Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

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.

Heal me: Spirituality businesses redefining “religion”

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

Notes from the other side: Newspaper ad for books on spirituality

Earlier this week, Toru Saito, the leader of a yugen-gaisha (limited company) called Shinsekai (World of Gods), was arrested by the Kanagawa Prefectural Police for swindling five customers out of more than ¥13 million. Shinsekai is a so-called spirituality business (reikan shoho) that runs a chain of “salons” where people who are suffering physically or mentally can be “healed,” mainly through prayer fees or the purchase of spiritually charged objects like “power stones.” A group of lawyers representing former patrons of Shinsekai have likened the company’s business model to that of a pyramid scheme. People who come in for a consultation are charged huge sums in an ongoing manner to be cured, and when they can’t pay they are then compelled to bring in friends and acquaintances, thus creating a cycle. The salons themselves grow from this cycle and, according to the lawyers group, have to fulfill quotas assigned by Shinsekai executives. A local newspaper reports that the company, which some media are calling a “cult,” collected ¥17.5 billion from 2001 to 2007. Between 30 and 50 percent of the money went to the leadership group, with Saito, the founder, receiving a cool ¥1.5 billion.

Nice work if you can get it, and a lot of people obviously are trying. Since the Aum Shinrikyo scandal in the mid-90s, the idea of religion has been tainted in Japan, and a lot of money-making spiritual concerns that once would use the word religion if for no other reason than to qualify for tax-exampt status now shun it, prefering the term “healing” to describe the benefits of what they have to offer. Superstar fortune tellers and “aura readers” like Hiroyuki Ehara and Kazuko Hosoki epitomize this post-Aum spirituality trend, which focuses on the subject’s relationship with his or her ancestors, thus tapping into cultural beliefs associated with tenets of Buddhism and Shintoism. These two faith systems, especially Shintoism, have a close relationship with money, which represents the spiritual investment in whatever sort of outcome the subject wants to bring about. If you want a prayer to bless your house or make sure your son passes a university test, the more you pay the stronger the entreaty, though in the Western sense of “faith” it sounds more like superstition.

Continue reading about the spirituality business →

Discount strategies: Every dog, and man, has his day

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

The prevailing wisdom in Japan is that women are the arbiters of consumer culture. Traditionally, men were thought — or thought themselves — to be above the petty considerations of how to spend money. But the lingering recession and its negative effects on the employment situation have changed everything. Young men are no longer automatically expected to pay for dates, if, in fact, they ever actually go on dates. Even salaried male employees are openly anxious about their pocket money, counting every last yen and budgeting their output. It’s not just their wives’ or girlfriends’ jobs any more.

Guys just wanna have fun: Shidax's Men's Day ad

The popular promotional scheme known as Ladies Days are implemented by retailers and service providers to lure women to their businesses. On certain days of the week, month or year, women receive discounts from hotels, movie theaters, restaurants, etc., as a means of getting more of them interested in what they offer. Such promotions were never offered to men, and not just because of male pride. Men, after all, are believed to run the world. As the advantaged gender, why should they get a break?

Well, a number of businesses think it’s about time men did get a break. Mainichi Shimbun recently reported on the trend for Men’s Days, mainly centered on eating establishments. The article talks about a Portuguese restaurant in Ginza where every Monday male patrons’ first glass of beer is free and only men get to order the pudding for dessert. The manager of the establishment, a man, told the paper, “There are lots of Ladies Days, and I thought that was strange.”

His response is sort of strange, too. We have more faith in the comment from a female manager of another restaurant with a Men’s Day special in Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture. Her restaurant on designated days offers extra helping of pasta and rice to men for free, not to mention free side orders of soup. Why? Ninety percent of their patrons are women, and men normally eat more than women do, which means they potentially spend more. “We want repeat business.”

Continue readings about Men's Days →

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