Japan


Tokyo Zombie Movie

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to spread globally, and at this point in its progress very few high-income countries have escaped its grip. On a per-capita basis Spain has 38 times the rate of infection of China, the US 10 times and Australia 3 times, but plucky Japan has only 0.3 times the infection rate of China. Until now the rate of growth has been low, with only tens of cases per day being recorded over much of February and March, but since last week the alarm has been sounding, and the government is beginning to worry. We had our first lockdown on the weekend, a voluntary two days of 自粛 in which everyone was supposed to stay inside, and this week discussion of lockdown began. This is because the previous week was a bright, sunny weekend with the cherry blossoms blooming, and all of Tokyo turned out to see them despite the Governor’s request for everyone to be cautious. Over the two weeks leading up to that weekend, and for perhaps two days afterwards, the train system returned to normal and Tokyo was being its normal bustling, busy uncaring self. But then on the week after that event the numbers began to climb, and now the government is worried as it begins to watch the numbers slide out of control. I am also now hearing for the first time stories of doctors having to find alternative ICU beds for COVID patients – still not a huge deal, because any one hospital does not have a large supply, but enough cases are now appearing to force doctors to seek empty hospitals elsewhere.

It is possible to see the effect of this party atmosphere in the data, and it offers a strong example of how important social distancing is. Using the data from the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus tracker (and making a few tiny adjustments for missing data in their downloadable file), I obtained and plotted the number of new cases each day, shown in Figure 1 below. Here the x axis is the number of days since the first infection was identified, and the y-axis is the number of new cases. Day 70 is the 1st April. The red line is a basic lowess smooth, not a fancy model.

Figure 1: Daily new cases by time since the first case

It is clear from this figure that things changed perhaps a week ago. New case numbers were up and down a lot but generally clustered together, representing slow growth, but since about a week ago the gaps between each dot are growing, and more dots are above than below the line. This is cause for concern.

However, it is worth remembering that each day the total number of cases is increasing, which means also that if you add the same number of new cases on any day, it will have a proportionately smaller effect on the total. We can estimate this by calculating the percentage change each day due to the new cases added on that day. So for example if there are 10 cases in total and 10 new cases are detected we see a 100% change; but 10 new cases with 100 existing cases will lead to only a 10% change. From this we can calculate the daily doubling time: the time required for the number of cases to double if we keep adding cases at the same percentage increase that we saw today. So, for example, if there are 100 cases on day 9 and on day 10 there are 10 more cases, the percentage change is 10%, and from that I can estimate that the number of cases will double after 7.2 days if that 10% daily change continues. This gives a natural estimate of the rate at which the disease is growing, adjusting for its current size. Figure 2 shows the doubling time each day for Tokyo, again with the number of days since the first infection on the x-axis. I have trimmed the doubling time at 20 days, so a few early points are missing because they had unrealistically high doubling times, and added a lowess smooth to make the overall pattern stand out. The vertical red line corresponds with Friday March 20th, a national holiday and the first day of the long weekend where everyone went cherry blossom viewing.

Figure 2: Daily time required for case numbers to double in Japan

Since the infection hit Japan the doubling time has been growing slowly, so that in February it would take almost two weeks for the number of cases to double. The doubling time dropped in March[1], which was also the time that the government began putting in its first social distancing guidelines (probably about late February); work events were being canceled or postponed by early March, probably in response to government concern about the growing number of cases, and this appears after two weeks to have worked, bringing the doubling times back up to more than two weeks. And that was when the sunny weather came and everyone went to hanami, marked on the red line, at which point the doubling time dropped like a stone. Back in the middle of March we were seeing between 10 and 40 cases a day, slow changes; but then after that weekend the number of cases exploded, to 100 or 200 a day, pretty much 4-6 days after the long weekend started. The following weekend was when the government demanded everyone stay in, and the city shut up shop; but we won’t begin to see the effect of those measures until tomorrow or this weekend, and right now the number of new cases is still hovering around 200 a day.

It’s worth noting that not all of these cases are community transmission. About 10% are without symptoms, and another 20% are having symptoms confirmed (probably because they’re very mild), which indicates the effectiveness of contact tracing in tracking down asymptomatic contacts. A lot of these cases are foreigners (something like 20-25%), and this is likely because they’re residents returning from overseas, and likely identified during quarantine/self-isolation (so not especially risky to the community). But still, even 70% of 200 is a lot of cases.

It’s instructive to compare this doubling time with some heavily-affected countries. Figure 3 shows the smoothed doubling times for Japan, the US, Italy and Australia. It has the same axes, but I have dropped the data points for clarity (I make no promises about the quality of these hideous smooths). The legend shows which country has which colour. Italy and Australia start slightly later in this data because their first imported case was not at day 0.

Figure 3: Doubling times for four affected countries

As you can see, Italy’s doubling time was almost daily in the first week of its epidemic, but has been climbing rapidly since they introduce social distancing. Australia’s doubling time was consistently a week, but began to increase in the last two weeks as people locked in. The US tracked Japan for a couple of weeks and then took a nose dive, so that at one point the daily doubling time was 3 days. Italy provides a really instructive example of the power of social distancing, which was introduced in some areas on February 28th and nationally in increasingly serious steps from 1st March to 9th March. Figure 4 shows Italy’s doubling time over the epidemic.

Figure 4: Doubling time for Italy

 

It is very clear that as measures stepped up the doubling time gradually increased. In this figure day 40 is the first of March, the first day that national measures were announced. Despite this, we can see from Figure 3 that it took Italy about a month and a half from the first case to slow the spread enough that further doubling might take a week, and early inaction meant that a month of intensely aggressive measures were needed to slow the epidemic, at huge cost.

It is my hope that Japan’s early measures, and aggressive investigation of clusters at the beginning of the outbreak, will mean that we don’t need to go into a month-long lockdown. But if Japan’s population – and especially Tokyo’s – don’t take it seriously now, this week and this weekend, Tokyo will go the same way as London and Italy. It’s time for Tokyo to make a two week sacrifice for its own good. Let’s hope we can do it!


fn1: Which the smooth doesn’t show, by the way, it’s an awful smooth and I couldn’t improve it by fiddling with the bandwidth[2]

fn2: A better model would be a slowly increasing straight line with a peak at the hanami event and then a rapid drop, but I couldn’t get that to work and gave up[3].

fn3: Shoddy jobs done fast is my motto!

The 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has now escaped China and taken a firm grip on the rest of the world, with Italy in a complete lockdown, most of Europe shuttered and the UK and the US spaffing their response up a wall. A few weeks ago I wrote a short post assessing the case fatality rate of the disease and assessing whether it is a global threat, and I think now is time to write an update on the virus. In this post I will address the mortality rate, some ways of looking at the total disease burden, discuss its infectiousness, and talk about what might be coming if we don’t get a grip on this. In the past few weeks I have been working with Chinese collaborators on this virus so I am going to take the unusual step of referencing some of my meat life work, though as always I won’t name collaborators, so as to avoid their names being associated with a blog that sometimes involves human sacrifice.

As always, what COVID-19 is doing can be understood in terms of infectious disease epidemiology and the mathematics that underlies it, but only to the extent that we have good quality data. Fortunately we now do have some decent data, so we can begin to make some strong judgments – and the conclusions we will draw are not pretty.

How deadly is this disease?

The deadliness of an infectious disease can be assessed in terms of its case fatality ratio (CFR), which is the proportion of affected cases who die. In my last post I estimated the CFR for COVID-19 to be about 0.4% (uncertainty range 0.22 – 1.7%), and suggested it was between 2 and 10 times as deadly as influenza. The official CFR in China has hovered around 2%, but we know that many mild cases were not diagnosed, and the true CFR must be lower. Since then, however, the Diamond Princess cruise ship hove into view, was quarantined off Yokohama, and carefully monitored. This is a very serendipitous event (for those not on the ship, obviously) since it means we have a complete case record – every case on that ship was diagnosed, symptomatic or not. On that ship we saw 700 people infected and 7 deaths, so a CFR of 1%. I used a simple Bayesian method to use that confirmed mortality rate, updated by the deaths in China, to estimate the under reporting rate in China to be at least 50%, work which is currently available as a preprint at the WHO’s COVID-19 preprint archive. I think a decent estimate of the under reporting rate is 90%, indicating that there are 10 times as many cases as are being reported, and the true CFR is therefore 10 times lower. That puts the CFR in China at 0.2%, or probably twice as deadly as the seasonal flu. However, we also have data from South Korea, where an extensive testing regime was put in place, that suggests a CFR more in the range of 1%.

