Pets and Pistols

In our era of unending overheated news cycles I take comfort in the cold dispassionate analytic Japanese cultural characteristic. Its helpful not only for keeping a level head but also making interesting connections between seemingly unrelated things.

For example different cultural responses to the COVID crisis: in Japan people went out and bought pets, in America people went out and bought guns. Japanese like making those kinds of comparisons that seem to come out of left field, but for me provide ‘think outside the box’ context sorely missing in public discourse these days. And again when Bloomberg ran a piece titled “Buddhist Monks Are Snapping Up ESG Bonds in Japan,” that wasn’t getting any traction in the Japanese news space.

As a Buddhist priest (monks live monastic lives outside of society, priests do not) it stuck me as odd that a Rinzai Zen temple would advertise investing in ESG bonds as future proofing the temple instead of working to get younger people involved in temple activities. The Bloomberg piece also reads like stealth marketing, if Zen temples and the Vatican are investing in ESG bonds it must be good…right?

I asked a Japanese trader friend about it and he set me straight without blinking an eye, “With this coming out on Bloomberg just when the Dali Lama and Greta Thunberg are hooking up online to discuss environmental issues, it sounds like investment funds and players are gearing up to make a lot of mischief. The only difference is that they used to be better at hiding this kind of nonsense and now they suck.” Bingo…helpful context to divine where things are going. There is also online discussion of a COVID-19 ‘vaccination mafia’, but that’s another subject for another day.

Tokyo commuting in tough times

Many Japanese companies have implemented telework or flex time during the COVID-19 crisis so that employees can avoid Tokyo rush hour. My office has shorter hours so I take a later train. Tokyo train commuting has become a little surreal over the past week. Seats are actually available on the inner Yamanote line from Shinjuku before 9.

Most people wear face masks and don’t talk on the train but masks are still in short supply at the local drug store. I have to line up before store hours to get a box. Fortunately my partner, a doctor, bought hand sanitizer and mask sanitizer back in January before supplies disappeared. I use, and re-use 2 face masks with mask sanitizer and also have carry spray bottle of ethanol for hands. I don’t touch anything if at all possible, I lean on something instead, but the hand spray comes out the moment I go out the transit gate. There’s also my regulation hand wash and gargle routine when getting to the office, or returning home. I recommend Apple Pay Suica on Apple Watch if that’s a commute option, it removes the necessity of touching the iPhone.

If you have to commute for work like me, I suggest dressing on the warm side or have a scarf handy. Dressing for a comfortable commute is always a challenge but most cars now have a window or two open for good ventilation. On the Tokyu Ikegami line the staff are opening half the car windows 5 cm or so. It can be quite chilly even with the heat on.

Have a safe and healthy commute.

On The Media

Tim has been on a roll recently. Not that Tim, the other Tim. Tim Pool. When YouTube and Twitter started purging ‘conservative’ Japanese content that wasn’t breaking any content rules, following what YouTube and Twitter were already doing in America, Tim Pool was the only online journalist reporting it.

I don’t always agree with Tim’s politics or watch every video post, but I always keep an eye on him. His reports on the devolution of mainstream media and how social media like YouTube and Twitter contribute to that decline, is on the nose. Another thing I like about Tim is that he believes in positive engagement and calling things as he finds it. This sets him apart from former Vice News colleagues: Tim has not lost the ability to think critically and objectively, he questions everything and tries to examine both sides of an issue. To me this is healthy.

And Tim knows when to play the YouTube de-ranking guessing game because he knows there are more important things to report on than waste time fighting YouTube. His milk toast reports are considered so dangerous by YouTube that real YouTube humans review his every video and suppress ones they don’t like:

One disturbing trend that social media drives is what I call cut and paste narrative journalism. Part of it is driven by the need for clicks and what big media thinks will sell. I see this frequently in mainstream western reporting on Japan that likes to portray Japan in a negative light. Here’s a recent piece written by Ian Bremmer for Time titled, Why the Japan-South Korea Trade War Is Worrying for the World, where you can see cut and paste narrative journalism in action.

