Sometimes you get lucky. Researching a story on bitcoin, I went to a meeting in Roppongi to meet enthusiasts. Vitalik Buterin, who is central to the Ethereum project, happened to be there. After his speech at the meeting, he then happened to come and sit with me. He also allowed me to record the 45-minute conversation we had about Ethereum, cryptocurrencies and the direction in which the Internet is heading.

Others were present while I spoke to Buterin, and one person in particular changed the subject of the conversation quite dramatically. That part of the conversation is marked with a “*.”

Here are three things to know about Buterin:

  1. He is not the most outgoing person. Read the words on his T-shirt in this picture. He was wearing this to the meeting, where he delivered a speech.
  2. He is much less of an evangelist for cryptocurrencies than most of his peers in the community.
  3. He was, at the time, very much involved with Chinese developers. He had been staying in China for around 50 days at the time of the bitcoin meeting, which took place April 30.

Here is the conversation I had with Buterin unedited and in full:

How would you personally describe Ethereum?

It’s a blockchain for anything.

In general, you can think of a blockchain as being a computer. In bitcoin’s case, it’s a very specific computer, with Ethereum, it’s a fully decentralized computer.

The simplest practical use is crowdfunding, Kickstarter style. You launch a campaign and set a goal, and if you reach your target, you get the money, if not, everybody gets their money back. Theoretically, that could all be decentralized in Ethereum.

Even with things like Kickstarter and so fourth, there’s a lot of human effort goes into those applications, particularly if it is financial and you care about security. You need a lot of people to be involved, because lots of stuff has to be done over and over again. Here, you just have one platform and it’s already done. You can assume that everything on the computer is just going to keep on going. There is a lot of labor that can be saved and particularly a lot of monopoly profit that can be taken out.

How is cryptocurrency technology going to change the world? I’m not asking for a doom and gloom scenario, but more an agnostic assessment of the possible disruptions.

Up until now, technology has replaced menial jobs with high skilled jobs; its replaced jobs with unemployment; and its replaced jobs with jobs that involve interacting with people. The reason restaurants hire people is working in them requires a skill for dealing with people and you cannot replace that with robots. You can think of blockchain technology as part of that larger context, but it is somewhat different. Instead of just replacing factory jobs, this technology happens to also replace management to a substantial degree. It is also unemploying the rich people, instead of just the poor people.

What’s stopping Ethereum from doing that today?

Ethereum has to be released, get to the point where it is stable and get to the point where there are lots of interesting applications for it.

How about bitcoins and cryptocurrencies in general? We see a lot of evangelizing but I’m not sure I see much to suggest that they are about to go mainstream.

For blockchains, there are still technical improvements that still need to be made for them to become competitive. The specific ones that I am concerned about are first of all scalability. The way centralized systems work are one person reads a thousand books, with bitcoin, a thousand people read a thousand books. And once a thousand people turn into a million, it just becomes inefficient. Transactions in bitcoin cost 3 cents right now. People in the U.S. venture capital industry are in a bit of a dreamland right now, because they think bitcoin is better because PayPal charges 30 cents. Well, guess what? In China, you have AliPay that charges zero cents. The fact is, each payment transaction costs zero cents to process. At some point, if bitcoin gets anywhere, Mastercard and Visa are just going to drop their fees by 80-90% and they are going to squash it. Fundamentally, every node processing every transaction is just not the sort of paradigm that can go up to tens of millions of people.

Bitcoin right now pays $300 million a year for secure mining. At some point, that subsidy is going to run out. So either transactions are going to go very high or network security is going to drop off.

And transactions take 10 minutes to confirm. There is this concept of instant confirmation for bitcoin transactions right now. But when you buy something off a website now, there are ways to revert those transactions with maybe 5-10% effectiveness. Theoretically, you can even bribe miners to revert, and there’s no security against that at all. The reason why instant confirmations exist is because they are not actually confirmed. The reason merchants are willing to accept them is that even if we cheat them within 10 minutes, they can just cancel all your products.

There’s a chance for large-scale fraud then*?

The fact is, if you are in a restaurant, it is easy to run out without paying. It is very easy to cheat. Even still, people don’t cheat. It’s the same with bitcoin, people generally don’t cheat.

So what’s the problem?

Once you move away from just payments — to transactions in retail stores, to financial transactions, to running lotteries — people just expect a response time that’s faster than 10 minutes.

Anonymity is a big draw with bitcoin.

The state of bitcoin right now is basically an arms race, where on the one hand you have people coming up with clever algorithms that deanonymize transactions, on the other hand, you have people creating things like mixers that anonymize better. Ethereum 1.0 will be slightly less anonymous than bitcoin… fine, that’s a trade off. The one interesting project I’m looking at is Zerocash, which uses zero-knowledge proofs where you can agree to transactions but there is no linkage at all to where it came from.

When we look at the Snowden revelations, we can see that anonymity is becoming more difficult. Can cryptocurrencies deal with the sort of surveillance we live with today?

I want to see the zero-proof technology to let the big data people see the results of aggregation without ever actually seeing any of the intermediate data. It turns out that is possible in a lot of cases.

How did you end up where you are today? Was it a political thing that drew you to bitcoin or did you just like the technology?

I was initially interested in part in the politics and in part because it is cool technology. I was particularly interested in combining cryptography and information to get as close as possible to the perfect information economy, even though that is obviously as impossible as zero friction. But just like zero friction, people will try and get as close as they can.

What do you think happened at Mt. Gox*?

