Love Is in the Air: Vladimir Putin, the World's Greenest Politician?

An unexpected actor has more positive impact on the world's climate than Mr. Obama and the EU combined: Vladimir Putin.

Cutting Emissions in India

A look at the construction sector

Why Coal is Worse than Nuclear

Many people would prefer coal power generation over nuclear. Is this preference justified?

Energy: Empowering the Consumer?

A talk by MP Laura Sandys

Dieter Helm: The Carbon Crunch

My review of Dr. Dieter Helm's latest book on climate change.

Friday, March 18, 2011

A Little Info on the Earthquake

As probably all of you know, a magnitude 9 earthquake took place off the northeastern coast of Japan last Friday, March 11. It was the biggest earthquake in Japan's history and caused massive damage to areas as far as Tokyo, which is about 250 km away from the epicenter. The bigger problem, however, was the enormous tsunami which came as the earthquake's result. It literally leveled the city of Sendai and other northwestern coastal areas, killing many thousands (!) of people. Because the fate of over ten thousand people is still unknown, the Japanese government expects the death toll to rise over ten thousand, or four times the population of Colby College.

The biggest problem, however, is that a nuclear power plant in Fukushima prefecture got damaged by the earthquake. The emergency cooling system, which turned on right away, got destroyed by the tsunami about an hour later. As a result at least four of the six reactors in the power plant started overheating and there is a danger that large amounts of radioactive material could escape into the environment in the form of a meltdown or an explosion. Some people are talking about a second Chernobyl.

Though I am no nuclear physicist, and have little idea as to how a nuclear power plant works, I am quite certain that what happened in Chernobyl will not happen in Fukushima. The main reason for that is the fact that the Fukushima nuclear plant uses a different technology than the one that the soviets used in Chernobyl. The soviets used graphite as a moderator, which is highly flammable, while the Fukushima generator uses regular water ( = light water). What I believe could happen, though, is a meltdown of the reactor. In other words, the radioactive material could overheat and literally melt through the floor and the walls of its containment, polluting the environment. This is exactly what happened at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, USA, in the year 1979. This, however, "only" affected the radius of approximately 20 miles away from the plant.

Now that you know what I know (let's hope we are being told the truth), let me tell you about the situation here in Kyoto. First and foremost, those of you who are worrying about my safety, thank you for your concern, but it is so far unnecessary. In Kyoto, the earthquake was barely felt (I didn't feel it at all), and no damage was caused. Because Kyoto is far from the sea, there was also no tsunami; in fact, there was no tsunami in Osaka either. As to the radiation problem, Kyoto lies about 700 km away from the plant in Fukushima, and therefore is not being affected at all. If a meltdown happened, Kyoto would still most likely not be affected. And, in the extremely unlikely situation that the reactor blew up like the one in Chernobyl, there is one good news for Kyoto: the winds blow to the east, and not to the south-west. Therefore the radioactive material would most likely not make its way here.

Now that you know that I am safe for now, let me tell you a little about how the people here are taking it. Here in Kyoto, though it has of course been a big topic of conversation, people are living their lives just the way they did before. The one thing which surprises me, though, is that all TV channels are showing info on the earthquake, and all keep on repeating one commercial for one company. Both of these things have me puzzled. In my opinion, one or two TV channels would seem enough to cover all the news and a larger commercial diversity would not make you feel so brainwashed. Perhaps it is because the government wants the population informed and thus ordered all TV stations to show the same thing? Literally, TV news of the past week make me feel as if the civil war in Lybia and the recent Doshisha University entrance exam cheating incident (yes, my university) never happened.

Before I finish, let me tell you one last interesting thing which you should already know if you have been reading this blog carefully. In 1995, there was a huge earthquake in the city of Kobe, just outside of Osaka and Kyoto. Though all three cities shook severely, Kobe got most of the damage. The earthquake (magnitude 7.2 as opposed to 9.0 last week) leveled the city of Kobe, and killed over 6,400 people. As you can see, destructive earthquakes are on daily (or yearly) order in Japan. To commemorate the horrible Kobe earthquake, the city organizes a light show called Kobe Luminarie, which I have already written about. Here's the link in case you need to refresh your memory:

Finally, next week I will be going to Korea, and the week after that to Okinawa, so stay pumped for some exciting reports!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Seven Things You Can Only Buy in Japan

I bet that when you read the title "Things You Can Only Buy in Japan", most of you thought of sushi, miso soup, Japanese manga books, etc. However, Japanese food and books you can actually get in other parts of the world if you know where to look. What is it then that you actually can buy in Japan that you can not buy anywhere else? Or, more precisely, what have I seen in Japanese stores that I have not seen in stores in other countries?

Sake Juice boxes
It is not so hard to bump upon alcohol sold in boxes in Europe or America. These boxes are, however, usually relatively large and contain most often wine. When the box is smaller, like 200ml or so, I would tend to associate it with fruit juice that kids bring for lunch to school. The Japanese, however, sell small, 180ml juice boxes of sake, their traditional alcoholic drink. You can get those in any convenience store for a mere hundred yen, which, if you measure in booze per buck units, is a really cheap deal compared to other forms of alcoholic drinks in Japan. My favorite brand of box sake is Oni Koroshi, or Demon Killer. It tastes decent, is not too sweet, and warms your heart and soul on a cold winter day.

