Posted on

Microsoft announces its first Azure data center region in Taiwan

After announcing its latest data center region in Austria earlier this month and an expansion of its footprint in Brazil, Microsoft today unveiled its plans to open a new region in Taiwan. This new region will augment its existing presence in East Asia, where the company already runs data centers in China (operated by 21Vianet), Hong Kong, Japan and Korea. This new region will bring Microsoft’s total presence around the world to 66 cloud regions.

Similar to its recent expansion in Brazil, Microsoft also pledged to provide digital skilling for over 200,000 people in Taiwan by 2024 and it is growing its Taiwan Azure Hardware Systems and Infrastructure engineering group, too. That’s in addition to investments in its IoT and AI research efforts in Taiwan and the startup accelerator it runs there.

“Our new investment in Taiwan reflects our faith in its strong heritage of hardware and software integration,” said Jean-Phillippe Courtois, Executive Vice President and President, Microsoft Global Sales, Marketing and Operations. “With Taiwan’s expertise in hardware manufacturing and the new datacenter region, we look forward to greater transformation, advancing what is possible with 5G, AI and IoT capabilities spanning the intelligent cloud and intelligent edge.”

Image Credits: Microsoft

The new region will offer access to the core Microsoft Azure services. Support for Microsoft 365, Dynamics 365 and Power Platform. That’s pretty much Microsoft’s playbook for launching all of its new regions these days. Like virtually all of Microsoft’s new data center region, this one will also offer multiple availability zones.

Read More

Posted on

Tokyo Stock Exchange Glitch Brings Trading to a Halt

TOKYO — The Tokyo Stock Exchange shut down for the day on Thursday as its operator raced to solve a technical glitch that halted equities trading throughout the world’s third- largest economy.

The breakdown is the worst ever for one of the globe’s biggest platforms to buy and trade stocks, bewildering investors who were unable to place orders. While the exchange has experienced outages in the past, none had stopped trading for a whole day. The outage could have significant cost to investors, depending on how long it lasts.

The shutdown stemmed from a problem in a system that reports market information, Japan Exchange Group, the company that operates the system, said in a statement on its website.

The glitch first became apparent on Thursday morning in Tokyo, before trading began, postponing the beginning of the session. At about noon, the company announced that trading would be stopped for the entire day.

The company offered its “deepest apologies” to investors and others affected by the shutdown, but did not give details about the cause and said it did not know when the problem would be resolved.

Trading was also halted at exchanges in Nagoya, Sapporo and Fukuoka, the companies running them said. After-hours trading on the markets was also stopped.

Trading in Japan’s second-largest exchange, in Osaka, appeared to be unaffected.

Over 3,700 companies are listed in Tokyo.

Speaking during a regularly scheduled news conference on Thursday, Japan’s top government spokesman, Katsunobu Kato, called the breakdown “very regrettable” and said that the exchange was taking “actions to identify the cause of the problem and restore it.”

He said that there was no indication that the shutdown had been caused by a cyberattack, but added that “at this point, we can’t say for certain.”

Earlier this year, a distributed denial of service attack disrupted trading on New Zealand’s stock exchange, raising concerns about the vulnerabilities of global stock markets to threats from hackers.

As of December, the Japan Exchange Group ran the world’s third-largest equity market, behind the New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq, with nearly $6.2 trillion worth of stocks, according to the World Federation of Exchanges. It had more listed companies than any other exchange, the group said.

Thursday’s breakdown effectively halted all trading in the region. Japan was the only major market expected to open, with exchanges in mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea closed for autumn holidays.

The shutdown was a headache for investors who had been awaiting the release of a quarterly report from the Bank of Japan that tracks economic sentiment among the country’s companies. The report showed cautious optimism among firms adjusting to a future in which economic activity will most likely continue to be limited by restrictions on work and life imposed by the coronavirus.

Stocks in Tokyo crashed in March because of investors’ fears about the pandemic’s economic effects. Prices have recovered in the months since, with investors flooding into companies, such as pharmaceutical firms, expected to benefit from the global fight against the virus. It is currently down more than 5 percent since the beginning of the year.

The Tokyo Stock Exchange introduced its current market data system in 2010 and upgraded it last November. The system, known as Arrowhead, was developed by Japan’s Fujitsu Limited.

Japan has faced similar problems over the years, with system glitches occasionally stopping some trading for brief periods. The last systemwide shutdown was in 2005, when a software upgrade malfunctioned, shutting the market down for half a day.

Malfunctions are not limited to Japan. In 2015, a technical issue shut down the New York Stock Exchange for nearly four hours. In 2013, a “flash freeze” halted trading on Nasdaq.

Hisako Ueno, Makiko Inoue and Hikari Hida contributed reporting.

