Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Concerns about the coming months

My previous post described the situation in Tokyo and explained why I thought there was no reason to leave Tokyo at that time. There have been a couple of developments that are cause for concern though.

Power shortage in eastern Japan

As I mentioned before, residents in the suburbs of Tokyo have been coping with scheduled power cuts. Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) have started publishing their daily electricity demands and capacity. Here's a snapshot for today:

They're updating this in real time. As you can see, the efforts being made to save electricity are paying off. This year's demand is substantially lower than last year's. The corridors in my office are dark, the hand driers are switched off in the toilets and escalators have been cordoned off. However, we're dangerously close to full capacity. Last week, TEPCO issued an emergency warning stating that a power cut could occur at any moment due to high levels of demand. My whole office was told to go home at 4:30pm.

So we're struggling now, and it's only March. Demand for electricity will go through the roof in the summer and TEPCO is already warning that power cuts may occur during the summer months. I am NOT looking forward to relentless 35 degree humidity day and night with no air conditioning. This post at Spike Japan takes a detailed look at the situation and the outlook is not good. In addition to the Fukushima nuclear power plants, there are a large number of other power plants that are no longer functioning. Looking at the numbers, it looks highly unlikely that supply will be able to meet demand in the summer.

Foodstuffs and Drinking Water

With the exception of those living in the immediate vicinity of the Fukushima powerplants, radiation carried through the air has so far been a non-issue. This site has an excellent set of graphs showing radiation readings taken in various locations in Japan. Tokyo appears fine.

Food and drink is another issue. The government has already moved to deal with contaminated milk, spinach and other foods that are produced in Fukushima. Today, the Tokyo water department has stated that infants should not consume tap water due to high levels of radioactive iodine. I have a 9-week-old baby boy. The shelves in supermarkets are already empty most of the time as people buy rice, bread and other basics. Similar panic buying of bottled water could be unpleasant for those with infants.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

To People Worried About Us in Japan

A note to all of my friends who are worrying about us here in Japan.

We seem to be in a situation where the global media coverage has caused more panic abroad than in Japan, which is remarkble. While the concern is touching, my fellow expats in Japan and I are spending a lot of time reassuring friends and family. I'm going to try and write about what things are like over here for us.

For those of us in Tokyo, the earthquake on the 11th did relatively little damage. All of the horrific images and videos that we have seen have come from areas north of Tokyo – specifically the Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima prefectures. Almost all of this damage was done by the tsunami that followed the earthquake, which demolished defenses that had never been designed for such an onslaught.

Life here in Tokyo has mainly been affected by two things.

The first is a power shortage due to power plants outside Tokyo being damaged or taken offline. The nuclear plants in Fukushima are an obvious example. We are all being encouraged to be conservative with our electricity usage and for certain sections of the Tokyo area, scheduled power cuts are taking place. I haven’t experienced one yet. The biggest impact of the power shortage is on the trains. Tokyo’s trains do an outstanding job of transporting a phenomenal number of commuters every day. At my local station at rush hour, a train comes along every couple of minutes. The number of trains running was reduced dramatically on Monday meaning that crowding was severe and it was very hard to get into work. I’m very pleased to report that the situation has improved drastically and most trains are running very well today, two days later.

The second is a succession of aftershock earthquakes that continue to rock eastern Japan. There are a lot of these (maybe 30 a day?) and some of them are quite strong – we had one last night that was magnitude 6.2. They’re very unnerving but none of them have been as powerful as the first earthquake and none of them have caused any damage in Tokyo.

As a result of both of these things, people in Japan are buying all of the rice, noodles, bread etc. available in supermarkets and shops. There are empty shelves everywhere. As a friend of mine said, this is not a food shortage, it’s a food hogg-age. If you arrive at the shop at the right time, just after the shelves are filled, you can get anything you want. If you don’t, they empty quickly. I’m sure this is temporary and will end soon. We are still getting newspapers and deliveries to our house every day, even Monday. Everything works but demand for staples has shot through the roof and supply isn’t catching up.

The final thing I’ll mention concerns the situation with the nuclear power plants. Understandably, everyone is very concerned about this. Unlike an earthquake or a tsunami, the dangers are less visible. At the moment, the situation with the Fukushima reactors is not affecting people in Tokyo at all. There is an evacuation radius of 20km and Tokyo is over 200km away. I know very little about nuclear reactors and their dangers but I see no reason not to believe the official advice being given by the Japanese authorities.