It’s worth noting that the CFR depends on the age distribution of affected people, and the age distribution in the cruise ship was skewed to very old. This suggests that in a younger population the CFR would be lower. There is also likely to be a differential rate of underreporting, with probably a lower percentage of children being reported than elderly people. It is noteworthy that only 1% of confirmed cases in China were children, which is very different to influenza. As quarantine measures get harsher and health systems struggle, it is likely that people will choose to risk not reporting their virus, and this will lead to over estimates of mortality and underestimates of total cases. But it certainly appears this disease is at least twice as dangerous as influenza.

CFRs also seem to be very different in the west, where testing coverage has been poor in some countries. Today California reported 675 cases and 16 deaths, 2.5 times the CFR rate on the Diamond Princess in probably a younger population. Until countries like the US and UK expand their testing, we won’t know exactly how bad it is in those countries but we should expect a large number of infected people to die.

On the internet and in some opinion pieces, and from the mouths of some conservative politicians, you will hear people say that it “only” kills 1% of people and so you don’t need to worry too much. This is highly misleading, because it does not take into account that in a normal year less than 1% of the population dies, and a disease that kills 1% of people will double your nation’s total death rate if it is allowed to spread uncontrolled. It is important to understand what the background risk is before you assess small numbers as “low risk”!

What is the burden of the disease?

The CFR tells you how likely an affected person is to die, but an important question is what is the burden of the disease? Burden means the total number of patients who need to be hospitalized, and the final mortality rate as a proportion of the population. While the CFR tells us what to expect for those infected, estimates of burden tell us what society can expect this disease to do.

First, let us establish a simple baseline: Japan, with 120 million people, experiences 1 million deaths a year. This is the burden of mortality in a peaceful, well-functioning society with a standard pattern of infectious disease and an elderly population. We can apply this approximately to other countries to see what is going on, on the safe assumption that any estimates we get will be conservative estimates because Japan has one of the highest mortality rates in the world[1]. Consider Wuhan, population 12 million. It should expect 100,000 deaths a year, or about 8,000 a month. Over two months it experienced about 3000 COVID-19 deaths, when it should have seen about 15,000 deaths normally. So the virus caused about 20% excess mortality. This is a very large excess mortality. Now consider Italy, which has seen 3500 deaths in about one month. Italy has a population of 60 million so should see 500,000 deaths a year, or about 40,000 a month. So it has seen about 10% excess mortality. However, those 3500 deaths have been clustered in just the Northern region, which likely only has a population similar to Wuhan – so more likely it has seen 40% excess mortality. That is a very high burden, which is reflected in obituaries in the affected towns.

Reports are also beginning to spread on both social media and in the news about the impact on hospitals in Italy and the US. In particular in Northern Italy, doctors are having to make very hard decisions about access to equipment, with new guidance likening the situation to medical decisions made after disasters. Something like 5% of affected people in Wuhan needed to be admitted to intensive care, and it appears that the symptoms of COVID-19 last longer than influenza. It also appears that mortality rates are high, and there are already predictions that Italy will run out of intensive care facilities rapidly. The situation in northern Italy is probably exacerbated by the age of the population and the rapid growth of the disease there, but it shows that there is a lot of potential for this virus to rapidly overwhelm health systems, and when it does you can expect mortality rates to sky-rocket.

This is why the UK government talked about “flattening the curve”, because even if the same total number of people are affected, the more slowly they are affected the less risk that the care system breaks down. This is particularly true in systems like the US, where hospitals maintain lean operating structures, or the UK where the health system has been stripped of all its resources by years of Tory mismanagement.

Who does it affect?

The first Chinese study of the epidemiology of this disease suggested that the mortality rate increases steeply, from 0% in children to 15% in the very elderly. It also suggested that only a very small number of confirmed cases are young people, but this is likely due to underreporting. This excellent medium post uses data from an Italian media report to compare the age distribution of cases in Italy with those in South Korea, and shows that in South Korea 30% of cases were in people aged 20-29, versus just 4% in Italy. This discrepancy arises because South Korea did extensive population-level testing, while Italy is just doing testing in severe cases (or was, at the time the report was written). Most of those young people will experience COVID-19 as a simple influenza-like illness, rather than the devastating respiratory disease that affects elderly people, and if we standardize the Chinese CFR to this Korean population we would likely see it drop from 2% to 1%, as the Koreans are experiencing. This South Korean age distribution contains some important information:

  • The disease does not seem to affect children much, and doesn’t harm them, which is good
  • Young people aged 20-39 are likely to be very efficient carriers and spreaders of the disease
  • Elderly people are at lower risk of getting the disease than younger people but for them it is very dangerous

This makes very clear the importance of social distancing and lockdowns for preventing the spread of the disease. Those young people will be spreading it to each other and their family members, while not feeling that it is very bad. If you saturate that young population with messages that people are overreacting and that there is not a serious risk and that “only” the elderly and the sick will die, you will spread this disease very effectively to their parents and grandparents – who will die.

It’s worth noting that a small proportion of those young people do experience severe symptoms and require hospitalization and ventilation. In health workers in China there was a death rate among health workers of about 0.2%, and we could probably take that as the likely CFR in young people with good access to care. If the disease spreads fast enough and overwhelms health systems, we can expect to see not insignificant mortality in people aged 20-39, as their access to intensive care breaks down. This is especially likely in populations with high prevalence of asthma (Australia) or diabetes (the US and the UK) or smoking (Italy, and some parts of eastern Europe). So it is not at this stage a good idea for young people to be complacent about their own risk, and if you have any sense of social solidarity you should be being very careful about the risk you pose to others.

How fast does it spread?

The speed at which an infectious disease spreads can be summarized by two numbers: the generation time and the basic reproduction number (R0). Generation time is the time it takes for symptoms to appear in a second case after infection by the first case, and the basic reproduction number is the number of additional cases that will be caused by one infection. For influenza the generation time is typically 2-4 days, while for COVID-19 it is probably 4-6 days. The basic reproduction number of influenza is between 1.3 – 1.5, while the initial estimates for COVID-19 were 2.5, meaning that each case of COVID-19 will affect 2.5 people. Unfortunately I think these early estimates were very wrong, and my own research suggests the number is more likely between 4 and 5. This means that each case will infect 4-5 other cases before it resolves. This is a very fast-spreading disease, much more effective at spreading than influenza, and this high R0 explains why it was able to suddenly explode in Italy and the US. A disease with an R0 over 2 is scary and requires special efforts to control.

Those early estimates of R0 at 2 to 2.5 had a significant negative impact on assessment of the global threat of this disease. I believe they led the scientific community to be slightly complacent, and to think that the disease would be relatively easy to contain and would not be as destructive as it has become. In my research our figures for projected infection numbers show clearly that these models with lower R0 simply cannot predict the future trend of the virus – they undershoot it significantly and fit the epidemic curve poorly. Sadly governments are still acting on the basis of these estimates: the UK government’s estimate that the disease will stop spreading once 60% of people are affected is based on an R0 of 2.5, when an R0 of 4 suggests 75% of people need to be infected. An early R0 estimate of 4 would have rung alarm bells throughout the world, and would have been much more consistent with the disaster we saw unfolding in Hubei. Fortunately the Chinese medical establishment were not so complacent, and worked hard to buy the world time to prepare for this virus’s escape. Sadly many western countries did not take advantage of that extra month, and are paying the price now as they see what this disease really is like.

