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!

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 to celebrate 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 Shimoda 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 Shimoda, 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 restaurants 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 flavors 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.”

Why 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 polarized 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 civilization for over fourteen centuries and the Western civilization 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.

Please share your views with Baozhen and our community below.

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

The relationship between Japan and its neighbour South Korea is in a mess.

Politicians from the two countries are still disputing events which date back to the first half of the last century, when Japan occupied the Korean Peninsula.

Japan says it’s apologised enough for past misdeeds. South Korea disagrees.

Find out what lies behind the grievances – and why the issue matters so much to the rest of Asia – in this week’s Japan Story blog.

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.

Intimacy

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.