Burgers on the menu for Japan’s new era

I’ve often wondered why in a land of beautiful food, like Japan, people want to eat burgers and chips.

This week, I am especially wondering why anyone would want to eat a burger which weighs three kilograms and was apparently created with patriotic pride as Japan enters a new era of “beautiful harmony.”

A chef called Patrick Shimada has made the enormous burger using beef made from Wagyu cattle, which according to legend, enjoy drinking beer and receiving massages from their human masters, in order to keep their bodies tender.

The meat is served between gold-dusted buns and is also “topped with foie gras and freshly shaved black truffles.”

It costs an eye-watering US$900.

“Myself in a bun”

Chef Shimada workers at the Oak Door steakhouse in Tokyo’s Roppongi district, near my former home.

He says he created the burger to mark the crowning of the new Japanese emperor, Crown Prince Naruhito. It’s the sort of rather crazy story about Japan which the media love and it’s obviously been stoked up by a clever press officer.

The press release came with some nice pictures of Mr Shimada preparing the dish, along with quotes, such as: “We wanted to do something to celebrate the new emperor and a new era for Japan.”

Mr Shimada, a fourth generation Japanese American, said: “It also gets me more in touch with my Japanese roots.

“Doing this through an American-style burger using Japanese ingredients – it’s kind of like myself in a bun.”
MOS burger

I actually think that the food in fast food restaurants in Japan is nicer than in many other countries and the service is great. My personal favourite is the Japanese chain, MOS Burger.  According to its website, its corporate goal is to “make people happy through food.” It says it provides “safe, healthy and delicious food” with “cordial service and a smile.”

MOS Burger is more Japanese in atmosphere than the big players, McDonalds and Burger King, which are in the process of are opening yet more restaurants in Japan. McDonalds already has around three thousand branches around the country.

It might seem odd to open more, given Japan’s falling birthrate and changing dining habits. However, according to the business newspaper the Nikkei, the hamburger business is one of the few bright spots in an otherwise bleak restaurant industry.

McDonald’s aims to open as many as two hundred new branches in the next three years and Burger King aims to triple its Japanese locations by 2022.

The Nikkei also says the burger joints are hoping to target the many tourists who visit Japan, including large numbers of visitors from other Asian countries.

These people, says the Nikkei, include “a steady stream of fresh customers looking for familiar flavours in an unfamiliar land.”

Unruly, exotic and strange. Is that the Japanese view of foreigners?

Are Western people regarded as exotic, funny or unruly by the Japanese?

I’ve been considering that question since reading an excellent editorial in the English-language Japan Times by Elenor Sezar.

She’s disappointed by Japanese TV.

“The exaggerated image of people from other cultures is maintained by stereotyping and caricaturing. Foreigners are reduced to others – the ones who are not us.”

Invisible presence

At least foreigners have some presence on television, whereas in other media we’re almost completely invisible.

It’s rare to see a foreign character in a Japanese film, unless they are an American soldier or an English language teacher.

This is an awfully narrow perspective. It’s a bit like seeing all Japanese women as geishas or all the males as salarymen.

Why did you come to Japan?

Elenor has a bone to pick with the TV show Why did you come to Japan?

It encourages foreign guests to praise Japan’s food, politeness or cherry blossoms.

Elenor thinks that it embodies everything that is wrong with the depiction of non-Japanese people.

“Close contact with non-Japanese people in Japan, while increasing, remains a rarity for a majority of the Japanese population, despite a rise in tourists from overseas (their numbers reached 31 million last year).

That means most Japanese people’s knowledge of non-Japanese has been left almost entirely in the hands of the mass media – and the results have not been good,” she says.

Banning foreigners

Perhaps this explains why some Japanese attractions are refusing entry to foreigners.

The Daily Telegraph claims that “a small number of unruly visitors are threatening to ruin things for everyone.”

It reveals that the Nanzo-in Buddhist temple in Sasaguri, Fukuoka has banned groups of foreign tourists due to their bad behaviour. (It doesn’t say what they did wrong – or which countries they are from.)

I have never previously thought of that temple in Fukuoka as being one of the great “must-see” attractions of Japan. But it is frustrating to find the famous temples in Kyoto overrun with tourists, both from Japan and abroad.

