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Forbes: Japan’s Market Economy Is Thriving, But For Troubling Reasons

Foto: Japanexperterna, 2014 (CC BY-SA)

Foto: Japanexperterna, 2014 (CC BY-SA)

Recently published in Forbes.com, Masazumi Wakatabe, a Professor of Economics at Waseda University in Japan, and currently a visiting fellow at the Center on Japanese Economy and Business at Columbia Business School writes about Japan’s seemingly thriving market economy. Here is an excerpt. For the entire article along with interesting links, click here.

Wakatabe: While trust in Japan’s corporate elite is eroding, the country’s market economy is thriving. Too bad it’s for troubling reasons.

Exhibit A: According to media reports in April, people were selling cash on Mercari, a online Japanese auction company–at a premium.

For example, people auctioned off 10,000 yen but at the price of 13,000 yen. Why would people pay 3,000 yen extra to get cash? The reason is quite simple: People want cash at a lower cost than they would get it somewhere else. A money lender would charge an exorbitant interest rate.

After being notified, the company acted swiftly and banned people from auctioning cash. However, in the market economy, people come up with alternatives. They began auctioning charged electronic travel cards, gift cards and even bundles of receipts detailing money spent but not by who. (Rumor has it that some business owners in Japan need receipts to avoid paying taxes.)

And as soon as these items were banned, other alternatives sprang up. Like an Ema, a small wooden placate with a picture of a horse traditionally considered a lucky charm in Japan, with a 100,000 yen cash back option (here, in Japanese).

Or a second-hand book written by Yukichi Fukuzawa–one of the best thinkers in modern Japan and a founder of prestigious Keio University–with his “portrait” card inside. Fukuzawa’s face appears on the 10,000 yen bill, meaning the “portrait” card is just that.

So although the book itself is worth perhaps around 100 yen, the one with a “portrait” sells for 15,000 yen.

Exhibit B: There’s also news about increased incidents of gold being smuggled into Japan from foreign countries. That’s right, gold.

Why? Many speculate that this has something to do with the consumption tax (here, in Japanese).

Importing gold from a foreign country, say South Korea, through official channels incurs the importer 8% consumption tax. So gold worth 1 billion yen would incur a consumption tax of 80 million yen. This gives people every incentive to avoid paying the tax.

There’s evidence to support the theory: After the consumption tax hike, there was a jump in the number of smuggling of gold. There were only eight incidents in 2013, but the number increased to 177 in 2014 when the consumption tax was raised from 5% to 8%. Then to 294 in 2015.

What these two examples prove is that the Japanese are no less inventive or rational than other people in the world. Seemingly bizarre behaviors are the consequences of policy and institutions–and Japan needs better ones.

Biography of Masazumi Wakatabe: I am a Professor of Economics at Waseda University in Japan, and am a visiting fellow at the Center on Japanese Economy and Business at Columbia Business School from March 2017 to March 2018. I have been closely following Japan’s economic and monetary policy and my comments have been featured on various media outlets such as NHK and the Financial Times. Trained as a historian of economic thought, I comment on current topics in the Japanese economy with a historical perspective. I have published several books in Japanese, including one with Koichi Hamada, current advisor to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The book entitled Studies on the Showa Depression, edited by Kikuo Iwata, to which I contributed, was awarded the Nikkei Best Book of Economics and Business in 2004. My most recent book, Japan’s Great Stagnation and Abenomics (PalgraveMacmillan), was published in April 2015.

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Creating Kimonos to Represent Different Nations


Imagine kimonos that represent different countries in the world. The Imagine Oneworld Kimono Project seeks to create a collection of 196 kimono, each representing a different country. Currently, 55 have been completed, and the organization has launched a crowdfunding campaign to help secure the finances it needs for the remaining 141. The Kimono Project aims to showcase Japanese kimonos, which embody and which are designed in the Japanese spirit of wa, which means harmony.