The theory that seems most credible to me is that Mt. Gox at some point in 2011 lost 200,000 or 300,000 bitcoins and Mark Karpeles decided this was really embarrassing and he was just going to try and make it back in fees. When the bitcoin price went up, it started running away from them. They may have started to speculate internally to make the money back; they got into very serious trouble at the end of 2013, and that’s when they started trying to manipulate the markets…

What evidence do you have that they manipulated the markets*?

Well, technically, I don’t. But they delayed withdrawals from Mt. Gox for four to six weeks in mid-2013. What that did was it incentivized people to throw bitcoin into the exchange because there was a price difference between Mt. Gox and the other exchanges. And at some point in February, the amount of bitcoin they had in storage at some point hit zero and they decided to blame transaction malleability.

What do you think of Mark Karpeles*?

As a guy who runs a company he is a complete failure. If my theory is true, that implies he acted extremely unethically. He wrote Mt. Gox in .php, which generally has a very bad reputation. It’s a language that is designed to make it easy to pop together a lab application in 10 minutes. By itself, that’s a good thing, but it also makes it [susceptible to problems].

There was one point after the big spike in April 2013, where the price dropped by about 70%. During that whole time there were a large amount of transactions and Mt. Gox basically just shut down… there technical infrastructure just broke. To some degree, this was extremely unprofessional because they should be able to handle 10 or 100 times what their current volume is, that’s just standard practice. It just seems that it didn’t really hire people to improve the code base. It could easily have been a one man job right up to 2013, when he probably hired a couple of developers.

So what are you doing with Ethereum to make sure similar problems don’t occur?

Our security policies inside Ethereum are incredibly paranoid. We have a three out of four multisig wallet, where two of the keys are in cold storage. One is inside a laptop inside a locked safe inside a locked house. To be honest, one of the things we learned is we optimized way too heavily for security against theft and not enough for security against losses. We had one semi-serious incident where if a couple more things had broke we would have lost access. Fortunately, we had a lot of redundancy and the redundancy did its job.

So you cannot say you are 100% secure? Is it even possible to be 100% secure?

It’s always a trade off between security against loss and security against theft and convenience. You can improve the trade-off curve with better technology and better interfaces. With Ethereum, we are going to try to launch with a really good multisig wallet and make it default. But still…

If this tech is to really take off, surely it needs to be like Facebook, where these days you have grandmas and grandads using it. Will that happen?

We’re trying to design Ethereum to be maximally grandma friendly. The point is that grandma, she isn’t using Ethereum, she is using some wallet or chat application or whatever else. And each of those applications, it’s their responsibility to make themselves user-friendly.

We are going to try and make as easy to use as possible is our security policy. What you have now is a system where you download applications and giving them root permission to run software. We are trying to get as far away from that as possible.

How about surveillance? Will you be NSA-proof?

We are trying as hard as we can to be NSA-proof. Our peer-to-peer protocol already has wire protocol-level encryption.

* Questions asked by someone else

A lot is written today about Japan’s media, particularly because of accusations that the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is trying to silence critics. It’s fair enough, but media in Japan is much more complex than many give it credit for. And press freedom is still by and large in tact.

As well as traditional media, there’s an entire weeklies system that deserves attention. There’s also a vibrant social media scene and plenty of online only news sites. All sort of depend on each other. I recently interviewed Kosuke Takahashi of the Huffington Post Japan for the ACCJ Journal on the role that online media plays in Japan. Below is the full interview.

Are you able to cover stories like the Kawasaki murder and compete with more mainstream outlets?

We haven’t been to the site of the incident (murder in Kawasaki), but we carried a lot of stories and blogs. We don’t have enough people to send a reporter there. But we interviewed professionals and wrote blogs.

How many of you are there?

Including sales and editorial, we have 15 people. Including assistants, there are 11 people in editorial.

You’re just operating during the Japanese work day?

We run the site from about 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. If big events happen though, people will work. During, for example, the terrorist attack in Tunisia. So one editor worked overnight.

We run about 50 stories a day. About half of them are original news written by our editorial staffers. The rest of them are blogs and a handful of reprint of wire-service articles written by Reuters and Asahi. Thinking about the number of staff we have, 50 is a lot. We are terribly busy. If you don’t put up that many stories every day, you will not get enough traffic.

What’s your vision for the Huffington Post Japan?

When I became the editor-in-chief, I put the priority on civic journalism. In Japan traditionally, the government and authorities have been very strong. People tend to trust the government, the emperor, authority figures such as teachers, but civic society is not so strong. Japanese media tends to follow the government’s resources, which are sent to the press clubs.

Huffington Post Japan is trying to follow ordinary people to foster democracy, by giving people a chance to hear ordinary people’s voices and opinions. We provide a forum for readers, where they can discuss what the government has to do.

You seem more fearless than traditional media. For example, you guys were pretty critical of Ayako Sono and the story ended up getting picked up internationally.

We carried a lot on Ayako Sono. Traditional Japanese media tends to hesitate to criticize rivals. We do not. We do not have strong ties with other media, there’s no reason for us to restrain ourselves from criticizing the Sankei.

But that sort of stuff is not enough for you?

The U.S. Huffington Post was established in 2005, 10 years ago. It first reported on the so-called low-brow stories. High-brow stories are on politics, economy and that sort of thing. Low-brow stories are on entertainment, cats and dogs etc. Huffington Post in the U.S. first carried only low-brow stories, but now, they have a Pulitzer Prize. They already shifted to a balance between low-brow and high-brow stories. At HuffPost Japan, we were just established two years ago, so we still need to focus on low-brow stories. We have a limited number of staff, and monetization is important.

Are you profitable?

We are monetizing. We have four salespeople. We are still not in the black yet but we will make it.

