Friday 24 August 2018

Rilakkuma the Relaxed Bear and other Lazy Characters: Healing and Escapism for the Over-worked Japanese

There are many mysteries when writing a blog and one is the popularity of certain posts. Here, the 2nd all-time most popular post is about Crayon Shin-chan, the disgusting cartoon kindergartner. Recently, I spotted another immensely popular character "wrapped" (as they say in Japanese) around a train in much the same way as Tokyo subway trains were decorated with Shin-chan images last year. This time, the character is more conventionally cute (kawaii) and is known as Rilakkuma (リラックマ) a combination of the words relax (リラックス) and bear (クマ). Images of Rilakkuma and friends also adorn the inside of the train carriages, carrying safety messages (below) as well as promoting the upcoming Netflix series.
Although a relatively new character - Rilakkuma first appeared in 2003 - he is immensely popular in Japan and is used to sell all sorts of merchandise from phone cases, stationery (pictured), and note-book computers to soft toys and keyrings. When I visited the Rilakkuma store at Tokyo Station (there is also one in Solamachi mall under the Skytree) it was crowded with male and female customers of every age and nationality. The site of customers hugging the soft toys under the slogan "happy life with Rilakkuma" made me wonder precisely what needs are satisfied by this laid-back bear.
So what is the appeal of Rilakkuma and what insights does it provide on Japanese society? When asked exactly why this character is so popular, Japanese typically say that the bear's relaxed, easy-going, stress-free life are "healing" (iyasareru=癒される). In fact, since the turn of the century there has been something of a "healing boom" (iyashi būmu =癒しブーム) in Japan with a large number of "healing" products and services promoted to ease the physical and psychological stress of the workplace and daily life in general. One manifestation of this boom has been the emergence of yuru-kawa(ii) or "loose/laid-back-cute" characters such as Rilakkuma (not to be confused with yuru-kyara or regional mascots, like Kumamon and Funasshi, though many of these also have a degree of yuru-kawa). According to artist and lecturer Aya Kakeda the yuru-kawa category grew popular "because of the stressful life in modern society. People are always searching for something to make them calm and relaxed. In the US, perhaps people search for spa or meditation classes. In Japan, there are Yuru[-kawa] characters who make you calm and relaxed just by looking at them.” A perfect recent example of the popularity of this genre is Gudetama (debuting in 2013), an indifferent, weary, lazy, low-effort, no-energy egg yolk who in contrast to the positivity of Rilakkuma is more about the unbearableness of life itself. In Japanese guda-guda is onomatopoeia for doing nothing or being lazy (guden-guden is drunk) while tama comes from tamago (egg).
Gudetama goods on sale at Tokyo Character Street, Tokyo Station
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All this would suggest that such characters have become popular because they are the ideal escape for the over-worked over-stressed salaried worker whose free time consists of nothing more than eating and sleeping. Sleep statistics seem to bear this out: one recent survey found Japanese sleep only an average of six hours and 35 minutes each night with 40% sleeping six hours or less; in a 2009 survey Japan ranked 28th out of 29 countries (sleeping one minute more than South Koreans). Another survey found nearly half of Japanese to be suffering from insomnia! The problem, as the above article suggests, seems to be that there are no time regulations for those in managerial positions; the new work reform law (hatarakikata kaikaku hō =働き方改革法) passed in June and billed as the first major reform in 70 years (triggered by the shocking 2015 case of a young women working herself to death at ad giant Dentsu), still exempts highly skilled "specialist" white-collar professionals from work-time regulations. The lifestyle of Rilakkuma, Gudetama, and other yuru-kawa characters (Tottoro also springs to mind) represents an impossible dream for "company warriors" in a system that has little regard for their health and well-being.

