Sumo Wrestling, Yukio Mishima, and a Search for a Forgotten Man

I’ve been a fan of Brian Phillips’s writing ever since reading and recommending “Pelé as a Comedian.” This year, Brian’s best writing probably comes via his piece at Grantland titled “The Sea of Crises,” in which he goes on a two week trip to Japan. During his visit, he witnesses a sumo tournament, traverses around Tokyo and other parts of Japan, and recounts his fascination with a failed coup attempt by a Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, which ended in ritual suicide, seppuku.

A wonderful description of Tokyo:

Tokyo, the biggest city in the world, the biggest city in the history of the world, a galaxy reflected in its own glass. It was a fishing village barely 400 years ago, and now: 35 million people, a human concourse so vast it can’t be said toend, only to fade indeterminately around the edges. Thirty-five million, almost the population of California. Smells mauling you from doorways: stale beer, steaming broth, charbroiled eel. Intersections where a thousand people cross each time the light changes, under J-pop videos 10 stories tall. Flocks of schoolgirls in blue blazers and plaid skirts. Boys with frosted tips and oversize headphones, camouflage jackets and cashmere scarves. Herds of black-suited businessmen. A city so dense the 24-hour manga cafés will rent you a pod to sleep in for the night, so post-human there are brothels where the prostitutes are dolls. An unnavigable labyrinth with 1,200 miles of railway, 1,000 train stations, homes with no addresses, restaurants with no names. Endless warrens of Blade Runner alleys where paper lanterns float among crisscrossing power lines. And yet: clean, safe, quiet, somehow weightless, a place whose order seems sustained by the logic of a dream.

It’s a dream city, Tokyo. I mean that literally, in that I often felt like I was experiencing it while asleep. You’ll ride an escalator underground into what your map says is a tunnel between subway stops, only to find yourself in a thumping subterranean mall packed with beautiful teenagers dancing to Katy Perry remixes. You will take a turn off a busy street and into a deserted Buddhist graveyard, soundless but for the wind and the clacking of sotoba sticks, wooden markers crowded with the names of the dead. You will stand in a high tower and look out on the reason-defying extent of the city, windows and David Beckham billboards and aerial expressways falling lightly downward, toward the Ferris wheel on the edge of the sea.

This is a beautiful description:

It takes a sumo novice perhaps 10 seconds of match action to see that among the top-class rikishi, Hakuho occupies a category of his own. What the others are doing in the ring is fighting. Hakuho is composing little haiku of battle.

The majority of the piece gives the reader this feeling as though one is in a ship, being gently throttled back and forth as Phillips describes his experiences of traveling and getting lost:

So I wandered, lost, around Tokyo. I went to the shrine of Nomi no Sukune, the legendary father of sumo, who (if he lived at all) died 2,000 years ago. I went to the food courts in the basements of department stores. I thought I should look for the past, for the origins of sumo, so early one morning I rode a bullet train to Kyoto, the old imperial capital, where I was yelled at by a bus driver and stayed in a ryokan — a guest house — where the maid crawled on her knees to refill my teacup. I climbed the stone path of the Fushimi Inari shrine, up the mountain under 10,000 vermilion gates. I visited the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, rebuilt in 1955 after a mad monk burned it to the ground (Mishima wrote a novel about this), and the Temple of the Silver Pavilion, weirder and more mysterious because it is not actually covered in silver but was only intended to be. I spent 100 yen on a vending-machine fortune that told me to be “patient with time.”

Highly recommended in entirety.


Why Are Americans So Bad at Math?

The New York Times has a noteworthy piece on why math education is so poor in the United States. Borrowing examples from how math is taught in Japan, the article outlines how different initiatives to reform math education in America have failed (and why they are likely to continue to fail). Worth the read.

It wasn’t the first time that Americans had dreamed up a better way to teach math and then failed to implement it. The same pattern played out in the 1960s, when schools gripped by a post-Sputnik inferiority complex unveiled an ambitious “new math,” only to find, a few years later, that nothing actually changed. In fact, efforts to introduce a better way of teaching math stretch back to the 1800s. The story is the same every time: a big, excited push, followed by mass confusion and then a return to conventional practices.

The new math of the ‘60s, the new new math of the ‘80s and today’s Common Core math all stem from the idea that the traditional way of teaching math simply does not work. As a nation, we suffer from an ailment that John Allen Paulos, a Temple University math professor and an author, calls innumeracy — the mathematical equivalent of not being able to read. On national tests, nearly two-thirds of fourth graders and eighth graders are not proficient in math. More than half of fourth graders taking the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress could not accurately read the temperature on a neatly drawn thermometer.

