Japanese beer makers are in trouble. Retail sales for regular beer have been declining for years now as salarymen who like a can of fizzy lager in the evening opt for cheaper variations. Even happoushu, the first kind of ersatz beer the makers came up with to get round the tax on booze, is no longer popular, usurped by the even cheaper (and even more fake) daisan (“third”) beers.
In other words, no one cares about quality any more. It’s just about the price.
Some people are fighting back, hence the gentle growth in craft beer bars in Tokyo over the last few years, where people are willingly to pay for high-end ales and (over-priced) food.
But what about the big beers? How can they try to whip up excitement in a cynical consumer base?
Kirin has succeeded with its frozen beer campaign, where you can get a beer that not only has a large head — the typical serving style in Japan, much to the exasperation of foreigners — but is even frozen so as to offer a hyper-cool drink for the summer. The result is below-zero beer slushies (at least, for around half an hour, before it melts). They are also advertising this with popular actress Yu Aoi to show that drinking beer is not just for middle-aged businessmen.
Following its successful launch last year, there is now frozen beer on tap at the “Ichiban Garden” spaces in Tokyo and elsewhere. And for 2013 it’s not just the basic Kirin Ichiban Shibori lager but a stout and others, all available with frozen foam to chill you down in the humid months. It has been particularly popular at baseball games at stadiums where the frozen foam head servers are available.
It reminds us also of the success that Asashi enjoyed with its “sub-zero beer”, a special Extra Cold version of its Super Dry lager, which you can get at certain bars with the right equipment. They even opened a special bar for sub-zero Super Dry suds in Ginza in 2010, which had huge lines outside during the summer. Asahi continues its aggressive expansion of special Extra Cold bars, and the number of Extra Cold servers in regular bars and restaurants around Japan.
In the same vein, Takara Tomy has been releasing a series of home beer-drinking gimmick toys. They all make a joke about the word “hour” meaning “drinking time” (Happy Hour etc) and also awa, or foam.
The latest is the Sonic Hour Beer Head Froth Maker, a special platform that uses sonic waves to generate the right “head” that Japanese drinkers want from their beers, even ones that they pour at home out of a can.
The first was the Beer Hour, an unusual beer can pourer that gave you the much-desired foamy head, which was followed by the Beer Jokki Hour, a unique type of beer glass (jokki) that had a very analog-looking switch that generated the right amount of foam.
These people seem to love it, at any rate.
If there’s one thing you’ll notice walking around Tokyo, it’s that people are always on the move. At any given moment of the day, no matter where you are in the city, the sidewalks are jammed with people.
Where do Tokyoites get that extra pep in their step? A good, old-fashioned cup of coffee, that’s where. Although, I’m not sure old-fashioned is the right term.
Coffee, much like everything else in Japan, comes in every variety imaginable.
An easy choice for Japanese and foreigners alike is Starbucks. We all know the logo, and with just under 1,000 stores in Japan, it’s no difficult task finding a Starbucks location. They’ve even released a Frappuccino Loves Fashion booklet to help plan your outfit that your drink will best accessorize.
The free booklet is filled with modern-vintage looks inspired by current Frappuccino flavors. It is laid out as a how-to style guide for the fashion-conscious Starbucks customer. If you’re feeling a floral print, why not pair it with a Mango Passion Tea Frappuccino to complete the overall look? Taken on surface value, the booklet is fun eye candy while reminding us that Starbucks is for everyone, even those with a sweet tooth.
Perhaps something a little less cookie-cutter is more your style? All you coffee aficionados can breathe a sigh of relief. Hipster coffee spots like Omotesando Koffee, which was originally planned as a one-year pop up in a house, are here to stay in Tokyo. There seems to have been an explosion in recent years in uber-cool coffee joints in Tokyo neighborhoods like Shimokitazawa, Aoyama et al, all supremely curated in their beverages and also the world they present for the Monocle-reading crowds.
