Monday 28 December 2020

Praying for a Better - and Healthier - 2021 at Toshogu Shrine, Ueno's Hidden Gem

As 2020 draws to a close most Japanese are getting ready for hatsumōde (初詣), the first shrine visit of the year when people pray for good fortune. After a 2020 to forget, it is not to difficult to imagine what people will be wishing for this time round but if you're looking to avoid the queues - Meiji Shrine typically sees some three million visitors in the first three days of January - I recommend the much quieter and older Toshogu Shrine (東照宮) in Ueno - established in 1627 and dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu, previously one of the "Great Unifiers" of Japan but now a powerful deity that visitors can pray to for good luck.

Not only is Toshogu Shrine less crowded than many others, it is also noticeable for its fusion of different styles: while the shrine itself is obviously a Shinto monument it is located on the premises of Kan'eiji (寛永寺), a Buddhist Temple and features a 32m 5-storied pagoda built in 1631. As I wrote  earlier in my post on the old capital Kamakura, until the 1868 Shinto and Buddhism Separation Order (神仏判然令), the two religions were freely mixed and combined. In Meiji, the pagoda was only spared demolition because it belonged to Kan'eiji Temple. The Buddhist influence can also be seen in the golden Chinese-style gate (karamon=唐門) on the main shrine building, decorated with hand-carved flowers and birds and protected by two dragons - ascending and descending - carved into the gate pillars (these dragons are said to go to the nearby Shinobazu Pond every night to drink!).

A third  pointer to the Chinese influence are the 50 unique copper lanterns (tōrō=灯籠) lining the approach to the shrine (red dots in the map above). While such lanterns were originally used only in Buddhist temples mainly for illumination purposes, here they are not used for lighting but rather for purification: as we have seen before, purity and impurity are key elements in Shinto. As well as the copper lanterns there are also many more stone lanterns which begin when one walks through the stone torii gate which marks the entrance to the shrine (blue dots on the map). 

A final unusual feature of the shrine is the monument holding the eternal flame of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, decorated with thousands of paper cranes. As detailed in a previous post, the cranes come from the story of Sadako Sasaki who developed leukaemia after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and folded more than 1000 cranes in a futile attempt to prolong her life. While today they have become a symbol of peace they are also a broader reminder of the sanctity of life. As such, they may well serve as a potent reminder to visitors who come in the early days of 2021 to pray for health, longevity, and recovery from illness - things I wish for all of my loyal readers in the coming year.

Monday 30 November 2020

Japan's Obsession with Poop (Part 2): Lucky Golden Poos, Unko Kanji Drill books, and Toilet Humour

The last post on Japan's obsession with poop generated a lot of attention and not a little feedback from Brits surprised that the Japanese think nothing of talking about poop and related bodily issues which would be considered embarrassing in British culture. That prompted me to write more on the subject - starting off with something that both cultures share: kids' fascination with toilet humour.

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Few kids like to study and Japanese kids have their work cut out for them: in elementary school alone students have to memorise 1006 kanji (Chinese characters), most of which have multiple readings. This of course is much easier if learning is fun, so enter the Unko (poop) Kanji Drill Books, a six-book series (one for each grade) that features Unko-sensei that has sold millions. Each kanji has three separate example sentences - each containing the word poop! For example, one of the sentences for the kanji for take (取) reads, "A foreign news agency came to interview me (取材) about my poop." Great fun to read aloud (see here for some screenshots)! The concept has been so successful that there are now books for learning maths, craft, time, katakana/hiragana, and even English!

