Monday, March 19, 2012

Japanese Art Experience

I visited Ms. Rica Takashima's workshop with my son on Sunday at Fort Lee Library Gallery. Some of my readers may know her name already, she is a public art artist as well as a Japanese Manga artist.

For her public art exhibit, she creates many peek-a-boo boards on wood panels, which are tailored for a particular theme of the show. When she creates Manga comics, she makes stories, draws pictures, and submits her work to a publisher. Basically, she wears two hats. But at the time of her workshop, her public art pieces, Manga style comics, and participants all converge together.

Her workshop is designed to be enjoyed by anyone who wishes to participate; pre-k kids, my 8-year-old son, parents, grand parents, college kids, teachers, office workers, designers, artists, etc., all can enjoy his/her own creation as well as the pieces created by Ms. Takashima. This is because she has a strong belief that art shouldn't be an exclusive property of a select few, who understand sophisticated contemporary art theory. People should be able to touch, enjoy, and create art on a daily basis. And that helps to nurture healthy diversity in the art world.

Ms. Takashima is from Japan, where art is considered to be an occupation that tends to be passed down from generation to generation in a family. As a matter of fact, she came from a family which practices one of the traditional Japanese art forms. She absorbed that traditional Japanese aesthetic value, broke out of the mold, and created her own world. That's why her art is universal, yet very Japanese at the same time.

Ms. Takashima's peek-a-boo art is exhibited through March 31 at Fort Lee Library Gallery (320 Main Street, Fort Lee, NJ 07024).

Japanese Education

Japan spends a very small proportion of money on education, compared to other developed countries. This became news in Japan a few months ago. The data can be seen at and Wikipedia. The chart ranks countries by education spending (% of GDP). The United States is #38 (5.7%), and Japan is way down #93(3.6%).

It was hard for me to believe. I grew up in the public education system in Japan through high school, and studied at a private college. I didn't think Japanese education was the best in the world, but it wasn't that bad. Kids study well, behave well, play well, and even receive a nutritious school lunch always cooked from scratch on the premises. 

On the other hand, according to the Christian Science Monitor, Japan is 4th (57.3%) in the world in terms of college graduation rates. The United States is ranked 12th (40%). How can Japan pump out so many college graduates from such a small amount of public education spending? There are some tricks.

In Japan, the class size in public schools is extremely large. When my son had a 2-week school experience in a Japanese public school two summers ago, his first grade class had 40 children. The school building was brand-new and clean. It had an in-door heated water swimming pool with a jacuzzi, and a nice size school yard where children could play and exercise safely, but there were 40 kids in the class room.

I had a chance to sit in the class room on the first day, and observe how things progressed. I was impressed. Kids behaved extremely well. If one kid disturbed another kid, the teacher quickly pointed it out, and the problem was solved. This was a stunning difference from public schools in the United States.

Why do Japanese kids behave and do well in class? Kids already know the subject before they learn it at school. In the lower grades through 3rd grade, many parents (mainly mothers) prep children using popular distance learning materials which are delivered every month. After 3rd grade, many children attend Juku (after school tutoring school). Therefore, by the time children learn something at school, they already know it.

Public school education tends to be light weight in Japan. In order to meet a certain standard, and be accepted by a decent high school, attendance at which is required to be subsequently accepted at a decent college, Japanese parents have to invest a lot of money for supplemental learning schools (usually after school programs) for their children. This tendency contributes to Japan's high education rate, but shifts the financial burden to individual households.

It is impossible for a child from the lower economic strata to enter a public college, because high school education itself is not enough to prep them for the extremely technical and competitive entrance exams. Ironically, children must study at costly prep schools to be accepted by affordable public colleges. Unlike in the U.S., national and local public colleges are usually ranked higher than private colleges in Japan. Therefore, students at public colleges often come from upper-middle to upper class families.

When a married couple think of having children, many wish to have more than two. But when they calculate the amount of money they would need for education from elementary school to college, many think they can't afford to have a second child.

If out of pocket educational expense of a Japanese household would be added to the educational spending chart by nations as I mentioned above, Japan would come close to the very top of the chart. In short, the Japanese government is dumping its basic educational responsibility onto individual households. Japanese people should be enraged, but they aren't. Why aren't they enraged? That's another subject to explain another time.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Why We Run

I used to commute to Midtown. Every morning, I got on the N train at the 30th Avenue station in Queens. When a train approached, I could see and hear it, because the N train is an elevated line in Queens. I often raced in order to catch the train.

Eventually, I noticed that no one else but me was running to catch the train. Then, I realized for the first time that Americans don't run to catch trains, or rarely run to cross streets before traffic lights change. There are some people who run up or down the stairs to catch trains, but they don't start to run from a quarter mile away. It was a revelation to me. When they may be late, they will be late. But they won't desperately try to make it.

Japanese people always run to be on time. Unlike other proper Japanese, I used to be late for many things. I needed to race in order to make up time. Gradually, racing to go to a station became my habit, even when I wasn't late. Every time I go back to Japan, I see some people like me; dashing through the streets well dressed, sometimes in a suit or dress. 

