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Tag: Japan

Tipping is Stupid

Maybe its because I miss Japan, a land with a culture which prides itself on extremely good service but where tipping is practically unheard of (also where I just spent two weeks on my honeymoon). But, lately, I’ve been thinking that tipping is stupid.

    • I’ve found that, except in rare instances of extremely good or extremely bad service, the amount of tip given has almost nothing to do with the quality of service – which makes it a terrible system for rewarding good service and punishing bad service.
    • It feels horribly arbitrary who and how much you tip. Why do we tip the bagboy but not the people who work at the front desk? Why do we tip cab drivers but not a airplane pilot or a flight attendant? And just how much are we supposed to tip? Why 15% at restaurants…? What about cabs? Bellboys?
    • It encourages establishments to pay their employees less, and to be less smart about how they pay their employees. At the end of the day, I tip because I know the recipients tend to be in professions which count on tips for a substantial portion of their income. But this fact begs the question: why should this come in the form of a tip as opposed to a proper wage? After all, employers are in a far better position to have a holistic view on which employees to compensate and how much to insure good service – and why that should be left to the whims of different customer moods and mores is beyond me.

Much to my delight and surprise, while driving home from work, I had the chance to listen to a great story about an establishment called Sushi Yasuda in Manhattan on APM’s Marketplace (the podcast I turn to for news). The quote which caught my attention:

Following the custom in Japan, Sushi Yasuda’s service staff are fully compensated by their salary. Therefore gratuities are not accepted. Thank you.

[Emphasis mine] And, is Sushi Yasuda suffering from bad food and poor service? 987 reviews on Yelp suggest otherwise.

I personally plan to swing by the next time I’m in New York, but I’m hoping more restaurants embrace Sushi Yasuda’s example of paying their workers better and abolishing what, to me, seems like an archaic and irrational practice.

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Trip to Taiwan

In late March, I had a chance to take a one week trip with my parents to Taiwan. I’ve posted some of the pictures I took on Google+ (I’ll get around to properly captioning them at some point), but the trip was very meaningful for me as it was my first trip back to “the motherland” in over twenty years.

830DD97C-8BDE-4594-BBB8-48741A40EEC9Being able to see relatives I hadn’t seen in many years (some, like my grandparents, who probably don’t have much time left in this world), hear their stories about me as a baby, see sights that I have only the faintest memory of (now from a completely different vantage point), be able to actually visit the graves of my relatives/ancestors and participate in traditional ancestor worship rituals, and visit places that I had only seen in photos was very moving. And, while it was a tiring trip (I think I got way less sleep during this “vacation” than I would have in a normal week), its one that I enjoyed greatly (see picture left :-)).

Word of advice to those who want to visit Taiwan: March is a great time – warm and humid, but not excessively so :-).

As for why you should visit Taiwan sometime? Here’s a quick bullet list:

    • Huge swaths of the island are virtually untouched by people – this is one of the few places where you can have a pure tropical environment
    • Delicious (and cheap) fruit and gorgeous butterflies (consequence of the tropical thing)
    • Excellent (and cheap) food  — especially in the night street markets
    • Very easy to get around – they borrowed Japan’s penchant for labeling everything and also Japan’s pretty effective and ubiquitous public transit
    • The National Palace Museum houses some of the finest Chinese art you’ll ever see
    • There are some very gorgeous locations to see: Taroko National Park, Alishan Mountain, temples galore, etc

So go: support the tourism industry of the place I came from :-).

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Do you have the guts for nori?

The paper I will talk about this month is from April of this year and highlights the diversity of our “gut flora” (a pleasant way to describe the many bacteria which live in our digestive tract and help us digest the food we eat). Specifically, this paper highlights how a particular bacteria in the digestive tracts of some Japanese individuals has picked up a unique ability to digest certain certain sugars which are common in marine plants (e.g., Porphyra, the seaweed used to make sushi) but not in terrestrial plants.