Golden poop crane game
But it's not just for the kids. There are mountains of unko themed goods including unko cushions, toys, soap, and even toilet-shaped curry bowls. The most popular though is golden poop (kin no unko =金のうんこ)which is supposed to bring you luck. The reason for this is because the "un" in unko is pronounced the same as un (運) which means fortune or luck. Bracelets, key rings, and charms for mobile phones have apparently sold millions in recent years and gave birth to the ubiquitous smiling poop emoji(💩). Indeed, it is quite common to send the swirly multi-tiered poop emoji to a friend to wish them good luck. This is also possible face to face wish using various rather ingenious poop hand symbols (shown here)! The most famous - and biggest - golden poop of all though is the giant Flamme d'Or on top of the Asahi Super Dry Hall building in Asakusa on the East bank of the Sumida River (pictured). Designed by French artist Philippe Strack, Asahi maintains it is a symbol of the company's "burning passion" to advance forward but Tokyoites know better and fondly refer to it as ōgon no unko (the Golden turd) while the beer hall itself is called the "poo building" (unko/unchi biru). There are even rumours that it was originally intended to stand vertical but that the company changed its mind after realising how it would look!
The "Flamme d'Or", better known as the "Golden Turd" (Skytree in the background)
For those familiar with the elegance of the tea-ceremony (sadō) or traditional dance (buyō), the prevalance of toilet humour in Japan may come as something of a shock. But all complex societies are full of such cultural contradictions: they are just easier to see in a culture that is not one's own. So Brits may be taken aback by the film Ohayo by legendary director Yasujiro Ozu - whose Tokyo Story was voted by his peers as the greatest film of all time -  which opens and closes with a farting competition that ends rather unfortunately. But alongside the Queen, politeness, queuing, and afternoon tea there is a whole literary and historical culture of cynical and ironic scatological humour - poo jokes - from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Swift. "There's a cheerful pride," writes the New Stateman, "with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture." Perhaps Japanese and British are not so different after all?

Friday 30 October 2020

Japan's Obsession with Poop (Part 1): The Unko Museum

Japan, like any other country, is full of contradictions. One area where these contradictions seem to particularly noticeable is the toilet and the things that go in there. Japanese toilets are well-known for their hi-tech functionality; I recently returned back to my university campus after a long corona-break and found that the toilets had been refurbished, complete with a control panel with pressure, volume, privacy, and "wand-clean" buttons (don't even ask about that last one). The privacy button is usually known as "noise-princess" (oto-hime=音姫)and plays a loud waterfall-type sound so as to disguise the "embarrassing" sounds you typically make while on the loo. 
On the other hand, Japanese are far more open than, say, the British, talking about poo and related bodily issues. They will quiet nonchalantly tell you that they have an upset stomach and diarrhea using the phrase onaka o kowasu (literally "I broke my stomach"). They will also share the fact that they are constipated (benpi=便秘 meaning "secret" or "hidden" poo) - something that apparently 20% of Japanese men and a whopping 40% of women suffer from - without batting an eyelid. The everyday casual words for poo are unko and unchi - the latter apparently softer - while the scientific word is ben (excrement) which leads to the formal word for toilet (ben-jo=便所, literally poo place) though nobody ever says that - the English toilet (toire=トイレ) is the normal word with o-te-arai (hand-washing [place]) used by those looking for an extra euphemistic layer of politeness. If you're looking for a ruder word closer to the English "s**t" you could kuso but even this is pretty mild in a country which lacks any decent swear words (interestingly, hana-kuso or "nose-poo" is the word for bogey and is not rude at all!).  Just how open Japanese are about the whole poo thing is illustrated by the Unko Museum which I recently had the pleasure of visiting.
"Please enjoy the MAX UNKO KAWAII world," reads the English blurb, "by looking, touching, taking photos of, and playing with poop." This is not just poo-PR: on entering the museum you are met with a line of toilets and are encouraged to sit on one and do your thing (the group of four young women in front of me found this all rather hilarious, in contrast to the rather embarrassed English chap behind them). Magically, a plastic poo appears in your toilet and you are then given a stick which slots in the bottom of the poo so you can carry your poo around the museum. Yes, really. It is, as the blurb promises, all very hands on.

 The museum itself is rather small with a few poop-themed rooms including a poopy convenience store, a flying poop room, a poop volcano, a crappy arcade, a "let's draw your poop" gallery, and (perhaps most interestingly) a poop merchandise of the world section. This latter mini-museum features real poop paraphernalia from all over the globe including a  British offering I had not seen before: a "Poo head" game (pictured above second from left). The Japanese offerings - and there are a lot of these type of goods here in Japan - included a poo-shaped rubber (eraser) and a panda poo snack (though the Spanish Caganer dolls - above right - take some beating in terms of realism).
I've actually realised that I've much more to say about the subject of poop in Japan - looking around they are, in fact, rather obsessed with the stuff - but I'm all pooped out and have decided to split this post into two parts. So you're going to have to hold on another few weeks to find out about lucky Golden poos, poo kanji drill textbooks, and toilet-bowl shaped curry. In the meantime, if you're in Tokyo why not pay a visit to the musuem - who doesn't need a plastic poo on a stick to take home?