Punctuality is extremely important in Japan. Many Japanese leave home well ahead of schedule, in order to make sure they won't be late. Trains are always on time, and office workers tend to show up 5 or 10 minutes early, even if they were drunk the night before and ended up sleeping on the street, after missing the last night time train.

Being on time is a courtesy, and duty owed, to benefit another person. I think it comes from a strong Japanese ethic of self sacrifice for common good. This was the spirit of workers, which propelled the high economic growth rate after WWII.

Though I'm not from the generation who went through the war and worked hard for this economic growth in 50s to 70s, I was nurtured by that generation who went through that time. From time to time, I find this tendency ingrained in me, and I just feel myself, helplessly Japanese, as I rush for the train.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Japanese Tableware

Ordinary Japanese tableware I use everyday

I didn't realize until I started to live in the United States, that Japanese tableware was so special. Without knowing, Japanese live in the environment of mixing and matching different pieces of unique plates, cups, bowls, chopsticks, etc. every day.

Japanese tableware never comes in a complete set; actually, the idea of a complete set of tableware doesn't really exist. For instance, cups and plates are often sold as a set of 5, but they aren't accompanied by other pieces of tableware. Unique big and small bowls made by craftsmen are sold by themselves. Rice bowls and chopsticks, which are so essential to Japanese food, are usually personal items, and not to be shared.

Those individual pieces are unique and colorful, compared to the Western tableware. People regularly mix/match/change different pieces of tableware every meal depending on the food served, and learn that certain food looks better on a plate or bowl that emphasizes the color and shape. This type of pleasure of presentation of the food served is not exclusive to prominent restaurants. It happens at every home cooked meal in Japan.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Japanese Flags

Starting a new business model for my company, I created a series of logos for myself. Due to the nature of the business, which is brand design services for U.S. and Japanese niche markets, I decided to use certain elements of national flags in the logo, in hope of more easily identifying our business.

I began with a design using red sun rays around the red sun. While I was working on the logo, I started to question myself, "Is this design offensive?" The Rising Sun Flag was used by the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy until the end of WWII. Because of their recklessness and cruelty throughout the Asia, the flag became a symbol of aggression since then. Which is how Americans feel about swastika.

Because I have no wish to offend anyone, I did some research on Japanese flags. According to Wiki, "The flag with 16 rays is today the ensign of the Maritime Self-Defense Force while the Ground Self-Defense Force uses an 8-ray version." and "The design is also incorporated into the flag of the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun; as well as banners called Tairyō-ki (大漁旗, Good Catch Flag?) flown by fishermen."

Compared to the extremely simple and reserved looking national flag of Japan (above), different version of flags with rays are very loud. Sun burst give them dramatic effect, and are more design friendly. That's why the motif is still incorporated into some designs.

I also noticed that when the same motif is combined with other elements, it doesn't give the impression of the aggressive rising sun.

I decided to use the motif, because just like the good catch flag, I use the sun only for a portion of the logo accompanied by other elements.

Finally, I can give one different perspective. To my 8-year-old son, who doesn't know about Imperial Japanese history yet, the Rising Sun Flag looks like a circus tent. This natural dissociated impression creates a cheerful image.

And here is the final design of the business logo on the left.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


Japanese food is known for its simple way of dealing with ingredients and sophisticated presentation. The older I get, the more I appreciate traditional Japanese food. A simple meal consisting of a small piece of salted grilled salmon, cooked rice, pickled cucumber, and miso soup with white turnip is a treat to me. But Japanese also love Japanized food, foreign food modified in a way to suit Japanese tastes.

Three popular Japanese foods of foreign origin are curry rice, ramen, and hamburger. Curry rice obviously originated in India; more exactly, according to wiki, it was from the U.K. However, considering India was a colony of the British Empire, it makes sense that the Japanese people think of curry rice as a Western food.

Japanese curry rice is nothing like the Indian precursor. Almost always the ingredients are beef, carrots, onions and potatoes (People don't eat cows in India.). The sauce is gravy like and starchy. If I fed it to Indians, it would be hard for them to think the food used to be an Indian food. Still, it is delicious and very popular in Japan. I cook it often, because my husband and son love it.

Ramen is chinese style noodles. Some of the instant noodles in a cup are named "ramen" even in the United States. After originally being introduced from China, ramen was developed into various variations in Japan. Some use a soy sauce base, some use a pork soup base, and others use a chicken soup base. Ingredients are also widely varied. For some reason, it's not easy to find a good ramen restaurant outside of Japan. It saddens me that I still haven't seen a decent ramen restaurant even in New York.

The first McDonald's was opened in Japan in 1971. But even before McDonald's, Japanese were already familiar with home made hamburgers. Japanese hamburgers are not what Americans think of. It's made of ground beef, chopped onions, bread crumbs, and eggs. The ingredients are mixed and shaped like patties, cooked, and served with thick worcestershire sauce. When I made them for my husband and son, they barely ate them, and refused to call them "hamburgers." They insisted on calling the food "round meat loaf." Actually, I found that the type of dish is called salisbury steak in the United States.

