Here’s my beard, ain’t it weird?

Recently I got to think about something that really seemed natural to me, but when I started looking more carefully at the faces of male Japanese passersby while walking the streets of Osaka, I realized it was not: I’m talking about beards.

When we landed in Japan one of the men from customs control asked me how old I was and then added: “That’s a wild beard you’re growing there.” Not sure if that was a compliment.

Apparently it is rather uncommon for Japanese men to wear beards or moustaches. The only bearded celebrity I could spontaneously think of is the famous Anime director Miyazaki Hayao.

Miyazaki Hayao

Bearded Miyazaki Hayao
Photo taken from Wikipedia.

Apparantly one of the reasons why men in Japan abstain from wearing a beard is plainly because the ladies don’t crave it. In a (not necessarily representative) poll on 300 women younger than 30 were asked about their opinion on beards. Only 1% answered that they really liked bearded men and 22% were ok with it. The overwhelming majority of 77% didn’t like bearded men. The comments on this little poll unequivocally agree that beards don’t make a well-groomed impression. They look dirty and hurt when kissing, the comments go on. Although this may be true for beards everywhere, it doesn’t seem to discourage many men in Europe to wear beards, so why in Japan?

When I took a glance at a Japanese men’s fashion magazine, it seemed to me that they try to push beards again, especially this moustache + chin-beard combination displayed in the thread by many other celebrities I didn’t know of. The beard has to look just the right degree of chaotic to make a casual impression. This seems to contradict the results of the poll cited above, but one  commentator on naver says: “It looks ok on actors, but there are just really few people on whom a beard looks good.”

Today it is unimaginable for a Japanese politician to grow a beard as Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, does. It seems that beards came out of fashion in the post-war period. You can oftentimes see pictures of regular men and politicians wearing full beards before the war. I haven’t read anywhere pre-war complaints about beards looking dirty and itch when kissing, but maybe women then just hadn’t the right to voice their disdain for beards…


Women of the World, Unite!

Today is the International Women’s Day, one of the last remnants of socialist ideology in today’s (western) societies, so let’s take a brief look at the situation of women in Japan.

Google's doodle on International Women's Day 2015

Google celebrates the International Women’s Day 2015 with a doodle.

In theory, i.e. by law, men and women are equal in Japan pretty much the same way they are equal in every other industrialized society. But numbers often speak a clearer language than ideology. According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2014 Japan ranks 104th of 142 countries, behind Armenia and way behind its big neighbour China (ranked 87th). Why is that? Japan appears to be one of the most advanced countries in the world, but still over half of its population is left behind? Well, not everything is bad for women in Japan. They are very well educated, girls’ grades in school are at least as good as boys’ grades. Many women graduate from Universities, although disproportionally many women visit 2-year universities, while 4-year universities are still dominated by men. Still, not bad. In terms of life expectancy women are even far superior to men with an average life expectancy of 77 compared to men’s 72.

The reason why Japan’s rank is that low is the lack of female participation in the economy and in politics, a problem most western countries are also still struggling with, but which is especially grave in Japan. One of the most astonishing inequalities between men and women is the huge wage gap. On average women get for similar work only 68% of their male counterparts’ wages. This, understandably, discourages women from pursuing careers at all, which also partly explains why only 12% of legislators, senior officials and managers are women. Even though Prime Minister Abe tried to install more female ministers in his recent cabinet, still only 9.1% of lower house MPs and 16.1% of upper house MPs are women. To install a female Prime Minister is unimaginable in Japan. But Mr Abe is at least trying to mend the situation. Besides his economic reform program dubbed famously “Abenomics” he also started a campaign to promote women to 30% of positions of authority until 2020, which accordingly came to be called “Womenomics”. Unfortunately I don’t know what concrete measures Mr Abe is going to implement in order to achieve this goal. A fixed quota for women in managerial positions, as the one that was recently established in Germany, seems not to stand up for discussion yet.

