Safety first in Japan

Japanese people are very concerned with safety. One of the first Japanese words I learned after arriving in Japan was anzen (安全 ), the Japanese word for safety.

A well-known example of this concern with safety is the method of ‘pointing and calling‘, shisa kanko (指差喚呼), used by public transport operators in Japan. Japanese train drivers will point at every sign they pass, calling out its status. This looks very funny to Western eyes but it is proven to help keep focus and attention.

Foreign Toyota employees receive similar instructions when they first arrive in Japan. The Toyota headquarters in Japan are so large that they include roads with motorized traffic on them. During their initial orientation, the expat employees are instructed on how to cross the road when they are at headquarters: they have to point to the left, say yoshi (which means something like OK), point to the right, say yoshi again, and only then may they cross. The Europeans, with their disdain for rules, think it is silly and try to skip the yoshi yoshi whenever they can. The Japanese employees, however, diligently follow the safety regulations, much to the astonishment and amusement of the Europeans.

Another example of Japanese concern with safety is this group of school children. They are all wearing helmets, which seem to be part of their school uniform.

Japanese safety anzen

Safety first in Japan: helmets as part of the school uniform.

I guess a country that is frequently affected by natural disasters, such as earthquakes, tsunami, volcanic eruptions and the like, cannot be blamed for an emphasis on safety. But Japan wouldn’t be Japan if there wasn’t also a huge contradiction in this concern with safety.

Imagine my surprise when I found out that many Japanese people watch TV while driving! While the Belgian government campaigns heavily against using the phone while driving, let alone watching television, in Japan it seems to be the most normal thing in the world to watch TV while driving. Many Japanese people have their navi system adjusted to also broadcast TV. While this isn’t exactly legal, as I’ve been told, many people do it.

Japanese people ignoring safety and breaking the rules? Just when you think you have things figured out, Japan throws you a curveball. Or is it allright to break the rules because the car is considered ‘private space’ (related to the honne – tatemae distinction) where you can do what you want? I would love to hear other people’s opinion on this. Please share what you think in the comment section!

Japanese advertising slogans

I love Japanese advertising slogans. They often include English words that have been used in a very Japanese way. Japanese copywriters are clearly convinced that positive words are the way to go. I often see a collection of positive words thrown together in a way that no native English speaker would ever use them.

What do you think of this slogan to promote apple candy: ‘Health and beauty for your life’? The message that they want to bring across is clear but no Western copywriter would communicate it so directly. Reading this kind of Japanese advertising slogan instantly puts a smile on my face. It sounds so sweet and innocent and frankly I find it quite endearing.

Japanese advertising slogans

These apple candies will bring health and beauty to your life! Yes they will!

Have a look at some other examples:

Hopeful bargain in Tokyo, Japan

Hopeful bargain in Tokyo, Japan

freshness burger in Nagoya airport

Freshness burger in Nagoya airport

funny english in japan toiletpaper

Japanese toilet paper, bringing happiness to your life

Outgoing Japanese people

When Belgian people ask me questions about my stay in Japan, they often ask what Japanese people are like. From their questions, I gather that they believe all Japanese people to be quiet and introverted. When I answer that I actually met lots of Japanese people who were outgoing and easy to come into contact with, they react surprised. When I add that, in my experience, Japanese people are a happy people who laugh a lot, they look incredulous. I wrote about these prejudices more elaborately in the article ‘Japanese people are human too‘.

Today, as I was going through the pictures that I took when I was in Japan exactly four years ago, on May 21st 2012, I found a video that perfectly illustrates how outgoing Japanese people can be. I was visiting the indoor market in Kanazawa and noticed some live crabs laying on ice, who were still moving. As I stopped to film this fascinating scene, the vendor asked me what I was doing. I said that I was making a video of the crabs but that they appeared to have stopped moving at the moment. As you can see in the video, the vendor immediately reacted by prodding the crabs and placing some more lively ones on the ice. He even took a crab and held it towards the camera, which produced some screaming and hilarity.

This kind of spontaneous and humorous exchange was by no means an exception during my stay in Japan. It shows that Japanese people, just like people all over the world, can be outgoing and enjoy having a laugh!

Japanese pedestrian crossings

When I first arrived in Japan, one of the first things that caught my attention were the pedestrian crossings. In Japan, when the pedestrian traffic lights turn green, they turn green for all directions at once. Car traffic from every direction is stopped. This enables the pedestrians to cross the intersection in whatever direction they want, including diagonally. It was such an odd view to see pedestrians walking over the middle of an intersection.