Posted on

CDC removes updated guidelines around COVID-19 aerosol transmission, but this expert explains why it should reverse the reversal

[embedded content]

Last week at TechCrunch Disrupt 2020, I got the chance to speak to Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and health economist who is a Senior Fellow of the Federation of American Scientists. Dr. Feigl-Ding has been a frequent and vocal critic of some of the most profound missteps of regulators, public health organizations and the current White House administration, and we discussed specifically the topic of aerosol transmission and its notable absence from existing guidance in the U.S.

At the time, neither of us knew that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) would publish updated guidance on its website over this past weekend that provided descriptions of aerosol transmission, and a concession that it’s likely a primary vector for passing on the virus that leads to COVID-19 — or that the CDC would subsequently revert said guidance, removing this updated information about aerosol transmission that’s more in line with the current state of widely accepted COVID research. The CDC cited essentially an issue where someone at the organization pushed a draft version of guidelines to production — but the facts it had shared in the update lined up very closely with what Dr. Feigl-Ding had been calling for.

“The fact that we haven’t highlighted aerosol transmission as much, up until recently, is woefully, woefully frustrating,” he said during our interview last Wednesday. “Other countries who’ve been much more technologically savvy about the engineering aspects of aerosols have been ahead of the curve — like Japan, they assume that this virus is aerosol and airborne. And aerosol means that the droplets are these micro droplets that can float in the air, they don’t get pulled down by gravity […] now we know that the aerosols may actually be the main drivers. And that means that if someone coughs, sings, even breathes, it can stay in the air, the micro droplets can stay in the air anywhere from, for stagnant air for up to16 hours, but normally with ventilation, between 20 minutes to four hours. And that air, if you enter into a room after someone was there, you can still get infected, and that is what makes indoor dining and bars and restaurants so frustrating.”

Dr. Feigl-Ding points to a number of recent contact-tracing studies as providing strong evidence that these indoor activities, and the opportunity they provide for aerosol transmission, are leading to a large number of infections. Such studies were featured in a report the CDC prepared on reopening advice, which was buried by the Trump administration, according to an AP report from May.

“The latest report shows that indoor dining, bars, restaurants are the leading leading factors for transmission, once you do contact tracing,” he said, noting that this leads naturally to the big issues around schools reopening, including that many have “very poor ventilation,” while simultaneously they’re not able to open their windows or doors due to gun safety protocols in place. Even before this recent CDC guideline take-back, Dr. Feigl-Ding was clearly frustrated with the way the organization appears to be succumbing to politicization of what is clearly an issue of a large and growing body of scientific evidence and fact.

“The CDC has long been the most respected agency in the world for public health, but now it’s been politically muzzled,” he said. “Previously, for example, the guidelines around church attendance — the CDC advised against church gatherings, but then it was overruled. And it was clearly overruled, because we actually saw it changed in live time. […] In terms of schools, gatherings, it’s clear [that] keeping kids in a pod is not enough, given what we know about ventilation.”

Read More

Posted on

Homage announces strategic partnership with Infocom, one of Japan’s largest healthcare IT providers

Homage, a Singapore-based caregiving and telehealth company, has taken a major step in its global expansion plan. The startup announced today that it has received strategic investment from Infocom, the Japanese information and communications technology company that runs one of the largest healthcare IT businesses in the country. Infocom’s solutions are used by more than 13,000 healthcare facilities in Japan.

During an interview with TechCrunch that will air as part of Disrupt tomorrow, Homage co-founder and chief executive Gillian Tee said “Japan has one of the most ageing populations in the world, and the problem is that we need to start building infrastructure to enable people to be able to access the kind of care services that they need.” She added that Homage and Infocom’s missions align because the latter is also building a platform for caregivers in Japan, in a bid to help solve the shortage of carers in the country.

Homage raised a Series B earlier this year with the goal of entering new Asian markets. The company, which currently operates in Singapore and Malaysia, focuses on patients who need long-term rehabilitation or care services, especially elderly people. This makes it a good match for Japan, where more than one in five of its population is currently aged 65 or over. In the next decade, that number is expected to increase to about one in three, making the need for caregiving services especially acute.

The deal includes a regional partnership that will enable Homage to launch its services into Japan, and Infocom to expand its reach in Southeast Asia. Homage’s services include a caregiver-client matching platform and a home medical service that includes online consultations and house calls, while Infocom’s technology covers a wide range of verticals, including digital healthcare, radiology, pharmaceuticals, medical imaging and hospital information management.

In a statement about the strategic investment, Mototaka Kuboi, Infocom’s managing executive officer and head of its healthcare business division, said, “We see Homage as an ideal partner given the company’s unique cutting-edge technology and market leadership in the long-term care segment, and we aim to drive business growth not only in Homage’s core and rapidly growing market in Southeast Asia, but also regionally.”

