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.

Sunday, 9 June 2019

Moss: The Miracle Plant Perfectly at Home in Humid Japan

Friday saw the official start of the rainy season (tsuyu =梅雨) in Tokyo which means 4 or 5 weeks of high humidity (over 90% this morning!) - and clothes that never seem to dry. As someone who cycles to work I headed to Mont Bell in Shibuya to get some decent rainwear. Whereas rain and humidity are both pretty unwelcome for cyclists like me, for one of Japan's signature plants - moss or koke (苔) - it is a boon.

The Japanese climate is particularly well-suited to moss, though it is more the humidity than the rain. Moss is apparently able to absorb water and nutrients directly from the air if humidity is 80% or more; it also releases moisture if the humidity drops too low, meaning it is both a humidifier and a de-humidifier (see here for more)! To top it all, it also purifies the air, absorbing pollutants. This may explain its growing popularity, both outside - Japanese gardens are abundant in moss and the air there does always seems fresher - and inside. Kokedama (苔玉)- a ball of soil wrapped in moss and held together with string or wire, from which an ornamental bonsai-style plant grows - can be seen all over the place these days and kokedama workshops are a real craze.
 Japan's moss obsession has been a popular topic in the media. This article links it back to a best-selling 2011 book by Hisako Fuji which triggered a wave of moss-viewing parties and tours, particularly popular amongst women. The forest at the base of Mount Kita-Yatsugatake surrounding Lake Shirakoma (白駒の池) in Nagano Prefecture is often mentioned as the perfect spot. But one does not need to go far to find beautiful moss; any local temple or shrine Japanese garden will have it. Saiho-ji (西芳寺) in Kyoto, otherwise known as Koke-dera (moss temple), is probably the most famous example. The interesting thing is that moss is prized here and left to naturally cover ancient statues rather than be removed like it might be in the West: in other words, in Japan, grass will be pulled out from moss, the very opposite of what happens in the UK! The very length of time it takes to cover stone is considered something magical - as the lyrics in the national anthem highlight; indeed, a key element of the Zen garden is the concept of wabi-sabi or "transient imperfection." The pictures above, taken in the 17,000㎡ Japanese garden behind the Nezu Museum in Tokyo, show this well.

But this post wouldn't be complete without mention of my favourite fast-food shop in Japan - Mos Burger. The "Mos" actually has nothing to do with the green stuff - it means Mountain Ocean Sun apparently - but it does proudly promote the healthy nature of its meat and veggies, with pictures of where and who grew the particular products. Most stores will also have a little noticeboard which changes daily, with friendly comments and observations from the staff giving a very warm neighbourhood feel to the stores. It's no surprise that it's the second biggest fast-food franchise in Japan - I would rate the taste better than McDonald's which is miles ahead in first place. As you can see from the menu here, there are a lot of unique Japanese style burgers on offer - including teriyaki and rice burgers - though my absolute favourite has to be Mos Chicken: amazing rain or shine!