Of shogunates and ATMs

Bring cash

Bring cash

Kamakura is a bit of a touchstone for me in Japan, as I love to visit and take in its rich history – think the seat of Japan’s first shogunate, the place where “divine winds” or kamikaze repelled Mongol invaders in the late 13th century, the home of many Zen Buddhist temples of the Rinzai sect. I realized today, though, that it has also become one small gauge for how modern Japan has really become – or not.

The scene: I am walking down a narrow street filled with all sorts of gift shops and see the one that my kids and I loved when we visited years ago. I walk in. I see a couple of must have Christmas gifts and set them aside. The very nice women start wrapping. I make my final selection and ask in the kind of voice that doesn’t expect a negative answer if I can use my “cahdo” – credit card.

The world stops. I can’t.

Japan is still very much a cash society. But people do use credit cards. And in a major tourist attraction like Kamakura, you would think this would be thoroughly understood.

That brings me to ATMs. I was a bit short on funds as I headed out today but unwilling to go out of my way to get to a Citibank ATM that I knew would honor my card. So I was hoping that the machines in tourist-riddled Kamakura would be international-user friendly. That would set them apart from the many in Tokyo that simply will not accept American cards. This seems to defeat the purpose of credit cards and ATMs, let alone globalization.

But as I discovered when I first got off the train, they’re not. Nonetheless, I gamely told the woman I would be back, and I knew I would – if only to apologize for making them restock my items.

Thinking I was on a fool’s errand, I went to the local bank again, including the desk where they claim they’ll exchange money for you. No go. (Interestingly, I had done exactly the same thing when I was here with my children, finally sending them out to explore for awhile as it took me so long to change money.) I went again to Mizuho, not exactly a small bank. No. I then went to Mitsubishi UFJ, another heavy hitter. They didn’t like my card either. Finally, I went into Daiwa Securities, knowing full well it wasn’t a consumer bank but thinking someone might be able to help me.

No luck on the ATM. But then I asked the very nice woman if there was anywhere that might possibly accept an American card.

She told me to go the post office.

The post office savings system in Japan may be the original ATM. When I lived here years ago, I had an account from which I could withdraw at any post office in the country. It was unbelievably convenient, though the postal savings system eventually came under the withering glare of reformist former prime minister Koizumi.

I was highly skeptical, but I figured I couldn’t lose more than 10 minutes of my time. I went to the post office and popped my card into the machine, waiting for the quick rejection. Instead, gears started to turn. It set a low limit, so after completing the first transaction, I took out my debit card from my (at best) regional Massachusetts bank and tried that. It worked too.

I went back to the store and triumphantly pulled out my cash. As we chatted, I told the woman the date I had first visited Japan and she told me the store started about the same time. We paused and took in the deep coincidence that we had discovered but didn’t know the meaning of. I told her I had visited her store with my kids a decade ago and they had bought me a traditional wooden doll there. Did I still have it in my house? she asked. I nodded. We bonded.

I was happy. But still puzzled at the oddity of a high-tech, export-oriented, first-world society whose ATMs often don’t like an international credit card.


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Never too rural to download

What do you mean hollowed out? We have fiber optic.

Mrs. Ni stays in touch

Last week I visited a rural town on the northern tip of Japan’s southern island of Shikoku. It was the kind of town that is often referenced as people talk about the hollowing out of Japan’s countryside as young people leave for the city. Getting there means traversing what some might call death-defyingly narrow and curvaceous roads. Two thousand people share the river that runs through town and the cedars that blanket the towering mountains on all sides. They know each others’ goings on.

It’d be easy to think life is pretty remote up there.

Naturally, it’s not.

Cellphones are a given, and not a cellphone call in our party ever dropped out. I can’t make that claim in my town 14 miles outside of Boston. And then there’s Internet access. We talked at one point to a Mrs. Ni (pronounced knee), who kindly opened her tiny home to us. In the course of conversation, I asked about her family. Grandchildren? Of course, she said. In fact, she had just gotten a picture of them this morning. “Let me show it to you,” she said.

