Friday, March 04, 2005

Japanese dentists and the food people in Japan eat

We woke up to a world of white this morning, as the Kanto area (the flat plain where Tokyo is located) got its third snowfall of the season. It was actually only a few centimeters of snow, but it managed to cause a minor panic, since snow is rare enough here that people aren't used to it. Fortunately (or unfortunately, if you like snow like I do), most of it has melted away.

Ask any gaijin living in Japan about dentists here, and you'll be sure to hear some complaints. While Japanese dentists are good at fixing teeth, they're famous for making you come back dozens of times to finish your dental work, instead of getting it out of the way in a few visits. I've finally finished having three teeth worked on, which somehow managed to take 18 months. I believe Japan's dentists take so long to work on teeth because of the way insurance is structured here -- they're only allowed to charge a certain amount to the system each day, so they spread it out as much as they can. Like men whose job it is to stand by the road and wave a flashlight to let you know there's road construction going on and NHK employees who knock on millions of doors to collect the $20 monthly fee from households in person, Japanese dentists are an unfortunate symbol of Japan's lack of efficiency in some areas.

Since I'm very busy with J-List, I don't get time to watch television as much as I'd like, especially the news. One show I try to catch on weekends is Broadcaster, a show which encapsulates the news events of the past week by ranking how many minutes of coverage each received. Last week's show included such news items as Princess Aiko (the 3-year-old daughter of Crown Prince Naruhito) learning how to ski for the first time; the father of sumo wrestler Takanohana's battle with esophageal cancer; the tragic suicide of South Korean actress Lee Eun-joo; the latest on Michael Jackson, which is followed carefully here; and all the current goings on with maverick Livedoor president Takafumi Horie, whose recently separated wife was found working in a supermarket for $6 an hour to make ends meet despite the fact that her husband is incredibly wealthy.

When I came to Japan to live, I knew about the famous foods like sushi, sashimi and ramen, but I had a lot to learn about the finer points of Japanese home cooking. As with other Asian countries, noodles are eaten frequently, with soba (thin grey noodles) and udon (fat white noodles) being the most popular. Many dishes commonly served at home aren't Japanese at all, such as curry rice, a version of the mild, thick curry brought here by the British, or spaghetti, really good with tuna fish and asparagus on top (my Japanese father-in-law can't eat spaghetti because it looks too strange to him). A lot of Chinese foods like chow mein (yakisoba) and fried wonton dumplings (gyoza, known in English as "pot stickers") have been a part of Japanese kitchens for so long they're not thought of as having come from anywhere else. Soy-based dishes are also very popular, with miso soup, tofu and natto at the top of the list. While the Japanese have come to eat quite a lot of bread and even adapt it in interesting ways (curry-pan, bread with curry inside), when all is said and done, rice is a big part of the their daily life. The basic unit of "fast food" in Japanese homes is the rice ball, called omusubi or onigiri, basically a triangle shaped ball of white rice with nori on the outside and different good stuff (ume, salmon) inside. We have some cool new products celebrating Japanese food on the site today -- check them out.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Japanese Universities, and the Michael Dell of Japan

There are two types of universities in Japan, public (operated on a national or prefectural level) and private, and as you'd expect, public universities cost a lot less to attend than private ones. One big difference between Japan and the U.S. is that the top schools in the States are venerable private institutions like Harvard and Princeton, which cost a lot to get into. In Japan, however, the most popular universities are public ones like Osaka or Kyoto University, because the education is so much cheaper, and getting into one is such an accomplishment that it brings a halo you carry with you all your life. In the Japanese test-based system, the universities with the most applicants are the hardest to get into because of increased competition, and it can take years of preparation to get ready for your test. Although the system of "entrance exam hell" certainly has a lot of drawbacks, one big benefit is that it's almost completely meritocratic -- only students who study very hard will be able to get into the legendary Tokyo University, regardless of how much money your family has. There are probably some big changes in store for Japanese universities over the new decade or so. First of all, Japan's national universities are increasingly being administered as private institutions, forcing them to be more creative and competitive if they want to survive into the future. Also, despite the sharp drop-off of children in Japan, new public universities are being constructed every year.

