Sunday, February 27, 2011

Japanese nurses being willing to save lives worldwide have been waiting to be rescued in Christchurch.

The tragedy in New Zealand reminds me of a disaster I saw firsthand 16 years ago. The catastrophic earthquake which hit large cities around Kobe, Japan easily transformed peaceful towns into hell. When I first stepped into the ruined areas, piles of rubbles and the wreckage of buildings really made me realize the destructive power of nature. At the same time, a cruel mix of peace and tragedy here and there astonished me. A familiar place had changed to the point where I wasn't able to recognize it. In contrast, the next area across a street looked ordinary and there seemed to be nothing to change. The street determined many people's destinies. On top of that, ten or twenty minutes driving from a disaster area was long enough to find another world. In fact, when some friends of mine who were forced to be evacuated their towns could manage to reach downtown Osaka (Usually, it takes only 15 minutes from their towns to Osaka by train), they doubted what they were seeing there. They were stunned to see that Osaka looked normal and everything there was going on as if nothing had happened.

When the catastrophic earthquake hit Christchurch, there were a lot of Japanese people there. It's assumed that over 40 Japanese students were in a building where an English school was located. Unfortunately, the building completely collapsed and 28 of the students are still missing. Because of this, the quake has been widely reported in Japan and the information has been frequently updated. According to the news, the school is popular among Japanese nurses since it offers a special English program for nurses. So, the missing includes several experienced Japanese nurses. The farther of a 41-year-old missing Japanese nurse said that he believed she was trying to save as many lives as she could at the disaster site because this was exactly what she wanted to do. He added that given the circumstances reported, he knew that he had to prepare himself for accepting the harsh fact on her. It's reported; "she belongs to MEDECINS DU MONDE JAPON (Doctors of the World Japan) and has been to Asian countries to help people as a volunteer nurse during her holidays. She can speak French and Mandarin. She has been attending the aforementioned English school since January to study medical English". Other missing nurses have similar stories, as well.

I hope that as many people as possible will be rescued.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Ambassador pandas have just arrived in Tokyo by Panda Jet

Have you heard of the Japanese phrase 客寄せパンダ/kyakuyose-panda? 客寄せmeans to lure customers and パンダmeans pandas. The phrase means to use people or things to draw attention. Can you guess why pandas are used in this phrase? Actually, it was created around 1980. Then, it became very popular over the next two decades.

In 1972, Japanese-Chinese diplomatic relations were normalized. Responding to that, China presented two giant pandas to Japan as a symbol of friendship. Ueno Zoo in Tokyo was a new home for them. A huge number of people swarmed the zoo to take one look of the cute pandas named ランラン/ran-ran and カンカン/kan-kan. Very long lines were formed at the zoo every day.  It didn't disappear for a long time. These circumstances created that phrase.

The popular, adorable pandas greatly helped Japanese people develop an affinity for China. After the pandas died, three other pandas were presented to Japan, and also came to Ueno Zoo in Tokyo. However, since the three pandas were given around when Japan's Official Development Assistance to China started and around when the amount of the ODA yen-loan to China sharply increased, the coined phrase "パンダ外交/panda-diplomacy" appears whenever these presented pandas are being discussed in the news. Incidentally, now, it's impossible to give and be given pandas due to the Washington Convention. In April, 2008, the last panda which belonged to Japan died in Ueno Zoo in Tokyo.

Currently, there are eight pandas at a zoo in Wakayama next to Osaka. The zoo has been doing Chinese-Japanese joint research on giant pandas and their breeding since 1994. Although six of the pandas were born there, all eight belong to China. Other than them, four pandas were born there and already went back to China.

Anyway, a few hours ago, two pandas arrived at Ueno Zoo in Tokyo. From Shanghai, they took an ANA panda jet, which was introduced in 2007 on routes between China and Japan to celebrate the 20th anniversary of ANA's service between the two countries. Ueno Zoo has high expectations for the pandas since it has been suffering from a decrease in visitors. On the other hand, the pandas have become controversial since it has been widely reported in the past week that the annual rental fee for them is about 950,000USD (78,000,000JPY). Ueno Zoo is run by Tokyo prefecture, so the rental fee will be paid from tax money.

I'm wondering what role the new pandas will play. Hi pandas, thank you very much for being patient during the long journey anyway.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Valentine's Day is highly commercialized in Japan. Chocolate, investment and.....

Like Christmas, Valentine's Day is highly commercialized in Japan. As you may know, on the day, women are expected to give men chocolate. Although I'm sure that confectionery and retailing industries took advantage of the day and popularized the costum, I don't know exactly when it became that common. Originally, in Japan, Valentine's Day was especially for a woman who liked a man but hadn't yet told him her feeling. Since it was believed that a man was supposed to first tell a woman that he liked her until probably three decades ago, Valentine's Day gave those women an opportunity of expressing themselves by giving chocolate. As the times have changed, women have become more aggressive in a positive way. On top of that, these days, a younger man often expects a woman to first tell him that she likes him, so I think that Valentine's Day has become less meaningful. Anyway, chocolate which a woman gives a man whom she really likes is called 本命チョコ/honmei-choko (本命 means the favorite and チョコmeans chocolate).

At office and school, women usually pass chocolate to their male friends and colleagues. If these men are those to whom they want to show their gratitude, they will be willing to buy chocolate for the men. On the other hand, if women feel under peer pressure to follow the custom and are reluctant to give chocolate to their colleagues, not only women but also men will find the custom bothering. Actually, women often have a hard time deciding to whom they are going to give chocolate while worrying about the total cost, and men are inevitably exposed to competition since many of them care about how many chocolate boxes they can get. On top of that, some women have ulterior motives. They view the chocolate as a lucrative investment. In Japan, if a man is given a box of chocolate by a woman, he will be expected to give a gift back to her on the 14th of March. It's assumed that the gift is supposed to be worth twice as much as the chocolate given. Because of this awkward custom, some women intentionally give chocolate to men who are likely to give luxury gifts back to them. Anyway, chocolate which women give to men out of courtesy are called 義理チョコ/giri-choco(義理 means obligation etc. ).

I assume that ”giri-choco” (chocolate for male colleagues and friends) largely contributes to its sales. However, as you can see, the chocolate often makes women feel like they are wasting money. So, I think that "giri-choco" has become less popular. At least, many women try to cut the budget for it. Under these circumstances, a new custom was created and has become very common in the past few years among school girls and young women. They exchange chocolate. This chocolate is called 友チョコ/tomo-choco (友means friends). Basically, women love chocolate more than men, so it probably helped the custom gain popularity.

I'm tired of customs created by industries and people making me feel like I need to follow the customs.

The website below: A confectionery company "明治製菓/Meiji Seika" built a bar of giant chocolate in front of itsfactory a week before Valentin's Day.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Facebook headquarters reminds me of the old days

The civil disobedience in Egypt finally forced President Mubarak to step down. The revolt opened the door to democracy.Since Facebook played a remarkable role in making it happen, more Japanese people, especially those who are unfamiliar with Facebook, started paying attention to it, wondering what it was like. Under these circumstances, a TV news program allocated some time to introduce it, the popular social network service in the world. In the program, a popular Japanese reporter went to the headquarters of Facebook in California, gave a tour of the office, and interviewed the creator of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg. According to the program, this was the the first time that a Japanese TV program was allowed to film inside the office. Given that Facebook has been struggling to gain Japanese subscribers due to the immense popularity of the Japanese social network service "Mixi," I suppose that Facebook views the present time as a good opportunity to promote itself.

Anyway, it was reported in the program that Facebook had decided against office partitions in the hopes that workers would feel free to discuss ideas openly. The placement of office desks like the one in the attached picture and other reports about the office reminded me of when I just started working for a traditional company many years ago right after graduation. At the time, office partitions weren't common in Japan and office desks were arranged that way in many Japanese companies, although they now use partitions. So, I was working in a sort of open office space. On top of that, I was encouraged to feel free to have discussion with co-workers, even at cafes, etc. The open office space and small talk with coworkers often helped me come up with new ideas, although when I wanted to focus my full attention on doing something, I felt like the openness caused me to be distracted. I was a little surprised to see things in common between Facebook and a traditional Japanese company.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Fixed matches in Sumo tournaments show us that it's the time to change

