Monday, December 22, 2008

Japan's Toyota Now Feeling Pain of U.S. Recession

For the first time in 70 years, Japanese auto giant Toyota will report a loss, confirming in many people's minds that the current American recession is global and has now arrived in Japan.

Toyota's success has long been a point of pride to many Japanese, particularly in a culture where corporations are almost like feudal clans that people in Japanese culture strong identify with.

Until recently in Japan, it was still possible for many ordinary Japanese to ignore the pain that was happening across the Pacific in the United States; but Toyota's loss, coupled with the reality than many Japanese won't be getting their coveted year-end bonus this year, has made this crisis real to people in Japan.

Japan, however, is no stranger to economic slumps, having experienced the collapse of its so-called "bubble economy" in the late 1980s.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Japanese Automakers Feel the Economic Pain

Japanese auto profits - long the envy of Detroit - are now starting to feel the pain of the falling dollar and the global recession. Japanese automaker Honda recently announced that it will slash its profit forecast by 60%.

Here is an article on the pain felt by this big Japanese automaker.

Monday, December 15, 2008

'Santa Claus is Coming to Town' in Japanese!

Okay, get ready for another Japanese interpretation of a Christmas classic. Here is a Japanese star singing 'Santa Claus is Coming to Town.' No matter where are you - Tokyo or Toledo - have a Merry Christmas and enjoy!

Japanese Persimmon Time Has Arrived

I just received my precious box of dried Japanese persimmon direct from Japan. If you are a lover of dried apricots or cherries, then dried Japanese persimmons will bowl you over!

Persimmons in the Japanese language are called hoshigaki: "hoshi" means "dry" and "kaki" means persimmon. And these sugary Japanese fruit are a traditional gift item sent to friends and family around the New Year.

Many American are unfamiliar with Japanese persimmons, which grow on a tree much like an apple, but have the curious appearance of a tomato.

You eat a fresh Japanese persimmon by cutting off the skin and then slicing it into quarters like an apple, with care taken not to eat the core. Fresh persimmons are best when they are hard and crisp. One variety that is popular is fuyu persimmon.

The dried Japanese persimmon shown to the left is from the west of Japan in Ishikawa prefecture, which is on the Sea of Japan. Driving through the Noto peninsula area of Japan you will notice what appear to be small greenhouses scattered about the countryside; they are actually Japanese persimmon drying "barns," where the fresh round fruit is transformed into a shrunken, narrow slipper of sugar.

Many Japanese houses in the countryside have their own persimmon trees complete with a drying rod attached to the house where they have hung persimmons out to dry; from a distance it looks like a row of beautiful Christmas ornaments.

When the persimmons dry, a wonderful glaze of white crusty sugar crystallizes on the surface of the persimmon; in ancient Japan this natural sugar was scraped off and added to traditional Japanese sweets.

American Japanese culture is linked to this japanese fruit because Japanese-Americans introduced fuyu persimmons and others to California in the last century, and there are now American persimmon orchards throughout the United States.

Eating hoshigaki is a great way to experience an edible part of Japanese culture - enjoy!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Hard Work in Japanese Culture

There are two nations in the industrialized world whose people work the longest hours: America and Japan. While hard work is certainly a virtue, the Japanese have their own particular brand of hard work in Japanese culture known as gambaru.

In the Japanese language gambaru means "trying one's best," but might be better understood as "working like crazy." And this doesn't necessarily mean that you worked well, were successful or that you arrived at some breakthrough - it simply means that in Japanese business culture you threw yourself into the task like a fire man confronting a burning home.

Japanese group behavior certainly influences how people behave socially, and in the world of Japanese salarymen (business men), nothing is more valued than gambaru. Toshiya Enomoto writes on Japan and work:
"Even if they fail to get results, Japanese find much comfort in the act of trying. So much so that they see it as a virtue in and of itself. Some put so much effort into 'trying ' that they have little energy left for the task at hand."
The image of the overworked, bone-tired Japanese salaryman is not a myth; I stayed at a home in Kobe, Japan where the husband routinely came home from work at midnight! And it was up and out the door at the crack of dawn the next day! (It's worth noting that he sleeps all day on Sundays).

It would be very difficult in Japanese business etiquette for a man to look at his watch, see that's it 6 pm and say to his colleagues: "Okay, I'm done. Time to see the wife and family." It's probably fair to say that workers and work in Japanese culture might be more efficient if they knew they could work like crazy for eight hours, and then go home.

