Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Japan's young men seek a new path

Whenever I see groups of young Japanese guys, locals, walking around, on the train, on the street, shopping or hanging out, I wonder what their lives are like, what they're goals are, where they think they are going... They're not all that much older than my own sons.

Thanks Kathryn and Brendan for telling me about this article (to read the story on the Wash Post website click here)

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 24, 2010; 10:35 PM

TOKYO - Something is happening to Japan's young men. Compared with the generation that came before, they are less optimistic, less ambitious and less willing to take risks. They are less likely to own a car, want a car, or drive fast if they get a car. They are less likely to pursue sex on the first date - or the third. They are, in general, less likely to spend money. They are more likely to spend money on cosmetics.

Japan's young men mystify their girlfriends and their bosses. They confound the advertisers who aim products at them. They've been scrutinized and categorized by social commentators, marketing consultants and the government. And they unnerve just about everybody who makes long-term projections about Japan's flagging birthrate and fading economy. Japan will grow or falter, economists and sociologists say, upon the shoulders of these mild, frugal, sweet-mannered men.

To hear the analysts who study them tell it, Japanese men ages 20 to 34 are staging the most curious of rebellions, rejecting the 70-hour workweeks and purchase-for-status ethos that typified the 1980s economic boom. As the latest class of college graduates struggles to find jobs, a growing number of experts are detecting a problem even broader than unemployment: They see a generation of men who don't know what they want.

Japan earned its fortune a generation ago through the power of office warriors, the so-called salarymen who devoted their careers to one company. They wore dark suits; they joined for rowdy after-hours booze fests with co-workers; they often saw little of their families. These are the fathers of Japan's young men.

But among business leaders and officials, there is a growing understanding that the earlier work-for-fulfillment pattern has broken down. The economy's roar turned into a yawn. Concern about Japan's future replaced giddy national pride. As a result, this generation has lost "the willingness to sacrifice for the company," said Jeff Kingston, author of the recently published book "Contemporary Japan."

Kingston added: "And now as Japan begins to unravel in a sense, young people realize that the previous paradigm doesn't work. But they aren't sure what comes next. They've seen what amounts to a betrayal in Japan."

Striving for balance

And so, instead of fantasizing about riches, Japan's young men now fantasize about balanced lives and time for their families and quaint hobbies. As they do, Japanese women are catching up. This month, the government said single women younger than 30 were, for the first time, earning more on average than their male counterparts.

Yuizo Matsumoto, 24, learned about the differences between old and young values when he worked for a small food development company. Matsumoto studied the way trace ingredients and artificial flavorings change a product's taste. He developed salad dressings and fruit juices. He liked his job, with one major complaint: He worked 14 hours a day, often on Saturdays as well. He worked so hard, he didn't have time to job-hunt for alternatives. So in July, with the support of his parents, he told his boss he was quitting.

"My boss said to me, 'If you quit this wonderful company you'll never succeed in life,' " Matsumoto said. "I think the concept itself of quitting is alien to them. I think it's very normal for somebody from the older generation to stick with something whether he's happy or not."

Many in Japan's older generation deride the young for listlessness, even a lack of what is thought of as traditionally male behavior. Playing to that characterization, some media accounts of the transformation note the extremes of behavior: how one in four engaged men now opts for a pre-wedding spa treatment; how young men host dessert-tasting clubs; how, given a hypothetical $1,000 to spend and a list of possible purchases, a lot of young men would choose a high-end rice cooker.

Similar to metrosexuals

But Japan's modern man, separated from the statistics, cuts an endearing profile. Pop culture writer Maki Fukasawa first wrote about the changing male gender identity in 2006, coining a shorthand term for the new man ("a herbivore" - gentle and cautious). Now Fukasawa, who has surveyed young Japanese men about their purchasing preferences, defends the herbivores' nobility. "The people of the older generation would buy things, consume things, even fall in love for status," Fukasawa said. "However, these young people have no desire for status. . . . Maybe we're searching for new values. This is a more sustainable model."

