Monday, December 08, 2003

Service

It's already December, and some of you are probably busy organizing Christmas and year-end parties. As a world-famous metropolis, Tokyo has variety of restaurants with a wide range of pricing and styles. It looks like "healing" is still the trend, and new stylish and modern restaurants with dim lighting are taking over from hard-core restaurants. Although, there are many around, it's getting harder to find a reasonable restaurant with the right mix. Many restaurants have cool decor but forget what good service is, or, the food is great but the drinks are made from canned juices or premixed cocktails, etc. Of course there are some restaurants where the shortcomings are not worth bothering about...
For example, one evening my husband and I went to a nice restaurant which has been in Tokyo quite a while. The price range was about mid-high, interior was nice and there were lots of flowers. But, the service was terrible.
Obviously they had a bunch of part-time waiters with very little experience. It made me wonder if the price I was paying made it worth eating here and I wanted to tell them what their problems were. Perhaps they could hire me as a service improvement consultant, paid by barter instead of cash. This seems to be another trend in business at the moment, and I'd be happy to provide some consulting services in this area...!

Monday, November 17, 2003

Recently some banks accept the signatures instead of seals (Hanko), but you will still encounter situations where you still you need to use a Hanko.
Originally the Hanko was an invention of the Sumerians, in Mesopotamia, back in BC4,000. In those days, seals were made from clay with distinctive patterns and were used to close off a cylinder containing a document. If the seal was broken, that meant someone had opened the package, and at the same time, the pattern on this seal was good luck charm.
In Japan, they introduced institutional Hankos in the 8th Century, but these died out as the government faded from power. Thereafter, people started using their own handwritten logos, which acted as signatures, called Kao (Flower Seal).
This system lasted hundreds of years, while there was stability and peace in the realm, but once the period of the Warring Sates started in the 16th century, Hanko came back into fashion -- because it was quicker.
Is the role of a Hanko as a good luck charm dead? Well, it's in the ink we use with Hanko. Vermilion ink (Shuniku) is made from vermilion diluted with castor oil. In ancient Japan, coffins were painted vermilion, because it was an excellent bug repellent and preserver, AND in addition it appeared that vermilion had magical properties. Namely, its color turns back to red even after being burned black in a fire. Thus, vermilion became the symbol for revitalization.
Then, how about Kao? We still use these unique signatures for formal documents. For example, the Prime Minister signs after his name on the document approving the choice of cabinet. You can see some examples of early Prime Ministers' Kao.

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Nintendo

Nintendo stopped producing the Nintendo Famicon last September. The closure marked the end of two decades of game console history. In total the company sold 110m units globally. The reason Nintendo stopped production was that they've been having major problems buying the necessary parts, due to drastic changes going on in the electronics market.
Nintendo was definitely a historical icon. Before the first Famicon appeared, the size of Japanese game market was JPY180bn, but after Nintendo's release, the size swelled to JPY700bn. Globally, the game market in 2001 hit JPY1.45trn. That's quite a lot of cash!
I remember spending hours and hours with games such as Super Mario, Xevious, Metroid, Dragon Quest, etc. Infact, my parents were always complaining about the amount of time I spent on games. Today, these games look a bit boring, but they had a great concept which made up for the lack of computer graphics. Actually, some might say that games today are too realistic.
Recent research done here in Japan suggests that up to 60% of kids and young adults who are socially withdrawn are heavily dependent on computer games, and that the games may be damaging their ability to socialize with others.
I don't want to say that games in themselves are bad, because certainly there are much more addictive "things" in this world that the troubled mind can turn to. And personally, I feel that game consoles and their characters might have actually helped some kids. Certainly everyone knows Mario and I wonder how often he was used as an ice breaker for those without much else to say?

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

"Green" Bathroom

I became aware one day that everything is becoming automatic, especially in the bathroom. I don't know about the men's bathroom, but everything works by sensors in the women's. You must have seen the faucet and soap work by sensor quite often, but how about the toilet? If you sit down, the water sound starts. When you finish, you can't find the flush bottom; it flushes if you walk away. Now even the toilet seat cover opens up when you approach!
I've seen many people confused by this technology, usually the elders who are used to the "old style" system, but it must be helpful for the people who are physically challenged. Also, easy to imagine, it's effective for cost cutting. For example, automatic flusher decreases the cost of water by JPY15k/month for a bathroom 100 people use per day.
Behind this trend, the big push for the renovation is Law on Promoting Green Purchasing (Law Concerning the Promotion of Procurement of Eco-Friendly Goods and Services by the State and Other Entities) set in May 2000 by the Ministry of Environment. This orders the government or governmental organizations to purchase "Eco friendly" products in a proactive way so that they stimulate the market for recycled/ecological goods.
Those goods tend to be more expensive than the generic ones. I believe it's a good thing that the government supports the Eco friendly acts, but wonder if they're spending my tax money effectively....

Monday, September 01, 2003

Spa

Have you been to Spa?
I had a chance to take a look at the press release for AVEDA about the opening of their first
Spa in Tokyo on Sep 12th.
It's been difficult to find a decent spa in Tokyo, except esthetic salons. But recently, more spas are announcing plans to do business here, such as the Mandara Spa at the Royal Park Hotel in Shiodome, St Gregory Spa, etc. Obviously the target of the spas is late 20's to 30's professional women, but if you try one, you'll be addicted.
I go to a spa almost every time I travel overseas, and I'm very curious to find out what kind of services they can provide in Japan. It's unfortunate that only the Mandara Spa has facilities for men -- so my husband doesn't get left out...

Friday, August 29, 2003

Lost & Found

Have you ever lost your belongings and had them returned to you? Most newcomers to Japan are surprised when, after leaving a bag on the train or taxi, get a call from the station or taxi call center asking you to retrieve the bag at their office, or sometimes they will even deliver it to you.
Now there is a new service to make returning lost property more efficient. A company called "Hoo", which is funded by the president of Sokuhai (speedy delivery service by motorcycles), will start a lost-and-found property retrieval support service.
The system is that you buy stickers printed with a 10-digit ID. A sticker pack costs JPY950. You then put the stickers on your belongings, such as your note PC, wallet, mobiles, etc. Thereafter, anyone finding your lost property can call Hoo and the company's call center tracks you down via the ID sticker.
There are two versions of the service: one offering a reward of JPY500, and the other one which has no reward. The company hopes to sign up 200k users by the end of this year.
Hmmm, I don't know what to think about this business plan. It seems to me that people return lost property out of a sense of good will and civic duty, not because they can get a JPY500 reward. Does this new system mean that Japan is losing its moral virtues? Certainly, making a business out of good deeds does not look quite right to me.
Do you think it will be successful?

Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Trademark

You might think that the term "Hanshin Victory" is a prediction of success by the Hanshin Tigers in the Japanese baseball league. But in fact is a legal challenge to the team rather than a desirable outcome of their winning ways.
In fact, the term "Hanshin Yusho" (Hanshin Victory) is actually a trademark registered by a man in Chiba back in February 2002. Apparently the man wanted to use licence the term for use on clothing, toys, goods, etc. The net result is that the Tigers can't use the term unless they also take out a licence from the current owner.
Actually, it must have been somewhat shocking to the Hanshin Tigers management when they found out that their own application was rejected on the grounds that the "same logo has been already filed." It seems that the Japanese Patent office has a trademark system similar to that used for Web domains, which is "First come, first served." So, even if you don't actually use the term or logo, you can still own and control it.
Although the Chiba man's claim is that "Hanshin" simply means the Hanshin region, which is the area around Osaka and Kobe, and "Yusho" simply means victory -- even to the most uninformed person, it is obvious that he is trying cash in on the baseball team's "Hanshin Yusho". It's a mystery to me why the Japan Patent Office approved this.
From the news I've been hearing, it looks like the Chiba guy will eventually transfer ownership of his trademark to the Tigers, but I wonder how much they'll have to pay for it. Actually, the same guy also filed for trademarks on a number of other terms, including "Kyojin Yusho" (Giants Victory)" and "Anti Kyojin". Such a smart guy...! Reminds me of the old dotcom days!

Monday, July 28, 2003

Goya

Have you ever eaten Goya (bitter melon)? It's a famous Okinawan vegetable, a green Godzilla-looking squash with dimples. You eat them before they ripen, which is about 15 - 20 days after they bloom. Waiting any longer than that and they lose their bitterness and become sweet.
Many people don't like Goya because of its bitterness, and indeed in ancient China, it was regarded as a food "only fit for a famine". A Chinese survival book written in 1406 says that Goya was one of the last desirable foods to eat during a famine, among the other total of 414 items, such as figs.
The "Goya champuru" dish is representative of Okinawan cuisine. Historically, it came from India via China in the 15th century.
Goya need at least 20C of warmth to grow, and they are a natural Uminanchu (Okinawan) plant. Goya are rich in Vitamin C, double or triple that of lemons. Also the bitterness is caused by enzymes that also happen to be effective in lowering blood pressure, and thus they can beused as a diabetes medicine.
It's not very hot yet, but I recommend you try Goya champuru with a beer to beat the summer.

Monday, June 30, 2003

Slang

When did you stop talking like a school kid? Do you remember when you stopped using the slang that was once cool? One of my friends asked me, and I couldn't answer.
Everyone must have noticed that the younger generation uses their own jargon: speech which has a unique meaning with very limited usage among kids of that generation only. Sometimes it confuses me and I feel like I have a big question mark stuck on my face when I overhear them talking.
I receive lots of sales solicitation calls at the office. I just can't believe what I'm hearing sometimes. They just can't greet their prospective clients properly and introduce themselves. Some of them try so hard to sound polite, but they sound insulting instead. As you might know, the Japanese language has 3 layers of politeness for verbs. Many of these young salespeople not only can't speak politely, they sound too casual. Just for kicks, I sometimes ask them questions about their service, and they can't answer. They're just lost and suddenly talking to me like they would talk to one of their friends. Only problem is: I don't want to make friends with them over the phone...
It's deplorable, today's crisis of slang, and it breaks my heart. This is not what I learned and studied in order to teach foreigners the Japanese language. "These days young people are..." is such a cliche, but it just keep popping up in my head.
Maybe I'm coming out the other side of the generation gap...!

Monday, May 26, 2003

Mold

Tsuyu, the Rainy Season, has started in Southern Japan already. And so with Tsuyu also comes the season of Kabi (mold).
Because of Japan's humid climate, mold becomes a problem at home. Areas such as your bathroom, kitchen, etc., provide an environment for spores to grow, and while you may feel this is a bad thing, we also have to remember that mold is a key contributor to some unique Japanese foods (and of other cultures as well).
One such food is Natto, a sticky mixture of boiled soy beans that traditionally come wrapped in straw. The bacteria responsible for Natto's smell and stickiness is Bacillus Subtilis, which propagates in straw and which makes Natto rich in Vitamin B.
Another food is Katsuo Bushi (dried bonito), the shaved brown flakes that people put on top of their Tako-yaki or Okonomiyaki. Shaved fish flakes dance in the heat of the food and are fun to watch as they move. The flakes are produced with a mold enzyme which breaks down the bonito adeps (a type of lard) and adds the taste and flavor.
Cheese is also, of course, made with the help of molds, as well as wine, saki, etc. Especially the precious is the Botrytis Cinerea bacteria's contribution to create La Pourriture Noble (Pourriture Noble wine). Botrytis cinerea requires a complicated combination of temperature and humidity, which wine makers struggle with each year.
Interestingly, with the SARS epidemic, people in Hong Kong and China have started wondering why Japanese and Koreans are not suffering from the disease. An urban myth has emerged that it may be because both cultures eat a lot of fermented foods. As a result, sales of Kimchi and Natto have soared in the region, as have those of Yakult, a fermented milk drink, made with the Shirota strain of Lactobacillus Casei bacteria.

Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Parks

May is the month when Tokyo's greenery becomes noticeable. The weather is nice, with lots of sunshine, and its only natural that most of us decide to take a walk and/or a picnic in the park.
Public parks came into being in 1873 in Japan. Each prefecture chose suitable locations. In Tokyo, Sensojii/Asakusa Park, Zojoji/Shiba Park, Kaneiji/Ueno Park, and Tomioka Hachimangu/Fukagawa Park were all among the first public parks to be established. By no coincidence many of the parks are in the precincts of famous temples. Apparently, the parks were an appeasement by the central government in return for prior neglect when innovating the land distribution system.
Before this, Japan didn't have parks. Instead, people went to shrines and temples to enjoy manicured landscapes. The first such publicly developed temple grounds were at Asukayama, opened in the Edo era (1716 - 36). At this time, the masses started enjoying cultural pursuits that previously had been restricted to the ruling class.
Each nation with a park tradition, has had a different reason for developing them. For example, with the industrialization of England and the increase of blue collar workers (who liked dog fighting and other "low-brow" sports), parks were created as a place to escape for the mid- and upper-class residents of London. In Germany on the other hand, parks were created to provide an uplifting of the general public's spirit -- which they achieved by building many statues of patriots and public achievers in the newly created public spaces.
How about Japan? The government was totally focused on modernizing the nation and thus in 1903 established Hibiya Park as a place that would reflect the moral ambitions of the time. Unfortunately, the park soon became overrun with peddlers, street performers, carriages and rikishas.
Well, considering that this was the exact same thing that such people did at the various shrines and temples, their actions were actually quite normal.
Today Japanese parks serve not only as places of recreation, but also as fire breaks. When the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 hit Tokyo, it caused about 43% of the city to burn. The other 60% was protected by parks, squares, rivers, and similar open spaces.

