Friday, 29 May 2020

Community Spirit, Charity, and Seken in the time of Corona: Comparing Japan and the UK

One of the dominant stereotypes of Japan is that it is a collectivist society and group orientation is the dominant cultural pattern which shapes behaviour. However, one thing I have noticed during the current pandemic is a distinct lack of solidarity and community in this country, in stark contrast to the UK. From 100-year-old Captain Tom Moore who raised millions for the National Health Service (NHS) by walking laps around his garden to the weekly nationwide clap for carers, there seems to be a real sense of togetherness and unity - not to mention a lot of (black) humour - in these tough times, something distinctly lacking in "groupist" Japan. So what's going on?

Yoshiki's Foundation America Website © 2018

In a recent article, the Japan Times tries to address this puzzle, namely why, even in these times of acute need, there is no culture of giving to charity. The article gives some examples of Japanese celebrities dipping into their pockets, though it is noteworthy that the most public and generous of these - X-Japan rock-star Yoshiki - has lived in the US for almost 30 years. The new Emperor and Empress did donate to a children's and a disaster charity on the occasion of their enthronement but this was all very low-key (reflecting the need to be humble about giving). The most visible recent project I have noticed in Japan is the collaboration of 76 artists from talent agency Johnny's (ジャニーズ) who produced a charity single to provide masks and PPE for medical instutitons (check out the channel here). But there is little news on this or details of how much they have raised (in stark contrast to the media attention around, say, Arianna Grande and Justin Bieber's charity single).

In terms of individual donations, at certain periods in the year you will see charity collections in town centres such as the "red feather" end of year collection for local community and welfare groups (interestingly an American priest was apparently central in the creation of these charity drives). The Ashinaga group which collects money for orphaned young people is also quite visible. However, aside from popping a ¥100 coin in a collection box on the street or in a convenience store, individual charity donations are limited. The World Giving Index 2018 ranked Japan at 128 (out of 144), with only 18% saying they had donated to charity in the previous month. In terms of actual figures, the Japan Fundraising Association gives a figure of ¥775.6 billion for individual giving in 2016 (0.14% of GDP) in contrast to 0.54% of GDP in the UK. In Japan, corporate, not individual donations, make up the bulk of donations; the figure below shows the stark contrast between Japan and the UK.
Christianity is commonly used to explain this discepancy, but the UK can hardly be called a particularly Christian society (at least compared to the US). As well as religion, the expectation in Japan that the government is responsible for providing public services (and general trust in and reliance on the government) is often cited as a reason. An even more surprising finding from the World Giving Index is that in Japan only 23% said they had helped a stranger (or someone they didn't know who needed help) in the last month, 142nd out of 144 (the UK figure was 63%). Of course this doesn't mean that Japanese are unkind: as any foreign tourist holding a map will tell you, people will often stop and try to help despite speaking little or no English.

Ruth Benedict, author of The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, offers an intriguing explanation. She writes that Japanese are "extremely wary" of getting entangled in on (恩) by which she means becoming indebted to or imposing a burden of obligation on someone for doing them a favour - what is called "returning the
on." The logic goes that by helping the old lady who has fallen down, they are imposing an unconscionable burden on the person they helped since that person will be weighed down with a sense of debt they can never repay. The foreign tourist, on the other hand, blithely unaware of the intricacies of obligation and debt, can be helped without fear. This loosely dovetails with the explanation of Prof. Shusaku Sasaki, quoted in the Japan Times article mentioned earlier, who posits that being seen as giving for selfish rather than altruistic reasons is one reason Japanese avoid openly giving to charity: helping others is best done anonymously and invisibly to avoid social problems and misunderstandings (one example is the Tiger Mask donation phenomenon described here). Of course, the lack of a proper tax deduction system and tax breaks may in the end be a better explanation than any of this!