Selling rubbish

In my view, it is not poor behaviour by the visitors which is the problem.

The problem is that almost no consideration has been given as to how to preserve the temples’ special, holy atmospheres.

Throngs of tourists are preyed upon by vendors selling greasy food, sugary drinks and tacky souvenirs.

And the temple staff – who are supposed to be nurturing our spiritual growth – fleece visitors by selling lucky charms to make us money, pass exams or find a lover.

Many of my Japanese friends buy this rubbish with a smile on their faces. However, they have never shown me a shred of evidence that their lucky charm have brought them any real good fortune.

Why do they tolerate this tawdry trade? I say: “Overturn the tables and throw these charlatans out of your temples!”

If I share my view on Why did you come to Japan? I am sure there would be consequences.

But if I am banned from a few temples as a result, I doubt my spiritual health will suffer.

Trump and Kim have stopped talking, so things may be safer for Japan

Many people in Japan were worried when Donald Trump walked out of the recent meeting in Hanoi with the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-Un.

Previously, the two leaders had threatened to start a war – an unimaginable horror for Japan. Yet peace is still holding and the experts I’ve met say the summit may have a silver lining.

Positive Step

Professor Hyun Bang Shin from the London School of Economics told me: “The Hanoi summit was a failure only if you approach it from the point of view that success means an agreement signed by the two leaders.

“That obviously didn’t happen but I think this meeting will turn out to be one of many stops along the road towards the eventual goal, which is a positive outcome for all the parties involved, including South Korea, North Korea and the US.”

Professor Shin told me that after the Hanoi summit, North Korea’s propaganda did not angrily denounced the US, as it has often done in the past. This eaves the way open further talks, with South Korea as mediator.

Abe’s mission

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to join the negotiations. He demands verifiable checks on claims of disarmament and also hopes to raise the issue of Japanese citizens who were abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s.

Professor Takako Hikotani from Columbia University told me: “Japan is being left out of the loop in the current negotiations because North Korea wants to talk directly to the United States. As a result, Japan’s fate rests with how well things go between Trump and Kim.”

She is pleased that the leaders didn’t make a deal focussed on North Korea’s intercontinental missiles, which target the US, at the risk of overlooking the threat posed to Japan by medium-range rockets. In the end, the US showed no compromise on either front.

Weakened Triangle

For decades, South Korea, Japan and the United States have formed a security triangle, focussed on containing the North Korean threat. However, the US and South Korea recently scaled back their joint military exercises. There is also tension because of a poor diplomatic relationship between South Korea and Japan.

There is angry rhetoric from South Korea about Japan’s occupation in the last century. Japan’s government has responded by firmly stating that no more apologies are required.

Professor Hikotani says. “Of course, there are often ups and downs in the relationship but normally there is a way to seperate the political disputes from the issue of military cooperation.”

Political change

Professor Shin says: “Japan has been ruled by the same political elite since the end of the Second World War, while South Korea has democratised. It seems as though they are unable to adjust to the new geopolitical order.”

Professor Shin notes that there is strong resistance within Korea to Prime Minister Abe’s plan to change Japan’s constitution, so that its armed forces can fight abroad. But he says: “If there is any kind of war on the peninsula there would be complete annihilation of both countries and South Korea – not Japan – is the most vulnerable place.”

Chinese people are puzzled by the strange emotions of the Japanese

Why do people from China and people from Japan seem to express their emotions in such different ways?

That was the question I posed in one of my blog’s last month titled When China smiles Japan shows its dark side. I’m delighted that the renowned sociologist Baozhen Luo has offered a really interesting response.

Here’s her view. I look forward to reading more responses!

Guest blogger

Duncan, I thoroughly enjoyed your recent blog and as always, you pose a thought-provoking question concerning the emotional expression of people from Asia.

This is a question to which I have actually given quite some thought. The polarised emotional display of the Japanese (explosive expression of deep emotions in sharp contrast to extreme formality) and the more balanced approach to disclosing emotions by the Chinese (extravagant celebration of Chinese New Year and solemn reflection of the humiliation China experienced in the past 150 years).

