Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Loser!

Yes, this time it is the singular of the word: I did indeed do poorly on the numeric logic portion of our leadership program's test: I was in the 25th percentile, probably the lowest I have ever scored on a test. Paltry. Laughable...ok, before I make myself feel too bad, on the verbal logic portion I was in the 75th percentile, which is probably the second-lowest I have scored on a standardised test. I think a lot of fairly capable people must have taken the test, thereby skewing the scores somewhat. Anyway, I failed. Bummer, and I am running out of languages to say it doesn't matter to me in...mai pen rai (Thai).

Horsing around

In the busy life of a Tokyo socialite such as myself, not a night goes by when I am not out and about in the capital of wa (at least for the last two). Tonight it was for that most refined of Japanese past-time: Horseracing. I was invited by John Garret, who works for Asia Netcom, which used to be known as Asia Global Crossing, and which employed Darryl Green, subject of a previous post. His ex-wife,  named Saito or Sato (maiden name? Remarried?), and who works for Goldman Sachs was also there.
It was held at the Tokyo City Keiba-jo, also sometimes called the Oi Keiba-jo ( keiba-jo means racetrack), and is called ゛Twinkle Races゛.
I did not win. It is a very good thing that my bonus is due in two days. Nuff said.
I was probably a little drunk and a little unhappy about losing, but should probablyl watch myself anyway: I created a bit of a scene because the waitress came and took our last drink order about 15 minutes before the last race started. John asked twice where it was and they made some excuses. The race came and went, and still no drinks. I first asked her again to bring the drinks and was probably slightly unpleasant, because, frankly, they screwed up.  So, rathe than bringing the frigging drinks, the woman goes to a Japanese woman who works for ANC and had the nerve to say that she had brought them.  I told her not to lie, and to bring our drinks immediately. So, she brings one beer, when none of the three people who I was sitting with had gotten their drinks.  It went on a bit more after that, but did not end happily...Sort of an unpleasant end to an overall enjoyable evening, and I feel bad that I played a big part in creating ill feelings.  I hate bad service, and probably hate bad service in Japan more than I should.  It is quite easy to feel like you get bad service because you are a gaijin, and in my case that has manifest itself in a tecchy attitude.  Probably need to tone it down about eight notches.
This busy socialite has managed twice, in five days, to draw unwanted attention to himself. I would say 'make an ass of himself', but that would suggest that I actually felt the usual sort of remorse, which I unfortunately don't.  The first case, which I didn't mention previously, was on Friday of last week, when I attended yet another sobetsu-kai at a quite senior person's house.  I was asked to provide some entertainment, so I volunteered to juggle.  Drinking before juggling turns out to be a no-no.  Even so, the act went alright until the point when I purposely threw one of my juggling bags at what I thought was a wall. It wasn't, it was a shoji screen, through which the juggling bag went.  The big shot got pissed off that I had destroyed his screen, though his wife was quite gracious.
Ah, c'est la vie.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Mobile Monday

I attended the Mobile Monday event last night at the oh-so-trendy KDDI design studio in Harajuku. I was late, because of the aforementioned visit to the doctor, and got there for the second presentation, by the general manager for new media at Warner Music Japan, Andrew Dunbar, talking about chaku-uta full service that they were participating in with KDDI. It was good, though there were too many people, which meant it was standing-room only. It was also a Powerpoint, of which I see way too many every day, so I guess that aspect of it I was totally happy with. One of the interesting things he said was basically something like 'we really like this model better than i-tunes because Japanese consumers are willing to pay 250 yen per song, plus download cost to have a song on their phone that they can't play on any other device.' What's not to like about consumers behaving in a way seemingly so at odds with their own best interest, and so in-keeping with that of the record labels? He also alluded to music videos from Warner being available at some point soon on au, even though they have an exclusive deal with Vodafone right now, on the Vodafone BB service, which allows users to download videos from their PC, and then pay for them and play them on their mobile handsets.
The five-story studio has a performance and display space on the first floor, and then mobile phone displays on the second and third floors, a kind of art gallery on the fourth floor, and a cafe on the fifth floor. I went up to the second floor and tried out some of the handset that they had there. I wasn't that impressed, but was slightly surprised to find that one of their new Toshiba handsets has Bluetooth, which is unusual in Japan. On the third floor, I tried out a clunky brick of a phone made by Fujitsu and running some Microsoft variant. It was, the very nice and cute girl manning the display assured me, a new concept in mobile device, and currently being used at the Aichi World Expo. Not! It didn't even have a screen much bigger than one that I have on eithe of my phones.
On the way up to the fourth floor I met Sho Izaki, a vice president for biz dev with gracenote. When I first heard him say the name of his company, I heard "grey snot", owing much more to my poor hearing than his pronunciation. I thought it was a bit of an odd name, but hey! we were at the trendy place, avant garde, and grey snot was not totally out of the question...We talked a little bit about his business, and mine, drank a little wine. I met an engineer from Sony-Ericsson, and mentioned that my V802SE has been recalled today. I was, by the way, at this point in the cafe on the 5th floor. This was quite the trendy cafe, complete with funky interior, floor of weathered two by eights, tatooed bartender with an attitude, who looked at me like I was crazy to ask for mineral water, and sort of snottily pointed at the tap when I asked for water-like beverages, and too damn many people! Your usual party in Tokyo, in other words.
I bumped into Gerhard Fasol, a regular contributor, ahem, poster, to keitai-l. He was considerably less obnoxious than the last time I met him in person, at which time he was extremely dismissive and arrogant. He still can't work out how Vodafone could possibly have profits, and trying to explain it would not, I felt, be worth the efforts. He is convinced that it is becuase of deferred tax credits or other such gimmicks. It is not use explaining that getting new customers actually costs money, because of additional required capacity, subsidies on handsets, etc. Since Vodafone K.K. are not gaining customers, those costs are reduced. Actually, I should send him the tool that we used in the simulation game, he might like that!
I also saw Steve Meyers, president of Theta Music. I don't know the whole story, and if they have totally separated from Linc Media, but it loks like they are in the same offices as the last time I spoke with Steve, some time in 2002. He looked older and tireder, but don't we all? Apparently the main thing they are focusing on is selling or porting Japanese content overseas. Terry Lloyd, the founder of a bunch of companies, including Linc Media, J@pan Inc., and others, had thought of that a few years ago, but it didn't really take off at the time.
Tracey Northcott, of Enfour was also there with her brother Richard, also of Enfour. They are working on some cool apps for series 60 handsets, of which the Nokia V702NM is the only one currently being sold in Japan. I hope that they have good luck in selling those apps. Right now, Vodafone is only selling two native Symbian apps, one the Access Netfront browser, and the other some custom 'skins.' She introduced me to Lisa Gotlieb of Walt Disney Internet Group.
By this time, my big toe was hurting again, and I needed to leave. To tell the truth, these kinds of networking events I find slightly uncomfortable and exhausting: Too many people, too many people that I don't know (that is the point, I guess!), and too many things to remember not to do. (slobber, topple my wine down someone's shirt, spill the beans on any of our corporate secrets, etc.)

