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Rakuten launches English language site (sort of) December 18, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in Economy & Business, Internet, Japan.

Rakuten, Japan’s largest on-line shopping mall, has launched an English language service.

Sort of.

The top page has been translated, but that’s it. Not very useful, really.

Rakuten has previously announced that it is setting its sights on overseas expansion, and I guess this is the first tiny step in that direction.

But is this the right way to go about it? English language users might stumble upon the English site, and will quickly see that the rest of the site is not translated. And they will likely never return. First impressions count, and I feel this particular piecemeal approach will be counterproductive.I’m sure they’re currently dealing with the backend fulfilment and logistics issues, and they probably wanted to show some visible signs that they are indeed planning to target non-Japanese audiences. A cynic might say this is an IR play.

New English language Japan tech blog opens December 14, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in blogosphere, Japan.

Asiajin launched yesterday, claiming it the first English language blog written by Japanese authors dedicated to “Web Services/Companies/People Reports from Asia”.

I guess I could claim some obscure niche first for myself too, if I were to insert multiple qualifiers. lol

Anyway, being serious for a moment, I think it is a good thing for the Japanese tech community, providing for overseas exposure, given how little effort is made to address the market outside of Japan by most Japanese emerging tech companies. The fact that one of the co-authors is somewhat of a high profile blogger in Japan might give it a bit of an advantage starting out.

I do hope that the authors whose names are attached to the posts do continue to write their own posts. There are instances of blogs (which shall remain nameless, at least for now) which were originally penned by one person but have (without any disclosure) become group efforts with the owner farming out the writing to ghost writers. Not that the Japanese internet and blogosphere are renowned for their integrity….

I’ll withhold any extensive critique on Asiajin’s content until they hit their stride, but the content available thusfar is ho hum. Not much actual commentary or analysis.

So we now have blognation Japan (although what will happen to that is uncertain, given the recent troubles at blognation HQ) and Asiajin, two different English language perspectives on Japanese tech.

Good luck to them.

Looking back at my original reason for starting this public blog a couple of years ago, I too hoped that I would be able to cover interesting Japanese tech, more than I actually do at present. I guess the bottom line for me was that I found little which was really worthy of exposure.

English language blogs posting “serious” content beyond lightweight (sometimes copyright infringing) content scraped from other sources gives me more material to build on. A part of me hopes these blogs will be positive cheerleader blogs so that I can present an alternative angle…..

The Chief Cabinet Secretary on the pensions issue December 11, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in Japan, Politics.
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Nobutaka Machimura, Chief Cabinet Secretary in Yasuo Fukuda’s current cabinet, finally comes clean about the promise the LDP gave to voters ahead of the election (which they lost anyway).


We didn’t mean that every last case was to be completed by the end of March, but it was an election so we said that “we will complete it all by the end of the financial year”.

Oh, OK then.

That is a pretty staggering admission, though.

If that is’t a clear confession of an attempt to mislead the electorate (which failed miserably anyway), I don’t know what is.

I suggest that the people within the cabinet who made the commitments take responsibility, and not in the typically Japanese “I will take responsibility by persevering and delivering on my original promise (albeit with a grossly revised schedule)” fashion.

If the media had any balls (and weren’t in bed with the political circus), they’d drag up every instance of footage they have of LDP members during the election campaign insisting that they would get the problem resolved by March, and call for all their heads.

There is one critical difference between being a political commentator talking head on TV and being the Minister for Health, Labour and Welfare. The public expects accountability in the latter, especially when making bold promises. (In an ideal world, the former would also be held accountable for their words too, and we’d see much less of clueless idiots like Norio Minorikawa (Mino Monta for people watching TV), but I don’t see that happening any time soon)

We may see an election sooner than most pundits thought, although the thought of the inept (and in-fighting) DPJ coming to power, backed by conservative trade unions (in Japan that isn’t an oxymoron…) isn’t likely to produce much of a change in my book.

Global Warming Summit December 6, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in Energy, Environment, Travel.

No, I’m not in Bali.

Unlike approximately 10,000 participants (from 190 countires) of said UN summit on global warming.

Anyone see the irony of transporting all those people by plane to a resort island to discuss global warming? I won’t deny that there are cases where face-to-face meetings are invaluable if not absolutely necessary, but 10,000 people???

How long will it take the Japanese media to report Dentsu’s US sexual harassment lawsuit November 2, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in Japan, Media.
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Gen has many of the links on his post.