Tokyo shock

When I first visited Japan in 2013, I was so struck by the drastic contrast between the atmosphere in 8am in Shinjuku Subway Station and 4pm at Akihabara. I stayed in a hotel next to Shinjuku station.

The first morning, I felt this deep oppressive feeling as I looked down to the station in the morning seeing armies of Japanese working men wearing exactly the same outfit – a white shirt and a pair of black khaki pants moving like ants – emotionless and voiceless.

“I felt this deep oppressive feeling as I looked down to the station in the morning seeing armies of Japanese working men” Baozhen Luo

In the afternoon, when I went to Akihabara, I felt another deep feeling of oppression as I witnessed the long queues of men waiting to get the autograph of an AV star and loud music and flashy images in the video game stores.

Chinese thinking

Chinese people on the other hand seem to have a relatively more balanced display of the negative and the positive of their emotional world.

I think it has a lot to do with how Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism – the three pillars of the Chinese people’s belief-system has shaped our views of humanity, the nature, and the universe. All three belief systems place a strong focus on well-roundedness; Taoism focuses on the balance between Yin and Yang, Confucianism emphasises moderation, and Buddhists strive for the middle way.

Martin Jacques, a British Sinologist, in his book When China Rules the World, has made some really insightful comparisons between the Japanese and Chinese sensibilities, and how the different manifestation of Confucianism and the different paths of modernisation shaped the national psyches in these two countries

The spread of ideas

Although Japan adopted Confucianism from China around the 6th century, Japanese Confucianism is drastically different from Chinese Confucianism.

The former laid greater emphasis on hierarchy and loyalty whereas benevolence is a core value for the latter, which allows a much more flexible version of rationality, thus more space for diverse emotions.

The polarised emotional display of the Japanese may also be a reflection of the underlying national psyche of insecurity and inferiority, a historical result of living in the shadows of Chinese civilisation for over fourteen centuries and the Western civilisation since Meiji Restoration.

About the writer: Dr. Baozhen Luo is an associate professor in Sociology at Western Washington University. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Nanjing University and her doctoral degree in Sociology from Georgia State University. Her current research examines China and its people’s presence on the global stage, politically, economically, and culturally. In addition to producing scholarly works, she also hosted a column called “Four Dimension Channel” (四维频道) discussing a variety of social issues in China at www.thepaper.cn (澎湃新闻) based in Shanghai. She has also written for Foreign Affairs and is a regular commentator for China’s Global Television Network.


Gay marriage challenges Japan’s view of love and law





There is a lively debate in Japan about whether two people of the same sex can get married.

Some gay and lesbian couples have held wedding ceremonies and a few local and governments have offered legal recognition to same-sex partnerships.

However, that is not the same thing as a legally recognised marriage.

Campaign for change

Earlier this month, a group of campaigners tried to use the courts to change the situation.

Five lesbian and eight gay couples filed lawsuits across the country seeking damages of 1m yen (£7,000/ US$9,000) for each person for being denied the same legal rights as heterosexual couples, according to the AFP Agency.

“Why don’t we even have the simple choice of whether or not to get married?” asks Yoko Ogawa, who has been in a partnership with a woman for 25 years.

The article explains that Japan’s constitution stipulates that “marriage shall be only with the mutual consent of both sexes” and the government says this means same-sex marriage is “not foreseen” in the constitution or civil law.

Of Love and Law

This week, I raised this point with film director Hikaru Toda, who has made a fascinating documentary called Of Love and Law.

The film focuses on two openly gay lawyers, Kazu and Fumi, who are campaigning for legal recognition for their own marriage and those of their clients.

I asked Toda San if Kazu and Fumi believe that constitutional change is required before gay marriage is legalised. She replied that this is not their opinion and said that many constitutional experts agree with them.

Their idea is that the constitution can be interpreted in a new way, rather than being rewritten.

Constitutional Law

Japan has not revised its constitution since it was written by the American occupiers at the end of the Second World War.

To change it is an arduous task, requiring massive political effort and a public referendum. The Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has committed himself to go down this route in order to revise a section of the constitution which relates to security and defence.

