Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

A modest proposal for alleviating the endangerment of Japanese eels

Sunday, July 27th, 2014

Fish fans: People waiting in line at a popular eel restaurant near Minami Senju Station in Tokyo

Fish fans: People waiting in line at a popular eel restaurant near Minami Senju Station in Tokyo

This year, doyo no ushi no hi, the “day of the ox,” falls on July 29 in accordance with the old Chinese calendar. Counterintuitively, Japanese people don’t celebrate the day by eating beef but rather eel, because, supposedly, eel, or unagi, helps maintain a person’s stamina during the hottest days of summer. But it should be noted that the custom of eating eel is commercial in origin. According to legend, the tradition started in the 18th century in Hino, Western Tokyo, where nobody ate eel because the fish was a kind of local deity. An inventor named Hiraga Gennai came up with a publicity campaign to get people to eat unagi on doyo no ushi no hi because both ushi and unagi start with the “u” sound. The campaign worked, and now everybody eats unagi on doyo no ushi no hi. Well, maybe not everybody, but enough to drive Japanese eel to the brink of extinction.

Japanese eel for consumption are caught in the wild as fry and transported to eel farms throughout Asia. Eel is now on the International Union for Conservation of Nature‘s endangered red list, and so the environment ministry made the same designation on its list of at-risk species. However, this information has been tempered somewhat lately by media reports saying that the eel catch was higher this past year, thus driving the price of imported eel, mainly from China and Taiwan, down considerably. Consequently, eel dishes on the 29th may be cheaper in some places than they were last year.

Unagi fans will see this as good news, but it isn’t. The reason eel is on the endangered list is that Japanese people catch and eat too much of the fish, which wasn’t the case before the mid-1980s, when eel was considered something of a delicacy eaten only on special occasions. In other words, the cheaper the eel, the more likely eel stocks will be decimated.

CONTINUE READING about the unagi shortage →

Will rice cookers save the Japanese home electronics industry?

Monday, July 14th, 2014

Pricey rice: High function rice cookers on display at a discount electronics store

Pricey rice: High function rice cookers on display at a discount electronics store

It’s been well documented that the Chinese are considered the saviors of the Japanese tourist trade, but there’s more to the story than just tour numbers and hotel bookings. An article in the July 10 Asahi Shimbun described an odd and recurring dilemma at Kansai International Airport. Chinese tourists are buying Japanese-made rice cookers at the airport’s souvenir shops in large numbers. Since the purchases are made after the travelers have gone through immigration processing, they don’t have to pay duty, but at that point they’ve already checked their luggage, and the rice cookers in their boxes won’t fit into overhead bins in airplane cabins.

Some of the rice cookers will fit if they’re removed from the boxes, but people on these flights are buying more and more of the home appliances so in some cases there is no room for any of them, which means flight attendants have to assist in having these patrons check the items so that they can put them in the cargo hold, and as a result more and more flights back to China are being delayed.

Rice cookers became a very popular item among Chinese tourists in 2010, when visa rules were relaxed to allow travelers who weren’t members of organized tours to come to Japan freely. One of the clerks in the Osaka airport souvenir store told Asahi that he once saw a Chinese tourist buy six of the devices at one time. One Chinese businessman who comes to Japan on a regular basis says he’s always getting requests from acquaintances to buy rice cookers for them. This souvenir store, in fact, sells an average of 10 cookers a day, most of them high-end models, which can cost as much as ¥90,000.

Last April, during cherry blossom viewing season, the store sold an average of 20 a day. A representative of Yodobashi Camera Multimedia Umeda in Osaka told the paper that whenever Chinese tour groups visit the discount electronics store they usually buy more rice cookers than they have members. Yodobashi has a duty-free system for tourists, but actually most Chinese prefer buying their rice cookers in the airport, since the price isn’t any different and they don’t have to lug the things around with them prior to departure. But there is the problem of carry-on.

Why rice cookers? There are few appliances that reflect Japan’s so-called Galapagos design mindset as thoroughly as rice cookers. They basically do one thing: Cook Japanese rice in a way that only Japanese people prefer. The rest of the world doesn’t eat much sticky, white, short-grained rice unless it’s combined with sauce or other prepared foods, and that includes the rest of Asia. Even China, from which Japan first imported rice-growing techniques, isn’t big on rice as a separate dish. It prefers long-grain rice, which is always prepared with something else in mind, and while it is considered a staple, at mealtime it isn’t as important as other dishes. In the northern part of China, many people don’t eat rice at all, since they grow more wheat there due to the colder climate.

