An Insider's comments on Japan's high tech business world

* * * * * * * * TERRIE’S TAKE – BY TERRIE LLOYD * * * * * *
A weekly roundup of news & information from Terrie Lloyd, a long-term
technology and media entrepreneur living in Japan.

General Edition Sunday, Sep 17, 2017, Issue No. 914

– What’s New — AI Dieting and Health Apps – an Appropriate Export?
– News — Crocodile tears over failed child fostering system
– Upcoming Events
– Corrections/Feedback – Akita Region-Lovers Unite
– Travel Picks — Night Theater in Shimane, Omiya City in Saitama
– News Credits

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Although we follow the natural health sector fairly closely, we’d never
heard of the Asken Diet app until seeing an article several weeks ago
about the company launching in the USA. Asken is a dieting assistant
that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to help the user figure out how
what they are eating, and what exercise they are doing, will affect
their weight and health. The AI component is a big selling point for
Asken, and apparently they have a database of “several hundred thousand
food items” (their literature) and the menus of hundreds of restaurant
chains and food brands, all of which have been nutritionally evaluated
and weighted by hundreds of licensed nutritionists and dieticians. So
it’s a smart application with an enormous crowdsourced/curated database.
On the surface, it sounds great.

We haven’t tried the app because we don’t really need it – being already
conscious of what we eat and in what portions. But it must work, because
Asken has over 1.5m users already, most of whom are picky Japanese
consumers here at home. They basically prepare a standardized
nutritional profile (16 core nutrients), a physical profile of the user,
then based on your inputs give you feedback on how you’re doing with
optimization of each nutrient, exercise, and intake volume. It is
surprisingly holistic, and therefore, on a standardized basis seems to
make sense and seems harmless enough.

But now Asken is moving forward with two very significant developments:
i) they are setting up in the USA, and ii) they are going to use
photographic analysis of meals to assess nutrient content. Again, all
driven by AI. We see a number of challenges for Asken here:

1. AI as a business model

When applied as part of an industrial process, AI is safely bundled as
just another component in a successful workflow. Whether it is
successful or not depends on the commercial benefits of using it, and
little ongoing thought is given to what it is (i.e., a machine). It is a
given that AI needs to be trained, and that those benefits will come
over a period of time. Conversely, when AI is applied at the front end
of a consumer service, studies are showing that humans are not only
quick to discount AI-generated responses that are not accurate or
useful, but in fact actively avoid using the service.

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A recent study by the University of Wisconsin compared the reaction of
users (undergrad students helping out in hospitals) to faulty advice
rendered by both machines and other humans. They found that after
getting faulty advice from a machine-generated source, the level of
usage by the students of that source fell from around 70% to less than
45%. On the other hand, after getting faulty advice from a human, the
drop off in usage only fell by 5%. The learning point here is that
humans will forgive other humans for mistakes, but not so machines –
mostly because we’ve become conditioned to expect machines to be
flawless. So the question is whether Asken’s app AI advice is good
enough soon enough that it won’t trigger a loss of trust – a need that
is built into our human psychology.

2. Legal liability

The U.S. is a litigious society, and AI (if it is real neural network AI
and not just fuzzy database processing) as it progresses is going to
throw up advice that won’t have been anticipated by the developers. So
as you have people on previously unknown medications and with previously
unknown medical conditions using the app, it’s not hard to imagine some
unanticipated interaction of these three factors that sickens or kills
the user. In such case, will Asken be made responsible for providing the
recommendations the consumer followed trustingly?

There are of course legal workarounds, such as stating that the app is
for entertainment purposes only, and that the consumer agrees to release
Asken from responsibility. However, given the very specific purpose that
the app has, and that it has the potential to become deeply embedded in
users’ lives, it can be legally argued that the substance of the matter
is that the company must be aware of the influence and usage its app and
data are being put to, no matter how many waivers they put in place.