This gambaru culture so dominates Japanese business culture, that some companies are forcing employees to leave the office at 7 pm so that they can go home, be with their wife and family and perhaps help the declining Japanese population.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Japanese Geisha in Japanese Society

When you talk to people in the West about Japan, the subject of Japanese geisha comes up sooner of later. These women and their mystique are a perennial favorite for many; yet the first thing foreigners must know is that Japanese geisha is not synonymous for "prostitute" in Japanese traditional society.

Many people outside of Japan believe that geisha are high-class call girls who sleep with old Japanese men for big money. There is also the book "Memoirs of a Geisha" which has influences many people's attitudes.

To understood geisha properly, you must understand them first as artists and preservers of Japanese traditional culture, and pretty girls with expert social skills second.

Japanese women enter Japanese geisha houses (now almost exclusively in the city of Kyoto) when they are young, and undergo rigorous training in dance, music, Japanese etiquette and the Japanese tea ceremony all under the supervision of strict teachers. Think of the young women who train to be Olympic gold medalists and you get the idea of the kind of life they lead - glamorous by no means!

Geisha (or maiko as they're known in the early stages of training) in their expensive Japanese kimono are primarily entertainers hired by groups of men who are, for example, meeting at a fine hotel or restaurant for business. During the course of the night, geisha will play the shamisen or koto (traditional stringed instruments) perform a highly stylized traditional dance in traditional Japanese makeup and then socialize by serving the men drinks, discussing the issues of the day with them and generally paying them lots of attention.

And when it comes to chit-chat, Japanese geisha are expected to be excellent conversationalists on a whole range of topics, everything from politics to travel. They are indeed not just pretty faces, but accomplished women who can hold their own with some of the most successful and distinguished men in Japanese society.

It's fair to say that they men who hire geisha enjoy both the Japanese traditional arts, as well as the company of attractive ladies wearing beautiful kimono.

And if you think the mystique and allure of the geisha has disappeared in Japan - think again. When a fully-clad geisha with Japanese makeup steps from a taxi at dusk to be whisked into an expensive Kyoto restaurant for a performance: you'll see modern-day Japanese yelp, scream and take pictures as if Marilyn Monroe herself had just strolled across the street.

Here is a fine site on Japanese geisha.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

'Silent Night' in Japanese

This is simply beautiful. This is the Christmas classic "Silent Night," listen for yourself how beautiful it sounds in Japanese.

The spirit of Christmas is able to enter and become one with any culture. Enjoy!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Japanese Culture is all About Japanese Rice

There's no equivalent to Japanese rice in the American diet. Certainly Americans eat a lot of bread, pasta and beef each day: but can you name one food that 300 million Americans eat two to three times a day, every day? Rice is more than food for the Japanese, it is culture. And Japanese rice cookers are TVs for the Japanese - non-negotiable items for daily life.

In the Japanese language "gohan" means both cooked rice and food. So you can see that Japanese rice is as fundamental to the lives of the Japanese as food itself. If you don't have rice, it is almost like you don't have anything to eat. Rice in Japanese culture is used for everything from Japanese rice balls to a sushi rice recipe.

Historically Japanese rice was so important that it served as currency in feudal Japan. One could exchange bags of rice for goods and services. And in Japan during WW II, many civilians had to eat millet and oats instead of rice so the Imperial Soldiers throughout the Pacific would have enough rice to nourish them when they went into battle.

And in Japan it's not uncommon for someone to have Japanese rice with each meal - even breakfast! Most Japanese cook their rice in a Japanese rice cooker and prefer it to be sticky.

And unlike many Americans who are tempted to view plain, white rice as bland, the Japanese are horrified when they see Americans dump soy sauce onto rice. It's not uncommon for the Japanese to take a bite of Japanese rice and comment extensively on the flavor and quality of the rice.

Rice is often taken as a portable snack as well, almost like a granola or energy bar. Many Japanese love these " Japanese rice balls," which are shaped into a ball and then covered in Saran wrap; often they feature seaweed or even pickled plum. This is a Japanese tradition that goes back centuries.

In contrast to Thai or Chinese rice, Japanese rice is dryer, fluffier and easier for the uninitiated to eat with chopsticks.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Christmas in Japan: Christmas Cake and a Romantic Date

Although the Japanese love Christmas trees, traditional songs like "silent night" and much of the decorative aspects of Christmas, don't expect anyone to gather with family, go to Church or sing carols. It's all about Christmas cake and a romantic date.

