Lots of people are doing last-minute shopping to get 2 percent savings before the tax hike takes effect tomorrow. I also ordered a few second-hand books online, but my consumption logic is at best questionable: why would I spend more money in hopes on saving on tax?
The smart thing the Japanese government has done is to link the tax hike with encouraging businesses to offer consumers points as a ‘rebate’ to get people to stop paying with cash. The evening news programs have provided unending coverage of housewives and househusbands making full use of these payment apps and (theoretically) saving tens of thousands of yen a month (assuming these rebate campaigns continue to be unsustainably generous, of course). The Ata Distance blog makes this interesting observation:
Regardless of whether the CASHLESS rebate is ‘a success’ or not, it will be a tipping point. Already I notice a shift in public perception: if a store is cash only, it definitely looks behind the times in the minds of customers.
By the way, you can intern to be a parent now. That’s what this university student from Chiba did, as he imagines a future family where both parents have to work (共働き世代 vs 専業主婦世代). He literally spent the normal working hours inside this family’s house playing with a baby. What an internship.
I wanted to order some green tea from Ippodo’s online shop for a friend’s birthday, but found out that Ippodo’s online shop was closed for “maintenance” for the entire weekend. So you had to dial in to order the old-fashioned way. I know nothing about how websites have to deal with the tax hike, but does this seem a little excessive?
Eslite Spectrum opened in the COREDO Muromachi complex just north of Nihombashi, Tokyo, this week. This is Eslite’s first store outside China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan––and Japan is a country that makes the most sense to open in, since half the stuff they sell is Japanese, or Japanese-inspired. Given that Eslite is, in essence, a real estate empire with seriously good taste in independent literature and craftmanship, here’s hoping this little Taiwanese beachhead in central Tokyo can grow to challenge Tsutaya’s culture curating business. It’s no longer enough to just have backnumbers of Brutus Casa on polished wood bookshelves in Daikanyama.
My only pet peeve is that this store was absolutely a missed opportunity to introduce Tenren to Tokyo. It is a bubble tea crime to associate The Alley with Eslite. Also, judging from the comments written in Traditional Chinese on this YouTube video from which I stole the above screencap, apparently it’s not that great to have your grubby bbt hands all over the shiny new books on display.
Finally, witness the pomp and circumstance in Tokyo station when the Emperor and Empress (Consort) of Japan board their royal train for the first time in the Reiwa era. Notice how the metal handles that the (impeccably uniformed) conductors use to help themselves get down to the track level (to unfurl the Japanese flags in the front of the train) are built onto the train body.
CPG Grey once said that people like to visiting Britain’s castles is different from visiting most other castles in Europe, because there’s still a living monarch sprinkling royal pixie dust everywhere. I guess Tokyo station is one of the few places in Japan where you can legitimately feel good old-fashioned imperial power on a weekday morning. Here’s a paparazzi photo of the former Empress of Japan going into a low-key entrance in Tokyo station back in August 2019:
I was scrolling through Instagram last week and the algorithms served me this ad:
After doing some research, I found out that I could get these “Umai Crates” for an attractive subscription price of US$30 per month. All I needed to do was to give up my credit card details and this business venture will happily ship a box (for free!) of instant noodles that they consider hard to find outside of Japan. They even curate recipe cards so you can make your late-night impulsive styrofoam snack into a gourmet meal that rivals the romantic suggestions that Buzzfeed’s Tasty suggests.
To be fair, Nissin is great at making you want to eat instant noodles. I subscribe to its YouTube channel, which is just a hodgepodge of slick TV commercials that each have hundreds of thousands of views. It has cup noodle museums in Osaka and Yokohama, where the company breaches the gospel of Ando Momofuku, the Taiwanese-Japanese reincarnation of Jesus Christ who turned deep-fried noodles into chicken ramen magic packs. Its matsutake mushroom cream sauce cup noodles were probably as heavenly as the bread and wine of the Last Supper (and since Nissin doesn’t sell them anymore, they are truly the stuff of New Testament legend).
But why would you want to subscribe to a box of nasty processed shit ‘curated’ by some sucker who probably went to the basement floor of Don Quijote, picked out whatever seemed exotic enough, and literally stuff the empty spaces with random selections from the spice rack? How do you even justify the US$30 cost from that? Printing on laminated color cards is expensive, probably—but is there any research value in knowing that you could add instant katsuobushi or a poached egg into soggy non-fried wheat curls in boiling dihydrogen monoxide? YouTube can probably teach you that better.
