Saturday 30 December 2017

New Year's Cleaning: Decluttering the KonMari way

In Britain we have spring cleaning but in Japan the major cleanup takes place at the end of the year in schools, temples, and homes, and is known as ōsoji (大掃除), literally big cleaning. Ōsoji needs to be finished before December 31st, known as ōmisoka (大晦日) in Japan. In the home, this usually consists of cleaning oven hoods, sweeping balconies, washing windows, and dusting everywhere. Once the cleaning has been completed, the house is considered "pure" enough to put up New Year decorations such as kadomatsu (a bamboo/pine decoration) to welcome ancestral spirits or kami. Only then can holiday festivities can be enjoyed with a clear conscience!

A key part of the clean-up is getting rid of unwanted stuff and in this respect "organising consultant" Marie Kondo has been remarkably influential (indeed she was was one of Time's "100 most influential people" in 2015). Her 2011 book Jinsei ga Tokimeku Katatsuke no Maho (人生がときめく片づけの魔法) was a massive bestseller and has been published in over 30 countries. The 2014 English version was followed by a 2016 sequel and a 2017 manga, the former titled "Spark Joy" drawing on the verb tokimeku in the original Japanese which can be variously translated as to throb, flutter, or palpitate​. The basic idea is to take a category-by-category approach (such as clothes or books) and focus on what you want to keep rather than want you want to throw away; anything that "sparks joy" should be kept and given a proper place that is both visible and accessible.

Given the combination of small houses and a consumerist and gift-giving culture, it is no surprise that the KonMari method (こんまり式) has been something of a revelation in Japan. In the neighbourhood, it's very common to see storage containers or "trunk-rooms" which you can rent out to store the stuff that won't fit in your house (pictured). People who can't afford to do this - or who can't bear to throw anything out - simply hoard and in recent years the increase in the issue of so-called "garbage houses" (gomi-yashiki =ゴミ屋敷) where rubbish has been overflowing onto the street has become something of a social problem. Indeed, there are even specialist companies which clear out such houses in cases of the increasingly common case of solitary death (kodoku-shi =孤独死).

This will be the last post for 2017, so let me leave with you a couple of common greetings used around this time of year. If it's still 2017 I can say yoi otoshi o (よいお年を) which means (I hope you) have a good new year (holiday); if you're reading this in 2018 then I will wish you a very happy new year which is akemashite omedetō gozaimasu (明けましておめでとうございます) - shortened to akeome among friends!

Thursday 28 December 2017

The Old Ladies' Harajuku: Red Pants in Sugamo

Everywhere in Tokyo is ridiculously busy at this time of year, with people on a shopping frenzy as if the shops are about to shut forever. When describing a place full of people, Japanese use the term hito-gomi (人込み), a phrase which I misinterpreted as "human rubbish" when I first heard it! One of the busiest and best known places in Tokyo is Harajuku, a fashion mecca and a magnet for youth; less well-known (but equally busy) is Sugamo (巣鴨), known as the Harajuku for Old Ladies (おばあちゃんの原宿), a district for older people centred around the Jizō-dōri (地蔵通り) shōtengai or shopping street (pictured). Given that the Japanese population is rapidly ageing (kōreika =高齢化) Sugamo offers something of a snapshot of what Japan might look like in the years to come. The local MacDonald's for example is famous for its old people friendly menu with traditional Japanese words rather than the usual English loan words: for example, the menu has oimo for poteto (french fries) and toriniku instead of the normal chikin (chicken). 

A very distinctive feature of Sugamo is the number of shops selling red underwear (!), with the flagship store being Maruji (マルジ) pictured. The colour red in Japan, as in much of Asia, symbolises joy, happiness, and good luck as well as long life. For example, anyone turning 60 in Japan (known as kanreki =還暦) is traditionally presented with a red jacket again symbolising longevity. Consequently, senior citizens flock to Sugamo to stock up on red pants with the hope of a long life! Inside Maruji itself, red pants are divided into the 12 animal zodiac signs of the Chinese zodiac (eto =干支) so you can choose a pair that matches your birth year (pictured below)!

Saturday 23 December 2017

Christmas in Japan: Romance, Chicken, Cakes, and Gifts

Christmas in Japan is, on the surface, not a great deal different to that back in England in terms of the gaudy decorations, beautiful illuminations, and non-stop Christmas music in the shops. Many Japanese will put up a Christmas tree and/or lights, a wreath, and Santa ornaments. The main difference though is that December 25th is just an ordinary working day for most - the big holiday and family gathering time is New Year (Shōgatsu =正月). If anything, Christmas itself is more a time for couples; Christmas Eve (simply called ivu/ibu =イヴ in Japanese) especially has a strong romantic image - apparently created by the young women's magazine an-an - and making a reservation at a restaurant is next to impossible.