So what do the Japanese do on Christmas? Why they eat Christmas cake on Christmas Eve and single people go out to a romantic dinner, much the way young couples in the West do on Valentines Day.

Nobody really seems to know how this all became a part of modern Japanese culture, but one website claims that there were western style bakeries which catered to Americans after the war, and one popular choice (and perhaps understood by the Japanese as being uniquely "western") was sponge cake. This may have been the origin of this uniquely Japanese tradition of eating Christmas cake on Christmas Eve.

One down side is that many young, single Japanese women without a steady boyfriend feel terribly alone and forgotten on Dec. 24.

One wished that the true spirit of Christmas prevailed, instead of this odd, cultural simulacrum with all its intense social pressure. The women should know that - date or no date - this is a real day of joy; the day when their savior was born in Bethlehem. These women are loved and not alone! Merry Christmas everyone!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Get Your Japanese New Year Cards Ready!

While people in the West scramble to get their Christmas cards ready for Dec. 25, the Japanese have their own busyness as they prepare to send out a cadre of New Year cards.

Although it's true that many Japanese have adopted western habits such as sending Christmas cards, many still focus on the New Year as the central family holiday of Japan. The cards often depict traditional scenes and symbols from Japanese culture: sumo wrestlers or geisha. The beauty and delicacy of these cards is undeniable.

Politeness and Courtesy Declining in Japanese Society

A recent article in the Britain's Telegraph draws attention to fact that politeness and courtesy in Japanese society is gradually on the decline, particularly on the subways where thousands of Japanese interact with each other each day.

Japanese etiquette and courtesy, of course, is what many westerns associate with the Japanese and their culture. The subject of japanese business etiquette is very much on the mind of western businessmen who have to work with Japanese companies. Yet the Telegraph hints that the future of japanese etiquette might look quite different.

"I would have to say that levels of inconsideration have accelerated in the last five years or so," said Toshiko Marks, a professor of multicultural understanding at Shumei University. "I first saw a young woman applying her make-up on a train about five years ago but now it is an everyday sight," she said. "I even see people on trains eating food that has a strong smell, such as noodles, which means everyone has to put up with it."
Read the full article about the decline of manners in Japanese society.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Group Japanese Behavior and Shame

It's not a stereotype to say that group Japanese behavior has a tremendous influence the people of Japan. The roots of this reality are in Japanese traditional culture and the notion of the "the house."

In the Japanese language, ie translates as "house," but broadly speaking it refers to the clan or institution that binds you to japanese society: the family, school or company, for example. Since the end of the second world war and end of Japanese traditional culture, the company has become the clan that most Japanese identify with.

Ask a young man or women in Tokyo, "What do you do?" and many are apt to say: "I work for Honda," instead of saying they're a secretary or the director of marketing.

One reason for this is that modern Japan and Japanese behavior grew from the feudal history of the Japanese where your station in life was determined by your family, caste or clan. There are even stories of Japanese history where entire families were killed because of the crimes of a single member of that family. At the very least, it's safe to say that throughout the history of Japan, shameful acts by one member of a family have often led to entire families being marked with dishonor.

And it is this very notion of shame and dishonor that still permeates Japanese . There is still a common Japanese proverb that states: "The nail that sticks up gets knocked down." In many situations, Japanese people tend to keep their individual ideas and inclinations private, preferring to understand the group "consensus" and then to safely go with that.

This process is so internalized that many Japanese do it without even thinking about it.

Many westerns, of course, hold the individual and his desires to be supreme. For the Japanese, however, this disturbs the harmony of society; and if we can speak of "group virtues," than harmony is certainly one in Japanese culture and it explains much about japanese behavior and the history of the japanese.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Japan's Population Declining with Birth Rate

There's something strange going on in modern Japanese culture - and it has got everything to do with babies, or should I say the lack of Japanese babies? For years now the Japanese population has been declining because of a low birth rate, and suddenly the economic implications are starting to alarm Japanese political leaders.

Put it this way: for a married couple to at least replace themselves when they die - they need to have at least 2 kids. Right now in Japan, the Japan birth rate is just 1.29, which means that Japan will shortly go from a very crowded country, to one that seems quite empty. If things continue this way, the current Japanese population of 128 million people might be whittled down to only 100 million by 2050.