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Interestingly, the researchers weren’t originally focused on how gut flora at all, but in understanding how marine bacteria digested marine plants. They started by studying a particular marine bacteria, Z. galactanivorans which was known for its ability to digest certain types of algae. Scanning the genome of Z., the researchers were able to identify a few genes which were similar enough to known sugar-digesting enzymes but didn’t seem to have the ability to act on the “usual plant sugars”.

Two of the identified genes, which they called PorA and PorB, were found to be very selective in the type of plant sugar they digested. In the chart below (from Figure 1), 3 different plants are characterized along a spectrum showing if they have more LA (4-linked 3,6-anhydro-a-L-galactopyranose) chemical groups (red) or L6S (4-linked a-L-galactopyranose-6-sulphate) groups (yellow). Panel b on the right shows the H1-NMR spectrum associated with these different sugar mixes and is a chemical technique to verify what sort of sugar groups are present.

These mixes were subjected to PorA and PorB as well as AgaA (a sugar-digesting enzyme which works mainly on LA-type sugars like agarose). The bar charts in the middle show how active the respective enzymes were (as indicated by the amount of digested sugar that came out):

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As you can see, PorA and PorB are only effective on L6S-type sugar groups, and not LA-type sugar groups. The researchers wondered if they had discovered the key class of enzyme responsible for allowing marine life to digest marine plant sugars and scanned other genomes for other enzymes similar to PorA and PorB. What they found was very interesting (see below, from Figure 3):

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What you see above is an evolutionary family tree for PorA/PorB-like genes. The red and blue boxes represent PorA/PorB-like genes which target “usual plant sugars”, but the yellow show the enzymes which specifically target the sugars found in nori (Porphyra, hence the enzymes are called porhyranases). All the enzymes marked with solid diamonds are actually found in Z. galactanivorans (and were henced dubbed PorC, PorD, and PorE – clearly not the most imaginative naming convention). The other identified genes, however, all belonged to marine bacteria… with the notable exception of Bateroides plebeius, marked with a open circle. And Bacteroides plebeius (at least to the knowledge of the researchers at the time of this publication) has only been found in the guts of certain Japanese people!

The researchers scanned the Bacteroides plebeius genome and found that the bacteria actually had a sizable chunk of genetic material which were a much better match for marine bacteria than other similar Bacteroides strains. The researchers concluded that the best explanation for this is that the Bacteroides plebeius picked up its unique ability to digest marine plants not on its own, but from marine bacteria (in a process called Horizontal Gene Transfer or HGT), most probably from bacteria that were present on dietary seaweed. Or, to put it more simply: your gut bacteria have the ability to “steal” genes/abilities from bacteria on the food we eat!

Cool! While this is a conclusion which we can probably never truly *prove* (its an informed hypothesis based on genetic evidence), this finding does make you wonder if a similar genetic screening process could identify if our gut flora have picked up any other genes from “dietary bacteria.”

(Image credit – Nori rolls) (Figures from paper)

Paper: Hehemann et al, “Transfer of carbohydrate-active enzymes from marine bacteria to Japanese gut microbiota.” Nature 464: 908-912 (Apr 2010) – doi:10.1038/nature08937

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Nokia Conducting Search for a New CEO

Very provocative headline for an interesting WSJ piece:

“They are serious about making a change,” one person familiar with the matter said. Nokia board members are “supposed to make a decision by the end of the month,” that person said.

