Among the many service businesses in Japan that have fallen upon hard times due to the coronavirus pandemic are photo portrait studios. Shukan Jitsuwa (Dec. 10) purposely timed an article to be published in autumn, when families observe the shichi-go-san festival, a traditional rite of passage for 3- and 7-year-old girls and 5-year-old boys.

Typically held each Nov. 15 or on the weekend closest to that date, the festival is an occasion for parents to celebrate the growth and well-being of their children, dressing them up in colorful kimono and visiting Shinto shrines. Naturally portrait photos are taken to mark the occasion.

According to the Teikoku Data Bank, however, so far this year 20 portrait studios have declared bankruptcy. These were not record-breaking figures per se, as the same number also failed in 2010 and 2013, indicating that the decline has been ongoing.

“With the popularization of digital photography and smartphone cameras since the start of this century, demand for negatives and prints has declined, and, with them, requests for the services of professional photographers,” a source in the industry tells the magazine. “The current business model will need to be reconsidered.”

According to Tokyo Shoko Research, Ltd., sales revenue from 410 such businesses have declined at a steady rate. From around ¥200.5 billion in 2017, sales fell at an average annual rate of 5%, to ¥190.7 billion in 2018 and to ¥182 billion last year. Figures for this year, however, are expected to be considerably worse.

Nevertheless, the number of studios actually increased. One reason appears to be that despite the declining birthrate, more doting parents and grandparents are arranging for portraits of children on a variety of auspicious occasions, such as school graduations, at the time of their reaching adulthood (at age 20) and at their weddings.

“There are more so-called nashi-kon couples (who officially marry but do not have a formal wedding ceremony), but even among these, many wish to pose for studio portraits,” one studio operator says. “And some of them are willing to pay more for creatively staged photos, which has boosted our earnings.”

This year, the problem is that COVID-19 has been driving practically everyone away, so revenue is expected to plunge by as much as 20% from 2019. So professionals have been attempting to stimulate business with new ideas for picture-taking events — like a “halfway to adult” benchmark upon reaching age 10 or maternity portraits of expectant mothers.

To be or knot to be

Kyoto University is an elite institution that prides itself on its enlightened academic atmosphere. This policy was adopted under the tutelage of Meiji Era educator Hikoichi Orita (1849-1920), who graduated from Princeton University in 1876 and went on to establish Kyoto University in 1897.

However, the school’s open-minded approach to learning recently found itself tested.

The problem was a symposium that featured a performance of bondage and discipline, an activity known as kinbaku, which was organized by a philosophy professor in the graduate school’s Faculty of Letters, a local news reporter explains to Shukan Shincho (Dec. 3).

While the symposium adopted a no-nonsense view of kinbaku — which involves the application of ropes to a subject’s body — from the perspectives of philosophy and art, not everyone at Kyoto University took it in with an open mind.

“During the event, a professional rope artist gave a performance in which he used ropes to tie up a female model and dangle her on a rack,” the reporter says. “One person raised an objection, asking ‘Is that supposed to be art?‘ and this led to the university issuing an apology and removing the video of the seminar from its web site.”

“Recently, regulations at Kyoto University have become increasingly restrictive, and freedoms are being taken away,” a person affiliated with the institution tells the magazine.

“In 2018, the school invoked a local statute regarding posting of standing signboards, and the school removed many signs that were set up against the stone walls surrounding the campus,” he adds. “People post them again, and the school takes them down — it’s become a game of cat and mouse.”

“From long ago it’s always been an unwritten rule at Kyoto University to ‘disregard fixated formulas’ and do things here that can’t be done at the University of Tokyo,” says Kumiko Takeuchi, a researcher of animal behavior affiliated with the institution. “Both instructors and students research all kinds of crazy subjects. So many researchers come here because they aren’t able to do what they want in Tokyo.”

This time, however, it would seem the Kyoto University seminar on rope techniques has left its defenders tongue-tied.

Companionship comes at a price

As one way to maintain mental equilibrium while stuck at home during the pandemic, more people have been acquiring pets.

Sunday Mainichi (Dec. 6) devoted four pages to this topic, tallying up various costs for ownership and maintenance, including the projected annual outlays for dogs and cats. This is apart from initial purchase, which can vary widely according to pedigree. (Implantation of an ID microchip generally runs between ¥3,000 to ¥10,000.)

The largest outlays will be for food (a larger dog obviously consumes more), toys, sanitary goods and health-related expenses, including rabies shots and other immunizations.

Based on 2019 data, the average annual cost of keeping a small dog is expected to fall between ¥89,342 and ¥226,326, while the cost of keeping a medium-sized or large dog would range from ¥116,978 to ¥286,798. By comparison, the cost of keeping a cat is estimated to be between ¥87,376 and ¥202,516.

In addition to the above, neutering for dogs can run an extra ¥15,000 to ¥53,000 (somewhat less for cats) and is typically performed on an outpatient basis. As pets are not normally covered by health insurance, veterinary services can run quite high. And, when the time comes, pet owners are also advised to shop carefully for cremation and burial services.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.

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