In terms of food, Christmas in Japan means two things: chicken (not turkey!) and cakes. The former is chiefly due to a smart advertising campaign by Kentucky in the 1970s whose slogan was "Kentucky for Christmas" (クリスマスにはケンタッキー). Today, you need to book weeks in advance if you don't want to spend hours queueing for fried chicken. Christmas is also the only time you can typically buy a whole roast chicken in the supermarket - though most people plump for the legs or thigh (pictured).

As for cakes, Christmas cake is not the rich brandy-soaked fruit cake with marzipan and icing popular in the UK but a sponge cake usually with chocolate or stawberries. The basement of department stores - where the grocery section is found - is usually unbelievably busy with crowds jostling to secure the best cake before they sell out (which they never do).

In one word Christmas in Japan is quintessentially about consumerism - your wallet can become light very quickly just buying a few Christmas goodies (perhaps Japan is not so different after all!). Gift-giving is big in Japan and year-end gifts known as oseibo (お歳暮) - for those you became indebted to (osewa ni natta hito) during the year - are big business. I spotted this "Merry Christmas" gift corner in a local department store today including \10,000 (£66/$88) melons, \5,000 dried persimmons (hoshigaki), and \4,000 strawberries (pictured). One of the nice things about gift-giving in Japan though is the way gifts are opened very carefully and slowly, taking care to keep the gift-wrapping neat and intact, and thereby showing respect to the gift-giver. Much respect too to all those who have followed the blog since it was born back in March: a big merī kurisumasu (メリークリスマス) - usually abbreviated to merikuri - to you all!

Wednesday 20 December 2017

Osamu Dazai and Suicide in Japan

Osamu Dazai (1909-1948) is one of Japan's most revered writers with the semi-autobiographical Ningen Shikkaku (人間失格)- No Longer Human - a modern-day classic that remains one of the all-time best-selling works of fiction in Japan (see here for a short review). The story is about a young man's isolation and alienation from society - his failure to identify with or understand other human beings - and describes a spiral of self-destruction that results in a failed suicide attempt. The author too made a number of suicide attempts, beginning at age twenty and ending just before his 39th birthday when he drowned himself together with his lover in the rain-swollen Tamagawa River. He is buried at Zenrin Temple (禅林寺) in Mitaka, Tokyo; when I visited there was still incense burning in front of the grave (pictured), no doubt one of his many fans paying their respects. Note also the fresh flowers, including some white chrysanthemum (shiragiku =白菊)a flower of condolence in Japan.

Japan has the reputation of having a high suicide rate, thanks to famous figures like Dazai and also Yukio Mishima, and this image is reinforced by films such as "The Sea of Trees" (追憶の森), starring Ken Watanabe, about Japan's infamous "suicide forest" (Aokigahara=青木ヶ原) at the base of Mount Fuji. Certainly, in every day life, it is not uncommon for a train to be delayed due to a "human accident" or jinshin-jiko (人身事故) which is often a euphemism for someone jumping in front of a train (tobikomi). However, in recent years the number of suicides have actually fallen quite significantly, with 19,959 deaths in 2019, a drop of more than 14,000 compared to the 2003 peak and an all-time low (MHLW White Papers here). And against expectations, COVID-19 has actually pushed the most recent suicide numbers even further down compared to the previous year. WHO data for 2016 year ranks Japan at 15th in the world with 18.5 suicides per 100,000 (14.3 or 29th when adjusted for differences in age distribution). Nevertheless, suicide rates in Japan are high compared to other industrialised countries (more than double that of the UK for example) and youth suicides have been on the rise; Japan is the only G7 country in which suicide is the leading cause of death for 15-34 year-olds. In 2019, suicide became the leading cause of death for children aged 10-14 for the first time in the postwar period.
Lifeline Poster at a train station

The seriousness of the situation was brought home when nine dismembered bodies were found at an apartment in Zama City last month, all young people (including three high-school girls) who had expressed suicidal thoughts on social media and had subsequently been lured to the killer's apartment. The incident underlined the inadequacy of support and prevention programmes for suicide in Japan despite a 2016 revision of the Basic Law on Suicide Prevention. Telephone lifelines (inochi no denwa =命の電話) in particular are woefully under-funded and under-staffed; it can take up to 20 attempts to get through to a Japanese lifeline (which is then usually limited to 20 minutes). Moreover, COVID-19 has seen support groups having to cut back support raising fears of a spike in deaths during the period of isolation. For the English speaker (of whatever nationality) in Japan, there is an alternative that is still active during the pandemic: TELL (Tokyo English Lifeline) is Japan's only English-speaking lifeline and also offers a online chat at weekends. For more on suicide in Japan and what can be done, see the remarkable documentary "Saving 10,000" available here. "Sometimes all you need to save somebody’s life," concludes the film-maker, "is to take the time to listen."