The root of the problem though lies buried deeply in the mindset of society. The ideal women is still the “good wife, wise mother” (良妻賢母 ryôsai kenbo) from the Meiji period. While the male breadwinner is at work or drinking with his colleagues, which is still obligatory in many Japanese companies, she stays at home, rears the children and keeps the house tidy. Until very recently it was (and to a certain extent still is) expected from women to leave their jobs for good as soon as they get married or at the latest when they get children. This is the reason why women never were even considered for promotions and were automatically stuck in lower positions. After their children started going to school, many women returned to the work-force as part-timers, but still were barred from career advancement. And almost every woman was pressured to marry in her early twenties. Unmarried women at the age of 26 came to be called “Christmas cakes”, since nobody still wants to eat Christmas cake after the 25th of December. And yes, Christmas cake is a real thing in Japan.

The trend nowadays is slightly changing. Even though society is still extremely patriarchal, an increasing number of young women decide to break out of the system by simply not marrying at all. They realize that their chances of career advancement is much higher if they stay unmarried and that they can make a decent living for themselves and even are able to enjoy the money they earned as long as they don’t have a family to take care of. This unfortunately further aggravates Japan’s ageing society and extremely low birth rates, because children born out of wedlock also are socially unwelcome.

Now, there is obviously no quick-fix for this whole mess, but I think a fixed quota for women in parliament and managerial positions would be a first step to show the society that it won’t break apart if women fill positions of authority. Also a more liberal approach in early education, one that encourages girls to pursue careers instead of preparing them to serve their husbands, would help a great lot, but since the Ministry of Education is in a tight grip of conservative bureaucracy, this probably won’t happen in the near future. I am very curious to see if Mr Abe’s Womenomics will make a difference. I really hope so. Until then brace yourselves for yet another set of International Men’s Days lasting from Mar 9th until Mar 7th.

Hina Matsuri 雛祭り

As yesterday’s doodle on Google Japan beautifully illustraes, was yesterday the Hina Matsuri or Doll Festival.

Google Hina Matsuri Doodle 2015

Google’s Hina Matsuri Doodle 2015

What the doodle actually shows are nagashi hina (流し雛 floating dolls), which are paper dolls who are set afloat on a river on this day. The origins of this ritual are not quite clear but they go at least as far back as to the Heian-Era (794 -1185 CE) and are mentioned in Murasaki Shikibu’s famous novel Genji Monogatari. On this day it is also custom to display elaborate ensambles of dolls and to pray for a healthy growing up of young girls. Here’s a picture of a doll arangement from Wikipedia:

Hina Matsuri Doll ensemble

From top to bottom: Emperor & Empress, Sake Ladies, Musicians, Ministers, Samurai.

It displays a miniature banquet at the Imperial Palace with all kinds of court officials. There is a special terminus for each of the dolls and everything in the ensemble is very strict and ritualized. Even the hairdos of the dolls have to be arranged in a special way. The black hair of the female dolls e.g. has to surround the face from above and from the sides in order to better bring out the paleness of their faces, since pale faces were regarded as a sign of beauty at court. Just like the dolls do, you usually eat sushi and a special kind of diamond-shaped mochi and drink white sweet sake on this day. Also everything is often decorated with peach blossoms, since it’s the time when they begin to blossom (except for northern Japan where it’s too cold in March and the festival thus is often moved to August).

Unvortunately we hopelessly overslept and weren’t really in the mood to go outside yesterday, so we reduced the whole festival to eating sushi and mochi and drinking sake from the konbini.


Shame on us, but we still had fun =)

News Digest: What’s happening in Japan (Mar 02)

In a rare public statement on an ideological debate the Emperor’s son, crown prince Naruhito, admonished the Japanese people to remember the Second World War “correctly”. He urged never to forget those who died in the war to prevent a repeat of the horrors of war. His statement was widely regarded as a mild rebuke to Prime Minister Shinzô Abe who has openly said he wants a more sympathetic telling of the history of the first half of the 20th century. Mr Abe is to make a statement on the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII later this year. It is expected that he will not revoke previous apologies stated by Japanese governments, but there is speculation that he could try to downplay the “comfort women” issue.