The lawsuit makes for interesting reading. It’ll be interesting to see how Dentsu and the defendants answer the charges in court.

I’m not really sure the why the plaintiff had to make a fuss about his trip to the onsen/sento in Japan, though. Prior notice was probably appropriate, but to put a sexual harassment spin on public bathing in Japan is really bizarre.

(Although to be fair, if the defendant exploited the fact that his American colleagues were not familiar with Japanese public bathing facility protocol and denied them the opportunity to avail themselves of a “modesty towel” whilst he himself did and thereby put them in a situation where they had to parade around completely naked, that would be inappropriate)

I wonder if the plaintiff has ever sued his sports club for the fact that the showers and changing room facilites are communal, too……

I find it mildly offensive that is put on the same level as being forced to go to a brothel, or taking up-skirt panty shots of tennis stars or photographing women in swimwear without their consent.

And the claim that “the plaintiff was fired in part because he is Jewish” which appears twice, is a bit of a stretch. There is no account of any racial discrimination in the filing.

Regardless, the comments attributed to the defendant, if they are true, are deeply offending. Having double penetration sex is certainly not a way in which this particular Japanese business man commemorates business dealings. Maybe it is at Dentsu, who am I to know.

The thing that most interests me is how long it will take the Japanese mainstream media to report this court case, and how much attention they will give it.

Remember just a few months ago, when a senior Toyota executive was sued for sexual harrassment, and even Toyota’s advertising purchase power was not enough to prevent the case from making it on to the TV with talking heads criticizing the indiscretion of said executive.

Dentsu however has historically been able to minimize the exposure of its dirty laundry. A few years ago, a senior Dentsu employee was arrested for indecent sexual assault on a train. (OK, he was arrested for groping a woman and the Japanese laws being what they are, don’t give out harsh enough penalties for what is plainly indecent sexual assault, and he was probably charged and fined according to the usual watered down statue the police press for such gropers) None of the TV stations (nor many of the newspapers) reported the person’s name, in contrast to many such cases committed by other people working for companies with less influence over the media.

Mixi to join the OpenSocial bandwagon? November 2, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in Internet, Japan, Media, technology.

The Nikkei is reporting that Mixi, Japan’s largest SNS is jumping on the OpenSocial bandwagon.

No official announcement from either Mixi or Google as of noon on Friday Japan time, even though the MySpace announcement  also mentioned in the Nikkei article is the subject of a release from Google.

The Mixi tie-up, if it does materialize, would be an interesting development, given Mixi’s dominant position within the Japanese SNS scene.

Whilst I think opening up is great for users, and is the only way “also rans” can hope to compete with dominant players, it is interesting to see someone in the position that Mixi is in embracing the concept.

Japanese journalist killed in Burma (or should that be Myanmar…. hmmm) September 28, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in Politics.

[Update 9/28. see link in Durf’s comment to see what stray fire looks like in Myanmar. The Japanese government will “lodge a protest”. Pathetic, as usual]

So, the Japanese news is running reports that a Japanese cameraman was killed in Rangoon (or should that be Yangon). The official reports from Burmese (Myanmarese?) authorities say that they found some bodies including that of the Japanese cameraman with gunshot wounds. “Stray fire”, allegedly.

I’m thinking it is not likely that the average Buddhist monk protestor is packing a piece.

On the other hand, it isn’t unheard of for authorities to “accidentally” shoot media personnel. By firing a HEAT round from a 120mm smoothbore at a hotel, or using a Galil or Mauser or similar, for example. (Or A-10 Thunderbolt II’s firing AGM-65 Maverick guided air to ground missiles at TV stations) I suspect the Burmese military junta’s thugs police and riot squad are even more liberal with their use of firearms if they think no-one is watching…

Anyway, it is interesting to note the fact that the Japanese press refer to the country as Myanmar, whilst the British and US press prefer to stick with Burma, in apparent protest at the fact that it was the military junta who insituted the name change. Japan was of course one of the first nations to recognise the military junta.

