Friday, December 17, 2004

Friday night -- J-List bonenkai!

Hello everyone. This is my new J-List side blog, wherein I'll post various J-List and Japan related stuff, if I find the time. And if you have ever run a business, you know that that can be a challenge (the root of business being "busyness").

For whoever doesn't know me, I'm Peter of J-List. J-List is my company, a rather unique company based in Japan. We sell thousands of things from Japan, generally things that people have no idea exist, or which they know about but can't get because they don't live in Japan. We also send out our "postcards from Japan" emails three times a week, which I'll be posting here for your reading pleasure. If you want a slice of life from Japan, we've got it for you.

Tonight I'm in a hurry since it's time for the J-List bonenkai or year-end party. Got to go and eat, drink and sing karaoke -- I'll report later.

Today's update is below. To see the actual items we've posted, go to http://www.jlist.com (if over 18) or http://www.jbox.com (if you want to see non-adult items only).

2004 is winding down, and everyone in Japan is experiencing what's known as shiwasu (shee-WAH-soo). Originally the name of the twelfth month in the old lunar calendar, Shiwasu has come to mean "that extra busy couple of weeks that everyone experiences at the end of the year." And December is a very busy time of year in Japan, when everyone seems to be in a hurry to get somewhere and do something. In addition to various Christmas-oriented preparations people may have, there are things to do to prepare for New Year's Day, the most important holiday in Japan. December is also when everyone does oo-soji or "big cleaning," cleaning their homes from top to bottom so they can enter the new year with a fresh start. Finally, December is the season for year-end parties, called bonenkai (lit. "forget the past year party"), a time when friends get together to reflect on all that happened over the past year. Companies also have bonenkai parties, a fun time for employees to eat, drink, and unwind as they say otsukare-sama deshita ("thank you for your hard work") to each other. J-List's year-end party is tonight, and in a couple of hours we'll all be enjoying delicious food, drink and karaoke, Japan style.

Like all countries, Japanese have a unique set of business customs, some of which can feel quite different to outsiders. First of all, Japanese always carry business cards (called meishi or name cards), which are exchanged when meeting someone. Usually business cards are handed and received with two hands; when you receive someone's card you should look at it for a few seconds then put it on the table, or in your jacket pocket (avoid sitting or writing on it). When negotiating a business deal, it's customary for parties to put forth proposals that are pretty close to what they are willing to accept, and the concept of negotiating back and forth on price somehow feels "unclean." Companies that have ongoing business relationships send gifts to each other in July (called Ochugen) and December (Oseibo). This year we gave sake from Gunma Prefecture to the various distributors and other companies that we do business with, and received various gifts in return. Crowd, the makers of X-Change, Brave Soul and other games, always sends us the best gifts -- this year they sent fresh Hokkaido salmon roe (ikura), a favorite of my wife's.

Do you want to go to Kentucky? In Japan, going to Kentucky means going to KFC, one of the most successful American businesses to enter the Japanese market, in business in Japan since 1971. While American food chains like McDonald's usually make a lot of changes to the menu to make the food appeal to local tastes (Teriyaki Burger, etc.), KFC in Japan stays pretty close to their U.S. menu, offering original recipe and extra crispy chicken, popcorn chicken and one of our favorite menu items, the Twisters, a large chicken strip in a flour tortilla -- just about the only thing approximating a burrito you can find in Japan. The company that runs KFC in Japan also operates the successful Pizza Hut chain here, however we're not sure where Pepsi enters into the equation, as they sell Coke at both restaurants. McDonald's has been putting a lot of price pressure on all competing restaurants over the past years, making KFC's products look expensive by comparison. KFC combats this by emphasizing that they use Japan-grown chickens, whereas McDonald's imports all its beef and chicken from Australia. KFC restaurants in Japan are always fun for gaijin visitors because they have life-size statues of Colonel Sanders in front of them (dressed up as Santa around Christmas). If you want to see what he looks like, here's a picture: http://www.bigempire.com/sake/images/kfc2.jpg.