On Thursday the panel, consisting of 10 academics, three business leaders, two journalists and an international aid worker, appointed by Prime Minister Abe to prepare his speech on the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII, met for the first time. Among the experts is also Masashi Nishihara who has expressed the view that reports of the Japanese military’s use of sex slaves during the war are “fabricated in South Korea.” On the other hand one member of the panel is a liberal-leaning journalist from the Mainichi Shinbun. Thus it remains open how far right the final speech will turn out in the end.

A 41 year old woman in Tokyo died after having been assaulted by her partner.

A 13-year old boy in Kawasaki was stabbed to death by his peers. The police arrested two 17-year and one 18-year old boys. The younger ones testified that the oldest was drunk and stabbed the 13-year old in the head. The police also confiscated their smartphones and is analyzing their LINE histories to get further insight.

Esther Ibanga, a Nigerian pastor, was awarded this year’s Niwano Peace Prize. The prize comes with ¥20 million ($170,000) prize money. Mrs Ibanga campaigned against the Islamist extremists of Boko Haram and committed herself to promote reconciliation between religious and tribal groups by setting up an organization that has all tribal women leaders on its membership.

Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, visited Tokyo to launch the Innovation is Great campaign by traditionally breaking the lids of sake barrels for good luck (鏡抜きkagami nuki). Innovation is Great is a year-long campaign designed to foster collaboration between Japan and the U.K. It is including the Innovation is Great Exhibition at Daikanyama Tsutaya Books which will feature a selection of innovative British products.

Transgender in Japan, pt.1

Before I begin, I would like to make clear that this topic is vastly complex and I still have to conduct a lot of research and reading myself before being able to contribute a substantial statement (hence this article is only pt.1), so for today I will just try to scratch the surface a little bit and see what comes up. For now I will simply throw some popular appearances of transsexuality and cross-dressing in Japan at you.

Recently I had time and opportunity to watch quite a bit Japanese TV and it seems that no matter where I switched there was one character always hunting me: Matsuko Deluxe (マツコ・デラックス). Matsuko is a cross-dressing journalist and writer who had his (I think he still percieves himself as a man, even though he uses the feminine pronoun atashi for himself) breakthrough on TV around 2010. You can get a glimpse of him on youtube:

Unfortunately I couldn’t find any suitable videos with English subtitles, but you get the gist. The video was recorded in a talk show which aired about four years ago, so at that time Matsuko was still a novelty on the Japanese TV landscape, which is why the hosts’ questions are primarily directed at his person and cross-dressing. As far as I understand it, this stage persona is not only a statement to raise awareness on transsexuality and homosexuality (Matsuko himself is gay), but he sees his corpulent figure at the same time as a criticism of the general appearance of female show hosts on Japanese TV, who are reduced to cute looks while their character or wit is completely uncared-for. However, the entertaining thing about Matsuko is his straight-forwardness and directness which seems even more comical since he doesn’t even try to make his voice sound feminine while otherwise maintaining the appearance of a woman. He pretty much ignores all Japanese customs of reservation and therefore the audience loves him.

Another famous transsexual figure, who also was mentioned shortly in the video because she, like Matsuko, was born in 1973, is Haruna Ai (はるな愛)

Japanese Idol Haruna Ai

Haruna Ai
She uses this photo also as her profile picture for her Ameba blog, but to get better resolution I followed the link to Keiji’s blog, where you can read more about Haruna (in Japanese)

Haruna underwent sex change surgery in 1996 and since the end of the last century had increasing appearances in public media. Today she is a well known enterntainer and idol in Japan. She had appearances in several TV Dramas, movies, had fairly successful singles, most notably I・U・YO・NE~, appeared in commercials, on radio, etc. She was the first Japanese to win the “Miss International Queen” transsexual beauty pageant in 2009 and she also actively maintains an Ameba blog placatively titled “AI am a girl”.