I hadn’t heard of this parable/story before, but it is quite the embarrassment:

One of the most vivid arithmetic failings displayed by Americans occurred in the early 1980s, when the A&W restaurant chain released a new hamburger to rival the McDonald’s Quarter Pounder. With a third-pound of beef, the A&W burger had more meat than the Quarter Pounder; in taste tests, customers preferred A&W’s burger. And it was less expensive. A lavish A&W television and radio marketing campaign cited these benefits. Yet instead of leaping at the great value, customers snubbed it.

Only when the company held customer focus groups did it become clear why. The Third Pounder presented the American public with a test in fractions. And we failed. Misunderstanding the value of one-third, customers believed they were being overcharged. Why, they asked the researchers, should they pay the same amount for a third of a pound of meat as they did for a quarter-pound of meat at McDonald’s. The “4” in “¼,” larger than the “3” in “⅓,” led them astray.

Maybe we need to develop more system-wide efforts to showcase teaching styles to observers, like they do in Japan:

In Japan, teachers had always depended on jugyokenkyu, which translates literally as “lesson study,” a set of practices that Japanese teachers use to hone their craft. A teacher first plans lessons, then teaches in front of an audience of students and other teachers along with at least one university observer. Then the observers talk with the teacher about what has just taken place. Each public lesson poses a hypothesis, a new idea about how to help children learn. And each discussion offers a chance to determine whether it worked. Without jugyokenkyu, it was no wonder the American teachers’ work fell short of the model set by their best thinkers.

What else matters? That teachers embrace new teaching styles, and persevere:

Most policies aimed at improving teaching conceive of the job not as a craft that needs to be taught but as a natural-born talent that teachers either decide to muster or don’t possess. Instead of acknowledging that changes like the new math are something teachers must learn over time, we mandate them as “standards” that teachers are expected to simply “adopt.” We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that their students don’t improve.

Here, too, the Japanese experience is telling. The teachers I met in Tokyo had changed not just their ideas about math; they also changed their whole conception of what it means to be a teacher. “The term ‘teaching’ came to mean something totally different to me,” a teacher named Hideto Hirayama told me through a translator. It was more sophisticated, more challenging — and more rewarding. “The moment that a child changes, the moment that he understands something, is amazing, and this transition happens right before your eyes,” he said. “It seems like my heart stops every day.”

Worth reading in entirety here.

Tokyo to Host the 2020 Olympic Games


Tokyo has won the bid to host the 2020 Olympic Games, beating out Istanbul and Madrid. Bloomberg reports:

The Japanese capital was the bookmakers’ favorite leading into this weekend’s meeting of International Olympic Committee members in Buenos Aires, and defeated Madrid and Istanbul today in a vote by the IOC. Madrid was eliminated in a first round of voting after tying for second place with Istanbul, setting up the final vote won by Tokyo.

The winning bid to stage sports’ biggest event came on the city’s second straight attempt. While a lack of public enthusiasm doomed its bid for the 2016 Olympics, a March survey found 70 percent of Tokyo residents were in support this time. The government also billed the Olympics as a way to help Japan recover from a 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster.

Parliament passed two motions in favor of the bid and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe broke into song during a March presentation to the IOC’s evaluation panel in which he said hosting the event was a long-held dream.

“Choose Tokyo today and you choose a nation that is a passionate, proud, and a strong believer in the Olympic movement,” Abe said in today’s final presentation. He was joined on stage by Princess Takamado, the first member of the Japanese Imperial family to address the IOC.

The Japanese capital, now festooned with the bid’s cherry-blossom logo, has emphasized merits such as financial stability, safety, cleanliness and convenience. Tokyo has put aside 408.8 billion yen ($4.1 billion) for building and upgrading facilities. Tokyo’s flagship project is the futuristic 80,000-seat National Stadium designed by London-based Pritzker Prize-winner Zaha Hadid, which will be built on the site of the 1964 Tokyo Games, an event seen as re-launching Japan on the world stage after World War II.

I will make it to Tokyo before 2020, but the Olympic Games there sound like a repeat visit would be in order…

When They Can’t Lay You Off, Employers in Japan Send You to Boredom Rooms

What happens if you’re working in Japan and a company wants to lay you off, and offers you a lucrative early retirement or severance deal? Well, if you choose not to accept the terms, the company has no right to fire you. So what they’ll do instead is send you to work in a so-called “Boredom Room.”

In Japan, lifetime employment has long been the norm and where large-scale layoffs remain a social taboo, at least at Japan’s largest corporations like Sony. The New York Times profiles one man who’s chosen to go into the Boredom Room and spend his workday there: reading college textbooks, surfing the Internet, and who knows what else.