In the time of coronavirus, let me offer one final sociological explanation for the lack of charity - both giving and helping - in Japan: the notion of seken (世間). Seken is something like public community: Professor Naoki Sato translates it as "dynamics that occur when Japanese people unite as a group" and describes it as a kind of peer pressure to conform. The result is voluntary regulation of behaviour - under the hard stare of other's eyes - to avoid criticism, shaming, and ostracism. The force of this social pressure explains how self-restraint (jishuku) which, in lieu of the ability to impose a European-style legal lockdown, has been the cornerstone of Japan's undeniably successful COVID-19 counter-measures. I have experienced this personally, with withering looks and even shouts of "mask" when simply walking the dog (maskless) in the fresh air (I of course wear a mask when entering shops or taking trains). The downside of seken though is that it pushes people to keep their head-down to avoid bothering or antagonising others. This disinclination to stand-out, even through positive behaviour such as donating to charity, organising support for health workers, or helping the proverbial old-lady, might be another explanation for the lack of solidarity, togetherness, and unity in Japan.

Soon, every citizen - foreign residents included - will be able to receive a ¥100,000 (£750/$930) payment as part of the government's coronavirus economic response package (see details here). There are plenty of people in Japan - including a number of my students - who are really struggling at the moment so giving money to everyone, regardless of income, seems to me nothing short of ridiculous. This writer for one will be giving the money to charity - I just won't be telling any of my Japanese friends or neighbours in case they think I'm "showing off" (kakkō tsukeru) to get praise and attention. Just hope none of them actually read this blog!

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Parcel Delivery, Flying Legs, and Giant Post-Boxes in Japan

As the state of emergency rolls on in Japan, the postal system has become a lifeline for many. The government has even entrusted Japan Post - the national mail service of Japan - to deliver two cloth masks to each household (a widely ridiculed policy that has hit a number of problems). Before the privatisation process of Japan Post began in 2007 - it is now officially called Japan Post Holdings - it was the nations's biggest employer accounting for a third of government employees (though it should be pointed out that 13 years later full privatisation has still not occurred). Regular post is usually delivered on small motorbikes (pictured) or mini-vans rather than bicycles.

Japan Post has a unique symbol which looks like a capital "T" with an extra line on top and this adorns delivery bikes and vans as well as post-boxes and post-offices - and also prefaces post-codes. For example, the postcode for the National Diet is written 〒100-0014: the first three digits are for the prefecture or metropolis (cities in Tokyo range from 100 to 208 - see here for a full list). Explanations for the origins of the symbol vary. The conventional explanation is that it is a variation of the katakana character "te" (テ) created in 1887 by the new Ministry of Communications and Transportation (Teishin-shō) - teishin is an old term meaning communications. This site, however, suggests that the logo was co-opted from the mark for the NYK shipping company which is two bold red lines, apparently a pun on ni-hon (meaning two lines but also Japan!). Whatever the true story, today it is a unique symbol that is found only in Japan and even has its own unicode number and smiley face emoji (〠). Note that addresses in Japan are written biggest (prefecture) to smallest (house or flat number): see here for an example.
Home delivery service share
In contrast to the UK, the post office is not the main player in the parcel delivery business: door-to-door home delivery services (takuhaibin=宅配便) are the main way Japanese send and receive parcels. Takuhaibin - now more commonly called takkyūbin, a term coined by industry leader Yamato - is incredibly cheap, efficient (usually next-day delivery), and easy to use. They will pick parcels up from your house or you can send or pick up from your local convenience store. Moreover, you can usually specify delivery times down to the nearest hour or two and if you miss a parcel it is easy to arrange re-delivery for a specific time (usually with an automated phone call). Japanese use the service all the time: for example, for sending luggage ahead to a hotel or airport or ordering frozen food. Yamato (known as kuro-neko or black cat) is the biggest takkyūbin company and has a detailed site in English about how to send parcels.
New (left) and old (right) Sagawa Express symbol marks
Their biggest rival, Sagawa Express, used to have the traditional red loin-cloth wearing foot courier known as hikyaku (飛脚="flying legs") as their symbol mark before changing it in 2007 to a more modern version (both pictured). These symbols are not just for show: the delivery drivers do actually run! See here for a fascinating video on a (slower than I'm used to seeing) day in the life of a Sagawa delivery worker. As the video shows, push trolleys are the preferred method of delivery in the city (the UK too has seen a switch from bicycles to trolleys for regular post in recent years).

