Thursday 30 March 2017

Beef Bowls and Death from Overwork

A picture of a large helping of beef and onion on a bed of rice known as "beef-bowl"
Gyūdon or "beef-bowl": popular and very cheap fast-food
The picture on the left shows the popular Japanese fast food known as gyūdon (牛丼). Composed of the characters for "cow" and "bowl", it's a slightly sweet tasting beef and onion mix on a bed of rice. It's fast and cheap: this is a large serving (ōmori) with extra green onion and Korean kimchee topping for ¥590 (£4/$5). There is fierce competition among the big three beef-bowl shops; this was bought at Sukiya (below) which has become notorious in recent years for its poor working conditions. In particular it was heavily criticised for running the night shift with just one, often part-time, worker. Part-timers typically earn just under ¥1000 (£7/$9) an hour while full-timers rarely get paid for all the overtime they are expected to perform.

A picture outside looking in the popular beef-bowl chain "Sukiya"
Always open: The beef-bowl chain "Sukiya"
Overwork and unpaid overtime has become a huge social problem in Japan and the term "black company" (ブラック企業) has entered the common lexicon. There is even a prize for the "most evil corporation of the year." Last year's top prize was awarded to advertising giant Dentsu, following the suicide of 24-year-old female worker caused by depression due to overwork. In Japanese, death from overwork is called karōshi (過労死) made up of the characters for "too much", "work", and "death." The Dentsu case has become something of a watershed moment in Japan, prompting government action, including the introduction of "Premium Friday" where workers (theoretically) leave work at 3:00 on the last Friday of each month. On Tuesday, the government approved a draft plan on overtime regulations as part of its "work-style reforms" (hatarakikata kaikaku). The plan sets the upper limit for overtime at 720 hours a year, averaging 60-hours a month - but up to 100 at "busy times", significantly above the 80-hour karōshi danger line. Although framed in the media as an improvement, some critics have called it a "total capitulation by labour" with families of victims fearing that it will effectively legalise karōshi.
The Japanese have long been characterised as workaholics - in 1991, then French Prime-Minister Edith Cresson famously likened them to "ants" - but in actual fact many Japanese, whether part-time or full-time, have little choice but to constantly work. No wonder Japan came 51st in the recent World Happiness Report - a finding backed up by domestic surveys. Which raises the question: is Japan really a "rich" country?

Wednesday 29 March 2017

Talented Birdlife on the Kodaira Green Road

A key feature of Kodaira City is the Green Road, a popular 21km tree-lined walking path which rings the city and which for 8km runs along the historical Tamagawa Aqueduct (Tamagawa Jōsui) that since 1654 has carried water from the Tama River to the capital. The Kodaira citizens’ charter (shimin kenshō) starts with the words, "Let’s build a green verdant town to which small birds will flock"(わたくしたちは みどりを育て 小鳥の来るまちをつくりましょう) and there is indeed an abundance of bird-life along the Green Road. Today, I spotted a beautiful Varied Tit. Called a Yamagara (山雀) in Japanese, literally "mountain sparrow" (sparrow is suzume in Japanese), it is also common in Korea and China. The colouring is rather remarkable, with a black throat and head, white face, bluish-grey beak, wings, and tail, and a striking chestnut breast. It is also very tame: I was able to stand very close (with a dog!) and watch the bird first peck hard in woodpecker fashion to open a nut and then slowly eat its prize (partly captured in the video below).

The Varied Tit apparently has a long history in Japan: there are accounts of the bird being bred and raised in special wooden cages (Yamagara kago) as far back as the Heian Period (794-1185). A highly intelligent bird, it has also been trained to perform various tricks, most famously delivering fortune papers (omikuji) which was apparently a common sight at Japanese shrines up until the 1980s. This video shows a Varied Tit that has been trained to drop a coin in the offering box of a small shrine, ring the shrine bell, open the shrine door, and bring back an omikuji to the owner.

