Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Putting the ‘fortune’ back in fortune telling

Sunday, March 18th, 2012

For more than a month the tabloid press has been obsessed with comedian Tomoko Nakajima, who apparently has squandered her career and whatever money it made her on the services of a self-styled fortune teller who effectively commandeered her life. In Japan, fortune tellers, or uranai-shi, do pretty much the same thing that fortune tellers do everywhere else in the world. They use supposedly timeless, spiritual or other non-scientific techniques to predict an individual’s future. Uranai-shi have more of an accepted social position Japan than they do in a lot of other developed countries. A few, in fact, are bona fide stars whose advice is sought by the rich and famous, thus making them rich and famous, too.

You will meet a tall, dark stranger: Fortune teller's sign in Ginza

A recent article in Asahi Shimbun discussed people who, like Nakajima, have become “addicted” to fortune tellers. About 80 percent of the people who patronize uranai-shi are women, the majority in their 30s. One told the newspaper that she first turned to uranai-shi when she needed advice about becoming a freelance writer. A fortune teller told her to get married instead, and she did, but the marriage didn’t work and she divorced.

Despite what turned out to be bad advice she continued seeking counsel from fortune tellers, obsessed with what would happen to her in the future. She paid upward of ¥20,000 per session for two years and eventually amassed a debt of more than ¥3 million. In the end, she kicked her habit by studying the psychology of addiction, and now makes a living counseling fortune telling addicts like herself. Nice work if you can get it. She points out that the act of “regurgitating” emotions to a fortune teller is what makes the process so habit-forming. It’s like a “tranquilizer” to ease the fear of the unknown, but since the fear is never directly dealt with it never goes away, and so the patron has to continue seeking advice.

Money is an integral component of the addiction, since it clarifies the relationship. Traditionally, one finds fortune tellers on the street, sitting in front of little stands, handing out advice in ten-minute blocks of time, and ten minutes is never enough. More successful practitioners work out of offices. But growth in the industry is now in fortune telling over the phone and on the Internet. One entrepreneur told the Asahi that he runs 20 fortune-telling hotlines that charge ¥9,000 for 30 minutes, and candidly admits that his main mission is to listen to people’s problems and “cheer them up.” And though many of his customers are repeat users, he insists that if he or his staff suspect anyone of being an addict, they “reject” them.

Like all consumers, people who use fortune tellers insist on getting their money’s worth. Asahi reported that one site received a lot of complaints, not so much for its exorbitant fee — several thousand yen per minute — but because the advice didn’t work. One has to wonder if the degree of dissatisfaction has a direct correlation to the dearness of the charge, but as fortune telling becomes more of a legitimate commercial enterprise it also becomes more of an issue. The National Consumer Affairs Center of Japan reports that formal claims against fortune tellers have increased over the past decade. In 2001 the center received 871 complaints for the whole year. As of March 2, it’s already received 1,801 since Jan. 1. The complaints are about not fees but rather the product. People demand predictions that work out.

Asahi says that DoCoMo’s goo website survey found that the starting price for fortune tellers is about ¥5,000 for 30 minutes, which is about the same as the consultation fee you’d pay to a psychiatrist or a lawyer. It makes sense. All three specialize in giving advice with no guarantee of results.

Automatic dishwashers: the square peg in the round hole of Japanese kitchens

Friday, February 10th, 2012

Redundant? Dish dryers that also disinfect

A Japanese non-profit organization called the Housekeeping Association recently conducted a survey of “married women” about the appliances they have purchased over the years. Among the association’s findings was a ranking of appliances in terms of effective usage. They asked the 3,900 respondents to rate appliances in terms of what they expected of them and then whether or not those expectations were met. The greatest degree of “disappointment” was registered for automatic dishwashers, followed by clothes dryers and bread-making machines.

One of the reasons dishwashing machines fared poorly in the survey is that dishwashing itself was deemed by 78.8 percent of the respondents to be one of the “most important housekeeping chores.” In addition, 75.4 percent of the women who owned dishwashers said they found it “stressful” when a load of dishes did not seem to be clean after using the appliance. Consequently, they would have to clean each dish, glass or piece of flatware by hand, rendering the appliance virtually useless. And since as an appliance the dishwasher also used lots of energy and water, it became even more of a wasteful piece of equipment. After all, the reason these women bought the dishwasher was to save time.

