Monday, August 31, 2009

Election in Japan

As many of you know, there was a national election last Sunday in Japan. In it, the center-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ, not to be confused with the BJP in India or the SPD in Germany) won an overwhelming majority (308 out of 480) of the seats in the House of Representatives. (Japan's system is much more like Canada and the UK, where the lower house has most of the legislative power and also produces the prime minister, than it is like the UK where the upper house (senate) has a significant amount of power, and the president is elected separately.)

As the center-right Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) had ruled the country for all but 11 months of the past 50 years, this new balance of power will have a signficant impact on the Japanese government.

Karl van Wolferen, a noted Japan scholar, says that:
To say that the task that Hatoyama Yukio and his fellow leaders of the Minshuto [DPJ] have set themselves is daunting would be putting it very, very mildly....correcting the severe imbalance in the relationship between Japan's elected politicians and career bureaucrats is their priority....They want to have cabinet meetings with well-informed ministers who may deliberate on policy and bring up new business, rather than putting their hanko (Japanese name-stamps substituting for signatures) on documents prepared the previous day at the regular meetings of the administrative vice ministers....They want to eliminate the enormous waste and misappropriations of the nicknamed ‘second budget’, which in some years is almost as large as the national budget, but which is administered by the Trust Fund Bureau of the Ministry of Finance and is allocated at the discretion of the bureaucrats.
Read the whole piece here. (Hat Tip: New Republic's "The Plank" blog)

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Restaurants in Japan

Today I met up with a friend of mine from college (we sang in the same group) who lives in Tokyo. (he's Japanese, but went to Middle School in the US). With him, I ventured into a more traditional Japanese restaurant for lunch, and got to experience "belt sushi" for the first time.

Basically, in the restaurant, there is moving conveyor belt with little plates of sushi (by sushi I mostly mean nigiri, meaning rice and fish, as opposed to maki, which is rolled up in seaweed, as we traditionally think of sushi in the US.)

It looked like this:
Now, here's the best part. The color and design of the plate each indicated the cost of each item (click on the picture above to enlarge and see in more detail).

But wait, there's more. Each plate had a magnet on the bottom:

Such that when you were finished, a waiter could scan a stack of plates (he didn't have to do each one individually):

And then print your bill from a second small device on his belt. Amazing!

Oh, and did I mention that the sushi was excellent?

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Potential euthanasia at Memorial Hospital

Every once in a while, the New York Times Magazine has cover story that is so gripping that I read it start to finish.

This week's piece, about decisions that doctors and nurses likely made to end the lives of very sick patients who were not going to be evacuated during Hurricane Katrina, is one of those pieces. I highly recommend you read it.

(Here's another example, about a father coping with his son's drug addiction.)

Japanese Jewish Weddings

Shavuah Tov everyone.

I learned something fascinating over Shabbat. Apparently, there is a growing trend in Japan to have theme weddings. I'm not talking about "Black tie option" vs. "Black tie encouraged". I'm talking about full blown Disney World themes (e.g. pirates, dinosaurs).

So, of course, there is a rabbi in Japan who has realized that this is a gold mine. Think about it: Japanese weddings that are Jewish themed! This is not about conversion or anything particular spiritual - simply a theme wedding, where the theme is us! (Kind of sounds like the premise of a Twilight Zone episode, where I'm the same, but everyone else is Japanese but dressed like Chabad.)

Now, of course, aside from how weird this is, marrying non-Jews is not such an acceptable thing for a rabbi to do. The question is how this will play in the greater international rabbinic community is still open. It'll be fascinating to see how it turns out.

In the meantime, just think, another way to make your wedding even more expensive: Pay someone extra to make it a "Jewish" themed wedding!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Origami on Shabbat?

Can I could do Origami on Shabbat? Since I've been in Japan, I have rekindled perhaps my oldest connection to Japanese culture (before Mario and Final Fantasy) - Japanese paper folding.

Within seconds, I found an answer:
Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Aurbach, zatzal, prohibits making toys - like a boat, or hat - by folding paper, since it is like making a utensil. However, if the paper was folded into a toy before Shabbat, it is permitted to use it on Shabbat.
And there you have it.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Senator Edward Kennedy, Zicrono Livrocho

I mourn the passing of Senator Ted Kennedy. It was rather surreal to read about it yesterday, but have nearly everyone I know in the US be asleep and so unable to commiserate with me.

I think the following clip from the Vice President speaks for itself.

Japan drives on the left

Like the UK, Australia, and New Zealand (and not like the US). Fascinating, since Japan was never a British colony, and so is unlike many of the other places that drive on the left (and so have all of the accompanying consequences for subways, trains, stairs and escalators).

According to an amazing website on international driving:
Although the origin of this habit goes back to the Edo period (1603-1867) when Samurai ruled the country, it wasn’t until 1872 that this unwritten rule became more or less official. That was the year when Japan’s first railway was introduced, built with technical aid from the British. Gradually, a massive network of railways and tram tracks was built, and of course all trains and trams drove on the left-hand side. Still, it took another half century till in 1924 left-side driving was clearly written in a law.
The website also lists why and how countries have switched from driving on the left to driving on the right (most of the countries that remain on the left are island, and so don't have to worry about driving into right driving countries). The best anecdote is:
Pakistan also considered changing to the right in the 1960s, but ultimately decided not to do it. The main argument against the shift was that camel trains often drove through the night while their drivers were dozing. The difficulty in teaching old camels new tricks was decisive in forcing Pakistan to reject the change.

Japanese Banks and Overhead, cont.

I wanted to mail a letter today. (I needed to send some forms to my rental agency.) I did what any corporate worker would do: I asked the smiling individuals sitting at the reception on my floor if they could put a letter in the outgoing mailbox for me, or at least point me in the right direction.

After several confusing minutes, since they do not speak much English (aren't my intentions clear if I'm awkwardly standing there holding a stamped, addressed envelope?), they told me to go to the mail room 10 floors below. They then made a phone call, and told me that I had to speak to the administrative assistant who is coordinating logistics for my project team.

I returned to my computer to read the following email from that administrative assistant:

"The 10F reception complained to me that some of you asked them to send regular mail.
As I told you (only to [some of you]?), the receptionists take care of only guest reservation as they don't know any other things."

Apparently, I had forgotten about this email that I received last week:

"You asked the reception to get one more key for your room, but the receptionists don't know about the keys, they just do only meeting booking."

So now, not only is there an absurd number of people sitting in the lobby of a floor of a bank which occupies the entire building, they are incapable of doing anything except room bookings

(We also asked them if someone could empty the garbage can in our room, and their first reaction was that we could empty it ourselves down the hall.)


Monday, August 24, 2009

Academic Earth

So, it's late Sunday afternoon in Japan. I'm exhausted from a day of sightseeing around the city. I'm saving the novels I brought for two-day chags (Jewish holidays). I'm saving my West Wing DVDs for airplane flights. Hulu won't work outside the US. All of my satellite TV channels are in Japanese. And, it's not time for dinner yet.

This is when I discovered Academic Earth. Richard Ludlow, a bright young Yale grad, realized that many universities were video taping their best lectures and courses and putting them online for free for the public. But, to find them, you'd have to know which universities were doing this, and even then would only get a random smattering of courses. There was no way to find all of the ones on a particular topic.

Academic Earth serves as an aggregator of all of this content. Plus, it lets you rate each one, so that overtime you'll be able to see which Game Theory or Political Philosophy lecture is the best. You can even download the syllabus and exams in some cases.

I just watched Barry Nalebuff's "Why Not?" lecture on entrepeneurship, and am starting Benjamin Polack's Game Theory course. Both are worth watching.

Japanese banks and overhead

Japanese banks seem to have an enormous amount of extraneous support staff. The floor I'm on often has 3 to 4 receptionists (none of whom I have ever seen on the phone), plus 3 to 4 people in the break room kitchen. Certainly 1 or even 2 are necessary to take room bookings and orient people who are new to the floor, but why do you need 3 or 4?

As for the kitchen, getting me a glass of water yesterday took 2 people (one from reception to go into the kitchen to get it from one of the people who works there), and she seemed very surprised when I was happy to wait there and wouldn't let her bring it our team room down the hall.

These seems to be to be a ripe head count reduction consulting opportunity. At my firm's office in New York, a team of 2 handles answering the phone, booking rooms, greeting visitors, and checking in every employee so they know who is in the office that day. At another firm, the guy at the front desk was also the travel agent, on top of all of the other tasks.

While it is a pleasure to see several smiling faces every time I enter the floor, if I were a shareholder, I'd start asking questions...

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Publishing in an academic journal

In case you're thinking about academia (I am), you probably should read this horrific account of trying to publish a comment.

Can't watch videos online

So, it appears that that, given that I have a Japanese IP address, I am unable to watch videos through any of the (normal) legal channels that I would use in the US. I knew that did not work outside of the US, but it seems that the networks (,, also don't work.

Anyone have any (legal) suggestions, given that I'm using a work computer?

Back to America: Health Care

A commerical, if you will, within our regularly scheduled Japanese programming.

