Ever found yourself out and about and suddenly in need of a guide to Japanese mushrooms?

If you recognise this situation and are an iPhone / iPod touch owner, you’ll be pleased to hear that help is now at hand.

The Japanese publisher Shogakukan has recently released ‘Japanese Mushrooms: The basic 50 types’ [iTunes 230yen]

There’s also been a fair bit of online coverage of their forthcoming sushi app, sushi neta zukan (illustrated sushi encyclopedia), which is to debut in the app store in January. However, as has been pointed out elsewhere, if you simply can’t wait there are already a couple of sushi apps for iPhone / iPtouch out there, Sushimonger and SushiTime.

Whilst writing this, the most interesting thing I discovered was that whilst Shogakukan is widely known for its distribution of films such as iChi the Killer, it’s company profile reads:

Though it is not possible for publications to solve the world’s problems, they are capable of sowing small seeds that move people’s hearts in a positive direction. It is the task of publications to sow seeds that bear fruit in our lives and bloom as flowers. That is our philosophy.

Hmm. I’m not quite sure how sadistic violence and rape fit in there…

EDIT: This app has now been updated. For a review of the incredible new version check out the review by Diego

Japanese: The Japanese – English Dictionary
2300 yen / £11.99

Rating: ☆☆☆

Being a student of Japanese, and being a foreigner in Japan, one of the first iPhone apps I looked for was a decent dictionary. Having been disappointed with the limited vocabulary of a dictionary I’d bought for my old DS Lite, I was keen to find one that used Jim Breen’s EDICT as its main database, and (if possible) supplemented by additional dictionaries aimed at those looking to take the Japanese Language Proficiency Test.

‘Japanese’ [app web site – includes demo video] [iTunes], an app developed by codefromtokyo (a one-man-show?) matched these criteria. It contains 127,829 words from the comprehensive JMDICT and KANJIDICT2 databases, as well as a dictionary of the kanji that appear in the JLPT (divided into the four current JLPT levels).

Additionally – and this is pretty sexy – it contains mini-movies showing the stroke order of all kanji taken from the Shodo Project.

Word groupings

As well as appearing in the main dictionary, entries are grouped into various categories to enable easy search / use. These are:

Hiragana & Katakana; Kanji (listed by radical / stroke count / school year / kokuji [native Japanese kanji]); classification (e.g. agriculture, anthropology, architecture, art…); counters; expressions (“I love you” “nice to meet you”…); proverbs; vocabulary lists.

The vocabulary lists are particularly useful as they allow you to build up your own personal word lists for quick reference and review.

Search

Whilst the various categories as listed above may have their uses, I think that they are ultimately of limited functionality when it comes to finding what you’re looking for – they’re more likely to be of use when using your iPhone as review / study tool (although you’d be far better off with iAnki for that).

Searchability is the key to a dictionary’s usability – ‘Japanese’ gives us several options.

1) Browse the catagories as listed above
2) Input your word in Japanese using the regular keyboard. You can use romaji or hiranaga / katakana for this.
3) Use the iPhone’s Chinese handwriting keyboard.

The handwriting recognition function is possibly the most useful thing about this dictionary. It’s figuring out kanji readings that often proves to be the biggest stumbling block for me when I’m out and about in Japan – despite having ‘learnt’ the majority of the basic 2000 when at university, I’ve since found a lot have fallen down the back of the bookshelf in my mind.

Where the app falls down

Whilst it’s a good, solid dictionary app, there’s still several areas where it falls down.

  • History function. The most useful thing about my dedicated Sharp electronic dictionary is its history function, whereby when I return home I can see a list of words I’ve looked up recently and transfer them to my flash cards / Anki.
  • Dedicated support for Japanese handwriting recognition. Ok, so it’s Apple that needs to act on this one, thus perhaps it’s unfair to include this as a point against the app. Currently, handwriting recognition relies on using the Chinese keyboard (thus throwing up a lot of non-Japanese kanji during the search procress). Let’s hope we see this introduced with the next major iPhone update.
  • The price. At 2300 yen / £11.99 dictionary is flying in the face of typical App store pricing, and good reason to not buy the App. Whilst it is cheaper than its nearest competitor (Longmans) it is still way too expensive for what it is. I’d like to see it down in the 300 – 500yen range.