Monday, June 27, 2005

Sick?

I played volleyball in a neighbourhood association tournament two weeks ago, and during the lead up to that and aftewards, both of my big toes were aching. I thought "this is an odd thing to have happen, perhaps it is because I am using different muscles in my feet than I usually do."
It turns out that I probably have gout. There aren't too many other reasonable explanations for pain in big toes except for that. I will go see the doctor in a few more hours. I have also been really easily fatigued recently, and I don't know if that is related or not. I will use that as the excuse, anyway, of why I haven't posted for the last two days. The reality is slightly more shameful for a so-called IT professional, which is that both of my desktop machines at home were out of commission this weekend, owing to some necessary repairs and data transfer. So much for three nines!
I will be attending the Mobile Monday soiree tonight, so hopefully I should get a post or two out of that!

Friday, June 24, 2005

Land of Liberty?

As an expat, in your first few years it is easy to miss home, and you tend to go through periods of alternately loving and hating your new home. After a few years, though, the frequency and the extreme nature of these periods levels out, and you begin to be pretty realistic about your new home, seeing both good and bad, and generally accepting both, rather than railing against it has you tend to in the first period. The other things that happens is that you begin to view your own country from the outside, unfettered by the emotional attachment that you naturally have for the place where you were born.
I love America. There are so many things to like. But looking at the direction it has gone politically since September 11th, and really since Dubya took over, fills me with a dread. The latest outrage is a Supreme Court decision which allows municipalities to use the law of imminent domain to seize property not for the purpose of building a new school, a road, a sewer treatment plant, or other public works, but to sell to developers, who can then re-develop an area and profit from their work.
George Will, had a good opinion piece on this today, and I would mostly only add a question to his piece: Do the members of the court remember that little thing called the bill of rights? It specifically says that seizures must be for public use. Does building new condos constitute public use? Considering the state of the housing market in the U.S., it is a question whether anyone will even be living in them.
If you combine this with the Patriot Act, the government's (mis)interpretation of the Geneva conventions, it's flagrant disregard for global norms in too many areas to list, it is hard not wonder if America is not slipping, one step at a time, softly, softly, in to totalitarianism. One constitutional right at a time, the liberties that we claim to be fighting for in Afghanistan and Iraq are being taken from Americans. The big uproar about Amnesty International calling Guantanamo a 'gulag' misses the point: Just because today there are nowhere near the same number of prisoners at Guantanamo as were in the Soviet gulags, does not mean that if the legal ambiguities and abuses are not addressed that such will never be the case. So, too, just because the ruling was about one Conneticut town clearly doesn't mean the expansion of government's right to seize property arbitrarily has not been vastly expanded. One wonders where this long slippery slope is leading, and I fear that it is not to a nice place.

Sony needs to grow up!