A last example I would like to mention is the movie Girl’s Blood (Jap. title: 赤×ピンク aka x pinku). [Minimal amount of spoilers] I actually didn’t know anything about that movie when I first watched it and it started out with a lot of eye candy for a presumably heterosexual male viewership, serving the most popular Japanese male fantasies like Lolita and S&M Queen in combination with girl-fights (including mud-fights). But eventually the movie developed a surprisingly deep plot about female friendship and a woman trying to escape the grip of her violently abusive husband and falling in love with the main character who is strongly confused about his gender identity, being a man in a woman’s body. I was really surprised of the quick understanding and acceptance all the other characters in the film showed the main character. For a movie that at first sight seemed closer to soft-porn than to drama, this was actually a better handling of the topic than I have seen in most Hollywood productions.

Now, experimenting with transgender in performing arts is not a new phenomenon in Japan. Most notably there is Kabuki (歌舞伎) theatre where every single role is performed by men and on the other hand Takarazuka (宝塚) where every single role is performed by women, thus making cross-dressing unavoidable. This affinity to transgender on-stage is especially curious, since the division of gender seems to be extremely sharp in Japanese society and, as Jan mentioned earlier, is even deep-rooted in the Japanese language itself. But it is a completly different matter being confronted with it in everyday life. In my next article on this topic I will try to cover some more the perception of and attitude towards transgender in Japan in other areas than performing arts.

Videogame Review: Go Go Nippon!

Around Valentine’s Day Humble Bundle offered a bundle “For Lovers (of games)” which contained several Japanese visual novel titles, among them “Go Go Nippon! ~My First Trip to Japan~”. Since I am currently on a trip in Japan myself and buying the bundle, as always, helped a chariable cause, I decided to give it a shot.

Go Go Nippon! was published by MangaGamer, written in 2011 primarily for a western audience and since 2014 is available on Steam. Like I said, Go Go Nippon! is a visual novel, which means that you basically just click through lengthy dialogues with slightly changing backgrounds and anime characters as your conversation partners. This is by itself not a bad thing. Visual novels are very popular in Japan, especially as dating sims. If you don’t mind all the reading, they can be really enjoyable.

Now, for the plot (there’s not really much to spoiler, so keep reading): You finally fulfilled your long-cherished dream of coming to Japan. You somehow learned Japanese and equipped yourself with basic knowledge about Japan. In an online chat you got to know Akira and Makoto who agreed to give you a tour through Japan and let you stay at their family’s home. As you arive at Narita Airport, you realize that, contrary to your expectations, Akira and Makoto are both female and of course young, beautiful and charming. And, oh such a coincidence, their parents are both gone on business-trips for the next couple of weeks which means that you get to stay alone with them at their house for one whole week.

GoGoNippon 1 GoGoNippon

Nevertheless, they indeed guide you through Japan, or to be more precise, through Tokyo. As you can see in the screenshot above, you can choose from six destinations in Tokyo, you want to visit. This is, by the way, the only time you can choose anything, the rest of the game you just click through dialogues. I haven’t finished the game yet, but I suppose that you don’t get the chance to leave Tokyo. That’s probably fine, since your trip to Japan only goes for one week. That’s a reasonable amount of time to visit Tokyo but by far insufficient to cover Japan as a whole. Still, I was a bit disappointed and quite misled by the title of the game… oh well, at least I can have a virtual tour through Akihabara…

Or so I thought. The game is not really a tour-guide. You don’t really get to see the places, but the dialogues describe you going with your guides through some represantative locations of the corresponding part of Tokyo. For example, while walking through Akihabara, you stumble into a giant dôjinshi manga shop and eat lunch in a maid café while shallowly flirting with your young guide. Although you learn a bit of trivia, like the origin of the name “Akihabara”, this game is pretty much useless as a guide through Tokyo. It’s basically a dating sim, but without dialogue options to choose from.