Have you ever heard of Sumo? It's a Japanese style of wrestling and Japan's national sport. In Japan, Sumo has been drawing considerable public attention in the past few years.Unfortunately, this is because scandals relating to Sumo wrestlers and the Japan Sumo Association have been discovered one after another (All the wrestlers belong to the association). About a week ago, irrefutable evidence about fixed matches was found while detectives were investigating another scandal. Some text messages restored by the police have shown that some Sumo wrestlers were negotiating with their opponents about how to and who would loose their matches. Although a lot of people had been wondering for many years if there were fixed matches, the unquestionable evidence shocked them.

I'm familiar with Sumo because when I was little, my father would tune in to Sumo matches whenever they were held. He taught me a lot of things about Sumo while watching the matches. However, I still don't know about some of the traditions and systems relating to Sumo. I've assumed that they had already faded outside of sumo society and so it's hard to understand them. I've also felt that the traditions are necessary for Sumo but they are in ares which ordinary people  cannot deal with. What I'm trying to say here is that there have been gray zones in the Sumo Association.

The suspicion of fixed games and matches always lingers around sport matches. A Sumo tournament is held every two months. Every tournament lasts 15 days and there are more than 100 matches each day. Given these circumstances, fixed matches in Sumo tournaments aren't surprising to me. Actually, what surprises me most is the Japan Sumo Association and the people involved in it. They still seem to cling tenaciously to traditional management ways although many scandals have proven that they can't control risks these ways. Last year, the association finally added a university professor and an expert as board members, but all other board members are retired Sumo wrestlers (Only strong Sumo wrestlers who meet certain conditions are allowed to work for the association after retirement). 

Many Sumo wrestlers leave their homes when they complete compulsory education, in other words, when they graduate from junior high schools (I think that the number of Sumo wrestlers who are high school or university graduates has been increasing). After that, they spend most of their time in Sumo stables. Since they are required to devote a lot of effort to becoming strong Sumo wrestlers, it's not easy for them to learn things other than Sumo. Despite that, almost all the board members are retired Sumo wrestlers. How can I expect them to manage such a big association in times where unpredictable things can suddenly happen? Haven't they realized that risk management by professionals is necessary?

Actually, not changing as the times demand isn't peculiar to the Sumo Association. Now is the time to change for a lot of Japanese people, companies and government. Otherwise, Japan won't be able to survive.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Are Japanese people incredibly patient ?

In the past few weeks, the revolt against the Mubarak administration in Egypt has been drawing considerable worldwide attention. A few days ago, my Japanese friend living in China complained, saying that more websites had been blocked. She guessed that the civil disobedience made the Chinese government more nervous. Given that the movement have reverberated around the Middle East, it's clear that the Chinese government is afraid that a chain reaction will be set off in China. The fact that Facebook page etc.have fomented the revolt seems to make the government tighten controls on access to websites.

Actually, these things remind me of statements made by some well-known Chinese people. Although they don't know one another, they all say: "the Japanese economy has been sluggish in the past two decades, but Japanese people have never revolted nor held a massive demonstration against the Japanese government during that period. It's unbelievable but amazing. Japanese people are incredibly patient. If a recession lasted such a long time in China, there would be a revolution". They also insist that you should try to understand how difficult unifying China is before you criticize Chinese government's policies.

As you may know, China and Japan have developed a relationship of great mutual economic dependence. So, in Japan, no country is more frequently reported in the news than China. A lot of issues between the two countries are always discussed.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Do Japanese people believe that people are naturally good?

The careless behavior of Japanese people often surprises those who aren't familiar with Japan. Typical behavior is at self-service cafes. Many people first leave their personal belongings on the table in order to reserve their seats, and then they leave to go buy things. Some people even leave their cellphones or laptops. Although they are not able to keep watch over their personal belongings left on the table while standing in line, they don't care. They seem to assume that their things will not be stolen. I don't think it is safe to do that in Japan anymore, but there are still many people who don't mind doing it. Actually, Japanese people often behave based on a traditional idea that people can't do wrong since they are naturally good. Many people assume that this idea comes from 性善説/seizensetsu which was developed and advocated by 孟子/moushi in the ancient times of China, although the proper meaning of 性善説 is different.