How are you making money?

We offer the usual banner advertising and also native advertising. More than half of our readers come from smartphones, the rest come from PCs. The revenue from smartphones is still much lower than for PCs. As you can see, advertising banners are small on smartphones, compared to PCs. Although we get much more people from smartphones, it is difficult to make money, so we do native ads. If Toyota pay us money, we will write them a sponsored article. This doesn’t totally rely on traffic, they just trust our brand.

Japan’s media is always rumored to be giving in to advertising demands. The massive companies such as Dentsu are said to lean on newspapers to make sure, say, Tepco is treated gently. Do you get pressure from advertisers?

So far we have had no pressure from advertisers. Why? I don’t know. Maybe we are still too small for Dentsu or something? Maybe it’s because we focus on ordinary people’s lives?

Another point for us is that we focus on minorities. We write about LGBT issues, foreigners, women, the handicapped, those that tend to be less represented in Japanese society.

How many hits are you getting?

We focus on unique users. We have 15 million a month. That’s a lot right? If you want to just get page hits, you just put up more slide shows. We focus on unique users instead.

That’s interesting. It seems a bit different in the U.S. these days. All about hits maybe. You must have seen that Dress article, about the different colors. It got about 80 million hits from Buzzfeed and they seem to be monetizing. But your model is different… 

We got lots of hits. But those kind of stories [The Dress] do not help us to get native ads. We need to enhance our brand image to get native ads from big clients. So we have a dilemma. We need traffic, but those stories don’t help our brand. People want international news, local issues, environmental issues, stories about how local people are suffering … that’s civic journalism. The Dress is less important, but our traffic is very good, that is true.

But you need the cash for the civic journalism…

We are half way there. We had a scoop, but we need more. About a year ago we got one, about the Diary of Anne Frank. One of our reporters, Chika Igaya, had been covering Japanese libraries, and she heard about the damage to the diaries, so she investigated. The report became international news, it was a big scoop.

A libraries correspondent?

Among the 11 editorial staff we have, two came from the Asahi. Maybe they will return there in a few years. They are juniors to me, I am 46, they are fourthsomethings. We have a few people in their 20s, most are in their thirties. They come from Rakuten, the Sankei, some IT media, they have different DNA, come from many quarters of the Japanese media. We are always fighting… well, discussing what to do a lot.

I guess the former Sankei people didn’t follow the Sankei line? I had a friend work there and he was… sane.

Haha. I used to work for the Wall Street Journal Japan, and the staff said they didn’t like the editorials.

So where does the HuffPo fit into the Japan media landscape?

Our rivals are Toyo Keizai online, Blogos and Yahoo online. But Toyo Keizai online is our main rival, they have almost the same editorial line. It’s a friendly rivalry. I am good friends with their editor.

Are you able to grow any further? There has to be a limit to the size a Japanese blog can reach.

We expand by about 3 million unique users a quarter. We still have a long way to go, and can get a lot of new users. Many Japanese do not know the Huffington Post. My staff will call local governments and say who they are. The people at the other end will say ‘Huh?! Washington Post?’” Only people active on the net know our name, not ordinary people.

If we expand our social influence by getting scoops and delivering important news then we will attract more ordinary people.

Do you follow the same method as the HuffPost in the U.S.? Grabbing onto stories and firing out as many posts as possible on them to get traffic. Things like the death of Kenji Goto must be good for traffic. I saw that from the traditional media and online media sides, and there’s no way the papers can keep up.

We got lots of traffic in January when Goto-san was killed. It happened at 5 a.m. One of my staff was connected to a chatroom on his phone. He woke up because his phone started buzzing a lot. He saw Goto-san was killed and got straight to work. If you wait for traditional media’s reporting on this, it can be too late. On the other hand, the traditional way of reporting, hearing rumors, confirming them and publishing stories [can be safer].

So are you trying to outpace traditional media?

We don’t focus much on breaking news. If we focus too much on that we would lose because we don’t have enough staff. For example, the other day we wrote about “hakko icchu,” the wartime government slogan Junko Mihara said in the Diet. Many young people don’t know the phrase, so we summarized its meaning and the story proved a megahit. Then three days later, Asahi politics did the same thing. We also did a slideshow of Mihara, because she is very popular… she’s beautiful. People from my generation like her, and they just want to see her photos.

Young people don’t read newspapers as much as they used to. So if they want explanations, they come to our site. Newspaper circulations are declining a lot. So people lack basic knowledge of the news. So if we can summarize, and explain the background of what is going on, we get people coming to our site.

But you need traditional media then? If they weren’t covering Mihara, you couldn’t follow that story. But at the same time, traditional media revenue is declining. How can journalism sustain itself?

The media that conquers smartphones in Japan will win. It’s happening in other fields too. Look at the Nintendo-DeNA deal. As I said, more than half of our readers come from smartphones. So if you cannot make a smartphone-friendly news site, you cannot win. The U.S. is now redesigning to make a smartphone focused site.

Are you following the U.S. in doing this?

Japan and South Korea have good WiFi systems. In the U.K., people still read free newspapers on the train because they can’t get a signal, for example. Arriana Huffington says Japan and South Korea are experimenting in the media world. They are following us, in a way. So we need to focus on mobile video. People are good at PC video, but we are now changing to mobile video. We will launch a service this year, but the details have not been decided yet. But we will launch video in the in May or June.

So you have total independence from the U.S. site?

Since I joined the Huffington Post in September, I have been to company conferences in London and Munich. We have 13 editions, so twice a year, people get together and discuss what we will do globally. This year, we will launch in Australia, Mexico and an Arabic edition. This helps the group. We can use each other’s articles.

