The King of Bhutan's dashing way with national dress, Korea's scheme to produce more babies, and Japan's downsized family meals.
Last year, at the age of 28, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck was crowned king of Bhutan in a lavish celebration in the capital Thimphu. The dress code? National costume, of course: royal decree makes it compulsory for Bhutanese to wear it on formal occasions. For men, that means a gho. For Jigme-watchers, the gho’s visual dissonance – part austere samurai gown, part comfy Marks & Spencer bathrobe – is echoed in Bhutan’s fifth Dragon King himself, a man who must grapple with his tiny nation’s future even as he symbolises its past.
The dashing Jigme assumes the Raven Throne at a time when the world’s royals are generally either badly dressed or simply going out of style (last year, for example, the Maoists booted out the 240-year-old Shah dynasty in neighbouring Nepal). But Jigme is not only a paragon of Bhutan’s national dress. With his movie-star looks, he is also Bhutan’s national dish. While his father Jigme Singye Wangchuck had four wives, all sisters, who bore 10 children, Jigme Junior is among the world’s most eligible bachelors. He has been compared to Barack Obama: revered but approachable; a repository of tradition bearing the promise of change.
“The land of the thunder dragon”, as Bhutanese call it, is a poor and isolated kingdom, where TV arrived as late as 1999 along with stirrings of democracy. Jigme Senior set about dismantling the absolute monarchy, while Jigme Junior presided over his country’s first parliamentary elections in March 2008.
So does the gho add to Gross National Happiness, the governing concept of spiritual wellbeing that Jigme champions? Not for thousands of Nepali-speakers who live in Bhutan and who see it as a symbol of oppression by Bhutan’s majority Drukpa people. A campaign in the early 1990s to promote the indigenous Buddhist culture led to protests and riots among ethnic Nepalis, who bristled under a royal decree obliging them to dress like the Drukpa. Protesters burned ghos they had stripped from local officials. The unresolved “Nepali question” remains a major test for Jigme. But the gho – and everything good and bad it represents – is going strong.
A Jigme trademark and a mark of regal wisdom, Jigme’s film-star quiff is a signal of a break from tradition that makes the ladies swoon. When he visited Thailand in 2006, he made such an impression he was dubbed “prince charming” there.
- The gho
For the tourists who enter Bhutan in strictly controlled numbers, the knee-length wrap-around gown is a quaint and photogenic kilt-of-the-East. The equivalent national dress for Bhutanese women is the rather more demure kira, an ankle-length oblong of cloth that covers the shoulders.
These are worn by Bhutanese officials, not just by the king. They are probably an echo of English boarding-school uniforms from Darjeeling and elsewhere in India, where the Bhutanese nobility have long been schooled.
Not traditional Bhutanese slippers, but western-style brogues – a nod to his days pacing the cobbled streets of Oxford, where he read politics and international relations at Magdalen College.
Japan’s diminishing birth rate is being reflected in its TV cook show “Kyo no Ryori” (Today’s Cooking). The programme, which has been produced by state broadcaster NHK since 1957, is shrinking its recipes to serve two people instead of four in line with Japan’s smaller families (an average of 2.6 according to the 2005 national census). In 1965 it reduced servings from five to four.
In a bid to rev up Korea’s stalling birth rate, Hyundai Motor Co and Seoul City Hall joined forces in February to offer discounts on cars for people who have more children. Under the plan, Hyundai will offer car buyers KRW100,000 (€53) off for each child they have. Meanwhile, the city government will halve car purchase and registration taxes for families with children under 18. A three-child family buying a €10,635 Hyundai stands to save €586. Korea has one of Asia’s fastest-ageing societies. However, it remains to be seen if the offer will convince people to have more children … or buy more cars.
Sri Lanka will spend just over 15 per cent of its 2009 budget on its war with the Tamil Tiger rebels. Only 1 per cent will go to medical facilities.