Living Without A Data Plan In Japan: Roaming Free But No (Data) Roaming

by Flory Leow

“You want a no-data plan? We have one, but it’s almost the same price as having data…”

Sayonara 24/7 Chained To The Phone Life

Last week, I walked into a U-NEXT store to check out smartphone plans. I’ve had a Japanese flip phone since 2013, and I wanted to see if I could buy a SIM-only plan from them instead. This is when I learned that no salesperson today is prepared to deal with customers who want data-free plans. The assumption is that everybody wants mobile data — the more, the better.

I walked out of U-NEXT without buying anything. Data is cheap, but you can’t put a price on attention and presence.

The cost of data has fallen considerably over the last few years. Even here in Japan, where the de facto cartel has kept contract prices and cancellation fees high, you can, at the time of writing, sign up for a u-mobile 1-year contract for a relatively low monthly sum of JPY1,360 per month for 3.3GB of data with no cancellation fees after one year.

(The salesperson really tried to upsell that data plan to me.)

Prices never used to be this low. When I lived in Tokyo from 2012–2013 as an exchange student, your options for mobile data plans were 2-year contracts with hefty cancellation fees for breaking them a year in. The only option at the time that didn’t involve a cancellation fee was a Softbank prepaid flip phone. I took it. Public WiFi was virtually nonexistent back then. I recall mild inconveniences, but nothing particularly terrible.

Moving back to Japan in 2015, I continued using the same phone and number. Barring a period of around 6 months where I owned a company-sponsored smartphone with data, I have not had mobile data since 2015.

Everyone I have talked to about this has bemoaned their various states of addiction to their phone, for whatever reason; very few do anything about it. Fortunately, I have not really needed to do anything — doing nothing to change my data situation is exactly what’s keeping me sane.

It’s hard to say without data (ha!), but it seems that owning a smartphone these days equals having a data plan. It is inescapable, maybe even inevitable. There’s plenty of talk about switching off the phone, but few discuss the merits of actually forgoing mobile data altogether. Most articles indexed on Google talking about this are dated to several years ago. (See Further Reading below.) But given the conversations and growing awareness surrounding internet addiction, I think eliminating mobile data should be one choice in an arsenal of options to manage the time we spend on our phones.

It’s a weakness

Not having mobile data began as an exercise in moderate frugality [1], but as the years went on it became more about preserving my sanity, preventing myself from free-falling into constant swipe-mode. Airplane mode isn’t enough for me because it’s too easy to switch back to cellular mode. My last job left me so addicted to looking at email that every instinct in me now has to fight the constant and imaginary demands on my attention, to consciously stop myself from reaching for the phone. I fail at this dozens of times a day, sometimes stopping at just lighting up the phone screen with the home button.

I then imagine how much worse this would be if I had mobile data and did this outside my apartment. So every year I wonder if I will succumb and pay for the convenience of a data plan; every year I find myself increasingly unwilling to do so.

A decision like this puts me in good company. Evgeny Morozov, for instance, locks his phone and ethernet cable in a timed safe on weekends instead of wasting willpower and energy on “having the internal conversation.” A dear friend, Kate, has no data plan. Kat, another close friend, has begun switching her phone off for a day or two a week.

Everyone I have talked to about this has bemoaned their various states of addiction to their phone, for whatever reason; very few do anything about it. Fortunately, I have not really needed to do anything — doing nothing to change my data situation is exactly what’s keeping me sane.

Presence

I think I’m lucky: most of my friends are great at being present. They turn their phones face down, or keep them in their bags. I hear this is becoming rare, which feels like a deep loss. Mobile data has, in the last few years, reduced everyone’s collective ability to be present in the moment.

I’ve sat at dinner tables where everyone’s face is lit by the glow of a smartphone screen as they post something to Instagram, reply to a WhatsApp message that just flew in, or deal with an ‘urgent’ work email (which is never really all that urgent; such is the tyranny of capitalism). I have watched people I have been just a little in love with read emails on their phone or scroll through Facebook, while we’re out somewhere in the city, and have felt my heart break a few hundred times. I can see the involuntary twitch of their hands reaching for their phones when we talk.

It happens to me too. When I’m in a place with WiFi, I am more distracted, more prone to flipping my phone open. Some part of my brain is low-key reminding me that I have messages to reply to, emails to send, Instagram feeds to check. I have frittered away hours and hours scrolling and swiping. I am also a bit shit at being present in the moment even without my phone. The only time I can’t look to my phone is when I’m outside in the world without data.

None of this is to say that having mobile data makes everyone automatically become a little bit shit. But the ubiquity of mobile data has made it easier for otherwise lovely people to disregard social courtesies. It helps people justify scrolling through their phone at the dinner table because everyone else is doing the same thing.

The other part of being present when I’m out is seeing the world in ways I might otherwise never notice if I’m walking around staring at a screen. I might never have begun photographing doors, or plants. I might have been too busy uploading photos to social media to pay attention to the mountain in front of me. I like to think I’m better than that — but I’m not.

Why I don’t need mobile data

A few things make it easier for me to opt out of mobile data:

I don’t have a job that requires me to look at emails 24/7. No watching the stock market, or employers who breathe down my neck asking me if I’ve seen this thread. No customers who want urgent answers to their trivial questions. And so on.

It’s quite the opposite: I focus substantially better when writing in completely disconnected environments.

(Yes, I think I’m very lucky — and I wish everyone else could have something like this, obviously.)

I read, write, and speak fluent Japanese. Which means no need for Google Translate. Navigating Tokyo is not an issue.

I don’t have kids. I mean, people have raised children for centuries without mobile data, but modern parents seem to think that constant connectivity is necessary for parenting. (Another kettle of fish altogether. Please talk to someone else about this.)

I have high-speed WiFi at home. This is something I’m lucky enough to be able to afford, and it’s also necessary for my work. Given the choice between mobile data or an internet connection, I’d choose the latter every time.

