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Just in case: Retailers urge customers to buy ahead

Friday, September 30th, 2011

You may never look at those cute Muji handkerchiefs again. Muji’s new emergency awareness campaign encourages people to stock up on everyday “itsumo” basics and to think about how they might be used in a “moshimo” emergency. A temporary display at Muji Atelier (through Oct. 5)  in the flagship shop in Yurakucho presents the “itsumo no moshimo” idea in a space that lies somewhere between a retail space, a gallery and a subtle first-aid class.

A Muji pamphlet urges consumers to think ahead

Simple items from the store are presented in spare Muji style with illustrations that suggest specific, somber uses for them. A black marker and a piece of packing tape become a simple system for leaving a message on your door telling people where you’ve evacuated. A sheet of plastic wrap over your clean plates means that you can eat from the plates and discard the wrap so you don’t have to wash the dishes when water is scarce. (Is that restricted to emergencies?) And those handkerchiefs. Not just handy for drying your hands in the train station bathroom, they also make handy dust masks or tourniquets, or a large one can be wrapped around, say, a small fold-up umbrella to make a splint.

Panasonic has seized onto the same itsumo/moshimo concept with a tagline that could be translated as “convenience any time, preparation for that time.” Their compact solar lights save energy in the good times and could save your evening if the power goes off. Products include a flat solar-paneled light that can be used as a charger for other cellphones and other small electronics, a tabletop lamp that turns on its side to be used as a flashlight and a rechargeable lantern that can stay lit for up to 20 hours.  Their waterproof portable TV that uses OneSeg technology to play broadcast TV over the cellular network can be a simple time killer in the bath or a life line to emergency information.

Weekend volunteering just got easier

Thursday, September 8th, 2011

“Have you been up north yet?” is a common question, six months after the compound disasters of March 11. Over 700,000 people have not only seen first-hand the devastation wrought by the tsunami in Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima prefectures, they have volunteered.

Tohoku Walker's volunteer directory: Let your fingers do the clicking

While volunteers may have met with confusing and even contradictory information at first, there are now quite a few online resources to help match potential volunteers with work that still needs doing. Different government offices are running sites with volunteer information, including the graphically appealing Tasukeai Japan from the Cabinet Secretariat’s Volunteers Coordinator Office, which has general information about how to help and which towns are accepting volunteers. The NPO umbrella organization Japan Civil Network has information about buses that can take groups to the affected areas. Saigai VC has links to government stats and info on volunteer activities as well as links to local volunteer centers.

On the commercial side, Tokyo Walker has set up a site that makes planning a volunteer mission as easy as planning a weekend at a hotspring. The Tohoku Volunteer Yellow Pages lets potential volunteers seek work by clicking on calendar dates and then refining their search by location and by type of  labor. There are buttons for heavy labor like clearing rubble, scraping mud and moving furniture and for less physically demanding work like cleaning and caretaking.

The site provides some things to keep in mind when volunteering, like the importance of making an informed decision about where you’ll go and what you’ll do and leaving emergency contact information with a local volunteer center. It gives the general order of things you need to do, like getting volunteer insurance, double checking that planned transportation routes are accessible and packing your trash out with you. And would it be complete without a sorta cute illustrated guide to the gear you need to bring?

Continue reading about weekend volunteering →

Movies, popcorn and Geiger counters

Saturday, August 27th, 2011

In post 3/11 Japan, Geiger counters continue to be a must-have product, though the range of price and quality varies wildly. Can’t afford one? Why not rent?

CK-3 rental with your DVD, ma'am?

Without much fanfare, home entertainment rental shop Tsutaya has started lending out Geiger counters from its shops in Fukushima Prefecture. The machines are available at six branches in Fukushima, and they are free, one per customer and one time only, with same-day return. Each shop has between 10 and 40 hand-held counters. There’s a ¥1,000 charge per day after the first day. Rental requires only a Tsutaya rental membership card and an ID, including a gaijin card or passport.

