May 30, 2007

Poor youths sleep in Japan's Net cafes

I spent several late nights in the rundown Tokyo suburb of Kamata to research this story, which tries to capture a new form of poverty in Japan.

May 29, 2007

TOKYO (AP) _ It's almost midnight as Ryo settles into a reclining chair for the night, a can of tea and a pack of cigarettes at his side, a construction job awaiting him in the morning.

For the time being, this cramped cubicle at an Internet cafe _ with its TV and flickering PC monitor _ is home.

Ryo, who refused to give his full name, is part of what experts believe is a new social strata in Japan _ poor, young people who live out of cheap, 24-hour Internet cafes to escape the streets.

Though there are no reliable numbers, experts warn a growing number of younger Japanese are sleeping in cheap Net cafes like Ichigo, where Ryo, who is 30, spends five nights a week. He stays with a friend on weekends.

The rising number of people like Ryo, known as "Internet cafe refugees," has raised enough concern that the Health Ministry is preparing to study the 1,300 Internet cafes nationwide.

Last year, 13 people contracted tuberculosis at an Internet cafe just west of Tokyo that health officials suspect originated from the cafe's homeless population, said Tomohiro Uchino of the Health Ministry's social welfare department.

"The phenomenon raises many issues in terms of health, labor and welfare," said Uchino. "The problem is that we don't yet have an accurate picture of how many homeless people there are in Internet cafes, how they got there, or how the government can intervene," he said.

Behind the rise of Net refugees is Japan's ballooning population of young people who hop from one temporary job to the next.

They are believed to number more than 2 million _ a byproduct of the economic crisis that hit Japan a decade ago, as well as a shift in values among younger generations less ready to conform to the corporate work ethic of their parents and grandparents.

Ryo said part of the reason he ended up homeless was an expensive interest in reggae music. In his twenties, he staged reggae events with his friends and even took trips to Los Angeles to study with musicians there. But then his savings ran dry, he said.

In a city where a tiny studio apartment rarely costs less than $825 a month, the cafes appeal to people like Ryo because staying overnight costs only a fraction of that.

At Ichigo, clients pay 82 cents an hour for a small cubicle equipped with a reclining chair, computer and TV. Many cafes offer free refills of soft drinks; some even have showers. But it's hardly a comfortable environment: The air is stale with cigarette smoke and there is a constant whine of computers, TVs and ventilation fans.

The urban refugees are modern-day versions of the day laborers of Osaka and other big Japanese cities who fueled the tumultuous economic growth of the 1960s _ an underclass that lodged in cheap hostels and who were rounded up each morning to work at nearby construction sites.

Some inhabitants of Net cafes also find work by the day, albeit in a more technology-savvy form. Many rely on their cell phones to arrange casual jobs, according to Makoto Yuasa, who heads a homeless support center in Tokyo.

The arrangement means workers are not required to provide a set address, Yuasa said. However, the casual nature of the work means such workers often receive minimal wages and no training, social security or health insurance.

"With some job agencies, you get a call or an e-mail the night before, telling you where to turn up to work the next day," Yuasa said. "Many are menial cleaning or factory jobs that don't lead anywhere."

Read the rest of the story on USA Today:

February 3, 2007

Learning to say "I love you"

Here's a story I did on Japanese husbands desperate to rekindle their marriages as retirement dawns:

Feb. 1, 2007
By Hiroko Tabuchi, AP

Mitsutoshi Fukatsu has been with his wife for three decades, but their lives have grown apart: as a busy stationmaster, he returned to their home in Shibukawa, Gunma Prefecture, only to eat, bathe and sleep.

Now, with retirement looming, the 56-year-old wants to get to know his wife better. He's helping with chores, calls his wife by her name, Setsuko -- instead of just grunting -- and recently learned a new phrase: "I love you."

Fukatsu was one of a small group of men taking part in the second annual "Beloved Wives Day" on Wednesday in hopes of salvaging their marriages by doing something unusual -- paying attention to their wives.

"For about a year now, I've been helping out with the housework," Fukatsu said. "I can't stay at my company forever. I have to return home. But right now, I don't feel like I have a place there."

Read the rest of the story on The Japan Times homepage.

AP photo by Shizuo Kambayashi

January 31, 2007

BBC interview

I was recently interviewed by the BBC travel program, Holiday, about life in Tokyo. In the broadcast, presenter and interior designer Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen tries sushi at Tsukiji fish market, sits in on a kendo class, visits Akihabara electronics town, and concludes that Westerners no longer find Tokyo "difficult to translate" because they've become a lot more literate in the Japanese lifestyle.

I agree somewhat. It's increasingly more difficult to shock friends from Britain or th U.S. with the latest gadgets or gory seafood because they've already seen it all on Discovery channel or tried it at their local Japanese restaurant.