There’s free, public WiFi all around Tokyo. Yes, really! See the last section of this piece.

The truth is that I am as addicted to social media as the next Instagram junkie. I’m not proud of this, but it’s true. I find myself reaching for my phone every few minutes; on the train I sometimes even open apps that I know won’t load just to quell my dopamine-addicted brain. It’s precisely because I know myself too well that I continue choosing not to have mobile data instead.

(Plus, that’s an extra $15 a month I can spend on runny eggs — which give me more pleasure and joy than any amount of feed-refreshing ever could.)

But but but

Isn’t it inconvenient? Sometimes. But that’s all it is — an inconvenience. I don’t miss having it when I’m outside. If I need it, WiFi access is available at home, at cafes, in train stations. Plus, public WiFi is great for accessibility across socioeconomic classes, and for tourists.

Sure, I’m an impatient motherfucker and rage as much as anyone else at certain inconveniences. But if there’s anything Japan’s million bureaucratic procedures has taught me, it’s to be patient with inefficiency. I don’t love inconvenience, but the cost of convenience is so much higher. Tim Wu says it more eloquently than I can.

What if we’re meeting and I’m running late? I don’t usually know when a friend’s running late, so I just have to trust that they show up, whether it’s on time or a few minutes late. That’s what we all used to do pre-smartphone. Again, much depends on having a reliable public transportation system. I remember it being significantly more difficult to be punctual in Malaysia.

If someone flakes on me and decides not to show up, that reflects badly on them. The upside is that this encourages specificity in deciding on meeting points (“Let’s do Exit B6 at Ginza Station, I’ll be above ground at the fire hydrant”) but also weeds out flaky people who you probably shouldn’t be friends with. If they can’t respect your time, they don’t deserve it.

Besides, if they really need to contact you, that’s what a phone number’s for. I hope I have your numbers for when the next earthquake hits.

What if you need to look something up? What burning fact would I need to look up right away that I couldn’t look up later? Do we really need to watch that video right now? See also: delayed gratification.

But you’re using your phone outside? Like on the train? Yeah, I’m usually reading articles I’ve saved to Pocket, writing/taking notes on strange people around me, or editing photos.

What about Google Maps? Look up routes and directions before setting out. Offline maps are useful and work well. There’s also something to be said for looking at the scenery around you instead of at your blue-dot-self moving around on a screen.

 

There have definitely been times when my offline maps stopped working while I was on the move, or things didn’t update. So I also like asking strangers for help, or looking at area maps in the neighborhoods. Talking to people! What a novel concept.

Uber? Grab? Lyft? Thankfully, none of these exist in Japan. Tokyo’s incredibly efficient public transportation system eliminates the need for ride-sharing apps… for now.

Maybe ride-sharing apps would be useful in more remote areas where there are fewer train stations. But then again, they probably wouldn’t be operating in those areas, and I’d still have had to walk for miles along Route 207 from Nagasaki to Saga prefecture just to find a bus heading to Tara. (True story. I don’t think having mobile data would have changed anything, except I’d have spent more time complaining about it to friends online — and maybe found a bus slightly faster.)

What if you need to drive? On the off-chance that I ever sit behind a steering wheel in Japan, I hope the car comes with sat-nav. Otherwise it’s back to pre-2007 days of parking by the roadside flipping through a map book.

What if you’re in the countryside? Even better! I can switch off! Researching stuff to do before you travel/leave your accommodation, or just using whatever WiFi is available there. I’m usually visiting someone who knows the area (and probably has mobile data, let’s be real.) There were also a couple of times I thumbed rides in Hokkaido and Aomori when I was stranded and couldn’t figure out buses.

I remember Couchsurfing with a couple in Aomori City back in 2013. They lived, insofar as was possible, a very off-grid lifestyle — no internet (they’d check their email at Internet cafes), only flip phones (one of the few things they used electricity for), no refrigerator, no washing machine. We’re no longer in touch, but it left a huge impression on me.

The only times I’ll have mobile data are when I travel to places I’m unfamiliar with and where I don’t speak the local language(s), like Morocco or Thailand; or, when I’m back in Malaysia and rely on Grab to go places. Even then, it’s optional. I went without a data plan in Busan because most cafes had free WiFi and I spent most of my time with a friend living there. It’s quite fun muddling through menus and going through the usual motions of cross-cultural communication — hand gestures, smiles, everything you need for your fellow human beings.

And so it is

Frankly, I like not having data. I like being able to say no to looking at emails. I love having my mind back, wandering into other connections and thoughts without the constant drip of stuff from the internet. I love looking at my friends when they talk.

The Dance of The Data Free

If you have mobile data and like it, good on you. I don’t wish to suggest that living without mobile data is a viable choice for everyone, nor do I want to sound like I’m preaching some ‘elite’ hippie lifestyle from a pedestal way up high. There are plenty of reasons to have mobile data — war refugees using social media to keep in touch; not being able to afford high-speed internet at home (though given the price of mobile plans in Japan this is pretty much similar); work conditions (which is a problem with society at large).

But if you think you can’t go through daily life without mobile data, you are wrong. We’ve survived for millennia without it, and when the next natural disaster in Japan knocks out mobile data providers for a bit, it’ll be useful to have actual phone numbers or to be okay with being a little disconnected for a while.

A Short List of Free Public WiFi Places in Japan (Mostly Tokyo)

Tokyo is a pretty great place to live without mobile data these days if you already have an internet connection at home. Try the following:

  • Tokyo Metro stations. Very rarely, the internet is down, and I feel a flash of irritation — and then I chide myself and take out the Kindle instead.
  • Starbucks. They’ve eliminated registration — hurray!
  • JR stations. It’s patchy and sketchy, but many major JR stations in Tokyo now have free WiFi (under the JR East Free WiFi network)
  • Some libraries, like the Hibiya Library with its characteristically low-security password (numbers 1 through 9. FIGHT ME HIBIYA STAFF). The Tokyo Metropolitan Library’s WiFi has so far been unreliable.
  • Some cafes have it. But it doesn’t really matter if they don’t.
  • 7–11 and Lawson’s have reliable WiFi. Accessing Family Mart’s WiFi requires a lengthy registration process before you can even go online, and it’s slow as hell. Don’t bother.