Still, this game also has some cool features. If you never have been to Japan, this game will introduce to you some basic particularities of Japan, like IC-cards, convenience stores and people who hand out tissues on the streets. Also, as you can see in the screenshot above, you always have the Japanese dialogue running along the English translation. This is a very nice feature if you are currently learning Japanese. You can at all times read the Japanese dialogue and, if you get stuck, you can peek at the English translation. I didn’t read all the English dialogues, but as far as I can tell, the translation was ok. When words with a particular Japanese cultural meaning occur, they are explained in a short footnote. Another nice tool you can see in this screenshot:

GoGoNippon 3

At the beginning the game asks you to choose the currency of your home country (you can only choose between $ and € though) and insert the current exchange rate. The game then calculates how much money you spend on train tickets or food in Yen and converts it to Euros or Dollars. The game was written in 2011 and since then Japan raised its sales tax by 3%, but you at the very least can get a rough picture of Japanese prices. Also it covers only a fraction of the expenses you will have when coming to Tokyo, but the idea is still nice.

To sum up: If you want to come to Tokyo for the first time, don’t mind a lot of reading, and are intrigued by the thought of flirting with female anime characters, you could enjoy this game. But don’t expect a tour guide, there’s a reason why it was in the Valentine’s Day Humble Bundle…

Breakfast and Breakfast

(We’re still on Okinawa, so our friend Jan volunteered to write a guest article. He has our deepest gratitude!)

While White Hinagiku and ulfdiefee enjoy their well earned vacation on Okinawa, I was asked to fill their otherwise blank blogpages with a small guest lecture. Being a great fan of their work, I accepted this honour immediately, before I realized that I may be lacking the major qualification to write for this blog. I have never been to Japan and therefore can’t tell you anything crazy or kawaii from the land of the rising sun.

But at least I spend my freetime trying to learn a bit of Japanese. The Japanese language is very different from indogermanic languages like English or my native tongue German. One thing I always found interesting is the way, how gender is articulated in the Japanese language. There are many funny stories about people who learned Japanese from native teachers of the other gender and then earned confused reactions from Japanese people for using the wrong language for their hormonal situation.

So let me tell you about the differences between 朝御飯 and 朝飯. Several weeks ago i searched the japanese word for breakfast. The German-Japanese dictionary wadoku offered me two words: Asagohan (朝御飯) and Asameshi (朝飯). According to wadoku, they both mean breakfast. Often, when I am not sure which word to use, I turn to lang8. Lang8 is a great tool for learning languages, because it helps you getting in contact with native speakers. So I asked my magical internet friends from Japan what the difference between these two is. I first received an answer from a Japanese female:

„I say 朝御飯。
Man use 朝飯。
Woman don’t use 朝飯.“

Okay, easy. So the Japanese have one breakfast-word for people with penis and one for those without. Why not. But then came the second answer by a Japanese person whose gender I dont know:

朝御飯 is a very polite expression for breakfast while 朝飯 is comparatively a rough word.

We usually use “朝飯” when we talk with close friends, for example, 「おまえもう朝飯食べた?」.

On the other hand, when we want to say same thing above to someone who we don’t know well or have to use polite Japanese, “朝御飯” should be used, like 「朝御飯はお召し上がりになりましたか?」.“

So, actually, the difference doesn’t seem to be about your penis-situation but about your politeness level. I find it very interesting, and not very flattering for us males, that friendliness seems to be an explicit female-feature of Japanese language, while we are expected to use the more rude variant.

When I learn things like this, I feel really sorry for people like White Hinagiku, who have to translate from Japanese to English or German. So when a female person says something about breakfast, but uses the male version of the word, there is a lot of meaning in the subtext, which is really hard to transport into German, since our words usually don’t give us a lot of information about the gender of the speaker.

