Terrie's Take: Japan Doesn't Like Tattoos, Uniqlo wants J. Crew?, Mt. Gox Incompetent, Conbini, Nuclear, and (un)Employment!

Terrie's Take - AkihabaraNews.com

Terrie’s Take is a selection of Japan-centric news collected and collated by long-time resident and media business professional Terrie Lloyd. AkihabaraNews is pleased to present Terrie’s learned perspective; we all could use another take on the news - here’s Terrie’s:

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Terrie’s Take on March 3, 2014


  • T'attitude Needs Change


  • Uniqlo to buy J. Crew?
  • Mt. Gox -- Probable management incompetence
  • Course set for nuclear reactor re-starts
  • Conbini turn to vege farming
  • High employment or high under-employment?

T'attitude Needs Change
The announcement that Tokyo had won the right to host the 2020 Olympics was not just exciting for the prospect of our metropolis hosting a major sports event, it is also going to be interesting in terms of how it will stimulate cultural change in Japan. We are already seeing a ground shift in thinking about how to make Tokyo and Japan as a whole more acceptable to foreign visitors and what has to change to make it so. Mostly the focus is on tourist conveniences such as language, facilities, food, and WiFi, but we think the Olympics will have an influence all of its own in areas that are not so obvious.

Take tattoos, for example.

In 2012 the mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, came out "full blast" with a policy that had been quietly advocated for years previously -- he outlawed tattoos -- in the Osaka government at least. Specifically, he ordered a stop to city employees getting inked, because he reckoned, "...they will make people feel nervous and intimidated." Whether a 20-year old girl with a butterfly tattoo on her back makes people think she is connected to Yakuza is debatable, but what Hashimoto has done is to unleash a wave of unreasonableness upon those sporting tattoos. There will be no tattoos, no exceptions.

His was no hollow announcement. Just six weeks ago (January, 2014), a 23-year old female clerk at an Osaka public school was docked an entire month's salary based on the fact that she got an arm tattoo some months after Hashimoto's edict was proclaimed. She was the first person punished under the new rule, which affects about 38,000 employees in Osaka. The new policy is really an amazing and so-far unchallenged invasion of privacy in our view, and all employees are required to report any tattoo on any part of their body, especially those which are publicly visible. Given the imperious nature of this rule, we're surprised that Hashimoto's henchpeople don't make the city's rubbish collectors wear ties as well, at least after they're done transferring/firing those with tats of course.

Another recent incident of collective public paranoia about tattoos is the passing of a new law in Zushi, Kanagawa-ken, preventing members of the public from showing body tattoos at the beach. How you are supposed to swim in jeans and long-sleeved shirt, we're not sure, but certainly the new rules are not welcome amongst members of the U.S. military based down there. Perhaps they don't need to get too worked up about it yet, though. Not only has the city of Zushi "not yet developed specific guidelines" (whatever that means - sounds like they're weaseling their way out of a stupid law), but there is also a civil suit being brought against the city by beach hut owners who worry that the new rule will hurt their business -- which it of course will.

Anyway, the Osaka and Zushi laws are just the tip of an ongoing movement in Japan against tattoos, and it's well known that almost all onsen and public baths in the nation already have a no tattoos policy. You can read screeds on the Internet as to why the Japanese don't like tattoos, and of course the association with inked gangsters is the most common reason given. We suspect it's more a case of disliking non-conformity, especially amongst rebellious youths, than any genuine fear of criminals in the same bath. Whichever, this level of official nannying is unfortunately going to butt head-on with the emerging trend overseas for people to accept and even glorify body art.

Indeed, in many countries tattoos are now de rigueur for top athletes, and by example, for their young and impressionable fans. David Beckham has a ton of tattoos, Michael Phelps has them, Canadian 2014 Shorttrack gold medalist Francois Hamelin has them, and apparently all but two of the current All Blacks (Rugby) have them. Come the 2019 Rugby World Cup and 2020 Olympics, thousands of similarly inked athletes and fans will be traveling Japan and expecting to visit its onsen and public places.