Why the Japan-South Korea Trade War Is Worrying for the World

The opening sentence is a setup: “but it’s the trade spat between Japan and South Korea that signals the larger troubles ahead for the world.” This is Bremmer’s opinion, nothing else, and puts him squarely in the South Korea supporters club. There are plenty of economic experts who will tell you that Japanese ~ South Korean trade volume isn’t nearly as important as the media makes it out to be.

Skipping the next few sentences of regurgitated South Korean side only history, we arrive at the crucial sentence:

“Frustrated with the proceedings and determined to put pressure on Moon’s government to intervene in some way, Japan strengthened restrictions on several high-tech exports to South Korea in July and downgraded South Korea’s status as a trusted trading partner in August.”

This is classic cut and paste narrative. It substitutes fact for opinion, while presenting it as fact. Bremmer removes all the context of Japanese claims that South Korean was violating UN sanctions on North Korean, among many other things, leading up to the sanctions. Instead of crucial context we get: Japan is frustrated. Really? Can you prove that Ian?

The rest of the piece deflates from there into a half-hearted denouncement of President Trumps foreign policy, without naming Trump, as if Bremmer can’t decide whether it’s a good or bad thing for the U.S. to play the world’s policeman.

I find it hard to stay well informed with big media these days. Big media is still important but sifting the good from the bad is a lot more work. Unfortunately I don’t think it’s going to get easier.

The JAPAN CASHLESS Rebate Week 1: MiniStop Reports 6% Cashless Payment Use Increase in First Week

This is what we were waiting for. After all that hassle of getting ready for the CASHLESS rebate program, how many people were actually going to go cashless to get the rebates? NHK reports that the MiniStop convenience store chain saw a 6% rise in cashless payments use rates in the first week of the rebate program, rising from 24% to 30%. MiniStop president Akihiro Fujimoto said he was surprised at the quick uptake. I’m not.

30% was the informal Apple Pay Suica use rate I found in station areas in 2017. The MiniStop number is just one data point from one store chain, so it will be interesting to see how cashless use rate averages pan out over time. Convenience stores chains offer 2% rebates with cashless purchases, calculated and deducted from the customer bill at checkout. Smaller store 2%~5% rebates are post-transaction refunds. Despite the small data sample size, I think we are already seeing the beginnings of a tipping point here.

The JAPAN CASHLESS Rebate Day 1: convenience stores

It was a fun day. I tried out some local CASHLESS rebate stores and it was…boring. I paid with Apple Pay Suica like I always do. A close examination of the receipt showed that the 2% rebate was instantly deducted from the transaction amount. I didn’t have to say anything or do anything but wave iPhone to the reader.

That was not clear from the CASHLESS web site: When you make a cashless purchase with any of the certified methods (credit card, Suica, QR, etc.) at a convenience store, the consumption tax is automatically calculated at 8% or 10% depending on item (food vs. household items). The 2% rebate is instantly implemented in the transaction as a discount from the sub-total (items plus tax). For people who don’t want to bother with JRE POINT, paying with Apple Pay Suica at convenience stores is a JAPAN CASHLESS no brainer.

I am still digging but the instant 2% tax discount appears to be the case only for convenience store transactions. Other stores (without the fancy POS systems) calculate the transaction with tax but the CASHLESS rebate is refunded later as outlined.

It will be interesting to see how many stores end up being classified as ‘convenience stores’ for the CASHLESS program as supermarkets are explicitly left out of the the equation. All the major convenience store chains will be onboard, but will AEON ‘My Basket’ stores be classified as a convenience store or a supermarket? It’s a squishy line.

Some quick impressions:

  • everything happens automatically on the backend, there is nothing the customer or merchant needs to do, just follow the usual routine
  • if you pay cash at convenience stores you are throwing away money
  • I can’t wait for the CASHLESS program to expand to DOUTOR so I can kiss Starbucks goodbye for the duration of the program
  • Ditto for MiniStop, 7 Eleven ice coffee sucks and they don’t have those cheesy dog things

UPDATE: MiniStop is on the CASHLESS map now: