Only In Japan

Friday, June 29, 2007

Niche restaurants

For a number of reasons, the Japanese eat out often - probably more so than any other people on Earth. The main reasons must be that work colleagues generally have dinner together after a day at the office ("to forge bonds between workers"), people generally meet their friends at a restaurant rather than at home (Japanese homes and flats being so cramped), the Japanese are fundamentally epicurians who love being served... Anyway, the result is an incredible 1 restaurant or food joint for 88 people in Japan.

Think about it. It's pretty amazing.

Of course, the direct consequence of this situation is that competition between restaurants is extremely intense. The advertising market for restaurants is huge, and many TV programmes are devoted to this most popular topic. Restaurants also compete fiercely on price, design, innovation, service... Then when all else is exhausted, the most ambitious restaurants turn to niche markets.

And that's where it gets fun. Consider, for example, the "Moe" Maid Cafes...

The "Moe" (pronounced mo-EH) Maid Cafes are a fairly recent invention. Basically, they're regular cafes where the waitresses are cute young Japanese girls wearing lacy French maid outfits and treating customers with the utmost politeness; the kind of manners level an affluent 19th century French bourgeois would command from his servants. Depending on the place, the food and cakes will be plain to good, but there will always be an emphasis on cuteness and girlishness (think lots of strawberries and cream, and plenty of white-chocolate hearts...). Yes, it's a little kinky, but so what?

The "Moe" phenomenon originated in Tokyo's notoriously geek-friendly district of Akihabara, but has now spread to most major Japanese cities. And while the original target customer for Moe cafes was neurotic otaku (technology and manga geeks), the concept has been so succesful that recently all kinds of people have started to visit these cafes, just because they're a cute and fashionable. But ironically, there are so many "regular people" at those cafes nowadays that the poor otaku now feel completely out of place in the very shops that were created for them...

Anyway, a cup of coffee at a Moe cafe is quite a bit more expensive than at the ubiquitous Starbucks, but the lovely atmosphere and exquisite politeness of the maids do make up for the price difference. Besides, the Moe concept has been really well-thought, with great attention to detail and finesse of execution (as usual in Japan, you might say), all of which make a visit to one of these "maid cafes" a really funny and interesting experience.

Oh, and as an aside: Moe Madness is expanding! Not only internationally (Moe cafes can now be found as far away as Toronto and Paris), but also in its variety: with Moe hairdressers, Moe foot massage, Moe estheticians, etc., the French maid addict can now see all (well, almost all...) of his desires satisfied!
And not surprisingly considering Japan's particular brand of gender equality, "butler cafes" have also started to open in Tokyo. You guess the concept: good looking young men in tails, tuxedos or butler outfits trying to make their female customers feel like they are princesses... Something tells me business is going to be very brisk for the butlers.

Anyway, on to a very different kind of niche restaurants: Cosplay yakiniku!

Have you ever heard of the "Morning Musume"? They aren't as popular as they used to be, but they still have a cult following: the Musume are Japan's answer to the Spice Girls, a group of supercute 15 year-old girls singing some canned lyrics and dancing to some canned tunes. Their lyrics make the Backstreet Boys sound like Jane Austen, but who cares! They're supercute.

Now how would you like to have girls dressed as Morning Musume wait on you at a barbecued meat restaurant?

Not too much? So how about Budweiser girls? Nurses in sexy outfits? Flight attendants? Anime heroins? High School girls? French maids? There's bound to be an outfit that will titillate you!

Welcome to the world of Cosplay yakiniku, a very popular style of restaurants here in Japan. The principle is simple: they are inexpensive all-you-can-eat grilled meat restaurants, staffed by girls dressed as something cute, funny or exotic. It might sound childish, kinky or simply surreal (Nurse! Some more sirloin please!), but for Japanese people it does make sense: food, drinks and cute/sexy girls have always been considered a perfect combination for a merry evening out with friends or colleagues. The fact that the girls wear kinky costumes only adds to the fun, which in turn will help everyone relax more... Unwinding from all the stress of daily life is one of the major reasons why the Japanese like to eat out, so the girls in High School uniforms fit perfectly in the picture!
And by the way, don't think Cosplay Restaurants are only for men either: Japanese women have a very broad definition of what is "cute" or "fun", so if a Cosplay Restaurant is known for its lively atmosphere, they will just flock there without second thoughts. And actually, I think they have a point: If it's fun, just go for it!

Maybe not for a first date, but you get the idea.

So let's say that following my advice, you went to a Moe cafe, and then to a Cosplay yakiniku restaurant; you might now be thinking "yeah that was fun, but I expected something kinkier. Japan isn't really all it's cracked up to be..."
To which I say: try "no-bra" cafes. Or "no-pants" shabu-shabu. Neither is exactly cheap, but both will make for interesting conversation when your friends back home ask how Japan was like.

No-bra cafes are just regular cafes, quiet places where you can sip a capuccino after lunch. Of course, if very busty and very topless waiteresses tend to break your concentration, you might not be able to enjoy your coffee very much, but that's just a detail, isn't it?

Personally, I only go there because the coffee is good though.

No really! I mean it!

Anyway, if you are looking for real kink, "no-pants" shabu-shabu is the place to go... Even most Japanese people consider them a bit on the weird side, which says a lot!

Shabu-shabu is the name of a traditional Japanese specialty: thin slices of beef dipped in boiling water for just a split second (so as to preserve the softness of the meat) then dipped in a traditional Japanese sauce. Try it if you have a chance!

As to the "no-pants" part... Well, let's just say that the young and cute waitresses wear very short mini-skirts and nothing underneath. The floor of those restaurants is generally mirrored. And the fun part is to find excuses to make the staff stand on the tip of their toes, bend over, or generally do anything that will give the customers a chance to peep under their skirts. Sounds offensive? But it's all in good fun, no touching is allowed, and most waitresses are students playing their part of the game for a very generous hourly salary. So if you go there, no need to feel guilty...
Anyway when the bill comes, your feeling of horror will have quenched any ethical dilemmas you might have been having.

Beats Hooters any day, don't you think?

Friday, June 22, 2007

Wa meets the West...Wa, part 3

Yes, a third instalment about Wa... It's the last one though, I swear! But I think it is important to show that the heart of Japan, Wa, with its oppressiveness and its gentleness, is changing and evolving. The social harmony generally admired by Westerners travelling to Japan (the safety, the politeness, the sense of order...) is based to a great extent on an unremitting pressure to conform to the norms of the group and erase one's personal feelings; but this social pressure-based society can hardly coexist with the individualism introduced by the West. Japan is very much a battlefield between these two doctrines, and surely the Japanese can be forgiven for being confused until they sort things out...

The oppressiveness of Japanese society derives mainly from Confucianism, the social doctrine upon which East Asia was built. Confucianism is a school of thought that clearly defines each individual's place in society and his/her rights and duties based on age, gender, rank in society, order of birth among siblings... All these clearly define who is "junior" and who is "senior" in any relationship, as well as what behaviour and manner level are appropriate in any situation.
And "of course", men are more important than women, age is paramount, and in groups or at work ancienty and education level are also major factors in determining rank. In other words: Confucianist societies (most groups in Eastern Asian countries) are, fundamentally, dictatorships of old men. Whether at home, at school or at work, the oldest men in the group have all rights and no duties, and can lord it over everyone else with no possible dissent. And that regardless of virtue, skill, or actual achievement... Whereas junior members of society are only allowed to grit their teeth and wait patiently for their turn to rule.

The practical consequences of this system is that justice is inexistent (if the highest ranking person is always right, then justice just can't exist), people work (or pretend to work) very long and hard, much talent and intelligence is wasted, and society is extremely conservative and has a hard time adapting to a changing environment . On the other hand, Confucianists see Western equalitarianism as resulting in everyone doing nothing but clashing egos with everyone else, being too self-centred to cooperate with anyone, and as a result wasting their time and energy for, in the end, little result and no satisfaction.

For example, in an archetypical Confucianist family, the husband and father may be a drunken slob who beats his wife and kids when the whim takes him, spend most of his salary on gambling and women, and never allows anyone in his house to have an opinion; all these are his rights. And after all, the house will be in order, the kids will study very hard, and the wife will have the twin satisfactions of seeing her children grow into respectable adults and of being part of a stable household; isn't that true happiness? Who could call that man a bad household leader?

For that same drunken slob of a husband and father, a Western family is just Pandemonium. The parents disagree all the time, get divorced as soon as they find someone they fancy more than their present spouse, the kids talk back to their parents and only study what they like when they feel like it, everyone feels entitled to everything, and in the end no-one is even really happy. If that is an enlightened family based on love and mutual respect, then by all means let us back to the Dark Ages! the Confucian would say.

