Friday, June 22, 2012

Rapidly Aging Society

My hometown, Zushi has the highest aging population by ratio in Kanagawa Prefecture, which is located south of Tokyo. The city is not a desolate rural flight area. It is rather a nice suburban town, facing an ocean, from where many people commute to Tokyo every day.

Last year, I learned that some of my school friends, started to care for their parents. Our parents are in their 70s. Considering Japan is known as a country of longevity, needing live in assistance in their 70s seems to be too early. But some people have parkinson's disease or alzheimer's disease, or some suffered strokes, it seems that illnesses gradually sneak up when people reach 70.

Only a small number of elderly people go to a nursing home, because Japan doesn't have an adequate number of those facilities to accommodate the vast number of the elderly, and many people want to spend the rest of their lives in their own home, being cared for by family members. So the burden of elderly care often falls into a woman in the family.

It is a physically demanding hard work to care for the debilitated elderly. Sometimes men are the only care taker for their parents, but it often doesn't go well, and sometimes ends tragically. Many Japanese women indicate that Japanese men often lack the mentality to deal with aging parents.

One of my high school friends is caring for her aging husband, who started to suffer the onset of dementia, and an in-law, while she is working to support her family. Another of my acquaintances is caring for three people, her mother, uncle and aunt. Fortunately those elderly people still can take care of themselves with little assistance. However, it takes at least two healthy adults (working in shifts) to take care of one physically disabled elderly person who needs around the clock care. Considering this Japanese population distribution by age, this will be the norm in the near future.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

What to Eat in Japan

While in Japan, I stayed in a small apartment which is owned by my family. It was a retirement retreat for my grandmother until she died. It's just about few yards from the place I grew up, right at the center of a small shopping district, and pretty convenient for an independent elderly woman to spend her golden years.

Now the apartment is mostly vacant. One of my sisters who lives in the Gunma Prefecture uses the apartment once a month when she visits our mom in a nursing home. Another sister in Arizona also uses the apartment once a year when she visits Japan as well.

As no one actually lives there now, we don't keep perishable items. The first thing I do when I get into the apartment is to clean the floor and go out to buy food and beverages. When I stay there with my son for longer period of time, I buy fresh ingredients to cook, but when I stay alone or just for a couple of weeks, I tend to buy pre-packaged meals or even eat out, so that I don't need to worry about making a mess.

Competitive ¥3,500
all you can eat market
Eating out is definitely a good option in an urban area, where there are many restaurants around. I just saw news that restaurant food in Japan is a good deal, comparing to other developed countries. In fact, I attended two gatherings with school friends at restaurants during my stay. Prix-fixe menu with all you can drink including alcoholic beverages was ¥3,500 each in Tokyo area. Recession and deflation is definitely contributing to those amazing deals. And no need to tip, which may be the best thing eating out in Japan.

Unfortunately, eating out gets monotonous after a few days. And there are not so many restaurants in suburban area. Also paying ¥3,500 for my every meal is too much.

The choice and quality of pre-packaged meal has tremendously improved in recent years. This is due to the fact that people who live alone are increasing since the 1980's. For single people, buying ready-to-eat meals makes more sense than buying ingredients and cooking.

Traditional Japanese
ready-to-eat lunch
For ready-to-eat meals, people used to buy them at lunch box shops, which sell hot lunch made on the site as orders come in. Typical lunch boxes usually contains boiled white rice, fried stuff, grilled salmon, Japanese pickels, sliced raw cabbages, etc. They are made to fill an empty stomach, but not nutritious and boring.

Lunches sold at a convenience store
From about a decade ago, convenience stores started to sell various kinds of pre-packaged ready-to-eat food. They are cheap, delicious, and comes in great varieties. Traditional Japanese rice balls in many different flavors, fried chicken, cold buckwheat noodles with ground radishes, cold udon noodles, spaghetti in few different varieties, boiled eggs, traditional lunch boxes, sandwiches, salads, white sauce with sea food over boiled white rice, sushi… and you can even pick up a dessert. There was no way to try all of them in two weeks, but I tried some of them. I was impressed.