Instead, our food is heavily gendered. In Germany it is expected from males to eat a lot meat and other unhealthy food and then whine around, that you have to die earlier than those women, from which German society expects to only live from salad, yoghurt and evian-water. I have no idea if they have something like this an Japan, maybe White Hinagiku and UlfdieFee can tell us, when they come back…

Chinese New Year

One again, Happy New Year! =D

Today is the beginning of the new year according to the traditional Chinese calendar. It will be the year of the (wood) Sheep or Goat. Since the character 羊 (yáng) can mean goat as well as sheep in Chinese, it can be interpreted both ways in English, but in Japan 羊 (hitsuji) only means sheep. Also, to distinguish it from the actual animal, the zodiac sign is usually written with the character 未.

Actually this day itself is, as far as I know, not celebrated at all in Japan, but in the Gregorian pre-New Year period there was a lot of ineffably cute sheep merchandise all over the stores. Of course we couldn’t resist bying some cute sheep figurines and tiny plushies.


Also many Japanese New Year cards (年賀状 nengajō) were sheep-themed, like this one with a sheep postal stamp.

Sheep stamp 1

Stamps are everywhere in Japan, and since we crafted our nengajô ourselves this year, we of course also piled up a supply of cute sheep stamps, like this one of the sheep with a bitter orange (代々daidai) on its head.

Sheep Stamp 2

To sum shings up: May the new year be fluffy and cozy! Also, we like sheep ^_^

Japanese Ads: Do You Even Smile Lift?

Meanwhile in Japan football player Cristiano Ronaldo advertises for facial muscle training equipment:

Face up CR Cover Face up demo

The perfect way to get a smile of steel. Basically you stick it in your mouth, as shown in the gender, age and ethnic background diverse picture above, and move your head up and down until the wings begin to flap. You can insert three different sets of weight to vary the intensity of the training. It is supposed to bring your faceline, the corners of your mouth and the lines between your nose and your mouth in perfect shape. Also you look ridiculous while using it, which is probably the reason why there are no pictures of Mr. Ronaldo actually using it himself. But he shows some very enthusiastic facial expressions, maybe after all the hard facial fitness training?

Face up CR wow

We’ve seen it being promoted a couple of times in Osaka’s shopping malls. Unfortunately we couldn’t get hold of one yet, mainly because it costs over 10.000¥ (about 100$), which is way more than I am willing to spend. But since smiling is one of your main tasks if you have a job in the service sector in Japan, I suppose this could sell. WhiteHinagiku also really wants to try it out sometime, so, if we get a chance, we’ll make silly pictures of us lifting our smiles.

Valentine’s Day in Japan

Today is Valentine’s Day. Like many other Western inventions, this celebration also has made its way to Japan. I doubt very much that there are many Japanese who know about the origins of this day, but they definitely know about the exchange of chocolate products. It is rather uncommon in Japan to give Valentine’s Day cards or flowers as presents, you usually only give chocolate. Figures, since this day was introduced in Japan by the confectionery Morozoff in 1936 as an advertisement campaign. And the Japanese really know how to fabricate beautifully crafted and insanely delicious chocolate products. Even though we have no interest in celebrating V-Day, when our favourite confectionery offers a Valentine’s Day-only buttercream-filled chocolate cake we don’t have to think twice:

V-Cake Wrapped V-Cake

Another curious thing you should know about Valentine’s Day in Japan: Due to a translation error of a chocolate company executive, it became customary that only women give chocolate presents to men on V-Day. You can view this scene in every high school anime where the girl gives chocolate to her favorite boy.

V-Day Chocolate

Will you please go out with me? Yes – No – Maybe?

Many women in offices also feel obligated to give chocolate presents to their male co-workers, which coined the term “obligation chocolate” (giri-choko, 義理チョコ).

But, Gentlemen, you are far from excused. Since the 1980s the Japanese National Confectionery Industry Association promoted a campaign on March 14th called White Day, where men who have recieved chocolate gifts on Valentine’s Day have to return the favour with white chocolate. And this white chocolate better have at least double the value of the gift you have recieved. The White Day custom already spread from Japan to South Korea, Taiwan and China. But the romantic association with Valentine’s Day is still not as strong in Japan as it is in the west. By far the most popular season for making a trip to a “love hotel” is still Christmas. But that’s another story…