Like many industries in Japan, all delivery services have struggled to hire and retain workers given the relatively tough physical nature of the job. This is one reason for the upcoming end of Saturday deliveries by Japan Post. But it is the poor working conditions of takkyūbin workers that has received most attention in recent years, particularly lack of breaks and unpaid overtime. After a mountain of bad press highlighting the "black" nature of such companies, Yamato raised its fees for the first time in 27 years in 2017 and paid retrospective overtime to drivers. Today, though, amid the rise of "stay at home shopping" (sugomori-shōhi=巣ごもり消費) during the Covid19 crisis, there are similar stories of overworked drivers. Another concern for these workers is infection: it is now common to ask delivery personnel to leave parcels outside the door (okihai =置き配); Uber Eats, which has recently exploded on the Japanese scene, even has an option for this when placing your online order.

As a final, local, aside Kodaira City in Western Tokyo is said to be home to the highest number (32) of old-fashioned vermilion (shu-iro =朱色) cylindrical post-boxes which have been largely phased out elsewhere (see here for a list of all 32 plus 5 decorative non-functioning ones dotted throughout the city). To commemorate its unique position, a giant cylindrical post-box was set up near the station in 2009 which, standing at 2.8m, is the tallest in the nation. Luckily, there are two slots so if you can't reach the 2.1m higher one (which I just about did!) you can always pop your envelope into the 1.4m slot.

Sunday, 12 April 2020

"It's just Behaviour": How Acting more Japanese Could Help Defeat the Coronavirus

In my earlier post on the coronavirus situation in Japan (updated daily!), I suggested that one of the reasons that the virus may not have spread to the extent it has in Western countries could be cultural. I wrote that Japan is a hygiene-obsessed country at the best of times and hand-washing, gargling, masks, and hand-sanitiser - not to mention social distance and bowing instead of hand-shaking and hugging - are part of everyday life (especially during the influenza season which coincided with the start of the crisis). I also mentioned the plethora of anti-bacterial or kōkin (抗菌) goods on sale, from pens and slippers to bags and leg-warmers.
While it is true that Japan has conducted fewer tests than most other countries – at the time of writing WHO data gives a figure of 1.03 per thousand in stark contrast to its neighbour South Korea with almost 11.22 per thousand – it is also true that the number of deaths has remained extremely low: Japan's mortality rate was 2.5% as of April 23rd compared with 13.56% in the U.K. Moreover, hospitals have not been overrun. So could adopting Japanese cultural traits help us defeat the Coronavirus - and save lives? This seems less of a stretch if we remember that culture is simply the customs and behaviour of a particular people or society. Indeed, governments across the world have been encouraging us to change our daily habits. "It's just behaviour," said Dr Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, "each of our behaviours translating into something that changes the course of this viral pandemic."

Starting with the ideas and values that drive behaviour let's look in a little more detail at the Japanese focus on cleanliness and hygiene in Japan. In one of my earliest posts, I discussed Japanese high-tech toilets and the "clean/pure" inside (uchi =内) vs "dirty/polluted" outside (soto =外) divide. In the home, for example, this is evidenced by both the genkan (porch or entrance hall) where shoes are removed before stepping up into the house and also the toilet itself where household (often anti-bacterial) toilet slippers need to be worn. The distinction between clean and dirty is rooted in Japan's indigenous religion, Shinto; the torii gate to the shrine, often festooned with shide purifying paper, marks the boundary between the sacred (pure) and the profane (impure).