Do you do the U.S. thing of getting celebs to blog to pick up hits?

We use around 300 bloggers. Maybe Shigeru Ishiba gets the most hits. Or Taro Kono or Takafumi Horie. These people allow us to reprint what they wrote on their blogs. HuffPost Japan is a liberal media platform, but we still need to carry conservative views for readers to create a good opinion forum.

How are your readers? I have a rule to never read comments under stories…

We get a lot of Facebook comments. Some are crazy and some are not. People comment from all corners of Japan.

Most of our readers are in their 30s and 40s. Gunosy targets people in their late teens and early 20s. SmartNews targets early 20s to early 30s. HuffPost and Toyo Keizai online readers are in their late 30s and 40s. HuffPost’s selling point is international news, so we get people in their 30s and 40s, company workers.

What about the Japanese news? Does that get translated for the U.S. site?

On the March 11 anniversary, the U.S. site translated two of our stories into English. The Korean site also translated a piece into hangul.

So what’s next?

What I want to do here is… Many places have a digital-first policy. We are digital only. We have to be strong on social media, and on smartphones. And we need to target young people. Elementary school students today are shooting their own videos on smartphones. They are our future readers. And we also need to be strong with visual elements … video and slideshows.

There’s a lot you can do beyond video. I remember one story on the New York Times that felt like a completely new way of publishing…

We are looking at doing global stories. For example, on environmental issues, we can make a world map, an infographic, and if you click, say, Brazil, you can get information from that country. Each edition can contribute the facts. We have COP21 in November, so we decided to do it. We also decided to do a global story on the rise of the right wing. In developed countries, there are fewer children and more immigrants. And the right wing don’t like it. So we will cover this story in each country. At the same time, we will look at good examples of positive immigrant integration.

Sounds like you are going to become a media empire. Totally worldwide.

The Huffington Post Group is trying to establish in China. But the country is sensitive to media, so Arriana Huffington said we will start with a focus on lifestyle and then expand.

How do you perform compared to other Huffington Post sites?

Globally speaking, the U.S. site is the most read, then the U.K.; we are No. 3. We just overtook Canada. We have some bloggers overseas, there’s one in Munich. That must mean there are some overseas Japanese reading us.

Back in early 2011, I had the chance to meet Phillippe Cohen Solal of Gotan Project. The story based on this interview was never run, due to a series of unfortunate events. Gotan Project’s promoter in Japan was not able to bring the band over to perform because of financial difficulties, most importantly. And then the quake struck on March 11, and the article ended up getting lost amid the chaos that followed.

Below is a Q&A with Solal that I wrote before the ill-fated article.

Are Gotan project looking for commercial success? Or something else?

On the first record, there was one tune that was a little bit more housey and written for the dancefloor. My friends all said ‘this is the one, this is the one that will make you guys big,’ but it didn’t make the album. I wasn’t completely happy with the song and so we did not put it on there. Every song on every album we have released is a work I am satisfied with, I do not particularly care if we make the charts.

I would love to work with, say, Madonna or Lady Gaga, though. That could be a lot of fun.

When did you realize you had “made it”?

I remember after we released our first record and my girlfriend came into the bedroom and told me Gilles Peterson was on phone. I told her to go away, I did not believe her. But since then he has been very supportive of us.

What would you consider your main influences?

Actually, I have been DJing since the early 90s, so there are a lot of influences in our records. Of course, disco and the house of Paris – Daft Punk – and then there is tango. We spent time in Buenos Aires and that was a wonderful city, full of music, one of those special places that you cannot help but feel affected by.

You are French, and have a lot of ethnic influences. How do you balance that with your government’s treatment of immigrants?

Of course, what is happening to French politics makes me uncomfortable. Sarkozy will go home at night to his beautiful wife and dance to the music of gypsies, yet he does not want them in his country, and now they are suffering. But on the other hand, we hear about gangs from overseas exploiting immigrants and so that makes the question a difficult one. But from a musician’s perspective, it certainly seems hypocritical.

Do you think Japan has an environment conducive to original music?

There is a lot of diversity in Europe that you cannot see in Japan. And the cities are very … strange. There are so many people and so many huge buildings, and these things can also be an inspiration that can make music sound unique.

The record shops here are special, I can spend hours, days in them. But I do not have the time. I have not had 30 minutes to sit down yet on this visit. If people bought records like I do, then there would be no crisis for the industry. Record labels would probably be bigger than the military industrial complex.

Anything out there musically that you are impressed with at the moment?

Music is always moving forward. When we look at the charts we can sometimes be a little disheartened, but there is always something going on. After we became popular, there were many bands that were imitating our sound, but they did not interest me. In South America now though, there are bands doing really exciting things with tango, movements like this will always push music.

One of the main policies Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he would push upon assuming office was the reform the country’s employment law. As things stand, companies that grant seishain permanent status basically find it impossible to fire their employees. Sound great? In some circumstances it is. By giving employees jobs for life in the postwar period Japan Inc. boomed, instilled a loyalty in its workforce and created the salaryman.

Then came the bursting of the bubble, economic ennui and the “Japan in crisis” that we have come to know through media over the last two decades. The scale of Japan’s crisis and role of permanent work in exacerbating it are points for debate. But the risks of permanent employment are there. Here are six:

An illiquid job market

Many Japanese go to university, search for work, enter companies and that’s it. Those that choose a different path often suffer. The nation’s biggest corporations believe in the jobs-for-life structure of the workplace, and therefore mass hire every April. This means grabbing the grads fresh out of university and keeping them.