And, this situation doesn’t include the variables that could be
introduced by AI self-learning as the system starts doing stuff that the
original designers didn’t foresee. There are some interesting legal
discussions going on overseas about the liability introduced by rogue AI
actions. Currently product liability revolves around the question of
foreseeability on the behalf of the maker, but with AI, you can’t really
foresee what it might learn. So do you sue the company making the
solution, contributing coders if the AI engine was collectively
developed, or even treat the AI entity as a person and sue it for cash
and extermination? In the end, the consensus seems to be that this is a
new frontier, and that AI outcomes occurring after a given point are not
foreseeable and therefore become an unanticipated accident – which then
needs to be dealt with at a public level with some form of policing and

3. Transferrability of knowledge

Asken was built in Japan, using what is essentially a homogeneous
society eating a fairly knowable and standardized diet. This means that
the food types and the pre-existing conditions of the consumers can be
reasonably guessed from mass models that will have been done on the
population over the years – metabolic syndrome, osteoporosis, strokes,
alzheimer’s, etc., all tend to come at defined points in life for a
Japanese person. In addition, due to Japan’s fixation on standards,
distribution, and cleanliness, there are less unexpected factors to
cause the AI processing to give wrong answers. But moving abroad,
especially to a highly diverse country like the USA, there will be so
many more factors that will be unknown to the Asken database. One
wonders if Asken can move beyond being merely entertainment and actually
become a trusted tool in life? If in learning to deal with such
diversity they take too much time to learn from their mistakes, the
market will simply ignore them after one try and render them irrelevant.

4. Why we have five senses

For us the most troubling aspect of Asken’s business model is the most
recent development, where the company plans to introduce photographic
evaluation of something a user is planning to consume. Evolution has
given us five senses so that we can improve the chances of something
being fit to consume. Taking two-dimensional photographic input to
determine a product’s content seems like folly to us. Especially if the
user becomes so trusting of the service that they ignore their own
senses and commonsense. A photograph cannot tell you what unseen
components are in the food, especially if it’s a mixture. Are there
traces of nuts in there? Too much salt, hidden by some other taste?
Aspartame or some other borderline additives? An unseen natural
ingredient that interferes with your medication?

Asken must temper the desire to let their AI respond on everything there
is to know about food, diet, and exercise, and instead to filter outputs
to provide just enough smarts to be useful, but without the ability to
be too transformative. This will be a difficult line to tread, because
it’s obvious from the impressive credentials of the management team that
they are on a mission to change the physical well-being of the world –
but being too aggressive in pursuing this goal will open the firm up to
significant risks.

Lastly, there are other strong competitors out there, such as Sweden’s
Lifesum (15m users worldwide), Azumio’s Calorie Mama AI (70m downloads),
and’s Myplate (8.3m users), all of whom are growing
rapidly and have strong funding. As a strategic differentiator, Asken
should be emphasizing that it is from Japan and therefore not only from
a country well known for the effectiveness of its health solutions but
also from a country relatively free from influence by big corporate
interests. After effectiveness, trust will be the make-or-break point of
the app.

On the flip side, the one big thing Asken has in its favor is the fact
that it is AI-based from the outset, and thus will be considered part of
a hot trend that will bring a lot of curious early adopters.

…The information janitors/


—– Gourmet Ride Event – Tohoku nature and flavors! —–

Join Terrie in a new cycling experiment in Japan’s far north. These two
riding-gourmet tours organized by Tokyo’s Cuisine Press magazine are
reminiscent of the Portland and Sonoma Century Gourmet cycling
experiences – only you don’t have to do 100 miles to get a meal! The
“experiment” here is that if enough people join the events, both the
Iwate and Aomori prefectures will continue sponsoring the events in the
future – which will be key to developing rural foreign tourism in those
regions. So why not take a couple of days off, enjoy the late fall
weather up north, and join Terrie on one of these mini-overnight
experiences? Non-meat eaters also catered for. Prices from JPY12,000 ~
JPY27,000, plus transport.

=> Two-day cycling tour in the beautiful countryside of Aomori and
Iwate, highlighted by gourmet cooking by famous chefs. Enjoy the bounty
of Honshu’s northern region while enjoying the company of other cyclists
and local hosts. Learn more and join us!

Dates: Saturday 30th September thru’ Sunday 1st October, tours include a
one-night stay at an onsen.
Details & Registration:

Date: Saturday 14th October
Details & Registration:

These events are hosted by The Cuisine Press Inc., email us:
You can also contact Terrie directly, at

+++ NEWS

– Japan snap election in October?
– 67,824 centenarians in 2017
– 100 yen to the dollar by Christmas?
– Crocodile tears over failed child fostering system
– Same-day loans to end

=> Japan snap election in October?

