When family love is sold for money, foreigners are shocked and puzzled

Many films about Japan make it appear to be an extremely strange country, including a new movie called Family Romance, LLC directed by the distinguished German auteur, Werner Herzog.

The leading character is a man named, Ishii Yuichi, who can be hired to play the roles of family members or other surrogates, such as a pretend paparazzi photographer.

Apparently, Ishii-San is not a professional screen actor but an entrepreneur who in real life runs an agency that rents out people. The story focuses on his relationship with a 12-year-old girl who believes he is her father. A series of intimate scenes raises difficult questions about whether family love can be faked.

Shocked and puzzled 

Viewers have had strong reactions.

“How weird is that? Could you ask for a weirder?” asked one British reviewer. She assumed that the movie explores social situations which are common in Japan.

This is understandable, because in interviews to promote the film, Werner Herzog said that in Japan “romance is a business” and that “this has grown exponentially in the public awareness.”

Emphasising eccentricity

However, my personal opinion is that the director delights in the eccentric and is prepared to exaggerate reality to make life in Japan seem even more interesting.

I have been reading about these human rental agencies for at least twenty years. Surely it’s never been more than a niche business, a bit like a hedgehog cafe which appears in the film?

I also feel that Family Business LLC plays into a trope that Japanese men are deceitful and corruptible when it comes to money and fickle when it comes to love. In this film, the women are seductive, deluded, skittish and easily deceived – or they are portrayed robots who are programmed to smile and be subservient.

Maybe that’s reading too much into it. I should not offer a feminist thesis on what’s meant to be a whimsical and affectionate film. And I really enjoyed the drama and the dialogue.

In fact, it reminded me of some of the art house films made by Japanese directors which explore the nuances of family relationships. Herzog pays tribute to a particular type of modern Japanese drama, which often uses quirky plot devices to move the story forward and reveal the characters’ deep emotion.  

Family Business LLC has been available on streaming platforms since last week and you can rent it for an evening online. You might also enjoy listening to Werner Herzog explain why he made the film in this thoughtful podcast. 

Should Japan be prepared to bomb its enemies?

Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, wants to strengthen the country’s military, despite a commitment in the constitution to pacifism.

The Self Defence Force is ever vigilant against an attack by North Korea, which has previously launched ballistic missiles over Japanese territory. It is also mindful of the emerging military challenge from China.

This week, the Nikkei reports that a debate has started in the Diet about whether Japan should be able to shoot missiles at an enemy base if it believes that an attack is imminent.

Many other countries, including Japan’s ally the United States, have authorised their military to act swiftly if their nation is threatened. 

Diverging views

Japan usually follows America’s lead on all defence issues. However, there have been tensions in the alliance recently.

Japan has scrapped a plan to buy an expensive missile shield system from the US known as Aegis Ashore, following strong local opposition in Akita and Yamaguchi prefectures. There are also complaints about the cost of the weapons: $4 billion dollars, double the original estimate.

Mr Abe and his supporters believe Japan should be more independent from the United States and they want to change the constitution, to convert the Self Defence Force into an international army.

Donald Trump believes that if Japan takes a bigger role in protecting itself, the US military could then shift more resources to other parts of the Indo-Pacific, such as the South China Sea.

However, this is a topic on which political opinion in Japan is sharply divided and on which people in other nations, especially South Korea and China, also hold strong views.

Beware of the monster behind the mask!

When you see people wearing a surgical face mask, do you ever wonder why they are really covering their face? 

Of course, they’re probably just protecting themselves from disease. But  could there be a more sinister reason?

Japanese horror stories suggest that a beautiful girl wearing a surgical mask, could in fact be the Kuchisake Onna, or the “slit-mouthed woman.” 

According to Gaijinpot, she approaches people at night and asks them “Watashi, kirei?” or “Am I beautiful?” 

If you answer no, she will kill you instantly. If you say yes, she removes the surgical mask and reveals her hellish, gaping mouth. 

She is apparently revenging a violent husband, so this strikes me as a somewhat misogynistic tale. 