There is also a risk that some of this slips into snobbery and self-importance. In the case of, say, Bear Pond Espresso, it has even produced its own book and will not make its signature espresso for patrons who dare to turn up after 2pm, since apparently it is by then “too busy” for the barista to concentrate on his art! Certainly some visitors are not pleased with the “overly precious” and unwelcoming atmosphere of the place.
There is a danger of taking yourself too seriously — and a danger partaken not just by the hipster hang-outs. Even Doutor, the most ubiquitous and low-brow of all coffee shop chains in Japan, produced its own piece of navel-gazing literature, Doutor Lovers, with Casa Books, complete with photos by Takashi Honma.
The NY Times recently said that coffee is as Japanese as baseball and beer, given that Japan imports more than 930 million pounds of coffee each year, which is more than France of cafe au lait fame.
But all that coffee is not going into the siphons of exclusive Tokyo coffee shops or even the cheap cups of Doutor et al. Where does a lot of it end up?
It’s the old faithful coffee in a can. Now, I know what you’re thinking. But, here in Japan, drinking a can of coffee, bought from one of thousands of vending machines that litter the streets, is common practice. To put things in perspective, Georgia Coffee cans are Coca Cola’s number-one selling product in Japan. A favorite of busy salarymen, canned coffee (hot or cold, depending on the season) is a quick and cheap solution for that caffeine jolt you need. Extra sugar, no sugar, black, extra creamy… The varieties to choose from are near never-ending. Even Starbucks has its own canned coffee and other drink products that you can get in some convenience stores and vending machines.
In the sub-cultural Mecca that is Japan, coffee culture is alive and deliciously thriving. Grab a cup (or a can!) and enjoy.
Foot-in-mouth disease strikes Toru Hashimoto again.
On Monday the brash right-wing politician shocked reporters in Osaka when he said that the so-called “comfort women” (local women forced into prostitution by colonizing Japanese military during the war in Asia) were “necessary” (hitsuyo) for the army’s discipline.
The Osaka mayor then told a story that he had advised a leading American military staffer in Okinawa recently to make use of prostitutes to prevent rapes and sexual assaults between US military personnel and Okinawans. (US military are banned from visiting brothels, and there have been perennial and notorious incidents of rape by soldiers on local women, especially in Okinawa.)
Some 200,000 women are thought to have been forced into prostitution during the war. They were mainly from China and South Korea, but also from the Philippines, Indonesia and Taiwan.
China has since responded, “We are shocked and indignant at the Japanese politician’s remarks, as they flagrantly challenge historical justice and the conscience of mankind”
A Korean government spokesperson said, “The wartime violations of women is a grave violation of human rights that is widely shared by the international community. The remarks by Hashimoto reveal a serious lack of perception for women’s human rights.”
Meanwhile, Washington merely said that Hashimoto’s comments were ridiculous.
The founder of Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) was formerly a TV celebrity lawyer, before turning governor of Osaka prefecture and then switching to Osaka mayor. During his regime he made his reputation for a blitzkrieg approach to streamlining the public purse, trying to reduce the size of the bankrupt city’s debts. Along the way he has made many enemies, not least the people whose budgets he dramatically cut.
He is also known for his outspoken and frequently provocative comments. In the past he has offended the teacher’s union and more recently declared war on the venerable traditional performing arts of Bunraku, one of Osaka’s few claims to high culture but which is run by a closed, heavily subsidised foundation.
He also was revealed to have had an affair with a hostess last year. He has since staked his claim on the state government by forming a national party, which quickly rose to be Japan’s third largest in the Diet after last year’s election. (For a good take on Hashimoto’s background, starting with his nomenclature, we direct readers to the superb Spike Japan post from 2012.)
Hashimoto is also no stranger to ruthless pragmatism when it comes to money, having declared interest in turning Osaka into a haven for casinos (currently not permitted under Japanese law) and reviving the old style of red light districts (officially prostitution is banned in Japan, though it is still rampant and often not even disguised).
