Friday, December 10, 2004

Greetings from J-List 12/10/04

Pachinko is a popular past-time in Japan, especially with men. It's basically a vertical pinball-style machine, with the object being to shoot metal balls at just the right angle needed to make them go into certain holes inside the machine, which makes more balls come out, so that you end up with more balls than you started out with. Although gambling is illegal, you can exchange the balls for "prizes" which you turn into "sell" back to the pachinko parlor. Gunma prefecture, where we live, happens to be the Detroit of the pachinko world -- virtually all major manufacturers are based here, and there are more pachinko parlors than in other parts of Japan. As with all industries, pachinko companies must work hard to come up with ways of attracting customers, and it's common for new machines to sport LCD screens and slot machine displays and innovative cabinet designs. Recently pachinko parlors are turning to famous anime shows to attract customers. Leiji Matsumoto has redesigned his famous anime Space Cruiser Yamato (aka Star Blazers) as Great Yamato II, a line of pachinko machines designed to capture the hearts of a new generation of players. I've posted some scans from a recent newspaper flyer advertising some new pachinko establishments in our area -- the art is pretty cool. See them here: http://www.jlist.com/pachinko/

Transliteration is the act of moving a word from one writing system into another, and with languages like Chinese and Japanese, there are always different approaches to this problem. This is why you get variations like Peking and Beijing for the capital of China or an alternate spelling of "Leon" for photo idol Reon Kadena's first name. Japanese is a syllable-based language, and has a system of syllabary sounds built into its structure. For example, you can express the sounds ka, ki, ku, ke, and ko in Japanese, but not "k" all by itself. One point of contention is how to Romanize three syllables that don't fit easily into this pattern, pronounced "shi" "tsu" and "chi." Should they be written as they're pronounced (called the Hepburn method), or should the "consonant + verb" pattern be preserved even if it results in written words that foreigners can't pronounce correctly (called the Nihon method), e.g. writing the word pronounced "tsuchi," meaning earth or ground, as "tuti." As with computer platforms, students of Japanese are usually willing to fight over the system of Romanization they think is best (whichever one they happened to learn first).

Among the many interesting products from Japan we carry, J-List also stocks all English-language dating-sim games in print, which allow you to interact with cute anime characters in interesting and uniquely Japanese stories. While most of the titles we carry are for those 18 and older, we do sell a line of non-adult "H games without the H," which allow everyone to you play through exciting the multi-ending stories on any DVD player, Playstation, Xbox or Mac or PC with a DVD-ROM drive. The newest interactive DVD game we have for you is Ishika & Honori, a great new game in which you must assist a cute-but-bumbling pair of Paranormal Defense Force investigators as they try to unlock a terrible mystery. Enjoy this great new game, in stock now!

Remember, J-List has hundreds of great gifts for your loved ones (or you!) this season. If you run out of time or want to add something cool at the last minute, consider a J-List Gift Certificate, which makes it easy to give the gift of wacky Japanese pop culture to anyone. Because you can choose either a physical gift certificate in gift box (mailed from San Diego) or an email-only gift certificate which is delivered instantly, these gift certificates are great for anyone looking for the perfect gift for the Japanophile on your list.

J-List carries many delicious snack items from Japan. Japan is famous for delicious chocolate-covered stick snacks like Pocky and Fran, and this year's flavors are really amazing. In addition to a larger package of original Pocky, our favorites this winter are Cocoa-Powder Rich Pocky and Strawberry and Chocolate Pocky Decorer ("the Pocky that's like eating a decorated cake").

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Greetings from J-List 12/8/04

Japan is very technically advanced, and no where is this more evident than in the market for portable phones, called "keitai" in Japanese. Japan's keitai market has really matured, with the various companies that compete for market share each claiming different niches for themselves as they try to survive and flourish. The Microsoft of Japan is NTT, and their Docomo line is the top-selling cell phone, although they're expensive and don't really work any better or worse than their competitors. Next is "au by KDDI," the phone service run by NTT's main competitor. They've chosen phones with GPS, cameras that take beautiful pictures, and Bluetooth as their primary areas to compete in. J-Phone, which was renamed Vodafone after the European company bought them, has staked out cheap per-packet charges as its main battleground, for users who surf the web and send and receive lots of email on their keitai phones. And Tu-ka has built a name for themselves around the concept of "simple," making phones that have only bare-bones features, including a phone for elderly people that's as easy to use as a household cordless phone.