Spooky summer

Yet in Japan, both men and women seem to enjoy ghost stories in the summer, when the spirits of the deceased are said to return to earth.

This year, some ghosts are abiding by social distancing rules, according to Harumi Ozawa, who writes for the AFP news agency.

She encountered a group of ghouls known as the Kowagaranai, meaning “a squad wanting to scare” led by an entrepreneur called Kenta Iwana, 25.

Normally they frighten people in haunted houses. But banned from making close contact, they have now set up a drive-in facility and scare people sitting inside cars.

I was surprised they had any customers, given all the recent traumas in Japan. 

But perhaps overcoming one’s horror of a visible – yet pretend – menace such as the Kowagarasetai squad might help one deal with deeper and more intangible fears. 



Japan could have done “much better” on coronavirus

I had the strong impression that Japan and South Korea have done extremely well in dealing with coronavirus. 

The death toll has been relatively low and lockdown has been largely lifted in both countries already. In recent weeks, much of the international media praised their governments.  

I was therefore surprised when I read a piece of analysis put together by the research arm of British magazine The Economist which gave them both a mediocre rating for their response to the pandemic.

Not enough tests

Japan received a poor mark in terms of the number of coronavirus detection tests but scored high in regard to its health care system and coronavirus death toll. This week, Japan lifted all curbs on domestic travel and the government will also allow up to 1,000 people to gather at indoor and outdoor events. 

South Korea, which was praised for quickly stopping an outbreak escalating through a test and trace regime, was also given a “fair” score in the report. Total infections in that country reached 12,306 this week, with 280 deaths.

I downloaded the report from the Economist’s website but it didn’t offer any explanation on why South Korea had not come higher in the rankings. Was it because it suffered a second wave of the disease after people went out to clubs and churches following the easing of restrictions, I wonder? 

Britain’s blunder

I wasn’t surprised, unfortunately, to see the low score given to the United Kingdom which is regarded as having been “very poor” in tackling the Covid-19 pandemic. It ranks near the bottom of a global league table. 

New Zealand got the highest score while Belgium took the lowest.

All of this raises concerns about what will happen if there’s a second wave of the disease.

Sayonara, Tokyo! Let’s relocate the capital of Japan

It’s time to move the capital of Japan, according to an entrepreneur who is now an advisor to the Prime Minister.

Masaaki Taira is not advocating a physical relocation. Instead, he wants a technological revolution.

“Japan has a history of moving its capital city in response to infectious diseases,” he said. “After the coronavirus, it should move its capital into the digital world.”

Upgrade and reboot

Mr Taira criticised the inefficiency of the civil service. He believes Japan’s administration is “at least a decade” behind other countries in terms of technology.

Dismantling the old systems won’t be easy. Many government departments insist on the use of name stamps known as hanko and people still use fax machines.

Vulnerable Tokyo

What about the radical idea of physically moving the capital of Japan to another location? The last time that was considered seriously was soon after the bubble economy burst.

The Far Eastern Economic Review said in 1992 that relocating the government would reduce congestion in Tokyo and save institutions a fortune in rent.

The other main reason was to protect the nation if Tokyo was devastated by an earthquake. If disaster strikes the capital, the country’s economy could grind to a halt and there would be a knock-on effect around the world.

Meet the TV chef who hates sushi and wasabi Kit Kats

My Japanese language tutor Mineko Arai is a great baker. I love her strawberry cheesecake.

I think she could be a contestant on The Great British Bake Off, the most successful cookery show in the UK.

One of the judges, Paul Hollywood has a new show on Channel Four (you can see the trailer here) in which he meets chefs, farmers and bakers in Japan, including in remote prefectures, such as Gifu and Iwate.

Paul Hollywood doesn’t like the taste of sushi, sashimi, tofu or wasabi KitKats. Nor does he enjoy using chopsticks. On his show, he repeatedly says that Japan is a bizarre, strange and weird country.

