Category Archives: Japan

Smells Like Shoe Polish

My friend and flatmate in my 4th year of university was a geology student. His department had given him some tickets for a dinner and lecture on geology at some geological club in Toronto. Always interested to learn about something I know absolutely nothing about,  I jumped at the chance to go.

The keynote speaker raved about how gold was foolishly cheap, and should  have been twice the price that it was. It was an interesting talk, and had I listened to that geologist, I would have made out all right (not accounting for inflation or exchange rates). Take a look at this. It was 1999, and gold was about $250 an ounce.

I have never pretended to understand our infatuation with gold. I understand it now to be another currency, yes, but what makes it desirable?

Gold has a long history of being something we associate with wealth. Empires in Mexico, India, Europe and others… they have all sought after it. It’s history is nearly as interesting as that of salt.

To tell you the truth, I don’t even like gold really. Sure, I would like to own a bar to use as a doorstop or a wafer to use as a paperweight, but that would just be to be eccentric. Gold jewelery has always seemed Gaudy to me. My wife’s engagement ring, and our wedding bands are platinum. Simple. Stylish. Hard.

Yet gold keeps moving higher, and recently some things have happened that make me wonder if it’s possibly on its way back down.

I’ve lived here in Japan for 9 years, and starting last year a commercial started running that made me cringe. The commercial is selling a class and system to trade and make money from gold. The people in the commercial look very happy after walking out of the class, and then it cuts to them in front of a computer screen in their living room, smiling as they (I assume) buy and sell gold futures.

(This seems to have replaced a similar commercial that used to run, which promised to teach you how to make money in the F/X market.)

But the real reason I will continue to stay away from gold  came last evening when a door-to-door gold buyer showed up at my door.

He was wearing a yellow jacket, and asked if I had any gold I wanted to sell. I said no, and he took a step to try to stop me from closing the door. He showed me a flier with various examples of gold jewelry and asked “Don’t you have anything like this that you want to sell?” I said no, and he asked again if I didn’t have anything like it in the house, to which I answered “I’m poor. I have no jewelry.”

Aside from the fact that I wouldn’t tell a complete stranger if I had jewelry in the house or not, the concept of door-to-door gold buying floored me. Has it come to the frenzy that pawn shops are willing to send a workforce out into the community in search of gold?

That tells me something. It tells me that pawn shops believe that gold will continue to increase, so they are willing to go out to buy gold at today’s price with the expectation that they will be able to sell it even higher next week or next month.

And that tells me something else. If there are commercials advertising how you can make money in gold, and pawn shop dealers showing up at my door, well, to me that’s about the same as a shoe-shine boy telling me to buy stocks. It’s advice that stinks, and will leave you with a headache if you stick around too long.


Earthquakes, Tsunamis and Meltdowns


Epicentre to my place: 1075km

I’d like to say thank you to all who have emailed to make sure that my family and I are safe. I thank you. We appreciate it a lot. Luckily, the quake had no direct effect on us, as we live a good thousand kilometres from the location of the quake, tsunami, and reactor. To put that distance in a Canadian context, it’s about the same as a flight from Toronto to Fredericton.

To be sure, it was a massive quake, and caused a remarkable amount of damage. As terrible an event as it was, however, I have to say that it probably would have been several times worse had this event happened in any other country. The Japanese quake predictor system sent out a message one minute before the main quake, and I can only assume that that helped many people prepare even slightly. Architecture in Japan is also designed with earthquakes in mind. And while the old wooden structures of Sendai were no match for the tsunami, all the buildings of Tokyo held up exceptionally well.

Beyond this technology, though, is the sheer calm of the Japanese people. It was remarkable to watch the events on TV of people walking calmly to shelters, or waiting patiently for the few buses that were running. No rioting, no looting, no fighting for places. A true testament of oneness… we are all in the together.

The Canadian Embassy has done a great job of sending out emails regarding the quake, evacuation and reactor to those of us registered, but I found this article a little surprising and disheartening. It estimates that there are about 12,000 Canadians in Japan, yet only 1773 are registered with the embassy. I registered when I first moved here, and can’t recommend it enough. If you live abroad and haven’t done so already, here is the link to register.

Again, thanks for your thoughts everyone.

