Breeding Bluefin Tuna in captivity: A recipe for success?

When I went over to Japan- I went there with an open mind to try as much as possible. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post the first 3 weeks were a sort of ignorant bliss- I ate, enjoyed but frequently was at a loss to identify what I was eating. With one exception- I knew very well of the Japanese love of Bluefin tuna Read more

HiNGEd on Unique Stories

 “i’d rather wear a unique story…”- Boticca I’ve always been fascinated with the origin of the product I am using, eating, wearing, smelling or consuming in some way or another. I am curious about the intricate relations, history and most importantly the story that lies behind a product. I assume this is what lends itself to my passion for sustainability, and ethical issues since full transparency and Read more

Free Money + Sloths= a better life?

On the 15th September, in over 15 countries worldwide, people handed out their money two coins, or two notes at a time to complete strangers with one condition attached: the recipient must pass half this amount to someone else. Who are these people? Benevolent billionaires who would like to donate to my new handbag fund (a bona fide cause I assure you…)? Well, no Read more

Kuromame-Cha cha cha

In other words black soybean tea; possibly my most treasured discovery during my sojourn in Japan. It all began one cold spring trip to Hakone-the mountain escape for Tokyoites for a bit of rest and relaxation. My boyfriend and I were visiting to try out my first onsen (hot natural springs/baths) and experience the calmer, more picturesque side of Japan which had somewhat evaded Read more

Japan Earthquake & Tsunami

I'm really sad to hear and see the terrible impact of the earthquake of magnitude 8.9 and subsequent tsunami in Japan, whose far reaching destruction is slowly revealing itself day by day. For any worried English speaking expats in Japan-a great and reassuring resource can be found here: http://www.survivingnjapan.com/2011/03/earthquake-in-japan-links-resources.html For those on twitter you will find a number of regular tweeters who are keeping everyone Read more

How unique is UNIQLO?

UNIQLO is among one of Japan's best exports, along with their ubiquitous technology, anime, manga and J-Pop. For me UNIQLO signalled a welcome sense of familiarity when I first stepped into Japan- a country which managed to confound all my senses upon arrival. And when I say 'first stepped into Japan' I mean this in the strictest sense of the word; since my interest in Read more

Ja-Pan du jour

'This bread demands a very slow fermentation and a lot of attention. However the result is worth it; the taste is incomparable, its texture sealed in and honeycombed...an authentic, handcrafted product' Beck Pain Gris (2010) Toit Vert- A Japanese Bakery The translation is not quite as poetic as when read in French, but this description on the bread paper sachet demonstrates the care, attention and Read more

Ain't no Blue Mountain high enough

“Coffee should be as black as the devil, hot as hell, pure as an angel, sweet as love"- Charles Maurice de Talleyrand. And that's exactly how I take mine. Coffee and I have had their ups and down, I briefly abandoned my caffeinated companion following my dissertation induced sleep deprivation, in the final year of my degree. It would be more accurate to describe this Read more

Toilets ...a metaphor for Japan?

Toilets are Japan in a nutshell. Ok stick with me here, on first observations, what I have just said may sound a little disparaging about the Japanese culture, people and land. I see Japanese toilets as a wider metaphor of Japan, the paradox between tradition, ancient history and culture juxtaposed with modernity, high-technology, and the latest fashions in Asia. Juxtaposition of a traditional Inari shrine Read more

Bling bling fruit and bargain bananas

When we think of bananas and the Japanese, the heralded 'Morning banana diet' may come to mind. Indeed a banana buying craze broke out in Japan when this diet debuted in March 2008. In a week, sales increased by 70% causing a price spike and pressure on imports.  The basic premise is that by only consuming bananas for breakfast with a glass of room Read more

Negotiating the foggy waters of product labels

My greatest difficulty since arriving in Japan has been the interpretation of product labels, be it food, cosmetics or simply flushing the toilets (some of which are more hi-tech than my mobile phone-I'm sure.)  This has been a sticking point for me since I tend to analyse everything I put onto my skin and into my body-an obsessive label checker some may call it. Read more

consumerism

Free Money + Sloths= a better life?