Two days ago, at the Takanawa Prince Hotel, Sony held it's general shareholders meeting, where they elected a new head, Howard Stringer.  The hotel's large conference hall is often used by large corporations for big meetings, as it seats around 2,000. My own company had a large employee meeting there shortly after I joined two years ago. At that time the meeting was all about the new possibilities that we were facing, and how we were going to vanquish our rivals.  The Sony meeting probably has a similar feel to it.  The problems that they face in reaching their goals are also similar to the ones that we have faced, and not yet really resolved:
  • The tendency of folks to build silos, or so-called 'vertical business' within the company, yet not integrated with the company.  You may have all kinds of good things to say about the Playstation 2, but it is a perfect example of being a product of this sort of organisation: What kind of memory did the original Playstation 2 use? Of course, as the inventor of Memory Sticks, you would assume that would be the removable memory format used, but NO! It used a proprietary memory.  You would assume that as one of the largest ISPs in Japan, with So-Net, that Playstation 2 would have had some kind of tie-up and real push to online gaming. But NO! Online gaming has largely been dominated by X-Box. Having mobile versions of Playstation games pre-loaded onto Sony Ericsson mobile phones would seem to be a no-brainer, but that hasn't happened either.  Ken Kutaragi, head of Sony Computer Entertainment, has been known to comment that the company couldn't get rid of him if it wanted, since such a large portion of profits come from the Playstation, which he helped to develop.  He is known as a maverick, and has run SCE as a kind of fiefdom. 
  • Because of the above-mentioned silo mentality, Sony has a ton of different businesses that it should or shouldn't be in, but that are adept at protecting themselves from the vagaries of an overall strategy. A great example is Sony Chemicals. This company is in two businesses: one is the production of various kinds of media, like video tape, DVDs, etc., as well as batteries; the other produces specialty products used in electronics production.  Despite there being a market for these products, and that Sony may depend on some of the products that are produced by Sony Chemical, how does this business fit into a focus on entertainment?  Answer: It doesn't. The margins at the business are also not what I would call stellar, and considering the research and capital-intensive nature of the business, it doesn't seem to make a lot of sense to hold on to it, except perhaps for strategic reasons 
  • What is the strategy?  Sony have been asking themselves for the last decade what kind of company they want to be when they grow up.  Well, they have been grown up for a while, so it is time to decide. Do they want to be a G.E. type of company, with lots of different business, and focused on operational and financial efficiency in each one, something that Samsung has done extremely well in the last few years; or do they want to be a new kind of company, focused purely on entertainment, with a value proposition that says 'if you buy Sony hardware or software, they will all work together always.'  Get over your Gen X angst and make up your mind!
When I was a kid, we had a Trinitron T.V. It was beautiful! It worked perfectly, was designed well, and had the first truly square screen I had seen.  It was worth paying a premium to have one.  Sony has never had this kind of reputation in Japan.  But most of their ideas come out of Japan.  The trouble they have had in realsing the synergies of their businesses is, I would venture, typical in a country that is only 140 years removed from feudalism.  Somehow bringing the company towards enlightenment will be, I think, Sir Stringer's biggest challenge.

Losers!

Yes, the big L for us! We didn't make the cut in our business simulation to go on to the next stage: Only the top four teams go on, and we were sixth. Seems like I am having to say sho-ga-nai alot lately. We did manage to get the top score from Japan, which apparently could give us an audience with the president of the company, but we will never know about that fabled trip to the UK. :-(

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Fill in your fate...

I sat for a multiple choice test today that acts as the first cut for admission to my company's leadership program. In the modern world, what word goes with roadside? Yes! You guessed it! BOMB! I guess I am not cut out to be a future leader in my company, since I couldn't even finish the numeric analysis part of the test. I aced the other part, the verbal part. A bit like the PSAT in that way: I got 730 on English, and only 550 on math. Generally this is not a good thing, to have the two separated by so much, but in the case of the PSAT, in order to come up with National Merit Scholars, they double the English and add the math (or at least they did in 1985, when I took the test).
This test was a kind of deja vu, in terms of filling in small dots with a number 2 pencil, and doing well on the verbal and poorly on the math, but I doubt that the feeling of 'been there, done that,' will extend to the result. I could rail against standardised tests as a means of determining a person's future, but that would be stupid: I have almost always been the beneficiary of them in the past, getting lots of scholarhip money out of my National Merit Scholarship, which allowed a poor boy like me to attend Carleton College, and before that an all expenses paid trip to come to Japan as a high school sophomore, which has changed my life.
After this test was done, which is the only one that the global program uses to determine eligibility, they gave us a personality test. Considering my poor score on the first test, I can only hope that my shining personality saves me overall. I somehow doubt it. Esepcially because that part of the test is being looked at by the Japanese side. It doesn't help that I am COMPLEX. c'est la vie. Sho-ga-nai in Japanese. I was told by one really senior guy yesterday that if I wanted to work for global, I needed to become really familiar with a specific part of the business, like customer service or something. He actually promised to send me if I had the proper skills by next year when he will need to make some choices. So, enough of fun and games, and time to get to work!

Vocabulary

I was reading Indonesian, Singaporean, and Indian blogs last night, and I realised that those of us who write in English, but may speak another lanugage at work or school all day, whether native or not, tend to mix in non-English words. I actually like this, because it give you the flavor of a place. The problem is in comprehension by people who don't understand that additional vocabulary. So, I have started a vocabulary list of words that I might use, or have already used. Perhaps this will be educational (plastic smile) for everyone! Anyway, here goes (in no particular order--if it ever gets big enough, I will worry about it then):
  • gaijin 外人(がいじん)--A non-Japanese, a foreigner, often a non-Asian foreigner, ME!
  • shinkansen 新幹線(しんかんせん)--Bullet train, literally 'new trunk line'. There are several lines, the most highly used being the Tokkaido Shinkansen, which runs from Tokyo to Hakata in Kyushu(changing to the Sanyo Shinkansen after Shin-Osaka station). There is also a recently completed Kyushu Shinkansen, that will eventually link to Hakata. I ride the Tohoku (northeast) Shinkansen, which runs to Morioka or Hachinohe, with branch lines that piggy back on the main line and then go to Yamagata or Akita. There is also the Niigata line and the Nagano line.
  • sobetsu kai 送別会(そうべつかい--Farewell party, also sometimes called by resident gaijin a sayonara party.
  • keitai or keitai denwa 携帯(電話)(けいたい(でんわ))--Mobile (phone), cell phone, handy phone.
  • sho-ga-nai (しょうがない)--It can't be helped, c'est la vie. Common slang for shikata-ga-nai (仕方がない).
  • keibajo 競馬場 (けいばじょう)--Racetrack, horse racing track. Scene of scene over failure to deliver last order.
  • shoji 障子(しょうじ)--A sliding screen with rice paper panels. Not to be confused for juggling bag target.
  • bakayaro ばかやろ!--The thing someone fed up to the gills says. Literally means 'damned fool', or something like that. Also the name of a series of movies which consisted of small sketches of people being pushed beyond the edge to the point where the explode and make this exclamation.
  • eigyo 営業(えいぎょう)--Sales. An interesting Japanese-English combination word is 'eigyo man', meaning salesman.
  • mochi もち--Often called a 'rice cake', it is nothing like the sort of rice cake that you find in health food stores that is puffed rice in a round shape. It is a cake (meaning a flat shape, rather than a sweet confection) of mochigome, or glutinous rice, pounded into a rubbery state, traditionally with a massive wooden hammer in a massive stone gizmo (a pestal-like thingummy). It is eaten especially at New Year, and is baked, boiled with a chicken soup, and probably other ways.
  • daifuku 大福(だいふく)--A confection by wrapping a thin layer of mochi (see above) around red bean paste (anko). There are also strawberry daifuku, which add a fresh strawberry. Daifuku literally means 'big happiness', and are the same characters used at Chinese New Year in China for celebratory gifts and on moon pies. (I don't know if there is a relationship or not.)
  • o-bon お盆(おぼん)--A festival held generally in August, though the timing depends on the place. It is also sometimes called the lantern festival, which is because candles are placed on little boats, and floated down the rivers. This aspect of the festival probably came later, from Buddhism, and is very similar to the Thai loi kratong festival. It is probably a much more ancient harvest festival that pre-dates Buddhism. One aspect of the festival is welcoming back the dead for a certain period, and then sending them back on their way, which is where the lanterns are used.
  • bon odori 盆踊り(ぼんおどり)--The dances which are danced at the o-bon festival (see above).
  • salaryman サラリーマン--A salaried male worker. Often a lifetime employee of a company.
  • kokutetsu 国鉄(こくてつ)--Japan National Railway, or JNR. This was the name of the company prior to being privatised, when it changed it's name to simply 'JR'. Kokutetu literally means 'national rail,' and technically doesn't exist anymore, since it has been privatised, but many people continue to refer to JR in this way.
  • maké inu 負け犬(まけいぬ)--Literally a 'loser dog', meaning someone who is beaten and weak.
  • iikagen ni mesamenasai いい加減に目覚めなさい(いいかげんにめざめなさい)--Literally 'open your eyes to bullshit', though bullshit is just one translation, and the word doesn't make use of any scatology. The character of Maya Akutsu in JoOh no Kyoshitsu says this to students to challenge them.
  • naki mushi 泣き虫--Literally 'cry bug', but is used also exactly the same as 'crybaby' in English.

I will try to add to this list, and refer to it when I use these words in future. If there is something that I mention that you want me to list, leave a comment. If you want a really comprehensive English<-->Japanese online dictionary, the one used by most translators in my company is ALC's.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

A late night...

One of the features of working as I do as a project manager, and further as a project manager on projects that employ a lot of gaijin, is that I attend a lot of 'so betsu kai' or farewell parties. In fact, I would venture to say that in the last three months, during which the project I have been working on has been winding down, that farewell parties have probably been my major source of social activity.
Last night's bash was for a guy that I really like and respect, and I am sorry to see him go. It was held at Kushi Tokkyu, near Kamiya-cho station. As a manager I had to fork out 6,000 yen for the privelege, which I didn't have and had to borrow until pay day (Friday) from another colleague that used to work for me. I have recently started Atkins, and there was plenty in the meat department there, but I needed to avoid beer. Technically, Atkins, in the first two weeks, doesn't allow alcohol, and after that only in moderation. However, I had done my homework, and found that Japanese 'shochu', a kind of rice spirits similar to vodka or gin, has zero carbohydrates. Zero means that if you have one glass or ten it is the same. So, I had ten.
We progressed to the Town Cryer II, where we had 'one for the road.' Unlike a bout of successive 'one for the roads' that I had with an Irish friend of mine two weeks ago at Mad Mulligans, after which our bar tab totalled something like $200, this being a Monday, I really did only have one. The last shinkansen train leaves Tokyo at 10:44, and I made it with plenty of time to spare, unlike two weeks before, when I had missed it, and instead stumbled over to Legends in Roppongi to watch Japan play Bahrain, before conking out at the McDonalds while waiting for the first train home.