Friday 17 August 2018

Cooling off in the Art Aquarium: Goldfish and Edo Kiriko Glass

As the oppressive summer heat continues unabated - yesterday was 33 with high humidity making it "feel like" 36 - Japanese continue to search for ways to cool down. Watching carp and goldfish - basically mutated carp - may not strike many Westerners as a good way to do this, but since the Edo period people here have admired swimming fish as an entertaining way to keep cool. In a modern variation, since 2007, an Art Aquarium - Edo: Coolness of Goldfish (アートアクアリウム:江戸・金魚の涼) event has been held featuring 8,000 fish housed in massive multi-faceted kaleidoscopic tanks illuminated by an extraordinary light show. At night the space transforms into a club with famous DJs, "goldfish cocktails", and a Dassai sake bar.
Goldfish or kingyo - combining the characters for gold (金) and fish (魚) - first came to Japan from China in 1502, a hundred years before they made their way to Europe. At first, they were a luxury item, a status-symbol for lords and aristocrats, later spreading to samurai and wealthy merchants in the Edo period. It was only in the Meiji period that they became accessible to the general population, triggering a kingyo boom which saw goldfish images drawn in ukiyoe pictures and on furniture, kimonos - and (a summer staple) fans (pictured).

You enter the exhibition through a corridor featuring glass water tanks built into the ceiling (apparently popular with one wealthy Edo merchant) and then enter an open space with tanks of 15 different shapes, including folding screens or byōbu (pictured - 18 panels each over 5.4m in height) and various globes, prisms, and mirrors that distort and warp the fish, making shadows and reflections that are so mesmerising they do indeed momentarily help you forget the blistering heat outside. I say momentarily, since the pressing crowds and snapping camera phones are the antithesis of the cool relaxation that the exhibition promotes.

Two Edo Kiriko sake glasses, one in blue and one in red
Edo Kiriko cut glass: sake glasses in red and blue
A final interesting feature of the exhibition is the use of Edo Kiriko (江戸切子), traditional hand-crafted cut glass dating from the end of the Edo period (1603-1868) and originating in the Nihonbashi area where the exhibition is held. It is a great idea for a souvenir - then President Obama was presented with a set of Edo Kiriko glassware at the Japan-US summit in April 2014 as were world leaders at the Group of Eight summit in Hokkaido in 2008. In the past, dishes and vases were popular, but recently sake, wine, and whisky glasses are the most popular. For more on the history and present state of Edo Kiriko see here.

Thursday 9 August 2018

Japan and Italy, Japan in Italy: Noodles, Mikado, and Internal Organs

A few months ago I did two special posts on the relationship between Italy and Japan and introduced Italian culture, including food, coffee, and films, in Japan. This was partly motivated by a recent spurt in viewers from Italy, particularly mysterious spikes of 60 views every two or three days (perhaps a university class?). In terms of total all-time views, Italy is currently in second place behind Japan at 5,006! Unfortunately, I'm still no closer to unravelling the mystery of my Italian fan-base (do drop me a line in the comment box!) but I'll continue the Italy/Japan theme, this time looking at Japanese culture in Italy.

This summer, I was lucky enough to spend a week in Italy, 2 days in Rome and 5 days in Florence. In terms of Japanese food, sushi and noodles seem to be the most popular and I spotted quite a few ristorante giapponese (pictured). The Japanese pavilion was apparently very popular at expo Milano in 2015 (in Japanese these kind of international expositions are called banpaku =万博). Even small supermarkets stocked Kikkoman soy sauce and instant cup/pot-noodles (pictured) and for those with a sweet tooth there were Pocky stick-biscuit chocolates (covered here) though the name, and packaging had been changed: in Italy they were called Mikado (!) and had a giant rising sun on the package!! There were also some rice-puff biscuits called (wait for it) Nippon, again featuring a mini rising sun.
One of my favourite places in Florence was the Central Market (Mercato Centrale) which had all sorts of amazing produce such as fish, meat, cheese, olive oil, spices, dried fruit and nuts, truffles, fresh fruit, and panforte (a Tuscan chewy dried fruit and nut cake which was a great souvenir - or omiyage =お土産 - for my Japanese friends). For those Japanese tourists worried about fitting all these omiyage into their suitcase - Japanese buy a lot of presents for people back home - I even spotted a Japanese takkyūbin (home delivery service) flag on one of the market stalls (pictured)! Upstairs is something of a hidden gem, a food court with all sorts of pastries, sandwiches, and coffee, perfect for a cheap breakfast. In fact, a new sushi shop was due to open - another taste of Japan in Italy.