Because this disease is so highly infectious, special measures are needed to contain it. For a mildly dangerous disease with an R0 of 1.3 (like influenza), vaccination of the very vulnerable and sensible social distancing among infected people is sufficient to contain it without major economic disruption. Above 2, however, things get dicey, and at 4 we need to consider major measures – social distancing, canceling mass gatherings, quarantining affected individuals and cities, and travel restrictions. This is everything that China did in the second month of the outbreak once they understood what they were dealing with, and is also the key to South Korea, Japan and Singapore’s success. Because some western governments did not take this seriously, they are now going to have to take extreme measures to stop this.

How many people will be infected?

The total proportion of the population that will be affected is called the final size of the epidemic, and there is an equation linking the final size to the basic reproduction number. This equation tells us that for influenza probably 40% of the population will be affected, but it also tells us that for epidemics with basic reproduction number over 2 basically the entire population will be affected. In the case of Japan that will mean 120 million people affected with a mortality rate of probably 0.4% (assuming the health care system handles such a ridiculous scenario), or about 500,000 deaths – 50% of the total number of deaths that occur in one year. The Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami killed 16,000 people and was considered a major disaster. It’s also worth considering that those 500,000 deaths would probably occur over 3-4 months, so over the time period they would be equivalent to probably doubling or tripling the normal mortality rate. That is a catastrophe by any measure, and although at the end of the epidemic “only” half a percent of the population will be dead, the entire population will be traumatized by it.

For a virus of this epidemicity with this kind of fatality rate, we need to take extreme measures to control it, and we need to take it very seriously as soon as it arrives in our communities. This virus cannot be contained by business as usual.

Essential supplies ready

What’s going on in Japan?

The number of cases and deaths in Japan remains quite small, and there has been some discussion overseas that Japan’s response has been poor and it is hiding the true extent of the problem. I don’t think this is entirely correct. Japan introduced basic counter-measures early on, when China was struggling and well before other countries, including cancelling events, delaying the start of the school year, introducing screening at airports and testing at designated facilities, working from home and staggering commuter trips to reduce crowding on trains. For example, work events I was planning to attend were cancelled 2-3 weeks ago, and many meetings moved online back then. Japan has a long history of hygiene measures during winter, and influenza strategies are in place at most major companies to reduce infection risk. Most museums, aquariums and shopping malls have always had hand sanitizer at the entrance, and Japan has an excellent network of public toilets that make hand washing easy. Many Japanese have always maintained a practice of hand-washing and gargling upon returning home from any outside trip, and mask wearing is quite common. Japan’s health system also has a fair amount of excess capacity, so it is in a position to handle the initial cases, isolate them and manage them. This has meant that the growth of the epidemic was slow here and well contained, although it was a little out of control in Hokkaido, where the governor declared a state of emergency (now ended). It is true that many cases are not being tested – hospitals do not recommend mild cases to attend for treatment, but to stay home and self isolate, and it is likely that mild cases will not be tested – but this is not a cover-up situation, rather an attempt to ration tests (which are not being fully utilized at the moment). There are not yet reports of emergency rooms or hospitals being overwhelmed, and things are going quite smoothly. I expect at some point the government will need to introduce stricter laws, but because of that early intervention with basic measures the epidemic appears to be under control here.

My self-isolation plan was kind of forced on me at the end of February, because I dislocated my kneecap at kickboxing in a sadly age-related way, will probably require reconstruction surgery, and am spending a lot of time trapped at home as a result. Actually that was the day that everyone else was panic buying toilet paper and so I was stuck at home with a dwindling supply of the stuff until my friends stepped up. I think most people in Japan have reduced their social activities (probably not as much as me!), and are spending less time in gatherings and events (almost of all which are canceled now), and so through that reduction in contacts plus aggressive contact tracing, the disease is largely controlled here.

Is the world over-reacting?

No. You will have heard no doubt various conservatives on Fox news and in some print outlets complaining about how the world has over-reacted and we should all be just going to the pub, perhaps you’ve seen some Twitter bullshit where a MAGA person proudly declares that they ate out in a crowded restaurant and they’ll do whatever they want because Freedumb. Those people are stupid and you shouldn’t trust them. This virus spreads easily and kills easily, and if it gets a stranglehold on your health system it will be an order of magnitude more deadly than it is right now. If you live in a sensible country (i.e. not the UK or the USA) your government will have consulted with experts and developed a plan and you should follow their recommendations and guidelines, because they have a sense of what is coming down the pipeline and what you need to do to stop it. Do the minimum you are asked to do, and perhaps prepare for being asked to do more. Don’t panic buy, but if you feel like strict isolation is coming you should start laying in supplies. Trust your friends and neighbours to help you, and don’t assume your government is bullshitting you (unless you’re in the UK or the USA, obviously). This is serious, and needs to be taken seriously.

When HIV hit the world our need to wear a condom was presented to us as a self-preserving mechanism. If you choose to circumcise your baby boy you’re probably doing so as a service to future him, not to all the women or men he might spread STIs to. But this virus isn’t like HIV. Your responsibility here isn’t to yourself, it’s to the older, frailer and less healthy members of your community who are going to die – and die horribly, I might add, suffocating with a tube in their throat after days of awful, stifled struggle – if this disease is allowed to spread. We all need to work together to protect the more vulnerable members of our community, and if we don’t react now we will lose a lot of the older people we grew up with and love.

So let’s all hunker down and get rid of this virus together!


fn1: This is a weird and counter-intuitive aspect of demography. Japan has the longest life expectancy in the world’s healthiest population, and one of the world’s highest mortality rates. Iraq, in contrast, would see half as many deaths in a normal year (without American, ah, visitors). This is because healthy populations grow old, and then die in huge numbers.

The future of British youth

Are you young, British, and scared about where your country is headed? Want to get out before it all goes down? Are you worried about what’s going to happen after you leave the EU, and expect everything to come crashing down? Don’t think that the healthcare situation is going to get better or even stay as bad as it is? Come from an ethnic minority and are getting increasingly uncomfortable about how non-white British are being treated? Are you poor and doubt you’ll ever be able to get into a good university and make a decent career, but don’t want to be stuck in an Amazon warehouse the rest of your life because working class work no longer pays in the UK? Did you have a future plan that involved living and working in Europe, and now you need a completely new plan?

Do you need to get out? This post outlines two strategies for a simple and easy way to get out of the UK, for people aged 16-21 who are either finishing high school or finishing university, and not sure what to do next. If you’re confident that even if Labour win the next presidential election things still aren’t going to get better, you might want to consider one of these two strategies. Both involve leaving the UK for Japan, and this post is to tell you how.

Strategy 1: English Teacher

Lots of young people don’t know about this, but there are lots of private English teaching companies in Japan that are always looking for staff from native English speaking countries to work in them. To get a job at an English teaching company in Japan you need three basic qualifications: you need to be a native speaker, you need a bachelor’s degree, and you should still be in possession of a face[1]. Most of the big English teaching companies do recruitment tours in the UK, but they usually also have open recruitment on their websites. You can find them pretty easily on google. For a company like Aeon you will go to a day-long recruitment seminar that doubles as an interview, and usually you’ll get a job offer as a result. You just need to turn up looking presentable, act like you care, and be willing to work with kids. You do not need to be able to speak Japanese or have any knowledge of Japanese culture (though knowing more about Japan than “manga!” and “geisha!” would be helpful probably).

Once you get the job the English teaching company will place you in a random city in Japan, pay for your airfare, and organize an apartment for you. This may be a share house or it may be a one room. You’ll get paid probably 200-250k yen per month (about 1500 – 2000 GBP[2]) and will have to pay taxes and health insurance from that. Health insurance is affordable, and it covers everything – and unlike the NHS, there are no waiting times to get into most straightforward treatments, doctors are same day without an appointment, and your kids won’t get their pneumonia treatments on the floor. It starts from the day you arrive in the country. Usually the company will help you set up bank account, phone etc., so even if you don’t speak Japanese you’ll be good to go. Once you arrive and get settled you can save a bit of money and after a few months you’ll be in a position to move somewhere you like, or change companies to a better one. If you speak Japanese because you were lucky enough to study it at high school you can maybe shift to a better job. But the key thing is you’ve landed in civilization, and you’ll be safe.