Three products I think are really cool:

Mizuho Kazami sexy figure
Mizuho Kazami sexy figure. I love this trend towards "sexy figures" that look better than anyone could in real life. Prepainted so you don't have to learn how to do this yourself, it shows the sexy teacher Mizuho from Please Teacher, eating her trademark Pocky.
Ayu Cos, Ayumi Hamasaki cosplay
Ayu Cos. Ayumi Hamasaki is the premier JPOP idol in Japan today, and true to form, the Japanese often make sexual parodies of her with look-alikes. This is the 4th in the series (and the best so far).
Star Trek replicas
Star Trek ships from Romandoh. While it's true the Romandoh ships aren't as good as the Furuta ones, they are very cool too. They're smaller and more minute, and you get two ships with each individual item (one to display and one to dock outside DS9 presumably).

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Greetings from J-List 12/15/04

Japanese television is always interesting, with a broad mix of entertaining things to watch. Variety shows, which feature popular "talents" (entertainers) like cute-as-a-button Yuko Ogura, are a major staple of the airwaves. One show, called World's Greatest TV, brings clips of television from around the world, including bizarre TV commercials from America, Europe and Asia, and has famous people try to guess what will happen next. Another popular genre of television here is the "trendy drama," and love stories starring top stars like Yuji Oda and Akiko Yada are always near the top of the ratings charts. With the opening of cultural ties between South Korea and Japan, this year has also seen a huge explosion of interest in tear-jerking South Korean soaps, as well. Another popular genre of television here are classic Agatha Christie-style mysteries in which detectives have to solve a murder. There are many twists on the standard mystery formula, such as "Stewardess Deka" (a trip of crime-solving flight attendants) and one series in which they tell you who committed the murder right at the beginning, and then let you watch as the expert detective follows the trail right to the killer.

Like Cherry Blossoms in the Spring, words are fleeting things, and it can be surprising how their meanings change when they're imported into other languages. Many of the English words the Japanese use don't match up perfectly with their Japanese counterparts. When I had to replace a cooling fan in one of our Macs the other day, I went to the local computer store ("Power Up Computing Life") and asked for a fan, using the English word. Other concepts that we use the word "fan" for go by very different names in Japanese, such as senpuuki (an electric fan), uchiwa (a fan you use to fan yourself, non-folding) and sensu (a traditional folding Chinese fan). There are some other English words that the Japanese use, but only in limited ways. If there's a girl you're secretly in love with, a Japanese might advise you to "attack" her (meaning, go and win her love). The English word "camouflage" often refers to a gay man and woman marrying to hide this fact from others. And the English word "propose" is used in Japan only to mean a proposal of marriage, which certainly presents the potential for confusion in international work settings.

For whatever reason, Japanese men are fond of urinating outdoors. When driving around Japan, it's not at all uncommon to happen on an older man relieving himself by the side of the road -- even walking from my home to J-List, a mere 100 meters or so, I sometimes see one of our neighbors peeing in the ditch. It's partially a rural thing -- with a population of 140,000, our city is not large, and there's a lot of agriculture -- but I've seen friends from Tokyo and Yokohama do it when the need took them. It can get so bad that people occasionally put signs that say "It is forbidden to urinate here" (tachi-shon kinshi) in front of their homes. This bizarre and uniquely Japanese message is captured on one of our wacky T-shirts, too - a little piece of Japan for everyone.

Do you love the anime films of Hayao Miyazaki? Remember that J-List stocks all the excellent region 2 DVD releases for Studio Ghibli movies like Spirited Away, The Cat Returns, My Neighbor Totoro, Castle in the Sky Laputa, Princess Mononoke and his Lupin the 3rd classic, The Castle of Caliostro (a favorite of mine). These DVDs are released in Japan directly by the studio and include many features that make them great for collectors. All discs feature English subtitles and/or dubbed tracks and are great for fans who want the definitive versions of these anime classics overseen by Mr. Miyazaki himself. The only catch is, they're Japanese releases (region 2), so you need a region free DVD player to watch them -- and J-List humbly recommends the three excellent units we currently sell.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Greetings from J-List 12/13/04

