Friday, October 27, 2006
Snapple Vs. Itoen
I have everyone at my office hooked on Itoen's line of teas, which have made steady progress in infiltrating the New York City delis (many of which are run by Koreans). Alongside Gatorade and Snapple, you'll now find Tea's Tea, which more and more people are buying and enjoying, no doubt in part because of all the recent articles touting the health value of green tea.
Among the many teas in Itoen's line is the "White Tea" drink, which Itoen claims is:
"one of the rarest and most luxurious teas in the world and it is the least processed form of tea in China and India."
So I found it very interesting that earlier this year Snapple began a campaign to introduce a "healthier tea drink" to the market; one industry rag even called this "the most ambitious product launch in Snapple history". Snapple wants to dominate the global beverage market, but they are known for having oversweetened and generally not-very-healthy-drinks on the shelves. How interesting, then that they too put forward a "white tea" for consumers to try.
Who will win? I don't know. But it is so nice to have an alternative to Coke.
Posted at Japundit, where you can read the comments.
Wednesday, October 25, 2006
Help Me Hello Kitty Obi, You're My Only Hope
Aside from the fact that I don't think it's a good idea in general for gaijin to try to wear any version of kimono, (yeah, yeah, I know this isn't exactly a kimono) this picture also introduces an interesting question for Japundits to debate.
Fellow blogger Lainey posits that:
What to do when your album tanks in the English-speaking territories?
Put your eggs in an Asian basket, of course.
Well, it's true. When a film or record doesn't do as well as the US money-men had predicted, it's often hoped that the money will be made up overseas. The implication is that while someone or something may no longer be "cool" in the US, the news may not yet have reached Japanese shores. (Although, with the success the Da Vinci Code which made the bulk of its revenue overseas, there is talk of studios taking the foreign box office a bit more seriously).
Of the Japanese devotion to Tom Cruise, a star who, like Janet Jackson, has struggled in the US as of late, Lainey says:
I find it very, very, very hard to believe this man still makes 'em swoon outside of Hello Kitty country, where emotionally stunted Asians run around with only half a brain and an auto-programmed giggle.
Interesting, no? Look, it can't be denied that stars often go to Japan to hawk their stuff when they wouldn't do the same in the West. But I find it interesting that Lainey equates the love of kawaii with emotionally stunted growth and a willingness to buy whatever "we" tell them to.
For some reason, over there, we breed girls with the maturity of a cartoon frog and the emotional depth of a bow-adorned cat - girls who roll in handholding packs, who erupt in high pitched squeals over something as simple as finding out that the cutesy pencil case they covet comes in green AND powder blue.
Is the Japanese consumer just stupid? More forgiving? Less cynical? Personally I think Lainey's raised an interesting point, and given voice to the often tacit belief of those who go to Japan to hawk their wares. But I'm particularly curious to hear from those of you who live in Japan and watch these waves of celebrities come through the Narita gates for a photo-op.
First posted at Japundit where you can read the comments.
Monday, October 23, 2006
The Emperor's New Clothes
"Princess Kiko is going to have a baby," she said.
My mother and I often think alike and at the same pace, and a moment later we declared to each other that the baby would be a boy, that the palace officials must have been involved in the baby's conception, and that Princess Masako would now be sidelined and suffer even greater pressure for her "failure" to produce an heir. (If you need a refresher on this stuff, there is plenty out there for you to read.)
I posted something along these lines over at Japundit. Some people agreed. Others said that you can't tell the sex of a baby when it is that young (you can tell after a matter of weeks). Others told me that the baby would either be a girl or a boy and that I should chill. My favorite comment is:
Marie Mockett, I wish you’d stop posting. You are very negative and judgemental. I don’t know what have have against the Imperial family, and I am sure that you wouldn’t want people speaking that way about you. How sure are you about how the Crown Prince and Princess are feeling about Princess Kiko’s pregnancy? If anyone is so smug it is you. Are you American by any chance?
Well, here we are months later, I'm still American, Princess Masako conveniently went out of the country for the birth of the baby (a boy, of course) and the news tells us that Princess Kiko's profile has been raised considerably. (Yay Kiko! You had a boy! Well done!) There are numerous sides to the debate, with some insisting that it doesn't really matter whether Japan has an emperor or empress; the system is antiquated and no one pays any attention to it anyway. And to some degree, I'm sure that this is true. On the other hand, I can't help but wonder what it means for Japan that such extreme measures may have been conducted to assure a male heir to the throne.
