Sunday, December 28, 2008

Fat Cat West Village

New York City reviewed: Fat Cat - Christopher street and 7th avenue

Went to a place call Fat Cat's. It's a hard place to describe. They don't serve fancy liquor, only beer and soft drinks so it's not really a bar. They have live jazz but the listeners are white NYU college students sitting around velvet couches eating pizza brought in from the outside. It might make it a jazz venue, but one that I wouldn't recognize. Oh, also the place is in a basement and half of it is dedicated to billiards, ping-pong, and chess tables. They have a strange music selection there. When they have a live act it's generally an experimental jazz-funk trio whose erratic and impromptu play you'd only expect to find nowhere except at a jazz hole in the depths of the west village. When they're not on the soundtrack switches from punk rock to classical to Indian sitar music.

The crowd is equally confusing. It's somewhere a mix of artsy hat wearing NYU kids, white afro jazz aficionados, greasy pool sharks, and the angrily-focused bearded chess players you see at the park.

There's something cool about a place that clearly grew organically - as in - you go into Fat Cats today and you think there was no way any of this was drawn up in the business plan. I first went to Fat Cats in 2005. Back then, the billiards and ping-pong and the jazz club were separated by a wall as if they were two separate venues that just happened to share the same entrance. On one side of the wall it was like a sweaty gym basement. On the other, a dusky club with black and white photos of jazz musicians. Before that time people tell me that it was just a regular standard billiards hall in a basement.

New York is a funny place. Fat Cats went from a place where you played pool, to a place where you played pool and you could listen to live jazz, to a place where you could play pool WHILE you listened to live jazz along with all the artifacts of a weird social experiment gone wonderfully wrong attached. Businesses evolve in New York and it's not the "McDonald's has coffee" kind of evolution. It's more like business owners have friends with different passions and things just sort of had a weird way of working out kind of evolution. It's fun to see.

I'm not so sure exactly how many people there are in the ping-pong / chess / jazz / beer crowd - but then - this is New York. There's a niche for everything.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Odometer 996

Saw this in my mom's car. If you notice the trip odometer is all the way at 996 - 4 more miles and it resets. I've never had the will-power to let it wind all the way forward.

Monday, November 10, 2008

LOVE: Episode I

Anakin is the chosen one - the boy prophesized by the Jedi to bring balance to the force. However, along the way unfortunate events intervene. Though his Jedi powers are great they are of no use as his mother is slaughtered by vicious sand people inhabiting the outer-rim planet of Tatooine. Dreams of losing his wife - Padme Amidala - haunt him as the evil emperor seduces young Anakin with tales of the dark side. He promises him limitless power. He promised him a way to reverse the course of his soon-to-be-dead wife.

When Episode III was released I wondered how George Lucas was going to turn Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader. It's hard to maintain suspense when everyone knows how it's going to end. While I won't defend Lucas' story-telling abilities (wait ... he goes from reluctant Jedi to child-slaughtering Sith in 10 minutes?) there's something genuinely profound about the fall of Anakin Skywalker.

How does a farmer boy meant to embody light and innocence transform into the cowboy-western-esque man in the black hat - a man of darkness and cruelty. Let me stop and take that in for a second. That is an abjectly powerful philosophical question. You might as well ask where do bad people in the world come from? Hitler, Stalin, Tony Danza. Is evil merely a perception of differing perspectives or is the devil within us? Is he hiding? What the Anakin-Vader transformation asks is this: how does a good man become bad?

Never short on subtlety Lucas answers this in a conversation Anakin has with the great Jedi master Yoda:

YODA: Careful you must be when sensing the future, Anakin. The fear of loss is a path to the dark side.

ANAKIN: I won't let my visions come true, Master Yoda.

YODA: Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them, do not. Miss them, do not. Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed, that is.

ANAKIN: What must I do, Master?

YODA: Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.

What led to Anakin's downfall was a flaw in his character but one that we can all relate to - fear of losing that which we love. The relationship is systemic. The more Anakin loves Padme the more his fear grows. The more his fear grows the more he is consumed by the power of the dark side.

While I don't follow religion, I do follow Star Wars and so this got me to thinking -

Could it be that the root of all evil is .... love?

The answer of course is yes. The problem we have though is love is the root of all good and so far as humanity is concerned we're really up shit's creek on this one.

If you're a female reader of this blog or you just look like a woman, you'll be happy to know that I'll be devoting the next few posts on the topic of love. As a dude who hasn't had a steady girlfriend for upwards of two years don't expect Cosmo/Maxim writing meant to help you "get that guy/girl/transgender homeboy". Mostly it'll be wrist-slittingly™ geeky commentary on a topic I think about as I gaze at German school children (see last post). With luck I'll find a new way to depress and bore you each time.

Tune in!

Wednesday, November 05, 2008


In one more month it'll be two years since I moved out of the United States.

Autumn is lovely in Frankfurt. There's something about the way the leaves turn an earthen red and the air gets just brisk enough to wake you up. The neighborhood I live in is quiet and residential and it reminds me of the town I grew up in New Jersey. Every day I walk to work and I pass by this elementary school. I see the kids riding their bikes with their little backpacks as their school day starts. Today deja vu happened upon me. It was like I was watching myself out there. I don't know much but I do know this: today, two years sank in.

When I was a kid one of my favorite movies was a Tom Hanks film called "Big". If you've never seen it Tom Hanks plays a kid who grows up in the suburbs of New Jersey and wishes he could be an adult. He gets his wish and for a while it's great - he parties, he eats what he wants, he scores a hot girlfriend. But at a certain point Tom wishes he could be a kid again. He visits the town he fled, and looks at it, this time through the eyes of an adult on a brisk autumn day. He sees the life he's missing out on - football games, class pictures, riding bikes through tree lined streets as autumn leaves whisp gently onto the pavement.

They shot that movie about 20 miles from my town. "Big" kinda looks a lot like where I grew up - which is to say it looks a lot like where I live now. When I see these kids in Frankfurt, it's somewhere between going back in time and watching a movie and it captivates me and I stare watery-eyed. Eventually the BMW behind me honks it's horn and the driver starts yelling at me in German. Reality hits me like a coffee table on the shins. I live in a foreign country far away from home. I move on.

Everything is so weirdly familiar here - it messes with my brain.

I'm homesick. It comes and it goes but something about this time of year really makes me want to be home. I'm not proud of this. I've spent a lot of the past two years mocking Americans who have never left the country. I also have this self-image of myself as this international guy - born Japanese, raised in America, educated in Europe, worked all over the world. Another word for someone like me might be "multi-national". Another word might be "arrogant dick".

It's times like these when I see those kids on the street here in Frankfurt two things run through my brain: one - I hope no one mistakes me for a pervert, and two - no matter how hard I try I'm always going to be from New Jersey.

Which is not actually a good thing. New Jersey is often regarded as the armpit of America. This mostly has to do with the physical shape of the United States. If the north-eastern coast looked like a great arm extending out into the Atlantic, then Main would be the torch of freedom. New Jersey would be where the sweat glands are. We people from New Jersey cling to our sports like testicles to a scrotum. We have a daily paper whose sports section is bigger than the rest combined. The irony is, none of them are our sports teams. They're all from New York. Great.

I don't care. I miss New Jersey. It's where my heart is. I feel like Tom Hanks - like a kid who grew up too fast and wishes he could go home. I wonder if I'm the first person in history to feel this emotion.


Monday, November 03, 2008

I caught the Stockholm syndrome

I've spent the past week in Stockholm and I got to say I liked it very much.  Before going there all I knew about the Swedes was that they were blond, peaceful, and they named their children after IKEA furniture.  OK, maybe it's the other way around, but honestly what sane person names their child Tjörn? 