And how would you personally get through 8 to 10 servings of cup noodles per month? That’s like eating one every three nights—nights where you sit around a dim kitchen table, where the cats are asleep, scrolling through your credit card statement, wondering why you have to pay off this silly venture capital parasite from Tokyo when your blood-earned cash could be applied somewhere else. Like saving up for your mortgage payments. Or your student loans.
2. “Welcome Japan” Suica cards
An IC card is an invaluable tool to get around all of Japan. Get one of these mean green things at a JR East ticket machine in Tokyo, and you’ll be able to get on almost any train or bus or buy anything at a convenience store or supermarket without fidgeting for change. (I think the Suica card has the most interoperability out of all the systems in Japan but I’m not sure.)
[The card] can only be used for a period of up to 28 days after which the card holders will receive an error when trying to proceed with e-money payment transactions.
It may not be possible to use automated gates to exit at the destination station if the cards have been used for a journey that straddles different rail service areas.
Money charged onto the cards will not be refunded, and the cards can’t be reissued. But according to the operators, travelers will be able to keep the cards as souvenirs. The campaign is limited to travelers.
So, for the price of foregoing the 500 yen deposit, you get:
To lose any and all of the remaining money you’ve loaded onto your card after 28 days, and there is no way to get any of that money back
No cute penguin on your card (which forms part of the card’s etymology)
An ugly shade of blood red in your wallet that is not the color of the cherry blossom imagery the cards are meant to invoke
A lazily designed smattering of cherry blossoms designed to appeal to your nascent NIPPON love
In any case, a forgettable piece of junk plastic that you can’t use after 28 days, the time limit of which doesn’t even make sense to me, since a temporary visitor’s visa to Japan generally lasts up to 90 days; and in any case it shows that every trip you make to Japan is supposed to be your first and your last. You’re not supposed to come back after sampling the junk in Asakusa and the airport sushi at Narita!
Voice acting is a brutal industry in Japan, and female voice actors are further pressured to choose between their careers and resisting power and sexual harassment. Here’s what a voice actor in her 30s has to say about male producers and managers:
Alex Barreia on the rising recognition of the other half of Japanese literature:
“The number of new voices that have been made available to Anglophone readers over the last few years has been encouraging,” says David Karashima, a professor at Waseda University who has translated Akutagawa-winning fiction.
Karashima says there are still not as many women published in Japan as men, but this may be changing, in part because there are more women on selection committees for literary prizes. He added that translated Japanese fiction is itself going through a “mini-boom.”
Two architects live in Tokyo’s Nakagin Capsule Tower for a year. The location seems convenient but horrible: next to a busy expressway, and outside ugly Shimbashi station. The apartments themselves look like a real life counterpart of the awful apartment Owen Milgrim lives in Maniac (directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga).
What names have parents bestowed upon athletes who participated in this year’s Koshien high school baseball tournament? Interesting picks include 佐々木夢叶 (Yumeto Sasaki), the kanji for ‘Yumeto’ corresponding to ‘realize your dreams (夢を叶う)’, who hails from Akita; and 小林未来雄 (Raio Kobayashi), the kanji for ‘Raio’ meaning ‘future hero’, who hails from Niigata.
Turns out, according to the article, changing your kira kira name is a little complicated. If you want the change the furigana (pronunciation) of your name, you have to submit forms at the local government offices, but if you want to change your name completely, you’ll have to start a case in the family courts, and explain why you want to edit out these embarrassing kanji from your identity.
I’m not sure if Shinzo Abe is personally ready for gay marriage; it doesn’t really seem to be part of his rejuvenation agenda for the country. But the country is moving with or without him. Delighted to hear that Taiga Ishikawa, author of one of the first LGBTQ+ mainstream books, Where is my boyfriend? (ボクの彼氏はどこにいる?), is now a Diet member.
It was a Japan where everyone had to do their bit to help each other, and led modest lives. Where going out to eat ramen was a luxury. Where having a pint with your buddies after work was the way to cool down. Where if you kept your head down and worked, you would get paid. This was the Japan my father loved, and longed for.
Finally, one of my former Japanese language professors’ tweets about an old McDonald’s logo she saw while on a family road trip went viral.
