February 27, 2012

Unique Uniqlo

On the heels of Tokyo University's plan to start its school year in the fall, casual wear retailer Uniqlo announced that it will adopt year-round recruiting in Japan. Down the road, this may be the more important development of the two.

Traditionally, Japanese corporations do their recruiting only in April. Miss that window and you have to wait a whole year to apply again. Why? Because that's the way it's always been done.

If there is a single characteristic that is at once Japan's great strength and its greatest failing, it is the conviction that any obstacle may be overcome by simply keeping at it and trying harder, epitomized by the ubiquitous verb "Ganbarou!"

For example, Japanese generally place less emphasis on "IQ" than on perseverance. That's all fine and dandy, except that the ability to persevere at a grueling series of multiple-choice exams could be called, oh, I don't know, "IQ."

As a result, rather than questioning the status quo, the first impulse is to do the same-old, same-old, only twice as hard. "X worked (or didn't) in the past; therefore, we should keep on doing (or never attempt) X in the future." Just more.

The Japanese are hardly alone in this. It's a strategy favored by prohibitionists and Keynesian economists everywhere.

Actually, questioning the way things are done is a favorite pastime of the talking heads on NHK news shows. Changing them is another matter entirely. Going from talking to doing is what sets these developments apart from the rest.

At the same time, the often silly and arbitrary reasons behind Japan's lagging labor productivity rates paradoxically suggest these problems could be tackled more expeditiously that those currently ailing Europe.

Related posts

Silver linings
Dragon Zakura
Ganbarou! Japan
Starting in the fall

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February 23, 2012

Church and state

Minamoto no Yoshitsune is one of the great tragic heroes of Japanese history and literature. He was one of Japan's most accomplished generals, responsible for demolishing the Taira clan in the late 12th century, ending the Heian Era and ushering in the reign of the shoguns.

But his older brother Yoritomo instead became the first shogun in the Kamakura Bakufu. Presaging the central political conflict in Serpent of Time, after the Genpei War, Yoshitsune backed Emperor Go-Shirakawa, essentially choosing to preserve the old political system.

Emperor Go-Shirakawa later abandoned Yoshitsune as a lost cause (three such fatal betrayals cursed the final years of his life) and appointed Yoritomo the first shogun.

Gendô refers to this historical antecedent to make it clear that sanctuary on Mt. Kôya was no guarantee of safety against a determined head of state.

Throughout Japan's medieval period, the state always held the upper hand over the church. Conflicts between competing Buddhist sects were minor scrapes compared to efforts by warlords and governments to keep the church from interfering with the prerogatives of the state.

The most powerful religion during this time was the Tendai Buddhist sect, founded by Dengyô Daishi (767–822). The proximity of its Enryaku-ji headquarters to Kyôto gave it increasing influence over the secular affairs, to the point of creating a private army of warrior monks (僧兵).

In 1571, after Enryaku-ji sided with his foes, the warlord Oda Nobunaga sent an entire army against Mt. Hiei and burned the temple complex to the ground, killing at least 20,000 men, women and children. None of the structures on Mt. Hiei date further back than the late 16th century.

The second major religious war--that also had little to do with religion--was the Shimabara Rebellion (1637–1638). It began as a tax revolt concentrated among Catholic adherents in Nagasaki, and became a crusade against the brutal anti-Christian persecution of the Tokugawa shogunate.

This persecution arose out of the regime's isolationist and xenophobic policies. It had little to do with theology. Between 20,000 and 30,000 rebels held out for a year against far superior forces, but were pushed back to Hara Castle, where they were eventually overrun and slaughtered to a man.

An actual religious war occurred during the early years of the Meiji Restoration, when the government abruptly adopted Shinto as the state religion. This was done to bolster the nativist ideology that rationalized overthrowing the shogun and restoring the emperor to supreme authority.

After chafing under the thumb of their Buddhist overseers for 250 years, Shinto adherents erupted in a spasm of vandalism known as the Haibutsu Kishaku (廃仏毀釈), which resulted in the destruction of an enormous amount of Buddhist art and architecture, though little loss of life.

Nowadays, it's all bygones. Buddhism and Shinto and Christianity happily exist side by side. Visit Shinto shrines on the holidays, marry in a Catholic church, get buried as a Buddhist, and nobody bats an eye.

