I had a very rare chance to meet with Agness Kaku over the weekend, a professional writer. If you enjoy console games, you’ve probably seen her work in Metal Gear Solid 2, and the Katamari Damashii games. I don’t have many peers or mentors in the same line of work that I’ve been in or may want to continue in, but when I read about her localization work in a HardcoreGaming101 interview, it reminded me of what little localization experience I had in game development, where silly problems like character and page limits would restrict translations, and I would have to request for more concise or even watered down translations in order to fit into what was essentially a final product. Reading her interview gave me insight on the other side of my requests, as the wall between a developer and translator is pretty thick. It takes so much work and understanding for a translator/writer to strike the perfect balance in the text in order to make a Japanese game succeed in the West, and Agness is very skillful at this, as she is very well-read, and a total lit nerd. She is mellow, observant, and thoughtful about the world around her, and calls out injustices in a calm, but firm manner. To be around this unique, yet familiar presence while discussing our game industry history and experience was amazingly sublime, and I’m just incredibly humbled.

For almost a year, she’s been involved in a libel suit with the guy who kickstarted The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers, with whom she originally had backed, as well as personally introduced to a group of interpreters with class A resumes and credentials. Due to the business relationship gone sour, followed by continued unprofessional online defamation against the interpreters by the KS (Kickstarter), Agness has taken it upon herself to take responsibility for that introduction and is suing for libel after realizing that things did not get better after 2 *5* months of staying silent about the way business was conducted, and when KS did not respond to her request to remove or retract the libelous update. She received harassment emails from KS backers who believed she was out to destroy the project, as was stated on a KS update after she notified the KS interviewees, coordinated by the interpreters, of the defamatory remarks for transparency and protection of their reputations.

To see the entire history, you can check out both the KS page, and Agness’ Blogspot.

In a few words, the situation is like a hodge-podge of Julian Blanc white privilege/misogyny in a foreign country and GamerGate witch-hunting. For what it’s worth, I hope that Agness wins her case.

JET Study Tour, Nakadori, part 2

While the world is focusing on progress on the nuclear disaster clean-up, Fukushima Prefecture is taking steps to explore alternative power sources. The prefecture is conducting research on a field of solar panels from different parts of the world, and of 4 different types and mounts. They invite schoolchildren to the solar field for career workshops and to understand the importance of the job, such as checking for loose wires.

I also just had to ask if perhaps they loosen some wires to make it more fun for the kids. These are live wires, too dangerous they said. Oh well.

Since Japan has a lot of different terrain, they also had a mount designed for snowy areas, like in Aizu. The panels would have to be able to be vertically positioned for snow to slide off, as well as placed on high mounts because the snow pack can get really high in some places.

The solar park gets enough energy to power 330 houses at the moment, and homes with solar panels can sell any extra power over the average of 10kW per household back the power company. It’s not a widely used system and everything is pretty localized.

The study tour also gave us a chance to explore the cultural preservation efforts of the towns that were evacuated, which includes, Tomioka, Okuma, and Futaba, each having their own cultural museums. Those who worked in those museums acted as volunteers who went into the radiation site to collect cultural artifacts, including those housed in people’s homes and passed down to families for generations.

What I found impactful was how simple the motivation was to preserve these cultural artifacts. The two things that were learned from the disaster was that humanity has no power against the face of disaster, and what we thought was safe is not actually safe.

When things become unpredictable, they believe that people need cultural heritage to fall on to maintain stability and carry on in life because it brings joy and meaning. I believe this is true because if you think about immigrants who left their countries to come to America, including my parents, are able to thrive on who they are and what they know of their own cultural heritage, and I really think that’s what drives them during the struggle to adapt.

JET Study Tour, Nakadori

This weekend, I went on a JET study tour that I was really excited to do when I heard about it last year. Fukushima is the 3rd largest prefecture in Japan, and shaped like Australia, so it’s divided into 3 parts, Hama-dori (the coast), Naka-dori (the inland), and Aizu (the East). I’d missed the 2 that were offered last year that toured the coast and Aizu. Now that things have calmed down a bit and I finally had some free weekends, I was able to participate in the tour of Nakadori.