The question is whether the central government is going to continue allowing local authorities to pass repressive etiquette laws or get real. A tattoo ban will effectively ban foreign athletes and visitors from enjoying themselves at a time when the country is desperately trying to build its image as a welcoming and fun place to visit. The recent incident of 60-year old bespectacled Maori cultural performer Erana Brewerton being barred from a Hokkaido onsen because she has a chin moko (traditional Maori face tattoo) shows the potential for some serious negative fall-out if something isn't done.

Brewerton is about as far from a Yakuza-looking customer as you can get, but the onsen employees blindly followed policy and no exceptions were possible. This pathetic instance of cultural inflexibility eventually prompted one of the top government officials in the nation, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, to publicly comment in frustration that, "It is important to have respect for foreign cultures and deepen our understanding of them..." OK, so now what are you going to do about it? Nothing from the central government at this stage. We suppose that they have another 2-3 years before it really matters.

Actually, the whole culture of tattoos in Japan is an interesting one. Take some time on the Internet to be amazed at the beauty and diversity of the fine art practiced on peoples' skins. Previously Tokyo-resident photojournalist Tony McNicol has a particularly good selection of photos taken during a Tattoo art exhibition held at the Foreign Correspondent's Club back in 2009. http://bit.ly/1ogFC6X.

Because of the official stance to drive the practice underground, Japan is now at a point of wide divergence with attitudes on tattoos overseas. This was highlighted for us last year when one of our Japantravel.com journalist interns, Perri, decided that one of her early stories would be a visit to the very highly-regarded (overseas) Three Tides Tattoo chain. Her story is here: http://bit.ly/MFHaLC. She chose Three Tides because their advanced artistic ability and forthright presence as a normal and trusted business. They were one of the first stores to go mainstream, opening parlors in Osaka and in Harajuku, Tokyo. Given that the local shopkeepers association hasn't kicked them out of either location, it seems that they might have created a beachhead of tolerance and acceptance, one that we hope will spread.

Apparently one of the challenges of tattoo artists is that not only is their work frowned on by the older generation but they also have to break the law to practice. You need a medical licence to insert a needle into a customer's skin -- something that would normally apply to medical personnel, but which also happens to apply to the tattoo industry. So a tattoo artist could theoretically be arrested. The reality is though, that apart from some rabid politicians like Hashimoto, the police and authorities in general turn a blind eye to the situation.

Anyway, Perri's idea of getting a tattoo as a souvenir of Japan is an interesting one and is quite doable. Three Tides lists their prices, starting at JPY10,000 for a coin-sized tattoo, JPY50,000 for a postcard-sized one, and topping out at JPY15,000/hour for multi-day masterpieces typically done in 3-hour sessions. No one knows how many tattoo parlors there are in Japan, but one of the leading sites in Japanese, Tattoo.ne.jp, has about 640 of them listed. The site is a good one, actually, and also includes a list of onsen and bathhouses which allow inked customers to enjoy the facilities without being harassed. If you happen to be inked and don't want the embarrassment of being thrown out for stripping off, then check out http://bit.ly/1cv2eeG.

Uniqlo to buy J. Crew?
The fund that owns clothing chain J. Crew in the USA have said that they are in discussions with Fast Retailing (Uniqlo) for the Japanese firm to buy the business. The purchase price is likely to be around US$5bn, a big uplift for the TPG fund and partners, who bought the company for US$2.8bn back in 2010. If they deal goes through, it will add more than 400 U.S., Canada, and U.K. stores and US$2.4bn in sales to Fast Retailings existing US$10.2bn annually. ***Ed: The deal is not done yet, and analysts point to the fact that CEO Tadashi Yanai has scotched other deals at the last minute because he didn't get the low price he was looking for.** (Source: TT commentary from wsj.com, Feb 28, 2014)