On the 15th September, in over 15 countries worldwide, people handed out their money two coins, or two notes at a time to complete strangers with one condition attached: the recipient must pass half this amount to someone else. Who are these people? Benevolent billionaires who would like to donate to my new handbag fund (a bona fide cause I assure you…)? Well, no just ordinary people who seek to kick-start conversations and awareness on the benefits of economies based on sharing. Unfortunately I couldn’t make it to the local event in Tervuren, Belgium so the handbag fundraising continues…However aside from materialistic aspirations, this is exactly what this event aims to challenge, to get us thinking more critically and creatively about our relationship with money and to consider alternative and new forms of economic activity. The 15th September has been chosen symbolically as Free Money Day, since 3 years ago on September 15th 2008, Lehman’s Brothers, a figurehead for interminable economic growth and one of the world’s largest investment banks, filed for bankruptcy triggering the financial crisis, with repercussions which still resonate today.   Free Money Day has been initiated by the international group the Post Growth Institute, who seeks to inspire and equip people everywhere to explore paths to global prosperity that don’t rely on economic growth. In other words they seek to re-focus our priorities away from consumerist goals and shift to simpler values in order to regain meaning and a sense of balance in life, and for us all to gain greater fulfilment from a future beyond the pursuit of economic growth with no regard to consequences. From a logical point of view, exponential growth which we could almost consider as having become a mantra for ‘success’ and happiness, is completely incompatible in a world with finite resources. This hunger of humans for more of everything is to the detriment of the environment, our communities, our social needs, our happiness. Numerous studies, such as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs concur that up to a certain threshold, an increase in income contributes to individual wellbeing, however once our basic needs have been satisfied, an increase in our income does not directly correlate to us as happier little beans, just a crappier environment and often a poorer work-life balance. This is leading many to re-evaluate how we live our lives.

Click to see larger image. Source: http://www.businessballs.com/images/maslow_hierarchy.htm

This is by no means a new concept and has its roots in many different movements before it, in fact my whole end of degree dissertation study was focused on this topic and as much as I would like to delve back into the roots, evolutions, nuances and different manifestations of simpler living, I feel I would probably need a whole website rather than an isolated blog post to elucidate what terms such as ‘post growth’, ‘slow living’, ‘downshifting’, ‘voluntary simplicity’ encompass. I feel I can only scrape at the surface when introducing this topic and in fact the ‘Post Growth Institute’ is a very clear introduction and guide on how you can understand and incorporate simpler and ‘post growth’ values into your lives. I would therefore like to frame this post in the context of Japanese culturally specific approaches towards ‘post growth’ and simpler living by looking at the organisations and movements: The Sloth Club and Slow Living Japan.

Slow is beautiful

The Post Growth Institute notes that slowly “around the globe, in many different ways, people are coming to believe a different story.”

Sloth Club Logo. Source: http://www.sloth.gr.jp

The Sloth Club is one such group of people and this NGO formed in 1999, to promote the slow movement, sustainable living, fair trade and ethical living, and a local living economy. The sloth is a fitting face to a slow way of life and adherents idolise their furry, slumber eyed friend as a model for new approaches to living. And before you envisage hundreds of Japanese hanging from trees in an attempt to embrace ‘Slow’, “the aim is to emulate some of the basic behaviors of the sloth,” in particular its “low-energy, cyclical, symbiotic and non-violent lifestyle” so we should visualise the ways of the sloth in a metaphorical rather than literal sense.   A lot of the activities of the Sloth Club seem to encompass what many would simply associate with environmental or ecological and social rights group such as their engagement in antinuclear activism, peace activism and promoting conservation by means of the Hachidori Project.  Green and ethical actions indeed form a large core of their activities and the aims of slow living. Yet the Sloth Club has also been a large advocate and instigator of ‘Slow’ activities through organising ‘voluntary blackouts’ which encourage people to lead slower lifestyles, publishing guidelines for slow business, setting up slow cafes which serve organic and sustainably produced food and provides a community centre where events are held, organising ‘slow travel’ tours, involving themselves in ‘slow design groups’ and even setting up an alternative currency and ‘Slow Business school’.

