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.
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!
In Japan, April is the month of new starts. The new school year. New company employees join their firms. And we see an increasing number of TV commercials promoting the message of “It’s now or never!” — and eikaiwa (conversational English) schools are no exception for that.
As Japan adapts itself to become a more globalized nation, we can’t avoid the question of just how important English education really is. English is now taught at all elementary schools as part of their mandatory curriculum. In the business world, some companies like Rakuten and UNIQLO have officially announced the “Englishization” of their workplace.
I myself learned English as a second language in middle school and high school. In addition to this “official” English education, I was also taking a thirty-minute eikaiwa lesson once a week when I was in the fifth grade. Although I don’t recall anything I learned from my personal English teacher, I do remember that she was always late to class and asked me the same question (“How was your weekend?”) every time at the beginning of each lesson.
OK, I’m not trying to criticize the way she opened conversation so much — but just that it was only a twenty-five minute lesson (because she was always late), anyway, and this “warm-up” would take up the first ten minutes! I want to point out two things here. One: as an ordinary citizen trying to live a peaceful life, one weekend cannot be that different from another. Two: knowing that she would always ask me the same question somehow made me feel like I HAD TO do something special every weekend. I was forced to come up with an answer — sometimes even make up one — to that dreadful question which I’m not sure, to this day, whether it came from her sincere, pure curiosity to find out what her student did over the weekend or was simply written in her teaching manual. I’m leaning towards the latter.
But there is no question about eikaiwa schools being the most profitable enterprise in the English-learning industry. One of the most notable schools in the history of eikaiwa business was Nova. Some of the readers might remember it from the famous school mascot, the pink Nova rabbit, or Nova Usagi. Nova’s biggest appeal was ekimae-ryugaku — which basically meant that people no longer needed to go overseas to study English, thanks to Nova’s attempt to have a school near every major train station.
While Nova succeeded in making English schools more accessible to anyone, other competitors found their own marketing strategies to lure the students away from the old school. Gaba, for example, is known for its luxurious facilities, more personalized one-on-one lessons and much longer business hours, from 7 am to 10:40 pm. In 2011, Gaba was acquired by Nichii Gakkan, the company which recently launched their own eikaiwa brand called COCO Jyuku.
COCO Jyuku takes a somewhat different approach to millions of prospective customers out there. The first time I saw their commercial on TV, I was struck by the elegance of their message. There was no classroom, obedient students or happy-looking teachers in business suits.
They made English-learning seem like a higher-level, more sophisticated activity, when in reality it is a process of sweating while trying to memorize twenty words a day and remembering only a few a week later at best. (Or maybe this was just me.) Or feeling like a six-year-old again due to having limited vocabulary and grammar when we know we can say the exact same thing much more “elegantly” in our native language.
The point I’m trying to make here is this: we the consumers already know that advertisements or marketing phrases are all manipulative in one way or another. Yet COCO Jyuku doesn’t even give us a chance to see what their teachers are like. They skip all the learning process and instead show us a perfect movie scene. How realistic is it?
It’s a common perception among foreigners that the Japanese are polite and respectful. They say that the Japanese show, if not innately have, good manners in public and seem to act orderly even under the most chaotic circumstances. While these comments sound like a great compliment, showing how disciplined and trained the Japanese are, sometimes I see ironic signs in public which make me wonder what “real” politeness entails.
I’ve been commuting in Tokyo since I was fifteen. An-hour-and-a-half commute to school wasn’t really a hassle for me partly because I was young enough to be able to switch my mental modes quickly from being in a daze to insanity while crushed on a deadly crowded train, and back to the my-brain-is-still-not-working mode. At least I knew there would always be something to look forward to at my destination. As cliched as it might sound, high school indeed was one of the best times of my life (though I should probably mention that I went to four different high schools, and I’m referring to only ONE of them here).
Now that I’m grown up, every morning I have to force myself to get on a train and ensure the same craziness that I somehow almost effortlessly managed to maneuver back when I was still a teenager.
The only “politeness” I can see here is people standing in line before getting on the train. Respect for others? Forget about it.
Another example is a sign of courtesy (or priority) seats.
Source: Tokyo Metro
Some people might think that the sign is intended for the younger generation who, supposedly don’t even know the meaning of the word “courtesy” yet. However, what I have seen in my years of commuting life is the opposite of this assumption. When a space opens, the first group to start up a competition is often middle-aged, tired-looking salarymen.
If one’s fatigue could be accurately measured on the basis of facial expressions or simple gestures, I would not make a single complaint about who should take open seats on trains. I would be more than happy to give my seat to whoever gets on the train in business suits. Salarymen indeed are the most tired-looking people you encounter on trains.
But do we really need to see that reminder or hear the automated announcement on the use of courtesy seats every time we get on a train? In fact, because of its sign and different color they chose for courtesy seats, now even the tiniest thought of occupying one of the seats makes me feel guilty. And if someone ever has to feel guilty to be courteous, then her act only comes from the fear and shame of not being courteous enough.
