Monday 31 December 2018

Omikuji Fortune Papers and Ema Wooden Wish Plaques

2019 is here and, as I wrote this time last year, for most Japanese that means a visit to a shrine (or temple) to make prayers and wishes for the new year, a practice known as hatsumōde (初詣). Made up of the characters for "first" and "make a pilgrimage", this "first visit" can be anytime from the evening of December 31st up until January 7th (a period known as matsu-no-uchi =松の内). Matsu means pine and pine decorations are ubiquitous on gates and doors at this time of year (pine, like bamboo, is said to symbolise longevity and strength/hardiness). The most popular shrines, such as Meiji Jingu in Shibuya, are packed for the first three days of the year when most Japanese are off work.
Prayers and wishes for the new year can be made spiritually after bowing and clapping at the shrine but they can also be made in more material fashion by purchasing a cheap fortune paper known as an omikuji or a more expensive ema (絵馬=horse picture) wooden plaque. The latter cost around 500 to 700 yen and your wish or message is written on it directly before being hung (in public!) at the shrine (as seen in the picture). Eventually they are ritually burned at special events symbolising one's "liberation" from the wish. In contrast, the omikuji folded fortune paper might set you back 100 or 200 yen and, as the name suggests (kuji literally means lottery), you can get any of (up to) twelve ranging from great blessing (dai-kichi =大吉) to great curse (dai-kyō =大凶). The message on the omikuji resembles a horoscope and usually refers to love, money, health, study, or travel.

There seems to be two camps about what to do precisely with your omikuji after unfolding the paper itself. Some people say that if it is one of the (up to seven) blessings you should hold on to it but if you are unlucky enough to get one of the (up to five) curses you should tie it to a designated place or even tree branch at the shrine (a pine branch is supposed to be auspicious because bad luck is said to "wait" - also matsu in Japanese - at the shrine rather than follow you home). Others people, however, always leave their omikuji tied at the shrine regardless of whether it is good or bad. Those who take home their lucky paper see it as a message from god and therefore consider it important to keep the paper in one's wallet or purse as a  guiding principle (shishin =指針)  or "compass needle of fate" in daily life. In contrast, those who tie their paper at the shrine, whether it is good or bad, do this because they believe it brings a stronger connection to the kami. Advice can differ from shrine to shrine: see here for a good explanation (in Japanese) entitled "Should I tie the omikuji?" (おみくじを結んだ方がいいですか)from the famous Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine (太宰府天満宮) in Fukuoka. For a detailed explanation of how to buy an omikuji see here - or check out the video below!

Monday 24 December 2018

Magical Sweet Potatoes: From Stone Roasted Spuds to Limited Edition Ice-Cream

If I had to choose one sound that encapsulates winter in Japan it would probably be the whistle and recorded yaki-imo chant of the stone roasted (ishi-yaki) sweet potato truck crawling through the neighbourhood at night (see video below). Ishi (石) means stone, yaki (焼き) means cook or heat, while imo (芋) means potato. This refers not to the Western style spud but the yellow-fleshed Japanese sweet potato or satsuma-imo (さつま芋) as well as the purple-fleshed Okinawan sweet yam (beni-imo or murasaki-imo).

There is a whole vocabulary to describe the different types and tastes of these stone roasted potatoes. The menu of the stall pictured below lists four main types:  tomitsu-red from Fukui (top left), milk-sweet-silk (top right), murasaki-imo as described earlier (bottom right), and another type of tomitsu from Fukui (which is obscured by a note saying "now roasting/curing - please wait!). The taste/texture of each potato is also given:hokkori (from hokuhoku describing the fibrous fluffy soft potato texture); shittori (moist?); nettori (creamy, sticky); mitsu (honey); and kaori (fragrant). Note the halal mark to the left of the menu and the English sign saying (I quote), "No add any sugar, only baking. Magical sweetness in here." Couldn't have said it better myself.
Sweet potatoes find their way into a huge variety of products that Japanese love. One example is shōchū; although usually made from the fermentation of rice this Japanese spirit also has a sweet potato version (known as imo-jōchū). Moreover, the natural sweetness of the satsuma-imo naturally lends itself to sweets and confectionery. One best seller is purple sweet potato ice-cream: Häagen Daz' limited edition (kikan gentei =期間限定) murasaki-imo (紫いも) ice-cream was unbelievably popular (for a recipe see here). And it doesn't end there. This site lists a variety of interesting ways Japanese use sweet potatoes as a key ingredient in sweets, including kit-kats, tarts, milk-shakes, cookies, chocolates, and various other snacks. Magical sweetness indeed!

