Sunday, 22 December 2019

Celebrating Christmas in Japan: Christians, Christmas Trees, and Xmas Illuminations

Tsuda Christmas tree under the Cold Moon
In the last two posts (here and here) I introduced Umeko Tsuda, a campaigner for female education in Japan who founded the women's university where I work today. Umeko was baptised as a Christian at age 7, a year after she arrived in America, and her Christian faith remains a key underlying principle at the university with compulsory classes such as "Introduction to Christianity" (キリスト教概論), a Christmas service (reihai=礼拝) every year in the chapel, and a giant Christmas tree (pictured). In fact, despite the small number of Christians in Japan - some 1.9 million or 1.5% of the population - there are a surprisingly large number of Christian schools and universities, the latter including Sophia, Rikkyo, and ICU (International Christian University), as well as Aoyama Gakuin and Doshisha (which Umeko's father, a strong proponent of the Christianisation of Japan, played a prominent role in establishing).

None of these universities insist on students being Christian, though some prefer full-time teachers to be Christian. ICU, for example, explains that it is "not a proselytising institution" and does not see nurturing Christians as its main goal though its mission is "the establishment of an academic tradition of freedom and reverence based on Christian ideals." Nevertheless, students from Christian High-Schools entering under the recommendation system (キリスト教校推薦) need to be either baptised or "seeking the way" (kyūdōsha=求道者). The relatively large number of prestigious Christian institutions of higher education has produced a significant number of Christian educators and politicians in Japan - including eight Christian prime-ministers.

Despite the low number of Christians in the general population, Japanese have firmly embraced Christmas as a secular cultural event. Almost 60% of Japanese eat something special to celebrate Christmas - chicken and sponge cake are the big-sellers as described in an earlier post - while 55% of Japanese put up a Christmas tree, Christmas wreath, or other seasonal decorations. 3.9% even illuminate their house though for most Japanese illuminations are something they go out to see at Christmas. Indeed, illuminations featuring millions of colourful LED lights are one of the standout attractions in Tokyo during the winter: Timeout lists more than 30 here with the most famous one probably being Tokyo Midtown Roppongi which boasts 100,000 lights plus bubbles! One of my favourites though is the Blue Cave Shibuya (Shibuya Ao no Dokutsu =渋谷青の洞窟) which sees an 800m stretch of Koen-Dori lined with an astonishing 600,000 lights right up to Yoyogi Park. Interestingly, Ao no Dokutsu is sponsored by the maker of a popular pasta sauce of the same name, the brand coming from the famous Blue Grotto in Southern Italy. An estimated 2.8 million visited the event last year making it the most popular spot; when I went to check it out this year it was absolutely jam-packed - especially with couples! Which only leaves me to wish all loyal readers a big merī kurisumasu (メリークリスマス) - or merikuri - to one and all! See you next year.

Thursday, 28 November 2019

Umeko Tsuda and Gender Equality in Japan (Part 2: Today)

Part 1 of this post focused on Umeko's role as a pioneer in promoting education for women in Japan. Her legacy was recognised in April this year when it was announced that she had been chosen for the new ¥5,000 bank note to be released in 2024. The Ministry of Finance explanation noted she was one of the first Japanese to be sent to study in the U.S. and in establishing Tsuda College contributed greatly to contemporary women's higher education. She was not the first woman to appear on a bank note though - the current ¥5,000 bill features Ichiyo Higuchi, the Meiji poet and short-story writer who died age 24. Before that two other women have appeared: Empress Jingu (who is still the subject of historical debate) and Tale of Genji  author Murasaki Shikibu. However, Umeko is undoubtedly the first to have promoted female empowerment, at least on an individual level: on the other hand, she was anything but a feminist and opposed giving women the right to vote (women in Japan gained suffrage in 1945).
New ¥5,000 note to be released in 2024 (© Japanese Ministry of Finance)
What of Japan today? Earlier, in part 1, I noted that Japan was ranked at 110 in the 2018 WEF Global Gender Gap Report. This was mainly due to its low ranking in two criteria: (1) political empowerment (ranking 125) and (2) economic participation and opportunity (ranking 117). The former is based on the number of female MPs and ministers; the latter is based on participation in the labour force, remuneration (the pay gap), and advancement (female senior officials, managers, and professionals). While Abe's womenomics policies have boosted the number of working women - they topped 30 million for the first time in June - a large proportion of these are irregular part-time or contract workers, leading to a punishing pay gap (women earn 30% less than men) and a tiny number of female legislators, senior officials, and managers. Of course, there are "lies, damned lies, and statistics" - in the UNDP Gender Inequality Index Japan comes a respectable 22 - but this reflects a strong weighting on education and health, two areas where Japan performs strongly.