He acknowledges that the Japanese makes some nice bread – but he doesn’t realise that great bread and cakes are on sale everywhere!

As a presenter, Paul Hollywood is not to everyone’s taste.

“Can’t watch anymore of this,” wrote one person on Twitter. “Insulting to Japan, near racist ‘jokes’ and treating the audience like idiots. Poor quality research, appalling presenting.”

Another added: “Just wasted the last hour watching Paul Hollywood‘s cringey, xenophobic visit to Japan.”

That criticism is a bit strong. However,  I would encourage Paul to spend more time appreciating the delicate flavours of sushi and warm tofu. I do agree though that wasabi KitKats are bizarre, strange and weird.


Men should do the shopping but women can write the shopping list, says Osaka’s mayor

The mayor of Osaka has said that men are better suited to grocery shopping during the coronavirus pandemic, because women take too long and contribute to overcrowding at supermarkets.

According to CNN, Ichiro Matsui told reporters: “Women take a longer time grocery shopping because they browse through different products and weigh out which option is best but men quickly grab what they’re told to buy so they won’t linger at the supermarket – that avoids close contact with others.”

These remarks sparked plenty of debate on social media in Japan, with some people questioning whether Mr Matsui has actually done much grocery shopping himself.

Shopping list

I think it was probably a comment made without much thought. But it has led me to wonder how people who are in couples expect their partners to behave. Do men usually follow instructions from their wives when they go to the shops?

Puzzled, I turned to an old book of mine called The Japanese Mind, written by an American named Robert C Christopher, published in 1983. At that time, Japan’s economy was booming and there was a great deal of curiosity about how Japanese people handled financial issues, large and small.

Mr Christopher wrote: “In most Japanese households, it is basically the wife who makes all the major decisions such as where the family lives, what car to buy and what schools the children will attend.”

He claimed that “in the great majority of Japanese families, the husband turns over his entire salary to his wife who then doles out to him a daily allowance – usually a rather modest one – for cigarettes, drinks and sundries.”

Mr Christopher concluded that the typical Japanese household is “a disguised matriarchy and a rather thinly disguised one at that.”

Husband hunting

When the book came out in 1983, the principle way of finding a potential wife or husband was through matchmaking parties and these still exist. Nowadays there are also some sophisticated dating services run by professional matchmakers online.

These appeal to women. A Tokyo-based marriage agency called Sunmarie says most of its clients are women with university degrees. According to the Nikkei, inquiries about its services and memberships were up about 20% in April 2020 compared to the same month a year ago.

“Many potential customers say the coronavirus has given them an opportunity to think about their future, or to think twice about ties with their families,” a Sunmarie representative told the Nikkei.

Attitudes are changing, apparently. “People in their 30s and 40s do not seem uncomfortable meeting online. More people have additional free time as they work remotely and I hope they use this situation as an opportunity to think about their futures,” Sunmarie’s spokesperson said.

Dating tips

The company offers advice on how to handle a virtual date. Men should wear a shirt and tie, it says, even if they are at home. It also says clients should keep laundry or other personal items out of the camera’s view.

The advice to women is to put on a bit more makeup than usual, paying special attention to their eyebrows. And on most occasions, a professional matchmaker is on hand during to guide the opening conversation.

I am sure there are some subjects that are best avoided on a first date: such as who will eventually control the family budget, or who writes the shopping list.

If the relationship leads eventually to marriage, there will be plenty of times to argue over those contentious issues at a later stage. By that point, the supportive matchmaker will have taken her fee and exited the conversation – leaving the couple to settle their differences between them.

The precious freedom of working from home

If you’re working from home, is your employer paying for your computer, internet server and electricity?

I know from experience that the costs of these vital tools can mount up. In general, Japanese organisations are more generous in paying for them than firms in other parts of the world.

For example a software developer called Six Apart, based in central Tokyo, offers staff an allowance of 15,000 yen ($140 USD) a month for teleworking. According to Nikkei, the funds come partly from the money the company is saving on office rent and travel expenses during the current coronavirus lockdown.

