Slices of Japanese business, politics and life
The character “shin”, or “new”, is on display at Kyoto’s Kiyomizu temple, selected by Japan’s kanji association as the word of 2009, with the chief priest’s calligraphy perched above the former capital, known more for its history than the au courant.
The word’s stock rose with phrases like “new Cabinet”, “new influenza”, new model Prius and new jury system. But looking at its dry, black ink on a recent trip, I wondered if the choice was also a comment on its ubiquity, or non-newness, in a marketing-saturated nation where the adjective is often pasted without any real commitment to the fresh or innovative. Two years ago the kanji for “fake” had been selected as word of the year.
Certainly, commercial hollowness is not new nor limited to Japan, while the world’s No.2 economy is undeniably home to fashion leaders, cutting-edge technology firms, and Nobel Prize and Oscar winners. But in the last two decades, Japan has seen a host of ”Shinseito”, “Shinshinto” and other “new” political parties, usually ending in tears, while its ”shinjinrui” — a new “breed” supposed to lead the country with a different drummer – are now barely distinguishable from the band they replaced.
The nation has experienced its share of “new eras”, “New Towns”, “new halfs”, even annual “beaujolais nouveau” booms, and thus “it’s deja vu all over again” when new is news. Moreover, a recurring theme about the new here is how quickly, if not already, that novelty is past tense. Perhaps, then, it is because of this penchant for making the new old, or the old new, that Japanese have applied some cultural fail-safes, at least for the major holiday of the season.
Take a look around any Japanese city and reminders of the H1N1 influenza threat are everywhere. Commuters in surgical masks. Hand sanitiser at building entrances. Classrooms and daycare centres being temporarily shut.
But nothing gets parents more into a panic than news reports of small children having died from the disease. Moms and dads understandably want vaccinations for their kids as soon as possible but there’s one major problem: where can you get them?
My young son and I were heading into Catholic church on Sunday in Tokyo when we noticed something odd: There was no holy water at the entrance.
It felt strange. What could be more Catholic than crossing yourself with a dab of holy water as you race into Mass to find a pew?
Disposable masks have become an essential accessory in the worst-affected areas of western Japan, while a growing number of Tokyo commuters are wearing them. The government has recommended use by those who suspect infection, but some businesses are ordering employees to wear them, especially if they have face-to-face client interaction.
The new flu strain that emerged in Mexico last month has brought Japanese TV shows, newspapers and government ads out in a rash of demonstrations of the art of proper hand-washing to avoid the spread of germs.
“First, you clean the palms, then rub the dirt off the back of the hands. Make sure you wash between fingers and finger tips. And yes, don’t forget your thumbs and wrists!!”
from Left field:
You could ordinarily be forgiven for having sweaty palms and a quickening heartbeat before you play a world championship final.
But not if your sport is ping pong and you are playing in the world table tennis finals in Yokohama.