Japan from the inside out

Archive for the ‘Demography’ Category

The death and resurrection of a Japanese festival

Posted by ampontan on Friday, May 15, 2009

FOR A SUPERB DEMONSTRATION of just how much traditional Shinto festivals mean to the Japanese, look no further than the recent success of the people in a small district in Saeki, Oita. The outflow of young people from the area over the years has left only 3,030 people living there now, of which 390 are aged 65 or older. That gives the district an elderly population of 38%, much higher than the already high rate of 26% for Oita as a whole.

The lack of able bodies forced the local Hayasuhime Shinto shrine to discontinue the Gojinkosai, its annual summer festival, four years ago. An additional complication was that the main event required volunteers with a high testosterone count—it was a particularly fierce fighting festival, and as long-time friends know, Japanese fighting festivals can be fierce indeed. Matsuri of this sort often involve groups of men smashing portable Shinto shrines known as mikoshi into each other, usually with the intent of driving the other group into a river or smashing their mikoshi altogether. Sometimes in Shinto, rowdiness is next to godliness.

Saeki’s Gojinkosai required three mikoshi instead of the usual two, and to facilitate the bashing they lined up on a nearby beach. A photograph from the last festival, held in 2005, shows that all three mikoshi and their carriers wound up waist-deep in water.

The dwindling total of young people meant that the numbers no longer added up. A team of 30 people was needed for each mikoshi because all that mayhem required the participants to take turns due to fatigue. There are only 410 men in the district between the ages of 16 and 49, so almost 25% of them would have to participate every year.

But a group of diehards in that district refused to let the 850-year-old event fade away. Held in supplication for a good harvest, good fishing, and safety at sea, the festival also featured taiko drumming and a performance of the shishimai, or lion dance, in addition to the shrine-sanctioned brawling. Those who wanted to resume the festival successfully organized a local referendum in January. One faction in the district was content to let sleeping traditions lie; they said the economic downturn was an inappropriate time for such sportive rambunctiousness, much less for the eating, drinking, merriment, and more drinking that are essential elements of most matsuri. But the veneration of tradition and love of a good time prevailed, as the group which countered that an economic downturn was the perfect time for a festival carried the day and won the election.

Prevailing in the referendum was one thing, but rounding up the men to actually put their bodies on the line was another. How did they solve that problem?

They sent out a call to those young people who had moved away to return for the weekend and resuscitate the event. The heads of the four neighborhood associations went from door to door in their areas to ask the residents to ask their sons and grandsons to lend a helping hand and a sturdy shoulder to come home for the weekend and hoist the mikoshi for the old hometown.

Aided either by their persuasive abilities or a divine wind, the arm-twisting worked on a sufficient number of children and grandchildren to bring the Gojinkosai back to life this summer. To make it easier on the participants, the traditional festival date of 29 July was switched to the 26th, a Sunday. That will allow the mikoshi carriers sufficient time to travel and recover from their bumps and bruises for work the next day.

Some people think traditional culture in the modern world is a fragile heirloom that would wither and die without being propped up by bureaucrats and infusions of public funds. But as a small group in Saeki showed, all that’s required to keep alive the traditions people value is a bit of imagination and effort.

Posted in Demography, Festivals | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Japan’s elderly a risk to reform

Posted by ampontan on Friday, June 20, 2008

GIVE CREDIT where credit is due: Reuters’ Linda Seig gets it right when she reports that the demands the elderly are placing on Japanese social services are a threat to fiscal reform.

“It’s quite clear that the older you get, the more dependent you are on public services so the older you get, the better big government sounds,” said Jesper Koll, CEO of investment advisory firm Tantallon Research Japan. “The risk is very high of being dragged toward bigger government and greater inefficiency.”

Here’s a hopeful sign: some in the opposition Democratic Party of Japan favor taking a conscientious approach to policy rather than use the dissatisfaction as a political weapon.

Not all influential Democrats agree with the party’s current strategy and many of their policies are still sketchy, so just what steps the party would take if it took charge is murky.
“We can’t simply pander to the elderly,” former party chief Katsuya Okada told Reuters in a recent interview. “If we did, younger generations would criticise us.”

The younger generation also might pull the plug on the old folks’ life support system.