Osaka is home to Japan’s largest community of ethnic Korean Japanese, the so-called Zainichi Kankokujin, which you would imagine should have made Hashimoto more sensitive to the topic of Japan’s imperial adventures in Asia last century. He is also a minority himself — he comes partly from the Burakumin caste, the social strata that historically were forced to live only in particular areas and do certain “undesirable” jobs. (The idiosyncrasies of the Japanese family register system recording family addresses is thus how the caste can still be traced today, despite it not ostensibly being an ethnic division.) The Burakumin may sometimes face discrimination even today, and until recently had a lot of trouble finding marriage partners outside their caste or employment in large corporations. (There is also the infamous Sayama Incident in 1963 case, where the police pinned a murder on a Bunraku caste man to cover up their own incompetence.)
Logically speaking, Hashimoto isn’t wrong. Sex, it has to be said, IS one of the best ways to maintain troop discipline far from home. People have always known this. GHQ and the Japanese government very quickly organized a local version of comfort women to keep the newly arrived American forces from raping “ordinary” women in the first few weeks of the occupation. Needless to say, the women were recruited typically from poorer backgrounds.
Saying that the comfort women were an inevitable and tragic consequence of war is not inaccurate. By a strict definition of Hashimoto’s words, they were thus “necessary” (hitsuyo) — though it is a grossly insensitive phrase.
War always brings death and abuse; no side is ever free of crime, as we are seeing today in Syria. What makes the comfort women issue different is that Japan, though having apologised for the war itself, has never paid compensation to the women that were forced into prostitution. The victims continue to campaign for recognition. The first Abe government in 2007 even went so far as to deny that there is evidence for forced prostitution having existed, which is the equivalent of Holocaust revisionism in the eyes of the Chinese et al. (And this is before we even touch on the even thornier subject of the massacre of Nanking.)
Calling the comfort women “necessary” sounds like he was condoning the practice, but I suspect Hashimoto is not as insensitive as that. He was merely speaking of grim realities — not advocating or justifying what happening. “If proof does appear, we have to apologize. At the moment, it is the opinion of the government that there is none. However, a recent Cabinet decision seemed to indicate new proof would soon appear and I think it’s good that related organizations are making efforts to gather it,” he said.
The co-leader of Hashimoto’s party, the equally provocative and strident Shintaro Ishihara (pictured below, with Hashimoto), backed up his younger peer and stated that what he had said was essentially correct.
It’s not been a good time for Japanese politicians and their propensity for gaffes. Ishihara’s successor to the governorship of Tokyo, Naoki Inose, broke Olympic rules by criticizing Tokyo’s rivals for the 2020 Games, Madrid and Istanbul, suggesting in a now infamous New York Times interview that their facilities were not up to scratch, and that in particular Islamic countries tend to fight each other. “So, from time to time, like Brazil, I think it’s good to have a venue for the first time. But Islamic countries, the only thing they share in common is Allah and they are fighting with each other, and they have classes,” he was quoted as saying.
Whether you like them or not, Golden Bomber seems to have found their own gold in the entertainment scene. Their latest album titled The Past Masters Vol. 1 which was released on April 24th, topped the Oricon hit charts in its first appearance, selling over 110,000 copies in the debut week alone. This actually follows another record they made back in January with which their thirteenth single Dance My Generation also entered top of the charts in its first appearance.
Now they have become the first music artists to achieve having both their single and album ranking at the top of the charts in their first appearance. Wait — something is missing here. Yes, their real achievement is attributed to the fact that they don’t belong to a major record label. They are proud to be the first artists representing an indie record label whose single and album both dominated the Oricon charts in their first appearance.
Perhaps they will be even more proud as they continue to see more success in the industry, knowing that people like their music for its authenticity — even though they appear to be deceiving audiences due to the very simple fact that three of the members don’t play any instruments.