...and an early morning

I am participating in a business simulation activity in my company, and it involves a bi-weekly teleconference. Because the guy coordinating the teleconference and one of the teams are in Australia, they seem to think that make it acceptable to hold teleconferences at 8 a.m.  In some countries this is a normal working time, but Japan tends towards later starting times and much later finishing times.  So, I arrived home at nearly midnight, drunk, woke up at 5:30 (still a little drunk), and caught a 6:30 shinkansen to be at work by eight.
We won!  Today's teleconference was the last one prior to the championship round, which consists of the top four teams in the world.  The game has 64 teams divided up into 16 'worlds' of four teams each. We pulled out all the stops and won our world.  I have heard that we have a decent chance to make it into the top four. Yeah! It was almost worth coming it at eight.  There is a further rumour that if we win the whole contest we will be flown to the U.K. to give a presentation to the group CEO. That would be cool!
I will take all of the credit for our win.  The way it worked is that we were given an Excel-based 'tool' and had to make some decisions concerning our business, and then enter them in the tool.  We did well the first year, but got our butts kicked the second year.  Looking at how our competitior did this, it became obvious that we needed to do some things differently.  In our industry, the common wisdom that the more customers you have, the better.  The other common wisdom is that you can't raise prices.  I took a look at that and decided to let the numbers speak for themselves. It turns out that certain segments are worth much more than other segments. So, I increased the prices for the less desirable segments to the point that they were once again desirable for us to serve.  While pricing is hugely important to certain segments, to others it is less so, and we were able to generate substantial customer satisfaction while at the same time charging more.  We also decided that we would continue to focus more on the segments that were less sensitive to pricing.  We focused a lot of attention on imrpoving all areas *except* pricing, to minimize a customers overall dissatisfaction.
It was a good strategy, but the team of Australians that we vanquished were left whining.  It is a good thing that I didn't have any time the night before to record 'We are the Champions' on to my mobile to play when the results were announced. There would have definitely been an explosion. Actually one of my own team-mates is disgusted and didn't show up to the teleconference...I warned everyone that this was a strategy to win the game, not to be confused with running a real company looking five years ahead.  I said that if we wanted to win, this was the only way I could see, but that it wouldn't be something we would be able to be particularly proud of.  It was three to one to go the direction we did. 
When I mentioned that the Australians were pissed off to another colleague, he said 'it's only a game! What's their problem." I know exactly what their problem is, which is that they wanted to win.  I don't consider myself particularly cut-throat, but when it comes to games or competitions I am fiercly competitive, in my fairly mild-mannered way.  If it is clear what needs to be done to win, I will do it.  Why the Aussies didn't, I don't know, since with their bigger market share they could have beat us at our own game.  This is the advantage of being a geek who has no concept of finance, marketing, or sales: I and my other geeky team mates (the one guy that got pissed off with our strategy is in marketing, I think) only looked at how to win.  Because this is a learning exercise, perhaps we should not have approached it this way, but as soon as they talked about winners and losers, there was no changing our approach. The problem is in the criteria: Our strategy and results ended up being very similar to our own company's, and the criteria are the same ones that the group uses to evaluate each country's business.  It is clear that shareholders are looking at some other factors, though, and that  this is not a formulae for long-term success, nor for overall market success, but for short-term financial success.  That was particularly educational.  If we make it into the final four, and then win and need to make a presentation to the CEO, we have decided to use our presentation as an appeal to him to change those criteria.
Actually, that may have been one of the reasons that our chief executive quit last year: The short-term financial focus of global is not in keeping with longer-term viability in the Japanese market.  Having said that, both are absolutely necessary. Actually, our Australian competitors did a better overall job at balancing the two. Unfortunately, the criteria are not balanced, and rewards pricks like me who only care about short-term profitability (or who play the game based on short-term profitability, which is actually the case).

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Yes, it may hurt the mother less, but...