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They should be very serious about making a change – its been disappointment after disappointment at the former Finnish phone giant (and its stock price, see above). But, this gives me a great chance to play $100-armchair CEO. So, what would I do if I was in the big chair at Nokia? I’d be focusing on three things:

  • Change the OS approach: With Nokia’s next OS Symbian^3 delayed and widely perceived to be inadequate, you really need to question the ability of Nokia to keep up in the industry-shaking smartphone platform war. In particular, Nokia’s challenge is that its attempting to take a software platform built to enable carrier services and high reliability on lower-end phones that weren’t meant to run software and somehow force it into achieving the same high-end software functionality that Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android provide. While there’s nothing that says this is impossible, this is an order of magnitude more difficult than Apple/Google’s initial problem of just creating a software platform without the burden of any legacy constraints/approaches, and, in an industry as fast-moving and disruptive as the smartphone space, that’s two orders of magnitude too many, invites all sorts of risk with no clear reward, and discards Nokia’s traditional strengths in wireless communications R&D and solid hardware design. What does that mean? Three things:
    • Re-tool Symbian for the low-end to be more like Qualcomm’s BREW (or heck, maybe even adopt BREW?): an operating system focused on enabling carrier/simple software services on the many featurephones out there. That category is Nokia’s (and Symbian’s) traditional strength, and that’s where Symbian can still add a lot of value and find a lot of support.
    • image In the mid-market (high-end featurephone/low-end smartphones), I’d tell Nokia to bite the bullet and adopt Android. Not only is it free, but it immediately levels the software playing field between Nokia and the numerous  OEMs who are itching to adopt Android allowing Nokia’s traditional strength in hardware design to win over.
    • imageIn the high-end, Nokia should go all-in with Intel on their joint MeeGo platform. In that space, Nokia needs a killer platform to disrupt Google/Apple’s hold on the market, and MeeGo is probably the only operating system left which might contest Android and iOS and drive the convergence of mobile devices with traditional computers that this category is pushing towards.
    • Double-down on Qt to make it easier for developers to “develop for Nokia”. A few years ago, Nokia bought Trolltech which had created a programming framework called Qt (pronounced “cute”). Qt had gained significant traction with developres as it made it easier to make a graphical user interface which ran across multiple devices and operating systems. This is a key asset which Nokia has tried to use to make MeeGo and Symbian more attractive (and which is probably one of the main reasons both OS’s still have reasonable levels of developer interest; although, interestingly, there has been an effort to bring Qt over to Android), but it needs to be emphasized even more if Nokia wants to stay in the game.
  • Pick your battles wisely: It is entirely possible that Nokia has lost the high-end smartphone battle in the US and Europe (even despite the operating system approach laid out above). But, even if Nokia was forced to completely cede that market, its not the end of the war – its simply the loss of a few (albeit important) battlegrounds. Nokia is still well-positioned to win out in a number of other markets:
    • image The featurephone world: Many of us tech aficionados often forget that, despite all the buzz that the iPhone and the Droid devices generate, smartphones actually make up a very small unit base. Featurephones are still the vast majority of the volume (for cost reasons) and, as devices like the iPhone continue to capture mindshare, there will be significant value in helping featurephones imitate some of the functionality that smartphones have. While it is true that Moore’s Law makes it easier for high-end operating systems like iOS and Android to be run on tomorrow’s featurephones, the incentives of Apple and Google are to probably better aligned with taking their mobile operating systems up-market (towards higher-end devices and computers) rather than down-market (towards feature phones) to chase higher margins and to continue to build highly optimized performance machines. So, given Nokia/Symbian’s traditional strength in building good devices with good support for carrier services, its natural for Nokia to solidify its ownership of the feature phone market and to emulate some of the functionality of higher-end devices.
    • Emerging markets: This is related to the previous bullet point, but much of the developing world is now seeing vast value in simply adopting basic services and software on their (by Western standards) very low-end phones. As banking systems and computer availability are extremely limited in Africa and parts of Asia, this represents an enormous opportunity for someone like Nokia who has spent years making their phones capable of mobile payment, geolocation, and carrier-enabled services. Couple this with the fact that there is enormous growth waiting to happen in markets like India, China, and Africa (where cell phone penetration is nowhere near as high as in the US), and you have the makings of a potential end-game strategy which could offset short-term setbacks in the US/European smartphone market.
    • image Japan: While Europe and the US are eagerly adopting smartphones (as in phones with rich operating systems), Japan has been a laggard due to differences in the carrier/vendor/services environment. While its been difficult for foreign companies to break into Japan, the recent technology deal between Japanese semiconductor company Renesas and Nokia might provide an interesting “foot in the door” for Nokia to enter a large market where its weakness in software is not so much of a hindrance and its strengths in hardware/willingness to play nice with carriers are a big asset. This is in no way a slam-dunk, but its definitely worth considering.
  • Figure out the key ecosystem player(s) to partner with: The previous two bullet points were mainly tactical suggestions – what to do in the short-run and how to do it. This last bullet point is aimed at the strategic level – or, in other words, how does Nokia influence the creation of a market environment which leads to its long-term success. To do this, it needs to figure out who it wants to be and what it wants the mobile phone industry to look like when all is said and done. I don’t have a clear answer/vision here, but I’d say Nokia should think about partnering with:
    • Carriers: Although Apple/Android have had to play nice with the carriers to get their devices out, the carriers probably see the writing on the wall. If smartphone platforms continue to gain traction, there is significant risk that the carriers themselves will simply become the “dumb pipes” that the platforms run on (in the same way that  internet service providers like AOL rapidly became unimportant to the user experience and purchasing decision). Nokia has an opportunity to play against that and to help bring the carriers back to the table as a driving force by helping the carriers expose new revenue streams/services (which Nokia could take a cut of) and by building more carrier-friendly software/devices which help with coming bandwidth issues.
    • image Retailers/Mobile commerce intermediaries: One of the emerging application cases which is particularly interesting is the use of mobile phones for the buying and selling of goods. This is something which is extremely nascent but has a huge opportunity as mobile commerce can do something that traditional desktop-bound eCommerce can’t: it can bridge the gap between pixels on the screen and actual real-world shopping. It can be used as a mobile coupon/payment platform. It’s camera and GPS enables augmented reality functionality which can let shoppers look up information about a product without having to type in search-strings. It can be used to provide stores with more information about a shopper, letting them tailor new ad campaigns and marketing efforts. I haven’t run the math to build a forecast, but there’s good reason to believe that this could be the application for mobile phones. While Nokia may have to cede application/ad revenue to Google/Apple, it may be able to eke out a nice chunk of profit (maybe even bigger than the one Google/Apple can get) from focusing on this particular need case instead.