I expected her to grab an envelope as she reached into another room. But instead, there on the kotatsu – a low table that provides heat to your legs and feet as you sit at it – was a late-model computer and a printer. I may have barely been able to stand up in her traditional home, which had clearly hosted her family for many, many years, but she had the latest technology. In fact, the entire town is wired with fiber optic. Mrs. Ni produced a charming photo of her three grandies, printed on high-quality paper and already encased in a protective sleeve, and I cooed in proper admiration. “I just downloaded it this morning,” she said proudly.

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Another ominous ‘fed up’

Manga kissa (short for kissaten, or cafes) are Japanese novelties where you can watch anime and read comics and magazines for a per hour fee. At one I visited in Tokyo’s Shinjuku area recently, you pay about $4 for an hour of perusing a large selection of manga, enjoying free tea, or trolling the Internet. They’re kind of cool – and not a bad deal!

But they can be strange places too: you sit in one of numerous little cubicles with computers and a reading lamp in a large blackened room . You’re all together – and all alone. Some people rent group rooms. Adult videos can be part of the scenery. You can see how people – especially kids – could spend way too much time in them.

Now the cafes are in the spotlight as Osakans come to terms with the Sept. 30 murder, by arson, of 15 men who appeared to be spending the night in a low-brow manga kissa in town. Some men stay in the places if they miss the last train home; you can spend the night for about $12. That bargain-basement price for 24-hour access lures the homeless as well, and their presence at manga kissa has become emblematic of the poverty that lies just under the prosperity of many cities here.

The Osaka murders follow the multiple stabbings in June of people in the manga and anime-focused Tokyo district of Akihabara. Seven people died. That killer was also fed up – and decided to vent his rage on the people who come to Akihabara to watch people dress up as manga characters and take in the numerous manga and anime-related sights, many of which are decidedly, well, different. The killings brought a sharp crackdown on the costume play that was previously a regular feature.

Two such massive murders in just four months are hard news for Japanese accustomed to a profoundly low (though rising) crime rate. Can you blame anime and manga? No. But the killings have exposed a dark underbelly of life here – the struggle to stay afloat in a society that increasingly seems to see itself in terms of winners and losers, and the alienation of many who can’t make connections that give meaning to their day-to-day life.

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On the fast track

Soon-to-be old(er) technology

The other day I took Japan’s iconic bullet train from Tokyo to Nagoya, a major city about 164 miles to the southwest. From an American East Coast perspective, it’s roughly comparable to the 190-mile trip between Boston and New York. Except that typically, the Amtrak run along the Northeast Corridor takes 3-1/2 to 4 hours, barring any number of possible glitches. The Shinkansen, on the other hand, got me to my destination in one hour and 42 minutes – no unexpected stops, no extended slowdowns, and a very nice lady serving snacks throughout the trip. The train travels at speeds of up to 188 miles an hour, though I don’t know what our speed was on my particular trip. The ride was smooth. The conductors bowed as they came in and out of the car.

I first rode the Shinkansen almost 30 years ago when I came to Japan on a student exchange, and I felt I was in futureland then. Decades later, it’s still easy to marvel at the train’s sleek design. But when it comes to trains, the Japanese don’t sit still. Kawasaki Heavy Industries recently announced plans for the “efSET,” or environmentally friendly super express train, which will use the Shinkansen’s high-speed technology and debut in a couple of years. They’re hoping for a pace of up to 217 miles per hour as well as better energy efficiency and a nicer ride. That’ll be achieved, the company says, through less noise, a more aerodynamic design, and a better electrical control mechanism.

Japan is hardly the only country with good trains. But build them this well, and it’s not suprising that I barely got a reserved seat on the Shinkansen back to Tokyo on Friday evening, despite its 14-car length. Two trains filled as I waited to get my ticket. Apart from the crowds, using Japan’s bullet train – or regular trains, for that matter – is stress-free. You get on when you expect to; you don’t keep your ride at the other end waiting and wondering. The cars are akin to airplane cabins: bright, clean, spacious. You arrive in the heart of the city. The price was right: about $95 each way. And perhaps most important, if you miss your train, you know there’ll be another in short order.

It’s a good user-friendly experience. But still, the Japanese keep on improving on it. I’m looking forward to 2010.


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Tuning into robots

Yesterday I watched a robot play the trumpet. Really. His fingers moved up and down with alacrity, and unlike most human musicians, he could use his left hand to make musical flourishes as the melody soared. People watching the performance at the Toyota museum in Nagoya were captivated – and, like me, a bit at a loss as to how to react at the end. One woman clapped with quiet but clear delight.