Yes, it’s all unsecured WiFi. Don’t buy stuff with your credit card, use it only when you need to, don’t register with your real email address, and all that.

A Lonely Footnote

[1] JOKES, I spend all my money on food.

Further Reading

Flory Leow is a sporadic writer, photographer, foodie and student of history living in Tokyo and blogging here and there. This article was previously published on her blog and has been reprinted here with her kind permission. 

Why the Japanese Media Would Rather Not Talk About Brett Kavanaugh

By Kaori Shoji

The Japanese media has been eerily calm about the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, or if you want the truth, ‘downright reticent’ is more like it. Kavanaugh’s confirmation as Supreme Court justice was covered by major news outlets but otherwise, mainstream media seems more interested in Tokyo’s biggest fishmarket moving from Tsukiji to Toyosu.

“I’m really not interested in American politics,” said 28-year old Ayumi who works for Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s four major newspapers. “Since Trump became President, I’ve kind of lost faith in the US. I still love American music and culture but the politics just seems crazy over there.” Before the confirmation, Asahi carried a few articles on the Kavanaugh hearings, but nothing beyond a short description of what was happening. No in-depth analysis or outraged editorials, just brief, straightforward reporting. “You can’t really blame the Japanese media for avoiding the Kavanaugh case,” said an Asahi journalist who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It’s not our battle. Personally though, I think that Dr. Blasey Ford was courageous in coming out like that. I can’t imagine a Japanese woman ever doing the same thing, at least not at that age.”

The journalist was inadvertently (or perhaps deliberately) voicing the opinion of Japanese society in general–that Japanese women of a certain age will rarely if ever, go public about a personal grievance that happened decades ago. A couple of years maybe, and if the woman were under 35. Otherwise, it would be like stumbling upon a blue rose in the desert.

His words remind me of another interview I did when the #MeToo movement was in full swing here, with a woman in her 40s. She had confessed to her husband about a sexual harassment incident that happened when she was 28, and when she tried to say how hurtful it was and ask what steps she could take now to lessen the damage, her husband scoffed. “He said no one was willing to listen to an old woman. He told me not to make waves, and that I shouldn’t embarrass our family.” She said this with a forced, self-deprecating grin but five minutes later she was in tears. Enraging, yes, but I was well aware of how typical the husband’s reaction was. Don’t make waves. Don’t embarrass the family. You’re too old. Don’t come to me with this, I’m tired.

The Japanese media traditionally sucks when it comes to covering issues related to women and sex –primarily because newsrooms have always been dominated by over-worked men too tired to deal with their womenfolk, from their mothers to girlfriends, daughters and wives. “Maybe it would be different if there were more women editors,” said the aforementioned journalist.

No, that’s not really it. It’s more an issue of empathy and the willingness to understand. It would also help if this society were not so youth-obsessed, especially when it comes to women trying to voice their opinions. An American (female) photographer once said to me that no man in her agency ever voluntarily made conversation with an older woman unless she was a foreigner. “So I guess I should be grateful for being 40 and getting attention, but I’m not,” she said derisively.

If the Japanese media is reluctant to discuss Kavanaugh, SNS show that the Japanese public is interested. Right after the confirmation, a large number of tweets expressed fear over America’s swing to the ultra-right, and what this may mean for Japan. “Abe will be executed,” was a familiar comment. But there is almost no mention of Dr. Ford and her ordeal and the ones that touch upon Kavanaugh’s accuser are far from positive. “I guess she went out on a limb for nothing,” said one anonymous tweet. “And then she was shot down like a dog.” Another said, “How can a woman of that age accuse a guy of something that happened so long ago and expect to be heard? She’s probably telling the truth, but at her age she should have known it wouldn’t work.”

At this point, such words feel like a slap in the face, and it’s hard not to feel the pain from old wounds that tend to flare up in bad weather. There are millions of women on the archipelago who have been assaulted, groped, raped, harassed and discriminated against. There are probably thousands if not more, of Kavanaugh equivalents in positions of power. As in the US, the elite boys club network in Japan is seemingly invincible.

There seems to be no antidote to the sorrow and injustice, apart from installing women-only train cars and hotel floors. Because harassment is so rampant here, gender segregation has become a luxury. I was in a hotel in Osaka where the male receptionist presented me with a key to the women-only lounge on the women-only floor, saying, “there are absolutely no men in the area so you can feel completely safe and relaxed.” Wow, um, thanks.

Still. We DO live in a world where it’s possible for an older woman to speak up about a traumatic episode that happened in her teens, and get the world to listen. There’s grounds for hope in that, even in Japan. If nothing else, the Kavanaugh hearings have gotten women talking and sharing about their own experiences of harassment and assault in this rigidly patriarchal society. Not in the scope and scale that’s happening in the US, of course. But a small, precious flame is flickering in the wind.

Arjen Kamphuis, a Dutchman, went missing in Norway on August 20. Help find him.

Arjen Kamphuis, “free software advocate, sailor, carpenter, geek and damn proud of it” was last seen in Bodø, Norway on August 20th. He has long blonde hair and glasses. He is 47-years old, 1.78m tall and has a normal posture. He was usually dressed in black and carrying his black backpack. He is an avid hiker. Arjen is a Dutch citizen and did not arrive back home in The Netherlands. If you have any information, please write:

FindArjen@gmail.com

Arjen Kamphuis ble sist sett i Bodø, Norge den 20. August. Han har langt blondt hår og briller. Han er 47 år gammel og er 1,78m lang. Han er vanligvis kledd i svart og har store med seg sin svarte ryggsekk. Arjen er nederlandske turgåere på ferie i Norge.