Obviously, none of these are guaranteed home-runs, but if I were a Nokia shareholder, I’d hope that the next Nokia CEO does something along the lines of this. And, yes, I’d be willing to accept $100 (and “some” stock) to be Nokia’s CEO and implement this :-).

(Image credit – Business Insider) (Image credit – Android logo) (Image credit – MeeGo logo) (Image credit – feature phone montage) (Image credit – Japanese phones) (Image credit – Mobile coupon)

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Suggestion to American TV studios

The past few weeks I’ve been eagerly watching a variety of Japanese television, and I noticed something very peculiar (for an American).

The few Japanese dramas I’ve seen actually end. They build to an end and then just stop. They don’t drag it out for season after season, allowing different seasons to suffer based on actor/actress-negotiations and writers having off-years. They don’t end on ridiculous season cliffhanger-after-season cliffhanger. They have  a well-defined endpoint and, by building to it, they keep the story fresh and force it to have a suitable length.

This isn’t to say that the Japanese dramas I’ve seen don’t go on for multiple seasons. But, I would assert that sequels (should) only happen when there is sufficient audience demand for one and when the storytellers think they have another story to tell.

Contrast that with American TV – the seasons are built not for any plot reason, but because a TV studio needs to have sufficient content to fill the months of September to May/June. Seasons are renewed, not because of a deep creative reason or even necessarily because of audience demand, but because of a misguided sense of momentum. This doesn’t always turn into a disaster (I believe House MD, despite its traditional  has maintained a reasonable level of quality each season through the quality of its casting and writing), but even series that I thoroughly enjoy like Smallville have had their fair share of “useless filler” episodes and bad seasons.

