Thursday, 19 January 2017

Popularity of Japanese Convenience Food (Fast Food)

As a nation known for convenience living, the Japanese society has undergone significant changes in traditional eating habits - from long hours of home-prepared meals to takeout foods or dining out frequently in fast food outlets. As the number of mom-and-pop stores steadily decline, supermarkets and mega-chains providing mass merchandising of horticultural goods are increasing in the outskirts of metropolitan areas. Evidently, the homemakers have succumbed to the temptation of preparing "quick and easy" meals with an array of frozen foods, microwavable foods, instant food packages, and even takeout bentos (boxed meal) or meal portions, such as croquettes, cooked meat or fish, or salads.
 
The rising popularity of convenience food in Japan could be attributed to many factors: more women entering and staying in the work force; the number of singles (women and men) climbing; the casual atmosphere of the eateries and cheap prices of fast foods; and the ongoing menu changes of fast foods.
 
However, Japanese don't compromise food quality - taste, nutrition and especially safety - for convenience. As in the case of E. coli outbreak in 1996, many customers turned to local stores where produce was considered safer and fresher than those of the supermarkets. In the early 2000s, after a few Japanese cows were inflicted with mad cow disease, consumers boycotted beef nationwide, causing a severe setback in the dairy industry. The present ban on American beef (destined to be lifted in a few weeks) underlies Japanese main concern - American beef cannot be guaranteed safe from mad cow disease.
 
During the prolonged recession, a series of economic reforms, including business restructuring, deregulation, and widening trade markets, have sharpened consumer demand for high-quality food products at affordable prices. Instead of reducing food expenditures, consumers have become more selective over food purchases.
 
In that regard, fast food producers and restaurants have been responding to Japanese demands for a wider selection, cheaper, healthier, and tastier meals. As more Japanese opt for eating out, a growing trend of two types of fast foods has emerged: western-style food outlets and Japanese family-run food shops.
 
Since McDonald's arrival in 1971, other western-style fast food franchises soon followed - Kentucky Fried Chicken, Lotteria, Mr. Donut, and Wendy's - rapidly spreading across the country to more than 3,800 food outlets. Apparently, foreign fast foods appeal to a great number of Japanese families with younger children.
 
The presence of McDonald's inspired a Japanese version, Mos Burger, which offers an enterprising spin on the hamburger concept. Besides presenting standard hamburgers on the menu, Mos Burger provides burgers with teriyaki chicken, chicken breasts, and fish; also offers lettuce leaves or rice balls as buns. Even the desserts and drinks have a distinct Japanese taste: green tea dessert with sweet red beans and chestnuts and green tea ice-cream shake.
 
Another burger joint has become the rage in Tokyo - Mamido Burger makes its creations entirely out of sweets. Began in October 2005, Mamido Burger is already expanding to open another shop later this month just after a three-month debut. The uniqueness of Mamido burger lies in the ingenious use of fruits and confectionary ingredients to create the look of a burger. The Mamido burger, priced at 390 yen, features a "patty" (cream) and "pickles" (kiwis) in a "bun" (sponge cake). The fish burger contains a banana shaped as "fish" and topped with cream as "tartar sauce". The French fries are actually deep-fried elongated custard cream.
 
Japanese-style fast foods generally fall under three types: noodles, rice with toppings, and street foods. Most shops are family-run businesses in small facilities, serving meals ranging from 500 to 1,000 yen. Here is a list of common "quick and tasty" meals located throughout Japan:
 
Noodles - found everywhere; the seasoning of the broth and the type of noodles vary according to region:
  • ramen -  Japanese version of the original Chinese noodle soup served with various toppings
  • udon -  wheat-based noodle in broth garnished with toppings
  • soba -  thin brown buckwheat noodles: kake-soba (soba noodles in hot soup); zaru-soba (soba served cold with dipping sauce); yaki-soba (stir-fried soba with vegetable and meat toppings); and chuka-soba (boiled soba served with vegetables, meat, or seafood).

Rice plates - rice served with different toppings:
  • kaiten-zushi - plates of different kinds of sushi, ranging from 100 to 300 yen, placed on a conveyor belt. Introduced in Higashi City in 1958, the self-service sushi bar has become popular with over 5,000 restaurants throughout Japan.
  • donburi - a bowl of steamed rice with various toppings: tendon (tempura shrimp); katsudon (pork and egg); oyakodon, (chicken mixed with egg); and gyudon (beef and onions).
  • curry rice - thick, creamy Japanese curry sauce with chicken, pork or beef served over steamed rice.