Sunday 16 December 2018

Japan's New Migration Law: A Visit to the NHK Broadcasting Center

It seems an age since I last put up a new post - my apologies! Rest assured I have not been run over by a truck but was simply ridiculously busy, as are many Japanese during the end of year period (nen-matsu =年末). I do have a stock of new stories lined up - including sweet potatoes, plastic rubbish, and dashi (soup stock). Today though I am going to stick to something topical: the recent passage of the revisions to the immigration law which have raised quite a bit of attention both in Japan and and worldwide (see my interview on BBC World News at the bottom!).

I have written previously here about Japan's lack of an immigration policy and its rather unfriendly and unwelcoming system of control over foreign residents. As I have explained elsewhere, Japan has long followed a de facto ‘no immigration principle’ — an institutionalisation of the ‘homogeneous people’ ideology of the Japanese nation — and this continues to play a key role in structuring national identity. However, faced with acute labour shortages that threaten to undermine the steady economic growth seen under Abenomics the government has taken radical action: for the first time in the post-war period it is to officially allow blue-collar workers (tanjun rōdōsha =単純労働者) into the country by setting up two new visa categories (for a short explanatory article see here).

As I mentioned above, the interest from outside Japan has been intense. A number of journalists have contacted me to ask what it all means, and to find out whether Japan will finally adopt a proper immigration policy (short answer: no). The BBC even asked me to appear for a short 3 minute interview on World News last Monday. Though I could have done it through Skype from my office I was quite interested to see what the BBC studio in Tokyo actually looked like so decided to head to the NHK Broadcasting Centre (hōsō-sentā =放送センター) where the BBC has an office. The Centre itself is located in Shibuya and is actually a huge complex of offices and shops which includes NHK Hall, where classical concerts are held, and NHK Studio Park, a hands-on interactive museum (PDF here).

The BBC "studio" actually turned out to a tiny (and unmanned when I was there) space a little bigger than a broom cupboard on the 7th floor of the Centre! There was little but a desk in front of a Tokyo backdrop and a camera (see picture). The lady who met me in front of the building and let me in popped an earpiece in my ear and sat me down in the hot seat where I waited until Singapore was ready to do the live interview segment. Needless to say, my romantic image of crazily busy international newsrooms with staff rushing about to meet deadlines was somewhat shattered!

Sunday 11 November 2018

National Dog Day and Pet Care and Protection in Japan

Japanese love giving each day a special moniker. Today (November 11th) alone, for example, has 62 separate titles (listed here) which include cheese day, sock day, noodle day, and solo travel day. November has a particularly large number because the numbers 11 (ichi and ichi) resemble the word "good" (ii =いい) in Japanese; most of the days have been created by companies as a marketing gimmick to promote their particular product. In this post, I want to introduce National Dog Day or inu no hi (犬の日)on November 1st. This was created by a group of pet food companies in 1987; three "ones" in a row resemble the sound Japanese perceive dogs make when they bark: namely wan wan wan (see here for a full table of onomatopoeic animal sounds). For Japanese, the notion that dogs go "woof" (as English speakers believe) is clearly preposterous and they usually find this highly amusing!

In Japan, dog lovers have traditionally outnumbered cat lovers with the most popular breed being the native shiba (柴犬). However, in recent years, smaller "cuter" dogs that require less space and minimal walking (and who shed less hair) have become more popular: in 2015 the top three most popular breeds were (1) toy poodles, (2) chihuahuas, and (3) miniature dachshunds (shiba dropping to number five). More significantly, the number of cats (9.53 million) over took the number of dogs (8.92 million) for the first time last year. Interestingly, although cats have always been more popular than dogs in the UK, the numbers are very similar to Japan, with an estimated population of 8.9 million dogs and 11.1 million cats (though the percentage of pet owners is obviously much higher because the UK population is smaller).

