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Japanese overseas alt.energy investment news December 20, 2006

Posted by fukumimi in Energy, Japan.
1 comment so far

This type of investment does make sense, IMO.

NorSun AS, an Oslo, Norway-based solar energy company, has raised around $8.45 million in VC funding from Itochu Corp.

Looks like a monosilicon ingot and wafer manufacturer.

Norway has REC, the world’s largest polysilicon producer which IPO’d in the largest alt.energy IPO of 2006. (2005 sales of $400M, current market cap is NOK56B, or a shade under $10B (IPO market cap was $7.7B), and this was a company founded in 1996 and took on just $44.2M in VC money)

The compelling reason for PV silicon in Norway? Cheap, clean (hydroelectric) energy – silicon production is highly energy intensive, high quality silica (raw material), access to cheap and clean water – production of silicon is water intensive too, and increasingly, a concentration of people with domain expertise as the PV cluster grows.

Energy costs (and sources) mean that it makes little sense for PV silicon foundries to be located away from cheap hydroelectric electricity generation at this time.  Seems a lot better than producing silicon in China, which depends upon dirty coal powered generators to produce electricity (the product may be green, but the manufacturing process is likely to be a lot less greener than doing the energy intensive silicon production elsewhere – though I guess compelling reasons can be given for doing cell and module manufacturing in China).

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Why tax commission chairman Honma has to go December 19, 2006

Posted by fukumimi in Japan, Politics.
2 comments

PM Abe’s popularity ratings are trending downwards, as people begin to see that clear signs that he isn’t a Koizumi Mk2. (Not that a Koizumi Mk2 would be better, Mk1 was all talk and bluster, not much real action at all, despite the fighting words. But he did have the charisma to woo the electorate, and the electorate seemed happy with just being told that there would be changes, regardless of changes really occuring where it mattered, or not)

Abe’s LDP has reenlisted most of the party members who left as a result of opposing postal reform, and hasn’t offered a decent reason as to why they should be welcomed back into the fold, beyond getting signatures from the members who proclaim that they will not oppose the party line. With an election next year, both sides were keen to make up, but that is a really lame excuse as far as the electorate are concerned.

Anyway, another scandal is unfolding with Masaaki Honma, chairman of the tax commission and pro-business academic, who was found to be shacked up with his mistress in his luxury apartment, which was being paid for (or at least subsidised for) by taxpayers money.

It is bad enough that tens of thousands of (national and local) government employees (read pen-pushing bureaucrats) get huge housing subsidies on top of their well above average compensation packages. (I would say abolish them all) Honma’s residence was a top luxury floor flat in central Tokyo, and he was paying about $600/month. Commercial going rate? More like $4000.

I’m a realist (contrary to what some may believe) and I am well aware that marriages are not always permanent, and that infidelity does occur. However, someone brought into head up the tax commission really should have better judgement than to use goverment housing as a love nest. It also seems unbelieveably naive on the part of the government to get a person with issues to head up a highly visible body and put him up (at the taxpayers’ expense) in a luxury flat. Do we want people like Honma who clearly does not care about wasting taxpayers’ money on his own personal love nest in a position wielding power over tax policy? His lack of judgement cannot be excused away as a private issue. More to the point, do we want people with such poor judgement as to appoint people like Honma in power? (Not that I think the DPJ or any other existing political party in Japan is any better, I don’t. Peas in a pod, all of them)

Honma’s recommendations for tax reform are too short sighted and uniformly too pro-business.  He deliberately fails to mention the inevitable consumption tax rise which must occur in the near future. What we will see is a further disparity between economic indicators measuring corporate Japan’s health and indicators measuring the financial welfare of the Japanese population at large.

Of course, there is an election next spring, and we don’t want to discuss tax rises before an election, do we. Are the electorate so ignorant that they think not talking about tax rises is equivalent to a manifesto pledge not to carry out the rises? I have a sneaking suspicion that they are that dumb.

Problems with the amended consumer products safety law December 19, 2006

Posted by fukumimi in crime, Economy & Business, Japan.
1 comment so far

Following a rash of publicised incidents where products have failed in the field causing deaths and injuries, an amendment to the consumer products safety law has become law as of the 6th of December. The law requires reporting of all “serious” accidents within 10 days.

The problem with this law is that a serious accident is defined as an accident where death, injury (includes CO poisoning – has the Paloma and Matsushita incidents in mind) has to take place before companies are obliged file a report under the new guidelines.

Basically, unless physical injury or death has not occured, reporting is not required. This is exactly the situation which occured with the Sanyo/Mitsubishi Electric/NTT DoCoMo battery overheating incident, where the companies were aware of multiple cases of overheating batteries months ago but none of the 3 concerned parties publicised the problem until another overheating battery caused a physical injury in November.