Of course I could have taken politics, work or education instead of the family to illustrate that rift in values between Confucian and Western thinking, but the basic thinking is pretty much the same: from a Confucianist point of view, authoritarianism just works better than anarchy or weak-handed democracy.

Anyway, on to Japan: Japan is pretty much the troubled kid of a Utah Mormon and an Oregon hippie when it comes to social values. In other words: sheer confusion! That's what happens when 1300 years of Confucianism are, in the space of just a few generations, replaced with the notion that Asia is the past and only the West is worthy of admiration... When a society based on duty, tradition and the group clashes with a society based on freedom, rationalism and the individual, it is easy to guess how much mayhem is sure to ensue.

It often feels to me that the Japanese adapt to this situation with a bit of hypocrisy and a bit of opportunism...
That hypocrisy can be seen in the Japanese adopting a Confucian mindframe when it suits them, and then a Western one when it is more appropriate to their interests. The typical example is that of young Japanese women: most of them pretend to dream of a Western-style love relationship, filled with mutual respect and kindness, but at the same time some of the first things they look at in a prospective husband are his salary and how wealthy his family is... Talk about wanting to have your cake and eat it!
As to opportunism, it is fairly obvious when you observe where, on the Confucian to equalitarian scale, the Japanese place themselves. For example, most men, especially the older ones, are resolutely Confucian (not much for them to gain in Western equalitarianism), whereas young people (especially women) are all in for Western meritocracy and equalitarianism. Of course, as their station in life changes, their "affiliation" will also evolve...

So are the Japanese just sly opportunists? Maybe. But more than anything else, I think they are pretty much confused by the conflicting values of their past and their present, of traditionalism and rationalism, of Asia and the West. It is hard to find the right path when you constantly hear two opposite opinions as to what that path is! And when in doubt, it is always very tempting to choose the path of self-interest...
Eventually though, I believe the Japanese will realise that only a society based on equality and fairness can work, while not forgetting that too much individualism and ego will poison any group relationship. The best of both worlds, of West and East... The Japanese can find a truer harmony than Wa, I am sure. But the road will be long...

Friday, June 15, 2007

When work is over...Wa, part 2

While the Japanese spend most of their time in public groups (at work, school etc), it only makes them cherish their private time more. But the way they behave in private groups - with friends, family and partner-, and what they mean by "good relationships in the group" are quite specifically Japanese: much more than Westerners, the Japanese tend to structure group relationships and determine everyone's role in the group very precisely. Their weak point is that they are not very good at managing group relationships that don't have such a structure...

But first, something about friendships in Japan: the Japanese are generally very organised, and believe in the importance of networks and maintaining good relationships with everyone, so they tend to keep friend networks forever. For example, a Japanese in his/her fifties will have accumulated many friend groups over the years: from all the schools they went to (from primary school to University), from the hobby or learning groups they belonged to (English conversation, flower arrangement, tennis...), from each job or part-time job they did... And of course, one of the results of this abundance of friend networks is that a sociable Japanese has to spend a lot of time every year meeting their group friends, keeping up to date on what happened to everyone, and keeping in touch.

But the funny thing is that when those friend groups convene, they will generally fall back on the group conventions that were established ages earlier: for example, High School tennis club members meeting twenty years after graduation will still see the "senior" members lead the conversation, the "shy" characters listen and giggle quietly, the "skirt-chasers" or "men magnets" talk expertly about the opposite gender... Eventhough their present situations might have changed completely. Maybe the shy girl is the new men magnet, the skirt-chaser got married early and hasn't played around in 15 years, whereas the one or two years the "senior" members had on the "junior" members don't mean much anymore... But everyone will pretend nothing has changed.

It feels that unlike in the West where friends meet in groups to see how everyone changed, in Japan they meet for the pleasure of sliding back into comfortable old relationships. Of course, little by little everyone will try to modify their status in the group to something closer to their present reality, but that is quite a minor theme. Actually, change goes against the basic reason for such meetings: basking in the warmth of an accepting group is what everyone is really after. Wa with almost no pressure... No wonder the Japanese work so hard to maintain lifelong group relationships!

