14 August 2010

Slate on the Slow Demise of the Japanese Economy

Alexandra Harney of Slate has an interesting article up today about the perfect storm of economic stagnation and demographic decline that for the last decade-plus has had the Japanese economy locked into a slow downward spiral. The occasion for the article is a macabre hunt for bodies: some Japanese families have been hiding the deaths of their elderly relatives so as to continue collecting their retirement benefits, as in some cases one or two generations of un- or underemployed family members depend on these benefits to make ends meet. (You may remember a news story a week or so back about how the world's oldest man, a Tokyo resident, turns out to have passed away quite some time ago.)

But the article goes far beyond simple sensationalism, describing how many signs suggest that the US could be in the early stages of a similar spiral: high youth unemployment and underemployment, high and rising education costs, fears of deflation suppressing expansion, and aging population, and near-total legislative deadlock. Of course, in my opinion, the US may have a few trump cards up its sleeve that Japan doesn't, such as a stronger small-business tradition and, all the current noise about the issue aside, a much better track record of attracting, legalizing, and retaining immigrants. (Japan's extremely strict immigration policies certainly don't help with its shrinking population!)

On a different note, it turns out Fukuoka is one of the places in Japan bucking these trends: despite a downturn in the city's banking industry, according to Wikipedia Fukuoka is Japan's second-youngest city (average age: 38) and second-fastest-growing. There still seem to be a lot of unoccupied apartments--though I suspect that's partly the result of folks traveling for the summer, as well as the result of multi-generational families consolidating under one roof.

13 August 2010

A Japanese Dinner

We've had a lot of questions from friends and family about the food here in Japan. Well, we're happy to say that we really haven't had a bad meal yet. And when you can't read the menu, there's a lot of serendipity involved in procuring a meal.

Last night, for example, Nana and I went downtown for dinner with some friends. We chose the restaurant by the time-honored method of walking until we were too hungry not to stop at the first cool-looking place we saw. Then, as a group, we ordered one each of the five items on the "best" menu. (We couldn't tell if these were the specials or the most popular dishes. Or, of course, those with the highest profit margin.)

Here's what we got (with apologies in advance for the poor picture quality, and for the fact that I was a little slow with the camera at times):

-A fried scallion pancake, similar to a dish we had in Korea.

-Breaded & fried chicken with a mild mustard, ginger, & garlic sauce.

-Fried tamago (mildly sweet egg) stuffed with fish eggs. Gone too quickly for me to get a good photo!

-Simple fried gyoza (pork dumplings with a soy dipping sauce).

-Beef belly (think bacon, but with beef) stewed with potato & onion.

When we finished with these, we asked the waiter (in halting Japanese) to recommend something else. We ended up with motsunabe, a dish that originated right here in Fukuoka.

Motsunabe is a type of nabemono, which basically means it's a simple soy broth with a bunch of meat and veggies piled in it, and it cooks right in front of you at your table. The meat in Motsunabe is usually either pork or beef offal. Ours was cow stomach!

Which brings me to another early lesson we've learned about Japanese food: so far, it seems like they can take just about anything and make it tasty. That's not to say there isn't simple food here--one of the best meals we've had so far was basically a bowl of chicken noodle soup, sumo-style. But not knowing what we've been ordering has also led us to some great meals I don't think we would have found on our own.

11 August 2010

Yakuza 3 Video Game Reviewed By . . . Yakuza

The Yakuza are Japan's traditional organized crime syndicates. They have all the mystique here that old-school gangsters do in the US, and then some, so it's not surprising that Sega has build not one, but three video games around Yakuza culture.

What's more interesting is that Jake Adelstein, an American writer who worked the Tokyo crime beat, has gotten some of his old Yakuza contacts to test-drive the game. Here's his article, via BoingBoing.

So How's the Weather in Fukuoka?

Hot and humid, but not quite as humid as we'd expected.

You see, when we heard Fukuoka had a rainy season, we assumed it was the same time as the rainy season in Korea, which after all is only a 3-hour ferry ride away. In Korea, summer comes in June, with a month of high temperatures and high humidity but relatively little rain, aside from the frequent but short afternoon thunderstorms. Then with July and August (give or take a few weeks) comes the rainy season, when it rains for days on end--and is so cloudy and humid the rest of the time that it might as well be raining.

Fukuoka, it turns out, is the opposite. The rains come in June and July, then the relatively drier summers season occupies August and part of September. So it's been hot as heck, but with some sun nearly every day!