Back to Contents of Issue: May 2000

Stir crazy. As of the end of 1998, there were some 2,838 foreigners doing time in Japan, roughly double that of a decade ago. Now the Asahi Shimbun reports Japan may become the first country in Asia to adopt a multilateral arrangement, already widely adopted in Europe and the US, in which foreigners convicted of criminal offenses serve out their sentences in their own country. Since only about 80 Japanese are incarcerated abroad, this may develop into yet another dumping issue.

What's my line? Japan's Maritime Safety Agency over the past several years has been involved less with accidents and oil spills and more with interception of drug runners and smugglers of illegal aliens. So it's changing the rendering of its English name to "Coast Guard." This could spur a major trend, with no end to the possibilities for mirth. MITI, for instance, might consider changing its name to "Ministry of Trade Friction"; the Science & Technology Agency can be "Dept. of Nuclear Muck-Ups." Mr. Obuchi's Prime Minister's Office could be "Dominos."

While shipments of personal computers by domestic manufacturers reached a new high in 1999 with 10,540,000 units, dedicated Japanese-language word processors are typing out a long sayonara. The Japan Office Equipment Industries Association reports that from a high of 2.8 million in 1989, the number of waa-puro shipped last year reached only 750,000 -- a decline of 39.1 percent over the year before. Although makers have attempted to counter PCs by introducing graphics and Internet capability, PCs, whose prices have fallen below ¥100,000, are even weaning away housewives and the elderly -- the last of their waning customer base.

Even though the market slumped by 4.5 percent, domestic consumers still snatched up 6.8 million VCRs in 1999, as opposed to a paltry 388,000 DVD players. Still, DVD growth was an impressive 62.2 percent over the year before. The second largest gainer, according to the Electronics Industries Association of Japan, was portable MD players, with sales of 2.6 million units -- a 19.3 percent gain. The figure is significant as this digital format surpassed sales of so-called headphone stereo players (by about 14,000 units) for the first time.

When walls have ears. A technician's ordinary fee to "sweep" your house for listening devices generally runs about ¥100,000. Now Serubo, a Saitama-based manufacturer of sundry items, offers a do-it-yourself sensor that can do the same job for just ¥3,500. About the size and shape of a yoyo, the ingenious gizmo, called "Cross Guard," reacts to the 76-770 MHz radio waves typically emitted by hidden listening devices. An array of built-in LED indicators lights up to indicate a bug's hiding place. Sure to be a great conversation piece at cocktail parties and corporate board meetings.

Let's market research madly all day. Foodstuffs manufacturer Toyo Suisan held a contest over the Internet to give consumers a say in its new product development. The first winner was "Maruchan Indo-men," which went on sale from March 6. The product, instant fried noodles packaged with a retort pack containing a sauce with beef, carrots, onions, and a spicy curry flavoring, was picked as the best suggestion from some 1,500 consumer entries. It's priced at ¥250, but it's no small potatoes: Toyo Suisan said it expects sales of the new item will reach ¥200 million in the first two months after the launch. The company site ( has been humorously named "Food's Foo." When rendered in the Japanese katakana syllabary, the spelling is identical to "Who's Who."

There's a new one every 130 seconds. A divorce that is. Or so says the Ministry of Health and Welfare, which tallied 243,183 permanent split-ups during 1998. One recent survey of married couples said the top five sources of tension between husband and wife were: dealing with each other's parents (named by 33.5 percent of couples), children's education (27.8 percent), financial management of the household (27.8 percent), infidelity (24 percent), and the demands of the husband's job (22.4 percent).

If you can't plant 'em, clone 'em. Nippon Paper Industries has patented a new system to clone trees that cannot ordinarily be cultivated by planting. The system involves attaching and then harvesting grafts from the most productive trees. Cells extracted from newly sprouted leaves are then bred in an enriched carbon environment, resulting in twice the pulp in a fraction of the time achieved by ordinary growth. If the system can be adopted on a large scale, it may someday give the world's shrinking forests a little extra breathing room. The company intends to start experimental testing in Australia from June.

Using simpler but equally creative ideas, Kansai Electric Power announced it is starting a new venture business to collect the wood that drifts into a hydroelectric dam it operates in Toyama Prefecture and process it into sawdust and wood chips. Hey, don't knock it -- the output for the first year alone is expected to reach ¥40 million.

Moo to you too. Mu, the creation of ATR, is billed as the "new communications pet," starting where Sony's Aibo robot dog takes off. The gadget, which looks like a pumpkin with bad hair, incorporates a video camera. It not only rolls its "eyes" in an animated manner, but, thanks to an infrared sensor, automatically tracks the position of whomever it's talking to. ATR claims that Mu "learns" speech from context and is gradually able to call upon its database of some 400 phrases to engage in meaningful conversation. Unfortunately, Mu's Kyoto-based programmers decided against standard Japanese in favor of Osaka-ben. So you'd best speak in dialect, or it might just tell you, Wakarehen yaro na.

To my colleagues who insist they are not moved to write until they've imbibed a stiff drink or two, I note that the Mitsubishi Pencil Co. has just launched new ball-point pen and mechanical pencil models produced from a singular material: wood from the oak kegs used by the Suntory distillery. Appropriately named "Pure Malt," each one features a handsome grain finish imparted by contact with several generations of aging whiskey. At ¥1,000 a piece, they're sure to inspire masterful prose. For those who do their writing at the keyboard, they'll be useful in endorsing royalty checks.

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