Family and couple relationships show a much less rosy picture: that of Wa gone missing. Traditionally (until the 60's at least), males have always been the axis of such relationships; the father being the undisputed leader of the family, and the male the senior member in a couple. It might sound barbarian to us nowadays, but it provided structure to those complex relationships; now that Japan is a much more equalitarian society, things are fairer, but the lack of a guideline is felt quite harshly in couples and families.

A few figures illustrate this situation very explicitly:
-1/3 of all Japanese women over 30 are unmarried (one in two in Tokyo);
-There is one divorce every 2 minutes in Japan;
-The birth rate, somewhere between 1,2 and 1,3 children per woman, is one of the lowest in the world;
-While in the world people have sex on average 103 times a year, the Japanese only do so around 45 times a year (according to the Durex Sex Survey). It is by far the lowest average recorded.

What these bleak figures mean is simple: the Japanese don't know how to build and maintain a couple anymore, or how to create a succesful family.
In fact, they give the impression they are stuck in an uncomfortable place between the traditional Japanese couple and the equalitarian couple: men still seem to hope that devoting their lives to their jobs to bring home a good salary will be enough to earn them respect and gratitude from their wife and children; but said wife and children want their husbands / fathers to be a cheerful and caring presence at home as well. Most men also certainly hope they can be that warm presence for their family; but consider that most Japanese live in conurbations, and start their families at the peak of their professional lives (between 30 and 40): the result is that they are bound to have to spend every day commuting for hours, working late, and will very regularly have to go for drinks with their colleagues and customers. Even with the best of intentions, it is hard to be a good husband and father in those conditions... But when wife and children realise their husband / father will rarely have time to even talk to them, they generally lose interest and respect quickly, and often come to see them just as occasional nuisances that disrupt the regular (though unhappy) family order.

So men see their wives and children as selfish bloodsuckers just interested in draining them off of their salaries, and are seen by their wives and children as selfish boors, not taking part in family life but still expecting everything to revolve around them when they come back home, late and half-drunk, from work. Of course, that situation is a vicious circle: both sides feel increasingly justified in not making any more efforts... It is relatively easy for men to find respect and affection away from home, and also very easy for women to get trapped in frustration over their lives and their husbands; so it should come as no surprise that most divorces are initiated by women... But as everyone else, it is the children who pay the highest emotional toll.

The problem is that equalitarianism has destroyed the old order of rights and duties, but nothing has replaced it. Hoping that "mutual respect springing out from equality" would naturally replace paternalism is, in my opinion, as gross a delusion as thinking that toppling Saddam Hussein would be enough to turn Iraq into a democracy. Unfortunately, just as I have no idea of what will bring harmony to Iraq, I can't see what will (re)create mutual respect in Japanese couples. Shorter working hours and commute (by developping more housing in the cities and less in the suburbs for example) would be a step in the right direction, but I very much doubt it would be enough.

I think the Japanese are still going to have to find most of their happiness in friendship for a long time...

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Wa, part 1

Traveling in Japan or living here for a while might sound very fun, but would you be happy to be Japanese? Their lives don't look too great, do they?
An army of workers in suits and ties, living their lives just for their company, stuck in a strict hierarchy... In fact, "worker bee" is a term the Japanese themselves often use (in jest, though) to describe their lives, and that probably doesn't mean they are too satisfied. But that impression is misleading; for actually, most Japanese are strongly drawn to that kind or group relationships, in which they can find Wa.

Wa, the principle underpinning Japanese society, is one of the key concepts necessary to understand Japan. Wa is generally translated as "group harmony", but that is as much a simplification as translating "ninja" with "assassin": while technically it is correct, a lot of the specific cultural background is lost in translation.
For most Japanese, Wa is a feeling close to perfection: a group situation in which everything goes smoothly, without contestation or ill will, everyone knows their place and act accordingly.

Wa is obviously a very broad topic, so I will treat it in two parts: the public sphere (education, politics, business, unions, research...) and the private sphere (friends, lovers and families). Keep in mind that things are changing, in Japan as much as everywhere; and young people, especially, might seem to think quite differently from what I describe. Still, I personally think as usual that in Japan, a very traditional spirit is more often than not hidden behind the modern facade...