Sony said it was not doing anything wrong in placing employees in what it calls Career Design Rooms. Employees are given counseling to find new jobs in the Sony group, or at another company, it said. Sony also said that it offered workers early retirement packages that are generous by American standards: in 2010, it promised severance payments equivalent to as much as 54 months of pay. But the real point of the rooms is to make employees feel forgotten and worthless — and eventually so bored and shamed that they just quit, critics say.

Labor practices in Japan contrast sharply with those in the United States, where companies are quick to lay off workers when demand slows or a product becomes obsolete. It is cruel to the worker, but it usually gives the overall economy agility. 

However, and this is a point worth emphasizing: critics say the real point of the boredoom rooms is to make employees feel forgotten and worthless — and eventually get so bored and shamed that they just quit.

Read the entire story here.

Toyota’s Kaizen: Helping Food Banks with Efficiency

This New York Times piece explains an unusual partnership that developed between the car company Toyota and the Food Bank in New York City. Instead of giving money, it gave kaizen. It’s an optimistic, remarkable way that for-profit businesses can help their communities, without giving money directly:

At a soup kitchen in Harlem, Toyota’s engineers cut down the wait time for dinner to 18 minutes from as long as 90. At a food pantry on Staten Island, they reduced the time people spent filling their bags to 6 minutes from 11. And at a warehouse in Bushwick, Brooklyn, where volunteers were packing boxes of supplies for victims of Hurricane Sandy, a dose of kaizen cut the time it took to pack one box to 11 seconds from 3 minutes.

Toyota has “revolutionized the way we serve our community,” said Margarette Purvis, the chief executive and president of the Food Bank.

A bit of history:

In the early 1990s, Toyota limited sharing its expertise to its auto parts suppliers. But as the Toyota Production System Support Center, the company’s headquarters of efficiency, came to recognize broader interest in the Toyota model, the company offered consulting-style services to nonautomotive manufacturers and nonprofit organizations. Today, the center supports about 40 organizations, half of which are small to midsize manufacturers that pay a small fee. The rest are nonprofits, like the Food Bank, that get the services free.

The term for this effort is kaizen, a philosophy for “change for the better.” More of this kind of corporate philanthropy, please.

The Hikikomori around the World

Two weeks ago, BBC published a piece about the hikikomori, those people in Japan who “refuse to leave their bedrooms.” There are as many as one million of them in Japan.

This week, BBC compiles a sampling of other hikikomori people around the world. A sample below:

I am a retired professor of astrophysics. I have only just avoided being a hikikomori myself. Since I was a child I felt awkward in society, and have tended to avoid human contact. I was fortunate to live in a rather short period of time when mathematical and scientific skills, which are easily acquired with minimal human interaction, were reasonably well rewarded. But I always felt that I was clinging to a cliff by my fingernails. Both my ex-wife and my wife have commented on the fact that I don’t seem to have any friends of my own. That’s not quite true, but not far wrong. I remain with the feeling that in the long term I am going to end up living, and dying, on the street. P, California, US


In sixth form I more or less stopped going to school. My grades were always good, but by the time I finished at 17, I had an attendance rate over the two years of less than 30%. I retreated to my room, became obsessive, paranoid. I wanted to go out and be social but felt that it was difficult. When I did go out, I tended to drink heavily, which made things worse. I went to uni immediately after finishing school. Those three years were a black hole of drink and isolation. About halfway through my second year I was diagnosed with “some sort of agoraphobia”, but no one could decide on treatment. I’m not sure how or why things changed. Some days I feel it start to take over me again, usually after a period of enforced confinement due to illness. I drag myself out for a walk. In a way this is confinement – I’ll often walk on my own, listening to music. I’ll arrange to do things with people, which helps. Eddie, Merseyside, UK


I loved withdrawing myself from the whole world, which includes my family and best friends. I found isolation a safe retreat. But it was eating me up, I lost 9kg (20lb) and knew that eventually it would kill me. I tried to fight back by reading books which made me laugh because essentially I was depressed. Facebook, games, slowly opening up to friends and telling them I was down. I sought help and said a lot of prayers. But the first step is to say I want to come out of this darkness. Watila, Tamil Nadu, India


I withdrew from society for at least five years, maybe longer. Honestly, that time is mostly a blur. For the most part, the farthest I’d travel was my mother’s backyard, and maybe to the store. I have social anxiety disorder, and it almost ruined my life. Crippling anxiety most of the time that is somewhat managed now by medication and therapy. I also go to group therapy sessions so I don’t isolate myself again. Maybe meeting Eric, now my fiance, on the internet brought me out of my shell. It gave me a reason to go out. I suppose I needed that push. Andrea, Wisconsin, US

Of course, the true hermits are selectively excluded from this compilation: they aren’t checking the Internet and could not have responded to BBC’s query.

