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New COVID Variant, Black Friday Amazon Strikes, Tiny IKEA Flat

👋 Selamat pagi!*

Welcome to Friday, where a new fast-spreading coronavirus variant has been identified in South Africa, Amazon is hit by global protests on Black Friday and IKEA is renting a tiny apartment for a tiny rent in Japan. Meanwhile, boars, jaguars, pumas and bears invade our newsletter as we look at how wildlife is moving into cities around the world.


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Meet The Trailblazing Female Athletes Competing With Men

Playing to defeat their male opponents — and gender division in sports.

Whenever a sports team composed of women plays a game, it is referred to as a "women's team." Their male counterparts, however, are simply considered a "team," with no explanatory adjective needed.

This argument has long been invoked when discussing women's secondary place in sports, and the battle is ongoing. Earlier this year, American soccer hero Meghan Rapinoe appeared in Congress to testify about the U.S. Soccer Federation's unequal pay between women's and men's teams.

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Do Dolls Have Souls? A Funeral Rite In Japan Is The Essence Of Animism

Buddhist and Shinto temples in Japan hold "ningyo kuyo" (人形供養) funeral rites for unwanted dolls, a spiritual send off to thank dolls for their service and properly put them to rest.

KYOTO — Toys don't last forever, and kids grow up. Interests come and go, and a once-beloved plaything winds up in storage, at a yard sale or in the trash. This is the fate of many toys in the U.S. — particularly after the winter holidays — but in Japan, that is not the necessarily the case, at least for dolls.

Throughout the year, temples across Japan hold a "ningyo kuyo" (人形供養), a funeral ritual for unwanted dolls — especially traditional dolls. Held in both Buddhist and Shinto temples alike, the ceremony is a spiritual send off to thank dolls for their service and properly put them to rest.

Shinto and Buddhism are the two dominant religious influences on Japanese culture. Even with a population that is largely religiously unaffiliated today according to the JGSS Research Center at Osaka University of Commerce, these two religions continue to have a powerful spiritual influence on secular culture.

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Why Japan Is America's New No. 1 Ally (And May Not Want The Honor)

Asia has become the new center of the world because of China's growing power, which in Washington's eyes has turned Japan from an important ally to the most important. But is Tokyo ready for the newfound responsibility?


PARIS — "Who's the No. 1 ally of the United States in the world?" For a long time after World War II, the answer to this question was obvious: Britain. The United Kingdom envisioned itself as the would-be Athens to the new Rome.

The special relationship that existed between London and Washington after the War was unique. Indeed, it irritated the likes of France's Charles de Gaulle: How could one trust a country, which was certainly geographically and culturally European, but which, between the continent and the open ocean, would always choose the latter?

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Daisuke Kondo

A Dove From Hiroshima: Is Fumio Kishida Tough Enough To Lead Japan?

Japan's new prime minister is facing the twin challenges of COVID-19 and regional tensions, and some wonder whether he can even last as long as his predecessor, who was forced out after barely one year.


TOKYO — When Fumio Kishida, Japan's new prime minister. introduced himself earlier this month, he announced that the three major projects of his premiership will be the control of the ongoing pandemic; a new type of capitalism; and national security.

Kishida also pledged to deal with China "as its neighbor, biggest trade partner and an important nation which Japan should continue to dialogue with."

Nothing too surprising. Still, it was a rapid turn of events that brought him to the top job, taking over for highly unpopular predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, who had suddenly announced his resignation from office.

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Meike Eijsberg

Japanese Restaurants Rebel Against Olympic-COVID Alcohol Curfew

Walking past a restaurant in Tokyo this week, you might spot the following sign: "Saké, ok!" Nothing out of the ordinary, it would seem, but these days it has another meaning: that restaurant is part of a growing rebellion against the government's directives not to serve alcohol after 7 p.m, reports Le Monde.

Tokyo, and its three bordering departments (Chiba, Kanagawa and Saitama), have been placed in a state of emergency since August 2 following a surge in COVID cases. Establishments that serve alcohol have been required to close at 7, while those that don't can stay open an additional hour, according to Kyodo news. But not everyone is sticking to these rules.

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Philippe Mesmer and Philippe Pon

Tokyo Olympics, Countdown To The Impossible Games

Though every day a new bit of bad COVID-related (and other) news arrives, the already once-delayed Summer Olympic Games must go on.

