Archive for April, 2010

Snuff hits the streets of Tokyo

Thursday, April 15th, 2010

Zerostyle mint delivers a nicotine hit without smoke

Zerostyle Mint delivers a nicotine hit without smoke

Snuff, the refined vice of Victorian-era English gentlemen, might be making a comeback in Japan. Next month will see the launch of Zerostyle Mint, what Japan Tobacco calls “a new style snuff tobacco product.”

Why the revival? Well, while it’s still OK to light up in many restaurants and bars, except for designated areas, smoking has been banned from city streets and this month it looks like the health ministry will be finalizing a report recommending smoking bans in the workplace.

Back in January we reported steps Japan Tobacco (JT) were taking to provide smoking refuges for nicotine addicted Japanese, but faced by an ever-dwindling number of smoking spaces, it’s conceivable that smokers might have to turn to Zerostyle Mint in situations when they need a nicotine hit and can’t find anywhere close by to light up.

While JT calls it snuff, the Zerostyle Mint isn’t for sticking up your nose. It’s a device that looks like a stubby black whistle, with a mouthpiece that you are meant to suck on rather than blow through and refillable cartridges that will last from half a day to a whole day, depending on the smoker’s level of dependency. While perhaps not as alluring as the usual smoker’s paraphernalia, refills will be individually wrapped and kept in a pouch.

Zerostyle Mint’s selling point is, of course, that it’s completely smokeless, which will be an added bonus for Japan Tobacco, who often has to thrown in free lighters along with packs of cigarettes to boost sales. But one wonders if JT are really gunning for this product. Seriously. We know “zero” is popular among products for calorie-watchers, but what marketing genius came up with the name Zerostyle?

Sales of Zerostyle Mint will initially be confined to Tokyo only as JT tests the product’s appeal. Similarly, last month JT limited sales of another experimental product to Tokyo. Camel Menthol Mini are stubby little cigarettes and might appeal to people who want an extremely quick ciggie – perhaps suiting the needs of crafty smokers who are trying to outwit the metro patrols, dishing out fines to public smoking offenders.

Good-luck charms change with the times

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

Many children starting the school year will have o-mamori (good-luck charms) hanging from their book satchels, possibly given by their grandparents to help them through that difficult first day. Traditionally these tiny cloth bags contain a piece of paper blessed by a Shinto or Buddhist priest, but increasingly the charm is a decorative item bought from a normal store and symbolizes the personal good wishes of a friend or relative.

Enter the Koe no Mamori (voice good-luck charm), on sale in Japan from April 20. As good-luck charms become more secular, the device allows buyers to personalize the charm, giving the object fresh significance. Inside the pouch is a tiny voice recorder on which the buyer records a personal message  –  for example, “Congratulations on starting school, do your best this year” – which can be played back by the nervous young student whenever they like (though they’ll surely lose street cred points if they’re caught by classmates listening to a message from their grandma).

Charms bought in temples are also moving with the times and it’s now common to find characters like Hello Kitty, displayed on the embroidered cloth pouches. The Kitty-chan charm in the picture is from Ishikawa shrine and is a traveling charm given me by a friend before I returned to the U.K. Regardless of religious significance, carrying the charm back with me gave me a warm fuzzy feeling on my flight home.

As o-mamori become more commercial, a wider range of characters is becoming available, I love this cool 8-bit Spelunker charm and this Muramasa o-mamori which was a freebie at Tokyo Game Show a couple of years ago.

Have you ever received or seen any unusual o-mamori? Tell us about it.

Japan by the numbers (04.12.10)

Monday, April 12th, 2010

With Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, is a hit for the PSP at hand?

Sunday, April 11th, 2010

Gamers at Yodobashi-Akiba playing their PSPs at a PlayStation Spot

Gamers at Yodobashi-Akiba playing their PSPs at a PlayStation Spot

Sony’s PlayStation 2 has had a remarkably long life for a home video game console. Released in 2000, it has sold over 140 million units. In Japan alone it has sold over 21 million units, and game developers continue to release new titles, even after Sony debuted its next-generation PlayStation 3 in 2006.

The times are changing, however, and handheld consoles are more and more often becoming the chosen platform for game developers.

Peace Walker: The newest game in the Metal Gear Solid franchise

Peace Walker: The newest game in the Metal Gear Solid franchise

By offering games that casual users are interested in, such as “brain training” games and cooking games, the Nintendo DS, released in 2004, has already surpassed the number of PS2 units sold within Japan for a total of 30 million consoles, or one for every four people in Japan. In turn the huge success of the console has attracted game developers who covet the large market.

The most surprising example of the change the DS has caused is Dragon Quest IX. The Dragon Quest series, which had been a home console staple for years, chose the Nintendo DS for its ninth installment, which was released last year to enormous sales.

The success of the DS has also made it difficult for other handhelds in the market; the PlayStation Portable (PSP), Sony’s handheld video game system, has sold half of the number of units the DS has. Possibly to help prop up the PSP in its battle against the Nintendo DS, Hideo Kojima, director of the incredibly popular Metal Gear Solid video game franchise, opted to release Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, due out in Japan on April 29, on the PSP rather than the PS3.

Kojima is a big proponent of handhelds, making it clear that he treated Peace Walker like a true game in the series, on the same level as a Metal Gear Solid 5 rather than as just a side story. Recently he stated that he believes the death knell for home consoles has sounded: “Gamers should be able to take the experience with them in their living rooms, on the go, when they travel – wherever they are and whenever they want to play. It should be the same software and the same experience.”

Kojima’s scouts must have been monitoring the action around Yodobashi Camera in Akihabara, a mecca for portable gamers. The front of the store is often the gathering place for groups of gamers who take advantage of the multiplayer functions of handhelds. Inside, there are PlayStation Spots where PSP users can connect and download demos. The release of Dragon Quest IX prompted huge crowds all searching for in-game items that required wireless interaction with other players. Peace Walker might be the next title to try and emulate the phenomenon.

Last Wednesday Konami held a media presentation that revealed the tie-in products for Peace Walker. In addition to Doritos, Axe, Pepsi, Mountain Dew and the Sony Walkman, Peace Walker will feature other video games. Video game magazine Famitsu leaked details of a tie-in with Capcom’s Monster Hunter series, and Konami confirmed this at the presentation. The lead character, Snake, will be able to hunt dinosaurs and roast meat as in the Monster Hunter series. There are also collaborations with Square Enix’s Front Mission Evolved and Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed. While the Assassin’s Creed tie-in is just a small part of the game, the combination with Monster Hunter, another popular game for the PSP with ad hoc multiplayer features, and Front Mission Evolved seem to imply that there will be a large multiplayer aspect to the game. Uniqlo/UT has also been recruited by Konami. They will release Peace Walker-themed T-shirts that players can load into the game. By entering a number from the barcode on the tag into the game, players will be able to have their characters wear a digital version of the T-shirt they just purchased.

Konami already has the next Metal Gear home console title in development (the title is Metal Gear Solid: Rising), and surely it will be a success, as most of the games in the franchise have been over the past decade, but unless gamers decide to start schlepping their PlayStation 3 systems out and about in Tokyo, it has no chance of becoming an ad hoc wireless phenomenon. With the help of dinosaurs, assassins and Uniqlo, Peace Walker still may.

Office ladies shedding the uniform look

Friday, April 9th, 2010

Office ladies light up the stage

Office ladies light up the stage

With fast fashion growing at an exponential rate recently, it’s surprising to see a new store that stocks mid-range quality items opening up 10 new stores across the country in the last few months. Targeting Japan’s workforce of OLs (literally office lady) Brilliantstage sells stylish gear that can be worn both in the office and out on the town.

With many new graduates starting their first job, Brilliantstage is counting on the fact that many young ladies aren’t attracted by the traditional stuffy suits available. They’re also hoping that workers will see buying a basic daily item such as a suit as an investment. While fast-fashion companies like Uniqlo stock a range of affordable and stylish suits – a jacket and pants set from Brilliantstage costs around ¥20,000, while Uniqlo’s goes for only ¥6,000 – buying these less durable items might be a false economy.

Just as many salarymen have been freed during the summer months from the constraints of wearing a jacket and tie with Koizumi’s popular “CoolBiz” campaign, recent years have seen OLs get more stylish as the stricter dress codes of the past give way to allow women more freedom. The biggest difference being that, according to a 2006 study by Macromill, in 1996 52 percent of office ladies were obliged to wear a uniform, while 10 years later that figure had fallen to 22.7 percent. The number of offices that have a dress code had gone up from 15.5 percent in 1996 to 31.7 percent in 2006. However, offices with no uniform and no dress code had risen from 31.1 percent to 43.7 percent. For a look at just how casual OLs can get, check out this slideshow from Naver Matome.

It appears from this research that the OL uniform is vanishing from Japanese offices, which will be a disappointment for some men: OLs in uniforms are often a popular subject in the porn movies here. For those who are interested in taking a less lewd look at what these uniforms look like, there’s a good post on Danny Choo’s blog.

While it’s great news that many OL now have more freedom to choose their own wardrobes, not all Japanese companies are moving with the times. A damning article in The Wall Street Journal revealed that newly hired women at Nomura Holdings, including a Harvard graduate, were separated from their male coworkers and taught how to “wear their hair, serve tea and choose their wardrobes according to the season.”

Kings of comedy yuck it up on April Fools

Friday, April 9th, 2010

famoso1

Beat Takeshi and Tokoro George published the third issue of Famoso on April Fool’s Day

It could be said that modern Japanese comedy doesn’t exactly make extensive use of satire for its material. For the most part, comedians center their acts on physical and verbal gags, one-off jokes that can be incorporated into a variety of different circumstances.

April Fool’s Day, however, seems to have created a space in which it is acceptable to satirize to a certain extent. The event isn’t celebrated widely in Japan; although, multinational companies with Japanese divisions take advantage of the occasion to let their hair down and show their lighter side. Google debuted their unique Japanese keyboard, and YouTube introduced TEXTp, the latest video mode unique to Japan’s text-centric cell phone culture.

This year some smaller Japanese companies used the day to raise their profile virally through the mad linkfest spawned by April Fool’s Day. The craft beer company Sankt Gallen introduced its new brew Toriaezu Beer, making fun of the Japanese custom of ordering “whatever the hell you have on tap for now” as the first drink at a restaurant. Sankt Gallen sold the beer for 24 hours on April 1, alone or bundled with their standard selection of beers.

The brewer’s creative efforts earned it 15th place in the April Fool’s Awards 2010, a Japanese Web site where the public could vote for their favorite site. Another site, April Fool’s Japan 2010, provided a list of all the April Fool’s Jokes and, a few days before April 1, organized Twitter hash tags to help spot new Web sites with jokes.

A number of large Japanese companies joined in the fun. Chintai, a provide of rental housing information, expanded their coverage of apartments to outer space. Japanese massively multiplayer online role-playing game The Tower of AION advertised their skyscraper condominium named after the game. While tours of “power spots” have attracted hordes of women, Travel.jp offered men a chance to visit a power spot that would make them popular.

Probably the most ambitious April Fool’s effort was that of comedians Beat Takeshi and Tokoro George, who released the third issue of their satire magazine Famoso. They first released the magazine for April Fool’s Day 2009. Reportedly the result of an excess of creative material from when the two hung out at Tokoro’s home and office, the magazine was so popular that it was reprinted, and the pair released a second issue last August.

Continue reading about April Fools' in Japan

New hobbies for swinging into spring

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

The beginning of April marks a new start for most Japanese, not only is it the new start of the financial year but it’s also the beginning of the academic year. It’s also the time when many people decide to try their hand at a new hobby, so with this in mind we decided to investigate what activities are popular this year and try to look at the reasons why these hobbies are trending.

Yoga still ranking high (gbSk photo; link below)

Yoga still ranking high according to shyumisagashi.com (gbSk photo; link below)

One portal that consistently came top when searching the web for hobby ideas was Shyumisagashi.com (Findahobby.com). Not only is the site a compendium of hobby ideas, but it also gives rankings for the popularity of various hobbies, searchable under different catagories of age and gender.

The No. 1 ranking hobby on the site for all ages and genders was yoga. Though yoga was introduced to the Japanese in 806, the recent boom for the activity dates back only to 2004 when increased media exposure sparked on increase in its availability at sports clubs. The reasons people take up yoga are twofold: to lose weight and to combat stress. Enrolling for regular yoga classes can be difficult for some overworked and underpaid office workers, so with this in mind, as part of their Smart Sports Fitness line, AU launched their Ouchi (your home) Yoga Salon in December of last year: Customers follow a yoga workout that is demonstrated on their phone and then receive a mail from their yoga “trainer” encouraging them to keep up the good work.

While yoga is still No. 1 in the women’s ranking, the No. 1 hobby for men, according to Syumisagashi was, perhaps unsurprisingly, photography. What was less expected was the No. 2 ranking across the board of both sexes for “travelling alone in order to find yourself.” The appeal of this was cited as “to enjoy your travel at your own pace.”

Other top ranking hobbies that intrigued were paper crafts at the No. 5 spot and squash at No. 8. Bad news for the struggling eikaiwa (English conversation business), still reeling from the Nova shock, was that the previously popular activity didn’t even hit the top ten for either gender.

Though they also didn’t hit the top spots, we’d like to give a nod to the hobbies that lend themselves to the burgeoning konkatsu (marriage hunting) trend. According to this survey from Goo Ranking (Dec. 2008) taking up a hobby, ranked No. 8, for men as an effective method of finding a partner, while for women, it scored high at No. 3.

This thread on 2chan concerning “hobbies to take up in order to meet members of the opposite sex” contains a rather cynical list (presumably concocted by a male reader) of top ranking hobbies to find women based on considerations of “percentage of women, quality of babes and cost incurred.” Coming in first place is flower arrangement, next is cookery and third is tea ceremony. Women who are serious about searching for a mate might take the same approach and take up golf which, last year became a popular sport for marriage-hungry ladies.

Whatever their motivations, whether it be for fitness, fun, stress release or hooking up with a potential life partner, this season is sure to see people signing up in droves to make a fresh start to the new financial year.

Photo by gbSk

Japan by the numbers (04.05.10)

Monday, April 5th, 2010

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