And extra credit should go to Reuters for noticing that the DPJ’s policies “are still sketchy.”

Here’s some more background on the realities of Japanese demographics.

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From golddigger to gold miss in South Korea

Posted by ampontan on Friday, May 30, 2008

THE PHRASE wasei eigo refers to a word or words that look and sound as if they might be English, but were in fact created by the Japanese. Baseball is a natural inspiration for many of these words. One example is naitaa (nighter), which is what the Japanese call a night game.

Hello, the Gold Miss speaking

Another is “old miss”, a phrase coined some years ago to describe what native English speakers referred to as an old maid when people still used that term to describe something other than a card game.

In yet another link in the fascinating chain of one culture borrowing from another culture that which was borrowed from yet another culture, the South Koreans seem to have appropriated the Japanese wasei eigo expression “old miss” to create a new expression that describes an entirely different phenomenon: “gold miss”.

As a recent Japanese-language article by the Seoul correspondent of the Nishinippon Shimbun explains, the Korean Employment Information Service (KEIS) defines the term as that group of single women aged 30-45 who are college graduates with annual incomes of at least 40 million won (US$ 38,700). Unlike the old maid/miss, a fate that most women dreaded, the Korean gold miss has become an object of envy for her freedom to lead a carefree life unencumbered by financial or family concerns.

In fact, the article uses the gold miss phenomenon as the point of entry for a brief exposition of the changes that have taken place in Korean society over the last generation, primarily for women and family life.

The correspondent interviewed a 31-year-old woman who said that as recently as the 80s, the traditional roles of breadwinner for men and housewife for women were still the standard in South Korea. Now, she claims, it is difficult for a woman to get married unless she has a job.

By the time of the Seoul Olympics in 1988, the country’s GNP had risen to 10th worldwide, but the purchase of an apartment in a condo in that city was so expensive that both the husband and the wife had to work to afford it. Spurring the entry of women into the workplace was a law passed in 1987 that required equality in employment opportunities.

Who are the Gold Misses?

KEIS reports that in 2001, about 2,100 South Korean women were in the gold miss category and employed in seven occupational sectors, such as chef, doctor, and designer. By 2006, KEIS had expanded the range to include 36 sectors, among them teachers and writers. The number of gold miss women then totaled more than 27,000—a nearly 12-fold increase in only five years.

The author also describes two other types among contemporary Korean women—the alpha girls and the Ω girls (omega girls). The former take their name from the book by Dan Kindlon, who describes them as “the girl who is destined to be a leader. She is talented, highly-motivated, and self-confident”.

With characteristic cultural myopia, the book is subtitled, “Understanding the New American Girl and How She is Changing the World”. There were plenty of Japanese alpha girls before Kindlon claimed the type as an American pioneer. But with a previous bestseller about boys called Raising Cain, perhaps the author felt compelled for a quick follow up, causing him to skimp on the research that would have revealed the rest of the world was there already.

Now the Koreans have come up with a new twist on the alpha girl. At the end of April, the Chosun Ilbo published an article defining the omega girls as those alpha girls too incompetent to manage the affairs of daily life and unable to find mates. The Chosun article included interviews with mothers, one of whom described a doctor daughter who didn’t know how to pay the electric bill or her taxes. Another mother was anxious about her college professor daughter who “couldn’t even find a divorced man to marry.”

The Chosun piece also suggested that omega girls were a flop with men because they were perfectionists. It advanced the theory that men feel threatened by the omegas — isn’t this starting to sound like a college sorority version of an all-night bull session? — because they believe logic is required to appeal to the new breed of woman. For the omega girls, maturity rather than financial security has become the standard for choosing a mate, making it likely they would be susceptible to having affairs with older men.

Students of evolutionary biology, however, will know they’ve ventured onto shaky ground here in more ways than one. For starters, all women are susceptible to having affairs with older men, and both maturity and financial security are among the reasons. For another, logic is never required to appeal to women. No wonder they’re not getting married.

The Chosun also presented the idea that some of the alpha/omega types do not like the idea of having a relationship with men who would arouse their sense of competition, so they wind up marrying unemployed men. A more detailed explanation of the dynamics of those relationships would undoubtedly make juicy reading.