This isn't about sexual orientation. According to a 2009 survey from market research firm M1 F1 Soken, almost half of Japanese men ages 20 to 34 identify themselves as herbivores. No matter their sexual preferences, herbivores tend to be less overtly sexual. Many say they do not prioritize physical relationships. They're more likely to buy gifts for their mothers than for their significant others.

Japan's herbivores bear some resemblance to the metrosexuals familiar in America. Like metrosexuals, they pay a lot of attention to how they look and how they dress - with a preference for flannel-patterned shirts, bought first-hand but made to look second-hand, and tight-fitting pants. But herbivores reflect a wider societal movement.

And, as it turns out, even those who identify themselves as more traditional men, rather than herbivores, are a lot different from their fathers.

Like Shinsuke Kanemura, 25, a jockish graduate from the elite Kyoto University, who met his friend for a 4 p.m. ice cream before beginning his night shift. And Akira Tanaka, 26, a "carnivore" who ridicules the herbivorous desire to "blend into the atmosphere."

"I was brought up in a family where, if you're a man, you ought to act like a man," Tanaka said. He works as a hairstylist.

Those who have rejected the old model, though, haven't yet discovered a new model - a way to earn a comfortable living without losing a quality life. Much as they loathe the office place's stifling social obligations, Japan's young men - according to the latest government statistics - prefer lifelong employment to any alternative, mostly because they value a safe option over a risky one. Japan's dim economic climate, experts say, has spawned a generation of unsentimental job-seekers who see only a spectrum of flawed options.

Little income

This demographic has remained elusive for automakers, brewers and other manufacturers. According to Tokyo's Metropolitan Police, between 1998 and 2007, the number of driver's licenses in Japan increased by 1 million. But the number dropped by 30,000 for people age 20 and by 40,000 for people age 25. People in their 20s, according to government statistics, consume less than half the alcohol of twenty-somethings in 1980.

Yoshio Kanda, 28, a wedding photographer from Osaka, says he feels "awkward" when talking to people from the bubble generation. He describes a sense of opposite values. He notices this most, he says, "when we go out drinking."

"People of an older generation, whatever they say or do, it's to the max," Kanda said. "Our generation, we don't spend money to the max and we don't drink to the max. We feel the need to save. At the same time, it's not cool to be throwing up on the street after you've been drinking."

More than the earlier generation, Japan's young men, according to marketing consultants, value close friendships and memorable experiences. One recent beer commercial depicts a hiking trip. Another shows a bunch of pals, hanging out at somebody's home.

But there's another factor, too: Japan's young men have little money to spend. Only 3.5 percent of men ages 25 to 34 make more than the average workers' household income of about 6 million yen (or $73,600) per year, according to National Tax Agency.

Matsumoto, the former food developer, has only his unemployment stipend, which expires in three months. He hopes to find a new job before then. So far, he's interviewed for one position and applied for five more.

He admits there's a chance his next job could also require 14-hour workdays. He wouldn't want to ask direct questions about time off during an interview.

Matsumoto shrugged.

"I never thought my job was the priority - that it was everything in my life," he said. "I want my private life to feel enriched as well. . . . I feel that the system itself is built for the older generation, but the young people just go into it because they have no other choice."

Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.

calling wardrobe

Is somebody doing a remake of Village of the Damned?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

good grub

Recently I joined some Japanese friends for lunch at Kochi Fukaba. House specialty: shabu shabu, slices of raw pork or beef that you boil yourself at the table and dip into tasty sauces like ponzu and sesame.

Here on the 8th floor of the Seibu in Shibuya -- the big department store next to Tsutaya and Starbucks, northwest side of the Scramble across from Hachiko -- it's shabu shabu with a twist. You get the same pot of water spiked with dashi (a fish-based consomme), but with a generous glob of cream-colored collagen, which dissolves as the broth comes to a boil, enriching its flavor and helping us gals maintain younger-looking skin. (That last part may be wishful thinking. One article I found on the subject quotes scientists saying that collagen, the high-protein connective tissue found between animal bones, is digested into amino acids just like other proteins, so eating meat and other protein-rich foods has the same effect. And Kuniko Takahashi, a nutrition scientist at Gunma University and author of Tabemono Joho Uso Honto (Truth and Falsehood of Food Information), wrote that collagen, as a protein, is "no better than average.")

