Friday, December 31, 2004

Yoi otoshi o! to everyone

Hello all. Last post of 2004. So far I'm having fun with this blog and have decided to move my old homepage over to this system, since it's frankly better than the rather, ah, interesting system I hacked out for the current page (which used a shopping cart system to host articles as "products"). Not a good idea.

It was a good year for us. Because my wife is Buddhist, there are occasionally "lucky" and "unlucky" (yakudoshi) years. This was a somewhat unlucky year according to her, and so we pretty much just hung around and did the normal stuff we always do, going only to the normal anime conventions and not doing anything bold or new. Next year (in 2005) we hope to do some new things.

Today's J-List post is below. You can also read it on the J-List website or the site.

Well, the year is at an end, and we're all ready for our final J-List update before we enter the new year. Japanese usually spend New Years Eve quietly, watching TV while eating toshi-koshi soba (lit. "cross into the new year buckwheat noodles"), which supposedly helps you live longer because the noodles are long. At 15 minutes before midnight, Japan's NHK network (the Japanese answer to the BBC) broadcasts quiet, solemn images of shrines, temples and churches all around Japan, lit up to allow eager visitors to get their New Year's prayers in as early as possible. The bells in shrines and temples ring out 108 times, to purify the 108 delusions that humans are supposed to be subject to, and to ring out hope for the coming year. Then, without any fanfare or countdown, the clock on NHK's video feed flashes 0:00, and the new year is here.

The centerpiece to New Year's Eve is without a doubt the Kohaku Uta Gassen (Red and White Year-End Song Festival), the massive 5-hour long variety and music show shown on NHK and broadcast around the world, in its 55th year this year. Virtually all of Japan's famous singers, comedians and other "talents" (a catch-all term for television performers) appear in the entertainment extravaganza, as the white team (male singers) battle the red team (female singers) to see which side can put on a better show. Anyone who's anyone will be there, from JPOP diva Ayumi Hamasaki to new faces like Aya Ueto to old standbys like cross-dressing enka singer Kennichi Mikawa, who always manages to spend millions of the taxpayers' yen on his dress. South Korean stars were very popular in Japan this year, and several will be appearing in this year's performance. At 11:30 pm, a team of judges and the audience votes to see which group was more talented, and then everyone sings Auld Lang Syne in Japanese. Enjoying Kohaku is a Japanese tradition, just like watching football on New Year's Day is in the U.S.

This year we're in for a special treat in our city: there's a "countdown fireworks show" to be held at the Auto Racetrack, a local landmark. Along with several comedians and other stars, cute-as-a-button Japanese idol Yuko Ogura will be attending, presumably driving up after making whatever appearance she'll be making in the Kohaku (which is always shot live). While I'd love to be able to see Yuko-chan in the flesh, the Tokyo area is currently being assaulted by freezing temperatures and white, puffy snow -- this San Diego boy is not that eager to go outside and freeze his oshiri off at midnight.

2004 was quite a horribilis annus for Japan. While the economy seemed to improve a little, there was also great sadness. A staggering 29 typhoons this season killed many and caused a lot of destruction, including damaging the Miyajima temple near Hiroshima (home of the famous "floating Japanese arch"). Then there was the quake in Niigata which killed some 25 people and brought the mighty Shinkansen train low, which was eclipsed by the far worse tragedy of a week ago. We hope and pray for a happier and more peaceful year for everyone next year.

Remember that J-List has over 2000 cool and unique products in stock for you, with such an amazing range that there's something for everyone on our site. Many of the items are very limited in availability, and once they're gone, they're gone for good. For example, small toys and figures that come with candy inside (candy toys) and capsule toys (called "gashapon," a word that describes the sound of a toy being dispensed from a vending machine while a child waits eagerly) are popular in Japan right now, but almost without exception, these items are put out into the distribution system once and once only -- when they're sold, no more can be ordered. We regularly receive anguished mail from customers asking why the item they planned to buy wasn't on the site anymore -- so if there's something you think you'd like to get, we recommend that you act sooner rather than later. To see products updated in the last three days, click this link:

The Japanese have two ways to say "Happy New Year." On or before December 31st, you tell people yoi otoshi o (short for the longer yoi otoshi o ookuri kudasai, lit "please have a pleasant crossing into the new year"). After January 1st, you greet people with a different phrase, akemashite omedeto (ah-kay-MASH-tay oh-MEH-DEH-toh), which means "congratulations on opening the new year." We thank everyone for your support of J-List, and promise to work hard to bring you a little piece of Japan next year -- yoi otoshi o!!

