Friday, January 13, 2012

Tom Waits and Cookie Monster


Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Just hit 1 million viewers

I can run real quick, yo.


Monday, October 24, 2011

"Kichigai" by Rebecca Culverhouse

This short film was shot in Shibuya a couple of years ago. I play the drunker of the two male characters, Jay.


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Recent Booze Article

Just throwing out a link to my short article (bilingual: English/Japanese) about alcohol trends in the Tokyo metropolis for KOE magazine.


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Japanese Avoid Studying Overseas? A Counter-Argument

Japanese university students have been called a lot of things recently, not many of them very nice. The Mainichi surmises that today’s post-secondary crowd is not in possession of the same “spirit of independence” exhibited by students who went through the system a decade earlier. The Yomiuri calls them “inward-looking” and the Japan Times insinuates that they are just plain afraid.

Afraid of what?

Studying abroad, of course.

The drop in the number of university students heading overseas has been labeled a harbinger of a wide variety of educational, economic and social malaise.  Apparently there were some 82,945 Japanese studying overseas at the tertiary level in 2004, but just 66,833 ventured abroad in 2008. We are constantly reminded that this is a cause for coordinated hand-wringing.

To be fair, that is a sizable drop, and schools in the US are particularly concerned. According to the Mainichi, 1997 witnessed 47,073 young Japanese taking classes at American junior colleges and universities. That tally has stumbled badly over the last decade, hitting 29,264 in 2008.

Incidentally, the drop in enrollment at American universities is not all that surprising given the competition that arose in the wake of September 11th, 2001. As America slammed the brakes on visa issuance, countries like Canada, the UK and Australia were there to pick up the slack by advertising cheaper tuition, secure study environments and less red tape.

But that is beside the point. What the Japanese media is most concerned about is highlighting any and every indication that the mother ship is sinking.

The reasons offered for the downturn in academic export numbers are many.

The most common culprit is the rather small and asinine timeframe currently set in stone by businesses for hiring prospective university graduates. Anyone who has read about this issue will recite that students would rather stay in Japan than risk missing that window of opportunity.

The Mainichi wondered openly if this wasn't the rebirth of self-imposed isolationism.

Others have posited that today’s generation is less adventurous because they grew up after Japan’s bubble economy got washed up on the rocks and are quite comfortable where they are, thank you very much.
Another frequent anthem is the assurance that these are uncertain economic times. Of all of the arguments put forth, this is probably the most logical.

Or it would be if the yen hadn’t appreciated so much against the dollar (and the euro…and the pound) since late 2007. But I digress.

The perceived lack of desire to study abroad is apparently just the tip of the gloomberg for Japan.
One argument is that Japan needs global-minded managers to steer its aging keel into calmer, and presumably globalized, waters. This was the assertion echoed by the dean of Madrid’s IE Business School when he was here on a recruiting visit (ahem) last October.

And almost everyone seems to obsess over the relatively robust numbers of students that neighbors China and South Korea send abroad. This is generally taken in the media as Exhibit B that Japan is on the wane.

And that may be true, economically at least. However, there are a couple of other explanations for this annual funeral dirge.

The Mainichi caught one of them, if but for just a brief moment. In an earlier linked-to article a former university president by the name of Takashi Masuda is quoted as saying, “The culprit is environment. Japanese universities try to fence in students so that they can fill their campuses to capacity, and instructors are loathe to let go of talented students.”

A quick look at the measures schools have taken to stave off bankruptcy over the last decade shows that this point of view is worthy of further consideration.

But another overlooked factor is possibly at play here.

Shortly after the study abroad numbers come out every year, the media publishes articles about how much the number of new “adults” (20 is the age of majority in Japan) has fallen since the year prior.

This year, for the first time as far as anyone can tell, 20-year-olds make up less than one percent of the national population. Obviously, this exacerbates the whole ‘graying society’ thing that Japan does so well.

According to numbers published yesterday by the Japan Times, the number of college-aged folks celebrating their Coming of Age Day yesterday was a full 30,000 individuals fewer than the year before.

And this is not just some freakish, one-off occurrence. A new low has been set annually for several years running.

30,000 college-aged students fewer than the year before. Yikes.

Now granted, not all of those people would have been enrolled in university, but it is worth noting that the percentage of high school graduates going on to university is reportedly on the rise as private schools have lowered entrance requirements in order to put butts in seats.

