Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Axolotl: Not a Final Fantasy Summons

Ever hear of an axolotl? Honestly I hadn't, and the first thing I pictured was a JRPG monster/summon/weapon.

So quick backstory: this year I've been participating in a program called Kizuna Across Cultures (KAC), which runs an online cultural exchange between pairs of schools in the US and Japan. Using a Facebook-like academic website, KAC volunteers coordinate and act as facilitators of sorts between the schools. I've been volunteering as a "Senpai" (先輩), who are bilingual mentors whose job is to encourage conversation among the students and provide some guidance and support. Not only is it great to stay connected to (language) education post-JET and watch the students learning from one another, but it's also giving me the opportunity to learn some new things.

We've just been wrapping up the students' self introductions, and one Japanese girl shared some information and photo of her pet with us.

This creature, which in JRPG terms would probably be a low level chump you encounter around the same time as green slimes, is called an axolotl. In Japanese, it's commonly called 「ウーパールーパ」, which sounds a little too much like "Oompa loompa" for my liking.

I find it interesting that I had never heard of these things, even though they come from our neighbor, Mexico, but apparently they're a thing in Japan. Is it just me, perhaps, who is woefully ignorant of the Mexican fauna? At any rate I got a nice kick out of this little interaction.

Edit: Good find, Gobbler! Here's the Pokemon that the girl at the bottom of the above post must be referring to:

Wooper (ウーパ), source bulbapedia

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

"Use first, pay later" and the unmanned conbini

A couple weeks ago I was watching TV Japan and caught part of an NHK story about a modern take on an old Japanese business model that's been catching on lately at some companies.

Inspired by the idea of okigusuri (置き薬), which is an old Japanese method of selling medicine, confectionery companies have begun marketing a new service targeting businesses. Okigusuri entails leaving a box of medicine and medical supplies with a family at no charge, hence the practice's name - 置き薬 literally meaning something like "left medicine." At set intervals, a company representative comes by to check the boxes, replacing anything expired at no cost and charging the household for anything that has been used. This business model is called senyokori (先用後利), meaning "use first, pay later." There's a much more detailed explanation at the Japan Times.

Recently some businesses have begun hiring confectionery companies, local farms, and other distributors to stock snacks and cheap meal items for employees. Rather than 置き薬 ("left medicine"), these are called 置き○○ ("left" fill in the blank). For example 置き菓子 ("left snacks"), or more generally 置きビジネス ("leaving business"?).

This doesn't seem to normally be a free service - customers are expected to leave money in a little box (it's difficult to see below, but those frog heads "eat" the payment). But it looks like these refreshments are usually reasonably priced (one IT company in the segment only stocks items that  cost 100 yen each - about $1), and it saves employees from having to leave the office to grab something to eat. Personally I like to get out and stretch my legs every now and then, but if you're trucking through something important and can't spare the time but need your sugar fix, this sounds like a nifty solution.

Source: NHK 
My first thought was to wonder about customer honesty. The Japanese are stereotypically more honest about such things than Americans, at least, but surely some people would cheat the system if unmanned conbinis were set up without security measures. The interviewer actually talked about this, saying that it seems theft isn't an issue because there are always coworkers and superiors around, so I guess no one wants to get caught stealing a dollar candy bar.

This is definitely an interesting marketing strategy, and I imagine it's a lot cheaper than what a distributor would spend to set up a vending machine. Although free snacks would be a much better perk for employees, I could see this lifting morale and perhaps improving productivity within client companies.

Update: A friend of mine brought this article to my attention, which mentions that this service goes back to 2011, and that Glico started selling its ice cream this way in offices after the 2011 Tohoku disaster prompted the Japanese government to enact power conservation measures. Offices were hot, and ice cream is cold!