I have heard some rumours that the Japanese authorities are playing down the dangers. Having spent a lot of time in Japan frustrated at the overly worrisome and cautious nature of the Japanese people on so many occasions, the idea that the Japanese authorities suddenly want to take risks with the lives of their people seems absurd to me. The Japanese are the most diligent, conscientious and cautious people I know. I often feel that they are overly so.

Nevertheless, it’s not just the Japanese who think that there is no reason to leave Tokyo or Japan. From the advice issued by the British Foreign Office:
# We are actively monitoring the situation at nuclear facilities and urge British nationals to observe the advice being given by Japanese authorities, including the 20km exclusion zone around the Fukushima facility and to remain indoors, keep windows and doors closed and not use ventilation if you are between 20km and 30km from the facility.  This is consistent with the severity of the reported incidents across reactors numbers one, two, three and four, with the independent information that we have, and with international practice.  We are keeping our advice under constant review, taking into account statements from the Japanese authorities and informed by independent UK scientific and health experts.

# On 15 March the Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir John Beddington, spoke on the Today programme.  He said that this was an entirely different situation from Chernobyl; and that: "the exclusion zone of twenty kilometres… is entirely proportionate."  He stressed that people should not go into the exclusion zone set up by the Japanese authorities.  He went on to say that, apart from those living in the 20 km area around the reactor, there is no real human health issue that people should be concerned about.
Other embassies are issuing similar advice, with the notable exception of the French, who are encouraging people to head west from Tokyo. They have been severely criticized for this attitude but it did occur to me that they are probably more nuclear savvy than most…

UPDATE: A report from a conference call held at the British embassy featuring the chief scientific adviser to the UK government and other experts (Facebook link). I hope something official can be made public soon. Quotes:
* In case of a 'reasonable worst case scenario' (defined as total meltdown of one reactor with subsequent radioactive explosion) an exclusion zone of 30 miles (50km) would be the maximum required to avoid affecting peoples' health. Even in a worse situation (loss of two or more reactors) it is unlikely that the damage would be significantly more than that caused by the loss of a single reactor.

* The current 20km exclusion zone is appropriate for the levels of radiation/risk currently experienced, and if the pouring of sea water can be maintained to cool the reactors, the likelihood of a major incident should be avoided. A further large quake with tsunami could lead to the suspension of the current cooling operations, leading to the above scenario.

* The bottom line is that these experts do not see there being a possibility of a health problem for residents in Tokyo. The radiation levels would need to be hundreds of times higher than current to cause the possibility for health issues, and that, in their opinion, is not going to happen (they were talking minimum levels affecting pregnant women and children - for normal adults the levels would need to be much higher still).
UPDATE 2: The conference call described above has been transcribed and posted on the British Embassy web page. You can read it here.

UPDATE 3 (17 Mar 6:51 JST): US Embassy recommends 80km evacuation radius 

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Getting a SIM card in Japan

After upgrading to the iPhone 4 last year, I had the option of trading my old iPhone 3G for cash. Instead, I decided to keep it so I could jailbreak it and unlock it from Softbank for use abroad. Unlocking the phone means that I can pick up a local SIM card, put it in the phone, and avoid roaming charges that would be incurred if I used my Japanese SIM abroad.

Of course, I would like to take my iPhone 4 abroad but I didn't feel that the upsides of the latest model were worth the risks. If it were possible to unlock my phone without jailbreaking, as it is in several countries, I would have done this. Unfortunately, Softbank does not allow this in Japan...

My family came to visit a few weeks ago and I decided to lend them my old iPhone 3G for their stay. After unlocking it, all I needed to do was find a SIM card for their short stay.

No easy task. I don't think there are any pay-as-you-go SIM cards available for purchase in Japan, especially not with data included. With the help of some friends, I did find a SIM card available for a 1 month contract at b-mobile.

b-mobile use NTT Docomo's network, which has the best coverage of any carrier in Japan. They have lots of different SIM cards available for various time periods and with various levels of service.

I chose this SIM card, which costs JPY 2,980 for 30 days use of data only. No voice or SMS.

Ordering the SIM card was quite easy - I just applied online and put in my credit card details. No English support that I could find but not too hard if you know a bit of Japanese.

The SIM card arrived at my house a few days later. Activating can be tricky though. They give you a number to call which directs you to an automatic touch dial response system with both English and Japanese support. You then have to enter a code found in the package the SIM card came in.