I found Stockholm to be a lovely city.  The people are educated, laid back and terribly attractive.  One thing that surprised me about the country was how design conscious everyone seemed to be.  There's a minimalistic aesthetic to the buildings and interior design in Stockholm that is a delight for my Japanese eyes.  I have no idea what the term "post-modern" actually means but that's how I would describe it:  "Post-modern". 

One of the things I did while I was in Stockholm was visit the city's Army museum.  This was probably the most gruesome museum I had ever gone to.  The museum is laid out in chronological order and started with an exhibit of wild monkeys tearing each other apart.  The tag-line was "War is natural.  Even monkeys go to war".  Honestly, a bit surprising from a country that hasn't been in a major war for close to a hundred years.  The first section of the museum that focused on Viking plunderers and the great Northern war were action packed with bloody wax figures depicting Medieval battles and tales of sickness and disease.  Awesome.  If you visit the Army museum in Stockholm (and I recommend you do) know that it is quite front loaded.  This is probably one of the most peaceful nations on earth after all.  The final exhibit in this museum of war feature (I kid you not) Swedes sitting on a couch watching Americans fighting the Vietnam on CNN. 

The other exciting thing I did in Stockholm was to visit the Nobel museum.  My childhood hero was the great inventor Thomas Edison partly partly because he was from New Jersey.   If I grew up in Europe, I may have been an Alfred Nobel fan.  Here is a certified genius who had over 300 patents including one for dynamite which he discovered after a year or so after exploding his brother during an experiment with Nitroglycerin.  He made a fortune on the stuff but couldn't translate any of it to gettin' with the ladies.  The closest thing he to a wife was an unrequited 20 year crush on an impoverished Austrian heiress.  Nobel died alone, without children, family or friends and wrote his last will and testament himself (as most scholars believe) as a big "F-You" to his heirs and lawyers who'd otherwise get his gigantic stack of cash.  That's the story of the Nobel prize - a socially inept eccentric genius with a penchant for blowing people up.  Gangster.

On a completely unrelated note, the Nobel museum sells these really awesome chocolate gold coins that look like Nobel prizes.  They're delicious because they're priceless.  Pics of my time in Sweden can be found on my Flickr page.  Enjoy!

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Complicated Presidents

In June, I predicted Obama in a landslide, and with the election few days to go it's likely going to happen. The problem with John McCain is a that he's a "'tweener" in a Republican party wanting a solid red-state conservative for president. They in-fact got two - Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee who split the Republican baby of rural voters during the primary season leaving John McCain to clean up on the independent voter afterbirth.

While some cultures may prize afterbirth, it's hard to become Republican president without the baby - and after 8 torturous years of George Bush presidency the big infant was on heavy dialasis, lacking clear direction and gosh do I ever need to come up with a new analogy.

Point is, what you've seen McCain doing these past few months is throw away his kitchen sink (better?), not least his scruples to transform himself into a Bible thumpin' redneck Bush lackey. He led in the polls exactly once during the general election and that's when he made his base conservative pick of nut-job / porn star Sarah Palin to be his running mate.

It's hard for me to stomach the things that's been going on in this campaign as well as what's been said about John McCain these past few weeks. I genuinely like the man - and this is not just because Rush Limbaugh said John McCain would singe-handedly destroy the Republican party. In the 5 years that Republicans held both Congress and the White House John McCain was one of a handful of powerful centrists in his party that kept the country from going off the deep end. Pick up the documentary "Shut of and sing" and watch vintage McCain stand up for the first amendment rights of those who would criticize the president in a time of blind hysterical patriotism. The old John McCain was the man.

The fall of John McCain is a Greek tragedy. I haven't felt this way since 2000 when Gore went against Bush. Even back then, Al Gore was a great guy. He was smart, he was funny, he was capable - and most importantly of all - he was right. The problem with him was that he too was a "'tweener" candidate trapped in a Democratic party bent on replicating the Clinton strategy of claiming the rural south on it's way to the White House. Much like John McCain today, the Al Gore of 2000 transformed himself into a conservative shell of himself - partnering with that snake oil salesman Joe Lieberman and disavowing all connection to the presidency of Bill Clinton. I wish we could go back to 2000. I wish we could have had the real Al Gore.

I am mad at John McCain. Right now I want to shout, as the Economist headline put it, "Bring back the real John McCain". Here is a man who decided he'd rather rot in a prison camp rather than sell out his brigade in Vietnam. I can't for the life of me understand why he's selling out now. My anger however, is displaced. Sure, a lot of the blame goes to him. He ran a sloppy undisciplined campaign with a generic and uninspired message to "Put America first". There's more to it than that. The reality is that we live in a country where complicated figures like John McCain and Al Gore are impossible to elect into high office. They have to pretend to be someone they're not in order to apeal to the various common denominators that make up the electorate. It's simple election math. You can't win with Republican after-birth.

I'm what you might call a fiscal conservative, social liberal. The past 8 years, George Bush - by all degrees a fiscal liberal, social conservative - have been a nightmare for me. Any change from that ignorant, arrogant, son-of-a-bitch is a welcomed one. John McCain - the old one - was/is the Republican antithesis of George Bush. It's a shame that that version was deemed unelectable.

For this election I like Barack Obama. He too is a man of great complexity and insight. I hope for the sake of the country he does not follow through on the populist rhetoric he espouses at hard-hat lunch-pail photo-ops in Ohio and Pennsylvania factory sites - but that's just the MBA in me talking. His first 100 days in office will be scrutinized, not only because of the turbulent winds that blow outside our doors, but because our alternative was a man who has weathered the storm for over 20 years.

Still I am hopeful, Obama has bet the house on the American people. He's got half of them behind him, it's the other half that's going to be the real challenge. Obama-girl will not help.

Monday, October 20, 2008


NA na. Na na na na. HEY HEY HEY! GOODBYE!

It's official. The Red Sox are the new Yankees. A song for Boston fans. It'll cheer you up!

Aux Champs-Elysées, aux Champs-Elysées
Au soleil, sous la pluie, à midi ou à minuit
Il y a tout ce que vous voulez aux Champs-Elysées

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Radiohead in Japan

I love Radiohead.  I love Japan.  Was Radiohead in Japan worth a 3 connection 15 hour trans-continental journey?  That's what we call - in the lobotomy industry - a no-brainer. Obsessive fan-boy-ish pics, vids, and commentary below. 

Clearly Japan's national pastime is waiting on line. 

my friend Saki looking very Japanese rocker-girl-ish

Saitama stadium.  Seats 20,000

Monday, October 06, 2008

The Financial Crisis for "Dummies" (a.k.a. me)

Two years ago, before I did my MBA, I would not have understood this financial crisis.  The following is an inner monologue arrogant pretty-boy 2008 "New Toshi" vs. that lovable goof 2006 "Old Toshi".  Enjoy. 

 -- Begin inner-monologue --

New Toshi - Apple stock price tumbled to 128 to 105 in a single day of trading. 

Old Toshi - I never quite understood this.  What the heck is stock price and why does it change? 

New Toshi - That is both a stupid and incredibly complex question.  Think of it this way.  Add up every cent Apple profits over the next 10 years.  That's the profit off of every iPod, iPhone, and computer it sells until 2018.  Well ... that big number ... that's the value of the company - that's how much it's worth.  Divide that by the number of shares and you get the stock price. 

Old Toshi - Wait, so stock price is just the sum total of all of it's future earnings for 10 years?

New Toshi - It's not but trust me ... it's complicated ... so let's pretend, for the sake of argument, otherwise you're head will explode.

Old Toshi - So how do people know what Apple will make in 2018? 