FindArjen@gmail.com

Arjen Kamphuis was last seen in Bodø, Norway on August 20th

HodoBuzz: New York-based Japanese Filmmakers Tackle Japan’s Sexism and Press Freedom With Crowdfunding

As Japan spiral downs the gender equality rankings each year with impressive speed(114th out of 144 countries), progress, on the other hand is being made at a snail’s pace in every corner of society.

But Japan’s death spiral towards the bottom isn’t just the status of women, it’s also with freedom of the press. Japan ranked 11th in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) annual world press freedom survey in 2010, this year (2018) it came in at 67.  The only reason it wasn’t lower was that under the influence of President Donald Trump, press freedom has taken a punch in the gut all over the world—Japan remains essentially just awful.  The media here has never been much of a watchdog, but Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has turned much of the press into simpering lapdogs. NHK has become Abe TV thanks to political appointments.  Japan’s few investigative news programs have been cancelled or so neutered they no longer have bark or bite.

But what if….there were still some journalists, fighting the good fight. and what if, it was a woman?

A crowdfunded Japanese drama “Hodo Buzz” depicts a female reporter trying to get real news out while battling all the obstacles inherent in Japan’s media machine.

A new show “HodoBuzz” made by Japanese filmmakers based in New York City takes on these very topics and JSRC is excited to support and watch a show about Japanese people who aren’t afraid to speak the truth and champions a tenacious and outspoken woman(!) who will not be silenced.

Read on to learn more and support their fundraiser campaign!

Derrrrruq!!!, a New York-based Japanese filmmaking team, launched a Kickstarter campaign last month for its new journalism drama HodoBuzz. The campaign seeks to raise $30,000 by September 4th to complete post-production, release, and promote the show.

HodoBuzz Kickstarter Page

http://kck.st/2u8rx8o

The project will only be funded if it reaches its goal of $30,000 by Tue, September 4 2018 11:59 PM EDT.

The creators have a good reason as to why they had to turn to crowdfunding. The show focuses on issues that the Japanese entertainment industry tends to avoid discussing: media sexism and press freedom in Japan. You can check out the series trailer made for the Kickstarter campaign. Don’t forget to turn on the subtitles!

Link: https://youtu.be/TxRQt5vA83g

HodoBuzz is a story about Asuka Wada, a Japanese female reporter. Tired of sexism and objectification in Japan’s TV industry, Asuka quits her job as a game show host in Tokyo to pursue her long-time dream: becoming a news anchor. 

A Japanese version of The Newsroom would be a thrill to watch.

Asuka moves to New York City, the world’s leading journalism center, to work for HodoBuzz, a digital news company.

The first sensitive issue HodoBuzz deals with is the rampant sexism in the Japanese media. In Japan, female TV reporters are constantly objectified. They are often referred to as “joshi ana”, or “girl announcers,” whereas male reporters are called simply, “announcers”. Female reporters have to dress up in a way that entertains the male audience. It is not uncommon for some female reporters to be assigned sexually charged assignments, such as reporting from a beach in a bikini. However, the most obvious point regarding the sexism female journalists face in Japan is that hard news or more “serious” topics are almost exclusively reported by male journalists.

Even at HodoBuzz, which is based in New York, Asuka’s boss, colleagues, and several viewers underrate her skills, because of her past as a game show host. Asuka will experience intense online harassment and bullying, due to the belief that she was hired for her looks, not her abilities.

The second issue the show uncovers is the constant breach of ethical journalism standards in Japan. In HodoBuzz, characters discuss real news, cite actual political commentary, and refer to known false reports by existing Japanese TV networks and newspapers. This has never been done on a Japanese TV drama, due to the strong and complicated codependent relationships among the news industry, political parties, TV stations, sponsor companies, and major talent agencies.

The nature of HodoBuzz has made it very challenging for the creators to get enough investment and distribution support. And it’s safe to assume that HodoBuzz won’t get good coverage from Japanese legacy media, either. Due to the time-sensitive topics discussed, Derrrrruq!!! decided to turn to Kickstarter.

Kickstarter video Link: https://youtu.be/AuhIUjyFGUk

Their team name, “Derrrrruq!!!,” was inspired by the Japanese expression “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down”, which describes the conformist nature of Japanese society. Derrrrruq!!! aspires to be the nail that sticks out, a “disruptive” voice in the industry.

For the readers of Japan Subculture Research Center, Derrrrruq!!!’s three creators, Mari Kawade, Maho Honda, and Tsukasa Kondo, might look familiar. Their previous work, 2nd Avenue, was also a bicultural show set in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The entire series of 2nd Avenue is available on YouTube to watch.

Link: https://youtu.be/9jbXtOYNS1w

Like 2nd Avenue, Derrrrruq!!!’s aim with HodoBuzz is to create a show that is hard to find in the Japanese entertainment industry. To learn more about HodoBuzz and to make a donation to the crowdfunding campaign by the September 4th deadline, please visit http://kck.st/2u8rx8o.

HodoBuzz Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/derrrrruq/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/derrrrruq

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/derrrrruq/

Website: https://www.derrrrruq.com/

 

Sayonara, Robuchon-san: A Eulogy to Japan’s Beloved French Chef

The news shook the world of Tokyo’s French cuisine, but the iconic Chateau Restaurant Joel Robuchon in Ebisu, was open for business. Diners clinked their glasses in honor of the late Joel Robuchon, the world famous chef who took “nihonno furenchi (French food in Japan)’ to a new level. In early August, Joel Robuchon succumbed to his battle with cancer. He was 73 years old – young by Japanese standards and way too young for people like Kazunari Mizuki, who had studied under the great master for 2 years before working as an entree chef at the Hotel Okura. “I never got a chance to say goodbye,” he said, his eyes getting moist. “Many of us in this business revered him so much. Without Joel-san, the French restaurant scene in Tokyo would never have gotten to this point.”

