines of "order and peace."

As University of Tokyo historian Kazuto Hongo observes, "The name sounds as if we are ordered to achieve peace, rather than doing so proactively."

The intended meaning based on the context provided by the Man'yoshu is something more like "auspicious harmony." In an effort to counter the "order and peace" interpretation, the Foreign Ministry has since clarified that the "official" English translation of Reiwa is "beautiful harmony."

In a press conference following the presentation by the Chief Cabinet Secretary, Prime Minister Abe waxed poetic.

We have decided the new name to be "Reiwa" in the hope that Japan will be a country where each Japanese person can achieve success with hopes for the future like plum flowers that bloom brilliantly after the severe cold.

As far as that goes, the kanji 麗 (rei) does unambiguously refer to beauty, but it violates the "simple to read and write" rule that a modern gengou must follow. Both 麗 and 令 (especially as a radical) have long been used in names for girls. In the coming years, they will likely become more common.

The proclamation of the era name traditionally follows the death of the emperor. Two years ago, in a national address, Emperor Akihito made clear his desire to retire, citing his age and declining health. A year later, a bill was passed by the Diet creating the necessary legal framework and timeline of events.

Emperor Akihito will formally abdicate on 30 April 2019. His son becomes emperor on 1 May 2019, and the new gengou will begin. So the rest of 2019 will be Reiwa 1 and 2020 will be Reiwa 2.

Unique among Asian nations, the gengou (元号) or nengou (年号) is not simply ceremonial, but is used in all government documents, from currency to birth certificates, and is widely adopted throughout the private sector. Practically any official document will include the gengou and the Gregorian date.

In their day to day activities, especially in years like 2019 with two gengou, Japanese have to be "bilingual" in gengou and Gregorian.

The modern gengou system (since 1868) actually constituted a great improvement. As Donald Keene explains in Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World,

Until the adoption of Meiji as the name for Mutsuhito's entire reign, the nengou was traditionally changed several times during the reign of a single emperor—at two fixed points in the cycle of sixty years, or when a series of natural disasters were attributed to an inauspicious nengou or when some prodigy of nature required recognition in the calendar.

In the modern era, a group of scholars in classical Japanese and Chinese literature and history comes up with a list of era names. Then the Chief Cabinet Secretary gathers input from leading opinion leaders, such as Nobel laureate Shin'ya Yamanaka and Naoki Prize winning writer Mariko Hayashi.

The short list is presented to the leadership of both chambers of the Diet, after which the full Cabinet makes the final selection.

Over the next month, computer programmers will have their hands full updating all of the date-dependent software. Crown Prince Naruhito is a healthy 59 years old, so the Reiwa era should last a good twenty or thirty years, at which point the whole process will begin once again.

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