Read More

Posted on

SoftBank could make, gasp, a profit on its expected sale of Arm for $40B

While the big deal we have been tracking the past few weeks has been TikTok, there was another massive deal under negotiation that mirrors some of the international tech dynamics that have plagued the consumer social app’s sale.

Arm Holdings, which is the most important designer of processor chips in smartphones and increasingly other areas, has been quietly shopped around as SoftBank works to shed its investments and raise additional capital to placate activist investors like Elliott Management. The Japanese telco conglomerate bought Arm outright back in 2016 for $32 billion.

Now, those talks look like they are coming toward a conclusion. The Wall Street Journal first reported that SoftBank is close to locking in a sale to Nvidia for cash and stock that would value Arm at $40 billion. The Financial Times this afternoon further confirmed the outlines of the deal, which could be announced as early as Monday.

A couple of thoughts while we wait for official confirmation from Nvidia, Arm, and SoftBank.

First, Arm has struggled to turn its wildly successful chip designs — which today power billions of new chips a year — into a fast-growth company. As we discussed back in May, the company has ploddingly entered new growth markets, and while it has had some notable brand successes including Apple announcing that Arm-powered processor designs would be coming to the company’s iconic Macintosh lineup, those wins haven’t translated into significant profits.

SoftBank took a wild swing back in 2016 buying the company. If $40 billion is indeed the price, it’s a 25% gain in roughly four years. Given SoftBank’s recent notorious investing track record, that actually looks stellar, but of course, there was a huge opportunity cost for the company to buy such a pricy asset. Nvidia, which SoftBank’s Vision Fund bought a public stake in, has seen its stock price zoom more than 16x in that time frame, driven by AI and blockchain applications.

Second, assuming a deal is consummated, it’s a somewhat quiet denouement for one of the truly category-defining companies that has emanated out of the United Kingdom. The chip designer, which is based in Cambridge and has deep ties to the leading British university, has been seen as a symbol of Britain’s long legacy at the frontiers of computer science, in which Alan Turing played a key role in the development of computability.

Arm’s sale comes just as the UK government gears up for a fight with the European Union over its industrial policy, and specifically deeper funding for precisely the kinds of technologies that Arm was developing. Arm of course isn’t likely to migrate its workforce, but its ownership by an American semiconductor giant versus a Japanese holding company will likely end its relatively independent operations.

Third and finally, the deal would give Nvidia a dominant position in the semiconductor market, bringing together the company’s strength in graphics and AI processing workflows along with Arm’s underlying chip designs. While the company would not be fully vertically integrated, the combination would intensify Nvidia’s place as one of the major centers of gravity in chips.

It’s also a symbol of how far Intel has fallen behind its once diminutive peer. Intel’s market cap is about $210 billion, compared to Nvidia’s $300 billion. Intel’s stock is practically a straight line compared to Nvidia’s rapid growth the past few years, and this news isn’t likely to be well-received in Intel HQ.

Given the international politics involved and the sensitivity about the company, any deal would have to go through customary antitrust reviews in multiple countries, as well as potential national security reviews in the UK.

For SoftBank, it’s another sign of the company’s retrenchment in the face of extreme losses. But at least for now, it has a likely win on its hands.

Read More

Posted on

Revolut launches its financial app in Japan

Fintech startup Revolut is expanding to Japan. After testing the service with 10,000 users, anybody can now sign up and open an account. The company originally obtained its authorization to operate from Japan’s Finance Service Agency in 2018.

When you open an account, you get an electronic wallet and a Visa debit card. You can top up your account and spend money with your card, a virtual card, Apple Pay, Google Pay, etc. Revolut sends you instant notifications and lets you freeze and unfreeze your card from the app.

You can also send money to other Revolut users or a bank account. Like in other countries, Revolut lets you exchange money in the app and send money in other currencies. Many users have taken advantage of the service to travel and pay less in foreign exchange fees.

Users in Japan will also be able to create vaults and put some money aside by rounding up transactions and creating recurring transactions. And that’s about it for now.

The company has already launched premium plans in Japan, but it doesn’t give you a lot of benefits other than lower fees on foreign exchange, different card designs, better support and the ability to buy airport lounge access with LoungeKey Pass.

Unlike in the U.K. and Europe, you won’t be able to buy cryptocurrencies, trade stocks, buy insurance products, create Revolut Junior accounts for your children, etc. Revolut is really trying to build a super app in its home country and has massively expanded its feature set over the years.

The company promises that some features, such as cryptocurrency and stock trading, will be available globally. But there’s no release date just yet. So let’s see how the product evolves in the coming months.

