Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Of Bitcoins and Bedsprings

June 9, 2017 and the Japanese government passes into law the Airbnb Act. It isn't actually called that but then again, neither is "Obama-Care". The act allows for the average citizen to register with their local authority and offer out a spare room, sofa or house to paying guests. For roughly half the year these properties can supplement the more traditional venues for a quick vacation and now with no-minimum nights stay requirements. Which, if you dwell on it, is in direct competition to the established hotel and tourist industry and, let's face it, Japan is not too famous for encouraging competition in the face of vested interest. So what's different?

The root cause of seemingly broad support lies in a fundamental problem surrounding the incredible success of the government in marketing Japan as the ultimate oversees tourist destination. And as a result of all the additional bodies, there is a dearth in supply of night-time nests. There simply aren't enough beds to go around. The original target of 20 million inbound tourists by 2020 for the Olympics was blown away by 2015. The target has been raised by the National Tourism Organisation to 40 million by the time they fire the starting pistol to celebrate as the games begin and then after that 60 million penciled in for 2030. And with a reputation for safety, cleanliness, a little peculiarity, reasonable prices and lots to do, it's looking on the cards.

Budget price hotel chains such as APA, with 150 properties across the country (which it utilizes to distribute its publications with a slightly alternative view of Japan's "liberation" of Asia) are growing fast but with twenty million additional slumber parties to accommodate in the space of five years, that's an extra 55,000 heads to rest each night. 365 days a year. One proposal to convert ten thousand Love Hotels, an industry that would appear to be in death spiral as the youth of the country forget how to enjoy themselves, seems to have floundered and so it's private enterprise to the rescue as it were. The Airbnb Act it is. And so no one's complaining as in reality there's more than enough to go round for all. They'll be taking Bitcoin next.







Thursday, July 20, 2017

The aging elves of the Bullet Train


The problem, when it comes to crafting the nose cone of a bullet train, is that there generally isn't an overly gushing abundance of requirement for them. In fact, each generation of the Shinkansen requires only something between fifty to a little over one hundred of the gracefully curved creations. After all, these cutting edge technological marvels aren't exactly popping out of the woodwork. And so it would seem to be an extremely expensive proposition to tool up and manufacture for such a limited production run. Which is precisely why they don't.

As with the (possibly apocryphal) story of NASA spending millions to develop the space ready ballpoint pen and the Russians saving their development dollars and issuing their cosmonauts with pencils, Japan dispatched with the high-tech approach and reverted to that simplest of tools, the humble hammer. And in the small town of Kudamatsu, in the western prefecture of Yamaguchi (the mouth of the mountains if you were wondering), Yamashita Kogyosho tap tap away, shaping and creating the pointy architecture that cuts through the air in front of some ten billion passengers and counting.

This cottage industry solution to a modern day problem has been so successful that its reach has extended to both Korea and China however there is a cloud to this silver lining. As with most cottage industries, the worker bees are showing the signs of age and with an apprenticeship of a decade or more there may soon be a bottleneck in the production cycle of these future high speed marvels. And so, in these days of uncertainty, if you're looking for job security, it might just be time to invest in a little magic hammer.



Thanks Marty.





Tuesday, July 11, 2017

A mirage made in heaven?


Narita was for many years Japan's principle international airport, gateway to the world and embarkation point for countless young couples to their dream honeymoon as they start their new life together. And it's also the focal point, upon return, of the infamous "Narita Divorce" (Narita Rikon). Said young couple find themselves tasting reality for the first time together. And decide the proposition is not that pretty after all. Often it's the guy who is away from his mother for the first time and is just utterly useless. Can't wash his socks or fold his shirts without her help. Landing back at Narita blushing bride turns to her erstwhile husband and gently whispers "sayonara baby!". The "Narita Divorce".

Japan also has a word for the opposite end of the spectrum when a couple have been married most of their lives, the kids having grown, they're now empty nesters. Or at least she is; he's still in the office slaving over a hot desk or off drinking with his work colleagues only returning home to sleep and change. And then one day he reaches retirement and she decides she really doesn't like having him around all day long. This is officially known as a "Maturity Divorce" (jukunen rikon); not as catchy as "Narita Divorce" but preferable to the alternative proposed by the Taro Aso, the Deputy Prime Minister who suggested that old people should "just hurry up and die". 

And then there's the divorce that simply didn't happen. Unlike a wedding in many countries, a Japanese wedding, both the ceremony and reception, are just that, a celebration of a marriage officiated by someone licensed as much as was Joey's internet ordainment. The legal marriage itself occurs when the required papers are signed and witnessed, which more often than not occurs separately, and possibly several months, after the big day itself. And if they've already gone their separate ways, sometimes not at all. And at this point, the guests having attended the ceremony, celebrated the party, drunk the sake and sung the karaoke, mutual amnesia sets it. And no one talks about it. Ever. And if you were wondering, the bride's wearing of the elegant white headwear is, according to folklore, to enhance her beauty and hide the horns.






Thursday, July 6, 2017

The High Art of Sado Island


Most people in the world have heard of island nation of Japan. At least I assume that to be the case; I was once asked where the train to Hong Kong could be found to which I usefully provided directions to Tokyo Station. Good luck on that one. Most people have probably also heard of Honshu, the main island but then it's more into the realms of Japanophiles to name the other three plus one (Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku and Okinawa if you were wondering.) But it will be rare indeed to find someone who can point to 855 square kilometers of Sado-shima and correctly label them as comprising as the sixth largest in the 6,800+ archipelago.