More Precious Metals

There’s more, but it gets increasingly difficult to separate the froth from the substance. Some people see a category they call “platinum miss”, which is similar to the gold miss but has a stable job at a mid-tier or large company and assets of at least 80 million won. Then there is the “silver miss”, the unmarried woman of the same age with an annual salary of at least 30 million won.

Here’s an earlier English-language article from the Chosun with additional information.

Try this passage:

Women like these are entitled to VIP “gold” credit cards, so they’re called “gold misses” — a term, created from the broken English “old miss,” that made it onto a list of fad words of 2006.

It’s a shame they can’t bring themselves to explain that the origin of “old miss” is Japanese. With the popularity of the Korean TV show “Old Miss Diary” in 2005 and a movie spinoff in 2006, perhaps their emotional stake in the phrase is too high to say it out loud in front of a Korean audience.

Believe it or not, there’s even more. As this article from the JoongAng Daily explains, Koreans have also created the terms King Kong Girl and doenjang nyeo (soybean paste girl). This is getting to be more complicated than all the words Koreans need to describe family relationships.

Doenjang is a dish in traditional Korean cuisine, but to call someone a bean paste girl means she is the familiar type of airhead known around the world for her interest in clothes, brand names, and coaxing money out of her parents and the men in her life. There must be a tasty explanation of the connection between bean paste and brainless golddiggers, but I couldn’t find it.

The King Kong girl is named after the King Kong theory of French novelist and filmmaker Virginie Despentes. Here one describes her moment of epiphany:

“I suddenly felt tired of playing the roles required of me when meeting men, of being innocent yet not a prude, the femme fatale, naturally thin with no obsessions about dieting, independent but vulnerable, seductive but not slutty.”

In other words, the King Kongettes have voluntarily withdrawn from competing in the sexual marketplace, perhaps to lead the life of a gold miss.

And doesn’t that put it all together? Leave it to the journalists to explain social trends with cute artificial phrases that will have evaporated in a few years’ time. What we’re seeing with all these gold/silver/platinum/bronze/tin misses and the King Kong/Bean Paste girls is the Korean manifestation of one of the forces responsible for the low birth rates in the advanced industrial countries.

As one of the Chosun articles explains, even the alpha girls that get married and have children will dragoon the grandparents into performing the parental chores while they pursue a career. Now isn’t that ironic? Some women wanted the opportunity to have a career, and where did they wind up? In an extended family that essentially functions in the same way their grandparents’ family did. The only difference is that the woman wears a fashionable outfit to go to work downtown in an IT-festooned office, rather than work clothes to go outdoors and toil in the fields.

To put it in brief: A lot of women just can’t be bothered anymore to go to all the trouble to have children and raise families.

Some governments think that providing financial incentives will bring the birthrates back up. They’re mistaken, of course, but that won’t stop them from wasting everyone’s money in the process.

People can’t be bribed to do what they don’t want to do to begin with—particularly when it doing it in good conscience requires one’s undivided attention for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for a minimum of 20 years. If they yearn for companionship, it’s easier to buy a dog.


Here’s a two-minute video with a salsa soundtrack showing a young blonde woman describing in English her lunch with two doenjang dishes. (Northeast Asia is just full of surprises!) Was she cast to type? It seems as if she too has a bit of the soybean paste girl in her.

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Posted in Demography, Language, Popular culture, Social trends, South Korea | Tagged: | 6 Comments »

The struggles of the Japanese ceramics industry

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, May 25, 2008

THE JAPANESE HAVE BEEN making things out of clay for 12,000 years, so the use of ceramics for use in daily life and as art objects is an inseparable part of the national culture. Indeed, their ceramic tableware is an inspired example of how utility can be combined with esthetics.

ceramics glasses 1

One aspect of their approach toward ceramics is that while enthusiastically adopting the latest innovations and technology over the millenia, usually from China, the Japanese still produced earthenware with characteristics that can be traced directly back to antecedents from the Neolithic era.

A major ceramics production region is Arita in Saga, where the Korean ceramist Li Sam-pyung discovered in Izumiyama large deposits of the kaolin required to make porcelain of the highest quality. Enormous volumes of Arita ware have been shipped throughout the world, and the customer base once included the royal houses of Europe and the Ottoman Empire.