Street foods - found at food stalls in the day time and at night known as yatai:
  • oden (stew with various ingredients);
  • yakitori (skewered chicken, giblets, or vegetables);
  • okonomi-yaki - found at food carts or small shops: pancake containing various ingredients, such as pork, seafood, cabbage, etc.

Recently, bento sales have escalated due to aggressive marketing by convenience stores, supermarkets and takeout chains, such as the popular Hokka Hokka Tei. Nowadays, consumers are presented with a vast bento selection of higher nutritional value, better quality and tastier morsels, all at a reasonable price. In the past, mainly students and young people, who couldn't afford a decent meal, bought bentos. In the last few years, the image of bento has been elevated to a delicious, balanced-diet meal. High-end bentos that cater to the health-conscious and those who care about quality ingredients, have been drawing in men and women in their forties and fifties.
 
While the popularity of Japanese fast foods surges at home, Japanese fast food franchises make their impressions around the world, such as Kaiten-zushi restaurants and Wagamama (known for ramen) in major cities of the West, and as Yoshinoya (gyudon), Hachiban (ramen), and Ichibanya (curry) in the East. Undoubtedly, Japan is well on its way exporting another aspect of its culture - Japanese cuisine.

(First published on UniOrb, January 2, 2006)

HANABI — JAPANESE FIREWORKS

The sounds of thunderous booms, crackles and pops might have evoked natural fear, but the spectacular flashes, sparkles, and fizzles of fireworks superimposed against a backdrop of billions of celestial stars had been well worth the risks of danger. So thought the Chinese who first invented fireworks solely for amusement. To this very day, fireworks have become traditional entertainment dazzling and mesmerizing millions of Japanese viewers throughout the country.

The Japanese considered hanabi (fireworks) as “flowers of fire” — brilliant bursts in various forms and colors of poignant beauty. Like the splendid cherry blossoms’ brief existence, fireworks flash in all their pomp and glory for a fleeting moment only to vanish into thin air. Since fireworks displays have become such popular events, it’s common to see many people strolling in yukatas (cotton kimonos), drinking cold beer and carrying uchiwas (round-shaped fans) — everyone from the neighborhood turned up for the festivity on muggy summer nights.

In the past, firework performances were held as exclusive entertainment for the privileged class. After wining and dining on a boat, the daimyos and their lovely courtesans often watched fireworks hurled into air as they drifted along the Sumida River. Hence, shooting fireworks along a river has become a traditional practice. In fact, fireworks show over the Ryogoku Bridge on the Sumida River marks the opening ceremony of the boating season.

Fireworks would not be what it is today without the contribution of two great craftsmen — Kagiya and Tamaya. Not only did they elevate the art of fireworks but also promote fireworks status as a popular diversion among the commoners. Dexterous in pyrotechnics, Kagiya started a family business in 1659, which rapidly expanded along with his fame and influence in society. As an apprentice of Kagiya, Tamaya soon became a master in his own right, even surpassing the wizardry of his former teacher. Trying to outdo his old master, the ambitious Tamaya often challenged Kagiya to stunning fireworks performances in public. In a twist of fate, Tamaya’s popularity came abruptly to an end when one of his innovative experiments caused a disastrous fire that burned village houses to the ground. Consequently, he was banished and his family heritage ruined, but his legacy lives on. To this day, many of Tamaya’s exquisite fireworks achievements engrained in ukiyoe (woodblock prints) are sold in souvenir shops.

With the public’s obsession with fireworks, it’s not surprising that Japanese fireworks have evolved into an art of its own. The Japanese created the fabulous design of a three-dimensional global dispersion that resembles a chrysanthemum, one of the most elegant presentations in pyrotechnics. The firework shell is globular packed with several layers of different colors of powder to alter the hue of illumination while burning in the air. When the casing explodes, each star uniformly positioned around the core is strewn into space in equal distance from the center of the blast.

The Japanese fireworks fall mainly under three categories based on different scattering results: warimono, kowarimono, and pokamono. The warimono bursts into sizzling stars distributed in equal distance from the center to resemble petals of a chrysanthemum. The key to projecting a large circular distribution effect lies in the balance of tension between the thickness of the shell casing and the strength of the detonation. The magnificence of this rupture stems from the diverse color coordination and smaller additional cores in the center of the firework bloom. Instead of one awesome floral blossom, the kowarimono ejects a multiple of tiny chrysanthemums blooms all at once. Unlike the floral shower, the pokamono splits into two hemispheres while in the air, casting stars in one direction as sparks fly erratically and part as traces of smoke.

