Rewarding greed with publicity and attention

TV Asahi, March 15, 2020.

One thought I kept having in the first few weeks of the coronavirus pandemic was why anyone would want to hoard face masks (or alcohol wipes, or toilet paper, or pretty much anything) to resell them at the most outrageous prices online, or in drug stores.

Capitalism does not—and should not—stop these folks from exploiting an opportunity for arbitrage. Face masks are in scarce supply, so they can sell at a higher price. But just like the whiny, bratty elementary school teacher who chatisized you for asking whether you “can go to the bathroom”, rather than whether you “may go to the bathroom”, we can do a lot of things in life. Like walking in naked into a corporate meeting. Yodeling during a church sermon. Vomiting on the fruit in the produce aisle of the grocery store.

As far as I know, nothing in the law restrains us from doing any of that—except for basic human decency. I would have thought the same applies for hoarding face masks.

A few days before the Japanese government banned mask reselling, I saw a few media outlets interview, face mask resellers. At first, I thought this was a good opportunity to see what they think, and to answer to their actions. The person that TV Asahi found for their interview displayed complete disregard to medical workers and people who couldn’t afford to get any masks for themselves. “「よそはよそ、うちはうち。」昔からそうやって教わらないですか?”, he said. “You do you, and I do me. Weren’t we taught as a kid?”

But I then wondered why anyone would even want to talk to the media about doing something so shameful, if they could even feel shame. Here is someone who is obsessed with what they are doing despite being so contrary to the standards of human decency to the point that they would want to defend themselves on national television. Here is someone who is greedy for attention—or just plain greedy.

In Hong Kong, which is fortunate to not be under draconian shelter-in-place orders, I struggle with whether I should leave home each day. #Staythefuckhome seems to be an international civic duty now. But (and I may be in the minority on this) the hashtag is a little heavy-handed. I’m not a medical expert, but so long as you’re doing all the necessary precautions—wearing face masks, frequently disinfecting and washing your hands, avoiding hot, crowded, enclosed spaces, and not touching weird places on trains—and assuming you haven’t been in contact with anyone who might be sick, I think it’s still okay to go for jogs in the park and such.

But (I’ve rationalized) it might be different if you choose to publicize the fact that you’re traveling as normal during a pandemic. I follow this one person on Instagram who traveled to Kanazawa and Odawara this weekend as Mr. Abe ponders a state of emergency over the country’s three major metropolitan areas. They uploaded a steady stream of cherry blossom tree portraits onto my timeline—the fragile flowers suffering from a neglect of attention against an overcast sky.

“You get to sit at home!! 😫”, one person comments on one of the many cherry blossom photos. “Unfortunately this most likely means I don’t get a summer vacation tho lol [sic]”, they reply, referring to the fact that they work as an English teacher on the JET program, so why not milk the school closures as best as they can right now.

To be honest, I, too, would want to walk around Tokyo and see the cherry blossom trees if I were stuck in Japan now. But I probably wouldn’t get on a bullet train to Kanazawa just to put up travel pictures for the sick euphoria of people liking my pretty pink photos.

Do not use this blog post as a source for news about the coronavirus pandemic. Tales from Tabata is not a primary news source. For updates on COVID-19 in Japan, please see the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare’s site and other primary news sources.

Cities: Skylines and its dedication to ugly urban Japan

Cities: Skylines, a city-building simulation game, is one of my favorite video games. Last week, it released a DLC in which you can add “Modern Japan” buildings to your city.

But if you were expecting neo-Tokyo neon lights and Akihabara animated billboards, the neo-Orientalist numbskull in you would be disappointed. All Ryuichi Kaminogi, the DLC’s creator, has for you is a couple dozen blocky, angular buildings with detailed air-conditioning units, as he explains below:

Japanese narration with English subtitles.

I think we should take a moment to appreciate the dedication that Mr. Kaminogi and Cities: Skylines have to recreating a shabby Japanese city aesthetic in a simulation. There’s no love of tatami mats, no wallpapers of cherry blossom trees, no woodblock prints of Mount Fuji. Just rectangular tower blocks of mass-market hot spring resorts from the 1980s.

