Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Political gift culture refuses to die

Tuesday, October 21st, 2014

Former Justice Minister Midori Matsushima faces the error of her campaigning ways in the Lower House on Oct. 15. | KYODO

Former Justice Minister Midori Matsushima faces the error of her campaigning ways in the Lower House on Oct. 15. | KYODO

With almost breathless speed, two of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s most recent cabinet appointments, trade minister Yuko Obuchi and justice minister Midori Matsushima, resigned after it was revealed they violated political funding laws. Matsushima’s downfall, which revolves around her free distribution of uchiwa (round fans) to voters, may have as much to do with political expediency as with breaking rules, but Obuchi’s use of funds earmarked for public use to purchase gifts and supplement recreational outings for supporters was clearly illegal.

Which isn’t to say it’s not common. As one anonymous veteran of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party — to which Obuchi belongs — told Tokyo Shimbun, the Gunma lawmaker’s problematic actions used to be a fairly normal practice in the Diet. Obuchi is accused of using her political funds, which come from taxpayers in the form of seito kofukin (political party subsidies), revenues from tickets sold for fund-raising get-togethers, and donations from individuals and groups, to supplement “theater tours” for her supporters. Obuchi’s supporters each paid ¥10,000-¥12,000 to go to Meiji-za in Tokyo to enjoy a day of stage performances. However, in her required political funds report there was an obvious discrepancy. Since 2007, the amount received from supporters for these excursions totaled ¥11.9 million, and it is deemed they cost more than ¥60 million to carry out, with the difference being ¥53.3 million that came from Obuchi’s funds.

The veteran says that such jaunts for supporters were normally arranged directly by the politician’s staff, but ever since the law became more thoroughly enforced, lawmakers have entrusted the job to travel agencies so as to divert the trail of money.

In her own defense, Obuchi professed that she didn’t know much about the tours, and while such naivete is perhaps understandable for someone still so relatively new to the game, it must be pointed out that she “inherited,” as it were, her father Keizo Obuchi‘s constituency when he died in 2000, and that included his political fund reserves of ¥120 million, not to mention the “sources” of that money, meaning Gunma individuals and groups who counted on him to see to their interests. It also means she took on his staff, who obviously should have known better.

But theater tickets to see some over-priced enka star isn’t the most of it. What really indicated Obuchi’s ignorance over her risky exposure to scandal was the use of political funds to purchase gifts, a lot of gifts. Former politician and current Keio University professor Yoshihiro Katayama expressed surprise to Tokyo Shimbun when he heard about the scandal. “Are they still doing that?” he asked wryly with regard to political gift-giving.

Though the media focus was on infant goods and accessories from a store owned by her brother-in-law, the funds report also includes mentions of cigars, gift coupons, exotic foods, an expensive stole and ¥685,000 worth of clothing by designer Jun Ashida. All these items were purchased at expensive Ginza department stores and earmarked as kosaihi (entertainment expenses), which is usually code for “gifts,” though, apparently, some of the items Obuchi bought for herself. If she offered these items as gifts to people within her constituency it would constitute a separate crime. When it is all added up over the years, the money spent on these items comes to more than ¥100 million, which apparently isn’t a big deal for Obuchi’s camp. In 2012 alone she took in ¥180 million.

Gift-giving is a common custom in Japan that comes with its own set of priorities. Usually, gifts are offered to superiors — bosses, teachers — in the hope that the recipient will do well by the giver in the future. It’s why people slip a surgeon a box of pastries with ¥100,000 tucked inside to make sure he does his best when he operates on the gift-giver. Japan’s election and political funding laws are very strict about such gifts, since by the very nature of the gesture the giver expects something in return.

As Tokyo Shimbun pointed out, the supporters who partook of the theater tours probably felt they deserved the gesture because of their support and certainly didn’t think there was anything wrong about it. But the fact is, there are even strict rules regarding compensation for campaign workers. A candidate can provide lunch only if it is prepackaged and each volunteer gets the exact same item as the next volunteer. And it all has to be written down.

That’s why Matsushima’s uchiwa were such a problem. She was essentially buying votes. But Obuchi’s use of gifts is baffling since she seemed to be giving them to friends and family, as well as to herself and her children. There didn’t seem to be any expectation of returned favors, so the only explanation is ignorance, which, to some people, is even worse than venality.

In any case, political funds are only supposed to be used for political activities, not personal fulfilment. A politician who doesn’t understand how to break the rules without getting caught isn’t a politician at all.

Mail order scofflaws are the exception that proves the rule

Monday, September 15th, 2014

The gods know if you're honest: An unmanned farm stand in Inzai

The gods know if you’re honest: An unmanned farm stand in Inzai

A recent article in the Asahi Shimbun described a small cross section of consumers who take advantage of a peculiar aspect of mail-order sales in Japan. Some small- and medium-sized sales agents who do their business over the Internet have problems with customers who don’t pay. In most cases, Internet and mail order sales are done on a prepaid basis: The buyer either provides credit/debit card information or makes a bank/post office money transfer prior to the item being shipped. But a few work on what can best be described as the honor system. They send the item to the buyer with a bill that the buyer pays after receiving the item. Sometimes the bill has a handling fee attached and sometimes it doesn’t.

According to the Asahi article, some people don’t pay up, and perhaps never intended to. A non-profit organization called the Mail Order Unpaid Protection Network (MOUPN), which monitors such scofflaws, estimates that mail-order sales companies lose about ¥20 billion a year to such people.

Asahi, in fact, found one, though he seems reluctant to admit it. In the article, a reporter visits an unnamed man “in his 50s living in an apartment in Tokyo.” The man receives an order of green tea by courier, but the reporter notes that the name on the package is that of a woman. “I made the order on behalf of a friend,” the man explains. When asked why he didn’t use his real name, the man doesn’t answer. Other packages arrive addressed to different women. When asked what’s in one of them the man shrugs and says, “Maybe food?” He insists that he will pay for it but usually “just forgets.”

CONTINUE READING about abuse of Japan's honor system

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 →

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