As the graph shows, the number of dogs have dropped quite dramatically over the last ten years or so. A big reason for this is that the 1973 Animal Care and Protection Law (dōbutsu aigo hō =動物愛護法) has undergone a series of revisions in recent years, specifically in 2005 and 2012, which introduced tough regulations for unscrupulous breeders and stricter rules for dog sales. As I have written before, the concept of animal welfare and rights have been woefully under-developed in Japan in the past, but recently this has been changing. Indeed, in the past dogs were often kept outside in a kennel as guard dogs and training was minimal; food would typically be human leftovers such as miso soup poured over rice (known as neko-mam'ma). Today dogs are more likely to be treated like children, dressed up in fancy clothes and spoiled with expensive food and treats (there were actually more cats and dogs - 18.5 million - than kids - 15.7m - in 2017). Indeed, pet products, including insurance have become big business in Japan.

The legal and social changes described above have contributed to a dramatic fall in the number of dogs and cats euthanised (gassed) at public health centres (hokenjo =保健所), from almost 300,000 (mainly cats) in 2008 to a record low 43,227 in 2017. More and more abandoned dogs (hogoken =保護犬) are being adopted by new owners, mostly thanks to the work of NPOs and other organisations that provide refuges and re-homing programmes. One well-known organisation is ARK (Animal Refuge Kansai), which was founded in 1990 by a British woman, Elizabeth Oliver, and came into its own after the 1995 Kobe earthquake when many pets were abandoned. We have tried to do our bit, and our dog Jaz (Jasmin) was one such abandoned pet; when found she was severely mal-nourished and her ears were ragged and torn. Now, when I take her for walks she gets admiring glances and calls of kawaii ("how cute!") and gets particular praise for being slim, white, and long-legged. Not infrequently, fellow walkers will follow-up by saying "just like her owner" which brings gails of laughter. Making comments about another person's body parts - "high" nose, long legs/fingers, "small" face - is very much socially acceptable in Japan, since it is categorised as "praise" (whether the recipient regards it as such or not). But such social mores are a topic for another day - for now I'll leave you with one more picture of Jaz looking rather content.

Sunday 28 October 2018

Halloween in Japan: It's all about the Costume

When I first came to Japan, Halloween was pretty non-existent and nobody really knew what it was. This was in 1992, when a Japanese exchange student in the US was accidentally shot to death after going to the wrong house for a Halloween Party (and failing to understand the word "freeze"). For most Japanese, it was probably the first time to hear about Halloween and newspapers at the time had to explain the "foreign" custom. Today, it couldn't be more different. As with other imported festivals like Christmas Eve and Valentine's Day, Halloween has become big business with every kind of shop you can imagine using the occasion to sell its products from September onwards (pictured is a flyer from my local dry cleaners - note the special Halloween font used to write the Chinese characters!).

But despite sweets and candy being heavily promoted in supermarkets and department stores, one big difference between Halloween in the UK/US and Japan is the absence of trick or treat. One explanation for the lack of kids knocking on doors and collecting goodies is the Japanese "golden rule" never to bother, trouble, or be a nuisance to others known as meiwaku (迷惑). Personally, I think it's more that Japanese parents don't want their kids wandering around the neighbourhood and knocking on stranger's doors - but in the case of "exotic" Japan especially a cultural explanation is always favored over one based on simple common sense. Whatever the reason, Halloween in Japan is definitely more for young adults and the focus on the festivities is firmly on the costumes.

And how amazing the costumes are. For the last three or four years, the Halloween period has reportedly seen up to a million (!) young people, dressed up as anything from zombies and Wally to superheroes and nurses, descend on the Shibuya crossing area for a giant street-party, creating total mayhem and gridlock in the area (the downside is lots of rubbish and not a little bad behaviour - on Sunday there were 5 arrests and a small-truck was over-turned, while on the day itself there were 13 arrests, including for sex crimes, theft, and indecent exposure). Many buy costumes at stores like Don Quijote (known as Donki), the biggest discount store in Japan, change in local toilets after work, and apply make-up on the street. The costumes, as hinted at above, are by no means limited to horror and any kind of character goes. Certainly, Halloween feeds into Japanese people's love of costume play known as cosplay (コスプレ) though real cosplayers, who take great pride in recreating every detail of their favourite manga or anime character, look down their noses at all the generic amateurs out on Halloween. See here for a video of some of the revellers in Shibuya from a few years back (crowds have grown since); for a list of other 2018 Halloween events, including Tokyo Disney Resort celebrations and official parades, see here. Since last year, multilingual police and automated voice guidance have been in operation - not to mention the famed "DJ Police" who control the crowds with a mixture of humour and parental concern.