Like a lot of people who straddle two worlds and two cultures, I'm always battling the misconceptions that people have of Japan. When I took my partner to Japan for the first time, someone actually asked us upon our return: "So. Did you get him one of them geisha girls in the bath-house?"
Ditto for the number of people who express great distress over the condition of women in Japan, and their relief that foot-binding has finally been outlawed. (That was China, I explain). I know plenty of wonderfully smart and talented Japanese women, both in the US and in Japan, who think on their own, have their own opinions and are their own agents in life. And yet, when I ask my mother if she would ever return to Japan, she very clearly says: "No. I am used to too much freedom here."
What is the freedom she is talking about? Japan has socialized medical care, some form of which our own country could stand to implement. Its schools, while the subject of great handwringing in Japan, are impressive. The average life-span of the Japanese woman is still a record holder. But then there is this observation from one ironic female reporter:
It’s true that the ladies of Japan haven’t been doing too badly these days. We’re doing markedly better career-wise—you can bet that all those high-end brand stores in Ginza are not being built for men. We can even choose to stay single forever and leave Japan childless instead of opting to marry manga-reading worker bees. And after years of being randomly fondled by strangers, we have won the right to group all different kinds of women into a body odor-free train decorated with hot-pink flowers, the Japanese metro’s nod to grrrl power.Women are protected in Japan in ways we can only dream about in the US. Some women, like my own cousin, can now live in female only condos, and elect to be single, as 54 percent of women in their 20s are doing (2003) compared to 24 percent of the same age group in 1980. Like all crazed Japanophiles I could go on and on about the things that Japan does so well and, in my opinion, far better than my own country.
But then there is this nagging, messy freedom issue and Marie Iida's little dig at the establishment in the essay above. What's the deal?
Every now and then an article appears in the Wall Street Journal or Business Week about how the glass ceiling is firmly in place in Japan and how there are very few (if any) female corporate heads. The ratio of female to male executive heads in the new government is 1.7%. Knowing these statistics, did we really expect that the government would change the constitution to allow for an empress? Maybe the European monarchies have allowed for queens over kings, but then Japan isn't Europe. Tokyo is not Japan.
The real Japan is often outside of Tokyo, where families who outwardly live a very modern life still follow stiff patriarchal rules, particularly where matters of lineage and family inheritance are concerned. So, why was there any debate at all about changing the constitution? The public supposedly supported an empress, so why didn't it go through?
A smart commenter at Japundit wrote in the following:
the point is that the “victory” (changing the constitution) wouldn’t really mean much and would give people a false sense of security. A lot of foreign advocates of reforming the law really were just doing it to “get one over the oyaji-san (old people)”. They weren’t really interested in women’s rights.
And women know, deep down, that though they enjoy tremendous security, the social changes haven't happened to really permit them to be something other than mothers in marriage -- unless they choose to be alone. Rick, once again, says something pertinent:
There you have it: five well-educated, ambitious women have managed to have only five children among them, and they are from a generation that graduated from college almost thirty years ago. It’s a personal perspective, but it ties in closely with what I glean in conversations with younger women. And the snowball is rolling downhill. Japanese women just aren’t going for the old business of boorish, neglectful husbands, tyrannical mothers’ in law, duty to procreate and raise the future of the nation, etc., etc. Until Japanese society finds a way to change those realities for its young women, the birth rate will continue to plummet.
What the old bulls in the political china closet, so used to always having it their way, don’t realize is that as long as the nation and society are held within their narrow, Neanderthal view of things, the situation will only get worse. Masako and her daughter represented a good opportunity for all, but the macho guys would have none of it, and the young women with so much at stake were all out shopping or playing with their keitai denwa while the issue came around, then went up in a puff of smoke.
I'll go on record now and say that I'm incredibly disappointed at the way this whole charade turned out. As someone who has spent significant time in Japan over a number of years, I shouldn't be surprised. But, as the original commenter at the top of this post noted, I'm American. As much as I love to go to Japan and find its traditions intact, I also have a desire to want and enjoy change--and to engage in the noisy and tiresome debates that surrounded these twin impulses in my own country.