The salary isn’t great but it’s enough to save money if you don’t do dumb-arsed things, and you will be able to make occasional short trips in Asia on that salary. Japan is not an expensive country and especially if you aren’t in Tokyo or Osaka it’s a super cheap place to live. The working conditions at teaching companies aren’t great (typically some evening and weekend work, and your days off may not be guaranteed to be Saturday and Sunday) but they don’t have at-will firing over here and even though you’re foreign you have all the employment rights of a local, including unemployment benefits after a minimum period of time in the job. English teachers are generally considered to be the lowest of the low among foreigners living in Japan, for reasons you’ll understand within minutes of meeting your colleagues, but it’s better to be the lowest of the low in Japan than to be poor in modern Britain. So do it!

If you’re a high school student this option isn’t open to you (these companies require a bachelor’s degree) but you can aim for it: they don’t care where your degree is from so you can attend any university in the UK and still get accepted when you graduate. See my special notes for high school students below.

There are also similar companies in China and Korea (see my notes on other Asian countries below). There is also an Assistant Language Teacher program where you work in schools, which is apparently a little more demanding to get into. Google is your best friend here!

Strategy 2: Japan government scholarship

The Japanese government runs a large scholarship program for students from overseas, called the Japan Government Scholarship, also known as the MEXT scholarship or Monbusho scholarship. This is available for all education levels: undergraduate, masters or PhD. You apply through your embassy (the US website is here) about now. The scholarship pays your university fees, a monthly living allowance, and a return airfare. You can apply for this for your undergraduate studies, so you apply from high school and go straight to university study in Japan. Unless you are planning on studying certain topics (e.g. Japanese literature) you don’t need to be able to speak or read Japanese: they set a Japanese test during the application process but this is used to determine what level of training you need, not to screen you out. The amazing thing about MEXT scholarships is that they’re not very competitive – not many people know about them and not many people want to move to study in Japan – so even if you don’t have a stellar record you still have a chance. Also they don’t discriminate on race or economic background, as far as I know, and it’s a straight-up merit-based application. The allowance is not great – I think about 100k yen for undergrads and about 150k for postgrads – but you’ll get subsidized uni accommodation and won’t pay tax, so it’s perfectly viable. If you go for Masters you need to find a supervisor who teaches in English and isn’t an arsehole – this is a big challenge – but you can do it if you try. One big benefit of the MEXT scholarship at postgrad is you get a year as a “research student” during which you don’t study in the department you’ve chosen but instead just learn Japanese. You can get really good at Japanese this way if you pay attention. Another great thing is that once you’re in the MEXT program it’s easier to go to the next step – so you can go from undergraduate to masters to PhD. Theoretically you could go from 1st year undergraduate to the end of a post-doc on Japan government money, which would put you in Japan for 11 years and probably stand you in a good position for a permanent faculty position, which are like hens’ teeth in many western countries but quite common here. Also, if you do undergraduate study here you have a very good chance of being able to get a job in a Japanese company when you graduate, probably quite a good one, and build a career here.

The application period is usually about now so get busy!

An example: Oliver Greenstar’s Education and Career Path

As an example of the Monbusho scholarship in action, let me describe the career trajectory of the guy who plays Oliver Greenstar in my Coriolis campaign. Oliver studied in a relatively well-respected university in the UK, and came to Japan on a MEXT scholarship to do his masters at a prestigious university here. He spent a year as a research student, studying Japanese full time, before entering the master’s program. Despite being viciously bullied by his professor near the end of the degree he passed, published his master’s thesis, and obtained a job at a prestigious Japanese bank (one of the big ones). After his year of Japanese study his Japanese was good enough to do the interviews and applications in Japanese, and to work entirely in Japanese. He worked there for about two years before the work got boring, and then jumped ship to an international consultancy where his educational background, English and Japanese are in demand. He’s dating a nice girl from another part of Asia and living his best life in Tokyo. Basically he got into the international consultancy business without having to take any education loans, and got a second language skill as part of the deal. As a consultant for one of the big international companies he’ll be the first against the wall when the revolution comes, but hey, he’s not in Bojo’s Britain so at least he’ll be able to face the firing in squad in good health.

Special notes for high school students

Note that if you’re finishing high school you can target all of these strategies now. Apply for the MEXT scholarship and if you don’t get it, go to a local university. Target one where you can study an Asian language, either Chinese, Korean or Japanese. Then apply for MEXT again at the end of your undergraduate, and if you don’t get it apply for an English-teaching company in whatever country you studied the language for. You can use this English teaching job as a base to find a job in whatever field you actually want to work, because you’ve got four years of language training under your belt and so should be able to speak the local language reasonably well. If this falls through you’re still okay because no matter how shit your degree was at that local polytechnic, a second language is a skill you can take to the bank. You can probably then find an okay job in a UK company targeting that country. This means you’re still trapped in a failing state, but at least your attempt to get out didn’t doom you to work at Brighton pier.

Remember, if you get the MEXT scholarship you’re going to graduate from university with no debt, proficient in a second language, and with a full career path in Japan likely right there in front of you.

Notes on other Asian countries

Most Asian countries have the English-teaching option available – for sure you can get to China or Korea if you don’t want to go to Japan, and they all have approximately the same requirements. All three countries now have functioning health insurance systems and decent public services. Obviously there are some issues about personal freedom in China and once the UK becomes a US vassal state you may find your British citizenship puts you a little danger there. Other countries like Thailand, Vietnam etc. also have English-teaching jobs but I’m not sure about the pay and conditions – you might find you can’t save money in these countries and it becomes a kind of trap. I don’t know. But any of the high-income Asian countries are good places to teach English.

China also offers scholarships for overseas students through the CSC. The Chinese education system is very good and if you get a degree at a good Chinese university you’re probably getting a better education than you’d expect in any British uni. I don’t know if the CSC offers scholarships to Brits or what the long-term consequences of that will be for your career in either country, but it could be worth investigating. You might also want to consider Singapore, which has excellent universities, but I have no idea how it works.

A note on the long-term risks of English teaching

You can make a life time career as an English teacher in Japan but it won’t be well paid and you’ll remain permanently lower middle class, which is not a big deal over here (Japan is an equitable country) but also not the best working life to pursue. But most importantly, if you spend more than a few years as an English teacher straight out of uni, your employability in your home country will take a nose dive, because you have no skills or experience relevant to a real job. So you need to make an exit plan if you want to return to the west. One option is to get an English as a second language (ESL) masters (you can do this online) and try to move into teaching English at uni, which pays slightly more and has a bit more prestige, but is a slightly riskier career (it can mean a permanent career as an adjunct, which is tough). Another option is to try and jump ship to a real company using whatever skills you’ve got but this can take time and may not lead you to a good place. If your Japanese is good you can maybe shift to being a standard office worker, but if you have no Japanese you need to bear in mind that English teaching is a trap if you do it for more than a few years. Bear in mind that Japan is aging fast, the pool of available workers is dropping in size, and as time goes on opportunities for foreigners here (even foreigners with weak language skills) are only going to grow. Also contrary to what you’ve heard (see below) Japan is becoming more and more open and welcoming to foreigners, even under supposedly militarist Prime Minister Abe, so things will just get easier as time passes. It’s worth risking for a year or two to try and build an escape plan, and if it doesn’t work out what have you lost? Just be ready to jump out if you see that trap closing before it’s too late.

Why Japan?

I’m recommending this escape plan because I know Japan: I live here and I know it’s a good place to live. You’ve probably heard that it’s expensive, treats foreigners badly and is very inward-looking. None of this is true. You’re not going to experience much racism at all, if you’re a woman you’re not going to get sexually assaulted on the train, and it’s not an expensive place to live. Rent is affordable even in Tokyo on an English teacher’s wage, your health insurance is fixed at a small proportion of your salary and is always affordable, food is good and cheap, and you can live a good life here even on low wages.

