Tuesday Dispatch #3: Japan’s fintech boost, biomass isn’t green, riding down mountains

Ross Hall

October 26, 2021

Photograph of a couple sat in front of a giant statue of a green teddy bear spitting water into a pool

A year ago, in the middle of a global pandemic, I arrived at Osaka airport. The trials and tribulations of getting that far include cancer, a promise to my twins and Japan’s Covid-Sakoku.

Although I’ve been here 12 months, it doesn’t feel like I’ve settled into the country yet. My language skills are still poor. The business I’d planned to build stalled as the pandemic dragged on. The state of emergency limited our ability to travel outside Hyogo. A lack of foreigners hasn’t helped.

Yet I enjoy living here. I own a house without a mortgage and every day I see mountains and a valley full of small holdings from my windows. We have a Suzuki Hustler to take us on adventures to places inaccessible by train and bus. Eating out is inexpensive, and while we have our favourites, variety is never far away.

Of course it isn’t perfect. Japan has deep rooted problems with inequality it needs to address. Abenomics has given us a stagnated economy, and while wealth inequality isn’t as marked as in the West, we have issues with poverty and affordability. Japan hasn’t quite worked out how to turn relatively high taxes into a “happy” country in the same way as the Nordics. Then there’s the way it winds up its neighbours on a regular basis.

On balance, in spite of the trials and tribulations, it’s been a great year. I look forward to another 12 months, and coming a step closer to my goal of naturalising as a Japanese national.


Image above: a sculpture of a green teddy bear in Osaka, Japan.

Is a new wave of Japanese digital banks on the horizon?

Japan has more payment methods than you can shake a stick at. You can pay in installments, at your local “Konbini”, using contactless cards or QR code apps. While this abundance has set the country apart for its sophistication, the banking system remains stubbornly traditional. Passbooks reign supreme, and online offerings are patchy and plagued with poor experience.

As Nikkei Asia reports, there are signs change is coming. Most important is a simplification of the regulatory regime. Companies will be able to sell a variety of financial products, including banking, under a single licence. Previously separate licences were required for different products, adding barriers to innovation and competition.

While some of the foreign Fintechs with a toe dipped in the Sea of Japan will welcome the move, the hope is more home grown talent will surface. There’s a few Fintechs circling the edges, and maybe this will be the kick they need to truly take off.

Tokyo’s metro system in real time

Train tracking apps are two-a-penny these days. Mini Tokyo 3D is possibly the best I’ve seen. It tracks the Tokyo metro system in real-time, offering a mesmerising image of where trains are moving in the city. If you need more detail, there’s station information, live cams and weather reports.

It’s a little clunky in places, but as an enjoyable to use way of exploring Tokyo I don’t think there’s any better.

Black and white photograph of a shopping alley in Japan with bright lights and no people
A shopping street in Osaka, Japan. Available as a print on Redbubble.

Finally someone worked out burning trees for power isn’t “green”.

Years ago I worked for a Drax subsidiary. I struggled with the idea burning wood was a “renewable” energy source. Sure, trees grow back, but they take 70ish years to get to a point where they’re ready to harvest. Meanwhile, we’re still pumping CO2 into the atmosphere (and some other nasty pollutants too). No matter how many times I was “reassured” it was all renewable and green, I saw it as little more than an accounting trick. One of these schemes where you spend the money today and tell the tax authorities you’re really spending it over the next half decade.

It looks like the quest for a net-zero economy has caught up with the power generation giant. S&P has dropped the company from its Global Clean Energy Index.

Not that Drax is going to be hurt that badly. Investors might not see the returns they hoped for, but the company is still likely to rake in Government grants and has a commanding position on the UK’s grid. Still, it might turn eyes away from investing in biomass in favour of better options.

(Disclaimer: I’ve worked with both S&P and Drax)

Revisiting Seoul’s Green Expressway

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned how Seoul had ripped an expressway out of the heart of the city and replaced it with parks and a restored river. It resurfaced again, along with a photo slide show.

This is definitely on my list of “places to visit” when I finally get to RoK.

UK lets sewage flow into rivers and beaches ahead of COP26.

A perfect storm of underinvestment and Brexit related shortages has given rise to a sewage crisis in the United Kingdom. There isn’t enough capacity to treat the human waste the island generates. Rather than solve the underlying problem, the UK Parliament voted to allow water companies to pump raw, untreated waste into rivers and seas. Depending on who you listen to, this is either breathing space for industry to respond, or removing unnecessary EU red tape.

Either way, the immediate effect is for warnings to appear across UK beaches.

Did we break consumerism?

The Umie shopping mall, Harborland, Kobe, Japan. 19:12 on a Friday night.

When I’ve been here in past years, this was a bustling and noisy time. Friends and family out, heading for the food court before a film, shopping, hanging out. Now it’s quiet and peaceful.

Every Friday I come here to meet Takako after work. Every Friday it’s the same.

Maybe we ended our love affair with consumerism?

Photograph of an empty shopping mall in Harborland Japan
Umie Shopping Mall in Harborland, Kobe

Horror stories from Hong Kong’s private photo industry.

I’ve heard some tales from the models I’ve worked with over the years. Although I joked I didn’t want to be one of those stories, what I really wanted was to treat the models like the professionals they are, get on with the job at hand and create something we could both be proud of.

An exhibition in Hong Kong is throwing back the curtain on the “private photo industry”. A shadowy world, it’s a place where “sexual favours”, assault and worse is par for the course. The exhibition is aiming to open a discussion on models are treated, and perhaps start a culture where so-called “photographers” can face consequences for their actions.

Can you forget your native language?

I’m struggling to learn Japanese. It’s radically different from English and I feel like I’m having to rewire a 50-year-old brain to cope.

Research suggests those of who emigrate and have to speak a “second language” could see our English suffer. Over time we’ll lose the ability to find the right words to express ourselves, and potentially entire tracts of grammar.

As someone once observed: I gave up speaking fluently in one language to sound like a five year old in two.

And finally: a childhood dream turned into a sport

Who didn’t want to blast down a hill in a race with their mates? Turns out downhill Triking is a sport, they hit speeds over 60kph, and I want a go.

Watch the 8 minute video on YouTube.

Screenshot of a person on a tricycle racing down hill and preparing to overtake another rider

I'm Ross, a digital editorial designer and content creator from the UK now living in Japan. I help growing companies plan, source, produce and promote a range of content. Find out more

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