The law should have been drafted to say (IMO) that serious accidents are accidents where death or physical injury are foreseeable consequences of an accident of a similar nature, caused by the same failure mode which is due to a manufacturing/design/lack of correct usage directions/warnings (all of which the company is rightly responsible for).

Decent corporations require reporting of “near-miss” incidents specifically because awareness of such incidents and addressing of same is a good way to prevent an accident where physical harm does arise. Such reporting does not prevent the injury or death of the person(s) involved in the accident for which the report is compiled. Is one death or injury a suitable threshold against which manufacturers and service providers should be held accountable? Personally I think the parties should be held to a stricter set of guidelines. A battery which may spontaneously explode or ignite sure seems to pose a foreseeable likelihood of death or injury in my book.

I don’t want to give an excuse to further swell the already bloated ranks of bureaucrats (and quangos employ retired bureaucrats). So a law which forces manufacturers and other parties to have a system in place to monitor near-miss accidents and deal with them in a objectively appropriate manner would seem to be a suitable middle ground.

Clearly, if a stupid individual sticks a knife in their ear canal or some other orifice, a company should not be liable (unless they were marketing their products to children as toys)….

Of course, decent companies probably do have reporting requirements in place. But with the list of companies who have a less than enthusiastic stance towards issuing mea culpas including some of the biggest names in Japanese industry, I cannot be comfortable with laws which continue to be drafted with the implicit assumption that human nature (and especially corporate nature) is fundamentally good.

The penalties are also laughable. 1 year imprisonment or JPY1M fine. I’m sure corporations are so worried about a $9,000 fine or a suspended sentence (if that) for its officers.

Paying for MySpace on mobile? December 19, 2006

Posted by fukumimi in Communications, Japan, Mobile.
5 comments

You gotta be kidding me.

MySpace & Cingular in new deal 

Mixi and Gree have virtually full functionality from any phone, on any network, without charge (OK, Mixi opened up messaging on phones just recently, but the other features were already available).

MySpace Japan isn’t going to be competitive without a free mobile offering…..

Another indication that both internet and mobile telco companies in the US don’t get it.

The walled garden subscription approach isn’t going to work. The mobile experience is inferior to the PC experience for sites like MySpace. Yet they charge for mobile and give access free to PC users…. OK…..

US (and Euro) mobile telcos and their partners have been poisoning the mobile internet experience for users. Talk about greedy bastards shooting themselves in the foot.

Remember, they can continue to make money on the data charges even if they open it up. They can even offer a two tier approach like the carriers in Japan. Everyone needs to realise that the mobile web will not be identical to the PC web. The message is certainly being understood here in Japan.

au My Page – Mobile personalized homepages and data storage in the sky for the masses is already here December 19, 2006

Posted by fukumimi in Communications, Internet, Japan, Mobile.
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Not being an au/KDDI subscriber, I haven’t had the opportunity to try this, but My Page is a new (free) service launched by the #2 Japanese mobile telco which provides homepage personalisation, on-line data storage (photos and mail) and with both PC/mobile access. No syncing is currently provided, but they give you a full 100Mb of storage, which is probably plenty for most users. Basically, 20million+ users have the capability to access these services already. (depending on the phone you have, the range of functionality which can be used will vary)

My Page also provides some tools like calendar, photo album, blog, SNS, local search, all accessible from both mobile and PC. Search is provided by Google, of course.

DoCoMo has offered a similar service (but with SyncML based syncing of data between handset and server), but it costs (albeit just 100 yen a month) and only provides 4Mb storage. Because this is an extra service, I strongly suspect that user numbers are way lower than on au.

With the vast majority of phones having closed operating systems and with the carriers controlling the handset feature set, one might suspect that this would lead to a stifling of innovation. However, this market shows emphatically that this is not necessarily the case.

It is fine for independent software companies to produce mobile apps (and good luck to them), but for the average user, having to download applications is a turn-off and this leads to a substantial adoption barrier (bar the tech-savvy early adopter crowd).

The evolution of the mobile internet market in Japan is obviously different from that of the US (and virtually every other geography where internet connectivity is mainstream). The Japanese mobile internet market (and without a strict walled garden approach, I think the use of the term “internet” is appropriate here) evolved nearly concurrently with mainstream internet adoption on the PC platform.

Indeed, many users had their first taste of the internet on their phones, using i-mode or ezweb or JSky (as it was then, back in the J-Phone days). Japanese mobile users have had internet email access as default for years. No-one thinks twice about sending email from/to a PC from a phone, or vice-versa.

Whereas in the US (and elsewhere), the PC internet came first, and wireless is still barely there. It seems that the US mobile model can’t shake loose the memory of the way things unfolded on the PC. And why are we still stuck with SMS (I say this as a UK mobile phone user)???