Previously we published a post on lip-syncing in the Japanese music industry and talked about just how ubiquitous and accepted it is here, so some people might wonder. Lip-syncing and hand-syncing. Which is more fake?
While I can imagine some people claiming it’s a meaningless question to begin with: We know they are both bad, so what’s the point of asking which is worse? Golden Bomber, though, has made hand-syncing part of their performance and thus perhaps a little less sinful as well. After all, they owe their fame partially to the fact that they don’t play any instrument on stage or even in a recording studio. All of their songs are recorded by “professional” musicians.
Then what is it about them that attracts our attention? The popularity of so-called “visual-kei bands” peaked in the early Nineties so we have seen this kind of thing before — there’s nothing new about their heavy make-up or fashion.
It’s more likely that their popularity and fame stem from their act of not playing cool. For example, the title of their smashhit single, which basically pushed them to the fore of the music scene, is Memeshikute. The word literally means “like a woman” and is used negatively to describe any male who’s not manly enough, whatever that means.
The meaning is more easily “seen” than explained. The first twenty seconds of this music video will show you everything about being memeshii. See how this guy reacts when he gets dumped by his girlfriend.
The song is about having lingering feelings for our ex, told in a not so sentimental way. Life is a performance, they seem to say, so learn to laugh at life.
Their brutally honest expressions of what could otherwise be featured as a central theme of tear-jerking romance films can be seen in the titles of their songs alone. The level of “honesty” varies greatly from “I couldn’t ask for your phone number again” to “I’m going to kill your ex-boyfriend,” both of which are actual titles of their songs. Being uncool is the coolest thing, so embrace the darkest, the most shameful part of yourself.
In their latest single though, they are getting more political. The music video is obviously a satire mocking the people who enjoyed the triumph of Japan’s Bubble economy in the late Eighties when money was believed to take them to the top of the world.
Yet even the burst of the Bubble economy can be turned into a piece of entertainment — it’s just too much fun not to!
I usually don’t watch TV dramas, but there is always one or two a year that almost forcibly catch my attention. Legal High was definitely one of them. The drama was first aired last year as a regular eleven-episode series on Fuji TV.
In short, Legal High is a courtroom drama about a lawyer trying to do everything and anything to win his cases. What makes this drama different, though, is that Kensuke Komikado, the protagonist lawyer, is not at all a heroic figure to begin with. Money is what drives him to work and success. Justice is always in the hands of a winner — this is the core of his work ethics.
On April 13th, a two-hour special was aired on Fuji Television.
In this episode, instead of tackling more general legal issues such as business corruption, divorce, bribery, medical malpractice, product defect, wrongful conviction and so on, the producers chose one of the most sensitive and controversial topic of our time: school bullying.
The story had a happy ending where the bullied kid and his mother won over 100 million yen in compensation. However, the real message was delivered in Komikado’s seemingly ruthless words about middle school life and bullying in general:
The middle school peers that you think are so important to you right now will mean almost nothing to you when you grow up… Bullying exists everywhere. It exists in every part of this country. Bullying is like the flow of air, where the majority always win and have right to justify their action.
That was just one of the highlights of the drama and Komikado’s words definitely speak true about the nature of bullying.
Although the level of severity varies from one case to another, bullying does exist everywhere; it really is in the air. The definition of bullying ranges from ignoring someone (called shikato in Japanese, the most notorious and extremely inhumane form of bullying because it literally denies someone’s existence) to the more violent forms.
Speaking from my own experience, girls or women in general tend to be more cruel and prefer the non-violent yet more lasting forms of bullying, shikato or name-calling. It is very unlikely that the bullied and the bully end up becoming friends later in life. The people that I did not get along with in middle school have now become strangers to me. This is not to say, however, that our school life is nothing but years of studies with a bunch of random kids around.
People come and go, and bullying occurs everywhere. It is very possible that for a long time we’ve been trying to find a solution that does not even exist in the first place. This I believe was the message behind this episode — to show that there might be no solution at all.