As an English language reporter in Tokyo, I try to "translate" the city into Western terms every day -- but after two years I feel like I'm just getting to grips with the differences. And there's much more to Tokyo culture than sushi and electronics.

Laurence was brilliant but absolutely wacky--he spent a week in Tokyo in a sparkling white, butt-tight suit. No wonder he doesn't find Tokyo that strange.

Photo: With Laurence at the Gonpachi restaurant in Tokyo. BBC 1 aired the episode on Jan. 24.

BBC Holiday Web site

January 28, 2007

Funny old man: A night out at rakugo

The Parco theater is an unlikely setting for a centuries-old entertainment form: it sits atop a mall at the center of hip, ultra-modern Shibuya, minutes away from the busy crossing of "Lost in Translation" fame.

But rakugo comedian Shinosuke Tatekawa returns to Parco every year for a month-long run of "Rakugo" shows, part of his drive to bring 18th-century merrymaking to a younger generation more used to chuckling at YouTube clips.

Saturday's show kicked off to a tune on traditional drums and flute, with a single zabuton mattress at the center of the stage. The audience erupted in cheers as Shiosuke shuffled in -- after 10 years of performances here, he has become a Shibuya favorite.

The zabuton is an important element in rakugo, seemingly allowing the rakugo-ka, or comedian, to lean back and forth for emphasis. That might seem subtle, but subtlety is at the heart of a rakugo performance: the rakugo-ka weaves together comic tales using just his voice, facial expressions, a hand towel and foldable fan, which he might use to imitate talking on the phone, or to point at the audience.

The audience is an important rakugo element, too, and Shinosuke slipped back and forth between a conversation with the crowd, and the imaginary world of his stories.

One story was about a modern-age young man visited by Japan's mythical seven lucky gods. Japan's young have forgotten the ancient deities, who must peddle their services as door-to-door salesmen, Shinosuke said. The tale, and how he told it, was hilarious.

Shinosuke also quipped about a recent scandal at the Japanese confectioner, Fujiya, which was found to have routinely sold cream puffs made from old milk. Kabuki has long served as an outlet for social commentary and satire, albeit in veiled form.

Parco presents Shinosuke Rakugo runs most days in January.

Shinosuke Tatekawa's home page (Japanese)
What Makes the Japanese Laugh? The Art of Wordplay and Storytelling, Asia Society
Rakugo: universal laughter, Honolulu Star Bulletin

January 27, 2007

New art: Kaoru Hirano

Installation artist Kaoru Hirano pulls apart the fine weave of clothes, thread by thread, and rebuilds their forms by retying the threads.

Her new work at Ginza's Shiseido Gallery is a reworking of an old dress once worn by a friend. After two months of pulling apart and tying back together (Hirano started the work in November), the concrete shape of the dress has morphed into an airy cobweb of multicolored fibers.

The installation, "Aerosol," is a work in progress -- you can see Hirano add to the piece at the gallery's weekly "public viewings."

She told me during Saturday's public viewing:

"You can take apart someone's clothes, but there's a history that remains in the fibers. This work rebuilds that history."

The exhibit, part of Shiseido's art egg project showcasing young artists, runs till Sunday, Feb. 4. The next public viewing session is on Feb. 3.

Image from Tokyo Art Beat

Fitness, Tokyo style: Oxygen pod, detox foot bath and vibration machine

To get some fresh oxygen in Tokyo, or rid yourself of toxins, or lose some of that holiday flab, you could hop on a train to the countryside, go on a macrobiotic diet, or simply get some exercise.

Or, you can go to Oxygen Refreshing Salon O2 Paradise in Shimbashi to lie in an oxygen pod, get a detox foot spa, or ride a fat-burning vibration machine.

Our session started out with a foot bath, which my friend and I were told contained negative ions that would strain our bodily toxins from the bottom of our feet.

After about 10 minutes of immersing, the water in my foot bath started turning yellow and foamy -- I had to stop watching. I think I saw black specks too, which the spa worker said were preservatives that had been stuck in my body.

Then we went for a ride on the vibration machine, or "Buru Buru Machine" in Japanese, which was like a treadmill that shakes. Ten minutes of being shaken on the machine burns as much fat as running for an hour, the spa worker said.

Our session ended with 60 minutes in an oxygen pod, a plastic capsule that gets filled with oxygen and is supposed to penetrate to your organs and make you younger (and taller, because the air gets between the sections of your spine, we were told).

The problem with my pod was that it smelt like the inside of a new car -- it must have been the rubber tubes the oxygen traveled through. I also got bored looking at the inner plastic lining and wished I had brought a good book.

My friend said she almost suffocated because it was too tight and hot. "I felt like a foot inside a ski boot," she said.

Still, we did each get about 5 mm taller.

Verdict: next week, we're planning a trip out of Tokyo to get some real oxygen.