Monday 28 September 2020

The Master of Haiku: Basho, Banana Trees, and Beloved Frogs

An old silent pond  (古池や)  

A frog jumps into the pond -  (蛙飛び込む)

Splash! Silence again (水の音)

Matsuo Basho (1686)

Last month's post introduced Shin-Ohashi ("New Big Bridge") on Tokyo's Sumida River, noting how its construction was watched - and written about - by that most famous poet of the Edo period Matsuo Basho (1644-94). As I explained, Basho, who lived on the eastern bank of the river in a cottage, watched and wrote about its construction. Today this whole area is dotted with (not always easy to find) reminders of his presence. 

As the map shows, down the road from the Basho Museum are the remains of the great man's cottage or hermitage (written as anseki or 庵跡 in Japanese), very close to the location of the first Shin-Ohashi Bridge. These remains are marked by a tall stone (pictured) located inside a tiny Shinto Inari shrine. Note the two stone frogs at the base of the stone: Basho is said to have been given a frog like this after writing his famous haiku (top) which became one of his most treasured possesions. Apparently, it disappeared around the mid-19th century but was rediscovered in 1917 after a typhoon prompting the establishment of the present shrine. After going missing again in 1945, a member of the Basho Preservation Society found the frog hidden away in the family safe and donated it to the Basho Museum.

The museum itself is rather marvellous, one of those hidden Tokyo gems. In front of the museum are a number of banana trees: Basho is in fact a pen-name which was given to him because his cottage was surrounded by banana trees (Basho is the name of a type of Japanese banana!). When I visited they were holding a special exhibiton focusining on his most famous collection of haiku, Oku no Hosomichi (奥の細道)or The Narrow Road to the Deep North. This collection is based on his 2,400km journey through the North-eastern areas of Honshu (1689-1691) which is traced in red on the map below. In fact, probably my first contact with Basho was in the "Deep North" - as an English conversation teacher in Yamagata where I started my love affair with Japan. Climbing the 1000 stone steps to the 9th century Yamadera Temple I learned that Basho stopped here and composed one of most famous haiku about cicadas and the stillness of summer (look out for the Basho statue and rock inscription of the poem  in the lower area of the temple grounds).

So what is haiku? Most people know that haiku consists of 5/7/5 syllables but in reality it is the sound and rhythm that is most important and not all "haiku" (especially English haiku - see here) religiously follow the 5/7/5 mantra. Moreover, pauses and silence can be a key part of reading a haiku well. It is also widely known that haiku contain a seasonal word (kigo=季語) - the frog in the example represents spring - but less well known that a cutting word or letter (kireji=切れ字) is also a requirement in traditional haiku - "Splash!" in our example - marking a break, turn/twist, or even dramatic ending (in English, this is often performed by punctuation). If you're looking for some inspiration, I recommend the garden just past the shrine which contains a statue of Basho gazing thoughtfully over the Sumida River.

Wednesday 19 August 2020

Fireworks and Haiku over Shin-Ohashi Bridge: Cultural Magic on Tokyo's Sumida River

Library of Congress
The Sumida River in Tokyo, much like the Thames in London, is the lifeblood of the city, flowing 27 kilometres through 7 wards. There are 26 bridges, spaced around a kilometre apart, and it is possible (for the most part) to walk along the western bank promenade ("terrace" in Japanese) and pass under each bridge. The river and many of its bridges have featured in ukiyo-e prints (subject of last month's blog) and in the stretch between Kuramae and Ryogoku Bridges, a number of pictures by Hiroshige are displayed. Perhaps the most striking of those prints is Hiroshige's 1857 "Sudden Shower over Shin-Ohashi Bridge and Atake" (pictured): a metallic engraving of the same picture can be seen on the bottom of the giant central orange pillars on the current Shin-Ohashi Bridge. The print was famously copied by van Gogh (Bridge in the Rain, 1887) and indeed ukiyo-e in general had a significant influence over many of the Western (post) impressionists.