The finest coffee ice cream dessert ever.
Every dish, delicious and beautiful. A feast for the eyes and the palette

Indeed, Robuchon’s famed Chateau Restaurant (opened in 1994) was one of the first establishments in Tokyo to earn Michelin’s 3-star rating and the Chateau building itself has come to represent the wealth and glamour of Japan’s capital city. It’s also a pilgrimage site for Japanese couples. In a city notorious for workaholic singles and a rapidly aging population, the Chateau is the one place where men confer with the restaurant staff weeks in advance to orchestrate the perfect marriage proposal and the presenting of the ring. No woman can possibly say ‘no’ to a Robuchon proposal. The very fact that the occasion happened HERE of all places, makes her that much more precious, or at least worthy of a 80,000 yen dinner course and a sizable bling.

The food – though formidable, is almost beside the point. Joel Robuchon taught the Japanese that French cuisine wasn’t about food per se, but the experience as a whole. Everything from the decor to the lighting and wine selection to the impeccable service, should be a reflection of Robuchon’s personal philosophy: never settle for anything less than state of the art.

Presentation matters

He also had a deep respect for Japan and Japanese cuisine. He lauded the soy sauce as “one of the greatest culinary miracles” according to an interview he gave on Fuji Television, and even developed a special shoyu to accompany western dishes. Four months before his death, he had collaborated with sake maker “Dassai” to open a Japanese/French restaurant in Paris. One of his best friends was Jiro Ono, sushi master extraordinaire and owner of “Sukiyabashi Jiro’ in Yurakucho.

Before Joel Robuchon arrived on the scene, the Japanese and French cuisine had an amicable if overly polite, relationship. In prewar days, it was customary for master chefs of the Imperial Household to train in Paris, working their way up from scullery boy to line chef at various establishments. The young Emperor Hirohito was said to have treasured his chef, and counted on him to produce French dinners that would melt the hearts of visiting western dignitaries, even in the midst of rising political tension that preceded WWII.

Back then, only the top tier of the elite could hope to sit down to a full course French dinner and many Japanese had no idea what a fork and knife even looked like. It wasn’t until after the Japanese surrender and the late 1950s, that well-to-do families began dining in Tokyo restaurants, cautiously tasting dishes that vaguely resembled French cuisine.

Fork and knife, not needed, the meat is so tender.

In 1978, 33 years after the Japanese surrender, Joel Robuchon was appointed master chef at the Hotel Nikko de Paris (now the Novotel Paris Centre Tour Eiffel) Coincidentally, Robuchon himself was 33 years old, a still-young chef on the brink of success. That he chose a Japanese hotel to work his magic before opening his own restaurant (the legendary Jamain) three years later, speaks of his enduring love for this country. Robuchon opened restaurants all over the world but has said in numerous interviews that he genuinely enjoyed working with the Japanese, because “we share an innate respect for food and nature.”
Merci, chef. We shall miss you.

Even In Japan, Bashing Gays Is Not Okay. Behind The Scenes Of The First Sugita Protest

Bashing Gays Is Not Okay Says Crowd At Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party Headquarters

“We don’t need Parliamentarians who ignore human rights” (人権無視する議員はいらない)

“Mio Sugita, resign now” (杉田水脈は今すぐ辞めろ)

Silence is death” ˆ(沈黙は死)

These were just some of the statements protesters were chanting in unity, in front of the Liberal Democratic Party headquarters on July 27th, demanding for the resignation of the parliamentarian, Mio Sugita. On July 24th, in the monthly magazine, Shukan Shincho, Sugita published an essay in which she said, among many other offensive things, that no tax money should be spent on lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender (LGBT) individuals because “they can’t reproduce and are therefore not valuable to society.” At first, the protests were confined to the internet, but in a short time, they spilt out into real life–an actual protest, and that was pivotal in getting the Japanese media to pay attention and finally force the LDP to address the issue. 

Individuals- active citizens, representatives of NGOs as well as some politicians all gathered together in front of the LDP, angered by Mio Sugita’s comments clearly dissing the LGBTQ+ community.

It seems to be that an eclectic variety of individuals gathered. Those who identify to be LGBTQ+, those who do not, students and surprisingly (in the context of Japan,) a few people seemingly salarymen who came after work in their suits. To me, it seemed like there was an equal ratio of women to men. The crowd was mostly Japanese but there were a handful of foreigners who came to show support too. There were young women angered, who came alone, university students who came with their friends including myself. I believe there were a lot of men who seemed to be in their thirties to forties too. The crowd was very diverse.

There were all kinds of posters and signs held. There were many posters available online and they spread through social platforms such as Twitter. There was an identification number for the posters one could then input in a machine at a convenience store and get printed out. There were rainbow flags held up and most of the posters advocated for acceptance of diversity, lgbtq+. Some of these signs had statements like 生産性で価値を図るな which translates to something like Don’t measure our worth by “productivity.” Many of them criticised Sugita’s comment un “unproductiveness” and how it discriminates against many other groups of people in society. One thing which came a little of a shock to me were some other posters which came off as more aggressive. It wasn’t a majority but there were a handful of people with posters with Sugita’s face on it, however with a little twist. Some of them had a target on her face or one which made her look like a zombie, strongly demonizing her. I personally think this is going a little far and it’s better to argue against her comments and advocating for diversity but various perspectives were apparent.

There were countless numbers of policemen trying to control the people so that the participants were not standing over the studded part of the pedestrian road which is an aid for the blind. The police were trying to control the number of people in the main street and restricted participants from going onto the main street. The police were making some people stand against streets going around other blocks to limit the demonstration, but eventually, people overflowed onto the main street.