Overall and hat for school lunch duty
One consequence of this concept of the outside as dirty (kitanai=汚い) is that the importance of removing shoes, hand-washing, and gargling is drilled into youngsters from an early age. In schools, children change into indoor slip-on shoes (uwabaki=上履き) at the entrance. In public schools, school lunch (kyūshoku) is typically provided and everybody washes their hands thoroughly before eating. Students take turns to dish out the food and the student on duty (tōban) for that day will typically wear an overall or apron, hat, and mask (pictured). Given this cultural background, recent songs by Arashi  and (below) Pikotaro imploring everyone to wash their hands seem unnecessary.

Another Japanese (indeed Asian) habit that can save lives is the wearing of masks. As I discussed in detail here, Japanese wear masks for a variety of reasons, from covering the face when there was no time to make-up and preventing a sore throat to stopping hay fever and the spread of cold/flu. Part of the culture of mask wearing is consideration for others: it is safe and reassuring for others if you are wearing a mask. This is a point that was not well understood by WHO and most Western governments who initially said that masks were not recommended. In contrast, countries such as Korea strongly recommended masks as a way to limit the spread of infection. In other words, the Western perspective was that masks were unlikely to prevent an individual catching the virus; in contrast the Asian perspective was that masks were effective in stopping the spread of the virus to others (especially relevant since around 10% of cases are asymptomatic). Belatedly, we are now seeing a change in the WHO position to one condoning the wearing of masks.

In conclusion, there is a lot of evidence that acting more Japanese can help protect both ourselves and others. In Japan, as outlined in this Japan Times article, there has been a flood of tweets and blog posts arguing that Japanese cultural practices have contributed to the low number of infections. Cell biologist Hironori Funabiki, for example, mentions washlets on high-tech toilets, lack of speaking on public transport and at ceremonies, few religious assemblies, and the fact that few foods are eaten with bare hands (most snacks are individually wrapped). The article cited above does finish with a word of caution, though, introducing one Japanese cultural trait that could actually increase the spread of the virus: shame. Japanese are for the most part very sensitive about causing trouble or inconvenience for others (the word for this, meiwaku, is frequently used to admonish adults and children alike) and this could make people reluctant to get tested for fear of embarrassing their company or in-group. Indeed, there is a underlying feeling that health is "all in the mind" (yamai wa ki kara) and anybody who has fallen ill must be at least partly to blame for not taking proper care of their health (kenkō kanri). Of course this can also work to encourage people to take more care. In the final analysis, whatever culture we hail from we all need to take a little extra care - and be a little more considerate - if we and those around us are to survive these difficult times.

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine: Praying for Good Luck and Cats Bringing Good Luck

In these tough times, plenty of people turn to prayer to wish for better luck and this is particularly common in Japan, where Japanese practice diverse "religious" practices and rituals (though these are actually more lifestyle customs and cultural habits than "religion" per se - see previous post here). Some of the most ubiquitous shrines in Japan are the 14,000 or so Tenmangu (天満宮) shrines which are dedicated to Sugawara no Michizane, a poet and scholar who was exiled from Kyoto to Kyushu in the 10th century where he died. He was later deified as Tenjin, meaning "sky god" (天神), though Tenjin is actually the patron of scholarship and learning. Residents and visitors to Fukuoka City, the main city in Kyushu, will recognise Tenjin as a bustling area full of shops, restaurants, and bars, not to mention the beautifully named Oyafuko (親不孝) Street. Oyafukō is a term from Confucianism meaning lack of filial piety - kids who don't obey or respect their parents - and it is therefore no surprise that this street is the nightlife hub of Fukuoka (I remember the Happy Cock and the Crazy Cock clubs fondly!).

One of the most famous of these many Tenmangu shrines (alongside Kitano in Kyoto and Egara in Kamakura) is located in Dazaifu, a 40-minute train ride from Fukuoka City. Because Tenjin is considered particularly helpful in securing academic success, the shrine is usually packed with students preparing for or taking exams (jukensei =受験生). After praying (and donating) at the shrine they will often buy a lucky charm (omamori=お守り) which they can hang on their bag or splash out on a wooden ema wooden wish plaque on which they write a message and hang up at the shrine (explained here).