I just read two excellent pieces on health care reform in the US:

Roger Ebert on Health Care Reform
5 Myths About Health Care Around the World

Both are worth reading.

Also, if you haven't read it yet, you should also check out How American Health Care Killed My Father.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

On date lines

Okay, I promised a post on the international date line.

First, some background on time zones. As one travels around the Earth going east, the sun begins to rise later and later. That shift should be one hour for every 15 degrees (or 1000 miles at the equator), which gives us the 5 hour time difference between New York and London, or 14 hours between New York and Japan (which is currently 13 because the US observes Daylight Saving Time and Japan does not).

Okay, now, imagine you were to continuing flying east such that you traveled all the way around the Earth. Sunrise would be approximately the same time it was when you left, but, this is key, you would have gained a day! (If were you to fly west, you would have instead lost a day.)

To avoid mass confusion, we need a date line such that if you were to fly east to Japan (gaining 13 hours) or west (losing 11 hours but gaining a day), you'd be in the locally appropriate date. Arbitrarily, this dateline is roughly at 180 degree longitude, or exactly opposite Greenwich, England. This happens to be a part of the Earth where no one lives (avoiding the problems of locals crossing the dateline during their normal activities).

However, this causes a problem for Judaism. What day we're on is hugely important for perhaps the most fundamental Jewish observance: Shabbat, as well as for countless others. Greenwich, England has absolutely no significance for Jews, and so neither does the secular International Date Line.

If we were to have a "halakhic" date line, it would probably be 180 degrees from the city to which we all direct our daily prayers: Jerusalem. This line is also the lines that marks switch from praying eastward (as I have done my whole life) to praying westward (which is still very disorienting). (I'm ignoring here the issue about great circles vs. Rhumb Lines. Suffice to say that I pray along a Rhumb Line, as does everyone else I know.)

So where would this Jewish date line be? Luckily for me, Japan would still be on the other side of it. Israel is about 30 degrees east of Greenwich, so this date line would be at 150 degrees west. Not many people live on this line, except it would create two problems. One is the Hawaii is now on the opposite side as the rest of United States. The other is that is bisects Alaska. Certainly the US could legally rejigger the line so all of its country is on the east side (as it currently does anyway). Whether that would hold any halakhic weight is a subject for another time.

First Shabbat, and other observations

Shavuah Tov to everyone (though it is bizarre to write that when it is still Shabbat for the 99.9% of the people reading this blog. I'll say more about that and the secular and halakhic datelines in a later post).

A few notes from Shabbat:
  1. I spent most of Shabbat with the Jewish Communty (, which is a thoroughly wonderful organization. What more could I ask for than egalitarian davening, home cooked Shabbat meals, and a JTS educated rabbi (who is Italian!). Davening was surprisingly small (and, interestingly, mostly men), but otherwise consistent with any Conservative shul in the US. One final note, which is that they are moving into a brand new building in a few weeks, and will be having an event with many dignitaries, including the Canadian ambassador, who is Jewish. (I will of course likely still be in the office, as it will be a Thursday night)
  2. One of the most interesting quotes I heard at Shabbat was "Japan is the most successful communist country," or a corollary "China is the most capitalist communist country, and Japan is the most communist capitalist country." Interesting...
  3. I have now eaten at two different Trattorios, both within a 10 minute walk of my apartment, and both excellent. Wonderful (since I am much bigger fan of Italian food than Japanese food, and I am much better at discerning what is vegetarian), though I find it interesting considering I have yet to see or meet anyone from Italy in either restaurant.
  4. In my Shabbat walks this afternoon, I noticed that Tokyo has overpasses instead of crosswalks in several places. This allows them to have longer stretches without traffic lights, especially in places where there are not cross streets. This would be a worth addition to many cities in the US.
  5. No first week in Japan would be complete without a mention of a peculiarities: face masks. I've been told that the Japanese have a custom that if one is sick, one should wear a face mask. This seems less because the sick individual might catch something else and get sicker (since these are often young, otherwise healthy looking people), but more a common courtesy to spare everyone else. I'd be interested to see data as to whether this works or not.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Vending machines

Vending machines in Japan are amazing. First, picture a standard American vending machine, with each time of item held in a metal spiral that twists to release your item (or sometimes doesn't, as George found out with his Twix bar in the car dealership Seinfeld episode).

In Japan, there is a plastic box that mechanically moves over to your item, picks it up, and then moves down to the bottom corner for you to get your item. It's almost like a vending machine crossed with one of those claw arcade games at the shore.