On this particular tour, we visited the Fukushima Agricultural Technology Center, where samples of all Fukushima food was tested before being put on the market. In addition, we visited the radiation testing site for anpo-gaki, dried persimmons, which is the regional delicacy of Date (DAH-teh) City 伊達市, so it was a niche market that stopped production for 2 years after the nuclear accident. The site tests fruit from 550,000 fruit trees, which includes apples, peaches, and pears, and 250,000 of them are persimmon trees made especially for anpo-gaki.

The center was originally built as an agricultural hub to research, develop, and advance Fukushima agriculture (More info here). It was built 9 years ago and only began radiation testing after the earthquake. Samples of products meant for sale are sent in from various farms and sources for testing. The way testing works is by testing a small concentrated sample of the product. For instance, vegetables and fruit would be cut up and densely packed into their test containers, and the same goes for meat and fish. When the accident happened, samples were tested against a limit of 500Bq/kg, whereas today, they are checked to be under 100Bq/kg. Anything over that amount is not allowed to go on sale. According to the center, US and UK limits are 1000 Bq/kg. This, of course, needs some fact-checking. The agricultural center tests 200 samples daily, and releases test results the following day, and are made public on their website. Since the accident, the number of samples that didn’t pass have been gradually decreasing, and of the total number of samples tested, only a small percentage of products failed the radiation testing:

2011: 681 out of 19971 samples failed
2012: 1106 out of 61,531 samples failed
2013: 419 out o 28,770 samples failed
2014: 97 out of 17,094 samples failed. 

Of all the food products tested, seafood had the most failed tests, with mountain vegetables/mushrooms 2nd, and fodder 3rd. Meat and eggs were not affected since the accident. All the testing is paid for by TEPCO. 

Since the center already has a huge number of samples to test, the anpo-gaki industry decided to do their own independent testing of their high-volume manufacturing of dried persimmons, using Hitachi domestic branded radiation detection devices. A batch of 8 packages of anpo-gaki are tested at once, and every batch is tested 3 times for accuracy. Their limit is 65Bq/kg, and they also allow for a +/- 25Bq/kg margin of error, so if the machine reads 40 Bq/kg on just one package, adding the margin of error puts it over 65Bq/kg, and the entire batch is thrown out. 

I realize that reporting on this information might seem biased, especially since the tour was sanctioned by the prefectural government, but the evidence is pretty transparent. The lecture was peppered with reminders to share this information with everyone, including the communities that we live in, but in a way that was more like people deserve to know this. 

Twitter Prose

Taiwanese HS students visit the school, gives me a card with original character art, in typical anime style. I show it to some teachers…

One laughs and covers his face in exasperation, acquiesing to the fact that anime has become Japan’s contribution to a global culture

When the students freak out with glee upon hearing the school chime as if they’re part of their favorite shows, I start to wonder whether…

They see this place as an anime fairy tale they desire to partake in, that they think they understand the rules and think they belong…

They take their eagerness too far that I fear they become disappointed, lose respect, and then disrespect out of spite that they feel misled



The custom of showing others you are listening has its own common and recognizable word called “aizuchi”. Knowing the ways of aizuchi shows others that you are a good conversationalist because you can keep things going, and encourage the speaker to continue and finish what they’re saying. Much of it is the equivalent of “uh-huh,” “yeah,”, “I see,” and “Really?” But the utterances one makes to show you’re listening in Japan is a lot more frequent than that back home. Sometimes, though, listening to others can be a chore, so there is even a sound that people make that hints that they’re turned themselves off, and are only half-listening, and it sounds like a upward long sigh.