The name Shin-Ohashi ("new big bridge") is rather appropriate since it moved and been re-built a number of times. The first incarnation was completed in 1693 a little further downstream of the current (Western style) version which was built in 1885 and again in 1976. Interestingly, with a bit of detective work you can find the small stone monument marking the site of the original bridge (near the Mannenbashi-Kita traffic lights). On the side of this monument are two poems about the bridge by the famous Japanese poet Matsuo Basho (1644-94) who lived on the eastern bank of the river in a hut and watched its construction. In fact, this whole area is something of a shrine to the master of haiku poetry with a tiny but lovely museum and a hidden statue of the man gazing serenely over the river (to be the topic of the next post!). The area is not so serene on the 4th Saturday of July though: it is then that the big-daddy of Japanese summer fireworks takes place, the Sumida Fireworks Festival (隅田川花火大会), which, dating back to 1733, was the first public fireworks display in Japan. In recent years, it has attracted upwards of a million spectators, though was sadly cancelled this year (these days fireworks displays in planetariums - known as “hanabirium” - have become popular instead!). Since today is haiku day (8=ハ 1=イ 9=ク)and with apologies to Basho, who probably never saw fireworks, here's my attempt at a haiku followed by scenes from the 2016 display:
Fire Flowers Bloom (花火咲く)
Memories of Smiles(笑顔の思い出)
A Dark Summer(暗い夏)

Wednesday 29 July 2020

Pictures of Japan's Floating World: Natural and Physical Beauty in Ukiyo-e

For those starved of culture during the lockdown, the reopening of the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum on July 23rd featuring a brand new ukiyo-e exhibition was a moment for celebration. The museum is located in Ueno Park which contains a host of other world class museums as well as Ueno Zoo and some impressive temples and shrines (plus the famous statue of "Last Samurai" Saigo Takamori covered here and the rather lovely Shitamachi museum introduced here). The entrance to the Metropolitan Art Museum is famous for the giant stainless steel sculpture entitled “my sky hole 85-2 light and shadow” created in 1985 by Bukichi Inoue which magically reflects everything around it.

So what are ukiyo-e? Ukiyo-e are basically woodblock prints for mass consumption created during the Edo period (1603-1868). The term "ukiyo" (浮世) is made up of the characters for "floating" and "world" and carries the sense of transient, hedonistic everyday pursuits enjoyed by ordinary people during what was a peaceful, thriving period in one of the world's biggest cities. Much like modern fashion/celebrity magazines, they featured beautiful courtesans, famous Kabuki actors, and strapping sumo wrestlers - the style leaders of the time. Starting off as black ink prints, colour was gradually introduced together with Western style perspective. Later prints featured some stunning landscapes, such as Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai probably the best known ukiyo-e print in the world. In these landscapes, nature and climate become an important element: in particular, the snow/moon/flower (setsu-gekka =雪月花) theme, representing (like haiku) the seasons of winter, autumn, and spring (cherry blossoms) crops up quite regularly.

Morning snow at Yoshiwara, Moon over Sumida River, and Viewing Cherry Blossoms along the Sumida River all by Hiroshige. From Library of Congress (no known restrictions on publication - see Jim Breen's position on copyright here)

Another thing I noticed while looking over the 450-odd pictures in the exhibition was the obsession with beauty and the "ideal" Japanese woman. In fact, hair styles aside, the ideal appeared to change very little from Moronobu's 1680 "Two Lover's Embracing" through Kitagawa's 1792-93 "Three famous Beauties" (pictured) to Kikukawa's early 19th century "July". Invariably, women were represented as having a doll-like beauty, tall, willowy, graceful, and elegant with an elongated face, narrow, widely spaced eyes, a long, flat nose, and large ears which were always visible. Eyebrows were usually high and artificial - or completely shaved off (apparently the sign of adulthood, marriage, and/or having a child - see here). Lips were tiny, painted rouge, and consistently pursed shut - no smile or teeth are to be seen (though Kitagawa does have a picture of a woman blackening her teeth here).

A final noticeable feature of the bijin-ga (beautiful woman pictures) is the pure white (irojiro =色白), smooth, unblemished skin. In the age of Black Lives Matters, it might be tempting to jump to the conclusion that this reflected a Caucasian ideal; however, ukiyo-e predates the phenomenon of akogare or adoration/looking up to the West: Western (white) beauty as the ideal, as seen in the portrayal of Japanese with Caucasian features and fashion, only began during the Meiji Era (1868-1912). Russel notes that the Japanese have traditionally viewed their skin as white, only later coming to see themselves, at least rhetorically, as members of “the yellow race." One reason that was said to be considered beautiful at this time, not only in Japan but across Asia, was the fact that those working outdoor in the rice fields tended to have darker skin, denoting a "lower class." As you ponder whether beauty is indeed skin deep, I'll leave you with one of my favourite ukiyo-e which shows that humour too was a feature of many of the images!
Utagawa Kuniyoshi's "Young Woman who Looks like an Old Lady"