This is a present a person received from their parents when they turned 20. (Twenty is (was) the age of majority in Japan.) It’s a letter asking the recipient for 20,000 yen to cover rent, board, and utilities if they want to continue living in the house, and that interest will accrue on any loans made from parents.
The letter ends with, “Please enjoy the rest of your life”.
In Japan, every bottle of the familiar Ito-en green tea comes with a haiku. (Ito-en has even published a book. This haiku says that Ayakata (a competing green tea product by Coca-Cola Japan) and Sokenbicha (also another tea product by Coca-Cola Japan) tastes like river water. So Ito-en really wants to fight with Coca-Cola.
Notice what the melon farmers care about when a bunch of melons is arrested. The full translation of the newspaper article is this:
The Asahi City Police in Chiba Prefecture announced on the 20th that they had arrested 6 Vietnamese men suspected of stealing 112 melons from a field.
Among those arrested were Tran Kuan Kai [an approximation based on the katakana available], 29, apparently unemployed, of Yotsukaidō City. Kai denied the charges. The other 5 admitted to the theft, saying that they “stole the melons because [they] wanted to eat them.”
According to the police, the 6 suspects are accused of stealing 112 of the famous Iioka Melons that Asahi City is famous for from a field. The melons are worth approximately 67,000 yen in total.
A spokesperson for the Iioka Melon Division of JA Chiba Midori said, “The melons aren’t ripe enough yet for eating.”
The 6 people had to have carried around 18 to 19 melons each. That’s quite a feat.
This is a screenshot of a doctor’s appointment where a boy seems to have injured his shoulder. The conversation goes something like this:
Doctor: what sports do you do? Boy: I do Beyblade.
I have tried countless times to find the original clip (and judging from the YouTube search suggestions, so have many others) but I don’t actually know if this dialogue actually exists. It’s kind of too funny to be real.
When I saw the thick, blue bunkobon on her office bookshelf, the Japanese professor with whom I was going to work with said: “You know, I’m not a Hong Kong freak (香港フリーク). I just wanted to get out of Japan for better career opportunities.”
The blue book she was referring to was a fat nonfiction paperback called 転がる香港に苔は生えない (Rolling Hong Kong Gathers No Moss, based on the Japanese translation of the English idiom) by Hiromi Hoshino, who returned to Hong Kong to witness the 1997 handover after studying at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in the 1980s.
In my professor’s eyes, Hoshino was a Hong Kong freak. In her book, she reminisces about the people that she met. The first person Hoshino writes about is Ah Bun, whom she met in the depths of Kowloon Walled City, an infamous slum that has captured the minds of Japanese photographers, Japanese video games, and Japanese arcade owners. Ah Bun was a refugee from Mainland China. He fled in 1975 to start a new life in Hong Kong. And he was happy to share some roast duck and stir-fried vegetables with Hoshino and some of Ah Bun’s other factory buddies. They took a picture together.
When Hoshino returned to Hong Kong in late 1996, the first thing she did, with Ah Bun’s picture in hand, was to find Ah Bun in Kowloon Walled City. Later, she would find out that Ah Bun had passed away three years ago. So did the Walled City, which the colonial government decided to demolish in 1989. The photograph she has of herself, Ah Bun, and four other sweaty men huddled in a dark room over plates of meat and vegetables, became, inadvertently, the connection she had to Hong Kong. A connection that Hong Kong decided to sever by deliberately choosing to forget about the Kowloon Walled City (香港は、本気で記憶喪失になることを選んだのだ。).
I picked up Hoshino’s book, and a few others on Hong Kong, in second-hand bookstores throughout the seven-odd months I stayed in Tokyo as a student in 2016. At first, I didn’t like Hoshino’s decision to begin her 600-page Hong Kong omnibus on the Kowloon Walled City. I never felt a connection to that place, partly because it was gone before I was born. Also, what was there to love about an ungoverned slum? What difference was there between the lust of Kowloon Walled City’s cyberpunk mystique, and the fact that people all over the world travel to Hong Kong just to dress up and pose in front of public housing estates to add their own lick of poverty porn on their Instagram accounts?
This short blog post is not enough to do justice to Hoshino’s book. But the point I want to bring home is that Hong Kong freaks like Hoshino excel in a skill that most people, including yours truly, lack: observation. They see what they think makes Hong Kong special. The people, the products, the buildings, the neon signs, the food that is born from the struggle of refugees from Communist China, the hustle of South Asian descendants in Chungking Mansions, and the colonial decadence of the Anglo-European elite two blocks down in The Peninsula.