Monday, October 16, 2006
Yuka is on Broadway!
One dancer has definitely stood out over time. Her name is Yuka Takara and she hails from Okinawa, Japan and has always had a crisp, charming and thoroughly engaging style and presence. I wasn't surprised to learn a while back that she'd been invited to join the Knick's dancers (whatever they are called).
Yuka resurfaced in class a while back. She'd performed in Pacific Overtures, which a friend was kind enough to give us tickets to see. And now she's going to be on Broadway in the revival of A Chorus Line! I'm thrilled for her.
A Chorus Line was the very first Broadway show I ever saw, way back in the late 80s when I was in college. I remember taking the subway to TKTS with friends and buying a few last minute tickets at 7:30PM. The show reasonated with me then, and now that I have lived in NYC this long and have known so many people at various stages in their artistic careers, the show means even more to me now.
Congratulations to Yuka. I can't wait to see her dance and sing.
Thursday, October 12, 2006
"It would be most interesting if you were to carry an Ichizawa Hanpu bag in America," he said, slyly.
So I gave it a try.
As it happens, carrying this bag in America sometimes makes me feel as though I'm transmitting a secret code at a high frequency only audible to Japanese. The Japanese businessman I sat next to on a trip to California looked at me wide-eyed. "Where did you get that? It's so cool! You are so cool!" The girls in Family Mart, my local Japanese grocery store, whispered about my bag until I broke the news to them that I 1)spoke Japanese and 2)was well aware of what I was carrying. In a cinematic moment, I saw a young Japanese man with his own Ichizawa Hanpu bag and I sort of showed him my label and he showed me his and we smiled at each other.
So, note to those men and women who are looking for an easy conversation starter with Japanese people; go to Kyoto and get one of these bags. You'll likely be more successful than if you bring up Memoirs of a Geisha or anime.
How intrigued was I, then, to learn this Spring that the family behind Ichizawa Hanpu had had a dispute of will. I didn't catch it all, but there was something about how the third son, who had been making bags, did not inherit the business, while his older son, who had not been making bags, did. In a fit of understandable pique, the third son started his own business across the street from the original store.
Once again, it was ear-to-the-ground Isao who provided me with this news.
"And are these bags more stylish?" I asked.
"Oh yes," he affirmed.
But I was pressed for time on that trip and didn't get a chance to go to the store.
Fast forward to this week when I finally walked into Tutu, a store in NYC's Nolita that I had long admired from a distance. The proprietor was inside on the phone. And there, on a shelf, was this bag made by Hanpu Koubou. Could it be?
I was carrying my Ichizawa Hanpu bag like always, and I made sure the store proprietor could see the label. I felt a shift in the air, then heard her say in Japanese, "Let me call you back later." She turned her attention to me and said hello.
"I know your bag because I'm from Kyoto," she said with great intenwsity.
"And this Hanpu Koubou is from the same family?"
She looked cagey. "From one of the sons."
"You mean, from the one who didn't get to inherit the business?"
"Oh. You heard about that."
We chatted some more. As it turned out, her shop's logo had been designed by Reiko, whose sketchbook I've much admired in the past. The proprietor pointed out the features of the Hanpu Koubou. The canvas, she noted, was vastly superior to American canvas. She showed me an American bag so I could compare. I told her I was worried about buying a bag in a light color.
"It might get dirty."
"Yes," she said matter of factly. "We don't worry about that in Japan because we don't throw our bags around. I mean, I'd never put my bag on the floor."
And so, I am now the proud owner of a Hanpu Koubou, which I wil try to treat with the dignity it deserves, even when we pass out of big bag season.
Also posted on Japundit, where you can read the comments.
Why Agents Must Feel The Love
"I keep encountering agent and editor blogs and interviews where they state they personally have to fall in love with a book to pursue publishing it. Given there's only a few hundred people in these positions and I suspect they generally share the same educational and cultural backgrounds and interests, does this restrict what is being published? I'm not in a position to know - only to guess."
Yes, it is true that it is best if an agent falls in love with an author's work. This is because so much of art, as you know, is subjective, and you and your agent are relying on a certain amount of trust and just plain "like" of each other to make it through the rough patches. And there will be rough patches.