TOKYO — There will be a notable "before" and "after" for the Olympic Games in Tokyo. The international competition, which was postponed a full-year due to the pandemic, will begin Friday. The countries slated to host the following Olympic Games (starting with China for the Winter Games in 2022 and France for the Summer Games in 2024) are likely paying close attention to the lessons they can draw from the trap the Japanese government fell into by wanting to maintain the event at all costs, defying the advice of medical experts and ignoring the overwhelming opposition of the majority of the Japanese public.

As a result of a resurgence in COVID-19 cases (particularly due to the Delta variant), the Olympics will be held under a state of emergency, with no spectators allowed at most stadiums and competitions. The event, which is meant to be a place for intercultural exchange, will be deprived of the festive character it is meant to symbolize.

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Genevieve Mansfield

Tokyo Olympic Protest: Woman Tries To Extinguish Torch With Squirt Gun

Many Japanese want to Games cancelled because of COVID risks.

Less than three weeks from the start of the Tokyo Summer Olympics, much of the Japanese public continues to demand the Games be cancelled because of the risks associated with COVID-19.

After weeks of street protests and petitions, Kayoko Takahashi found a creative way to demonstrate her disapproval: trying to extinguish the Olympic flame with a squirt gun.

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Meike Eijsberg

Japanese Nationalists Try To Bury Past, Kill Freedom Of Expression

There's a bitter irony when an exhibit titled 'Non-Freedom of Expression' itself faces censorship.

TOKYO — An exhibition opening in Tokyo criticizing Japan's militaristic past and human rights atrocities, called "Non-Freedom of Expression," was itself canceled under pressure from the extreme right. Japanese and international media have reported that threats from the Japanese nationalist movement have led to the cancellation of the opening of the exhibition the day before its June 25 inauguration.

Le Monde reports that the exhibition was originally supposed to take place at the Session House, a private space in Tokyo. But far-right protesters demonstrated outside the building, while hateful and violence language multiplied. The police were notified but remained discreet, only asking the protesters to turn down the volume. A new location was found and kept secret until the last moment but, fearing an incident, the owner of the venue canceled the exhibition.

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Chris W. Surprenant*

Transgender Athletes: The Fairness V. Inclusion Debate

In a majority of U.S. states, bills aiming to restrict who can compete in women's sports at public institutions have either been signed into law or are working their way through state legislatures.

Caught up in this political point-scoring are real people – both trans athletes who want to participate in competitive sports and those competing against them.

As a professor of ethics and public policy, I spend much of my time thinking about the role of the law in protecting the rights of individuals, especially when the rights of some people appear to conflict with the rights of others.

How to accommodate transgender athletes in competitive sports – or whether they should be accommodated at all – has become one of these conflicts.

On one side are transgender athletes who want to compete in the gender division with which they identify. On the other are political activists and athletes – especially biologically female athletes – who believe that allowing trans athletes to compete in women's divisions is inherently unfair.

So why is this issue so fraught? What's so special about women's sports? Why do women's divisions even exist? And is it possible to protect women's sports while still finding a way to allow transgender athletes to compete in a meaningful way?

Winners elicit outcry

Let's be clear: Few Americans would care about how to best accommodate transgender athletes if they were not winning events.

But that's exactly what has happened. In 2017 and 2018, Terry Miller, a trans woman, won the Connecticut women's high school track championships in the 55-meter, 100-meter, 200-meter and 300-meter events. Her closest and only real competitor those two years was Andraya Yearwood, who is also a trans woman.

In 2017 and 2018, Mack Beggs, a trans man, dominated the Texas 6A 110-pound girls wrestling division, capturing two state championships while compiling a record of 89 wins and 0 losses. Unlike in Connecticut, where athletes may compete as they identify, athletes in Texas must compete in the gender listed on their birth certificate.

While Miller, Yearwood, Beggs and others have triumphed in their respective sports, the number of transgender high school athletes is very low. Nor is there any evidence that athletes have transitioned for the purpose of gaining a competitive advantage.

Yet some legislators have latched onto these examples, using them as a basis for bills that ban all transgender teens from participating in gendered divisions that differ from their birth sex. But these bills don't solve the competitive imbalances that can occur with athletes like Beggs. Worse, they might prevent transgender teens from competing altogether.

Sports matter – with meaningful participation

Since studies have shown that kids who participate meaningfully in athletics have better mental and physical health than their peers who don't – and teens who identify as transgender are at a significantly greater mental health risk than their peers – it's a worthy goal to try to accommodate their desire to compete.

The phrase "participate meaningfully" is important. Someone who, for example, is nominally on a team but does not take the sport seriously does not participate meaningfully in competitive sports. Similarly, someone who takes a sport seriously but easily dominates all competition also does not participate meaningfully in competition.