But first things first: how is Wa really different from Western-style group harmony? After all, eventhough opinions might generally be worded more strongly in the West, it is not like Westerners are constantly at each other's throats!
Well... It is just that what social harmony is based on is completely different whether you live in Japan or in the West. In the West, group harmony is (theoretically) based on equality, respect and the right to be oneself: if everyone is treated fairly and feeling happy, then group relationships are supposed to flow smoothly, right?
But in Confucian countries like Japan, China and Korea, harmony is considered to exist when everyone in the group knows precisely his/her place in the hierarchy and behaves accordingly. In other words, when personal feelings are kept out of the equation, and everyone lets loyalty to the group override the yearning for fairness and personal happiness.

Which system works best? It is very tempting to answer "well, the Western system, of course!"; and I would tend to agree with that system in theory, but in practice I doubt things ever work smoothly. I think that when too much individuality and too many expectations of personal fulfillment make their way into group relationships, the whole thing is bound to degenerate into ego conflicts and petty frustrations. Of course, people are not robots, so personal feelings are bound to be a factor in any group relationship; but opening the Pandora's box of happiness and feelings more than necessary is, in my opinion, not a recipe for harmony.

The Japanese Confucean system doesn't really work either, but for different reasons. Actually, being a rigidly hierarchical system, it can work if the person at the top is very good at managing people, but it rarely works that way. Confucean systems are very good at bringing old men to the top of any group and provides no balance of powers. You guess the rest: men progressively stop working or trying to learn new things as they get older, knowing fully well that seniority will keep them rising in the ranks regardless. Besides, they are free to abuse and overwork the females and subordinates in their group, so why bother doing one's best?

You might wonder why said females and subordinates accept that situation. They do so for different reasons: women because they don't intend to stay there anyway - career women are still few and far between, and women who quit their job after marriage are still the norm - and men because 1/ they don't really have much choice and 2/ because they know that if they bid their time for long enough, seniority will turn them into Almighty Old Men, a very enviable position in Japan as anywhere in Asia.

But rapidly increasing numbers of women and young people don't accept that Confucean approach to harmony, and prefer to concentrate on finding Wa in peer groups instead of the workplace. Tempers and part-timers are the best representatives of this recent trend; they are still a minority, especially among men, but they reflect the changing expectations of the young generation.

Will the Japanese manage to strike a better balance between work and private life, and between Confucean hierarchy and Western equalitarianism? Find out next week!

Friday, June 01, 2007


It is debatable whether drawing "national archetypes" has much sociological value. If you say "the average Swede is shy, rational, self-controlled, and believes in ecology, gender equality and community group", for example, any serious sociologist will answer "give me some serious statistics to back your claims, or else they're nothing but cheap racial characterisations!"

And the Sociologist will be right.

So just so you know, today's post is NOT a sociology essay, though it showcases some typical Japanese attitudes that would puzzle most people in the West. It is just a portrait of one of the many unsung heroes of the Japanese economy, a nice guy with a complex personality, who ended up selling his soul to his company.

And that "typical Japanese man" is my colleague and good friend Blackfield (not his real name, obviously), who is just now slumping on his desk 1.30 meters in front of me. 30 years old, slim, slightly dyed hair, glasses, a nervous look on his face: you would probably not pay attention to him if he were sitting next to you in the subway. If you look closer though, you will notice that he is inexpensively well-dressed, in a style quite of his own, and maybe that would let you guess the sensitivity hidden behind his "worker bee" demeanor.

Because the truth is, Blackfield is a real nerve ball. The Japanese would say, "it's not surprising he is so nervous, his blood type is A!"... Which would make him one of these people (quoting myself, sorry):
"Blood type A people are nervous perfectionists, law-abiding and working well in groups. They have a "perfect employee and good citizen" image, but are also associated with what Westerners call an anal-retentive personality, and as such are sometimes regarded as "not fun"."

And the thing is, that's exactly him! Blackfield is the "straight arrow", absolutely loyal, always doing the right thing, always terrified to do wrong, never relaxing, and happy in only one circumstance: when he has too much work and too many responsabilities, and he knows everyone is aware he is working too hard. Blackfield is also extremely patient: however much abuse the boss, the customers and I might throw at him, he always takes it without complaining, and never says no.

It's not that he doesn't have an opinion, far from it: Blackfield is very intelligent and realisitic, so he generally knows pretty accurately if something is going to work or not. But that's where Blackfield shows he is a true Japanese: for him, the truth is something akin to dynamite, i.e. a substance that can sometimes be useful, but which most of the time only means "deadly dangerous". So for fear of disrupting the group harmony, or making someone feel bad, Blackfield will often lie (especially by omission), evade the topic, mislead, or answer with generalities that he knows full well to be false. And for the same reason, he will rarely say "no". Of course, this often puts him in an awkward position, and generally has rather bad long-term consequences for him; but he feels it is the only way to make everyone live and work happily together, so he goes on lying as cheerfully as an Italian politician.