Wednesday 13 December 2017

Loved but Lonely Elephants: Animal Welfare in Japan

In a previous post, I introduced Kichijoji, consistently voted the place most people want to live (sunde-mitai machi =住んでみたい街)in Tokyo. One of the biggest draws is the beautiful Inokashira Park with its boating lake (pictured), dog-friendly restaurants, and beautiful foliage. It is also only a short walk to the famous Ghibli Musueum (advance bookings only!). Inside the park is the popular Inokashira Park Zoo (shizen bunka-en = 自然文化園) which houses mainly smaller animals like monkeys, raccoons, squirrels, birds, and even freshwater fish. Until recently though the star attraction was Hanako, an Asiatic elephant, who was the first elephant (=象) to come to Japan after WWII. Hanako arrived at Ueno Zoo in 1949 as a gift from Thailand and moved to Inokashira in 1954. 

Hanako died in May 2016 aged 69, the oldest elephant in Japan. In May 2017, a statue was unveiled in front of Kichijoji Station, the cost of which was covered entirely by donations, including from Thailand. Japanese discussions surrounding Hanako focus on how much she was "loved" (hitobito ni ai saremashita =人々に愛されました). However, non-Japanese have taken a rather different view, focusing on the conditions of her captivity and her mental state. In fact, in 2015, an English-language blog about Hanako written by a Canadian resident describing the bare concrete enclosure and lack of companionship triggered an Internet petition that collected almost half-a-million signatures urging that she be moved to a sanctuary in Thailand. This discrepancy between Japanese and non-Japanese discourses on Hanako highlights how under-developed the concept of animal welfare or animal rights is in Japan. For example, the closest thing to the RSPCA in Japan is the JSPCA which is translated as Dōbutsu Aigo Kyōkai (動物愛護協会) again containing the kanji for love (愛) coupled with that for protect (護) which together mean protection or "tender care." National Geographic  and other English sites have noted that elephants continue to live in isolation at more than a dozen zoos in Japan but this is something that receives almost zero attention in the Japanese media.

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As a footnote, it is interesting to note that Hanako was named after a famous elephant of the same name who had to be put down during WWII food shortages. The only elephants to survive the war were located in Nagoya and after the war a special train known as the "elephant train" (zō ressha =象列車) was set up to take children from all over Japan to visit the elephants to lift up their spirits (the children's not the elephants'!). This was turned into a book (pictured), which has become a children's classic, and even a song and today is a popular play at kindergartens and elementary schools which use the story as a way to teach children about the war and emphasise the importance of peace.

Wednesday 6 December 2017

Maple, Momiji, and Sweet Bean-paste Buns

As mentioned in an earlier post, this time of year is foliage or leaf viewing season, known as kōyō (紅葉) in Japanese. Kōyō is more or less synonymous with the Japanese maple (Acer japonicum)​ known as momiji in Japanese - indeed the kanji kōyō (紅葉)can also be read momiji, as in momiji-gari (紅葉狩り)or autumn leaf viewing/collecting. Although called the maple in English, the Japanese distinguish the larger maple leaf (kaede =楓)familiar as a symbol of Canada from the smaller and slightly differently shaped momiji.

Just as people track the cherry blossom front (sakura zensen =桜前線) as it moves north, the foliage front (kōyō zensen =紅葉前線)can also be tracked as it moves south, starting in Hokkaido around September. The best time (higoro =見頃) to view the leaves changing colour is said to be 20 to 25 days after first announced, so from October in Hokkaido. One of the best places to view the foliage is undeniably the temples and shrines of Kyoto, such as Kiyomizu Temple, which are dominated by the red momiji with very few yellow ginkgo/gingko trees. See here for a list of the top-ten spots for kōyō in Japan. Around Tokyo, Mount Takao is a beautiful spot to view the leaves but can get very crowded.

If you want to avoid the crowds and cold, you can enjoy momiji in the comfort of your own home - in the form of Momiji-Manjū (もみじ饅頭) - a steamed bun originating in Hiroshima containing sweet bean paste shaped like a Japanese maple leaf (pictured below). Perfect with a cup of hot green tea and a mikan (satsuma mandarin orange) as you keep warm under your kotatsu (low heated table)!