In doing so, Mr Abe hopes to change Japan’s Self Defence Force into an army with the capacity to fight internationally. It is a divisive issue and a constant source of debate within the Japanese media.

As the film Of Love and Law illustrates, it even brings people out onto the streets in protest. So clearly constitutional change involves a lot of argument and protest, both of which make the Japanese feel uncomfortable.

Gentle approach

Social change in Japan usually occurs when there’s a general agreement about the best way forward.

It therefore makes sense that the lawyers who want to change the status of marriage are seeking to avoid unnecessary confrontation.

And given that social attitudes towards homosexuality are rapidly changing – particularly among young people in Japan – I expect that they’ll find widespread support for their idea within a generation.

Japan’s Emperor called upon to apologise to South Korea

Events which took place before and during the Second World War are continuing to cause political tension in East Asia.

South Korean and Japan are raking through painful memories of the period when Korea was occupied by Japan, especially the treatment of so-called comfort women who worked in brothels, serving soldiers from the invading Imperial army.

Wave of grief

In January this year, a former Korean “comfort woman” named Kim Bok-dong died at the age of 92. Thousands of people joined a large memorial event in Seoul. Some mourners held up banners demanding that “Japan must apologise.” A prominent South Korean politician demanded an apology from Emperor Akihito himself, who is due to abdicate at the end of April.

The tone of the protests dismayed the Japanese establishment. In Tokyo, the Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshihide Suga, said the politician’s comments were “deplorable.”

Sympathy and solidarity

Since President Moon Jae-In took office in 2017, he has discovered that showing sympathy with survivors of the Japanese occupation boosts his popularity, particularly among nationalists.

It has also struck a chord with many Korean women. Campaigners draw parallels between the comfort women issue and the current debate about exploitation, highlighted by the Me Too movement. They say that the mistreatment of vulnerable women needs to be publicly challenged, whether it occurred in the last century or is still happening today.

The tactic is to publicly shame men for their misdeeds. In Korea, this often leads to rhetoric which portrays Japanese men as unrepentant aggressors. In the minds of many Koreans, there is little distinction between the actions of the wartime enemy and contemporary Japanese politicians, who are predominantly male.

Statue battle

The issue gains international attention through a campaign to erect statues of comfort women, portraying them as young victims of foreign rapists. In the past few years, the Korean government has helped pay for statues in many sensitive locations – including near the Japanese embassy in Seoul – as well as in San Francisco and in the Philippines.

The South Koreans are also applying financial pressure on Japan. Last year, the Supreme Court ordered Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal to pay reparations to Koreans who were forced to work during the period of Japanese colonial rule.

Japan insists it legally settled all claims relating to the war and occupation – including the comfort women issue – many years ago. The official view was outlined in a letter to the New York Times in February. It stated: “Japan has extended its sincere apologies and remorse to the former comfort women on many occasions.”

Hard to forget

Many people in Japan would now like the issue to go away, especially members of the business community. South Korea and Japan also common interests. For example, the famous Korean electronics company LG supplies TV panels to its Japanese counterpart, Sony. LG has warned that if the dispute lingers on, it could disrupt its Asian operations.

However, business leaders cannot do much to calm the anger and resentment which characterises the current mood. It seems likely to simmer for some time to come, despite the many changes which have taken place in the world since the darkest period in East Asia’s recent history.

China smiles while Japan shows its dark side

China and Japan staged major cultural events in London this week and their approaches could hardly have been more different.

The Chinese New Year celebration in Trafalgar Square was an enormous, colourful show, designed for a wide appeal and maximum impact on television.

The Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme presented the dark side of Japan to a select audience of connoisseurs. Its title was intriguing: “People Still Call It Love” Passion, Affection and Destruction in Japanese Cinema.

I enjoyed both events. They emphasised important aspects of the way these two Asian countries see themselves.

Party in the square

China’s New Year party, staged under the famous statue of Lord Nelson, must have cost millions of pounds.

It carried a simple message: make friends with China and the benefits of international trade will flow your way.

I watched singers from the Peking Opera, some well known pop stars and troupes of dancers and drummers.