According to the Asahi Shimbun, only 26.9 percent of Japanese households have dishwashers, as opposed to about 62 percent of American households (as of 2007). The reason is mainly space, which Japanese kitchens have less of, but also the running expense, since, as implied by the responses to the above-mentioned survey, they require a lot of energy and water. This is also one of the reasons clothes dryers are not so common in Japanese homes — the electricity costs — but, of course, the main reason clothes dryers aren’t popular is that Japanese prefer hang drying clothes, as evidenced by the fact that almost every residence in Japan incorporates some sort of facility for a drying pole, such as a veranda. The belief is that sun drying disinfects clothing and heat drying does not.

Similarly, many Japanese belief that it is healthier to allow dishes to dry naturally, which is why in addition to table-top dishwashers there are also table-top dish-dryers, an appliance that Americans, at least, would probably find redundant. Many Japanese homemakers do not like to towel dry dishes, believing it to be unsanitary, so they either leave them out to dry naturally, or they dry them in dish-dryers.

Nevertheless, appliance makers, always on the lookout for something new to market, have made a concerted effort to sell electric dishwashers to the Japanese. In America, new homes come with dishwashers, usually as a standard built-in feature. Very few in Japan do, and in almost all cases they are an expensive option. Most dishwasher owners have the table-top type, which takes up a lot of room and requires unsightly hoses and electrical cables, which most likely compound the feeling of dissatisfaction.

Another aspect of Japanese living that makes dishwashers expensive is that, unlike in the U.S. where users do not run the dishwasher until it is full, Japanese homemakers prefer to clean up after every meal. That means the dishwasher could be used as much as twice or even three times a day.

Are poorer families succumbing to the American lifestyle?

Friday, February 3rd, 2012

Big in Japan (Kyodo photo)

We’re not sure why this is coming out right now, but Sankei Express is reporting the results of a survey conducted in November 2010 by the Health, Welfare and Labor Ministry on the correlation between income level and lifestyle. The ministry divided respondents into three different groups according to household income: ¥2 million a year or less, between ¥2 million and ¥6 million, and over ¥6 million. The survey found that smoking was more prevalent the lower the annual income among both men and women. About 27 percent of men and 7 percent of women in the highest income group smoked, while 37 percent of men and 12 percent of women in the lowest income group did. Nationally, 32 percent of men and 8 percent of women smoke in all income categories.

In terms of being overweight, which the survey defined as having a BMI (body mass index) of over 25, there was found to be no significant difference between men among the three income groups, but among women the difference was stark. About 13 percent of the women in the highest income group were overweight, and the portion rose to 25.6 percent for women in the lowest group. Also, people of both genders in the lowest income group eat less vegetables regularly than people in higher income brackets, and low-income men tend to not eat breakfast.

If this doesn’t seem surprising it may be due to the fact that in the United States and the United Kingdom it’s been known for years that lower income people have poorer diets, higher rates of obesity, and smoke more than richer people do. Without going into why that is, it seems Japan is catching up with this trend, thus further undermining one of the country’s most beloved self-images of being a classless — or, more precisely, a uniformly middle class — society. If the trend continues along with the recession, it could mean even more of a crisis for social insurance schemes since it can be expected that more people will require health services in the future.

Mahjong parlors go deeper underground to stay in business

Thursday, January 5th, 2012

As a disreputable pastime, mahjong doesn’t draw as much attention as racing sports or pachinko probably because as a game it’s relatively low key and whatever gambling goes on is between friends. In Japan, mahjong traditionally has been played by male college students and salarymen in smoke-filled “parlors” where participants rent tables by the hour and send out for food and alcohol. Like a lot of things that depend on disposable income, Japan’s mahjong industry has been hurting lately. Not only did the lingering recession eat away at the game’s clientele, but anyone with a mahjong jones can get their fix with computer and mobile phone applications. According to the National Mahjong Union, there were about 36,000 parlors nationwide in 1978, a number that remained fairly constant until the bubble burst at the end of the 1980s. By 2000, the number had dwindled to 20,000, and in 2010 there were only 12,700 mahjong parlors in Japan.