Sunday 28 June 2020

Black Lives Matter in Japan too: Police, Foreigners, and the Japanese Media

As the slogan "Black Lives Matter" reverberates across the globe, Japan too has seen a number of marches, including 3,500 in Tokyo on June 14th (BritishProf pictured left). Like earlier marches in Tokyo and Osaka, the march had a local slant: discrimination against non-white foreigners in Japan. In Tokyo, marches have finished up at Shibuya where on May 22nd two officers pulled a Kurdish man from his car and knelt on him in a manner reminiscent of George Floyd's death three days later (various videos here). However, aside from a short piece in the Mainichi Newspaper, none of the mainstream Japanese media have touched this domestic story while at the same time reporting heavily on the BLM movement in the US and Europe (the implication being that racism is a foreign problem).
Instagram Posts in the lead up to the Tokyo June 14th March (© blmtokyojp)

A kōban or police box in Shibuya
The failure to make local connections while reporting on incidents abroad illustrates just how taboo the topic is for the Japanese media. As John G. Russell has written, those who attempt to highlight the existence of racism and discrimination in Japan often come in for heavy criticism, especially from the right, despite racial profiling and indiscriminate police questionning of non-white foreigners being widely reported in the foreign community. Another example is the coverage of the #MeToo movement abroad while largely ignoring sexual harassment and assault in Japan. A prime example is the way journalist Shiori Ito, one of the few women who has spoken out about her sexual assault, has been almost totally ignored in the mainstream media - and vilified on social media (see here for a simple overview of her case in Japanese and English).
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Japan may ostensibly be a democracy but the powder-puff feel-good fluffiness of the Japanese media has led to it being referred to as masu-gomi (mass garbage) in a play on the Japanese word for mass media (mass-komi). The coverage of the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, which the New York Times described as a meltdown early on in contrast to the Japanese media which largely parroted the government line that it was not, is the most well known example of the toothlessness of the Japanese media. This case was highlighted by the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression in a 2017 report which noted increasing government pressure on the media (and increasing self-censorship aka Chomsky's propaganda model). Reporters without Borders ranked Japan at 66 in 2020 in its Press Freedom Index, a massive drop from 11 in 2010. For Japanese readers, Why is the Mass Media called Mass Garbage? (マスコミはなぜマスゴミと呼ばれるのか) by Kazuo Hizumi is an eye-opening read. In sum, it is quite ironic that the only political party to have shown any interest in bringing Japanese special interests to light is the Communist Party, coincidentally the only voice that also promotes the idea that black (minority) lives matter in Japan, too.

Friday 29 May 2020

Community Spirit, Charity, and Seken in the time of Corona: Comparing Japan and the UK

One of the dominant stereotypes of Japan is that it is a collectivist society and group orientation is the dominant cultural pattern which shapes behaviour. However, one thing I have noticed during the current pandemic is a distinct lack of solidarity and community in this country, in stark contrast to the UK. From 100-year-old Captain Tom Moore who raised millions for the National Health Service (NHS) by walking laps around his garden to the weekly nationwide clap for carers, there seems to be a real sense of togetherness and unity - not to mention a lot of (black) humour - in these tough times, something distinctly lacking in "groupist" Japan. So what's going on?

Yoshiki's Foundation America Website © 2018

In a recent article, the Japan Times tries to address this puzzle, namely why, even in these times of acute need, there is no culture of giving to charity. The article gives some examples of Japanese celebrities dipping into their pockets, though it is noteworthy that the most public and generous of these - X-Japan rock-star Yoshiki - has lived in the US for almost 30 years. The new Emperor and Empress did donate to a children's and a disaster charity on the occasion of their enthronement but this was all very low-key (reflecting the need to be humble about giving). The most visible recent project I have noticed in Japan is the collaboration of 76 artists from talent agency Johnny's (ジャニーズ) who produced a charity single to provide masks and PPE for medical instutitons (check out the channel here). But there is little news on this or details of how much they have raised (in stark contrast to the media attention around, say, Arianna Grande and Justin Bieber's charity single).