Overall rating: ☆☆☆

‘Japanese’ is a good solid dictionary app with a nice clean iPhonesque user interface. It’s super-fast when searching for words, and has never caused my iPhone to crash (always a bonus!).

Were it not for it being overpriced it would be getting 4 stars – and the final star will be earned when the History function is introduced!

Image: Midorisyu on Flickr

Last week I did the unthinkable – left my iPhone on a train.

I’d just stepped off a Tokyu line express at Kita Senju in the north-east of Tokyo. Reaching into my pocket to check my Twitter account for the 76th time in 20 minutes, I found to my horror that it wasn’t there – nor in any of my other pockets.

There followed an agonising wait of almost two hours as the station staff phoned ahead to stations down the line to ask them to search the train – but at each one they reported that they’d just missed the train.

The situation was made a little more stressful by my losing my wife at the same time, but that’s another story…

Finally, the call came through – it had been handed in at Koshigaya station, some 12 stops down the line.

Would this happen anywhere else? I’m pretty sure that had it been the UK that’s the last I would have seen of it.

Initially, I thought that this was simply because Japanese people are honest and altuistic – but a tip-off from my friend who found the police knocking on his door six months after he’d claimed his lost-then-found wallet from the local koban (police box) prompted me to look into the subject a little further.

The reason for their visit was simple – my friend had failed to pay a reward to the finder of his lost property, and thus was breaking the Japanese Finders’ Law.

Japanese finders’ law creates well-defined incentives to encourage finders to report their finds and disincentives to misappropriation. To use Levmore’s (1986) finders’ law vocabulary, Japanese finders’ law provides a simple system of carrots and sticks. Japanese civil law provides that a person who finds a lost article shall deposit it with the police, or with the security office of the building in which it is found, if such an office exists. The law then provides two carrots. First, if the owner claims the object, he or she must pay the finder a fee of 5 to 20% of the object’s value. Second, if no one claims the object in a specified period of time, the object is returned to the finder (Civil Code [Minpo] 1896, 1898; Ishitsubutsuho 1899).

Japanese criminal law also provides a stick. Although Japanese law contains no penalties for nonrescue (a finder is free to look the other way from lost property3), a finder who misappropriates the property for his or her own has committed embezzlement and is subject to a fine of up to 100,000 yen and imprisonment of up to one year. I have found that while prosecution of adult offenders for the ordinary appropriation of lost property is rare, embezzlement of lost property is the second only to larceny in the number of juvenile cases brought by police to prosecutors (Tamiya & Hirose 1998:155), and adults are often prosecuted in particular situations, such as when the acquisition is connected with a more serious crime or when intent is particularly obvious. Even when prosecution is not initiated, the process of investigation in Japan is often a punishment in itself.

[source]

My (Japanese) partner however tells me that a lot of people aren’t really aware of the law (especially young people), and that it’s being handed in would more likely be due to the fact that that is the done thing. I guess ultimately it depends on the individual stance of the people who ignored it and / or the person who handed it in.

Whatever the reason though, I’m glad I was able to get it back so swiftly. Two hours with no Twitter access was almost more than I could bear.

n700 shinkansen_1739

Good news for iPhone users who frequently travel on the N700 Shinkansen on the Tokaido line – in March 2009 JR will be launching Broadband.

Having said that, usually I find the 3G network perfectly adequate – faster than my broadband connection back in the UK. Mind you, it did have problems updating Google Maps fast enough to keep the speeding bullet on-screen when tracking it using GPS last week.

Incidentally, according to EveryTrail, we were cruising towards Osaka at over 400KM. (Surprised, I checked with a member of the train crew who seemed just as surprised as me. As she explained, 280km/h was the train’s top speed.)

Train Timetables

I’ve found the iPhone to be an ideal companion when travelling by train or bus.
For a start there’s Ekitan [iTunes – Japanese account required], the most user-friendly iPhone Japanese train timetable I’ve yet to find – loving the new GPS feature for locating the departure station, although it could do with being a bit snappier. Like the fact that station names can now be input using romaji, although output remains Japanese-only.

I’ve also trialled one of its main competitors – Jorudan Co. Ltd. [iTunes] The unimaginative name is a forewarner of the general dullness of the app, which is totally lacking in iPhone sexiness. Not recommended.