A glossary of Slow: 

Still befuddled? Here’s a quick go-to guide for those of you who are not yet slow enough to trundle through a more comprehensive albeit longer explanation of the movement:

  • Slow food– The most visible facet of the movement and catalyst for other forms of ‘Slow’. It was founded in 1989 in Italy to challenge the rise of fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s diminishing interest in the food we eat, its origins, its taste and how the modern agricultural industry and our food choices affect the world socially and environmentally. It is now a 150 country-strong organisation, represented by another symbol of ‘Slow’: the snail.
  • Slow travel/tourism– A more meaningful, interactive and ecological form of tourism which often reflect features of ‘Slow’ such as eating locally, reconnecting with oneself, others and nature, reducing environmental impact of the visit, and opting for tourism which is truly ethical: supporting communities, respecting cultures, experiencing different lifestyles without judgement.
  • Slow business– An educational and business development group which seeks to expand and promote ‘Slow Business’ in Japan and worldwide. Their main concern is with interconnectedness of the local and global, focusing on promotion of alternative lifestyles, fair trade, organic products and other core values of ‘Slow’. Key words are ‘share’ as opposed to business ‘monopoly’ in order to shift us from a greedy society to a sharing society. They have also set up a Slow Business School as part of their projects.
  • Slow design- A holistic, comprehensive, inclusive, reflective and considered approach to design.  It repositions the focus of design on individual, socio-cultural and environmental well-being as well as celebrating diversity and pluralism.
  • Other terms to watch out for: slow music, slow books, slow education, slow cities

How and why did this movement take hold?

Japan and Tokyo is probably one the fastest and busiest country and city you will meet, this is particularly true of the latter. An increasing dissatisfaction with the frenetic pace of work and life, with too little sleep and too much work has led to many to seek alternative and slower lifestyles. Many are re-evaluating their approaches to relationships with society, food and the environment. This is particularly prevalent in the context of the economic crisis and Fukishima nuclear disaster. An increase in the awareness of ‘Slow’ can also be attributed to and in response to the Japanese film ‘Oriteyuku Ikikata’ (Slow life down) released in 2009.   The gradual adoption of ‘Slow’ as a life philosophy has not been without its difficulties. It is a movement which challenges the

Source: http://sloths.org/slothnew.html

idea of never-ending consumption and exertion in Japan, which has helped develop the country and improve the material lives of the Japanese significantly since the end of World War 2. There is equally the negative association of ‘slow’ with ‘lazy’-an idea which slow advocates are working to disband. However a sign of the success of the movement points to Kakegawa City in Shizuoka Prefecture declaring itself a “Slow Life City” in December 2002, of which there are over 60 worldwide. And you never know, maybe next year we’ll see a Free Money event in Japan the next 15th September!   At this point I’m going to finish my introduction to ‘Slow’ here feeling dissatisfied that I haven’t really even begun to explain what this about. But after having completed a 10,000 word dissertation on the topic I guess a blog post isn’t really going to cover it. However this has perhaps given an adequate introduction to one manifestation of ‘simpler living’ which takes its form as ‘Slow living’ or ‘The Sloth Club’ in Japan, which thousands are shifting to worldwide, each in their different forms and foci with the global aim to live simpler, to live better, to live greener and for prosperity beyond economic growth.

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Toilets …a metaphor for Japan?

Toilets are Japan in a nutshell. Ok stick with me here, on first observations, what I have just said may sound a little disparaging about the Japanese culture, people and land. I see Japanese toilets as a wider metaphor of Japan, the paradox between tradition, ancient history and culture juxtaposed with modernity, high-technology, and the latest fashions in Asia.

Juxtaposition of a traditional Inari shrine in Kyoto and a modern drinks vending machine.

And of course no blog about Japan would be complete without at least one post about the toilets in Japan. In fact I would say that it was pretty much the first thing I noticed when arriving in Narita airport, after a long 11 and half hour flight, and much glugging of water in the aeroplane; Japanese toilets are a commodity of extremes.

