Tag Archives: japan


Elderly Life in the Hidden World of Karaoke Kissas and Classrooms

Kai Clark
Benny Tong

Politics | East Asia


Benny Tong is a PhD candidate at the ANU studying the lives of elderly Japanese people in karaoke bars and how they seek fulfilment and purpose in the later stages of their lives. Born and raised in Singapore, he earned his Bachelors and Masters in Japanese Studies at the National University of Singapore before coming to the ANU. As a teenager, he fell in love with J-Pop which ignited his passion for Japanese culture.
“Karaoke is a huge industry worth billions of dollars,” Benny explained, describing how the many sorts of karaoke chains in Japan accommodate everyone from millennials to older wealthy businessmen. Benny’s research, however, focuses on two types of karaoke venues: karaoke kissas which are small open-mic bars that are open during the day; and karaoke classrooms, where people learn how to sing karaoke from a trained instructor. These venues, Benny says, “lean towards a mature working-class demographic that are very much over sixty.”
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Benny explains how karaoke kissas provide a strong sense of community for many of these elderly people who don’t have a family to rely on. “The foundational concept of the karaoke kissa makes it a very inclusive place — as long as you pay the cover charge. There are a lot of regulars who all become friends, forming a tightly knit community.” Many of these regulars lament the demise of Japan’s traditional family structure, which has separated many elderly Japanese from their families.
During the interview, Benny showed me some karaoke magazines containing song scores used for study in karaoke classrooms. These classrooms provide many elderly people with a continued purpose in their life. At the end of the school year, the school organises recitals for the students, “where they can present what they’ve learned in front of an audience of peers, friends, and family. It’s a very important place for them to vindicate their continued participation in karaoke — as something to learn rather than passively enjoy.”

Many of these kissas and classrooms are located in working-class suburbs, far off the beaten track. These places usually lack windows and have two thick layers of doors, making it both inconspicuous and intimidating to enter.
Benny described to me, how lucky he was to find his first kissa. “The karaoke operator, or as they call them, ‘masters’, actually noticed me pacing back and forth outside, and beckoned me to come inside.” Once inside he was warmly welcomed into the community that was “happy to have a younger person among their midst to learn about their lifestyle”, he said.
“One important skill for fieldwork is getting on socially with other people. For me, coming in with a very open attitude towards learning what these people are doing and not making judgements, especially since you know so little, is important.”
"There’s a lot of them who very much desire to tell people about their life stories,” he said, “so they can pass on certain values or certain ideas that they’ve gained through their experience in life.”

Through studying these karaoke kissas and classrooms, Benny has found a widely-neglected space where many elderly Japanese sing with each other and laugh over drinks. Some have even rekindled their passion for love, despite losing their first partners to death and divorce. For many of these elderly people, singing Shōwa classics, like enka and kayōkyoku, helps reshape their identities in the face of old age, and provides a new direction in their lives. This contrasts very much to modern representations of elderly people as a drain on state healthcare, living their last days alone or in geriatric care.
Criticising the post-war experience of modernity, Benny argues that, “Japanese policy-makers, academics, and public discourse tend to think of elderly life as a period of life where bodily functions deteriorate to the point where you need institutionalised care. I find that actually, especially with these people that I’m working with, that’s simply not the case. They are growing old quite healthy. A lot of them take pride in the fact that they still maintain a very good standard of physical health. They tell me that they are very happy that they rarely go to the hospital. And it’s the singing that allows them to have them this kind of constant exercise and socialisation that keeps them both physically and mentally healthy.”
“So that's why I think studying Japan now is going to be a very valuable lesson for the rest of the world for learning how to cope with an ageing population in a manner that will treat old people with respect and honour. Growing old is not a problem. It is not a crisis. It is essential and unremovable part of what it means to live.”

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The fantastic, fanatic ‘cult’- run Japanese idol group

Adina Darbyshire

Society and culture | East Asia


Meet the newest Japanese idol group composed entirely of so-called cult members: anjewel.

The idol group - a commercially manufactured pop group, typically of young girls - represents Happy Science. The religious organisation has temples in Japan, Brazil, Hawaii, and Australia. Founder Ryuho Okawa purports to be the incarnation of El Cantare: a supreme God manifesting the spiritual leaders of all major religions. Okawa also claims to channel the guardian spirits of famous people, gracing us with a series of 'spiritual interviews', those with Keira Knightley and Donald Trump being two of many examples.