Yes, there seems to be no end to the features they won't think of to put into these things. Yesterday we went shopping for new phones for our entire family, including our nine year old son, who will be commuting to his new school next year. I was bowled over by the number of handsets I was presented with -- at least 200 different models and colors. Would I like 2G or 3G? How about the karaoke option for the phone? A phone with an extra-wide screen and Opera web browser built into it? A 3.2 megapixel camera with mini-SD slot? Of course they play MP3s. One phone had an interesting feature: a reflective mirror body, so ladies could check their makeup while they read their email. We finally went with the au phones, since we like the GPS feature that allows us to see where our son is via the web in case we can't find him for some reason. My phone came with songs and pictures of lovely South Korean pop star Boa, who is very much in demand in Japan these days. See a TV commercial for the phone I bought, here: http://www.jlist.com/phones

Japan is a great place, with friendly people, beautiful sights and a strength of culture that is really amazing. And while it's true that the Japanese revere the beauty to be found in the passing of the seasons or in the sight of Mt. Fuji in the morning, it can't really be said that Japan is at harmony with its environment. When I first came to Japan, I was surprised at the stagging amount of concrete and asphalt there was, even in the small rural city I live in (pop. 140,000). Signs of Japan's mastery over nature can be seen everywhere. In most every river, there are concrete breakwaters and graded slopes to guard against flooding, and when you take a drive in the mountains, be prepared to see heavily landscaped roads, often with chain link fences embedded in the sides of mountains to protect against falling rocks. Parks often feature concrete walkways, with concrete going right up against the trees. I have a theory on why this is: because Japan didn't have a cold war to fight, they invested massive sums in WPA-style public works rather than a huge base of military technology like the U.S. did. A silly law that requires that 100% of gasoline taxes be spent on roads whether they're needed or not is another part of the problem, and the reason drivers know they're going to be stuck in traffic from January to March, as municipal governments try to use up their budgets as quickly as they can. Some differences in how Japan manages its natural resources are to be expected, considering that Japan has to fit half the population of the U.S. into an area just 1/25 as large, but it's still surprising to the uninitiated.

Remember that almost all of the DVDs that J-List carries are zoned for "all" regions, meaning that you can view them on any DVD player in North America, or on any computer with a DVD drive in it. The exceptions to these are anime DVDs issued in Japan (such as the Studio Ghibli DVDs like Totoro), Japanese films released in Japan, and most "indies" DVD titles by companies like Moodyz and Wanz Factory. If you wish to view Japanese region 2 DVDs in the U.S., including European region 2 PAL titles, we humbly suggest the feature-packed region free DVD players we carry in San Diego. Our most reliable ever model is in stock and costs just $78!

Monday, December 06, 2004

Greetings from J-List 12/6/04

It's funny how a language reflects the people who speak it, and vice versa. Much of famously nuance-filled indirectness of the Japanese people has its roots in the language itself, although it's kind of a chicken-or-the-egg question of which came first. For starters, Japanese speakers often leave off the subject when speaking, since it's almost always clear from the overall sentence. If I ask Yasu if he's posted the latest manga to the website, I'd just say, Atarashii manga wo dashimashita ka? (lit. "New manga [object marker] put out [question marker]") without adding a subject ("you") since I'm obviously asking about something Yasu did. Sentences can get even shorter -- if the rest of my meaning is clear from the context, maybe because I'm holding the manga in question in my hand at the time, I might just say "Dashimashita?" and he'd know what I was asking about. Also, Japanese makes use of passive forms of verbs to express concepts without specifying who did the action, with sentences like "it has been decided" rather than "my boss decided it," which serves to soften statements and smooth the creation of consent in groups. Passive voice is usually not used that much in English, but in Japanese, making a statement while leaving the subject unspecified is quite common.

Another interesting grammatical tidbit which reflects the character of the Japanese people is the verb ending "masho" which corresponds to "let's..." as in "let's eat" (tabemasho), "let's go" (ikimasho) or "let's not smoke" (tobacco wo yamemasho). In situations where verbal or written warnings would be worded in a command form in English (don't smoke, don't ride on the escalator backwards), it's common for Japanese to express the same message with this softer "let's..." verb form, making statements like "let's put our telephones into vibration mode" (manner mode ni shimasho) or "when a pregnant woman or elderly person gets on the train, let's give our seat to them" (seki wo yuzurimasho). These statements subtly create a warm and fuzzy "let's all cooperate" atmosphere that make people want to do their part for the good of everyone. Every year, the Japanese tax office sponsors commercials featuring famous TV personalities walking to their post office to mail their income tax forms -- "Let's fill out our tax forms accurately and honestly," is the verbalized message. It's quite different from the way things are usually done in the U.S.

Many aspects of life in Japan can be different from America and Europe, and marriage is one of them. For centuries, Japan's entire population has been recorded in "family registers" which are kept on file at city offices throughout the country. When a woman marries a man and goes to live in his house (called yome ni iku or "go as a bride"), she is completely erased from her father's register and joins her husband's, taking his last name, and when she dies, being buried in her husband's family grave. This system works both ways: males often join their wife's families households, too, called muko ni iku or "go as a son-in-law"), legally taking their wife's last name. Males sometimes join their wife's households but keep their own last names, a rarity called "Masuo-san" (MAH-soo-oh-san), named after the husband of Sazae-san in Japan's most popular and longest-running anime -- if you ever want to floor Japanese people with your knowledge of Japan, pull this term out and watch their eyes go wide. Since I keep my own last name even though I've joined my wife's household, I am a Masuo-san as well.