It's sort of like when you have a fight with your partner--a real doozy--and at a certain point you and your partner ask yourselves: "Is it really worth it to work this financial/loyalty/sexual thing out?" And if the answer is, "Yes, because I love you," then you know you are with someone who is committed to your relationship. Your relationship with your agent has to be something like that.
I like to ask people in publishing how a book becomes a bestseller, and while editors and agents might make noises about the usual suspects--the author's level of attractiveness, a book's publicity, a good review--the fact is that no one really knows (and this is one reason why I keep asking the question).
Here's something I've learned from working in publishing that might surprise you; people work in publishing because they *gasp* love books. They do not live to make you feel bad about yourself. Okay, maybe there are a few bad apples out there, but these people don't really tend to develop the kind of track record and history of sales and successes that characterize legendary agents because, let's face it; if you really are the kind of agent who is worried about laughing at other people, then you probably aren't the kind of person who is going to take the time to carefully read your slush and find a hidden treasure.
As cynical as editors and agents and authors become about the process, most of the people I know who work in publishing started in that field and persisted because they love books, plain and simple, and because they want badly to read yet another good book. They are disappointed when a book doesn't pan out. They are thrilled when they discover something new. And, because publishing professionals actually work in publishing, they end up seeing a lot more than the consumer; ie, they have seen numerous book proposals on, say, single fathers raising crazy and troubled daughters or Iraqi interrogators than the average reader or writer, will ever see. This adds to their desire to find something new.
In short, I think it isn't really helpful or even, believe it or not, realistic to think of publishing as being controlled by some sort of mother ship that is keen on keeping you out. Agents, or at least the agents I've met (and I now know a few) desperately want to find something different and wonderful and interesting. They don't want to keep publishing the same thing over and over again. And here's where the "love" thing becomes important.
I was recently feeling blue about my own writing and started to talk about it with an agent friend (not the boss). What the agent said surprised me. She was feeling incredibly depressed because she loves, loves, loves her newest authors and is having difficulty selling their work. She feels terrible. She has the connections she needs to reach very good editors and make sure that her clients' work is being read. She just hasn't made a sale. Everything in the industry is slow, she complains. Yes, people are selling books, but it is getting very, very hard. And this is deeply disturbing to her because she loves her clients and wants to find their work an audience. She knows they deserve an audience. And the slowness in the industry is breaking her heart.
And the love she has in her heart for her writers is important, because, if she didn't love her clients, she might not go that extra mile and do that extra little push that is necessary to get a sale.
Curtis Sittenfeld anyone? How many times did her agent submit her manuscript? I know it was well over twelve. And I was so stunned to hear Colson Whitehead on NPR talking about how his first agent never sold his first book, and so he had to drop the agent entirely (or maybe it was the other way around) and write yet another book, the very wonderul "Intuitionist," which I adore.
Agents get depressed by rejection. That's right. They get almost as depressed as we do.
The good ones care so much that they get very upset when an editor from a well known house calls and says something awful like:
"That was a nice read you sent me recently. But, um, do you have anything written by any celebrities? How about some nonfiction?"
At this point, the agent--perhaps even my friend--will politely say "No," because, like I said, she lives to find yet another good book, and she didn't get into this underpaying industry to represent a book by Paris Hilton. There are agents who will represent books by Paris Hilton, and there will be agents who will throw in the towel and say, "Okay. I give up. Forget Nabokov. Forget Atwood. Just find me the next Paris Hilton." But the agent who loves your work will never do that to you.
Experienced agents know this about themselves. They will look at a manuscript that they "sort of" like, and know that if that if they took this client on and if this manuscript were to be rejected about five times, they'd lose interest in it. They know that they just won't have the energy to keep on pushing to find the right editor. They know that rejection doesn't necessarily mean that a work is bad (very key), but that rejection is bruising even for them, and that they will have to love something to keep working for it.
So, that's the very first part of your question. I'll try to tackle the second, and probably more interesting, part of your question when I've had a few days to digest the question and come up with an honest answer.
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
When my father received this New Yorker in the mail, he held it up in front of me and said: "Look! You've finally made it on the cover of the New Yorker!"