Fear and Respect

As a factual resident of Canada, I submit a tax return each year to the CRA. Due to a tax treaty between Japan and Canada which states that there shall be no double taxation, I am generally exempt from Canadian income taxes. My world income is input on one line, and a corresponding deduction is entered on another line, resulting in zero taxable income from salary.

My return has been filled out the same way for years, and there had never been a problem until last year, when they kept my 2009 return for review. They agreed with my return, but said any return could be re-reviewed at any time.

They took themselves up on that offer by sending me a letter in January saying that my 2007, 2008, and 2009 returns were under review.  After complying with their request for information, my returns have been left as they were (which is a relief) but at least this time I think I know what was setting off the CRA’s alarm.

I submit my statements of earnings from my Japanese sources with my return. I also submit a legend that tells the CRA what each box means (income, pension payments, taxes paid, insurance premiums paid etc.) as well as receipts for local taxes paid,  but I had never thought about translating the addresses of my various employers. This seems to have been the rub, as their January letter specifically asked for the translation and telephone numbers of my sources of income, as well as a description of how the income was earned.

I submitted the information within the 20 days given to me, and they wrote back saying that since I sent in that information, no adjustments would be made to my returns, and that everything looked to have been filed correctly.

As I prepare my documents for my 2010 return, you can be sure I will have an extra page inserted with my forms giving the addresses in the Roman alphabet, the phone numbers and a brief description of how I earn my money. Regardless of how right you think you are, it can’t stop the feeling you feel when you receive a letter from the CRA.

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We’re Back… with a Giveaway

The Absence

It’s been a whirlwind three months. And they’ve been a great three months.

I took an unplanned (but understandable) break from blogging for a while due to the birth of our first son. He was born in mid-December, and is doing smashingly well. The last month of my wife’s pregnancy, and the first couple months of his life have found me without much Internet time, except for answering emails from family and friends, and looking up baby info. Somehow, diapers, dishes, laundry and back massages seemed to take priority.

I would like to give a special thank you shout-out to Arjun at Investing Thesis for sending me an email making sure I wasn’t on my deathbed. I appreciate the concern.

It’s still a pretty busy schedule, but I’m starting to get into a groove of managing my business and family. As such, I think it about time to add blogging back into the routine.

Things will probably still be sporadic, but I am aiming to get about two posts per week.

The Giveaway

Aside from teaching in the public school system, I run a growing and, in my terms, successful private teaching business. My students are from all walks of life, and a good number of them are working adults. I also have company classes where I go into a boardroom to teach employees business based communication.

Having this kind of student base means that I am gifted many schedules, day planners and calendars  each January. I have my one preferred schedule that I have been using for 5 years, so the majority of the items that I receive I pass along to others. This year I thought I would pass them onto you.

The Giveaway is simple. Just leave a comment below indicating that you would like to receive one, and I will contact you for address details. No bonus ballots for subscribing to the blog (though I would appreciate it) and no bonus ballots for linking to this post or adding me to your blogroll (though I would appreciate that as well).

As it is already February and I want to get these out, the giveaway is first come first serve. Feel free to indicate if you have a preferred prize. In total I have 12 items to give away. None of the companies are sponsoring this… it is merely that one or more of my students have a connection to the company in question.

They are (items crossed off have been claimed):

  1. A desk planner from BNP Paribus (European Bank) featuring daily planning from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., some memo space, and a colour atlas in the back!
  2. A standing desk calendar from Otowa Electric Co. featuring beautiful colour photos of lightning.
  3. Two simple monthly desk calendars from Oracle Japan.
  4. A pocket schedule from Yuasa Tech Engineering Co., with a simple monthly design, memo pages and an address book.
  5. A pocket schedule from Kokusai AM (Japanese fund company) featuring monthly and daily scheduling space.
  6. A simple daily schedule from Mitsubishi Technos (machinery and equipment) featuring graph paper and address book. Japanese national holidays are written in English as well!
  7. A yearly and daily pocket schedule from Kajima Corporation (construction company).
  8. A yearly and daily pocket  schedule from Singapore Airlines featuring an index of all national holidays in the world!
  9. A monthly and daily pocket schedule from Mitsubishi UFJ (Japanese bank) including memo paper.
  10. A yearly and small daily schedule from BNP Paribas (European bank) including large memo area and address book.
  11. A monthly and daily pocket schedule from JR Kyushu (Japanese rail company) with memo pages, address book, and a map of the train routes of Kyushu!! (This is the schedule I’ve been using every year since 2007. I love the layout)