In terms of individual donations, at certain periods in the year you will see charity collections in town centres such as the "red feather" end of year collection for local community and welfare groups (interestingly an American priest was apparently central in the creation of these charity drives). The Ashinaga group which collects money for orphaned young people is also quite visible. However, aside from popping a ¥100 coin in a collection box on the street or in a convenience store, individual charity donations are limited. The World Giving Index 2018 ranked Japan at 128 (out of 144), with only 18% saying they had donated to charity in the previous month. In terms of actual figures, the Japan Fundraising Association gives a figure of ¥775.6 billion for individual giving in 2016 (0.14% of GDP) in contrast to 0.54% of GDP in the UK. In Japan, corporate, not individual donations, make up the bulk of donations; the figure below shows the stark contrast between Japan and the UK.
Christianity is commonly used to explain this discepancy, but the UK can hardly be called a particularly Christian society (at least compared to the US). As well as religion, the expectation in Japan that the government is responsible for providing public services (and general trust in and reliance on the government) is often cited as a reason. An even more surprising finding from the World Giving Index is that in Japan only 23% said they had helped a stranger (or someone they didn't know who needed help) in the last month, 142nd out of 144 (the UK figure was 63%). Of course this doesn't mean that Japanese are unkind: as any foreign tourist holding a map will tell you, people will often stop and try to help despite speaking little or no English.

Ruth Benedict, author of The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, offers an intriguing explanation. She writes that Japanese are "extremely wary" of getting entangled in on (恩) by which she means becoming indebted to or imposing a burden of obligation on someone for doing them a favour - what is called "returning the
on." The logic goes that by helping the old lady who has fallen down, they are imposing an unconscionable burden on the person they helped since that person will be weighed down with a sense of debt they can never repay. The foreign tourist, on the other hand, blithely unaware of the intricacies of obligation and debt, can be helped without fear. This loosely dovetails with the explanation of Prof. Shusaku Sasaki, quoted in the Japan Times article mentioned earlier, who posits that being seen as giving for selfish rather than altruistic reasons is one reason Japanese avoid openly giving to charity: helping others is best done anonymously and invisibly to avoid social problems and misunderstandings (one example is the Tiger Mask donation phenomenon described here). Of course, the lack of a proper tax deduction system and tax breaks may in the end be a better explanation than any of this!

In the time of coronavirus, let me offer one final sociological explanation for the lack of charity - both giving and helping - in Japan: the notion of seken (世間). Seken is something like public community: Professor Naoki Sato translates it as "dynamics that occur when Japanese people unite as a group" and describes it as a kind of peer pressure to conform. The result is voluntary regulation of behaviour - under the hard stare of other's eyes - to avoid criticism, shaming, and ostracism. The force of this social pressure explains how self-restraint (jishuku) which, in lieu of the ability to impose a European-style legal lockdown, has been the cornerstone of Japan's undeniably successful COVID-19 counter-measures. I have experienced this personally, with withering looks and even shouts of "mask" when simply walking the dog (maskless) in the fresh air (I of course wear a mask when entering shops or taking trains). The downside of seken though is that it pushes people to keep their head-down to avoid bothering or antagonising others. This disinclination to stand-out, even through positive behaviour such as donating to charity, organising support for health workers, or helping the proverbial old-lady, might be another explanation for the lack of solidarity, togetherness, and unity in Japan.

Soon, every citizen - foreign residents included - will be able to receive a ¥100,000 (£750/$930) payment as part of the government's coronavirus economic response package (see details here). There are plenty of people in Japan - including a number of my students - who are really struggling at the moment so giving money to everyone, regardless of income, seems to me nothing short of ridiculous. This writer for one will be giving the money to charity - I just won't be telling any of my Japanese friends or neighbours in case they think I'm "showing off" (kakkō tsukeru) to get praise and attention. Just hope none of them actually read this blog!

UPDATE: These were the four charities I split my ¥100,000 between: how about helping one or two of them out? (Big Issue, Florence, Katariba, and Plan International)

Wednesday 29 April 2020

Parcel Delivery, Flying Legs, and Giant Post-Boxes in Japan

As the state of emergency rolls on in Japan, the postal system has become a lifeline for many. The government has even entrusted Japan Post - the national mail service of Japan - to deliver two cloth masks to each household (a widely ridiculed policy that has hit a number of problems). Before the privatisation process of Japan Post began in 2007 - it is now officially called Japan Post Holdings - it was the nations's biggest employer accounting for a third of government employees (though it should be pointed out that 13 years later full privatisation has still not occurred). Regular post is usually delivered on small motorbikes (pictured) or mini-vans rather than bicycles.