Belt and Road

Signs beside the stage drew the audience’s attention to the Belt and Road Initiative – China’s ambitious plan to restore the ancient silk trade routes taking goods from East to West. The project stretches all the way to London.

In fact, I moderated a conference about the Belt and Road the University of London last week, where many people expressed concerns about the implications of the project.

But the Chinese party in Trafalgar Square was not about political debate: it was a celebration, designed to show China in the best possible light.

Dark world

It takes less than five minutes to walk from Trafalgar Square to London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, where the Japan film festival took place. It was a completely different world.

I saw eight films over the course of the ten days and was fascinated by all the stories and characters.

The festival was brilliantly curated by Junko Takekawa, Senior Arts Programme Officer at the Japan Foundation. It provided an opportunity to see dramatic representations of many aspects of contemporary Japanese society.

Fighting and screaming

It was particularly interesting to see stories about working class people and rural communities.

The overall tone was dark. Here were the Japanese committing crimes, having affairs, fighting and screaming.

One striking film about sibling rivalry was called Thicker Than Water and showed the tensions between two brothers and two sisters.

After the screening, I asked the director Keisuke Yoshida if Japanese audiences take a visceral pleasure in watching characters express fury and passion on screen, given the taboo on such behaviour in real life.

He replied that the Japanese are patient and tolerant people – but only up to a point. He said that when their self-control is exhausted, they explode.


Was it brave of the Japanese to show this explosive aspect of their character?

Is China ready to get a bit more emotionally intimate with foreign audiences, too?

Perhaps other events will give me a deeper insight into China’s complex society and its people’s emotions.

I also hope I can get close enough to Chinese people to learn how they behave towards each other when they are not putting on a smiling face for foreigners.

Marie Kondo and the stereotypes of Japanese women

“You may be cute on the outside, but inside you really mean business.”

That was the response of an American man who invited the Japanese tidying expert Marie Kondo into his home.

Kevin Friend and his wife Rachel became the stars of a reality TV show made by Netflix about Marie Kondo, which provided an opportunity to notice some cultural gaps between the US and Japan.

But when the process of tidying was complete, Kevin was delighted. “Marie changed my life. It’s just insane how my mentality has changed. There’s a sense of relaxation in just doing all the things that we need to do. There is more time with the kids, especially when I come home from work.

“We’re really happy we’re just looking forward to living this way for the rest of our lives, hopefully.”

Fame and success

Looking at the show, I was struck by the persona Marie Kondo used on camera: cute, yes, but also empathetic and helpful. She didn’t resemble what a Californian American might think of as a business leader. But in fact, she’s now the most famous and successful Japanese woman in the world.

One great media source for business news about Japan is Bloomberg BusinessWeek magazine.

It asserts that Kondo is a bigger celebrity in the US than in Japan. “In the US, the Marie Kondo method has become a how-to for self realisation,” says Satoko Suzuki from Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo. “It is not about cleaning. Cleaning up is about how to help yourself, how to understand yourself and how to develop yourself. Whereas in Japan, it’s really more about tidying up, the process.”

Franchise queen

Bloomberg also explains that apart from her books and television series, Marie Kondo makes money from schooling others. Anyone aspiring to become a tidying consultant must first read her books and then submit photographs of their own homes which have been made immaculate according to her method. Those who want to teach the method further, must also must pay for training which can cost up to $2,700 and an annual fee of $500 to maintain certification.

The magazine implies this is expensive but I am not convinced. Is it a high price to pay to be involved with such a high profile international franchise?

Goodbye CDs

I must admit that I have a bit of a challenge in tidying my possessions, particularly my old CDs.

I love rock music and have assembled a big collection CDs over the years but I don’t play them much now and they are rather cluttering my home.

I recognise that it is time for me to take action but without Marie Kondo standing over me, I am finding my heart is not really in it.

Still, watching her on TV reminds me that I probably need to be more sophisticated in the way I view Japanese women, especially those in leadership roles.

As Kevin Friend observed on Netflix , they may be cute but their inner core is often marked by determination, focus and remarkable patience to ensure a task is completed properly.

What difference would it make if the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meets the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-Un?

Mr Abe said this week he would like such a meeting but he didn’t set any date for it.

