Sayonara Tokyo – returning to the UK

After almost six years living in Japan, I have made my way back to the UK. I am now based in London, working for one of the Big 4 Management Consulting firms as a Lead Developer.

I occasionally get emails from readers asking what it is like to be a software developer in Tokyo, some flat out asking me if I know of any jobs going. I tell them all the same thing – Tokyo is a hard place to be a non-native Japanese speaker doing software. I was very lucky to have a pretty sweet job working for a branch of a US company, but ultimately the job market there is not healthy. I very much needed a more senior role but there was nowhere to grow within the Japan R&D office – my boss was not going anywhere. Whilst foreign companies can pay pretty decently by Japan standards (expect anything from 5M for Junior to 9M JPY for a Senior development role, but this is only 50k-90k USD, not even US graduate level), Japanese companies take a very traditional view of compensation setting (think tying job ranks to age, salary to “seniority” rather than skill or value). Don’t expect to make anything like US or even UK salaries unless you are in senior management.

My primary skillset is the whole .NET stack – but .NET is not popular in Japan. The .NET community is so small in that at the time of writing this blog post I was at the top of Google for “ASP.NET MVC Tokyo”:

image

If that isn’t a reason to move on, I don’t know what is.

Before the move to the UK, I flew over for a week to interview. A bit of planning beforehand lined me up with eight job interviews which resulted in five job offers, with the worst offer being 20% more than I was making in Tokyo. This blew my mind, but apparently it is normal in London for skilled developers. It is nice to be wanted. I also now have a family – my son was born this January and he deserves a successful father. Back in my homeland there are far more opportunities and I am not at a disadvantage in any way – there are no handicaps to being as successful as I can be.

This isn’t to say I don’t still love Japan. It is a lovely place to live, but a pretty crap place to work unless you are very senior or running your own business. The job market illiquidity (especially as a foreigner) means you will be paid far less, have to commute further and have less chance to grow than in the same level software development jobs overseas. Without the ability to instantly get job interviews (something you can do anywhere in the western world if you are good), you end up feeling completely trapped and at the mercy of your employer all the while knowing at the back of your mind that you could actually be having a career elsewhere. Not a good recipe for happiness. If and when I move back it will not be as a salaryman.

Relocating to the UK has been quite an adventure and I plan to blog some more about what it is like to come back after half a decade. Just the level of customer service in retail stores has made me miss my old home but I am sure the reverse culture shock will wear off in time.

To the next six years!

Updated: Japan iPad 3G is NOT “not exactly” SIM-locked – Jobs says so

There is a massive hullabaloo about Softbank’s exclusive deal with Apple for the 3G iPads here. Currently, you cannot get a 3G iPad without going through Softbank and signing up for a data plan (either 2 years or some terrible 4,000 yen per 1GB “offer”). This is in stark contrast to the fantastic deal Americans get in the US with AT&T.

Softbank appears to be announcing to the press that there will be a “SIM Lock” (SIMロック).

http://plusd.itmedia.co.jp/mobile/articles/1005/10/news030.html

ところが、5月8日にソフトバンクモバイルが公表したiPad販売に関する情報では、日本国内のソフトバンクショップやソフトバンクケータイ取扱店で販売されるiPadのWi-Fi+3G版は、ソフトバンクモバイルの3Gネットワークでしか使えないように、SIMロックがかかっているというアナウンスがあった。

“According to information released by Softbank on May 8, iPad wi-fi+3G models sold from Softbank shops will be SIM locked so that they can only connect to Softbank Mobile’s network.

I think they are lying. I don’t believe that the devices are SIM locked in any way. The only “lock” is that you must sign up to Softbank to get one, and they won’t sell you a microSIM for an international model.

Mobileinjapan.com reported a response from Steve Jobs stating that

Actually, the version of iPad sold in Japan does accept international SIMs.

