Melania’s the real enemy in the battle over shoes

A group of frustrated women from Japan have won worldwide support for their campaign against the pressure to wear high heeled shoes to work.

They have submitted a petition to the Japanese government, asking for relief from the uncomfortable footwear.

The petition gained more than 26,000 signatures and the issue has struck a chord with women from many other countries, who claim they’re also under similar pressure at work.

Kicking off

For example, Summer Brennan wrote a piece in the Guardian titled: “Listen to Japan’s women: high heels need kicking out of the workplace.”

And Holly Thomas wrote an article for CNN entitled: “I don’t wear high heels for anyone but me. Got that, boss?”

The domestic Japanese media have given the campaign a name: KuToo.

That has a strong echo of the MeToo campaign which highlights harassment in the workplace. KuToo is a play on two Japanese words; kutsu, meaning shoes, and kutsuu, meaning pain.

The whole thing started with an idea from Yumi Ishikawa, who like me is a freelance writer. I admire her success in getting so much media attention.

Legal footing

But the story is not quite what it seems, especially in the way it’s been interpreted by the international press.

There is no law in Japan decreeing that women should wear high heels to work.

They do so because they are following a strong social convention. To break the habit might create disapproval but it won’t land you in prison. In most professional situations, dress customs are quite strong in Japan but they are never legally enforced.

The Japanese government does not decide what people wear, so petitioning the government over the issue of shoes is a gesture designed to grab attention, rather than a meaningful political campaign.

I therefore felt rather sorry for Japan’s Health and Labour Minister Takumi Nemoto when he was put on the spot on this topic during a parliamentary committee meeting.

According to Kyodo news, he said that: “It is socially accepted as something that falls within the realm of being occupationally necessary and appropriate.”

That seems to me to be a carefully worded response to a trap question.

However, the press decided to present poor Mr Nemoto the enemy to Ms Ishikawa. Many stories appeared with his picture, stating that the government was fighting back against the KuToo campaign. Blame was laid at the feet of male politicians such as Mr Nemoto.

First Lady

However, another more powerful enemy of the sensible shoe brigade has also been making headlines.

When America’s First Lady Melania Trump stepped off a helicopter in Tokyo during her recent trip to Japan she wore a pair of ostentatious and expensive high heels.

Her outfit was photographed and analysed.

I found a wonderful description of the shoes on Footwear News,

“For footwear, the first lady went with soaring navy Christian Louboutin’s Agneska pumps. The shoes boast an almond toe, low vamp and curvy counter that shows off the sides of the foot, with a mid-heel and a pointed silhouette. The brand describes the shoes as “sensual, steeped in 1970s allure.” Set on a 4-inch heels, they retail for $695 on Nordstrom.com.”

If the First Lady uses high heels to emphasise her status and power, other women will be tempted to try them on for size, too – even if the kutsu feel a bit kutsuu.

And I doubt that Mrs Trump will worry about the KuToo petition next time she’s looking through her wardrobe, trying to decide what outfit to wear to impress the world.

Japan has flattered Trump but Xi gets the red carpet next


Donald Trump loves to be flattered, so he must have been delighted with the abject pandering he received on his recent visits to Japan and the United Kingdom.

The Japanese were the first to roll out the red carpet. President Trump enjoyed a round of golf with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a trip to see the Sumo wrestlers and a meeting with Emperor Naruhito.

Japan’s business elite gave him an especially warm welcome and he flattered them in return. According to the Nikkei, he called them “the greatest business leaders in the world.”

Mr Trump has a special place in his heart for Masayoshi Son – the boss of SoftBank – whom he received with a warm embrace.

Mr Trump urged Mr Son and the other business leaders to increase their investment in the United States.

Divided loyalties

However, Softbank and the other companies also have extensive business interests in China, so that leaves them mixed loyalties. Even if they are inclined to be pro-American, they don’t want to upset the Chinese and are therefore concerned about Mr Trump’s burgeoning trade war with China.

China’s President Xi Jinping will travel to Tokyo later this month and the Japense will warmly welcome him, just as they have welcomed President Trump.

The Times newspaper noted in an editorial: “It would not be wise of Mr Abe to goad Mr Trump on further against China, even though the temptation is to try to use this as a way of glossing over Japan’s own difficulties with trade imbalances with the United States. A trade war on a global scale would be disastrous and Japan would not be immune.”

Royal welcome

In London, Mr Trump met business leaders at a breakfast hosted by Prime MInister Theresa May and the Queen’s son, the Duke of York.

Mr Trump offered a free trade deal between Britain and the US following the Brexit and claimed it would more than replace what Britain might lose from its loss of trade with Europe.

The Director of the British Chamber of Commerce Adam Marshall was not convinced.

He told the BBC: “Trade with the US trade accounts for about 15 percent of the UK’s total world trade and European trade is about three times that size. So British business are quite clear that they can already trade quite successfully with the US but they’re really worried about their trade with Europe.”

The US view

In America itself, Mr Trump seems to have maintained the support of many leading business figures, despite his disruptive approach.

James Lewis from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington told the BBC “people like the tax cuts and they like parts of the trade war, as well as the general direction of the economy. Most American companies think they are doing pretty well, despite all the irritations and the disturbances.”

A strong US economy – as well as a stable security alliance – are crucially important to both Japan and the United Kingdom.

For now, their leaders have decided that flattering Donald Trump furthers those goals, so they put on a big smile, sometimes through gritted teeth.

When he flies home though, there’s time to reflect that both countries’ relationships with the United States are significantly unbalanced politically and under Trump, somewhat precarious.

On the ball with manga soccer hero Captain Tsubasa

This week I had an encounter with one of Japan’s best known illustrators of manga books, Yōichi Takahashi.

He’s the author of a highly successful manga about soccer called Captain Tsubasa.

Mr Takahashi started drawing the character in 1981 and it has gone on to sell more than seven million copies, as well as being turned into a hugely popular television series, which appeals across the generations in Japan.

It is even a hit in China – something of a surprise, given the rivalry between the countries in many fields, including the football pitch.

On the ball

“I wanted to tell a story about a boy who has great ambition and achieves his goals,” Mr Takahashi says of his manga’s hero, Tsubasa Ozora. “Soccer is a team sport but the rules are quite flexible so that allows for a certain freedom of expression,” he says.

The pictures portray the boy in athletic poses as he plays passionate football. The manga helped spread the popularity of the sport in Japan, leading to the formation of the J-League in 1992.

Captain Tsubasa has been published in French, Spanish and Italian. The French player Zinedine Zidane – who now plays at Real Madrid – claims that as a boy, he was inspired to play football because of the comic.

Rather surprisingly, though, the manga has not been published in English yet – although you can buy a quite cool T-shirt showing its hero!

Hope in Syria

An Arabic version of the manga was recently distributed to children living in refugee camps in Syria, as part of an effort to lift their spirits.
“The situation in Syria is terrible – so terrible that I think it stops kids from dreaming. But it’s their dreams that one day will make Syria good again,” says Obada Kassoumah, who translated the manga into Arabic.
“I wish I could just give them a little bit of hope and make them believe that yes, they can have dreams,” Mr Obada told the BBC.

Wings of desire

But why is the boy called Tsubasa?

“In Japanese tsubasa means wings – so it’s a way to show children they can grown their own wings and chase their dreams,” explains Mr Takahashi.

In the many years since he started drawing the series, he has sometimes considered bringing it to a close and moving onto other projects. “But then Captain Tsubasa comes to me in my dreams and asks me if I can give him another chance to let him play again. How can I let him down when he makes such a request?” he laughs.

British Museum

Yōichi Takahashi was speaking at the British Museum, which is currently showing the largest exhibition of manga ever held outside Japan.

The pictures include a number of works by Takahashi, as well as drawings by many other illustrators, alongside the older works of art which inspired them.