What about the poor child?
I will vary my fare slightly because I got a rather interesting Noopie on my mobile phone from Wai Wai about pregnant mothers who diet to the extent that their children are born underweight. The mothers had good things to say about giving birth to preemies, though the health of their child was damaged for life. They had fewer contractions, and childbirth went more smoothly. Weigh that against vastly increased risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. Hmm...
It is not quite as simple as that though: When my wife was pregnant, the prenatal classes kept hammering away at pregnant mothers minding their weight. I thought it was BS at the time, and told my wife so, but she said 'no, the doctors say that pregnant women really need to diet to make sure they don't gain too much weight during pregnancy.' Who was I, a mere husband with more commmon sense than her moron doctor, to argue with such airtight logic?
Yesterday, my wife met with the mother of one of my son's classmates. The purpose of the lunch meeting was to establish the ground rules for any relationship her family and mine may want to have. Basically, she was checking my wife out to make sure that her son didn't make friends with a kid whose mother she didn't like. In this case, actually, I spoke with the father, another one of a very small handful of Americans living in my city, and suggested a barbecue at my house. The mother was very disturbed by this, and wanted to define the scope of the relationship prior to any messy entanglements. GAWD!
Her son, it turns out, does not play with other children except at school, and in structured after-school activities, for which she purposely goes out of the school area to avoid meeting other mothers from her son's class.
The cause of this was because of some unpleasantness she apparently had with a mother when her (much older) daughter was elementary school age. Whatever...I understand her discomfort with her kids playing with kids whose parents you don't like--what parent hasn't had the experience? But what do I tell my son? Don't play with that kid because I don't like his parents? GET OVER IT! Chill! They aren't getting married, only playing together for gods sake!

Smart move by a giant

An interesting story in the Nikkei points to a strategy on NTT DoCoMo's part that has huge implications for number two and three operators au and Vodafone: They are apparently considering opening their networks, outside of the major metropolitan areas, to newcomers.  In my post of last week I cast aspersions on Softbank's ability to roll out their network nationwide by next year. With this development, the main stumbling block is removed.  Softbank will still need to work on customer service, big time, if they are to win many customers, but the ability to compete on price, partially as the result of a reduced need for network development, could well lead to a price war. 
This is an incredibly astute strategy on the part of DoCoMo to pursue a divide and conquer strategy: By enabling the early entry of Softbank and eAccess, prior to mobile number portability being introduced, they create a market situation of five smaller rivals rather than three. This will allow them to paint the value proposition as 'there are the rest, and then there is DoCoMo.'  This will play well to Japanese consumers, who tend to go with the strongest brands in a croweded market.  The behavious is something like, 'when in doubt, choose the leader.'  The introduction of the two or three new entrants could create that doubt.  Further, this strategy allows them to focus on the customer segments that are not particularly price sensitive, including the business segment.
Though it is a small story, and doesn't mean the sky is falling, to those in the mobile telecoms sector, this changes everything.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Shared Incompetence

Three stories in U.K. Sunday papers this weekend highlight the worst qualities of non-Japan-based journalists' ability to report on Japan: In his story in the Sunday Times, city-page editor Paul Durman doesn't seem to wander very far from the Foreign Correspondent's Club, but seemed to have trouble with his reading: He talks about 'Big Camera' and their displays of mobile phones, when what he actually means is 'Bic Camera', which is right across the street from the Foreign Correspondent's Club. A Business Telegraph story contains the same mistake, which makes one wonder if Mr. Durman is moonlighting, or perhaps he and the Telegraph reporter wrote their stories together?
A story in This is London (Financial Mail on Sunday) makes no such blatantly inaccurate mistakes, but contains several errors of fact:


The operation, which accounts for a fifth of Vodafone's profits, has been hit by a fumbled transition from 2G voice-only phones to 3G high-speed internet technology.


2G phones, from any carrier in Japan, have not been voice-only for around 5 years. The only recent example of a voice only phone is Tu-ka's Tu-ka S simple phone for old folks and kids, which was actually a big hit. His other inaccuracy is below:


Unlike 3G services from rivals like Vodafone, i-mode allows secure transactions for services such as buying train and plane tickets, share dealing and paying for goods and services.

If he had bothered to find out about this, he would realise that this payment functionality is not really related to i-mode, that it is hard-wired into the actual phone, whereas i-mode is an online service. Vodafone and au will also be releasing so-called 'wallet' handsets within this year.
Hey, guys, are reporters not supposed to ask questions? Verify facts? Dig a little deeper than simply stepping across the street to an electronics store whose name you can't even spell properly?

It just goes to show you...