In contrast to the widespread public pressure in Europe and the US targetting companies with activities in Burma, there doesn’t seem to be a similar awareness in Japan. Part of this maybe due to the historically close ties between the two nations but is probably for the most part another indication of the closeness of ties between political and business interests in Japan, aided and abetted by the media, of course….. Japanese companies usually hide behind the excuse that politics is for the government and politicians to deal with and that they defer to government policy regarding foreign relations. Given the Japanese government is less than forceful in its foreign policy, that is a nice cop-out. A representative sample of Japanese companies with a Burmese presence is here(Mitsui, Marubeni, Suzuki, Fujitsu, Tasaki Shinju are named). It is far from a comprehensive list, other major trading companies (Mitubishi Corp, Sojitz) are also there or have found creative ways to make money from Burma related business (eg Mitsubishi Corp selling goods to French oil company Total for its exploration business in Burma but insisting it is working with Total HQ in France), and the big one missing is Nippon Oil Corporation. I do understand the argument against economic sanctions (it hurts the downtrodden innocent general population before it hurts the ruling class…etc), but when was the last time providing non-democratic governments with a financial lifeline made these people turn around and see the light? And no-one seems to have an issue with boycotting corporations. Is there such a fundamental difference?

Kicking Away the Ladder September 15, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in Economy & Business, History.
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(Something I had begun writing more than a month ago and was sitting in my drafts folder)

For people who are interested in the hows and whys of historical successes in economic development, and especially the impact of foreign trade and the conditions thereof (and who isn’t?), this piece in the Independent is a good place to start.

If that piques your interest, Ha-Joon Chang’s “Kicking Away the Ladder” itself is also a good read.

Of course, economic development of entire nations does not rise or fall on just one issue, however given the fairly one-sided debate (discounting the failed economic models which continue to have religious adherents) which conveniently glosses over significant historical facts, it is heartening to see a piece in the mainstream press (albeit in the Indy which many may(!) consider left of centre) which challenges the dogma that a strict form of free market capitalism is the best model for the economic development of a developing nation (especially in a highly assymetric environment with powerful external forces), and might persuade some people to dig into the matter in more detail.

When I first read Kicking Away the Ladder, what struck me most was the (re-)realization that formal history education is sorely lacking. People harp on about how the Japanese education system’s history text books are inaccurate (or gloss over awkward issues), but I certainly saw little evidence of any attempt at tackling the multi-dimensional nature of historical events in any of the other attempts at taught history in any other country either.

British media on Abe and post-Abe September 15, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in Japan, Politics.
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Gen writes:

“This is just embarrassing:
British newspapers call for dynamic PM, slam Abe’s record

British newspapers were united Thursday in their calls for Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party to appoint a reforming and dynamic leader following Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s abrupt resignation on Wednesday.

All agreed Abe’s performance had been poor on the domestic front but commended his rapprochement with China and South Korea.

The Times was particularly strong in its criticism of Abe. It claimed that following his party’s defeat in recent upper house elections, he brought back the Old Guard into the Cabinet. This showed Abe was still tied to the old system of factions and political dynasties which has held Japan back previously. It states the fact that Aso is seen as a favorite to succeed Abe shows that the LDP has not really changed.

Well, if they want someone to continue the apparent thaw with China, Fukuda is the man (although he does look a bit like an orang-utang. I do like his wry sense of humour, and he certainly has more depth than Abe, not that that is a challenge).

Given my recent conjecture regarding Koizumi’s growing influence, it should be mentioned that Koizumi and Fukuda have a long history, and despite the apparent distance between them in recent years, Koizumi did his political apprenticeship under Takeo Fukuda, Yasuo’s father, and it should be no surprise to see Koizumi endorse Fukuda this time around. (Note however, that Koizumi’s sidekick Iijima and Fukuda don’t get along, hence Iijima tendering his resignation to Koizumi apparently in protest at Koizumi’s support of Fukuda)

As for The Times’ insightful commentary regarding Abe’s ties to the old system…. Duh. It would have been surprising to see Abe, from a blueblood political dynasty, do any different, regardless of rhetoric about moving on from the post-war regime. The only thing Abe/LDP and Ozawa/DPJ share is a wish to move to a two party system. That would be great if the two parties reflected genuine choices….

Of course, neither Aso or Fukuda are likely to be any different on this matter, both of them again being hereditary politicians.

Aso and Abe are of course distant relatives (Aso’s aunt married the cousin of Abe’s grandfather and great-uncle). Abe’s grandfather was PM Kishi, whose brother Eisaku Sato was also PM. Aso’s father-in-law was PM Zenko Suzuki, and both ex-PM Kiichi Miyazawa (Aso and Miyazawa’s cousin both married PM Suzuki’s children) and ex-PM Ryutaro Hashimoto (whose wife’s grandfather was the brother of Abe’s paternal grandmother) are also connected. That makes it 6 prime ministers in that (very) extended family.