If you live in Japan you will be safe, you will be healthy, and you’ll be able to build a life for yourself even on a low income. If you want to live here long term you’ll need to learn the language (which is boring and bothersome to do); you may find that as a foreigner you are not going to be able to ascend to the peak of your career here no matter what it is. It may be hard for you to buy a place here either because your low salary precludes saving a lot of money for a deposit, or the bank won’t loan you money if you don’t have permanent residency. You won’t be able to afford to go back to the UK a lot unless you get out of the English teaching trade, and you will be restricted to short visits to nearby Asian countries. You’ll probably have to work hard and if you choose the wrong company after university (or the wrong post-graduate supervisor) you’ll be bullied and overworked. These are risks of moving here! But you’ll definitely have healthcare, your country won’t be collapsing around you, if you’re a woman you can walk safely at night no matter what time or how deserted the streets, and no matter what you earn people will show you the respect you deserve as a human being. And the government is not going crazy, nor will it.

So if you’re young and scared and worried about your future in Britain, and you really want to get out, consider these two strategies, and get out while you still can.

[Note: I wrote this a few months ago for Americans worried about what’s happening there, but in light of the coming Brexit storm I thought young Brits might want the same advice. I’ve copy-pasted that advice, added the example, and changed the bitchy asides to suit the political climate of your benighted isles].


fn1: Actually I’m not sure if they care about whether you have a face. But just to be sure, apply now before some lunatic gets a chance to stab you in the face.

fn2: or 30000GBP after Brexit works its magic on the pound

On the weekend I watched the Director’s cut of the Exorcist for the second time in my life. I think I previously watched this version back in the 2000s when it was first released, and it remains impressive on a second viewing, though the special effects let it down a little. It is creepy, nasty, disturbing and ultimately also a beautiful story about one man losing his faith and purpose and finding it again at the last. Fundamentally I think it’s a very christian movie, which revels in the rituals and imagery of the Catholic church and ultimately redeems that church in the face of a deep evil that only the Catholic church is able to understand. Reading William Peter Blatty’s wikipedia, it appears he was a devout Catholic who remained committed to his religion until his death, so it seems likely that he wrote this book with the intention that it was a paean to Catholic tradition, and I think it does this job very well.

There is a lot of careful attention to detail in this movie, which I think is intended both to ground it in the ordinary life experience of people at the time, and also to enhance its creepiness, and a lot of that detail was added into the director’s cut. For example, the coffee conversation between the detective and Chris MacNeil (Regan’s mother) was added in the director’s cut, and in this conversation we see that Regan made the clay statuette that the detective found at the base of the steps. The sets are also very rich, so that for example Father Karras’s little room or his mother’s shabby apartment are full of tiny details about his life that serve to make him seem very normal and to place his class background, his history and educational achievements. This movie is very richly and carefully prepared.

This time when I watched the movie I noticed this detail at its scary best in the language lab scene. This scene was apparently added in the 2000 DVD release along with the coffee scene and the upside-down crabwalk down the stairs. In the language lab scene Karras is listening to the recording he took of Regan when he threw “holy” water on her. He sits in a booth in the language lab, and behind him at the back of the room is a doorway to an office of some kind. The only sources of light in the room are Karras’s listening booth, and the light from that office. Above the door of that office the word “Tasukete!” is written in red on white butcher paper. There are other similar banners in other parts of the room but this is the most obvious and the only one easily read during the brief moment of the scene.

“Tasukete” means “Help me!” in Japanese. It’s an imperative, a demand for help. If you look around the room in the picture above you will see that the other banners in the room are written in whatever the native script of the language is, so presumably are not readable for the vast majority of the movie’s intended audience. Only this one piece of script is transliterated into roman characters that the audience can read, and this is in the place where the reader’s eye is drawn. It seems quite clear that this writing is intended to be read by the viewer.

In the very next scene, Karras is called by Sharon, Chris MacNeil’s live-in assistant, and rushed to the house to see a new phenomenon in Regan’s degeneration. Sharon pulls back Regan’s pyjamas and we see the words “Help me” emerge from the skin on Regan’s belly. The very next scene! These are obviously linked. The director put a Japanese cry for help in a form the viewer could read, before seguing immediately to an English plea for help from Regan herself. He did this in the era before google, when no one could look it up – likely 99.9% of people who saw the movie on its release would never have understood that moment, but he put it in anyway.

But there is another Japanese banner in that language lab. I haven’t been able to find anything about it online, but on the top left of the screen there is a banner written in Swedish, which seems completely normal (the last word is the Swedish for Swedish, so I guess it’s not a special phrase). Beneath it is a short imprecation in Japanese, with two kanji and some hiragana. It’s very hard to see, and the first kanji in particular is impossible to read, but the second one appears to be 惧, a kanji for terror. Writing the first unreadable kanji as a hyphen, it appears to say -u yori osoreyo!, which could be loosely translated as “rather than doing (something), be afraid!” or, more bluntly, “terror over (something)!” I think the first kanji is either osou (襲う, to attack) or 救う (sukuu, to save). So it is either “Terror over salvation!” or “Don’t fight, be afraid!” That’s a very apt warning for Damian Karras given how this movie ends, but it is too subtle for him to understand – no one in this story can read Japanese. So why is it there?

I cannot find anything in the history of any of the people who made this movie which suggests that they had any connection to Japan, and at the time that this movie was made I don’t think Japan was very much in the conscious of Americans – fear about Japanese influence in the west started in the early 1980s, and is best reflected in later movies like Die Hard or Big Trouble in Little Tokyo, and most obviously heralded by Bladerunner (1982). This Japanese is in this movie 10 years before Japan became a common aesthetic influence on Hollywood. So why is it there? And what is the writing on the right hand side wall? It might be radicals for kanji, or perhaps it’s some other writing system I know nothing about.

If only Father Karras had heeded that warning on that banner, this movie might have ended very differently …

Big sister’s gonna get ya

Recently I went on a five day holiday to China, and while I was in Fuzhou I took part in an escape game with my partner Miss Jade and her Chinese friends (hereafter referred to as Team Princess). The escape game was played at Mr. X Fuzhou, one of the shops of a national chain called Mr. X. Mr X runs a variety of different escape rooms at any time, with some changing on a seasonal basis and some permanent fixtures. We played Yayoi, which is a horror/investigation type with a Japanese theme. Others available included an alien-themed Area 51 game, an Alice in Wonderland introductory adventure, and a couple of other mystery investigations. Team Princess chose Yayoi because they wanted a challenge and because it is one of the new genre games that features NPCs (i.e. human actors).

The other games

I’ve never done an escape room before and my image of them is as a kind of boring puzzle in a single room, so I really wasn’t expecting the Mr. X experience. Miss Jade and Team Princess do these games every time she returns to China (she lives in Japan at the moment), and I was kind of surprised when I heard this because given my image of the games I really didn’t think they would be so compelling. How wrong I was! Here I will explain briefly what happened in the game, and then give a review. If you’re planning on doing this Yayoi game, I recommend you skip the section describing the adventure itself and go to the review.

Approximate layout of the Supernatural Hostel

The events of the game

This game has a whole backstory and took us 90 minutes to complete, which involved a frantic series of investigations and pursuits, so I will explain briefly here what happened and how it worked, based on my memory and the explanations I received from Team Princess afterwards. We were a team of investigators who had been asked by the police to investigate a mysterious death in a hotel that is rumoured to have supernatural connections. We took an elevator to the hotel, and entered the first room we found, room 401. I have prepared an approximate map of the hotel as we experienced it, but when we arrived we only knew about the four rooms (401 – 404), not the strange supernatural section behind the closet. In room 401 there was a body on the bed, which we shall refer to as Dead Dude (DD), which body I had to touch (it was gross). He had apparently died of dehydration. At the back of the room was a closet (visible in the map) and near the door a small desk with a weird computer screen on it. The computer worked, and had its own email client with emails from various organizations and individuals in the inbox. In the drawer of the desk we found a cassette, which activated a video on the computer. This video showed DD’s boss (we shall refer to him as The Boss), sitting at a desk, face out of view, explaining to him that he needed to find a doll, of which he showed an example. There were rumoured to be 6 dolls in the hostel, each with a Japanese girl’s name, and all under the control of some spirit thing called Hasegawa san. He was to find a doll.