Al Jazeera says that the comments come as Mr Kim prepares for a second summit with US President Donald Trump, which is likely to be held towards the end of next month.

Of course, the aim of the talks is to try to make North Korea give up its nuclear weapons programme but the BBC reported that there appears to have been little progress in that area, despite the Trump Kim summit held in Singapore last year .

It quoted a US intelligence report which says that North Korea plans to hold on to at least some of its nuclear weapons, despite the hopes of the Trump administration.

The report explains that North Korea remains “unlikely to give up” its weapon stockpiles and production abilities while it tries to negotiate “partial denuclearization steps to obtain key US and international concessions”.

Having nuclear weapons is seen as “critical to regime survival”, it reads.
Another complex issue for Japan is its relationship with South Korea.

The countries have shared a bitter history since Japan’s 1910-45 colonisation of the Korean peninsula and its use of forced labourers and abuse of ‘comfort women’ – girls and women forced into sex slavery at military brothels – during the second world war.

The conservatives in Japan feel this issue should be laid to rest but the South Korean government often brings it up at international meetings.

In fact, the South Korean foreign minister even used a speech at Davos to call for another international conference on the matter, which further hinders the prospect of reaching a more normal relationship with Japan.

It also stands in the way of the two countries reaching a solid alliance on the best approach to North Korea.

The puzzle of prayer in secular, modern Japan

I am curious about Japanese people’s attitude towards spiritual matters, such as worship and prayer.

Is prayer simply a superstition? Does it aim to persuade the gods to intervene and do magic on earth? Or does it have a deeper purpose?

This week, a charming story appeared on the web about a 70-year-old Japanese woman named Yumiko Campbell, who lived in Australia for many years before returning to Osaka.

Divine reward

According to the Media Project website, Yumiko believes that if she tidies litter from the river near her home in Japan, the gods will reward her – especially if she finds significant objects such as children’s toys.

“We have a super strange religion,” Yumiko told the reporter Meagan Clark.

“We have a super strange religion” Yumiko Campbell

It is true that Japanese religious practice can appear strange to those from Christian societies, especially the United States.

But actually, the rituals would not look particularly strange to people from many Asian countries, where respect for the environment and one’s ancestors are central to religious thinking.

Yumiko leaves a cup of steaming green tea at her mother’s shrine every morning, then rings a bell. She was six years old when her mother died.

Spark Joy

The piece also suggests links between Japanese religion and the best-selling author, Marie Kondo. Her book Spark Joy is about how to achieve serenity through decluttering household junk. It has sold more than five million copies and has been turned into a Netflix series.

The article describes a scene from the series in which Marie Kondo enters the home of an American family, ready to help them tidy up.

“Eyes closed, Kondo leans forward onto her palms, facing backward, then folds her hands in her lap. The guys smile politely in amusement and curiosity. Kondo speaks to them through a translator she brings, who echoes Kondo’s soft, hopeful voice.

“I’d love for you to picture your vision for your home,” she says.

“Communicate that to your home.”

Shinto faith

The article suggests a link to Shintoism – an ancient form of religion in which humans seek to live in harmony with the divine spirits which inhabit everything, even inanimate objects such as volcanoes, rivers and buildings.

“Shintoism, for me, is not particularly a religion in my life, but it is a natural habit in our daily life,” Kondo told a reddit user in 2015. “Shintoism, for Japanese people, is not the same religious feeling as a lot of American people might feel, but is pretty much blended into our daily lifestyle or habits.”

Prayer for 2019

One of the national newspapers in Japan, the Sankei, provided a reminder of this in an article it published on New Year’s Day.

A celebrated calligrapher named Shoko Kanazawa has chosen the symbol for prayer – known in Japanese as inori – as the appropriate character for 2019.

The article explains says: “Prayer is very important for Shoko. She prays every time she begins a new piece of calligraphy. Her mother Yasuko – who has been raising Shoko by herself ever since Shoko’s father passed away when Shoko was just 14 years old – prays constantly, from the time she wakes up until the end of the day.”

I feel moved by those words. To ask questions about theology seems to miss the point. The challenge is to consider what place we give to prayer in our own lives and how that affects our thoughts, behaviour and relationships.