Every country is unique, and each country's economy is unique, too. While the multi-tiered distribution system Japan is famous for has gone through a lot of changes over the past decade, resulting in the removal of many layers of unneeded distribution, the route that goods take from producer to consumer can still be hard for Westerners to comprehend. While efficiency has increased greatly during Japan's painful decade-long quasi-recession, many products, such as toys, books, CDs and computer software are still bought and sold through a strict system of distribution that adds significantly to the price to the end user. The distribution system for beer and alcohol is also very inefficient, with products changing hands two or three times before they come to the small liquor shop that my wife's parents run. In industries where inefficient middlemen have been removed, allowing, say, Hitachi to sell its products directly to electronics stores rather than through several distributors, I've noticed some other problems. Without a third party between supplier and reseller, the manufacturers are able to put restrictions on shops that would probably not be legal in other countries, such as forcing them to buy huge amounts of stock, requiring that they purchase unpopular products if they want to get the popular ones, and so on.

There's another difference between Japan and the rest of the world -- hostile takeovers of companies just aren't done here. But that's what up-and-coming Internet provider Livedoor is attempting as it makes a bid for controlling interest in Nippon Broadcasting and through its holdings, Fuji TV, the most influential television network in Japan. The brainchild of Japanese whiz kid Takafumi Horie (ho-REE-eh), a Michael Dell-like persona who started his first company in his Tokyo University dorm, Livedoor has been buying Internet startups left and right as it elbows its way into the business headlines. Horie, whose nickname is Horiemon (ho-REE-eh-mon) in parody of the anime character Doraemon, is famous for working alongside his employees at a desk that's placed in a long row of identical desks, the Japanese version of a cubicle farm. He also doesn't even own a suit -- my wife hates him because he's a multi-millionaire yet dresses worse than I do.

Monday, February 28, 2005

Bullying in Japanese schools, and the giving of gifts

One of the biggest problems facing Japanese schools is ijime (EE-gee-may), or bullying, when a group of kids gangs up on weaker kids to torment them. The bullying can be open, like hiding a person's shoes so he can't go home or putting a sharp push-pin on his chair for him to sit on, or more subtle and psychological, like group ignoring. Every school in every country probably has some of this going on, but there are special reasons why ijime is so bad in Japan. First of all, students stay in the same classroom all year long -- teachers come for one hour to teach, then leave, but the students are always together. Also, the concept of counselors who listen to students' problems is quite alien here. My own daughter, who stands out because she looks very American, has been the target of more than a few incidents of bullying by bigger kids, so my wife and I are always trying to come up with proactive ways to handle problems. Hurdle, an anime movie that discusses the causes of ijime with kids, is playing in Japan right now, and we took my daughter to see it. Seeing the story of boy from Yokohama who moves to a rural city, only to be picked on by the local kids because he is so different, was a very moving one, and I hope that the film helps bring about changes for the better in schools here.

Gift giving is a highly developed custom in Japan, and there are many subtle rules about how gifts are exchanged. Gifts are given at happy events, such as at the birth of a child, when a new house is built, or when someone gets out of the hospital after an illness. The money that guests take to weddings -- $200 per person and up -- is also part of this gifts-as-congratulations system. Gifts are sometimes given to those who are helping you in some way, such as from parents to juku (private school) teachers who want extra attention paid to their children, although it's against the rules for licensed teachers, doctors and politicians to accept such gifts. Whenever you receive a gift from someone, it's customary to give them o-kaeshi, a return gift that's worth approximately half the amount of what you received. A major time for gift-giving is in August and December, when people and companies exchange seasonal gifts, everything from soy sauce to canned coffee to frozen lobster. Re-Ment, the amazing company that makes miniature versions of Japanese food, has a new series that captures the spirit of Japanese seasonal gift-giving with miniatures of popular gifts given in Japan, rendered in every detail (right down to the cardboard box). Full sets are in stock now!