Kimono representing India

According to the organization, harmony is the foundation of friendship and goodwill among people. It aims to reach beyond borders and beyond racial, religious, and economic differences by promoting the idea of “living peacefully together,” and desires to convey this message of harmony among the nations through the beauty and art of the Japanese kimono. In the Kimono Project, prominent Japanese kimono craftsmen create kimonos that expressly reflect a country’s unique culture and characteristics.

The goal is to make 196 unique kimonos, each representing a different country participating in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.


Model wearing Jordan's version

For more information and more designs of the kimonos, follow this link: http://piow.chips.jp/piow/english/

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Automate washing clothes with the Laundroid


Hate doing laundry? Very soon this task could be automated. In a recent article published by Bloomberg (written by Yuji Nakamura & Hiroyuki Nakagawa), a Japanese company has created a “laundry robot” called the Laundroid.

laundryrobot31According to the Bloomberg article (here is an excerpt): Shin Sakane, head of Seven Dreamers Laboratories Inc, received 6 billion yen ($53 million) from partners, including Panasonic Corp., last month to advance “the Laundroid” — a robot Sakane is developing to not only wash and dry garments, but also sort, fold and neatly arrange them. The refrigerator-size device could eventually fill the roles of washing machine, dryer and clothes drawer in people’s homes. Sakane (aged 45), whose earlier inventions include an anti-snoring device and golf clubs made of space materials, said the funding will bring closer his dream of liberating humanity from laundry.

Sakane wouldn’t disclose how Laundroid works, but patents show that users dump clothes in a lower drawer and robotic arms grab each item as scanners look for features such as buttons or a collar. Once identified, the clothes are folded using sliding plates and neatly stacked on upper shelves for collection. The goal is to eventually get the price of the full version to less than about JPY300,000.laundryrobot2

Users will still have to do some tasks, such as partially buttoning shirts, ensuring clothes aren’t inside out, and bunching socks before putting them inside the machine. That’s because even the best machine-learning applications can’t figure out how to fold a pair of socks. At the moment, each item takes about 10 minutes to fold, which Sakane attributed to the time necessary to scan each part of the clothing and communicate via Wi-Fi with a central server. He is working to get it down to 3-to-5 minutes, but said the robot was designed to be used passively while users are doing something else or out of the house.

Photo credits: Akio Kon, Bloomberg

For the entire Bloomberg article: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-12-01/robot-inspired-by-a-space-odyssey-will-relieve-you-of-laundry

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Hina Matsuri: An Early Spring Tradition

19th century Ukiyoe by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (Japan, 1839-1892)

19th century Ukiyoe by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (Japan, 1839-1892)

Every year on March 3rd, Hinamatsuri (Doll’s Festival) is celebrated in Japan. As one of five major seasonal festivals in the country, ceremonies and special dishes are prepared to ensure good fortune. It is easy to spot any Hinamatsuri celebration since it involves the display of elaborately crafted dolls representing the Imperial Court. In the old days, there was a broader tradition that involved making simple paper dolls called hitogata for religious purposes. The hinamatsuri gradually became a time to give thanks for the health and development of young girls. Over time, the intricately crafted artisan dolls came into flavor.


Creative Commons, Katorisi

Dolls in The Imperial Court

The most alluring aspect of the Hinamatsuri is, of course, the intricately crafted dolls (Hinakazari). These are displayed on a red-carpeted, platform called Hinadan, which represents the court of the Imperial household. The top level displays the Prince and Princess (this pair of dolls is the most basic of displays, called the Dairi Bina, which is often displayed inside a glass casing). In the full setting, the royalty are waited upon by the court ladies, musicians, and other attendants who sit on the lower levels along with decorations such as sake cups and elaborate chests of drawers.

From sometime in February, households with young daughters will display the ornately dressed figurines prominently, where they can be admired by family members and guests. However, once the festival is over the dolls and decorations are promptly packed away (superstition dictates that leaving them out too long will harm a daughter’s chances of marriage).

Creative Commons (flickr), Takashi .M

Creative Commons, Takashi .M

Families often buy a new set of dolls when the first daughter is born, while others pass down the Hinakazari from one generation to the next. In the past it was not uncommon for new brides to take their set with them when they married. Undoubtedly, the hinadan represented one of the most splendid and valuable possession in the home and was cherished not just by girls, but the entire household.