Known for its fine sake, brewed from rice ripened in the bitter Siberian winds, it lies some two hours boat ride off the coast of Niigata in the lap of the Japan Sea. Harsh at the best of times, it became the exile island of choice from the eight century on for those lucky individuals who hadn't quite earned the slightly more direct death penalty. But you certainly weren't expected to return. Emperors, monks and the odd Noh actor were sent there over the centuries. Though in the case of the Zeami, the famous fifteenth century Noh artist, he actually made a triumphant return upon the death of one annoyed Shogun who had sent him there seven years previously.

Life there took a turn for the worse when gold was discovered in the early seventeenth century and from then on it was not just a case of surviving for a living but you had to work for it in the mines too. And then the bakafu (the central government of the Shogunate) saw something of a "golden" opportunity (I'm sorry) and decided to ship the unfortunate homeless of Edo off to help with the excavation. And the mine finally closed in 1989. Though I assume they had stopped deporting the poor and outcast some time before this. Which leaves two questions. Which is the seventh largest island of Japan, and is there fine sake there too?





Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Summer Reign of Mei-Yu

It's wet in Tokyo. Excessively wet. But that is somewhat to be expected during Rainy Season, a time of year that defines Japan with a total of five seasons rather than four. Stretching from the Tibetan Plateau to the Pacific waters east of Japan, the Mei-Yu weather front slowly drifts north from Okinawa through Kyushu and central Honshu ultimately reaching Tohoku, where it peters out before reaching Hokkaido which rarely experiences significant rainy season rainfall as a result.  

Known as Tsuyu in Japanese, the name refers to the ripening of the plum crop which occurs at this time of year hence the reference to plum rain that is occasionally applied. An alternative label though is Samidare (sa-me-da-ray), which, as with Oktober-fests which generally take place in September, the name literally translates as May Rain. In July. The water is occasionally torrential though more usually simply a persistent, vertical drizzle but with it comes a humidity that eats the cold into your bones as the temperatures fall.

The proud record holder of maximum precipitation on the Japanese islands is the prefecture of Miyazaki. Lying on the eastern shores of the southern island of Kyushu, the region received a Biblical deluge of twenty eight feet (8.7m) in the early summer of 2003 which goes someway to explaining the location of the world's largest sea dome, Seagaia resplendent with indoor beaches and giant wave machines. Closed in 2007 and surrounded by kamikaze bunkers, it was finally figured out that the capacity of the local airport was insufficient to provide the traffic required for profitability, the resort was rather ironically located about a golf ball's flight from the largest ocean on the face of the planet. And Mei-Yu reigned.







Friday, June 16, 2017

The Siege of the Blue Samurai



In the summer of 2010 the Japanese national soccer team, "The Samurai Blue" (a name generally only used in English, the Japanese more traditionally naming the team after the coach at the time (if you were wondering)) were preparing through a number of friendly games for the World Cup to be hosted by South Africa that year. And things were not going well. In fact, things were going so badly that in a game against England in Graz, Austria, Japan scored no less than three times and lost 2 : 1 (think about it). As a result the airport was somewhat deserted as the pale Blue Samurai returned home before setting sites on the tournament proper some two weeks hence.


Losses to Serbia and arch-rivals South Korea didn't help the national atmosphere all that much and the team were generally being pilloried in the press of the day. adidas (not a typo, it is actually spelt with a lower case "a"), sponsors of the JFA, had been focusing on the youth of the country, working with a number of schools throughout the Spring and organising each to have the students write messages of support on thirteen giant manga. Slotted together and laid out on the flight path of jet airplanes as they departed Haneda International Airport, the Sky Comic was awarded a Guinness World for the largest comic strip in the world. And still the fans, they did not come.

And then things started to change. Wins over Cameroon and more notably Denmark saw the team through to the last sixteen where they faced Paraguay and suddenly the country started to take notice, sit up, stand, and finally cheer. A 0 : 0 full time score line saw the players march to their respective ends for the dreaded penalty shoot out. The country was going wild and then a cross bar from Komano handed advantage to Paraguay and silence fell as Cardozo stepped up. And converted. Japan was heartbroken but the team were now national heroes and this time when they flew back, landing at Kansai International, the crowd of thousands just went wild. And yes, I was there. And I did too. And the siege of the Blue Samurai was lifted.




  


Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Ambiguity of Article 9

Japan is quite refined in the art of ambiguity. To achieve lasting peace and prosperity, Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution states that "land, sea, air and other war potential will never be maintained". Noble sentiments that have served the country well over the last seventy years or so. Coming into effect on May 3, 1947 as a revision of the more militaristic Meiji predecessor, the country has not seen international conflict in anger since and only recently provided even the most basic of support to friends in hot places. Compare this to the Western score sheet and the scale of the achievement takes on near Biblical proportions.

Written in English (MacArthur tired of the government's attempts at maintaining the historical role of the Emperor) there is little room for misunderstanding though the Japanese document that received the seal of assent has since been re-interpreted to exclude defensive forces from the specific exclusions of Article 9. And it is this anomaly that the Prime Minister would like to see addressed head on with an actual revision to the terms so as to no longer have to hide behind something of a smokescreen. When the world rallied to arms in the first Gulf War, Japan could only send a cheque. To be fair though, George Bush did vomit in the lap of the then Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, but that's another story.

But here's the thing... Japan already has the eighth largest defence budget on the planet just behind France and the UK though a fraction of that of the US or China. It launches satellite tipped ballistic missiles into the heavens, manufactures F35 strike aircraft under licence, commissions 400m "heli-craft" carriers (resplendent with launch ramps...?!) and employs in excess of quarter of a million active military service personnel. So it's somewhat understandable that the government would look to normalise proceedings and adjust the constitution to reflect the reality of the day despite the inherent sensitivities (and watch this process arriving via the back door to a revision of the "education for all" provision). But then again, with a strict reading of the English original, it could be argued Japan are not actually "maintaining" a war potential; it's positively building it!


Hirohito signs the "Peace Constitution" into law