Hot-blooded Chinese Communist Party lovers love to accuse Hong Kong millennials of romanticizing Hong Kong’s colonial past (戀殖). Fuminori Yamaguchi’s book, 香港旅の雑学ノート (Hong Kong Travel Journal), would be perfect for these colonial history lovers. For Yamaguchi too is a Hong Kong freak: preserved in her book are meticulous details about everything in 1980s Hong Kong that far surpasses any level of detail you can find in the Hong Kong History Museum: how bamboo scaffolding is tied up; what the most popular men’s haircuts are; what Hong Kong triads do; what identity cards and bus stops look like; what color combinations are most common in neon signs (red and yellow and red and green are the most common; while blue and green and red and blue do not exist); what utensils people use to eat dim sum; what Chinese-language translations of Hollywood movies are; what’s in the handbag of a 20-year old Hong Kong female office worker (apparently, a HSBC pocketbook, a hair salon coupon, an address book, and an classifieds ad from an English-language newspaper).
Most of what’s contained in Yamaguchi’s book do not exist in Hong Kong anymore. The city’s rising GDP per capita, and Gini coefficient, made the city’s people lose sight of what makes the city special. Historical monuments in the downtown core demolished for subway and land reclamation projects. Hawkers and decades-old restauranteurs banished from the streets and from public housing estates. In lieu of the simple, middle-class life that people lived in the 1980s, to live in Hong Kong is to survive in an unending Glass Menagerie nightmare. Babies compete for spaces in English-language kindergartens the moment they are born. University graduates compete to overwork in faceless consulting firms. Families compete to buy tiny apartments with gaudy names from property developers. Immigrants from Mainland China compete for public housing spaces. The senile and the elderly compete for hospice beds. And when you die, your next of kin compete for a place to store your ashes. No wonder the city burns with the slow and implacable fires of human desperation. No wonder the city’s young long for the past, exemplified by the Union Jack-embossed colonial flag.
The cost of Hong Kong’s struggle in the margins is that it was a neoliberal beachhead for international business investment. Japanese companies were no exception. Hong Kong is, by far, the biggest importer of Japanese agricultural products in the world. Every Japanese prefecture is dying to get the attention of Hong Kong consumers. The Hong Kong Government loves to tell people that international brands like Ichiran Ramen use Hong Kong as a testing ground before expanding their business to Mainland China.
Indeed, despite the cries of some protestors—and the occasional sympathetic stranger I meet during my travels—that “Hong Kong is not China”, the fact is that Hong Kong has always existed in China’s shadow. After all, a city populated mostly by Chinese refugees and their descendants inevitably takes on layers of traditional Chinese culture from wherever the refugees came from. Without the despicable uncertainty of a totalitarian dictatorship, Chinese culture in Hong Kong became endowed with a natural soft power that still eludes Xi Jinping’s Chinese dreams. More often than not, Jackie Chan is the first thing people say when I tell middle-aged adults in Tokyo that I’m from Hong Kong. In November 2017, when two of my best Japanese friends from Keio University came to visit, they demanded photos in front of the windows of roast duck restaurants (and the lobby of The Peninsula) and ate take-out dim sum from Tim Ho Wan. In retrospect, eating a carb and saturated fat-heavy diet on uncomfortable wooden stools were rubber gloved angry women carried huge red buckets of water behind your back was probably a little overwhelming for people who were more used to the refined polish of Tokyo’s urban environment, but I showed my friends what people sought Hong Kong for: perhaps not the images of Queen Elizabeth II that Hong Kong millennials now seek, but a safe place, as with Taiwan, to experience and enjoy Chinese culture. A place that was free of the insecurity and uncertainty of a Communist dictatorship.
Japan’s perception of Hong Kong has changed, perhaps irreversibly, since widespread protests began against Carrie Lam’s government in June 2019. In response to Chief Executive Lam’s unending reckless ineptitude, what began as peaceful protests against an unnecessary and foolish legislative amendment to allow extraditions to Mainland China has mutated into violent clashes with police, round robin style, at the airport and at various commercial districts across Hong Kong every weekend.