But as more and more Chinese tourists have come to Japan, they have discovered the unique joys of sticky white rice.  As incomes rise in China, people are broadening their food choices, and one of those choices is short-grain rice. If it’s Japanese grown, it’s even better, despite the high price. And the best way to prepare it is with a Japanese-made rice cooker.

According to the Japan Electrical Manufacturers Association, more rice cookers are manufactured in China than in any other country in the world, but the vast majority are inexpensive models with few features. The first Japanese rice cooker was made by Toshiba in the mid-1950s, and since then they have become extremely sophisticated. Some even include porcelain containers and functions that allow the user to make rice that tasted as if it were made the old-fashioned way, in a kamado, the traditional, charcoal burning Japanese stove. Now, apparently, Japanese manufacturers are incorporating functions that will appeal to Chinese users, such as the ability to cook long-grain rice and different kinds of porridge.

In its own peculiar way, the Japanese rice cooker has done more to extend a specific Japanese sensibility than any electronic device since the Walkman. As any Japanese person over a certain age will tell you, the preparation of rice is the most important culinary consideration with regard to the Japanese menu. Cooking rice the proper way is difficult and time-consuming. You have to wash the rice throroughly until the runoff water is utterly transparent. Then the rice has to sit in that water for a certain length of time. The pot used for cooking rice, a kama, is only used for rice. First the rice in the water is boiled and the flame reduced — which, before gas stoves, meant removing pieces of charcoal from the kamado. And the person doing the cooking has to stay and monitor the flame for at least 15 minutes.

Consequently, the rice cooker was a huge boon for housewives. It not only freed up their time so that they could cook other dishes simultaneously, it freed up cooking space. Most Japanese kitchens with natural gas have only two burners. When makers added timing devices, rice cooking became exponentially easier because it cut the time needed for preparation, especially in the morning when housewives had to prepare breakfast and lunchboxes. Reheated cold rice is normally not acceptable. That’s why the next development was the “jar,” a special device for storing already made rice to keep it warm for later in the day without drying out. When the rice cookers themselves incorporated jar functions, the appliance had become perfect.

But only perfect to Japanese people. Most everyone else in the world didn’t eat rice this way, but apparently the Chinese are catching on. It’s too much to hope that their sudden affection for Japanese style rice will single-handedly save Japan’s home electronics industry — not to mention Japanese agriculture — but you never know. Look what the Walkman wrought.

Won’t get fooled again? Fans and their money are soon parted

Friday, June 13th, 2014

Mayu Watanabe, center, a member of Japan’s all-girl pop idol group AKB48 members, shows off the winner's gown after taking the No. 1 spot of the AKB48's General Election 2014 in Tokyo, Saturday, June 7, 2014.

Hail the new queen: Mayu Watanabe, a member of Japan’s all-girl pop idol group AKB48 members, shows off the winner’s cape after taking the No. 1 spot of the AKB48′s General Election 2014 in Tokyo, on, June 7.

Several weeks ago we wrote an article about the female idol collective AKB48 and later received a message from a friend who told us he was in Tokyo’s Akihabara district, which the group calls home. He was in a shop that sells various used goods and reported that there were hundreds of “used” copies of AKB’s latest single on sale for only ¥100 each, even though the single had just been released.

The reason for the surplus was AKB’s famous premium system: if you buy a CD you get the chance to meet the young women in the group or, in this case, a chance to vote in one of AKB’s popularity contests, which are called “general elections.” The most recent of these, No. 6, was held June 7, where Mayu Watanabe received the most votes. “Tickets” that allowed fans to cast votes in that election were included in the group’s newest single, “Labrador Retriever.” The more singles you buy, the more opportunities you have to vote, which explains all the used CDs. The fans only need one copy of the song, but they bought multiple copies so that they could stuff the ballot box with votes for their favorite members.

Each voting ticket is printed with a special URL and a unique serial number. The holder of the ticket goes online, logs on to the election website, and casts one ballot by registering the serial number. After voting, that serial number cannot be used again.

An enterprising blogger on the site Gadget Tsushin decided to use the available data to figure out how much money the AKB organization made from this election. First, he checked the top vote-getters, starting at the top with Watanabe (159,854 votes), proceeding to second place with a girl named Sashihara (141,954) and one down to 80th place in the poll. He added up all the votes received by these 80 members and the sum was 2,277,635, which, by the way, was more votes than those cast the same day in the Nakano Ward mayor’s election.