In case you are wondering, hikikomori is in the Oxford English Dictionary as “In Japan: abnormal avoidance of social contact.”

The Last 19th Century Man Dies

Jiroemon Kimura was the last man living who witnessed the 19th century (he lived to be 116 years, 54 days):

Born in 1897, the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, he was 6 years old when the Wright Brothers showed the world that man can fly, and 11 when Henry Ford introduced the Model T automobile. He lived through two world wars, the reigns of four emperors, the terms of 20 U.S. presidents, and 61 Japanese prime ministers.  He had five kids, 14 grandchildren, 25 great-grandchildren, and 13 great-great-grandchildren,

It’s incredible that he was helping his son with farming until Mr. Kimura was 90 years old. His secret to longevity?

In 2009, Mr. Kimura told camera crews that he exercises daily, reads newspapers at least two hours a day, and keeps up with parliamentary proceedings. “I’ve got to keep up with the times,” he said.

Also, smaller portions of food.

Japan has the world’s highest life expectancy, and it’s bound to go up. Per WSJ, The life expectacy is projected to exceed 90 for Japanese women by 2050.

Dear Leader Dreams of Sushi

I am beginning my morning by absorbing Adam Davidson’s fascinating piece in GQ on Kim Jong Il’s sushi chef. The intro should get you fired up:

North Korea is a mythically strange land, an Absurdistan, where almost nothing is known about the people or, more important, their missile-launching leaders. There is, however, one man—a humble sushi chef from Japan—who infiltrated the inner sanctum, becoming the Dear Leader’s cook, confidant, and court jester. What is life like serving Kim Jong-il and his heir? A strange and dangerous gig where the food and drink never stop, the girls are all virgins, and you’re never really safe. We sent Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Adam Johnson to meet the man who survived all the craziness.

The chef, who goes by the alias Kenji Fujimoto, is Japanese–a conflict:

Though the Japanese are considered an enemy in North Korea—for their brutal invasion, occupation, and subjugation of Korea from 1910 to 1945—Fujimoto’s outsider status had advantages: He didn’t speak Korean and therefore couldn’t betray Kim’s confidences. Fujimoto was also a stranger to the complex allegiances and shifting tides of Pyongyang politics. And because he knew so little about North Korea, he tended to accept Shogun-sama’s version of reality—that the Kims were benevolent leaders beset by jealous enemies.

These were good times for Fujimoto. During the day he trained his students, and at night the shouts of “Toro, one more!” kept coming. Beautiful women were always nearby, and interesting executives kept coming and going. When he spent leisure time with Kim Jong-il, they drank Bordeaux wines and discussed Shogun-sama’s favorite Schwarzenegger movies.

The title of the piece is a riff on a superb documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, available to stream for free on Netflix Instant (which I recommend seeing!).


Naruatsu Baba Is 35-Year-Old Billionaire With Zombie and Bear Apps

Bloomberg reports that Naruatsu Baba, the 35-year-old founder of Japanese smartphone game maker Colopl Inc. (3668), has become one of the youngest billionaires in the world as the company’s stock has increased sevenfold since its December initial share sale:

One of its free “Kuma the Bear” games has been recently downloaded more times than apps from Facebook, McDonald’s or Twitter, according to the Google play website. Colopl’s games have been downloaded 10 million times in less than a year, Baba said on his company’s website. That is equal to about 8 percent of Japan’s population.

Bloomberg itself has gamified the billionaire index —just look at the cartoon presentation updated on a daily basis!

Talk about a bubble, huh?

Japan, Blood Type, and Superstition

It is a widespread belief in Japan that character is linked to blood type, as this BBC Magazine story details:

According to popular belief in Japan, type As are sensitive perfectionists and good team players, but over-anxious. Type Os are curious and generous but stubborn. ABs are arty but mysterious and unpredictable, and type Bs are cheerful but eccentric, individualistic and selfish.

About 40% of the Japanese population is type A and 30% are type O, whilst only 20% are type B, with AB accounting for the remaining 10%.

This seems crazy:

A whole industry of customised products has also sprung up, with soft drinks, chewing gum, bath salts and even condoms catering for different blood groups on sale.

Seems to me like you can revel in or excuse your personality traits on your blood type. When it is working for you, great. But when something bad happens, blame your blood type.