As I mentioned in my blog last week, stepping into the British Museum to see the pictures enables one to appreciate them in a deep way and to share one’s pleasure with others.

The Citi exhibition Manga will run from 23 May to 26 August 2019 in the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery at the British Museum.

Sea monster ice cream and the resentment at our rudeness

Why is it seen as rude to eat snacks, such as barbequed squid, while walking around?

Well, for the polite Japanese, walking and eating at the same time is “a big no no” according to the writer Mercedes Hutton, who’s done a nice article on this topic in this week’s South China Morning Post.

Mercedes claims that visitors to Japan are causing offence through our rude behaviour with food.

Our problem is that we apparently try to do two things at once – eating and walking – and this grieves our hosts, in places such as Kyoto’s Nishiki Market and Senso-ji, in Tokyo.

Mindful eating

According to Mercedes, we foreigners are plainly not following the principle of “Ikkai ichi dousa”, which essentially means “ do one thing at a time”.

She writes: “This is a fundamental tenet of Japanese philosophy that promotes the dedication of particular attention to each aspect of our lives. Whether strolling along Takeshita-dori, in Harajuku, or savouring a Hokkaido soft-serve ice cream, every activity benefits from being singularly focused upon; do both at once and neither can be enjoyed to their full potential.”

While I am all in favour of mindful eating, I wonder what the social rules are when it comes to barbecue squid.

Monster vs ice cream

This treat, known in Japanese as ikayaki, is often sold at outdoor festivals, especially in the summer.

It’s served on a stick so it looks like a cross between an ice cream and a sea monster.

Although it’s very chewy, it tastes delicious. But it’s almost impossible to eat politely and cleanly with chopsticks – or even a knife and fork.

That means scoffing it down while standing up – perhaps while enjoying fireworks or watching a spooky dance aimed at entertaining ghosts, known as obon.

No one has ever given me instructions on how to eat barbequed squid, so I assume that the etiquette is this: it’s OK to eat it standing up but not while moving around. Stay in one place and throw the stick away afterwards – and probably aim to clean one’s face as soon as possible!

Too polite

Mercedes notes in her piec that the Japanese probably won’t tell you this advice for fear of causing offence.

She concludes that this suggests “Japan has a problem with politeness.”

A more direct approach, she feels, would help avoid the simmering resentment caused by our bad table manners.

She suggests we follow the locals’ lead and hang onto our waste until it can be properly disposed of.

She says: “Doing so not only saves face for the long-suffering Japanese, it also helps to give tourists a better rep at attractions on the verge of being overwhelmed by visitors (masticating or otherwise), which can only be a good thing.”

What is the Japanese army doing in Egypt?

Japanese soldiers are taking up positions in Egypt.

Admittedly, it is not a large army. Only two officers are going there, for now.

But it’s a significant point because for many people, sending soldiers to foreign countries in any capacity goes against the pacifist spirit of Japan’s constitution.

In fact, it’s rather controversial to even call them soldiers or an army – they are members of Self Defence Force and their job is to defend the Japanese homeland.

Change of approach

The journalist Jeffrey Hornung explores the implications of the Egyptian deployment in an excellent article Foreign Policy magazine.

He says the men will join the Multinational Force & Observers (MFO) which monitors the cease-fire between Israel and Egypt.

(At least I am assuming they are men – although I was told the other day that gender equality is high on the agenda of the Self Defence Forces, so they could be female officers.)

So is this another example of the constitution being ignored?

As Foreign Policy points out, Japan has dispatched troops to work with U.N.-controlled peacekeeping operations nine times.

Abe’s plan

When it comes to the future of the Self Defence Force, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has two clear goals.

Firstly, he wants to maintain a solid alliance with the United States.

He also wants to the reform of the constitution in order to change the status of the Self Defence Force into an army with the capacity to fight internationally.

On that point he is running out of time.

