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:


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:


“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.

This is most exclusive sushi bar in Hong Kong right now

There’s a sushi bar in Hong Kong that’s booked out eight weeks in advance and draws huge crowds downtown for dinner seven days a week. Every night, hundreds of parties wait up for five hours for a chance to eat plates of tuna and mackerel nigiri with hot sake.

No, it’s not Sushi Masa in Central (a closely-guarded secret amongst Japanese businessmen, probably, with excellent lunch sets and and a 90-minute all-you-can-eat option for dinner). And no, it’s not Ten Zushi in Causeway Bay (where a young chef puts on a nightly omakse performance and proudly hangs his Hokkaido uni boxes on the walls).

It’s Sushiro.

The line outside Sushiro Whampoa Garden in Hong Kong. Photographed February 2020.

Once upon a time, I watched a documentary called Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Towards the end of the film, Yoshikazu Ono, who seems to deftly hide the shadow of his father’s immense presence in Ginza from his balding, middle-aged face, laments that sushi has become a commodity.

“When we were kids, we didn’t always get to go to high-end places like sushi-ya,” he says to a melancholy soundtrack. “Now, there’s sushi everywhere in kaitenzushi restaurants and in bentos.” Indeed, after watching slow-motion montages of Jiro Ono fanning nori pieces over an open flame, and kneading slabs of maguro over vinegared rice to perfection, watching open plates of nigiri make the rounds on a conveyor belt was a moist, nasty slap to Mr. (Elder) Ono’s heart and soul.

Photographed February 2020.

But I digress. Sushiro, a major 100-yen conveyor belt sushi chain in Japan, is a hit in my hometown. According to a Japan Times interview with the CEO, Koichi Mizutame, Sushiro earns twice as much revenue at a Hong Kong location than at a branch in Japan. It aims to have 20 to 50 locations in the next 5 years.

A few Wednesday nights ago, I went with a friend to a branch in Jordan, a district known for a restaurant that purports to import milk from Australia, but, in fact, serves up fluffy egg sandwiches with a side of bitter reprimand from one of its aging male employees.

We arrived at 7:00 p.m., and then realized that there were over two hundred tables ahead of us. And we were shocked. What happened to staying home to avoid catching the coronavirus?

Sushiro has a YouTube livestream where you can see how long the line is on your phone while you wait in despair.

To cut our losses, we took the train to Whampoa Garden, a massive housing complex by the sea east of Jordan, a magnet for families from Japan in Hong Kong, and the location for Sushiro’s second branch in the city. We ended up waiting 90 minutes for a seat—but at least we got a seat. I would later check that had we stayed in Jordan, the restaurant would have closed before it could even call our number. On a Wednesday night.

Curiously, while we waited inside the shopping complex, every other restaurant there was empty. Everyone—the crowd looked like it was mostly students—wanted to endure the wait for Sushiro. I wondered why. Was it a collective “fuck you” to the other kaitenzushi chain in Hong Kong, owned by a company that, according to publicly available corporate records, (indirectly) pays millions of dollars in dividends to a puckered-up gray grape who has “given up hope” on Hong Kong’s youth? I can only speculate.

The star of the night is the nigiri. Though it’s a misnomer to call the stuff on the plates nigiri, because no-one actually needs anything. As Kazuhiro Maeno, Sushiro Singapore’s senior restaurant manager, proudly tells us around four minutes into this charming video below, the “sushi robots” do everything:

Indeed, after 90 minutes of waiting for almost anything in this world, everything is delicious. The crunchy, warm prawn tempura on a bed of rice. The lingering, silvery finish of a salt-brined mackerel, a sushi order a friend introduced me to in Nara four years ago, and from which I couldn’t stop eating since. A gunkan package of crunchy cucumber and kani crab miso. A mountain of minced tuna on an open bed of rice and seaweed. A single serving of sake—hot or cold—for just HK$16 makes Sushiro the cheapest place to get smashed in the city. And my personal favorite any time I visit a sushi restaurant of whatever caliber: a comforting bowl of chawanmushi egg custard, a silky smooth savory steamed concoction that I need to learn how to replicate at home.