In everyday Japan, sexism is endemic. Last year, it was revealed that one of Japan's most prestigious medical schools, Tokyo Medical University, had deliberately marked down female test takers to ensure more men became doctors (apparently because women were thought to be more likely to quit to have children). Moreover, the #MeToo movement has been practically invisible in Japan; one of the few women to speak out, journalist Shiori Ito, has been widely vilified on social media and mostly ignored in the mainstream press for talking about her sexual assault (see here for good accounts in Japanese and English). After her complaint was dropped by police who cited insufficient evidence she sued her accuser in a civil suit and won ¥3.3 in damages in December 2019 in a rare case of a victim publicly coming out and pushing for justice (Japanese and English articles).

At the workplace level too, Japan still remains far behind. This year a group campaigning against women being forced to wear high heels in the workplace has gained a lot of attention. Drawing on the #MeToo movement, the group is called #KuToo, a play on the Japanese words for shoes (kutsu=靴) and pain (kutsū=苦痛). Despite the leader of the movement, Yumi Ishikawa, appearing in the BBC's list of the 100 most influential women of 2019, the Japanese media has given the movement short shrift with the Minister of Labour saying such dress was "socially accepted" and "occupationally necessary." A recent survey found that 11.1% of companies in Japan have rules on the height of heeled shoes worn by female employees in the workplace!

Now the trending hashtag is #メガネ禁止 (glasses forbidden) which highlights the fact that many women are told not to wear glasses at work. The whole regulation of female clothing and looks at work comes as no surprise personally: when working as an intern in a local bank in the 1990s I remember asking why all the female staff had to wear the fixed uniform (inevitably featuring a skirt) while the men were free to wear whatever they wanted. I still remember the incredulity that greeted my question: the eventual answer was that it was "convenient" for the female workers who "liked it" (though I'm pretty sure no-one ever asked them!). I wonder what Umeko would make of all this lack of choice in a country which, in terms of gender inequality at least, doesn't seem to have changed so much from the one she left in 1871. For more, see the Voice up Japan homepage, an organisation active in promoting gender equality in Japanese society.

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Umeko Tsuda and Gender (In)equality in Japan (Part 1: History)

First, many apologies to my regular readers for the long gap since the last post - now is a horribly busy time for most university teachers in Japan. Actually, Japanese has a wonderfully evocative phrase that captures the unrelenting nature of the autumn term: jitensha sōgyō (自転車操業)literally "bicycle work", a phrase which suggests you have to keep pedalling furiously just to keep on top of things - with the implication that if you stop, even for a minute, you crash to the ground! In an attempt to keep pedalling, today's blog post stays close to home, focusing on the founder of the university where I work - Umeko Tsuda. I'm going to split the post into two parts: part 1 (this post) introducing Umeko and her historical role as a pioneer of female education in Japan and part 2 (coming soon - I hope!) focusing on gender (in)equality in Japan today.

Umeko age 9
Friends and family in the UK often act with surprise when they find out I work at an all-female university (joshi-dai=女子大). In the UK, female-only institutions are rare: when I was a student at Durham University there were two women-only colleges but these have since turned co-ed, as have most other places in Britain - it seems that today only three colleges at Cambridge University remain single-sex in the UK. The U.S. has more, with over thirty active women's colleges - and apparently three men-only colleges - but the trend is firmly moving away from gender segregation. In Japan, in contrast, women-only higher-education institutions remain ubiquitous: this page lists seventy-eight four-year universities (including two national universities funded by the government) and over one hundred two-year colleges known as tanki-daigaku (短期大学).

In a country that was ranked by the WEF in 2018 at 110 on its gender gap index the first instinct is to conclude that such institutions are a reflection of - and reinforce - gender inequality in Japan. Certainly, there are over-protective parents who look to keep their "young-lady" (ojōsama) "locked-in-a-box" daughters (hako-iri-musume) away from the real world by sending them to female-only higher education institutions. On the other hand, there are universities like Tsuda whose motto is empowerment and which promote the advancement of women in society. To mark 90 years since the death of its founder, the university is currently holding a special memorial exhibition at the University Archives (pamphlet right) which includes many of her personal belongings, including the red kimono she wore when leaving Yokohama Port for the U.S.  (seen in the image below - Umeko is second on the left, the youngest of five).