Violence, gore, calamity, terror, and distress drive our media. So while people in Hong Kong watch nightly livestreams of wanton police brutality, photographers and writers from all over the world have descended into the city to send clips of the most savage moments to broadcast in their home countries.
Japan is no exception. Once the Japanese news media deem something to be worthy of your time, it becomes the talk of the nation. So, my Japanese friends ask me on Instagram, is Hong Kong daijobu? Are you safe? No, probably not, I tell them. But I am fine. Hong Kong is safe if, and only if, you avoid the protest areas. When I was on vacation in Japan last month, from an izakaya in Shibuya to a Shinto shrine by Lake Towada in Aomori, people told me the same thing about Hong Kong. The situation is taihen, they tell me with sympathetic eyes. Yep, it’s taihen alright, I tell them.
The Japanese news shows report the Hong Kong protests with astonishing detail and clarity. Infographics are made. Panels of commentators are hired. Headlines on screens fear a second Tiananmen is coming. The hourly NHK news digests tell people what’s going on, down to Hong Kong reporters confronting the press credentials of Mainland Chinese reporters at the daily police media briefings.
A few weeks ago, World Business Satellite made a valiant effort to give a different perspective by interviewing a 10 year old primary school student who went to Hong Kong International Airport to do her summer vacation independent project. The student said that she wanted to see for herself whether the protestors were indeed violent. On Twitter, however, people have anonymously criticized the student’s parents for putting the student in danger. Why put her in the crosshairs of the People’s Liberation Army, they say. Military vehicles are poised to strike at any moment across the border.
Why do the Japanese media care about Hong Kong? I can only speculate. Perhaps what’s happening in Hong Kong reminds people of SEALDs, an anti-war and anti-Shinzo Abe student movement that fizzled out in 2016. Perhaps Hong Kong’s dissenting youth are world-famous. Although he does not lead today’s protests, Joshua Wong has a Netflix documentary and, now, an unending schedule of interviews with media from all over the world. Agnes Chow can speak Japanese and has talked at length to reporters about the extradition bill at the National Press Club.
In any case, people in Japan no longer see Hong Kong the place it was. A few months ago, we were a pretty cool city: a weekend getaway, easily accessible with cheap airline tickets, that offered traditional crafts, cutting edge contemporary arts and design, and a stable business environment for foreign direct investment. Today, we are a segment on the evening news, the police barbarity on the streets laid bare for the stoic audiences all over the world to see.
A modern Hong Kong freak might give us a hint. A few years back, Kumiko Ohara, who has spent 30 years in Hong Kong, published a book called 週末香港 いいもの探し (Finding Good Things on a Weekend in Hong Kong). Pushing past our collective despair about the state of Hong Kong culture and our collective fantasies about British emigration, Ohara finds the things that we have forgotten in our pursuit of wealth, property, and stability. The Chinese teahouses in Kennedy Town. The craftsmen in Yuen Long who sell rooster ceramic bowls. An independent art bookstore, tucked away on the 14th floor of a building on Hennessy Road. The kitchenware stores on Shanghai Street. Hidden in the pages of Ohara’s book are the embers of Hong Kong’s soft power: the magic that drew Hoshino and Yamaguchi to tell their own stories twenty years ago. But Ohara’s book is only a hint. Nothing more.
Tonight, Reuters published a leaked audio recording from Carrie Lam. She doesn’t know how to stop the protests, she says. Beijing won’t let her offer any answers. Neither does the international community know what to do. We can crowdfund millions of dollars countless times to purchase award-winning newspaper advertisements all over the world to get people to care about Hong Kong. But all these ads can do is to get people to care. The onus is on ourselves to pick up the pieces. As Wilfred Chan writes, and I wholeheartedly agree: “To pull through, Hong Kong’s people must find a way to reclaim their historical agency and develop a positive vision for their own home.”
For a detailed history of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region since 1997 in the Japanese language, I recommend Kazuo Yukawa’s 香港返還20年の相克, an extremely detailed treatment of Hong Kong’s political, economic, and legal developments in one concise volume.
Hong Kong Airlines chose to use Jackie Chan to advertise its Tokyo-Hong Kong flights. Ironically, Hong Kong Airlines is owned by a financially struggling conglomerate based in Hainan, and Jackie Chan no longer stars in any Hong Kong films, having moved his career to Hollywood long ago, and aligned his political views to match with Beijing’s.