What supply chain processes enable us to order servings of raw tuna belly and slices of raw wagyu‘ on rice produced from Japan for less than HK$27 each—just a few dollars short of the hourly minimum wage? What parts of the sushi craft honed over a man’s (and, unfortunately, it’s usually a man’s) lifetime is Sushiro ignoring, or, indeed, banishing from our cultural consciousness by exporting its consumer-industrial, mass-market, factory-line food production processes to Taiwan, Singapore, and now Hong Kong?

Perhaps I would have pondered these questions on any other night. But as the sake got into my brain, and a musical chime announced the arrival of a molten chocolate cake on the conveyor belt, my conclusion was, as a judge would so write to beef up his word count in a long-winded judgment: these enquiries are academic.

Photographed February 2020.

147 days till Shinzo Abe’s Olympic extravaganza

Today marks 147 days until the start of the Tokyo Olympics, cum Shinzo Abe’s “let’s forget about Fukushima and remind everyone about Cool Japan and Mario!” Dentsu-supercharged sweltering summer extravaganza.

With the coronavirus scare in Japan reaching a fever pitch, a tweet went viral today with the hashtag #中止だ中止 (referencing the piece of graffiti on the lower right of the frame).

Let’s actually reflect how scarily accurate this frame is. As with what happened in Akira:

  1. Tokyo also has a new national stadium built just for the event.
  2. The slogan in the frame, 国民の力で成功させよう (“let’s make the Olympics succeed with the nation’s efforts”), echoes Mr. Abe’s own policy speech to the Diet earlier this year.
  3. The Olympics is to take place against a background of decay.

I presume the Olympics also actually gets cancelled at the end of Akira, since the under-construction stadium, which is actually a secret military base, is destroyed.

In our world, the new national stadium is a little more conventional, if not with a bunch of design flaws that make it unpopular with fans, track and field athletes, and soccer players alike, according to this video:

Japanese audio only.

So will folks cancel the Olympics in real life? To be honest, it’s too early to tell.

According to The Diplomat, a policy journal on the Asia-Pacific region, Japan’s economy wouldn’t actually suffer too much if the Olympics didn’t happen:

Yet should the worse-case scenario for Japan eventuate, the economic impact might not be as devastating as feared, according to Capital Economics.

“The key point…is that most of the spending for the Olympics has already happened. Spending during the Games themselves is small, perhaps just 0.2 percent of GDP, and much of this is diverted from spending in other areas of tourism and recreation,” senior Japan economist Marcel Thieliant said in a February 21 report.

The London-based consultancy points to the experience of previous Games such as the 2008 London Olympics. While spending by overseas visitors surged by nearly 18 percent during the event, it slumped to a 21-month low some two months later. Similarly, the 2000 Sydney Olympics had a “negligible” impact on travel spending.

“What’s more, there is little evidence that the ‘feel-good’ effect from the Olympics boosts consumer spending,” Thieliant said, pointing to data from previous Games.

I would read Thieliant’s analysis as more damning circumstantial evidence that the Olympics have nothing to do with helping the Tohoku region recover.

While I’m on the subject of Akira, why don’t we address Akira‘s cascading snowball of accurate predictions for the past year?

We’ve already seen the harrowing comparison between the protests in Akira and in Hong Kong. The panel comes from the last page of the third volume:

And come 2020, someone noticed that the panel has a small newspaper cut out that criticizes the World Health Organization for its response to a contagious viral epidemic:

So there’s actually two accurate predictions here. The first is that a viral epidemic is happening around the same time as Akira, as the coronavirus pandemic is happening right now. The second is that people have lost trust in WHO, as, I would believe, people have from COVID-19.

As TV Tokyo analyzes below, China has a heavy hand in controlling who runs WHO. Why is its director-general so obsessed with praising China’s response to COVID-19 (while turning a blind eye to censorship of the brave doctors who spoke out)?