As Alex Kerr once bitterly complained in Dogs and Demons: Tales From the Dark Side of Japan:

One does not expect this lack of understanding of materials in Japan, for “love of materials” is one of the most sublime principles of traditional Japanese art—with its unpainted wood, rough stone surfaces, and unglazed pottery. And yet modern Japan is notable for its persistent use of ill-processed plastic, chrome, highly glazed tile, aluminum, and concrete. These cheap industrial materials are everywhere. At a recent show at the Idemitsu Museum, famed as Tokyo’s greatest museum of Asian ceramics, there was a bonsai at the entrance—in an orange plastic pot.

All aesthetic angst aside, Mr. Kaminogi knows a lot about recreating the Japanese urban environment. If you have some social distancing time to yourself now, why not buy Cities: Skylines (a great game in itself) and try it out?

Japanese narration with English subtitles.

Take control of your life

Last December, for the first time in the more than two decades I’ve spent in school, I felt trapped. But I also felt that I couldn’t quit law school. The only thing keeping me going was the fact that I was going to get out of there one day—away from professors who act like infants, administrators who act like royalty, and classmates who burn the last embers of their youth perfecting their (ungraded) assignments.

As governments take a few too pages too many from China’s dictatorial playbook, and make potentially irreversible sacrifices to our civil liberties in the purported aim of beating down a coronavirus pandemic, perhaps more people around the world can relate to the feeling of being subject to forces well beyond our control. Campus life on universities, prematurely extinguished. Face masks, once an object of racist derision against East Asians, now necessary to step outdoors.

Even when folks spend their time at home collecting unhealthy screen time can’t escape the black hole of unnecessary information that Silicon Valley merrily smears on their algorithm-addicted eyes all day. Last week, I returned home from the grocery store irked to hear my parents ask me about whether there were any eggs left on the shelves because they heard something about Thailand. Unable to part with their iPhones and televisions at mealtimes, they too are trapped in an evil vortex of panic buying and resource hoarding.

As AJR said in “Drama“, one of the songs I regularly play on repeat in Spotify:

We’re caught up in problems
Everybody’s talking, everybody’s talking, ooh ahh
Hold up, hold up
Can we make it stop?
Hold up, hold up
But I’m so caught up in drama

But who am I to complain, when I also scroll through Twitter daily, just to retweet from a few dozens accounts who now spend all day laughing at Mr. Abe’s idea to give two masks to each household, and (rightly) bashing fellow his Liberal Democratic Party colleagues calling for the government not to extend any aid to residents in Japan without Japanese citizenship? When record numbers of Americans have filed for unemployment benefits in the past two weeks?

So perhaps it felt so reinvigorating to read about this very random piece of news on 4years., an Asahi Shimbun site focused on intercollegiate sports in Japan, yesterday:

アメリカンフットボールの社会人Xリーグ1部AREAに所属する「みらいふ福岡SUNS」は3月30日、4years.のアメフト応援団長であるコージ・トクダさん(32)が4月1日に選手として加入すると発表しました。コージさんは法政大アメフト部で2009-10年シーズンに主将を務め、10年ぶりの競技復帰。「アメフトが盛り上がる起爆剤となり、少しでも競技へ恩返しができればいいなと思ってます。SUNSでプレーできるのを楽しみにしてます」と話しています。 

Mirai Fukuoka Suns, an American football team in the X1 division of the X-League [an American football league in Japan], announced on April 1 that Koji Tokuda, the “head supporter” of American football on 4years., has joined the team as a football player. Mr. Koji was the captain of the American football team at Hosei University in the 2009-10 season. This is his first return to the gridiron in a decade. “American football always makes me very excited, and I’ve always wanted to do something to give back to the sport. I look forward to being able to play for Fukuoka Suns,” Koji said.

Just to give some context, Koji Tokuda is a comedian and television personality who, until February, was part of a double act called ブリリアン (Brillian), which you can read about on this entertainment blog post here (in Japanese), because I know nothing about Mr. Tokuda. Here is Asahi Shimbun‘s video of Koji Tokuda in uniform below:

Japanese narration with Japanese subtitles.

