Why have the Japanese never got good at making wine?

There are some pretty damn good beers, and apparently the whiskeys are world class. There is also no lack of demand for wine in Japan, so I’d been wondering about this one for a while when I finally found an answer in Friday’s International Herald Tribune:

Japanese wineries betting on a reviled grape

To summarize, the weather conditions means that the vinifera grapes that are common in most great wine growing nations end up rotting in Japan. Most vineyards therefore use a local variant called koshu which is more resistant to the summer and autumn rains. Unfortunately, this grape is quite bitter, leading to most wine growers to add lots of sugar.

Why didn’t the police crack down on the yakuza before?

“Japan …has limited wire-tapping. There is no plea-bargaining allowed. There is no witness protection or witness relocation program. There is no incentive for a low-ranking yakuza to rat out the people above him and a hundred reasons for him to keep his mouth shut. For these reasons, most investigations often peter out before really getting off the ground….

It’s not a crime to be a member of a yakuza, although being a proven member has disadvantages in normal daily life.”

From the same interview as the last post on the yakuza. I must say that I’d heard much dodgier theories than that, including that some of the money from pachinko goes straight into police pockets

Why do so many Japanese have skin complaints? 3rd attempt

Dioxins from buring plastic bento boxes, according to an article in the latest Japanzine:

“Breathing the air in Japan is almost as dangerous as not breathing at all.  It has dioxin levels ten times higher than that found in other countries. Japan’s fish are said to contain 10,000 to 100,000 times the one picogram per liter that Japan’s environmental agency says is safe. The primary culprit is the burning of plastic such as bento boxes and other garbage that contains chlorine or chlorine-based chemicals in incinerators.  Dioxins are a cause of cancer, birth defects, low-sperm counts, skin disorders, and diabetes, just to name a few.”

Hmmm, I doubt that dioxins are any fewer in China or here in Korea, and they don’t have nearly as many problems with skin problems. I still think it is mainly mental as in my students in Japan it tended to go together with shyness, twitchyness and ambitious parents (though there are notable exceptions)

Why don’t more Japanese write wills?

“In Japan… individuals don’t write wills; they express their wishes in vague and polite terms, but nothing is written down. The property laws specify how the estate should be divided among the family, strictly proportioned according to their relationship to the deceased- fifty percent for the spouse, ten percent for each child, and so forth. The law is used only when families have disputes. Otherwise, all the property goes to one person chosen by family consensus- everyone else signs forms to give up his or her legal claims, as I did. Inheritance is another example of how things are done in Japan: the public law is clear and mathematical; in private practice, families reach consensus without any open discussion”

Polite Lies by Kyoko Mori page 53

Why aren’t the Japanese more interested in reincarnation?

Despite the vast majority of Japanese people having a Buddhist funeral, I think you’d probably find more believers in reincarnation in the UK or America. In fact, the Japanese use the word karuma (karma), and I’m pretty sure that’s been borrowed from English rather than directly from Sanskrit.

I wonder whether a real belief in reincarnation would clash too much with the Confucian and Shinto beliefs. For one thing, how could you pray to an ancestor who had already been reborn as a mouse or firefly?


The population of Japan in the year 3000 if the current fertility rates continue (according to Thunder from the East page 16)

More Japan by Numbers here.

Japanese myths – Hard work and saving come naturally


“Japan is good example of the problems based on immutable culture. The Japanese are renowned today for their high savings rates, for their discipline and commitment to hard work and high quality. But a century ago, Japan’ savings rates were far lower than in the West. Likewise, foreigners used to be firmly agreed on the laziness and incompetence of Japanese workers. In 1881, a foreigner wrote in a Yokohama newspaper: ‘The Japanese are a happy race, and being content with little are not likely to achieve much.’ As late as 1915, an Australian expert told the Japanese government: ‘My impression as to your cheap labour was soon disillusioned when I saw your people at work. No doubt they are lowly paid, but the return is equally so; to see men at work made me feel that you are very satisfied, easygoing race who reckon time is no object. When I spoke to some managers they informed me that it was impossible to change the habits of national heritage.”

Thunder from the East page 132

The question then is, in good JapanExplained style, why the change happened. Mainly, it was a fabulous piece of social engineering where the government, starting in Meiji times, made up a version of the samurai spirit and convinced the whole country that it was their duty to live up to it, despite the peasant, merchant and later working class cultures having had nothing in common with it.

For more common bollocks about Japan, see here.

Why do we hear wildly varying accounts of discipline in Japanese schools?

Because the main weapon of Japanese teachers has always been peer pressure, so much so that traditionally classes with no teacher are left for hours or even days to get on with it under the instructions of the class monitor and the pressure of the other kids to behave. However, in some classes – or even whole schools- that peer pressure is rather one to appear too cool for school, etc. In others it could be to go totally wild.

The same explanation works quite well for explaining the extremes of discipline and lack of discipline in WWII, how the protests of the 1960s turned into virtually no protests today, and why Japanese sci-fi is so fascinated by the idea of a complete breakdown of the social order- because it could happen! Of course, peer pressure exists in every society. I think Japan uses it more as a form of control than almost any other country, though, apart maybe from the ones with reeducation camps…

Why don’t the bored housewives volunteer instead of studying English?

“A nice Japanese housewife is not expected to do volunteer work for strangers. ‘If she has time to help people she doesn’t even know,’ her relatives would grumble, ‘why doesn’t she do more to help her own kids study? Why doesn’t she run for an office in the P.T.A. at their school?’ Most middle-class Japanese people seem to think that poor people deserve to be poor- it’s their own fault or the fault of their families and relatives. Nobody should expect help from total strangers. As for conserving nature, that is the job of biologists. My friends have a hard time justifying their passion for gardening to their husbands and in-laws. If they were to spend their afternoons taking care of injured wildlife or clearing marshes of trash instead of cleaning their houses and preparing special meals for their children, their families would probably disown them”

Polite Lies by Kyoko Mori page 176.

The first explanation would also explain silliness like Chara- ben (kyara-ben, making packed lunches in the shapes and colours of cartoon characters). It could also explain the boom and bust of Eikaiwa (Japanese conversation schools). Perhaps for a while it was one of the few acceptable hobbies for women to have and they didn’t have to explain why they were doing it, and so they all rushed into it. Later there were more options of what to do with their time, and Eikaiwa actually became a bit of an embarrassment due to various scandals and so you could more easily avoid uncomfortable conversations by doing hot yoga or ikebana.

Avoiding uncomfortable conversations

After all these explanations of the details of Japanese life, I thought it might be worth trying some larger theories for a change.

One thing I find is little written about but explains a lot is trying to avoid awkward conversations with your colleagues, fellow mothers, distant family, etc. If you go on holiday to Guam or Paris, make sure you see all the famous landmarks and take photos in front of them, bring back macadamia nut chocolates, use well-known airlines and other travel companies, study English, do the usual hobbies, etc etc, no explanation will be needed when you mention those things and so you can get back to the comfort of polite chat and meaningless fixed phrases.

Mention that you are studying Swahili, volunteering to help the homeless, taking an interest in religion, etc etc, and you will be asked for detailed reasons why. Not only will that take you off the comfortable limits of polite Japanese conversation, but you will also notice your conversation partner storing every detail of what you say. Why might that be? To tell other people, of course – because gossiping about other people’s peculiarities is another great way of avoiding uncomfortable conversation about yourself.

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