It’s been done before, and usually at strategically useful junctions, so
the media is taking notice of rumors that PM Shinzo Abe plans to call a
snap election next month. The rumors apparently started with an NHK
report, and given that NHK is deeply in the government’s pocket, the
leak was no doubt a planned trial balloon. ***Ed: No better time for Abe
to do this. The DPJ opposition party has never been weaker or more
disorganized, and Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike is not yet ready to move
on to the national stage, although punters are betting that she will do
so even before the Olympics are held.** (Source: TT commentary from, Sep 17, 2017)

=> 67,824 centenarians in 2017

All that healthy food the Japanese eat has had one direct outcome –
people are living a lot longer. The country now has 67,824 people over
100 years old, a record. The number has been steadily increasing since
numbers were tracked – in 1971 there were just 339 people aged 100 or
older. On a per capita basis, Japan has the largest number of
centenarians, while on an absolute basis there are still more 100+
year-old people in the USA (because of the much larger population)…
But not for much longer, if the current trend continues. There are
currently 450,000 people aged 100 or older in the world overall – and
Japan already comprises 16% of the total. (Source: TT commentary from, Sep 15, 2017)

=> 100 yen to the dollar by Christmas?

Hong Kong bank HSBC’s analysts are predicting that the Abe government
will fail to fuel inflation per the Bank of Japan’s 2% target, and in so
doing will see its currency regain value against the U.S. dollar –
perhaps to as much as JPY100 to the dollar by the end of 2017. This is
coupled with U.S. Fed and EU Central Bank trends to normalizing their
monetary policies, which will also have a notable effect on interest
rates, stock market prices, and thus FX. In any fall-out if there is a
correction, the yen will take on its safe haven role again, further
fueling demand for the currency and driving up its value. ***Ed: It’s
interesting to see HSBC make this call, even as respected investor
voices here in Japan are actually saying that Abenomics is indeed having
an effect, and it’s only a matter of time before the tight labor market
ratchets up labor costs and thus kicks off the inflationary spiral that
the BOJ has been seeking all this time. But as we have seen time and
again, Japan is very sensitive to events overseas, and so even if there
are labor-inflationary pressures starting to build here, they won’t have
much impact if more dramatic market moves happen overseas. Some pretty
smart money overseas is pointing to the overpriced U.S. stock market and
picking that it’s time for a major correction. Perhaps HSBC believes
this as well?** (Source: TT commentary from, Sep 14, 2017)

=> Crocodile tears over failed child fostering system

A panel appointed by the welfare ministry has declared that Japan should
up its game on pre-school children needing foster care, aiming to have
at least 75% of such kids placed with foster parents rather than being
placed at institutions, within the next seven years. Japan’s record with
foster parenting is dismal. While in the USA and UK the rate of kids
taken in by foster homes is 80% and 70% respectively, in Japan the
number is just 17.5%. ***Ed: This Yomiuri newspaper article reckons that
the low rate in Japan is because there is a shortage of foster parents
and fostering is not culturally accepted. We call this “BS”. From
various stories told by friends wanting to both adopt and to foster, the
problem is more likely the discriminatory nature of institutional
professionals who restrict the ability for intending parents to take
kids in. Add foreigners in there, either as the kids (i.e., stateless
institutionalized orphans from mostly Filipina-Japanese pairings), or as
foster parents, and the difficulty of adopting/fostering in Japan
becomes almost impossible.** (Source: TT commentary from, Sep 17, 2017)

=> Same-day loans to end

You have to wonder what is really going on behind the scenes when the
government decides to make same-day bank-provided card loans to
consumers difficult to receive… The government has said that it wants
to have a “healthy” consumer credit sector, so it is going to require
lenders to undergo a 1-2 week police check first, which will effectively
stop the same-day loans business. The government says that the same-day
loans, which are available in small amounts but without requiring
collateral are contributing to debt overload and a jump in personal
bankruptcies. Currently consumers have about JPY5.6trn of card loans,
about 70% more than 5 years ago. ***Ed: We don’t think this argument
holds water. More likely the government is trying to further some
ulterior objective. In this instance, since the new measures don’t
include non-banks, are they deliberately trying to help non-banks
recover market share after badly hurting them by limiting interest rates
several years ago?** (Source: TT commentary from, Sep
15, 2017)

NOTE: Broken links
Some online news sources remove their articles after just a few days of
posting them, thus breaking our links — we apologize for the inconvenience.