Japanese calendar season continues, and once again I'm amazed at the speed with which our unique 2005 calendars are selling out. A week ago we had 180+ different anime, JPOP, traditional, swimsuit idol and other great calendars, and now we're down to 130 or so. We still have lots of these excellent calendars, which are beautifully printed on large sheets of paper and sold in the Japanese market only. Check out our still-amazing selection of calendars before the ones you want disappear forever.

J-List is really humming, both in Japan and our San Diego office, as we ship hundreds of packages a day to everyone. We've got 24 hour turnover on shipping EMS orders, and the San Diego office is also working very hard to get all DVD player, bishoujo game and T-shirt orders out the next day. We hope we can serve you in some way!

Remember that you can see dozens of great gift ideas by clicking the "Looking for gift recommendations?" link on the right side of the site. We've gone through the entire site and selected some excellent items you might want to consider giving to others this year. And everything in the list is in stock and ready to be shipped out right away!

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Greetings from J-List 12/5/04

Hello to everyone in J-List land. It's time for another installment of the J-List Infrequent Updates, for people who receive too much email and who only want to hear from J-List every once in a while. The site has been updated regularly over the past two weeks, and we've got hundreds of new items for your to check out, from every possible category you would wish for. We hope you'll visit us at http://www.jlist.com

Every rule has an exception, and the Japanese writing system is riddled with so many exceptions, it's almost as complex as English grammar. Japan adopted China's kanji writing system back in the 6th century; before this time the Japanese had no writing at all. As a general rule, each kanji is supposed to have two pronunciations: the original Chinese one (suitably shoehorned into the Japanese phonetic system), and a native Japanese one. Thus, the character the Japanese use for car, which originally meant wheel, is read kuruma (Japanese reading) when used by itself, or sha (Chinese reading) when combined with other characters to form a more complex word, such as jidosha, automobile, or jinrikisha, a "rick-shaw"). The two-ways-to-read-a-kanji rule is more of a guideline, though -- many characters have only one reading, while a few have a dozen or more. Underlying the kanji system are the two kana syllabaries, hiragana for writing Japanese words and grammatical particles, and katakana for writing foreign-loan words and the names of foreign people and places. But katakana is sometimes used in place of hiragana for emphasis (kind of like writing in italics in English), and a few English words like tobacco, coffee and club have had kanji assigned to them, since they've been in use for so long. Incidentally, if you've ever wondered why the Japanese don't do away with kanji and write using the two kana syllabaries, the reason is that without kanji, the brain can't easily take in the chunks of meaning on the page -- for me, there's nothing harder than reading a children's book because there are no kanji to break up the sea of hiragana. Here's an example of some of these writing systems in case you're curious what they look like: http://www.jlist.com/writing

Christmas in Japan is very different from in the U.S.. First of all, it's a normal day like any other -- people fight traffic jams to get to work, and if they're Christian, they attend mass in the evening. Gifts are given, but mostly between couples, or from parents to children -- Toys R Us Japan has made sure that no child will go without toys each year. More important than Christmas Day is Christmas Eve, when most families have a special dinner, and eat the Christmas Cake that they reserved a month in advance. It's easily Kentucky Fried Chicken's busiest night, but sushi shops also do very brisk business. Christmas Eve is also a night for lovers: if you want to reserve a room in a popular love hotel on Christmas Eve, you have to do it at least a year in advance.

The largest group of foreigners in Japan aren't American or Australians or Brits. They're Koreans, an interesting group because many of them were born and raised right here, and often don't even speak Korean unless they attended one of the Korean-only schools that pepper the country. To an American like me, it's odd that these people would not be considered Japanese, as all children born in the U.S. get to be American citizens automatically. But the relationship of Korea and Japan is a very complex one, somewhat akin to that of Britain and Ireland, and more or less by mutual agreement of both sides Koreans often live for generations inside Japan, never allowing themselves to become culturally assimilated. Or is it the Japanese who keep the Korean population from truly becoming part of their society? I couldn't possibly say for sure. On the one hand, it's not difficult for anyone (even white-boy gaijin me) to get Japanese citizenship as long as he meets certain reasonable requirements. Japan is always very sensitive to possible accusations of racism, so there are no groups that aren't "allowed" to become Japanese citizens. Many Koreans object to the Japanese requirement that all persons wanting to become naturalized must take a Japanese name, e.g. Taro Yamada, as well as requiring that many jobs, including teaching at public schools, be done only by persons with full Japanese citizenship. Koreans living in Japan make sure they only hang out with other similar-minded Koreans (e.g., South with South, North with North), lest questions arise about their loyalties. There is, unfortunately, a lot of organized crime related to North Koreans, everything from making North Koreans born in Japan pay protection money to "support" relatives back home to mass-production of high-grade cocaine. Gunma, the prefecture we live in, has many companies that make pachinko machines, and for some reason, pachinko, North Korea and crime always seem to go hand-in-hand around here.

Well, that's all for now. Remember that the J-List site has ben updated several times since you visited last. Please stop by J-List and see all the great items we have for you!