Revolut is currently available in the U.K., Europe, the U.S., Singapore and Australia. It currently has 13 million customers.

Image Credits: Revolut

Read More

Posted on

‘Abenomics’ May Stay, but Japan’s Economic Overhaul Is Incomplete

TOKYO — Komaki Fujii opened her central Tokyo vegetarian restaurant in 2013, when the future looked bright. Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, had just taken office promising a bold package of reforms that would supercharge the country’s stagnant economy and transform the way it did business.

Now, Mr. Abe is preparing to step down with many of those promises unfulfilled. That will make it even harder for Japan to recover from the impact of the coronavirus, which has sent the world’s third largest economy after the United States and China shrinking at its fastest pace since World War II.

Mr. Abe’s successor will face Japanese voters and businesspeople who have seen the hard-won economic gains of the last eight years slip away in the face of the pandemic. Many will wonder whether Mr. Abe’s promises, so tightly identified with him that they came to be known as Abenomics, ever changed much at all.

While Ms. Fujii does not blame her current hardship on Mr. Abe — the whole world is facing a devastating economic crisis — she is unsure whether he deserves much credit for her prior success.

“I don’t know if Abenomics was the right answer,” she said by telephone from her shop in the Akihabara district, which until the coronavirus struck in February had been packed with tourists and businesspeople hungry for dishes like fried noodles.

But when it comes to her own business, she said, “there’s nothing you can really point to and say, ‘That was great.’”

The conservative, governing Liberal Democratic Party is due to choose a replacement for Mr. Abe in September. It is likely to stick with some version of his namesake economic policies, which called for making money cheap and readily available, amping up government spending and transforming the way the country’s bureaucracy and corporations did business.

“Mr. Abe’s resignation happened so suddenly that no one has an agenda, has a strategy, has thought about how they’re going to run this government,” said Gerald L. Curtis, a professor emeritus of political science at Columbia University.

“They’ll try to do things to get the economy coming back after it’s been hit so hard,” he said. “But new ideas? New policies? I don’t think so. It will be a continuation of Abe’s policies, no matter who it is.”

Those policies have had a mixed record.

“The market is up, the unemployment rate is low, so that’s a good thing for the economy,” said Nobuko Kobayashi, a partner in Tokyo with the Japanese arm of consulting firm Ernst & Young. “That said, it’s very hard to single out Mr. Abe’s contribution.”

On the plus side, Mr. Abe’s appointments at the country’s central bank kept borrowing costs low and flooded the economy with yen, Japan’s currency. That helped the country shake off decades of economic stagnation and prop up its stock market.

Image
Credit…Kyodo News, via Associated Press

Other efforts were less successful.

Japan remains a wealthy country and an export powerhouse, but it faces long-term challenges. It has the largest public debt in the developed world when compared with its economic output. It has a shrinking, aging population that will increasingly test the country’s social safety net.

Those concerns clouded Mr. Abe’s pledge to stimulate growth through government spending. While he pumped money into the economy, he also sought to keep the country’s debt burden in check with two consumption tax increases. Both times, the move set off a downturn.

His promise to introduce much-needed structural reforms — fundamental changes to the way Japan does business — also fell short of expectations. He expanded women’s participation in the work force but did little to improve their status there. And his efforts to relax a rigid labor market and shake up Japan’s cushy corporate boardroom culture, which has kept Japanese companies and industries less profitable and efficient, made limited progress.

“When it comes to work style change and faster introduction of digitalization, the shock that came from corona probably made a bigger impact” than Mr. Abe’s policies, said Takuji Okubo, the North Asia director of the Economist Corporate Network.

With the economy in crisis, Japan’s next leader “needs to move in a different direction,” he said. “The next prime minister will not be able to use monetary policy that much. The room for further expansion, for further easing, is very limited.”

When Mr. Abe began his tenure, Japan’s economy was in the doldrums after decades of economic stagnation and the double crisis of the 2011 earthquake and nuclear meltdown in Fukushima.

Soon after taking office, he championed an aggressive monetary policy that kept interest rates low, injected huge amounts of cash into the country’s markets and maintained the yen at a level that made Japanese goods affordable for foreign buyers.

He matched that with big government spending centered on preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. As money flowed into the economy, unemployment went down and tourism, investment, real estate prices and the financial markets went up.

Beyond Japan’s borders, Mr. Abe worked to increase access to foreign markets and lower tariffs. When the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the largest trade accord in history, collapsed after the Trump administration’s withdrawal, Mr. Abe helped rally the remaining members to reach their own trade accord.

His efforts benefited from timing. China’s economy surged during his tenure, increasing its appetite for Japanese machine tools and the specialized components needed to manufacture things like autos and high-end electronics. Chinese tourists, eager to spend their growing wages, flooded Japan’s cities and tourist sites, splashing out on luxury goods.