This issue may have caught a lot of people’s attention because many individuals saw this not only as an attack on the LGBTQ+ community but as one to all citizens, one to women, men, disabled people or the elderly. Sugita’s comments about how LGBTQ+ individuals are “unproductive” (生産性がない) as “they cannot have children” is inaccurate and extremely discriminatory to everyone as childbearing is an autonomous choice of an individual, not an obligation a citizen has to its government.

So, what exactly happened at the demonstration?

Apart from trying to get the attention of the LDP, the media and the rest of the public by simply being there and protesting, some participants, such as LGBTQ+ individuals, a few university professors, and some politicians delivered speeches explaining how hurtful Sugita’s comments were personally, how they could not sleep for days, illuminating how backwards Japan still is. Some participants also went up to the LDP to hand in a sort of a request for the resignation of Mio Sugita. Even though the few individuals who went up to the LDP headquarters seemed to contain their composure, they were denied a chance to even simply hand in the documents.

This demonstration was certainly not one the LDP could simply dismiss and move on with as they often do. There has been a lot of backlash to Sugita’s discriminatory comments on various social platforms and many other demonstrations have popped up in other parts of Japan. Recently, there was one on August 5th in Shibuya, Osaka and Fukuoka. There was also one on August 6th in Mie prefecture.

The LDP did acknowledge Sugita’s comments but have not condemned her, except for Shigeta Ishiba, who is running against Abe in the LDP internal party elections. Although modern Japanese governments prior to the current one have certainly not been the most transparent and democratic, the current one under Prime Minister Abe has continuously been moving far and far away from democracy, with its powerful members pulling strings in their favour, ultimately guiding the government away from democratic rule. It is does not bode well that since Abe took office Japan has dropped to 67 in World Press Freedom (it was ranked 11 in 2011) and not surprisingly Japan ranks lower than ever in the annual gender equality rankings, 114 out of 144 countries.

 

Erika Bulach is a university student in Tokyo majoring in social sciences. 

Child Abuse In Japan. Why Japan Keeps Returning Abused Kids To Their Parents Until They Are Killed

What causes a 5-year old girl to write in her notebook, “Please forgive me,” just a few days prior to her death from abuse? “Please forgive me” is ‘onegai, yurushite,’ in Japanese, and the phrase made headlines after 5-year old Yua Funato was found dead in her apartment home in March. According to news reports, Yua had been beaten by her father and starved by her mother. The direct cause of her death was sepsis, brought on my poor nutrition and untreated pneumonia. Asahi Shimbun reported that Yua was ordered (by her mother) to practice writing Japanese at 4 in the morning everyday and was punished when she made mistakes, usually by being forced to sit for hours on the concrete veranda of their apartment, in the dead of winter.

“Better to light a single candle then curse the darkness a thousand times.”

According to Nippon.com, Yua’s treatment is pretty much standard among the growing number of child abuse cases in Japan. The father beats the child in places were bruises can’t be seen (in her case, injuries were confirmed on her upper thighs and back) and the mother stops feeding them. Verbal abuse, beating s and starvation form the unholy trinity of Japanese abuse cases and Yua, apart from everything else, was told by her mother Yuri that she shouldn’t have been born into the world, and that she was hated by everyone. Yua had to sleep in a tiny room with no heating, away from her parents and younger brother who occupied a bigger room with an air conditioner. At the time of her death, she was 8 kilos lighter than the average 5-year old and her digestive tract was clotted with vomit.

Now three months later, neighbors and sympathizers continue to place incense, candy and flowers outside the Funato family’s apartment in Tokyo’s Meguro ward. Social commentators have sighed and shook their heads with pity. Even Prime Minister Abe has been moved to comment that child abuse “cannot be overlooked.” But all that sympathy came too late for the 5-year old. The whistle had been blown on Yua’s parents several times over two years before the tragedy but the authorities had done nothing to help. Japan’s infamous child consultation centers (notice it’s consultation and not welfare) are hindered by an antiquated rule that favors parents’ rights over children’s, parents’ testimonials over children who, like Yua, had cried to a social worker that she didn’t want to live at home because her father beat her. Japan’s social workers mainly consult with the adults, and the first thing they ask the parents of a child perceived to have been beaten, is: “Are you abusing your child?” Yeah, right, like the parents are going to come clean and admit it. In the case of Yua, the parents had been “cautioned” and invited to attend a parents seminar, designed to help adults become better carers of offspring. The Funatos never showed up.

The damning, daunting fact is this: As of 2016, there were well over 100,000 cases of child abuse reported in Japan, up 100 times since 1990. In the US, that number  is something like 67,000. And before Yua, there was Riku and Takumu and many other children of pre-school age who had been beaten, abused, starved or outrightly murdered by their parents. In spite of the government’s pledge to build more day care facilities and put families first, Japan is a place that’s not very nice to kids. Daycare is one thing, but public schools – once the bastion of a legendary educational system, is rife with problems from bullying to underpaid, overworked teachers who are mostly too tired to notice that a kid is showing up to school with bruises, or haven’t had a square meal in days. As the media keeps reminding us, one out of six Japanese children live in poverty, and go to school (if they are able) on empty stomachs.

As for children blessed with a stable home life, they often feel crushed by a tremendous pressure to succeed, i.e., get into a good university that will ensure a well-paying job 15 years down the line. Many kids start going to cram school as early as second grade, studying for entrance exams that will ensure at least a partial foot in the door of a prestigious university.

The experience of being born a Japanese national used to be described as following the ‘Bathtub Curve,’ meaning the best years of a Japanese life came at the beginning, between 0 and 12 years old, and in the end, between 65 and 75. My high school politics teacher taught us that, and I still remember the shock of seeing the long, flat line that supposedly represented the years between adolescence and retirement. Equally shocking was that upward curve representing babyhood and primary school. Were those years really so glorious? In primary school, summer vacation lasts just over a measly month and even that was tempered with shitloads  of homework that had to be completed and submitted on September 1st. School lunches were for the most part, awful rations laid on prison-like tin trays. At home, dads returned on the last train, stressed to the very core of their beings and moms were equally tired from chores and childcare.