One final mystery - despite the ubiquitous image of the orange pumpkin, Japanese pumpkins (at least the ones they sell in the supermarket) are actually green. They are also as hard as rock and eminently unsuitable for carving - another custom that nobody in Japan seems to be aware of. As the title says, it's all about the costume - everything else is white (or orange?) noise. Happy Halloween!

Friday 19 October 2018

The World's First Instant Noodles: Chicken Ramen's 60th anniversary

August was the 60th anniversary of the world's first ever-instant noodles: Chicken Ramen produced by Nissin Food Products Co. in Japan. The word "instant" in Japanese is sokuseki (即席) - also meaning impromptu or improvised - so if we add the character for noodles (men=麺) we get sokuseki-men (instant noodles). Today, they apparently sell 100 billion (1000 oku =億) packs a year in over 80 countries, with China being the big market at just under 40 billion a year.

The anniversary packs (pictured) carried a picture of and a thank-you to Mr Ando who invented (hatsumei =発明) the noodles together with the little yellow chick character mark (Hiyoko-chan) who has a whole store dedicated to it (and noodles) in Tokyo Character Street. Actually, NHKs traditional morning drama (known as asa-dora) which broadcasts at 8:15 each day without fail is currently a semi-fictionalised account about Mr Ando and his wife (with more focus on the latter apparently) called Manpuku (full stomach!). Back to the present day, in recent years, as consumers have become more health conscious, half-calorie and low salt products have become popular. Supermarkets generally have one whole aisle dedicated to cup (カップ)and packet (ふくろ) noodles and convenience stores are also crammed full of the stuff (with hot water on tap for those who want to eat on the go).

Ramen (Chinese style noodles) - whether instant or freshly prepared - is typically eaten with various toppings. Chicken Ramen suggests eating with a shirotama (literally "white-ball") egg on top and the packet contains exact instructions about how to do this. The official homepage contains step-by-step instructions, including a video! My own attempt is pictured below:
My local ramen store menu
At your local ramen shop, more conventional toppings typically include sliced pork (chāshū), boiled egg (yude-tamago), bean-sprouts (moyashi), kimchee (kimuchi), sliced bamboo shoots (menma), spring onion (negi), corn, and butter. But before you decide on toppings you have to decide the type of broth you want: generally soy-sauce (shōyu), miso, or salt (shio). My personal favourite, though, is pork-bone (ton-kotsu) which reflects the time I spent in Fukuoka where it is immensely popular (one of my fondest memories of Hakata is eating bowls of ton-kotsu ramen at the street stalls or yatai after a night out). Certainly, ramen (as with most food in Japan) is strongly regionalised and different regions (chimei =地名) will have local varieties and toppings. Luckily, it will be possible to taste many of these without leaving Tokyo from October 25th at the Tokyo Ramen Show which boasts 18 different varieties from all over Japan (including Fukuoka!) - plus a host of talk-show events and live bands. Just go careful on those calories...

Friday 12 October 2018

Terrifying Typhoons: Resilience and Respect for Nature

September saw more than its fair share of natural disasters, including the  most powerful typhoon to hit the country for twenty five years closely followed by the Hokkaido earthquake a few days later. And that was not the end of it. Typhoon Trami (number 24 or nijū-yon gō in Japanese - yes, it was the 24th this year!) resulted in 200 injuries and 3 deaths as it barrelled through the mainland on the evening and throughout the night of September 30th (Sunday). In this post I thought I'd write about the effects of such a typhoon on everyday life in Japan and describe how it feels to sleep (or try to sleep!) through one.

Before the winds and rain started to be felt in Tokyo the trains stopped early (around 8:00pm), something for which the train companies received a great deal of praise since it forced commuters to return home early, probably saving lives. The next day, safety checks delayed the re-start of many lines as trees and other objects had to be cleared off tracks resulting in further delays and absolute chaos at big stations like Shinjuku. All but two of my students were unable to reach school on time and in the end I had to cancel class; we were told not to penalise students who were absent or late for that day. The fact that classes went ahead at all was due to the university's policy of relying on the weather warnings (kishōkeihō =気象警報) issued by the meteorological agency: if the warning is lifted (kaijo =解除) by 6:00am classes are supposed to go ahead (a classic example of the Japanese tendency to go by the rule book rather than be flexible and adapt to actual circumstances).

