Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Friday, February 15, 2008

How Sweet It Is

Another year, another Valentine's Day...

I repeat this every year, but for the sake of those who are new to this site and don't know much about Japan, here in the Land of the Rising Sun Valentine's Day is celebrated by girls' giving chocolate to boys. The boys then reciprocate on the corporate-contrived festive day known as "White Day" (March 14th) by giving candy or lacy lingerie to the girls. Yes, it's both consumerist and sexist, but it's kind of fun.

Most if not all of the public schools in my area have banned the practice of Valentine's Day gift-giving, at least on campus. However, Ye Olde Academy, being a private school, doesn't have such restrictions. The amount of chocolate I get serves as a sort of barometer of my current popularity, though it's rarely what I expect. Last year I seemed to be getting along with the students really well, and I got almost nothing. This year my relationship with the students has seemed a bit on the iffy side, but I got enough to fill my briefcase! Nothing from any of my coworkers, though...except a healthy dose of ice from certain individuals.

As usual, my family was very good to me. I only hope my waistline doesn't force me to replace all my trousers again.

In other news:

There have been many points of contention between Japan and China. Things such as disputed ownership of uninhabited rocks in the ocean (which probably sit over major gas fields), the content of Japanese history textbooks, Chinese military deployments, and trade disputes have helped keep a certain amount of tension between the two nations. However, the latest sticking point is...

...gyoza (known as jiaozi in China).

It seems that, as China has both industrialized and commercialized, an unexpected problem has developed. Government control in China isn't anywhere near as centralized as we'd probably believe. The fact is that, though Beijing sets official policy, how (and if) that policy is implemented and enforced is entirely up to local officials. There are many areas of the country that are virtually autonomous. The rapid growth of big business in China has led to the development of a new class of rich and powerful entrepreneurs. Some of them have learned that it is a simple matter to cozy up to bureaucrats in the more remote, rural parts of the country and turn them into corporate feudal states. The result is industry built on ultra-cheap property, immune from government control, and run more or less by slave labor. I think you can guess what that means.

The overwhelming majority of tainted Chinese product scandals in the U.S., Japan, and elsewhere can be traced to these remote "serf factory-states". The Chinese government itself has said so, and though it is trying to crack down on such things it is a decidedly uphill battle. And unfortunately, it has also put a blight on the reputation of Chinese industry that may take a long time to heal.

Consider the latest incident. Apparently frozen gyoza made by one factory in China and imported by a subsidiary of Japan Tobacco, inc. was tainted with a type of organic pesticide that is illegal in both Japan and the U.S.. It was determined that the toxin was originally in the packaging rather than the gyoza itself, i.e. it was probably sprayed on the bags, but it apparently leaked through. It was also discovered that some (but not all) of the bags of contaminated gyoza had small puncture holes in them, leading some to speculate it was deliberate sabotage.

Investigations showed that only a few dozen packages, all part of the same batch manufactured and shipped the same day, had been contaminated. The government also concluded that only ten people in three families had been poisoned by the gyoza, none of them seriously. However, at the peak of the resulting wave of hysteria it was reported that hundreds had been sickened all over the country. There was even a quickly-refuted report of a death. Basically, anybody that ate imported Chinese gyoza and then felt ill after hearing the news (most likely due to hysteria) went to the hospital claiming to have been poisoned.

Then, of course, there was the media reaction. The gyoza case has been headlining the news every day for more than a week. Chinese products in general have been under attack. China itself has been subjected to increasingly bile-dripping criticism. Even Chinese restaurants and famous chinatown districts have seen both a sharp drop in their clientele and vitriolic attacks from disgruntled fear-mongers. On the other hand, both the Chinese government and the main Chinese media sources have been both very rational and very cooperative about the whole affair, but, perhaps inevitably, some local Chinese media sources are accusing Japan of having staged the attack to vilify China. A lot of similar accusations, as well as an anti-Japanese backlash, have been appearing on the internet.

You have to understand that China's industrial and mercantile capacity is enormous. It is also pervasive. A very large and still-growing percentage of the products we use in everyday life are made in China. The overwhelming majority of those products are properly made and perfectly safe. It is ridiculous to try to embark on some anti-Chinese hate campaign and insist on boycotting all Chinese products on account of one contaminated batch of frozen food or a few lines of toys painted with lead paint. That's like going on a hate campaign against water because the swig you took from a rusty rest room faucet tasted bad. It just doesn't make sense. Unfortunately, human nature often doesn't make sense, and I've been hearing an awful lot of pure stupidity coming from the people around me.

General Update (tikatikatikatikatika...)
My mother-in-law is still in the hospital, but will be coming home soon. The doctors said she was well enough to leave several days ago, but she was too demoralized to move. Now she says she's sick of hospital food and wants to eat "real" food. That is great news, though it also means my poor wife will be under even more pressure. I guess it's up to me to support everyone as much as possible...and not go insane in the process.

Otherwise, the kids are fine, the cats are fine, the good students are getting better, the not-so-good students are getting worse, the workplace politics are getting even more annoying, but the school year is very near it's end, so it just doesn't matter...for the time being. And there's still my music and my writing to keep me distracted, so I guess it's all okay.