A Japanese blogger wrote this past Sunday that there was a line of about 20 people waiting for a Tsutaya in Koriyama to open, and another line formed immediately at the geiger counter rental counter.

Customers can choose whether they would like a counter made in Japan or China. As of Friday afternoon, a branch in Fukushima City had both available. Several other companies, such as Redstar and Level 7, have also been lending out the machines via online request forms, but Tsutaya seems to be the first outlet with simple walk-up availability.

Volunteers at Safecast, a volunteer group that has set up an extensive radiation monitoring system in Japan, are quick to point out that the counters being lent out by Tsutaya detect only the gamma radiation levels in the air and will not detect radiation contamination on surfaces or in food, which they consider the bigger concern right now. “People will obviously try to check the surface contamination and possibly even food, and it will give them readings that are totally off,” wrote a volunteer, who goes by the name Akiba, in the Safecast mailing list. However, he also added, “Anything helps, and there’s nothing wrong with renting geigers, especially if it makes people feel more at ease.”

‘Support angels’ are always there, thanks to AR and AKB48

Thursday, August 18th, 2011

Ever get the feeling your computer support techs are playing around in their futuristic offices? No? Not even just a little? Hewlett Packard’s summer “Support Angels” campaign features TV commercials with members of all-girl pop group AKB48 enacting that fantasy.

Yes, there is an interactive experience, powered by augmented reality, embedded in this promotional fan. Pretty cool, no?

Meanwhile, in the real world, the company is launching a campaign for new new 24/7 support service in Japan that blurs the line between offline and online advertising. They’ve set up a big interactive display outside the east entrance of Shinjuku Station, a popular night-out meeting spot. A TV screen, the size of a small stage and ringed in neon, plays a slideshow of AKB48 members posing in headsets and the OL-of-the-distant-future costumes from the commercial. People hanging around the area are encouraged to interact digitally and physically: Tweets that are hashtagged “support angel” (#サポートエンジェル)  scroll instantly across the screen. And at smaller monitors nearby, people can win prizes by taking a quiz. (Electronics are the big prize, but everyone who plays will get at least a branded bottle of water.)

You can take the interactive experience home, too. On a recent hot night, they were giving out paper fans. The disks have a silhouette of a woman in a box on them. When you go to the website and aim the fan just so at your computer’s webcam, the silhouette activates an AR version of AKB48 member Yuko Oshima. You can interact with the image and use your webcam to take a photo side by side.

Can she help with your tech troubles? Nah. “It’s called ‘Support Angels’ because it’s like they’re always looking out for you,” said a young man staffing the display outside Shinjuku Station. “The support people aren’t really AKB48,” he clarified. But the AR gadget gives you something to play with while you’re waiting for a real tech to fix your computer.

Doing your bit for setsuden? Here’s your discount

Tuesday, July 12th, 2011

Save energy, save money

Online restaurant guide Guru Nabi (short for “gourmet navigator”) has introduced a series of mobile coupons linked to power-saving efforts this summer. The coupons are in effect from June 30 to Sept. 30, the period during which businesses have been asked to reduce power consumption by 15%. In a first for Guru Nabi, the discounts are available for smartphones as well as Japanese keitai. (The coupons are only available from the mobile version.)

Some bars have half-price drink specials when the temperature (outside, we hope) goes above 35 degrees.  Restaurants have been encouraged to come with topical and fun discounts. A sushi place gives a free piece of sashimi to customers who say “I don’t need any air conditioning!” Another will take 10% off the bill for a rallying cry at the cash register of “Gambare, setsuden [Let's do our best to save power]!” Others reward customers for coming in in super cool biz attire, like Hawaiian shirts or open dress shirts with no necktie. That freebie paper fan you got handed on the street could actually be worth something, too — some places will take ¥1,000  yen the price of the meal for patrons carrying them.

Some seem playfully unconcerned about applying to a wide audience. For one, people with the syllables or kanji for “setsu” “den” “natsu [summer]” or “toku [value]” in their names get a discount. That’s great for the Setsuko’s and Natsumi’s out there, but people with non-Japanese names might be at a slight disadvantage. There’s still a chance  — anyone named Denis out there? Try your luck and let us know how it goes.