Laurel Hubbard, a New Zealand weight lifter and the first openly transgender athlete to compete in the Olympic Games — Photo: in.gr_/Instagram

Youth sports organizations exist because we don't believe kids should compete against adults, and kids are further separated by age because age, for children, is a reasonably good proxy for skill and ability. Organizations like the Special Olympics and Paralympics exist to provide opportunities for people with physical and mental disabilities to participate meaningfully and compete against people with similar skill sets.

Male and female athletes are separated for the same reason.

The rise of women's sports

In 1972, the U.S. Congress extended Title IX of the Educational Amendments to the 1964 Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination in all federally funded education programs, including their associated athletics programs.

Title IX's impact on athletics for women and girls – and, as a result, U.S. culture – has been nothing short of dramatic. In 1970, fewer than 5% of U.S. girls participated in high school sports. Now 43% of high school girls participate in competitive sports.

Separating athletes by biological sex is necessary because the gap between the best male and female athletes – at all levels – is dramatic.

Serena Williams is not only one of the best female tennis players in history, she's one of the best female athletes in history. In 1998, both Serena and her sister Venus famously claimed that no male ranked outside of the ATP Top 200 could beat them. Karsten Braasch, the 203rd-ranked player ATP player at the time, challenged each to a set. Braasch beat Serena 6-1 and Venus 6-2.

"I didn't know it would be that difficult," Serena said after the match. "I played shots that would have been winners on the women's circuit, and he got to them very easily."

At the 2019 New Balance Nationals Outdoor, the national track championship for U.S. high school students, Joseph Fahnbulleh of Minnesota won the men's 100-meter with a time of 10.35 seconds. That same year, Olympic Gold Medal winner Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce ran the fastest 100-meter time of any female in the world – 10.71 seconds. Her time would have tied for 19th at that U.S. boys high school event.

One more example that's a bit different: In 2012, Keeling Pilaro, a 4-foot-8, 80-pound seventh grade boy, petitioned the New York State Public High School Athletic Association to play field hockey on his school's all-female team. It approved his petition.

As a seventh grader, Pilaro made the school's JV team. As an eighth grader, he made the varsity team. But players and coaches from other schools argued he had a significant advantage because he was a boy. During the summer before his ninth grade year, the league agreed. It ruled Pilaro could no longer participate because his "advanced field hockey skills' had "adversely affected the opportunities of females."

Fallon Fox, a transgender fighter in mixed martial arts, trains at her local gym — Photo: Sally Ryan/ZUMA

I point to these examples because, put together, they show that no fitness regimen, no amount of practice, and no reallocation of financial resources could allow the best female athletes at any level to compete against the best male athletes at that same level.

This advantage isn't simply a difference in degree – it's not just that male athletes are bigger, faster and stronger – but it's a difference in kind. Pound for pound, male bodies are more athletic.

Evaluating trans athletes on a case-by-case basis

So, how can we allow trans athletes to compete without giving them an unfair advantage over their competitors?

One proposed solution, as if taken from the pages of novelist Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron," is testosterone-based handicapping for events. Competitors would have their testosterone levels measured and then algorithms would determine their advantage. Then, competitors would be fitted with weighted clothes, compete on a different track or otherwise receive an appropriate handicap before competing.

But having a higher level of testosterone does not automatically make you a better athlete. Beyond this, while handicapping may be fine for a golf outing with friends, it isn't appropriate for serious athletic contests. The point of athletic competitions is to determine who is actually the best, not who is the best relative to handicaps.

Another proposed solution entails replacing gender divisions entirely with ability-level divisions. Yet this could hinder women's participation in sports. In a world with no female-only divisions, Serena Williams would still win some tennis tournaments, but they likely wouldn't be tournaments you've heard of.

So what's the most viable solution to this debate?

Since there is no typical transgender athlete, broad rules for transgender athletes don't seem appropriate.

Instead, language similar to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's disability accommodation policy could be used for transgender athletes: "The decision as to the appropriate accommodation must be based on the particular facts of each case."

"Men's' divisions could be eliminated and replaced with "open" divisions. Any athlete could be allowed to compete in that division.

Then, transgender athletes could be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Based on their athletic ability, a tournament organizer could determine which division is most fair for them to compete in, "women's' or "open."

For trans women athletes, at issue is their athletic ability, not their womanhood. If a tournament organizer determines that a trans woman athlete is too good to compete against other women because of her biological advantage, requiring her to compete in an "open" division does not undermine her humanity.