The story of Umeko Tsuda who founded the university (originally the "women's institute of English studies") in 1900 is rather fascinating. In December 1871, 6-year-old Umeko left for the United States (volunteered by her father!), the youngest member of the diplomatic push known as the Iwakura Mission (岩倉使節団) whose goal was to modernise Japan and renegotiate the "unequal treaties" with the West. The departure of the young Umeko is captured in the beautiful painting by Tadashi Moriya (守屋多々志) on permanent display outside two of the lecture theatres. She eventually returned in 1882 after becoming a Christian and having forgotten the Japanese language. Thereafter, she threw herself into the promotion of women's education and the raising of women's status in Japan; after further trips to the U.S. and England which included much fund raising she returned to her native country to establish the first private school of higher education for women in Japan. Today her voice is still heard - in the form of an audio recording - at the graduation ceremony and students can also visit her grave on campus, which is reached by passing along a small plum orchard: plum is ume in Japanese which was also her original name before she changed it to Umeko. Be careful though: the superstition goes that those who visit Umeko's grave - she never married - will never be able to marry themselves!

Sunday, 13 October 2019

Portuguese and Samba in "Shockingly" Multicultural Shizuoka

Welcome to Shizuoka - Bem vindo a Shizuoka
My last post introduced the rugby fever currently sweeping Japan and despite some games being cancelled due to the typhoon - as I sit writing the heaviest wind and rains in 60 years are shaking the windows - the passion remains unabated. This is in no small part down to the "stunner" or "shock" in Shizuoka, when Japan incredibly managed to beat the world number two, Ireland. With a nod to that game, today's post will introduce Shizuoka, famous for soccer, green tea, and Mount Fuji. I will especially focus on Hamamatsu, the largest city in the prefecture located on the coast and famous for the Nakatajima Sand Dunes, a breeding ground for loggerhead turtles.

Servitu Brazilian import shop
As a researcher specialising in Japan's non-Japanese residents, Hamamatsu is especially interesting due to its large Brazilian population - the largest in Japan - especially Brazilians of Japanese descent or Nikkeijin (日系人). Indeed, about a third of foreign residents in the prefecture are Brazilian, with some 25,000 in Hamamatsu. Their presence is largely due to the motor companies like Honda, Suzuki, and Yamaha, which were founded and/or have headquarters in the city. In other words, there is plenty of work in the small to mid-size car-part factories which supply these major auto companies.

The interesting thing about the Nikkeijin is that they were allowed to come to Japan and work freely on special semi-permanent teijū (settlement) visas following a revision to the Immigration Law in 1989. This was unusual because at the time (indeed until April of this year) blue-collar workers (tanjun rōdōsha =単純労働者) were not, in principle, allowed to work in Japan. However, a special exemption was made for the descendants of Japanese (and their families) who had emigrated to South America in the pre-war period. The thinking was that because they had Japanese "blood" they would integrate smoothly and pick up the language quickly. Thus, the Nikkeijin became one of two side-door/back-door guest worker programmes (the other the jisshūsei or trainee/interns) who were used to address Japan's increasingly critical manual labour shortages (while maintaining the country's "no-immigration" principle). Following the Lehman shock in 2008, many Nikkeijin were laid off and the government instigated a return programme to help/encourage them to go back to Brazil. Today, the Nikkeijin "experiment" is typically viewed as a failure in government circles due to the lack of integration into Japanese society.

Festa Samba - thanks again to L for the amazing pics!
Despite the negative government perception, Shizuoka (and especially Hamamatsu) boasts a rich multiculturalism rarely found in other parts of Japan. As seen above, signage in Portuguese is common and often even more prominent than English. Moreover,
Brazilian supermarkets, import shops, and restaurants are plentiful. Finally, there are incredible cultural events such as the recent Hamamatsu Cup "Festa Samba" held last week. The homepage lists seven Samba teams from both inside and outside the prefecture, often a mixture of Brazilians and Japanese whose goal is to build a bridge between the two countries. In a country where multiculturalism is often described as "cosmetic" it is extremely refreshing to see such a vibrant, open, and prejudice-free cultural exchange. Seja bem-vindo a Shizuoka!

Sunday, 22 September 2019

Japan goes Rugby Crazy: Sport, Diversity, and Being Japanese

Olympic opening ceremony, Tokyo stadium, Sept. 20th 2019. Thanks to L for all the amazing pictures!
Friday saw the opening ceremony (video here) of the rugby world cup - full of cultural references from Kabuki to Mount Fuji - followed by the first game featuring Japan against Russia. The host's victory has pushed rugby fever in the country to new heights. Tickets are all sold out and a frequent topic of conversation between friends is how many rugby and Olympic tickets they applied for - and how many they actually got (usually zero, expressed as hazure in Japanese meaning to miss out or draw a blank).