Japanese audio, with some Japanese subtitles.

Thirty-eight years after its inception, Akira continues to subvert our nasty and brutish politics. No one establishment can co-opt it for its own purpose—despite what this trashy listicle says, Akira seems to be aging as well as a barrel of Suntory Hibiki whiskey, if not better. Can you ever imagine Mr. Abe popping out of the sewers in Rio de Janeiro cosplaying as Shotaro Kaneda with his superbike?

Shinzo Abe’s hebdomas horribilis

Things are moving fast in 2020. Just over a month ago, the Prime Minister delivered his policy address to the 201st session of the Diet, where he said this:




“Japan’s Olympics.” This was how Mr. Sakai [Yoshinori Sakai, the Olympic flame torchbearer who lit the cauldron in the last Tokyo Olympics] described 1964 Summer Olympic Games, which the nation came together to accomplish. The eyes of the world were on Japan, which was filled a vibrant dynamism for the future.

After half a century, that emotion will once again come to our country.

This year’s Olympic and Paralympic Games will once again, with the combined strength of all of Japan, be the best Games to wow the world. And from there, the nation will come together as one, and step forward into a new era.

(This is my own translation, since at posting time, the Government hasn’t released an official translation of the Prime Minister’s policy address.)

A household name recognized around the world (can you say the same for his predecessors?), Mr. Abe has truly made new beginnings to be a part of his brand. In his ideal and beautiful Japan, which indeed came together to mark the new Emperor’s reign last year, women are finally part of the workplace, economic growth will rebound, the Olympics will bring the world’s attention to Japan, and the Constitution will finally recognize the existence of the Self-Defense Forces.

Mr. Abe has actually said most of the above for the past seven years. In my cynical view, this week, we got to see what Mr. Abe’s Japan of the future is like.

Abenomics’s directionless arrows

After Japan raised its consumption tax last October and weathered a terrible typhoon, Japan announced that its fourth quarter GDP in 2019 fell at an annualized rate of 6.3 percent—far more than anyone was expecting, apparently.

As Robin Harding writes for the Financial Times:

The big questions are whether a technical recession could turn into a deeper downturn; whether there is anything the government and the Bank of Japan can do about it; and where this leaves Mr Abe’s ambition to revive Japan’s economy as the prime minister’s own time in office draws to a close.

Masamichi Adachi, UBS chief economist, said the latest growth numbers were “very weak, dismal, shockingly bad” and showed that the economy was struggling even before the virus struck. “Japan will definitely suffer from a plunge in inbound tourism and from weaker goods trade given the level of activity in China is so low,” he said.

I’m not an economics expert, but what can Mr. Abe do to make the numbers look better? Pour more money into the economy? Or follow the IMF’s recommendations and (eventually) raise the consumption tax to 20 percent?

The floating petri dish in Yokohama

Last month, a 80-year-old man from Hong Kong started coughing. Despite his cough, he got on a cruise ship called the Diamond Princess, which eventually sailed to Okinawa and Yokohama. In Yokohama, everyone on the cruise was quarantined for two weeks.

If you only watched the Japanese news media in the last month, you wouldn’t really know how big of a deal COVID-19 was to Japan. What you would have learned, on the other hand, is that the Suginami Ward Police were handing out Valentine’s Day chocolates.

TV Asahi, February 15, 2020

As for what was actually happening on the Diamond Princess, Suryatapa Bhattacharya wrote one dispatch for the Wall Street Journal:

The nearly 2,400 passengers who remain are largely trapped in their cabins. Health workers in masks and body suits knock on doors to ask selected passengers, including the elderly, to open wide for a throat swab. Used bedsheets and towels go into bags for incineration.

Anxiety and boredom appear the most common symptoms aboard what amounts to a floating petri dish. Aun Na Tan, of Melbourne, Australia, her husband, a 19-year-old son, and a daughter, 16, are stuck in a windowless cabin with two bunk beds. While the teens practice handstands, Ms. Tan said, “my husband is trying to learn.”