If I’ve lost track of where I am when on a train, it’s handy to be able to fire up the GPS and get a quick fix. Like the other day when on an unfamiliar line in Saitama. Being an old train it was lacking in digital displays showing the vehicles progress – but Google maps showed me exactly what I did(n’t) want to know – I was travelling in the wrong direction having gone past the stop where my in-laws were waiting to pick me up.

Bus Travel

I also used to avoid using buses in Tokyo because I never knew where I was supposed to get off, being unable to make out what the driver was saying (other than “the bus is stopping at the traffic lights / the bus is moving / the bus is leaning to the left / right / the bus is a light shade of gray / the driver loves to talk”). Now I simply track the vehicle as we travel, and get off when the blinking blue blob seems as close to my destination as I think it’s likely to get.

Whilst Google maps does now provide support for bus routes (at least in the major cities), I’ve found that the timetable is by no means comprehensive – it doesn’t list our local bus route at all.

I should point out that if one heads out into the Japanese countryside, the story may be very different when it comes to map support. I recently made a trip out to Hanno (Saitama), only 40 mins from Ikebukuro, but upon arrival found a complete lack of 3G connectivity. Whilst the GPS continued to show my location (as the blue flashing blob), the map failed to load in the background, making it pretty useless. “Ah, I’m in that gray square…”

With it being such early days we can expect to see big advances in navigation tools for the iPhone in Japan. Things I’d like to see include:

1) Walking directions in Google Maps (for figuring out how long it takes from A to B)
2) More accurate GPS results in all GPS apps
3) Station names in English in Ekitan
4) Intelligent searches in Google Maps – that is, searches possible even when the address supplied is incomplete or in the incorrect order
5) Alarm in Ekitan that goes off when the train is approaching your stop (could be linked to time rather than GPS so that it works on the Subway)
6) Comprehensive bus routes
7) Teleporter

I look forward to seeing what 2009 brings.

If you’re an iPhone owner in Japan, I’m sure you can relate to this…

This comes from www.applenoir.com


I wonder is the meeting’s going to finish early…


When did you buy it?!!
The 11th of July! You…?


What apps do you use? What about your RSS reader? Case? How’s your battery?!

Er, excuse me but we’re still in the meeting… are they even listening?!


You have no idea how much I see myself in this cartoon…

My thoughts on the Blackberry (9000) Bold.

Having been a user of RIM’s 8707 for over a year (I was using one on Vodafone UK’s Network before DoCoMo released a domestic model), I and many other users have been eagerly awaiting the release of the next Japan network compatible 3G model. In typical NTT fashion, DoCoMo has announced the release of much awaited upgrade for Spring 2009. Yeah, they hate their customers as much as they envy mammals with opposable thumbs.

Luckily, there are other telecom companies around the globe and a few of them actually are driven by consumer demand, however unwise that may be. A few months ago I managed to procure an unlocked grey market Bold. A few hours later, I had the new BlackBerry hotness running, connecting to my corporate BES, and happily pulling data from DoCoMo’s 3G network. Normally I wouldn’t recommend this path just to get the newest model, but in September, March seemed very far away, and after over a year on my old 8707 I was itching for a change. In case you are thinking of this yourself, make sure you have a friendly BES administrator and you might want to check out the forums at blackberryforums.com for the latest news on firmware issues.

Now that I have had a chance to really run the device through the ringer, I thought I would post up my thoughts on the upgrade.

Software
BlackBerry’s offered by DoCoMo are currently running a version of BlackBerryOS 4.2. That was great for early 2008, but it’s like almost 2009. The US has an African American about ready to be sworn in as President. It’s time for CHANGE! The Bold is shipping with 4.6, and compared to 4.2 it’s a major upgrade. Note that most of the cool stuff came with 4.5, but it’s looking doubtful that there will ever be a 4.5 upgrade for the 8700 line. So what’s included?

For starters, support for HTML email. I work with Lotus Notes (largely against my will I might add), and this has always been a problem for me. Unless a graphic is specifically attached to an email as opposed to simply pasted in and embedded, there is no way to view it. Graphics must of course then be viewed through a separate viewer. No support for tables or text formatting means that even the most simple formatted mails are reduced to a plain text dump. It may not seem like a big deal, but if you are dealing with edited and formatted mail it is as painful as reading Japanese written out entirely in hiragana. I am happy to report that the Bold renders rich email beautifully.