Japan Post has a unique symbol which looks like a capital "T" with an extra line on top and this adorns delivery bikes and vans as well as post-boxes and post-offices - and also prefaces post-codes. For example, the postcode for the National Diet is written 〒100-0014: the first three digits are for the prefecture or metropolis (cities in Tokyo range from 100 to 208 - see here for a full list). Explanations for the origins of the symbol vary. The conventional explanation is that it is a variation of the katakana character "te" (テ) created in 1887 by the new Ministry of Communications and Transportation (Teishin-shō) - teishin is an old term meaning communications. This site, however, suggests that the logo was co-opted from the mark for the NYK shipping company which is two bold red lines, apparently a pun on ni-hon (meaning two lines but also Japan!). Whatever the true story, today it is a unique symbol that is found only in Japan and even has its own unicode number and smiley face emoji (〠). Note that addresses in Japan are written biggest (prefecture) to smallest (house or flat number): see here for an example.
Home delivery service share
In contrast to the UK, the post office is not the main player in the parcel delivery business: door-to-door home delivery services (takuhaibin=宅配便) are the main way Japanese send and receive parcels. Takuhaibin - now more commonly called takkyūbin, a term coined by industry leader Yamato - is incredibly cheap, efficient (usually next-day delivery), and easy to use. They will pick parcels up from your house or you can send or pick up from your local convenience store. Moreover, you can usually specify delivery times down to the nearest hour or two and if you miss a parcel it is easy to arrange re-delivery for a specific time (usually with an automated phone call). Japanese use the service all the time: for example, for sending luggage ahead to a hotel or airport or ordering frozen food. Yamato (known as kuro-neko or black cat) is the biggest takkyūbin company and has a detailed site in English about how to send parcels.
New (left) and old (right) Sagawa Express symbol marks
Their biggest rival, Sagawa Express, used to have the traditional red loin-cloth wearing foot courier known as hikyaku (飛脚="flying legs") as their symbol mark before changing it in 2007 to a more modern version (both pictured). These symbols are not just for show: the delivery drivers do actually run! See here for a fascinating video on a (slower than I'm used to seeing) day in the life of a Sagawa delivery worker. As the video shows, push trolleys are the preferred method of delivery in the city (the UK too has seen a switch from bicycles to trolleys for regular post in recent years).

Like many industries in Japan, all delivery services have struggled to hire and retain workers given the relatively tough physical nature of the job. This is one reason for the upcoming end of Saturday deliveries by Japan Post. But it is the poor working conditions of takkyūbin workers that has received most attention in recent years, particularly lack of breaks and unpaid overtime. After a mountain of bad press highlighting the "black" nature of such companies, Yamato raised its fees for the first time in 27 years in 2017 and paid retrospective overtime to drivers. Today, though, amid the rise of "stay at home shopping" (sugomori-shōhi=巣ごもり消費) during the Covid19 crisis, there are similar stories of overworked drivers. Another concern for these workers is infection: it is now common to ask delivery personnel to leave parcels outside the door (okihai =置き配); Uber Eats, which has recently exploded on the Japanese scene, even has an option for this when placing your online order.

As a final, local, aside Kodaira City in Western Tokyo is said to be home to the highest number (32) of old-fashioned vermilion (shu-iro =朱色) cylindrical post-boxes which have been largely phased out elsewhere (see here for a list of all 32 plus 5 decorative non-functioning ones dotted throughout the city). To commemorate its unique position, a giant cylindrical post-box was set up near the station in 2009 which, standing at 2.8m, is the tallest in the nation. Luckily, there are two slots so if you can't reach the 2.1m higher one (which I just about did!) you can always pop your envelope into the 1.4m slot.