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Bad words in Japanese & the Prefectural System

Hello again. Another update, and another post for you. Can't write much now, I'm off to print my damned New Year's cards. Of course my printer broke when I went to use it, so I was supremely hosed -- had to buy a new Canon Pixus just to print all of 17 stupid cards. Perhaps this is a sign of too much technology?

Here are some pictures from Japan. First, there's OFF!, a store that sells rubber stamps and, since this is Japan, hanko stamps, which are what people carry around to stamp document, which you do in place of signing them. Supposedly, no one thinks of stealing someone's name stamp and selling their house out from under them. Then, I've posted the Nimbus 2000 that Santa brought my 9 year old daughter. She was so happy to see it, even though Santa forgot to put magic in it to make it fly. Kids are so cute on Christmas.

Today's J-List post is below. You can also read it on the J-List website or the site.

The clock is ticking down to the end of 2004. Today we did our oh-soji (big cleaning), stopping work for a few hours to scrub the J-List office from top to bottom. I even found time to rearrange my Star Wars figures, which had collapsed after the earthquake in Niigata (amid jokes of a "disturbance in the Force"). We're getting ready for a nice, quiet oshogatsu (oh-SHO-ga-tsu, New Year's Day) and we wish everyone a happy and safe holiday, wherever you are in the world.

Going to live in a new country can be a stressful experience, the proverbial paradigm shifting without a clutch. Something I was quite surprised at upon coming to Japan was the lack of street names, which made it very difficult to learn my way around in my new city. The Japanese layout, which is supposedly based on the French prefectural system, separates the country into 47 prefectures (ken), which includes the Tokyo metropolitan area, the special prefectural areas of Osaka and Kyoto (fu) and the island of Hokkaido, a system which was created after the Meiji Restoration and the elimination of the old feudal system. Inside each prefecture, there are three kinds of incorporated areas: cities (shi), towns (machi or cho, two readings for the same kanji character) or villages (mura). Inside the large city areas, such as the city we live in, there are small "town" areas designated, so that a person may live in Sakura Town, Takasaki City, Gunma Prefecture, Japan. In lieu of a numeric address on a street, houses are assigned a number for the "town" it's located in, like 2-19-15. If you think it's terribly confusing to have a whole country with no named streets or numbered houses, you're right -- it's virtually impossible to find any location in Japan without a written map or directions using plenty of landmarks. As populations rise and fall in Japan (usually fall, it's sad to say), areas sometimes merge with each other to create new cities (called gappei), to try to attract investment and tourism. Our prefecture is currently engaged in gappei mania, with several smaller towns combining to form new cities. The towns that J-List's Tomo and Jun live in are going to disappear next year, joining part of the newly established Midori [Green] City.

Whenever you study a language, one of the first things you generally learn are the "bad" words -- that's just plain human nature. Most students of Japanese are surprised to find that there are almost no really bad words in the language -- if you define bad as in, words that kids aren't allowed to use. Kuso (the "s" word) is used regularly on children's anime in Japan, and most kids use it normally while playing with nary a rebuke from their parents. Baka (stupid) is the catch-all insult, used in almost any situation (people from the Osaka region say aho instead). Variations on the above two words include baka-jijii (stupid old man) and kuso-babaa (sh--ty old woman). The various applications of the "F" word don't translate into Japanese at all -- the word doesn't exist in Japanese, although virtually all Japanese know the English word, along with the English word sekkusu. The only really "bad" word in Japanese is manko (referring to a woman's reproductive organ) -- a word as embarrassingly close to "mango" as election and another word are for Japanese speakers of English. As always, exercise caution when using these words so that you don't offend any Japanese around you. For more information on Japanese terms, see the J-List glossary (link on the left of the main page).