While certainly a thousand times more athletic that I am and will ever be, Mr. Koji, at the tender age of 32, also isn’t exactly in the prime of his youth as an upcoming professional athlete. At the same time, I think this makes his decision to amicably part ways with Brillian, and to restart his life as an American footballer a month later, all the more brave.

Ten years ago, Mr. Koji brought Hosei University to the Koshien Bowl, Japan’s annual national college football championship, a decade ago, and lost. After he graduated, as he told the Asahi Shimbun in a 2017 interview, he didn’t want to become a professional athlete:

「自分の能力に限界を感じていたので、アメフットを社会人でもやろうとは思わなかった。ただ有名になって、またあの甲子園での感覚を味わいたいという気持ちがずっとありました。その近道をずっと考えて考えて、出した答えがお笑い芸人でした」

“I had felt that I was reaching my limit, so I didn’t think about becoming a professional American football athlete. For the longest time, I just wanted to become famous and get that feeling I had while I was at Koshien. I thought long and hard about what the fastest way to do so was, and the answer I came up with was to become a comedian.”

“A ghost never dies, it remains always to come and to come-back,” wrote Jacques Derrida, as retold by Hua Hsu in a New Yorker article that a friend sent me last week. Ours is the life that we live, and so we must control the ghosts of our past, before we let the ghosts of our past control ourselves. Mr. Koji probably let his ghosts felt known when he couldn’t stop talking about the NFL during his entertainment career. Now, he has gone all in, and he gets to play with Takashi Kurihara, his former teammate at Hosei University.

Maybe I, who never got over my own insecurities in gym class as a kid, or the ghosts I left behind at Waseda University, just have a soft spot for carefully crafted stories in the Japanese mass media about male athletes and the careers they left behind. But in a city, or indeed a world, swept up in an unending panic about the coronavirus, this peripheral piece of news about Mr. Koji will hopefully inspire me for the difficult weeks to come.

Naoki Kitagawa took the cover photo I used for this blog post for the Asahi Shimbun.

Do not use this blog post as a source for news about the coronavirus pandemic. Tales from Tabata is not a primary news source. For updates on COVID-19 in Japan, please see the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare’s site and other primary news sources.

The big Joban Line conspiracy

A few weeks ago, on the ninth anniversary of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, I discussed a few articles about the Joban Line, a major railway line that the tsunami rendered large parts of inoperable, and what reopening the entire line in full for the first time since the disaster meant.

I had mentioned that TV Asahi interviewed a Futaba resident, who said that the Joban Line reopened for the Olympics. That video is no longer accessible on YouTube, but before TV Asahi took the video down, there were many anonymous comments criticizing what that resident said.

Here’s one:

JR東日本は早急に常磐線を開通させて、駅や鉄道を通して少しでも人や物の流れを良くして避難指示解除後に速やかに住民が生活をスタート出来るようにすることが目的だと思う。品川から仙台までの特急運転再開により東北新幹線で何らかのトラブルがあった場合ににも対応するためもあるはずだ。 JR東日本は何でもオリンピックの為だけに復旧工事をしたのでは無い。

I think the JR East’s aim of reopening the Joban Line is to help enhance the flow of people and goods through stations and the railway, and to help residents quickly rebuild their lives after the government withdraws the mandatory evacuation orders. Having a limited express service from Shinagawa to Sendai will also help out if the Tohoku Shinkansen has some kind of trouble. Not every post-earthquake recovery project that JR East does is about the Olympics.

Who doesn’t want things to return to normal? But why would anyone come back if (it seems that) only the plaza in front of JR Futaba Station is no longer under the evacuation order? How does a community rebuild when only the land around the train line in Futaba is open?

Also, it’s great that there’s a train from Tokyo’s CBD to Sendai. But how much of a difference will this service make when there are only three of them per day on JR East’s timetable (as of 2020)? Can it really replace the Tohoku Shinkansen when it breaks down?

Here’s another comment:

田舎民は鉄道を利用しないから全線開通は意味ないとか、ずっと閉鎖しておくべきといった心無いコメントが散見されますが、大変残念なことだと思います。

I see heartless comments spread around that say that the reopening is meaningless because people in the countryside don’t use the railways, and that it should be closed forever. This is disappointing.