Staying in Florence, one of my favourite local snacks was the lampredotto sandwich (panino), traditional street food in Florence made from tripe (the stomach of a cow) which has been slow-cooked in a vegetable broth and seasoned with herbs. One vendor had a sign (pictured) explaining this local delicacy in Japanese. The sign explained it was a regional speciality or meibutsu (名物). This particularly resonates with Japanese tourists since almost every region in Japan will have its own meibutsu, whether food or handicraft, which are popular choices for omiyage. It also explained the sandwich in terms Japanese would understand - the sign says motsu-nikomi (もつ煮込み) sando where motsu means the innards of an animal and nikomi means stewed. Japanese, like Florentines, love their internal organs, as exemplified by dishes such as motsu-nabe (hot-pot). Buonissimo!

Friday 3 August 2018

Preparing to Enter University: Starting Examination Hell Early

A few weeks ago I gave a sample 30-minute lecture (known as a mogi jugyō =模擬授業) at an event at Tokyo Big Sight, a convention and exhibition centre in Ariake, Eastern Tokyo, an area which sits on reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay. The five-city event was called Yumenavi LIVE (夢ナビライブ) 2018, organised by FROMPAGE, a Japanese commerical services company, and supported by the Ministry of Education. Aimed at 1st and 2nd year high-school students, the Tokyo event alone boasted 380 lectures, 206 university booths, and 72 TED-style talks and was attended by 50,164 students! The event was billed as "a day to discover what (you) want to study and to get in touch with universities (you) can study at" (manabitai gakumon o mitsuke, manaberu daigaku to deau ichi-nichi =学びたい学問を見つけ,学べる大学と出会う一日).
The two towers of the imposing Tokyo Big Sight conventiona and exhibition centre
Tokyo Big Sight convention and exhibition centre in Ariake, Eastern Tokyo
Given the number of attendees and lectures, it was hugely impressive how smoothly everything went, with preparation starting many months before with an interview and short video message for students (viewable here together with the full lecture). On the day itself, everything was ultra efficient and timed to the second. Speaking about the construction of Japanese identity, my own bilingual lecture, entitled "Who are the Japanese", had a full-house of 120 students (who could book seats before) plus others standing at the back. Lectures took place in 10 giant hexagons, with 6 speakers talking concurrently in each block; in fact, I'm not quite sure how students managed to hear amid all the cacophony! Afterwards, we were whisked off to a special area for students who had questions.
As Japan's population plummets - current estimates see it falling from 127m to some 90m by 2050 - the number of 18-year-olds is also in free-fall and competition between universities to secure entrants has become increasingly fierce. In Japan, the market for those looking to enter top schools and universities - known as juken - is big business. The word juken suru (受験する) literally means to take an exam and students preparing to or actually taking exams are called juken-sei. When does this start? In the case of those applying for national, prefectural and other public universities (kokkōritsu daigaku =国公立大学), students will be going to private after-school cram schools (juku =塾) from the first year of high school, and could start preparing for the exams as early as the end of their second year. For third-year high-schoolers the pressure is really on and they are pretty much devoting all their time to study by the summer when they become juken-sei proper. Whereas some students do get into universities through the recommendation and the AO system (based on interviews and essays rather than exams proper) and end their juken hell early, for most December-February are the juken peak, with an unfortunate few not finalising their place right up until March (for entry in April). But it is not only the student that suffers; the whole family is expected to pull together and support the juken-sei during this period, which means no holidays, no noise, and no fun...