Michizane was very fond of plum (ume=) trees, writing a famous poem (waka=和歌) from exile in which he lamented the absence of a particular tree he had loved in the capital (translated here). In fact, legend has it that the tree - known as the flying plum tree or tobiume - flew from Kyoto to Dazaifu to be with him! Today the descendant of the tobiume can be seen just to the right of the main shrine (pictured below - not in bloom unfortunately) and it is said that it is always the first plum tree to bloom in Japan (in February, coincidentally around the same time many exam results are announced). His fondness for plum blossoms means that Temmangu shrines often have many such trees: Dazaifu reputedly has 6,000 of them, comprising 167 varieties!
The main shrine at Dazaifu Tenmangu with the "Flying Plum" tree on the right
An interesting feature at Dazaifu is the pond in the shape of the Japanese character for "heart" (kokoro=心) which is crossed by two arched bridges and islands which are said to represent the past, present, and future. The animal particularly associated with Tenjin is the bull/ox because, according to legend, during Michizane's funeral procession, the animal pulling the cart bearing his remains refused to go any further than a certain spot, and his remains were buried there marking the location of the shrine. But the bull/ox is not the most visible animal at Dazaifu: there are far more cats! Here I am talking about the maneki-neko (招き猫) or "beckoning cat" sold in every shape and form in the shrine shops (note that the beckoning or inviting gesture in Japan is actually the opposite of that used in Western countries). These cats are supposed to bring good luck - something we all need in these trying times.

Wednesday, 4 March 2020

The Latest Coronavirus Situation in Japan (updated daily)

Hand-sanitiser everywhere!
People with friends and family in Japan are undoubtedly worried about the situation here regarding the coronavirus; a few have even contacted me to ask about the situation in Japan (scroll down for the comment/question/request function). The March 3rd announcement by WHO that Japan - together with South Korea, Italy, and Iran - were the countries of "greatest concern" undoubtedly made people more anxious, though the situation in Europe and America is now far worse than anything seen in Japan. And even though Prime Minister Abe declared a state of emergency in 7 prefectures until May 6th on April 7th (extended to the whole country on April 17th and further extended to the end of May on May 4th) this is nothing like the lockdown seen in those countries (indeed a Europe style lockdown is not legally possible). This post aims to provide concrete objective information about the situation on the ground in Japan and contains reliable sources in English. (UPDATE: the state of emergency was lifted for 39 out of 47 prefectures on May 14th and the remaining ones on May 25th).
As of May 28th, there have been 16,696 confirmed cases of the virus in Japan, not including those from the Diamond Princess cruise ship; 869 people have died. The worry is that these figures are actually only the tip of the iceberg since people have generally not been tested - until guidelines were loosened very recently - unless they have quite severe symptoms (a fever of over 37.5 for 4 consecutive days accompanied with heavy fatigue, kentaikan=倦怠感, and/or breathing difficulties, kokyū-kon'nan=呼吸困難). The national broadcaster, NHK, provides up to date numbers; the Japan Times also has a similar page with recent numbers and a map (which shows that Hokkaido has been particularly hard hit - and is now experiencing its second wave of infections). For visitors to the capital, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has an extremely detailed site which even includes data on numbers of subway passengers. Finally, the JNTO site has useful information in English plus visitor hotline numbers (with a link to an emergency chat bot here). On March 2nd, many schools closed early for the spring break following government "advice" - a sudden measure that caused a lot of trouble for many working parents. However, following government moves to re-open schools as normal for the start of the 2020 academic year (which began April 6th) many schools in relatively unaffected areas did briefly reopen, though following the emergency declaration they closed again (though special dispensation for the state of emergency to be lifted has been given in certain largely unaffacted prefectures: for example, students in Tottori, Aomori, and Akita returned to school on May 7th). Universities have also switched to online classes and though some have started in April (such as ICU), most only began online lectures after Golden Week. Interestingly, discussions have started on shifting the start of the school year from April to September, bringing it more in line with many other countries.