Lest it be forgotten, Aso’s youngest sister married into the Imperial Household and is now Princess Nobuko. Another interesting fact- Taro Aso is roman catholic, due to the influence of his grandmother (whose influence also led to Shigeru Yoshida converting just prior to his death – Yoshida had a roman catholic funeral as well as a state funeral along more traditional Japanese lines), and his younger sister went to a finishing school in Kent with roman catholic ties….

Anyway, a choice quote from the Guardian piece:

“[…] Japan also needs a leader who can straddle the world stage.

Mr Aso is unlikely to be such a man. His favourite subject is talking about manga comic books.”

Really? Aso, whilst certainly prone to foot in mouth disease, and apparently not a man of tact or subtlety, at least in public, he has been Foreign Minister and has more international exposure than most Japanese politicians. He has a decent command of English (at least good enough for reading speeches).

He spent time at both Stanford and the London School of Economics as a postgraduate. He never did finish his masters degree at either. It is reputed that he was forced by his maternal grandfather to quit Stanford and move to the UK. His grandfather apparently visited him when Taro was at Stanford, and was distraught that he was picking up an American accent Apparently his grandfather told his mother to tell Taro to move to the UK immediately. LOL.

So, having moved on to the LSE, he again was ordered back to Japan before he could finish his studies.

Aso recalls this series of events in a recent speech.

Aso’s maternal grandfather is ex-PM Shigeru Yoshida, of course.

If Koizumi’s tenuous connections to the University of London are such a big deal and qualifies him as some sort of globally minded politician, Aso actually studying at Stanford and LSE as a postgrad certainly qualifies him to at least the same degree.

Anyway, none of this matters, because it seems that Fukuda is a certainty for the top job, unless someone can find some juicy scandal before the 23rd.

How long will the PV venture funding boom continue? September 14, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in Economy & Business, Energy, Japan, Overseas.
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Lots of and lots of money being ploughed into photovoltaics at the moment, especially hot is non-Si thin film solar. Nanosolar, Heliovolt, Miasole, Solyndra, DayStar, the list goes on. Each one has raised tens of millions of $ of VC financing. Most of these non-Si PV companies are doing CIGS (Cu-In-Ga-Se) thin films or variations thereof, but it seems things are not going to plan in the world of thin film solar ventures. Lots of reported management changes, including this latest one, but the money keeps pouring in.

It appears the companies are finding the transition from the lab to factory a bit more difficult than they had imagined.

To be fair, First Solar (NASDAQ:FSLR)seems to be doing great, recently closing a $1B+ deal with EdF. (Current market cap $7.2B) They have a different technology, based on a CdTe thin film process.

Meanwhile, Si-based PVs keep on being cranked out, and the supply side issues for Si are being addressed with PV grade Si production ramping up.

Of course, some people are further along the path to mass production CIGS-type PV cell production. Whilst Japan is recognized as a significant player in Si PV production, the competition to the thin film PV ventures from Japanese interests have not really been convered in much detail (the cleantech community seems aware of these Japanese players, but the investment community seems to prefer to pretend this competition does not exist). You see statements like this from the above CNET article –

“CIGS aren’t in mass manufacturing yet anywhere and cracking that problem is proving tricky. There are several companies trying to bring products out and each has a slightly different manufacturing technique.”

Honda Soltec, a 100% subsidiary of Honda Motor Company, has been selling CIGS modules since June 2007. Soltec’s manufacturing facility is currently just 27.5MW/yr, but it is expected that Honda will ramp up as large scale manufacturing techniques are validated.

Showa Shell also announced that they are building a second factory to produce CIS based modules adding a further 60MW/yr to the current 20MW/yr from their first factory which began operations last year.

Both companies have years/decades of R&D behind them, and they have immense resources in manufacturing at their disposal. I know what kind of company I would bet on to succeed in the lab to mass production transition, all else being equal. (My investment thesis focuses on this qualifier. There are plenty of areas for improvement in the current state of the art in thin film manufacturing)

Interesting to note, both companies have their PV factories in Kyushu. Kyushu, which was already dubbed Silicon Island due to its strength in the semiconductor sector (major players with production facilities include Sony, Toshiba, Mitsubishi Electric, Rohm, Toyoda Gosei, TI Japan,Canon, Kyocera, Renesas, NEC, AKM, Matushita, Yamaha, Pioneer) is rapidly becoming photovoltaic island as well, with Honda Soltec and Showa Shell being joined by players such as Fuji Electric and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (both a-Si manufacturers), and SUMCO recently announcing that they are building a new PV silicon wafer plant in Imari with a n equivalent capacity of 300MW/yr.