Sunday, February 15, 2009

Procreation Propaganda

The current fashion in Japan is babies.

For the past 2 or 3 years, there has been a concerted effort on the part of the Japanese government to fight Japan's shrinking population by encouraging more women to have kids. At first, they tried the obligation and duty angle: news was that the Japanese people needed to produce more children to maintain Japan's status as the second wealthiest country in the world. Then, the government started providing more services to ease child rearing; some of these were long overdue, such as maternity care programs and day-care centers for working parents.

Let be reiterate that because the concept may be unbelievable to readers from modern nations: until just recently, day-care centers were few and far between in Japan; what few there are were very expensive and, until deregulation in 2000, run by the government. The concept of a babysitter is still foreign here. Of course, things are changing, but Japan has gotten an awfully late start.

I wish I had taken a picture of it, but I recall a poster on the train a few months back that sent the clear, if not implicit, message that if you have kids then people will be nice to you. In a country in which people rarely acknowledge your existence, that's a pretty bold statement. We're going to skip the courteous stage and jump right from the treating-you-as-an-obstacle stage to the being-kind-to-you stage...all you need is a kid.

There has been much internal discourse in Japan about the ramifications of a shrinking population. By and the large, the message is "have more children" because "shrinking is bad". I have not read the multitude of books on the subject, but the message sent by the in-train posters, celebrity magazines, and "talent"-riddled Japanese television shows is "kids are cool".

Don't get me wrong: kids are cool. What is uncomfortable to me is the idea of the government intervening in my personal life to support an official policy to counter the shrinking population.*

The pretext to all this commotion is that a shrinking population is bad. However, Professor Akiko Matsutani disagrees and in 2007 wrote a book titled "Shrinking Population Economics" in which he claims the shrinking isn't bad, but rather provides an opportunity for Japan to improve the quality of life for its smaller population. In his book, he argues that Japan should not focus on producing a new army of alcohol-numbed workaholics, but rather let workers enjoy more time with their family, take up hobbies, and unwind on holidays.

Which actually brings the argument around full circle. Perhaps the 12-hour+ work days, 3+ hour commutes, semi-regimented drinking parties, etc. with little or no time left to spend at home are as much to blame for the current "baby crisis" as anything. You can't be a family if you are never home. If the only time you see your spouse is for a few minutes as your drag your groggy butt back home after a long day at the office, is it really any surprise you don't have more kids.

The government solution: use propaganda to encourage people produce another generation of workaholics with no time or energy to have children themselves. Professor Matsutani's solution: make life enjoyable, kids or not. Life is to be enjoyed, not frittered away in some Orwellian dystopia. And the irony is, happier couples are more likely to have children.

* I use the phrase "my personal life" empathetically with the Japanese people. As a foreigner in Japan, the government couldn't care less whether I have kids or not.


As a timely addendum to my ramblings:
Canon has taken the initiative to send its workers home at 5:30pm (only twice a week, mind you). But it sends them home with homework: to make babies.
I wonder if they get performance reviews.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

In Love with iTunes Movie Rentals

I've been meaning to try it for a while, but for the first time, on Tuesday night, we rented a movie from iTunes. Yet again, it was another impressively easy-to-use product from Apple.

Living in Japan, we often don't get movies for months after they come out in the states. And when they do finally come out here, they usually either dubbed into Japanese or have subtitles added. Frankly, dubbing sucks in more ways than I care to list. The subtitles aren't so bad, but they do detract from the movie a little. The most important selling point to us, though, is that we don't have to get dressed and walk 30+ minutes to the video rental store (and another 30+ minutes to return it when we're done).

So Tuesday night we basked in the warm glow of my wife's 24-inch iMac and watched WALL-E. Yes, not a new release, but I had only seen it on the airplane and my wife hadn't seen it all yet. It took all of 30 seconds to rent through the iTunes Store and the download began immediately.

On the downside, it took 2 hours to download the movie. While we could have started watching it immediately (while it continued to download in the background), since the movie was only about an hour and 20 minutes long, we didn't want to risk playback catching up to the download and ruining our movie-watching experience with "buffering" breaks. So, we watched a couple of episodes of The Daily Show online to let the download get a little over an hour head start.

With an hour left to finish downloading the movie, we started watching WALL-E full screen on the computer. The image quality was fabulous; there were no visible encoding artifacts at all. The sound was similarly superb. Even with the download continuing in the background, the movie played smooth with no hiccups. It was exactly what I would have expected from renting a title on physical HD-DVD or Blu-ray media.

Overall, the 1 hour lead time before we could start watching the movie was a little disappointing. But being able to sit comfortably at home and not hoof it down to the video store more than made up for that little setback. Next time, we'll probably either download the movie a day or two ahead of time or my wife will start the download when I leave the office so it is ready to play when I get home. Other than that, we were extremely pleased with the convenience, the quality, and the ease-of-purchase.

Apple nailed the user experience aspect again; there wasn't a single moment where I felt like we had to sacrifice something in order to gain convenience by purchasing online. The rental fee was commensurate: $4 to rent a recent release. I seem to recall Blockbuster charging $4-$5 to rent recent releases. So for roughly the same price as an old-school movie rental, I gained convenience but lost nothing. Even without our unusual circumstances, that looks like a decent deal to me.

So Apple iTunes' movie rental feature gets 4 thumbs up. As expatriates, we'll throw in 4 big-toes too, for a total of 8 digits up.

In case you are curious, there are services vaguely similar to NetFlix here, but they all require a) a Japanese credit card and b) postal delivery. I'll save my rant regarding trying to get a credit card in Japan for another day, but suffice to say we don't have one and aren't likely to get one during the remainder of our stay here.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Damn spammers

As much as I don't like it, spammers have forced me to disallow comments from anonymous posters.