People understand that this idea will expose themselves to danger outside Japan. However, Japanese tourists still aren't vigilant enough in other counties. Their careless behavior always invites someone to pick their pockets. They are still the first target for thieves. When it comes to business, I think that Japanese companies still tend to lack the awareness of risk and aren't good at risk management, although I don't know whether or not this traditional idea has caused it. Some people are surprised by contracts made by American companies since they cover much more detailed things than they expected. The detailed things sometimes include things they can't think of. When I lived in China, some Japanese took some time to get accustomed to checking whether or not small electrical appliances sold, even at well-known department stores, worked properly before purchasing them.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Awkward working culture in Japan

I often hear Westerners saying that they don't understand why Japanese businessmen often brag about their long working hours. They say that in the West, such workers are perceived to be inefficient. Because of this, if Westerners are forced to work long hours, they will likely complain and will never brag about it. What is most surprising to Westerners seems to be that immediately before a client presentation, some Japanese businessmen tend to mention that they had only a few hours of sleep the previous night. Their intention is to impress their clients by the great efforts they had put in right up to the last minute. However, contrary to their expectations, this will make Westerners wonder if they will be able to deliver presentations properly since Westerners assume that a lack of sleep would impair their judgement and ability to concentrate.

I think that mentioning a lack of sleep or things like this to clients is ridiculous even to Japanese people these days, although it didn't give negative impressions to clients in the past. Several years ago, I heard a story. An older manager and a few workers from a company went to Tokyo from Osaka to deliver a presentation to their client. Before the presentation, in order to break the ice, the manager told the client that the workers had been re-checking the presentation even on the way to Tokyo by bullet train (it takes two and half hours between the two cities). The client's reaction astonished and disappointed the manager. The client criticized him, saying that he was so incompetent at managing his workers that they were forced to check the presentation even on a bullet train. I totally agree with the client.

Culturally, people who are willing to work late still tend to be appreciated in Japanese companies. In the past, some workers would stay until very late at work even when they didn't need to and overtime wasn't paid. As the times have changed, working efficiently has become of greater value. However, I've found that even efficient workers are often required to work long hours. In Japan, at work, you are often required to work cooperatively with your colleagues. Actually, teamwork is considered a Japanese advantage. However, the idea requires you to cover what your colleagues haven't yet done in your team. If you can work much more efficiently than your team members, you will end up being forced to help them and might find this unreasonable. I think that this is largely because you often feel that you aren't evaluated properly and don't get a salary worthy of your performance.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Does the Japanese society try to inspire us to remember the 1980s?

I sometimes feel like Japanese society tries to inspire us to remember the 1980s when a lot of Japanese people were charmed by the so-called bubble economy. I feel like popular songs and things in the 1980s appear more frequently than before.

During the bubble economy, a lot of project plans were made without being examined carefully (After the bubble burst, I was forced to struggle with projects that my colleagues made during that period. I didn't understand why they made such impractical plans and realized that the bubble economy made people delusional and greedy). Real estate values in cities were dramatically escalating. The huge surge encouraged and enabled people and companies to invest by borrowing money from banks since they mostly lent you money based on the value of your real estate, which caused a speculative boom. On the other hand, some innocent, ordinary people owning properties in Tokyo were inevitably put in a difficult situation. They had a hard time paying taxes on their own houses in Tokyo. Anyway, the fabricated economic boom helped people fulfill their material desires. Many people in their 20s and early 30s at the time were willing to enjoy their youth got and accustomed to spending money on whatever they wanted. 

Now, the people who reaped benefits from the bubble economy are in their 40s and 50s. They are still expected to play an important role in boosting consumer spending. Because the prolonged recession has discouraged young people from purchasing extra things since they were born, it's natural that shops try to appeal to middle-aged people who can't help but buy impressive things.  Having said that, however, they've realized that they have to pinch pennies, so I guess that shops and other businesses try to create an atmosphere to encourage them to purchase by playing 1980's hit songs and so on.

The era that you came from seems to determine how you act, a lot more than I expected.