The idol group released its first single in July, featuring lyrics about bidding a soul-mate farewell before reincarnating onto another planet, to a deceptively upbeat instrumental track and rosy music video. To better acquaint fans with the group, Happy Science prepared several POV videos where you 'go on a date' with these girls. In one video, a group member takes you to a private spot in your high school, expresses her love for you, and then asks you to join her for a Happy Science lecture meeting attended by angels and aliens.

Japanese idol groups amass massive popularity worldwide, from AKB48 to Nogizaka46. However, three months have passed since anjewel's debut single, and its catchy pop beats and provocative videos have garnered little attention. Luckily for them, this is not their only gimmick. Happy Science also created its first high-budget anime in 1997, founded a political party in 2009, and established its own university in 2015.

[caption id="attachment_6515" align="aligncenter" width="552"] Happy Science University[/caption]

There is some unease about the gradual expansion of the Happy Science in view of Japan's recent past. In 1984, two years before the founding of Happy Science, Aum Shinrikyo emerged as a religious movement. It founded a political party in 1989, created its first anime series in 1991, and went onto orchestrate a terrorist attack in 1995 by releasing sarin gas on a crowded Tokyo subway.

Aum Shinrikyo's successors, Aleph and Hikari no Wa, manage to operate legally as religious organizations. The 1995 atrocity and the continued existence of these groups is a reminder that we must remain vigilant of the conducts and recruitment methods of 'new religions'. While the Happy Science has no known connections to Aum or its descendants, their expansion into countries like Australia, Hawaii, and Brazil offers few reasons to be cheerful.

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Two sides of the gambler’s coin: Japan’s conflicting opinions on casino expansion plans

Adina Darbyshire

Politics | Asia


Large, flashy Pachinko parlours light up the streets of Japan. These are pinball arcades that have marginally circumvented Japan's anti-gambling laws for many decades. However, Japan's gambling culture is about to change. The Japanese Diet passed a bill lifting the ban on integrated resorts (IR) - commercial complexes including casinos - last December, and are set to hold an extraordinary session to pass an IR Implementation bill in late September of this year.

[caption id="attachment_6408" align="aligncenter" width="513"] Pachinko players in Akihabara[/caption]

The incumbent Liberal-Democratic party (LDP) is largely in favour of expanding the Japanese gambling market. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has expressed his hopes to implement integrated resorts before the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo in order to draw more tourists to the country and to help revive regional economies. On the other hand, the Opposition (Democratic Party) and the public alike are dubious about the motion. In fact, members of the Opposition walked out in protest during the session last December on the grounds that the bill contains insufficient safeguards addressing gambling addiction.

The former head of the Opposition has also voiced his concerns over the rashness with which integrated resorts are being pushed for, noting that the initial IR Promotions bill was passed in just six hours without a consensus between the LDP and the Opposition. The public has echoed these concerns, fearing that the bill understates problems such as gambling addiction and gambling-related crime. In fact, a national survey conducted on August 7th shows that 22.8% and 66.8% of Japanese citizens are respectively for and against passing the IR implementation bill.

Thorough deliberation of implementing integrated resorts in Japan is crucial considering its existing gambling problem amongst Pachinko-goers. A 2008 national survey found that Japan's gambling addiction rate was approximately 5.6%, with similar results in a 2013 survey. This is high compared to national survey results of other Asian countries. As of 2011, this includes 0.8% in South Korea, 3.1% in Singapore, and 4.4% in Hong Kong.

[caption id="attachment_6414" align="aligncenter" width="577"] A gambling parlour[/caption]

How can we hasten IR legislation when we have yet to ensure that Japan will be sufficiently prepared to tackle the problem of gambling addiction? It is crucial that enough time is taken to discuss safeguards before the bill is to be enacted. An example of a country that has done just this is Singapore.

Singapore implemented two integrated resorts in 2010 - Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa - both of which have achieved astounding success. Prior to these developments, the Singaporean government had already prepared a comprehensive framework tackling gambling addiction. In accordance with the framework, the newly appointed National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) proactively sought public opinion; funded an educational TV series on the issue in January, 2006; and set up a problem gambling counselling helpline with the Institute of Mental Health in December, 2007. Moreover, the Ministry of Health helped establish a National Addictions Management Service (NAMS) in 2008.

[caption id="attachment_6422" align="aligncenter" width="515"] Inside a Pachinko parlour[/caption]

The Japanese government has appointed a Casino Management Committee to examine gambling issues related to organised crime and money laundering, and has proposed safeguards such as using 'My Number' cards to limit patrons' visits to casinos. The National Police Agency has also pushed for regulations limiting the number of Pachinko balls that can be won. It would be in the best interest of the Abe administration to follow Singapore's lead in accommodating the mental health needs of the Japanese people further.