But late last year, Japan’s economy began to contract as slowing global demand and the trade tensions between the United States and China cratered Japanese exports.

Japan’s national debt stood at one and a half times its annual economic output, and in an attempt to pay it down and shore up funding for social programs, Mr. Abe pushed through a 2-percentage-point increase in the consumption tax. As prices went up, consumers began buying less. Then a vicious typhoon devastated the country’s center, piling on the damage.

By the time the pandemic was underway, the economy had already sunk into recession, defined as two consecutive quarters of negative growth.

The coronavirus brought it crashing down, forcing Mr. Abe to postpone the 2020 Summer Olympics, zeroing out tourism and taking an even larger scoop out of domestic consumption as people, wary of the virus, stayed home.

Growth nose-dived by an annualized 27.8 percent during the second quarter after a national emergency that spanned most of April and May.

The Japanese government met the crisis with a stimulus package valued at around 40 percent of the country’s G.D.P., including low interest loans and cash handouts.

Image

Credit…Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images

Economic indicators showed modest improvement in June, but consumption has receded again after a second wave of the virus hit the country, forcing some local governors to declare a state of emergency and pushing Tokyo to ask bars and restaurants to reduce their hours.

Analysts hold out little hope that the new government will take bold action to meet the pandemic’s challenge. Mr. Abe has no clear successor. And although his policies have failed to live up to their promise, none of his possible replacements have offered up an alternative.

“Short term, the No. 1 priority of the new prime minister is going to be to consolidate power and to ensure that the markets and the economy stay well supported,” said Izumi Devalier, the chief Japan economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. That, she said, “means continuation of the status quo.”

The status quo is something Ms. Fujii can ill afford. The pandemic has pushed her business to the limit. She closed her doors for two months and has had an 80 percent drop in business as the office workers and tourists who made up her customer base have mostly disappeared.

“I realize, now that we’re in this situation, that it felt like this administration always left their citizens behind,” she said.

“Even when Mr. Abe leaves,” she said, “the problems he created will remain.”

Posted on

Coronavirus Leads Japan to Lock Borders, Shutting Out Foreign Workers

TOKYO — When Jeff Mazziotta, a director of a nonprofit wildlife conservation organization, left Japan for South Africa in early March, he planned to spend a month training park rangers on emergency field medicine before returning to Tokyo.

Nearly five months later, Mr. Mazziotta is still stuck abroad. He is one of nearly 100,000 foreign residents of Japan who have been prevented from re-entering the country since April under its stringent coronavirus-related travel restrictions.

Japan’s rules, which stand out for making permanent and long-term residents ineligible for travel privileges granted to citizens, have left Mr. Mazziotta and many others in a difficult bind.

He has been forced to rely on a friend for financial support because he has little cash and no access to his Japanese bank account. His office in Japan, where he works as an English teacher to supplement his nonprofit work, put him on unpaid leave, and he has been unable to pay the rent on his Tokyo apartment.

“How am I going to recover from four months of lost pay and the bills that have been building up?” Mr. Mazziotta, an American citizen, said during a video chat in late July. Foreign residents who feel abandoned, he added, are “questioning the time and energy they spent building a life in Japan.”

Japan, a country known for its hospitality but also for casting a sometimes wary eye on its foreign residents, has been promoting itself as the premier Asian destination for global capital and talent, with an eye on wooing financial firms fleeing Hong Kong. But its treatment of foreign residents during the pandemic has undercut that message and shaken the trust of the country’s international community.

The restrictions have provoked loud protests from foreign businesses and residents in Japan. Executives at major international firms say they are rethinking their ties to the country, including how its handling of foreigners could hinder business continuity in an already uncertain time.

Image
Credit…Cassandra Zona

In response, Japan has said it will ease some of the re-entry rules to gradually allow those like Mr. Mazziotta who have been trapped abroad to return to the country. But the changes do not apply to everyone: As many as 17,000 long-term residents of Japan could remain stuck outside the country, according to government data.

For many, the damage is done: The restrictions have split up families, hurt careers and caused students to miss months of school. Some of those stranded outside the country have been saddled with mountains of debt as they continue to pay taxes and rents on homes in Japan while also bearing the costs of being abroad.

The ban has also affected the 2.5 million foreigners who remain in Japan. Many have faced agonizing decisions over whether to leave to care for a dying parent, grieve the loss of a loved one or reunite with a spouse or child, knowing that doing so may make it impossible to return.

“If you’re thinking about setting up your business in a place that is as safe and predictable as possible, Japan certainly has that in its favor,” said Christopher LaFleur, the chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.