Photos from Oxygen Refreshing Salon O2 Paradise

January 21, 2007

Tokyo gets a new museum

Kajima Corporation

Tokyo got its latest cultural infusion on Jan. 21 with the launch of the National Art Center, Tokyo, or NACT, a mammoth new museum just minutes from the busy station crossing,

Designed by Japanese architecture legend Kisho Kurokawa, the NACT is another corner of the so-called "Art Triangle Roppongi" with nearby Mori Art Museum and the renovated Suntory Museum of Art, which opens on March 30.

The NACT's undulated glass facade might look grander if you could actually see the whole length of it. But it's hard to -- the building is squashed in between an awkwardly positioned research center and rows of houses, and you can't seem to walk far enough away to take in the whole structure.

(There is a great view of the museum, though, from the observatory on the 51st floor of Roppongi Hills Mori Tower.)

Entering the NACT creates a sense of walking into an unexpectedly large space -- 14,000 sq. meters of it, in fact. The giant foyer with two cafes perched on top of separate flower-pot-shaped concrete blocks is a nice eccentric touch, but the layout is otherwise very standard.

Showing till Feb. 4, free of charge, is "Power of Expression, Japan," a wild walk through Japanese art and pop culture in the 20th century: Godzilla suits and Space Invader arcade machines to works by contemporary Japanese artists like Tabaimo and Yasuhiro Suzuki.

Suzuki's "Blinking Leaves" is a particularly fun piece of art. You can get a sense of it here: mabataki

The NACT, which has no permanent collection of its own, is also showing "Living in the Material World -- 'Things' in Art of the 20th Century and Beyond." The center has a restaurant, three cafes and an art shop.

NACT English Web site

January 15, 2007

Only best for a graying population -- of pets

Dec. 28, 2006
By Hiroko Tabuchi

Andy has sprouted white whiskers, suffers from lower back pain and no longer bounds up the stairs like he used to.

Still, the 11-year-old Siberian husky isn't lying idle: Every week he meets his personal trainer for a run on an underwater treadmill, does laps in a doggy pool to strengthen his hind legs and unwinds with a hot spa and massage session.

The boom in pet ownership in Japan has led to a new phenomenon: legions of elderly animals that doting masters pamper with fortified food and vitamins, aromatherapy and even acupuncture.

"I want to do everything I can for Andy. He's part of the family," said Aya Ashiya, 50, of Tokyo as she ran around the swimming pool with a squeeze toy, cheering the husky on during a recent session at the dog aqua fitness gym El Perro.

"We've been together for so long, and we've really learned to communicate," Ashiya said. "I just want him to stay healthy for as long as possible."

AP Photo by Shuji Kajiyama

Read the rest of the article on The Japan Times homepage (registration required)

January 10, 2007

Coming to a gallery near you: Homeless architecture

Sketch by Kyohei Sakaguchi

March 21, 2006
By Hiroko Tabuchi

Like many Zen-inspired structures, Okawara's hut is a monument to simplicity. The size of a large tool shed, the wooden building blends seamlessly with the surrounding park. His door opens to a full view of Tokyo's Tama River.

Okawara is not your typical architect: He's homeless. But the elegant austerity of his hut and thousands of others like it has turned the country's destitute into unwitting purveyors of an emerging art form that's catching the eye of international connoisseurs.

The dwellings -- carefully built, meticulously kept and collapsible for quick movement when police move in -- have inspired a rash of art books, and Japanese promoters are discussing them with curators in North America and Europe.

"These homes embody simplicity and functionality and are at one with their environment, like the tea house of Sen Rikyu," said architect Kyohei Sakaguchi -- author of a study of homeless architecture titled "Zero Yen Houses" -- referring to a 16th-century tea master who preached frugality through the art of tea ceremony.

Read the rest of the article on The Japan Times homepage (registration required)

Kyohei is running a workshop and exhibit at the World Social Forum 2007 in Nairobi, Kenya, till Jan. 28.

>>See Kyohei Sakaguchi's Web site>>

June 13, 2006

Wrapped up in controversy over plastic

A quick story on Japan's obsession with wrapping...

By Hiroko Tabuchi
Associated Press Writer
June 12, 2006

TOKYO — Buy lunch and a magazine at any Japanese convenience store, and you're likely to get your drink in one plastic bag, hot lunch box in another, and your magazine in yet a third.

The mega-packaging keeps your food hot, your drink cool and your newspaper clean, but environmentalists say it also creates a mountain of plastic waste that fouls the air, pollutes the oceans and contributes to global warming.

The world uses between 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags a year, according to the advocacy Web site, Wrapping-happy Japan is a major player, consuming some 30 billion -- about 300 for each adult.

Those figures don't include the tons of extra wrapping -- individual plastic covers for shirts from the cleaners, tiny packages for single cookies -- used in Japan, experts say, suggesting the country is among the world's premier consumers of plastic sheet.