Shipboard entertainers have been assigned to record trivia quiz shows and origami-making for passengers to join along on cabin TVs. The magician recorded a performance, and a room steward demonstrated how to make a bed.

A month later, over 600 people on board contracted COVID-19, of which two had died. But none of these people count towards the number of infections recorded in Japan on the SmartNews app. Is it because what happens on a cruise ship in Yokohama has nothing to do with the rest of the nation?

Screenshot taken February 21, 2020.

On February 19, Kentaro Iwata, an infectious disease specialist at Kobe University Hospital, alleged on a viral video on YouTube that the Government had mishandled the Diamond Princess quarantine. As Rocky Swift reports for Reuters:

“The cruise ship was completely inadequate in terms of the infection control,” he said in his video. “There was no single professional infection control person inside the ship and there was nobody in charge of infection prevention as a professional. The bureaucrats were in charge of everything.” 

His English and Japanese language videos criticising what he saw inside have been seen more than 1 million times and forced a response from the government. 

When asked about the videos and the criticism, the government’s top spokesman, Yoshihide Suga, said staff on the boat were thoroughly protected from infection through the use of masks and hand washing. The government has repeatedly defended its measures as appropriate.

An interview by Kasane Nakamura for Huffington Post Japan with an unnamed member of the medical personnel on board the Diamond Princess echoed Dr. Iwata’s concerns. The interviewee also said that the ship was not divided into clean or contaminated zones. Ministry officials did not brief the crew on health and sanitation management, and instead said it was okay for the crew to wear the same mask for the whole day, which, in the interviewee’s opinion, was meaningless.

Dr. Iwata’s video opened a floodgate of comparisons about the Diamond Princess quarantine and the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Other journalists starting spotlighting the allegedly self-serving culture that pervades the bureaucrats at the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare.

And in a move smacking of Carrie Lam’s own smug arrogance, Gaku Hashimoto posted a photo on Twitter of two sad A4 sheets of paper taped in a hallway saying that the cruise ship was indeed divided into clean and contaminated zones. Dr. Iwata quickly pointed out that cross-contamination would happen on the spot where Mr. Hashimoto had taken his photo of the paper signs. Mr. Hashimoto’s picture survived on Twitter for two hours.

Dr. Iwata himself deleted the video after a day. According to Buzzfeed Japan and Motoko Rich, the New York Times‘ Tokyo bureau chief, Dr. Iwata told journalists at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club Japan that he deleted the video, because “he had been told by someone he trusted on board the ship that protocols dividing clean/green zones from dirty/red zones on the ship had improved”, and Japan’s Institute of Infections Diseases had published more data on the cruise infections.

What about the Olympics?

A shrinking economy, and the same bureaucratic impotence in Mr. Abe’s Japan of the future. Now the news media is now full of speculation about what’s going to happen to the Tokyo Olympics this summer. Here’s Charles Campbell’s take for Time:

Already, his insistence during the bidding process that radiation from the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant meltdown would be tackled has been called out after Greenpeace found radiation hotspots in December near where the Olympic torch relay will pass. Similar assurances that COVID-19 will not disrupt the Games will be treated with skepticism, says Jules Boykoff, a politics professor at Pacific University, Oregon who studies the Olympics and played soccer for Team USA. “For many, when they hear Abe and other officials saying that COVID-19 will not affect the Olympics, they hear the unmistakable ring of previous empty promises.”

But it’s unclear what a Plan B might look like. Simon Chadwick, professor of the Eurasian Sport Industry at France’s Emlyon business School, suggests a networked event held across different countries is a more likely alternative. (The 2020 UEFA European Soccer Championships and 2022 Commonwealth Games are slated for such a format.) Yet there will be considerable resistance from sponsors and broadcasters who have already ploughed vast resources into securing rights deals and promotional activities.