The cost for this on an individual level for Japanese youth will be clear to anyone that has traveled or partied as a part of their adult development. For society, it has the additional cost of creating generations unable to compete in a globalizing world.

A stagnant workplace

If a person has permanent employment, that person is under no obligation to do their best. They can do as they choose in the workplace, with little fear of the consequences. This is obviously not a problem with younger, ambitious workers.

But what happens when a person gets overlooked for a position they feel they deserved? How do people react to being transferred to positions they do not want? When departments become tense because of personality clashes, is everybody expected to react with a professional attitude?

Of course, these problems are rampant in Japanese companies, and have been for decades. That has led to tense offices, stress and a lot of people working at less than 100%. Job satisfaction falls.

In such circumstances, many will lose their ambition and coast. Those coasting along have a negative effect on the more ambitious young employees and a downward cycle starts.

Falling wages

Recessions in countries without a jobs-for-life system lead to dismissals and employment falls. In places where permanent employment exists, wages stagnate or fall during difficult economic circumstances. If prices rise, that adds a further problem. The seishain, in other words, move through their careers without seeing any reward for experience gained or skills learned unless the national economy is in good shape.

New employees are often paid less than those in companies, which creates a further problem: Those unfortunate to have had to join the workforce during testing times cannot expect to receive the same compensation for hard work as those lucky enough to have entered the company during good economic times.

A two-tiered society

One of the ways Japan has coped with the end of the bubble era is to loosen labor law and allow companies to employ temporary workers. These staff who are not guaranteed employment give companies an opportunity to hedge against the possibility of a recession. When shockwaves from the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers hit Japan, companies didn’t hesitate to lay off temps, leading to suffering for many in this new underclass of contracted workers.

In better times, there are other problems. In workplaces, temps may be treated differently to permanent workers because of their job status. They shouldn’t be, and this shouldn’t happen, but society being what it is, a contract can be as much of a status symbol as a sports car in certain circumstances.

HR ennui

Japan’s work system guarantees jobs for life, making the work of those in human resources looking to dodge hard graft easy. People that enter companies are likely to be there a while. The consequence tends to be the erosion of meritocratic company HR policy in favor of a seniority system.

One clear advantage of that system for the lazy is that it means nobody has to think about performance. But the disadvantage, that those with the best skills go ignored, is much more worthy of attention. Koichi Tanaka of Shimadzu Corp. was promoted to management only after winning a Nobel Prize.

Service values get eroded

Japan has long been admired for its service. And any resident will tell you there are still problems. The restaurants and shops are great: They employ people on loose contracts. The Internet providers, cellphone networks and manufacturers supplying products? Not so much.

Sony’s struggles over the last few years are well documented. Reverence to the boss was all too clear when Michael Woodford blew the whistle on his fellow executives at Olympus. Tepco’s lack of reverence to the customer should be obvious.

In an initial office environment where the person sat next to you will probably spend more time with you in the coming decades than your spouse, how can the customer always be right?

This post originally appeared on Medium

An essay that appears to have been written by Japanese rock icon Kiyoshiro Imawano a few years ago has been popular on the Internet today. He discusses life after earthquakes, Shintaro Ishihara, corruption, the constitution and Japan in general. I thought I’d translate it as it shows the issues being discussed today are nothing new, at least among the more Internationally minded Japanese. And it obviously became popular because of the election. Over to you, Kiyoshiro:

“After a Big One, there will be war. To revive public spirit, the politicians will want something big to talk about on TV. The idiots will try to push the people into a frenzy. Snobbishly, they will try to get all to follow them.

It’s five years since the Kobe Earthquake. I woke up in a room flooded on that day. On the TV I saw there were fires in five areas. I thought soon things would be safe, and closed my eyes again. When I woke up six hours later, Kobe was a sea of fire.

After the Kobe earthquake, what did my country do? It helped big firms do big construction jobs. It did so with money to support the rebuilding of Kobe. The carpenters in the area applied for recovery money, and were ignored. This is my country.

There is one politician. A special politician. He likes to talk about his movie star brother that died. He likes to claim that because he supported his brother, one of the greats of the screen, that he also has a rock n roll aura. He is against America. The more reality pushes against his beliefs, the more he pushes back. He cannot turn around from the place he is staggering toward.

This man is capable of banning rock, and rhythm and blues shows. Politicians, after all, really love law enforcement. I want to enforce a peaceful world.

I sound like a communist, but I am just a rocker. I make music that cannot be bought. It’s not a music that can be studied, I just do what I want. I do not do what I do with personal gain or a plan in mind. I am different to those cheap bastards in politics.

What do they want, betraying and tricking people? What will happen to our budget? Who will decide? If for 100,000 yen you can get so done knocked off, what happens when you are talking about people forking out 10 trillion yen or 100 trillion yen?

That’s this country. That’s Japan. That’s the country I was born and raised in. That’s the country you were born and raised in.

But this country also has a constitution. And in Article 9, can we not see the same beliefs as we saw in John Lennon? It says we should give up war for peace. Are we not like John Lennon? End war. Spread peace. Bring happiness.”

Note: Any comments on issues with the translation would be appreciated, as would any ideas on the essay’s origin.

Yamagata Prefecture in inland Tohoku is my second home in Japan. My wife’s family live there. On a Dec. 8-10 visit, I got to see a side of the area often hidden in the most unlikely of venues.

Every morning during stays at the family home in Yamagata, me and my wife head to the local onsen hot-spring public bath. A long held tradition in many parts of Japan, segregated bathing with others in piping-hot water pumped straight from volcanic streams is a true pleasure. It’s a chance to meditate, endure the heat, and refresh the body and mind.