Japanese pedestrian crossing Toyota City

I took this picture of a pedestrian crossing in Toyota City on the very first day of my stay in Japan. From the hotel I had an excellent view of this crossing and I was amazed to see everyone crossing at once and walking over the middle of the intersection.

A little research taught me that this kind of intersection is called a ‘scramble crossing’ in Japan (スクランブル交差点 sukuranburu-kōsaten). I also learned that it is not unique to Japan and is also known as an ‘x crossing’ or a ‘diagonal crossing’. They are, however, ubiquitous in Japan. I have never seen one in Belgium.

I took me some time to get used to these Japanese scramble crossings. Walking over the middle of an intersection, I kept feeling apprehensive about oncoming cars. But once I got used it, it gave a real sense of freedom!

After I had gotten used to the pedestrian crossings in Toyota City (a small provincial city), and even those in Nagoya (Japan’s fourth largest city), I had another shock when I visited Tokyo and saw the Shibuya pedestrian crossing. That intersection takes scramble crossings to a whole other level. Shibuya pedestrian crossing is the busiest scramble crossing in Japan.

shibuya pedestrian crossing

People waiting to cross at Shibuya pedestrian crossing

shibuya pedestrian crossing

The crossing in full swing at Shibuya pedestrian crossing

Please take a look at this video I shot looking out over Shibuya pedestrian crossing. I took it from inside the Shibuya Starbucks and it really shows how impressive this crossing is. At the end of the video, you might also notice some people hurriedly crossing while the light is already red. This blatant rule breaking once again shows that Japanese people are human too, contrary to popular belief in the West.

People watching: Giraffe costume

Japan is full of surprises. For example, here I was strolling around a department store, when suddenly I saw someone dressed in what I believe to be a giraffe costume. It seems this person was just hanging out with friends and I could see no apparent reason to be wearing a giraffe costume. Although one could wonder if there ever is a good reason to wear a giraffe costume. The scene did put a smile on my face so maybe that is reason enough.

P1110517

Hanging out with friends in a quiet department store in Toyota City, casually dressed in a giraffe costume

 

Haramaki, the Japanese belly warmer

Haramaki is a type of Japanese undergarment. It literally translates as ‘belly wrap’ (腹巻). I first learned about haramaki when shopping at Japanese clothing store Uniqlo. In the underwear section, I saw a tube-like knitted item that seemed perfect for keeping my neck warm at night. Shortly after having bought two ‘neckwarmers’, I saw a tv program where foreigners were being interviewed about life in Japan. The foreigners commented on the peculiar Japanese habit of wearing belly warmers. Hence my introduction to the haramaki. Ever since discovering its intended purpose, I wear haramaki in winter for extra warmth or whenever I have lower back pains.

haramaki

Japanese belly warmer called haramaki

When looking for background on haramaki, I was surprised to find mostly fashion related information. I had thought of the haramaki more as an item that one wears for health purposes but apparently it is making a comeback as a fashion piece. This is remarkable because the haramaki was traditionally considered an out-of-date item worn by old men.

The history of the haramaki goes back to feudal Japan, where it was a type of armour worn by infantry soldiers. According to Wikipedia, haramaki refers to any Japanese armour which is put on from the front and then fastened in the back with cords.

haramaki armour

Haramaki armour – Image from Worldantiques

Later on, during the First Sino-Japanese War and World War II, a soldier going off to fight was often given a senninbari haramaki (“1,000 stitch belt”) by his family. A mother, sister, or wife would stand on the street and ask passing women to contribute a stitch until 1,000 had been collected. The garment was meant to both provide warmth and serve as a talisman to ward away harm.

senninbachi haramaki

Senninbari haramaki for Japanese soldiers

The haramaki then evolved to its current form: a circular tube of fabric worn around the midriff and hips. During the 70’s and 80’s, it was considered an out-of-date type of underwear for old men. Contributing to this image were various characters from popular culture like the manga series Tensai Bakabon, which stars a dim-witted boy and his insane father. The father always wears a haramaki.

tensai bakabon otousan haramaki

The dad from manga Tensai Bakabon, wearing a haramaki

Another example is Tora-san, the main character in a series of movies about a kind-hearted vagabond who is always unlucky in love.

torasan haramaki

Tora-san from the movie series Otoko wa tsurai yo (“It’s tough being a man”), wearing his signature haramaki

The transition of haramaki from out-of date underwear to fashionable mainstream item is mostly credited to Japanese game designer and entrepreneur Itoi Shigesato. Itoi had been wearing haramaki for years despite their old-fashioned reputation and perception as an unfashionable undergarment when he started selling haramaki in 2001 through his company Hobonichi. Hobonichi reinvented haramaki as fashion items to layer with your clothes. He even worked with Nintendo to make Nintendo-themed haramaki. If you are interested in buying some trendy Hobonichi haramaki, you can go to the English language Hobonichi webshop. You can wear these haramaki directly over your skin, over an undershirt and under your shirt, or completely over your shirt. If you are more into plain haramaki, you might try British shop Nukunuku.