According to Shinya Kobayashi, a sports writer, the FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers in Chiba have been postponed, and the Tokyo Marathon is refusing general participants (and refunds). As Kobayashi writes for Diamond Magazine Online:


It is predicted that organizers will continue to cancel or refrain from holding sports events so long as coronavirus infections continue to spread. In reality, the Tokyo Olympics are on shaky ground. However, only the IOC and the Organizing Committee continue to insist that the Olympics will continue. The Tokyo Olympics are beginning to look like nothing but a house of cards.


For whom, and for what, are we holding the Olympics for?


I had hoped that the Games would share the meaning of the Olympics and the purpose of sports with all of society. It might seem ironic, but I think the virus is a good opportunity to share with all the purpose and place sports in our society. However, I feel that neither the Japanese Government nor the Japan Sports Agency has that kind of awareness and mission for reform.

Perhaps I can answer Mr. Iwata’s question. The Tokyo Olympics, backed by a critical mass of corporate household names whipped into national service by Dentsu, is too big to fail. And so is Mr. Abe himself. Who else is there to run Japan?

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.

How to get people to love MSG

Chinese families love family dinners, even if family members don’t necessarily love each other. Every holiday season (and there are many), Chinese restaurants fill their banquet halls to the brim with jovial families (and quiet families all on their phones), and our stomaches with mediocre plates of steamed cod and fire-roasted pork belly.

After every meal, my parents would get in the car, and would always comment on how much monosodium glutamate they thought was in the food. They would vow never to return to the restaurant again if they felt thirsty from the MSG.

So I was surprised to learn that Ajinomoto is trying to rehabilitate MSG’s image around the world. In Japan, apparently, people use it all the time. Like this YouTuber who films himself making a bowl of ramen (from scratch!) every Friday. You’ll notice that he generically (?) writes 味の素, the MSG manufacturer’s name, as one of the soy sauce-based tare‘s ingredients for this mouthwatering bowl of Yokohama-style ramen.

So homemade ramen and MSG go hand in hand together. But here’s a poster from ifc mall in Hong Kong promoting the newest international branch of Konjiki Hototogisu, a shop from Shinjuku that serves ramen with a rich clam broth and a hint of truffle oil.

Having no added MSG adds a further eight Michelin stars to Konjiki Hototogisu.

Here’s a photo of the gorgeous, but small, shio bowl I had from the store in January for good measure. To be honest though, I think half of the purchase price went to the rent to keep this store open in a luxury mall.

Shio Hamaguri Soup Ramen for HKD 128. Photographed January 2020.

When the New York Times covered Ajinomoto’s campaign, the newspaper mentioned something that I actually hadn’t heard of before: Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.

Adam Ragusea does a much better job analyzing the origins of this fake medical term, but the point is that this “medical condition” stigmatized Asian American cuisine for decades:

Even now, MSG is shunned in some circles. Lucky Lee’s, a Chinese-inspired restaurant opened in April by a white health coach in Manhattan, advertised a “clean” version of the cuisine, which would not be made with MSG and some other ingredients. That brought an outcry from people who felt she had appropriated and demeaned Chinese cuisine; the restaurant closed in December.

“As soon as I heard the actual definition for Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, it hurt because I know it’s steeped in decades of xenophobia,” Ms. Mai, who has a Vietnamese background, wrote in an email.

It’s sad to see a history of people using MSG to find excuses to entrench prejudice against immigrants to the United States, and to shamelessly appropriate Chinese American food while “including “a lot of Chinese elements” like “lucky bamboo” and jade.

But I would also gently suggest that MSG’s terrible reputation isn’t just a straightforward story of white people being awful. Otherwise, why would this random Asian American I found on YouTube make a whole video complaining about the MSG in Knorr’s chicken bouillon powder, and how dry his mouth feels? Just like what my parents complain about?

When folks balk at MSG, what are they actually complaining about? The amount of chemicals on their food, or how much of an insult to their time or to their wallets it is to learn that someone took a shortcut to make their favorite, overpriced bowl of clam shio ramen?

Who knows?