Instead, this acknowledges – and takes seriously – that she identifies as a woman, but that respect for the principles of fair competition requires that she not be allowed to compete in the women's division.

While whatever decision is made is unlikely to make all competitors happy, this approach seems to be the most fair and feasible given the relatively small number of transgender athletes and the unique circumstances of each athlete.The Conversation

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Yann Rousseau

Yakuza Blues: Japan's Notorious Gangsters Hit Hard By COVID

The infamous (yet legal) Japanese criminal syndicate was already suffering under new laws when the pandemic hit. Now its business model is crumbling.

TOKYO — Strands of bleached blond hair falling on eyes smeared with kohl, low rise skinny jeans, an oversized wallet hanging out of their back pocket... These "host boys' wait for their midnight shifts in front of the Otsuu restaurant in Kabukicho, Tokyo's "hot" district. This is also the stomping ground of yakuzas, Japan's notorious gangsters.

Cabs block Hanamichi street as they pick up the first drunk customers of the evening. Hawkers swarm everywhere, looking to lure new clients into their clubs or convince lost young women to start a career in nightlife. Watching the hubbub unfold to the echoes of booming sound systems, you would never guess the Japanese capital was under a state of emergency.

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Clémence Guimier

In Skinny Japan, New Company Offers Plus-Sized People 'For Rent'

It's an economic dictum that virtually anything that is rare is bound to create a valuable market: diamonds, limited edition clothing and, in Japan, obese people.

In a country where the obesity rate is among the world's lowest — only 3.6% of the population is fat, compared to 27% in Australia — a Japanese company now offers the opportunity to rent one of these scarce specimens.

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Daisuke Kondo

Hosting Tokyo Olympics During COVID Is Like Gyokusai Suicide

With infections surging, and only 1% of the population fully vaccinated, many say that devoting so many resources to hosting the Summer Games is a recipe for disaster.


TOKYO — A doctor friend of mine is a member of the Medical Services team for the Tokyo Olympic Games, but right now his attention if focused on New Delhi. "If the current situation continues, Japan will become like India," he told me last week. "We'll be totally unable to fight against the new Indian variant of Covid-19. When the medical system collapses as we fear, hosting the Olympics will be but a wishful dream."

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Fukushima Disaster A Decade Later: This Happened, March 11

One of the most striking photographs of the destruction caused by the tsunami that struck Japan and set off the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.

Today marks 10 years since an earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastated Fukushima in Japan, killing 18,000 people, destroying towns and triggering the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

At 2:46 pm, the strongest Japanese earthquake ever recorded struck off the northern coast and created monstrous waves up to 16 meters high. On detecting the earthquake, the active reactors automatically shut down, which sparked the meltdown of three nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, at the time one of the largest nuclear power plants in the world. The explosions of the reactors released large quantities of radiation that contaminated a vast area of northern Japan.

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Yann Rousseau

Regional Immunity? Why Asia Has Avoided The Worst Of COVID-19

East Asia is home to 30% of the world's population but has recorded only 2.4% of the COVID-19 global death toll. Scientists are looking at possible immunity from past epidemics or even genetics.

TOKYO — This is one of the great mysteries of the COVID-19 pandemic. Countries in East Asia were affected by the spread of the virus several weeks before Europe and the United States and yet they were notably able to get through the health crisis and to disclose, despite several waves of infection, much lower death tolls than those in the West.

Cumulatively, the ten members of ASEAN (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia) and the developed countries of North-East Asia (China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan) have recorded only 44,000 deaths linked to COVID-19 since January 2020, i.e. barely ... 2.4% of the 1.8 million fatalities worldwide. This is fewer than the 65,000 deaths recorded in France. To put this in perspective, with 2.3 billion inhabitants, East Asia is home to 30% of the entire world population.

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Philippe Mesmer

COVID-19: New Fears About U.S. Military Bases In Japan

In both Okinawa and Iwakuni, locals worry that American soldiers and their families are importing the virus and not doing enough to contain it.

IWAKUNI — On the ground floor of a small beige building, between two vacant lots along the highway that leads to the U.S. military base in Iwakuni, in southwestern Japan, the Sako cafe is bustling again after closing briefly due to the coronavirus.

The walls are covered with pictures of fighter jets, dollar bills left behind by visiting servicemen, and an autographed picture of George W. Bush getting off the presidential helicopter. Missy Hamano, who has been preparing BLT sandwiches for 54 years — for G.I. customers and their families — is hard at work.

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