We’d just done an assignment where the kids made skits using characters they made up. I had them write up character profiles, so that they could emulate a mingling activity assuming their new identities, but figured that they’d be better off working off a planned script. A couple groups did really well in introducing their characters to each other, carrying a natural sounding conversation by making remarks and not just questioning each other, while others probably ignored my instructions and decided to be popular or famous historical people who refused to learn about each other and ended up going to war. See kids, that’s what happens when you don’t get to know or try to understand others. And then the third group has an interesting character from America…

First group: John, a 17-year-old from London with a pink t-shirt and some design. A being who lives on the moon. A  9-year-old who’s traveling around the world with her dog. They ask and share with each other about themselves without being brash or curt, and then go to the moon together. The End.

Second group: Queen Elizabeth, Napolean, and Ikura from Sazae-san, a family anime that started since 1969. They are sitting at a table, eating dinner, Napolean refuses to speak English, and Queen Elizabeth chastises him for it. He gets mad. Ikura tries to mediate, but eventually leaves the room. Queen Elizabeth insults Napolean and Napolean threatens to bring his armies against her. The End.

Third group: A Japanese tea house guy, a Korean tourist, Po, a teletubby from America. The Japanese tea house guy and Korean tourist has a friendly polite and smooth chat, and the Korean tourist is invited for some high-quality tea. Po comes in, a strange being, and the Korean asks where it’s from and about the thing on its head. Po says it’s an antenna and that it’s from America. The Korean asks “Which culture do you like, Japanese or Korean?” Po said, “Neither! America is number one!” And that was the end of the skit, so I assumed that they just left Po alone because of Po’s strong statement and lack of interest in the two characters.

So anyway, I had the students tell me what aizuchi they often use, and when they use it. This was a perfect rare moment when they were motivated to say exactly what they felt in English. Then we talked about what could be the English equivalents for each situation. I asked students why aizuchi is used, and they gave the typical answer, “To show others you’re listening,” but then I asked, “Are you always listening?” and got some guilty smiles.

After that I had them watch a video of a conversation between 3 non-Japanese people in Tokyo who were talking about Japanese stereotypes and try to see how backchanneling works with English. They noticed that aizuchi isn’t used as much, but they also noticed that a 3rd party can help someone out if they can’t find the words to express themselves, and was happy to find this concept to be a universal thing.

Losing steam?

It’s been a while since my last post on my English lessons. The truth is, many of them have gone a little bit off-track, and students’ answers weren’t as exciting or memorable, which I think isn’t a great way to look at things. If anything, my explanations may have been convoluted, maybe I am projecting a generalized image on the students, or maybe the students are just tired from studying for their university exams.  In any case, all I have time to think about is the next lesson, and what would be fun for them to learn.

For the record, in the last few weeks, I had this grand plan to slowly lead into teaching about LGBTs in Japan, so I started out with a lesson on diversity, asking students what it means to them, and asking for examples of diversity in Japan. We brainstormed and listed things like age, occupation, body size and shape, gender, nationality, religion… After the brainstorm, I decided to take UC Berkeley’s definition of diversity from their HR website, which pretty much lists everything, so I got a chance to sort of go over and explain each dimension of diversity. Somehow, I wasn’t get myself to really push them and ask which of the listed dimensions would be nice to have in Japan, but instead asked what the challenges were, hoping that by identifying challenges, we could figure out ways to overcome them.

Nope. Not only was I challenging them to think about diversity that they often overlook in their daily life, but I was also challenging them to explain that in English.

So we move on and I try to teach them why diversity is important. I used UC Berkeley’s reasons to explain the importance of diversity, which were

  • Prevent discrimination
  • Promote inclusiveness
  • Increased staff retention and productivity
  • Enhance the organization’s responsiveness
  • Improve relations
  • Ability to cope with change
  • Expand creativity

This time, I was able to use the school as an example, since it does demonstrate, on a micro-level, a level of tolerance and acceptance for diversity, like having enough teachers to teach smaller classes for students with a less than average aptitude, and allowing special classes with ALTs for our one bi-cultural student. Obviously, it needs to do more, but it’s doing what it can.

