How to Pick Names

I had a new student today, who wrote an essay about a professor of robotics at Tsukuba University, who has designed a powered exoskeleton called HAL, and founded a company called Cyberdyne, Inc, to work on cybernetics, robotics, and medical engineering. All for the good of humanity, it says on the home page.

Mother-Child Health Record Book

The Mother-Child Health Record Book is a small book issued to all pregnant women by the Japanese government. The actual records go in the first half, which is set by the national government, while the second half, written by the local government, contains additional useful information for parents-to-be. The book covers the time from becoming pregnancy until the child starts elementary school at six, and has been part of the Japanese system for years; Yuriko’s mother had one for her, for example. I suspect that the content has changed, however.

It tells the mother when she should go to see the doctor during pregnancy, and when the child should have check-ups afterwards. It also contains a list of questions about the child’s development, which includes questions to check for hearing and visual problems early on, something I gather from one of the books I read is very important. There are graphs for recording the child’s height, weight, and head size, showing the mid range and with notes about how far outside the normal range the child needs to be before you start worrying. It also covers vaccinations, and dentistry.

The second half includes basic advice on raising a child: breastfeeding is best, the father should be involved, discipline should not involve hitting, friends are good. It seems pretty uncontroversial stuff, and generally supportive of families with two involved parents. It does, however, seem to assume that situation, which tells us something about the social situation in Japan. Basically, it’s probably still reasonable to assume that children will be raised in a two-parent family here, although I’m not sure how long that will remain true.

The book is issued by the local government when the woman goes to tell them that she’s pregnant. At least in Kawasaki, it also comes with a stack of other literature, which I haven’t read yet (although Yuriko has). This includes information about the government financial assistance for mothers. All the obstetric clinics, I believe, tell women to get their record books very early, because it includes vouchers for some free examinations.

I think this is a brilliant idea. It gets the necessary basic information into the hands of every mother, and I think most, if not all, women read it. According to Yuriko, when she looks in maternity sections of shops, there are lots of cloth covers available for the book; it seems to be a fairly important part of child-bearing culture here. I don’t know whether anywhere else does something similar, but if they don’t, I think they probably should.

After all, children don’t otherwise come with a manual.

Earthquake, but not here

As people are likely to hear from the news, there was a big earthquake in Japan this morning, a bit over an hour ago. However, it was in Ishikawa-ken, which is the other side of the country from Tokyo, so we hardly felt it. (Go west across the width of Japan; that’s Ishikawa-ken, roughly.) So, we’re fine. The first reports on how people in Ishikawa-ken are are still coming in, though, so I don’t know how they are.

Walking to Shibuya

Yesterday I walked to Shibuya.

All told, it took me about four hours, but that included popping into a couple of shrines I passed on the way, and a shop, and getting a bit lost around the Tama river, and eating lunch just as I arrived in Shibuya. Looking at the map, it’s about ten miles from here to there, so three hours for the actual walking bit is probably about right. I definitely noticed that I had to slow down a bit after an hour and a half, as my legs were starting to ache.

Now, the obvious question would be “why?”, given that there’s a perfectly good train service to Shibuya, and it isn’t even that expensive. Basically, I felt like going for a longer walk than normal, the weather was good, and going to Shibuya meant that I could eat at the other end and get the train back. It was also a good way to get a feeling for the geography of Kawasaki and Tokyo along a route I use a lot. I did notice that, when it’s just me, it doesn’t actually take me much longer to walk to Mizonokuchi station than it takes to get the bus, once you figure in time spent waiting, so I may do that more often in future. Walking to Shibuya, however, is likely to be just this once. The walk was fun, but I think I’ll head in different directions if I do it again.

I didn’t see any terribly exciting things on the way; I was following a main road, rather than get lost down back streets that didn’t link up, so there were a lot of shops, a large park left over from the Tokyo Olympics, a few shrines and temples, and quite a lot of residential areas. But then, it was just nice to walk through Tokyo, on a pleasant day.

I did get the train back, however.