But “the policy in terms of travel has de facto discriminated against the foreign national residents of Japan,” he said, adding that it “certainly is going to weigh on people’s calculus in the months ahead.”

Japan is far from the only country to tighten its borders to control the spread of the virus, with many nations restricting or even stopping short-term travel for business and tourism. All told, Japan has banned entry from 146 countries, including places, like New Zealand and Taiwan, that appear to have eradicated the virus.

Both New Zealand and Taiwan allow long-term residents to travel freely, requiring only a quarantine period upon arrival. Japan, by contrast, is the only member of the Group of 7 industrialized nations to restrict travel by foreign residents while allowing its citizens to come and go as they please.

Japanese officials have said the restrictions on foreign residents are necessary to protect the country from the larger-scale outbreaks abroad and to avoid overwhelming the capacity of airports to test travelers for infection.

More than six months into the crisis, Japan can test only about 33,000 people a day — far fewer than nearly all of its peer countries. Around 3,000 of those tests have been reserved for the country’s international airports — administered to both Japanese and foreign travelers — with plans to increase the number to about 10,000 in September.

Image

Credit…Kimimasa Mayama/EPA, via Shutterstock

Long-term residents have generally been unable to re-enter Japan since April 3. Those who have sought to leave after that date are allowed to return only if they fall into one of a handful of special categories, including “humanitarian” exemptions allowing them to care for a sick relative or attend a parent’s funeral.

But the guidelines are ill defined, and even for those who would seem to meet the requirements, return is not guaranteed. Before leaving the country, travelers must sign a document acknowledging that they may not be allowed to return. The final decision rests with the immigration agent who greets them at the airport.

Julie Sergent, a consultant in the hospitality industry, made three unsuccessful attempts to leave the country to spend time with her family after her father’s death.

She said that in late July, a month after her most recent attempt, officials told her that her situation did not qualify for re-entry, questioning why she would still need to grieve with her family when so much time had passed since her father’s funeral.

“I promote Japan; I want the country to do well,” she said. But, she added, “if this situation drags on too long, I might take the decision to leave Japan and move to a country where I have more rights.”

Immigration officials said they could not comment about individual cases.

The travel rules have also made it harder for many people to do business. Mark Borer, a permanent resident of Japan, where he has lived for 25 years, owns a small plastics recycling company in Gunma Prefecture, northwest of Tokyo, that employs some 20 people, including six workers from Vietnam. He also has a real estate business in the United States.

The restrictions have hampered both ventures, he said in a recent phone call, noting that he and his employees alike had been unable to travel for either business or personal matters since April, when Japan briefly declared a national emergency.

“I really love the country, and I’ve been here half my life,” he said, but “it’s a punch in the gut.”

If the restrictions are not lifted in the next few months, he said, “you’re forced to think maybe we need to end up selling or closing down the business here.”

It’s not just foreign-owned businesses that have been affected. Japanese construction companies, said Gordon Hatton, co-chairman of the real estate committee at the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan, have become increasingly reliant on foreign workers to fulfill a range of functions from manual labor to structural engineering.

If foreign employees “have to leave for some personal reason and they can’t come back,” he said, “that’s a huge waste for the Japanese companies as well, not just these individuals, so it has an impact on the bigger economy.”

Aware of foreign residents’ concerns, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said last month that Japan would loosen some of the rules. On Wednesday, immigration officials said at a news conference that they had begun readmitting those who left before the start of the restrictions in April.

Image

Credit…Issei Kato/Reuters

But even as they moved to loosen restrictions, officials added 17 countries to the re-entry ban list and instituted a rule requiring that travelers take a coronavirus test and receive a negative result no more than 72 hours before departing for Japan. That may be impossible for residents who are stuck in countries where tests are in short supply or results come slowly.

The Asahi Shimbun, a leading newspaper, reported that Japan would initially allow an additional 500 foreigners a day to re-enter. That low figure, as well as the uncertainty over how the loosening would be carried out, has led people like Keifer Castigador, an engineer from the Philippines who left Japan in late February, to be wary of trying to return.

Mr. Castigador went to the Philippines to help his wife recover from an emergency cesarean section. He tried to return in May, when Japan announced that it was reopening to residents who had qualified for a humanitarian exemption. He confirmed his status with Japanese officials, but when he tried to re-enter the country, he was turned away, he said.

He was held in detention for a night at his own expense and returned to the Philippines, he said, where he had to go into quarantine. He is now waiting to see how the new rules play out before he tries to return.

“We’re sitting it out this time because it was too much for us last time,” he said.

For Mr. Mazziotta, the English teacher, the experience has left an indelible impression. He has applied to the Japanese Embassy in South Africa for permission to return under the new rules, but has not yet heard back. His Japanese work visa runs out in September, and with no clarity about when he will be allowed to return, he is beginning to lose hope.