I don’t think one TV drama can make any significant change in society, but Legal High is not a typical feel-good story of the socially oppressed trying to fight against bigger, evil forces. Perhaps the praise should go to actor Masato Sakai, who successfully immersed himself in the character to make each line in the story more realistic and believable.
This coming fall, the new series will be aired on Fuji TV with the same cast members, so if you missed the first one or the special on bullying, you’ll get a chance to see what this drama has to offer and the social challenges that it presents to us.
For its latest concept bra to announce its new range, Triumph has come up with the Branomics Bra.
Yes, you’ve guessed it. This is a reference to Prime Minister Abe’s “Abenomics”, the fiscal policies aiming to raise inflation, consumption tax and the value of the Nikkei.
Check out the rising arrows, like the surge of the yen in recent months, and the other little in-jokes on economic growth and inflation. The bra is also meant to offer an increase in volume thanks to extra padding, which isn’t a bad metaphor for government policy in general.
It is, of course, just a gimmick meant to promote Triumph International’s regular line-up of bras, so don’t expect to see it on a shop shelf any time soon.
Every season Triumph — which is actually based in Switzerland — has a stunt like this in Japan in which it pays tribute to something topical or trending. This normally results in a bizarre-looking piece of underwear made with unusual materials that must surely be very uncomfortable to wear for any of the unfortunate models who has to show it off to the world press.
Past examples include a metal bra to promote a female revolution (the Women’s Lib movement apparently did not penetrate Triumph’s world), plus a Quit Smoking Bra, a solar-powered bra, husband-hunting bra (not as risque as it sounds), and even a “jury system” bra to celebrate the belated introduction of jury trials in Japan.
As Japan’s population continues to decline, we see more and more non-human characters pop out and come to life on a daily basis. The yuru-kyara boom which started less than a decade ago is now gaining momentum and dominating our everyday lives.
Yuru-kyara refers to a character or a mascot representative of a city or a prefecture, whose primary mission is to promote and vitalize its local culture and community. The name yuru-kyara is an abbreviation of two words: yurui which means “loose”, and kyara – character.
They are not meant to be lovable in the obvious way that facilitates money-making like other commercial figures (Mickey Mouse, Hello Kitty, Snoopy etc) or anime characters — at least not when they were first introduced to the scene. This notion obviously is starting to change as we see more and more people see monetary value in the popularity of their promotional mascot characters, which is completely understandable.
For example, the very popular Kumamon mascot, Kumamoto’s yuru-kyara, is estimated to have generated around 640 million yen for the prefecture, and the sales of Kumamon merchandise totaled over 2,500 million yen in 2011.
While many of these characters are now becoming more like commercial figures, here I would like to introduce a lesser-known newbie, a native of Funabashi City, Chiba, and one which is not even approved or supported by the local government. This unofficial mascot called Funassyi is a “pear” fairy (the word for pear in Japanese is nashi) and looks like, well, a yellow pear with a face.
Despite its unofficial status and supposedly low publicity, Funassyi ranked 506th in the 2012 yuru-kyara “grand prix” popularity contest, out of 865 entries, which I guess isn’t too shabby. Now Funassyi is everywhere.
Incidentally, the winner of the 2012 Grand Prix was Barii-san, the simple but huggable character for Imabari in Ehime, and who jumped up from being second place last time. That’s him below.
Perhaps what makes Funassyi quite different from many others is that he is a talking mascot (and he talks a LOT) and appears to be a bit wacky as well. In this clip, his talk starts around 1:00 in (after a spot of dancing). Notice the enthusiastic waves and responses he gets from the crowd.
So why hasn’t Funabashi City adopted him? The answer is rather obvious – because they don’t want to. Instead, they recently announced their own “official” city mascot named Funaemon, who has no resemblance whatsoever to Funassyi.
This is Funaemon below, a more conservative and “human” yuru-kyara than the pear that is Funassyi. But which is the better mascot?