Fireworks with the state-of-the-art techniques are grabbing much attention nationwide. The special effects of starmine, a succession of launches for speed and rhythm, or the water-born fireworks, a fountain spraying out a shower of sparks, have added a new dimension to the art of pyrotechnics. Even more astounding, the daylight fireworks streak through the cloudless blue sky like lightning bolts in Technicolor. The popularity of creative firework designs has inspired replications of computer graphic designs of swirls and lines, as well as fueled patterns of familiar figures in an assortment of colors, such as, a butterfly, snail, hat, fish, and even a smiley face.

Over the years, the Japanese pyrotechnicians have consistently awed the crowds with new designs and improved techniques for a more fantastic and sophisticated display. In fact, the pyrotechnic artists exhibit their skill and ability at the annual firework display competitions held throughout Japan. The widely known contests draw thousands of spectators to the Starmine Concourse in Ise City, Mie Prefecture, the Large and Consecutive Fireworks Contest in Tsuchuira City, Ibaragi Prefecture, and the most stupendous one of them all, the Original Fireworks Contest in Omagari City, Akita Prefecture.

Although fireworks performances can be seen almost anywhere in Japan, the most celebrated ones will make you come back for more. The magnificent sanjakudama, a single massive firework rising to the height of 600 meters with a spread of 650 meters across the sky, will guarantee to enrapture you in Nagaoka City of Niigata Prefecture. The artistic endeavors of sophisticated, imaginative and fascinating fireworks will enthrall you at the Fireworks Art Celebration at Perfect Liberty. The fireworks with a water theme will captivate you at the renown lakes and seashores: the Fireworks Festival at Lake Suwa, the Bayside Fireworks Display in Yokohama, the seaside Fireworks Display in Kamakura, and the Waterborn Fireworks Display in Miyajima.

As a tradition, fireworks have evolved over hundreds of years, becoming highly entertaining, enticing, and ever increasingly adored by the Japanese. Emulating the beauty of nature, a spectacular hanabi is like a photo worth a thousand words.


(First published on UniOrb.com, 2004)

WHAT IS THE FATE OF EXAMINATION HELL IN JAPAN?

Examination hell ‘juken jigoku’ puts a student through a grueling trial of anxiety and fatigue to take college entrance examinations — success would lead to promises of a wonderful life while failure would lead to economic and social hardships.

The first societal pressure on youngsters was so deeply felt in the ordeal of examination hell that some students never fully recovered from it. As a result, the comics ‘manga’ society was created in Japan as most of the young and some of the old colluded in developing abhorrence for reading literary books. It’s not surprising to find youngsters read only comics or men and women browse through comics instead of newspapers on a commuter train. In the most literate nation of the world, manga corners about 30% of the book market sales.

In Japan, the type and rank of school play a crucial role in deciding the fate of a youngster in society where he will be allocated a niche in the economic strata of social hierarchy. Once set in a chosen path, he would have little chance to alter his course in life.

The Japanese have believed that entering a prestigious school or university guarantees future lifetime success. To fuel this myth, numerous large corporations offered lucrative jobs to only graduates of prestigious universities. With the old concept of corporate ‘lifetime’ employment, the potential candidate would be assured of financial stability for the rest of his life.

The examination hell phenomenon exists everywhere in the world but hardly noticeable, for most contenders usually belong to their nation’s elite, a fraction of the whole population. However, Japan consists of mainly a middle-class society where the majority competes for the best schools on equal footing; the impact of the phenomenon is overwhelming. In a country with a high literacy rate of 98%, the race to surpass others inevitably becomes more difficult and intense each year. Everyone strives for a luxurious lifestyle, which adds steam to the competition for the best school, best paying job and best things money-can-buy in life.

As more and more students opted for higher education, the need for more diversified and innovative higher learning institutions have become inevitable. In the last three decades or so, there was such a boom in vocational schools, junior colleges and universities throughout Japan that a student could still enter one of the private institutions after failing to enter a targeted university.

However, there were great differences in quality of education and research among the universities, resulting in a hierarchy of institutions, with the national universities and a few long-established private universities at the top. One assumes the higher the tuition fee the better the education would be; on the contrary, the average tuition of a private university doubles that of a public university. The government assistance to private universities in monetary terms is practically insignificant compared to that of the public universities, leaving private universities to support themselves by demanding higher tuition fees.

The price to pay for pursuing a superior education costs the Japanese society more dearly than ever anticipated. The phenomenon of examination hell has been blamed as one of the cohorts for a multitude of recent social ills. Evidently, the students tend to ignore all important aspects of education, except the attainment of high marks. Poor parental guidance, distant teaching staff, and the education system itself are acrimoniously faulted for failing to impart proper education to the young. The education concept of developing a sound body and mind had been shelved — abandoning the teachings of morals, creativity, and cooperation with others. In fact, nowadays students seem to be indifferent to what is right or wrong, lack a general interest in learning, and prefer isolation to group cooperation, which leads to a cultivation of self-centered, aimless, immature individuals.