Sunday 12 April 2020

"It's just Behaviour": How Acting more Japanese Could Help Defeat the Coronavirus

In my earlier post on the coronavirus situation in Japan (updated daily!), I suggested that one of the reasons that the virus may not have spread to the extent it has in Western countries could be cultural. I wrote that Japan is a hygiene-obsessed country at the best of times and hand-washing, gargling, masks, and hand-sanitiser - not to mention social distance and bowing instead of hand-shaking and hugging - are part of everyday life (especially during the influenza season which coincided with the start of the crisis). I also mentioned the plethora of anti-bacterial or kōkin (抗菌) goods on sale, from pens and slippers to bags and leg-warmers.
While it is true that Japan has conducted fewer tests than most other countries – at the time of writing WHO data gives a figure of 1.03 per thousand in stark contrast to its neighbour South Korea with almost 11.22 per thousand – it is also true that the number of deaths has remained extremely low: Japan's mortality rate was 2.5% as of April 23rd compared with 13.56% in the U.K. Moreover, hospitals have not been overrun. So could adopting Japanese cultural traits help us defeat the Coronavirus - and save lives? This seems less of a stretch if we remember that culture is simply the customs and behaviour of a particular people or society. Indeed, governments across the world have been encouraging us to change our daily habits. "It's just behaviour," said Dr Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, "each of our behaviours translating into something that changes the course of this viral pandemic."

Starting with the ideas and values that drive behaviour let's look in a little more detail at the Japanese focus on cleanliness and hygiene in Japan. In one of my earliest posts, I discussed Japanese high-tech toilets and the "clean/pure" inside (uchi =内) vs "dirty/polluted" outside (soto =外) divide. In the home, for example, this is evidenced by both the genkan (porch or entrance hall) where shoes are removed before stepping up into the house and also the toilet itself where household (often anti-bacterial) toilet slippers need to be worn. The distinction between clean and dirty is rooted in Japan's indigenous religion, Shinto; the torii gate to the shrine, often festooned with shide purifying paper, marks the boundary between the sacred (pure) and the profane (impure).

Overall and hat for school lunch duty
One consequence of this concept of the outside as dirty (kitanai=汚い) is that the importance of removing shoes, hand-washing, and gargling is drilled into youngsters from an early age. In schools, children change into indoor slip-on shoes (uwabaki=上履き) at the entrance. In public schools, school lunch (kyūshoku) is typically provided and everybody washes their hands thoroughly before eating. Students take turns to dish out the food and the student on duty (tōban) for that day will typically wear an overall or apron, hat, and mask (pictured). Given this cultural background, recent songs by Arashi  and (below) Pikotaro imploring everyone to wash their hands seem unnecessary.

Another Japanese (indeed Asian) habit that can save lives is the wearing of masks. As I discussed in detail here, Japanese wear masks for a variety of reasons, from covering the face when there was no time to make-up and preventing a sore throat to stopping hay fever and the spread of cold/flu. Part of the culture of mask wearing is consideration for others: it is safe and reassuring for others if you are wearing a mask. This is a point that was not well understood by WHO and most Western governments who initially said that masks were not recommended. In contrast, countries such as Korea strongly recommended masks as a way to limit the spread of infection. In other words, the Western perspective was that masks were unlikely to prevent an individual catching the virus; in contrast the Asian perspective was that masks were effective in stopping the spread of the virus to others (especially relevant since around 10% of cases are asymptomatic). Belatedly, we are now seeing a change in the WHO position to one condoning the wearing of masks.

In conclusion, there is a lot of evidence that acting more Japanese can help protect both ourselves and others. In Japan, as outlined in this Japan Times article, there has been a flood of tweets and blog posts arguing that Japanese cultural practices have contributed to the low number of infections. Cell biologist Hironori Funabiki, for example, mentions washlets on high-tech toilets, lack of speaking on public transport and at ceremonies, few religious assemblies, and the fact that few foods are eaten with bare hands (most snacks are individually wrapped). The article cited above does finish with a word of caution, though, introducing one Japanese cultural trait that could actually increase the spread of the virus: shame. Japanese are for the most part very sensitive about causing trouble or inconvenience for others (the word for this, meiwaku, is frequently used to admonish adults and children alike) and this could make people reluctant to get tested for fear of embarrassing their company or in-group. Indeed, there is a underlying feeling that health is "all in the mind" (yamai wa ki kara) and anybody who has fallen ill must be at least partly to blame for not taking proper care of their health (kenkō kanri). Of course this can also work to encourage people to take more care. In the final analysis, whatever culture we hail from we all need to take a little extra care - and be a little more considerate - if we and those around us are to survive these difficult times.