It was a delicious meal in any case. The restaurant had this great green condiment of concentrated yuzu (citrus) and spicy pepper, which I added to my dipping sauce.

The plastic display outside the entrance to the restaurant takes the fake-food-as-art to a whole new level.

That long clump in the lower right-hand corner represents one of the side dishes we ordered: raw chopped meat mixed with bits of veg and spices, a sort of mini (raw) meatloaf. You drop spoonfuls of the stuff into the broth to cook.

Here's what the collagen looks like when it is first added to the pot:

Four of my lunch buddies (right outside the entrance to the building):

Sunday, October 10, 2010

It's like basketball. Only it's not...

I had never heard of netball until I moved to Japan. It's a popular school sport for girls growing up in the U.K. and Australia and New Zealand, and here in Tokyo, expats from these countries get together every Wednesday night to play. I joined in a year ago on a lark -- I was the only American until a 20-something basketball player from St. Louis started turning up -- and now I'm a national champion. Oh yes. It's true.

At the 11th annual Japan Netball Championship held last October (2009), my team, Tokyo Netball, for whom I played Wing Defense, won 1st place. Each team member received a Japan Netball lapel pin and a wreath of twigs and dried flowers.

This year's event was at a big gymnasium at the University of Tsukuba, in Otsuka, in Bunkyo-ku. There were eight teams competing. We gaijin had enough people to enter two teams; Tokyo Netball B took 1st to hold onto the title. Tokyo Netball A finished in third place.

Our players were randomly assigned, and though our B team dominated throughout the day, our game against each other was no blow out -- we were tied 6-6 at the final buzzer and had to go into overtime. (the B's -- the ladies in the gold bibs -- ultimately won 7-6.)

I posted this video clip featuring some of the day's action. Watch it and you'll see that in netball there's no dribbling, and when you get the ball, you have to stop where you are and get rid of it in three seconds. You can't shoot or score a goal unless you're playing one of two offensive positions. For the others, it's like a game of catch, or keep away (I oversimplify, but you get the idea). It's supposed to be no-contact, but bumping and crashing and tripping is known to occur. Put the ball through the net to get a point. That's the gist anyway. For a full explanation and history, click here.

Susan blocks a pass

I mostly played Wing Attack for the A side. Basically my job was to help ferry the ball from our defensive end to the shooters. It's basically a mid-court position.

At halftime, I pass the WA bib to Kanako and pick up my camera. Lu, our formidable Center, talks strategy.

Someone suggested we try an unsmiling cross-armed rugger's pose for our team photo, but we weren't feeling very serious.
More than half of the A team hails from the U.K., but we also had a South African, a Samoan, a Japanese, an Australian and an American (me -- 6th from the left). I'm guessing the age range represented here is early 20s to early 40s. I can't be sure, but the Japanese teams seemed almost entirely made up of university students.

While I was certainly at the upper end of the age spectrum, it's didn't matter, of course, and I have to say it's nice to be involved in something where my being a mother is totally irrelevant.

At the start of our first game, against "Rizen" -- the team that eventually took 2nd place and the first of only two games our A team lost that day -- the umpire called for a rock-paper-scissors to decide who would get the starting pass. I'm not sure how this happened but I ended up doing the honors. Fortunately, having seen my boys play this game countless times, I knew what to do. "Sai sho wa gu, a jan ken pon!" I said, and threw down scissors. So did the other girl. A tie. Again, my boys had trained me well. After two more fist pumps and an "Ai ko de sho!", we threw down again. Me: scissors, Rizen: paper. Black ball!

Here we are later on in the day, playing "Dream Tago" ...

I take a shot... and miss... (my stint as Goal Attack was brief)

Post-game photo op: We thrashed them, and yet, smiles all around!

