asazuke

Life in Japan, food, music, whatever…

Radiobeef and the missing 143 16 August, 2011

Filed under: food & drink,news,politics — johnraff @ 2:42 pm
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This isn’t good. It was about a month ago that the first radioactive beef started showing up in the consumer food chain; at first it was from cattle in the Fukushima area that had been fed rice straw contaminated by the reactor explosion. That was bad enough for the local farmers who had been struggling to get their lives restarted after the earthquake, but it now seems that straw from the danger zone – a major rice-producing area – had been sent to all kinds of places and traces of radioactive caesium have been found in beef from quite different places. This is bound to have an effect on sales of (delicious) Japanese beef, both here and, maybe more importantly, in Hong Kong, China and Taiwan where all kinds of Japanese food has been selling to the newly rich. ($100 apples, anyone?)

More: it now turns out that the Tokyo power company responsible for the Fukushima reactor is unable to trace 143 people who worked on the clear up operation, in order to monitor their radiation exposure. A lot of part-time workers were taken on in a shambling chain of sub-contractors to sub-sub-contractors and the bottom end included homeless people and alcoholics hanging out on the bad side of the railway station waiting for a bit of work from the gangster brokers who came round. They were offered 2 or 3 times the going rate for dangerous work, but nobody seemed to care too much about where they went afterwards. Of course this is just an extreme example of the return to Victorian-era exploitation that capitalists have been organizing on a world-wide level, but this time even token attempts to be concerned for workers’ welfare have broken down.

The Japanese population as a whole are, as you can imagine, less than enthused about repairing nuclear reactors, still less building new ones. Nobody believes the government or power companies when they try to reassure us that everything will be OK. Coming on top of the annual August commemoration of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the mood here is very much anti-nuclear. Of course public opinion is fickle, people forget quickly and the nuclear power consortium of electricity companies, big engineering, corrupt public servants, politicians and the media will do their best to fight back. Nuclear energy looks cheaper than renewable alternatives, untill you include all the hidden costs, and there’s lots of palm-greasing cash available. Still, can we allow ourselves some limited optimism that the much-fabled Japanese Consensus is about to be reached, and a major policy switch is coming up?

Fingers crossed (again).

 

Not so fast… 27 April, 2011

Filed under: news,politics — johnraff @ 2:43 pm
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While I was in the UK the Japanese earthquake almost vanished from the news. An occasional mention of yet more leaking radiation, but mainly it was all about Libya, where Britain and France seem to be the two main actors, generally totally failing to stop Qadhafi from shelling his own citizens. Now there’s talk of putting troops on the ground, going way over the UN mandate and starting to look like another Iraq or Afghanistan…

Meanwhile, here in Japan of course the earthquake is not going anywhere. Clearing up will take years, many thousands of people are still living in shelters, the already weak economy is gasping for breath and 2/3 of the TV news is about all that. Some items that came up in the last few days:

  • Some 95% of the deaths – approaching 30,000 – were caused by the tsunami, rather than the earthquake itself, and 2/3 of those were of people who were over 60.
  • More than a month later the aftershocks are still going on. Every day there are a couple more, some of magnitude 4 or 5 – not that small by any means, but they hardly get a mention in the news any more.
  • While abroad there’s been a lot of talk about the stoical, steadfast Japanese, here it’s about the people of Tohoku: the North-East region of Japan which is cold and traditionally poor, inhabited mostly by farmers and fishermen. They don’t complain much, just get on with the job – sort of more Japanese than the Japanese.
  • It’s “hanami” time – the annual Spring flower festivities when you have a few drinks under the cherry blossom and celebrate the end of Winter. This year, though, people look a bit guilty to be having a good time and the nighttime light-up of the cherry trees has been cancelled in many places – partly to save electricity, and partly because it just doesn’t feel right.
  • There have been many generous gifts from private individuals, in Japan and all over the world, along with all kinds of volunteer assistance. Some people from Bangladesh loaded a van up with ingredients and made curry (very popular with kids here). Others put together a laundry truck, India sent 20,000 blankets, the US army sent their band, who were really good apparently, the Australian prime minister brought cuddly koalas, others did free hairdressing, brought flowers… Seriously, some of these things might sound silly, but were genuinely appreciated, I think.
  • Even so, at a time like this what people would appreciate most of all is some money in their pockets, having had to flee their homes with nothing except the clothes they were wearing. At this point, however, the various local government authorities, those that still exist that is, are struggling with trying to figure out who’s in which refugee centre, how much each person’s house has been damaged, what compensation should go to which person where… in other words the usual red tape, so in spite of all the generous gifts that have come in, no-one’s actually seen any of the cash. Add to that rumours that the big organizations like the Red Cross have been creaming off as much as 40% for administrative costs or something – could that really be true? It’s easy to get cynical, or think of maybe just driving up there and /doing something/ directly.
  • Not all the victims were Japanese. While Japan is still not a major immigrant destination, there are still people here from Korea, China, Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Nigeria, not to mention my own UK. Not all those people can understand emergency tsunami warnings, evacuation instructions and the like in Japanese, and efforts have been made to provide translations into English, Chinese, Korean, Portuguese… This is obviously a major task and recently there has been talk of providing important information in simple Japanese which relatively recent arrivals might be able to understand. This seems to make more sense.
  • Back to school. Often in shared classrooms somewhat remote from their own home towns, but a lot of children have been starting classes this week. School dinners for some of them have been just a bottle of milk and a piece of bread, though. The kitchens are still not usable. Maybe they can have proper hot dinners in a few more weeks.
  • Radioactive refugees. Of course the Fukushima reactor breakdown has turned out to be a major part of this catastrophe, and possibly the one with the longest after-effects. Some 100,000 people have been forcibly evacuated from the area, with no immediate prospect of return. Now kids from that area are being picked on at school, and even adults have been refused admission by hotels and ryokan because they might be radioactive.
  • People are not the only victims. Farmers were forced to leave their animals behind, and even pet dogs are not allowed in the shelters, so many animals in the zone round the Fukushima reactor have starved to death.
  • Cars. More than 400,000 were trashed by the tsunami, made worthless by salt water and mud and now have to be disposed of. First, though, the owners have to be identified and permission obtained…
  • The economic effects continue to spread. Japanese restaurants in Hong Kong are threatened with bankruptcy because people are afraid of radioactive fish. Factories in Thailand and China cannot get the parts they need. Beer manufacturers are cutting down on the varieties they will make this year. Rice will not be planted in the restricted area, maybe for the forseeable future. “Buri” (a kind of tuna) is just coming into season, and delicious, but the price has collapsed because the distributors cannot guarantee having reliable electricity supplies to keep their freezers running.