Expenses paid

It is common for Japanese firms to compensate their staff for a long commute into work by meeting the cost of their annual rail cards. This is a significant perk, although I still feel sorry for people crammed on the rush hour trains in Tokyo.

Another firm mentioned by Nikkei called Mercari gives its employees an allowance of 60,000 yen ($565 USD) over six months to cover the cost of utilities and online communications.

I hadn’t heard of Mercari before I read the article, but it turns out to be an online marketplace, similar to ebay. It’s currently selling some rather cute face masks.

New challenge

As the state of emergency continues in Japan, around 28% of full-time employees are working from home. Many of them will be unfamiliar with the experience.

Typically, most working environments in Japan are crowded. Junior staff live in constant fear of a manager who sits just a few feet away.

My favourite writer on Japan – Leo Lewis of the Financial Times – describes these managers in fearful terms. “The classic overbearing tyrant head is a mid-fifties nano tyrant who populates companies across the country, delegates everything, appears to do nothing of value and whose survival is explicable only via automatic hierarchical respect.”

Striving for efficiency

So, when workers are freed from the chains of this mythical tyrant, do they relish their freedom and become more efficient?

Not according to research done by Tokyo Woman’s Christian University.

An online survey of 3,192 remote workers, which was taken nationwide in mid-April, found that although 40% of respondents working remotely said they had more free time, 34% said their productivity has declined.

Many workers said they find it difficult to concentrate at home and I understand this dilemma. I have been working from home for about five years since I left the BBC. There is no editor to scold me if I turn up late for a meeting, waste time online or even go back to bed for an afternoon siesta.

Fortunately, I’m getting better at supervising myself and I aim to follow a detailed work timetable. I also ask my wife and family to check my work diary, so that I’m accountable to someone else.

Tempting nap

I am satisfied if I achieve certain goals, such as writing my weekly blog. But I don’t worry much about how much time I’ve spent in my home office, provided I know the work’s progressed in line with the schedule.

However, many organisations in Japan appear to place more emphasis on the number of hours spent in the office rather than on results and this is often cited as one of the reasons for Japan’s rather low productivity.

The good news, from my experience, is that if we’re asked to work from home, most of us can adapt. And from time to time, a little nap after lunch is excusable, I believe – provided there’s been some tangible progress on the main work goals.

SoftBank’s plan to dominate global tech is going wrong

The greatest gambler in venture capital is on a losing streak. Masayoshi Son, the entrepreneur who founded the Japanese conglomerate, SoftBank, has watched several of his big bets on the tech sector land in the zero pocket.

SoftBank’s Vision Fund -– the largest private equity operation in the world – has announced a writedown of $16.7 billion. It is not the first time Mr Son has lost a gamble. When the first Dotcom bubble burst twenty years ago, he saw $70 billion wiped from his net worth, more than anyone else in history.

Ups and downs

SoftBank has enjoyed strokes of luck over the years, most notably with the early acquisition of a stake in the Chinese internet company Alibaba, which soared in value. That enabled Mr Son to convince other wealthy organisations to back his experiments, including Apple Inc and the sovereign wealth funds of both Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. The Vision Fund assembled a $100 billion war chest. There was talk of another $100 billion to follow.

SoftBank used the hoard to pump money into start-ups involved in robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and the biotech industry, as well as firms which promised to enliven mundane businesses with whizzy new technology. It has not proved an easy field in which to pick winners. Some of the hunches seem bizarre, such as a $300 million stake in a dog walking service called Wag! The model, Kendall Jenner, and her dog, Mew, receive free walks for life for promoting the service, but a pet-owner in Florida complained that her terrier was returned dead to her doorstep following a blunder by a walker.

Making connections

SoftBank also has a stake in Slack Technologies, which connects teams working remotely, and in ByteDance, the Chinese owner of the video app TikTok, through which youngsters share pranks and dance memes. Both firms could thrive during lockdowns, although neither are guaranteed cash cows.