Remember, the majority of these items are in Japanese, but what a great conversation starter!!! Imagine whipping out your Kokusai AM schedule to set up a meeting, and your counterpart says “Where’s THAT schedule from?” Or imagine when someone sees the amazing photos of lightning from Otawa Electric on your desk, and you can say “Oh, yes. Quite nice, isn’t it. An acquaintance from Japan sent it to me.”

If it sounds like I’m touting the benefits, it’s because I am… I have a newborn, and need all the space I can get. 😉

Interview With a Canadian Trade Commissioner: Part IV

(At the end of September, I was fortunate to be granted an informal interview with one of the Canadian Trade Commissioners abroad. This is the last in a four-part series of articles based on that talk.)

One of the most interesting parts of out talk was learning about the various areas where the International Trade Office helps Canada. To be honest, before meeting with the Trade Commissioner, I thought their main role was helping to bring smoked salmon and Blackberries abroad (only half-joking). In fact, there are 5 main areas that the combined Departments of Foreign Affairs and International Trade operates. The last two categories, unfortunately, we didn’t get into great detail about.

Environment, Bioengineering, and Energy

As mentioned in part III, there are several foreign companies investing in the energy sector in Canada. This ranges from solar and wind farms to the oil sands.

The environment and sustainable energy is a focus, however, and the Department of International Trade is involved with endeavours like Globe Vancouver, a trade show and conference (dubbed “the Davos of Sustainability”) dealing with the link between business and the environment.

Agriculture and Food

Because it is less noticeable than a shiny Blackberry or a towering wind turbine, agri-food is sometimes forgotten, but it is a major component of international trade.

Regulation is important, and the exchange rate is a large variable. Because of the strong yen recently, Japan has increased its purchases of Canadian commodities like grain and canola oil.

Other large players in this category are seafood, meats, maple syrup, ice wine, and though some readers may not like to know this, horse meat to Japan, where it is a delicacy. (Don’t knock it till you try it!)

High Tech, ICT, and Medical

Information and communications technology (ICT) is a large component of the trade between Canada and other countries, and RIM is only a small part of the pie.

Within ICT, Canada and Japan have worked together on Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS). This is technology using Middleware to link smart cars and smart roads. These systems are being designed to help with fuel efficiency, and can reduce traffic accidents and congestion.

Companies like Bombardier, Bell Helicopter, and Toyota also fit into this category, as the aerospace and automotive industries are large links between Canada and Japan. The cities of Hiroshima and Montreal, for example, are trying to deepen bilateral ties.

Building and Consumer Products

Canada is considered and advanced housing materials provider, exporting both unprocessed and cut lumber, insulation, flooring, and pre-fabricated components such as cabinets, doors and kitchens.

General Economy and Culture

All the other odds and ends of trade, as well as the areas that fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Through these 5 categories the Department of International Trade plays a major role in connecting Canadian businesses to the world.

Closing Thoughts

Unlike visiting the Canadian Embassy (which is like a fortress to gain access to) I found the Office of the International Trade Commissioner to be very open, and inviting. When I first walked into the reception area of the office, they were surprised (I hadn’t called in advance), but extremely friendly and excited about the idea of this article series. After a brief description of what I proposed to do, the Trade Commissioner quickly opened his schedule and we came up with some possible times to have our discussion. He emailed me personally that night with some requests to avoid red-tape (If I were to use his name or give the specific location of his office, this process would have had to go through official channels). We met a few days later.

My talk with the Trade Commissioner was a lively and informative talk. It moved through many topics and geographic locations. He is young, energetic, and has a genuine desire to have Canadian businesses succeed in Japan.

I would encourage anyone interested in International Trade to contact their local Trade Office to see if an informal chat could be set up. From my experience, they are more than willing to help educate at the grass-roots level.