Since the state of emergency was declared, there are noticeably fewer people out and about in Tokyo - commuter traffic into Tokyo was reported to be some 60% lower and pedestrian traffic around Shinjuku Station, one of Tokyo’s busiest, was down 80% - and almost all are wearing masks (remember, though, that in Japan many people wear masks anyway for hay-fever and other reasons - see this post on why Japanese people wear masks). There is a general sense of underlying anxiety - in one case in Fukuoka, a passenger pressed the emergency button on the train after someone coughed without wearing a mask! The problem is that it is almost impossible to buy a mask now anywhere in Japan: drug stores see long queues in the morning and immediately sell out despite limiting sales to one pack per customer (see picture). Even toilet paper and tissues have become difficult to buy, harking back to the shortages during the 1973 oil shock; people are slipping into hoarding mode, with panic-buying not seen since the 2011 Tohoku earthquake (though shelves are not being stripped bare like in Europe).

By mid-March there were signs that things were improving: toilet paper began to re-appear and people were going out more (Yoyogi Park here in Tokyo was crowded with cherry-blossom viewers on the weekend of March 21st/22nd); however, confirmed cases, especially in Tokyo and Osaka, have spiked recently and even before the state of emergency cinemas, amusement parks, clubs, bars, karaoke boxes, some department stores, and even Starbucks in the capital have closed as part of "self-restraint" (jishuku=自粛) measures. These closures have increased siginificantly since the state of emergency began and business suspension requests took effect (Macdonald's, for example, is now take-out only). Central Tokyo was like a ghost town when I was there in mid-April with many "temporarily closed" (rinji kyūgyō=臨時休業) signs on businesses.
Empty shelves and apologies in a drugstore where the masks (left) and toliet paper (right) should be
In terms of tourist sites, theme parks, such as Tokyo Disneyland, national museums, and many other sites (such as Tokyo Skytree) have "temporarliy" closed (closed sites listed here), while large-scale gatherings (such as graduation or entrance ceremonies) have been cancelled and sports events affected (the spring sumo tournament, for example, was held behind closed doors while the summer was has been cancelled). On the other hand, other cultural sites - such as some shrines and temples - which offer some comfort in these difficult times do remain open. Most governments now have a "do not travel" advisory in place for Japan (see here for a good overview). Moreover, restriction on entry - travel bans - exists for a large swathe of countries (see here). (UPDATE: since the state of emergency was lifted tourist sites are now slowly beginning to reopen - Tokyo Tower, for example, reopened on May 28th).

For those already in Japan, though, it is reassuring to know that Japan is a hygiene-obsessed Japan at the best of times - hand-sanitiser is everywhere - and hand-washing, gargling, masks, and alcohol sprays, not to mention minimal contact - bowing instead of hand-shaking and absolutely no hugging - are part of everyday life  (another example: anti-bacterial or kōkin=抗菌 goods, from pens and slippers to bags and leg-warmers, are extremely popular). This post explores Japanese culture and the virus in more detail. Nevertheless, now people are being extra careful: in my local supermarket, for example, the cashiers are now wearing blue rubber gloves, mask, and plastic face-guards. And at stations, staff wear masks, handrails are regularly disinfected, and even the touch-screen ticket machines are frequently wiped down. Plastic screens are common in many shops. See here for guidelines on "new social behaviour".

"Wash hands, gargle" newspaper ad
Early on in the crisis, before the travel bans, the decision about whether to visit Japan or not came down to whether the worry and stress would detract from the pleasure of your visit or not. This was the conclusion of Richard Lloyd Parry, Asia editor for The Times and author of some amazing books on Japan, who shares his advice to a friend: "In terms of planning a holiday," he says, "I think it depends on you and your family's attitude to disruption and unpredictability." Now, of course, visiting Japan - or anywhere else for that matter - has become impossible, which is a shame since the spring flowers are beautiful and there are very few crowds. I very much hope that once the travel bans are lifted tourists will return to support those businesses reeling from the double whammy of the virus and loss of the Olympics. If you do come, though, make sure you avoid this ramen shop in Ueno whose owner has kicked up quite a firestorm with a "Japanese only" policy. Now is a time for solidarity and togetherness - not discrimination.