The Japanese don’t see robots as mechanical and faceless – as robotic, in other words. I’m not talking about the industrial ones that populate car factories. They don’t look human – more like the disembodied arm of Rosie the Riveter doing a repetitive task without ever losing concentration or mixing up drills.

The trumpet player, by contrast, stands on two feet. His arms move much as mine do. OK, his eyes are a bit alien. But he’s comfortable on stage, bringing his instrument to his plastic lips and revving up his audience. And he’s not that unusual. Japan has given the world robot dogs. Toyota sends its Robot Quartet on tour and Honda has produced the Asimo robot, which conducted the Detroit orchestra last May in a rendition of, aptly, The Impossible Dream. (Yo-Yo Ma, who also performed at the same concert, shook hands with Asimo – Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility – at the end.) Asimo has led people to their restaurant table and served the elderly.

Robots, in other words, help humans. They don’t intimidate them or leave them cold. Maybe that outlook makes sense, coming from a country that finds spirits in inanimate objects. It’s practical, too: Japan is running short on young folks that can help the burgeoning numbers of old folks, and who better to turn to than robots? And if you’re going to do that, why not expect them to be friendly companions? It may seem futuristic, but it’s clearly not an impossible dream.

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Missing in Tokyo

The lonely few that remain

The lonely few that remain

My daily commute alone reminds me that a lot has happened in terms of the technology of daily life since I was last here a decade ago.

My friends and I, for example, used to marvel at the guys who punched your ticket as you entered the subway line. You bought your paper ticket and passed through the turnstile area, where grave men in uniforms and white gloves magically connected at just the right moment with your oustretched ticket. Their hole-punchers kept up a sort of chatty clickety-clack, never resting for a moment whether someone was passing through or not.

They are gone.

Now I just wave a debit card over the turnstile, walk through, and update myself on the other end as to how much is left on my card. Not as much fun.

Gone too are the ranks of men reading manga (comics) as they wait for their stop. I see them occasionally, but they used to be a staple. People say Japanese are reading less. And that manga are losing a bit of their audience. Maybe it’s just that it doesn’t look cool. Or that you can get most of what you want online. Maybe it’s just that everyone prefers to text message.

And then there are the phones. Or, there aren’t. A bank of yellow, green, and red phones, color-coded as to their function, used to stand cheerful sentry at train stations. Everyone used them – bowing their heads into the earpiece as they said goodbye and headed off, updated as to what to pick up or where to meet a friend.

Gone. Except for a few here and there.

The mobile phone and the digital chip rule. And Tokyo’s streets and trains have lost a shade of their charm.

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Sign, Sign, everywhere a sign

The Japanese are big on signs. A day on the Tokyo subway system drives home this point. To a visitor, of course, it’s a good thing. And for a Bostonian, the notion that public authorities could be so concerned that you be able to find your way around is nothing short of stunning.

But I could do with a little less information.

I am not trying to be ungrateful. I love walking down the stairs to the subway and seeing clearly delineated train lines with all their stops listed in both Japanese and English. I like the colored circles that make it easy to identify the train. And sure, it’s helpful when I enter the station to know that I will reach the gate after walking 120 meters. But then I pass a sign that it’s only 80 meters to my destination. Soon, it’s a mere 20 meters till I can plunk don my electronic debit card.

I don’t suffer for a second from the strain of uncertainty about whether I am pointed in the right direction.

Nothing is left to chance as you ride the miracle that is public transportation in Tokyo. You’re told when your next train will arrive so that you can wait patiently. You are instructed where to line up. Once the car arrives, stickers suggest that you avoid getting your hand stuck in the door. More stickers tell you to put your cellphone on “manner mode” and refrain from talking. (Everyone simply texts instead.) Other postings tell you to give your seat to the infirm, the elderly, and the pregnant – the latter  illustrated by a seated big stomach that has comic-book style “ouch” lines emanating from it.

Then of course, there are the verbal signals: A train is arriving imminently. The train is here. Thank you for boarding our train. Doors are opening. Doors are shutting. Next stop: Honancho. Doors will open on the right side of the train. Please exit the train without forgetting your belongings. Watch your feet getting out as there’s a gap.

Riding the train is not a time to try to be alone with your thoughts.

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