Due to the economic recession in the last decade, the winds of change are being felt everywhere in society. The practice of lifetime employment along with a seniority system is fading fast in the corporate scene. Employers are making alterations in the personnel arena, weeding out the dead weight and promoting the talented few in revitalizing their companies for business survival. Furthermore, they have shown a tendency to hire university graduates over junior college graduates and part-time workers over full-time employees. Due to the high rate of unemployment among college graduates, more students than ever are forced to vie for the limited entry slots at prestigious universities, hoping that it would lead to future employment.

Subsequently, the drastic changes in the work force will effect the entrance and graduation requirements of schools. Due to the shrinking population of young Japanese, the nation’s junior colleges and some universities are battling to survive by maintaining a quota of 1000 to 2000 students, respectively, in order to turn a profit. One potential problem — academic standards could decline if junior colleges and universities attempt to attract students by lowering admission standards or doing away with admission tests altogether.

Furthermore, not only the education institutions are in deep trouble but also numerous cram schools had already gone bankrupt, and some have even faced lawsuits filed by their teachers for nonpayment. Gone are the heyday of cram schools branching out in Japan and the exorbitant fee they charged for tuition. However, the education businesses will continue to exist as long as they meet the demands of parents to enter their youngsters in universities that could guarantee them future employment.

Examination hell phenomenon may dissipate in the near future as the Ministry of Education has taken steps to incorporate creative teaching into the school curriculum, a few colleges and universities have replaced standard multiple-choice tests with essay-style examinations and interviews, and a growing number of companies have changed their employment procedures by hiring graduates based on their job related-skills instead of on the reputation of schools from which they graduated. For now, examination hell phenomenon still exerts its grip on society as most Japanese believe that the students from top schools will best the economic crunch.


(First published on UniOrb.com, 2004)

Bush's Mental State Raises Serious Questions

With his job-approval ratings drastically dropping for handling domestic woes and the increasingly unpopular Iraq war, President Bush nevertheless persists on "staying the course" -- disconnected from reality. Mr. Bush's display of inconsistencies, indifference, and denial to the deteriorating circumstances of America -- domestically and internationally -- raises serious questions about his mental state and his abilities to continue as a leader of a nation.

According to his book, Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President (New York: Harper Collins, 2004), and two subsequent interviews on July 26, 2004 and Jan. 20, 2005 with Executive Intelligence Review, Dr. Justin Frank presented an alarming revelation -- Bush has multiple mental illnesses. Once headed the Washington Chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, Dr. Frank is a leading psychoanalyst who teaches at George Washington University Medical Center. In 2002, he became concerned about Bush's abnormal behavior. Using applied psychoanalysis, a scientific method of studying historical figures and foreign leaders, Dr. Frank reached his conclusions based on massive amounts of public documentation -- autobiographical and biographical accounts, public video footage of the President, and statements by Bush's associates and relatives. This is the first case study of applied psychoanalysis on a sitting president.

Dr. Frank diagnosed the President suffering from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD); an Oedipal Complex; untreated and uncured alcoholism ("dry drunk"); paranoia; sadism; psychical reality; and a megalomania complex. He keenly observed that Bush throughout his entire life has been struggling to manage his anxiety. It is through various ways of managing anxiety that Bush has revealed his psychoses. Dr. Frank explained, "…[1] first to manage anxiety is through alcohol. But, by being a born-again Christian, [2] he can also manage anxiety by being connected to God, by feeling that he'll be saved in any kind of a rapture, by feeling that he's always on the side of the Good…[3] to make other people anxious, so he can project his anxiety into the rest of us…[4] to simplify things; to divide the world, his own inner world, into good and bad, into black and white…[5] to be cruel to other people, by making them anxious, and by gratifying your own sense of power to compensate for feeling helpless…[6] to become detached from the consequences of his behavior."

Erratic Behavior
White House aides have been increasingly worried about Bush's wide mood swings and tirades. They report obscene outbursts, cancelled meetings and a shrinking number of aides who have direct access to Bush. According to Capitol Hill Blue, Col. Richard J. Tubb, the White House physician, has prescribed anti-depressant drugs for Bush to control his erratic behavior, depression and paranoia.