But on Dec. 10, circumstances dictated me and my wife did not bathe until after lunch. The onsen we entered was the realm of the elderly. A place unknown to most.

I stepped into the bathing room and showered before heading to the bath, in the same steaming hall. The room was relatively empty apart from two men, a cheerfully plump man in his 60s and his father, clearly ravaged by aged-related disease.

As I dipped my legs, hesitantly, into 43C water, and winced before lurching my gut in, the son turned to me.

“It’s bloody hot today isn’t it?” he said in a thick, Tohoku dialect. For an idea of the dialect, think broad Yorkshire.

“Yes,” I replied, concentrating on getting more of myself in the bath without too much shock.

“Where are you from?” There would be no reflection today. I was, like it or not, having a conversation.

“England.”

“You must be happy. Princess Katherine is having a baby. English people are happy about this.”

“Hmm.”

“I read. I know. You’re country is a mess. It’s divided. I saw.”

“That’s true. But what can be done?”

“Yes. How long have you been here?”

“10 years.”

“Wow. That’s a while. What do you think of Japan’s politics? Why are you in Yamagata?”

“I’m married to a local.”

Another man enters the room. A rightist.

“Great,” the son says.

“And Japanese politics is a mess,” I continue.

Such a comment speaks volumes in Yamagata. The effects of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake in the inland area were not necessarily direct on a large scale, but they were existential.

Everybody in Yamagata felt the sheer power of the earth on that day, even if they were mercifully distant from the sea. Friends were lost and businesses were destroyed, refugees from the devastation first flooded the prefecture’s public halls and later skewed the local property market as they left the coast forever to start new lives.

Markets were destroyed overnight for Yamagata’s small businesses, which lost many loyal customers. An unjustified guilt, as toxic as the chemicals left in the air by destroyed factories and nuclear reactors on the coast, lingered through the prefecture’s towns. Outlooks on life changed, but little else did.

Politicians bickered, money failed to get through to those that needed it and old views came to the surface. Yamagata was a part of Tohoku. And Tohoku was a part of Japan, but different. The city boys cared when they wanted to, but Tohoku was Tohoku. It faced the modern city types in the same way it faced its bitter winters: with resilience, pride and a cynical defiance. The city boys did little for them, and they expected no more.

Politics was a mess.

“Exactly. We don’t know what to do.” This was a lie. The man, and his elderly father, like most across Japan, had already decided how they would vote in the coming election. They just weren’t telling.

“That’s the truth. Nobody knows what to do,” I said. I got out of the bath to cool off, and while under a shower was approached by the rightist.

“Where are you from?” the rightist asked.

“England. I’m married to a local girl. The bath is hot,” I said, hoping for peace.

“Don’t you want to go home?”

“Not really, but we may move somewhere else in Asia. This is where the global economy is centered now.”

“You should go home.”

The first man jumped in. “You are an idiot. Quit the right-wing nonsense.”

The four of us stood, naked, in a standoff.

“He’s ‘menkoi'” the son told me, using local dialect and pointing at the rightist.

In Yamagata, “menkoi” is in many way the equivalent of the rest of the country’s “kawaii,” which means “cute.” But there is a difference. In Yamagata, “menkoi” is used as a term to look down on those less fortunate, the brain-damaged, the disabled, the simply stupid. This type of “cute” person is similar to the kindergarten “winner” that came fifth in a running race.

I took this moment to jump back in the bath while the son argued with his “menkoi” friend about his idiocy. The rightist defended himself quite well.

As the father and son left, the menkoi bather sat down beside me and again demanded I go home. He explained his logic.

“I have read the books. People with different skin don’t mix. You’ve seen the problems in England. You know about what the blacks did to your country, don’t you?”

“Ummmm…”

“They were bad for you. I’ve read it. People don’t mix. Go home.”

I am naked. I am in an onsen. I am listening to this?

“They weren’t bad. They came to support the economy, they brought culture, music, food, brains and good with them. I’ll see you later.” In broken Japanese and naked, explaining the benefits of immigration for contemporary British society is a challenge.

I rinse a final time, stand up and walk off.

Drying myself in the changing room, the son approaches me. We are still naked. “You are special.”

I continue to dry myself and say “thank you.”

“No, no, you are. You understand Japanese. I couldn’t understand English even if I lived there as long as you have lived here.”

I laugh, say thank you and continue to dry myself. “Isn’t he special father?” the man says. His father agrees.

“Thank you.” Nearly dry. “You’d be surprised, people pick up languages when they have to.”

The man comes over, stands in front of me, looks me in the eyes and gives a deep bow. I thank him, after he thanks me, holding my towel close.

“You celebrate New Year in your country? You pray at New Year?”

Jesus.

“We are Christians generally, so we celebrate Christmas,” I reply.

“You go to church?”

“We did. We don’t anymore. We place priority on science.”

“Japan should do that.”

“It has consequences, there is less sense of community, more crime. But it might be better.”

“Do you have yakuza, you know, Japanese mafia?”

“No, we don’t. But there is random violence, and young gangs. It’s … Different. And it might not be better.”

“It’s difficult isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

He puts on his clothes and leaves with his father. A couple of minutes later, I am changed and in the onsen lobby. As I am waiting for my wife, the rightist man walks out of the changing room.

“Thank you,” he says, and pauses. “But I have my beliefs. I should speak them.”

With a Dec. 16 election so close, ain’t that the naked truth.

I celebrated a decade in Japan on July 23. I faced the anniversary pretty much indifferent, but thought it worth writing some notes down on what I suppose is quite an important landmark.