Monday, April 28, 2003

Local Tourism

The Gifu Prefectural government will open a new theme park in Minokamo City, called Nihon Showa Mura. It has a period theme and features an old theater, 50's style houses decorated with seasonal flowers, and entertainment from the 50's and 60's. Gifu has been building the park since 1990 and will leave management to a management company called Farm Group.
During the bubble years, the penchant of Japanese local governments to open up huge theme parks became a real problem, and resulted in the disposal of such sites as Sea Gaeia in Miyazaki, at fire sale prices. So it's rather amazing that somewhere like Gifu is still trying to do this.
Still, given the current problems in the world and the reluctance of Japanese recently to travel overseas, maybe the "Build it and they will come" mentality is about to make a comeback. SARS has all but killed off the overseas travel industry for this Golden Week, so there is likely to be a lot of people stuck at home this year who will want to take their families somewhere -- maybe Gifu is the place to go.
Or how about New Zealand-mura, in Tohoku? Maybe you can find out what makes Terrie tick... ;-)

Monday, April 14, 2003

Edo

The recent building boom is escalating: followed by the launch of the Maru-biru in front of Tokyo Station recently, Shiodome City Center opened on April 10, and Roppongi Hills will open on April 25. All of these complexes have business offices supported with the latest urban facilities such as restaurants, hotels, shops, etc.
I have heard that the number of young women applying for jobs with companies located at these trendy offices is increasing. They chose to work in such locations not for income only, but also for the lifestyle. Their logic appears to be that if the working conditions are almost the same as where they are now, then they may as well work somewhere where they can have a good time with their friends after work.
Naturally these new building complexes need services people to support the huge number of new tenants. For example, Maru-biru houses about 140 tenants and has 50 service companies with about 5,000 workers supplying those services. Most of these support companies still need staff to handle their operations start-ups. Given that Osaka has had such a hard time recently, I personally hope that the opening of "Namba Park" in October will have the same effect down there. More foot traffic means more business and improved money flow to that area.
By-the-way, April 11 is a famous day for Japanese history. It is the day that the last Shogun was forced to surrender Edo Castle to the Emperor's forces in 1868. The Meiji Period started thereafter and Japan began to industrialize. The city of Edo (Tokyo) has changed a lot since that time. But in a way, this city still needs to be opened up to the world...

Monday, March 31, 2003

Thunderbirds Are Go!

Have you heard about the TV show "ThunderBirds"? It was a puppet show that went on the air in the UK in 1965. NHK will broadcast the original series (which was broadcast in 1966 in Japan) over digital as part of its 50th anniversary of TV broadcasting. The show will be aired from April 13.
The story is about the Tracy family, a father with 5 sons, which protects people from disasters and accidents in 2065. Jeff Tracy, the father is well to do, and was able to organize the INTERNATIONAL RESCUE (IR) team -- using technology beyond the capability of nations and regular rescue groups. Their hi-tech arsenal includes a rocket, aircraft freight lifter, space station, a fancy pink Rolls Royce, etc.
What a shame we can't call on the IR (no, not investor relations) team to help out in the Middle East. We need someone who can solve the life-threatening problems there that full nations can't do on their own. I wonder if the screen writers ever imagined that the world would have more complicated problems than even IR could help with -- especially, a rescue team that wasn't influenced by politics or leader's egos...