確かに今の段階では、新規開通区間の途中駅を利用する人は少ないでしょうが、現在でも浪江-富岡間を代行輸送バスで通り抜ける客は居るため、利便性が向上すれば沿線の活性化に貢献することは間違いありません。 また東京仙台間の特急列車が復活しますが、これは沿線の地域活性化もそうですし、東北新幹線の代替ルートとしての機能を果たすことが出来、不慮の事態にも対応出来る万全なインフラを整備することに繋がります。 それに、鉄道が運ぶものは旅客だけではありません。今回の全線開通でこれまで迂回していた貨物列車が戻って来れば、地元産業に追い風となり、良い影響を与えるでしょう。

Indeed, at this stage, there might be very few people using the stations in the newly reopened section. However, there are passengers who use the rail replacement bus service between Namie and Tomioka, so if the reopening makes things more convenient, the line will most definitely contribute to revitalizing the areas it passes through. Also, the limited express train between Tokyo and Sendai is running again. This service will also revitalize the areas along the line, serve a replacement route for the Tohoku Shinkansen, and be part of the comprehensive infrastructure that can deal with unforeseen circumstances. Furthermore, people aren’t the only ones to ride the rails. If the freight trains that used to take a detour route until the reopening of the Joban Line return, that can be favorable to the local industries, and be a positive influence.

どんな状況下であっても、自身で車を運転出来ない高齢者や通勤通学客にとって、鉄道が重要な移動手段であることに変わりはないですし、鉄道は無いよりあった方が良いに決まっています。仮に全線開通が復興ムードを高める一環なのだとしても、それのどこが問題なのでしょうか。

Whatever the situation, for elderly folks who cannot drive cars themselves, or commuting workers and students, the railway is an important mode of transport, and having a railway is definitely better than not having a railway. If reopening the line can help elevate people’s recovery moods, what’s the problem with that?

Okay, so there’s a lot to unpack in this really long comment. If there are people who use the line, that’s great. But I think it’s a little arrogant to say that merely opening the Joban Line can boost people’s “recovery moods (復興ムードを高める)”.

I thought this quote from 人間なき復興: 原発避難と国民の「不理解」をめぐって (page 65) sums up how I feel:

人と社会は、鳥が先か、卵が先かなどという以上に、切り離せない一つの関係であるわけです。人が復興するためには、社会が一緒に復興していかなければならない。どちらか先に復興するということはおそらくできない。

Rather than seeing ‘people’ and ‘society’ as a chicken and egg problem, both people and society are in an inseparable relationship. For people to recover from a disaster, society must also reconstruct at the same time.

Indeed, what’s the point of recovering from a disaster if we only celebrate the return of inanimate objects: train tracks, train stations, and train services? Why wasn’t reconstructing the communities along the lines in sync with restoring the Joban Line?

Also, why are people so obsessed with having that limited express train just in case something happens to the Tohoku Shinkansen? I see the same argument for that maglev train from Tokyo to Osaka, and the idea of having a replacement route for the Tokaido Shinkansen in case an earthquake destroys the latter. Why would anyone be traveling at all if there was such a devastating earthquake in the first place?

Here’s another infrastructure-obsessed comment:

線路がつながるって事に大事な意味があるのであって、双葉町の人だけに作ったわけじゃないでしょ。

Connecting a railway line itself is of monumental importance. The Joban Line wasn’t made just for the people in Futaba.

If all it took to boost people’s “recovery moods” was to plop some train tracks here and there (and to decontaminate all the soil along the way), we might as well fill bathtubs of water, close our eyes, and hope it becomes wine.

Finally, here is a more (more realistic) comment:

電車が通ったとしても、結局そこに残っているのは9年も放置されてきた震災当時のままの姿。原発事故が収束していないことと、自宅に帰るのに更に長い月日をかけることを考えると誰も戻っては来ないと思うし、鉄道が通ったところで復興が進むとも思えない。

Even if trains now pass through, what’s left unattended in the town is what happened 9 years ago during the earthquake. The nuclear disaster hasn’t been settled. I don’t think anyone will come back once they consider that it’ll take even longer for them to return to their homes. I don’t think the recovery has progressed just because a railway line has reopened.

The Moritomo Gakuen Scandal, explained in 4 minutes

Japanese narration, with Japanese subtitles.