In my humble opinion, it’d be far better to adopt the miniseries format. It prevents writers from creating ridiculous plot devices to keep a story going way past its prime (and past when its actors begin leaving for greener pastures), and it maintains a quality of production which only a purpose-driven creative process can lead to.

Given the challenges of the TV business, I’d say its at least worth a shot for an American TV studio to try.

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Just a bad situation

The recent Economist piece on the situation in North Korea is simultaneously a good read and also incredibly depressing. From my read, the following chart is pretty much the “million dollar slide” which explains why the situation in North Korea is so grim:

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The figure highlights the bind that the US, South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia find themselves in:

  • Massive human suffering demands some sort of action. To quote the Economist: “[Missionaries allowed in the country] say they can see with their own eyes that the level of hunger has become considerably worse in the past few years—in a country where famine led to the deaths of some 1m people, or nearly 5% of the population, in the 1990s. For instance, one man who works there says the number of orphans has surged recently as hunger has claimed their parents’ lives.”
  • North Korea may be on the verge of collapse/civil war. If the collapsing economy weren’t enough, North Korea watchers suspect that the dictator Kim Jong Il’s recent health problems and an uncertain succession means there could be significant internal turmoil once Kim dies. Worse, that turmoil could spill outwards as demagogues finally decide to attack the pretend “South Korean threat” the North Korean government has used for years to justify their power.
  • It is almost inconceivable how much it will cost/how long it will take to “rehabilitate” North Korea. The economic gap is so enormous that its been estimated the cost of “absorbing” North Korea into South Korea would run near $1 trillion for over 40 years. Not to mention, neither China nor South Korea seem willing (let alone able) to take on the waves of North Korean refugees that a collapse in the North Korean regime would bring about.
  • There are no real plans on what to do if/when North Korea fails. How would you handle refugees? How would you handle which military forces are to preserve law and security? How would you handle which parts of the North Korean state to preserve, which to abolish, and which to reform? How would you handle the nuclear materials and huge amounts of arms that are there? If you thought the post-war planning in Iraq was bad, you ain’t seen nothing yet – and this problem touches not just South Korea and the US, but China, Japan, and Russia as well.

You can’t possibly want the current regime to continue, but the alternative seems just as bad. One hopes the international community figures out a way to safely navigate the two extremes.

(Graph credit – Economist)

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QR^2?

When I was in Japan a few years ago, I was astounded by the abundance of square blocks of black dots (see below) on advertising and print which I later found out were called QR codes. The concept is actually quite ingenious. A standard barcode can only store so much information in the thickness and positioning of the barcode lines because its a one-dimensional code. But a two-dimensional QR code can store a ton more data. This makes it possible to store long web addresses, include error detection/correction methods, and even embed text information in more sophisticated languages (like Japanese).

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QR codes have slowly been increasing in adoption in the US and Europe as phone camera/image recognition technology has improved to meet their Japanese counterparts. But, Microsoft decided to take the technology one step further: instead of just being black and white blobs, why not introduce greater customization, tracking ability, and a little color?

Behold, Microsoft Tag (HT: Register). The main visual difference you’ll see are the availability of color and custom designs:

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Underneath the surface lies a bunch of other enhancements, including:

  • Support across most major phone brands
  • Tag manager to provide analytics information on how people are reading your tags
  • API to allow developers access to the tag manager
  • Allows you to change Tag behavior based on a user’s previous tag viewing history or even the user’s location
  • New error correction/color allow for smaller tags and better translation

The question is, will businesses use it? On a basic execution level, the Register brings up the potential problem of recognition. As ugly and clunky as “vanilla” QR codes are, they are very distinctive. Will it still be easy to identify Microsoft’s smaller, customized in-color boxes as codes to scan?