The Kawasaki City Representative Assembly for Foreign Residents

Today I went to observe a meeting of the Kawasaki City Representative Assembly for Foreign Residents. I mentioned going to the open meeting in my diary back in December, and after that I felt that I wanted to see what a normal meeting was like. My original plan was to go in January, but that was the day I had to go to the hospital with Yuriko, so it didn’t happen. Today was the next meeting (they’re normally once per month), so I did go along.

There were a few general announcements, but for the most part the assembly split into two sub groups, the Education and Culture, and Daily Life groups.  I sat in on the Education group, as I am suddenly much more interested in the educationaly provision for foreign children in Kawasaki.

The representatives apparently go out on “fieldwork” between the meetings, meaning that they go to various official bodies in the city to see what’s actually done. While I suspect that places get advance warning, and thus can clean up their act a bit, it’s still a good idea. This time, they had been to a number of lessons about foreign cultures and discrimination in middle and high schools, and the general opinion seemed to be that the lessons were good.

There was also a lot of information provided by city civil servants, obviously after requests at the last meeting. This was about the city’s school counselor system, and the systems for multicultural education in other countries. The latter revealed the (not terribly surprising) fact that countries with histories of immigration have more developed systems for dealing with the children of immigrants. Of course, this gives Japan the chance to learn from other people’s experience, which is generally a good plan if you can manage it.

The school counselor system was more interesting. Apparently, the city sends counselors to every middle and high school, for eight hours every week. Any students with problems can see the counselor to talk about them. I gather that this is, at least in part, a response to bullying, and suicides arising therefrom. However, the counseling is not limited by subject matter.

The problem, of course, is that it is limited by language. It seems that foreign students who speak Japanese do use the service, and often talk about problems arising from differences in language and culture. There were questions about what the city could do for children who spoke Japanese less well, but the representative said that they didn’t have the budget for either interpreters, or for bilingual counselors. He pointed out, quite reasonably, that such people are quite rare. I’m not sure how this can be solved; while some of the representatives basically wanted the council to throw money at the problem, that’s not reasonable for most of the languages, as there aren’t enough students to require a bilingual counselor on a regular basis. There might be for Portuguese, Spanish, and Tagalog, but most of the Koreans were born in Japan and thus speak Japanese. It is something that should be looked at, though, and that’s the sort of thing that I think the assembly can do well.

As I mentioned before, the assembly is formally established, but it has no authority. The mayor of Kawasaki has to receive its annual report, but he doesn’t actually have to do anything about it. The impression I get is that the city does, in fact, act on the report, but anything that takes more than negligible resources can take several years of campaigning. In a democracy, campaigning on behalf of people denied the vote is never a strong position, so it isn’t surprising that major changes are slow. After all, politicians are more concerned with the wishes of the people who can vote against them. On the other hand, when the assembly brings simple things to the city’s attention, they do seem to get done, and the city does consider major changes (it’s even, apparently, considering giving us representation to go with our taxation).

The next question is whether I will apply to be on the next assembly. Its term doesn’t start until April 2008, so I have plenty of time to think about it, and go along to some of the other meetings before I decide. I am seriously thinking about it, because I would like to get more involved in the local community. After all, this is where our child will be growing up, at least to start with.


Japan has lots of taxes. It isn’t that the tax rates are particularly high, but there are just a lot of categories. Yesterday, I submitted my return for my income taxes. I actually calculated my national income tax bill on the form itself, but the same information will also be used to calculate my local income taxes. Those are billed and paid separately, in three installments over the following year. The same information is used, again, to calculate my national health insurance premiums, but those are also paid separately, in monthly installments. My contributions to the national pension scheme are independent of income, and paid in one lump sum. You can pay monthly, but it’s cheaper if you pay all at once, up front. (Not much cheaper, but 3,000 yen is 3,000 yen.) Property tax, naturally, depends on the value of your property. That’s four installments, although they aren’t actually quarterly. (I split that with Yuriko, and when I asked for her half this time she said “I gave you property tax money in late December”. “Yes dear, that’s because I had to pay it in late December, too.”)