Football (soccer) and baseball may be king here in Japan but rugby has a long history - it was first played in 1866 -  and has a faithful following (Japan has the fourth largest population of registered players in the world). This is especially true at the high-school and university level. The sell-out audience of almost 50,000 watching Friday's game was impressive, but this was less than the turnout of 66,999 for a game between Waseda and Meiji University in 1952. The Waseda vs Keio University rivalry - known as sōkei (早慶) using one kanji from each - is particularly famous. And the annual National High School Rugby Tournament, held at Hanazono Stadium, the oldest dedicated rugby stadium in Japan, is something of a year-end fixture in the calendar.

A look at the Japanese rugby squad shows it to be incredibly diverse. 15 out of 31 players in the current squad - the most ever - are foreign born as is the head coach. This reflects the fact that the minimum condition for representing a country is only three years continuous residence. Naturalisation is not required but many of the foreign-born players - such as iconic captain Michael Leitch - have acquired Japanese citizenship. Others have mixed parentage, such as the hero of Friday's match, Kotaro Matsushima, who was born in South Africa to a Japanese mother and Zimbabwean father and naturalised at age 5.

In a previous post, I wrote about the treatment of another Japanese sporting success story who does not look "typically" Japanese, tennis ace Naomi Osaka. There I wrote how the media, in trying to claim her as one its own, tends to "Japanise" her by stressing her "typical" Japanese personality traits and her love of Japanese food and pop culture. This is particularly (and painfully) apparent in interviews where Japanese media typically press her to answer in Japanese despite her poor command of the language. Indeed, on a number of occasions she has refused requests from Japanese journalists to answer questions in Japanese, her frustration with this reflected in her recent ad for Nike.

This "Japanisation" - rather than celebrating the diversity and difference that is a key strength of the squad - is also visible in media treatment of the foreign-born Brave Blossoms. For example, during Friday's match, Japanese TV carried short bios of the players during the game including one for veteran Luke Thompson which noted that he "usually speaks Kansai dialect" (普段大阪弁を話す). Before the World Cup the Yomiuri Shimbun (2019/08/22) carried a piece on the first foreign-born captain, Andrew McCormick, entitled "Blond-haired captain with a sakura heart" and sub-titled "Even though having foreign nationality, '(doing it) for Japan'" (外国籍でも「日本のため」). Does the way the media and others are bending over backwards to stress how very Japanese these athletes are - the typical phrase one hears is "more Japanese than the Japanese" - reflect the continuing strength of homogeneous stereotypes of "Japaneseness", as well as general discomfort and unease with those who don't conform to such images? Some food for thought as we enjoy the next six weeks of "the beautiful game."

Friday, 6 September 2019

Hanko Personal Seals and Disappearing Elephants: Environmental (Un)Consciousness in Japan

Hanako Statue, Kichijoji Station
Recently, the World Wildlife Conference on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) closed, something which didn't really make the news in Japan; indeed, environmental news is very poorly covered here. For example, the outcry over the burning of the Amazon was barely mentioned though it was a big story in the foreign media. Also, you would be hard-pressed to find a Japanese who has heard of 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg (Japanese readers can read up on her here). The lack of CITES coverage was particularly strange since a key question was whether Japan would close its ivory market, as a number of other countries, including China, have done in recent years. In the end, a resolution calling for Japan (and the EU) to end the trade was defeated, though the EU announced it will soon be introducing new regulations. Once this is done, Japan - even now the largest legal ivory market in the world - will become pretty much the only advanced country with a legal ivory market.

So why does Japan need ivory? The simple answer is the hanko (ハンコ) or personal seal - more formally known as an inkan (印鑑) - which accounts for about 80% of Japan's ivory consumption. These are typically used in place of a signature, finger-size stamps that are pressed in red ink - though some, known as shinto-in (浸透印) are self-inking - and then pressed onto paper. There are three basic types. First is the mitome-in (認め印) which is used for daily tasks such as receiving parcels or on documents such as CVs/resumes. Second is the ginko-in (銀行印) which is needed by most banks in order to open a bank account. Third is the jitsu-in (実印) , an officially registered seal used for business contracts or when buying a house or car (see here for a easy to follow chart of the three types). Cheaper ones made of wood, plastic, or rubber can be picked up off the shelf for next to nothing in a ¥100 shop - if you're lucky enough to have a common name - but if you have an unusual name or want a more complicated hand-carved one, you can choose buffalo-horn, titanium, or, yes, ivory and pay up to ¥20,000 (£150/$190).

