Wednesday, May 25, 2005

How taxes are structured in Japan, all about Japanese kimonos, and the Sino-Japanese Counting System

Although Japan likes to take a lot of cultural cues from Europe, and even pretend that it's a part of that continent rather than Asia (this theory of mine is supported by the fact that Japan and Europe share the same DVD region code), when it comes to taxes Japan emulates the U.S. The bulk of tax revenue in Japan comes from the income tax that all individuals pay, and the rates are similar to those in the United States -- four levels of 10, 20, 30 and 37%, compared with six levels between 10-35% in America. Just as the U.S. tax code tries to benefit certain areas of society with tax credits, Japan's tax system is set up to protect aid groups, among them Japan's ever-shrinking family farms. One of the great loopholes in the Japanese tax system is the "salaryman/farmer," families where the father works at a normal job in a company but farms his land on the weekends, enabling the family to get the tax benefits of agriculture while enjoying a regular salary. In addition to income taxes, there's a 5% consumption tax on almost all products sold, passed over the protests of consumer groups, who screamed bloody murder every step of the way. Over the past year, Japan has required that all prices be displayed with tax already included in the prices, so we've had to get used to seeing products priced at, say, 525 yen instead of 500 yen.

Kimonos are one of the most recognizable symbols of Japan, famous all over the world. Literally meaning "thing that you wear," kimonos were worn as part of daily life throughout Japan's long history, until Westernization started to take hold after the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Nowadays, kimonos are mainly ceremonial, usually worn only a few times during a person's life, such as at weddings, the "7-5-3" ceremony for children, and Coming of Age Day, a ceremony for 20-year-olds that officially marks their entry into the world of adulthood. There are several styles of kimono, including standard kimonos for women, beautiful bridal kimonos, cotton kimonos worn at summer festivals (yukata), and tuxedo-like kimonos for men (hakama). Since young people wear kimonos so rarely, putting one on by yourself is becoming a dying art in Japan. (Incidentally, we've got an interesting book on kimono art and photography on the site today).

"You've been in Japan too long when you're speaking English with your gaijin friends, but all references to money are in Japanese." This is a funny phenomenon, but true: even when speaking English, foreigners living in Japan will tend to use Japanese for numbers and yen money amounts. The number system used in Japan and China revolves around the unit 10,000 (man, always pronounced mahn), rather than 1,000 as in the Arabic system; thus, the number 10,000 is "1 man" (ichi mahn), 20,000 is "2 man" (ni mahn), 100,000 is "10 man" (juu mahn) and so on. The conversion from one numeric system to the other is just frustrating enough that most foreigners will be happy to leave their numbers in the Japanese system, if the person they're talking with understands the words. Thus a gaijin living in Japan is likely to say, "I bought a new cell phone, but it cost me 2 mahn en" (20,000 yen), or, "My car broke, and it's going to cost 10 mahn en to fix it" (100,000 yen). Currently my son is learning big numbers in English, and regularly reads very large numbers out loud, such as the population of the Earth, which perplexes my Japanese wife, who can't think in big numbers in English.

Monday, May 23, 2005

How corporate brands work differently in Japan, and on a "super-brand" you've probably never heard of

Hello again from Japan, where the Disney film Lady and the Tramp is known as Wanwan Monogatari or "The Tale of Woof Woof."

Structurally, Japanese is very different from English, with many elements that don't exist in Western languages. One of the first a student of Japanese encounters are the grammatical particles, which "flag" parts of a sentence in interesting ways. First is wa, the subject marker, which indicates the subject of a sentence, e.g. Watashi wa America-jin desu ("as for me, I'm American"). Note: this is unrelated to the wa that means harmony. There's a flag for the object of a sentence, conveniently pronounced o, and particles used like prepositions in English, like ni, which can be used like "in" "at" or "to." One useful particle is no, the "glue-like element" (to use the words of my old SDSU teacher) that joins two nouns to show ownership or relationship, e.g. Keiko no kuruma ("Keiko's car"). Some of these grammatical particles go on the ends of sentences, like ka (which makes the sentence a question) or yo (which adds emphasis to the sentence). One particle that's well-known to anime fans is ne, which can mean "isn't it?" or "aren't you?" and is used to add a level of cuteness in feminine speech.

The concept of how company brands work is a little different in Japan, and it's common to see companies selling things that may surprise you0. All the major beer makers also have beverage bottling businesses, and sell various kinds of bottled teas. Coca-Cola Japan has even gone the other way, offering a low-alcohol beer as a Coca-Cola branded product. Yamaha makes motorcycles, pianos...and our IP router, which threw me for a loop when I noticed it. Sony also has its hands in many businesses, with Sony Online Bank, a line of high-end make-up, and Sony Life Insurance -- they are also the licensor for all Thomas the Tank Engine toys in Japan. Other interesting businesses in Japan are Panahome, the construction company operated by Panasonic and Kanebo, famous for make-up, chewing gum and the little sake bottle miniatures we have on the site. I never cease to be amazed at Japan.

Another interesting Japanese twist on branding is "WiLL," a kind of super-brand hatched by department store Daiei. The idea was to create a line of unrelated products which are all sold under the brand name "WiLL" with the same orange logo. There's a line of WiLL make-up products, and some interesting WiLL-branded electronics, including a stylish refrigerator. The most recognizable WiLL product is the WiLL Cypha, made by Toyota, one of the most original -- or bizarre-looking -- cars on the roads in Japan.