A somber ‘hanami’ this year in Tokyo as cherry trees begin to blossom

The Japan Meteorological Agency said Monday that Tokyo’s cherry trees will enter full bloom within a week. But the capital’s annual blossom-viewing parties, or "hanami," will be much quieter this year because festivals here and elsewhere are being called off in the wake of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

Organizers say they felt it was appropriate to refrain from any kind of festivities when so many lives were lost, but added that the decisions were also based on efforts to reduce the use of electricity. Some also cited security concerns.

"It was a disaster that’s beyond imagination, so we felt we should express our condolences," said Kazumi Indei of the Chiyoda-ku Tourist Association, which organizes the cherry tree festival in Chidorigafuchi. The group has canceled its annual festival, including the evening cherry tree illumination.

Read the rest of the story: Tokyo faces somber ‘hanami’ this year.

In Japan, more men turning to homemaking

As public perceptions of traditional gender roles shift, more Japanese men are willing to take on homemaking. Some opinion polls show most males in their 20s and 30s have no negative notions of men serving as househusbands.

Working around the house instead of holding down a career has increasingly become an option since more wives are staying in the workforce. Meanwhile, more men are trying to start their lives anew at home after burning out on excessively demanding jobs.

Takatoshi Miyauchi, 31, gets up every morning at 5 to scrub the floors of his Tokyo house. He then turns on the bread maker and begins preparing breakfast. After his family finishes eating, he heads out at around 8, taking his 2- and 3-year-old daughters to day care.

He does the laundry and cleans the home before returning to the day care center to pick up his kids. Then dinnertime comes, after which he tucks in the children at 9 in the evening. Exhausted, he often falls asleep together with them.

Miyauchi says the day passes quickly, what with all the household chores keeping him busy.

When they got married, he and his wife had planned to raise children while keeping their double-income lifestyle. But Miyauchi fell ill from overwork, and strained relationships at his workplace added to his stress. He quit and devoted himself to homemaking.

He thought he would be a stay-at-home dad only for a while, but a second child came along, making it difficult to juggle the job search and parenting. He decided about a year and a half ago to remain a homemaker.

His wife, who works in the research and development department at a medical equipment firm, is the family’s sole breadwinner.

Miyauchi had mixed feelings about becoming a househusband. He thought of himself as a failure and didn’t tell others about his life decision. But he got over it when his acquaintances barely batted an eye when he told them he had decided not to seek a new job.

Read the rest of the story: japan_now: In Japan, more men turning to homemaking.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku – Japan Near ‘Edge of a Cliff’ – Taxes may be raising in Japan

Japan’s top government spokesman said the country’s fiscal situation is “approaching the edge of a cliff,” underscoring Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s call for a national debate on raising the 5 percent sales tax.

Kan is “expressing his deep sense of crisis and resolution about the sustainability of social security as the aging population increases under a low birth rate,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku told reporters today in Tokyo. “The supporting fiscal conditions don’t allow for any delays, it’s finally approaching the edge of a cliff.”

The prime minister last night said in an interview with TV Asahi that he would “stake my political life” on addressing Japan’s rising social welfare costs and increasing public debt. The day before he said “now is the time” to face these problems.

Japan’s public debt is set to exceed twice the size of the economy this year and reach 210 percent of gross domestic product in 2012, both estimates the highest among countries tracked by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, according to the group’s forecasts.

Read the rest of the story: Sengoku Says Japan’s Finances Near ‘Edge of a Cliff’.

Japan Not Easy for Workforce Immigrants

Maria Fransiska, a young, hard-working nurse from Indonesia, is just the kind of worker Japan would seem to need to replenish its aging work force.

But Ms. Fransiska, 26, is having to fight to stay. To extend her three-year stint at a hospital outside Tokyo, she must pass a standardized nursing exam administered in Japanese, a test so difficult that only 3 of the 600 nurses brought here from Indonesia and the Philippines since 2007 have passed.So Ms. Fransiska spends eight hours in Japanese language drills, on top of her day job at the hospital. Her dictionary is dog-eared from countless queries, but she is determined: her starting salary of $2,400 a month was 10 times what she could earn back home. If she fails, she will never be allowed to return to Japan on the same program again.

Read the rest of the story: Japan Curbs Hiring Foreigners Even as Labor Shortage Looms.

Closing Japan’s gender gap – Japan was ranked 94th of 134 countries in the Global Gender Gap Index

Japan is likely to sink deeper into stagnation unless society can change in a way that makes it easier for women to play a greater role by capitalizing on their abilities. This problem is highlighted every year by Japan’s abysmal positions in the international rankings of gender equality.

This year, Japan was ranked 94th of 134 countries in the Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI), compiled by the World Economic Forum, a Geneva-based nonprofit foundation best known for its annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, that brings together business and political leaders from around the world. The index is based on such criteria as the ratios of men and women among members of parliament and corporate executives, and in wages.

Similarly last year, Japan ranked 57th among 109 countries in the United Nations’ Gender Empowerment Measure, which measures women’s standing in political and economic areas in a country.

