Thursday, 23 December 2021

Relaxing in a Bath of Yuzu: Marking the Winter Solstice in Japan

Temperatures have dropped below zero here in Tokyo and more cold weather is expected: the word is that we're heading for a freezing cold winter with lots of snow due to the La Niña phenomenon. Not to worry though - one of my favourite Japanese things is the hot bath, which includes not only hot indoor and outdoor springs (onsen) and the local neighbourhood public bath (sentō) but even the humble domestic household bath (ofuro). Bathing etiquette is the same regardless: wash outside the bath first and then enter for a nice long soak once clean (see here for a detailed manual!). In the home this means you can re-use the same water over a number of days (you can re-heat at the touch of a button); when you do need to run a new bath (oyuhari =お湯張り) this is also done automatically: put the plug in, select the temperature and water level and wait a while (it'll tell you when's it's ready). Modern baths can be run, heated, and even cleaned by smartphone app, handy, for example, when you're on your way back from work. It's not only the toilets that are sophisticated here!

A particularly interesting custom relating to baths comes on the day of the winter solstice (tōji =冬至) when Japanese traditionally put yuzu into the hot water. Yuzu are a small yellow citrus fruit with a thick grapefruit-like pitted skin typically the size of a tangerine though they can be as big as a regular orange. The fruit itself is rather tart/sour with little pulp and lots of seeds so Japanese tend not to eat it directly: it is more commonly used as a seasoning or garnish or to make sweets, sauce, vinegar, tea (available in Starbucks!), cocktails, and jam. Ponzu sauce is a staple at the Japanese dinner table and is used as a dressing or dip for a variety of foods. The name ponzu apparently comes from the no longer used Dutch word pons meaning punch!

The tradition of floating yuzu in the bath water on the winter solstice - sometimes cut or in a cloth bag - apparently goes back to the 18th century. It is said to be both good not only for one's health - preventing colds - but also for the skin and the aroma is also very soothing and relaxing. The custom is also supposed to bring health and good fortune for the coming year as well as warding off evil (not sure about COVID-19 though). The link above has a long list of the amazing benefits of yuzu including antioxidant and microbial properties as well as cardiovascular and circulation improvement.

I tried a yuzu bath on the evening of December 22nd, a day of biting northwesterly Siberian winds, and was pleased I did. Not only is the aroma supremely relaxing - I almost fell asleep in the bath - but the skin does feel smoother afterwards and I slept remarkably well that night. However, it is not only humans that enjoy this custom: the Izu Shaboten Zoo is famous for its capybara hot bath where you can watch the giant cuddly rodents - much adored by the Japanese - soaking contentedly among the bobbing Yuzu. Merry Christmas everyone!

Attribution: Flickr user yto (Tatsuo Yamashita) - (used under CC BY 2.0 licence)

Tuesday, 30 November 2021

Tokyo: City of the Future or City of Confusion?

Tokyo, recently the centre of global attention during the Olympics, is undoubtedly one of the world's great cities. It was recently voted 4th in the Economist's global liveablity index (tied with Wellington), largely due to its high marks for stability, infrastructure, and health care (certainly, it has fared much better during the pandemic compared to many European cities). The name Tokyo itself though is rather confusing since it can refer to different things. While Tokyo Metropolis (Tokyoto=東京都) has a population of over 14 million, the Greater Tokyo Area - which includes a number of surrounding prefectures - has almost 37.5 million residents, which apparently makes it the largest "city" in the world (though it seems a bit ingenious to call such a large area a "city"!). On the other hand, the 23 special wards (ku=区), where a little over 9 million Tokyoites live, are generally seen as Tokyo proper, though just to confuse things further, all 23 of these wards (like Shinjuku) refer to themselves as cities!

The Yamanote Line (山手線) is the almost 35km circular train line that links most of these "cities", including Shinagawa, Shibuya, and Shinjuku. To confuse non-Japanese (and Japanese too for that matter) the direction of travel is not "clockwise" or "anti-clockwise" but outer circle (sotomawari =外回り) and inner circle (uchimawari=内回り). Each station has a unique jingle when the train doors are about to close - if the music is still playing you know you just about have enough time to leap on or off (listen to them all here)! Until recently, there were 29 stations on this loop but in March 2020 a new station - Takanawa Gateway Station (高輪ゲートウェイ駅) - opened between Shinagawa and Tamachi Stations. 