Content note: mentions of suicide in the video and text below.

Maybe Vox should take something out of this guy’s playbook: explain complex problems in Japanese politics over drone footage of a beach in huge subtitles.

Reiji Yoshida for the Japan Times explains the scandal as such:

The wife of a former Finance Ministry official who killed himself in March 2018 filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the ministry and Nobuhisa Sagawa, former chief of its financial bureau, seeking damages of ¥110 million.

The plaintiff alleges that, in 2017, Sagawa and other ministry officials forced Toshio Akagi, then 54, to falsify government documents recording details of a dubious land transaction involving school operator Moritomo Gakuen that went on to become the topic of a high-profile scandal.

Shukan Bunshun published Mr. Akagi’s apparent suicide note earlier this month. The Abe administration has refused an independent investigation.

The Journalist

So I just spent my socially distanced Friday night watching The Journalist on a friend’s recommendation, a drama film released last year loosely based on Isoko Mochizuki’s memoir, Shinbun Kisha (新聞記者). Isoko Mochizuki is a Tokyo Shimbun journalist now lionized in the English-language press for causing trouble for Mr. Abe by doing her job.

It’s nice to see a mass-market film be so overtly anti-establishment (there’s a line in the film where some evil bureaucrat says that Japan’s democracy only needs to be a democracy on paper, or something to that effect)—maybe that’s why the film had to cast a Korean-born actress to be Erika Yoshioka, the journalist in the film? Unfortunately, I found the film a little boring, with odd pacing and an anticlimactic ending.

What seems more interesting is Tetsuya Mori’s documentary on Isoko Mochizuki herself, called iー新聞記者ドキュメントー (the trailer is embedded above). The documentary appears to promise plenty of verbal altercations with politicians and Yoshihide Suga, the chief cabinet minister. Tetsuya Mori himself has produced plenty of non-judgmental films about people in the news, like Fake (about a video game music composer who lied about being deaf). Mori seems to be on the same wavelength as Mochizuki about Japanese mass media, so I hope to see this documentary someday.

Do we want a coronavirus outbreak in Tokyo?

Of course not. I don’t want to join the chorus of unnecessary white noise about the coronavirus pandemic. Civil servants at the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare are already having mental breakdowns since the Diamond Princess debacle. But now that the Tokyo Olympics aren’t happening this year, Ms. Koike can focus her attention on making social distancing a thing in her city.

Even if Tokyo-to (the area under Ms. Koike’s jurisdiction) goes under lockdown, which could be possible (?), according to the graphic, 2.91 million travel in and out of Tokyo-to everyday from the surrounding prefectures. The joke is that the television graphic, which has pictures of all the prefectural governors, looks like something from a NHK period drama, where all the governors are coming to capture Ms. Koike.

So the question of when the coronavirus outbreak will happen is on everyone’s mind—at least everyone who works in mass media.

Why have there been so few cases (so far)? This Reuters article from March 18 thinks it’s because only the most sick patients receive tests:

“Just because you have capacity, it doesn’t mean that we need to use that capacity fully,” health ministry official Yasuyuki Sahara told a news briefing on Tuesday. “It isn’t necessary to carry out tests on these people who are just simply worried.” 

The health ministry’s statement however contrasts with a study by the Japan Medical Association, reported by public broadcaster NHK on Wednesday, that 290 coronavirus tests requested by doctors had been refused by health centers. 

The doctor’s organization cited its nationwide poll showing the refusals happened in 26 prefectures in a 20-day period through March 16, NHK said.

“Strong social norms” despite hanami parties, commutes to work, and kickboxing matches is the reason that this orientalist graph from the Financial Times suggests:

The explanation on the graph mirrors this Bloomberg article from 19 March, which said:

Japan may have some built-in advantages, such as a culture where handshakes and hugs are less common than in other G-7 countries. It also has rates of hand-washing above those in Europe.

Cases of seasonal flu have been declining for seven straight weeks, just as the coronavirus was spreading, indicating Japanese may have taken to heart the need to adopt some basic steps to stem infectious diseases. Tokyo Metropolitan Infectious Disease Surveillance Center data shows that influenza cases this year are well below normal levels, with nationwide cases at the lowest, according to data going back to 2004.