We guessed DD died trying to find the doll, so we sensibly set about finding the doll. We went to room 403 and found a way to open it, and in room 403 we found a second cassette. This cassette had new instructions on how to get the doll, involving the word kagome, so we went to room 404 to investigate. The door at 404 had a keypad with six buttons, each of which when pressed emitted the sound of a child reading a single Japanese syllable. We entered ka-go-me and then opened the door. This led us into a room with five of the dolls on the far wall and a strange arrangement of ropes with bells on them, in a circle in the room. One of the dolls was missing! A song then started playing, the kagome song from Japanese childhood (this is a kind of Hey Mr Wolf game). At the end of each repetition of the song the ghost voices singing it would say a Japanese girl’s name (corresponding with the doll’s names, which were on a diagram on the wall of room 401), and we had to ring the corresponding bell. This process took us two tries but when it was done Hasegawa appeared in an empty space in the middle of the far wall of the room, between the dolls. Hasegawa appeared in the form of a Japanese spirit from a picture, wearing a mask and yukata, and he carried the key to room 402 (Hasegawa was our first NPC!) He also told us that now we had sung the song correctly we would be able to see the ghost that killed DD. Yay! Apparently this ghost only comes out to kill when it is raining, but it wasn’t raining so yay.

In room 402 we found a series of crawlways that we had to search through. We found a third tape, which when we played it had a video from The Boss giving DD new instructions. It congratulated him on finding the doll but told him to hide it and explore the hostel some more, because it was rumoured to have some secret place where you could find an elixir of youth. Wow! So we guessed DD had hidden the doll in room 402 and went back to find it. Eventually we found it and took it back to room 404, where we placed it back in the place DD had stolen it from.

Which was when everything went dark and the rain started. We all panicked and ran screaming back to room 401 where we all jumped in the closet[1], the last one into the room being a member of Team Princess, Mr. J, who had lingered in the hallway to see the ghost that killed DD. This ghost was apparently some monstrous thing in a torn yukata that crawled down the hallway rapidly on all fours, and it freaked him out a lot. So we all dived into the closet, and then the closet began to shudder and twitch and move and after a few moments it came to rest again but there was this horrible, hideous laughter outside, that can be best likened to the creaking hacking laugh of the ghost in The Grudge. It was horrible.

After the laughter faded we opened the closet door and found ourselves in a strange redlit room like a study, with icons and buddhist type stuff on a desk at one end and the walls lined with candles. Apparently we were no longer in the normal world, because now the ghost that killed DD could speak to us. It revealed that it was the older sister of a girl called Yayoi who had died here, and whose soul was restless. Since we had escaped the ghost, she would give us the chance to escape if we could pass certain tests and restore the soul of her younger sister to rest.

Well, now we certainly knew how DD died! But we had more pressing concerns, like getting out alive. So we followed the tests. The first was relatively easy, we had to blow out the candles in the room as they flared up, in the right order. Then we went back into the closet and it again moved and shuddered, and when the door opened again we found ourselves facing a long, narrow cave-like room with taiko-style drums at regular points on the wall, and at the end. Between the drums were ropes stretching across the hall, hung with bells that we must not touch. We manoeuvred ourselves to the drums and beat them in the right order, which took some figuring out. This opened a secret door that in turn led to a small cave-like room with a chest in one corner and a locked door on the far wall. The walls were covered in ivy, in which a few skeletons and old bones were entangled. There was a strange clear orb over the locked door, and a locked chest on the floor. We could see through the locked door to a weird kind of temple with a figure of a cat god on the far wall and a big lantern in the middle. Obviously we needed to get through to there, but how? Also in the room were two hand mirrors. Weird. In one of the skeletons we found a note printed on leather, which gave clues to open the combination lock on the box. This we did after some faffing, and inside we found a key. Two of the team took this back to the drum room, and used it to open a compartment under the drum at the end of the hall. This triggered a laser that shone down the hallway, and we used the two hand mirrors to direct it into the clear orb over the locked door.

With that simple task out of the way the door opened and we entered the temple of the cat god. In front of the idol of the god were two empty pedestals for small icons, and the room was lined with miniature sake barrels, each adorned with a Chinese character. We had to choose the characters that would match the wishes of the cat god. Eventually we settled on the barrels with kanji for 9 and tails, because there is a legend that the cat god wants 9 tails. This was the right choice, and it activated something in the lantern, a kind of glowing orb. This, once pushed into position inside the lantern, restored Yayoi’s soul to rest, and we were free! The door opened and we stumbled out to freedom!

About the escape room

I have never done an escape room before so I can’t compare, but this was a genuinely excellent experience, as close as I think I have ever (or could ever) come to LARPing. It was atmospheric, carefully constructed to maintain a complete sense of immersion, challenging and scary. The lighting, decorations, music and sound effects were all designed to build up suspense and terror, and it took minimal effort to really feel like we were there. The addition of NPCs – including one crawling along the floor like a Japanese ghost – really brought the whole thing to life, so that we spent 90 minutes in a state of constant tension. It also sprawled over a wide area so it felt equal parts horror, investigation and exploration – very close to a dungeon crawl, in fact.

If you were to lay out the after action report above and add one or two combats, the escape game I played is essentially equivalent to a single full day session of an RPG. We could have done the whole thing in some Asian-themed Call of Cthulhu and it would have been just as great. This escape room experience really was as close to a real life role-playing session as I can imagine being able to do. It was a thoroughly excellent experience and I commend it to anyone who has a chance to try it.

There is of course a small problem with trying it though – you need to be able to speak and read Chinese very very well to get away with it. I can’t speak any Chinese (I have only learnt Japanese since coming to Japan), and although I can read some Chinese characters and understood the Japanese components of the game, I was essentially a chump for much of the game. I could help with searching and some basic tasks (like the bells and the drums and the candles) and I found some important clues (like the orb above the door and the glowing contents of the lantern in the final room) that were important, but I couldn’t answer any of the riddles, read the emails, or understand the necessary components of the story. So only try this if you have really excellent Chinese or you’re in a team who are patient and willing to go out of their way to coddle your chumpishness. If you can do that though, you will get to have a really good role-playing experience.

I also think that the game I played could form an excellent part of a campaign, with the second stage being to find the Boss who sent DD on his mission, and the third to kill or free Hasegawa san. Each game changes every six months or so apparently (it takes a long time to design and set up new settings) so this would mean a group of regular players like Team Princess would have 18 months of a story before they completed it. I hope Mr. X takes this on in future! They could probably also do a nice sideline in modules for actual RPGs, and if this escape room experience is any guide to how seriously Chinese otaku take their otaku world, it’s likely that China has a really amazing TRPG scene. If you know about that, I’d like to hear more!

About Mr. X

The Mr. X chain isn’t just an escape room company. They also provide rooms to rent for playing games of your own, and have tables in the main area where you can play card games supplied by the company. They provide drinks and food, and board games and card games that you can play while you’re there. The atmosphere is very comfortable and relaxed, and the staff are also very serious otaku – one of our staff was a young Uyghur woman who had moved to Fuzhou from Xinjiang so she could get a job in this company, because she loves the games. They are also able to explain the rules of the board and card games that they have available, and are friendly and warm and patient with our many demands.

The card game options …

Mr. X is an excellent otaku world, with a wide range of challenging escape room games and a nice environment for lazy days of board games and RPGs. It gave me a hint of a world of role-playing and nerdy games in China that I had never heard of before, and suggested to me that there may be a huge, vibrant and very advanced fantasy role-playing scene in China. I hope that more of this will become accessible in the west in future, and if any of my reader(s) visit China in the future and are in a position to do it, I strongly recommend you try it. For me it was a very impressive and new experience, and I hope you can all have a chance to share it in future.


fn1: Apparently we were given instructions before starting the game that we should a) run to the closet when we heard rain and b) not try to fight or interact with NPCs.