Events and Activities with Hina Matsuri

Creative Commons, Midori

Creative Commons, Midori

In the days leading up to March 3 it is common for children to celebrate hinamatsuri by holding parties and enjoying such treats as hina-arare (multi-colored sweets made from rice and sugar), chirashi-zushi, clam soup, and red and white rice cakes called hishi-mochi. Traditionally, sprigs of peach blossoms are displayed along with dolls at these gatherings.

There are also exhibitions held across Japan that showcase the Hina Matsuri dolls, many are antiques created and preserved as historical relics. In Tokyo, there are also many displays for Hina Matsuri, and there are a variety of exhibitions in town. Below we list a couple of major exhibitions that are held annually.


Meguro Gajoen

At the Meguro Gajoen: this location in Meguro hosts a large, extensive display of Hina Matsuri dolls at its historically relevant and well preserved Hyakudan Kaidan (a series of seven extravagantly decorated rooms linked by a 99-step staircase that has great historical value, and is worth a visit in its own right). Throughout the year, the Hyakudan Kaidan hosts a number of exhibitions and events. The area would otherwise be closed to the public. For more info, visit: http://www.megurogajoen.co.jp/event/hinamaturi/


Keio Plaza

At Keio Plaza Hotel Tokyo: Every year, through February and March, the Keio Plaza Hotel Tokyo celebrates the Hina-matsuri festival. The main lobby, and other locations around the hotel, will showcase 6,500 handmade hanging silk dolls. In addition, a variety of bonsai are displayed to compliment the festival. For more info, visit: http://www.keioplaza.com/offers/events1601_01.html


Creative Commons, S Kitahashi

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Cat Walkway? How convenient for their walkabouts!

For the latest architecture and design news, there is no better place than Dezeen Magazine. Here we share a photo of a Tokyo-based home that has a special walkway for the owner’s cat! For the article, visit: https://www.dezeen.com/2016/11/06/graphic-designer-house-studio-tokyo-japan-cat-walkway-do-do/


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Famicon Stationery Coming Your Way this December

famicon-accessoriesFrom Spoon & Tamago: Famicon Stationery Lets Adult Gamers Relive Their Childhood

An interesting blog post from creative site Spoon & Tamago featuring another great Omiyage (souvenir) from Japan. I think this will appeal to adults in their forties as they relive this childhood icon through these super cute products.

Here is an excerpt. For the whole article, visit: http://www.spoon-tamago.com/2016/11/28/famicon-stationery-lets-adult-gamers-relive-their-childhood/#more-38889

famicon-accessories-3Stationary company, San-Ei is releasing a line of items inspired by the 1980s video game console, Famicon by Nintendo. San-Ei’s lineup of Famicon-inspired items includes pencils and pens, clear folders and memo pads that all can fit snug into the Famicon tote bag. There’s also a ringed notebook that’s designed to be the exact same length and width as the original. The items are set to go on sale December 23 but many of them are available for pre-order through Amazon.

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Uniquely Tokyo: A Compilation of Unique Tokyo Houses

Yes, this is a house (in Tokyo)!

Yes, this is a house (in Tokyo)!

Another great piece from DeZeen, a leading architecture and design magazine, and the winner of numerous awards for journalism and publishing. This time it is a collection of interesting and unique houses across Tokyo from a professional photographer who spent four years on this project. French photographer Jérémie Souteyrat trained himself to photograph architecture after moving to Tokyo, by hunting down and documenting some of the best private houses in his adopted city. He had moved from Paris to Tokyo in 2009 and was a freelance professional photographer at that time.

Defying gravity

Defying gravity

“Tokyo has no style, that’s why I like it. It’s full of surprises, even though it’s not a total mess – everything is very organised,” he says in the essay. “Architecture photography is often only PR photography, so I had a documentary approach: no lies, the pictures had to tell what the houses look like when they are used.”

These photographs form part of Souteyrat’s Tokyo No Ie (Tokyo Houses) series, which has now been released as a book by French publisher Le Lézard Noir, with an afterword by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma.