Does this even make sense?
Yokohama once removed all signs on its subway trains in an attempt to promote the message of “all seats designated for courtesy manners”. However, the great majority of elderly people answered when asked if they had been offered seats on trains after the change that the effect of the new policy was almost marginal. Now the signs are back, once again to remind all passengers to avoid the designated area if they want to secure their seats.
In contrast, New York City Transit made the act of refusing to offer a seat (on request) punishable by up to a $50 fine. While we definitely have to consider both sides of the story, my 84-year-old grandma would probably choose to receive that $50 instead of getting a seat on a train. (She once told me not to treat her like an elder — go grandma!)
April is the time of a new start. It’s the beginning of a new school year. It’s when new recruits start their first full-time jobs. Cherry blossoms are in full bloom. It’s a perfect time of a year to remind ourselves once again that there is so much to look forward to in life. But this might be just a myth.
In Japan, many college students start job hunting over a year before graduation. They don’t get to find out their prospective positions or see their job description until after they get hired.
In exchange for taking this risk of not knowing what to expect, they get permanent employment which in itself seems to be the one and only respectable social status in Japan. In other words, being young and freshly out of college is the very qualification that most companies look for when hiring new recruits.
I got my first full-time job in Japan when I was 24, two years after college graduation. By definition, I was not a new graduate. I applied for the job because there was a position available. However, all the time I was treated as a new recruit whose primary duty was to get to work on time at 9 in the morning and leave quietly at 5 every day without bothering anyone around. At the interview, I was asked to deliver a speech in English, in response to what sounded like the most random question one can ask in the given situation: “Tell me about your most recent memorable experience.” While it was obvious that they simply wanted to see if I could speak English, the truth of the matter is that I did NOT get to speak a WORD of English in my job. To this day, I still wonder – did they hire me because I was “relatively” young and thus supposedly naive?
In fact, I have seen many job postings that openly declare age limits: We prefer candidates under 35, for career building purposes.
If this little comment on a job posting is not considered discriminatory, then what is age discrimination? If they have to give an excuse for only hiring people under 35, then it is strange that it doesn’t ever occur to them that there might be people over 35 who already have experience and a “career,” people who can start a job right away without any training for how a new recruit should act on the first day of work.
All problems aside, job hunting in Japan has never been this difficult, says the media.
It seems that new graduates still have room to enjoy the advantage of being young. However, the situation is certainly changing and the competition is getting tougher. While some companies have decided to completely shut the door to new graduates since they can no longer afford to train them, others have looked outside the domestic market, welcoming more and more foreign workers. In recent years, Rakuten and UNIQLO have even declared “Englishnization” of their business as a mission, in part because there is a growing number of non-Japanese employees in the workplace.
In sum, the term “job hunting” is no longer an exaggeration. We really DO need to “hunt” for it.
A couple of weeks ago, I ventured to Shibuya station with no intent to board a train. UNIQLO had opened a giant pop-up shop on the former Tokyu Toyoko line platforms. Honestly, I figured this was going to be a one-shot deal. A great idea, and it’s done. Not in Tokyo!
Over the weekend the former train station (now called “Shibuya ekiato”) was once again occupied, this time filled with the promotional booths taking part in the Shibuya TV-Festival. Japanese television channels like NHK, Super! Drama TV and The Disney Channel had all set up shop right on the platform to market their programs and services to the general public.
In the back of the building a massive stage had been built for live comedy and entertainment shows, with special guests such as Milky Bunny. The room was loud and exciting.
Every booth was like a shining, sparkling beacon calling out to you! Literally. Almost every booth had someone in front of it with a megaphone, urging people to come in.
Whether you were trying on an outfit through augmented reality, winning prizes on an oversized slot machine or just doing a little bit of shopping (for TV channel mascots, of course!), the Shibuya TV-Festival had something for everyone.
Fashion and beauty aids often overlap, and here’s a great example of one product that does it in a medically proven way too.
We spotted these recently at a trade fair and feel they desire some exposure.
It’s tough being a Japanese woman — and this is meant without any chauvinism or irony intended! Japanese society puts a lot of emphasis on female beauty and it’s very rare to see women without make-up on. And with this of course comes the prerequisite high heels. All of this takes a strain on skin and feet.
The Ashipita DX is a new kind of footwear to help posture and blood circulation.
It is designed to be easy to slip onto women’s feet when they are working or commuting, or even doing more strenuous activities, like yoga or exercise.
If you suffer from swollen feet due to all those office hours imprisoning your feet in tight shoes, the Ashipita DX will assist your feet returning to a healthier shape. They also support your posture so you use the whole of your foot, stimulating and strengthening your foot in a natural arc suitable for walking. And perhaps best of all, they aid blood circulation and thus keep you warm in the winter.
The design has already been patented in four countries and was developed at the University of Nagoya.
At the moment there are two colors available, black and beige, and three sizes.