East Japan Railway promoted Takanawa Gateway Station as a futuristic hub, an “ecoste” (Environment Earth Conscious Station) boasting high-level energy conservation through the adoption of origami-inspired roof membranes and the use of cedar-wood from the Tohoku region. It also boasts an unmanned automated convenience store and high-tech facial-recognition equipped AI security robots (though I never saw the latter when I visited - must have been stolen). Controversy dogged the opening of the station: while a public naming competition chose Takanawa as the name, JR East decided on adding the English "Gateway" in an apparent attempt to give it a cool/futuristic/international ring. This was widely panned by the Japanese public and spawned a number of memes and parodies (such as the one here).

Sunday, 31 October 2021

The Impact of COVID-19 on Foreign Residents in Japan: Support Measures and Japanese-Style Multiculturalism

I was recently invited to give an online talk on the impact of COVID-19 on foreign residents in Japan as part of the Waseda Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies Seminar Series run by the Institute of Asian Migrations (IAM), a project research institute at Waseda University. The title was quite a mouthful: "The Impact of COVID-19 on Foreign Residents in 'No Immigration' Japan: Structural Inequity, Japanese-Style Multiculturalism, and the Loss of Social Capital." Not wanting to put off my regular readers, in this post I'm going to give a brief summary of the main points. Any masochists wanting the full presentation can actually watch it HERE on YouTube or read the full paper HERE, though probably not recommended for those of a non-academic ilk! 

I started off the talk with a visual (below) showing the key events relating to the spread of COVID-19 in Japan. This shows the five waves of COVID-19 (with a big jump after the Olympics!) as well as the four state of emergencies (green arrows). One point I highlighted was the re-entry ban for foreign residents - including most permanent residents like me - which ran from April to August 2020. This was seen as discriminatory by many at the time, but I learned after the presentation that the reason was, apparently, due to a lack of PCR test kits. Why the government didn't explain this at the time and instead let discontent fester is rather difficult to understand.

I've talked in other posts above Japan's "No Immigration" Principle, an institutionalisation of the ‘homogeneous people’ ideology of Japanese identity that explains Japan's resistance to migrants and a proper migration policy. The Waseda talk used that as the ideological base to explain the experience of foreign residents during the pandemic. The following figure, based on the content of calls to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government helpline for foreign residents, illustrates the financial and mental impact the pandemic has had on the foreign community in Japan.

In terms of support measures, the government response was refreshingly flexible and inclusive, treating foreign residents, for the most part, the same as Japanese. However, as the diagram below shows, equality is not the same as equity: although, in theory, much support was available, in practice it was often difficult for foreign residents to access these resources due to language and other problems. 

The rest of the presentation focussed on Japanese-style multiculturalism (tabunka kyōsei =多文化共生), a non-integrative exclusionary policy that serves as one of the key barriers in providing equitable support to the foreign community. An extension of the 'homogeneous people' ideology, I discussed how it isolates and disempowers foreign residents, failing to foster the skills and abilities they need to access resources equitably and become fully-functioning independent members of society. Indeed, one of the key themes of the presentation was belonging: about the only time I have ever heard the government acknowledge that we foreign residents are members of society (shakai no ichi'in =社会の一員) was when they wanted us to fill out the census forms. I remember seeing the ad below in my newspaper and nearly choking on my morning coffee: apologies for the coffee stain!

Tuesday, 28 September 2021

Yearning for the Real Japan: Showa Nostalgia at Seibu Amusement Park

Copyright ©SEIBU Railway Co.,LTD
They say nostalgia isn't what it used to be - except in Japan, where it's never gone out of fashion! In fact, the Showa retro boom or Showa revival - the Showa Era, named after the reign of Emperor Showa (Hirohito), ran from 1926 to 1989 - has shown no sign of losing steam 40 years on from when it first emerged. As I wrote about in a blog post on the Shitamachi (downtown) Museum in Ueno, the boom/revival started in the early 1980s and is marked by a yearning for a "real" or "authentic" Japan with warm community bonds and people who are "honest, forthright, and reliable" (Buckley, p. 529). It is also characterised by a yearning for a economically strong and thriving Japan: Inamasu notes that the boom is for the most part centred on the period 1955 to 1974 (Showa 30s and 40s) which roughly coincides with the so-called Japanese economic miracle. In other words, the boom focuses on nostalgia for a time of cultural and economic growth, a "hot" (nekki=熱気)period of excitement and fervour, when Japan was on its way to becoming Number One.