This is all fine but you have to call from the phone that you wish to use with the SIM card you ordered. My iPhone 3G had no SIM card and the SIM card I purchased was data only. How was I going to make a call? I called the help desk (with a different phone) who told me that they would send me an application form IN THE POST! that I would have to fill out and send back to them. I didn't have that kind of time so I told them how inconvenient that was and then hung up.

Instead, I took the SIM card from my wife's iPhone 3GS and put it in my iPhone 3G to call the activation number. I would have used my iPhone 4's SIM card but the iPhone 4 has a micro-sim which doesn't fit in the iPhone 3G.

Everything worked very well after that. In general use, I found that it took a long time to determine your location using GPS. Having GPS and google maps in your pocket is very handy in Tokyo where there are no street names and this was one reason I wanted to sort this out for my family. I suspect the delay is due to the SIM card being data only, meaning that you don't get assisted GPS, which uses nearby mobile phone towers to accelerate the process. Data speeds seemed pretty good - I guess I should have done a speed test, but it didn't cross my mind at the time.

3000 yen for unlimited 3G data use for a month is pretty good in my opinion. Recommended.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A Modification of Rikaichan

How I use Anki

After my brief post on flashcards, I wanted to write about how I use Anki and a new tool that I've created to quickly grab vocab that I read on the web.

First, I'll take an example. I was reading this blogpost.

Let's take this sentence:


and suppose that I don't know the word 作品. This is the information I want:

Word: 作品
Pronunciation: さくひん
Meaning: 製作したもの。
Sentence: でも良い___だと思う。
Gap: 作品
Source: URL to blog post

One of the best features of Anki is that it can take information like this and generate multiple cards. These are the cards that I have set up:

(click to see a larger version)

For the meaning, I tend to use a Japanese definition from an online dictionary because it captures the meaning well and is convenient. An English translation or a picture could also be used.

The source doesn't appear in the flashcards but I store it so I can go and see the context again if I need to.

The most important piece of information is the sentence. When I read it, I'm reminded of why it came up in the original material and it gives the vocab context. I know that I can use the vocab in this situation and the meaning of the word is clear in this context. If I encounter the word in a completely different context where it has a different meaning, I can add flashcards for this too.

You can add a model like this by going to Settings → Deck Properties and either edit one of the existing models or add a new one. You can then add fields for the word, the pronunciation etc. Click on the card templates tab to add the three cards I have. I suggest you look at existing models to get some ideas on how to format your cards. If there's demand, I can make a sample deck available so you can check out the model. [see update]

One big problem with flashcards is the time taken to create them. Am I wasting time creating flashcards, when I could be spending that time doing something else?

In order to solve this problem, I modified the popular extension called Rikaichan so that I could quickly pick up vocab that I read on the web.


Rikaichan is an extension for the Firefox web browser. When you switch it on and hover your mouse cursor over a word, the pronunciation and meaning of the word will appear.

I have modified the extension such that when you have a word highlighted, you can press 's' to save customizable information to a text file. The information you can save is:

The highlighted word
The pronunciation of the word in hiragana
The dictionary lookup of that word (e.g. if the highlighted word is 行きます, this would be 行く)
The sentence the word appears in
The sentence the word appears in with a gap where the word is
English translation of the word from edict
The URL of the web page
A blank space

When you install rikaichan, a small smiley face will appear in the bottom right. You turn it on by clicking on this face. Move your cursor over words on the web page to see the popup.

By right clicking on the face, you can select options. You can choose which information you want to save by choosing the last tab in the options window. You can also choose where to save the text file.

Every time you press 's', your specified pieces of information will be saved to a new line in the text file. The different parts will be separated by tabs by default. You can also copy the data to the clipboard by pressing 'c'.

As you can see from the Anki model I described above, all of the information I need can be automatically saved, apart from the 'Meaning' part. For this part, I use a blank space, and I fill it in later if I need it. Surprisingly, the sentence by itself is often enough for me to remember the word.

At the end of every day at work, I save the text file and then import it into Anki by clicking File → Import...

This allows me to keep a steady stream of new vocab coming into my deck with a minimum of effort.

You can download the modified extension here.

To install, click the link and click 'Allow' when prompted. Alternatively, right click, save target as, then click File -> Open File and select the rikaichan-mod0_50.xpi file you downloaded. After that, you'll need to download the dictionaries here.

If you're using rikaichan already, delete the extension by clicking on Tools -> Add-ons then delete. No need to delete the dictionaries though.