The Vision Fund is also saddled with investments in sectors where business has all but dried up. Its greatest pain stems from WeWork, an office rental company which branded itself as a cool tech start-up and was in trouble over its exuberant valuation before the pandemic, when an IPO was suddenly called off. WeWork’s offices are mostly closed and it is unclear if customers will return. The debacle has damaged SoftBank’s reputation and led to questions about its ability to sustain credible partnerships.

Critical voices

SoftBank’s critics claim it is better at raising capital than investing money. Even as late as last year, it was persuading banks such as Mizuho, JPMorgan Chase and UBS to keep on lending it cash. However, under pressure from activist shareholders, it is now selling assets, including equity in Alibaba. The goal is to raise $41 billion to buy back shares and slash debt.

Still, Masayoshi Son dreams big. He believes the internet of things is the key to human progress. SoftBank’s breezy slogan is: “Information Revolution. Happiness for everyone.” However, these are not happy times and Mr Son once took to Twitter to say that he believes the saddest thing in life is loneliness.

In a time of lockdown and isolation, SoftBank can take comfort that some of its tech investments are bringing people together. But it is hard to imagine that an online meeting or a shared dance meme will completely compensate for painful losses elsewhere.

Calling time on China: PM Abe wants Japan’s businesses to come home

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is encouraging companies to close some of their factories in China and move their manufacturing facilities back to Japan.

This is an important policy shift and one with significant implications for the Japanese economy and the rest of Asia, yet it has had relatively little press coverage, due to the huge amount of media attention being paid to the coronavirus crisis.

However, the Nikkei Asian Review has been flagging the story strongly, claiming that “Sino-Japanese relations are at a crossroads.”

High level plan

I recently renewed my subscription to the Nikkei’s English language website and I am rather glad that I did, because reading through it has reminded me that the Nikkei’s journalists gain access to the highest level discussions in Tokyo.

Staff writer Katsuji Nakazawa reports on talks between Prime Minister Abe and Hiroaki Nakanishi, chairman of the Japan Business Federation, the powerful business lobby known as Keidanren.

The Prime Minister is quoted as saying: “Due to the coronavirus, fewer products are coming from China to Japan. People are worried about our supply chains.”

Mr Abe pressed companies to relocate the manufacture of high added value items to Japan. He also said that businesses should diversify their supply chains beyond China to include countries in the ASEAN region.

Financial incentive

The relationship between the Prime Minister and business leaders is very close. However, Mr Abe cannot give orders to the members of the Keidanren and expect all businesses to tow the line.

What the government can do is to use money to encourage certain actions, so it’s now set aside 240 billion yen ($2.2 billion) for companies which reorganise their supply chains.

A company called Iris Ohyama has already taken up the offer, according to Nikkei. It’s planning to shift production of face masks out of China and make them instead in Miyagi Prefecture in northern Japan. It plans to produce 150 million masks per month by August.

America First

It’s not only the Japanese that are rethinking their China strategy. Donald Trump has been urging American companies to do more manufacturing at home and less in China.

Mark Mobius, founder of Mobius Capital Partners, told CNBC that there is a strong preference for relocation to the US, or if that’s not possible, to either Mexico or Canada.

“A lot of buyers, and a lot of people depending on the supply chain in China, are now having second thoughts. They are beginning to diversify their supply chain as much as possible to be closer to home,” said Mr Mobius.

He didn’t mention Japan but he did say he sees opportunities for several developing and middle income countries.

“I think there’s going to be a diversification, where these supply chains get moved into places like Vietnam, Bangladesh, Turkey and even Brazil,” said Mr Mobius.

Voice of the hawks

Some lawmakers in America have called for the United States to consolidate supply chains for pharmaceuticals and other critical goods.

These calls are in tune with hawkish messages on China from the President’s inner circle, and from Mr Trump himself.

At the weekend, the President told a White House briefing that he blames China for the global pandemic and its huge economic fall out.

“It could have been stopped in China before it started and it wasn’t, and the whole world is suffering because of it,” said Mr Trump.