In Japan, there are  generally 2 types of toilet: the super duper, hi-tech, cooks your food, answers your emails and makes your bed type of toilet….and the one I affectionately like to refer to as ‘hole in the floor’. The latter are apparently more adapted to how human beings are supposed to, ahem, powder one’s nose…that is to say, squat. And in all my time in Japan, they were the ones I actively avoided when possible, steering towards the helpfully labelled ‘Western style toilets’ (yoshiki). I never quite worked out how they were supposed to be used and found them to be a general inconvenience, particularly when they were the only option available. Sources now inform me that you are supposed to face the plumbing, but whichever way I looked at it, impracticality screamed out each time I paid a visit.

A typical Squat toilet. Source: Richard Seamen

This is not to say I fully embraced the hi-tech toilets either. In fact I would say I had just as much, if not more difficulty in using these toilets. Females retain the reputation among men for taking an extraordinarily long time in toilets and I feel in Japan, I broke all records. Having finished my business, I was faced with an array of buttons (below):

For a non-Japanese speaker like myself, I ask you, what would you press? My concern was that I would inadvertently press one of the spray or deodoriser buttons and receive a jet straight into my face. Equally I could, and did not want to leave the toilet without flushing. I feel that I would be bringing shame upon Europeans by leaving the toilet unflushed particularly as Japan is such a clean and polite nation. After a 5 minute deliberation, and logical deductions, I correctly answered the ‘Toto Toilet Multiple Choice’ and escaped dry and feeling somewhat accomplished.

The toilet…my holiday romance…

No trip abroad is complete without that special encounter…no disrespect to my boyfriend, but I did kindle a love affair in Japan… the heated toilet seat in our flat. That first week back in England was a shock, how I howled on my first rendez vous with the ceramic, freezing cold toilet seat! I lamented to my boyfriend of my sorrows and warned him of the misery he would experience on his return back to France. Of course, he being of a practical nature, had already put preparations in place, he was starting the adaptation process by gradually lowering the heat of the toilet seat. What a brain eh?

So what has this got to do with ethical and green issues? Well a lot more than you’d think. Not only do I believe toilets to be a metaphor of the Japanese culture, they are also another symbol of the hyper consumerism in Japan. As much as I loved the toilet in our flat, and felt it to be a true blessing on night time visits, I also knew that this was a dreadful waste of electricity. We weren’t obliged to have the toilet seat heating switched on…but ashamedly we did for our comfort, even on those scorching days in May. And I’m pretty sure most of the Japanese probably do the same. And then there are all those public conveniences, which not only heat, they squirt, clean, dry, deodorise, and even play a flushing sound for those who don’t want their tinkles (or plops) to be heard. My personal favourite was upon entering the toilet in a restaurant in Hakone, the lid lifted up in greeting to me. Completely unnecessary but amusing, and somewhat endearing.

These BlackBerrys of the toilet world are more commonly known as washlets and are manufactured by the company Toto. First introduced in the 1980s, they have evolved to become bigger and better and include features to adjust squirt strength, jet pattern, water temperature and deodoriser power!

Conversely the squat style toilets are unsurprisingly much more ecologically and also economically sound, since not only are they cheaper to manufacture, they use less water and consume no electricity. There are also, unbelievably, numerous health benefits attributed to the use of squat toilets. The more hi-tech toilets have led to problems known as ‘Washlet syndrome‘, where a person gets too emotionally attached to the washlet, and overuses the spray function which leads to rashes among other things. Nice.

A rare poster explaining the toilet buttons.

Sound Princess

As I mentioned, it is not uncommon for flushing sounds to either play automatically or on demand. This technology developed in response to failed education campaigns to stop Japanese women flushing the toilet numerous times to disguise urination sounds. So at first glance, although it may seem like another ridiculous use of electricity, Otohime or the Sound Princess, as it is known, is in fact a water saving device to stop toilets being flushed unnecessarily and is claimed to save up to 20 litres per visit. Although some Japanese women find these sounds too artificial and so continue to flush the toilet several times.

Another environmental advantage of the washlets is the supposed assumption that it uses less toilet paper, however many Japanese still use a combination of the water jets and paper. And if you are like me…I avoid jet cleaning altogether, so no saving of paper here. My reaction is perhaps typical of a European and part of the reason why these toilets have not taken off in Europe. Another strong contributory factor is that due to legal and health and safety restrictions in much of Europe, Australia and New Zealand electric outlets near to sources of water are prohibited.

