Friday, July 27, 2012

Toilet Evolution

Many people who visited Japan tell me cheerfully about their Japanese toilet experience. Toilets evolved in Japan. When you sit on a stool in Japan, the seat is warmed up for you, even on a cold winter day. While you are sitting, you might wonder what the buttons on your right hand would do. They are the buttons to wash your behind with a shower while you are sitting. You can also change the water temperature, pressure and the shower position to suit your personal preference. After washing, it can also dry your behind with warm gentle air, and even removes odor with a touch of a button.

The nozzle in the picture above is retracted normally, and it comes out when the button is pushed to shower. It retracts again after the shower. Out of curiosity people who use it for the first time often push the button without sitting on the stool, and surprised by the warm water shooting at their face.

This type of toilet became the norm in Japan since the 80's, and currently most of the toilets you find in Japan are this type (even in public facilities). Japanese wiki describes the toilet seat's history in details; A history lacking  in the English wiki. It is interesting to know that washing toilets were originally invented in the United States for hospitals and nursing home use. Toto, the maker of Washlet, was importing them in 60s. In the late 60s Toto started the production in Japan, but they were still expensive, and some people were burned (ouch!) due to the lack of temperature control. Since then the company made many improvements, and started to sell their toilet seat to the general consumer market in the early 80s. By 2000 most of the toilets in Japan became this type of toilet seat.

Japanese engineering and prevailing obsession in personal hygiene brought success to this uniquely Japanese product.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Learn from Oprah's Mistake

I heard on the radio that Oprah's episodes of her trip to India are stirring up controversy. Even though the program was made for U.S. audiences, Indians are deeply offended by it, because it only portrayed stereo typical Indian lives as Westerners have been imagining them for centuries. I became curious and watched the 2 episode program.

I thought the shows were perfectly OK and an enjoyable, though somewhat ethnocentric, way for a typical American audience to see India through Oprah's eyes. I've seen this type of Western ethnocentrism again and again in movies; recently Avatar, and in the past King and I. I imagine that it wouldn't even be controversial if it were not done by Oprah.

However, for Indian people, this type of portrayal is offensive and insensitive. Understanding and paying proper respect to foreign culture is always important, but due to the U.S. dominance of the world during the last century, many Americans didn't learn this lesson. Now powerful emerging countries like China and India have a larger population than the United States, and cultures in both countries are distinctively different from Western culture.

The time when watching different culture and saying, "Wow, they are exotic!" has passed.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Houses in Japan

Every time when I go back to my hometown, I see small changes. In general, my hometown has a very high proportion of older people. But gradually young affluent families are moving in from Tokyo, looking for more spacious living space and relaxed environment on the ocean.

My town used to be a sleepy fishing village, and is still a sleepy town, once a popular place for villas for the wealthy, high-ranking Imperial Navy personnels and established writers. You can see big properties hidden by woods and stone walls with big wooden entrance gate on the way to the beach.

Those villas were originally sold to other wealthy individuals, who prefer to live there all the time. Then resold to corporations which renovated the villas and used them as employee training centers. Years later, the properties were again sold, and most of the old houses torn down to build luxury condos.

Except for a few tightly controlled historical area, Japan has very little building codes regulating aesthetics.  If you have a piece of land and follow certain height and and space regulations, you can build any kind of weird looking house. New developments tend to have a calculated appearance to increase property values, but in older residential areas like my hometown neighborhoods, tend to have hodge-podge of different style houses and apartments cluttered on the sides of narrow winding streets.

Japan is in general regarded to be as an orderly country, but the lack of architectural planning and regulation is an aspect of Japan that is not so orderly.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Recent Movement in Japan

Tens of thousand of Japanese who oppose the restarting of nuclear power plants have been demonstrating around the Prime Minister's official residence since last April. The size of the demonstration is unusually big by Japanese standards, as the Japanese usually don't participate in political activism, and have a cynical attitude towards politics. In the background, there was a bitter history in 60s, when political activists turned into extremists and eventually ended up killing each other. Since then, political activism never regained its popularity in Japan.