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February 20, 2012

A penny saved

One logical proposal buried in Obama's 2013 budget proposal is to make pennies and nickels cheaper to produce. Only 2.5 percent of a current penny is copper, but it still costs 2.4 cents to make 1 cent.

Since 1955, the Japanese 1 yen coin (currently worth a tad more than 1 cent) has been made out of aluminum. They're so light they float (technically they ride on the water tension).

Aluminum costs about the same as zinc (per pound), which makes up most of a penny. But zinc is three times denser than aluminum, so the savings would be substantial.

A penny might even cost less than a penny to make. Plus, a bunch of them wouldn't tear a hole in your pocket. (Though I can't remember the last time I paid for anything in hard cash using a penny.)

On the other hand, a first-class stamp in Japan goes for 80 yen, or about a dollar (twice what is currently proposed by the USPS). Maybe pennies should be stamped out of paper like raffle tickets.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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February 16, 2012


In chapter 14 of Serpent of Time, Ryô joins a group of pilgrims headed to Mt. Kôya, the final stop on the Shikoku Pilgrimage.

Visitors to Mt. Kôya can retrace the course of the original women's pilgrimage, although only one of the temples survives to this day. On the map for the Koya Sanzan Route, the ruins of the Ryûjinguchi are next to the Daimon Gate. Mt. Benten is in the upper left.

Going on pilgrimages is popular form of participatory tourism in Japan, actual religious devotion not required. The most famous is the Shikoku Island pilgrimage, a walking tour of the eighty-eight temples established by, or devoted to, the Buddhist monk Kôbô Daishi.

Like the lesser-known Kumano Kodô pilgrimage up the Kii Penisula to Mt. Kôya (Kate's suggestion, by the way), the remoteness of these ancient routes from the Tokyo and Osaka megalopolises has largely preserved them intact.

Speaking of Shikoku, horror writer Masako Bandô has made Shikoku the equivalent of Steven King's Maine. Inugami, based on her novel, is a gorgeously-shot film, with heaps of gorgeously-shot sex and nudity and a wildly perverse Oedipus Rex plot.

The plot of the tamer Shikoku (the kanji in the title are pronounced the same but mean "death country") is based on the actual Shikoku pilgrimage. Judging by the movie, it's a campier, X-Files sort of actioner.

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February 13, 2012

It sounded like a good idea

Taken offense takes many forms. Japanese very often simply do not get the English concept of "vulgarity" as it relates to language, hilariously illustrated here. And for reasons other than meanings getting lost in translation.

Take the ubiquitous kuso. It translates as "(bull)crap" or "(bull)shit," depending on whether it's uttered by a kid or a gangster. Why, a Japanese might logically ask, have two words that mean exactly the same thing?

Though if you're referring to what bears do in the woods, it's fun (rhymes with "spoon").

As Peter Payne points out, only the "c" word is guaranteed to be bleeped. Widely self-censored is the old word (穢多) for Japan's feudal outcasts, which has since gone through a rigorous "euphemism treadmill."

(A fascinating parenthetical about the evolution of the latter can be found here.)

I saw a interview with Brad Pitt on NHK, accompanied by an excerpt from Moneyball that included several expletives the FCC would frown upon. Nothing was bleeped. (Often true of foreign coverage involving bleep-worthy expletives.)

Why should they be? There's nothing intrinsically offensive about a collection of phonemes (as opposed to certain bodily noises). Japanese are drawn to them for the same reason NBA stars tattoo kanji on their forearms.

Because it's cool!

In this case, the phonemes were intended as an (all things considered, pretty clever) alliterative pun on fukubukuro ("lucky bag"). A fukubukuro is a grab bag of overstocked items sold at a steep discount on New Year's Day.

Related posts

More about pronouns

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February 09, 2012

Japanese Inn

The definitive account of an Edo period highway inn is Japanese Inn by Oliver Statler, a narrative history (at times more or less imagined) of the Minaguchi, a family-owned inn near Shizuoka that dates back to the 16th century.

Statler's description of a visit to the inn (where he was a regular guest) in the 20th century could just as well apply four hundred years ago.

A kimono-clad maid comes running, calling back messages to the interior, and sinks to her knees on the straw matting of the entrance hall. Bowing almost to the floor, she says, "You are welcome to the Minaguchi-ya."

Round-faced Yoshi, his bald head gleaming, rushes out to take forcible possession of my bag. "You are welcome! You are welcome!" he cried.