New Toshi - No one knows for sure.  Some persuasive idiots make predictions but for the most part the market makes guesses based on the best information available today.

Old Toshi - So two days ago people thought Apple was doing well.  In one day people think it's going to make 18% less over the next 10 years? 

New Toshi - Well, people think we're heading into a recession.  It's not just Apple that went down.  Almost every stock in the market dropped too.  That means all those other companies are expected to have lower earnings in the future too.  That means less pay for employees, less hiring of new grads, less money for luxuries like the iPhone... 

Old Toshi - it's one big ecosystem?

New Toshi - Exactly. 

Old Toshi - Ok, so why did the market go down?

New Toshi - Long story short.  The financial crisis.  You've heard of sub-prime right?  These 'Toxic Waste' assets?

Old Toshi - Sounds cool.

New Toshi - Well, in 2000 they were really cool.  Banks used to think they'd provide them with a steady stream of income forever.  Today, we knows sub-prime assets aren't worth the paper they're printed on.  Turns out a lot of big investment banks and hedge funds spent a lot of money on sub-prime.  Some more than others.  Lehman and Bear Stearns had toxic waste spewing out their mouths.

Old Toshi - So how do people know who has a lot of sub-prime and who doesn't?

New Toshi - Again, no one knows.  All the bankers are spooked.  No one wants to lend to nobody.

Old Toshi - Why?

New Toshi - Would you lend money to someone who's assets may or may not be 100% toxic, but have no way of finding out?

Old Toshi - So, what that has to do with Apple and the stock market? 

New Toshi - Well, banks operate by lending money to people and companies right?

Old Toshi - Is that supposed to answer my question?

New Toshi - Hear me out.  Where do those banks get the money to lend?  Turns out banks hardly ever use their own money.  A lot of them borrow money from other bigger banks.  Those banks borrow from even bigger banks.  This goes on and on until finally you get the big fish in the money market sea - the pension funds, the governments, and the sovereign wealth funds. 

Old Toshi - So when small banks can't borrow money they can't lend and if they can't lend they ...

New Toshi - ... die.  Banks are failing all along the line.  AIG, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Merryl Lynch all went bust from this mess.  Even retail banks like Wachovia and Washington Mutual went down this week. 

Old Toshi - So the banking industry is an ecosystem too. Is that why the US government proposed a $700 Billion bailout plan to buy up the toxic waste? 

New Toshi - Right.  When that didn't pass people rightly assumed we were in for more and more bank failures.  People are getting scared and that's making them more reluctant to lend.  That'll cause more bank failures.  It's a vicious cycle. 

Old Toshi - So, in 2013 when Apple needs to borrow money to come up with the new iPod, they'll pay a higher interest rate?

New Toshi - .... not just Apple, every company, every government, and every person in the world.  Less competition means higher interest rates.  No one knows how long it'll take for the financial system to recover.  For that matter, no one knows IF it'll recover.  It took a hundred years for the markets to create Lehman Brothers.  It took 6 months to make it a memory. 

Old Toshi
- Dude, when is this going to blow over?  Doesn't the economy go through fluctuations like this all the time?

New Toshi - *sigh*  That's the thing.  No one knows.  If the banks were merely dropping, I'd say yes.  But they're dropping dead.  In fact, we haven't had this many corpses since the great depression.  The fear might subside, but that's not going to change the fact there are 7 less banks. 

Old Toshi - Wow.  It's a big shit sandwich....

New Toshi - .... and we're all going to have to take a bite.

 -- End inner-monologue --

On a final note, my British investment banking friend Vaneet was kind enough to look at this blog entry to check its veracity.  Arms crossed in his pinstripe suite, Vaneet read blithely over his spectacles slowly shaking his head in disapproval and told me (in posh Londoner's accent)

"While it's quite evident you've learned nothing in business school, I do say - your fundamental arguments are structurally sound"

which translated into American (a.k.a. "real") English means

"Duuuude, right on !!!  You rock !!!!   Whoooo!!!!  " 

He did however say I should include this funny little accounting concept called mark-to-market.  Happy reading :)

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Sarah Palin is to 2008 what Gay marriage was to 2004

Wind back the clock to 2004

The Republicans in congress are proposing a bill that in effect illegalizes gay marriage. Republican presidential incumbent George Bush is an ardent supporter and the Democratic challenger John Kerry (from Massachusetts) is a reluctant detractor. It's a farce and everybody knows it.

For starters, the bill has zero chance of passing. Politicians are genuinely divided on homosexuality, but everyone AGREES that it should be decided at the state level – just as it's been done since the beginning of time. The issue is absolutely and totally irrelevant at the Federal level.

Regardless, the topic grips the Presidential election. This, despite a healthcare system in shambles, an economy propped up by a self-deluding housing bubble, an ongoing global warming crisis, and a bloody and costly Iraq war. All of sudden John Kerry is a homo-lovin' left wing pinko and George Bush is a gay-bashing right wing nut job.

The farce of course is a calculated political move so established and well documented it has its own name: THE WEDGE

Here's the thing about the general election. Despite all the fancy graphs, polls and ever shifting numbers 90% of voters know who they're voting for a year before election day. When you're two months away from the big show, you're not trying to win over new voters you're trying to make sure that you're guys come out. It's one thing to say "I like so-and-so", and another to actually take a half-day, drive to the poll, wait in line, and fill out the ballot.

The problem with the truly important issues of today are they are too big and too complex for voters (including myself) to understand hence they're hard to get excited about. Wedge issues like gay marriage are black and white. They not only make you want to vote for your guy but all of a sudden it's crystal clear - you have to stop the other guy from getting elected.

Flash forward to 2008

Hurricane Ike and Gustav are wreaking havoc on the coast. The economy is in shambles after the collapse of Fannie and Freddie, and the Iraq war rages on. Despite this, Sarah Palin's views on abortion and dinosaurs are making headlines. People seem to care a great deal that her teenage daughter is pregnant.

A lot of people ask me what I think about Ms. Palin. I think she's a political calculation and a genius one. For this I have two reasons.

1. Sara Palin is a gun-toting conservative
The fact that she is a small town, Bible thumpin', pro-lifer is basically the Republican party throwing a hand grenade at the Democrats. I open my Facebook and I see about half a dozen Matt Damon or Tina Fey postings making fun of Sarah Palin. Her appointment has effectively changed the discussion away from the economy and the Iraq war and put it squarely on trivial social issues.

Liberals who smugly mock Palin don't understand how in the world McCain is actually gaining Obama in the polls. Simply put, the more attention liberal outlets like Colbert Report, Facebook, and the New York times editorial department bring to Sarah Palin the more they piss off conservatives.

If you asked me a few months ago I would have told you Obama in a landslide, but liberals are really shooting themselves in the foot. They are driving otherwise indifferent conservatives who would not have voted McCain to vote anti-Obama. CLASSIC WEDGE.

2. Palin is "politically inexperienced"

The biggest knock on Barack Obama is his lack of "political experience" so many were puzzled why McCain chose a first-term Alaskan governor as his running mate. A lot of pundits have called this a stupid move. I don't. It's counter intuitive, but brilliant.

For voters there's a huge difference between the amount of experience we perceive them to have, and the amount of experience they actually have. Case in point the Democratic primary:
  1. Hilary Clinton is more experienced than Barack Obama
  2. Joe Biden is more experience than Barack Obama
  3. Hilary Clinton and Joe Biden are experienced
That's how most primary voters (including myself) felt but in actuality the facts are this: Hilary only has 4 more years Senate experience than Barack's 4. Joe Biden 35 years.

The point I'm trying to make is that the "political experience" we perceive is all relative. Joe Biden and Hilary Clinton seem equally experienced because Barack Obama is the reference point. If you don't buy this argument, ask someone who works in consumer product pricing.