Although we were lucky to avoid power outages (450,000 households in the Tokyo area were not so lucky) the winds were incredibly strong, despite the typhoon not hitting the capital head-on, and speeds of up to 164kph were recorded in the nearby city of Hachioji, western Tokyo, in the early hours of Monday. We made sure all the windows were firmly shut in our 8th floor apartment and that there was nothing left on the balcony. At bedtime the wind was picking up and it had started to rain quite hard; by the time I should have been nodding off it was rattling the windows in rather frightening fashion. Needless to say it took me hours to fall asleep.
Waking up on the Monday morning, it was quite a shock to see the sheer quantity of foliage and branches that had fallen off the bushes and trees surrounding the apartment block. One of the apartments had actually had a tree crash into it; see the emergency notice (kinkyū kokuchi =緊急告知) on the apartment noticeboard informing residents of the need for emergency cutting (bassai =伐採). Walking (or trying to walk) the dog that morning along the the Green Road, a popular 21km tree-lined walking path which rings the city, was easier said than done. Some parts were simply impassable as the picture shows.

A few days later, after the clean-up, signs warning to be careful of broken branches falling (ore-eda rakka=折れ枝落下) dotted the Green Road with some areas cordoned off entirely. Typhoon season - which typically runs from May to October, peaking in August/September - is almost over, but with three months of the year remaining and 25 typhoons so far this year promises to exceed 30 which is rather unusual. Some may point to global warming, but the record was actually set in 1967, which saw an incredible 39 super storms batter the country: a reminder of the kind of resilience - and respect for nature - needed to live life in everyday Japan.

UPDATE:  A post-typhoon survey by Prof. Seiki Takatsuki along a 30km stretch found 111 trees (including large cherry and hinoki cypress trees) had been felled by the wind, particularly in the Eastern part, with most of the trees falling in a northerly direction suggesting the winds blew from south to north.

Sunday 30 September 2018

Praying or Cutting? A Snapshot of the Marvellous Mantis

Reading back over the blog, I can see there has been a definite shift towards longer, more complex blogs to the point where some have become like mini academic papers! On top of that, the nature and language focus has taken something of a back seat so this week I'm going to go back to basics, keep it short and simple, and focus on the things I see around me. I must admit I do have an ulterior motive though; September/October is perhaps the busiest time for university teachers in Japan - as I write, I have a pile of essays and graduate thesis (sotsuron=卒論) drafts waiting for my attention!

The fiercely hot summer has given way to much cooler temperatures and lots of rain. This weekend promises another deluge since yet another typhoon is on the way (the last one, as I wrote here, was the most powerful to hit the country for twenty-five years). One individual who seems to like this weather (or maybe it's just the fact that it's the mating season) is the marvellous praying mantis known as as kamakiri (カマキリ) in Japanese. It is interesting that in both Japanese and English the name comes from the spiky folded forelegs which they use to catch and grip their prey. Whereas to English eyes it looks like the creature is praying, Japanese are reminded of someone cutting weeds with a sickle or kama. Wikipedia notes that the bugs were thought to have supernatural powers by ancient civilisations but they appear to have very little cultural significance in Japan in contrast to say the snail, butterfly, dragonfly, or firefly who all have their own songs, poems, and myths. The best I could find was a 1995 ¥700 stamp by Sakai Hoitsu, a Japanese painter of the Edo period, entitled "Cotton Rose, Chrysanthemum, and Mantis in Autumn"  (Aki no Fuyō to Kiku to Kamakiri=秋の芙蓉と菊とカマキリ)!

Friday 21 September 2018

US Open Winner Naomi Osaka: Japanese or not Japanese?

In Japanese Studies, one of the first and most fundamental questions is to examine who is (and equally importantly who is not) considered to be "Japanese" - and why. Judging from the popularity of my post on Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro, the issue of Japanese identity is also of interest to a lot of readers, so with this in mind I thought I'd analyse another famous "transnational" figure in the news, this time recent US Open winner Naomi Osaka.