Monday, March 17, 2003

Internationalization

On March 14 in 1873, the Japanese government authorized international marriage in Japan, providing permission was first sought from the government. Japan been closed for about 200 years prior to that date, except for ports such as Nagasaki, and international marriage was illegal. If you wanted to marry a foreigner, you had to go overseas.
According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, in the year 2000 (the latest date for such statistics) one out of 22 couples who submitted a marriage application had at least one foreign spouse. There were 36,263 international marriages, an increase of 13.6% over the previous year. You might think this trend was only evident in Tokyo, but in fact, in Yamagata and Yamanashi Prefectures, international marriages occurred in one out of every 14 couples -- about 7% of all marriages registered. And in Hokkaido, Miyagi, Gifu, and Oita, international marriages increased 30% to 40% over the previous year.
Nowadays, almost everyone I know has at least one foreigner within the family -- so it's not so surprising any more. I am willing to bet that the number of international marriages will continue to rise and in 50 year's time, Japan will look very different to how it does now.

Monday, March 03, 2003

Hotel Boom

As you may heard, the large Dutch-themed Nagasaki resort, Huis Ten Bosch applied for court protection from bankruptcy (Chapter 11) this week, with debts of JPY228.9bn. Sasebo, where Huis Ten Bosch is located, has both a seaport and airport where it had hoped to receive large numbers of visitors, especially from China/Taiwan/Hong Kong. Now that the resort is bankrupt, the big question is whether to use public funds to support it -- given all the tourist dollars that will be lost otherwise.
Ironically, there is now a hotel-building "bubble" going on in Tokyo, and many hotels will open around 2006. To counter those newcomers, existing Japanese hotels has been re-investing to improve their facilities, with investment increases of 49%, JPY73bn, over last year. The amounts are significant: Tokyu Hotel chain JPY2.4bn, ANA Hotel Tokyo JPY1.7bn, Kobe Port Pia JPY1.2bn...
Small onsen (hot springs) in remote parts of Japan have also become popular again, and now for some places reservations stretch as far as two years from now. It seems that with all the chaos going on around us, lots of people are looking for some peace and quiet, without TVs, clocks, and even telephones. Some of these places aren't cheap, either.
Just looking at these trends, I have to wonder if it's an imbalance or just a case of diversification by the public. I had the impression that hotels would lose money in a recession. For example, that people would tend to have weddings somewhere cheaper than the city hotels -- so now these hotels would have to be seeing their profit margins get battered as most of those staying there are eating buffet style, rather than banquets.
Me? Well, I'd rather sit back and relax in quiet onsen now....

Monday, February 17, 2003

Eating

Did you hear the news that the NY Federal court dismissed the liability claim of obesity and overeating against McDonald's?
The plaintiffs were a couple of teenagers who claim they gained weight and damaged their health by eating McDonald's products several times a week. Their claim is that the products are dangerous because they are addictive...
The Judge, Robert Sweet (great name!) said, "It is not the place of the law to protect them from their own excesses." then "Nobody is forced to eat at McDonald's. (Except, perhaps, parents of small children who desire McDonald's food, toy promotions or playgrounds, and demand their parents' accompaniment.)"
I just thought, what would this plaintiff's lawyer get by defending these teenagers? Did the idea come from their parents or from watching Judge Judy on TV (while scarfing down Mickey D burgers?)? Either way, the plaintiffs clearly miscalculated the stupidity of the legal system - turns out it isn’t so stupid afterall.
After reading this article, I imagined my mother in law waiting in line, ordering the kids meal at Burger King so as to get the all 4 Simpson's talking watches that come with the meal, as a Christmas gift. I'm sure they were not forced to be there, but rather went their of their own free will.

Amazingly, the plaintiff’s lawyer says he will file amended suits!

Tuesday, January 14, 2003

Foie Gras

If you're vegetarian or pro-animal protection, please don't read this column, because I'm writing about foie gras.
As you may know, this French delicacy is the fattened liver of a duck or goose. The birds are force fed lots of corn to create the right effect. You may think this is cruel, BUT, it tastes so good!
Originally, people in Egypt started eating migrating geese that were wintering along the Nile river, on their way from Europe. Around 1 B.C., the Romans discovered that the liver of fat geese were delicious, and serving it with figs makes it taste better. This preparation secret was been kept by the Jewish people for a long time, because it was one of the few meats they could eat without conflicting their religion.
The ancient Romans used to worship a particular type of goose known as the "Roman Capitoline Goose." The bird got its name after the myth that goes something like this... While the Romans were fighting the Gauls in the Gaulish invasion attempt of Capitolino, a Gaulish sneak attack was forestalled thanks to a goose's honking after being startled by the approaching Gauls.
I rather admire the wisdom of the ancients to have discovered and developed such an awesome food. Certainly, I will be looking on delicious foie gras with even more reverence and worship! ;-)