Panda Death a Metaphor

Relations between Asia’s two giants China and Japan are rarely straightforward. Despite being the second and third lagest economies in the world and doing hundreds of billions of dollars in bilateral trade, a few choice words by a prominent government official or a territorial incursion by a small fishing boat can quickly escalate into an international diplomatic crisis.

This week saw heightened tensions due to a Japanese government announcement that it intends to nationalise the Senkaku Islands, a group of islands in the South China Sea that are also claimed by China and Taiwan. China responded by sending “fishing vessels” into Japanese-claimed territorial waters around the islands. It was the top story on the evening news. Everyone was very upset. The Japanese government’s hand had been somewhat forced into making the purchase, as the right-wing mayor of Tokyo was already arranging for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to purchase the islands on behalf of the country.

In a seemingly unrelated issue, Nicewife was watching TV on Wednesday when a Newsflash (the type that is usually reserved for earthquakes and typhoons) announced the death of a newborn baby panda at Ueno Zoo. The zoo director was in tears. The Prime Minister described the death as “very disappointing”. A major department store cancelled its “Happy Panda Week” sale. (Apparently dead pandas don’t sell handbags.) The country is in mourning.

Given that Ueno Zoo is also owned by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, one can’t but help wonder if the baby panda death is an unfortunate metaphor for the future of Sino-Japanese relations.

baby panda
Newborn Panda at Ueno Zoo  (Photo: Ueno Zoological Gardens)

Annular Eclipse 2012

We were blessed to experience a pretty cool eclipse this morning. Nagoya was within the path of annularity (I had to look that up!) which meant we were able to view the sun as a “ring of fire” around a silhouette of the moon. We viewed it using a pinhole projector made from an old shoebox. In contrast, Nicewife’s dad decided the best way to view it was to look directly at the sun… We’re expecting him to need new glasses by tomorrow.

The Japanese word for eclipse is made of the characters 日食 which literally mean “eat the sun”. Kinda neat, eh. Nicewife’s 95 year old grandma doesn’t understand science – she proclaimed that the sun god had an illness. A very beautiful illness.

So here’s the picture:


Annular Eclipse
Annular Eclipse from our home just outside Nagoya


Japanese New Year

Along with Obon and Golden Week, New Year is one of the three most important Japanese holiday periods in the year. The way it is celebrated in family life is in some ways similar to how Christmas is spent in the West. The house is decked out with New Year decorations such as the kadomatsu. New Year postcards (called Nengajyo) are sent. Saké is drunk. Specially prepared boxed food (called Osechi) is eaten. Prayers are said at the local shrine for good fortune for the year ahead. Children are given presents in the form of cash from parents and relatives.

As is typical for most Japanese families, we spent the period from 1st to 4th of January visiting relatives on both Nicewife’s mum’s and dad’s side of the family. This mostly involved talking a lot and eating heaps of delicious food! One new year speciality is a pounded rice-cake called  Mochi which we made at home from rice we harvested in November. Mochi is responsible for a number of deaths each year as old people in particular can easily choke on the glutenous rice ball. We’ll find out this year’s mochi death toll in a few weeks’ time. Nicewife’s dad reckons they must be taking surveys and making calculations right now!

There are many traditions associated with New Year in Japan, but the actual date of New Year apparently isn’t one of them. Up until 1873 Japan celebrated New Year according to the Chinese lunar calendar. Given the cultural and religious significance of New Year in Japan, switching to the Gregorian calendar must have been quite an upheaval.

Grandma Cooking Mochi Rice in an Outside Steamer (Well, she's not really doing the cooking - just keeping warm!)




Electricity Prices a Surprise

Given how often I hear Japanese lamenting the cost of electricity in this country, I was surprised to discover yesterday that the cost of residential electricity in this part of Japan is pretty much the same as it is in South Australia (around 25 cents per kWh). I expected Australian rates to be cheaper in comparison given the following:

  • In Chubu electricity is provided by a regional private monopoly; in SA there is (supposedly) competitive markets for power generation and retailing.
  • Japan has almost no natural energy resources. Australia has an abundance, and exports Liquified Natural Gas and coal to Japan.
  • The only nuclear plant that supplies this region has indefinitely suspended operations following the March 11 Tsunami because it was built in a costal location that is right on top of a fault line.(Yes, I know! What were they thinking?) This means that almost all of Chubu’s electricity is now being generated at resource-intensive thermal power plants.

Why isn’t electricity in SA cheaper? Does the “Tyranny of distance” strike again? (i.e. Is the cost of distributing the stuff much more expensive given SA’s widely disbursed population? ) And how much further will it rise once the carbon tax is implemented? Could we end up paying more for energy in resource-rich SA than they (and currently we) pay in resource-poor Japan?

Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant
Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant - All reactors are currently suspended. Photo source: Wikipedia

Meaning of Traffic Lights in Japan


Japanese traffic light
Japanese Traffic Light


Green* = Go!

Amber = Go, but faster.

Red = Go, provided you are one of the first 3 cars to pass the stop line after the light turns red. (Otherwise reluctantly stop.)

* Incidentally the Japanese call green traffic lights ‘blue’. I once saw a chart comparing the green/blue hue of ‘green’ traffic lights around the world. Japan was very much at the blue end of the spectrum. Still reading? You nerd!


Breakfast for the Price of an (expensive) Coffee

The traditional coffee houses on the outskirts of Nagoya engage in a business promotion that, as far as I am aware, is pretty unique to this area. The deal is basically thus: Order a regular cup of coffee before 11am and you will receive a free mini-breakfast. Not to be confused with the actual morning, this deal is called “morning”.