And from the interior appears buoyant, bubbling Isako, the mistress of the inn, tall, slender, and young in heart. She too slips to the floor and bows. "Please come in. Your room is waiting. It is your home."

Isako rises to lead the way.

Choruses of "Irasshai!" (accompanied by bows) can still be heard at most retail establishments in Japan. Big department stores deploy squadrons of attractive young women at every entrance to do the honors.

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February 06, 2012

Silver linings

Eamonn Fingleton is a one-note contrarian who mostly plays solo. His basic argument is that Japan isn't quite the economic basketcase it's been made out to be since the real estate bubble burst twenty years ago.

He has a worthy point there, namely that human beings possess a remarkable ability to simply muddle through. (The apocalyptic nuts have all abandoned religion for economics and climatology.) To start with, even including earthquakes and meltdowns, Japan certainly isn't Greece.

Western journalists are just as gullible now as they were back during the rah-rah 1980s when Japan was #1! And Japanese are sanguine about the problem of population growth (despite there being a cabinet minister with the problem of population growth in her portfolio) for good reasons.

The problem is, Fingleton messes up a worthy thesis with nonsensical apples vs. oranges arguments. The grouchy Spike Japan admits that "had Fingleton deigned to mention crime, drugs, or even general orderliness, I would have conceded the advantage to Japan immediately."

But practically everything Fingleton cites in Japan's favor betrays a no less superficial understanding, is unrelated to the actual strength or weakness of Japan's economy, or is a product of Japan being chock full of Japanese. As far as that goes, Japanese live longer and better in the U.S.

Paul Krugman's response, however, in the form of a backhanded compliment, is more revealing.

Krugman quickly points out Fingleton's errors, but then predictably comes to the conclusion that "[the U.S. is] are doing worse than Japan ever did." Except that in arguing that "1990-2000 really was a lost decade," he makes the sort of silly mistake Fingleton likes to crow about.

Krugman bases this on the pre-popped 1990 bubble, the same way cynical economists like to use the inflation-riven 1970s as a benchmark for middle-class malaise. But draw a straight line through Krugman's graph and 2000 performance fall right in line with the previous three decades.

But taking Krugman at face value, the more interesting question is why Japan is supposedly "doing better." For reasons, alas, that would not please any liberal's heart:

1.) Japanese prefer underemployment to unemployment. "Extending unemployment benefits" is not a subject that greatly consumes the attention of Japanese politicians.

2.) Probably because population growth is flat and immigration is almost nonexistent, factors that will produce tight labor markets under practically any conditions.

3.) Japanese still have to put 20 percent down to get a secured loan on anything. Unsecured loans (credit cards) remain difficult to come by (short of payday lenders and loan sharks).

4.) Bonus-based pay at all levels means that a "salaryman" has to live with the expectation of losing a big chunk of his take-home pay if his company hits a rough patch.

5.) Which means that he has no choice but to save heavily (at zero real interest rates) or live significantly within his means (or live with his parents).

As a result, the average middle-class Japanese has a significantly lower standard of living than his American (or even Italian) counterpart, which is readily apparent from the residences they live in.

But it also means that the Japanese have a greater ability to conform and adapt (as Gillian Tett points out in this BBC interview), and so are much better prepared to make the "sacrifices" our political scolds like to go on about.

NHK set three of the last four Asadora dramas in the Showa Era. The inescapable message: you think life is tough now? Let's remind you what it was like then.

Japan's productivity is still ranked dead last in the G7 and lags even the OECD-30 average. Looking for the silver lining, that means bringing up productivity could buffer the effects of an aging and declining population. I'll bet on the country that would rather work than not.

Related posts

Before and After
Showa nostalgia
Apocalypse not now

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February 02, 2012


In Irezumi: The Pattern of Dermatography in Japan, Willem R. van Gulik explains that the term "palanquin bearer" or kumosuke (雲助) can refer to a reckless taxi driver or ruffian. "When business was slack, palanquin bearers would often resort to highway robbery as a side line."

Ryô's concerns about her own palanquin bearers notwithstanding, kumosuke served middle-class travelers. Palanquin bearer for the noble classes were known as rokushaku (六尺), or six shaku (尺 = .995 feet), a wooden pole used to carry things across the shoulders.

Nowadays, rokushaku more often refers to rokushakudoshi (六尺褌), the loincloth (made from a six-foot strip of cotton) worn by rokushaku.

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