Podcast Review: Korean Kontext Podcast by the Korean Economic Institute

Like all great discoveries, I came across this podcast by chance whilst browsing my favourite podcasting app Podcast Republic for East Asia related podcasts.

Korean Kontext is a weekly series of podcasts which provides news and analysis on issues affecting the Korean peninsula. These are put together by the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI for short), but it is not only economic issues covered. There are a wide range of topics, ensuring that the peninsula is explored from a political, social and cultural perspectives, with the help of guest speakers each week who add their specialist expertise. Whilst there is inevitably a focus on the US-Korea relationship, the discussions are largely impartial, so listeners should not be put off by this.

I think that this is a wonderful podcast for those like me who are wanting to learn more about the Korean peninsula, as well as those who already follow developments in US-Korea relations and are interested in hearing issues discussed from a different perspective. Korean Kontext is great for the daily commute as each episode is between 20 and 30 minutes long.

Just to give you an idea of topics covered, I have picked out a couple of my favourite episodes so far:

A look into Korean Literature (14/10/2016). With Han Kang recently winning the Man Booker International Prize for her novel ‘The Vegetarian’, Korean literature found itself in the international spotlight. The podcast does a great job of covering issues regarding Korean literature in translation, including how it can be further promoted on the back of The Vegetarian’s success. I felt like this was a good introduction to the state of Korean literature and provided some recommendations that I will definitely be looking in to. If the podcast sparks your interest in Korean literature, it is definitely worth looking into the following links as well.

A Primer on Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 Crisis (21/10/2016). The podcast charts sequence of events from the ill fated mobile phone up until its eventual discontinuation, and discusses both the short and long term implications that the crisis may have for Samsung, chaebols and the Korean economy at large. There has been a lot of negativity in the press, and the KEI experts offer a more pragmatic approach the analysing the actual impacts of the crisis, citing a change in senior management in particular as a positive sign of change. Since this podcast was released Samsung finds itself potentially embroiled in the political scandal regarding Park Geun Hye, but more recently there has also been the promising news that Samsung is increasing its efforts in the auto tech sector, so the KEI experts may not have been proven wrong just yet!


Forbes’ Top Companies for Innovation 2016 & Rakuten

Rakuten Creates $100m Fintech Fund

I recently read an article posted by Hiroshi Mikitani (CEO of Rakuten) on his LinkedIn page regarding Rakuten being voted one of the top companies for innovation in 2016 by Forbes. The fact that the top 10 is dominated by American firms made me a bit sceptical of how accurate this list may be (a quick bit of googling shows that I am not alone in thinking this) but I was also surprised to see Rakuten on the list at number 17.

This is not to say that Rakuten is not innovative at all. As a company that is centered around e-commerce, it is exactly the type of firm I would expect to be flourishing in 2016. Hiroshi Mikitani is known as one of the great disruptors of the Japanese corporate scene, having co-founded Rakuten back in 1997 and overseen it grow into the giant that it is today. The article cites the steps that Rakuten has taken which are recognised as innovative, such as the integration of financial technology with e-commerce, and introduction of a loyalty points system. These first two points are two things that we do take for granted now, but Rakuten was certainly ahead of the curve, having introduced these initiatives back in 2001. The final point mentioned, which was a controversial change at the time was the ‘Englishnization’, or the transition to using English as the company’s sole language despite the company being mostly based in Japan. I do agree with his view that English has become a requirement in today’s world, and makes sense given that Rakuten is looking to become a much bigger player on the global stage. I also think that for the type of company that Rakuten is, this initiative makes sense – the company needs to remain as flexible as possible to respond to changes in an increasingly volatile global market.

However, putting these thoughts aside, this initiative was implemented back in 2010 and so is not recent. The most recent innovative development cited in the article is the opening of a lab in Belfast this year which is to facilitate the exploration of the how fintech and e-commerce can synergise more effectively. The main focus of this lab is Blockchain, which is the technology behind Bitcoin. The aforementioned could well be an exciting and lucrative prospect, but is this alone enough for Rakuten to be ranked 17th this year? The inclusion of Rakuten inside the top 20 is even more surprising to me, given that firms such as Baidu and Tencent were ranked 29th and 48th respectively.

P.S As I was writing this article, the news was breaking that Rakuten is now the new sponsor of Barcelona FC. This is of course great news for raising awareness of the company globally. Whilst Rakuten has made great efforts to boost its international presence in the last few years, it is hard to say whether this has turned into greater market share. I hope that this can be leveraged appropriately to maximise the benefit for Rakuten going forward.

Manga Recommendation: Cooking Papa


Unfortunately this is not my bookshelf! Picture Source

Today I would like to introduce Cooking Papa (クッキングパパ) , a manga series created by Tochi Ueyama. The main character is Kazumi Araiwa, a senior member of staff at a food business.

At work he manages to strike a balance between getting work done and caring about the wellbeing of his colleagues, but what really catches his boss Higashiyama’s eye is his delicious homemade bentos! It turns out Kazumi’s wife is busy working as a journalist and is a terrible cook, so Kazumi is responsible for making his own bentos. The story therefore focuses on him going to great lengths to conceal the fact that he makes his own bentos.

Each volume contains a number of real life recipes with hints and tips on how to bring out the best flavours. Onigirazu, which has become a recent bento favourite, was first popularised in Japan after being published in Cooking Papa.

The fun and lighthearted feel of this manga, as well as the relatively straightforward nature of the language (food vocabulary aside) makes for a relatively easy read. Although there are over 130 volumes and counting, each volume is episodic so you do not need to start from volume one.

I think it’s a good manga to read when you may not be in the mood for reading something too difficult, or when you do not have time for a longer reading session. I would probably recommend this to someone about JLPT N3 or intermediate level, especially if they wanted to brush up on their food related vocabulary. It may also inspire you to up your game when it comes to making lunches for work!

Book review: Why Taiwan Matters: Small Island, Global Powerhouse, Shelley Rigger (2013)

Image result

Prior to reading this book, I didn’t know much about Taiwan except a) lots of electronic items are made there b) it was previously a colony of Japan.  My interest in Taiwan was heightened recently upon the recent election of Tsai Ing Wen, partly due to her status as the first woman to do so – I didn’t really understand why this event was seen as controversial.

Fortunately this book provides a very comprehensive introduction to Taiwan’s social, political and economic history, as well as putting together interesting theories as to how Taiwan might be able to move forward vis-a-vis the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Whilst the author explains everything from an impartial perspective, her passion for the country and belief in its future is evident throughout.

I felt that the book did a particularly good job on fleshing out how the different ethnic groups have come to coexist and how this has informed the people’s perceptions on what it is to be Taiwanese.  It also highlighted the importance of democracy to the country, as well as how this is a key issue of contention with the PRC.  The section that I found the most interesting was the section on the Taiwanese economy; it is impressive how Taiwan was able to leverage its economic power to build cross-strait relations, despite the volatile nature of political relations. This use of economic power to build relations does draw some parallels with Japan, the key difference between the two nations being that Taiwan was the source of wartime aggression whereas Japan was the perpetrator. As a previous scholar of Japan, I feel the book has helped to inform my knowledge of Taiwan, China and wider regional relations. Similarly, it has reinforced the strategic relevance of states such as Taiwan and Japan to the US in terms of East Asia relations.

I can wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone interested in Taiwan’s development and its relationship with the PRC in particular.

P.S You can hear the author Shelly Rigger discuss her book here, worth a watch!