I never really considered the safety risks of these heated toilet seats near water, and fortunately never sustained any electrical shocks. However many a toilet would warn of the potentials risks of scalds from heated toilet seats…So along with the continuing guilt I would accrue from the gratuitous consumption of electricity, I guess it’s just as well I’m back to the cold hard reality of a European toilet seat.

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Hyper consumerism

BUY BUY BUY! This is what hits me about Tokyo. A commercial executive’s paradise. An urban mass of noise, light, advertisements, billboards, TV screens, signs, packaging, images assaulting the sensory functions. On first impressions hyper consumerism seems to define this Asian urban hub, particularly in the busy centres of Shibuya, Shinjuku and electronic district Akihabara. Department stores huddle in conference around the Japan Rail and metro stations, shop assistants tout their wares from shop interiors, in some cases amplified by microphones, and shelves are lined with highly packaged goods for the consumer to gape at.

Well this certainly describes my experience within my first week or so in Tokyo, and I promptly stopped lecturing my boyfriend about spending so much money in Japan. After 2 and a half weeks I have managed to gain some sort of control and reined in the purse strings. But I now own an extraordinary number of tights (and pretty they are!) and re-kindled an adolescent passion for stationery (honestly why have I bought so many stickers and notebooks??). And I’ll put this largely down to the sheer quantity of advertising and effort which has been put into design and packaging. One of my weaknesses is unfortunately my susceptibility to well designed packaging (hence many pretty notebooks) and Japan does this well.

The agglomeration of department stores located in and around the train stations lends its advent to real estate development. Many of the commuter train lines are privately owned and tend to bear the same or similar names to department stores since they were designed in order to develop suburbs along the rail routes and connect them to major retail centres at the terminals. A concept first developed in the more southern city of Osaka in 1929.

My travels outside of Tokyo next week will help me determine whether this religion of consumerism is a widespread phenomenon across the country, or just defined to the nation’s capital. However every Japanese guide I have read on cities such as Osaka and Sapporo have a heavy emphasis upon shopping as a major and enticing activity. Of course we can all argue that consumerism is intrinsic to the capitalist and Western mode of living, but as a ‘Westerner’ myself I was struck by the intensity of it in Tokyo.

My next observation-the sheer quantity of packaging and plastic wrapping used in products. Everything is wrapped, even little biscuits or sweets within plastic packaging. Let me use the following examples to explain my points:

Case study 1: Chocolates from the UK

Subject: Boyfriend

Subject history: Has been in Japan for 5 months.

Case details: Upon opening a packet of chocolates bought over from England subject elicits surprise that each chocolate has not been individually wrapped.

Case Study 2: Plastic Bags

Subject: Me

Subject history: Recently arrived in Japan, tries to re-use bags where possible, owns many cotton canvas bags for this purpose.

Case details: After handing over payment for the goods, and without so much of a arigato gozaimashita! (thank you very much) from me, my goods have been plopped into a suitable sized bag and taped over.

The most conspicuous form of consumption in Tokyo is without doubt of the electrical sort, the giant television screens in popular districts such as Akihabara and Shinjuku and the glaring, flashing neon lights flooding the city centres when night time falls pay homage to this. However the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) is aiming for the city’s energy companies to reduce their reliance upon fossil fuels, having set a target of 20% renewable energy supply by 2020 as part of the Tokyo Renewable Energy Strategy. Furthermore energy consumption per capita in Tokyo is apparently among the lowest in Japan,  some of that I would put down to the high number of bicycles in the city, and its heavy use on a daily basis.

A litter free oasis….

Despite the packaging cornucopia Japan has nurtured, there are numerous recycling facilities everywhere which tend to be divided into:

  • burnable
  • non-burnable
  • recyclable bags

Though this does vary and may simply be plastic, card, and cans in some places, often located next to the ubiquitous drinks vending machines, or outside shops. However the real gem of Tokyo has been the absence of bins- a sort of reverse psychology which has succeeded very well. Very rarely will you spot a bin, and this has thus resulted in very clean streets, and a populace who instinctively take their rubbish home.

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