Sarah Palin's inexperience is an asset to John McCain because all of a sudden SHE is the "political experience" reference point.

BEFORE, we knew that John McCain had more experience that Barack Obama but we didn't know how much. NOW, we know John McCain is more experienced than Sarah Palin who is more experienced than Barack Obama e.g.

John McCain > Sarah Palin > Barack Obama

At least this is how you'd think if you're moderately McCain leaning. If you're moderately Obama leaning you might think the other way around e.g.

John McCain > Barack Obama > Sarah Palin

In actuality, it's absurd to compare the political experience of a first term governor from Alaska to a first term Senator from Illinois. Regardless, people form a much clearer idea of experience as an issue and are more likely to take a side. COUNTER WEDGE.

What should you take from all this? Well, if you're like me and you support McCain on real issues but hate Sarah Palin and the political freak show, I don't know what to tell you.

I do take solace in the fact that the VP is merely a figurehead and the Republicans have a history of appointing some comically bad, politically expedient running mates. Think Quale, Cheney, Kemp. Al Gore didn't become Al Gore until years after the Clinton years were over. I'm afraid, but issues matter to me.

If you're an Obama supporter I urge you not to get caught up in Palin-mania. Of the many things I admire about Barack Obama his message of bringing people together and his refusal not to lower the level of discourse is probably the two that stand out. Yes, the Republicans shot the first bullet, but bear in mind, you have the choice not to fire back. Use it.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

INSEAD Memory: House of Moret Sur Loing

Another memory from the year that went by too quick. 

My time at INSEAD lasted 12 months.  The first 8 were spent in Singapore, and the remaining 4 were in France. Singapore was all about the big party, exotic trips, chilling out on the beach.  It was a convenient place, inexpensive to live, and lots of local activities.  France was nothing like that.  The weather stank.  No one spoke English.  Everything cost at least twice as much.  Parties were good but the whole designated driver thing put a real damper on things.  Hey, when 20% of the women are sober you're playing the odds.

Here's the thing.  If you want to compare France on Singapore on fun-ness Singapore wins hands down.  But INSEAD Singapore was a fling.  She knew it, I knew it.  But it was France stole my heart.

We lived a small village 20 minutes from campus called Moret Sur Loing.  It was a 3 story house that once served as quarters for a monastery.  Down the road was a historic medieval town out of a fairy tale.  At the time I thought all towns in Europe had guard towers, cobblestone streets, and gingerbread houses in them.  I would later learn we lived in a Unesco world heritage site. Our landlady was a lovely French woman named Carole.  When I woke up I would play with her 3 pugs, Chin-chin, Falcon, and I forget but I do remember he was super old and liked to be carried around everywhere.  Behind our house was a well manicured lawn and a river where ducks and swans would quack late into the night.

I lived with 7 guys, an Israeli, a Brit, a Russian, a Spaniard, a Portuguese, and a Brazilian.  Although we were from different backgrounds we were like brothers in that house.  Maybe living in the middle of the forest with nothing to do freed us from the realities of career, intellectual elitism, and shallow groupism that you develop when you do an MBA.  It's a comforting feeling to know that somewhere in the house there's a PS3 opponent or an unintelligent conversation waiting to happen.  These things don't happen by making an appointment in your date book and it doesn't happen over dinner at a fancy restaurant.  They occur when you're unshaven, unshowered walking around in your underwear eating Cheetos for breakfast.  The humor was low brow.  We talked in the filthiest of terms.  Everyone, save Vaneet had a "dude you were so wasted last night" story.  France is a very classy place which our house somehow managed to get unclassy - but in a good way. 

I miss my life in Moret.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Westside till I Die - New York, Philly, Frankfurt, Brussels, Vienna

So, I've been doing a lot of moving around lately.  My project in the Philippines ended and for some reason I don't fully understand I was sent to Philadelphia.  This is basically the other side of the planet.  It's amazing how email makes very long distances seem close.  I wish the same could be said about 24+ hours of transcontinental flights but hey, at least I'm racking up the milage. 

I traveled from New York to Philadelphia via the super fast Acela train which covers the distance in exactly 1 hour.  I felt like a big shot until someone pointed out the much cheaper, more frequent regional train which takes exactly one hour and twenty minutes. Somewhere the ghost of John D. Rockafeller just guffawed.  Although I've lived in Baltimore and New York I've never really spent a lot of time in their northeastern sibling.  I learned that there is a good part of Philly and a bad bad part of Philly, the political boundaries of which - like Georgia's - arbitrarily change depending on who you ask.  After a year abroad it was really nice to be somewhere that's - and I'm not being trying to be sarcastic - kind of ghetto.  There's something comforting about going to a fancy bar where they serve "the mojito", and have 10 different kinds of miniaturized mexican fast food items as finger food. 

New York
It's nice to be back in the hometown.  I nearly cried walking around in the East Village.  Someone on the street asked me what was wrong.  I said, no nothing's wrong, it's just nice to be back home.  Then she asked me if I could spare some change.  It really is good to be back home.  Weather was great and lounging around central park made me feel like a new man.  My timing was perfect.  The investment bankers make migrate annually to the big city around August and I was in the thick of it.  I was really looking forward to seeing my INSEAD friends.  As an American who spent the year abroad doing his MBA in Europe and seeing my attemps at picking up women upstaged by my smoother, classier European counterparts I thought I'd be nice to finally see the tables turned.  Wrong.  I quickly learned that my European counterparts who were better at picking up women in Europe were also better in America also.  I also I learned this:  American girls will fall for any man with an accent thus making them the easiest women in the world.  Oh well, at least I saw the Dark Knight 3 times (twice on IMAX bitches)!


After New York I spent 2 weeks in Brussels.  Like pretty much every city in Europe the people of Brussels claims their city was once the center of human civilization.  I'm not sure how valid this claim is but considering that this is where they convene the EU and InBev, the Belgium beer maker who bought out Budweiser is based here, they at least make a strong argument.  One nice plus about Belgium is that have populations that speak Dutch/Flemish and French and hence you can reliably get by on everybody's default language English.  On the weekend I took the train to a real life fairy tale town called Bruges.  This is an almost pristine 14th century European city filled with romantic churches, cobble stone streets, gingerbread houses, and the quaintest Pizza Hut you've ever seen.  Isn't it just adorable?

Walking around the city of Mozart the one thing that strikes you is how freaking beautiful the people are.  No wonder Amadeaus wanted to get the hell out of Saltzburg!  Honestly, the city is filled with tall, gorgeous, blond men and women that bring out all your insecurities.  It's like you're back in middle school with braces, glasses and discount Kmart tshirts.  People are exceedingly friendly in Vienna.  At least three guys came up to me asking (in an Austrian accent), would I like to go to the hottest disco in Vienna?  In any other circumstance, I'd think wow this gay guy got the wrong idea.  But here you don't get any sense of iill will.  Helps that some of the nicest people I knew at my year of INSEAD were Austrian too.  Goes to show What an impression a few people can make on an entire country.

Back in Frankfurt.  Where will the job take me next?  Hopefully will be back in Asia but will depend on staffing.  More to come this week.    

Saturday, August 16, 2008


"Russia has damaged its credibility and its relations with the nations of the free world. Bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century."

If I were Russian, the President's recent remarks would have emanated a stench of hypocrisy.  George Bush might be justified and he might be right but you pretty much give up the moral high ground the when you preemptively invade a nation against the will of the UN, wiretap your citizens, and set up offshore torture facilities.

Please step aside and let Sarkozy do the talking. 

