Is it offensive to open the kimono?

What would be your reaction if an employer asked you to “open the kimono”?

That astonishing phrase is baffling young graduates and might well put them off working for a company, according to the Times newspaper.

The article highlights the confusing jargon which appears in job advertisements and explains that “to open the kimono” means to reveal a project’s inner workings.

It appeared as a headline in the Financial Times recently, above an article about investment entitled “Opening the kimono on dark pools”.

“Dark pools” – it turns out – are a rather opaque form of financial investment.

Intimidating and erotic

Alan Connor, who is an expert on crosswords, attempted to explain the origin of the term “open the kimono” to his readers in the Guardian.

He wrote that: “The phrase goes back to the 1980s, when certain American businessmen found Japan both intimidating and rousingly exotic.”

He feels that the term is “simultaneously childish, predatory and not un-racist.”

The racist and sexist overtones of the phrase were noted by Rob Stock, writing for the New Zealand website

He claims that open the kimono is an example of “dated, gendered language” and dismisses it as “50-something, white male business-speak.”

Feminine symbol

In Japan, where gender norms are different to those in New Zealand, both men and women wear kimonos. The word itself has a rather prosaic literal meaning; “a thing to wear”.

Nevertheless, in Japan, traditional kimonos are extremely expensive and are passed down through generations, like treasure.

And internationally, the kimono is regarded as a potent symbol of femininity.

California store

In the United States, it’s possible to buy adaptations of the costumes at a shop called Open The Kimono in Venice, California.

Most people who reviewed the store on Yelp seemed to like it.  One lady said that: “Every kimono is handmade and the owner finds luscious combinations of designs.”

Another customer said: “Open the Kimono is such a lovely shop! The owner, who is also the designer, is very friendly and dedicated to her craft.”

I am afraid that there was a note of dissent recorded on Yelp, too.

Sue from Brooklyn complained: “Racist white owners capitalizing off of Asian appropriation as per usual. If you want to look like a basic ass white girl flaunting overpriced clothing, this is your store.”

I may be wrong but I suspect that Sue has not visited the store as it’s nearly three thousand miles from Brooklyn to Venice. My guess is that she is unhappy with the name of the shop.

As the Times noted in its article, businesses which use annoying phrases or meaningless jargon do risk a bad reaction.

And indeed the shop has changed its name since the Yelp page appeared. It’s now called Ibby Hartley and it still sells kimonos but leaves it to the customers’ discretion whether they should be open or closed.

Rocket man returns

Kim Jong-Un has warned that the missiles fired by North Korea are designed to cause “inescapable distress to a fat target.”

There have been six weapons tests recently, causing great concern in Japan, where people receive warnings instantly, via their mobile phones.

The BBC’s Seoul correspondent Laura Bicker observed that the weapons are becoming more dangerous.

“North Korea has test fired three new weapons and these missiles are fast, fly low and at least one of them can manoeuvre mid-air, which would pose a real challenge to missile defence systems,” she said.

“North Korean rockets pose a real challenge to missile defence systems” -BBC

The cost of conflict

The latest incident came just after Japan commemorated the anniversary of the end of the Second World War – an event which is primarily used to consider the human cost of conflict.

In the past, some people have used the day to push a nationalist agenda but this year, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was careful to keep it low key.

He did not pay a visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, where the war dead are commemorated, but sent a ritual offering instead. Prime Ministerial visits to the shrine are usually condemned by the governments of South Korea and China because they stir memories of occupation and conflict.

Yasukuni in perspective

An American called Jason Morgan from Reitaku University gave his perspective on the Yasukuni shrine for Japan Forward. He said that “people here come to pray for peace and for the souls of the men and women and even of the animals who died in the 15 years of hard fighting across East Asia, Southeast Asia, Alaska and the Pacific.”

He went on to say that: “People born in Japan, in China, in Taiwan, on the Korean Peninsula and in countries beyond the reach of the Japanese Empire – all who lost their lives in the wars that Japan has fought over the past 150 years – are remembered here, their souls ingathered and given rest.”

Anger and division

This year the contemplative mood was shattered by the North Korean missiles.

Even though it was the Japanese islands which were placed at risk, the missile firings also expressed North Korea’s anger at South Korea.

The South conducts military exercises alongside the United States and the North views these as a rehearsal for invasion. It says it is “senseless” to resume peace talks while the drills continue.

Reunification pledge

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in delivered a speech last week in which he declared that the peninsula could be reunified by 2045, a century after Japan’s defeat.

Although the North also says it seeks reunification, it balks at any suggestion it would become subservient to the South or its ally, the United States.

A North Korean spokesman said: “We have nothing more to talk about with the South Korean authorities, nor do we have any plans to sit with them again.”

June Park, an economist at George Mason University Korea, told the Financial Times that there “no guarantees’ the two Koreas would be united within 26 years.

“We are at a critical crossroads of geopolitical shifts, but Moon is no prophet,” she said.

