Tuesday, 30 June 2009

SMAPXSMAP and Michael Jackson

Last night I watched SMAPXSMAP on TV. I haven't watched it for years but I wanted to see how Kusanagi was doing back on the show. Smap (Sports and Music Assemble People) is a boy band which formed in 1988 (when they were 16,15,14 and 11 years' old) and debuted their first album in 1991. There were originally six members: Masahiro Nakai, Takuya Kimura, Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, Goro Inagaki, Shingo Katori and another one who left to become a racing driver. Smap are a product of Johnny's Music Factory which specializes in boy bands. Japanese boy bands are great marketing tools because Japanese girls are the country's biggest spenders not only on music and ring tones but any product that a band member might eat, drink, wear or look at. If a boy band can 'catch a girl's heart' they can sell soft drinks, toxic snacks, hair products, and electronics, and their fortunes are made! At least until they are replaced in their early twenties. Boy bands generally have five or more members because girls hang out in large gangs so there will always be one boy who will appeal to every girl. Looks are all, talent is secondary. In fact, only one Smap member, Takuya Kimura can actually hold a note. But as my students say, Smap are "Ike mens". They are 'attractive men' so who cares? They feature in dramas, variety shows, films, in anime as voices and singing the theme songs, and A LOT of CM (commericals). You can't buy a snack in this city that Shingo Katori hasn't eaten first.

Their Monday night variety show began in 1996 and is still going 13 years' later, making Smap the immortals of the ephemeral 'J Pop' scene. Over the years the show has featured unfunny comedy, tedious games, a SMAP Bistro cooking competition and live songs which make your eardrums bleed. But SMAPXSMAP soldiers on and last night they were reminiscing about the time Michael Jackson surprised them on set. Whether Michael Jackson would have had any memory of the event is debatable since he seemed rather out of it most of the time.

So why was I checking on Kusanagi? On the morning of 23rd April at 3am, Kusanagi was arrested for being drunk and naked in a Tokyo park. He said to the arresting officers,"What's wrong with being naked?" and in the summer heat I have to agree with him. No doubt he too was fed up with the 28 degree aircon rule and was simply trying to keep cool the environmentally friendly way. Such an incident would have been played for laughs in the UK but by acting outside the perimeters of all the marketing contracts he held with various Japanese companies,he threatened their bottom line. Kunio Hatoyama the Minister for Internal Affairs and Communications was said to be 'furious'. (Kusanagi had a government contract with the ministry.) Consequently poor Kusanagi was forced into a humiliating apology on live TV. The event served to highlight a divide between corporate Japan and real people. Corporate Japan humiliated him, real people criticised the corporations for condemning behaviour that goes on all over Tokyo every night of the week. Indeed the very night of the incident I was coming home on the subway at about 10.30pm, (like most Japanese I work late)and I saw a man squatting on the floor. As I feared, he suddenly convulsed and projectile-vomited clear across the platform. It's a common occurence in a land which cannot hold its drink.

Last night Kusanagi was back on TV with his Smap buddies, acting just the way Japanese males on TV are supposed to. Like he'd been neutered.

More on Smap tomorrow ...

Saturday, 27 June 2009

I HATE Coolbiz!

A few years' ago, the then PM Koizumi's government came up with the idea of saving energy by not wearing a jacket or tie. The aircon could then be turned up a few degrees and the planet would be saved. They called this idea Coolbiz. Koizumi was filmed walking around Tokyo without a jacket or tie to try to convince companies to adopt this idea. For most Japanese business people however their job is their life, so discarding even some of their business attire left them feeling vulnerable and irrelevent. I have yet to see a male staff member at our university without a tie.

Here are the other Coolbiz rules as listed on our university poster:

From the 6th June to the 30th September:

Turn taps off diligently.
Turn off lights and computers when you leave.
Buy Eco products where possible.
Do not make unnecessary photocopies.
When you stop at the traffic lights, turn off your engine.

All do-able, right? Except for this one:

Set the aircon no lower than 28 degrees C.

Now 28 degrees I can handle if I a) I sit perfectly still and b) I am naked. However this is not appropriate behaviour in a classroom where I am walking around and writing on the whiteboard for 90 minutes. It's not the heat so much as the humidity. If I stand up too quickly I feel faint. This cuts no ice (ice, lovely) with the students who make a point of putting their coats on if I put the aircon down to 22. But they are sitting down. They are not expending any energy unless you count snoring. Yes, many students fall asleep in class. Of course, they do. The room is like a greenhouse.