In a comparison between the “closed” Japanese model, and the “open” US/European model, from a functionality perspective (and prices aren’t outrageous either), the Japanese model seems to have delivered more to users, faster, more efficiently (and created more successful mobile internet companies and IPOs).

And I put this down to the fact that the Japanese market did not yet have a “successful” PC model to copy, and the fact that the mobile telcos were more aware of their strong position and were able to position themselves at the center of the value chain, holding all the cards.

Also perhaps to the fact that users were perhaps more comfortable with the idea of a handset being an integrated unit (hardware, OS, applications, connectivity) rather than having an implicit expectation of being able to add applications as one would expect in the PC paradigm.

Anyway, this is a roundabout way of saying that, whilst I extend my best wishes for the dozens of ventures who are building mobile apps, I’d like to see a single example of a standalone application model which has worked in the mobile arena. And by worked, I mean penetration of the mass market, not a few thousand technophile early adopters.
For without a doubt, the mobile internet model is already a resounding success in Japan (many users use their phones to access data than to make phone calls), and stuff like mobile advertising (which relies on a mobile internet content ecosystem to get off the ground) is really old news.

I can see that mobile telcos elsewhere appear to be less than enthusiastic about opening up their systems (even with an open content approach, the telcos would still make good money on communication charges), but seeing how people like DoCoMo and au(KDDI) seem to be doing fine, isn’t it about time that all players involved in the mobile game wake up and think about what is best for the consumers? If it means a shift in power balance, so be it – although looking at the strategies of the mobile telcos elsewhere, there are companies who really need to get with the programme and stop thinking like legacy telcos and approach mobile differently.

It is clear that compared to the US and Europe, mobile users in Japan are clear winners – and mobile businesses and investors haven’t done badly either.

Horiemon blames others for his predicament December 15, 2006

Posted by fukumimi in crime, Politics.
3 comments

From the FT (subscription required):

Takafumi Horie, the spiky-haired internet tycoon who once bragged he could buy Sony but is now fighting fraud charges in a Tokyo court, has unleashed a comprehensive attack on the Japanese establishment and what he calls the “jealous elite of old Japan”.

In his first interview with the foreign media since his spectacular downfall in January, the former Livedoor president was defiant, blaming a cabal of powerful bureaucrats and media figures for creating the “mood of resentment” that led to his arrest.

He goes on to say that Japan appears to be an egalitarian society on the surface but the system resembles communism.

I think Horie will find that a “mood of resentment” is insufficient cause for getting arrested. Whilst I would agree that he was targetted by the authorities, he brought that on himself, and it is hard to believe on the reported evidence that he and his buddies did not engage in unfair (and illegal) activities for which the group are rightfully being brought to justice. Rule #1 when you are about to piss off some powerful enemies – Make sure there aren’t any skeletons in your closet.

Any half intelligent individual would know that if they sought to displace the cozy business and political elite, the enemy would be up for a fight. In any case, he seemed fine with cozying up to the elite as he climbed his way to fame and fortune, and his disingenous histrionics come across like the bitching of a jilted ex-lover. To be fair, the way the incumbent elite first fawned over Horie and Livedoor and then dumped him like a cheap whore is no better. The two groups seemed so perfect for eachother.

In any case, looking back at the timeline of events, the alleged criminal activities seem to stem from after the time after Horie had hit the big time. My guess is he thought that he was already part of the cabal, with the cozying up with Koizumi and gushing praise from other members of the LDP, and could get away with a few indiscretions as he felt others in priviledged positions in Japan seem to get away with so often.
He appeared to be someone who actually wanted to be part of the cozy club he now has the cheek to denouce so voiciferously.

Still, he has a point about egaliterianism and communism in Japan. Japan is famous for the self-perception of much of the population as being “middle class”. Self-perception is one thing, reality another. The homogenisation strategies have made class a relatively obscure concept for the common people of Japan. If you look closely though, you’ll see definite class boundaries. They aren’t nearly so apparent as they are in most other nations though, and even many Japanese fail to recognise the glass ceiling projected by the class barriers. The class barrier is easily mistaken for differentiation/discrimination based on educational background, but there are actually two factors at play here, albeit with considerable overlap. (More about the bizzare stories relating to Japanese education in another post)

As far as communism is concerned, when defined as the structure as exemplified by the actual “communist” states of USSR or China – more accurately a hybrid form of state and corporate capitalism, he’s right on the money.

If any group of people had the right mindset to embrace “communism”, it is probably the Japanese. No wonder the US tried so hard to prevent it falling under Soviet influence at the end of WW2.