Addressing mental health is especially a pressing issue considering Japan's high suicide rates. A 2014 study suggests a strong positive correlation between suicide rates and gambling addiction, even pinpointing Japan as exemplary of this trend. If so, it is all the more reason to establish relevant safeguards, such as providing specialized counselling services for potential gambling addicts. Otherwise, the Abe administration will be gambling on the public's support.

3 minute read

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The Billion-yen bear

Jade Boyle

Society and culture | East Asia


When the earthquake in April 2016 hit Kumamoto City, the internet lit up with a very peculiar question: “Is Kumamon okay?”

At 1.5 metres tall, the cuddly black bear from Kyushu with rosy cheeks is arguably Japan’s most famous mascot. After the bear’s 2011 win at the Yuru-Kyara Grand Prix that saw him voted in as number one mascot in Japan, his popularity sky rocketed. Kumamon is now more than just a tourism ploy for Kumamoto Prefecture. His popularity has changed his position as a spokesperson for local Kumamoto goods .

Before the earthquake in 2016, Kumamon had reportedly generated 124.4 billion yen (148.27 billion AUD) in revenue for Kumamoto, with around 400 applications submitted a month for permission to use his likeness. As of 2016 Kumamon had his face plastered on anywhere between 8,000 to 20,000 products, taking a regular object into a must-have character product.

It was in the immediate aftermath of the terrible earthquake that Kumamon’s position had changed. He was seen as a potential 'conductor' of information for the outside world on Kumamoto. During the initial period of the quake, many people had expected the bear’s Twitter feed to update outsiders on what Kumamoto was experiencing. But, Kumamon was absent from Twitter, leaving followers to wonder and worry about the effects of the quake. The results of the earthquake saw 50 people dead, over 3,000 injured, around 44,000 people evacuated, and multiple homes destroyed. It was a massive shock for residents.

[caption id="attachment_6176" align="aligncenter" width="284"] Kumamon's image can be found throughout Kumamoto prefecture. Flickr: jpellgen [/caption]

This may come as a shock to some people, but Kumamon’s silence turned out to be a great source of debate on whether or not Kumamon’s Twitter feed could have been utilized to share information. A person who dresses like Kumamon needs to follow a very specific dress code to maintain the character's integrity. This actually requires a person to physically wear the bear-suit and then tweet on Kumamon’s behalf. Those experiencing the earthquake at the time would've had greater concerns beyond needing to play the role of a mascot updating his Twitter feed.

Yet as of May 2017 Kumamon has over 623,000 followers on Twitter and many maintain the view that the events of the 2016 earthquake should have been reported through Kumamon's social platform.

In the absense of this, the city had started a trending #Kumamon hashtag that let the people of Kumamoto affected by the earthquake share their stories with the rest of the world. This resulted in over 9,000 tweets, with some even being responded to with a visit from Kumamon. A recent documentary shows how Kumamon brought the public's attention to volunteers, local heroes, and survivors of all ages who had worked to help their communities in previous earthquake events.

[caption id="attachment_6189" align="aligncenter" width="448"] Even Matt Damon knows Kumamon. Flickr: Dick Thomas Johnson[/caption]

From an outsiders’ perspective, this may all seem very strange. A bear mascot can’t be that important. But Kumamon has been influential for Kumamoto in a social sense, and as a reliable source of income for the prefecture. In fact, there are mascots all throughout Japan that hope to emulate Kumamon’s success. Mascots can be found representing governments, cities, towns, organisations and events. Mascots are often closely tied to current affairs in Japan. Their appearances engage audiences within areas they are associated with and seek to bring in tourism to what could otherwise be an unknown area. Their likeness is often exploited in the making of souvenirs. Japan has a strong gift-giving culture, so when it comes to souvenir shopping, a mascot’s face can help sell local products to visiting tourists looking for gifts to give to their families.


[caption id="attachment_6181" align="aligncenter" width="469"] Kumamon souvenirs. Flickr: jpellgen[/caption]

Kumamon's creator Hiromi Kano, who is a mascot designer, has strong opinions about her creations. Seeing her characters as more than just costumes, she says that the appeal of mascots in Japan is in how people can engage with them. Public displays of affection are often kept to a minimum by unspoken cultural norms. Kano believes Japan to be conservative, and thus the appeal of these fictional characters comes from their ability to provide a space or reason for people to be publicly affectionate without reprimand. She has continued to make popular mascots since Kumamon’s debut.