Even if the reality is that there was a drop of 10,000 university students from last year’s numbers, that’s still more than enough to cover the precipitous drop (roughly 8,000 students) in study abroad participants from 2007-08.

In other words, it is possible that the declining study abroad numbers are due, at least in part, to Japan’s well-publicized and continued birthrate stagnation.

This is reaching a bit, of course, because Japan's study abroad numbers from the past two years are still not fully available. In the meantime, however, we have at least two new angles to this story that likely deserve some media attention.

Not that they’ll get it.

Japan’s ship may indeed have a turbulent journey ahead of it, especially if the government keeps trashing ideas for increasing international exchange at the university level.

But at least its young passengers aren’t as lifeless or useless as the media would lead us to believe.


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

North-South Korean Border Bombing September 2010

I recently traveled to the tranquil, river-delineated border between North and South Korea. More often than not, my travels take me in search of praiseworthy drink and amenable grub, and this journey was no different.

Very little is known about North Korea's next leader.
It was a beautiful, blue-skied, quiet, uneventful day on the thickly armored 38th parallel. Quite unlike today, the 23rd of November, 2010, when bombs rained on a South Korean island.

But let us not forget that just like the last time something like this happened, the unnecessary yet mostly comfortable stalemate between the increasingly distant Korean brethren will continue for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, the Japanese media is freaking out, much to North Korea's delight. The South, on the other hand, is predictably beside itself with restraint. The Chinese are patiently awaiting a request for comment.

Once again, let us remember that, first and foremost, a war is not about to break out.

The North would never wish for such an outcome. They know that they would lose handily inside of two or three days (read O'Hanlon and Mochizuki, 2003 for more on this).

And the South won't retaliate with anything resembling real force because they know that downtown Seoul would crumble inside of 180 minutes if the North felt that the end was near.

In other words, your sons and daughters serving in the military on the Korean peninsula, Korean or non, are in very little danger--especially when compared (fairly or otherwise) with the other hot-zones of the world. [Our thoughts and hearts go out to the family of the South Korean soldier that was killed by the most recent North Korean provocation.]

The North Korean dictatorial family is in the midst of a leadership baton-pass, and an international scuffle or two helps to shore up the military credentials of the most recent successor from the Kim family.

Daedonggang Beer with
N. Korea in the background.
Jong-un Kim (should be translated as Jeong-eun in English, by the way) is currently being ushered through the ranks of the People's Party so that he is well-positioned if and when his father's health forces him to step aside.

During my recent visit to the border--calmer times which will soon return, then lapse, then return once again--I enjoyed a couple bottles of North Korean beer not even half of a mile from the country where it was produced. And to my surprise, and delight, the beer was definitely worth a second sip.

It was an odd feeling to drink a "Daedonggang" (also spelled Taedonggang) beer while being able to actually see a small, nearly inactive, village where the people had likely never even seen the beverage that I was enjoying. Not that they would be able to afford it if they had. Soju is reportedly far cheaper and domestically preferable anyway, no matter how appetizing the local beer is.

From my vantage point, the North Korean landscape was bizarrely naked. Very little of the lush vegetation waving to the south was present just across the thin river to the north, and the skeletal, gulag-esque buildings were nearly the only insinuations of life available to the southernly eye. All the better to spot people who are trying to escape, apparently. The lifeless shade of brown of the crops to the north contrasted unfavorably with their irrigated neighbors just across the river to the southwest.

It was perhaps a miracle that the beer I was enjoying was as good as it was. Maybe I just benefited from a good batch. At any rate, a blind tasting would likely find three out of four South Korean beer fans choosing it over the local swill.

Let's hope the fresh-blooded North Korean leadership understands that North Korea's future can be secured by a deescalation of tensions and the emergence of a North Korean economy that doesn't depend on or extort outside goodwill. While "Daedonggang" beer isn't going to win any rice lager awards, it may just be a hint of where the time-locked half of the Korean Peninsula could go.


Sunday, November 14, 2010

Good Dentist in Tokyo

When was the last time you
had your teeth checked?
Update: (February 25th, 2012) A couple of people in the comments section have been to the clinic mentioned in this article since it was published, and it appears that the place now has new ownership. 

Lots of people are scared half to death of going to the dentist. The language barrier, the alleged tendency to draw treatments out over several visits, old school techniques (metal fillings)--all of these help ramp up the panic quotient when a non-Japanese feels that it's time to have a cleaning or a crown replaced.