I arrived in the country at the age of 21, pretty much still a kid. Through the last decade, the country has probably shaped me more than I would like to admit.

Ten years in, I wonder where the time went, what happened, and why I never left. I have few grudges with the country, though I am not afraid to criticize aspects of Japanese society. Japan functions quite well, even if from time to time there are events that can stun (I’m looking at you TEPCO).

Unlike some foreigners that live here, I have an indifference to anime, the domestic movie industry, gaming, the music scene, and just about every other aspect of the “Cool Japan” project. In other words, I’m a pretty normal foreign Japan resident.

There are few “real Japan” things that thrill me. Beyond the highlights, the traditional architecture does not particularly move me. The history of the place before the Meiji Era is not something I am particularly interested in. The religious traditions – Shinto and Buddhism – have no more appeal to me than Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Judaism or any other archaic practices. I can find philosophy I like – and dislike – in the old traditions. But the country does not have a religious hold on me.

So why am I here? Why do I stay? And more importantly, why do I want to continue living here?

The truth is, I don’t know the answer to those questions.

I have good friends in the country and I would miss them if I left. But I could always come back to visit. And I miss my friends that live elsewhere in the world.

I’m happily married, but my wife would happily leave. I have a healthy social life, but I always have had a healthy social life.

Is it work? In a way, perhaps yes. Over my time in the country, I’ve managed to build a career that certainly feels like it is on an upward trajectory: My pay continues to improve, and my responsibilities too.

This underlines a conundrum about the country, or at least my perception of it. My Japan is a place that does not conform to the things said about it. That might be where its appeal lies.

Data shows us Japan is declining, but my experiences don’t. Perhaps it is because I live in the capital, Tokyo, but my experiences in the job market are also those of my friends. We all have better working conditions now than we did earlier in life. The financial crisis and the Great East Japan Earthquake brought some pain to our wallets, but in general the economic and professional lives of those that surround me seem to have improved.

In a way, looking for an answer to this questions brought about by this prosperity in the face of decline keeps me in the country. If the country is declining, why do I find few signs of it? Yes, there are dilapidated hotels, abandoned villages and numerous other signs of economic change, but do they constitute decline? Perhaps I see things the wrong way, but they don’t for me. Nothing I see seems unique to Japan, it’s the same sort of decline I see in other countries.

And there are reasons I am happy here. Many aspects of the culture attract me.

Before arriving in Japan, I had worked supporting challenging adults with learning difficulties. My job, at an NPO, was to devise schedules, teaching strategies and communication patterns for clients with extreme cases of conditions such as autism and epilepsy. I left having learned a lot. At the age of 21 decided I would try to write a book (forgive my immaturity on this next bit) that tackled learning disabilities and modern mental health issues in a Dostoevskian manner. A couple of months into my time in Japan, I borrowed “A Personal Matter” by Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe from the library. The book tackles learning disabilities and modern mental health issues in a modern manner.

I was hooked. Over the course of the next few years I tackled the works of the great (or simply popular) modern Japanese authors – people such as Junichiro Tanizaki, Natsume Soseki, Osamu Dazai, Ryu Murakami and Kobo Abe. The authors suggested a different Japan, one that I had never imagined existed. I asked friends from the country whether they liked the authors I was reading and got a wide array of answers. Beyond the surface, I found a level of political and cultural awareness among friends and acquaintances that made the “Japan is passive” mantra seem wrong.

Of course, today, we all see the mask of passivity eroding. While many have tried to pin the protests in light of the Fukushima nuclear disaster on leftist elements, a lack of understanding of the nation’s needs or simple idiocy, it is clear there is something at work in Japan that we rarely see. People are angry, and not just the professional protesters and leftist old guard. Salarymen, old ladies, young families and prominent celebrities of a conservative creed are beginning to voice their concerns. Japan’s passivity does not withstand simple probing.

Before arriving in the country, the only literary figure I had ever heard of was Yukio Mishima, the man who chopped his head off to protest something or other. How, I wondered as I read the books I borrowed from the library, had Mishima achieved popular recognition, while many of his peers were largely ignored? I have come to believe, through my experiences here, that it is because of the enduring image of Japan as a wacky country.

As many in the foreign community will know, one of the most popular gripes with Western media in this country is that Japan is presented as wacky. There is a truth to that perception, but the wackiness has to be sought out. Living here, the country feels no more or less wacky than anywhere else. I grew up near Barnsley in South Yorkshire, and I’m sure there are more odd stories per capita in that town than there are in Tokyo.

When I see Tokyo wacky though, and the easiest place to find it is Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park on the weekend, it makes me smile. It makes me want to stay here. But it isn’t really Japan, when all is said and done.

What I believe really defines the country really I do not know. The relationships I have, the drinks I enjoy, the travelling and the constant learning are all rewarding, and at least in part shape my idea of Japan. But none of these things add up to the whole.

I still do not understand large swathes of the country’s cultural, political and economic landscape. I may be getting there though.

I know that I do not see this country through the rose-tinted glasses that some do. But equally, I do not buy many of the argument’s about the nation’s decline. And I’d hope I have not fallen into the trap of bitterness about life here.

But I still see the country with some form of bias. I’d like understand what my bias is better.

I suppose that’s why I stay here.

After almost three years, this week will be my last as a freelancer. From next Monday, I will be heading into an office to work full-time for the foreseeable future.

With this in mind, I thought I’d set up a blog and make the first piece thoughts on freelancing, and why I am leaving this style of work.

The first thing to say is that freelancing isn’t really a valid definition of what I have done over the years. Freelancing, as a job, doesn’t really exist. The freelancer is essentially a contracted worker.