On a business-level, the biggest problem is that “Vanilla” QR codes do quite well in terms of functionality already. Microsoft will need to provide significant value-add in their tag manager/API/customization features to get businesses to switch to a format that Redmond has control over. Given Microsoft’s strengths in software, I’m also astonished they didn’t build in more functionality to make it an easier sell (such as the ability to embed more sophisticated instructions in the codes, or to run specific software/pass specific information when used in a certain context) – a future enhancement, perhaps?

With that said, those who rely on advertising to make a living may find it pretty easy to hand over the reins to a well-put-together Microsoft project as a hedge on their increasing dependence on Google and Apple for their livelihoods. In any event, there’s probably no harm in downloading the reader on your phone or checking out the Microsoft Tag website.

(Image credits – Microsoft Tag website)

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One Man’s Sewage

image image … is another man’s gold.

Every investor dreams to find something that nobody wants (and hence are willing to part with cheaply) and be able to turn it into something that everyone wants (and hence something you can sell for a lot). Well, a prefecture in Japan stumbled on just that. From the always amusing Reuter’s Oddly Enough:

A sewage treatment facility in central Japan has recorded a higher gold yield from sludge than can be found at some of the world’s best mines. An official in Nagano prefecture, northwest of Tokyo, said the high percentage of gold found at the Suwa facility was probably due to the large number of precision equipment manufacturers in the vicinity that use the yellow metal. The facility recently recorded finding 1,890 grammes of gold per tonne of ash from incinerated sludge.

That is a far higher gold content than Japan’s Hishikari Mine, one of the world’s top gold mines, owned by Sumitomo Metal Mining Co Ltd, which contains 20-40 grammes of the precious metal per tonne of ore.

(Image credit – gold) (Image credit – sewage)

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Independent Taiwan

image As many of this blog’s readers know, I was born in Taiwan but raised in the United States. I am a bit ashamed to admit this, but it wasn’t until college that I began to get a real sense of what being Taiwanese meant – the culture, the history, the customs. Sadly, it wasn’t until I started doing research on technology companies that I got a sense of the importance of Taiwan in the global economy.

And it wasn’t until even more recently that I got a real sense of Taiwanese politics. Taiwan is basically split between two parties, the Kuomintang (KMT) – the party of Chiang Kai-shek – and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

Technically, if one were to classify the two parties in Western terms, the KMT would count as the “conservative/right-wing” party and the DPP would be the “liberal/left-wing” party. But, while this difference is real, the main issue that divides the two parties is their stance on Taiwanese “independence”.

The reason I put “independence” in quotes is because the subject is a very nuanced one. Currently, Taiwan is in a state of de facto independence. Although neither China nor the United States will go so far as to say it openly, there is fairly wide acceptance that the Taiwanese government is “sovereign” in the sense that its democratic government rules Taiwan without any real question. The “independence” that divides the KMT and the DPP, however, goes beyond this independent-even-though-nobody-will-say-it status quo. It’s the question of whether or not Taiwan is truly a separate political and cultural entity from China altogether. And, because of the KMT’s origins in China, the KMT is the party which most favors reconciliation with China and greater integration, while the DPP favors stronger terms of independence.

And, while I have many problems with the DPP’s positions and base of support, I am completely opposed to the KMT party line for four main reasons:

  1. The government of Mainland China is a repressive regime with little regard for human rights. The only way I can even begin to understand why people would think that Taiwan would be better off as a part of China is if they didn’t pay attention to the news: Tibet, Tiananmen Square, Uighur Muslims, silencing of political protest, disregard for the health of their own people and trading partners, excessive pollution, support for genocide, the list goes on and on. Yes, plenty of other countries have their fair share of human rights issues, and it’s a perfectly valid point to say that Taiwan at various stages of its past had similar problems which they eventually solved, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Chinese government today is less desirable than an open, democratic one, and anyone who thinks that Taiwan ought to subject itself to such a rule either has no clear idea what the Chinese government has been up to or has something against Taiwanese freedom.
  2. A not-very-similar society and culture is hardly a reason for Taiwan to belong to China. To say that Taiwan ought to reunite with China because of strong cultural ties would be the same as arguing that the United States and India should be colonies of Great Britain. Yes, they speak the same language (although there are many in Taiwan who prefer Taiwanese or Japanese), and some of the same pop music is played in both countries (Asian pop superstar Jay Chou is from Taiwan), but that’s hardly a decent reason to just surrender one’s national identity and government to someone else, especially when the cultures (e.g. phrases, foreign influences, even the writing of characters) have several big differences.
  3. The KMT has a murderous history which the people of Taiwan should imagewant to distance themselves from. This will piss off many KMT, but Chiang Kai-Shek was a contemptible man who butchered his own people and let them starve while he enriched himself. When the Chinese people turned against him and sided with Mao Zedong’s Communists, instead of learning from his mistakes, Chiang repeated them on the island of Taiwan, installing a brutal military rule. The KMT seized all available property and, during the infamous 2-28 incident, butchered political dissidents and native Taiwanese. For years, they suppressed the local culture/dialect, demanding instead that students be educated as if they were mainlanders (Chiang’s plan all along was to re-take the mainland). That the KMT wants to look backwards on these “good old days” strikes me as a somewhat ridiculous basis for foreign policy (not to mention the irony of the party of Chiang Kai-Shek wanting to negotiate “surrender” with the party of Mao Zedong).
  4. The best way to improve Taiwanese economic growth is in achieving independence. KMT supporters oftentimes float the idea that the Taiwanese economy depends on tighter integration with China. While this is certainly true, there is nothing which says that more trade and immigration between China and Taiwan has to mean that Taiwan becomes a part of China. France and Germany have more or less completely free trade and immigration, yet you would be hard-pressed to find a Frenchman who thinks that France should be made a part of Germany. On the contrary, because of Taiwan’s dependence on trade, the issue of independence is especially important. How do you trade or do business when no countries recognize your laws or authority? How do you flourish when few will grant visas to your businesspeople? When your customers find it difficult to travel into your country? Or when pressure by China can cause your telephone area codes to suddenly change?

imageThe DPP, in my opinion, is a backwards party content to play class and identity politics (fomenting racial/cultural backlash against the mainland and the wealthier, more cosmopolitan base of the KMT), argue over trivial things like the official flag of the country (one such example is to the left) and whether or not the map of Taiwan should be depicted with North-South on the vertical or the horizontal axis (to de-emphasize their location next to China), and play to narrow-minded anti-trade/anti-immigration isolationists.

But, despite all of this, I believe that the issue of the hour for Taiwan is independence. And I believe that, because of Taiwan’s relative strength and China’s focus today on economic growth and integration with the global political community, the time for pushing independence is now. Maybe, later, when the need for independence is less and when (hopefully) China becomes more democratic and open, the dialogue and the priorities might change. But, until then, I see the DPP representing the lesser of two evils.

(Image source)

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They Do Things Differently in Japan

As I’ve mentioned before, my current client is a large tech company who is asking us for strategic guidance. It is no wonder, then, that I have spent a fair amount of time looking at the major Japanese tech companies who, at times, seem to have a stranglehold over the global technology industry.

imageThese companies are very interesting and very distinct from most American corporate models for a number of reasons.

The first is they tend to be organized as enormous monolithic conglomerates. A company like Sony manufactures way more than just Playstations, they also manufacture LCDs, home appliances, and even sell financial service! And this is not atypical. Most of these corporate entities are huge umbrella companies overseeing several enormous and seemingly un-related divisions. Epson, in addition to making printers, are also in the business of manufacturing semiconductors, corrective lenses, and watches! Japanese companies also tend to be very stubborn about selling off divisions, even going so far as to retain majority share ownership even if they do “sell off” divisions!