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The dark knight plays devil's advocate

SPOILER ALERT - read after you've seen the film

Batman, silhouetted against the gloomy backdrop of a 9/11-esque bomb site, the Joker taking shoddy video footage of a hooded hostage right before his maiming, the sight of a Federal building being blown up in the hard afternoon sunlight.  The images purposefully evoke memories of our terror filled recent history.  The new Batman film is powerful not only for its action sequences but because it's unafraid to reopen wounds we forgot still existed.  There's a grim edginess there that's unexpected. 

At one point Alfred referring to the Joker says to Bruce,

"Some men can't be reasoned with.  Some men just want to see the world burn"

There's something profound about the way Christopher Nolan and Heath Ledger reinvents the Joker.  The genius is the ambiguity of his motivations.  There is something comforting about a villain we understand.  All cartoon bandits wanted were sacks with dollar signs on them.  In that sense what motivates them, by and large, motivates us as well.  The difference between good and evil, is in the implementation.  Stealing those sacks vs. earning them.  The Joker's morbid nihilism flips the traditional villain on it's head.  He robs the bank only to watch the mountain of cash burn.  He is a smiling clown one moment, and a psychopath with a knife to our face the next.  Ambiguity.  Unpredictability.  Craziness.  This more than anything chills us to the bone.

In many ways the Joker is the perfect character to tap the demons that Americans live with and Mr. Nolan has played him beautifully.  In the post-Nazi, post-communist era of ubiquitous globalized terror, the struggle often is not with the terrorist but with ourselves.  The Dark Knight puts all our insecurities on screen.  It tells us that we can triumph but the road to do so is more complicated than we think.

Assigned Seating at Movies

Saw Batman on IMAX yesterday.  I now know why they call it IMAX - 4 floors of movie screen literally maximizes every nerve ending in your eye.  Somebody give me a cigarette.

In order to get decent seats I bought my tickets two days in advanced and got to the theater nearly an hour before the movie was scheduled to begin.  As I munched on my nachos meant for 2, bag of peanut M&Ms and my, 30 oz Coke I waited for the movie to begin and I got to thinking how all this would be much easier if only there were preassigned seating at movies.  Why doesn't it exist already?  They do it for concerts and sporting events.  In this age of 500+ capacity stadium seating multiplexes, why not movies?

I've seen it work in less internet savvy nations such as Singapore and the Philippines and in this country of ubiquitous smart phones and always on 3G connections I don't see why it couldn't work in America.  Yes, it does take the spontinaeity out of the moviegoing experience but it more than makes up for it with the time saved waiting for the film to start. 

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Criminality, homosexuality, prostitution and the one child policy?

Wow, is this interesting.  Long story short - the preference of parents to abort females rather than males has left China with about 40 million eligible bachelors without a female counterpart.  The article argues that as a direct result demographers forsee a future where "Mumbai and Shanghai may soon rival San Francisco as gay capitals" and "organized crime networks that traffic in women will shift their deliveries toward Asia and build a brothel culture large enough to satisfy millions of sexually frustrated young men".  (if you think that's provocative, you should read the whole thing)  I don't know when Foriegn Policy started lettting second graders write their articles but the notion this article promotes is ridiculous.  I don't think for a moment that India and China will go this route. 

I say this because in my experience there is a rapid rise in female empowerment in India and China.  I've said it once and I'll say it again - all evil on the earth derives from men.  The fact that Indian and Chinese women have gender equality that they've never had before can only make these countries safer and more stable.  Also, the notion that sexually frustrated men resort to homosexuality and commit more crime is ludicrous.  By this logic I've been a gay criminal for years.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Love and Marriage

I was looking at pictures of a good friend's engagement party on Facebook today.  It was cool to see.  It made me realize that a good number of my friends are married or getting married this year.  This made me think about my love life, which is never a good thing. 

The thing is you grow up side by side with your friends and like trained circus tigers you pass through life's hoops one after another.  Middle school, high school, college, work.  I'm not sure what to make of this seismic shift of friends who are getting themselves hitched.  In some parts of my mind I feel like the retarded kid who has to do 4th grade all over again. 

When I think of my married friends though, I can't imagine being like them and I got to think they can't imagine being like me either.  I don't even have a girlfriend.  Shit, I'm not even trying.  Even when I talk to a girl I'm on a plane the next week to another country. 

I realized something as I wrote this.  A part of me doesn't want to grow up.  This is not to say that I have some weird Peter Pan psychosis.  I don't plan on commuting to work on a skateboard nor do I plan on dating 16 year old girls (ladies, call me when you're legal).  When I was young often what motivated me was the belief that I had "potential".  I'm not sure what that meant exactly. It's not like I thought I could be Superman or Spiderman but I did think I could be Batman because after all, Bruce Wayne was just a regular dude with blue spandex and a cape. 

That kind of hope gave me something to live for.  It made me feel like anything was possible.  Even today, I like to think that, at age 29, I haven't reached my full potential.  In the World of Warcraft game of life, I still have more experience points, swords, and magic potions to gain before I log off and do my homework.

I've always believed that it is the job of women to crush the hopes and dreams of men.  This isn't a bad thing because often men need to be held back.  Would Hitler have killed so many Jews if he was a family man?  Who knows?  Maybe I'm wrong and in this Venn diagram, living an exciting fulfilling life and being a stable and responsible family man are not two mutually exclusive circles floating aimlessly in space.  There might be a proper intersection and it might just come when the right girl comes along.  That or you just keep lowering your expectations until someone makes the cut.

I don't know much but I do know this.  At some point in my life I want to go to the basketball court with my 5 sons.  They would shoot 3's, pass with precision and slam the rock with authority.  Winded and disoriented the other ballers on the court would say,

"Yo. Your boyz gots too much skillz.  Let's mix it up"

to which I would jauntily reply:

"Knickerbocker please.  I grew this team.  Come back when you got YO' seed" 

I figure it's a lot to ask a woman to bare me 5 sons with superior ball handling skills.  The least I could do is make her an honest woman.  Yes, someday Toshi will get married.  This begs the question, does anybody have any cute friends who will bear my seed?

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Presidential Election - BOLD Predictions

Bold predictions from a bold man. 

Bold prediction #1:
Obama picks John Edwards to be his running mate - John Edwards has everything Obama lacks to win the presidency.  He's southern, populist, and white.  What about Hillary Clinton?  She's southern, populist, white, AND a woman.  True, but she made the cardinal mistake of politics:  asking to be on the ticket.  Hillary should have played hard to get. Real prom queens don't ask to go to the ball.   John Edwards is the real prom queen.

Bold prediction #2:
McCain picks Mike Huckabee to be his running mate - The only thing older than a John McCain is old joke is John McCain.  John McCain is no Bob Dole, but he needs to do two things: 
  1. Energize the evangelical right 
  2. Not look like a raving lunatic
... which is a hard thing to do, but Mike Huckabee seems to pull it off. 

Bold prediction #3:

Latin voters are the most important demographic in the election - Millions of spanish speaking voters will have to decide "who do I hate more.  The young black guy, or the old white guy"?  Neither candidate really speaks to the Latin voter, which is significant because they may swing electorate heavy states such as Florida, New Jersey, and Colorado.  Expect Obama and McCain to be making regular appearances on Telemundo's "Sabado Gigante".  Latin voters will split more or less evenly between the two candidates.

Bold prediction #4:
Obama wins in a landslide - Democratic turnout will be the highest in history fueled by a surge in new and black voters.  Republican turnout will be at a 20 year low.  "Values"-based Republican voters will support McCain but come election day, they will not show up to vote.  Obama takes the coastal states, while McCain struggles to hold leads in the midwest.  McCain takes Florida and Ohio by a nose but Obama takes Pennsylvania, Michigan, and to everyone's surprise Texas!  Smaller midwestern states are split 70-30 to McCain, but Obama's dominance in the electorate heavy states give him a resounding victory.