There is one topic, especially, about which he has a very "creative" approach to truth: his beloved country, Japan. Blackfield loves Japan, hates to have to admit its ugly sides, and always tries to promote "beautiful Japan", the fictional country that exists only in his head. Sadly, I think he has a lot in common with nationalists like Shintarou Ishihara, the racist and ultraconservative governor of Tokyo. Blackfield is not racist; he is actually rather tolerant and interested in foreign countries. But when it comes to Japan, he will always put a spin on the topic at hand, and I never believe anything he has to say on the subject.

Case in point: two weeks ago, we were talking about Sumo, and I asked him "is it true that Sumo is often rigged?"
I knew for a fact that Sumo IS completely corrupted, but I pretended not to know. Anyway, in typical Blackfield fashion he answered "well, I heard some Korean and Chinese wrestlers cheated sometimes, but that's about it..." which is a huge and blatant lie, of course! He knew fully well that most Sumo wrestlers are cheaters, and finally admitted it after I teased him a little. The look of embarrassment on his face was just priceless...

But on to a more interesting topic: Blackfield and women. As you can guess, they go together like blue cheese and mango ice-cream; still I am sure women are very much on his mind. But he would rather eat a live cockroach than talk to a woman he doesn't know! Actually, there's something of "The 40-Year Old Virgin" about him: you know, that guy who "respects women too much to desire them"? That's Blackfield.
The sad thing is, I think he would be the best husband ever: devoted, loyal, kind, interesting, funny... He is not really suitable for anyone, but the strong woman with a powerful grip who gets him will never regret it. To that special lady, I recommend: scold him regularly, make him jump through hoops and work hard even for modest rewards, but sometimes acknowledge his efforts with slight praise, and he will forever be by your side.

Yes, as you must have guessed it by now, Blackfield is fundamentally masochistic. Actually, I'm sure there is a gimp outfit under his bed, and his wettest dreams involve some East-German dominatrix spanking him as a punishment for his naughtiness.

So if you know a smart, single woman with a taste for cracking the whip, by all means leave a message! Just one thing though: it would be even better if that woman were also a Star Wars fan like him...

May the Force be with Blackfield!

Friday, May 18, 2007


If all you know about Sumo is that it is a sport about fat men fighting, you might want to check this link. Actually, calling Sumo a sport is a bit misleading: it would be more correct to call it a religious and cultural wrestling tradition. There is a lot of mystique surrounding Sumo; it certainly has to do with the ancientness of its roots, but in that it is similar to many other traditions around the world, from Iceland to Mongolia and India. Sumo is unique in that it emphasizes body mass more than any other wrestling form, but there wouldn't be such a mystique around it if fat wrestlers were Sumo's only claim for fame. My guess is that it is the combination of tradition, outlandishness and physical prowess that keeps people interested in Sumo.

Or does it?

In Japan, interest in Sumo has been waning for years. The Japanese are less and less interested in the traditional aspects of their culture, which they regard as the exclusive domain of old people; and besides, the religious and cultural aspects of Sumo are only rarely emphasized nowadays, which makes most Japanese think of it as "just another sport".

But the really big problem with Sumo is that most of the highest ranking wrestlers have for years been foreigners, and the trend is accelerating. So it is getting harder for the Japanese to consider Sumo as their national sport, and it frustrates many to have to cheer on undistinguished Japanese wrestlers, knowing full well that their countryman will lose to some unwashed foreigner. The Japanese are not "hungry" enough anymore; wrestlers born in Eastern Europe or Asia are more determined and ambitious, and win everything. Or at least that's what many Japanese people say...

At the same time, Sumo is ever more popular in the West - no doubt in part because of the Internet. It used to be very difficult to just see Sumo in the West, but nowadays with sites like YouTube there's nothing easier. And it is true that Sumo is fun and exciting to watch: the ritualized aspect, the exoticism, the agility and craftiness involved in the wrestling itself, and the speed with which a bout is over (generally less than a minute) make for an interesting and intense viewing experience on many levels. Watching a Sumo tournament also seems quite popular with foreign tourists in Japan, and it is definitely an experience I would recommend to someone coming over on holidays...