Oni Koroshi (鬼ころし), my favorite juice brand.

Purikura is less of a good and more of a service. I promised to post a few pictures of it online in early September already, so here you go. The deal with Purikura is simple. You take a bunch of your friends, one of whom has to be female in order to be able to enter (in theory at least). You enter a Purikura salon, most of which tend to be near karaoke bars, izakaya, game centers, or other drunken-teenager-producing establishments. You put together four hundred yen ($5). You go inside a picture booth and take a few "crazy" pictures (or love pictures etc.). Then, on a touch screen, you draw whatever you want on the pictures and give them a cool background. Then you print them out and have them sent to your email address. I am actually not sure if Purikura is only available in Japan, but I have yet to see it in Europe or the US.

The first purikura I ever did in Japan, featuring myself and my two lovely AKP orientation guides, Saki and Erina.

Racoon Tails
One of the latest fashion trends among Japanese girls seems to be hanging racoon tails to their belts. Literally, they hang on their belt the tail of a racoon, fox, or other fluffy-tailed animal, or more frequently a fake tail. I have seen racoon hats in Canada, and dog coats in the 101 Dalmatians movie, but I have yet to see department stores selling racoon tails to young girls in such numbers as they do in Japan.

A set of tails, ready to use. Source:

Double Eyelids
It is the dream of many Japanese women (and most likely other Asian women) to have double eyelids just like white women do, and thus a market developed to satisfy this desire. You can buy a product which you "paste" on your eye like an eyepatch, and when on, you look like you have double eyelids. I wonder if there are any single eyelid patches available for white women?

Vending Machines
I have already mentioned that vending machines are everywhere in Japan, and I mean everywhere. They are on every street, on every corner, on every road, on the top of almost every mountain, inside any forest and on any boat. The bad thing about them is that they really don't beautify the scenery. The good thing is that they sell stuff which you can not buy anywhere else. They not only sell cans and bottles of Coke, Fanta, etc., but also cans with milk tea*, tens of varieties of coffee, hundreds of varieties of carbonated drinks, and of course cigarettes and alcohol, which is a good news for all underage drinkers. You can also choose whether you want your milk tea or coffee bottle hot or cold.

*Bottled milk tea is not only sold in Japan, but also in other parts of Asia. They had it in Taiwan, and I assume that you can buy in it China, Singapore, Malaysia, Korea, and other Asian countries. Why they do not sell it in Europe or America is a mystery to me.

A box of Lipton milk tea. 100 Yen in Japan, 50 Yen in Taiwan. Simply delicious.  
Gentei merchandise
Gentei, a Japanese word which literally means "limit", is used to describe a thing which you can only buy in one place. For example, Hokkaido gentei means that you can only buy the product on the island of Hokkaido. The Japanese seem to have a liking for gentei goods as in almost every place in Japan they sell some. There are, of course, many gentei products in Kyoto. The perhaps most famous are so called Yatsuhashi, rice dough sheets with a sweet filling. In Hokkaido you can buy Shiroi Koibito, a delicious white chocolate sheet sandwiched between two cookies, or Sapporo Classic Beer, which supposedly tastes different from the regular Sapporo beer available worldwide. Interestingly, as is the case with Sapporo Classic Beer and other gentei products, many are produced by huge conglomerates like Mitsubishi etc., which however are smart enough to keep selling the products in their region of origin in order to increase their sales. Kyoto's Yatsuhashi are an exception to this as there are seventeen (!) companies in Kyoto producing them.

Kyoto's very own Yatsuhashi (八つ橋). Top to bottom: Tea flavor, plain flavor, sesame flavor. Tea flavor is the best. Source:

Japanese Toilets
I doubt that you can buy the thrones which Japanese toilets are anywhere else. Because I have already written a lot about Japanese toilets, here is a link in case you need to refresh your memory.

There are of course many more things which you can only buy in Japan. They range from souvenirs to traditional longbows and hi-tech electronics, but these are, with the exception of souvenirs, of little interest to the average consumer. Let me know if you happen to know some other interesting things which are only sold in Japan!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Convenience Stores

When I was still taking Japanese back at Colby, I was startled when I first came upon the word konbini, or convenience store. I was surprised how often it was mentioned in our textbook, and had little idea of what it entailed. Of course I had a general idea inspired by the convenience stores in the US and Canada. But when I entered Japan in September, I realized quickly that a Japanese konbini is much more than that. Last week I got the opportunity to attend a very interesting presentation about these little stores by Gavin Whitelaw, an American anthropologist who has been studying them for over a decade. Let me tell you what I learned.

A Family Mart konbini across the street from Doshisha's Imadegawa campus where I go to school.