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Unlike Ishiguro, whose parents are both Japanese, Osaka is a so-called "half" (ハーフ), the word used to describe those with one Japanese and one non-Japanese parent (Osaka's father is Haitian). As such, "half" describes the amount of "foreign blood"; the term "quarter" (クオータ), for example, points to someone who is "three-quarters" Japanese (i.e. has one non-Japanese grandparent, such as Namie Amuro). Osaka left Japan for America at age three, two years before Ishiguro left for the UK. Like Ishiguro, Osaka can't speak Japanese well though she says she understands the language better than her attempts at speaking in public suggest. In contrast, she is a huge fan of Japanese popular culture - Pokemon and manga - as well as green tea (ice-cream). Unlike Ishiguro, Osaka has Japanese citizenship, and had (in theory if not necessarily in practice) to choose between Japanese and US citizenship when she turned 22 since Japan does not recognise dual nationality (she chose Japan).

In the Ishiguro post, I introduced the classic "clover-leaf" (NEC) model of Japanese identity, in which nationality, race, and culture are deemed synonymous and form a "set." Using this model for Osaka we could say that Osaka satisfies the legal aspect, half satisfies the racial aspect, and perhaps half for the cultural aspect (represented by a circle and two triangles in the diagram below).
Of course, this is only a very rough and undoubtedly outdated model; in practice, definitions of who is and is not Japanese vary from person to person and depend on the degree of importance they put on nationality, "blood", and culture (or other definers such as self-definition). Some Japanese for example, happily include "half" in the Japanese category while others don't. What is interesting though is how the Japanese media have suddenly moved to embrace Osaka as Japanese after her US success, despite being pretty lukewarm before that. In a Japanese article in the Huffington Post Waseda Professor (and "half") Naomi Iwase notes how the Japanese media are happy to embrace someone like Osaka as Japanese when it suits them, but at other times freely promote negative stereotypes such as foreigners as criminals in a society where discrimination (such as by landlords) against non-Japanese is by no means uncommon."

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What I personally find most disconcerting is that at the same time that foreign media such as the New York Times (here and here) talk about Osaka "bursting expectations" about and "redefining" what it means to be Japanese, the Japanese media is doing its best to "Japanise" Osaka by stressing her typical "Japanese qualities" such as perseverance, shyness, humility, and modesty while playing down or downright ignoring her non-Japanese traits. John G. Russell, in a superb article in the Japan Times, concurs, arguing that the Japanese media (including advertisers) have attempted to reimagine her as Japanese by erasing all markers of her black heritage. He interprets the attempt to present her less as “hāfu” (biracial) and more as Japanese as an attempt to claim her success for its own and thereby elevate Japan’s international standing.

This process of "Japanisation" (=assimilation) is also something I noticed during my research of Asian brides in Yamagata: it was common to see the women pressurised to shed their "foreignness" and assimilate quickly and thoroughly. This process of Japanisation of the foreign (in order to remove the sense of discomfort generated by an incomplete "clover leaf") was brilliantly described in Crafting Selves, a book by Dorinne Kondo, a Japanese-American with minimal Japanese who like Osaka was raised in the US. Below she describes her experience as a grad student in Japan:

"Errors, linguistic or cultural, were dealt with impatiently or with a startled look that seemed to say, 'Oh yes, you are American after all.' On the other hand, appropriately Japanese behaviours were rewarded with warm, positive reactions or with comments such as, 'You're more Japanese than the Japanese.' Even more frequently, correct behaviour was simply accepted as a matter of course. Naturally, I would understand, naturally I would behave correctly, for they presumed me to be, au fond, Japanese...I had to extricate myself from the conspiracy to rewrite my identity as Japanese" (Kondo 1990: 16-17)

Saturday 15 September 2018

Poverty, Food Insecurity, and Food Loss: Introducing a Japanese Food Bank

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When people think of Japan, they often think of a wealthy country with amazing food; indeed, Tokyo is the most Michelin starred city in the world (boasting 314 stars, including twelve three-star restaurants). There is another side to the story though: growing income inequality - Japan is increasingly a kakusa-shakai ("gap-society"). Japan's poverty rate is well above the OECD average with slightly less than 1 in 6 Japanese living below the poverty line. For one-parent families this becomes an astonishing 1 in 2 (child poverty in particular has become a real talking point in recent years). This is mainly due to a sharp rise in non-regular workers (hi-seishain =非正社員), a new "underclass" without job-security or the perks enjoyed by full-time workers who scrape by on the minimum wage.