In the end of course taxes are going to have to go up to pay for all this, so we can look forward to higher VAT or income tax, or possibly both. Would it be over-optimistic to hope that this disaster might be an opportunity to rethink the country’s (the world’s?) whole energy policy, shift towards renewable resources and more efficient use? Fingers crossed…

 

Sushi for Christmas 10 January, 2011

Filed under: city,food & drink — johnraff @ 7:29 pm
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This goes back thirty years or so, but a couple of minutes from the English school I used to teach at was a little sushi shop in the corner of a local market. The owner was a friendly guy who made good sushi and every day he had a lunchtime special for ¥380 that used whatever was in season at the fish market that day and made a great lunch. I used to drop in quite often. At that time there were little privately owned sushi shops everywhere, just like izakaya and yakitori places, but gradually the big companies moved in; they can buy in bulk and prepare stuff in big food factories so, as our local sushi lunch guy complained one day, there was no way that people like him could compete. A lot of places went out of business, but his solution was to move up, up-market. He bought the best fish at the market every day, however much it cost, and charged prices to match. Although he was still in the corner of this scruffy little market it was now hard to leave there without spending ¥10,000 or more, and the only people who could afford to eat there were yakuza.

And that’s how things are now – there are cheap, cheap chain sushi places where you can take the kids, and really expensive places. Having tasted decent sushi you don’t feel like MacSushi, and really can’t afford to go to the good places any more… what a drag. However, the other day when we were thinking of going out for dinner at Christmas and all the French restaurants were either too expensive or booked up T found a sushi shop via the internet that didn’t look too bad, and was just a short bike ride away from our house. In fact it was really OK – one of a “chain” of two, occupying a previous coffee shop and completely lacking the sterile gleam of those shiny new chain places, and not expensive at all. Not everything was fantastic, but most of the sushi was pretty good, and the two of us ate our fill, along with drinks (beer, sake and shochu), for about ¥7,000 total which seemed quite reasonable. So those corner sushi shops haven’t completely died out after all!

 

And the loser is… 27 September, 2010

Filed under: news,politics — johnraff @ 9:47 pm
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…China I’d say. I thought the first rule of diplomacy was not to cause your opposite number to lose face, and the Chinese are supposed to have mastered this stuff 4,000 years ago, but it either hasn’t occurred to them, or they’re so fired up about the Senkaku/Daioyu islands thing that they don’t care, but their behaviour is being nervously watched all over SE Asia. Vietnam, the Phillipines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei all have territorial disputes with China, and the Big Cuddly Panda image China has been trying to sell in the region is being seriously undermined by their bullying tactics towards Japan – cutting exports of rare earths, discouraging tourism, clamping down on trade in general, arresting four Japanese on spying charges and now sending more ships to the region. If as big a country as Japan can be treated like this, they might ask, how would we little ones get on?