Mt. Gox -- Probable management incompetence
Excellent reporting and analysis of the Mt. Gox Bitcoin debacle by local journalist Jake Adelstein, reporting for thedailybeast.com. His analysis after speaking to employees of the company is that Mt. Gox failed primarily because of the tender age, inexperience, and possibly ego of the CEO, Mark Karpeles. The picture which is emerging is that Karpeles and friends were lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time for the emergence of Bitcoin as a hot new web trend, and that while they were smart enough to create a user-friendly web interface for customers, those smarts did not extend to diligence about security, accounting, and generally managing the exchange. As a result, even though Karpeles knew that the site had been hacked and that there was a vulnerability that allowed users to repeat withdrawals, he and other employees were either unaware of the seriousness of the breach or unable to plug it quickly. ***Ed: Either way, the size of this failure and the fact that the U.S. fiscal authorities are upset about it pretty much guarantees Karpeles is in for some serious interrogation and most likely charges of negligence by Japanese authorities. However, it also highlights the fact that international internet innovations are ignored by the Japanese, at their peril. Some things you just can't turn a blind eye to.** (Source: TT commentary from thedailybeast.com, Feb 27, 2014)

Course set for nuclear reactor re-starts
The Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) has floated the latest draft of the nation's Basic Energy Plan, which bureaucrats are indicating is the first step in restarting idled nuclear power plants. If followed, which is highly likely, the government's policy will focus on restarting the reactors as soon as tougher safety checks are done, with little attention to a reduction process. Opponents to the Plan say that rather than increasing supply and therefore power consumption, the government should in fact be promoting power conservation, which will reduce reliance on nuclear. One professor, Masaru Kaneko at Keio University, goes so far as to point out that the government's hardline power policy is probably prompted by self-interest. He says that "Seventy percent of individual donations to the LDP come from electricity company executives." ***Ed: If true, it has the potential for scandal later.** (Source: TT commentary from npr.org, Feb 27, 2014)

Conbini turn to vege farming
In an effort to ensure stable supplies of vegetables and other fresh produce, major convenience store chains Seven & I Holdings' 7-Eleven and Itochu's Lawson chain have announced various initiatives to hire and train young employees as farmers. Lawson has already started 12 farming j/v's and is planning another 28, while 7-Eleven started its first j/v farm in 2008 and now has ten in total. Currently the companies are only allowed to either lease the farm land or do 50/50 joint ventures with registered farmers, until such time as the government changes landownership laws -- something that is expected to happen soon. The number of farming corporations has jumped from 1,732 in 2009, the first time that joint ownership was allowed, to 13,561 in 2012. This translates to about 7% of all farm land now being corporatized. ***Ed: Japan needs to be more self-sufficient, no doubt, but something makes us uncomfortable thinking that the average Japanese will be even further removed from the land and natural environment.** (Source: TT commentary from bloomberg.com, Feb 26, 2014)

High employment or high under-employment?
Many other countries look at Japan's unemployment figures and are envious of its low rate. But as this Wallstreet Journal article points out, not all is as it seems. Yes, the jobless rate is 3.7%, and people really are working, not just dropping from the statistics after giving up hope. The problem, though, is the shift from full-time regular employees, with benefits and job security, to part-time or contract workers. The shift is so massive that even as the jobless rate fell, the number of permanent jobs also fell, by 94,000 positions, to 32.42m people. On the other hand, non-regular jobs rose 1.33m to 19.56m people. This means that a full 37.6% of the workforce is now in an unsecure job and working for less pay and benefits. ***Ed: This disenfranchisement of Japanese employees can only affecting the economy and the population's mental health. For starters, part-timers and contractors are more likely to be fired when the market correction comes. Further, they are more likely to have no savings and thus find it difficult to get home loans, plan to have children, and have a future.** (Source: TT commentary from wsj.com, Feb 28, 2014)

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That was Terrie's Take.

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