“Even if I can go back,” he said, “I wonder if the mountain that has been built is too difficult to climb.”

Makiko Inoue contributed reporting.

Posted on

After India and US, Japan looks to ban TikTok and other Chinese apps

A group of Japanese lawmakers is seeking to restrict the use of TikTok and other apps developed by Chinese firms, following in the footstep of India, which has already blocked dozens of Chinese apps, and the U.S., which is floating the idea of a ban.

The decision was first reported by Japanese national broadcaster NHK. The lawyers shared the same concern as officials in the U.S. and India that their domestic user data could end up in the hands of Beijing, and planned to submit the proposal to the Japanese government as early as September.

Japan was one of TikTok’s first overseas success cases despite being considered a tough nut for foreign internet firms to crack. The nascent localization team went all out to attract celebrity users and made its breakthrough with Kinoshita Yukina, a TV personality, after holding “six or seven rounds of discussions” with her studio. Kinoshita’s participation ushered in other stars, who brought with them flocks of fans to the platform.

In the Japanese iOS store, TikTok has consistently ranked at the top among entertainment apps and is the fifth-most downloaded app across all categories in the country as of this writing, according to research firm App Annie.

In response to scrutiny coming from Japan, a TikTok spokesperson reiterated the app’s distance from Chinese control in a statement to TechCrunch:

“There’s a lot of misinformation about TikTok out there. TikTok has an American CEO, a Chief Information Security Officer with decades of industry, U.S. military and law enforcement experience, and a U.S. team that works diligently to develop a best-in-class security infrastructure. Four of our parent company’s five board seats are controlled by some of the world’s best-respected global investors. TikTok U.S/ user data is stored in the U.S. and Singapore, with strict controls on employee access.”

Other Chinese tech giants have their eyes locked on Japan for years. Baidu, for instance, operates Simeji, one of the most popular input methods among Japanese. Line is the main chat app in the country, but WeChat is essential to Japanese businesses with Chinese ties — which there are many given China is Japan’s main trade partner. While the Indian ban is certainly a debacle for Chinese developers coveting the fastest-growing internet market, the country’s ARPU, or average revenue per user, also remains low compared to numbers in the West. Japan, on the other hand, is a much more lucrative market.

Read More

Posted on

We’ll Be Wearing Masks for a While. Why Not Make Them Nice?

TOKYO — Rieko Kawanishi is the first to admit that the pearl-laden mask she designed is not the most effective defense against the coronavirus. “It’s full of holes,” she said with a laugh.

But her handmade face covering, which she recommends wearing over a regular mask, reflects a sudden burst of creative attention in the worlds of fashion and technology to a humble product that had been largely unchanged for decades.

“After the pandemic, there were so many more places where, for the first time, you absolutely had to wear a mask,” said Ms. Kawanishi, a jewelry designer in Tokyo. “I just thought, I want to make something elegant.”

As the virus continues its relentless spread, with rules on mask-wearing being tightened in many places around the world, consumers are starting to demand more of the coverings that will guard their public breaths for the foreseeable future.

In response, companies and designers have flooded the market with alternatives to the common throwaway surgical masks that spurred Ms. Kawanishi to action.

Image
Credit…Noriko Hayashi for The New York Times

Inventors have dreamed up masks with motorized air purifiers, Bluetooth speakers and even sanitizers that kill germs by heating the face covering (but hopefully not the face) to over 200 degrees. In South Korea, the electronics giant LG has created a mask powered with fans that make it easier to breathe.

In boutiques, patterned masks are showing up on mannequins, exquisitely paired with designer dresses. An Indian businessman said he spent $4,000 on a custom mask made of gold. And a French costume designer has filled Instagram with phantasmagoric designs featuring everything from pterodactyls to doll legs.

The coronavirus “has driven a rapid evolution in mask technology,” said Yukiko Iida, an expert on masks at the Environmental Control Center, a consulting company in Tokyo.

“When there’s demand, the market reacts quickly,” she said. “People are wearing them all day every day, so we’re seeing improvements in things like ease of wear and ease of communication,” she added, citing a mask with a clear front that allows people to see the wearer’s facial expressions.

Image

Credit…Noriko Hayashi for The New York Times

The urge to innovate has been great in Japan, where masks were widespread even before the pandemic, used to warm faces or protect against pollen, influenza or the unwelcome gaze of strangers.

While most people in the country are still wearing cheap white surgical masks, consumers have begun to move away from viewing face coverings as a one-and-done commodity, something picked up at a convenience store, worn a few times and tossed in the trash.