 

Are you young, American, living in America and scared about where your country is headed? Want to get out before it all goes down? Are you worried about getting shot at school or work, or by the police? Don’t think that the healthcare situation is going to get better or even stay as bad as it is? Have a pre-existing condition and don’t know how you’re going to be able to afford medicines after you turn 26 (or even now)? Are you worried about Roe vs. Wade and pretty sure your reproductive rights are going down the tube in the next few years? Noticed that the new Georgia anti-abortion bill includes ectopic pregnancies, so is actually gynocidal? Are you poor and doubt you’ll ever be able to get into a good university and make a decent career, but don’t want to be stuck in an Amazon warehouse the rest of your life because working class work no longer pays in America? Are you black and don’t want to get shot by the police, or Jewish and a little bit worried about where those Proud Boys are taking your country?

Do you need to get out? This post outlines two strategies for a simple and easy way to get out of the USA, for people aged 16-21 who are either finishing high school or finishing university, and not sure what to do next. If you’re confident that even if the Dems win the next presidential election things still aren’t going to get better, you might want to consider one of these two strategies. Both involve leaving America for Japan, and this post is to tell you how.

Strategy 1: English Teacher

Lots of young people don’t know about this, but there are lots of private English teaching companies in Japan that are always looking for staff from native English speaking countries to work in them. To get a job at an English teaching company in Japan you need three basic qualifications: you need to be a native speaker, you need a bachelor’s degree, and you should still be in possession of a face[1]. Most of the big English teaching companies do recruitment tours in the USA, but they usually also have open recruitment on their websites. You can find them pretty easily on google. For a company like Aeon you will go to a day-long recruitment seminar that doubles as an interview, and usually you’ll get a job offer as a result. You just need to turn up looking presentable, act like you care, and be willing to work with kids. You do not need to be able to speak Japanese or have any knowledge of Japanese culture (though knowing more about Japan than “manga!” and “geisha!” would be helpful probably).

Once you get the job the English teaching company will place you in a random city in Japan, pay for your airfare, and organize an apartment for you. This may be a share house or it may be a one room. You’ll get paid probably 200-250k yen per month (about 1800 – 2000 USD) and will have to pay taxes and health insurance from that. Health insurance is affordable, and it covers everything: no pre-existing condition exemptions or any shit like that. It starts from the day you arrive in the country. Usually the company will help you set up bank account, phone etc., so even if you don’t speak Japanese you’ll be good to go. Once you arrive and get settled you can save a bit of money and after a few months you’ll be in a position to move somewhere you like, or change companies to a better one. If you speak Japanese because you were lucky enough to study it at high school you can maybe shift to a better job. But the key thing is you’ve landed in civilization, and you’ll be safe.

The salary isn’t great but it’s enough to save money if you don’t do dumb-arsed things, and you will be able to make occasional short trips in Asia on that salary. Japan is not an expensive country and especially if you aren’t in Tokyo or Osaka it’s a super cheap place to live. The working conditions at teaching companies aren’t great (typically some evening and weekend work, and your days off may not be guaranteed to be Saturday and Sunday) but they don’t have at-will firing over here and even though you’re foreign you have all the employment rights of a local, including unemployment benefits after a minimum period of time in the job. English teachers are generally considered to be the lowest of the low among foreigners living in Japan, for reasons you’ll understand within minutes of meeting your colleagues, but it’s better to be the lowest of the low in Japan than to be middle class in America. So do it!

If you’re a high school student this option isn’t open to you (these companies require a bachelor’s degree) but you can aim for it: they don’t care where your degree is from so you can attend a local low-cost uni (I believe you guys call this “community college”?) and still get accepted when you graduate. See my special notes for high school students below.

There are also similar companies in China and Korea (see my notes on other Asian countries below). There is also an Assistant Language Teacher program where you work in schools, which is apparently a little more demanding to get into. Google is your best friend here!

Strategy 2: Japan government scholarship

The Japanese government runs a large scholarship program for students from overseas, called the Japan Government Scholarship, also known as the MEXT scholarship or Monbusho scholarship. This is available for all education levels: undergraduate, masters or PhD. You apply through your embassy (the US website is here) about now. The scholarship pays your university fees, a monthly living allowance, and a return airfare. You can apply for this for your undergraduate studies, so you apply from high school and go straight to university study in Japan. Unless you are planning on studying certain topics (e.g. Japanese literature) you don’t need to be able to speak or read Japanese: they set a Japanese test during the application process but this is used to determine what level of training you need, not to screen you out. The amazing thing about MEXT scholarships is that they’re not very competitive – not many people know about them and not many people want to move to study in Japan – so even if you don’t have a stellar record you still have a chance. Also they don’t discriminate on race or economic background, as far as I know, and it’s a straight-up merit-based application. The allowance is not great – I think about 100k yen for undergrads and about 150k for postgrads – but you’ll get subsidized uni accommodation and won’t pay tax, so it’s perfectly viable. If you go for Masters you need to find a supervisor who teaches in English and isn’t an arsehole – this is a big challenge – but you can do it if you try. One big benefit of the MEXT scholarship at postgrad is you get a year as a “research student” during which you don’t study in the department you’ve chosen but instead just learn Japanese. You can get really good at Japanese this way if you pay attention. Another great thing is that once you’re in the MEXT program it’s easier to go to the next step – so you can go from undergraduate to masters to PhD. Theoretically you could go from 1st year undergraduate to the end of a post-doc on Japan government money, which would put you in Japan for 11 years and probably stand you in a good position for a permanent faculty position, which are like hens’ teeth in the USA but quite common here. ALSO, if you do undergraduate study here you have a very good chance of being able to get a job in a Japanese company when you graduate, probably quite a good one, and build a career here.

The application period is usually about now so get busy!

Special notes for high school students

Note that if you’re finishing high school you can target all of these strategies now. Apply for the MEXT scholarship and if you don’t get it, go to a local community college or whatever they’re called. Target one where you can study an Asian language, either Chinese, Korean or Japanese. Then apply for MEXT again at the end of your undergraduate, and if you don’t get it apply for an English-teaching company in whatever country you studied the language for. You can use this English teaching job as a base to find a job in whatever field you actually want to work, because you’ve got four years of language training under your belt and so should be able to speak the local language reasonably well. If this falls through you’re still okay because no matter how shit your degree was at that community college, a second language is a skill you can take to the bank. You can probably then find an okay job in a US company targeting that country. This means you’re still trapped in a failing state, but at least your attempt to get out didn’t doom you to work at Starbucks (though who knows, four years from now maybe America won’t have any industry except Starbucks).

Remember, if you get the MEXT scholarship you’re going to graduate from university with no debt, proficient in a second language, and with a full career path in Japan likely right there in front of you.

Notes on other Asian countries

Most Asian countries have the English-teaching option available – for sure you can get to China or Korea if you don’t want to go to Japan, and they all have approximately the same requirements. All three countries now have functioning health insurance systems and you won’t get shot in any of them. They’re all aging and need young people, and at least in Korea as well as Japan Americans are generally still viewed well (for now; this is changing). Obviously there are some issues about personal freedom in China and if things continue to go south in the US-China relationship you might not feel safe from reprisals from the government. Other countries like Thailand, Vietnam etc. also have English-teaching jobs but I’m not sure about the pay and conditions – you might find you can’t save money in these countries and it becomes a kind of trap. I don’t know. But any of the high-income Asian countries are good places to teach English.

China also offers scholarships for overseas students through the CSC. The Chinese education system is very good and if you get a degree at a good Chinese university you’re probably getting a better education than you’d expect in any American uni. I don’t know if the CSC offers scholarships to Americans (since, let’s face it, you guys suck) or what the long-term consequences of that will be for your career in either country, but it could be worth investigating. You might also want to consider Singapore, which has excellent universities, but I have no idea how it works.