The latest and greatest gear for keeping it cool

Monday, July 11th, 2011

Despite early predictions of a mild summer, almost 7,000 people called ambulances for heatstroke this June across Japan — three times more than the same time last year. Some spots in the country hit record high temperatures they hadn’t seen in 50 years, Kyodo News reported. Official advice is to drink plenty of fluids and to be sensible about setsuden. But there’s only so much water you can drink. Manufacturers are to the rescue with products for every inch of the body and home.

This year sees an expansion of the sprays, gels and lotions that we saw last year, as well as a burst of subtle variations on the cool wraps that were spotted wrapped damply around necks last year. The use of high-tech fibers means the wraps can stay cooler with less dripping. At the same time, there is a return to basics that pre-date air-conditioning: Wooden screens, wicker pillows and bamboo sheets remind us that there were plenty of cool ideas in Japan long before microfibers and rechillable elasto-polymers. Start waving your paper uchiwa and check out our finds.

Found any yourself? Tweet your photos to @japan_pulse.

Tracking QR codes in the wild

Tuesday, July 5th, 2011

Checking in?

Checking in?

People might climb mountains to get away from the distractions of  ubiquitous technology, but it could be the thing that saves them if things go awry. Yamanashi Prefecture is the most recent hiking spot to set up a system of QR codes at points along the way on popular climbing and hiking routes. Accessing these points from a keitai or smart phone with a QR-reader app can deliver static information like maps, elevation and amenities along the way as well as information that other hikers have updated recently, such as any problems with the trail and weather conditions up ahead. In the mountains, where storms can come in fast, this could be a lifesaver, for both the old folks who have always climbed in large numbers and the hip yama-girls who have recently started heading for the hills in droves.

The codes serve another function, too: By reading the codes, a hiker leaves a trail of where he or she has been. If hikers need to be rescued and have lost contact, search and rescue teams can follow their digital footprints and narrow down the location where they were last active. The service can be set to automatically send out emails to the folks back home telling them where you are along the hike.

The new system in Yamanashi is called “M-navi,” for Minami [southern] Alps. It was built in cooperation with a system that has been running in Kyushu since 2009 called “yama-aruki nabi,” or “mountain-walking navigation.” It started with the purpose of “making hiking safer and more comfortable, for even one person.” No surprise, they’ve got a Twitter account, with a curated list of people and organizations tweeting about hiking.

Is Facebook’s ‘Check-in Coupon’ a good deal in Japan?

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

Japan recently became the first country in Asia to get a local version of Facebook Deals, called “Check-in Coupon” here, and Facebook announced the move with an event in Shibuya. (No one who covered the outdoor event could resist giggling at the irony of the local PR staff asking  the audience not to take or share pictures.)

Check in for chicken

The location-based coupons work the same here as in other cities where the service has been implemented. On a smartphone running the Facebook app, the Places feature shows nearby sports where the users can “check in” (i.e., announce to Facebook friends where they are). Shops offering coupons have a yellow icon next to the name. Click on a place with a coupon, and the coupon details appear. If you click again on the shop’s details to check in, you will simultaneously get the coupon displayed on your screen (which you can later show at the register to get your discount) and send a message alerting all your Facebook friends about the coupon. The idea is that it’s a win-win-win: You’ve saved money, the store has gotten a little advertising, and all your friends can congratulate you on your savvy shopping.

That last bit could be where it gets tricky. How many of your coupon acquisitions will your friends comment on before they get annoyed and hide your activity or even defriend you? While anonymous group buying through PomPare and Groupon have proven popular in Japan (though not without great big stumbles), will the Japanese preference for online privacy thwart the extroversion on which the check-in coupon thrives? Of the initial deals offered by the roll-out partners, none is anything we’d risk alienating friends for.

Continue reading about Facebook's Check-in Coupons →

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