Tuesday 28 March 2017

Japan's most Popular Word Game: Shiritori

 Shiritori (しりとり=尻取り)is a popular Japanese word game where two or more players chain words - usually nouns - together.  The literal meaning of "grabbing the buttocks" closely resembles its English equivalent "Grab on Behind" though which name came first is unclear! In the Japanese version, the last syllable (a single vowel or consonant/vowel pair) of one word must be used as the first syllable of the next word. For example, if one player says terebi (television) the next player must say a word beginning with "bi" such as bīru (beer). Saying a word ending in "n" such as raion (lion) will end the game, causing that player to lose, since no Japanese words start with the Japanese syllable "n" (ん in hiragana or ン in katakana). Repeating words is not allowed. Different variations and local rules exist, such as choosing a specific theme (e.g. animals), specifying a minimum length (e.g. two or more syllables), or chanting in rhythm with a time limit. A silent variant (shown below) is e-shiritori or picture-shiritori which involves drawing pictures instead of saying the word. This is apparently popular amongst students since it can be quietly passed around during a boring class!
A paper showing a completed "e" or "picture" shiritori game  - answers in the next post!
E (picture) shiritori: Can you get all the Japanese words? (answers below!)

For Japanese language learners this can be a fun way to build vocabulary - see some kindergarten level quiz sheets here - and also understand how the Japanese sound system itself works. In the first place, we can learn that Japanese syllables consist of one of five vowels (aiueo) either alone (i =stomach) or preceded by a consonant (shi =poem) - the only exception is n which was introduced above. The consonants are k/s/t/n/h/m/y/r/w and the Japanese alphabet lists syllables in the following order: a/i/u/e/u  ka/ki/ku/ke/ko  sa/shi/su/se/so etc (the y and w lines are slight exceptions - see the romanisation table here). An easy mnemonic to remember the alphabet order is "Ah Kana Signs Take Note How Many You Read Well."

Shiritori helps us notice that some Japanese consonants (specifically k/s/t/h) have voiced equivalents (g/z/d/b) and this is marked with a diacritic which looks a bit like a quotation mark called a daku-ten : for example, "sa" (さ) becomes "za" (ざ). Another diacritic mark is the han-daku-ten, a small circle which indicates half-voicing of the ha/he/fu/he/ho syllables: for example, "ho" (ほ) becomes "po" (ぽ). Thus, Japanese language learners (and keen blog readers) may have noticed that the second part of compound words in Japanse often becomes voiced (called ren-daku): so for example ori+kami (folding+paper) becomes origami.

If you don't have a partner to play against, don't despiar:  hitori (one person) shiritori is not uncommon; playing against an AI opponent online is another option. One hint: not many words begin with "ru" in Japanese, so one strategy is to think of words which end in this syllable!

Monday 27 March 2017

High-tech Toilets and Toilet Slippers

A picture of a high-tech toilet control panel common in Japanese houses
An electric toilet control panel, common in Japanese homes
Japan's high-tech toilets continue to fascinate tourists and electric seats are a popular souvenir to take back home. Even basic toilets are big on water-saving with two flush options, small (小) and big (大). Most models will have a heated seat and integrated warm-water bidet ("washlet" in Japanese) as standard. In the picture left, the three large buttons at the top read "stop", "bottom", and "bidet". Advanced models will automatically open, flush, and deodorise. But although Western-style (yō-shiki or 洋式) toilets are widespread, Japanese-style (wa-shiki or 和式) squat toilets are by no means uncommon. In public schools for example, Japanese-style toilets remain more common, something which has become problematic since most students are unfamiliar with such toilets and some reportedly put-off going to the bathroom.
A photo of a typical household Japanese toilet with a pair of red plastic toilet slippers
Don't forget to put on - and take off - the slippers!

Another interesting feature of Japanese home toilets - which are almost always stand-alone, not in a common bathroom -  is the use of toilet slippers (pictured right). The "clean" inside (uchi =内) vs "dirty" outside (soto =外) distinction is given great importance in Japanese society, as evidenced by the removal of shoes in the genkan (porch or entrance hall) before stepping up to enter the house. Because toilets are "unclean" one has to remove the house slippers outside the toilet and put on special plastic toilet slippers inside the toilet (this has the added benefit of signalling that the toilet is occupied). Stepping outside the toilet onto the carpet while still wearing the toilet slippers is a major faux pas. I remember well the horrified look on my home-stay family's face when I once did this as an exchange student!

Click to preview on amazon
The importance of the impure/pure distinction in Japanese society goes far beyond the toilet, hygiene, and germs, as previous posts on Shinto have suggested. For example, it has been argued that a fear of cultural/racial "pollution" and/or "dilution" is one explanation for Japan's reluctance to open the door to unskilled migrants and for its tight regulation of those migrants it does accept. In particular, the lack of foreign maids and housekeepers in Japanese homes - in contrast to much of the rest of Asia - has been used as evidence of Japanese people's reluctance to have the purity of their inner space "contaminated" by the presence of an "unclean" outsider. See Tsuda (1998: 337-345) and Ohnuki-Tierney (1984: chapter 2, pictured left) for more.

Saturday 25 March 2017

Sushi: Special Occasions Only!

A picture of various kinds of home-delivered sushi in a decorative pseudo-laquerware box called a sushi-oke
A selection of home-delivered sushi in a sushi-oke
Nothing may seem more Japanese than sushi (寿司), but in everyday Japan sushi is for the most part eaten only on special occasions, such as a birthday or other celebration (oiwai).  Indeed, the first kanji in sushi is also read kotobuki, meaning congratulations, felicitations, or best wishes. Non-Japanese guests are typically treated to sushi, perhaps cementing the image that Japanese eat raw fish all the time. But for the ordinary Japanese it is an expensive luxury. The busy Tokyo office worker popping out to grab lunch is much less likely than his or her London counterpart to pick up sushi; indeed, convenience stores tend to have little if any sushi, with onigiri (rice-balls), nori-maki (seaweed rolls), or sandwiches/bread much more common. Conversely, a Japanese tourist seeing "sushi" in a London shop is often horrified at the lack of freshness and the fact that it is over-chilled.

When Japanese do eat sushi, freshness is everything and buying directly from a supermarket with a fresh fish section where the fish are cut up before your eyes is a popular option. The more expensive option is to get it delivered; in this case, it usually arrives in a sushi-oke (pictured above), a round plastic pseudo-lacquerware box that must be returned (it is typically placed outside the door to your house or apartment block after eating so that it can be picked up later). Sushi will come with soy sauce, wasabi (unless you specifically ask for no wasabi), and ginger slices. A slice of ginger should be taken between each piece to refresh and reset the palate. The top three most popular fish in Japan for sushi are salmon, hamachi or Japanese young amberjack, and red tuna.

Friday 24 March 2017

The Cost of Renting an Apartment in Tokyo

An ad showing costs for renting an apartment in Western Tokyo
An ad for a rental apartment in Western Tokyo
Yesterday's news noted that Tokyo had returned to the ranks of the world's most expensive cities. The world's costliest place to live in 2012, Japan's capital had dropped out of the top ten in recent years but jumped back to #4 this year. So how expensive is it really to put down roots in Tokyo? This of course depends on where you live in a metropolis of 13 million people. The picture left shows an ad for a rental apartment (chintai apāto) in Western Tokyo. The cost is ¥53,000/month (£380/$475) for a "quiet south-facing 2DK" - that is 2 bedrooms plus a combined Dining/Kitchen space (no living room) that gets the afternoon sun. This is not the total cost however; an in theory refundable ① deposit (shikikin) of one month's rent to cover any damages done to the apartment must also be paid up-front; on top of that, parking costs ¥7,000/month (you need a parking space in order to register a car - parking on the street is for the most part illegal). Luckily, this apartment doesn't charge the notorious ② "key money" (reikin, literally "gift money") nor is there ③ a communal service fee (kyōekihi) typically charged in larger apartment complexes.
An ad outside a real estate agency for eight different apartments in Azabu Juban, central Tokyo
An ad for apartments in central Tokyo

Of course, if you want to rent in central Tokyo, you'll be paying much more. The poster right is from an estate agency in Azabu-Juban, one of the most sought after residential areas in central Tokyo and especially popular with non-Japanese residents. For example, the bottom right apartment is a 1LDK (one bedroom plus combined Living/Dining/Kitchen) only three minutes from the station and costs ¥204,000/month (no "key money" needed). Unfortunately, renting an apartment takes more than just money. In most cases, a guarantor (hoshōnin or 保証人) is also needed on top of a deposit, and this must usually be a (Japanese) relative or employer. This can obviously be an major impediment to non-Japanese but in recent years it has also become a problem for elderly Japanese without close family. As a result, private companies have sprung up to act as guarantors - at a price. Ultimately, though, the owner has the final say on whether to rent their apartment or not - and not a few refuse to rent to non-Japanese, something which remains entirely legal. A 2006 Tokyo survey found that foreign residents visit an average of 15 agents before finally finding a place to rent.