Taisuke Ono, the chief executive of a tech start-up, Donut Robotics, said he envisioned a world where people could be wearing masks on trips abroad for the next 10 years or more. If that happens, they will demand that their masks do more than just protect them from viruses, he said.

His company is building a mask that serves as a combination walkie-talkie, personal secretary and translator. It can record its users’ voice, projecting it to someone else’s smartphone — all the better for social distancing — or transmuting it from Japanese into a variety of languages.

Image

Credit…Noriko Hayashi for The New York Times

“The pandemic made this possible,” he said, noting that his prototype had generated media attention and enormous interest from investors on Makuake, a Japanese version of Kickstarter. Before, he said, “even if you made something like this, no one would invest in it, and you couldn’t sell it. Now, the global market has grown several times.”

Although the pandemic will end at some point, he added, “people will still be using masks because they’re afraid.”

While it’s unclear how well some of these more ambitious masks will fare with consumers, one innovation has been a clear hit: face coverings with high-tech fabrics that are said to provide superior comfort or protection.

As summer temperatures rise, masks made of materials intended to keep wearers cool are in demand. People who have been wearing reusable cloth masks — including those sent by the Japanese government to every household in the country — are finding them ill suited for the heat and humidity of summer in central Japan, much less Singapore or Hong Kong.

Image

Credit…Noriko Hayashi for The New York Times

Toyoshima, a Nagoya-based trading company, began collecting funds for a new mask made with military-grade nylon in mid-April. It raised over $1.2 million — more than 13,000 percent of its goal.

Customers told the company that they wanted a highly effective mask that was also fashionable, said Koki Yamagata, who leads the company’s crowdfunding initiatives.

“A lot of people said that they wanted more colors,” he said as he modeled a white version of the mask, which retails for around $50, on a Zoom call. The products have not generated much profit, he said, adding that the company began making them partly out of a sense of social responsibility.

Other Japanese companies have followed suit. Tadashi Yanai, the founder of Uniqlo, the giant clothing retailer, insisted that his company would not sell masks, but changed his mind after customers clamored for a product made from the brand’s high-performance, fast-drying fabric.

The masks sold out immediately, and the company has committed to making 500,000 packs a week, according to a spokesman, Aldo Liguori, who said that the company was now planning to sell them overseas, as well.

Image

Credit…Noriko Hayashi for The New York Times

For some clothing makers, producing masks has been a necessity, with retail sales slowing considerably as consumers stay home.

Many “factories haven’t had much to do for two or three months, so they’re saying ‘Why don’t we make cloth masks?’” said Kensuke Kojima, a product consultant for the fashion industry.

These Japanese producers have entered a market that had seen only incremental changes over the decades, like masks that came in different colors or offered no-smear coatings to protect makeup.

While medical practitioners have worn masks of one sort or another for hundreds if not thousands of years, the masks worn today were first developed in the late 19th century for use during surgeries.

They were first employed to fight epidemics in the early 20th century, when Wu Lien-teh, a doctor of Chinese descent, began promoting simple gauze masks as an effective method for battling an outbreak of pneumonic plague in a part of northeastern China then known as Manchuria.

Image

Credit…Noriko Hayashi for The New York Times

When the Spanish flu hit in 1918, the practice went global for the first time.

While masks soon fell out of favor in most countries, the Japanese government continued encouraging their use for fighting common illnesses like the flu, said Christos Lynteris, a medical anthropologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

The ubiquity of surgical masks in Japan, which are typically made of nonwoven synthetic materials, has risen and fallen over the years as the country confronted different health issues and crises.

In the 1990s, they became a popular defense against clouds of seasonal pollen created by fast-growing trees, like cypress, planted across the country to provide a source of cheap timber.

In 2011, after the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima, mask stocks ran low as consumers feared radioactive fallout. And in the following years, drastic increases in pollution from China drove more demand, particularly in the winter.

But, even in Japan, it took a pandemic to push mask sales into the stratosphere, with face coverings in such short supply early on that people were lining up at the crack of dawn to buy a box.

Months later, masks are abundant, and shops in Harajuku, the youth fashion mecca, are increasingly putting them on prominent display. On Takeshita Street, storefronts are lined with masks ranging from the playful (plush animal faces) to the punk-inspired (leather straps studded with spikes and safety pins).

Image

Credit…Noriko Hayashi for The New York Times

Although these masks may be fashionable, buyers should beware, said Kazunari Onishi, an expert on infectious diseases at the Graduate School of Public Health at St. Luke’s International University in Tokyo.

“You must choose a mask that meets the national standards,” he said, adding that “other types of masks are not intended to be used against infection.”

“If your priority is reliably preventing infection, these masks will not protect your life,” he said, adding that even if you wear a mask, “you must maintain a safe social distance.”