CONTINUE READING about fan devotion →

The new National Stadium will have to rock you

Sunday, June 8th, 2014

The show must go on: Attendees of a sayonara event at the National Stadium snap photos of an air show held on June 6.

The show must go on: Attendees of a sayonara event at the National Stadium snap photos of an air show held on June 4. KYODO

The old National Olympic Stadium in Tokyo closed down at the end of May with a big sendoff: two days of star-packed concerts in front of a capacity crowd. As everyone knows, the venue is being torn down to make way for an even bigger structure for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, an endeavor that continues to court controversy due to its projected size and cost, not to mention what it will likely do to the neighborhood around it.

Originally, the estimate for the new stadium was ¥300 billion, but mysteriously this figure was decreased to ¥169 billion just prior to the final bid. According to Professor Tomoyuki Suzuki, who was in charge of preparing Tokyo’s unsuccessful bid for the 2016 Games, construction costs for public facilities always end up rising over time, but neither the 2020 Tokyo bid organization nor the Japan Olympic Committee has ever explained that bit of conventional wisdom to the public. He told Tokyo Shimbun last April that the estimate was simply based on a number “that was most likely to be accepted.”

There is also the question of what to do with the stadium after the Olympics. The JOC is predicting that it will show a surplus of ¥400 million a year, but as Suzuki points out, this projection is based on the premise that the stadium will host 12 major pop concerts a year, and that, he believes, is impossible, unless the stadium foregoes sporting events, which is what it’s being built for in the first place.

The main problem with using stadiums for concerts, especially stadiums that hold field events like soccer, is that the playing surfaces are used for seating, which has a tendency to destroy the grass. Suzuki cites Ajinomoto Stadium in Western Tokyo, which is the home field of the FC Tokyo soccer team. In 2008, the stadium operators rented the facility to a promoter who held a rock concert attended by almost 80,000 people. Despite FC Tokyo’s protests, the concert went ahead, and afterwards the stadium had to spend “tens of millions of yen” to change the grass on the entire field in time for an FC Tokyo match.

CONTINUE READING about stadium rock to come →

Golden Week activity influenced more by logistics than by economics

Saturday, May 3rd, 2014

Too late to stop now: Travel brochures for Okinawa and Hokkaido

Too late to stop now: Travel brochures for Okinawa and Hokkaido

This year’s Golden Week holiday isn’t as golden as it normally is owing to the way the national holidays that make it possible fall in relation to the days of the week. Showa no hi (the Showa Emperor’s birthday) was on a Tuesday and Constitution Day on a Saturday, so there was enough time between them for people to work, which means they didn’t get those days off. That left a measly 4-day weekend to get all the things people usually do during Golden Week done — like visit their home towns — and the truncated time period meant more highway congestion in a shorter time span, which the media treats with such predictable urgency every year that it has become something of cultural touchstone. In any case, all that gasoline wasted in 45-km traffic jams and constant stops at expressway service areas doesn’t make up economically for the money lost during the reduced holiday.

The Japan Travel Bureau declared that the Golden Week holiday started on April 25 and ended May 6, despite the fact that, for the first half of that period, schools weren’t closed the whole time so it wasn’t a bona fide “break” for families with children, regardless of whether or not dad had to work.

According to a JTB survey of 1,200 people who presumably already knew what they were going to spend over the holiday, the amount expended per person for those who planned to travel domestically was ¥34,400, or 4.2 percent less than last year. For overseas travelers the amount was ¥249,500, which represents an increase of 8.1 percent. The peak days for domestic departures were May 3-4, and for foreign departures May 2-3, thus proving that the first half of the holiday was virtually meaningless. This concentration of recreation into such a short period will likely spawn even more post-GW stories than usual on the spike in attendant divorces and job resignations.

CONTINUE READING about Golden Week 2014 →

Don’t throw those boring New Years cards away!

Monday, December 16th, 2013

Betting on the horse: Japan Post presents its New Years postcard selection on its home page.

Betting on the horse: Japan Post presents its New Years postcard selection on its home page.

As promised two posts ago, we’re now going to explain the prizes attached to New Years cards. We pointed out in that article that the custom of sending nengajo (New Years greetings) or nenga-hagaki (New Years postcards) has been declining in recent years, a development that concerns JP because it’s always derived a good part of its revenue from the custom. Last year, JP sold 3.27 billion cards, which sounds like a lot, but represents a 20 percent drop since sales peaked in 1999.