While there are some Western companies organized in this fashion (GE comes to mind), it is usually accepted in the West that management’s ability to maximize the potential of completely separate businesses is oftentimes severely limited. This “business principle” explains two interesting phenomena. First, it shows why businesses divesting themselves of poorly performing divisions oftentimes improves the financial position of both the parent company AND the spun out group (management can better focus on one core business rather than several). And secondly, it underscores how mergers & acquisitions oftentimes fail — diversify your business too much, and you spread your management’s ability to drive performance too thin.

The other very quirky thing that I noticed about publicly traded Japanesimagee companies almost universally is that their annual reports always have a section in the front which is basically an interview with senior management complete with “candid” photos like this one with Epson President Seiji Hanaoka.

The interviews are usually soft-ball questions (“you are so awesome — why is that?”) fielded to smiling executive (“because I think my losses aren’t so bad this year!”) who are sitting in front of either some blurry, beautiful looking scenery (like Mr. Hanaoka above) or in front of some display with their products or in some cushy corporate lounge spot like with these happy Sony execs.

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It almost makes you think that working in Japanese company is a non-hierarchical, fun, easy-going environment where you can still go home and see your wife.

With that said, it should be remembered that despite my good-natured joking, these companies are major powerhouses in the technology industry (just how important is that American work-life balance?) and that the quality of information and insight in their annual reports (and some would argue their corporate performance) do not suffer as a result of these quirks. If anything, it suggests that they take their jobs very seriously.

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Taiwan and Japan

It is no surprise that many Asian countries are wary of Japan. After all Japan, until 1945, exerted strong military control over much of Eastern Asia. In light of this, what is very surprising is how Taiwan does not share in this negative opinion despite being a colony of Japan for 50 years.

Instead, as this video (complete with cute animations summarizing the Nationalist-Communist rivalry) shows, Taiwan almost seems to embrace the Japanese influence which helped shape its cultural and economic heritage. The video starts with an elderly Taiwanese woman speaking fluently in Japanese about her admiration of Japan to a group of Japanese students and later cuts to clips of various Taiwanese using Japanese sayings and sentences:

Why does Taiwan’s view of Japan clash so much with the views of other Asian countries? The video describes some of it, but in a nutshell, the historical context:

  • Japan built Taiwan’s economic infrastructure (roads, hospitals, buildings, etc.)
  • Japan imposed mandatory education on all Taiwanese citizens — boosting literacy and education in Taiwan and making it such that, even today, there are some Taiwanese who are better able to speak Japanese than they are able to speak Mandarin (my late Grandmother on my father’s side is one example — who actually tried to teach herself English using Japanese syllables as a guide)
  • The Japanese, through a policy called “Three Bad Practices”, helped to reduce Opium addiction, foot binding, and the wearing of the queue (a symbol of Manchu dominance over the “Han Chinese”)
  • Although limited, Japan opened Taiwan up to foreign art forms such as Western painting and cinema
  • Japan did not practice as heavy-handed a rule over the Taiwanese as they did to other Asian countries and were, instead, hoping to integrate Taiwan and its people into the Japanese empire (my Grandmother on my mother’s side once noted that Japanese soldiers in Taiwan were viewed by many to be effective and reliable deterrents to crime)

The results?

  1. Japan’s investments in Taiwan allowed it to become one of the fastest growing economies in the post-War period (a product of the high literacy rate, high quality education, excellent economic infrastructure, in-place banking system, etc.).
  2. Japanese influence has produced a Taiwanese culture that is very distinct from that of Mainland China’s in its inclusion of many Japanese and Western influences.
  3. The result is that Taiwanese lack the enmity and suspicion towards Japan which is much more characteristic of the Korean and Mainland Chinese people.

The video ends with the narrator noting that it is a shame that, despite the affinity that Taiwan seems to show for Japan, the two countries currently do not have official diplomatic relations. I think it’s a shame too.

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