Next, email quantity and access. BlackBerry’s have always been great at getting the latest email messages, but one reason it has been difficult to totally cut the cord and leave the laptop home is that it could only hold a limited amount of that email. The relatively small memory space on the 8707 meant that older email had to be purged from the device automatically. The Bold levels that up a significant notch by supplying a full gigabyte of main memory (and plenty more space for media through a microSD slot). This means I can keep a lot more email on the device. Not only that, but the upgraded server now allows me to search through any email on my server. Even if the email came in years before I got my Blackberry, as long at it remains on my server it is possible to retrieve the mail on the Bold.

Finally, full attachment support. My Bold came with a lite version of Documents to Go. Before, the only attachment support I had was to stream information from supported attachments. The result was time consuming, frustrating, and ultimately unsatisfying. The files were view only, they could not be stored locally, and they were hard to read without support for formatting. Now I can open a Word, Excel, or Powerpoint document, make some changes or edits, and send it on, all with one hand and limited eye-strain.

There are lots of other software enhancement. A much better (and usable) browser, multi-media software, and map with GPS. I am pleased to say that the new software goes a long way in addressing some of the main complaints I have heard about the 8707, The hardware improvements take it even further. I should note that I am running the newest version of the East Asian flavor of the OS. This supports display and input in Japanese, Chinese, and Korean. Anyone who says that the delay in Japan is due to lack of Japanese compatibility is full of it.

Hardware
Right now, my 8707 is sitting in my desk drawer. I took it out last week to do size comparisons with the Bold. Now, I am not usually one to get all nostalgic about my former tech gadgets, but this time I did feel a slight emotional pang. Actually I think it was more like a wave of nausea. Holding the 8707 and looking at the screen made me want to throw it in the garbage, fill the can with kerosine, light her up and then hide under my bed stoking the Bold and calling it “my Precious”.

Basically, everything is better. The screen is gorgeous. While just slightly larger than the old screen, resolution has been bumped up to iPhone specs and the tighter pixel density, bright LED backlight and high contrast make this the prettiest screen on a mobile device I have ever seen. I still prefer the iPhone’s larger screen, but inch for inch, the Bold has the better look. The included video clips show that there was a reason for last summer’s Speed Racer movie after all. The psychedelic color scheme shows off the Bold’s color range beautifully.

Next size. While basically maintaining the 8707’s face profile, the Bold shows what serious trips to the gym can accomplish (a lesson I am still working on adopting). Noticeably thinner, I can now hold the Bold in my front pants pocket without that embarrassing or misleading bulge. The leather backplate also classes up the look and makes holding the BlackBerry feel somewhat less geeky. My only complaint on the build is the fake metal rim that surrounds the device. I guess the designers took the whole “make it look like an iPhone” directive a bit too literally. While at first glance it looks pretty classy, it feels rather cheap and one scratch on it will give the whole game away. I’m waiting for a titanium replacement bezel that should protect the device better without adding too much to the weight. Until then I have to be careful not to drop the bold or else it will look like the front bumper of a Saturn after a fender bender.

Making a debut in Japan are all the features we have heard about on other recent devices, but have yet to make their appearance here. Wi-fi, GPS, and a built-in digital camera. This definitely has the feel of a flagship device with every option thrown in for good measure (although I have yet to locate the kitchen synch option). The one feature I heard someone lament was the lack of built in Felica/Smartcard functionality. All in all, these functions work ok, but not great. The wi-fi is a bit twitchy and I can’t seem to get good speed off of it but it does work and can offer a cheap alternative for web browsing and data packets while I roam (UMA is still a distant dream I think). The GPS is usable, but hardly robust and I find too often I have difficulty getting a good fix. The camera is much better than the iPhones crappy monocle, but nowhere near Nokia, Sony, or Samsungs level. Still, I think the majority of the drawbacks can be at least improved with future software enhancements. In the end though, these are more toys that most business professionals like to have, but are hardly requirements.