BOLD!!!!!  Goddamnit!!  I should sell steak sauce!

Monday, June 02, 2008

Tokyo and Beijing and the Search for 'Normalcy'

Interesting article in today's WSJ and NYTimes today.  China called upon Japan to airlift blankets and tents to earthquake riddled Sichuan provence. 

Tokyo's bright idea - "Let's airlift them with a bunch of Japanese military planes!"
Beijing actually acquiesced until today, when they went "Dude!  Did you forget about WWII?"

So, long story short - Japan is now going to send aid using chartered civilian aircrafts instead.  An interesting situation because there are two ways you can look at it: 
  1. The Japanese are insensitive for wanting to help China out using a bunch of airplanes reminiscent of the ones that it used against them 70 years ago. 
  2. The Chinese are stubborn for holding a 70 year grudge considering the magnitude of the situation and Japan's good intentions
both views are correct and it just goes to show that Beijing and Tokyo still have a long way to go before there's a sense of 'normalcy' between the two capitals.  Giving aid to a earthquake torn region should not be a diplomatic exercise the history of which spans a the great part of the 20th century.  Sadly, as the diplomats argue the refugees of Sichuan suffer.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Life Update: Hong Kong, Manila, Tokyo, Shanghai

The good thing about consulting is that you're never in one place and you live out of a hotel room.  The bad thing about consulting is that you're never in one place and you live out of a hotel room. I got to say though, it's been more good than bad.   I've been in four cities these past four weeks.  I work out of an office in Manila during the week and weekends I'm free to roam.  Each time I think there's no surprises left in life, the universe proves me wrong. 

Some reflections, sorted by city:

Hong Kong
If you think Chinatown in New York is great, check out Hong Kong!!!  Best "beef flied lice" ever!!!!  Seriously though, I've never had a bad meal in HK and dim sum is worth the price of admission.  HK is a banker town and if you hang with expats you find yourself talking finance in the night club.  Girls seem to like it though, which is why when they ask me what I do for a living I tell them "bank teller".  Then, they usually go away - you know - because they're so impressed.

You spell Filipino with an 'F' when you talk about the people.  You spell Philippine with a 'Ph' when you talk about the country.  It's an arbitrary western convention indicative of a country whose history is riddled with arbitrary western influence.  Sometimes, like when I see Filipinos party I think "Spanish" and other times like when I go to the mall I think "American" and other times I think "WHAAA"?  I read in a book that the Filipinos are disarmingly western but Asian at their core.  This gave me a whole new understanding of the Filipinos I've known over the years. I'm enjoying myself working in this city and I think it's because people here understand my what I'm all about.  In Japan, they identify me as "American".  In America it's "Japanese dash American" (Japanese-American).  In the Philippines, however I'm "Japanese slash American" (Japanese/American) and I love that. 

It's good to be in my second home.  Beautiful weather to walk around.  I'm just sad however to have missed the cherry blossoms.  Highlight of the weekend.  I saw a jogger near my hotel in Ebisu.  From the waist down he looked like a regular jogger with running sneakers and mesh shorts.  From the waist up however, dude was wearing a puffy black jacket and had his hair done up like one of those guys from L'arc en ciel. 

Run Forrest.  Run.

As of April Japanese passport holders can enter China for 15 days without a visa.  As a Japanese citizen it's not my place to question why I am allowed effortless entry into mainland China while millions upon millions of foreign born Chinese need to wait in long-forming lines to obtain a visa.  It is my duty however to rub it in.  "IN YO' FACE ABC"!!!!!  But I digress....  As my Shanghainese friend Xin pointed out, it's a sign of diplomacy and friendship - don't push it Jap boy.  I can't help it though.  The irony!!!!  Excuse me, I need to go buy a trucker hat with a catch phrase.

I actually didn't get much of an opportunity to check out Shanghai because mostly I was working for the weekend, but I did enjoy myself immensely there.  I hung out in the expat crowd.  The highlight of the weekend came when I went to a bar aptly named "Abbey Road" that featured - and I am not making this up - a 50's era costumed Beatles cover-band made of Japanese musicians with mod haircuts.  Suffice to say as a hardcore Beatles fan also Japanese with a neo-mod haircut, my mind was blown.

What strikes you about Shanghai is how new everything is.  All the things you've heard about Shanghai are true.  The buildings are futuristic and you get the sense of a new age.  But with newness comes a price.  Tall skyscrapers and concrete jungles make a place feel cold and unfriendly - a fact the Shanghainese are starting to realize.  My expat friends tell me there are less slash and build operations going on.  More and more, people are refurbishing old homes and coming to grips with what they are losing to modernization. 

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Japanese Population Decline 4 - Immigration

Japanese people are not stupid.  They know the crippling effect that population decline will have on their domestic economy.  They know that in the face of a globalized economy, rapidly aging population, and loss of innovation they need to open their doors to a wave of immigrants.  They know the United States and Western Europe are cherry-picking the best global talent leaving Japan more and more uncompetitive. 

They know all that but they're comfortable, they're happy, and that's exactly the problem. 

From my experience, the Japanese-as-racist perception of the outside world is exaggerated.  The Japanese are insular but that is a very different thing.  The thing that I would say makes Japanese people unique is their deep curiosity for other cultures.  Perhaps it is no coincidence but I perceive the same from the English.  Both are island nations that have a clear idea where the boundaries of their own civilization end.  And so, Japanese and Brits have a long history of importing knowledge from other cultures and exporting it as its own.  Case in point, the British and the Japanese have their tea but it's India and China that provided the leaves.

What can be done about it?

There is every reason to believe that Japan could accommodate, adapt, and incorporate a large influx of foreign-born talent into their economy.  Although easy to say, politically it's next to impossible.  Such broad sweeping change is unlikely in a political system in Japan that is beholden to vested interests such as construction, agriculture, and shipping which would be adversely effected by such policies.  The Japanese people need a sense of urgency, but their contentment with the way things are precludes action. 

Japan has had other periods of insularity of course.  For 200 years they had been a dormant feudal society with sparse trading going on with the Portuguese.  Commodore Perry's black ships changed all that in 1853.  An American armed with engines and guns shamed the Japanese who battled with horses and bows.  After that Japan modernized.  It became the superpower everyone came to know in World War II.  After 1853 nothing has been the same. 

For better, or worse Japan needs the black ships once again.  This concludes my series on Japanese population decline.  Hope people liked it!

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Life Update - Manila edition

Engine Engine #9
On the New York Transit Line
If My Train Goes Off the Track
Pick it Up!  Pick it Up!  Pick it Up!

Good times in the Philippines :)

Thursday, May 01, 2008

I am an art "collector"

I just bought a Massimo Vignelli print for $300.  As you can see, it's a minamalist version of the New York City Subway Map.  Mr. Vignelli is famous as the designer of the original 1972 NYC map that pioneered the color-coded subway lines used in New York - subsequently imitated by transportation authorities all over the world. 

It's a limited edition - only 500 exist and it is signed by Massimo Vignelli himself.  Proceeds benefit the Green Worker Corporative

For $300 am I?

a) Artsy
b) Crazy
c) Stupid

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Japanese Population Decline 3 - Unbought Christmas Cake

There is a saying in Japan that translates to "unbought Christmas cake".  In Japan it is custom for couples to eat a special and elaborate Christmas-themed cake.  Every year bakery chefs go to great lengths to stock the most popular and sublime cakes for this special time of year.  It is a labor of love.  Tragically, cakes don't last very long and since they're made especially for Christmas any still left on the 26th are either thrown away or sold at a deep discount.