P.S. Blogger tried VERY hard to eat this post, but I sensed trouble and used a backup. Ha ha ha ha ha, you FAILED!!!!!!!!

And now a poem:

How is it that a simple desk can be
An enigmatic thing like a black hole?
A force is there, so strong, though one can't see,
That somehow swallows vital papers whole.
Your memo I did not misplace!
It's somewhere hyperspace...


  • MM, there is a certain amount of China-induced hysteria here as well, depending on the industry. Being in the food industry, I got a deluge of requests for country of origin data. And though issues with other imported ingredients exist in equal or greater number than China's, China is in the spotlight. Some of the concern is valid, but so much is hysteria.

    But I'm glad to hear that things are going well-ish for you. What's the length of the Japanese school year?

    By OpenID nikkipolani, at 1:13 AM  

  • We try to buy local as much as possible but that's out of health concerns and Carbon footprint issues.

    Good to hear your family is doing well.

    By Blogger Swinebread, at 1:49 AM  

  • Thanks for all the interesting news...I try to avoid imported stuff in general...(it tends to be cheaper sometimes too!).

    The whole Chinese back-country corporate feudalism schlog reminds me of early can read tidbits of "The Good Old Days, They Were Terrible!" by Otto Bettmann..especially the food "additives" sections-bleah!

    Glad to her MIL at least wants to go home and eat something. That's always a good sign!

    By Blogger ladybug, at 8:04 AM  

  • And here I am in Japan on Valentine's Day, and I don't really care much one way or the other for chocolate. Sigh. So in our house, we are contrarians and I buy chocolate for K (and brandied chestnut glace).

    I don't eat dead pigs (or live ones) myself, but suspect the gyoza incident was sabotage. Perhaps by persons wanting to shake up Sino Japanese relations, or maybe just someone who didn't get a 50 yuan per day raise. I find the anti-China hysteria in the USA kind of weird considering all the things that their own factory farms do, not to mention the FDA, drug companies, and other governmetn and corporate poisoners.

    Hope your MIL enjoys the real food and that you guys can cope with the extra effort required. Have some chocolate. :)

    My desk (except when company is coming over) looks like a trailer park after a tornado. I guess that's like a black hole as well. Great poem.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 4:50 PM  

  • PS - clarification. regarding China hysteria... I was not referring to Ladybug's and Swinebread's comments about buying local. I totally agree with that position for a lot of reasons. Rather, to people to get upset with China but turn a blind eye to local polluters.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 4:54 PM  

  • I eat at a little deli across from our shop most every day, and the girls that work there are very cute indeed. They like to dress up on Fridays. They call it Nighty Friday. They dress up in nighties and you can imagine how popular that is. On Valentines Day they had dressed in the skimpiest outfits ever. I had a good Valentines Day.

    The number of product recalls from China in the US is never ending. I don't know if it is deliberate, but it is quite definitely gross carelessness.

    By Anonymous Dave, at 7:15 AM  

  • We had a scare here too and certain products were not allowed entry at the ports. All's okay now.

    Good to know that everyone at home is doing fine, including your MIL.

    p.s. Blogger probably eat the gyoza.

    By Blogger Happysurfer, at 6:25 PM  

  • What is tikatikatika?

    By Blogger Selba, at 6:42 PM  

  • Nikkipolani
    Oh, I know. Chinese imports seem to be the world media scandal du jour, as it were. Yes, China really does need to rein in its runaway business tycoons, but the rest of the world needs to rein in the paranoia.

    The Japanese school year goes from April to March with a 6-week summer "vacation" and two 2-week "vacations" in winter and spring. Yes, we are nearing the end.

    Think globally, act locally, right? I prefer to support local businesses simply because it's our local economy.

    Well, I can't avoid imports too much or I lose half the things I really like (i.e. American, Australian, Canadian, and British products)!

    You hit the nail on the head. China right now is very much like the U.S. was around the time of Teddy Roosevelt. There are often troubling signs that the government is planning another totalitarian socialist backlash, but right now I doubt the people would support it. (Then again, this whole "runaway business" thing might just be a ploy on the part of the communist party to allow the people to see the perils of capitalism, but it's hard to say.)

    I've wondered the same thing. People who live near the factory that produced the tainted gyoza said that a whole bunch of people were fired with no explanation right about the time the tainted gyoza was manufactured. Worker revenge, or is a rival tycoon trying to thin the ranks?


    That reminds me of the maid craze in Tokyo. There are cafes where the waitresses dress and act like 19th century housemaids, complete with the soft-spoken manners, and apparently businessmen find it sexy.

    These sorts of things seem to be happening all over. Is it a global war being fought behind the scenes, or do modern corporations just not have any pride in their products anymore?

    It used to be (and may still be) a tradition in American T.V. news for the sound of an old-style, mechanical teletypewriter to be heard in the background during news broadcasts, particularly whenever there was a pause for a commercial break. Hence "tikatikatika".

    Of course, that could also be the sound of a spy running away. One does seem to be hanging around here again lately...if my web analytics are accurate...

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 7:00 PM  

  • Ah Steve, you're on to me!!

    By Anonymous Paulo, at 3:07 AM  

  • Uh...?

    By Anonymous Steve, at 1:40 PM  

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