Dismal as it often is, there’s no comparing a normal Japanese childhood to what Yua, and tens of thousands of children like her, are going through on a daily basis. Some commentators have lamented that there are simply not enough social workers to go around. True, every time a child dies from abuse, the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Labor (Koseirodousho) issues a statement about labor shortage being the definitive problem in the service industry. There are just not enough Japanese to do the work of caring for children, the elderly or the sick and diseased. When a staff member of a senior home was arrested last year after killing one of his charges, the reason given was fatigue. He was fed up with having to care for helpless people, and his work chart showed he had been pulling 12-hour shifts with almost no days off.

With Yua, the social workers who had been in charge of her case had also been understaffed, which led to carelessness and cutting corners. Yua’s parents moved the family from Kagawa prefecture to Tokyo, after a neighbor blew the whistle on Yua’s father. The child consultation workers in Kagawa then neglected to pass the full bulk of the paperwork from Kagawa to Tokyo, and Yua’s case was never reviewed in her new locale. Add to that the fact that child abuse facilities are notoriously crowded. Barring extreme circumstances, abuse victims are often returned to their parents, and the cycle of violence begins all over again. This was certainly true of Yua, who spent 3 months in a child care center in Kagawa but was not allowed to stay.

Sometimes, family is the most horrendous aspect of a child’s life. If Yua had been separated from her parents, chances are she would have lived. But Japanese tradition dictates that families must stick together, and what goes on within that circle is sacrosanct. More than the labor shortage, or parents seminars, we need to rethink the Japanese family, and take a long, hard look at its dysfunctions.

****

Editor’s Note: The Japan Times in a recent editorial , What is lacking the fight against child abuse, had some suggestions on how to prevent further tragedies. 

“A 2016 revision to the child abuse prevention law simplified the procedure for officials of such centers to carry out on-site inspection of homes where child abuse is suspected without the parents’ consent. The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry says that protection of children should be prioritized and that officials should not hesitate in the face of parents’ objections to take abused children under protective custody. However, it is believed that many welfare officials balk at resorting to such action out of concern that support for the family may not proceed smoothly if the action is taken over the parents’ opposition.

Japan’s efforts to stop child abuse are weak when compared with the systems in many Western countries. For example, in the United States, where efforts to prevent abuse of children started much earlier than in Japan, far greater numbers of child abuse cases are reported to and handled by child protection service agencies. Such agencies are staffed by far larger numbers of experts per capita than in Japan, and the police and the judiciary are more deeply involved in the effort against child abuse. What’s lacking in our system to stop child abuse should be explored so that similar tragedies will not be repeated.”

Japan’s Secret Shame (The Story Behind The Story)

Shiori Ito is a brave journalist who has taken on Japan’s rape culture and has pursued justice in her own case. The BBC released a documentary “Japan’s Secret Shame” about Japan’s lack of ability to deal with sexual assault in the country and why her accused assailant was allowed to walk away, even after an arrest warrant on charges of rape were issued by the police. The documentary is hard to view outside of the UK, so if you’d like to know mere, here’s everything you should know until it’s released here. Many of these articles were written for The Daily Beast, which has been supportive of the investigative journalism behind these stories.
Also, it should be noted that weekly magazine, Shukan Shincho (週刊新潮), was the first periodical to write about this story and pulled no punches in accused the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of blocking a rape investigation.
Below is a list of articles that we’ve written on the case, some at a time, when no other major news media outlet would touch the story.
The stories are in chronological order here and the final entry is being updated when possible.
The cover-up (June 2017)
Shiori Ito came forward to talk about her rape and the lack of investigation of sexual assault in Japan.

Help Support Japan Subculture Online. Reporting on the strange side of the Rising Sun since 2007!

Gentle reader,




Welcome to our semi-annual pledge drive. Japan Subculture Research Center (@japankenkyu) was founded in 2007 by Jake Adelstein and many contributors to expose the hidden side of Japan – its underground economy, its transient and strange trends, its robust sex trade, wacky politics, corruption, social issues, many subcultures, yakuza, host clubs and hosts, Japanese cinema and all the other intriguing and seedy aspects that keep the country running. Balancing commentary, reporting and dark humor–we’re the kakekomitera (駆け込み寺) aka “last resort” of some news stories that no one else will touch. We’ve covered rebel graffiti artists, crusading lawyers, and some real heroes.

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The business friendly Japanese government fails to deal with preventing Death By Overwork. In January, the Labor Ministry did put signs saying” Stop Karoshi” urging an end to death by overwork, “for a society where people can continue to labor”.

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Nazis, Goebels, His Secretary and Nippon. An Austrian Documentary Reminds Us Of Japan’s Failure To Reconcile History

She’s old, really old. You could describe her as an ancient relic. But at 103 years old, Brunhilde Pomsel seems strong, confident, even blase. Pomsel is the centerpiece of the stunning documentary, A German Life (released in Japan as Goebbels to Watashi ) in which she recounts the years she spent in the employ of the Third Reich, as a personal secretary to Joseph Goebbels. Shot in a gradations of black and gray, A German Life, highlights her still soft hair and the brightness of her eyes. What you’ll notice however, are the deep crevices crisscrossing her face, an incredibly creasy visage that make her look like some kind of exotic deepwater fish. Only once does her confidence falter, and that’s when she’s asked to recall whether she was aware of the existence of the concentration camps. “I didn’t know it,” she says but her voice lacks conviction. “I wasn’t guilty of that, but if I was, then the whole of Germany during the reign of the Third Reich – was guilty.”