After the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident, people's attitude towards political activism may be gradually shifting. The fear of radioactive substances is moving some Japanese literally. Some moved out of Fukushima or adjacent areas, and some refuse to eat agricultural products grown in the Fukushima prefecture, even though food is screened and shipped to markets only after testing and approval as being safe. They don't believe government screening, tests and statements any longer.

Many Japanese are rather reacting to the fear rather than hard cold scientific facts. As long as I see the information I can get from the U.S. media, the radiation levels outside of the off limit area is not high. The general population was not exposed to high levels of radiation directly, and contaminated food has been removed from market before distribution. Even though the health of the workers who were trying to stabilize the Fukushima Daiichi power plant may be compromised, the risk of cancer a regular Japanese person would develop in the course of the life is increased only 0.5%.

In order not to have another disaster, demonstrators wanted to stop the operation of nuclear power plants for good. They argue the risk of having nuclear power plants in earthquake prone small country like Japan. However, there is another argument that without nuclear energy, Japan will keep burning oil, which creates heavy air pollution, because the future clean energy is not available at this point.

However, if the majority of Japanese people want to stop using nuclear power, it should stop. Japan is a democracy. But a majority of an older generation of Japanese kept choosing political candidates who promoted nuclear power so far. There is a deep division of generational gap in Japan. And when election comes, older people who turn out to vote, will decide the future of Japan. The ruling party and Japanese business leaders know that well.

A real revolt by young Japanese would involve having more children and daring to live more limited life style for now, in order to live in a nuclear free country. In a democratic world, numbers are power. Young Japanese people don't have power, because there are so few of them.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Japanese Kitsch

My Japanese friends are so kind. When I visited Japan this spring, some of my old friends surprised me with unexpected gifts. Receiving something from old friends made me feel so special. And many of the gifts were quite unique.

I introduced a tenugui cloth in the last entry, and now let me tell you about a stapler. It is not a regular black or nicely designed stapler. It looks like a piece of sushi, actually, more exactly, fatty tuna. I've seen sushi USB memory sticks and cell phone covers on the Internet, but considering the similar shape of a stapler to a piece of sushi, it just makes sense.

There are two types of Japanese cultures, sophisticated, and kitsch. Sophisticated Japanese cultures are well known to the world as traditional Japanese aesthetics, represented by the Noh, Zen, Japanese Tea Celemony, etc. This type of culture has always been belonged to the privileged class. But there is another type of "kitsch" Japanese culture which is created and cherished by regular folks; they are Manga, Anime, Gyaru, Hello Kitty. This fatty tuna stapler shows that spirit.

Gyaru Sone, a gyaru idol (left) and Hello Kitty (right)


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Tenugui Art

When I was back in Japan this spring, one of my friends gave me a pretty tenugui towel pictured on the left. I had one tenugui in the closet in New York, but never used it because it didn't look practical. Now I am using it as a bathroom hand towel and love it.

Tenugui is a traditional Japanese style towel, made of plain weaved cotton cloth about 14" x 35.5". Characters in Ukiyoes, wood block prints, are sometimes using them for various purposes. Japanese wiki explains that the size differs because it was originally made from excess fabric after a kimono was made. The fabric is more like a bandanna than towel, but the ends of a tenugui are not sewn intentionally, so that it dries quickly even in high humidity.

Japanese used to use tenuguis to wipe sweat, wash themselves, cover food, clean house, wrap around hair, tie around head like the Karate Kid, bandage, etc. They are reusable and durable, but cheap enough to be disposable. They also used to be a popular give away item to advertise local businesses.

I have one example of such an advertising give away tenugui (on the right). It was probably given at Ryokan, a Japanese style bed and breakfast, in Kyoto to one of my family members. Name of the Ryokan, phone number, illustration of famous sightseeing spots are all printed along with the nicely stylized name of the Ryokan, Doi (two rows of thick square design with #s running diagonally on the picture center).

Even though most of the Japanese households tend to have some give away tenuguis somewhere in the closet, they were practically replaced by towels as people's life westernized. However, tenuguis regained popularity recently, largely due to their design. Unlike terry cloth, plain weaved tenuguis can be died easily, and suitable to describe intricate details. Traditional Japanese design appear as new and attractive to young people, and many contemporary designs has been added as well.

It seems that tenuguis can be purchased in the United States. People who are interested can look at this vendor's website.