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.

Saving relationships from coronavirus

Many people in Japan are worried their marriages will be wrecked by the coronavirus crisis.

A survey by NHK television found that 80% of couples think their relationship will become strained. Respondents who live in small apartments say they are especially stressed at the prospect of being cooped up with their spouses for many weeks.

The ominous phrase “coronavirus divorce” is trending on social media.

Fortunately, in my view, the people of Japan are skilled at finding solutions to complex problems. They have already realised the social pressure caused by the coronavirus outbreak – including the threat of divorce – and are attempting to respond appropriately.

Relationship tips

Take for example the popular morning TV show on NHK Asa-Ichi, which means “Morning First.” It’s inviting a relationship counsellor called Harumi Takakusagi on air regularly. She offers tips to couples on how to avoid rows and resentment.

Her main advice is to be mindful that each couple is a team and to try to communicate regularly on a deep level.

Another option, for some, is to plan small escapes from one’s wife or husband. The AFP news agency reports that one company is offering to rent out apartments to people who crave private time at the very reasonable price of 4,400 yen (US $40) a day.

Spokesman Kosuke Amano told AFP that the service also comes with the offer of a free 30-minute divorce consultation with a legal official.

State of emergency

The lockdown in Japan is not as severe as it is in some other countries.

It does not cover the whole nation; the current state of emergency stretches over seven regions. The law does not prevent people from going out, although it does strongly discourage them from doing unnecessary things.

The big pressure on family life stems from the closure of schools and the decision by many companies to instruct staff to work from home, sometimes for the first time in their careers.

Even though they are not in the office, remote workers are constantly watched and guided. In Japan’s team-orientated work culture, people expect very clear instructions to be sent from above. Managers therefore tend to bombard their subordinates with messages, which adds to the stress of working in an unfamiliar environment.

Learning to adapt

The Financial Times contacted a car parts supplier called Yorozu, which has implemented remote working for staff based at its Yokohama headquarters.

Apparently, the transition has not been a smooth one.

“This is all very new for us and we are struggling with many things including communication,” said chief executive Mr Shido, who still comes into the office every day. “But we have no choice in this emergency situation and it will be a good opportunity for us to adapt.”

Perhaps the best approach for companies is to follow the advice of marriage counsellor Harumi Takakusagi and to prioritise teamwork and encourage deep communication. But those are demanding goals at the best of times, and are even more challenging during a major crisis.

What is Japan’s exit strategy from the coronavirus emergency?

As much of Japan enters a state of emergency, it might seem premature to ask when it will end. But at some point, there will need to be a plan to get things back to normal.

Austria may provide a clue on how to do this.

Austria is the first country in Europe to ease its lockdown against the pandemic. I am sure that other places will follow its strategy, if it turns out to be successful.

Austria’s plan

The Austrian government announced its relaxation measures at a press conference this week.

It will take the following steps:

  • From April 14th, small shops, do-it-yourself stores and garden centres will be allowed to reopen.
  • From May 1st, all shops, shopping centres and hairdressers will be allowed to reopen.
  • From mid-May, restaurants, hotels and other service providers will probably be able to open gradually.

Is that a timetable that Japan could also follow?

At the moment, the state of emergency is scheduled to last until May 6th, covering Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama, Chiba, Osaka and Fukuoka.

Fewer people, more disease

Austria has a population of less than nine million people, whereas Japan’s population is about 127 million. Yet despite its much smaller population, Austria has confirmed about 112,000 thousand cases of coronavirus, compared to 4,100 in Japan.

In Austria, the rate of Covid-19 infection is slowing. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said “we are not at the stage where a rapid nationwide spread of the disease is being observed.” However, there is concern over the rise in infections in Tokyo, particularly among young people.

Island nation

There are huge geographical differences between Austria and Japan. Austria is landlocked and borders eight European states, whereas the island nation of Japan has no land borders.

Both countries have an obligation to their citizens to control arrivals from abroad. This will be an easier task for Japan than for Austria. Many flights have already been cancelled: BA’s last flight back from Tokyo to London will operate on Wednesday (8th April).

Economic trade-off

It’s inevitable that the Covid-19 crisis will push Japan into a deep recession, exacerbated by the postponement of the Olympic Games. The government and the Bank of Japan have offered extensive help to businesses and individuals and Prime Minister Abe said on TV this week that “we will maintain economic and social activity to the greatest extent possible.”

Mr Abe recognises that there is a strong economic case to try to keep the lockdown short. But as the government of Japan considers whether to follow the Austrian example and gradually re-open the economy, it must also ensure economic factors do not detract from its duty to protect society from this terrible disease.

What will make Japan quit smoking?

For a health-conscious and hygienic society, Japan has a shocking number of people who smoke.

According to an annual survey conducted by Japan Tobacco and published on Nippon.com, the percentage of male and female smokers in 2017 was, respectively, 28.2% and 9.0%.

The report also showed that people aged over thirty are more likely to smoke than younger people.

I quit

I gave up smoking in my forties. I wish other people would join me in quitting and enjoy, like me, a revival in their health and a precious sense of freedom.

I am also aware that most Japanese women don’t wish their partners to smoke, so surely it stresses them when their boyfriends or husbands come home stinking of nicotine?