Interview with a Canadian Trade Commissioner: Part III

(At the end of September, I was fortunate to be granted an informal interview with one of the Canadian Trade Commissioners abroad. This is Part III in a series of articles based on that talk. )

My last post dealt with Canadian export to foreign countries, but the Department of International Trade is also very much involved with Foreign investment in Canada. In the case of Japanese investment in Canada, a good and widely known example can be found in the Toyota plant in Cambridge Ontario.

Here we have the reverse of the trade route. Toyota executives made contact through a Trade Office located in Japan. The Trade Office then contacted officials in Canada as well as at many Regional Offices in Canada. Eventually an agreement was made to create Toyota’s first plant in Canada.

The inflow to the Canadian economy didn’t stop with the creation of the plant. In order to have the factory (which produces the Lexus brand) run smoothly, several executives from the Kyushu plant in Japan were relocated to Southern Ontario. The Kyushu plant produces Harriers, which is a high-end model of car. These executives and engineers moved to Ontario to provide expertise and guidance.

Considering everything, there are actually several layers of investment and participation in the Canadian economy with such a venture. Construction companies were contracted to build the plant, workers hired, materials and resources purchased, parts manufacturers contracted, and taxes paid. There is also another effect, albeit small, which is the result of all the Japanese executives and their families moving to Ontario; these 50 or so families need to rent homes, buy food and other products, and pay taxes.

Another situation of Japanese companies investing in Canada has been in the renewable energy sector. Over the past several years, Japanese companies have been investing in the Canadian solar industry, either through investment in Canadian companies, or by setting up their own solar farms and stations.

A recent rule on wind power in Ontario has caused a trade row between Japan and Canada, as the Japanese companies say that the support for wind power creates a trade barrier for them, and is especially painful because the ruling came after their large investment in the province.

The dispute is unresolved as of yet.

The next article in this series will talk about the five specific areas that the Trade Office deals with, as well as some examples within each sector. They very much overlap with my last post and this, and will hopefully give some further clarification into how deeply intertwined countries and countries are. Toyotas and Blackberries are only the suface.

Interview With a Canadian Trade Commissioner: Part II

(At the end of September, I was fortunate to be granted an informal interview with one of the Canadian Trade Commissioners abroad. This is Part II in a series of articles based on that talk. )

There are several ways in which the Department of International Trade can help Canadian companies and the Canadian economy. While Japanese export to Canada is not a focus, the Trade Office does deal with it a lot because of Japanese companies coming to them for that reason. Their main mandates, however, fall under the goals of Canadian export to Japan, and Japanese investment in Canada (or the country of said Trade Office).

In the case of a Canadian company wanting to sell its product or service abroad, they would first go to their regional trade office. While we did not get into the specific details, we did talk in general terms, and Research in Motion came up, so let’s use them as an example.

Research in Motion would go to a regional Trade Office (say in the Kitchener-Waterloo area) and state their desire to sell Blackberries in Japan. They would register with the Trade Office to gain access to the database of market research. The regional office would contact the office in Japan and pass on any important information to them. From that point onward, RIM would be in direct contact with the Trade Office in Japan.

The Trade Office would then introduce RIM to the big cell phone players in Japan, and it would then be up to RIM to decide which provider is best suited for their needs. As Blackberries are only available on the DoCoMo network, we can guess what their decision was.

Another route for Canadian companies to gain access to a foreign market is through trade fairs. This may be as simple as setting up a booth at a foreign fair (think Bombardier sending planes and staff to the Dubai Air Show to gain orders) or in the case of at lease one Canadian company, being more proactive and setting up something yourself.

Clearwater Seafood of Canada, for example, was very proactive in Japan. In July of this year they sponsored the “Homard Festa,” in which they teamed up with about 80 restaurants in Fukuoka Prefecture, to highlight Atlantic seafood for the entire month.

The Trade Commissioner and I didn’t talk about the results of this endeavour (as it was only a couple of months ago, so not enough data is in) but my assumption would be that if a restaurant experienced consumer satisfaction resulting from the Atlantic seafood, they may add it to their permanent menu, in which case they would continually import from Clearwater.

In both of the above examples, we have situations where Canadian companies have made efforts to sell their products abroad. Of course, it is not always that direction. Sometimes foreign companies want to invest in the Canadian economy.

And we will deal with that in the next post: specifically, Japanese companies wishing to invest in Canada’s infrastructure.