Of course Japan lost a lot of face, but no-one cares that much about Japan these days anyway…

The winner? America of course. All that fuss about bases in Okinawa might just fade away as everyone in the region rediscovers how much they love Uncle Sam. Personally, I’d say “a pox on both your houses”. Just hope it doesn’t lead to a war or anything…

 

Fast Booze 29 August, 2010

Filed under: city,food & drink — johnraff @ 1:55 am
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In contrast with the binge-drinking youth of Britain I’ve been reading about, young Japanese have been leaving beer and cars behind lately, much to the dispair of Kirin and Toyota among others. I don’t know what they’re spending their money on – the fact is they haven’t really got any money these days, with only crummy dead-end type jobs on offer when they graduate… When Japanese youngsters do go out for a drink these days it’s often sweet alco-pop things they drink, not the bitter ice-cold golden nectar that goes so well with the Summer heat here, and they’ll be drinking it in the cheapest places they can find.

Just lately there’s been an outbreak of chain establishments where everything is ¥280. Food, drinks, everything. Maybe with the yen at the ridiculous current rate of 85 or so to the US dollar that doesn’t sound too cheap to you but usually a beer is around ¥500 ( ¥550 at Raffles’ ) so ¥280 for a jug of draught beer (not happoshu ) is pretty good for a start. The food’s not disgusting either – food processing technology has been got down to a fine art – though nothing to write home about and not huge portions. With profit margins cut right down, they have to sell a lot of stuff to make the business viable so need to keep people coming in at a fast rate. The branch near us is usually pretty full, and pretty noisy.

More recently a rival has started up where everything is ¥250 – they cut their costs even further by having customers come to the counter to collect everything. The overall effect is pretty much like McDonalds, but if that’s your idea of an evening out…

Fast Booze – you saw it here first OK?

 

A walk in the woods 16 June, 2010

Filed under: countryside — johnraff @ 3:00 pm
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A "Jizo" Buddha at the pass on many country roads.

Beautiful day in Golden Week, and we took the road above the house up the hill, past the “Jizo” at the pass, down a bit and took this little road off to the left. More a track really, with an almost obliterated sign pointing to a village we hadn’t heard of. About a 20-minute walk though cedar plantations later we arrived at this “village”: three buildings drowning in the forest. A few years ago people lived there, in these rather nice traditional wooden houses, growing rice in paddy fields nearby, now planted with cedars or spruce which have grown up all around.

...another couple of years...

These once-handsome buildings are slowly collapsing, disintegrating and returning to the hills they came from. Sad but inevitable I suppose. It’s not really on to expect to make any kind of living out in a place like this. Just after the war there was a building boom to replace the flattened cities and since wood was (and still is, really) the main construction material large areas of Japan’s wild forest was replaced with plantations of quick-growing cedar and spruce. The idea of many people was that 20 or 30 years down the road these trees could be sold off at a good price, so were regarded as an investment for their childrens’ future. Unfortunately cheap timber imports from countries like Canada have knocked the bottom out of that, so now the value of a tree is less than the cost of transporting it down the hill into the town…

A footpath, still usable, led up the side of the hill from those houses to, we calculated, the next village a kilometre or so away. Just above was a little shrine with a couple of Buddha statues, an empty sake bottle and some flowers which were still fresh, so someone must have visited in the last day or two. A bit further on, down a slope, and sure enough there was the village, basking in the Spring sunshine. An image of rustic tranquillity. Really, quite beautiful, but so quiet. There is only a handful of people living there now, all getting on in years. Children have moved out into the cities to get jobs in offices and factories, leaving their parents tending the ricefields and cows in this corner of paradise. As it happens, we know a couple of the people here. The couple who live at the top looked after our house – opening the windows to let the breeze though once in a while, bit of weeding etc – while we were in Thailand for a year. Further down the road we ran into Hashimoto san, who must be 70 or so by now; he keeps some cows and grows rice.

I wonder what it will be like in 10 or 15 years when most of these people have passed on? Will there be a u-turn from the city, a boom in eco-living… or will this idyllic village go the way of those houses in the woods?

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Beef Wars 9 April, 2010

Filed under: food & drink,news — johnraff @ 10:44 am
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In the paper and on the radio yesterday, now on TV today: the “beef bowl” chain Yoshinoya have cut their main standard bowl from ¥380 to ¥270 for a limited period, and the two other big chains, Matsuya and Sukiya, are taking it down to ¥250. ( All these “something-ya”… “ya” means “shop”, also in Nagoya. ) Cooked beef on rice is qite tasty really, much better than a Mac in my humble opinion, and was already quite cheap anyway.

Yoshinoya has been around for years – I would drop in sometimes after drinking beer till 3:00 back in the days… (They’re open all night.) The other two are newer, but I wonder if there’ll be a limit on how low prices can go around here?

We’ve got deflation, folks.