I decided to email him myself and I got a reply:

image

An email reply from Jobs appears to be a rite of passage for bloggers now – I have replied asking for clarity but he doesn’t appear to get into conversations unless you are really interesting (which I’m not).

Based on the reply above, are we meant to believe that they have developed a new SIM-locking system that unlocks your device when you leave Japan? Of course they haven’t, that would be stupid. If the devices are SIM-locked, then international microSIMs simply would not work in them. Therefore, they are not SIM-locked.

What I believe Jobs is referring to by “locking” is that you can only buy a 3G iPad after “locking” yourself into Softbank. Docomo and E-mobile (both with networks that would support the iPad) are now unable to sell wireless plans. Not because of any technical reason, but because they cannot sell the iPads themselves, and all 3G iPad owners will be locked into 2 year contracts.

This is why I don’t think the iPads are SIM locked – simply because they don’t have to be. Normal Japanese phones have carrier specific settings built in (access points, MMS gateways etc) with no way of changing them so switching a SIM card would never work. Softbank must be very scared of the prospect of the market opening up like Europe.

Update: Well, he replied.

image

Not exactly SIM-locked? What does that mean? Maybe they HAVE developed a new SIM locking system that uses the GPS to determine the country you are in, or iTunes unlocks the device when you insert a non-Japan microSIM.

Another update: The Softbank Sucks blog appears to think that there is a software lock on Japanese iPads (possibly all iPads?) that is only active when the SIM Mobile Country Code is Japan’s. Meaning, if the SIM is a Japanese SIM, it must be a Softbank SIM. Absolutely appalling if true. The only way Docomo would be able to get around it is if they lied about the country code on their SIMs.

Fullscreen flashcard program

image I’ve put together the first version of a simple program for displaying flashcards in fullscreen, mainly as an exercise in WPF but also because its damn useful for all sorts of teaching environments. Flash cards are simple text files that anyone can edit – just load them up and hit spacebar to cycle through them. “Big Flash Cards” is now at version 0.1 🙂

It supports Unicode so is perfect for Japanese lessons, for which I designed it. Example flash card files are included – they are very easy to edit and are simple text files. This is a very early version so there will be bugs.

bigflash

Download Big Flash Cards (117kb zip)

Vista and Windows 7 users: just unzip and run BigFlashCards.exe
Windows XP users: You need at least version 3.0 of the .NET Framework. Download it here.

For those that care, this was developed in Visual Studio C# 2008 solely on a tiny little Dell Mini9 laptop.

Mail.app and iPhone encode Japanese as Korean

The latest of ridiculous bugs I have found after my switchover to Mac is that Korean takes precedence over Japanese when “Automatic” is selected as the encoding on Mail.app. It literally sees Japanese text as Korean and encodes emails as ISO-2022-KR (Korean) if both Japanese and Korean are selected under Languages.

200807271725.jpg

Try it yourself: make sure both Korean and Japanese are in the Languages list (so they show both show up in Mail.app’s Message > Text Encoding) and send an email containing Japanese text when encoding is set to “Automatic”. View the full message source and see that it encodes the message as ISO-2022-KR, not ShiftJIS or UTF-8 which it should. You have to completely remove Korean from the list if you want to use Automatic encoding, or manually select the encoding yourself every time. I cannot find a setting to force an encoding (er, UTF-8) on every email you send.

This is not a problem if the recipient is a PC/Mac user since the mail client will sort it out – but sending mails to a Japanese phone, which obviously has no idea what to do with Korean text encoding (and can’t suss out that its actually Japanese text) means that the lucky recipient gets 文字化け、mojibake, jumbled garbage.