[UPDATE: A new survey by the Justice Ministry found that almost 40% of foreign residents had been barred from housing; 30% had experienced racial or discriminatory remarks]

Wednesday 22 March 2017

Purifying Paper and Sumo Spirit Magnets

A picture showing a gate to a Shinto shrine with white jagged shide paper hanging down form a thick rope
Entrance to local shrine, with shide hanging from the shimenawa rope
At the gateway to a shrine you will commonly see white jagged zigzag-shaped strips of paper (shide) attached to a thick rope made of rice straw or hemp (shimenawa). As with many other symbols and rituals in Shinto, these are related to purification: here, they mark the boundary between the sacred (pure) and the profane (impure). The shide, sometimes attached to a staff or wand (called haraegushi) and waved by a Shinto priest, ward off evil spirits, remove impurities, and keep bad luck at bay. For example, Japanese sometimes hire a priest to wave a haraegushi (祓串) over their new car or as part of a ground-breaking ceremony before building a new house. They may even pay a priest to "sweep" away any bad luck in a yakudoshi (unlucky) year, said to be 25, 42, and 61 for men and 19, 33, and 37 for women.

A wooden or stick or gohei decorated with two shide streamers at the entrance to a houseIf one looks carefully, shide can also been found in many other places in one's neighbourhood. They may be tied around yorishiro, objects which attract and house spirits, such as trees and rocks. One can also occasionally see gohei (pictured right), shide inserted into a split wooden stick the size of a chopstick at the gate or entrance of older houses. Shide can even be seen hanging off a sumo wrestler's belt when he enters the ring at the beginning of a tournament, signifying the wrestler as a kind of living spirit magnet or host! The pleasant rustling sound made by the shide as they blow in the wind or are waved slowly and rhythmically from side to side in a start-stop sweeping motion is certainly soothing: the short video below captures this sound. For those wishing to make their own shide, follow the simple instructions here.

Tuesday 21 March 2017

Water, water everywhere...

A picture of an irrigation channel running alongside the Tamagawa Aqueduct with a red marker inset
Irrigation channel carrying drinking water

The picture shows a shallow irrigation channel (yōsuiro) running alongside the larger Tamagawa Aqueduct featured in an earlier post. The availability of fresh drinking water from the Tamagawa River saw a number of villages sprout up after the Aqueduct was built, the first being Ogawa Village in 1656. Water was of crucial importance for the villagers who were strictly prohibited from throwing garbage, bathing, or washing clothes in the channel. They also had to drain and clean the channel twice a year - a practice which still continues today - and local children then as now enjoy gathering the small fish and zarigani (crayfish) that appear when this happens. See here for a simple Japanese pamphlet on the history. Every 100m or so there are barely visible numbered red markers (inset) in the ground marking the path of the channel and reading suidōyōchi (water supply site).
Today, of course, water no longer has to be hauled from the channel, as children had to do each morning in the past, though the source and quality of the water remains the same. Tokyo tap water is safe to drink and is softer and milder than the tap water in many other countries. something which makes it perfect for making Japanese noodles, dashi (soup stock), and tea. On entering a restaurant you are invariably brought a glass of tap water and a wet towel (oshibori) along with the menu. Bottled Tokyo tap water is a popular souvenir and can be bought for ¥100 a bottle at the Tokyo OmiyageCentre in the labyrinth that is the First Avenue underground shopping mall at Tokyo Station. Travellers coming in the summer months though may encounter more water than they bargained for: the rainy season runs from early June to mid-July and typhoons peak around August/September.