Against the wind: Entrance to mahjong parlor in Hama-cho, Tokyo

The Asahi Shimbun recently reported that many remaining parlors are desperately trying to attract new customers in order to stay in business and that some of these schemes have led to police crackdowns. The paper covered one struggling parlor in Osaka where it costs ¥1,800 to rent a four-person table for one hour, and most days the manager says they only manage to rent out about two tables. Another parlor in the vicinity has actually set up a no-smoking section behind glass in hopes that women and non-smokers will come. Still other parlors have set up bigger kitchens so as to offer a more diverse dining experience. There’s even a movement called “healthy mahjong” aimed at older and younger people that emphasizes daytime playing with no alcohol or betting, as well as the supposed brain-fortifying qualities of the game. Some parlors offer “classes” in how to play mahjong more enjoyably and effectively.

Traditional mahjong enthusiasts, however, will likely look askance at these developments, since without the drink and the smoke and the gambling mahjong holds little interest to them. The main problem is that a mahjong game requires four people, so some parlors have devised “free mahjong,” which means you can show up at a parlor by yourself and the manager will set you up in a game with employees. Instead of charging by the table and the hour, free mahjong parlors charge by the game., and since mahjong games can be relatively quick affairs, the profit rate is theoretically higher.

Continue reading about mahjong →

Are digital newspaper subscriptions worth it?

Friday, November 25th, 2011

We subscribe to three daily newspapers, one English and two vernaculars: The Japan Times, the Asahi Shimbun and Tokyo Shimbun. JT and TS are delivered to our front door each morning, and like everyone, including non-subscribers, we can access JT’s website, with content going back to about 2000, for free. Our Asahi subscription is digital only. Until last July we subscribed to the paper edition. So altogether we spend ¥10,830 a month for news: ¥4,480 for JT, ¥3,800 for Asahi and ¥2,550 for TS (morning edition only; with the evening edition added it would be ¥2,800).

Stuff you don't get with a digital subscription to Asahi Shimbun

Ideally, we would prefer receiving all our news digitally. Though at the moment physical newspapers are easier to read and browse on a day-to-day basis, they are more difficult to file and reference, especially for work purposes. Most digital newspapers have a function similar to Google Alerts, and with Asahi you can register up to five key words or phrases; every day articles that contain these phrases are compiled separately. We also like Asahi’s scrapbook function. You can save articles you want to return to later in a separate folder, and as far as we can tell the number is unlimited. Nihon Keizai Shimbun also has a scrapbook function, but you can only save up to 100 articles.

The search function is less helpful, especially if you’re trying to retrieve something from a past issue. Digital subscribers can search up to a year in the past for articles published in the newspaper and up to six months in the past for articles in the digital edition, but from our experience it helps to remember the headline, since using key words and phrases doesn’t always work. Also, some features available in print aren’t always available in digital form. Once we tried to access an article in the special “Be” section, which deals with financial and consumer issues and is published on Saturdays. When we called the newspaper they told us we couldn’t access the section digitally until Sunday, and even then it was only portions.

And if you want to access archives that are older than a year you have to pay extra: ¥3,150 for private users, and that allows you to go back to 1984. However, it only lets you read the headlines. If you want to read the attached article, you have to pay an extra ¥84, which allows you to download it for seven days. Nihon Keizai Shimbun allows digital subscribers to access 25 articles a month up to five years old for free, and then you pay ¥175 for each article after the 25th. Institutional subscribers, such as libraries, can get access to Asahi’s full archives back to 1879 for ¥26,000 a month.

In the United States, in most cases if you subscribe to a physical publication you can access the digital edition for free. We subscribe to both The New Yorker and Harper’s and can access their full archives at no extra charge. The New York Times also allows newspaper subscribers the same unlimited access to its website that digital subscribers enjoy.

Not so in Japan. If you take daily delivery of the Asahi Shimbun, it costs ¥3,925 a month. If you want the digital edition, it’s ¥1,000 extra. But if you want the digital edition alone, it’s ¥3,800 a month, a savings of only ¥125. Nikkei’s system is similar. A subscription to the newspaper is ¥4,383 a month and an added digital subscription ¥1,000. The digital subscription alone is ¥4,000.