I discussed this matter with other teachers and they told me to ignore the aircon rule. They do. They also noted that most of the students who complain are very thin girls who, through a diet of Vitamin Water and sticking their fingers down their throats, have no body fat. They would be cold in a sauna.

The aircon stays at 22. Sod the planet.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

More Seasonal Foods

Our campus cafe is having a summer season 'Fruits Bread Fair' featuring the kinds of colourings and flavourings that will have the students entering the classroom via the 6th floor windows and picking fights with on-campus security. I tried the one on the left, the sour orange,and it lives up to its name. While Brits love sweet, the Japanese adore suppai (sour). And while Brits like the traditional, Japanese crave the new and exciting. This is why shops such as the campus bakery must keep coming up with new ideas to tempt the fickle Japanese customer. The Japanese will spend big on the latest craze. But fads change fast here. Students at my previous university in Nagoya use to complain that Nagoya was a whole three weeks behind Tokyo so that when the latest craze arrived in their shops it was already old hat in the big Mikan.

Apple Cider Vinegar Update: The Mizkan Central Research Institute has discovered that people who drank 30ml of Apple Cider Vinegar every day for 12 weeks lost an average of 1.85cm off their waistlines. Have you seen how much 30ml of Apple Cider Vinegar is?! Have you seen how little 1.85cm is?! And that's purely water weight. Poor sods must have been dehydrated.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Unagi (Eel)

One of my favourite Japanese dishes is unagi (eel). Traditionally it's a summer dish but I eat it all year round especially when I am in Hamamatsu, a city known for the freshest eel. In the best restaurants it is so fresh that they kill it to order, pulling one out of a barrel of water and wriggling eels, stripping off its skin, slicing it in half, sticking wooden skewers through it, dipping it in a treacly black sauce and putting it on a hot grill for about 10 minutes.

According to the Japanese, eel meat is very strong and eating too much eel will give you nosebleeds. But this is from a people who pass out at the smell of roast lamb. Itadakimasu! (Or 'I honourably receive'. In other words, Bon Apetit.)

Monday, 15 June 2009

Nail Art

These are the hands of one my students. Her nail art cost 13,000 yen (81 pounds and 25 pence at today's rate) and took two hours. It should last about a month although you can see that after two weeks some of the decoration has fallen off her two forefingers. In Japan's patriarchical society women are still viewed primarily as decorative objects and those who take the time to decorate themselves get hired first for OL (Office Lady) jobs. On the other hand (literally) nail art means they can't actually do any real manual work. One student in my English computing class had such long decorated nails (it was summer so they were sky blue with palms trees on every fingernail)that she couldn't work the keyboard and I had to do it for her. Who's the mug?!

Sunday, 14 June 2009


It's Ochugen time! Ochugen are midyear gifts which Japanese give to those with whom they wish to maintain a good relationship. Japan being a hierarchical society gifts are given upwards and they therefore constitute a benign form of bribery. Parents give ochugen to their children's teachers, for example. Despite being a university teacher (and previously a high school teacher) I have never received ochugen because I am a foreigner and consequently do not have any real influence over my students' futures. This is unlike certain professors at certain Japanese universities who have been making the news recently because of the millions of Yen they have been receiving as 'gifts' from their medical students. But if someone wishes to bribe me this year then they need look no further than the ochugen beer gift catalogue from Japan Post(the post office)or Seven Eleven's domestic produce brochure. The rice noodles in a bamboo tray with ice look delicious. Your medical licences are in the post.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Summer KitKat

Aha! The seasonal KitKat is here and this summer's flavour is ... Apple Vinegar. I am guessing this flavour was chosen because it will be popular with young women who want to lose the water weight they gain in the humidity. (A teaspoonful of Apple Cider Vinegar a day stops water retention.) I tried a piece and it had such a sharp tang that I started coughing. A fresh, apple taste is about all I can say in its favour. Five minutes' later I got a splitting headache. Think I'll stick to Green Tea flavour.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Lilo and ?

Japanese students like to buy straps for their keitai (mobile phones). I confiscated this phone from a student who was texting during class. Look at the little blue booklet ...