Many years ago they started a lottery contest. Each card has a number printed on it, and sometime in the middle of January, JP conducts a drawing for winning numbers. However, the people who buy the cards and send them are not the same people who receive them and thus have the chance to win prizes, so the lottery incentive for buying cards escapes us, unless you assume that the more cards you send the more you are likely to receive, but that sort of cause-and-effect logic wouldn’t actually kick in until the following year, right?

According to NHK, the idea of combining nengajo with a lottery started in 1949, when the price of a postcard was ¥2 yen. In the years right after the war, the exchange of nenga-hagaki took on special meaning, since it was a good way to inform friends and relatives that you were still alive and where you were. The lottery, which is called otoshidama, the term for New Years gifts of cash given to children, made it even more appealing, because so many people had nothing at the time, so the prizes were for the most part practical: sewing machines, skeins of wool, bolts of fabric. As Japanese society became more affluent, the prizes became more aspirational: TV sets and other high-end home appliances, or coupons for international or domestic travel.

In the Jan. 6, 2010 issue of the weekly magazine Bunshun there is an article about the prizes. That year the grand prize was a 32-inch high-definition flat screen TV. The article goes on to explain the keihin hyoji-ho, or “incentive indication law,” which states that a company which offers prizes as an incentive to boost sales cannot offer prizes whose value is more than 20 times the price of the merchandise or service that is sold, so, theoretically, if a postcard costs ¥50, then the most you could win is something worth ¥1,000. But, in fact, JP got a special dispensation, since a different law was passed specifically for nengajo, and that law says you can offer prices worth up to 5,000 times the price of the lottery ticket.

Another condition of the special law is that if the card is received by a company rather than an individual, and that card is a winner, the person who claims the prize must present proof that he or she is an employee of the company. Another condition is that the prizes must be claimed within six months of the drawing (it’s up to one year for conventional Takarakuji lotteries, which are sold as lottery tickets so the incentive law doesn’t apply).

However, there’s another difference between Takarakuji and nengajo lotteries that’s more fundamental to this discussion. Takarakuji publicizes the rate of winning numbers that are claimed, but JP doesn’t. Bunshun interviewed an expert who conjectures that Takarakuji prizes are cash, while JP prizes are goods. If all the cash available for prizes isn’t won in a given year, Takarakuji just keeps the money and adds it to next year’s jackpot, but what can JP do with unclaimed goods? People aren’t going to be interested in last year’s model TV, and the lesser prizes, like travel coupons, usually come with a time period in which they have to be redeemed. Another prize is sheets of stamps, which are deemed legal tender, but for some reason they are destroyed if not won in the lottery.

The impression one gets from the article is that a fair number of nengajo prizes are not claimed every year, mainly because people don’t really care, and one reason they don’t care is that it’s inconvenient. In order to check the numbers, the receiver has to read the right newspaper on the right day or go to the nearest post office, and most people can’t be bothered. Now, of course, JP publicizes the winning numbers on the Internet, but even that may not be enough, so this year instead of prizes, JP is offering cash, thus making it more like otoshidama.

It’s not a lot of cash, though. The top prize is only ¥10,000. The incentive is that the odds are more in the public’s favor. In the past, when the top prize was an expensive appliance, the odds of winning were one in a million. But this year there are 33,936 first prize winning cards, which means the odds of getting one is one in 100,000. There are also 339,365 furusato prizes (“home town” prizes, meaning products associated with specific regions in Japan), so the odds of winning one of those is one in 10,000. And the other prize is, again, sheets of stamps. The odds of winning those is one in fifty.

JP will announce the winning numbers on Jan. 19.

Postal employees carry extra burden during the holiday season

Thursday, December 5th, 2013

Until around 2000, the custom of sending nengajo, or New Years greetings, to friends, family and business associates was widespread in Japan, but since then it has become less so. According to Japan Post, mail carriers delivered 3.7 billion New Years cards in 1999. That number dropped to 2.6 billion in 2012. More significantly for JP, which is in the process of being privatized, the organization sold 4.2 billion cards in 1999 and 3.3 billion in 2012.

Hard sell: New Years postcard display in Kyobashi post office

Hard sell: New Years postcard display in Kyobashi post office

The 22 percent drop in sales shows how much business JP has lost over the last 13 years, since nengajo account for 10 percent of JP’s total postal-related business. In fact, JP depends on sales of New Years cards to make up for the loss in other areas. But look at that other statistic, the one showing how many cards were actually sold, and a question has to arise in your mind: Why is there such a huge gap between the number of nengajo sold and the number delivered? What happened to the 700 million cards that were sold but not delivered in 2012?