...If Sumo weren't rigged to the bone, that is. It has been proved several times (most recently in the excellent Freakonomics book, but also in Japanese newspaper articles a few years ago, that many Sumo bouts are fixed. The thing is, most Sumo wrestlers often lose on purpose to help other wrestlers who are having a bad tournament - a favour they know will be repaid the next time they need a little boost...
The fact that cheating is very widespread in Sumo still isn't widely acknowledged in Japan; most Japanese people try to avoid this topic, since it is rather embarassing to admit that this most ancient and noble of Japanese institutions - Sumo - is actually not much cleaner than boxing in New Jersey. But everyone seems aware that there's something rotten in the noble wrestling tradition. And I guess that is also one of the reasons for the decline in interest in Sumo among the Japanese...

So what is in store for Sumo? Unless some new and motivated Japanese wrestlers crop up and the Sumo Federation acknowledges cheating and finds a way to circumvent it, I think Sumo will slowly fade out from the Japanese counsciousness. Too bad, yes; but that's Japan. "Saving face" is more important than solving problems...

Thursday, May 10, 2007

4 seasons

It might sound really strange, but most Japanese people are sure that only Japan has 4 distinct seasons. I never really managed to understand why, or to get a decent explanation; if you have a good theory, I'm eager to hear it!

Anyway, the seasonal cycle is very important to the Japanese; probably much more so than in the West. This, I think, derives from the influence of religion on culture: whereas for the religions of the Book, life and the universe move on a straight line from the Creation to Judgement Day, the Japanese religions both describe life and the universe as parts of a cycle. In Buddhism, everything dies and is reborn forever; and Shinto is an animistic cult of Nature, and as such obviously very concerned with the cycle of the seasons.

This importance of the seasonal cycle is visible in many different things: for example, most restaurants offer distinctly seasonal meals and menus, and place an emphasis on using mainly seasonal ingredients. It is common in the West to find any and all fruits and vegetables all year round, even those normally available for only a short period every year, like strawberries; but I don't think that trend will ever catch up in Japan.

Some foods are particularly strong symbols of each season: thus tangerines and hotpots are associated with winter, strawberries with spring, shaved ice and broiled eel with summer, mushrooms and chestnuts with autumn...

Fashion is also very much a seasonal thing. Japanese women have it especially hard! If they want to keep up with their peers, they have to switch clothes, make-up, accessories, and shoes at least 4 times a year. Jeans all year round won't cut it... But if you enjoy looking at women, Japan is paradise: in spring, skirts get shorter and fresh colours reign; summer has everyone dressed very short and colourful, and many women wear yukata (light cotton kimono) to the festivals and fireworks. In autumn, earthen and natural colours are the norm, and boots are everywhere. It's a very nice season! Winter is a bit duller and there is no fixed fashion, but every year the fashion industry cooks something up; also, women feel freer to wear what they really like in winter, so there is more variety than in other seasons.

Each season also has its distinctive festivals and parties:
Spring has ohanami, very popular parties where people gather in parks to eat, drink, and admire the blossoming cherry trees.
Summer has many fireworks, and of course Obon, one of the most important religious events of the year, in which ancestor spirits come back to Earth for a few days and are honoured during various ceremonies. Obon is also a good occasion to relax for Japanese people: all companies close for a few days, and families can spend some time together, go to the beach, or have a barbecue.
Autumn has momiji, which might be translated as "red leaves parties": people go to the countryside and admire the maple trees in their autumnal colours. Of course, eating and drinking are also part of the fun... In September, the Japanese used to have otsukimi, moon-viewing parties, during which friends would meet in the evening, and drink and make poems in honour of the moon. But nowadays, most people live in big cities where the moon is rarely clearly seen, so that beautiful tradition is rarely heard of anymore.
Winter has only one major event: oshogatu, or New Year's Day. It is the year's most important celebration, a time when almost everyone is on holiday, and when families watch TV together for days on end, go to the local shrine, and eat oseichi ryori, traditional food prepared only during oshogatsu. Some people love that time of the year, some people hate it... Pretty much like Christmas in the West, I guess!

Much more could be said about the four seasons in Japan, but of course the best thing is to come and experience them firsthand! And then you will be able to answer one of the most common questions Japanese people ask, "what is your favourite season?"