The basic system is very similar to the UK. Most people pay their taxes through the payroll, and don’t have to worry about it. I have to fill in forms, take them to the tax office, and then pay the last year’s taxes, plus estimates for the next year’s. The office assumes that your income will be constant; not always true, and you can ask for exceptions if necessary.

I have to fill in a form saying when I’ve been resident in Japan, so that they can determine which bits of my income are liable for Japanese tax. Last year, everything was, because I was a permanent resident for tax purposes: I had no definite plans to leave. This year, the rules changed, and since I’ve not been here for five years yet I don’t count as a permanent resident, which means that money earned outside Japan is only liable for tax if it comes to Japan. This actually makes no difference to me, but I still had to fill the form in.

Then there are forms to say where your income comes from. There’s a special one for authors, and I filled all my books in on that. This briefly confused the person taking the forms, because all the sections relevant to me were on the back; the front only had my name on.

Finally, there’s the actual return. The return is printed on carbon paper. The others aren’t. You get sent two copies of everything, and have to fill them in in duplicate so that you have your reference copies, stamped by the office to confirm that they’re what you actually submitted.

The biggest difference between the systems  is what you get to deduct from your income. There’s a basic personal allowance, of course, although it’s lower here. You also get to deduct your health insurance and pension payments. The UK equivalent would be if you could deduct your National Insurance payments from your taxable income.

Japan also allows some deduction of charitable and political giving. If you give to approved charities, you get a certificate at the beginning of the year showing how much you gave them in the previous year. You then stick those on your tax form (literally – you glue them onto the back of one of the pages) and fill the numbers in the boxes. The first 5,000 yen is deducted, but after that you can simply substract from your taxable income.

As well as writing the numbers in, you have to write the names and addresses of the charities in a box on the form. I gave to three different registered charities, and I had to write really, really small to fit the information in the box. Are they trying to discourage people from supporting more than one charity?

Filling the forms in was relatively easy; my finances aren’t very complicated, and I keep good records. Then I had to take the forms to the tax office, stand in line, and hand them over. That didn’t actually take too long. Some people drove, and looking at the queue for the car park, they would probably spend longer in that queue than in the submission queue. The walk from the bus stop to the tax office was long enough for me to listen to the Yomiuri podcast, though.

The next stage is simply paying my taxes. That will happen by bank transfer, though, so I don’t have to worry about it. Money will just automatically vanish from my bank account.

But is it news?

Recently, I’ve been listening to the podcast from the Yomiuri newspaper just about every weekday. This is partly to improve my listening comprehension, and partly to keep up with the Japanese news. The podcast is released every weekday morning, and generally follows a fixed format. First, there are half a dozen or so news stories, the day’s headlines. Then there’s an editorial. Next is “today’s topic”: a feature article about something. Finally, there’s another short opinion piece, “Yomiuri Brief Review”.

The feature article covers a wide range of things. Yesterday’s, for example, was about a Korean who will be running in Sunday’s Tokyo Marathon.  (The URL briefly puzzled me, but I guess a marathon is 42,195m.) This is significant because his grandfather won gold in the marathon at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but, because Korean was a Japanese colony at the time, did so while running for Japan. Thus, the article was largely about international friendship.

The day before yesterday, it reported the results of a survey carried out by the newspaper, into whether men stand up or sit down to wee in the toilet at home.

Apparently 28% sit down.

Yes, but is it news?

The Most Difficult Language in the World

I mentioned to my sister that Japanese would take at least four times as long to learn as French (which she has already studied), and she asked me where that was from. A quick Google turned up a webpage of language learning difficulties for English speakers. If we assume that these difficulties are roughly symmetric, it goes some way to explaining why the Dutch and Scandinavians speak such irritatingly good English.

The slightly surprising thing is that Japanese is the only starred language in Category III: that is, according to the experience of the US State Department, Japanese is somewhat harder to learn than Chinese, Arabic, or Korean.

Or, in other words, Japanese is the most difficult major language in the world for English speakers.

I have to say that I do not find this implausible.