This is not a reality that Japanese politicians want to face. When challenged in the Diet a couple of years ago, Abe insisted that "there is no way Japan is in poverty." More recently, LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai said that "there are no homes in Japan where people go hungry." But a look at the newly released UN annual "State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World" report tells us that this is not so. The report estimates the prevalence of under-nourishment in Japan at (less than) 2.5% with up to 600,000 people experiencing severe food insecurity.

The first food bank in Japan, in Asakusa-bashi Tokyo, was set up in 2002 and is called Second Harvest (the old name for the US Feeding America NPO). With a slogan of "turning mottainai (waste) into arigato (thanks)", Second Harvest receives donations from manufacturers, farmers, retailers, and individuals and distributes them to welfare agencies, orphanages, shelters, homeless, and individuals. The goal is "food for all people" (subete no hito ni, tabemono o =すべての人に、食べ物を). According to the homepage, they delivered 3,152 tons of food in 2012 and helped companies save ¥310 million in disposal costs.

The above paragraph only hints at the huge problem of food loss (shokuhin rosu =食品ロス) in Japan: in 2015 6.46 million tons of food in edible condition was thrown away (to put  this figure in perspective, this was about double the total food aid in the whole world!). A big reason for these figures in Japan is the so-called "one-third rule", an unwritten rule amongst producers and sellers. For example, if the expiration or "use-by" date (shōhi-kigen =消費期限) of a product is 30 days, companies must deliver the food to shops within 10 days or one-third (in contrast, in Britain delivery has to be within three-quarters of the sell-by-date period). Moreover, the rule of thumb for shops is to sell the product within two-thirds of the expiration date (this is the sell-by-date also known as the "best-before" date - shōmi kigen =賞味期限). What this means in practice is that shops will not accept goods delivered after the "one-third" window and that shops will return or dispose of any products that have passed the sell-by-date - despite the fact that they are perfectly edible. In many ways, this is the dark-side of Japan's obsession with cleanliness, hygiene, and perfect service - Japanese consumers can be very picky. Moreover, they never ask for a doggy-bag in a restaurant!

Saturday 8 September 2018

Disaster Prevention Day: Preparing for the Big One

Not losing to the rain (雨にもまけず)
not losing to the wind (風にもまけず)
not losing to the snow nor to summer's heat (雪にも夏の暑さにもまけぬ)
with a strong body (丈夫なからだをもち)
unfettered by desire (慾はなく)
never offending anyone (決して瞋らず)
always quietly smiling (いつもしずかにわらっている)

Ame ni mo Makezu (Be not Defeated by the Rain) by Kenji Miyazawa

September 1st was Disaster Prevention Day (Bōsai no Hi =防災の日) in Japan and millions participated in drills and exercises - including children and non-Japanese - to prepare for the next "X-day" as well as to mark the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, the last big one in the capital in which over 100,000 people died (for a modern video simulation see here). As I wrote in an earlier post, Tokyo is way overdue another: the chances of a big one hitting the capital in the next few years is said to be in the region of 70-75%. It has been estimated that the potential death toll could be as high as 320,000 with 2.4 million collapsed or burned buildings for a quake centred on the Nankai Trough fault.

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In 2015 the Tokyo Metropolitan Government sent a 300+ page book (pictured) entitled Tokyo Bōsai (東京防災)together with a local map showing evacuation centres (hi'nanjo =避難所) and evacuation areas (hi'nan basho =避難場所)to all households. The book was highly acclaimed since it was written in a very clear and straightforward manner with lots of illustrations and manga-style explanations (available in English here). One page has images of what you need to have on hand when you evacuate the house (mochidashi mono =持ち出しもの) "if" the worst case scenario happens (moshimo no toki =もしもの時) including torch, candles, helmet, water, batteries, gloves, bank book and seal, first-aid box, and cash. There are also detailed instructions about securing furniture: our fridge for example is secured to the ceiling so that it won't fall over in the event of a quake while the TV is bolted down.