Political battle

Constitutional change requires a majority in parliament, which should be possible, given the dominance of Mr Abe’s LDP party in both houses of the Diet. However, it also needs agreement through a referendum. Public opinion is divided on the issue, so it is doubtful that the government will press for a vote it could end up losing. Mr Abe’s term in office must conclude by September 2021.

Japan’s former enemies, China and South Korea, oppose a constitutional change which would empower the military, due to their bitter memories of being attacked and occupied. Japan will not wish to upset its neighbors, just as it hosts the Olympic Games next year.

Furthermore, it is inconceivable that Japan would reopen the debate about developing its own nuclear weapons, given the delicate relations with its neighbours.

Mr Abe recently told his party convention that the LDP “will lead concrete discussion towards proposing amendments to the constitution.”

Such discussions are likely to be as far as he can take the matter before he departs, almost certainly to be replaced as prime minister.

But quietly, behind the scenes the status of the Japanese armed forces is changing.

As Jeffrey Hornung puts it in Foreign Policy “While it may not seem like much now, we may be witnessing the start of a different kind of new era for Japan.”

Peacemaker or Pacifist: What was Emperor Akihito’s view on war?

I have been very moved by watching the abdication of Emperor Akihito this week. The media coverage has reminded us of his deep commitment to peace.
However, I’m wondering if it’s appropriate to call him a “pacifist” – a word which appeared in many foreign correspondents’ reports, including one by the BBC’s Laura Bicker, who said: “As pacifists, the Emperor and his wife have travelled the world to help heal Japan’s wartime reputation.”
Expression of remorse
This refers to the way in which the Emperor has expressed deep remorse for Japan’s invasion and occupation of parts of Asia. This was acknowledged by the spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry and the South Korean President Moon Jae-In, who each praised the Emperor for his peacemaking efforts.
Indeed, the Emperor’s final words before he abdicated this week were: “I pray for peace around the world.”
But is praying for peace a pacifist thing to do?
What is pacifism?
Pacifism covers a spectrum of views. For some it means the total rejection of all violence. For others, it means an impassioned quest to resolve disputes peacefully.
The religious organisation the Quakers puts it his way: “Pacifism is not simply the refusal to fight: it includes working actively to bring about or preserve peace, by removing the causes of conflict.”
Japan has a constitution which is pacifist in spirit. It was drawn up by the Americans after the Second World War and bans Japan from ever again amassing an army which could launch an attack like the one on Pearl Harbour.
Ever since, there has been a great deal of compromise. Japan now has a large and well-armed Self Defence Force. Furthemore, the United States has a duty to defend Japan if it is attacked and could even use nuclear weapons in the event of war.
Constitutional revision
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would like to revise the constitution but time is running to do that out before he retires in 2021.
In the view of NPR reporter Anthony Kuhn: “Akihito’s pacifist views are believed to have created simmering, if unspoken, tensions with a government that has tacked to the political right and wants to cast off postwar restraints on its military, government and monarchy.”
The NPR piece also quotes a political scientist named Koichi Nakano from Sophia University in Tokyo who says: “Akihito has in some ways become a surprising sort of democrat, a surprising pacifist, who is not necessarily feeling comfortable with the government of the day and that sort of mistrust is mutual.”
In Professor Nakano’s view, Prime Minister Abe would like to upgrade the emperor to head of state rather than a symbol of the state.
Next generation
That nuanced debate about the role of the Emperor will no doubt continue into the next generation. Emperor Naruhito did not touch on it in his inaugural speech. “[Akihito] showed profound compassion through his own bearing,” he said.
“I swear that I will reflect deeply on the course followed by the Emperor Emeritus … and fulfil my responsibility as the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people of Japan.”

Meet the monster that devours dreams

I learned this week that Japanese people frequently encounter “wild, violent beasts” in their dreams.

These monsters leave a deep impression and are more troublesome than other nightmares about school, repeatedly failing at some challenge or being paralysed by fear.

I think I’ve probably had nightmares about all these crises, although I must admit my memories are hazy. So that raises the question; what, if anything, is distinctly Japanese about these kinds of dreams?