For the non-Japanese coming to live in Japan, one of the first things you need to do is to make a simple hanko in order to be able to open a bank account. I remember thinking up some crazy kanji which matched the sounds of my name and popping down to the hanko shop to get a wooden one carved (for banks, complicated is better so it can not be easily copied). You need to be careful, though, because anybody will be able to withdraw money and make automatic payments if they have your hanko! Japanese tend to think this is very handy since you can ask someone else to do your banking business if needs be but from a Western point of view it seems like a risky business (though some banks are beginning to move away from this "1800s technology"). After that I became quite endeared with hanko culture and made a bunch as souvenirs for family and friends when I went back to England. I remember my grandmother would always stamp her letters thereafter with the character for granny (sobo=祖母) whenever she wrote to me!

Some years later, my original cheapo hanko had chipped and my mother-in-law made a new one for me. I didn't really give it much thought until one day at dinner she mentioned that it was made from ivory. I was shocked - I had never even realised that ivory was used or available - and felt terribly guilty at being part of the market that supports the international illegal ivory trade. A little research showed that Japan allows trading of ivory brought into the country before the CITES international trade ban of 1990, though declaring that ivory was legally obtained pre-1990 required nothing more than a document attested to by family members, a massive loophole. Japan did belatedly act this year: since July 1 dealers have been required to prove by carbon dating that specimens were legally obtained. This resulted in a massive pre-July rush by dealers to register ivory before the new rules came into force, meaning a huge stockpile continues to be bought and sold. Personally speaking, I find it difficult to understand why Japan continues to support the tiny ivory business in the face of international condemnation. Certainly, there is no nationalist "tradition" agenda surrounding ivory today, something which drives Japan's continuing whaling (though Chaiklin argues that ivory and ivory carvers played a role in the expression of nationalism during the Meiji Period). Perhaps the lack of interest in environmental issues outside Japan mentioned at the start of this blog is the only explanation?

Friday, 23 August 2019

LGBT Issues in Contemporary Japan: The "Ossan's Love" Boom

Today (August 23rd) saw the public release of the film spin-off of TV Asahi drama Ossan's Love (おっさんず・ラブ) which can be roughly translated as "middle-aged guy's/guys' love." Originally a one-off 2016 TV movie which was billed as a hen-ai (変愛) or "strange love" drama on the official site it morphed into a 2018 7-episode late-night "pure love comedy." Although ratings (shichōritsu =視聴率) were low at the time - around 4% - it became something of a cult hit, leading to the movie release (entitled Ossan's Love: Love or Dead). A media blitz and giant posters at stations featuring two of the main characters (pictured) - undoubtedly the first time a "same-sex love" (dōseiai =同性愛) couple had featured so prominently in public - made it something of a cultural phenomenon. Indeed, Ossan’s Love has become one of the top trending words on Twitter in Japan and apparently even topped Twitter’s trending words ranking worldwide consecutively for two weeks during its final two episodes! In June, the messaging app Line - which is like the Asian Whatsapp - released themed stickers which quickly became the most-bought sticker set in Asia.

Some English articles have categorised the series as a "gay drama" but many fans reject such simplistic labelling. It is also frequently lumped together with the much older "Boy's Love" or BL genre (previously called yaoi) of comics geared towards female readers featuring erotic relationships between men, though this is similarly rejected by fans who point out that a kiss scene is as physical as it gets in Ossan's Love. In fact, the word gay (ゲイ) - which usually refers only to male homosexuals in Japan - is never used in the show and it is never clear if the characters are homosexual (though there is one "coming out" scene where one character tells his father he likes men). Indeed, a central theme is one of moving beyond sexuality, reminiscent of the Foucauldian notion that sexuality - the classification of people into gay, straight, bisexual etc - is a relatively recent invention. The key message of the series is how wonderful it is to love someone - hito o suki ni naru koto (人を好きになること)- regardless of sex or age (the series also features a relationship between a young man and an older woman). Given this premise, it is rather surprising that there are no female-female relationships in the series; however, on second thoughts, maybe it is not so surprising given the invisibility of lesbian women in Japanese society (except in the form of male porn) - men tend to dominate Japanese LGBT movies.

Does the high public profile of Ossan's Love signal greater acceptance of homosexuality in Japan? Certainly, in the last few years, LGBT issues - and the term itself - have become more visible and mainstream. For example, although the annual Tokyo Rainbow Pride Parade has been running for some 25 years, it is only recently that crowds have swelled and big companies like Sony and Google have become sponsors. Many localities - including Shibuya and 22 others - now recognise same-sex relationships (the so-called "partnership system"). However, at the national level Japan still does not legally recognise same-sex marriage, though a bill was submitted this June, just two weeks after Taiwan became the first Asian nation to recognise it. The ruling LDP is unsurprisingly conservative on this issue, though the other day I saw a rainbow poster (pictured) from the Communist Party promoting gender equality. The party - covered in a previous post - has a pamphlet and an extremely detailed policy page and on their site (both in Japanese) with precise definitions, clear support for same-sex marriage, and proposals to protect the human rights of sexual minorities through anti-discrimination legislation.