First, what is a Japanese konbini? A konbini is a little store where you can buy anything that you really need in your life, and more: bread, sushi, pre-made meals, coffee, beer, whiskey, cigarettes, cigars, magazines, newspapers, porn manga, toothbrushes, notepads, writing utensils, battery chargers, computer games, and everything in between. In addition to that, you can also use their courrier and postal services, pay for your bills, pay for the concert or plane ticket you booked online, pay your taxes (!), photocopy or fax your documents, use an ATM 24/7 (which is otherwise impossible in Japan), ask for directions, use their clean public toilets without actually having to buy anything, read a whole magazine without paying for it, microwave your food, put hot water in your noodles, and dispose of your garbage in their garbage bin (another near impossible thing anywhere else in Japan).

A Lawson konbini in Kyoto. Just like in the picture above, notice the garbage bins.

What is even more interesting is that despite the small size of these stores, they are generally not more expensive than supermarkets or department stores, and have larger overall sales than the two combined. In fact, one of the commercials for a konbini asks nonchalantly: "where does the supermarket manager go to buy his loaf of bread?" The question is, though, how in the world is it possible that these small convenience stores actually outsell the supermarkets? In other words, why are they more popular than stores like Wal Mart?

The Tachiyomi (stand and read) corner at Lawson's: you can read anything they sell for free for ever and ever. The woman with the backpack is just about to enter the toilet (the door in the back).

The answer to the question is not simple, but can be summarized in a few words: Extremely good organization into large chains, targeted sales, convenience, cheap prices, and friendliness.

Organization: Konbini are on every corner, and despite being owned by small, individual people, almost all are members of large international chains, some of which you may have heard of or seen in your own country: 7 Eleven (Japan, Canada, Taiwan, Singapore, China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand, Australia, Sweden, Norway, Mexico), Lawson (Japan and Shanghai), Family Mart (Japan, Thailand, Taiwan, China, United States, Vietnam, Bangladesh, South Korea, and even North Korea!!!), and Circle K (USA, Canada, Japan, Mexico, Hong Kong, and others) are among the biggest. The individual owner of a cornerstore signs a contract with one of these large chains, who grant their store the name, rearrange the store, provide access to ATMs, and ensure that the shelves are always full. In addition, because each chain provides for tens of thousands of stores, the goods become significantly cheaper. In exchange for all that, the owner pays a royalty to the chain which ranges somewhere between forty and seventy (!) percent. What is even more interesting is that the chains themselves, as is usual in Japan, are owned by other large corporations. For example, 7 Eleven is owned by the Ito-Yokado corporation, Lawson is owned by Mitsubishi, Circle K by the Canadian chain Couche-Tard, etc. In fact, much of corporate Japan is divided between a few major conglomerates like this, which concentrates power in a very few select hands.

Targeted sales: Even though all konbini sell pretty much the same stuff, the customers in say Okinawa may have different needs from those in Hokkaido. Thus for example in a konbini in Hokkaido you can buy mitten gloves and hats. In addition, with every customer, the konbini clerk, before being able to open the cashier, must enter your gender and age into the computer. The cashier also records the weather, the location of the store, time of purchase, location of the shelf from which you bought your product, the clerk's name, and the register number. All this data for each and every customer is then sent to the corporation, which has access to data for years and years back in the past. They are thus able to see how your sales are changing, who comes to the store at what time and during what weather, and which clerks sell more than others. The corporation then sends the stats back in a workable form to the store owner, who immediately knows what he should be selling more or less of and when, which employees to cherish or not, etc. Ingenious, isn't it?

Convenience & Friendliness: There is a reason why these shops are called convenience stores. They can be found on any corner, are easy to navigate in as all look pretty much the same. They sell fast, and they have all you really need plus provide the amazing services I talked about above. On top of all that, most stay open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, including even the most sacred holidays. The staff is usually very friendly, and will help you with diretions etc. even if you do not buy anything. You really do not need to go anywhere else to satisfy your everyday shopping needs.

Cheap Prices: As I already said, because the Konbini are chains, the price of the products they sell drops dramatically. The other reason why they are cheap is that the typical employees are university students who receive the minimal wage, which is less than 800 Yen per hour.

Two young employees of a Lawson replacing the food in the Onigiri (rice ball) and prepared meals shelves.

Convenience stores play a large role in Japanese lives, one similar to that of Wal Mart in the USA. They serve not only as providers of services and employment, but also as social spaces in front of which people gather. The Lawson at Kamogawa Sanjo, one of Kyoto's busiest places after dark, serves as a good example. People sit at the Kamogawa river, drinking the beer and eating the snack which they bought at the Lawson's, from time to time using the free and clean toilets which the store provides. In addition, it is significantly cheaper than an Izakaya (a popular type of bar in Japan), and no one forces you to leave after two hours (which is a common practice in most Izakaya at a busy hour).

Anyway, enough talk. I need to go to the the Family Mart across the street to get my lunch and pay for my plane tickets to Okinawa next month.

The beer selection at Lawson's is not bad.

Plastic cups, toiletries, cleaning agents, batteries, notebooks, pens, erasers. Who needs a supermarket?

The snack shelves.