hobonichi haramaki nintendo

Nintendo themed haramaki from Hobonichi

While not everyone may agree about the fashion merit of haramaki, there is no denying that haramaki help to keep you warm. Have a look at the chart below:

haramaki heat chart

fig. 01: low body temperature; fig. 02: slightly warmer with a summer blanket; fig. 03: even better with a winter blanket; fig. 04: high core temperature and therefore overall higher body temperature with haramaki. A haramaki is also supposed to improve circulation.

The Japanese love to talk about how important a warm stomach is to staying well. They attribute all sorts of health benefits to it. In any case the added heat provided by haramaki is very welcome during cold Japanese winters without central heating systems. If you want to know more about keeping warm during winter in Japan, you can read my post 6 ways to keep warm during Japanese winter.

What do you think about haramaki? Is it a fashion-do or don’t? Only for grandpa’s or great for young people too? Let me know what you think in the comments section!

Kimono fashion: Coming of Age Day

Coming of Age Day (seijin no hi) is a Japanese holiday held on the second Monday of January. It is a great day for kimono spotting. In day-to-day life in Japan, it is rare to see people in kimono. On Coming of Age Day, however, you will see them everywhere.

Coming of Age Day celebrates everyone who turned 20 years old (the age of majority in Japan) during the past year. It is customary for these young adults to wear traditional Japanese clothing, especially the women, who wear furisode kimono with long swinging sleeves. Most men seem to opt for smart Western suits, although some of them do wear kimono and hakama.

Coming of age day kimono

A group of youngsters on Coming of Age Day. The girls are dressed in brightly coloured furisode kimono with long sleeves – Image by Dick Johnson

coming of age day proper kimono fashion

Young couple in traditional Coming of Age Day attire

There are some young people, however, who have decided to put a new spin on Coming of Age Day fashion. A few days ago, I read a Japan Times article discussing ‘improper attire’ in the city of Kitakyushu. Apparently men have begun wearing brightly coloured hakama and women are dressing in a style of kimono that was popular with oiran, the high-class prostitutes of the Edo Period, showing lots of cleavage and shoulder.

coming of age day oiran kimono fashion

Girls trying on oiran costumes for Coming of Age Day

coming of age day oiran kimono fashion

Oiran costume on Coming of Age Day

If you want to get an impression of Coming of Age Day celebrations in Kitakyushu (the city discussed in the Japan Times article), I recommend the video below. It shows a mix of traditional costumes and the newer styles. The guys in the beginning of the video really remind me of the anime ‘Great Teacher Onizuka‘, which basically means they look and sound like 1980’s gangsters. Also don’t miss the guy in ladies underwear at the end of the video.

Judging from this video, it seems like a pretty raucous affair. Apparently the past few years it has not been not uncommon to have car crashes, fighting and vandalism on Coming of Age Day, although some places seem to be more famous for it than others. To be fair though, I think in most places in Japan people just dress traditionally, go to a temple and have a calm party afterwards with their friends. It’s always the excess that gets the most attention. I would love to have some reader feedback on this though. Please feel free to comment below!

But back to Kitakyushu. Apparently some people were scandalized by this new kimono fashion trend and the city of Kitakyushu has responded by setting up a webpage to educate new 20-year-olds on appropriate attire for the event. Unfortunately I can’t read Japanese, but I watched the video. It shows how a girl is supposed to walk, sit, enter a car and even go to the bathroom (if I am not mistaken) while wearing a furisode kimono. Where are the recommendations for the boys???

I wonder though, if the main problem is the new style of dressing or rather the vandalism and violence that sometimes seems to be associated with Coming of Age Day celebrations. And why do these young people go so crazy, both in fashion and behavior?

Several things come to mind. Firstly, innovations by younger generations are often perceived as shocking by older generations. This is a phenomenon as old as time. Secondly, I have come to understand that for many Japanese people, their early twenties is the only time they truly feel free. During their primary and secondary school years, they are under enormous pressure to pass entrance exams to get into good high schools and universities. After university, they enter the workforce and work long hours under strict behavior and dress codes. Or they start a family and are completely absorbed by their duties as parents (for many women this still holds true). During their university years however, they are free to do as they want. And finally, I do believe that Japan is changing. A new generation is emerging that is discarding the traditional ways and looking for their own way of doing things, much as happened in the West during the sixties. I am curious to see how things will evolve!