It’s a question Asahi Shimbun attempted to answer in a recent article about the practice known as jibaku eigyo (suicide bomber sales), which many employees of Japan Post resort to at this time of year. One of the reasons sales of New Years postcards (nenga-hagaki) is so high is that almost all employees of the postal service sell them. They have quotas, and while there are no written stipulations that require employees to meet their numbers, it’s tacitly understood that their future in the company is jeopardized if they don’t.

Many employees sell cards they can’t otherwise sell to kinken resellers, those storefront operations that buy things like railway tickets and store coupons and then resell them at prices slightly below their face value.

For years postal employees have dumped their remaining postcards at kinken shops rather than return them to their supervisors. And since they receive less than the ¥50 face value for each card, the employees lose money, because they don’t earn commissions from the cards. They have to return to JP ¥50 for each card they sell.

JP frowns on the practice, not because it’s illegal, but because it looks bad, especially since JP plans to become a listed company sometime in the near future. A public relations person told the Asahi that the company is “aware” that many employees sell their unsold postcards to resellers, as well as through Internet auction sites, and have deemed such practices “improper.”

This year they plan to crack down on these practices, which shouldn’t be too hard. Every nenga-hagaki has a lottery number printed on it. After New Years JP conducts a drawing and people who have received postcards with winning numbers can redeem them for prizes (a custom that will be covered in a future Yen for Living post). All a supervisor has to do is record the lot numbers of the postcards he or she assigns to an employee. If any of those cards end up in kinken shops, JP will know who sold them.

Some employees end up spending even more money trying to confound this countermeasure. Asahi talked to one non-regular mail carrier from Central Japan who traveled all the way to Tokyo with more than 3,000 cards to sell them to a kinken shop in the capital, because he thinks the chances of him getting caught will be less. Also, kinken shops in Tokyo pay more for nenga-hagaki than shops in the Chubu region. Still, even after he sells them he stands to lose ¥40,000 on the deal, and that doesn’t even count the cost of his train ticket. A Nagasaki-based employee sent 4,000 cards via express package delivery to a kinken shop in Hokkaido, thinking it was far enough away to be safe.

The size of the quota depends on the job description of the worker: Quotas are higher for regular employees than they are for non-regular and part-time employees, but since non-regular salaries are so much lower than those of regulars, the burden may be greater. Since they are employed on a semi-annual contract basis, many non-regulars believe that their contracts won’t be renewed if they fail to meet their quotas.

Supervisors have higher quotas than their subordinates, but supervisors are usually older employees who already have a solid base of established customers, which are mostly friends and relatives anyway. Also, supervisors have time to carry out sales activities in front of their offices or in public places during normal work hours. Mail carriers are always making deliveries, so they have to sell their cards on their own time. Some quotas seem ridiculously difficult to fulfill.

According to an internal document that Asahi got ahold of, each regular mail carrier in Saitama City is required to sell 7,000 cards a season, which starts on Nov. 1 with a media blitz. The section chief in a Western Japan branch has to sell 13,500. For non-regulars, the burden is anywhere from 1,000 to 5,000 cards, usually depending on their respective branches’ sales figures in the past. Employees told Asahi of how they were browbeaten by supervisors to sell more cards, with one saying that he was accused by his boss of “robbing JP” because he hadn’t sold enough. Japan Post has said that employees should report supervisors who exert “unfair pressure” on them to sell cards, but it seems no one has done so.

Some quit, while many others simply dump the unsold cards in their closets and absorb the loss, which is why the holidays are anything but happy for postal employees. In any case, nobody the Asahi talked to said they sold all of their cards. When the reporter asked an officer of one of the labor unions that represent postal workers if the union isn’t doing anything to counteract the quota system, he replied somewhat bizarrely that JP has to maintain sales in order to survive.

Though sales quotas have always been part of postal employees’ jobs, they used to be fairly low and manageable. But since JP’s privatization bid the quotas have skyrocketed, mainly because people aren’t sending as many cards as they used to.

In a survey conducted by Internet news service J-cast, only 58 percent of respondents said they planned to send out nengajo this year, with 19 percent saying they would send more than a hundred cards, 22 percent sending out 50-100 cards, and 36 percent sending out less than 50. Twenty percent said they had no plans to send cards at all this year.

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