I've done no such thing of course, as this illustration is the work of the fine artist Bary Blitt.
But I take my father's point. I'm a bag lady.
This reminds me of a conversation that I had with two friends the other day. One was lamenting that she always needed to carry a purse and a large bag to hold her things. The other, slightly older friend said something like: "Don't you know that in New York your bag is essentially your purse?"
I know of women who declare that they need nothing more than a small purse containing a tiny wallet and lipstick to make it through the day. I am not one of these people. I have to have a book (and these days a manuscript) with me, a knitting project in case I'm trapped somewhere boring, my electronic Japanese dictionary, toilettries, water, a flashlight (this habit started after the blackout), breath mints, a fan (in case the subway is hellishly hot) and . . . god knows what else. The problem is even worse on days when I go to dance class and have to haul around my dance gear.
I actually think that the point of the New Yorker cover is, as numerous fashion magazines and articles have declared, that this Fall is the season of the large bag.
I guess this means that for a brief period, my taste in accessories is going to be au courant.
The Japanese Inhaler
I took my mother to a pulmonary specialist in the US because we thought it would be a good idea to have her medical records in one country. The doctor, a very sharp woman of Chinese descent, found out that my mother had had medical care in Japan.
"What kind of medicine are you taking? What's in it? I can't treat you if I don't know what you are doing!" she scolded us sharply. We were mollified. We felt terrible. We didn't mean to be such disorganized and haphazard patients. It's just that medical care is expensive and a pain in the US. I mean, you know what they say. It's great care if you can get it. But you have to be able to afford it.
My mother took out her inhaler and the doctor eyed it suspiciously. "Do you even know what's in that thing?" she sighed, enormously frustrated.
So, my mother and I huddled together and tried to read the contents, carefully pronouncing the ingredients as they were written in katakana. The doctor took notes. Her expression began to soften after we had agreed upon the third medication.
"Wait. All that in one inhaler." She stopped taking notes. "But, that's amazing! My patients have to have three inhalers sometimes! It's puff, puff, puff!"
There was a small moment in which I felt the tension dissipate.
Then the doctor grumbled. "Well. Of course. It's a Japanese inhaler."
"And very nicely packaged too!" I offered.
Edited to add: You can see the comments on Japundit where I posted the same thing.
Monday, October 09, 2006
Debbie is Getting Married
1. Debbie is getting married.
2. I am the maid of honor and always knew I'd never be part of anyone's bridal party unless she got married (thanks Debbie!).
3. We have to find her a dress.
Years ago Debbie and I sat and discussed the qualities we'd want in the man we married. I don't remember much of what I said, except for the fact that I wouldn't want to marry anyone who golfed and so far things are trending well in that regard.
I remember much better the laundry lists of dos and don'ts we put together for wedding dresses. I've long maintained that it is a heck of a lot harder to find a decent dress than it is nearly any other kind of clothing. Finding a wedding dress was going to add a whole new wrinkle to the challenge.
There was no way we were going to get her a dress like this. No offense, but where is the art? It's essentially an inverted triangle, a harness of a thing with gobs of symmetrically placed sequins and baubles thrown on top, as though a wedding dress were nothing better than a gingerbread house; the more gumdrops the better. A good wedding dress has to be more than a large white trumpet. I mean, if you are going to go the route of throwing a party and inviting guests then the least you can do is celebrate romance.
I will be the first to admit that, in the beginning, I didn't understand the hoopla surrounding this dress. Now, however, I realize that perhaps, among other things, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy was doing her best to avoid standard monstrous creations like photo 1.
But when it comes to fashion, Debbie and I have never been particularly good at the "clean and simple American lines" thing. This may have something to do with the fact that I am:
1. not starving myself
2. not going to look like a beanpole even if I do starve myself.
So, a lot of American fashion doesn't mean a lot to me. This has changed somewhat in the past five years or so, as American fashion has come to mean something other than embellishment free sportswear. But it still means that the clothes that look oh-so-good on Gwyneth Paltrow, she of the no-hips-and-short-pelvis-Calvin-Klein-wearing persuasion, are never going to look good on me. I am never going to be a nice clean line.