Untreated alcoholism
It is known that Bush is an admitted alcoholic, although he never sought treatment in a formal program, and that his allegedly cocaine abuse in the earlier years haunted his campaigns for Texas governorship and for his first-term presidency. When Bush turned 40 years old, he substituted religion for alcohol, which is common among untreated alcoholics. Since 2001, the White House has tried to dispel the rumors that Bush is back on the bottle by claiming that Bush's recurring facial bruises, bodily injuries, and loss of consciousness had been caused by falling off his bike or choking on a pretzel.

Hearing God's Voice?
In Bob Woodward’s book, Plan of Attack (Simon & Schuster, 2004), Bush confessed to Woodward that he asked God for advice before starting the Iraq war and that God wanted him to be president. And the White House promoted this very book when it came out in print. In a recent BBC documentary series, Palestinian Prime Minister Abu Mazen, and his Foreign Minister, Nabil Shaath, recounted their first meeting with President Bush in June 2003, when Bush declared that God had told him to invade Afghanistan and Iraq and to solve the problem in the Middle East.

Paranoia
It has become a standard practice for Bush to search and screen everybody and everything whenever he appears at a town meeting or in a public building in the United States. His photo-ops had often been choreographed and prepared beforehand because he was so afraid of having any questions or comments that might have disagreed with him. Bush's paranoia heightened when he demanded the Chilean government to screen invited guests (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit leaders) to a dinner for weapons before entering the presidential palace on November 21, 2004. To placate Bush, President Ricardo Lagos of Chile "disinvited" more than 200 guests, according to New York Times (Nov. 22, 2004).

Streak of Sadism
Although Bush often portrayed himself as a compassionate conservative, his actions have proven otherwise -- indifference to human suffering. When he was a child, he used firecrackers to explode frogs. At the annual Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner in March 2003, Bush made jokes about the failure to find the weapons of mass destruction, while tens of thousands of Iraqis and a thousand American soldiers died by his lies about WMD. Although the Pentagon tried to pin the sadistic tortures at Abu Ghraib on a handful of undisciplined soldiers, it’s now obvious that Bush, as the Commander-in-Chief, had approved the systematic brutal tortures to be carried out in prisons throughout Afghanistan, Iraq and in Guantanamo Bay. More recently, the U.S. Senate approved 90-9 a bill banning military and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to use torture, nevertheless, a presidential waiver has been proposed in that bill to allow the CIA to continue to do so on foreign detainees in U.S. custody outside the United States.

Disconnected from Reality
Dr. Frank's assessment of Bush's psychical reality and megalomania complex has been made credible by the President's recent actions in dealing with the Hurricane Katrina disaster, the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, and talks of not ruling out military actions against Iran and Syria -- the former accused of developing nuclear weapons and the latter suspected of harboring terrorists.

As for the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe, Bush would always be remembered for two candid shots -- a photo of him laughing and playing a guitar at a speaking event in California the day after New Orleans nearly submerged under water; and a video of him viewing the hurricane-ravaged area on Air Force One, while people below were crying for help and dying.

Even with the recent debacle of Hurricane Katrina's relief efforts managed by his cronies' Michael Brown of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)> and Michael Chertoff of Homeland Security, President Bush nominated another crony, Harriet Miers, who lacks experience as a judge, to the highest court of the land -- the Supreme Court. He's not only mocking other prominent sitting Supreme Court judges with years of experience, but also attempting to degrade the judicial system of the United States. Under severe criticisms from Congress both Democrats and Republicans -- Miers withdrew from her nomination a few days ago.

It's now known that Bush had lied to the Congress and the public into a war with Iraq based on false evidence of Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction and of Iraq being a terrorist state threatening the U.S. Yet, Bush and his henchmen are now using the same accusations to incite war with Iran and Syria.

Grandiose Schemes
Dr. Frank points out that Bush's condition will get worse because a megalomaniac person wants to control more things and challenge more traditions to feed his desperation to manage anxiety.

On the domestic front, Bush has tried to push for Social Security reform even though the program is working well; introduced Intelligent Design to be taught in classrooms as an alternative to the scientific theory of evolution; and, ironically, launched a nationwide mental illness screening program in government institutions, including all public school students from kindergarten to the 12th grade.

On the international front, Bush has claimed that he is trying to spread democracy in the Middle East (by military force) and that he's campaigning for a global war against terrorism (an enemy without an army, nation, or borders).

From what we have seen of Bush for more than four and a half years, could we honestly say he's fit to be the President of the United States? And could we realistically say he's good for America, for the world, and for humanity? In Dr. Frank’s warning words, "Bush will not stop of his own choosing. He will only have to be stopped."

And Bush can be stopped by invoking the constitutional Twenty-fifth Amendment -- removal of a sitting president for his inability to conduct presidential duties.


(First published on UniOrb.com, October 31, 2005)