The word has romantic connotations. Freelancers supposedly get to write what they want, pursue investigative stories for a long time, and have the independence to work as and when they please. While all three of the above advantages do, to some degree, exist for freelancers, the reality is a little different.

Freelancers are only paid for what they produce, and receive no rights in terms of health, pension, holidays and the like. Regaining these rights in exchange for losing the odd sleep-in is really the main reason I’ll be heading back into an office.

In terms of day to day life, freelancing is really about balancing the projects you want to do against the work you have to do. Over the years, I’ve written a few stories I’m quite proud of, but on a daily basis, I earned my keep by editing and writing copy on restaurants, metals, economy and other subjects not particularly close to my heart. Rather than reading like a work such as Tokyo Vice, a memoir of my time freelancing would be closer to the diary of a bean counter.

The subject I found myself writing on most of the time essentially paid my (relatively low) wage, and extra work added additional cash to pay for holidays, nights out and the like. However, the problem was that the “extra” work was more interesting, and often ended up taking more time than my more regular gigs.

This inability of mine to manage time properly often led to pile-ups of work, and thus, an end to free time.

And then came the March 11 earthquake. The combination of the lack of interest in stories on anything else from many media organizations, and the difficulty of getting information needed for economy-related pieces on the earthquake and the increasing strength of the yen combined to make freelancing a struggle.

While things had picked up in recent months, the lack of financial security between the earthquake and autumn proved stressful. Supplementary work also proved problematic because of the strength of the yen. While the dollar weakening by ¥1 or ¥2 is insignificant for a single contract, over the course of a six-month period it can cost tens of thousands of yen.

Between August 2009 and February 2012, the dollar’s value went from around ¥95 to ¥80. With it, every $1,000 earned lost ¥15,000. Stories generally pay between $200 and $800.

But beyond money and the lack of rights, there’s a lot to be said for freelancing. The learning curve one takes when going freelance is more dramatic and enjoyable than anything I’ve ever experienced.

Here’s, basically, what I learned:

1) The editor is generally right: Writers generally hope to specialize in creating between 600 and 1,200 words of content for a page that fits into an overall narrative they are trying to present. But the truth is, editors generally don’t care about this narrative. Take a writer who, for example, is trying argue that actors are exploited by studios through a series of interviews that are published by multiple outlets. Here’s the dilemma: One publication believes corporations give actors a great deal, but wants to use the writer. What is the writer to do? The answer is pretty simple. Compromise or walk away, because the editor is constructing a narrative made of many more stories than any given writer can tell. Why would an editor care that corporations’ treatment of actors angers a single freelancer. If you want to tell your story, and not contribute to an organization’s larger narrative, start a blog.

2) Social media helps: Without Twitter and Facebook, my time as a freelancer would have been very different. It may have been better in many ways – it would certainly be easier to present a “trend” from Japan that had been extensively written about elsewhere as an original story, for example. But beyond the short cuts lost, it’s a constant source of news and a way to construct your own story about subjects you are interested in. If you can find a way to do this, your efforts will be recognized, work will come your way, and perhaps more importantly, you’ll make friends that share similar interests and help you develop.

3) Neither online nor print: Print is not going to die anytime soon, and online is not going to take off in a way that brings in big money. Essentially, it’s an economics thing. For one, ad departments have a more difficult time justifying paying big money for online promotion than they do spreads in magazines or newspapers. With print, there’s the balance sheet: Newspapers are often expected to make losses, so they are a great place to hide bad results from other divisions of a parent company. Print publications are also often a source of vanity for their wealthy owners, meaning they aren’t likely to disappear in the near future. And online, the reality is that companies want to push the idea of unprofitability. Why would a site tell it’s freelancers finances were going great? It would only mean they needed to pay them more. In other words, in both worlds, there are grim prospects of super paychecks, so there’s little reason to turn down any work on grounds of prestige or preferring to be a specific type of journalist. 

4) Dull work isn’t dull: Anything a freelancer does deals in information. If information looks dull, you are looking at it through the wrong eyes, and probably missing a story. The first “tedious” story I could find on my feed while writing this involved Chinese rapeseed production. It sounds dull, but check why you should care and you probably will. It turns out rapeseed is essential for oils and grains we consume every day, that China is increasing output for its population, and that this will likely impact prices elsewhere. So here we have a story: “China stats show food prices to avoid sharp rise globally.” Nice news in a depressing world.

5) Fun work isn’t fun: Anything a freelancer wants to do probably involves their own attempt at creating a narrative (see point 1) that is unique and connected to their passions. That narrative will likely clash with the ideas the editor has, for one, but worse, will likely turn out difficult to argue. Writers gravitate to stories that have been told many times before, and often hope to tell the story in a new way. If that’s what you are looking to do, get ready for a lot of research. It isn’t easy to prove that what everybody thinks is white is black.

6) Money can’t be everything: I’ve learned over the last year that photographers want cash for their pictures every time they are published. They should. And writers should always be paid for their words too. But the reality is, both photographers and writers do a huge amount of legwork that is unrecognized. Pitching, finding stories, maintaining contacts, developing an online presence, researching, and handling invoices are just a few of the unpaid actives a freelance journalist has to do to stay afloat. Add all these into your end paycheck and think about money and you will quit on the spot. In terms of hours put in, freelancing is as difficult as it gets.

The reason for this blog is that if money isn’t an issue, then perhaps, paradoxically, I will be able to write the stories I always wanted to. Hopefully, this is the place I will write without the worry of constraints.

Hopefully over the next few weeks I’ll get some more time to set this blog up as more than something that I update once or twice before I ditch it. Hopefully.

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