How big is the industry in Arita? The combined sales of the two largest companies and three cooperatives with a sales system shared by 370 other companies amounted to 7.2 billion yen in 2007, or almost US$70 million.

And that’s what has them worried. Those are the lowest aggregate annual sales since the local industry began keeping official records in 1985. Not only was this a 6.2% drop from the previous year, it was the 11th straight downturn in sales and 30% off the record high set in 1991.

According to the local officials who conducted the survey, orders from the commercial sector keep falling as more ryokan (Japanese inns) and hotels switch to inexpensive imported ceramics. Sales also have been poor to individual consumers, for whom changing lifestyles means fewer traditional Japanese meals. That’s a problem because in the traditional style of dining, individual foods are served on separate plates or dishes, each with a distinctive shape, rather than on a single plate on which everything other than the salad has been dumped, as in the West. For example, the simple lunch my wife and I had in a Japanese restaurant yesterday required four different plates or bowls, in addition to which were the teapot, tea cups, and ceramic chopstick rests.

In contrast, the survey found that demand continues to grow from Japanese power companies for ceramic insulators and other devices used in the power industry for high voltage power lines. Exports to African nations of parts and products used in power facilities also continue to be brisk, buoyed by Japanese government ODA.

Left unmentioned, but sitting in the middle of the room like the proverbial 800-pound elephant, are other social changes. More women work, which means they have less time or inclination to do all the dishwashing that Japanese cuisine requires. And because people marry later or not at all–and have fewer children when they do marry–the purchase of a full set of ceramic tableware is no longer the priority it once was.

ceramics glasses 2

The officials suggest the industry has been slow to respond to these changes. In its report on the story, the Nishinippon Shimbun cited one example as a successful response to consumer preferences: the “supreme shochu glass” for individual consumers. (To get up to speed on shochu, a distilled beverage that resembles gin or vodka and outsells sake, try this previous post.)

The glass (actually a ceramic cup) was developed by local kilns and put on the market in November 2005. The two photographs accompanying this post show examples of the supreme shochu glass—the first incorporating different patterns, and the second sporting the logo of the Kansai area-based Hanshin Tigers baseball team, which has one of the most rabid fan bases of any sports franchise in the world.

Before the supreme glass was created to add elegance to their drinking experience, most shochu drinkers used glassware for the beverage, served either warm or cold. But the designers at Arita came up with a new product that makes everybody happy—the kilns sell more merchandise, the drinkers can savor the taste and bouquet better than before, and the members of the prototype testing team enjoyed the heck out of themselves putting the product through trials.

A single supremo sells for about 2,300 yen ($US 22.25), is 97 millimeters in diameter at the rim (about 3.8 inches), and 95 millimeters high.

Here are the improvements that the manufacturers tout for the product:

  • The glass mouth has been widened to improve both the bite of the shochu as well as its taste.
  • The sides slope upward at a 75º angle. Making the glass progressively wider allows the shochu to evaporate faster, creating a more full-bodied flavor.
  • There’s a small protuberance at the bottom of the glass to improve the internal crosscurrents. The manufacturers say this leads to a more balanced flavor, and I see no reason to doubt their word.
  • A knurl has been added outside the glass near the base to make it easier to grip, which I’m sure becomes more important as the night wears on.
  • Finally, the base of the glass under the knurl is hollowed out underneath, creating a platform effect. This helps the beverage remain hot or cold regardless of the air temperature.

What conclusion can we draw? Between the insulators for power lines and the supreme glasses for shochu drinkers, the Japanese ceramics industry may yet find a way to overcome demographic trends and the disappearance of trade barriers and traditional dietary habits.

N.B.: Those who still think the Japanese have a bad attitude about their neighbors on the other side of the Sea of Japan might be surprised to know that the Korean Li Sam-pyung is the tutelary deity at a Shinto shrine in Arita, and a festival is held in his honor there every May.

Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Demography, Food, New products, Social trends, Traditions | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Drawing conclusions from Japanese demographics

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, May 8, 2008

THE REALITIES OF DEMOGRAPHICS and the aging of Japanese society are causing some people, primarily in private-sector businesses, to draw their own conclusions and act accordingly. Meanwhile, others are oblivious to the new realities because they can’t see–or don’t want to see–beyond their own front yard. The latter group might wind up regretting their failure to pay attention.

