Why is there so little free wifi in Japan?

A lack of free wi-fi recently came second in a poll of complaints about Japan, with 31 votes from the 100 foreign visitors questioned by the Nikkei Marketing Journal, only slightly behind the 39 votes for shortage of services in foreign languages. I’d also say this is perhaps the biggest contrast to life in Seoul, where almost everywhere has free wi-fi.

Perhaps the biggest reason for this is that free wi-fi is discouraged by the Japanese government, because there are examples of it being used for people committing fraud in ways that can’t be traced, the same reason that pay-as-you-go phones and internet cafés/ manga kissa where you don’t need a membership card are also discouraged. And in Japan, for some reason companies follow government guidance even when the government can’t even be bothered making an actual law on the matter (for better or worse).

Why is the Japan Times so unreadable?

Since the International Herald Tribune became the International New York Times and for some reason at the same time starting coming with the Japan Times for free, I’ve almost been forced to look at JT a couple of times a week for the first time in years. It hasn’t improved.

There are some actual errors in every edition, but it’s more the terrible writing style such as overuse of headlines and other journalese, e.g. using ‘hike’ in the body of the article when they mean ‘rise’ that drives me nuts. Then there’s the articles that have the Japanese chronological or even seemingly random structure, just with English words rather than Japanese ones…

Unlike most of the questions on this blog, I do have some inside info to help answer this one. A colleague of mine who worked part-time for Japan Times described it as a typical Japanese office, with people given duties because of seniority (or lack of) rather than special ability, and people loath to ask each other for advice. My time teaching in Hokkaido Shimbun was also similar, with students with no particular international knowledge and Elementary English those who were supposed to be going abroad as foreign correspondents.


Why is Kit Kat popular in Japan?

Other former Rowntree’s sweets sold by Nestle like Polo mints have quickly disappeared in Japan and most Mars and Cadbury sweets (Milky Way, Fruit and Nut etc.) are limited to import shops, but for some reason every convenience store and airport shop in Japan has Kit Kats, often in bizarre flavours like cherry blossom. It could well be this use of the very Japanese approach of innovation into craziness by lots of small changes that has made Kit Kat a success here, and foreign tourists buying molasses syrup and bean powder Kit Kat to “impress” their relatives back home can’t hurt. However, the latest edition of the British Chambers of Commerce Japan newsletter has another explanation:

“In Japan, those studying for entrance exams consider the chocolate good luck, because the name, as pronounced by the Japanese, sounds like the phrase kitto katsu (you’re sure to win)”.

Not sure how much of their market that could explain, but buying foods due to ridiculous and tenuous connections between their names and good luck has a long history in Japan, probably originally borrowed from China. See the Japanese New Year page for many examples of this.

For more practical tips on getting British (and kind of British) food in Japan, see my other Japan blog Tips for Brits in Tokyo.

Why is Japanese “ken” translated as “prefecture”?

I don’t know why it took me ten years to look up the answer to this nagging question on Wikipedia, because the answer to that question has been waiting for me there:

“The origins of the Western term prefecture being used to describe Japanese subdivisions date from 15th century Portuguese contact with Japan, whereby the word prefeitura was used to very roughly describe Japanese fiefdoms, in Portuguese the original meaning was more analogous to municipalities than provinces. (Reciprocally today, Japanese uses the character ken -  - to refer to Portuguese districts.)”

Why is the Japanese parliament called the Diet?

Not only have I always wondered this, I’ve had my Japanese students asking me. However, only now got round to researching it. I did already know most of this Wikipedia entry:

“The word diet derives from Latin and was a common name for an assembly in medieval Germany. The Meiji constitution was largely based on the form of constitutional monarchy found in nineteenth century Prussia and the new Diet was modeled partly on the German Reichstag…”

but that still leaves open the question of whether foreign commentators invented the expressions (like “bullet train”) or if the Japanese people setting the Diet up chose the description of it in English (the Japanese expression “kokkai” always being used when speaking that language).

In either case, I wonder if they didn’t choose the word “parliament” because they didn’t want it to sound like a real parliament, given the powers of the Emperor and in the case of Westerners perhaps their unwillingness to accept that an Asian country could run a real democracy.

Why is the pokemon called “Pikachu”?

According to most sources, it comes from the Japanese onomatopoeia for sparking (“pikapika”, more commonly used for shiny and so-clean-they-shine things) and the sound a mouse makes in Japanese (“chu” or “chu chu”), because Pikachu is a mouse which gives off electricity. Googling “Meanings of pokemon names” brings up loads of complete lists of origins such as this one, many of the meanings being interestingly bizarre.

Why do the Japanese say “presentator”?

I’d always assumed what this Japanese site says, that this Japanese version of “presenter” was a made-in-Japan word made to sound like other words like “commentator”. I therefore told a Belgian student of mine to start worrying about picking up Janglish when the word came out of his mouth. However, it turns out he was right when he told me it is used there too. As there are few if any recent borrowings from Dutch into Japanese (though many in much earlier history), it still seems likely that this is just coincidence and it was actually created in Japan.

For much more on Janglish/ Japanglish/ Japanese English/ Japlish, there’s loads more on JapanExplained, or have just updated my full list and made a collection of my favourites on my English teaching blog:

TEFLtastic Janglish dictionary

Janglish which we should all start using

Why were the character and game called Donkey Kong?

I don’t think I’d wondered this since about 1987, but finally had the mystery solved anyway when it came up in a book I’m reading about the history of Nintendo computer games.

The Kong obviously comes from King Kong, which is a gorilla like the character, and apparently the English word donkey was chosen by the Japanese designer to mean “stubborn”, because the character never gives up.

Why are the Japanese so insensitive to swearing in other languages?

In just one week I’ve heard someone saying “Merde” in a NHK programme for primary school kids, seen “Jesus Christ!” coming out a speech bubble on Yamanote line train posters, and become aware of this incredibly profane T-shirt on local station Kanagawa TV. Is it just because there is very little concept on swearing in Japanese, or just the incredible ability of the Japanese to filter out most of what is going on around them, especially text in foreign languages?

Why is there a Harris tweed boom in Japan?

I first heard of this through the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan magazine, and finally came across it myself last week in my local Aeon supermarket, of all places, where Harris tweed was brightfully decorating some manbags which were twice the price of the other choices.

Upon doing some research, this hand-spun wool from the Outer Hebrides of Scotland seems to be going through a bit of a boom in general, but virtually every article on the topic mentions that Japan has suddenly become the number one market. What I can’t find is any ideas about why. Could it be related to the Japanese love of expensive Scotch whiskey or, more recently, expensive Scottish beer? Any theories or further info, anyone?

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