———- ICA Event – Friday 29th September ————–

Title: “Tokyo IT Professionals Networking Party”

Details: Complete event details at Please follow
the link within the write up to register for the event and pay online
and note the requirements for New Sanno Hotel. This event is joint
collaboration with AFCEA Tokyo, ACCJ ICT Committee, Women in Tech Japan
and ICA Japan.

Date: Friday 29th September, 2017
Time: 6:00pm to 9:00pm
Cost: $35 USD (members), $60 USD (non-members) Open to all and no
signups at the door. Strictly payment online –
RSVP: By 5pm on Monday 25th September 2017
Venue: New Sanno Hotel, 4-12-20 Minami-Azabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo 106-0047


=> *** Akita Region-Lovers Unite. Last week in TT-913 we related a
pleasant find in the Senboku area of Akita, where pure spring waters and
friendly locals transformed a potentially boring rural visit into a very
special experience. Nice to see that this story struck a chord with so
many readers…

=> Reader: Another fascinating article. Loved the random local ojii-san
story. Only old Japan-hands can appreciate all that went behind that.
Reminds me of a long-ago tour we made to Akita for a vacation. I have
experience about the clean water PR as I had some Obaa-chan CEO of one
of those sake breweries approach my company to help (as I later learned,
with expectation of free support as if we were JETRO) to find a
distributor in Australia. When I asked what the sales point of her sake
was, she replied: “It is the best in Japan!” Which had me rolling my
eyes even as I politely alluded that may not be a sufficiently
convincing sales point Down Under!

=> Reader 2: Thanks for this article. I just started a job in Akita last
week, and I pass through Kakunodate and Tazawako by train on my
twice-weekly trips to work. Now I know I should get off the train and
explore the area sometime!

=> Reader 3: Good report! I have been to Kakunodate before, and highly
recommend this as a great destination as well. Actually, I remember
having some excellent sake there as well, but it was soooo excellent
that the name escapes me…! :-)



=> Night Kagura – Theater For the Gods, Shimane-ken
Demons, heroes & eight-headed serpents

Kagura is a shrine-based dance theater with a long history in the old
country of Iwami (currently west Shimane prefecture). This entertainment
form is a living part of the region’s summer festivals, with many
preservation societies still performing. Kagura is a dance and music
ritual in Shinto, which through stories performed for the joy of the
gods, asks their favor for the coming year. The stories are mostly of
gods or emperors killing evil demons, or charming characters doing
simple things like fishing. Demons were thought to be connected to
natural disasters and bad crops and the stories have their origins in
the Amano story written in the Kojiki, one of the oldest records of
Japanese history and folklore.

Night-kagura is performed on every Saturday of August and September.
There are also kagura performances every month, at a Tsuwano road
station called Nagomi

=> Omiya City, Saitama Prefecture
A great diversion close to Tokyo

While traveling throughout Japan by train there will be some cities that
you only see from the window as you continue on your journey. Omiya
Station is just one such place. I have passed through here probably a
dozen times and wondered what was worth seeing. The city is only a short
distance north of Tokyo and is part of Saitama Prefecture. On a partly
cloudy day I decided to do some exploring. I mapped out a three-hour
round trip walking course with my first stop being the famous Hikawa Shrine.

This “Great Shrine” has a very long history dating back to 473 BC, with
some interesting legends. The shrine has 59 branches in Tokyo and 162 in
Saitama Prefecture. It is very large and because its location it is off
the beaten path, so you won’t see huge crowds like some of the more
popular ones in Tokyo.

Adjoining the shrine is the 168-acre Omiya Park, opened to the public in
1885. The park is in the top 100 sites for viewing cherry blossoms and
is home to the Apricot Festival held in mid-February. There is a trail
around a large pond and many beautiful open spaces to explore. At one
end of the park is the Saitama Prefecture Museum of History and
Folklore, at the other end is a zoo.


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For more details on the position, go to:


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