Coming on the heels of my last post, a story in todays Financial Times (FT) talks about a new law covering corporations that has foreign investors up in arms. Basically, the law would make the current of situation of foreign-owned financial firms in Japan unclear. In the world of finance, as heavily influenced as it is by government regulation, such a lack of clarity, and the risks that it poses should this lack of clarity lead to any inadvertent violations of rules or regulations, makes this a real risk for foreign banks, securities brokerages, and their ilk.
One of the interesting parts of this is that they totally missed it, so that their protests came rather late. The ACCJ also missed it. In my dealings with them, this doesn't surprise me very much: The competence of many of those in the organisation is, in my rather biased opinion, suspect. Whether this fiasco pushes any of it's corporate members to withdraw is a question, but they can't be too happy about it.
I think the bigger question, though, is what the hell the Ministry of Justice bureaucrats are thinking. In the current investment climate, Japan is a gamble at best. So is China, but that gamble has paid very hefty dividends, while the gamble on Japan may help a company maintain position, but has not paid out a lot of direct dividends. So, which country would you invest in?
This comes on the heels of a new privacy protection law which, while it has an admirable aim--to limit the access of companies to individual's private details unless they are specifically authorised to do so--it incurs large costs, legal headaches, and unfair singling out of certain companies by the media and bureaucrats.
The answer to what the geniuses at the MoF were thinking is that they weren't: Unlike China or most other Asian countries, foreign investment has traditionally played a fairly minor role in Japan, and there is very little sense that creating an unfriendly environment is something they need to worry about. They forget that foreign investment into Nissan helped save a company that no Japanese company wanted to touch with a ten-foot pole. They forget that Shinsei Bank, which was formed by Ripplewood Holdings, a foreign investor, is the best-performing Japanese bank. They remember that Lehman Brothers helped to finance Livedoor's hostile takeover attempt of NBS. And now they are extracting their pound of flesh. In their capricousness, and their hidden agendas, one must wonder what distinguishes them from the communist party functionaires in Beijing. The answer would be that if both sets of bureaucrats were on stock options, the Chinese would be smiling, and the Japanese would not...;-)

Friday, June 17, 2005

Japan in crisis?

A friend of mine, and a guy to whose company my company does business with, stopped by my desk the other day, and we were talking, actually he was waiting for someone more important than me to get off the phone so that he could talk to him (it was, after all, the middle of the day, and he has a job to do, which involves selling stuff to us). We talked about Darylls move to Tata (see my last post), and moved on to other topics, the main one being Japan being passed by in another three or four years, if they don't pull their thumb out. To put this in context, we were talking about China and India, and the incredible growth both of those places are experiencing, and the incredible malaise in Japan.
A friend of his manages a large company that does chip fabrication. They take orders and build chips. Basically he said that the quality of the engineers, and some of the amazing stuff these guys are coming up with are literally two generations ahead of anything currently being produced. Nano-memory chips was one thing he mentioned. The number of engineering graduates in China is something like twenty times that of Japan or the U.S.
My feeling is that in developing countries students are hungry. There is a clear path to success, and the price of failure is poverty, a kind of poverty that those of who grew up in the U.S. have not known since the 30's. Those who have the talent and hunger to get ahead, can. India has something like twenty technical universities of a quality similar to M.I.T., at least in the students it graduates. Japan has a huge amount of saved capital, and has used that capital to build some very competitive export companies, but those company's build a good portion of their products in China, Southeast Asia, Taiwan, Brazil, and other places where the labour is cheaper, higher skilled, and where the local bureaucracy doesn't kill initiative, which is definitely something that does happen here. So, when Japan hollows out, and their best companies find more to like outside than inside Japan, what is going to happen?

I had a talk with a Japanese network engineer who I am aquainted with today. He manages a piece of network that I need for some projects I am doing. The network is based on a technology called an Internet VPN, which basically uses the Internet for a private connection. The advantage is that the Internet is substantially cheaper than a leased line. The disadvantage is that it is less reliable. When I say less reliable, I am speaking in terms of being able to guarantee the speed of a connection. Actually, the Internet is *very* reliable in terms of availability: 100% as a whole, since the whole Internet has not failed, to my knowledge, since probably the early 70's.
I actually have a point here, which I need to get to soon, I understand: We have a reasonable connection, but we have an issue called latency, which means the time it physically takes for data to reach it's destination. It is a reality, and one that we have to live with. My network engineer colleague, though, sees it as completely unacceptable, and would rather not even have the network if it had any chance of imperfection. He is a perfectionist. And I realised: All of these anal people who want things perfect, they are all perfectionists! And there are lots of them in Japan. Tons. For certain things this is probably a good trait, but in the fast-moving business I am in, it is death. There will never be perfection, so the trick is to figure out what level of imperfection is acceptable, and work at achieving that level.
The real irony is that I am a recovered perfectionist, and know the deeply unhappy and depressed road perfectionism leads to, for the simple reason that there is no sane world where perfection is achievable. I'm not sure why it has taken me 12 years to identify this in Japan. Not everyone is a perfectionist by any means, but organisational and social beliefs tend to suggest that they should be: Witness all of the whinging on
2 channel; witness the utter shock and outrage that a jumbo jet blew two tires. No one was killed in the plane accident, not even really hurt, a couple of cases of whiplash. Many of the things that are talked about on 2 channel are just gripes about poor service, about China and Korea's unfairly targetting Japan, as well as a whole slew of mostly complaints, and posts by disgruntled workers, customers, and others. This, it should be pointed out, the most influential and popular web site in Japan.
It is ironic: Japan became successful specifically because of their attention to detail, and their perfectionism. Now, in a more complex world, where there are exponentially more things that can go wrong, these traits, or at least the practises used to support these traits, are crippling Japanese companies and their employee's ability to act, to innovate, and to move ahead.
Take this as an example: You hire
someone to do some work for you. They do a complex piece of work that takes 6 months, including internal testing. When they hand over the work to you, you say 'we would like you to run the test cases for us: We just want to make sure they are accurate." "Alright," says the vendor, "just tell me which ones you would like to run." "All 1900 of them," you answer. "But that would take another 4 months!" said the vendor. "That's right, and we don't intend to pay you until we are done," say you.
This is a real example, actually. Think of the additional cost because of your perfectionism. And think of the additional work, schedule impact, and the rest. It is this kind of stuff that makes my aquaintance so down on Japan. Crazy...