Its even worse on the iPhone

If you ever decide to turn Korean keyboards on in the Language settings, or switch to Korean, iPhone appears to add Korean to the Languages list when choosing its own encoding. However, you cannot change the encoding manually on iPhone, or ever remove Korean from the list, even if you then disable Korean input.
The net result? You can never send Japanese mails to Japanese mobile phones ever again on your iPhone, until you do a full system restore. Which I am now doing. If you reply to a mail that was sent to you in ShiftJIS, the iPhone is at least clever enough to reply in the same encoding type but you are SOL if you want to compose a new one.
Rubbish. Windows Mobile has an option to “always send mail as UTF-8”. I wonder how many iPhone users in Japan have fallen foul of this?

PocketStackz (PocketPC) review

For Japanese language practice for my course I use PocketStackz by some chaps called “Minddate software”. Its an all-purpose language flashcard program with an emphasis on Asian languages (such as that an Asian Unicode font needs to be installed on your PocketPC).

What sets it apart is that you can immediately see what words you need to study at any point since the program sorts the words into “stacks” from “unknown” on the left to “known” on the right. If you get an answer wrong when testing yourself, the word moves towards the left, and visa versa if you get one right. This means when you have only a few hours until a vocab exam, you can quickly refresh the “most unknown” vocab in the quiz.

Vocab or kanji can be tested in pretty much any combination (romaji to kana, kana to kanji etc) and I find I get better results if I use it for short periods of time often. My test results even confirm this – weeks where I’ve spent 5 minutes a day with PocketStackz have seen perfect vocabulary test scores. You still need a drive to study, when when you don’t need to get your textbooks and pen and paper out (or those silly little “word cards”) its easier to find the time.

The software comes with a free PC application so you can make your own lists of vocabulary, but files for many textbooks and series of kanji (including the official joyo kanji) are available on the developers website. I had to make the kanji files for the Genki textbook series since they were not available, but this was painless using the PC software. Top stuff. 5/5.

Plus its only 19$ from Handango and they have a free trial (which I liked so much I bought it). Thats £8!

Buy or trial PocketStackz from Handango

Genki Japanese Textbook Vocab file for PocketStacks
Genki Japanese Textbook Kanji file for PocketStackz

Japanese keitai flashcards

Update April 2012: Five years later after several server moves, this is no longer online – I’m still hunting for the files. Most likely it wouldn’t work on new keitai’s anyway.

Edo no Tango (Ed’s Tango, エドの単語) is a Flash Lite based Japanese language vocabulary and kanji flashcard utility. Developed to help my study, it currently contains lessons 10 through 17 from the Genki series of Japanese language textbooks.

It uses Flash Lite 1.1 so runs on the vast majority of Japanese contract phones (the pre-paid ones can’t quite manage it). Give it a try! Press the 1 key when in the flashcards to display the button commands.

Postmortem

Flash Lite 1.1 is extremely basic – it only has the features of Flash 4. Flash Lite 2 is much better, supporting a Flash 7-esque feature set but at the time of creating the program was not on any Japanese phones yet – the closest you could get was a downloadable plugin for Nokia devices. There are several limitations of Flash Lite 1.1 which made development challenging:

  • No Unicode support. This was the first major hurdle. Even on Japanese devices, it is impossible to display Japanese text using the device font. Flash Lite 2 fixes this, but in the mean time Japanese text needs to be encoded as vectors or images.
  • 100kb network limit. It makes sense, but all the Japanese networks limit the size of any one file you download to around 99kb. This means with no Unicode, images or vectors for each kanji character soon add up.
  • Dynamic network retrieval of data is limited to rudimentary text files with no XML support. No Unicode means retreiving data was impossible anyway, but this meant I had to create a seperate file for each set of flashcards, needlessly increasing data use and not making a very elegant solution.
  • The phones have very limited memory, so my original idea of using 2bit images for each flashcard resulted in graphical corruption every time. Images would just turn red after showing four or five of them. In the end, 2bit images were converted into vectors using the “break apart” command.

I don’t need to use this now (I bought an off the shelf Pocket PC application to do the job) so I haven’t got round to adding new lessons. Its not simply a case of putting new data on a server unlike a Flash Lite 2 based version would be capable of.