Archive for December, 2009

Up and running in Japan

Thursday, December 10th, 2009

"Jogging" by Masahiro Hayata

“Jogging” by Masahiro Hayata

A few weeks ago, a neighbor asked me and a dozen other friends and acquaintances to help him get a spot at the Tokyo Marathon. Participants are selected by lottery, he explained, and by drawing numbers for him we could ostensibly increase his chances of pounding the pavement next March.

He needs all the help he can get: With Japan’s “running boom” arguably at its peak, races around the country are filling up faster than ever. The 2009 Tokyo Marathon saw 226,378 applicants competing for 30,000 spots: a 68% increase from the year before, and this year’s Peace Marathon in Hiroshima had around 2,000 more participants than 2008. What may be most significant about these numbers is that a majority of these new applicants are first-timers and women. Japanese running clubs are also seeing their numbers swell with new runners, especially those clubs with membership fees that offer professional coaching.

The market has been following closely. Now Nike and Asics have flagship stores in the trendy Harajuku district, and one of Asics’ star designers has broken off to start his own line. According to Brett Larner of Japan Running News, all the major running shoe makers are opening specialty shops and starting their own running clubs. “Upper management-level people from two major brands told me that Japan is the only place in the world where the running market has continued to grow during the recession,” he says, adding that Runners Magazine just moved into new offices last month, due in part to the spike in interest. What’s more,  he explains: “Non-running lifestyle and fashion magazines now regularly feature articles on running geared towards young, fashionable, independent women, the largest demographic within the current Japanese running boom.”

Continue reading about running in Japan →

It’s time for all of you to apologize

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

megane (glasses) bijin apologises

Megane (glasses) bijin says she’s sorry.

Partly due to wordplay with numbers, virtually every day on the Japanese calendar has some theme or special event attached to it, some traditional, some not so.

For no immediately apparent reason, Dec. 10 has been officially approved by the Japan Anniversary Association as “Gomenne no Hi” (“I’m sorry” Day) in Japan. To commemorate the occasion a site called Ayamari Bijin (Beautiful Girls Apologizing) has been counting down the days to the event with a new video of a different woman apologizing uploaded each day.

Most of the apologies are pretty mundane stuff like “I’m sorry for being late to the office, I slept in,” but there was the odd one that made me chuckle. Here are a few of my faves:

  • “The other day on the train I gave my seat up, saying ‘please sit down sir.’ Actually it wasn’t an old man, it was an old lady. I’m sorry.”
  • “I was eating sushi with my friend and put tons of wasabi under hers when she wasn’t looking. Sorry.”
  • “I’m too tall and always hog the space under the kotatsu (heated table). Sorry.”
  • “When I was a child I used to put the food I hated on my older brother’s plate. Sorry.”
  • “Dear mum, you finally made me walnut bread, but it was so horrible I threw it down the toilet. Sorry.”

Continue reading about Gomenne no Hi →

‘Swamp girls’ emerge from the forest

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

Mori Girl (red) vs. Numa Girl (blue)

Google search report for 2009: Mori Girl (red) vs. Numa Girl (blue)

You might have seen them drifting dreamily about Harajuku or Daikanyama, dressed in floaty layers, flat pumps and earthy colors that attest to an artistic sensibility at one with nature. This is the Mori Girl (森ガール, Forest Girl), a trend that took off in fashion magazines such as Spoon, Fudge and Spur in a big way this year.

Mori Girl actually first appeared two years ago in a community on Mixi. Japan’s most popular social networking site also helped spawn a new subset this year. Meet the Swamp Girl (沼ガール, Numa Girl), a Mori mutation begging for attention and respect. Sick of being laughed at for their frilly, floaty, earthy fashions Numa Girls openly state that they embrace the Mori Girl look — for all the wrong reasons. Here’s an abridged version of the manifesto posted on the top page of the Numa Girl community on Mixi:

Continue reading about Numa Girls →

The Complaints Choir: Denounce to the Music

Friday, December 4th, 2009

Japanese people are not known for airing their grievances in public, but a new project has arrived in Tokyo offering locals a new way to speak their mind. The Complaints Choir is the brainchild of Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen, a Finnish/German artist duo who conduct workshops and performances where the daily gripes of a city or society are written down and then sung with musical accompaniment.

The Complaints Choir concept has seen over 20 different incarnations around the globe since 2005. They recently hit Japan, and the final works can be seen in an exhibition at the Mori Museum running until February 2010. One of the most interesting aspects of the Complaints Choir is that it is comprised of ordinary people and is completely voluntary. “If we . . . make an open invitation, and if no one wants to take part, then that’s a clear indication that this project is not needed,” explained Kalleinen in an interview with Tokyo Art Beat.

Anyone can take part, she says, but no one is asked directly to ensure that only those who truly want to participate are involved. Complaints made in Japan varied from rude behavior on trains and eating habits to grooming issues.

If you could complain about Tokyo life through song, what would your gripes be? And what musical genre would be the best vehicle? Add your list of grievances in the comments below.

Just in time for Christmas

Friday, December 4th, 2009


This Christmas sees a couple of unique timepieces hit the shops. Depending on your temperament, you can choose to be woken by a cheerful disembodied head or a frog chorus. Personally I’d choose the frog chorus over the other rather sinister option. The Kero clock has two cute frogs who stand atop the digital display and sing you awake.

The prize for the weirdest clock goes to Clockman, from Takara Tomy, which has neither dials nor a digital display but instead a rubbery face that moves as he speaks. When you smack him on the head, Clockman will tell the time. In the morning he’ll wake you up by saying “De de de de de, it’s morning, wake up” (eek) and while you work will remind you of the time every 30 minutes or so, unless you tell him to shut up, upon which he’ll fall on his side and look peed off at you. If you ask him the time too much he’ll get annoyed at you and say, “Didn’t I just tell you a moment ago.”

Clockman has many moods (he’ll get grumpy if you do too much overtime) and he comes in a number of different personalities depending on his blood type. Personally, I think this clock would drive me up the wall, but I’d definitely consider giving to a frenemy.

‘Prototype’ documents the birth of designers’ ideas

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009

Hironao Tsuboi's mutated light bulb at Prototype in Tokyo Midtown's Design Hub

Hironao Tsuboi’s mutated light bulb at Prototype in Tokyo Midtown’s Design Hub

Due to popular demand, Tokyo Midtown Design Hub’s third annual Prototype exhibition has been extended until Dec. 13. Prototype shows the work of Japanese creators – mostly architects, product designers and furniture designers – with a focus on the creative process and problems of turning an idea into an object. Each display has notes and sketches drawn directly onto the tables by the designers themselves, giving the viewer insight into  their creative process. This makes the show fun for both die-hard design followers and those with only a passing interest. The finished products are beautiful, to be sure, but just as interesting are the scrawled diagrams, and in some cases, the tools used to make the new products on display.

Personal favorites were Teruhiro Yanagihara’s polarized candle holder, Naoki Terada’s coded imunization kit and Ben Nagaoka’s “View Bench” (but we’re even bigger fans of what he and Point Design can do to a room, when given the chance).

Admission is free.

More information at the official Prototype site.

Tokyo Midtown Design Hub site

Cheburashka set to topple Kitty-chan?

Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

Doutor Cheburashka original coffee set

Doutor Cheburashka original coffee set

From Dec. 3 visitors to Doutor coffee shop can get their mitts on limited-edition Cheburashka items unavailable elsewhere. Each week the free gift changes: in the first week free stickers are available, from Dec. 10 you can receive a clear A5 file and from the Dec. 17 customers get two free postcards. Stocks are limited so visitors to the store best get there early.

In addition you can buy a Cheburashka mug for ¥630, a Cheburashka original coffee set including mug, bag of drip coffee and tote bag for ¥1,800 and a 200-gram bag of premium mild blend coffee for ¥850.

It should be no surprise that despite being a Russian character, Cheburashka has connected with the Japanese and in early last month, a Japanese anime version of Cheburashka debuted on Japanese TV. Small childlike  (chibi) characters with large heads such as Rilakkuma or Hello Kitty are extremely popular in Japan, so diminutive Cheburashka with his cute voice and giant bonce ticks all the right boxes for entry into Japan’s kawaii (cute) hall of fame.

Originally a character in a Russian storybook, Cheburashka became a popular Russian stop-motion animation in in the late ’60s. The furry homunculus has a number of comical friends such as Gena, a kind of gentleman crocodile, and an enemy called old lady Shapoklyak who plays pranks on him.

The original stop-motion animation first aired on Japanese television in 2006, and the ensuing popularity soon turned the original Russian Cheburashka products into must-have collectibles. This toy is now on sale on Yahoo Auctions for a hefty buy-it-now price of ¥55,000. As the Dotour campaign attests, the merchandising of Cheburashka is no doubt generating a mountains of rubles.

The copyright to the character has been fiercely debated in court between Eduard Uspenskiy, the writer of the original books, and Leonid Shvartsman, the art director of the animated films. Uspenskiy won a recent ruling in 2007. Given the proven money-making record of Hello Kitty, Shvartsman is no doubt feeling extremely put out right now.

Nico Nico brings the chattering masses to TV

Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

Nico Nico Commentary

Nico Nico Commentary

Niwango, the company behind Nico Nico Douga, the hugely popular video site that displays user comments on the videos themselves, keeps rolling on. On Nov. 28 the company launched a service called Nico Nico Jikyou (translated as Nico Nico Commentary) that allows viewers to comment and view other users’ comments on TV content in real time.

At the moment it only works when you are viewing digital broadcasts on a PC, but soon, if you happen to own a ROBRO-TV, a new broadband TV manufactured by Doshisha Co. Ltd., Orion Electric Co. Ltd. and Kadenza Co., Ltd., you’ll be able to view the peanut gallery’s opinions from your couch.

The Nico Nico Jikyou service is currently being applied to nine channels in the Kanto region. It’s also possible to use the service from your mobile phone as well as from your PC.

A quick sampling of the Nico Nico Jikyou comments included one woman’s disgust with the new dark look of a pop star, praise for the music on a commercial and someone criticizing Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama for allegedly taking bribes.

We have to wonder what TV networks and their ad clients will have to say about this new visual feedback. Most likely as it grows in popularity, it will become difficult to ignore.

Naturally,  the ability to create raw, unedited video feeds coupled with chatty interaction comes with ill side effects. On Nov. 28, Asiajin.com reported on the alleged suicide of a 24-year-old Japanese woman. The aftermath of her jump from a 4th-floor apartment was streamed on Stickam Japan, a subsidiary of the U.S.-based live video-sharing site, and the boards at 2Channel were buzzing with commentary shortly after.

Nico Nico Live also come under the spotlight last week when a girl broadcast what seemed to be footage of her suicide. It later was revealed that the wrist-slashing and the blood were all fake.

For better or for worse, with the advent of live video and a very vocal audience, increasingly powerful tools are within reach of attention seekers.

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