Verdict
Well, can you tell that I like the Bold? Simply put, it is the best BlackBerry made to date. Then again, is that really saying much? If I make the best butter churn in the world does that mean everyone will want one? If you like Blackberry’s or want something a step up from your existing 8707 then this is good news. Well, mostly good news anyway.
A smudge on the Bolds shine is the ridiculous price plans doled out by the DoCoMo overlords. Already painfully priced (the little bit of Bostonian in me wants to toss crates of handset into Tokyo bay), the enhanced capabilities will only push up packet usage pricing these new models significantly higher than the current generation. Still I think this device is a winner and companies will just have suck it up and get ready for the pain (unless of course rumors of a SoftBank entry turn out to be true).
Compared to the 8707, this new model has improvements in nearly every pain point. Smaller, easier to use. more powerful features, heck they even crammed a bigger batter in it to improve the battery life. Anyone who uses a BlackBerry in Japan will look at this upgrade as a long overdue breath of air. But you won’t find me chucking my iPhone anytime soon.
I need to use a BlackBerry because it is the only device my company can support. I need the functionality and this new Bold will make that even easier. But it will never meet my personal need for personal network connectivity. The iPhone remains my personal favorite flavor of meta-crack. So I carry both around with me. I still use a PC at work, but I wrote this post on a Macbook (using Google Docs no less).

One thing I was always wanted to be able to do with my old phone in Japan was check train times. Yes, you can do that with Japanese phones already, but the interface is enough to put off anyone who finds Kanji challenging.

Ekitan for the iPhone has changed all of that. Whilst it stills works primarily in Japanese (a recent update means you can now enter station names in Romaji, but the search results are still only displayed in Kanji), the interface is so beautifully intuitive that it doesn’t really require much bravery to use.

It will not only tell you what time the trains are leaving – it also gives you the price, number of changes, time taken, alternative routes and the status of all railways (useful to find out it there’s any serious delays).

The update to version 2.1.1 (iTunes Link) brought significant improvements, with the addition of GPS support. Not sure which station you’re at? Ekitan will use GPS to figure it out! There’s also bookmarks for those regular commutes, and a detailed search history.


The recent introduction of an English keyboard is a clear attempt to better serve the many iPhone-wielding foreigners in Japan, so my guess is that we can only see further improvements there in due course, such as the introduction of romaji names for all stations.

Ekitan is 350 yen and available from the App Store (Japan).

Developer’s website

The range of Windows Mobile devices continues to expand in Japan with the announcement of the HTC Dual Diamond S22H from Emobile.

It comes of course with wifi, bluetooth, camera, SDHC card slot and black or white flashy design characteristic of the latest HTC devices.

The real differentitor of this device is the addition of a 10-key keyboard in addition to the slide out QWERTY keyboard. It’s a non-touch screen device running Windows Mobile Standard 6.1.

Input options on mobile devices including soft 10-key, hard 10-key, Blackberry style front face hard QWERTY, slide out QWERTY and soft QWERTY. No one configuration or combination of configurations suit everyone, so it’s great to see users having choice.

As an aside, I’m currently testing out a X05HT HTC Touch Professional due out from Softbank soon and will send out a review in the not too distant future.

Press release: Japanese. Hopefully they’ll have the English up here soon.

Engadget is reporting on a New Nokia handset that has all the bells and whistles.

The N97 appears to be an upgrade of the N line combining the new touchscreen technology with a sleek E-series inspired design complete with QWERTY keyboard.

With Windows Mobile still stuck in neutral, Nokia S60 remains in my opinion the only legacy Smartphone OS that has a chance to break through to the next generation of consumer mobile devices. Might have to import this baby.

Link

I Just got back from a week or so in Hong Kong and while following some recent announcements started thinking about the overall state of mobile technology in Japan. Over the years I have had the chance to watch the development of mobile information platforms in this country, from the pokebell to the iPhone, and I have to say I am both disappointed and surprised at the current state and direction.

Throughout the late 80’s and 90’s Japan always seemed to be one step ahead. While cellular devices in the US were still square brick-like devices owned by pompous businessmen and zealous real estate agents, Japanese elementary school students all seemed to carry pagers. The entire Japanese culture seemed to embrace mobile technology. So much, in fact, there were news stories covering fears that people would lose the ability to communicate directly and someday everyone would be locked into technological cocoons.

Ah, those were the days.