For the entire article and more photos, follow this link to the Dezeen site: http://www.dezeen.com/2015/07/19/jeremie-souteyrat-tokyo-no-ie-documentary-photography-contemporary-houses-japanese-architects/

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More on Omiyage (Souvenirs) from Japan

Following our last feature on Japanese souvenirs, here is a new list that is centered on bags and small accessories.

sushi-backpacks-turn-over-japanese-7The Sushi Backpack:

Created by bag maker, Turn Over, is the Sushi Backpack. There are three types of sushi featured: egg, prawn, and salmon, which sit on the main body of the bag that is made to resemble sushi rice. The backs include a lot of functionality with pockets for drink bottles, smartphones and other small accessories.

More info from Turn Over: http://turn-over.jp/detail.php?id=220

gamaguchi1The Literal Gamaguchi bag:

Gamaguchi is a metal clasp that fastens a bag or a purse, and often seen on coin purses. The name Gamaguchi translates to mean the mouth of a toad’s mouth, which resembles the metal clasp with its wide, thin lips. This frog-shaped backpack is a literal take on this wordplay.

Made by GymMaster, this is available from Rakuten: http://item.rakuten.co.jp/gymmaster/g321357/

mtfujionigiri1Mount Fuji Riceball holder:

What’s more authentic than a holder for one’s favorite onigiri? While there are countless products featuring Japan’s number one natural wonder, this one is too cute not to mention, and is made from silicon. A completely adequate way to pack your lunch or snack.

Comes in two colors (pink and blue) and is available from Amazon: click on this link.


More Fujisan, you say!

Looking for something more traditional? Then how about a Mount Fuji tote by the king of all tote bag makers, Rootote, a Japan-grown maker of canvas totes.

Comes in two colors (red or blue), this is available from Amazon with this link.

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Cool Tokyo: The 100 Views of Tokyo By Shinji Tsuchimochi


Today we highlight an interesting artist that has drawn one hundred hip illustrations of modern Tokyo.

The Tokyo 100 Views project was created by Shinji Tsuchimochi, a Japanese artist. The illustrations depict life in modern Tokyo revealing a surrealistic calm and tenderness with the hustle and bustle of city life, coupled with elements that are unique to Tokyo and Japanese culture.

Inspired by Edo-period Ukiyoe artwork, particularly Hiroshige’s One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, Tsuchimochi began illustrating the 100 views of Tokyo a few years ago, and has recently completed the 100th illustration.

Follow this link to see the artist’s website that showcases all the illustrations: https://www.behance.net/shinjitsuchimochi


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Uniquely Tokyo: Metal and Perforated Dots

House by Hiroyuki Moriyama

Dezeen magazine, one of the world’s most popular and influential architecture and design magazines, recently featured a stunning building that houses five individual duplex apartments, including the one for the owner of the site. Click here for the entire article with more photos, and here below is an excerpt.

House by Hiroyuki MoriyamaLocal architect Hiroyuki Moriyama, has created this compact residential building with perforated steel panels encompassing the private enclosures around the balconies.

Hiroyuki Moriyama Architect and Associates was asked to create five residential properties on a plot measuring just seven metres wide and 20 metres deep, without going above four storeys.

The biggest challenge was to bring enough light into each home without compromising residents’ privacy. One of the solutions Moriyama came up with was to create lightwells at the front of the building.House by Hiroyuki Moriyama

Each of these open-air enclosures is fronted by a screen of perforated metal panels, allowing light and ventilation to filter through, while also permitting views out for occupants.

Balconies for the two street-facing properties are contained behind these dot-patterned walls.

The building has a concrete frame. Aside from the perforated steel screens, exterior materials are kept simple, with white render and a few areas of stainless steel.

Inside, the two upper floors accommodate the largest of the five properties – a home for the client – and one other two-storey residence. Three remaining two-level apartments occupy the ground and first floors.

Interior finishes are also kept simple, with wooden floors and white walls.

High levels of insulation in the walls between each home make each one almost entirely soundproof.

Moriyama claims you can play an instrument in one home and not be heard by the neighbors. 

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