Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Let's build a space station with Legos!

Hello all. All is going well here in Japan, although it's on the cold side. I finally have a good connection between my home and work, so I can get work done at home almost as efficiently as when I'm at work, which saves me hauling my cookies out to J-List at midnight to do some database work. Every little bit helps.

One of the fun aspects of living in Japan is getting to watch Japanese television, which is always entertaining. One show we like is TV Champion, which pits contestants against each other to show off their amazing talents, whether it's remodeling a home using things people have thrown away, baking bread in the shape of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, showing off knowledge of Disney trivia or creating works of art with origami. Last week's show was a special treat, with three dedicated "Lego artists" making amazing creations with Lego blocks, everything from a Phoenix with flames coming out of its tail to a 3-D aquarium. For the finale, the winner created a giant car-shaped kid's meal found at family restaurants in Japan (it's called BuuBuu Lunch, BuuBuu meaning "zoom zoom"), which opens up into a complex underground world for little Lego children to play in. My own favorite entry was a 3-D space station made with Legos, with docking ports for the Space Shuttle, working lights, and compartments where Lego spacenoids could play "zero gravity soccer." See the fabulous creations here (the page is in Japanese).

Convenience stores (combini in Japanese) are fun to check out when you come to Japan. There are dozens of convenient store chains here, dominated by Seven Eleven Japan, which created the category in 1974 by adapting an American concept with Japanese-style distribution practices. Some other popular convenience stores are Lawson, MiniStop, Circle K Japan, Sunkus (the name is a merging of "sun" and "thanks"), and Yamazaki Daily Store. Convenience stores offer many products, including Japanese-style food (bento and onigiri/rice balls), various bread products (both sliced white bread and various specialty breads like Melon Pan and Curry Pan), drinks like canned coffee and bottled tea, all manners of candy and gum, aloe yogurt, and inexpensive toys for kids. The concept of personal checks doesn't exist in Japan at all, and most people pay their monthly bills by taking them to their local convenience store where they can be read by the cash register. In the winter, I love to go to a convenience store and get niku-man ("niku-mahn"), a Chinese bun which is basically meat inside steamed bread -- yum. There are microwave burritos to be had here, but be warned: with ingredients scrambled egg & ham or pizza and sausage, they might surprise you. Like Japanese banks, convenience stores here compete by trying to appear as similar to each other as possible, and by and large, you won't find something in one chain that's not available everywhere. Recently, Japan's combini industry has been moving towards large, customer-friendly parking lots, closing stores with smaller plots of land and creating dozens of dry cleaners, used car dealerships and "late night bookstores" located in buildings that obviously used to house convenience stores.

Most people know that in Japan, shoes are removed before you enter a house. This is done because to the Japanese, there's nothing dirtier than things associated with feet. Japanese houses always have a lowered section near the front door called the genkan, a convenient place to leave your shoes so they'll be there when you need to go out again (we built one into our house in America). Japanese know that Americans leave their shoes on inside the house from watching American television, and it looks very funny to them. While watching Shrek with my son, he commented on the fact that Princess Fiona was in bed with her shoes on, something unthinkable in Japan. Inside the house, Japanese usually wear slippers, and if a gaijin goes to a Japanese person's house, the Japanese person will give him slippers to wear, even if they're much too small for his feet. Although we try to "live like Americans" when we go to the U.S., most of my Japanese family (including myself) quietly leave our shoes near the front door when back home -- it just feels to odd to walk on carpet with shoes.

Monday, January 31, 2005

Just another Manic Monday

Hello all. It's a cold Monday today, and we're all very busy at J-List, counting stock. Today is our inventory day, the last day of our fiscal year, so we had to count...everything. That means counting every gumball, every pack of Black Black, every bukkake DVD. It's quite a lot of work, although I had the update to take myself away from it.

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

February is almost upon us, and that means one thing to retailers in Japan: time to push chocolate molds, cake decorations and other Valentines Day products. Valentines Day in Japan is a little different from what you might be used to: here, women give chocolate to men, and February 14th is a day when a girl who has a crush on a boy can confess her feelings while giving him some home-made chocolates, a popular plot in anime. It's also a kind of day of giving thanks, when daughters and wives give something special to fathers and husbands as a way of saying otsukare-sama (oh-TSKA-rei-sah-mah, "thanks for working so hard for us"). In companies, women often feel the pressure to give chocolate to the males in the office, which is called giri choco (obligation chocolate). Starbucks jumps on the chocolate wagon, too, this year offering a limited Marshmallow Mocha Latte, with fluffy white marshmallows shaped like hearts. Men who receive chocolate must give a gift in return on March 14, dubbed White Day. J-List stocks a large variety of delicious things to eat, including many varieties of chocolate. Check out what we've got in stock!

February is also test-taking time in Japan, when millions of Japanese take juken, the dreaded entrance exams for high schools and universities. Because high school isn't part of compulsory education, students must apply there just like universities, with competition for the better schools very fierce. For the past year, students in their third years of junior high school and high school, respectively, have been cramming information into their heads as quickly as possible, usually attending juku (night schools) to help their studies. The juken tests are a big part of the reason why Japanese are often seen as intelligent but not always able to express themselves abstractly, since memorizing raw facts is what's important on entrance exams, not how they're linked together. My wife, for example, can tell you the date the Kamakura shoganate was founded (1192), but she can't explain what its overall importance in Japanese history (it was the first time Japan was unified under a feudal military society, which planted the seeds for the structure of the Edo Period later). On the other hand, I know first hand the motivational power of having a fixed goal can have, and got a lot out of passing each level of the Japanese Ability Test, even if it was a Japanese-style test.

Although most Japanese aren't fluent in English, the English language does play a big part in daily life, a source of new vocabulary, slang, and cute names for products like "Melty Kiss." When Japanese import words from English, they often simplify them so they're easier for them to digest. An athlete in Japan is a "sportsman," and a photographer is a "cameraman," even if he's using a still camera -- very logical if you think about it. Want to enjoy driving with the wind in your hair? Buy an "open car" like the Mazda Miata, called Roadster in Japan, although 100% of Japanese think the car is called Road-Star from the way it's pronounced. In 1999, Japan passed its first automobile child seat law, requiring that all parents put their child in a "baby chair" while driving a car. Cellular phones are everywhere in Japan now, but not so long ago most people carried "pocket bells" or pagers. And in the summer, I like to eat "soft cream" (soft-serve ice cream) and enjoy a trip with the kids in a "camp car" (RV). These words are dangerous for foreigners because we get too used to using them and then go home and embarrass ourselves by pulling them out in mixed conversation.