Continue reading about Japanese newspapers' digital editions →

The more, the thriftier: guests indispensable for expensive weddings

Monday, November 7th, 2011

Almost a church: a wedding chapel in Chiba Prefecture

Japanese weddings, with their interminable sentimental speeches and stage-managed atmosphere, can be more grueling than heartwarming for some guests, and what non-Japanese usually fail to realize is that they are expected to pay for the privilege of enduring these festivities. Unlike funerals, where guests pay their respects, eat a little food, and leave, friends and relatives who attend wedding receptions pay cash gifts to the happy couple. According to the bridal magazine Zexy, while there are no hard and fast rules regarding the amount of the gift, the customary contribution is ¥20,000-30,000 for “friends and colleagues” of the bride and/or groom, ¥30,000-50,000 for a boss or supervisor, and ¥50,000-100,000 for relatives (calculated as couples). In the West, guests are expected to celebrate by giving something, too, but they usually offer gifts that are presumably for the couple’s new life together. Japanese cash gifts are meant to go toward paying for the wedding.

Zexy estimates that a couple spends on average about ¥1 million on their wedding themselves, and whatever difference there is is made up for by cash gifts from guests (goshuki). That means the more guests they invite (and actually show up), the more the couple can spend. In the wedding business parlance, there are two general types of wedding receptions. Hade-kon are “showy” weddings, meant to stress appearances; while omotenashi-kon emphasize “hospitality” by putting guests first. Hade-kon are not necessarily more expensive on a per-person basis, and in any case the venue will make as much money as it can regardless of the real intentions of the people involved. Anyone who has been to a Japanese wedding will probably note that there’s always way too much food and the presents the couple gives out to guests (selected from a list provided by the service provider) are usually superfluous.

Continue reading about the requirements of a big fat wedding in Japan →

Restaurant chain retains No. 1 position in sales . . . and robberies

Monday, October 3rd, 2011

Hit me: One of two Sukiyas near Kamiyacho Station in Tokyo

Last month, many news outlets reported an attempted robbery of the Asaka, Saitama Prefecture branch of the gyudon (beef bowl) chain Sukiya. Though such crimes are still rare in Japan when compared to other countries, this one received a lot of attention because of what the stickup man said as he brandished a knife at the counter person: “Maido onajimi no Sukiya . . . ,” which basically means he comes to Sukiya often, though it isn’t entirely clear if he meant as a customer or as a thief.

Sukiya is the number one gyudon chain in Japan, owing mainly to the fact that it’s got the most branches: about 1,500 nationwide. The next biggest chain, Yoshinoya, operates about 1,200, with Matsuya a distant third with 800. But if Sukiya has an edge over Yoshinoya in terms of sales, in terms of robberies it’s miles ahead. According to the National Police Agency, between January and August, Sukiya branches were the victims of 90 percent of the robberies perpetrated against gyudon restaurants. That’s an impressive portion, though it should also be pointed out that, altogether, there were only 57 robberies of gyudon restaurants nationwide during this period. Robbery, as a matter of fact, has been on the decrease in recent years, though the targeting of gyudon restaurants has risen.

According to an article in the Tokyo Shimbun, there are a variety of reasons for the increase. The main one is that almost all robberies of commercial businesses take place late at night, and over the past decade most gyudon restaurant chains have extended their business hours and are now open round the clock. A lot of other 24-hour food service businesses use vending machines to collect money; and convenience stores, which are also open all the time, have less cash on the premises thanks to the widespread use of e-money, debit cards and prepaid cards. Two thieves who were caught in August after robbing a Sukiya in Tokyo of ¥200,000 told police they had gotten the idea from discussion groups on the Internet. Apparently, would-be robbers often trade intelligence on good places to hit, and because Sukiya is so well-known and there’s a branch on practically every corner, it’s seen as an easy target.

In any case, the Asaka thief wasn’t a particularly good one. The counter person, a part-timer, managed to hit the alarm button and the police captured the robber shortly after he left. Since most Sukiya branches already have alarm systems installed, the police have suggested they, pardon the pun, beef up their late-night staff, though that would obviously defeat the whole purpose of a chain like Sukiya, which charges rock-bottom prices. It’s why they’re number one, even if in surveys real gyudon fans much prefer Yoshinoya.

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