Before I started J-List I was an English teacher, and taught ESL to a wide range of Japanese students, from kids to the elderly and everyone in between. Although my students tried hard to learn, the sad reality is that most of them won't become really good at the language in their lifetimes. There are dozens of reasons why Japanese usually don't attain proficiency at English despite six years of education (more if they study English in college), but some major ones stand out. First, the Japanese draw a line between "English" (grammar and vocabulary) and "English conversation" (an ethereal thing which can't be defined), and since only the former can be measured in tests, students tend to be more concerned with demonstrable English skills rather than communication. Second, Japan's system of education is very rigid, and most teachers in the system aren't that capable at speaking themselves, which creates resistance to reform. Finally, just as a computer needs a "killer app" to justify its existence, Japanese need a consuming reason to study English if they're to attain real fluency. If you're in the U.S., you probably don't need German to get through your day, and it's the same for most Japanese -- there's little actual need to use English in their daily life. Currently, Japan's Ministry of Education, which decides the curriculum from for the entire nation, is trying to promote English and "internationalization" (an buzzword that gets thrown around a lot in official circles) by having kids start learning English from the third grade. However, I'm not hopeful that this will have any meaningful effect on English education in Japan.

When I was growing up, I remember thinking that they had arranged marriages in Japan, probably something I got from watching the episode of Happy Days where Arnold gets married in a traditional Shinto wedding ceremony. In reality, they have "arranged meetings" called omiai, a kind of formal meeting between prospective partners, usually organized by busybody aunts who can't leave well enough alone. At an omiai, both parties talk about their interests and background and if they hit it off, they go out on more conventional dates to see where things lead. Before my wife met me, she had had omiai meetings with a few men, for example the son of a sake distributor that our liquor shop buys from, hence she couldn't refuse -- fortunately for me she didn't hit it off with any of them. As time marches on, the old-style formal omiai meeting is giving way to more modern methods, with companies that organize "omiai parties" (gatherings of marriage-minded people who interact with each other in a fixed space) and services that are like online dating but with a Japanese twist.

Like most gaijin, I had a fixation with Japanese vending machines when I came to live here, and took many silly pictures of them. Vending machines are quite advanced here, and often accept 10,000 yen notes (the equivalent of a $100 bill) and give change, verbally thanking you for your purchase. In Tokyo, where land is scarce, there are vending machines that are incredibly slim, so you can fit them in small spaces. You can buy just about anything from vending machines here, including canned coffee (hot in the winter, cold in the summer), canned corn soup, and cigarettes. Eggs and rice are sold in areas where there are no shops around, and I've seen machines that sell frozen meals and microwave it for you. Beer has been sold in vending machines for decades, and I have many fond memories of sitting in front of the local vending machine with friends, throwing a few back and talking with people who came by on their way to the station. Beer vending machines are being phased out, though, due to concerns about minors buying alcohol -- although the machine we have at our liquor store features a slot which reads your drivers' license for verification. Adult products are sometimes sold in vending machines, too, since customers like the privacy a machine affords.

We couldn't be happier with how popular the Japanese 2005 calendars have been this year. We've moved tons of these unique and beautifully printed calendars to people all over the world. Every day, a few more calendars sell out forever. We still have 80+ different items in stock, including the really cool Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service desktop calendars, other gorgeous anime items, popular swimsuit and JPOP idol calendars, and cool traditional offerings like kimono idols, sushi and bento. Remember, buy 4 or more and get 15% off automatically.

Remember that J-List carries dozens of amazing Domo-kun products for you, more than any other company in the world, we're pretty sure. Domo-kun is the ultra-cute spokesmonster for the "BS" (broadcast satellite) TV network operated by NHK, the BBC of Japan, and he's as cute a monster as you could ever hope to see. We've got tons of amazing Domo-kun toys on the site, from the famous classic plush toys to the limited-edition Shinsengumi Domo-kun toy and much more.