Wednesday, 26 February 2020

Sukiyaki and Babymetal: What's the Connection?

Click to hear some sample tracks
While manga and anime have been Japan's main popular cultural exports in recent years, Japanese music (J-pop) has had little success abroad, overshadowed by the popularity of Korean (K-pop) acts like BTS and TWICE. One Japanese group has been the exception to this rule though: Babymetal, a Japanese "kawaii metal" idol girl band. While cute (kawaii) female idol dance bands - like AKB48 - are a penny-a-piece in Japan, Babymetal is something rather different, combining the childish, smiling school-girl innocence of typical female J-pop performers with a darker, edgier kind of kawaii (see here for an academic analysis and here for my take on the emergence of "distorted cute"). Babymetal have become the highest charting Japanese band ever both in the UK  and in the US; indeed, they became the first Asian act ever to top Billboard's rock albums chart last year. In 2016, their 2nd album became the first Japanese album to chart on the U.S.Top 40 since Kyu Sakamoto's Sukiyaki and Other Japanese Hits in 1963 - 54 years ago!

However, today's blog is not about Babymetal but about sukiyaki: this back-to-front way of introducing the main topic is a traditional way of developing a narrative in Japanese (originating in classical Chinese) known as kishōtenketsu (起承転結) which involves a sharp twist (ten) part way into the story that shifts to something seemingly unrelated. It is only in the concluson that the two elements are tied together. This style can be seen in poetry, manga, newspapers - both the Yomiuri (Henshū-techō=編集手帳) and the Asahi (Tensei-jingo=天声人語)have daily front-page columns in this style - and even in video game design (most famously in Ninentendo's Super Mario games).

So what is sukiyaki? Simply put, it's a beef hot-pot stew (nabemono=鍋物) which Japanese typically enjoy in the winter around the family dinner table or perhaps at a company end of year party (bōnenkai=忘年会). It's very much a collective eating experience, with members of the group gradually adding the ingredients to the communcal pot and then picking them out when cooked to be eaten with raw egg. Sukiyaki is not really "traditional": like many other things thought to be old it is actually fairly new, an "invented tradition" from the Meiji era (1868-1912) (see here and here for previous posts giving examples of how many so-called "traditions" in Japan are actually relatively modern).

Ingredients tend to vary from region to region but we started off melting beef tallow fat (gyūshi=牛脂) in the pot ❶ and adding thinly sliced beef ❷ (in our case we used marbled Miyazaki wagyū which we ordered using the popular hometown tax donation=furusato nōzei=ふるさと納税) program. After that, we added spring onions (negi) ❸ and then the all-important tare-sauce known as warishita ❹: we used a ready-made bottle from the supermarket but many people make their own by mixing soy-sauce, mirin, and sugar. Next up were the enoki and shiitake mushrooms plus Chinese cabbage (hakusai=白菜) ❺, followed by grilled tofu (yakidōfu=焼き豆腐) ❻, chrysathemum leaves (shungiku=春菊) ❼, and finally starch noodles (kuzukiri=葛切り) ❽ - one alternative for the latter are kon'nyaku noodles (shirataki=白滝). See here for a simple recipe.
If you've got this far, you might be wondering why Kyu Sakamoto's massive hit, Ue o Muite Arukō (Look up and Walk), was called Sukiyaki outside Japan? What has one of the world's best-selling singles of all time, written by a young Japanese student in the sixties trying to hold back tears of frustration after a protest against the Japan-US Security Treaty (AMPO), got to do with Japanese beef hot-pot? The answer is absolutely nothing: it was used only because it was short, catchy, and recognisably Japanese. In this respect, it is refreshing that Babymetal, the Japanese band to finally overtake Sukiyaki in the charts, at least challenge and shake up some of the old tropes and stereotypes about Japan and the Japanese.