A note on the long-term risks of English teaching

You can make a life time career as an English teacher in Japan but it won’t be well paid and you’ll remain permanently lower middle class, which is not a big deal over here (Japan is an equitable country) but also not the best working life to pursue. But most importantly, if you spend more than a few years as an English teacher straight out of uni, your employability in your home country will take a nose dive, because you have no skills or experience relevant to a real job. So you need to make an exit plan if you want to return to the west. One option is to get an English as a second language (ESL) masters (you can do this online) and try to move into teaching English at uni, which pays slightly more and has a bit more prestige, but is a slightly riskier career (it can mean a permanent career as an adjunct, which is tough). Another option is to try and jump ship to a real company using whatever skills you’ve got but this can take time and may not lead you to a good place. If your Japanese is good you can maybe shift to being a standard office worker, but if you have no Japanese you need to bear in mind that English teaching is a trap if you do it for more than a few years. Bear in mind that Japan is aging fast, the pool of available workers is dropping in size, and as time goes on opportunities for foreigners here (even foreigners with weak language skills) are only going to grow. Also contrary to what you’ve heard (see below) Japan is becoming more and more open and welcoming to foreigners, even under supposedly militarist Prime Minister Abe, so things will just get easier as time passes. It’s worth risking for a year or two to try and build an escape plan, and if it doesn’t work out what have you lost? Just be ready to jump out if you see that trap closing before it’s too late.

Why Japan?

I’m recommending this escape plan because I know Japan: I live here and I know it’s a good place to live. You’ve probably heard that it’s expensive, treats foreigners badly and is very inward-looking. None of this is true. You’re not going to experience much racism at all, if you’re a woman you’re not going to get sexually assaulted on the train, and it’s not an expensive place to live. Rent is affordable even in Tokyo on an English teacher’s wage, your health insurance is fixed at a small proportion of your salary and is always affordable, food is good and cheap, and you can live a good life here even on low wages. You can’t live an American life of huge housing, a car, an assault rifle and all the home-delivered pizza you can eat but that’s a good thing, not a bad thing: those are the reasons your country is killing the planet and itself.

If you live in Japan you will be safe, you will be healthy, and you’ll be able to build a life for yourself even on a low income. If you want to live here long term you’ll need to learn the language (which is boring and bothersome to do); you may find that as a foreigner you are not going to be able to ascend to the peak of your career here no matter what it is. It may be hard for you to buy a place here either because your low salary precludes saving a lot of money for a deposit, or the bank won’t loan you money if you don’t have permanent residency. You won’t be able to afford to go back to America a lot unless you get out of the English teaching trade, and you will be restricted to short visits to nearby Asian countries. You’ll probably have to work hard and if you choose the wrong company after university (or the wrong post-graduate supervisor) you’ll be bullied and overworked. These are risks of moving here! But you’ll definitely have healthcare, you’ll have no risk of being shot by either crazy white guys or police, if you’re a woman you can walk safely at night no matter what time or how deserted the streets, and no matter what you earn people will show you the respect you deserve as a human being. And the government is not going crazy, nor will it.

So if you’re young and scared and worried about your future in America, and you really want to get out, consider these two strategies, and get out while you still can.


fn1: Actually I’m not sure if they care about whether you have a face. But just to be sure, apply now before some lunatic gets a chance to shoot you in the face.

Stay sleeping, gentle giants

Today we are hearing reports that Japan will withdraw from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 2019 and resume commercial whaling. These reports are being greeted with some dismay but I wonder if they actually herald the beginning of the end of Japanese whaling.

The reports suggest that the Japanese whaling fleet will stop hunting in the Southern Ocean and restrict their whaling activities to Japan’s territorial waters. On its face this suggests that the fleet will be able to easily and comfortably catch as many whales as it wants, but there’s a problem with this: Japanese people don’t like whale meat, and whaling is only profitable if it is heavily government subsidized. But when the whaling fleet switches from a dodgy “research” program to a commercial whaling program, will the government still subsidize it? I wouldn’t be surprised if the subsidy gets withdrawn and whale suddenly has to compete on price and quality with beef and fish. I suspect then that commercial whaling will become unsustainable very quickly. Furthermore, many areas where whaling could be conducted will put it in direct competition with whale watching tourism (for example in Kochi, Okinawa and some areas around Hokkaido). This political battle played out for years in Iceland, and although the whale watchers finally lost it took a lot of work by the whaling organization to make that happen.

In the past a large part of the reason whaling was supported by the government was its political appeal in a few important rural electorates, but over the past 10 years there have been repeated efforts to reduce the political power of rural electorates, with electorates merging and being rebalanced so their effective vote is closer to parity with urban areas. This means that the government is under less and less pressure to support rural money-sink projects like whaling, and in an era of straitened finances where the boutique demands of a couple of rural electorates conflict with the growing and critical problem of aging in rural areas, I suspect the government will very quickly find it convenient to slash that subsidy (or not transfer it) and leave the whaling towns to sink or swim on their own. It’s worth remembering that one un-subsidized similar operation, the annual dolphin hunt, is not financially successful on the basis of the meat consumed – the main profits from that hunt arise from selling captured dolphins to aquariums (many of them international). With no such secret market to support it the whale hunt may well not be profitable, unless the operators can somehow convince Chinese people to eat whale meat.

This decision also removes much of the international embarrassment that Japan faced from whaling. Until last year, when the Sea Shepherds admitted defeat in their conflict with the whaling fleet, Japan endured an annual parade of shame on the global stage as its tiny pointless whaling fleet hunted endangered animals in international waters while being chased by an aggressive foreign fleet that sometimes had surprising victories. It was defeated in the international courts and forced to change its plans, and it only defeated the Sea Shepherds after militarizing its whaling fleet. In contrast, moving to commercial whaling in Japan’s territorial waters and leaving the IWC incurs a one-time PR hit, because the Sea Shepherds won’t be able to operate in Japanese territory, and so there won’t be annual vision of this conflict. It also removes all political disputes with Australia, which despite its small size remains an important trading partner for Japan and a good international friend, and with whom they disagreed on pretty much only this issue. It also strips the whaling program of all its nationalist political baggage, since it will be removed from the public eye, and potentially opens it to political conflicts within Japan over less politically-charged and more prosaic issues of budgeting and industrial strategy.

This decision also makes me wonder if prime minister Shinzo Abe has not been playing his nationalist base very well. Since he came into office he has implemented new programs to encourage women in work, increased annual migration numbers and relaxed rules on who can come here, made better friends with China, and now he’s stripping the whale hunt of all its nationalist overtones. His apology on the 70th anniversary of the war was actually an expansive improvement on previous apologies, and although there have been some restrictions on international aid Shinzo Abe has adopted a fairly radical global health program that puts the end of war, and international engagement, at the centre of Japan’s development programs. His introduction of this global health policy linked it to Japan’s violence towards women in the second world war, with an implicit rebuke of people who denied the comfort woman issue (which he also almost settled with the Koreans). So I wonder what his nationalist base have actually got out of him? Sure there have been some mild changes to the constitution to enable group self defense, but the most likely short term result of them will be that Japan ends up fighting in a war as an ally of South Korea (should that horrific scenario come to pass). Besides this mild concession, I cannot see that the nationalist wing of Japanese politics have gained a single thing from Abe. He doesn’t even visit Yasukuni Shrine anymore! I think Abe may have presented the world with a text book example of how to play to a nationalist base while implementing policies they don’t want, and stealing them of all their thunder.

So let’s hope that this decision causes the whaling issue to slide out of view, and then bankrupts the whaling fleet and forces them to be converted into expensive, high-class whale-watching ships. There’s a precedent for this: the first Sea Shepherd ship was a converted Japanese whaler. I hope that in the years to come the Sea Shepherds will be able to say that the Japanese fleet’s victory in the battle for the Southern Ocean was pyrrhic, and that the Sea Shepherds won the war.

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