However before I quit, I was rather fond of Japan’s permissive attitude and cheap cigarettes. They remain cheap – a packet of twenty costs around 500 yen (£3.73 GBP $4.61 USD) – about a third of the price in Britain.

Vulnerable to Covid-19

In the UK, the government’s chief medical adviser, Prof Chris Whitty, has said now would be a “very good moment” for people to quit smoking because it leads to “an additional vulnerability” in terms of coronavirus.

The BBC claims that experts in China, where the virus originated, “found that less fit people with medical conditions were five times more likely to have a worse outcome from Covid-19; and smokers three times more likely to have this result.” The theory is that people whose lungs have been damaged by smoking are more likely to succumb to pneumonia.

With these warnings in mind, I was pleased to hear that Japan is bringing in new anti-smoking laws this week. They are pretty limited in scope, though. Although you can’t now light up in restaurant chains, like Starbucks and McDonalds, the laws are only going to be enforced in Tokyo and not in the rest of the country.

Even in Tokyo, many small establishments are exempt, which means groups of men can still head off to izakayas and bars after work and smoke until closing time.

Villainous business

My view is that Japan Tobacco is the villain here. It is a staggeringly rich company: its website shows it made a profit of more than 500 billion JPY last year. This gives it great sway over the government, which still owns 33 percent of the business. Its products provide substantial tax revenue.

Reuters observes that it took two years for the partial smoking ban to come into effect, highlighting the hurdles facing anti-smoking activists in dealing with Japan Tobacco.

“This year’s law is still not sufficient,” politician and anti-smoking campaigner Shigefumi Matsuzawa told Reuters. “We had to set many compromises in order for it to pass, so there are several loopholes.”

Threat to life

The partial ban was part of Tokyo’s preparations for the now-delayed 2020 Olympics, and it seems to have been designed to appease foreign visitors, rather than address a national problem. Yet activists say second-hand smoke kills around 15,000 people a year, many of them women and children.

The new laws on smoking take effect as Japan is battling a coronavirus outbreak that has so far infected more than 2,000 people and killed 59.

Clearly, I support the measures taken to help prevent the further spread of the virus. But in terms of a danger to life, statistics suggest that smoking will kill many more people in Japan this year than the effects of Covid-19.

Big juicy watermelons are my dream for summer

 

For the past few days, my mind has been fixated on watermelons. You can buy watermelons all over the world, of course. But I want to eat them in Japan, as it seems to me that they are particularly delicious there.

They can also be very expensive. And to my surprise, a lot of people say they like to eat them with salt. Even more surprisingly, some watermelons in Japan are not round but square. Would you like to know why? Well the internet has plausible theories on all these issues.

Luxury prices

When it comes to price, it’s not only fruit in Japan which can seem expensive. Many vegetables, as well as special types of meat and fish, are pricey. On The Travel website, Lacy Womack notes that visitors to Japan “might experience some serious sticker shock when they visit the produce department” in shops.

Lacey says that’s because some consumers are very demanding and also because farmers like their fruit to look perfect. There are only limited supplies of the most premium products and of course fruit doesn’t last for long, hence the high prices.

I can imagine dollar signs appearing in the eyes of foreign farmers when they hear that in Japan, a few peaches can go for up to ¥3,000 ($300) and a big bunch of grapes can be sold for up to ¥5,000 ($500). But I think that’s only for fruit which is grown in Japan: imports don’t have the same appeal. And those inflated prices are only charged in a few high end shops, not in your average supermarket or konbini convenience store.

Salty sweet

But why eat watermelons with salt? Martin Schneider, a frequent traveller to Japan, told Quora: “Adding a bit of salt to any sweet dish will cause additional taste buds (the ones for ‘salty’) to fire when that food is in your mouth. If the dose is right, you won’t taste much of the actual salt – instead the taste signal level will make the sweet signal even more intense for your brain.”

Martin points out that watermelons are a seasonal food in Japan, almost always consumed on hot summer days. Therefore, if you’ve been sweating, your body will crave salt, and that will make eating a watermelon extra satisfying.

Other Quora users say that watermelon and salt is also a popular combination in Vietnam. And Amit Kaushik suggests “try it the Indian way for an even better taste: sprinkle some black salt and chat masala on your melon.”

Out of the box
It’s also possible to find watermelons in Japan which are shaped like cubes or hearts and pictures of these are popular on Instagram. Wikipedia reveals that cube watermelons were intended to fit more compactly into fridges and were invented by a graphic designer called Tomoyuki Ono in 1978.

How do they get their shape? Well, apparently the melons are grown in boxes and take the shape of the container. But to my dismay, Wikipedia says they taste horrible. “To retain the proper shape, cube melons must be harvested before they are ripe, rendering them inedible.” What a shame!

It is of course easy to take the flesh out of an ordinary round melon and cut it into attractive shapes such as hearts or cubes. I think I’ll do that next time I get one in Japan but I’m not planning to douse the fruit in salt.

Sadly, watermelon season seems a long way off at the moment. I am locked down in Europe, with no immediate opportunity to fly back to Japan. For now, I’ll have to manage my cravings. I’m dreaming of a real feast when the crisis is over, if not this summer, then hopefully the next.