Here are some examples:

Item 1

The Nishinippon Shimbun published a survey earlier this week that revealed 58 hospitals and clinics in all seven Kyushu prefectures eliminated their pediatric wards during the period from April 2007 to April 2008. The primary reasons cited for the step included the declining number of children and a shortage of pediatricians. In contrast, 35 facilities added an internal medicine ward.

Some hospital officials pointed out the difficulties of pediatric practice. Because both parents are working in many more families than before, they take their children for medical examinations during their off hours, when most examinations are being conducted on emergency patients. It is also difficult to determine the severity of a child’s illness, and illnesses in children tend to become more severe more quickly than in adults. That means pediatricians must work longer hours without a commensurate increase in pay.

The 2004 reform of the system for medical education resulted in greater freedom for students to select their course of study. Since then, the number of medical students choosing pediatrics has sharply declined.

One hospital director also cited business factors as a reason. The remuneration for treating children is low, their diagnosis and treatment involve a lot of time and trouble, and fewer tests and drugs are ordered. Pediatrics always has been a money-loser for hospitals, but the falling population of children has spurred the elimination of the wards that treat them.

Here’s what is being left unsaid, but is perfectly obvious: Bright young medical students have drawn the conclusion that pediatrics is not a growth sector in Japan, and some hospitals think the sector is more trouble than it’s worth.

Why are pediatrics wards becoming unnecessary in some hospitals?

Item 2

The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications released a report for 5 May–Children’s Day–estimating the national population of children on 1 April this year. The estimate counted a record low of 17,250,000 children aged 14 or younger, down 30,000 from the previous year. The number of children in this category have declined every year since 1982, or 27 straight years. According to the ministry, this age group accounts for 13.5% of the population, one of the lowest levels in the world. This percentage has been dropping for 34 consecutive years.

On the same day, the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research (link also on right sidebar) reported there will be fewer than 15 million children by 2015, and they will account for less than 12% of the population. The institute said that urgent measures were needed to deal with this situation.

The institute broke down the percentages by prefecture. Tokyo had the lowest percentage with 11.7%, followed by Akita with 11.8%. This is significant because these two locations represent different population extremes. It isn’t surprising that there would be fewer children in Tokyo, a megalopolis with a high percentage of singles. But Akita is a more rural prefecture with a much smaller urban population.

The prefecture with the highest percentage of children was sunny Okinawa at 18.1%. The only one in which the percentage of children rose over the past year was Tokyo–by 0.1%.

The private sector has drawn its own conclusions from this information and is taking steps to seize their financial opportunities.

Item 3

On the same day that its report on local pediatrics wards appeared, the Nishinippon Shimbun ran a feature explaining that Kyushu Electric Power, Saibu Gas, Nishitetsu Railroad, and other big businesses in the Kyushu region are ramping up their business investments in homes for the aged by building facilities on their unused land holdings. These companies are parlaying their name recognition to create facilities that provide services similar to those of hotels. Some are assisted care facilities that require initial payments ranging from several hundred thousand yen to several million yen, and a few upscale institutions require initial entry payments of more than 100 million yen (about US$ 952,000).

A facility built in Fukuoka City by Saibu Gas has 122 units on 24 floors with Italian furniture in every unit and a natural hot spring on the premises. The minimum entry fee is 30 million yen. It opened in 2006 and now has an occupancy rate of 40%. Two of those units carried the 100-million-yen price tag.

The extreme aging of society

Recall that the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research forecast that children aged 14 and younger would account for less than 12% of the population in seven years. Statistics from the institute’s website also show that the percentage of Japan’s population aged 75 and older rose from 1.4% in 1930 to 4.7% in 1995 and to 8.8% in 2004.

Everyone knows the reasons for this: the Japanese are a healthier people to begin with, and they are living longer as a result of the advances in medical science.

That means the day there are more people aged 75 in Japan than those younger than 15 is just over the horizon. How far away is it? We might be able to count the years on our fingers, with a few toes thrown in.