 

Our Mayor 20 March, 2010

Filed under: city,news,politics — johnraff @ 2:27 pm
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Takashi Kawamura‘s a bit of a character. He first crossed the radar when he was running as Diet member for a constituency round here – his trademarks were riding around on a bicycle and speaking with a broad Nagoya accent, the kind nobody except him actually uses these days. He got elected and bicycle canvassing caught on, but nobody else tries that Nagoya accent… It’s OK for a bit, but he does lay it on a bit thick. It’s all about the Common Touch no doubt, and he’s doing something right because now he’s the Mayor of Nagoya.

There are other reasons for that, though, a big one being his promise to cut Nagoya city tax by 10%. Of course 20% would have been even better, but you can see the appeal of that idea – for those on low incomes (like us) city tax can be quite heavy as it doesn’t have as many allowances as national income tax. Of course for those whose incomes are too low to be taxed at all the 10% reduction has no meaning. For them, more important might be the social services that would have to be cut to pay for that tax reduction.

Kawamura has laid on a distraction though – his plan to halve the number of city councillors from 75 to 38 or so, and halve their salaries too, as well as stopping their expense allowances! Here he has rather more support among the general Nagoya population than in the city council, where the overpaid leeches are fighting him tooth and nail, understandably. Even at half, they’d still get much more than I do so I’m with Kawamura on this one, and it has to be admitted he’s already halved his own salary. He’s going to try to dissolve the council if they don’t pass his motion, and I’m sure they won’t, but needs to collect a huge number of signatures in order to do a “recall”. He’ll probably succeed, but it will take some time, during which the councillors can continue drawing their inflated salaries and collecting their expenses…

So is he a genuine man of the people or a right-wing demagogue in disguise? We’ll see eventually…

 

Toyota Shock, part two 18 March, 2010

Filed under: news — johnraff @ 2:12 am
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We don’t need this. Just as with GM, what’s good for Toyota is good for Japan, and, more specifically, good for Nagoya. The economy of Aichi prefecture and Nagoya revolves around Toyota – the network of suppliers and sub-suppliers, and all the people selling things to their workers all feel the pinch when Toyota take a hit, and the effect percolates through to the rest of us. Just as the Lehmann shock seemed to be wearing off, and the big T seemed to have got in ahead of the competition with the eco-car Prius, we get this quality-control, rip-off-the-customers thing, and all the bonuses due out this Spring have been cut.

I don’t want to say anybody’s just Japan-bashing, because there does seem to be some truth in some of the issues: the accelerator-floormat thing, and the half-second delay before the brakes kicked in under some circumstances that some people noticed here, for example, but clear evidence of fatally serious defects in the system is not plentiful. To some extent it’s been whipped up by the media, and I’m sure lots of people whose livelihood does not depend on Toyota’s prosperity were not particularly bothered to see them brought down a peg or two. Their response wasn’t that skillful either, PR-wise. Toyota are pretty good at customer service generally, at least here, so that came as a surprise.

Anyway, something we could have done without.

 

Aso’s sayonara present 24 October, 2009

Filed under: politics — johnraff @ 2:39 pm
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Yesterday I finally went and picked up my 12,000 yen. This has been in the works since last Autumn. The current LDP government wanted an economic boost that would appeal to the electorate, and proposed a tax cut. Their partners the Komeito party said it wouldn’t help those too poor to pay income tax, and insisted on a cash handout instead. Twelve thousand yen – just over a hundred dollars. It’s nothing to get that excited about; I thought it would be better spent tackling youth unemployment or helping the homeless, and opinion polls showed most people didn’t want it! If it had come in December as was originally planned it might have worked a bit – I would probably have gone out for a couple of drinks – but bureaucracy meant it would take a bit longer…

People in smaller towns got theirs in the Spring but here in Nagoya the local government said there was no way they could organise a cash handout for 2 million people before August or so, and so it proved. First I got an envelope with a couple of forms and several leaflets explaining how to send off your application. Hardly anything in English of course. I think they were trying to make it as complicated as possible so some people would just not bother. I sent mine off and eventually got another paper-stuffed envelope telling me exactly where and when to show up to collect this money.

Waiting at the reception area was a security guard and a lady who checked my name and gave me a plastic token to hand in when a processing desk was free. There were 20 or so seats in the waiting area and 3 or 4 desks with a couple of clerks at each. I was the only person waiting so right away they checked my papers, got me to sign at the bottom and gave me a slip to hand in at another counter round the corner with 2 more people. There I finally got an envelope with my name on it and the money inside. The whole thing took 10 minutes maybe, but at least 10 people were employed dealing with this complicated transaction. Along with all that paper, I wonder how much the administration added to the cost of giving away 12,000 yen?

The ironic thing is if this does boost the economy a little the credit will go to the current DPJ government!

 

 
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