Those food are all introduced during the recent history of Japan, but they are so heavily modified in order to satisfy the particular tastes of the Japanese palate. They have a special place in Japanese hearts. We do love them dearly.

Monday, March 5, 2012

One Year Anniversary of Earthquake and Nuclear Accident

About one year ago, on March 11, 2011, a gigantic magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck Japan. The subsequent tsunamis, and Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant accidents changed the lives of so many in Japan. Over 15,848 people died, 6,011 people injured, and 3,305 people are still missing (as of February 10, 2012).

People are trying to regain normalcy. But as we know from the experience of 9/11, nothing is the same afterwards. In the directly affected area, some are still looking for loved ones. Some families moved out of the area, and others decided to stay to rebuild.

Even in the minds of people who live hundreds of miles away from the disaster area, a huge cloud of fear, which didn't exist before, still hangs everywhere. Are we safe from the radiation? Are there more gigantic earthquakes, tsunamis, and possibly further nuclear reactor accidents coming?

The fear of radiation is creating several problems all over Japan. Many self-declared experts provide different conclusions about the effect of radiation contamination caused by the accident. Here is a citation from English wiki, under Casualties section in "Radiation effects from Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster,"

According to the Japanese Government, over 160,000 people in the general population were screened in March 2011 for radiation exposure and, out of this,  no case was found which affects health. Thirty workers conducting operations at the plant had exposure levels greater than 100 mSv.
As of September 2011, six workers at the Fukushima Daiichi site have exceeded lifetime legal limits for radiation and more than 300 have received significant radiation doses. Still, there were no deaths or serious injuries due to direct radiation exposures. Cancer deaths due to accumulated radiation exposures cannot be ruled out, and according to one expert, might be in the order of 100 cases.
Frank N. von Hippel, a U.S. scientist, has estimated that "on the order of 1,000" people will die from cancer as a result of their exposure to radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, that is, an increase of 0.1 percent in the incidence of cancer, and much less than the approximately 20,000 people killed directly by the earthquake and tsunami. Because contaminated milk was "interdicted in Japan" the number of (mostly non-fatal) thyroid cancer cases will probably be less than 1 percent of similar cases at Chernobyl. Von Hippel added that "fear of ionizing radiation could have long-term psychological effects on a large portion of the population in the contaminated areas". 
Many other U.S. nuclear scientists, and radiation experts have a similar view, however, this is a minority view of the general population in Japan. Radiation exposures of the crews who are working on the site are definitely high, and expected to see higher incidents of cancer among them in the future. But for general Japanese population, the increased risk of cancer caused by this disaster is said to be 0.1 or 0.2%.

In spite of that, people don't believe the Japanese Government report of radiation readings in the air. Many avoid eating vegetables grown in Fukushima or the nearby prefectures, even though only food which passed a radiation contamination test can be sold. Some even believe that recent nose bleeds are caused by the radiation released from the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant.

It seems the government's explanations are insufficient to properly reassure the general population that the level of radiation in Japan is not particularly high compared to the world standard. Even though I can understand their fear, as I recall how people reacted to the 9/11 dust; still I can't understand the hysteria.

Children who moved from Fukushima to other prefectures are discriminated against, because they are considered to be contaminated and likely to contaminate others. Rubble from the tsunami stricken area is still piled up high.  Even though only the rubble which is tested and found to be under an acceptable range of radiation level (which means normal level) is shipped out, the residents of other prefectures refuse to incinerate it in their area out of fear that radiation contamination would result. This is a psychological effect of the earthquake and subsequent nuclear reactor accident, and it seems unlikely to stop any time soon.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Eggs in Japan

Last week, I wrote about the color of egg yolks in Japan, that Japanese believe orangey colored yolks are fresher than paler ones. I forgot to mention one important aspect about eggs in Japan. They are actually much fresher than the ones sold in the United States.

In Japan, people regularly eat raw eggs. Tamago kake gohan (rice mixed with a raw egg and soy sauce, a picture on the left) is one very popular food. Sukiyaki (beef with vegetables cooked in an iron pot with soy sauce) is also dipped in a beaten raw egg before being eaten. Government and health professionals are aware of the risk of salmonella poisoning, but unlike in the United States, it's not easy to convince people to abandon this custom.

Most salmonella bacteria are attached on the outer surface of the shell. An egg is contaminated when it's cracked and the shell comes into contact with the egg inside. In order to minimize this risk, the eggs in Japan are washed with sodium hypochlorite before shipping. Distribution time and expiration date are also compressed. In the U.S., expiration of eggs are 3 to 5 weeks, but in Japan, it's up to 2 weeks. Eggs are also individually dated and sold in a sealed package in Japan, so that stores can't tamper with the eggs by mixing old with new ones in a pack.

However, when a chicken is contaminated with salmonella, her eggs are also contaminated inside, even if they are fresh. Therefore, Japanese eggs are not salmonella free. In one estimate, one out of 4,000 eggs is contaminated.

I still eat raw eggs when I visit Japan, but I don't in the United States. Seeing how neighborhood grocery stores in New York handle eggs, I don't feel comfortable eating them raw.