To its credit, the Japanese government drew its own conclusions about this situation a long time ago. Japan’s semi-socialized medical system provides exceptional care with few of the drawbacks of the systems in Canada or Great Britain, for example. Until recently, the elderly were required to pay just 10% of their costs, and those who were registered as dependents of employed children (not unusual in this East Asian country) were exempt from payments altogether.

Considering the general abundance of modern life and the success of the Japanese pension system, the elderly—who are naturally the primary consumers of health care—had quite a deal for themselves.

But the country is in a difficult fiscal situation: gross public debt is more than 170% of GDP and is expected to continue to rise. More old people are using more health care resources paid for by public funds. And the tax-paying population is going to decline in the future, not grow.

The government began planning changes in the system a few years ago, and they inaugurated the new system on 1 April this year. Those people aged 75 and older will be required to be responsible for their own health care costs (though this has been purposely delayed to limit the political backlash), and there was a marginal increase in the monthly payments.

It’s difficult to blame anyone for the inevitable uproar that resulted.

Gray anger

The government is trying to keep outlays from getting out of hand. It’s not unreasonable to expect people to assume more responsibility for their health care, particularly when the system is so generous and affordable to begin with.

People who have ceded their responsibility for the basic functions of life to the government are not going to act their age when that government tells them fairness requires they start assuming more personal responsibility.

As the novelist Upton Sinclair once observed, it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it. Replace salary here with benefits, and the statement describes the reaction of many Japanese elderly to the new system.

One old man on the street interviewed for national television blustered for the camera that it was as if the government was telling him it hoped he died early. In fact, some people have started calling this the “hurry up and die” insurance system.

The reaction was so intense it was cited as one of the reasons for the defeat of the ruling party’s candidate in a by-election for a lower house seat in Yamaguchi.

Yes, that is blubbering selfish stupidity, but no one seems anxious to set them straight. Indeed, no one explained the new system to them to begin with. Discussions about the reforms became public around the time the war in Iraq started, and the mass media, being an entertainment enterprise, knows that people dying in explosions wins the ratings battle every time. Instead of covering a development that involved all Japanese, they devoted their time and resources to covering a story that involved almost no Japanese.

And when it became a matter of public discussion, the media chose to fan the political flames and turn it a potential election issue between the ruling party and the opposition rather than present it in a reasonable way.

Meanwhile, communicating with the citizens has never been a forte of the Japanese government.

Failing to connect the dots

The only ones who seem to be unable to draw any conclusions are those people over the age of 75, though they are probably hiding their eyes deliberately. The government is fiscally strapped. Personal liability for health care costs is low. The population is rapidly aging, and more elderly are using health care services more often. The number of children is plummeting, which means the pool of potential taxpayers to pay the bills is shrinking.

And yen trees don’t grow in the gardens of Nagata-cho.

Responding to the criticism, Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo said the government would study ways to alleviate the burden on the lower-income elderly using funds from the national budget, but the new system would remain in place.

The contours of future developments are not difficult to make out, however. As health care costs continue to rise in tandem with the number of late-stage elderly, the older citizens will exercise their right to vote until they find a party that will shelter them from financial reality.

There will be no shortage of politicians volunteering for the task.

But that will inevitably place a larger financial burden on an increasingly smaller group of younger people who are employed. As with other social welfare programs, the Japanese health care system shares the same characteristics as a pyramid scheme—it requires a growing population to sustain, and that’s no longer possible in Japan. The taxpaying population won’t put up with it forever, and one day they will demand tax relief, perhaps with an American-style taxpayer revolt.

In that scenario, the logical first step would be to ration health care. Arguments in favor of that step already are being made elsewhere. As this article points out:

(In the book Setting Limits, author Daniel) Callahan proposed that the government refuse to pay for life-extending medical care for individuals beyond the age of 70 or 80, and only pay for routine care aimed at relieving their pain.

As we’ve seen, some people have been calling the new Japanese health care plan for the late-stage elderly the “hurry up and die” system. Of course that’s just silly, but it’s time those people started drawing conclusions of their own.

Otherwise, before too long, they might find that the rest of society really has begun to wish they would hurry up and die.

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Posted in Demography, Government, Social trends | Tagged: , , , , | 15 Comments »