I was also amazed that I can buy those pre-packaged lunch under ¥500. However, according to a Japanese article, published in 2009, fewer people are buying those pre-packaged lunch, since this recession started. Even singles are cooking and packing lunch in order to save. If a lunch box costs above ¥500, people don't buy it any longer. In order to lure consumers and increase market share, convenience stores are fiercely working to improve their lunch menu.

Anyway, for those staying in Japan for a short visit, a ¥500 pre-packaged Japanese lunch is a good deal. Almost all convenience stores can microwave a lunch for customers. If you visit, buy one of them and enjoy it.


Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Japan in Spring 2012

I was in Japan for two weeks, just before starting the rainy season. I was cautious to carry around an umbrella all the time, but the weather was pretty good during my stay. Japan is definitely changing, better or worse.

There are several things I noticed during this visit.

Deflation Is Still Going On
In 90's many 100 yen stores popped up all over Japan. Now they are sorted out and only a handful of large nation-wide store chains survived. Many 100 yen stores don't look like $1 shops in the U.S. as they have wide variety of pretty good quality goods, which are made in China.

Larger is Better
In general, small individual businesses are having hard time, but larger size businesses are doing better.

Low Quality of News
One of the problems Japan has had for a long period of time is the quality of news. Almost all of the Japanese news, including TV, newspapers and Internet, are very brief and uniform. It is said that this is due to the Japan National Press Club. The club disseminates information and reporters report the news as they are fed it. As a result, the same news copy is provided by all news outlets. It seems very few agencies pursue investigative journalism in Japan.

Closed Wi-Fi Environment
When you go to Starbucks or McDonald's in the U.S. you get free Wi-Fi access, regardless of your device and contracted provider. It's still not the case in Japan even though high-speed connection is more widely used in Japan than in the U.S. I was frustrated that truly free Wi-Fi was only in the Airport. This is extremely inconvenient for foreign visitors.

More premium vegetables are cultivated in Japan. Even though the self-sufficiency ratio of food is extremely low in Japan (around 40%), due to the large portion of import of corn, soy beans and flour. Most of the vegetables and rice are grown in Japan, but Japanese government is trying to open the rice market to foreign countries. The law in Japan requires labeling the origin of the food.

Aging Population
Japan is ahead of the U.S. in terms of aging population. Some of my friends (in mid their 40's) are already taking care of their parents, whose health condition is deteriorating in one way or the other. Many elderly people are cared for by family members at home, because nursing homes and other similar facilities are scarce. Elderly people also prefer to be cared for at home. But most of the time, the actual labor of the care often falls onto the women of the family, even for in-laws.

Youth Worship
I don't think I am old and fat when I am in New York, but in Japan I feel I am old and fat. I am mid 40s, 5ft tall, and 125 lb. I admit that I am not in the greatest shape, but I don't consider my self as fat and old either. The value of women is still tilted in favor of youth in Japan and this tendency doesn't seem likely to change any time soon. Being thin is also extremely important.

I will dig deeper individually into these matters in my follow up blogs.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Japanese Prefer Japanese Company

When Japanese people choose products or services, they try to get the reputation of the company or product. Americans do the same, by reading on-line reviews or customer comments before making a purchase. But Americans try to get some facts, and examine cost effectiveness as well.

Strangely enough, many Japanese avoid getting to the truth by uncovering the data and facts. For instance, when choosing multi-vitamin pills, they don't look at nutritional facts or ingredients, but rather rely on friends', who don't have any scientific knowledge about the product. Celebrities' endorsement is sufficient. The most effective public endorsements of the kind are provided by a TV celebrity, Monta Mino. Every time he makes positive comments about a product, they fly off the shelves within a few hours.

Another point in choosing products and services is whether the product is made in Japan or service is rendered by Japanese. While things are changing recent years, many Japanese companies still prefer to use Japanese suppliers, because trust, reputation, and  comfort levels are more important than simply getting a better price. Japanese consumers also tend to buy Japanese products even if they need to spend more, because they believe in Japanese products. Strong loyalty to Japanese products over foreign imports still exists and heavily impacts consumer purchases in Japan.