The American dream

A study found that compared to the Japanese, Americans are more likely to dream about being locked up, losing a loved one, finding money, being inappropriately dressed or nude, or encountering an insane person.

All this research was presented by a reporter called Ben Healy in an article for the Atlantic magazine entitled “Bad Dreams Are Good – how your night life prepares you for tomorrow.”

Given that the Atlantic is quite an old fashioned, rather learned magazine,
I was quite surprised by some of the racy information which appeared in the piece.

It says that eight percent of our dreams are about sex – a rate that holds for both women and men. However women are twice as likely as men to have sexual dreams about a public figure while men are much more likely to dream about multiple sexual partners.

Animal dreams

The Atlantic also informs us that “the dreamiest member of the animal kingdom is the platypus which logs up to eight hours of REM sleep per day.”

Platypus look to me like something out of a dream, as their heads and feet appear to have come from a duck, their tales look like those of a beaver and they are covered in fur, like an otter.
They also lay eggs and have venomous feet. According to the wildlife TV presenter David Attenborough, when naturalists first showed pictures of them to incredulous people in the 19th century, there was a widespread view that the platypus was unreal.
Dream Eater
Even stranger than the platypus is a mythical creature which lives in Japan called a baku. It has an elephant’s trunk, rhinoceros’ eyes, an ox’s tail, and a tiger’s paws. (I thought it was Japanese but apparently its origin is China.)
A child having a nightmare in Japan will wake up and repeat three times, “Baku-san, come eat my dream.” Legends say that the baku will come into the child’s room and devour the bad dream, allowing the child to go back to sleep peacefully.
Loss of hope
However, we are warned that calling to the baku must be done sparingly, because if he remains hungry after eating one’s nightmare, he may also devour one’s hopes and desires, leaving one to live an empty life.
I am pleased to say that for the most part, these horrible consequences are not dwelled upon. Pictures of baku are often drawn on children’s pillows in Japan and China to promote a good night’s sleep.
With that, I wish you sweet dreams, whichever country you are from.
***

Is speaking Japanese more tricky than making marmalade?

I have a mixture of curiosity and jealousy when it comes to the British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

I wonder how, as a very senior British politician, he finds the time to practice the Japanese language?

It’s an impressive achievement, especially as he’s married to a Chinese person and has a young family.

Marmalade lessons

Mr Hunt used to live in Japan and at one point had a job trying to import British marmalade – a business which ended in failure, apparently, but which he claims was a useful learning experience.

This week he was back in Tokyo and paid a call on a high school in Hibiya.

The BBC’s Tokyo Correspondent Rupert Wingfield-Hayes went to the school with him said that Mr Hunt gave a speech in extremely fluent Japanese and then took questions from the children about Brexit.

“He certainly did a very good of charming them and I think the Japanese are very flattered that Britain has a foreign minister who speaks such good Japanese. He has a good public image here,” said Rupert.

Apology due

But Rupert also said that the Foreign Secretary may need to apologise for a letter which was sent to the Japanese government in February, in which the British urged the Japanese to get a move on with trade talks post-Brexit.

“Time is of the essence” was one of the phrases used.

However, as Lianna Brinded explains in an excellent piece on Yahoo Finance, Prime Minister May has tried to pass the Brexit deal through parliament three times, and each time it was massively rejected by politicians within her own party and opposition MPs.
The Yahoo report points out that Japan is the third largest economy in the world and is one of the UK’s biggest investors. Japanese companies employ 150,000 people in Britain, and trade between the two countries totalled £28bn in the past year, according to the government.
Bewildered
The Japanese are now “bewildered” by Brexit, according to the former chief executive of UK Trade and Investment.

Sir Andrew told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme: “The Japanese are really very disappointed about Brexit, probably of all the countries in the world, they are the ones which have reacted worst to Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.”