Monster fish and magical raccoons

Scientists announced this week that a traditional idea about using fish to predict earthquakes is no more than a superstition.

It’s long been thought that when deep sea fish appear near the surface of the water, it’s a sign that an earthquake’s imminent.

However, an authoritative study published in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America contradicts this old folklore.

The report concludes that the unusual appearance of deep-sea fish – such as the oarfish or slender ribbonfish – in Japanese shallow waters does not mean that an earthquake is about to occur.

Professor Yoshiaki Orihara of Tokai University held a press conference at which he said that deep sea fish sightings cannot be used as signals of an imminent earthquake.

Myths of fish

This led me to think more about the relationships between myth and reality in Japan.

Why, I wondered, do pictures of catfish appear on signs which indicate the routes which are designated as emergency roads in the event of a major earthquake?

Well, it appears that this is linked to a belief that catfish use their whiskers to sense the small tremors which occur before earthquakes. It also ties in with an old myth about a giant fish called Namazu.

Wikipedia puts it this way: “Namazu lives in the mud under the islands of Japan and is guarded by the god Kashima who restrains the catfish with a stone. When Kashima lets his guard fall, Namazu thrashes about, causing violent earthquakes.”

Animal stories

There are all kinds of wonderful myths in Japan involving fish, whales, bears, foxes, deer, wild boars and those cuddly-looking creatures known in English as raccoon dogs, which the Japanese call tanuki.

You see statues of tanuki outside restaurants and bars in Japan. They wear a straw hat, carry a flask of sake and are always depicted with big tummy and a giant scrotum.

They are a symbol of fun and business success.

There are real tanuki in Japan, although they don’t wear hats. They are actually part of the dog family and are related to wolves. Their scientific name is canis procyonoides, which suggests a dignified and special animal. Yet sadly nowadays, most tanuki feed on rubbish discarded by humans.

The animation company Studio Ghibli made a wonderful film about them called Pom Poko. In the story, a tribe of tanuki live on a mountain near Tokyo which is slowly being taken over by humans who are building a housing complex. The tanuki are forced out of their homes and many end up fleeing.

I like the way the blogger Noelle Ogawa describes the film on the Crunchy Roll website:

“Twenty-five years later, the lessons from Pom Poko continue to ring true. It’s a harsh look at the damage that humanity can do to its environment, wrapped up in the comical antics of shapeshifting raccoons. It leaves you feeling complicated, disappointed, but also more aware,” writes Noelle.

I think the film also raises awareness of how the Japanese breathe new life into old myths and tell stories which are directly relevant to the modern world.

Tokyo shares take a hit as China uses money as a weapon

There was something of a panic on the financial markets in Tokyo this week when China suddenly announced it would allow its currency – the yuan – to drop in value.

It was a decision taken at the top level in Beijing, following signs that China’s rate of economic growth is slowing. A weaker yuan makes Chinese exports more competitive – or cheaper to buy with foreign currencies.

That could have a negative impact on Japanese companies which compete against Chinese rivals, which partly explains a sharp fall in the value of shares on Tokyo’s main indices.

Business links

However, many Japanese companies also do extensive business with China and often cooperate rather than compete with the Chinese. And the fall on the Tokyo stock exchange came after a wave of selling in the US, amid general worries about the state of the global economy.

As the shares fell, the Japanese currency rose. As the Financial Times pointed out: “the Japanese yen was given a boost thanks to its role as a perceived haven during a time of geopolitical uncertainty.”

Trade War

China’s decision to devalue its currency was interpreted as a sign that it is not prepared to give ground in its trade war with the United States.

Last week, President Trump said he would impose a ten percent tariff on $300bn worth of Chinese goods, effectively hitting all of China’s imports to the US with duties, according to the BBC.

In response, the People’s Bank of China has “effectively weaponised the exchange rate, even if it is not proactively weakening the currency with direct intervention” said Julian Evans-Pritchard from Capital Economics.

China as peacemaker

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will meet Premier Li Keqiang at the G7 summit in the French city of Biarritz later this month and will invite the Chinese President Xi Jinping to come to Japan soon.

And in December, China will host a meeting of the Japanese and South Korean leaders in Beijing, partly aimed at resolving their long standing disputes, which have their roots in the Second World War.

Good example

Professor Kerry Brown wrote on LinkedIn this week that “if anyone wants to see how to craft a relationship with China, look to Japan and see what they are doing.”

Professor Brown, who is Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London, believes that Japan and the People’s Republic of China have an important relationship, which has huge implications for Asia and the rest of the world.

“I think the secret of Japan and China is that Japan – despite knowing a huge amount about China – always says so little. It just acts and doesn’t say.

“It is always a relationship which starts from the worst possible base in terms of history and mutual antipathy and is therefore structurally super realistic. What looks like a bad place to be, in this case at least, is not quite as bad as it looks,” wrote Professor Brown.

Compared to the other fractious relationships dominating the headlines this summer, it’s a relief to learn that the Sino-Japanese situation is stable – at least for the time being.