The film will resonate with many viewers in Japan, not least because Germany was an Axis partner in WWII, but for the radical difference in the way the two nations have dealt with their wartime legacies of shame and humiliation. For many Japanese, the war years are a receding memory, most often romanticized and tinged with sentiment, as in The Eternal Zero. The stories told in the media or retold by our elders, have always varied little, summed up in a singular theme that combines victimization and valor. In this theme, the atrocities committed by the military in Asia, are glossed over. After all, the Japanese starved, Japan went through unspeakable deprivation, was relentlessly firebombed and then the Japanese people had two nuclear bombs dropped right on their heads for good measure. Whatever terrible things the Japanese military did in China and Southeast Asia, was paid for with our own suffering. We’ve checked off the items on our rap sheet of atonement. So let’s agree to sweep all that stuff under the futon and get on with the business at hand, shall we?

A German Life, which tells the story of Goebbel’s secretary and seems to explain how Germany allowed the Nazis to rise up and get away with what they did, opens on June 16th in Japan.

This particular logic (or lack thereof) has come to define the collective memory in the 7-plus decades after the Japanese surrender. It wasn’t really our fault, but the fault of the entire era, and the unstoppable war machine! Compare this mind-set to Germany. They also suffered from the air raids and bombings and went through hell. But they are also a people unafraid to rub their faces in the shit pile of defeat. To this day, they are still examining what exactly happened, and why. New revelations of Nazi atrocities are being unearthed all the time, to be dissected and discussed. The Germans have not averted their gaze from the past, rather they’ve been pretty relentless in their cause to track down and then lay bare the gruesome details of their own crimes. Consider the meticulously categorized displays at the Auschwitz Memorials. The unforgiving precision that characterize the guided tour of those Memorials. The sheer number of movies and documentaries that have come out about the camps and the Third Reich. Or the revived public interest in Sophie Scholl, the young political activist who was guillotined for her fierce anti-Nazism.

“For all that, I believe that Germany is experiencing an eerie deja vu of the Nazi years,” said Florian Weigensamer, one of the four-man directorial team behind A German Life. Weigensamer was in Tokyo to promote the film, along with another director Christian Krones, who is also the founder of Blackbox Films and Media Productions. Blackbox engineered the whole endeavor that is this movie and other award winning documentaries. Krones and Weigensamer have been colleagues and friends for over 20 years and they’ve dedicated a good chunk of their professional lives to the excavation of some of humanity’s most complex problems. (One of their recent projects is a documentary called Welcome to Sodom that examines Ghana’s burgeoning waste problem, born of discarded home appliances.)

Krones is the oldest and most experienced member of Blackbox but he stresses that there’s no corporate hierarchy at work. “I like to take a democratic approach to filmmaking. No orders are issued top-down. There are no one-man decisions. We hold extensive meetings and discuss the film process every step of the way, like a real democracy.” And he added with a chuckle, “We do this because the film industry tends to be very dictatorial and we are very sensitive to anything that smacks of dictatorship!”

The directors of “A German Life”

Blackbox is an Austrian company as are Krones and Weigensamer. Because they don’t carry German passports, the pair say that their gaze on WWII and the Nazi atrocities are a little distanced. “We were both born many years after the war,” said Weigensamer. “And growing up, I remember my own family didn’t really talk about the war unless it was to say that we were victimized. In this way, I guess we are a lot like the Japanese.” In 1938, Austria was forcibly annexed to Germany in what was known as the Anschluss, and according to Krones, it “laid the groundwork for turning a blind eye to Nazi atrocities. The Nazis held Austria in a grip of terror and the Austrians felt powerless. They descended into denial, and most people just tried to make it through the war years without getting killed.” Weigensamer nodded in assent, but said, “And now we are seeing the rise of neo-Nazis, and the end of tolerance for refugees and outsiders.” Indeed, Krones said, “When we first started filming ‘A German Life,’ I thought, we would be talking about something that was past and over with. Now I feel like I’ve gone back in time, and traveled to a future where the nightmare is beginning all over again.”

As for Brunhilde Pomsel, she comes off as neither a tragic heroine or an evil monster but a woman with exceptional secretarial skills and a breathtakingly banal personality. Astonishingly, before taking up her duties for the Third Reich, Pomsel had worked in a Jewish insurance company in Berlin while having a side gig in the afternoons working for an official in the Nazi Party. Her lover and fiance was half Jewish. (In the film, she has a silver band around her ring finger.) He was killed in Amsterdam in 1942. Her best friend was a young Jewish woman named Ava, who died in one of the camps. All around her, Jewish people were being taken away, ostensibly to a place of “re-education,” and she didn’t think to question what this may really mean. Her take on Joseph Goebbels is that he was “so dapper, so dashing! The cut of his suits was perfect.” Pomsel even remembered how Goebbels’s children would come to pick him up at lunchtime so that they could all walk home together for the midday meal.

Pomsel apparently compartmentalized all that into her life, and shut out whatever she deemed unworthy of attention. She never stopped to examine the contradictions of her thoughts or her actions. She simply wanted to perform her duties well, and then go home.

“The thing is, she was very likable,” described Weigenhamer. “She was articulate, self-sufficient and loved going to the theatre. She took very good care of herself and liked to have a good time. At first I thought I liked this woman but the more time I spent with her, the more I got to hate her.” Krones said: “What struck me was her incredible selfishness. I honestly got the feeling that she was alone because she didn’t want to share her life with anybody. She enjoyed living. But as in the war years, she wanted her life to be hers alone. And this mentality, this wish to shut out others – is part of what made Hitler successful.”

Brunhilde Pomsel died last year, at the age of 106.

The film opens in Japan on June 16th. Editor’s note: ironically, the current government of Japan doesn’t only have a desire to revise history and bury Japan’s war crimes, the Prime Minister and his cabinet have a great fondness for the Nazi Party and their political strategies. History does repeat itself.