This is a first release so there may be problems. I seriously doubt anything major will happen but I make no guarantees. Download at your own risk and all that.

The method used to fetch the sentence is very basic and I hope to improve it in the future. I've been using it for several weeks now. I use it a lot with Twitter. I chat with a lot of Japanese people and when they say words I don't understand, I click on the link to the tweet, turn on rikaichan, highlight the word and press 's'.

UPDATE: Due to demand in the comments, find a sample Anki deck here. This contains 9 cards for three words I picked up from reading the final blog post of Satoshi Kon.

UPDATE 21 April 2011: Firefox 4 broke the old add-on. Using the update to the original extension, I updated this one too. Here it is. If you have any problems, please leave a comment.

UPDATE 21 June 2011: Update to work with Firefox 5. No changes at all and haven't done much testing. Let me know if there are any problems. 

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Flashcards for learning languages

I've been meaning to write a post about some of the strategies I use to learn Japanese. In my next post I'm going to write about some work I've been doing recently but I thought it would be best to start at the beginning. The below may be old news to some...

I have used flashcards a lot as both an English teacher (several years ago) and as a learner of Japanese. Here's an example of a flashcard:

Aid India - Eureka English Team - Bilingual Body Parts Flashcard - Tongue

I found this one here. It looks like it's a flashcard being used by a learner of English from India. The learner looks at one side of the card, sees the image, tries to remember the English word for it, and then checks the answer on the reverse of the card.

If you make many flashcards, you might have something like this:

I hope I never have to look at these again

Now, here's the problem: You can practice these flashcards whenever you want, but when should you do this? How often? Which cards?

One attempt at answering these questions was given by Sebastian Leitner in 1970. He proposed a system where you get a number of boxes and line them up. You put all the cards in box 1. Cards in box 1 are reviewed often, maybe every day. Cards in box 2 are reviewed less often, maybe every 3 days. Cards in box 3 even less - maybe every 10 days. etc.

If you answer a card correctly, it moves to the second box. If you answer the card correctly again, it moves to the third box etc. If you get any card wrong, it goes back to the first box.

Wikipedia Article on Leitner System

The general principle is that you spend less time looking at cards you know well and more time looking at cards you find difficult. In this way, you maximize the amount that you remember, and minimize the amount of work you need to do. This general technique is called Spaced Repetition.

Leitner's system is a simple example of Spaced Repetition. More sophisticated techniques ask how easy it was to recall the answer. Was it hard, normal or easy? If it was easy, the card gets scheduled for review very far into the future. Difficult cards are scheduled sooner.

Anki Screenshot

Of course, computer software is very good at organising this for you. There are many flashcard programs out there and many of them use Spaced Repitition. I've used quite a few of them but 3 years ago I started using Anki, and I'm still using it today.

If you want to find out about Anki, I recommend watching the introductory videos on the website.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Mr. and Mrs. Wright Search for the Right Baby Name

My wife and I are struggling to find a name for our baby, due in January. Boys names are particularly difficult if you're looking for a name that works in both Japanese and English. We don't know the sex of our baby yet but if it's a boy, we may struggle.

My wife really liked the name "Sky" because it sounds nice in Japanese - スカイ - and you can choose some beautiful kanji for it:

澄 meaning "clear" or "translucent" and

海 meaning "the sea"

So 澄海 could be a way to write the name Sky, meaning a clear sea, which is a lovely image for the sky.

Very poetic. However, I've never heard of the name in English and I'd rather not imitate the Hollywood couples that give their kids very strange names.

But then I remembered the Isle of Skye, a beautiful island off the coast of Scotland. I thought that if we spelled the name "Skye", then I might be willing to concede the weirdness point in order to insert some Scottish influence. Ridiculous, I know.

But then it dawned on me. For the Japanese, the L sound and the R sound are indistinguishable. A "light" is pronounced in exactly the same way as my surname, "Wright". Indeed, lights are often called ライト (raito) and this is exactly the same as my surname. A source of much amusement for our friends and the butt of many a joke at our wedding.

If we named our child Sky Wright, it would inevitably be pronounced Sky Light in Japanese.

Back to drawing board.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Chocolate Sparkling

In my continuing quest to try all of the strange and wonderful drinks that come out here in Japan, this morning I spotted a new one in a vending machine on the street.

Chocolate Sparkling. Imagine putting some poor quality chocolate in your mouth and then taking a swig of soda water. That's exactly how it tastes.

Verdict: horrible.