Indeed, it is ironic that history resulted in Japan belonging nominally to the capitalist/democratic first world, and China to the communist bloc. It would seem that if the roles were reversed, the countries would have had political systems which were actually more suited to their national psyche…. One nation who has about 4 millenia of history as an entrepreneurial trading nation, the other, a nation whose populace seemed content with a rigid caste system and worshipping of a head of state who they considered – until just 60 years ago – as god embodied in a human body. (admittedly, that was just the common folk, the educated elite knew how to exploit the situation and look where that got us)

Burger King to return to Japan December 15, 2006

Posted by fukumimi in Food and Drink, Japan.
9 comments

Adamu @ Mutant Frog reports that the Nikkei Newspaper is reporting the return of Burger King.

It’s the same Lotte and Revamp combination (Lotte will take a majority stake), which brings us Krispy Kreme, whose first store opened in Shinjuku this morning.

Lotte has its own Lotteria hamburger chain (which isn’t particularly great IMO), and it looks like Burger King will be priced higher than Lotteria.

Adamu says 700 yen for a “meal”, which is a bit higher than the prices at McDonalds, which are typically about 10 to 20% lower, and 30-40% higher than Lotteria.

It’ll be competing with the local Mos Burger and Freshness Burger chains at the price point targetted. Mos Burger is my favorite fast food hamburger chain. Although for really good burgers in Tokyo, I recommend Brozers in Ningyocho (around the corner from where I live, actually).

700yen is nearly $6, but it is a lot cheaper than Burger King in the UK, from memory. But then everything in the UK seems to be outrageously expensive these days….

Winny developer found guilty December 13, 2006

Posted by fukumimi in crime, Internet, IT, Japan, law.
1 comment so far

Isamu Kaneko, the developer who created Winny, the Japanese P2P file swapping application, has been found guilty of aiding and abetting violations of the copyright act, and fined JPY1.5M (a little over $10k). He says he will be appealing.

Given that Ikeda was a public critic of the current system of copyright, and that he is said to have stated that something needed to be done to bring the copyright system down, this appears to be a major motivation in the development of the anonymous P2P application. Mens rea would appear to be obvious if he did indeed make statements to this effect in the period leading up to and during the development of the application.
If Ikeda had stated that the software was intended to provide anonymity to its users to protect freedom of speech, the prosecution would have had a much more difficult case to prove.

I cannot agree with software industry supporters of Ikeda who are claiming this ruling will stifle software innovation in Japan. They are claiming this ruling will lead to talent fleeing offshore. (I think they’ll find that the long arm of the Japanese law provides for jurisdiction over criminal acts committed overseas by Japanese nationals anyway, so unless people want to live in self-imposed exile overseas, moving overseas temporarily to commit criminal offenses isn’t going to work – additionally, the statute of limitations is suspended when the fugitive is out of the country, so it isn’t a matter of waiting until the statute of limitations expires)

P2P technologies and anonymization technologies are not illegal per se, and this current ruling does not change the situation at all. I wish the public discussion concentrated on the crux of the case which revolves around the intent behind the development of the application, which in this case seems fairly clear.
The fact that many of the public comments made by figures associated with the software industry gloss over the crux of the issue and try to argue over peripheral or general issues seems to indicate a lack of understanding or a deliberate attempt at clouding the issue.

First Krispy Kreme store in Japan opens this friday December 13, 2006

Posted by fukumimi in Food and Drink, Japan.
5 comments

Krispy Kreme‘s first Japanese store opens in Shinjuku this Friday (15th December). The website has a countdown thing going.

As I’ve written before, Lotte and Revamp are behind the Japanese franchise roll out.

I guess there’ll be queues like when the NY Donut Plant and Cinnabon first came to town.

Hopefully they will open some more stores elsewhere soon, as I am not about to queue just to buy some doughnuts.

I think the right strategy for Japan is a similar approach to the strategy adopted for the UK, where they have small stalls at stations and airports and the like, as well as cabinets in supermarkets (there was one in the local Tesco), with a smattering of larger retail stores (like the one in Harrods).

Motorola Razr on NTT DoCoMo December 12, 2006

Posted by fukumimi in electronics, Japan, Mobile.
5 comments

Going on sale on thursday (December 14th) is the DoCoMo version of the Motorola RAZR, designated M702iS in DoCoMo-speak. Available in “Hot Pink”, as well as black and silver. It isn’t as slim as the Softbank XS707SC which went on sale last week (which is just 11.9mm thick), but it is the slimmest DoCoMo phone at 14.9mm thick.

People who are familiar with DoCoMo model numbers will see the phone is part of the lower end 70x series, which means it lacks a high res digital camera (only 1.3 Megapixels) and embedded FeLiCa (for contactless payments via Edy, Suica, iD, etc) which are available on 90x series phones. The DoCoMo-RAZR is however the only 70x series phone which will allow global roaming, at least in areas with a W-CDMA network.