The problem is that even among young people, there is little understanding of exactly what LGBT means. When I cover such issues in class - and I start off by focusing on LGB only - it is clear that most students don't know the difference between gender (how "masculinity" and "femininity" are constructed in a particular society) and sexuality (individual sexual preference). A big reason for this is that in Japan, sexuality is usually left unspecified (and unacknowledged): it is conflated with (and often subsumed under) gender. Here, the focus is on gender ambiguity (androgyny) rather than sexuality: transgression of gender boundaries (such as cross-dressing or josō=女装) rather then sexual preference. For example, Japanese words which are commonly translated into English as "gay", such as okama (おかま) and o-nē (オネー)  - literally elder sister - actually denote individuals who act/dress/speak in a feminine way though they may - or may not - be gay. These ideas are explored in more detail in a great chapter by James Valentine available here. But if that is too heavy for you, you can simply enjoy the Ossan's Love film - or binge watch the series on Netflix (with English subtitles).

Monday, 12 August 2019

Keeping Cool in the Punishing Japanese Summer: Traditional and Modern Methods

July may have been the hottest month on record globally, but here in Japan while July was cool August is shaping up to be the hottest on record. It's been day after day of punishing 35℃+ days - with "feels like" heat index readings in the mid-forties - and sleepless 25℃+ nights. People have been really struggling: the Mainichi reported that at least 162 have died from heatstroke so far this summer with over 18,000 sent to hospital in just one week last week. One of the deaths included a worker at a Tokyo Olympic construction site heightening concerns for the athletes next year. Measures such as starting the marathon at 6:00am will not help a great deal when temperatures are already pushing 30℃ in Tokyo at that time.
One consequence of the heatwave has been a drop in productivity - the lateness of this latest blog post is proof of that! Indeed, research shows that heat does make people less productive. Despite the widespread use of air conditioners in Japan, controlling the temperature in the office doesn't actually help people get to work - and in the big cities at least, commuting means walking to and from the station and standing on a jam-packed commuter train. The Tokyo Metropolitan government did start  a campaign last year (2018) to push companies to offer more flexible working hours and also to encourage workers to take earlier trains to avoid over-crowding. The campaign is called Jisa-Biz (時差ビズ  written as 時差Biz) with jisa meaning time-difference (jisa-boke means "jet-lag" for example) and bizu just short for business.

The forerunner of the Jisa-Biz campaign was the Cool-Biz campaign which the Ministry of the Environment initiated in 2005. The idea was to reduce electricity usage by keeping air-conditioners at 28℃; to make this practical companies were encouraged to let employees wear cooler clothes to work, including short-sleeved Hawaiian and Okinawan (Kariyushi) shirts. The campaign transformed into the "Super Cool-Biz" campaign and became a regular feature on the calendar from May to October following the eletricity shortages caused by the triple disaster of 2011. Outside the office, some of the coolest clothing (in both senses of the word) are the traditional summer kimono - yukata - usually made of cotton and worn with sandals. These go perfectly with a hand-dyed tenugui (手ぬぐい) hand-towel made of traditional Japanese fabric that is thin but which absorbs large amounts of water and dries quickly. Larger and longer than handkerchiefs, some Japanese tie them around their neck or head to absorb sweat or even use them to wrap cold plastic bottles.

Keeping cool does not stop at clothes. There are a huge variety of ryōmi (涼味) "cool taste" snacks and drinks to ward off the heat - the picture shows jellies and salt and mineral sweets - not to mention the summer staples of water melon and kakigōri shaved ice. There are also fans of every size and shape: as well as the traditional non-bending uchiwa (pictured) and folding sensu/ōgi fans with summer motifs (like goldfish and dragonflies), there are hand-held electric fans, fans you wear around your neck, and even fans embedded in hats and jackets. Not to mention a "cooling" (rei-kyaku) vest!