Given that a regular cup of filter coffee  (Italian-style coffee hasn’t really caught on here in a major way) at a coffee house in Japan costs around 350 to 400 yen ($4.70 to $5.30), this deal is not as cheap as it may first seem. But given the alternative of paying 350 to 400 yen at 11.05am for just a cup of filter coffee, it represents comparatively good value for money.

During our gap year I am working as a web developer on a freelance basis. Given that I can work from anywhere that there is a chair and a table (and even some places where there isn’t) I’ve been spending a few hours each day working from a coffee house. This gives me the ideal opportunity to do a “morning” review on this blog. Nicewife’s dad is pretty connected, so I will get financial viability info from him. Today I will look at a little coffee shop called “Hanamizuki”.


This coffee house is owned by Nicewife’s school friend and her mum.

Access: 10 mins walk.

Price: 350 yen (We bought a book of 11 tickets, which reduces the price to a very reasonable 290 yen per cup.)

Morning: Hard-boiled egg, a third of a piece of thick toast, small packet of rice crackers.

Viability: Barely breaking even. Undertaken as a hobby.

Atmosphere: Smokey, friendly (except if you’re not local).

Hanamizuki Morning
"Morning" at Hanamizuki
At 10.00am the very old local people arrived one by one on these wheeled walking frames. Here they are parked outside the front of the shop. (The frames that is, not the suddently-invisible old people.)

Bring your Dog Shopping for its Replacement

Today Nicewife visited a large hardware store that had a surprising pet angle to it. Apart from being able to buy the usual building supplies, tools and garden equipment you could also buy dogs, cats and goldfish.

And if you already own a dog there is no need to feel separation anxiety during your brief shopping sojourn – you can bring your dog from home and take it shopping with you! Just place your substitute-for-a-real-child pooch into one of these specifically-provided shopping trolleys and hope that it doesn’t barf in your watering can before you get to the checkout.

Large Dog Cart
The text on the side reads: "Cart for use of large-type dogs".

Unfortunately Nicewife didn’t have a camera with her, but she informs me that the dog cart for larger dogs looked basically like the one above. (Photo courtesy of this blog.)

Down, Down, Dollar is Down

(If that title seems weird, try singing it to the Coles supermarket tune.)

This is what the Aussie has been doing with itself for the last 3 months. Looks like it has been officially rejected from the glamour club of world currencies.

Dollar vs JPY
AUD vs JPY over last 3 months

A couple of weeks ago I attended the meeting of the Nagoya International PC Club, and no-one had anything good to say about the rise of the Yen. A Japanese attendee who makes a living selling kimonos on e-bay said he could not raise his prices or this American and European customers would stop buying. A Polish developer lamented the fact that he was being paid in British Pounds, a currency which has fallen 50% against the Yen in since 2007. The American attendees were kinda annoyed too, given that their USD holdings have also declined significantly compared to the Yen.

What none of us could work out is why is the Yen so strong? Interest on savings in Yen is abysmal. The best we could come up with was that Japanese believe it is patriotic to hold government bonds and keep their significant savings in Yen in a local bank. Or perhaps that the sudden recent increase in the Yen was due to people getting out of the carry trade because they’re worried that their investment currency will tank.

Share your wisdom in the comments!

FREE as in Beer-Free

Real or Fake Beer?

In Japan, what is the most popular method of transferring alcohol from a libation into the bloodstream? Saké perhaps? Suntory Whiskey? Shōchū – a spirit distilled from rice, sweet potato, sugar or other core ingredient? Nope… the residents of Japan like to drink good traditional German-style beer, of course. But what exactly is the Japanese definition of beer? Let’s compare the two drinks above.

We’ll start with the obvious things. The size: one is 500ml, the other only 350. They both appear to contain beer; the words “smooth” and “refreshing” appear in English on both cans. They both have an alcohol content of 5%, as is standard for Japanese beers. The one on the left was made in Korea, the one on the right is from Japan. The large one cost about 280yen, the smaller one, just 88 yen! (If we adjust for volume, those figures work out at 196 yen and 88 yen.) The important difference between these two products is that only one of them is actually beer.

The answer is found in the fine print at the bottom of the can. The cheap one is classified as “Fizzy Liquor” (リキュール発泡性). The expensive one is “Draft Beer” (生ビール) . The difference in price is largely down to how the two drinks are taxed.

Bizarrely, Japanese beer is taxed on its malt content. The “Fizzy Liquor” drink is an artificially carbonated unmalted “beer” crossed with barley spirits. It is in essence a beer-flavoured cocktail, but in a blind taste test most people wouldn’t be able to tell that it isn’t beer. As the economy continues to decline, low-malt and no-malt “beers” continue to gain in popularity.

What I like about this particular farce is its demonstration of Japan’s affinity with laws that only have  face value. Another classic example of this is gambling. Gambling is illegal under Chapter 23 of the Penal Code. But pachinko (a pinball-like game with potential winnings) is a $300 billion industry and there are pachinko parlours in every corner of this country. Pachinko skirts the law by officially only offering players the chance to win, say, a cheap plastic pen, which is then exchanged at an “unrelated” exchange booth off-site for, say, $10,000! The outcome: Japan can take the moral high ground on gambling. Pachinko operators can rake in their profits. Individuals can do whatever they want. It’s win-win all around…. except for the addicted.