Debbie is a master seamstress. You'll find her teaching class at Sew Fast Sew Easy, where she has helped shepherd numerous young designers (some whose names you might know) . When my mother's health made it difficult for her to help me with my final prom dress, Debbie took over and helped me turn my sad little sketches into a physical garment. When we go to thrift stores together, she is always showing me how to make my jackets a little more fitted, or fix sleeves. The woman can sew.
However, she is very clear on one thing; no one should design their own wedding dress (unless you are, like, Alexander McQueen). She's watched sewer after sewer, bride-who-hired-a-tailor after bride-who-hired-a-tailor, fail this challenge. I mean, it sounds so romantic, right? Sewing your own dress. But she says it never works. For anyone. I think part of this is because wedding dresses are traditionally white, and white reveals all flaws of construction, fabric and stitching. If you are a knitter, for example, you will note that patterns for lace shawls are typically photographed in white so you can very clearly see what the thing will look like when you are done. White is unforgiving.
Designing a wedding dress for most people is like designing a mansion before you've even attempted a small house, but have fixed up a couple of apartments. Or something like that. It's such an ambitious creation that you need to make a number of bad dresses before you are likely to succeed. I mean, you wouldn't hire a biology student to do your angioplasty. Amateurs shouldn't attempt to design their own dreses.
I personally have nothing against Vera Wang. There's a dress she made this season that has these crazy sleeves and interesting draping that I think is a fantastic design (It's also about $5000). But must her wedding dresses be the equivalent of Tiffany engagement rings? Must everyone want one by her? You get a dress by Vera Wang and it doesn't take a genius to figure out from which of her many price points/lines the dress was selected. It's like buying a Toyota. Did you get a Prius or a Camry or a Lexus? Are you sensible or decadent? We wanted to avoid Vera Wang altogether.
We were fairly certain we wanted something modern and romantic and this meant, something that "moved" and was perhaps "deconstructed" but still "pretty." As it happens, there are designers who were channeling our frustration with the wedding dress industry, and were trying to give us just that. So we got completely besotted with people like Elizabeth Fillmore who makes these great swishy dresses, or Suzanne Ermann who makes great, whimsical gowns.
One way around the cost problem is to not buy a wedding dress at all. Just adding the term "wedding" to something makes it more expensive: the wedding limousine, the wedding ceremony, the wedding dress. We looked at formal dresses that are nice and beautiful, like this one from Sue Wong and thought maybe this would be a good and practical way to go. But we didn't want to be too practical.
The truth is, I've become a strange shopper since I moved to New York. I rarely buy anything the "normal" way any more, as in, I rarely go into a proper store, look at the racks, try things on and pay full price. I'll scour my favorite and very secret thrift store (code name "Chez Marie" from which I've rescued A Diane von Furstenburg vinatage wrap dress for $12.99, two Vivan Westwood blazers for $14.99 apiece and a gorgeous funky black pleated Costume National skirt for $6.99, not to mention 30 ties each at $.99 by various designers for the man in my life), stand in line for a sample sale, skim through the racks of consignment stores because;
1. I'm a writer and we never have any money
2. It's kind of more interesting to shop this way.
In the end, it was a sample sale to the rescue. The Bridal Garden donates all proceeds from their wedding dress sales to charity, and from what I could tell, they get a healthy supply of designer dresses donated to them (there was one puffy Vera Wang number over which I lingered. But just for a moment).
In the end, we found a stunning dress that is very Debbie. It is also a sample, and as far as I can tell, the designer hasn't put it into mass production, which means it fits the whole "one-of-a-kind)" hang up we have. The dress, like the man she will marry, probably didn't fit all the little must-haves we had deluded ourselves into thinking she needed, but who cares? Plus, it was $675! And it needs a few alterations . . . . but she's a master seamstress and she can handle that.
So, thus ends the quest for the perfect wedding dress.
Now we need a dress for me. And if we hated most wedding dresses on the market, you can bet we really hate most every bridesmaid's dress even more.
Photos to follow when the blessed event actually occurs, some time next year.
Sunday, October 08, 2006
Battlestar Galactica and Itunes
Tentatively Coming Back . . .
I suppose I was also feeling blue because this has been something of a trying year and I lost the energy to keep up with my blog. But we'll take some tentative steps and see how things develop. Fingers crossed.