Click to preview
A final and rather unique Japanese custom to keep cool is known as uchimizu (打ち水)which involves throwing water onto hot pavements and roads to cool down the surrounding air. This custom, which is promoted as "wisdom from the Edo era," is traditionally carried out using a wooden ladle known as a hishaku (柄杓) and pail (teoke =手桶), though these days a hose pipe is probably more common (the bucket and ladle set is also used when visiting a grave). The traditional custom is backed up by scientific fact: as the water evaporates (jōhatsu=蒸発) it (temporarily) cools the surrounding air by 1.5℃ according to research by the Ministry of the Environment. Under the slogan Uchimizu Biyori ("Perfect Weather for Uchimizu"), the Tokyo Metropolitan Government holds a number of events during the summer months to promote this traditional custom, including one last Saturday in Odaiba (some pictures here). Whether you have the stamina to venture out to attend such an event is a different matter; personally, apart from dog-walking, I'm staying indoors as much as possible!

Saturday, 27 July 2019

Discovering Japan in the UK: Selfish Noodles, Ridiculous Rice-balls, and Manga at the British Museum

The British Museum, London
Just got back from the UK before the latest heatwave hit: Thursday saw the hottest July day on record and the second hottest day ever (38.5℃ in 2003). But even before then everyone was complaining about the heat despite being pleasantly mild compared to Japanese standards (UK houses typically don't have air-conditioning). Here in Japan, July has been unusually cloudy and cool - it experienced an historic low of only 50 hours of sunlight that month - but soon after my return we had the first tropical night (nettai-ya =熱帯夜), a sticky, sultry night in which the temperature doesn't fall below 25℃ (see here for a previous post). And next weekend will likely see the end of the rainy season (tsuyu-ake =梅雨明け);  thereafter, we'll no doubt have to endure a long hot summer of sweltering days and sleepless nights, inter sped only by the odd typhoon or two - probably until mid-September-ish. Compared to this, the summer in the UK - "heatwave" or not - is nothing!

Normal service about everyday life in Japan will be resumed shortly, but for now I thought I'd write a little about the visibility of Japan in the UK. The first thing to note is how ubiquitous Japanese food is. One of the most famous chains is Wagamama, 'Japan-inspired' (but actually very Chinese tasting) Asian cuisine famous for its ramen noodles; most Brits are surprised to learn that the name means selfish or self-centred in Japanese! More generally, sushi is a common lunch choice (below far left) though it is almost always overly-chilled, making the rice dry and hard. In contrast, Japanese convenience stores are careful not to refrigerate rice products, keeping them separate from sandwiches and the like at between 20℃ and 25℃. I also spotted an ad for an onigiri rice ball (below second left) which with its pumpkin topping (not filling) would be enough to make most Japanese recoil in shock! Other Japanese names on chocolates and wine (below right) recall the recent controversy over Kim Kardashian trying to trademark the name kimono for her line of underwear.

© Murakami Takashi
Japanese culture in general is also hugely popular. The British Museum in London (pictured at the top of the page) - which still has free entry - has a permanent gallery sponsored by Mitsubishi which includes a replica of Kudara Kannon, the famous Buddhist statue from Horyu-ji Temple in Nara, a splendid suit of samurai armour, and a 2009 painting by the artist famous for the 'superflat' postmodern art movement, Takashi Murakami, featuring eight members of girl-band AKB48 in manga princess style. There is also a temporary exhibition entitled simply Manga running until August 26th; on the day I visited, the £20 (¥2,700) tickets were already sold out for the day hinting at its enormous popularity. Many reviews have been critical, however: Timeout calls it a "taster" while the Guardian describes it as rather flat. In sum, despite the interest in Japan in the UK, neither food nor comics are as genuine as locals assume; to experience the 'real' Japan, it would seem you have no choice but to actually go there!

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Growing Rice in the Paddy Fields: Frogs, Ducks, and Dragonflies

While Europe swelters, Japan remains stuck in the rainy season, though truth be told we haven't actually had that much rain to date. But once the rainy season ends it will be day upon day of hot humid days and sticky tropical nights, so I'm going to take a short break to escape the fierce Japanese summer. With this in mind, this will be the last blog post until the end of July, so I thought I'd write about something typically Japanese - rice! I was inspired after a recent walk through the countryside; it was impressive to see the young rice plants (nae =苗)growing in lines in the flooded paddy fields (tan-bo =田んぼ) - Japan grows rice using the wet cultivation method.
The rice growing calendar generally begins in April (though this varies depending on the latitude of the region). Since this coincides with the start of the school year, many students will learn how to plant and cultivate rice. This starts with "waking up" the fields - preparing a field for planting by flooding it and tilling the soil - something which is known as shiro-kaki (代掻き). The picture above shows children at one school walking through the muddy field bare-foot and hand-in-hand to loosen up the soil and make it easy for the water to filter through. The key is to keep moving or else you'll sink!