Observers of Japanese culture cite a variety of reasons for the population of Japan decline, including:

  • Japanese men work long hours at the office, so they're never home
  • Japanese moms don't want more than one kid, because their overworked husbands are never home to pitch in and support them
  • Many Japanese women can now support themselves without marrying, and as a result find that shopping for Italian handbags and taking vacations in Hawaii is easier than marriage
  • Japanese men aren't big on Western notions of love and romance, and many Japanese women have had it
  • Abortion accounts for thousands of innocent Japanese babies killed each year
  • There is no system of day care, which prevents Japanese moms from working if they choose to
In the end, modern Japanese culture has developed with whopping social security benefits for retirees along with a tight rein on immigration. If the Japanese population refuses to have more babies in the future, Japan may have to look more closely at cutting retirement benefits and/or increasing immigration to help raise tax revenues.

For a historical perspective on Japan's population and Japanese tradition, you can go to and check out this book:

Japan's Medieval Population: Famine, Fertility, And Warfare in a Transformative Age

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Nabe! Japanese Culture Readies for Winter

Winter is almost here! And in Japan where space heaters are more common than central heating - it gets cold in the house! That's why the Japanese love eating hot nabe, which is one way Japanese culture readies itself for winter.

Nabe, which means "one pot" in the Japanese language, is a broad term that applies to a variety of "soups" where all kinds of vegetables, meat and fish are thrown into a pot of boiling water, fished out with chopsticks and then dunked in sauce to be eaten with joy. Winter, it seems brings out some of the best Japanese food.

What makes nabe different from beef stew or chicken noodle soup, however, is the manner in which it is cooked and ultimately eaten, which draws nicely upon Japanese traditional food culture.

Nabe is cooked in a special nabe pot that helps distribute the heat evenly and it is often cooked in the middle of the table on a portable gas range (don't forget to open a window for safety!),

Preparation for cooking means cutting up Nappa cabbage, green onions, Japanese-style mushrooms and tofu. Raw slices of pork or beef - no thicker than an apple peal - are then placed by nabe pot along with the vegetables. All of this is strictly according to "the book" of traditional Japanese food.

A portion of the vegetables and meat are dumped into the pot while everyone sits around the table drinking beer and socializing. When the food is ready, the lid comes off the nabe pot and everyone is free to dig in. And when you're talking about the Japanese and food - get ready for long night of drinking.

Nabe wouldn't be complete without an array of dipping sauces for the goods you scoop from the pot: ponzu sauce and sesame sauce are nabe favorites.

And once the nabe pot gets low, you simply dump in more raw vegetables and meat, put the lid back on, crank up the heat and get ready for the next round of eating not-so fast Japanese food. .

In Japan, when it comes to good friends, a cold night and smooth Japanese beer, there's no telling how many rounds of nabe you may conquer. Enjoy

Monday, December 1, 2008

Manga Comics in Japn

One of the latest and most popular imports from the world of Japanese comics known as manga, which are serialized "comic books" that are read by nearly every age group in Japan, from schoolboys to business men.

While the popularity of manga in America is confined to the demographic you might expect: teenage boys with an interest in computer games and fantasy, manga in Japan is huge, with new manga comics coming out all the time.

Its not uncommon to see a salaryman (business man) on the subway in Japan reading his manga comics in a three-piece suit as he commutes to work. And don't think for a second he is reading about Superman! The subject matter for japanese manga is as diverse as the American film industry: action, suspense, comedy, history, religion, adult-themed, soaps operas - there are no limits.

One of the most popular manga is Yakitate, japan manga that has a huge international following and follows a young man who has decided to become a bread maker! There are also popular japanese manga download sites where people go to find manga japan comics for free.

And its precisely because of this broad range of subject matter that Japanese adults read manga in Japanese the way Americans read novels by Tom Clancy or Sidney Sheldon. Animation in Japan culture - unlike America - never got pigeon-holed as the expression of a juvenile or low brow culture.

Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki, whose animated film "Spirited Away" did fairly well in America, deals with complex sociological issues one doesn't normally see in Disney movies. In Japanese culture, Miyazaki is treated with the kind of respect one sees in America for Martin Scorsese or Francis Ford Coppola.

There is even a well-respected manga Japan series on the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, which tell you this isn't your father's comic books!