"Japan probably uses more plastic than most societies in the world," said Hideki Nakahashi, a spokesman at the Japan Polyolefin Film Industry Trade Association.

Facing criticism from environmentalists, Japan is now trying to reduce plastic use with a law revision that lets the government issue warnings to retailers that don't do enough to reduce, reuse and recycle.

The revised law was approved by Parliament Friday. But for a country famous for elaborate wrapping, cutting back will be an uphill task.

"We consider wrapping a part of the product," said Shinji Shimamura, a spokesman for the Japan Franchise Association, which represents over 125 franchise chains in Japan.

"Of course it's good to cut down on plastic bag use," Shimamura said. "But we can't hand customers a hot lunch box or cold ice cream without a bag. That would be unhygienic and very rude."

Still, wrapping habits in Japan border on the excessive. Some fruit stores even wrap each apple or banana in plastic. And when purchased, all they all go in yet another plastic shopping bag.

The impulse to wrap may stem from Japan's traditional attitudes toward gift-giving, which is geared to presentation more than content. The layering of wrapping also has important social meaning -- more wrapping means more politeness and formality.

And the bags are so cheap that shops don't have the incentive to reduce or recycle, analysts say.

Some retailers have taken the initiative to cut back even before the revised law comes into effect in 2007.

Lawson, Inc., a convenience store chain with almost 8,400 stores in Japan and sales of over 130 billion yen (US$1.15 billion; euro900 million) in 2005, launched a monthlong campaign in June urging customers to make do with fewer bags.

"We're asking people who buy only one bottled soft drink or one packet of gum whether they don't mind going without a plastic bag," said Lawson spokesman Shin Nakamura.

But a lot of people want the bag, he says.

"If it's a can of hot drink, for example, customers don't want to carry it in their hand," he said

That convenience is bad news for the environment, said Yoshitaka Fukuoka, a professor of environmental science at Tokyo's Rissho University.

Plastic bags waste valuable oil resources and the energy it takes to produce them contributes to global warming. Some can release harmful toxins when burned, and many end up in the sea and can kill sea turtles and other marine animals that mistake them for food.

Moreover, Fukuoka says the revised law -- with only a system of warnings, with no legal liabilities -- doesn't go far enough.

"Stores must be forced to charge for bags. That's the only way Japanese consumers can be persuaded to cut down on the plastic bags they use," Fukuoka said.

Germany, for example, saw plastic bag use fall by 70 percent after the government introduced a small levy in 2002. Similar strategies have been successfully employed in Ireland, South Africa, Bangladesh, Australia, Shanghai and Taiwan.

The Environment Ministry, however, argues the revision is a step in the right direction.

"The law is about raising awareness and a sense of responsibility," said Yoichi Horigome, an official at the ministry's recycling policy bureau. "We expect retailers to be very cooperative."

The ministry is also suggesting more traditional and ecological alternatives to plastic. It recently launched a campaign to revive the traditional "furoshiki," a piece of fabric for carrying things by simply wrapping them.

"Japanese weren't always so wasteful," Horigome said. "We once led more environmentally friendly lifestyles. I think we can draw on that."

December 30, 2005

Stories: Pregnancy Diary by Yoko Ogawa

A brilliant and disturbing short story on pregnancy from Tokyo-based author Yoko Ogawa, "Pregnancy Diary," appeared in the Dec. 26, 2005 edition of The New Yorker.

The room was always empty at midday, before the afternoon appointments began, and we could study it to our hearts’ content. A collection of bottles arranged on an oval tray seemed particularly mysterious. They had no caps or seals, just glass stoppers, which I felt an irresistible urge to pull out. The bottles had been stained brown or purple or deep red by the fluids they held, and when the sunlight shone through them the liquid seemed to glisten.

A stethoscope and some tongs and a blood-pressure cuff lay on the doctor’s desk. The thin, twisting tube, the dull silver fittings, and the pear-shaped rubber bulb of the cuff made it look like a strange insect nestled among the other instruments. There was an odd beauty in the unintelligible letters printed on the medical charts. A poster on the wall read, “Position for use in treating breech presentation.” In the picture, a woman was on her knees with her chest pressed against the floor. She was wearing a leotard that was so tight she looked naked. She lay there in the yellowed poster, staring vacantly into the distance. Then the chimes from a school somewhere in the neighborhood would start ringing, telling us that it was time for the afternoon examinations. We knew that we had to leave when we heard the nurses coming back from lunch.

Sometimes women would be looking out of the windows on the third floor. They had likely just given birth. They had on thick bathrobes and their hair was tied back in ponytails. None of them wore makeup. Wisps of hair floated around their temples, and their faces were expressionless. I wondered why they didn’t seem happier at the prospect of sleeping above an examination room full of such fascinating objects.

Original story in The New Yorker, Dec. 26, 2005