The next step is to actually plant the young 4 to 5 inch rice seedlings, known as ta-ue (田植え), which the students do by hand using a string pulled across the field as a rough guideline. Farmers of course do this with machinery!

As the rice grows, water management is key, and most farms will have an elaborate system of irrigation. Because the water level naturally drops, an eye needs to be kept on the field which has to be topped up periodically. Pest control against weeds and bugs is also necessary. Frogs help to keep the pests under control; interestingly, catching tadpoles in the fields is a typical Japanese summer after-school activity for local kids. Another organic way to keep the bugs off the crop is the use of aigamo (合鴨), a cross between a mallard and a domestic duck. Known as the aigamo method, this unique Japanese invention involves releasing ducklings into the field who not only eat weeds and insects but also oxygenate the field as they stir up the soil with their feet! Dragonflies are another paddy field staple; to sit and watch the colourful flyers dart around the field as the breeze makes a gentle sara-sara sound as it caresses the rice-plants is rather incredibly soothing.

Finally, come September or October it's time for ine-kari (稲刈り) or harvesting. This involves draining the last of the water, cutting the stalks, and taking the grain from the rice head - threshing - which is known as dakkoku (脱穀)in Japanese where da(tsu) is to take off and koku means grain. Again, this is usually done in the traditional fashion at school using simple threshing devices such as that pictured. The whole process is extremely labour intensive, so when the new rice (shin-mai =新米) - an official term designated by the Ministry of Agriculture - hits the shops in Autumn, it something of a special event to be celebrated and enjoyed. Itadakimasu!

Thursday, 20 June 2019

Fearful for their Financial Future: Young People, Pensioners, and Don Quijote

One of the surprising things that comes out of survey data on young people in Japan is that they have much lower 'hope for the future' (shōrai e no kibō =将来への希望) than their peers in other countries. For example, 2014 data showed only 66.2% of Japanese youth thought they would be happy when they were 40; in contrast, the figures for the other countries in the survey were all in the eighties. When talking to my students about this anxiety for the future, the key reasons seem to centre on work - low salaries, long working hours - and whether they will be able to receive a pension in the future.

Winning the lottery the best bet?
A recent FSA report on pensions merely fuelled this anxiety. Based on estimates of average living costs, the report highlighted that the public pension would be insufficient and estimated that an elderly couple living until 95 - 30 years after retirement - would need savings of some ¥20 million (£150,000/$185,000) to make up the shortfall. The ¥20 million figure caused a sensation in the media and was quickly disowned by the government: Aso, the finance minister infamous for fine dining and drinking in luxury hotels, said he would "not accept" the report and argued that the pension system "will never collapse." But burying the report doesn't change the fact that the figures were entirely valid: today, the rate of poverty amongst the elderly - currently estimated at around 19.4% - is even higher than the overall figure of 1 in 6 Japanese living below the poverty line (poverty and food banks were discussed in this earlier post).

So how do Japanese save money (setsuyaku =節約)? ¥1000 haircuts and "one coin" (¥500) lunches are one way, but thrifty shopping is surely the most common strategy. The growth of 100-yen (hyaku-en) shops in particular has been dramatic in the last twenty years, and at the same time as department stores have been struggling, thrift-chains like Daiso have been thriving selling cheap - but nevertheless reasonable quality and hugely diverse - products. Cosmetics in particular are hugely popular both among both Japanese and tourists, who buy bucket-loads as souvenirs! It's not only cosmetics either - there's loads of other products perfect for souvenirs, such as origami, toys, study materials, and snacks (see here). The picture below shows some other unique products: special decorative envelopes Japanese use for giving money at weddings and funerals; chopsticks, including special ones to teach children how to hold them properly; and a massive selection of bento boxes!
Talk of discount shopping wouldn't be complete without mentioning Don Quijote (ドン・キホーテ) usually abbreviated to Donki. Donki is a discount chain store which came into its own following the bursting of the economic bubble at the beginning of the 1990s: today there are over 160 stores in Japan, with others in Singapore, Thailand, and Hawaii. The stores are usually massive, open late, and full of all sorts of weird and wacky products, including anime goods and cosplay-style costumes. As you walk into the store, there is a sign that says kyōyasu no dendō (驚安の殿堂). This literally means "surprisingly cheap palace", though the kyōyasu is a made-up word: the Donki homepage explains that in contrast to the usual word for dirt-cheap, gekiyasu (激安), kyōyasu is supposed to capture the thrill/excitement/overflowing surprise at the cheap prices. I suspect, though, that for the millions of pensioners struggling to get by - and the youngsters fearful of never receiving a pension at all - the feeling is probably more akin to relief at somehow just being able to get by.