"Unbought Christmas cake".  This is what you are called if you are an unmarried woman at 26.

It's not a term used with regularity in Japan.  Also, it's not even close to the norm.  The average age for a woman to get married is currently 27 and rising.  Still, I tell my Christmas cake story because it's the kind of term used among women in Japan, the kind of term that is jokingly used among friends when no one is looking, the kind of term you find buried within the editorial sections of trashy fashion magazines. 

Feminism is an odd creature in Japan.  Girls have more or less equal educational opportunity as boys throughout high school and indeed performance is decidedly par.  It's college where you see significant drop-offs. Female enrollment at Tokyo University is about 19%.  Compare that to Harvard, which is at 49%.  The imbalance of highly educated men vs. highly educated women permeates through to the workforce.  While it is not an uncommon sight, it is rare to see highly skilled, highly driven women at the top levels of the workforce.

To be sure, the Japanese workplace is a hostile place for women.  Sexual harassment, demeaning gender attitudes, and prohibitively inflexible maternity leave policies all contribute to this.  However, my take on the situation is that it isn't the workplace that's disenfranchised with women, its women who are disenfranchised with the workplace.  The Japanese workforce NEEDS women.  It is diminishing and graying at a rate unheard of in modern first world history.  Multi-national firms with women-friendly policies are reaping the benefits.  Less progressive firms are finding they need to adjust to stay competitive.  Market forces are changing attitudes and creating opportunities for women willing to take on the responsibility. 

However many women are not.  The numbers bear this out.  Japan actually slipped 11 ranks to 91st in The Economist's survey of gender equality falling behind manufacturing-based economies such as Cuba and Vietnam.  I can't say I blame Japanese women.  I used to be a salary-man in Japan.  It's hell.  You work late.  You commute hours on a sweaty, crowded train.  You're hardly if ever appreciated.  Given the choice, a life of stay-at-home wife doesn't sound bad. In an attempt not to sound like a complete sexist jerk, not all women in Japan feel this way - but a lot do. 

What does this have to do with Japanese population decline?

While there is no shortage of Japanese couples in Japan, there is an abundance of sexless couples.  It is a fact of life that lots of people get married and then are unhappy with that marriage.  Things change.  I'm not suggesting that this is anything new.  Broken marriages have existed since the dawn of time.  What is new however is the age of what I'd like to call "Incomplete Feminism".  A good number of women in Japan are choosing not to fulfill their filial duty and rightly so.  It's their uterus; they should do with it what they want. 

The big gap between Japan and their western counterparts is divorce.  While it may be controversial, my belief is that a certain percentage of marriages that end in divorce is a good thing.  Marriages, like jobs can be either productive or unproductive.  Macroeconomists will tell you that a certain level of unemployment is a good thing because an unemployed worker isn't always someone who's been laid off.  It might be that he's just looking for a job where he or she can be more productive.  I hypothesize that a healthy divorce rate is akin to a healthy unemployment rate.  It allows for unproductive marriages to make way for productive ones.

Japan's divorce rate is exceedingly low.  Less than 1% of new marriages in Japan end in divorce.  This is an astonishing rate.  #1 Sweden is at 54%.  The U.S. is at 45%.  Japan's rate is even less than India's.  While, I don't argue that this is the only factor in Japan's population decline, I do argue that it is a major indicator of so-called sexless marriages and which contributes heavily to population decline. 

What can be done about it?

A career-oriented woman with a stable job in an unhappy marriage can divorce the bum she's married to and start fresh.  She can choose to have kids with a man who loves and respects her.  If not, she can opt to go it alone.  You'd think then that being a career-oriented woman in Japan is incredibly attractive.  You would not get this idea if you read JJ, ViVi, CamCam or myriad of other Japanese fashion magazines.  The attitudes of Japanese men need to change before women become common in the workplace. However, Japanese women also need to take a hard look at themselves and shoulder a lot of the blame.  Women calling each other "Unbought Christmas Cake" imply that the only path toward happiness in life is to find a rich handsome husband, marry, and live happily ever after.  Japanese women should have more confidence in themselves, and if they're unhappy with their boyfriend or husband they should cut and run.  That's the only way Japanese women will change.  Hell, that's the only way Japanese men will change too.  

Take it from someone who knows ;)

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Are the Torch Relay Protests Good for Tibet?

Olympic torch protests in Paris, San Francisco, and now New Delhi are getting wide media attention and are captivating the world's attention.  However the question that interests me is not whether Tibet should be its own country.  My own political convictions aside, I think the answer depends on who you ask.  Rather, the question people should be asking is - are the torch relay protests helping or hurting the cause of Tibetan independence?

I believe the protests are hurting the Tibetan cause.  The struggle for Tibet is one that ongoing for a half century and has included the suppression of numerous uprisings and has involved significant bloodshed on both sides.  In this context the worldwide protests that have been occurring in recent weeks in response to the violence seen in Tibet last month seem nothing less than a gross politicizing of the Olympic games.  If so many foreigners felt this strongly about Tibet, where were these protests last year when China completed it's Lhasa express railroad?  In fact, where were they in the '50s when they invaded Tibet in the first place?  Clearly, foreign protesters are using the Olympic torch as a rallying cry to express their hostility on the topic of Tibet and other pent up frustrations. 

Why is this bad for Tibetan independence? 

The reason, according to the Chinese government is the Olympics should not be used as a forum to advance a political agenda.  I think that it goes much deeper than that. One must try to understand the Chinese perspective.  I do not think that westerners realize how much importance and emotion the average Chinese person has invested into these Olympics.  Much like the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the Chinese have been anticipating the 2008 Olympic games as a global showcase of how far they've advanced as a prosperous competitive free market economy. A Chinese friend of mine once described the Beijing Olympics as a the nation's "Coming Out Party".  Since 2001 the Olympics have been a part of the national dialogue and a great source of pride for the people.  Hence for many Chinese, a protest against the Olympic torch is construed not only as a protest against it's Tibet policy but a protest against the greatness of China itself. 

The hope of the protesters (I assume) is that by drumming enough popular support they can effectively negotiate terms with the government of China.  This is ridiculous.  If protestors really wanted to see change they should be using different means to achieve their goal and/or direct their anger at someone else.  China is not France.  It is not a country that has more transportation stoppages due to strike than it has due to bad weather.  Especially on these matters the Chinese government is a straight communism and it does not care whether someone protests against them or not - especially when it's a bunch of hippies off in some other country.

By using the Olympic torch relay as a platform for their protests the Chinese government has no choice to become even more defensive and maintain an even harder line with it's position on Tibet.  Anything else would constitute a massive loss in face.  The demonstrations, although well intentioned, are making the prospect of a free and independent Tibet far more unlikely. 


Also, I realize I am detracting from my series on Japanese Population decline.  I apologize for this but I thought that I should write about this while it is topical.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Japanese Population Decline 2 - the vicious cycle

Tokyo University is Japan's Harvard.  Kyoto University, Princeton.  Acceptance into either pretty much guarantees you a spot in the country's elite.  Top government, banking, consulting, and scientific posts are filled with To-dai and Kyo-dai graduates.  However there is a big difference in Japan.  Harvard and Princeton are private universities.  Tokyo and Kyoto are public - meaning state subsidized and affordable.

To be sure many excellent private universities exist in Japan such as Waseda and Keio.  However, educational prestige in Japan is decidedly connected to public institutions.  Many Japanese carry around the notion that private universities can be "bought" into.  For children, this means that the quality of education you recieve has little to do with what your parents can afford but how much effort you put into it.  The net result is a Japan that is far more egalitarian than the United States.  Since World War II, Japan has been dominated by a huge middle class.  As we shall discuss, this is changing.