The way mascots in Japan are being engaged with can slowly evolve what their intended duty as a public symbol should be. Kumamon, whether you love him or hate him, is not likely to lose his appeal in any near future. Given the amount of social and economic aid he provides, there is indeed more to what is first meant in his crowned title as 'billion-yen bear.'

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Japan’s state secrecy laws still a secret

Aditi Razdan

Politics | East Asia


In the first year after Japan’s State Secrecy Law was enacted, various ministers and agencies classified 382 issues as state secrets.  The law is well into its second year, yet we still don’t know what actually constitutes a ‘state secret’.

Prime Minister Abe railroaded the Act on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets (SDS) through the Diet, or Japanese parliament, in spite of 80% opposition from the Japanese public.  

As of December 2014, whistle-blowers can be imprisoned for 10 years if they leak state secrets, and journalists publishing this information face upto five years in jail and a hefty fine. The law targets terrorism, espionage and defence leaks, and at first glance, it is familiar and expected given the current reality of transnational crime and terrorism.  

Yet the media watchdog, Reporters Without Borders, have warned that the law is an “unprecedented threat to freedom of information” and an “obstruction of peoples’ right to know.”

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So what makes this law potentially destructive?  It’s because it makes Abe and his administration the judge, jury and enforcers.  

The ambiguity of the law extends beyond the definition of a state secret. Government ministers and agencies determine what a state secret is, and oversight of these decisions is managed by a panel and committee appointed by Abe.  In actions that do not resemble the democratic principles Japan has been lauded for, there has been little public consultation, no parliamentary consensus on what a state secret is, and a lack of transparency in the law’s operation.  

Alarmingly, any agency or government minister can store a secret for 30-60 years.  This time period is longer than the tenure of a regular bureaucrat or politician, bestowing power to a government far beyond their democratically elected time in office.

Freedom of speech is enshrined in Japan’s post-war constitution; it has cemented Japan’s place as a free, democratic society and ensured trust in media and politics.  This recent law shifts the norm, making freedom of speech conditional and communication between politics and wider society a condition of the government.  

In a meeting, the Executive Controller of International Relations for state broadcaster NHK, Akinori Hashimoto, admitted that there was always tension between “politicians and journalists, but freedom of speech and competitive media ensured these tensions were stabilized”.  However, with these most recent laws, it is unlikely that the media could compete with each-other for so-called state-secrets, let alone compete with the government.

This has implications for every level of information gathering.  Whilst Hashimoto maintained that the state broadcaster remained independent, he revealed that the new laws “make it harder to find sources in the bureaucracy”.  The law is quietly strangling potential critique in a time where Abe has a sweeping grip on power.  Scrutiny is at the heart of democracy, and without it, Abe’s choices go unchallenged.  

This chilling effect is arguably more damaging than the law itself.  It is the threat of revealing a state secret that deters whistle-blowers and journalists, and the threat of breaking the new laws.  In such a way the ambiguity of the SDS was likely intentional to allow for discretionary operation by ministers and government agencies, as well as acting as a mechanism that scares people into silence.   

A state of fear and distrust is contagious.  

And where will people seek remedy? The only place that has answers-the government. This is the fastest way to reverse a culture where facts are dissected, truth is grappled with and opinions are not coerced.  

Katsumi Sawada is  a reporter from Japan’s oldest newspaper Mainichi Shimbon.  In his opinion, “The law shows that the influence of Abe has increased, as his personal opinions have influenced the law.”  Personal opinions should not override the opposition of a 100 million citizens.  But in a post-2014 Japan, it seems Abe’s do.  

Ordinarily, a country would have counter-measures that protect journalists and their sources from this type of law.  This source of protection is non-existent in Japan.  Furthermore, there is no “public interest override” that would recognize circumstances where the public interest outweighs any potential harms of disclosure.

It is difficult to measure the effects this law has had on free media in Japan.  When a state secret itself is not defined, it is nearly impossible to determine what media outlets can no longer report on. What is clear however is that this law, in all its vagueness, signals that the government are the ultimate arbiters of what is free and what is not.  This is blatant overreach and something that Japanese citizens did not choose.

In a time of constitutional change previously unseen in Japan’s post-war history, confusion over Japan’s nuclear energy plans and continued mismanagement of Fukushima relief efforts, open debate and dissent is crucial.  However, a monopoly on truth does make it much easier to govern.

4 minute read

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