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.