Since Disaster Prevention Day on Saturday, we have had the most powerful typhoon to hit Japan in 25 years on Tuesday/Wednesday quickly followed by a massive quake in Hokkaido Thursday which triggered landslides and an electricity blackout which they have said will take a week to fully restore. The number of deaths and missing rises each day and many people remain in emergency shelters. Watching the people in Hokkaido without electricity and water, queueing up at local government offices to recharge their phones made me re-think my own family's preparations for Tokyo X-Day. Indeed, on September 1st the newspapers came with multiple flyers advertising "disaster goods" (pictured). We took the opportunity to order more water, stock up on food like dried noodles, and also get a large battery capable of recharging phones and powering lamps, cool boxes, and computers.

From a sociologist's point of view, it is interesting how the frequency of natural disasters in Japan have been linked to "national character" (kokuminsei =国民性) traits such as perseverance (nintai-ryoku=忍耐力 or nebari-zuyoi =ねばり強い). Certainly, the word gaman (patience/endurance) became something of a keyword "to understand the Japanese" after the triple disaster of 3.11 (see here for a paper I wrote examining the portrayal of Japanese national identity in the media in the aftermath of the Tohoku Earthquake). The link between nation and nature - the idea that climate and exposure to multiple disasters has influenced Japanese thinking and behaviour - has received a lot of attention by a number of famous Japanese writers such as Yanagita Kunio and Watsuji Tetsuro. We certainly need to be careful, though, making such sweeping generalisations; the tragic reality is that most Japanese are not sufficiently prepared for the worst and are no more or less resilient or stoic than people in other countries.

Saturday 1 September 2018

Creepy-cute, Gory-cute, and the Fragmentation of Kawaii Culture: A Cry for Help?

The last post about yuru-kawa (laid-back cute) characters like Rilakkuma - whose popularity among over-worked Japanese was put down to their healing and comforting nature - got me thinking about how kawaii (cute) could function as a keyword to understand Japanese society as a whole. In an earlier post, I introduced Kinsella's thesis on kawaii as a rebellion against or escape from the responsibilities and obligations of adulthood - in essence a rejection of Japanese society itself. This notion of rebellion fits in with the common image of the yankī (delinquent) whose car dashboard is typically covered with soft toys in much the same way as hot-rodders in the UK might have furry dice hanging on the rearview mirror.
To further unravel the kawaii mystery I visited Tokyo Character Street, an underground mall of 32 shops in Tokyo Station (pictured). These include a few non-Japanese characters too, including Miffy, Snoopy, and the Moomins, but the majority are Japanese. While some of the characters were clearly aimed at elementary schoolers or younger (think Purikyua=プリキュア) most seemed to be aimed at the older or even adult market. While in Britain hanging  character key-rings on your bag or collecting soft toys would be looked at as serious child-like behaviour, in Japan this is fairly common amongst adults: I used to know one woman who was so crazy about the Sanrio character Pompompurin she decorated her whole house with related goods; even the captain of my futsal team, a guy who you didn't want to mess with on the pitch, had an overriding fascination with Capybara-san (カピバラさん), a soft toy based on the South American rodent of the same name. So what's going on here?

The last post on yuru-kawa provides a hint: pure kawaii (like Hello Kitty, pictured) may be mostly for the kids but there are now a multitude of different genres and types of kawaii, including those aimed distinctly at the adult market. Indeed, Japanese character culture has become rather fragmented and nuanced in recent years. For example, there is kimo-kawa where kimoi means disgusting or yucky (sometimes interchangeable with busu-kawa/busa-kawa from busu meaning "ugly") and guro-kawa with guro meaning gross or grotesque (more recently called yami-kawa or dark/sick-cute). An example of the former (kimo-kawa) are the Kobitos (こびとづかん) pictured and Nameko the slimy mushroom (Crayon Shin-Chan probably also falls into this category); an example of the latter (guro-kawa) is violent and bloodstained Gloomy Bear (いたずらぐまのグルーミー).

To sum up, kimo (creepy) cute and guro (sadistic/gory) cute are but two manifestations of a recent explosion of distorted cute that acts as a (rather disturbing) window into the modern Japanese adult psyche. Do we need to be worried? Some certainly think so: this article sees it as an expression of psychological distress - a cry for help - in a country where depression and mental health remain taboo topics, and counselling is ofen seen as something shameful or embarrassing.