Copyright ©SEIBU Railway Co.,LTD
Seibu Amusement Park in Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture (right next to Tokyo), is a good illustration of the incredible longetivity the Showa retro boom has enjoyed. Built in 1950, smack in the middle of the Showa period, it underwent a big extension and re-design for the 2021 season, with a grand re-opening on May 19th 2021. The theme? Why the Showa era of course! As well as the world's first Godzilla ride - most of the classic movies were shot during Showa - and a children's area based on the work of the "God of Manga" Osamu Tezuka (1928-1989) - you can't get much more Showa than Atom Boy! - the centrepiece is a new "Sunset Hill" Shopping Street (Yūhi no Oka Shōtengai =夕日の丘商店街) bursting with shops, shopkeepers, and street performers lifted straight out of the period. From stall holders playing drums on the pots and pans in the kitchen-ware store and singing banana-sellers, to story-telling with pictures (kami-shibai=紙芝居) and cafes selling cream soda the detail and level of immersion is incredible. There are even police officers chasing a thief! See here for the marketing vision behind the creation of a place where "people can find happiness."

Though the boom has been particularly enjoyed by the so-called baby-boomers who experienced the period first-hand, it is also notable how young people have flocked to this retro chic, as a walk down Sunset Hill Shopping Street shows. Quite why a wistful yearning for a bygone era should be attractive to this generation - aside from its obvious instagramability (instabae=インスタ映え in Japanese) - is a little puzzling. Wallin, in a piece that attempts to answer this question, quotes from a Tokyo tourism industry employee as follows: “Because many Japanese millennials only see hardship in their future, it’s no wonder they look to the past. They see a time that still had a bright and hopeful future.” In these bleak days of never-ending COVID news, it is perhaps no surprise that the simplicity and safety of a world long gone has provided a refuge to both old and young. But it also offers some puzzles and mysteries for the youngsters: how exactly, asked my daughter, do you use a rotary dial telephone?

Saturday, 28 August 2021

Looking Back over the Olympics: Pride and Fear


In the June post, I wrote (pre-Games) about why the Japanese didn't want the Olympics; now the Games have finished, a lot of people have been asking what the prevailing mood and sentiment is now. I can probably sum this up in two-words: "mixed-feelings." On the one hand, Japan's record medal haul (including 27 golds) certainly got people excited and proud, especially success in "traditional" events like judo in which Japan has under-performed in recent years. On the other hand, during the Olympics we saw a huge spike in COVID-19 cases: as I write, we are at a record 25,000 cases a day (including a record number of serious cases), including almost 5,000 new cases daily in Tokyo, with medical infrastructure seriously stretched and ambulances unable to find beds for patients. Below, I'll look at these two sides in turn.

The strong performance of Japanese athletes - by far surpassing the previous record haul of 16 golds in 1964/2004 - saw a large number of people (64%) glad the Olympics went ahead (kaisai sarete yokatta=開催されてよかった). The number who thought the games should have been cancelled (25%) was also much lower than before the games (in my pre-olympic post numbers hovered around 40%). 

On the other hand, Prime-Minister Suga's approval rating reached a new low (35%) with many sceptical of his insistence that the Olympics were not to blame for the spike in cases. Certainly, the scepticism was a little unfair since the Olympic bubble, aside from a few infractions, more or less held: an incredible 624,000 PCR tests were conducted with only 138 positives (0.02%), including 29 athletes. No events were disrupted. The Organising Committee announced over 550 COVID-19 cases connected to the Games in total, the high figure perhaps reflecting the thoroughness of the testing. But while the bubble did succeed for the most part in stopping infections from the 80,000 or so visitors, as Shigeru Omi, Japan's Fauci, argued the Olympic atmosphere undoubtedly contributed to a rise in public complacency. The result was a huge spike in cases that forced the government to extend the (4th) state of emergency on August 2nd and further on August 20th. 

The mood hasn't been helped by news that the government covered up the first case of the deadly Lambda variant of the coronavirus identified in Japan which was brought by an Olympic worker from Peru in July. And the story of a newborn baby who died after the coronavirus infected mother couldn't find a hospital to accept her and was forced to give birth at home received blanket coverage and shocked many Japanese to the core. In sum, distrust in the government really couldn't be higher - expect the LDP to crash and burn in the upcoming House of Representatives elections - assuming, that is, Suga is still at the helm after the LDP leadership election on September 29th. 

UPDATE: Suga announced he was stepping down on September 3rd, continuing the "Olympic jinx" that has seen every prime-minister quit the year the (Summer/Winter) Olympics were held in Japan: 1964, 1972, 1998, and now 2021.

The Spectator-less (new) National Stadium (Kokuritsu Kyōgijō=国立競技場). Thanks to L for the fantastic pictures.

Friday, 23 July 2021

Back to Basics: Lilies, Lotuses, and Lanterns in Japan

Back in March 2017, this blog started as a place to share the things I see when out and about; as the header implies, it began with a strong nature focus and posts were short and frequent. Today, more than 200 posts and some 128,000 views later, the posts are much longer but less frequent (once a month); the content has also taken a much more culture and society turn than originally intended. With this in mind, I'm going "back to basics" and today am going to introduce the wonderful and extremely colourful array of flowers which I enjoyed during my daily dog walks during Japan's rainy season (yes, rain, shine, or typhoon Jaz insists we go out!).

Clockwise from top left: African Lilies (アガパンサス), Barbados Lily (白筋アマリリス), Flame Lily (グロリオサ), Madonna Lily (マドンナリリー), Orange Daylily (ワスレグサ), and Tiger Lily (オニユリ)

The first images are of lilies, those large trumpet-shaped colourful flowers which catch the eye at this time of year. Delightful to observe, comparing the English and Japanese names is also rather interesting. For example, the Orange Daylily is so-called because it only flowers for one day so the Japanese name wasuregusa (literally "forgotten plant") is no surprise! I noticed hundreds of tiny white aphids on the stems of these lilies (inset), aphids which eventually turned orange (like the lily) and sprouted wings. How strange!

(L to R) Indian or Sacred Lotus bud, flower, flower with stamen visible, and dried seed cup

Speaking of lilies, the water lily is revered in Japan (reflected in Japanophile Monet's many Water Lily and Japanese Bridge paintings). A few of my neighbours grow these amazing plants - more accurately known as Indian/Sacred Lotus or Hasu in Japanese - in large pots of water since it is obviously aquatic (the minimum water depth is about 30cm). The lotus root (renkon) - a crunchy, starchy, slightly sweet potato with holes - is a popular food in Japan, apparently making up about 1% of all vegetables consumed! One of the most beautiful sites to view these plants is Shinobazu Pond in the south of Ueno Park; in the summer, the surface of the pond is almost completely covered!

Another plant of note at this time of year is known as Asian (or Chinese) Lizard's Tail (ハンゲショウ) so called because each flower spike resembles a reptile's tail (?). This is actually a herb - in the past it has been used to treat inflammation - and can grow more than one metre high. The Japanese name Hangeshō can be written as either 半夏生 or 半化粧, the latter literally meaning "half make-up" reflecting the way the leaves appear to be painted half-white, as if someone had taken a white make-up brush to them but never finished the job. 

To finish off on a seasonal note, our final example is the Chinese Lantern (ホウズキ), also called the Devil's Lantern (鬼灯), a flowering plant with large bright red and orange airy husks covering its fruit. In the past, elementary school students would "pop" the balloon-like husks and gather the mini-tomato like fruit inside. As pictured, these lantern-like plants appear in shops in the run up to the holiday of Obon (August 13-16 this year), a key holiday when Japanese honour their ancestors who are said to briefly return to the world guided by lanterns - real or plant-based - hung in front of houses. Then, at the end of the holiday, the lanterns (or Devil's Lantern) are placed into rivers to guide their ancestors back to the underworld. A market/summer festival dedicated to the plant known as Hōzuki-ichi (ほうずき市)is held every year on July 9th and 10th near Senso Temple (浅草寺) in Asakusa.