I don't really want another candy bar, but I might go back just to see it in action again.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Shanghai and Yom Kippur: Travel Craziness

Okay, here's the scenario. My firm is having a regional meeting in Shanghai the Friday before Yom Kippur (which begins on a Sunday night this year). My manager wants me back at the client Tuesday morning, which means that have to come back to Tokyo for Yom Kippur (since the earliest flight on Tuesday won't get me back until early afternoon).

So here are my options. Shabbat ends at 6:23 PM in Shanghai. The last direct flight from Shanghai to Tokyo leaves at 5:05 PM, so that's not an option. The first direct flight the next morning leaves at 9:05 AM and gets me to Tokyo at 12:55 PM local time. In a best case scenario, I could clear immigration and customs in 30 minutes, and then get to where I'm staying in the city in another 2 hours. Pre-fast at the JCC starts at 3:45, and Kol Nidrae at 5:00, so that is cutting it enourmously close. Any extra circling in the air and I'm stuck.

Here's the other option: There's a 9:20 PM flight from Shanghai to Seoul, and then an 8:20 AM flight to Tokyo which gets me in at 10:45 AM.

Am I totally crazy that I'm even considering this? Spending 8 hours in South Korea for a little bit of a buffer on erev Yom Kippur?

Tokyo: Initial business observations

A few more observations:
  1. There aren't really street signs in Japan for small streets. I have no idea how anyone finds anything. In Manhattan, you could give me any address on the grid (324 W 91 St.) and I can find it. Here, without my trusty GPS, I'd be lost. (This reminds of a trick an 80 year old cousin of mine taught me: if you want to know how to get back somewhere, add it as a favorite on your GPS-enabled Google Maps. Then, you can always have Google Maps give you directions to get back there. He uses it when he parks a car in a large garage. I use it to get back to my hotel.)
  2. In Japan, the equivalent of Mr. or Ms. is adding san to the end of your name. So, Mr. Green would be Green-san. There are two peculiarities to this. The first is that this form is used in both the third person and in writing, by adults. It's equivalent to someone saying they were working on a project with Mr. Green, and even writing "as Mr. Green argued" in a slide. The second is that this honor is only for Japanese people. One of the clients is Korean, and so he just gets referred to be his last name.
  3. In two of the higher level meetings I was in today, one of the women (who I think also works as a receptionist) brought in tea and cold water for each participant, and actually served us at the conference table. I've never seen that before in a meetin
  4. Japanese businessmen really do give out business cards with both hands (imagine your fingernails touching, knuckles facing out, and your thumbs parallel and touching).
  5. It's amazing to be on a project team where I'm the only American. The senior manager is from Austria, married to a man from Japan, and lives in Singapore. The full time engagement manager is from Turkey but lives in Australia. The other consultant is from Singapore. The last two went to Penn and Columbia respectively, so they have spent some time in the US. That said, it is totally jarring to really how utterly American I am, in speech, mannerism, metaphor, and action.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Tokyo: Arrival and initial observations

Hello friends. I have decided to start using this blog to post about my adventures in Japan. For those of you who do not know, I am beginning a 2 month consulting project here for a large bank. This project was confirmed last Tuesday morning, so, less than a week later, I have arrived in my apartment in Japan, with Jewish connections galore and ready to start work tomorrow.

A few quick observations:
  1. My guidebook mentioned that Japan is one of the most ethnically homogeneous places, and they weren't kidding. 99% of people I've seen on the street are Japanese. I've never been to a global, cosmopolitan city (think New York, London, Berlin, Amsterdam, Sydney, Wellington, Cairo, Tel Aviv) that looks so homogeneous.
  2. The subway system is immaculately clean, runs on time, and is full of people at 11 PM on a weeknight. It even has handles coming from the ceiling to hold on to (think what you playground had when you were little.)
  3. My 23 sq meters (~240 sq ft) temporary furnished apartment is 100% functional and has everything I need (including a washer/dryer!), except perhaps a place to host Shabbat dinner...Hopefully my longer-term apartment (which I move into on Thursday), which is 32 sq m will have room for a table.
  4. My welcome team dinner consisted of a many course meal (I lost count) of totally amazing vegetables, including sweet melon tofu tomato soup, cold pea soup, enormous grapes, and more.
  5. Google Maps with GPS works on my Blackberry. Without this, I would never have been able to get from my apartment to the restaurant. I have no idea what I will do on Shabbat...
  6. No one carries a blackberry. Apparently (according to my manager), Japanese cell phones have long offered email access, so Blackberries never really caught on the way that they did in the US.
That's all for now. I'll post more soon