Sunday, 14 June 2015

Turning Japanese: Innovation

Godzilla shares a coke with Shinjuku

When we think of Japanese innovation, what sort of images come to mind? Electronics? Sushi? Hello Kitty?

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Turning Japanese: 7 Golden Rules of Social Etiquette

A prayer memorial at Gotemba Heiwa Koen (Peace Park), enroute to Mt Fuji. Also home to dog statues donated by Buddhist cities over Asia.

It'd be rude not to explain Japan's lesser-known, mind-boggling rules of social engagement.

Turning Japanese: Etiquette

Life in Japan is built on a historical foundation of etiquette and social conformity. It's impossible to not be impressed by the friendliness, helpfulness and politeness. It's not just their Ps, Qs and remarkable 90 degree bowing abilities either. The values of ensuring safety, honesty, community, humility, respect and responsibility are evident not simply in the behaviours and actions of the people, but in their products and built environment.

It's worth doing a bit of research on regional customs before your visit. It's not an exhaustive list, but as a guest in a foreign country, you'll save yourself the embarrassment, feel infinitely more immersed and appreciated for making the effort.

1. Honesty is often the only policy

Money does not necessarily 'rule' all in Japan. Tipping is not normally practiced. In fact, it's considered an insult to tip your taxi driver because it implies he didn't do a good enough job. On one memorable occasion I was chased down a station by a panicked sushi restaurant hostess who thought I'd left my purse on my seat.

2. And when not to tell the truth...

Most tourists are familiar with the phrase "Oishi" (delicious) and that it's polite to audibly let the restaurant owner/chefs hear your appreciation of their cooking. But for locals, "oishi" is what you exclaim regardless of what you're served tastes like. "Japanese people tend to say the negative things indirectly. Because they try not to hurt the feeling of others, and to avoid confrontational situations."*

3. Exact match

Quality assurance, food safety and accurate labelling are taken very seriously in Japan. It's common to see every ingredient and calorie declared on menus and outdoor signage. That includes the irresistible matcha ice-cream stalls you'll find everywhere.

Growing 'perfect produce' is a national obsession. In grocery marts you'll find two or more varieties of fruit and veg that look identical but cost differently - as prices are based on their specific level of nutrients and sweetness. "As with anything made in Japan quality standards are high, so if you want the very best you have to pay for it," said Fu-san, our wise counsel during the trip.

4. The 'preciousness' of children

The national societal concern to protect young ones can seem a bit extreme for visitors. For starters there are some ridiculously weird school regulations. Most primaries require students to wear Bob the Builder-esque 'pedestrian helmets' whilst walking to school. Why? To reduce the risk of head injury, even though evidence has shown they make little difference. However, in context of its ever-dropping birth rate it's a somewhat understandable measure.

Ironically however, schoolchildren travel to school unaccompanied. As for adults, speed jaywalking is widespread - Fu-san describes Tokyoite jaywalking as 'legendary'.

5. Knowing the difference between left and right

In the UK, you're expected to stand on the right side of the escalator as a sign of courtesy. For most of Japan however, people stand on the left. Confusingly, in the Kansai region (where Osaka is located), people stand on the right. A fascinating explanation for this bit of transport etiquette, which also applies to drivers can be found here. Hint: it's to do with samurais.

6. The Green Party

As natural energy resources are limited, society makes a point on everyone doing their bit for conserving the environment. The streets and parks are spotless. General waste bins are generally super-hard to find, unlike recycling bins. Every drinks vending machine is accompanied by a unit for plastic, metal and glass. "If you live here and consistently don't do your household recycling correctly, you are likely to be shunned by your local community." said Fu-san.

7. Wildlife and folklore 

Due to the active tectonic plates its 6000+ islands lie on, Japan's urban spaces are densely over-populated. Throughout history nature and humans have always had a curiously intimate and sometimes challenging relationship, which is also reflected in its culture.

For example, because they can only leap forwards, frogs are considered a good luck mascot that bring progress - you'll often spot decorative stone frogs in temples, urban parks, even on chopsticks. At the entrances of eateries and bars keep an eye out for a cheeky anthropomorphic creature which looks like the mole from 'The Wind in the Willows'. This is 'tanuki', the centuries old cult-famous Japanese raccoon dog/flying squirrel. "The legendary tanuki is reputed to be mischievous and jolly, a master of disguise and shapeshifting, but somewhat gullible and absentminded"**. And in the city of Nara, the Tōdaiji, temple welcomes deer as well as humans guests because the former are supposed to be sacred.

Making a fancy entrance - a family of Tanunki 

Do you know any traditional or modern rules of Japanese etiquette? I'd love to hear from you!

Up Next: Innovation

*Sources: JapaneseLesson**Wikipedia

Monday, 8 June 2015

Turning Japanese: Work and Economy

Panoramic city skyline from Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building

In this chapter we'll take a look at the economy, job hunting like a Tokyoite and how to survive working in Japan.

Chapter Three: Work and Economy

I know little about economics. 
Having said that, the fact that the price of a Pokka canned iced coffee had not changed in 20 years 
+ the unbelievably reasonable cost of eating out well 
+ the number of mainly Asian tourists towing their ridiculous shopping hauls 
= according to my math are telltale signs of a recession. 

As the world's largest creditor nation (massive problems with public debt started in the 1990s), Japan's economy is shrinking at an alarming rate. No surprise large amounts of tourists are arriving to take advantage of the weak yen - to bulk-buy top-quality, trustworthy 'Made in Japan' products (typically electronics like rice cookers) at a very reasonable price.

Most ladies know Shiseido is somewhat of a gold standard for luxury skincare and makeup. However in Japan, it's as plain Jane as Maybelline. So don't get too excited the first time you find Shiseido toiletries in your average hotel room (yes that was me - the hillbilly washing my face and taking one too many showers). Typical Shiseido 'brand shoppers' in Japan are tourists - to locals it's known for its high-end department stores, alongside other iconic chains like Mitsukoshi (until its closure in 2013, the Piccadilly branch served London's Japanese community for 34 years).

The parallel goods trading industry thrives on the feverish overseas demand for the finest Japanese skincare (particularly from nearby Asian countries) - since niche products or regional editions are only available for a limited time. Nevertheless, "Japan saves the best stuff for itself - its domestic markets are some of the least open to exports or foreign investment." said Fu-san, our tour guide.

The view across Tokyo Skytree, Japan's tallest structure. (Right) The golden gourd topped Asahi Beer Hall

Job hunting

Every April Tokyo's prime job hunting season 'Shukatsu' kicks off. Students are expected to plan their applications a year in advance. For high school or university graduates in their third or fourth academic year, finding the job is a notoriously stressful and laborious process - they'll go through rounds of applications and interviews during the year.

新卒一括採用 'Shinsotsu-Ikkatsu-Saiyō' is a controversial corporate employment practice which is unique in Japan. It literally means 'simultaneous mass recruitment of graduates'. Unfortunately in some 'dark companies' their offer in employment is followed by "weeding out of weak ones through horrible work conditions and stress."*

Entry-level jobs for graduates are scarce - it is extremely difficult for them to find a job at any other time of the year. For those who are initially unsuccessful, many choose to extend their studies (thus preserving the desirable 'pre-graduate' status) rather than joining the workforce.  

Switching jobs is heavily frowned upon. You only get one shot as a prime job hunting candidate or fresh graduate. "Research the company background well and choose carefully. If you change more than three times you are unlikely to ever find work later in life," Fu-san told me as-a-matter-of-factly. In return for housing benefits, pensions and job security, you are expected to offer 'lifelong loyalty' to the company and comply with Japanese management culture. This includes unpaid overtime, mandatory after-hours drinking parties ('nomikai'), standardised dress code, systematically working your way up and the pressure to not to take up your full quota of holidays/sick leave.

Fascinatingly, "leadership is not based on assertiveness or quick decision making but on the ability to create consensus, taking into account the needs of subordinates"**. The key to career success is to be seen as maintaining team harmony (known as 'wa'), sharing credit for group accomplishments rather than celebrating individualism. Young children are taught the importance of  team-building exercises and it's not uncommon to spot the odd early morning fitness assembly/fire drill/company song singalong outdoors, as I did peering over my Nihombashi (Tokyo's financial district) hotel balcony.

Japan's high suicide rate is a sad, sobering reminder of its sometimes punishing work ethic. The stress placed on students' to land that critical first (and possibly last) job, the mandatory extended unpaid work hours (this is also due to company downsizing and a diminishing, ageing workforce - see my post on Japan's 'Ageing Epidemic') There's even a term coined for death by overwork - 'Karōshi'.

Dontonbori canal, Osaka

Open All Hours

There's no question about Japan's 24/7 culture. In major cities many food and entertainment establishments are open 365 days a year. That's not including the convenience stores - Lawson, 7-11, Family Mart who will be your best friends if can't read local menus. Plus the ubiquitous vending machines selling canned coffee (my favourite Japanese innovation) will undeniably keep you energised throughout the night.

But let's say you have a job working here. How do you let off steam after your 12 hour shift? Relax, after-work socialising with colleagues or clients in casual bars (known as 'izakayas' - literally 'roofs with alcohol') is the norm. At Dōtonbori, Osaka's bursting foodie/nightlife district, besides amazingly affordable and delicious food - try the street stalls selling grilled octopus balls, you can go for all-you-can-drink (in one hour) for 1900 yen (that's less than £10). I'm not advocating that you should overdo it, obviously.

*Source: 'How to jobhunt like a Tokyoite', Grace Buchele Mineta, Time Out Tokyo 2015 Summer Issue
**Source: Wikipedia

Up Next: Etiquette

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Turning Japanese: Ageing, Sex and Fantasy

Lots of 'Excited Banana' prizes up for grabs at a Shinjuku arcade game

In this post I'll be exploring Japan's ever-jaw-droppingly diverse world of sexual fetishism, the perks of being over 60 and the country's worrying 'Sexless Generation'.

Trying hard not to be judgmental, I'd heard about Japan's love-doll industry, 'parasite singles' and 'herbivore men' long before I'd got here. I found it incredible how the Japanese were so adept at creating all sorts of innovations to satisfy one's particular sexual needs that the real thing became superfluous and boring in comparison. Yet Japan's low fertility problem is a serious economic and social issue not to be laughed at. 

"In Japan life begins after 60", my guide Fu-san told me. Thanks to a diet rich in fish Omega-3s and seaweed nutrients the Japanese are famous for their high average 80+ life-expectancies. It's encouraging to see how society embraces the golden oldies - who are often physically fitter, mentally sharper and more socially active than their younger counterparts. For example in Osaka I saw recruitment posters specifically welcoming and praising the virtues of older candidates. From the impressively knowledgeable traffic wardens who helped us navigate Shinjuku to the helpful airport workers and the regular OAP protesters, they honestly seemed to be having a lot more fun. And when they're not keeping busy they're splurging their hard-earned savings on their next vacation.

The most common sight in Japan. A pair of older Japanese women in Tsujiki. I love their tops.

Spare a thought for the millennials, who in contrast, life consists of long working hours and the responsibility to care for parents in old age - like most of East Asia, the concept of  'filial piety' to elders is widespread. Add in factor of the struggling economy it's hardly surprising that despite government encouragement, many have chosen to delay marriage or not to start families at all. The severe measures conceived to solve its ageing epidemic/plummeting birth rate crisis was shown on a TV news special we watched while we ate a hotel breakfast in Tokyo - chicken curry rice and marbled green tea cake, in case you're wondering.

A Shinto wedding ceremony couple at Meiji Shrine

I'd learned about new government supported dating apps - 'Chiato' (for divorced mothers) and a 'marriage app' targeted the city's busy working singles. It does sound a bit aggressive, but when it comes to dating culture, Japanese men and women tend to be very shy and conservative. In spite of this, the faces in the programme were all digitally obscured - I thought this was counterproductive if the whole point of the pitch was to make actively looking for love less of a social taboo.

Confusing indeed, when you think of these initiatives against an abundant supply of straightforward non-human alternatives, exotic paraphernalia and every niche establishment you can imagine. Why have a baby when it's acceptable to take your dog in pram with you or pay for companionship at a pet cafe/hotel?. That's not including the high number of peeping-toms and 'lingerie thieves' - some say this perversion has risen due to the somewhat involuntary national repression of sexual desire.

Will you?

It's not just the millennials who are lacking in intimacy either. 'The Loneliness Epidemic' is widespread among elders - a result of relationships growing apart between with their busy, working children. Sadly it's not uncommon to see old people wandering aimlessly, talking to themselves on the street and halting traffic. On the other hand I was shocked to find out the biggest spenders in Shinjuku's Kabukichō (歌舞伎町) red-light district (now also open during daytime due to the recent influx of tourists) are actually the growing wealthy community of over 60s widows and widowers. These men and women aren't necessarily after sex, but are mostly seeking affection in the form of companionship, for meal or movie dates. "You don't even have to be attractive to work there, just attentive." said Fu-san.

Japanese men and women are so incredibly polite, yet patriarchy and sexism are accepted social realities. Women are expected to take care of their appearance from childhood and the unspoken gender pay gap has always existed. I couldn't help but notice at the Tsukiji market all the cart drivers were men.

These are just a few phenomenons and contradictions I'd witnessed in Japanese society. I suspect it's not just porn and sexual simulacra that's partially responsible either. Everything 'contemporary' in Japan seems to help one drift further from reality, reinforcing a 'perfect fantasy' world of escapism and imitation. The garish plastic food models outside restaurants, clear varnish painted Mickey Mouse shaped raindrops on umbrellas (over-ornamentation), every new WTF? fusion flavour, shiny product, themed eatery or cartoon character (twee-fication), arcade game, pachinko machine to the many random ferris wheels built for "romantic proposals and photo opportunities". Remember it's the adults who spend money on this...

Needless to say, I was left more perplexed and fascinated with Japanese gender values than I ever was to begin with.

Robot Restaurant - one of the many themed restaurants in Tokyo. You can rent a costume to make your experience extra memorable.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Turning Japanese: 5 Twists on Traditional Culture

The Lais at Kinkaku-ji 'The Temple of The Golden Pavilion', Kyoto.

Welcome to the first chapter in a series of fascinating cultural observations from a recent holiday in Japan.

Before I begin I must credit my spirited, mile-a-minute tour guide Fu-san (Ms Fu) for sharing her insider knowledge as a Chinese woman living in Tokyo for the past 10 years.

These are literally nuggets of disparate facts I picked up along the journey. I tried to group them together as best as I could, so I apologise if they sound a bit haphazard.

If you are Japanese/am living in Japan and disagree with any of the following, please do let me know.

Turning Japanese: 5 Unexpected Twists on Traditional Culture

Ancient Architecture

It's impossible to visit Japan without encountering a breathtakingly photogenic temple. Spurred by the introduction of Buddhism by Chinese monks in the 6th century, the mass building of temples were heavily influenced by Chinese Tang and Sui Dynasty styles of architecture. The Japanese adapted and tweaked many, many historical inventions from the China which exist today - I'll cover more on this in a later chapter on innovation details.

Social Status

Can you guess which groups of men and women enjoy highest social status across generations in Japan? For men, Sumo wrestlers - apparently their heavy paypackets make them the most eligible bachelors in Japan. "Sumo wrestler wives are told to tie their husbands up in bed to avoid being squashed to death before they inherit their fortunes" my guide told me - I couldn't tell if she was joking or not. For women, Geishas are seen as well-respected, multi-talented businesswomen. It is expensive to train as a geisha as it is to be entertained by one. Since the interest in traditional arts is fast declining, so are the number of apprentices. I was slightly disappointed to have left Kyoto (the heart of geisha culture) without having encountered a real geisha.

Bento Boxes

The ubiquitous Bento box was originally imported from Song Dynasty China, known as 便當 ('biàndāng'), meaning "convenience". The most lavishly decorated examples, which feature covers or be stacked in presentation are Tang and Ming dynasty inspired, made with luxurious materials such as lacquered wood and aluminum. There are many types of bento boxes, defined by the occasion they are served at and the cuisine that fills them. Homemakers often spend a week in advance planning bento boxes for their husbands and children, varying ingredients according to their nutritional needs. Colourful, creative character bentos ('Kyaraben') are often the only incentive for kids to eat their school lunches. Although there's plenty of convenience stores and vending machines around, homemakers tend to save their bulk supermarket shop for the weekends. It is undertaken as a family activity, seen as a break from their notorious work ethic.

Wall Whispers

Here's one very good reason not to have an argument in Japan. The construction methods and materials used there mean their walls are literally thin. I can personally testify upon this truth from every hotel I struggled to fall asleep in. To be fair, you'll seldom hear a Japanese person raise their voice, indoors or outdoors.

Thinking Inside The Box?

Finally a contentious point Fu-san mentioned from her time working in Japan was the traditionally systematic, detail-driven and somewhat predictable mindset of the population as a whole. And how it contrasts to the flexible, entrepreneurial and opportunistic thinking of the Chinese. I'm not convinced of such a generalisation, but it was fascinating nonetheless to hear her point of view.

Up Next: Ageing, Sex and Fantasy

Friday, 5 June 2015

Turning Japanese: Innovation and Idiosyncrasies

Bleston Court Hotel, Karuizawa

This was not the Japan I'd expected to discover.

The first thing you'll see in Japan from the moment you get off the plane is that rubbish bins are virtually non-existent. So forget about eating your Mo's Burger outside or finding litter on the streets/public transport - which is refreshingly considerate, let's be honest. At the risk of oversimplifying facts, despite its foodie reputation, just because of this social custom, the svelte figures of the Japanese immediately make logical sense.

The first thing you'll hear in Japan will be a greeting , an apology or both that sounds quite nice. Get used to it. Japanese people are so painfully polite it's probably in their DNA. No matter where you go, you will feel slightly inadequate, a scratch rough even. And as a result you will consciously or otherwise find yourself acting on your most ladylike/gentlemanly behaviour - nodding, smiling a lot more and questioning your home country's manners for improvement.

It's been 13 years since my last and this time, apart from a packed 5 day tour, attending a summer wedding in Karuizawa was the main agenda. Although I was staying at mountain resort getaway popular with the 35 million urbanites living in Tokyo, I did not prepare for this little thing called no access to WiFi. It took a while for my brain's fried up nerves and itchy fingers to be relieved by other means - the crisp lakewaters passing through stones, the cadence of birds chirping (we're still looking for that evasively over-confident woodpecker) and whistling while we explored forest paths. Even the wooden cabins we slept in made us feel like we were creatures from the Sylvanian Families.

It was admittedly a bit of a backwards shock - I'd psyched myself up to be blown away by the innovative technologies, striking urban redevelopment and cutting-edge trends from the country that gave us the joys of anime, Nintendo RSI and instant noodles. I'd even planned to research a podcast of Japanese inventions to surprise my friends Tom and Al at The Innovation Ramble. But I soon realised I was going to be significantly underwhelmed in that aspect.

This was not the Japan I'd expected to discover. This is not the travel piece of Japan I expected to write. This is a recollection of Japanese idiosyncrasies, interesting facts and cultural observations that delighted me no less. 

From the revelations of imports/exports, the clapping votive tablets and soothing windchimes at Meiji the cashier assistant at Prince Shopping Plaza unabashedly humming to Carly Rae Jepsen's 'I Really Like You' (annoyingly a big hit there). 

I hope you'll find a reason to stay tuned on the blog over the next few days! :-)


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