We continue to be shocked at the terrible destruction in Asia after the earthquake and tsunamis, and are very saddened at the loss of life. Thailand's Phuket island is especially popular with tourists from Japan and Europe, and my wife and I spent an enjoyable honeymoon there ten years ago. Among the thousands of tourists feared dead in the disaster were hundreds of Japanese tourists who had gone to escape the freezing weather in Japan. Our hearts go out to everyone affected by this terrible international tragedy.

Monday, December 27, 2004

Culture shock in Japan - Yamato Nadeshiko

Hello all. Back to work for the J-List crew, although it's time for the nenmatsu rush of people taking days off, so not everyone is here. Japan really slows down during New Year's, which is the big holiday in the country. Everything is closed, except for convenience stores. Just two more updates after today before 2004 is history.

Today's J-List post is below. You can also read it on the J-List website or the site.

I experienced many forms of culture shock when I first came to Japan, and one area that surprised me a lot was the place of women in Japanese society. While women do enjoy equality in terms of legal rights here, it is true that Japan is definitely a very male-dominated country in which the roles of men and women are very different than they are in the West. Here, women tend to occupy a slightly lower tier than men, and this is not, as far as I can see, due entirely to any sexist maneuverings on the part of Japan's males. When a company hires a 23-year-old girl to work at a full time job, it's joshiki (common sense) that she'll quit within a few years to get married, and the number of career-minded women in Japan is far fewer than in the U.S. This tendency on the part of Japan's females to defer to men seems to be the root of much of the famed Japanese social stability. It's certainly true that, while the man in the family is the daikoku-bashira or the big, black pillar that supports the family, the woman of the house will handle all finances, expertly putting money away for when it's needed and ensuring the family's future happiness. There's a Japanese word that describes the "perfect woman," called yamato nadeshiko, which represents the traits that are ideal for a wife and mother to have: femininity, chastity, loyalty to her husband, the skill to change her husband's mind when he's wrong, and inner strength. Both men and women buy into this image of the ideal Japanese woman to some degree.

In Japan, there are various first- and second-person pronouns, and which word a person uses says a lot about their social roles. For example, for the word corresponding to "you," Japanese men will usually use a name with -san or -kun after it (polite), the word kimi (somewhat familiar, used among friends) or the masculine word omae (oh-MAI-eh), depending on who they're talking to. This third word is quite interesting to study. It's generally only used by men (or in anime, ultra-Tomboy type females), and generally from a superior to someone below him, i.e. senpai/upperclassmen to kouhai/underclassman, parent to child, dog owner to pet, etc. Choosing to use omae to refer to a person verbally reinforces a certain relationship, i.e. that you are above them in status, so the potential to offend someone by using it improperly is great. If a man says omae to a woman he's romantically involved with, he's basically implying that she belongs to him, in effect saying omae wa ore no mono da, or "You belong to me." Some Japanese women find this term very romantic and get all fluttery inside when they hear it, while others -- Japanese women who've lived in America or Europe, I am told -- dislike having men refer to them with this word.

It's often said that Japanese society follows behind the U.S. by 25 years or so, and this seems to be true quite a lot of the time. The divorce rate in Japan is currently around 2.2 people per thousand people, about half the rate of 4.1 in the U.S., but still higher than countries like Italy (0.6). Japan lacks a "no fault" divorce system, and courts often assign blame to one party, especially if one side can prove unfaithfulness on the part of the other. Usually when a couple lands in splitsville, the women will go back to her jikka, her "real house" where her parents live, and go back to using her maiden name. It's common for the former couple to never see each other again for the rest of their lives, and fathers are often separated from their children forever, too, especially when the woman gets remarried. As Japan ages, an increasing number of older couples are calling off their marriages, once children grow up and move away. When a woman gets divorced, she may not get married again for the next six months, to avoid problems with determining the father of any children she may be carrying.