Will couch potatoes take root in Japan? One spud says time is ripe for budding fad

Kiyotaka Yamana is a budding couch potato. ``Sometimes I just want to go home, sit on the couch, and just think - the way Americans do,'' Mr. Yamana says. Not a typical attitude for the Japanese, who are famous for their industriousness.

The problem is, this 28-year-old Tokyo yuppie - sporting (sprouting?) a striped shirt, polka-dot tie, and coral socks - does not sit home and watch TV a lot, as couch potatoes do. Nor does he sprawl out on the couch and read much.

Yamana, chief of the Couch Potatoes Club of Japan Formation Committee, is simply too busy. He is frequently interviewed by major newspapers and has recently appeared on television. These are not optimal conditions for someone who prefers to stay at home.

But his heart's in the right place. After all, somebody's got to help get a sedentary trend off the ground.

It all started when Yamana, managing editor of a magazine about food trends in the United States, got wind of this new homeward-leaning phenomenon among US baby-boomers resulting from three converging factors: marriage, children, and VCRs. Now he is a man with a mission. He knows the fad has faded somewhat in the US, but Japan, he says, is ripe for this new concept of relaxation.

``I've been looking for a trend like this for a long time,'' he says. ``I think it's the right time for couch potatoes to invade Japan.''

The appeal to him is not just trendiness, however. Couch potatoes have their frivolous side, but just as important for Yamana is the fact that this concept presents a radical option for Japanese urban living. He's not just trying to unearth another trend, but rather prod his peers into thinking about how they use their time.

He's not the only one. Others - such as Japan's trading partners and the Labor Ministry - would probably cast a supporting vote. Trading partners say Japanese workers' long hours (2,150 a year, compared to 1,924 in the US) cause unfair competition in international trade. For its part, the Japanese government just revised the Labor Standards Law to get the number of working hours down. Tokyo is exhorting Japanese to take their vacations (they take an average of about 55 percent of annual paid holidays).

Shinichiro Kurimoto, a sociology professor at Tokyo's Meiji University, may have a partial explanation for these long hours. He says that a Japanese businessman ``can't leave the office even if he's finished working. If he's finished and other people aren't, he can't leave before they do. ... In fact, if he arrives home by 7 p.m., his wife will get very concerned.''

Prof. Kurimoto does not think the couch-potato phenomenon can take root and remedy this situation. As one young city-dweller here puts it, ``We feel embarrassed if we're home when a friend calls - no matter what night of the week.''

Kurimoto explains, ``If there's a party held or a business gathering, Japanese people have to go in order to maintain their information sources and relationships. Japanese have a kind of physiological need to socialize. ... They can't help it.''

But Yamana does not despair. ``I agree, it's true, but that is generalizing. There are many types of people in Japan, so it's a mistake if you say that couch potatoes can't live in Japan.''

Defining what a Japanese couch potato is, however, is another matter. Yamana gave some thought to this question. He held a big couch-potato party and invited friends in the publishing and designing businesses to ponder it too. The press heard about it, and very quickly the words ``couch potato'' became as commonplace here as ``dinks'' (double-income-no-kids) and ``yuppies.'' Soon after, he and his friends started the club.

How can Yamana take something this light so seriously? Somehow, close observation of US society has gotten him to thinking. The trend he's trying to start is only a means to an end. There's something about the way Americans live that he says he's trying to get his countrymen to consider.

``Maybe it's the brightness the Americans have or the affluence or some sense of entertainment they have - maybe that's the only difference,'' Yamana says.

He pulls out just about every couch-potato-related toy purchasable in the US.

``You see these?'' he asks. ``This kind of creativity and entertainment is very unique, and I encourage people in the food business to realize this. Don't be all serious, don't just think about business. You can have fun, enjoy things, and that makes for creativity, and that's the point Japanese people are lacking.''

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