In the end as a final assignment, I asked them what kind of people they would meet if they went abroad. A variety of answers came out:

  • Vegetarians, which I then proceeded to explain pescatarians to them
  • People who are not allowed to kill even mosquitoes
  • Very tall people

And… yeah… like I said, I can’t remember the rest…

So after that, I was hoping to continue with a lesson on adoption, then LGBTs, but based on a request to know about world taboos, I decided to teach a class on the difference between manners and etiquette. Which evolved into a class on how to carry a conversation with others. Which turned into a class about aizuchi, or backchanneling, which is going to evolve into a class about English dialects. Since Japan really love their dialects, I figure it would be a good warm-up for the discussion.

And because that no-kill-mosquito religion answer came up, I really want to share with them this RadioLab short that I heard which helped me remember that one student’s suggestion.

Because all the diversity conversations are soooo hard to facilitate and produce ideas from the students, I just feel like I’ve been losing steam with teaching them…

On ruining new experiences

I took a volunteer tour guide class recently to learn more about the castle and the town’s history. At some point in this and the next year, I’ll be able to give proper tours in English for non-Japanese speaking visitors!

In one part of the class, they tell you that it’s best to go over the rules and manners to participants before they head on into a craft of food experience. This is so that participants and the people in charge avoid any confusion and so that the experience goes smoothly. People don’t really like surprises here.

So a friend is coming to Japan with her partner and her partner’s mom, and they want to visit Sukibayashi Jiro. How exciting for them! They love food and sushi, and my friend even named her dog Mochi. And they’ll definitely have an experience!

But then I thought of the disdain another friend had made when she talked about the “Sushi Nazi” in Berkeley. Being micromanaged in eating her dinner wasn’t something she expected and the atmosphere didn’t feel inviting. I thought about this as I was excitedly discussing with my friend the reservation game plan. Should I make sure she knows what to expect before she and her travel companions plop $300 for 40 minutes of top-rated fish on top-rated rice, stared down by an old man who doesn’t speak a lick of English and doesn’t really care to, and expected to eat your fish as soon as it’s plated and served?

A part of experiencing new things is to make mistakes and learn from them. For one, they make great stories to remember fondly on and something you shared with the host or your friends. But when your host and his posse don’t laugh along with you, all you feel is shame. This can a huge culture shock, and one that even the last bastion of the Edo Period, here in Aizu-Wakamatsu, can understand, so they take precautions to warn tourists, as many can’t seem to handle it, causing misunderstanding.

Japan has a ton of respect for its food, and when you’re being served the best of the best, you can’t not take it seriously.

For instance, when I made poison mushrooms in dirt, using キノコの山, these mushroom shaped cracker chocolate snacks put on brownie and Oreo cookie dirt, I had some extra and decided to give them to the English teachers I did my Halloween lesson with, as well as the high-school vice principals and the school principal, for allowing me to teach Japanese high schoolers devilish Western beliefs and traditions, as well as giving them sugar-inducing sweets and further giving them cavities.

When I came into the principal’s office, I greeted him with all the formalities, and wryly told him, “Please have a poison mushroom in dirt”.

Total Gaijin-smash!

I thought he would get the joke, but he straight up told me it was a bad joke. In Japan, food comes from the heavens, and, more practically, from the blood and sweat of the people who gather them, and we should be thankful. And I really do believe him, seeing how I’m surrounded by farmland, and honestly, the only people I see are older people bent over their backs, still working the fields. Younger people are starting to come back and help out, only after they get an education in agriculture and business and hopefully a broadening of their horizons, since this kind of work is a huge sacrifice in mobility.

Knowing this, but being a stupid presumptuous person anyway, I took it one step further and wryly said, “Then let us be thankful for this poison mushroom!”

He proceeded to tell me that calling this mushroom snack nameko, which is an actual mushroom, would be a much better joke. He ate my Halloween concoction, said it was delicious, I thanked him, and went on my way.

And thus, I received a lesson on cultural suspension of disbelief.

I am lucky that my principal is this cool with me. Jiro sees different people every single day, and my friends and I will be a newcomers. I doubt he will be as forgiving. So I pray that the rice that he sources from comes from Aizu, and then maybe, just maybe, we can break the ice.

Or my friend and her posse could just, you know… learn from it.