Friday, October 8, 2010

baby fashion watch

Meiji-dori, Harajuku, Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Thursday, October 7, 2010

free juice while you wait

The only good thing about waiting an hour and 15 minutes to be seen by a service rep at this dismal Softbank store on Bunkamura dori (Why don't I go to the nice big one on Omotesando? Why?): You can recharge your iphone in the basement.

adventures in Shibuya

Coin lockers rule.

After a morning of errands which had me pretty much weighed down with bags by lunchtime, I hooked up with my friend Claire (above). We were wandering the back streets around Center Gai in Udagawacho (the shopping beehive near Shibuya crossing) when I spotted these coin lockers and thought, yes!

Best 200 yen I spent all day.

We ended up at a cafe inside the Loft department store called 'Pot Luck.' They make their own ginger ale -- it's like a fire in the belly.

Then Claire had to help me find the coin lockers again. Note: they are located in the alley off Bunkamura dori. Softbank is on the corner.

Monday, October 4, 2010

back o' the line, punk!

I suspect that in many other parts of the world, the tagline for this latest lesson in metro etiquette -- "Please get on the train in turn" -- would sound hopelessly optimistic. But it's really quite a reasonable request here in Tokyo. In fact this sign is probably more reminder than reprimand, as most people, from what I've seen, already respect the rule of the queue.

This type of standard behavior, coupled with the characteristic hush of a commuter crowd here (no raised voices -- not much talking of any kind, really -- and no eye contact) used to feel strange, but now it seems completely normal. I used to marvel at Tokyo's order and efficiency, but now I take it all for granted. It's the relative anarchy of a New York City subway station that feels foreign. I'm spoiled now. I'm ruined. I've lost my New York edge! I've lost my tolerance for filth and rude, pushy crowds! I've gone soft!

This is not good.

Friday, October 1, 2010

I worship the Cart Lady

One of several reasons why traveling by train is such a pleasure in this country...

Coffee, beer, water and assorted snacks, for sale at your seat!

The beer is cold, the snacks salty or sweet. I think you can get boxed lunches as well. This service was especially appreciated a few weeks ago, when I had to rush through many corridors and up and down endless escalators on a long-haul underground transfer deep inside Tokyo Station -- with two kids, two rolly suitcases and no husband in tow -- to catch the Wakashio Ltd. to Onjuku. Within minutes after collapsing into our seats, the lady with the cart entered our car. Best Asahi "Dry" ever.


And so we officially proclaim yet another family tradition -- dining out at a churrascaria for Conor's birthday. (Dylan gets Korean barbecue -- can you smell a trend here?)

Barbacoa (Jingumae/Aoyama) has a great deal where kids get all-you-can-eat-meat for 2,100 yen, 2 hours max. (Adults are approx. double; reservations often have an end point in this town, but here it really does make sense.) Servers bring around giant slabs of various cuts of beef and pork, roasts mainly, but also chicken legs, sausages, grilled whole onions and buttery potatoes, and slide or slice portions off the big sword-like skewers, as much and as often as you like. Ah, and the grilled pineapple -- delicious.

There's a chip on the table with the restaurant's logo printed in green on one side, red on the other. Green means go! We want more! Red means stop, for now -- we need to rest. There's also a salad bar if your body starts to suddenly crave something like, oh, carrots or steamed broccoli. Which can happen after several mouthfuls of carne.

Here's Conor receiving a slice of what I think was one of the best cuts of the night:

If you hang your jacket over the back of your chair, the staff puts a green drop cloth over it -- you can see the one covering Conor's windbreaker in the photo above -- presumably to protect it from any juice or greasy spatter from roving spits.

A special dessert for the Bday boy:
mango sorbet, a square of chocolate-orange-layer cake, a bit of chocolate mouse cake, a sliced strawberry with fresh mint, and, the only thing that didn't disappear in under a minute: a green-tea cream cake roll with sweet red bean.

Dylan's best carnivore face

Barbacoa Grill is located at 4-3-24, B1F, in Jingumae, Shibuya-ku. Just off Omotesando dori (north side), about a 2-min walk from the Aoyama crossing. See's Candy is a bit further along the same road (and has excellent chocolate). Tel No.: 03 3796 0571. Reservations recommended!