For much of Japan's post-war history the crucial college entrance examination has been the great equilizer in its society.  Students from impoverished backgrounds have climbed the socio-economic ladder with a mix of talent and hard work.  Conversely there are socio-economic drop-offs.  Tales of rich "Ronin" children who fail to meet expectations often spend years in limbo to prepare themselves for next year's examination. 

What does this have to do with population decline?  One word:  'Jyuku'. 

The Japan I have just described is all theory.  The reality in Japan today is that despite public university's low tuition, attendance is dominiated by children coming from rich families.  Research indicates that over half of Tokyo University Students attended private high school and almost all attended 'jyuku' - special afterschool cram sessions designed specifically to "crack" the test.  Think Kaplan on steroids. 

Convetional wisdom in Japan says that you have to send your child to expensive 'jyuku' and privates school for him/her to succeed in life.  If you are rich Japanese couple and you want your kid to have the advantages you enjoyed, it's not a luxury, it's a necessity.  Costs for such services are getting prohibatively expensive in Japan and as a result - affluent parents are having fewer and fewer children.

The same is not true of Japan's less educated, less afluent class.  While low by world-wide standards they are having children in larger numbers.  What demographers in Japan are seeing is - as a result of this reproductive asysmetry - a shift betwen Japan's "haves" and "have nots".  The population of "haves" - defined as upper-middle and upper - in Japanese society is shrinking while "have nots" - lower-middle and lower - is steadily growing.  The net result of this shift is that national wealth is more unevenly distributed than at any time post-WWII.  Japan's middle-class mountain is transforming into twin peaks.

In an era of absolute population decline competition for Tokyo and Kyoto university is at an all time high.  While the story of a poor man becoming rich is uplifting and happy, the story of a rich man becoming poor is depressing and sad.  While intelligence, work ethic and memory are randomly assigned by the genetic lottery, how much money your parents have is not.  Say you have a stupid son.  While it is not possible to "buy" him a path into a top national university in Japan, you can however throw a lot of money at the problem and increasingly that is what a lot of affluent parents are doing.

This has become a vicious cycle in Japan.

  1. Population decline in Japan is not distributed evenly throughout Japan's social class. 
  2. This shift away from Japan's egalitarian makeup increases the importance of expensive after-school classes and enrollment in private institutions. 
  3. Wealthy parents choose to have less children because of the high costs to maintain social standing
Although Japan's education system is excellent the process by which academic institutions select their student body badly needs revising.  The 'one-shot' entrance examination which has long served Japan is considered by most educators to be out-dated and ineffective. Japan must realize the economic reality that a generation of 'Jyuku'-educated youth are having on the nation.  The notion of the Japanese toward their university system is wrong.  It is possible more than every before to "buy" your child's position in society.  What we must realize is that the costs aren't just bad for parents, they are bad for Japan as well.

Music by Marco Benevento from the album Invisible Baby

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Japanese Population Decline - Intro

As a Japanese-American guy who plans on doing a lot of reproducing in his lifetime (ladies?) I think a lot about Japanese population decline.  Which is why I decided to write a series of essays that specifically discuss this issue.  Japan's population decline is the most pertinent issue facing the country.  According to the Economist:

Japan's birth rate fell below the replacement rate of 2.1 in the early 1970s. It slid to a low of 1.26 in 2005, before inching up last year to 1.32—nobody calls it a recovery. In 2005 Japan's population began to fall in absolute terms, despite increasing life expectancy. It is about to shrink at a pace unprecedented for any nation in peacetime. The National Institute of Population and Social Security Research estimates a total population of 95m by 2050, with the elderly accounting by then for two-fifths of the total.

The implications to Japanese society are enormous.  From a purely conceptual level the Solow growth model predicts a decline in national GDP directly proportional to the decline in population.  For more concrete consequences one need only look at rising per-capita healthcare costs and the imminent social security meltdown.    Specifically I'd like to address:
  1. What is causing it?
  2. What can be done?
Who cares?  Well, me for one.  I am one proud Japanese dude but when I look at the graph above I think 'wow, the party's almost over'.  Of course, Japan is not the only country facing this problem.  Similar replacement rates exist in European countries particularly France, Italy and Germany.  China, with it's 40 year-old one child policy is beginning to face the music.  The truth is population decline is an issue that will effect everyone in some way.  Japan is a just an exemplary in this aspect.

To be continued...

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Life Update

So I am in Frankfurt Germany.  The last two weeks I've settled in, found an apartment, and went through a week of training in Dusseldorf.  Next week I will be staffed on my first real consulting project.  Where in the world  (literally) they put me, I don't know.  I have to admit, I'm scared shitless.  The last time I had a "client" was when I worked at the Lonestar Steakhouse in Whippany, NJ.  That was 10 years ago.  I think I put a booger in the guy's soup.  We were short on croutons!

Alive and well.  -Toshi

Monday, March 31, 2008

INSEAD Memory: Vietnam

We went to Vietnam in March 2007.  I remember this because I celebrated my 28th birthday on the final day of the trip.  Strange to think that its been a year.  Damn.  The INSEAD crew for Vietnam was big because it was the break between P1 and P2.  I'm not sure exactly how many we had but we had over 30.  Either that or 15 really fat people. (I'm looking at you, you fat Spaniard you)

We arrive in Hanoi and like all good travelers we exchanged our cash for the local currency which was - I am not making this up - the Dong.  Apart from the name the Dong really is funny money.  At current exchange rates 16,000 Dong equals 1 dollar.  For $62 you too can be a millionaire.

We chartered a junk boat to do a 2 night cruise around the renown Halong bay.  It is a channel of green topped islands of exquisite beauty.  Floating about the bay feels like how you'd imagine going through the Bermuda triangle.  You wade through dense fog on top of translucent turquoise water and out of nowhere jagged volcanic rocks come into sight.  This is where Loch Ness or fire-breathing dragons call home.  Certainly not any place you'd recognize on earth.

Nightfall.   Although INSEAD students weren't the only guests on the boat, with 30 people we had the most solid contingent on the deck.  Using our 51% stake the Business school students took control of the boat and the boat became a booze cruise.  We played cards, drank, and became kids watching the night sky snuggling under warm blankets.  No cell phones, no computers, no distractions.  Just the company of friends from all over the world.

We traveled to Hanoi.  The Vietnamese landscape outside Hanoi city is sparse, wet and green.  Tall narrow houses built in french colonial fashion rise systematically like palm trees on a California Boulevard.  Mopeds are ubiquitous on the highways.  We see one industrious Vietnamese man with 4 live pigs rope tied to the back of his 50cc bike.

Hanoi is an amazing city.  I've been to developing nations before.  There's no politically correct way for me to write this.  People in developing nations are poor and they live in filth.  Vietnam is the same, however what astonished me was how optimistic everyone was.   I've been to a lot of 3rd world countries before, and although people are nice you get the sense that people are resigned to live their lives in this manner forever.  11pm in Hanoi anywhere you go you hear cars and mopeds honking their horns.  Shops are open and trading.  The city is alive with the sounds of night market merchants calling in customers and young Vietnamese drinking beer eating BBQ prawns on the street.  This is not just the case in the affluent center of town but in the outskirts as well where they don't even have electricity.  They do business in the dim of candle-light.
It is as if the Vietnamese are saying "we are poor today, but this is just a temporary setback".  When I was growing up, my father would tell me stories about post-war Tokyo and the sentiment of the time which led to the Japanese economic miracle.  Hanoi is how I envisioned my father's stories.  I wonder what Vietnam will look like in the future? I wonder if I will recognize it.