So what happened? In the end, it appears that it was just a consumer based fad. A fad that lasted over a decade, but one that in recent years has certainly lost its luster. Cellphones, while now deeply ingrained into the society, have appeared to lose it’s luster and are no longer that interesting. An impartial view of mobile technology will show that innovation has continued in Japan. Camera-phones, wallet phones, GPS phones all debuted into the mass public in Japan. But I am far from impartial. In relative terms, Japan went from being the envy of mobile tech geeks around the globe to a page 3 story when Softbank summons overnight queues for the latest Apple import. It used to be whenever I left Japan, people would crowd to see my latest Docomo cellphone. Now, when I come back to Japan, people crowd to see my latest grey-market acquisition from Mong-kok. Japanese carriers now spit out with sickening regularity the same old thing (but this time is has Swarovski crystals and the color of the season is Puce!), while the rest of the world is truly started to push the envelope.

So who is to blame?

I blame everyone (except myself of course). I blame the carriers for ruthlessly sticking to an outdated procurement model that stifles creativity in manufacturers and pushes an outdated profit model to the expense of the consumer. I blame consumers for continuing to buy into this corrupted model and embracing the old and familiar while still buying new handsets at a mind-numbing pace (Thank God I got puce before it sold out!). I blame government regulators for protecting this antiquated model and stifling competition from abroad, isolating and eventually rendering Japanese manufacturers non-competitive. So now that I have doled out blame for about 1/10th of the problem, here’s my thoughts on what is really wrong in Japan.

In general, the state of Information Technology in Japan is a joke. Not an insightful, edgy quip from Jon Stewart joke, more like a slightly racist/sexist, outdated, and decidedly unfunny joke also by Jon Stewart, when nobody laughs. It’s like being in an elevator when someone farts… and then the power goes out. You are not sure if the tears are from the unfair nature of the situation or just the fumes. Yes. Things are that bad.

Large companies in Japan view IT with something between fear and contempt. Only recently has the acronym IT started to replace the die-hard OA from the office lexicon. OA-Office Appliances implies how Japanese companies have viewed computers and technology. Like something between a copy machine and a tea machine. As if you can order a corporate infrastructure from a Staples catalog. In recent years we have seen scandals in the Japanese news highlighting blunders in corporate IT naiveté. Bank system crashes, stock market freezes, and privacy leaks one could drive an Aegis class cruiser through.

Within Asia, Japan was very early into the technology infrastructure game. But that was over a decade ago, and now IT spending growth in Asia is vastly outpacing Japan’s outdated systems. Taking into account the increased ROI of more modern and efficient systems, The rest of Asia will soon vastly outperform Japan in infrastructure and technology. But how did this effect mobile technology?

In the US and Europe, mobile technology was very much a top-down development. Pagers, cellphones, and eventually SmartPhones all started out as expensive toys no one would buy unless they needed it or were offered one for work. Then as costs started to drop and the image of mobile technology became more fashionable regular consumers wanted to join the game. Nowadays gadget blogs are gaining in popularity and are packed with snapshots of the latest celebrity with their top of the line SmartPhones. But the trend for development was the same. FIrst high end companies invested, paying a huge premium for the best technology and fastest access to information. Then, the whole thing was repackaged for the consumer. In Japan, this approach was largely a failure. Early attempts such as the Sharp Zaurus were largely ignored by corporations. Isolation of the Japanese telecom market reduced competitiveness and innovation keeping the ubiquitous BlackBerry from Japanese shores for nearly a decade. Pitiful investment in software development by corporations pushed all the talent in Japan to video game developers (not that I am complaining about that one). The end result is that not only has Japan finally been surpassed by the global market, it is now in no shape to be a serious contender going forward.

So what does the future hold?

As the saying goes, “It is always darkest before you are halfway between sunset and sunrise.” or something like that. Yes. Things are quite backward and the days of Japanese mobile tech envy are likely behind us for quite a while, but that is not to say that there is no hope. While corporations still seem as clueless as ever, the surge in technology abroad is likely to have some effect in isolationist Japan. Global demand for the iPhone prompted Masayoshi Son to bring the iPhone to Japan, and even the marketing monkeys at DoCoMo were able to launch a BlackBerry (of sorts). Companies like eMobile and Willcom are pushing brilliant new communications products at very reasonable prices that have been quite a hit among small niche markets. But this pace will never see Japan as a leader in technology again. To do that we will need to see a significant shift within Japan Inc.

This is my first post to Mobile in Japan. Sorry that is turned into such a long and boring rant, and I promise future points will be both shorter and more interesting.