However, Japan did take the 12th position among 138 nations in the rankings of the Gender Inequality Index, a measure of inequality in achievements between men and women introduced this year by the United Nations. The higher the ranking, the lower the inequality.

But Japan’s relatively good performance was due to higher weight given to such criteria as maternal mortality.

This may make some Japanese breathe a sigh of relief. But the fact that the achievements of Japanese women in society are rated low despite their high marks for health and longevity underscores serious problems with Japanese society.

In the West, the hollowing-out of the manufacturing sector, which was supported mainly by male workers, took place in the 1980s as manufacturers shifted production to low-wage nations amid globalization.

This trend made it a crucial policy challenge in these countries to tap the abilities of women to nurture service industries.

In particular, improving the environment for women to work outside the home was regarded as the most pressing need. Consequently, efforts were made to increase the numbers of women in places like the corporate sections responsible for decision-making and in Congress.

Read the rest of the story: Japan’s gender gap.

Twins, but in Separate Countries

Genetically, Toshiko and Fukuko Kubo are identical twins. The 30-year-old sisters are physically indistinguishable, from their height to their walk — even the way they both break into a wide smile.

Their lives, though, are on two separate paths, mirroring the power shift that is the economic story in Asia.

Toshiko lives in Tokyo, Japan. She has a graduate degree in art history and longs to work amid the works of the great artists of the classical era of art. Those dreams are shelved, she says, for a job with a steady salary and benefits. She works in a job outside of the field of her choice, logging the typical 14-hour work day expected in Japan. Toshiko doesn’t hate her job, but it doesn’t exactly inspire her, either.

Despite her lackluster career path, Toshiko says by Japanese standards, she’s lucky. Approximately one third of 20-to-30-year olds don’t have full-time jobs, according to Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. The ministry also shows the highest rate of unemployment is among people under age 25.

"Japan is a difficult place to live for young people," says Toshiko. "Young people don’t have goals. We can’t have dreams. Even if we have a dream, there’s no way to make it come true."

Read the rest of the story: Twin Tale: Rising China, Japan’s setting sun.

‘Kyarabens’ Tutorial

Hexagon Bento

If you are looking for a Japanese art form to explore but haven’t found a traditional art to your taste, you might want to try the art of Kyaraben, also known as Charaben, short for “Character Bentos”.

These are bentos where the assortment of foods to go in the lunch box are made in the shapes of your favorite animation characters.  If you develop a flair, you may even want to branch into landscape-bens, portrait-bens, or even abstra-bens.  The latter three being as yet unexplored bento art territory.

Sketch for Hexagon Character Bento by Y.

To make this 100% edible art, start with a sketch of your favorite character.  From Hello Kitty to Hexa-kun (the character from the well-known television quiz show, Hexagon),  the world’s your oyster and any vegetable, fish cake, meat morsel or seaweed  sheets can form the materials.

You will find a scissor helpful for cutting seaweed; and straws are good to punch small circles in slices of ham or cheese that can be used as buttons, on faces, as polkadots, etc.

Think about your palette, and how to make colors from plain white rice adding such condiments as tomato ketchup, mentaiko or pink fish powders, or an autumn orange using pumpkin.

Color variations for egg omelette
cutting holes in cheese with the end of a straw

Bento artist at work
Koala March Ben

Sharpen your knives, get out your bento supplies, and discover that you too can sculpt rice into onigiri of various shapes and sizes that can be wrapped with colorful tastes to resemble your favorite characters.

The bentos pictured are made by my daughter,  11-year old Y., who is getting an early start in the art.  She made these bentos  for her fall school excursions (ensokus).   BTW, the Chara-bens are also ECO and can be adapted for all ages.  If you enjoy this art, you might be inclined to use your own bento more and purchase the disposable variety less.


Aikawarazu Life in Japan


89% of train groping victims don’t report it

About nine out of 10 women who fall victim to groping aboard trains do not alert authorities, according to a survey released Thursday by the National Police Agency.

The agency polled 3,256 men and women in three metropolitan areas centering on Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka, and found about 80 percent were supportive of installing security cameras on trains as a deterrent to groping.

The NPA plans to strengthen patrols, create a mechanism to make it easier for victims to report gropings, and also work with railways to install more security cameras.

Read the rest of the story: 89% of train groping victims don’t notify police: survey.


Strong Words from Campbell on Child Custody Cases concerning US and Japan

There are about 70 cases of American parents who are kept from seeing their children in Japan, and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell met with several of them in a group earlier Tuesday. He called their situations “heart-breaking.”

In some cases, Japanese mothers living overseas have fled to Japan with their children and kept the fathers from having any contact with the kids, even if court rulings abroad ordered joint custody.

“This situation has to be resolved in order to ensure that U.S.-Japan relations continue on such a positive course,” Campbell told reporters in Tokyo. “The United States government strongly believes that these children have a right to enjoy the love of both parents and the benefits of both cultures.”

Campbell’s comments are the strongest to date on this issue, with Tokyo coming under increased international pressure to sign on to the Hague Convention on International Child Abduction, which is designed to address such international custody disputes.