Leaving on a jet plane

Daryll Green, former Vodafone K.K. CEO left Tuesday for India with his family to head up Tata Teleservices. Green quit last June after having endured several months of his COO, David Jones, acting more and more like a chief executive, and effectively wresting, with the help of the Vodafone group, operational control from Green. It coincided with a voluntary retirement program that was over-subscribed, and which saw an 18% reduction in regular employees. Jones, who was fairly unceremoniously kicked out as of April 1st by new VFKK chairman Shiro Tsuda, and whose job was elimenated, had managed to have himself as the sole approver for almost all decisions at the company, and many decisions had ground to a halt.
Back to Green. There had been rumours, some going as high as the Nikkei, that he would become head of Softbank's mobile venture. Considering that Green hadn't been working for the last year, at least not that anyone saw, it is hard to believe he didn't have any irons in the fire during that whole period, just playing poker at the American Club. According to several vendors who have had dealings with Softbank, however, they are scumbags, at times refusing to pay vendors, lying about the number of software licenses they are using, and basically not behaving in a particularly ethical way. Their announcement that they wanted to start some time in 2006 should be treated with some caution: Though it would be easy enough for them to have something up and running in Tokyo or another couple of urban centres, an analysis suggests that it would not be possible for them to roll out a national network prior to mid-late 2007.
Tata definitely seems like the better choice for Daryll, and with a lot more possibilities. Though no one else has mentioned it, they also have a great stakeholder in Avaya, giving them access to a network equipment vendor and their expertise, especially in VoIP.
Sayonara, Mr. Green, and good luck!

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Fourth of July in Tokyo

I live out in the sticks, and there are probably only a total of 50 or fewer American's in these parts. Before I started working in Tokyo, one of the highlights of my social season was the annual 4th of July party at the American Embassy housing compound. The first time I went was at the invitation of one of my uncle's former colleagues when he was working for the state of Oregon. This colleague was an embassy staffer, and got me tickets, and I thought 'wow, I am special, I get to go to this exclusive party with embassy people and the like, and meet Walter Mondale (then the U.S. ambassador to Japan) and shoot the shit about his speech at my graduation.
Now I know better: You can get tickets at the American Chamber of Commerce of Japan (ACCJ) for 1,000 yen. No biggie. Eleven years ago, the expat community seemed like this glittering community of people who had it made. Now I work with a fair number of them, and it doesn't seem quite as cool:
  • No job security: A lot of the expats at my company won't have a job to go back to, and are here on short-term contracts. (this contrasts with my own cush situation, where I would basically have to committ a felony for my company to fire me).
  • No respect: Most of the employees (Japanese) don't respect the expats, saying stuff like 'they don't know shit about the Japanese market, so why in God's name has HQ sent them to Japan to run things?' Good question, uncomfortable answer: HQ doesn't understand Japan, either, and sends people with equal levels of ignorance (or other Asians: there is a Dutch-Chinese guy, a German-Korean guy, an American-Japanese (who needs an interpreter), a Lebanese-Swede, and some other interesting contributors to our melting pot.
  • Because of the two above facts, backlash is a fact of life: We just got a new president, an expat, ironically, who has recently been regularly saying that expats can't do the job, that we need to have Japanese in the important roles, and so on. I happen to be white, but am not an expat. Unfortunately for me, the backlash against the expats sometimes spills over to people like me who are local hires, speak the language, and have long and extensive knowledge of the Japanese market. c'est la vie.
Alright, there is definitely an element of jealousy: My boss, and expat, has a huge house in Denenchofu, one of the more exclusive neighbourhoods in Tokyo, paid for by the company, in addition to a car, and much nicer phones and computers than most others. In her case, I don't grudge her these things at all, as she has worked for the company for a long time, and probably deserves what she has. But there are quite a few young Dutch guys that have a certain bluntness bordering on rudeness (the polar opposite, in other words, of a Japanese conception of good manners), along with a certain assumption that they know what they are doing (they generally do, and it wouldn't hurt my Japanese colleagues to listen occasionally...), but with lots of youth. To see these guys in luxury apartments in the best areas of Tokyo might gall some...

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Fame and fortune...

...or just getting fired from your job? I saw Jessica Cutler's very brief blog, and read a really long Washington Post story about her meteoric rise and fall. Hey, the girl that couldn't keep a job found a way to make it pay! (beats turning tricks, which seemed to be the other thing she might have ended up doing, and saves on subjecting her petit 5'1" figure to the rigours of anal sex for money).
So, what the hell? My co-workers, colleagues, and hordes of others post on 2 channel, Japan's whinge HQ, so why shouldn't I have my blog?
(BTW, I have nowhere near Jessica's sex life to spice my blog up with (nor her looks), so I guess it will have to have other entertainment value...probably not a bad thing...)