But many expats in Japan wait until it's too late and the throbbing pain has spread from the lower hinge of the jaw to the upper. Count me as one of those people. I needed a root canal and quick, and I'm happy to report that I guessed correctly the first time on my choice of surgeon.

Dr. Naoko Freeman runs a dental clinic near Nishieifuku station on the Inokashira line between Meidaimae and Kichijoji stations.

The bit about treatments being drawn out over several treatments appears to be true, at least when Japanese health insurance is involved. But worries about communication (English and Japanese) and prehistoric equipment do not come into play.

The clinic is clean, modern,
simple and comfortable.
Here's how my treatment went:

Visit number one was on short notice. I was x-rayed, had my molar hollowed out and temporarily sealed, and sent on my way within 40 minutes.

The second visit was to check to make sure that the infection was completely gone and to replace the temporary filling with a slightly more robust cap. On my way in less than 30 minutes.

My third visit to see Dr. Freeman was over in about 15 minutes. More x-rays were included in this visit to make sure that the bottom part of the filling wasn't going to cause any problems. An impression was taken so the good folks at the lab could fashion a filling for me.

The fourth visit was when the ceramic filling was put into place and I was given the all-clear to eat hard food on the right side of my mouth again. The ceramic filling, which looks quite natural I must say, was not covered by national health insurance and the fourth visit cost me about ¥30,000. I actually paid for it ahead of time (at the end of my third visit), so I didn't pay anything when I went in for the fourth time.

I also went back a fifth time to have a couple of far smaller problem areas treated, but this was not related to the tooth that brought me there in the first place. This took about 30 minutes and cost less than ¥2,500 with insurance. Some of the visits cost less than ¥1,500.

Overall, I was impressed with the speed and professionalism of the dental services provided by Dr. Freeman and her staff. Communication is not an issue as the secretary can handle emergency calls, appointments and administration quite easily in English. Dr. Freeman herself spent part of her dentistry training in Australia, and is quite fluent in the English language.

Dr. Freeman's clinic can handle all of the regular cleaning, crown and filling procedures as well as root canals and other more invasive treatments. Her clinic also administers teeth-whitening procedures.

My one quibble is with the drawn-out nature of the treatment for my primary dental issue. I'm pretty sure that it would have been completed in fewer than four visits in other parts of the world although I do appreciate Dr. Freeman's desire to make sure that no bacteria from the root-hugging cavity had managed to survive the initial stages of treatment.

And I can't complain too much about the price. I've heard that it's possible to get a lot more dental work done at a clinic if you don't use national health insurance, but you pay heftily for such efficiency. As mentioned earlier, my most recent treatment in which two small areas of concern were drilled and sealed cost less than ¥2,500. Personally, I'm reasonably content to take the slow approach to dental therapy if the cost is going to be so low. I have no idea what such a treatment would cost in the states, but I imagine it's several times what I paid.

For those with easy access to the Inokashira Line in western Tokyo (Shibuya, Shinjuku, Meidaimae and Kichijoji stations are the major transfer stations in that area), Dr. Freeman's Nisheifuku clinic is recommended.

The clinic is the second door on the left after
reaching the second floor of the building.
Call 03-5378-2228 for an appointment.

Website here.

Tips: Nishieifuku is a local train stop. In other words, if you take a train from Kichijoji or transfer at Meidaimae, make sure that you catch a local (kakuekiteisha).

The map (scraped from the clinic's website) mentions a photo shop as a landmark (across the street from Lawson). However, that building has been demolished. Accurate as of November 2010.


Thursday, July 22, 2010

Ray Pellegrini "Reach for the Stars Scholarship" Golf Tourney Fundraiser

It's time for a Vermont reunion. We're headed back to the green mountains in the first half of August, and the fam has put together a golf tournament to help raise money for dad's scholarship.

If you're going to be in that part of the states, please come play a round with us (it's OK, I suck at golf, too). If you're really not into that sort of thing, then how about coming out for the BBQ that will accompany the sloppy golf?

All proceeds go to dad's scholarship which aims to send Vermont high school graduates to college (especially if they're the first in their family to go). So it's for a good cause, and there should be plenty of old faces there.

August 13th is the day, and my brother, Scott, is the point-man on this. Should be a good time! Please check the entry form for more details.