A lawyer who actually bothered to analyze scientific data about the coronavirus’ spread and airflows in commuter trains said (as a joke):

おそらく手洗い、マスクといった個人防護が根付いていること、握手やハグといった身体接触の習慣がないこと、引きこもりで二次元に生きるオタクが多いこと、などが原因でしょう。

[The reasons why the R0 for the coronavirus is so low in Japan] may be that personal protective measures like hand-washing and masks are entrenched, that social customs that involve bodily contact like handshakes and hugs do not exist, and that there are a lot of otakus who shut themselves inside all day and live in two-dimensional worlds.

It’s stereotypes of otaku like these that give Japanese pop culture a terrible reputation worldwide. But the lawyer isn’t wrong, I think?

So what’s happening in Tokyo right now? Some of my friends are commuting to work as normal, some of them are in Okinawa traveling, and all of them probably want the coronavirus to go away. I do too. Who doesn’t?

It’s frustrating because late March and early April is the season of change in Tokyo.

Okay, I don’t think Keio is one of the best universities in Japan, but their auditorium (gymnasium?) is hella fancy. This really is a school for the rich.

I thought this kicker in Motoko Rich’s article for the New York Times today sums up the mood:

In Shinjuku Gyoen park in western Tokyo, where cherry blossoms were near peak bloom, a sign at the entrance informed visitors that, as part of antivirus efforts, picnic blankets and alcohol were banned. Security guards with megaphones wandered through groups of people who were taking photos with the flowers, warning them to wash their hands.

At a store not far from the park, Kazuhisa Haraguchi, 36, stood in a long line for a chance to buy a limited-edition pair of Nike Air Max sneakers.

Mr. Haraguchi said that he was worried about how the virus was spreading in the United States and Europe, but that he wasn’t too concerned about the situation in Japan.

“It’s scary, but it doesn’t seem like there’s much of it here right now,” he said. “If I die, at least I’ll die with my sneakers.”

Tales from Tabata is not a primary news source. For updates on COVID-19 in Japan, please see the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare’s site and other primary news sources.

Mr. Abe, or Mr. Shinzo?

English-speaking East Asians of the world, when’s the last time someone decided that your family name was your given name?

James Griffiths writes for CNN the Japanese government’s losing battle (?) with English-language media to get the world to write Abe Shinzo, rather than Shinzo Abe:

The family-name-first format has always been used in Japanese. But during the Meiji Era that began in 1868, the order was reversed in English to begin with the given name, a format more familiar in the West.

While that decision may have made life easier for some 19th century Western diplomats, Japan’s neighbors soon proved that foreigners could (for the most part) handle writing the “last name” first. And for almost two decades now Tokyo has been trying to reverse the Meiji reversal. Last year’s request to the international media was only the latest attempt.

Japan is being “being hoisted on its own petard,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Tokyo’s Temple University. He added that in the past, the country was “eager to distance itself from its neighbors so as not to be confused with them.” Now, though, it wants the West to treat it the same.

I think I write (and probably will continue to write) Shinzo Abe pretty consistently on the blog. But that would mean I have to write Jinping Xi as well whenever I write snarky shit about Mainland China. (Which I won’t.)

Is it prejudicial to apply a different standard to Japanese names rather than Chinese names? If everyone else is doing it, does that make it right? According to the CNN article:

For now, most media outlets are unwilling to make a change if no one else is, creating an inertia loop whereby inaction begets inaction. CNN Business could not find any major publication which refers to the Japanese prime minister as “Abe Shinzo,” and no outlet which responded to a request for comment suggested such a switch was imminent.

Tokyo 2020, but not in 2020

A decision that once thought would take four weeks, now made within forty-eight hours. Ms. Koike, Mr. Abe, and Mr. Bach basically have an oral agreement to agree that the Tokyo Olympics will be postponed for up to a year. But it’ll still be called Tokyo 2020.

I thought this tweet is a great summary of what’s happened:

The joke is that people pass around documents that need corrections in an office using name stamps. (I did that once at an internship to show that I read a document that was being passed around everyone in the office.)

I think JTB’s guide to salarymen in Japan has a pretty good explanation: