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Big (Only) in Japan? ‘Greensleeves’

Monday, June 21st, 2010

Please hold and listen to "Greensleeves" on an endless loop

Please hold and listen to “Greensleeves” on an endless loop

Japanese bureaucracy is one of the most efficient (and at times efficiently frustrating) in the world. If you know the rules of the game – registering as a foreigner, paying for national health insurance and pension, registering a personal signature stamp, etc. – then you should have no trouble with life in Japan. However, if you don’t know or don’t like the written (and unwritten) rules, then you may chafe under the societal differences, and when you call the local office to ask why you’ve received yet another bill to pay, your frustration may only increase when they put you on hold and you are forced to listen to a MIDI version of the famous English folk song “Greensleeves.” Video gamers will recognize the tune from the “King’s Quest” series of games, and history buffs will be well familiar with the 16th-century ballad that is referred to in Shakespeare and Chaucer.

For whatever reason, the tune is one of the default melodies on telephone systems in Japan. Not that the tune is the only one available; this Brother fax machine, for example, offers over 30 different selections, including “fun” songs like “It’s a Small World” and “seasonal” songs such as “Hotaru no hikari” (also known as “Auld Lang Syne”). But Greensleeves is listed in the “soothing” category along with classics like “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” and “My Old Kentucky Home.” A closer look reveals that this particular model is advertising melodies for the arrival of faxes – not necessarily hold music. Whether or not Greensleeves deserves to be put in the “soothing” category is a debatable issue, but another model from the same company, however, makes it very clear that in Japan, Greensleeves = hold music.

Perhaps there is some unknown connection with “King’s Quest.” Perhaps a freelance MIDI artist was just producing a ton of different music and Greensleeves tested very “soothing” in the market studies. Even Japanese are baffled by this. On Yahoo Japan, a questioner asked “Why is ‘Greensleeves’ so frequently used as hold music?” The single response says, simply, “Maybe because average people like it.”

Whatever the reason, “Greensleeves” approaches a sort of symbolic value much like “Auld Lang Syne,” which is bigger in Japan than “Greensleeves” and used across the country at stores just before closing time (to signal that they are closing) and at graduation ceremonies (to signal that the kids are finished). “Greensleeves” signals, soothingly to some and annoyingly to others, that the caller is being made to wait. Just a few more seconds and they’ll be back. Almost there. Wait for it. Wait for iiit – omatase-shimashita.

Pulse Rate: ‘Free rent’ pricing aims to fill up empty apartments

Saturday, June 12th, 2010

Summer heat doesn’t just slow down pedestrians in Japan – it also stifles the real estate industry. Most of this is due to the Japanese employment/academic calendar, which begins in April every year and ends the following March. Between February and April, students move closer to the schools where they will matriculate, and new company employees move out of the house and start life as a shakaijin (社会人, working adult).

As covered on the June 11 broadcast of “Gacchiri Academy,” a weekly info-variety program on TBS about saving money, once everyone gets settled, real estate agents have to scramble to fill the empty rooms. They can’t lower rents because that causes current tenants to complain and also reduces the value of the property. In the absolute worst cases, rooms that don’t find tenants by the end of April remain empty for a full calendar year. In response, some real estate agents have started offering “free rent” (フリーレント) deals on certain rooms.

No, “free rent” does not imply totally free, but it does mean that the first two months are free. Additionally, many of these have no “key money” payment to the landlord, which can be as much as two months rent, and no introduction fee to the agency. The only thing required is a month’s rent for deposit. The goal of the “free rent” discount is to get bodies into the room so that the landlord can stop taking losses.

Shortly after the broadcast, the term “free rent” skyrocketed to the top of the Google Trends keyword searches. Clearly, there is a near-constant hunt for bargain living spaces in Japan. Japan Pulse has previously covered the boom in room sharing. Yen for Living has also covered room sharing as well as discounts on rooms where people have died. Gacchiri Academy suggested that a little negotiation might be a previously unconsidered tactic – real estate agents and landlords might be willing to offer the free rent policy for rooms that were previously not discounted.

Mixi helps users socialize with new apps

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

pants

“Underwear Calendar” is one of many new Mixi apps. It lets users design their own underpants and keep a log of what they wear.

The development of social networking sites over the past decade has been one of evolution. Sites have boomed and busted, battling for number of users by adding features and functions or marketing to different audiences. Despite recent outrage about privacy settings, the clear winner has been Facebook, with over 400 million users, and the success of outside applications on the platform has pushed Mixi, a Japanese social networking site, to create its own set of applications.

Mixi is an invitation-only networking site where users can create profiles. While Facebook and other sites like LinkedIn rely on users creating a more or less accurate online representation of themselves, Mixi users often obscure their identity and avoid posting pictures of themselves. They then participate in Communities and Groups, having discussions about interests (such as fashion trends like “Forest Girls” and “Witch Girls,” as discussed previously) and interacting with friends.

In May 2009, web journal Neojaponisme suggested that the anonymity reflects a uniquely Japanese fear of the Internet (a fear that may have become more understandable to Americans in the past few months), but the recent boom in Facebook-like applications suggests that Japanese users were just using the site for different reasons, most of which didn’t (and still don’t) require complete transparency.

Altogether, applications are divided into five major categories – Entertainment, Communication, Studying, Useful Tools and Classmates. While some of the most popular applications are Farmville clones, like the game Sunshain bokujo (Sunshine Farm), other applications are providing basic feature extentions. Mixi Calendar debuted on May 11 and in three days topped over 1 million users. Although not as robust as the Facebook Event feature, the calendar application lets you create simple event notifications for friends or for everyone. It also takes comments from others. Applications in the final category, such as Dosokai (Class Reunion) and Dokyusei keijiban (Classmate Bulletin Board), allow users to track down classmates on the service.

“Useful Tools” include many apps that are probably familiar to Facebook users. These include Social Library, an app that lets you manage a digital bookshelf and keep track your friends’ reading lists; My Mixi Youtube, an application to share YouTube clips; and Tsunagari mappu (Connection Map), which draws a graphical representation of your friends.

While not an application, Mixi also recently incorporated Twitter-like status updates into its basic template, even taking the same translation of “tweet” as the official version – tsubuyaku, or “to whisper” in Japanese.

And this wouldn’t be a proper blog post about a Japanese trend if we didn’t somehow incorporate underwear, right? Well, Pantsu karenda (Underwear Calendar) offers female users the ability to create digital versions of their underwear and then note the days on which they wear them. The ultimate goal? Become an “underpants princess” and charm the men who “in actuality pay attention to underwear quite closely, strange though it may be.”

Naturally, there is a commercial tie-in. Image, one of the companies that created the app, runs a mail order catalog that sells – surprise, surprise – women’s clothes, and at the bottom of the application there are links to “recommended items” from the catalog. Unfortunately for panty fetishists, all of the underwear on the site appears to be brand new.

Daburu Koron hit big time with pun-riddled riddles

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

Japanese comedy is an inherently boom and bust business. Comedians often base their humor on one specific physical or verbal gag — such as Sekai no Nabeatsu or Yoshio Kojima — and ride it into the ground. Depending on the comedian and the gag, sometimes even one appearance on the right TV show is enough to launch a career or pull someone out of obscurity. Sekai no Nabeatsu and Shofukutei Shohei, for example, have both benefited from Downtown’s Zettai ni waratte wa ikenai” (“You absolutely must not laugh”) batsu game broadcast every New Year’s Eve.

Other comedians put in their time and slowly build up a critical mass of popularity. The latest group to do so is the young manzai duo Daburu Koron (Wコロン). Puns have long been called oyaji gyagu (old man jokes) in Japan, but boke (funny man) Nezucchi and tsukkomi (straight man) Kiso Sanchu have taken advantage of the oft-denigrated joke and elevated it to an art form, reviving the “nazokake” (謎掛け), an old Showa Era type of Japanese riddle.

The two start their routines like normal Japanese comedians doing give-and-take jokes, but at some point Nezucchi will shout out “I’ve got one!” (“Totonoimashita!”) He then offers up a riddle. In Japanese the form of the riddle is “X to kakemashite, Y to tokimasu.” An example is the self-deprecating joke seen in the YouTube clip above.

In the clip, Nezucchi says, “Daburu Koron to kakemashite, shun o mukaeru mae no kudamono to tokimasu.” In translation this is something like, “What links both Daburu Koron and unripe fruit?” Kiso Sanchu then asks, “What do you mean by that?” (“Sono kokoro wa?” ) And Nezucchi provides the answer along with his trademark catchphrase: “Nobody wants either of us. I’m Nezucchi!” (“Mada urete imasen. Nezucchi desu!”) Nezucchi puns on the phrase “urete imasen” which can mean both “hasn’t been sold yet,” in the case of the unripe fruit, or “isn’t popular yet,” in the case of the comedians. While some nazokake like this rely on idiomatic expressions, most take advantage of the large amount of homonyms in the Japanese language.

Continue reading about Daburu Koron →

No Konbini No Life: instant maze-soba

Friday, May 14th, 2010

mazesoba2

Instant maze-soba is light on the toppings, which makes it far from faithful to the original.

Nissin launched its line of Cup Noodle instant ramen products in 1966, and to this day it continues to be a big seller, thanks to its low price, portability and reliable taste. Not much can be said for the names and flavors – Cup Noodle, Seafood and Curry are all about being no-nonsense and utilitarian. It’s the kind of generic, survivalist grub that you know the Dharma Initiative would love.

mazesoba1

Myojo Foods’ Maze-soba instant ramen, the latest ramen trend to hit konbini shelves.

While the first generation of instant ramen products may have been lacking in creativity, recent instant-ramen products have finally caught up with the innovations of the past decade’s ramen boom. Buttery Sapporo miso ramen, stinky Fukuoka tonkotsu ramen . . . if it’s popular on the ramen scene, you can probably find an instant version on the shelf of your local convenience store.

One of the newest products on the market is Myojo Foods’ maze-soba. Using Hiroshi Osaki, founder of the RamenBank online database, to promote the product, Myoji clearly wants to capitalize on the recent maze-soba boom. Maze-soba literally means “mixed noodles,” and it is very different from regular ramen. There is hardly any soup at all, but there are tons of toppings, and many of them – such as poached pork fat, raw garlic, raw egg, cheese and crispy noodles – are far more eclectic than normal ramen. Mix it all up and you get a goopy juxtaposition of flavors and textures.

Unfortunately, Myojo’s instant maze-soba is just a variant on the yakisoba style of soup-less instant noodles, which you steep in boiling water and then drain via a small outlet on the lid. The noodles are thick, but the kit contains only a very small amount of toppings, mostly dried bacon and cabbageit doesn’t even begin to approximate the complete maze-soba experience. That said, the sauce is better than the sweet sauce included with yakisoba, so it isn’t a total loss. If you’re looking for something filling, however, it might be best to stick with the tried and true Cup Noodle.

Maze-soba can be yours in just five minutes.

Maze-soba can be yours in just five minutes.

And while we’re on the topic, if you’re looking for online resources to follow the latest ramen trends, there’s plenty out there. In addition to the RamenBank, the Ramen Database is great for keeping up to date on the latest ramen restaurants. There’s also a number of fanatic English-language bloggers covering the ramen scene, and three in particular have received a notable amount of press over the past three months: Brian MacDuckston (Ramen Adventures), Keizo Shimamoto (Go Ramen) and Nate Shockey (Ramenate). Having first met online by commenting on each other’s blogs, they eventually started hunting down rare bowls of noodles together. They often end their excursions at Bassanova, the ramen shop where they first met and where Shimamoto is currently a full-time employee.

MacDuckston guided New York Times’ “Frugal Traveller” Matt Gross around Tokyo, helping him find material for his late-January article “One Noodle at a Time in Tokyo.” In its April issue, Japanese magazine Courrier published a translation of Gross’ article in the regular monthly section “Sekai ga mita Nippon” (Japan as seen by the world), in which they examine how Japan is being reported abroad. You’d be hard pressed to find better insight to Japan’s ramen world than these three websites.

When it comes good places to eat freshly made maze-soba, both Brian and Nate seemed to enjoy Junk Ramen  in Saitama Prefecture, which helped put maze-soba on the map, thanks in part to its connection with the super popular tsukemen restaurant Rokurinsha. “It’s just junk food,” says MacDuckston of maze-soba. “It doesn’t care about presentation. It’s just about the tastiest, fattiest things going into the bowl. The most satisfying things.”

Apartment shares in Japan draw a share of the herd

Monday, May 10th, 2010

Hitsuji Real Esate, for those who want to share

Hitsuji Real Esate, for those who want to share

Last October the Japanese edition of the magazine The Big Issue addressed the youth housing problem in Japan, conducting a survey of young Japanese in Tokyo and Osaka and interviewing several experts on the topic. Kobe University Professor of Human Development and Environmental Studies Yosuke Hirayama noted that changing demographics have caused housing problems for Japan’s youth. Most housing benefits came from “groups” that people joined – notably companies and families. Participation in these groups, however, is declining. People are waiting longer to get married, and the number of people with regular employment is falling. Housing subsidies and cheap company housing provided by companies for full-time employees enabled young people to save money, which they could put toward a house in the future.

Options for youth now are limited. Young singles are not usually eligible for cheap public housing, and while post-bubble deflation affected most of the economy, rents continued to rise. This has lead to “parasite singles” (youth who live rent-free with parents, draining their resources) and “net cafe refugees” (people who, not being able to make rent, turn to cheap options at net cafes for a place to turn in for the night).

Hitsuji Real Estate is a Web site that is doing its best to promote collective housing as a solution to the problem. The site, which started in 2005, maintains an extensive list of apartment shares across Japan, most of which are in the Kanto area. In exchange for listings on the site, which include professional photographs, apartments must meet the standards of the site. This is in contrast to the looser atmosphere of roomshare.jp, a message board where those with rooms to rent and those looking for rooms can freely post messages and search text listings.

In the survey conducted by The Big Issue, however, 60 percent of respondents stated that they did not want to live in shared housing because “it would be troublesome to live with strangers.” While cash-strapped foreigners in Japan have long opted for guest houses and shared housing, such as the English-friendly Sakura House, Japanese have been more hesitant to use the same techniques, perhaps with the exception of university dormitories. In order to help, Hitsuji Real Estate provides a detailed FAQ on the site with answers to questions like “Who lives there?” “What is it like to live there?” “Do problems ever happen?” and “What does dormitory-style mean?”

Some young Japanese are even working on their own to combat the housing problem, which I can attest from personal experience. I currently share an apartment with five Japanese and one Korean. Teppei Ohashi, one of my roommates, incorporated himself into the company G Place and rented the apartment. Initially all the roommates were Japanese. They lived together at a guesthouse in Gotanda and decided to move somewhere smaller. My roommate Ayako noted that it was, to a certain extent, easier to live in the guesthouse, as there was less responsibility, beyond paying your own rent and keeping the place clean. The apartment does have its perks – more space and privacy. Teppei rents another apartment as well, which he then lets out as a women-only apartment share. Currently three women from Myanmar are living there while they work at a bento company. As is evident from his site, he has other apartments and is looking for other real estate to rent out.

He is also interested in collective housing as a solution to Japan’s aging population – if young and old could share together, he believes, the young could help care for the old as part of their daily life. He works as a caretaker, spending some nights on call.

The media coverage in Japan treats shared housing as exceptional cases, which is easy when you find a group of geeks living together, but it’s clear that, despite hesitancy, collective housing is becoming more natural for the natives.

Read more about the benefits of shared housing in Japan on Yen for Living.

Big (only) in Japan? Tape as proof of purchase

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

The tape on the handle of this bag keeps it closed and proves its been paid for.

The tape on the handle of this bag keeps it closed and proves it’s been paid for.

While Japanese government is keen to promote its green policies, the country does go through a lot of shopping bags. If you buy boxes of sweets as souvenirs, generally the company will ask how many bags you would like, enabling you to deliver the goods to multiple individuals still bagged. Order a set meal to go, or even just a coffee to go, at a fast food restaurant, and you might find yourself with a bag containing another bag which holds your beverage. Purchase a single item at a convenience store, and you will be offered a bag. Some people collect brand-name bags for reuse as posh purses.

One exception to this bag-centric culture is tape. Japanese stores use tape to seal the bag, either by binding the handles or taping the top of the bag shut. While the tape does help prevent the bag from reopening, it also serves as a useful proof of purchase.

Good to go: This yogurt has been paid for.

Taped and good-to-go yogurt

When you purchase a single item at a convenience store in Japan, you may be offered a bag, but depending on the item, the clerk may ask, “Is just tape OK?” If you decline a bag, the staff will instead adhere a small piece of tape to the product to signal that you have followed the laws of capitalism and provided the proper amount of currency in exchange for the item.

You can do your part by asking for tape. If you have space in your backpack or handbag, practice using the phrase “Sono mama de ii desu” (“It’s fine like that.”) Alternatives would be “Tape/shiiru de ii desu” (Just tape/a sticker is fine”). Each time you use one of these phrases, you’ll be avoiding excess use of plastic. On the other hand, the bags are reusable as trash bags. That is, if you live in a municipality that doesn’t have special bags that are used to throw out different types of trash.

Do they use tape as proof of purchase where you live? Do you know of any other interesting receipt replacements? Let us know.

Major beer companies diet excessively while craft brewers beef up

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

Rest your liver, say the big brewers. Low-alcohol beers and sugar-free beers are booming.

Rest your liver, say the big brewers. Low-alcohol beers and sugar-free beers are booming.

The big four Japanese beer companies – Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo and Suntory – are in a constant turf war. Game theory keeps them intertwined in a fierce marketing dead heat, and the types of beer they release seem to be hamstrung by a monkey-see-monkey-do strategy and Japanese tax laws.

Over the past seven years, beer companies have produced cheaper and cheaper products by dancing around Japanese tax laws that define beer by barley content,  and politicians have continuously revised the regulations to combat deficits. Brewers first pushed happoshu, a low malt beer, through the tax loophole. Not surprisingly, the beer sold extremely well. Politicians modified laws in 2003 to tax happoshu, and brewers began to “third-type beers” such as Sapporo’s Draft One, which eschews all barley and uses fermentables from peas and corn instead. In 2006, politicians redefined these as “other fermented beverages” to bring them under tax laws.

As the law currently stands, 100% malt beer is taxed at ¥222 per liter, beverages with a barley content of 25-50% at ¥178, and those with less than 25% at ¥134.

Japanese "beer": So much alcohol, so little barley.

Current-day Japanese “beer”: So much alcohol, so little barley.

Most of these beers have maintained the standard 5% alcohol by volume level, but recently companies have been experimenting with sugar-free beers, alcohol-free beers and beers with higher alcohol content. Kirin just released its strangely titled “Yasumu hi no Alc. 0.00%” (“0.00% for the days you rest”), and the advertisements encourage drinkers to “Please, rest your liver” with some Japanese punnery. The movement for sugar-free beers culminated finally in Asahi’s awful Strong Off – a 7% beer that mysteriously has 60% less sugar – and Suntory’s Relax, a sugar-free brew that boasts seven hops. These beers rely on novelty to help them sell, and the big brewers will continue to swap their mutant beer lineup in and out so their marketing campaigns can stay fresh.

Japanese craft beer companies and craft beer bars, on the other hand, are experiencing the opposite phenomenon: They are brewing more barley-heavy beers, and they are building a substantial audience of good beer fans.

While Japanese craft brewing has existed since 1994, when changes in laws reduced the minimum brewing volume required for a brewing license, only recently have Japanese brewers started pushing the envelope with extreme beers that make use of large quantities of barley and hops.

Continue reading about craft brewers in Japan →

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