Will this move be enough to kick the unofficial yet one-and-only Funassyi out of the game? It seems like the odds are against the bureaucrats!
If Kabukicho had a theme park starring Akihabara chika aidoru (“underground” idols), this might be it…
It is located in the heart of Shinjuku’s world of the erotica. The entrance is a garish, bright open plaza manned by cold beefy bouncers who are if not quite rude, certainly very unwelcoming and unhelpful (don’t expect any kind of guidance). In other words, just like a sex club or strip club.
Anyway, then you go over to the main building on the other side of the street to a horrifically bright waiting room. Seriously, it’s so bright that your eyes hurt. There you are surrounded mirrors and flashing lights, and constant sound.
After waiting for the audience to leave from the previous show, you then go down the stairs to the basement performance area where you are given a bento lunchbox and asked to take a seat on one of the two audience areas. It is a kind of traverse stage, with the “show” happening in the hallway between the two blocks of seats.
This means you spend as much time watching the giant walls of screens showing cheap CGI battles and images of female warriors on horseback, and, naturally, the faces of the other audience members.
We were expecting an audience of sleazy guys or otakus, but actually it was mostly just curious Japanese and foreigners. Considering that the club has advertised itself on its mammoth budget (10 billion yen or $130 million!), the handful of empty seats are not a good sign, though. (Saying that, we can’t really see where the money went but anyway…)
Now to the show itself. Words fail me. It features essentially about 20 dancers who play instruments and, well, dance. Stylistically it’s the biggest smorgasbord of kitsch and the burlesque you are likely to see outside of a Takarazuka performance, only with Kabukicho strip culture and Akihabara chika aidoru motifs thrown in for good measure. It is also erotic; all the girls are scantily clad, plus some had busts we hadn’t seen in Japan except in a porn film.
But more than being aroused, we were most of just simply befuddled by the swirling vortext of influences and elements poured into the mix here. A fighting panda. Drumming girls. A dinosaur. A tank. Sci-fi. Robots. Sex. Sexism. Cheesy smiling idol subculture with genuinely alluring sexuality (well, actually, that’s quite common in Japan so we’re at least used to that).
It is around an hour long, though structured as a series of numbers, so there are quite frequent pauses. Considering it now costs ¥5,000 (with a bento lunchbox meal and drink included), it is a little expensive then, though the kitsch is priceless. For the record, I went with a group of gay Americans and they all seemed to have a whale of a time.
The style of the dancing and music was more Gekidan Shinkansen than genuine strip club, and the finale with the carnival float robots (you have to wait quite a while for the robots to appear!) and a neon tank, followed by dancers who hang from the ceiling, is utterly impossible to define.
Here’s the video we made!
For a country with a declining birthrate (and by extension, the population as a whole), Japan’s toy manufacturers are not showing any signs of giving up.
Granted it hasn’t been plain sailing for Takara Tomy, which was formed from the merger of two troubled toy-makers, but every year they continue to release fun and inventive products.
Now comes this Chupa Chups Ice Candy Maker, which combines the Japanese love for creative cuisine and their innate silliness (don’t let the austerity of some of the classical arts fool you!).
The subtitle for the product is “okashina”, which is a pun, since it can be mean “strange” or “sweets”. And that’s about right: you can create all manner of bizarre but sugary delights with this candy maker.
Just stick your Chupa Chups lollipop (or similar lollipop) into the Ice Candy Maker and use the funnel to add a warm flavored liquid (examples include juices, cola, milk, melted chocolate, cocoa etc).
Then rotate using the handle and the candy will melt off your lollipop in a few minutes, spinning and making a ginormous blob of sweetness. The last thing to do is store it overnight in the fridge and be patient. The next day you will you very own customized ice treat.
With its emphasis on “spinning” fun and making your own customized summer treats, the Chupa Chups Ice Candy Maker also reminds us of Takara Tomy’s hit from last year, the Gurefure Chuchu.