Sir Andrew Cahn said that foreign secretary Hunt has a huge task on his hands, as Japanese firms use the UK as a gateway to the EU. This would be “significantly closed” if the UK left on World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, he warned.
So, although I am jealous of Mr Hunt’s language skills and his VIP treatment in Tokyo, I am not the least bit jealous of him when it comes to the arduous task of justifying the Brexit to a key trade partner.

The disappearing salaryman

Do you sometimes feel sorry for the poor Japanese salarymen, slaving away selflessly for the good of their corporation and never allowed to be creative or take risks? If so, perhaps your pity for the poor souls is based on an outdated stereotype. Nowadays in Japan, entrepreneurialism is valued – although old ways of thinking die hard, as this week’s guest blogger Lucy Kikuchi explains.

There is a prevailing stereotype about the men who work in Japan.

They are often presented as conservative, risk-averse salarymen who sacrifice their own happiness for the good of the company. This is a contrast with the stereotype of the maverick westerner, who voices his opinion and follows his dreams.

These cliches appeared in a news story by Bloomberg, when it covered the major deal struck between Panasonic and Tesla earlier this year. Panasonic has begun manufacturing batteries for Tesla Model 3. The piece began, “They’re the oddest of couples: Elon Musk – the free-wheeling co-founder of Tesla Inc – and Kazuhiro Tsuga, the buttoned-up salaryman who runs Japan’s Panasonic Corp.”

Bloomberg suggested the two businessmen are borne from different psychologies. In Japan, ‘success’ is synonymous with ‘security’. Entrepreneurship on the other hand is risky; risk is the polar opposite of security.

The birth of the salaryman

After Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II, companies like Panasonic helped propel Japan into the modern era. To gain employment with a company like that was to enjoy a lifetime of job security. Toyota, Sony, Panasonic – these were the companies to aim for. Mr Tsuga joined Panasonic in April 1979 (at the time, Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd.) after graduating from Osaka University. He is the epitome of Japan’s traditional notion of success.

Then there is Tesla, founded by Elon Musk.

Musk is one of the ‘PayPal mafia’ and was a young millionaire thanks to his startup Zip2. From linking online searchers to businesses then disrupting banking in his early twenties, he now plans to save humanity by sending us to Mars courtesy of SpaceX. Some of the risks he has taken may prove to be unsuccessful, but he succeeded in Silicon Valley when many others floundered as the dot-com bubble burst.

Old and new

One of the things I love best about Japan is how traditional ways exist parallel to high-tech modern life. I’m not sure anywhere else in the world manages to pull this combination off so effortlessly. Many westerners are fascinated by the Geisha who totter through the streets of Kyoto, then they flock to Tokyo as the mecca of everything high-tech. Yet despite the country’s global and long-standing reputation for innovation and high-quality products, it seems that’s not enough to keep Japan globally competitive in the future.

The country can no longer expect the large corporations to fuel innovation, productivity and growth. But if they can’t do this, it means the security of lifetime employment becomes less of a guarantee.

Startup scene

Although Japan’s startup scene is a long way behind that of the US, economic, stagnation is forcing a change.

According to the Nikkei Asian Review, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Stanford University in April 2015, saying he wanted to “soak up all that Silicon Valley has to offer and take the lessons to Japanese.” He also reminded those present that Japan’s largest and most prestigious corporations set the global agenda back in the 1980’s and said that Japan can do this again.

As Mr Abe delivers tax incentives for businesses to invest in venture capital, and finance becoming more readily available to startups. But progress towards a more entrepreneurial culture requires a shift in the psychology of a nation.

More and more successful Japanese entrepreneurs are emerging and they become role models to the younger generation. Some young people believe that they can follow a new career path. Success to them is no longer synonymous with security. Perhaps it means being the fastest to deliver the smartest solution?

There’s never been a better time to take a risk. If Tsuga can do it with Tesla, so can Japan’s next generation.

Lucy Kikuchi lived in Tokyo for six years working as a translator both on the agency-side and in-house for a Japanese manufacturer. She now lives with her family in the UK and is married to a self-employed Japanese businessman – not a salaryman!